Poem of the Week

“Autumn Song” by Paul Verlaine

When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and long

Pale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours toll deep.
My thoughts recover
The days that are over,
And I weep.

And I go
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro,
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.

“Chanson d’automne” by Paul Verlaine, from Poèmes saturniens (1866). Translated by Arthur Symons in Poems (First Collected Edition, 1902)

“Chanson d’automne,” or “Autumn Song,” conveys the nostalgic recollection that teems in the breezes of grey, crisp air. Dying leaves recall their greenery, just as the poetic voice recalls livelier days that are irretrievably “over.” Though Verlaine speaks of autumn, his language resonates throughout the year’s seasons, particularly in moments when we find ourselves sighing over the better days of the past. At those times, we give ourselves to the wind that carries us to our “broken and brief” memories–the wind that almost allows us to forget our present state as “dead lea[ves].”

Paul Verlaine was a French poet at the end of the nineteenth century, and one of the key figures of the Symbolist literary movement. Verlaine manipulated language to evoke emotion through the cadence and musicality of words. Arthur Symons’ translation of “Chanson d’automne” is the closest, I’ve found, to grasping the voice of the original. The longing for paled memories still rings through the English verses.

Interestingly enough, the first stanza of “Chanson d’automne” was used as a secret message by BBC to alert the French Resistance to the start of D-Day operations in World War II. Perhaps Verlaine’s words captured the essence of this war, in which the level of belligerence that was reached irrevocably tainted the nature of global relations.

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5 Responses to “Autumn Song” by Paul Verlaine

  1. That’s fascinating, that the BBC used the first stanza as a message to the French Resistance. I’m sure Verlaine would have been honored.

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  4. Stuart White says:

    That seems to me an appalling translation. There is nothing in French that replicates ‘where the wind knows, broken and brief.’ In mine it translates as ‘which I carry’… And the line ‘is all suffocating and pale’ ‘tout suffocant et et bleme’ (with a circumflex)…sonne l’heure’ (rings the hour or when the hour is rung). No mention of THAT in the translation. As for ‘breath fails me when the hours toil deep’…I can find NO mention of those in the original French. I’d be interested to hear if there are several versions of this poem, because the above is NOT a translation of the one I’ve always read.

    • Simon West says:

      My translating says ” Violins complain of autumn again. They sob and moan and my heartstrings ache like the song they make a monotone. suffocating drowned, and hollowly sound the midnight chimes. Then the days return I knew, and I mourn for bygone times. And I fall and I drift with the winds that lift my heavy grief. Here and there they blow, and I rise and go like a dead leaf.”

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