Que pourrais-je répondre à cette âme pieuse?

Reading Lowell today, some of his poems reminded me of Baudelaire, and specifically, his excellent early-ish poem Mother Marie Therese, which put me in mind of this Baudelaire poem. Clicking on this link, you can find various translations of it (including one by Lowell), which all have their faults but, together, will give you a decent sense of the poem, if you can’t read French. And now enjoy:

Charles Baudelaire: La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalouse

La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalouse,
Et qui dort son sommeil sous une humble pelouse,
Nous devrions pourtant lui porter quelques fleurs.
Les morts, les pauvres morts, ont de grandes douleurs,
Et quand Octobre souffle, émondeur des vieux arbres,
Son vent mélancolique à l’entour de leurs marbres,
Certe, ils doivent trouver les vivants bien ingrats,
À dormir, comme ils font, chaudement dans leurs draps,
Tandis que, dévorés de noires songeries,
Sans compagnon de lit, sans bonnes causeries,
Vieux squelettes gelés travaillés par le ver,
Ils sentent s’égoutter les neiges de l’hiver
Et le siècle couler, sans qu’amis ni famille
Remplacent les lambeaux qui pendent à leur grille.
Lorsque la bûche siffle et chante, si le soir
Calme, dans le fauteuil je la voyais s’asseoir,
Si, par une nuit bleue et froide de décembre,
Je la trouvais tapie en un coin de ma chambre,
Grave, et venant du fond de son lit éternel
Couver l’enfant grandi de son oeil maternel,
Que pourrais-je répondre à cette âme pieuse,
Voyant tomber des pleurs de sa paupière creuse?

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Pascal’s infinite, perfect, fearful sphere

From Lowell’s Notebook 1967-68, which I am trying to finish a paper on, this poem

Robert Lowell: Mania: 1958

Remember standing with me in the dark,
Ann Adden? In the wild house? Everything –
I mad, you mad for me? And brought my ring,
that twelve-carat lunk of gold there . . . my Joan of Arc,
undeviating then from the true mark –
robust, ah taciturn! Remember our playing
Marian Anderson in Mozart’s Shepherd King,
Il Re Pastore there? O Hammerheaded Shark,
the Rainbow Salmon of the World, your hand
a rose – not there, a week earlier! We stand. . . .
We ski-walked the eggshell at the Mittersill,
Pascal’s infinite, perfect, fearful sphere –
the border nowhere, your center everywhere. . . .
And if I forget you, Ann, may my right hand . . .

Master, mammoth mumbler

Robert Lowell: Ford Madox Ford

The lobbed ball plops, then dribbles to the cup….
(a birdie Fordie!) But it nearly killed
the ministers. Lloyd George was holding up
the flag. He gabbled, “Hop-toad. hop-toad, hop-toad!
Hueffer has used a niblick on the green;
it’s filthy art, Sir, filthy art!”
You answered, “What is art to me and thee?
Will a blacksmith teach a midwife how to bear?”
That cut the puffing statesman down to size,
Ford. You said, “Otherwise,
I would have been general of a division.” Ah Ford!
Was it warm the sport of kings, that your Good Soldier,
the best French novel in the language, taught
those Georgian Whig magnificoes at Oxford,
at Oxford decimated on the Somme?
Ford, five times black-balled for promotion,
then mustard gassed voiceless some seven miles
behind the lines at Nancy or Belleau Wood:
you emerged in your “worn uniform,
gilt dragons on the revers of the tunic,”
a Jonah – O divorced, divorced
from the whale-fat of post-war London! Boomed,
cut, plucked and booted! In Providence, New York …
marrying, blowing…nearly dying
at Boulder, when the altitude
pressed the world on your heart,
and your audience, almost football-size,
shrank to a dozen, while you stood
mumbling, with fish-blue-eyes,
and mouth pushed out
fish-fashion, as if you gagged for air….
Sandman! Your face, a childish O. The sun
is pernod-yellow and it gilds the heirs
of all the ages there on Washington
and Stuyvesant, your Lilliputian squares,
where writing turned your pockets inside out.
But master, mammoth mumbler, tell me why
the bales of your left-over novels buy
less than a bandage for your gouty foot.
Wheel-horse, O unforgetting elephant,
I hear you huffing at your old Brevoort,
Timon and Falstaff, while you heap the board
for publishers. Fiction! I’m selling short
your lies that made the great your equals. Ford,
you were a kind man and you died in want.

One of several poems Lowell wrote for his friend, the great novelist Ford Madox Ford. This staggering one was published in Life Studies, and recently reprinted

Thoroughbred mental cases

Robert Lowell: Waking in the Blue

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)

What use is my sense of humour?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with a muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson gold-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbert and ginger ale–
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
the hooded night lights bring out “Bobbie,”
Porcellian ’29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig–
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

On Andrei Voznesensky

Andrei Voznesensky is a difficult writer (…) yet he is particularly easy for us to like and admire. He comes to us with the careless gaiety of the twenties and Apollinaire, with a flippant magic, effervescent intensity, and imagination so boisterous and high-spirited that only a Russian could survive it. He says, “We do not burn to survive, but to step on the gas.” Voznesensky us not likely to burn out (…). When he looks at himself, I think he’s glad he is only life-size, or a bit smaller. Everywhere in his poetry is something fine-boned, fragile and sensible. With humor, with shrewd amazement, with rushes of defiance, he is able to be himself, a gift no one is born with, and which is only acquired by the most heroic patience and ingenuity. (…)

This is a hard time to be a poet, and in each country it is hard in different ways. It is almost impossible, even where this is permitted, to be directly political and remain inspired. Still the world presses in as never before, prodding, benumbing. We stand in a sort of international lull. Like a cat up a tree, we want to climb down without falling. It’s too much, we’ve lost our foothold. The other night, I found myself shaving. An impatient, just-lit cigarette was sighting me down from the soap-dish, and the bathroom door was ajar to catch messages from the world news roundup. It’s too much, it’s too tense. We want another human being. We want Andrei Voznesensky (…) to juggle us back to the real world for a moment.

I was reminded last night that Andrei Voznesensky had died last week (a horrible month so far; we lost Voznesensky and David Markson, as well), and I found this brilliant essay by Robert Lowell, a speech to introduce a reading by Andrei Voznesensky, written in the early 1960s. It is from Lowell’s Collected Prose, edited by Robert Giroux)