Spring and all: poetry just for the love of it

The Lost Wine: Seven Centuries of French Into English Lyrical Poetry, by John Theobald. San Diego, Calif.: The Green Tiger Press. 613 pages. 6 hand-tipped color illustrations. $29.95. The worst is over. Denver shouldn't get any more snow. New York's Fifth Avenue is positively balmy; its towers glow in the late afternoon, making the traveler think of the alpine glow in the Sierra or the canyons of the West.

And yet soon the gentle rage of springtime green will grow luxurious, embarrassing the heart. But then a lot of good things can seem embarrassing, things like chastity, like good workmanship that takes a little longer, like a change of heart in prayer.

Like a poem that was meant to be. In late spring, I always turn to French poetry -- to Ronsard, Baudelaire, and Val'ery -- for consolation and strength against the wiles of the season. ``Sois sage, o ma douleur, et tiens toi plus tranquille'' (Be wise, my grief, and keep yourself more calm), writes Baudelaire; ``il faut tenter de vivre'' (we must try to live), writes Val'ery.

And Ronsard! The poet of spring, of the exquisitely delicate roses -- ``la grace dans sa fueille'' (grace hiding in its leaves) -- the small ones we see on French manuscript pages if we look carefully, as we must. These most beautiful flowers last only a day.

Mr. Theobald's book celebrates all that is good in French poetry -- and by extension, in all poetry. The French lyric, as Theobald persuasively shows, sets the standards. His translations on the right side of the page, the French text on the left, along with the historical commentaries and smart critical notes, illustrate one thing: that the form of a poem, like the form of a medieval rose, is a passionate thing that must be approached with stern allowance for the laws that govern it.

Much is at risk, for much can be lost. The lover of poetry looks out on the present the way an ecologist may look out over the landscape -- with a searing sense of loss. For a while, now, the poets and critics have been making of poetry what they will, with all sorts of excuses, most of them based on a perception of new, radical needs. As Mr. Theobald shows over and over again, much has been lost.

And yet, through the loving discipline of translation, much can be recovered. Mr. Theobald's translations of Ronsard, Baudelaire, Val'ery, and the rest revive our hopes for poetry in our time by showing us, in our own vernacular, just how the French masters did it.

As the days grow longer, and especially in the slow gradual dawns, these pages, if attended to faithfully, will help set things right.

Just as an example of what has been accomplished, Mr. Theobald's translations of Baudelaire return to that great poet -- after the stylish misappropriations of Robert Lowell and Richard Howard -- some real elegance, the temper of the steel.

The title is from a poem by Val'ery about inspiration. It is a difficult, crucial poem. As an act of piety to the forces of the unknown, a little offering of wine is made to the sea. Impulsive, ingenuous waste!

And yet,

Stained briefly with a smoke of rose,

The sea recovered its repose,

Transparent once again and pure . . .

Lost was the wine, drunken the wave! . . .

And tossing in the briny air

I saw the forms unfathomed move. . . .

As will Mr. Theobald's attentive reader, all summer long, and into the winter, if he cares enough.

Tom D'Evelyn is the editor of the Monitor's book pages.

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