Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Victor Hugo’s ‘La Captive’ (1829)

Paul Gavarni’s 1843 illustration to the poem

La captive
Si je n’étais captive,
J’aimerais ce pays,
Et cette mer plaintive,
Et ces champs de maïs,
Et ces astres sans nombre,
Si le long du mur sombre
N’étincelait dans l’ombre
Le sabre des spahis.

Je ne suis point tartare
Pour qu’un eunuque noir
M’accorde ma guitare,
Me tienne mon miroir.
Bien loin de ces Sodomes,
Au pays dont nous sommes,
Avec les jeunes hommes
On peut parler le soir.

Pourtant j’aime une rive
Où jamais des hivers
Le souffle froid n’arrive
Par les vitraux ouverts,
L’été, la pluie est chaude,
L’insecte vert qui rôde
Luit, vivante émeraude,
Sous les brins d’herbe verts.

Smyrne est une princesse
Avec son beau chapel ;
L’heureux printemps sans cesse
Répond à son appel,
Et, comme un riant groupe
De fleurs dans une coupe,
Dans ses mers se découpe
Plus d’un frais archipel.

J’aime ces tours vermeilles,
Ces drapeaux triomphants,
Ces maisons d’or, pareilles
A des jouets d’enfants ;
J’aime, pour mes pensées
Plus mollement bercées,
Ces tentes balancées
Au dos des éléphants.

Dans ce palais de fées,
Mon coeur, plein de concerts,
Croit, aux voix étouffées
Qui viennent des déserts,
Entendre les génies
Mêler les harmonies
Des chansons infinies
Qu’ils chantent dans les airs !

J’aime de ces contrées
Les doux parfums brûlants,
Sur les vitres dorées
Les feuillages tremblants,
L’eau que la source épanche
Sous le palmier qui penche,
Et la cigogne blanche
Sur les minarets blancs.

J’aime en un lit de mousses
Dire un air espagnol,
Quand mes compagnes douces,
Du pied rasant le sol,
Légion vagabonde
Où le sourire abonde,
Font tournoyer leur ronde
Sous un rond parasol.

Mais surtout, quand la brise
Me touche en voltigeant,
La nuit j’aime être assise,
Etre assise en songeant,
L’oeil sur la mer profonde,
Tandis que, pâle et blonde,
La lune ouvre dans l’onde
Son éventail d’argent.

— — -

Here’s my stab at an English version. A ‘spahi’ (from the Persian سپاهیsipāhī, “horseman, soldier”) is an Ottoman cavalryman.

If I weren’t a captive
I might love this place,
The seas so plaintive,
The fields of maize,
Stars without number —
If the wall’s long somber
Shadow didn’t glimmer
With the swords of Spahis.

I’m no female Tartar
For a eunuch to pass
My well-strung guitar
Or hold my looking-glass.
Far away from this Sodom
In the land we are from
Are young men with once whom
I talked, under free stars.

Yet I do love this beach: it
Never knows winters;
Cold winds never reach it —
Rooms chill never enters.
Summer rain is not cold:
The green bug crawls, bold,
Glows a live emerald
Amongst grass’s green splinters.

Smyrna’s a princess
With its beautiful chapels;
The gladdening Spring fresh
At the sound her glad bells.
Like a laughing bright lot
Of flowers in a pot
Its seas are all dotted
With archipelago whorls.

I love those red towers,
Those flags flapping wild!
Golden houses and bowers
Like toys for a child.
How well it soothes thinking:
The gentlest swinging
Of mahout tents clinging
Atop elephant rides.

In these fairy palaces
My heart hears a concert:
I believe these cries
Floating in from the desert
All contain Genies
In blended harmonies
Endless serenities
Sung under spare skies.

Fine contraries are best:
Sweet perfumes burning
By windows’ gold-frets
Foliage twist-turning,
Streams brightly wending,
Plain-trees down-bending
Where white storks are standing
On white minarets.

On a soft bed of moss
I pour songs from my soul
While my sweet friends toss
Their feet, leap and roll:
Happy, they beat the ground
Sending smiles around
Dancing merry-go-round
Beneath fine parasols.

Best of all, when the breeze
Kisses me with its mouth
Night-lounging at ease
I dream of the south
Past deep seas I follow
To where, pale and yellow,
The moon grows unhollow
A white fan opening out.

Always a mistake, I think, to try and reproduce the rhymes of Continental verse in English. My mother tongue has many beauties and sonorities well suited to the creation of beautiful poetry, and its bastard nature means that it has synonyms and vocabulary-variety up the wazoo, which gives a poet a tremendous range of tones, registers and semantic-musical effects. But it’s poor when it comes to rhyme, especially compared to Italian and Spanish, but also to French. The short lines of Hugo’s original, and the tight-worked balances of these musical rhymes are, I think, beyond exact reproduction in English. Or maybe it’s just beyond me. At any rate, having decided that an unrhymed version of this famous piece of French Romantic Orientalism wouldn’t get close enough to the original to be worth doing, I’ve ended up working with a melange of rhyme and half-rhyme, with the balance notably on the latter. Some people hate half-rhyme, I know. Ah well.

The poem was very popular in its day in France, was often reprinted, illustrated and set to music. And the collection it was part of, Hugo’s Les Orientales (1829), was a widely-read and influential work, a text that helped establish the taste for, and parameters of, Western Orientalism in the nineteenth-century.

Recently I was reading an essay by Edward Said called ‘Imaginative Geography and its Representations: Orientalizing the Oriental’ [in Race Critical Theories: Text and Context (eds Philomena Essed, David Theo Goldberg; Blackwell 2002, 16–17]:

Schwab’s La Renaissance Orientale [argues] … that “Oriental” identifies an amateur or professional enthusiasm for everything Asiatic, which was wonderfully synonymous with the exotic, the mysterious, the profound, the seminal: this is a later transposition eastward of a similar enthuisiasm in Europe for Greek and Latin antiquity during the High Renaissance. In 1829 Victor Hugo put this change in directions as follows: ‘Au siècle de Louis XIV on était helléniste, maintenant on est orientaliste.’ A nineteenth-century Orientalist was therefore either a scholar (a Sinologist, an Islamicist, an Indo-Europeanist) or a gifted amateur (Hugo in Les Orientales, Goethe in the Westöstlicher Diwan) or both.

But I don’t know if this is right. Said seems to imply a straightforward shift from Greece & Rome to ‘the Orient’, with an implied equivalence between them. But these two things (and notwithstanding the extent to which ‘Greece’ was sometimes seen as the oriental, or at the least as the mediator between the West and the East) are surely quite different, and have quite different roles to play in the discourses of the west. In one root sense, for instance, classicism was constantly harping on one theme: that Greece and Rome are us (that the classics shaped us, that we are the direct inheritors of the classical tradition); whereas Orientalism is the utterance of a series of markers of difference, of otherness. Nor, despite that lovely Hugo quotation, was the C19th century the site of a shift from Athens and Rome to Arabia and China. Indeed I don’t think that has even happened yet. But, as per this Hugo poem (the original text rather more lubricious, in terms of delineating a particular kind of straight male sexual Fantasy object, than the more restrained Gavarni illustration at the head of this post) I wonder if the key thing that Orientalism supplied that Greece and Rome didn’t was: sex. The exoticised and eroticised other, something those more austere and martial Mediterranean Classics were less effective at doing.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.