The Little Old Women
for Victor Hugo
In sinuous coils of the old capitals
Where even horror weaves a magic spell,
Gripped by my fatal humours, I observe
Singular beings with appalling charms.
These dislocated wrecks were women once,
Were Eponine or Lais! hunchbacked freaks,
Though broken let us love them! they are souls.
Under cold rags, their shredded petticoats,
They creep, lashed by the merciless north wind,
Quake from the riot of an omnibus,
Clasp by their sides like relics of a saint
Embroidered bags of flowery design;
They toddle, every bit like marionettes,
Or drag themselves like wounded animals,
Or dance against their will, poor little bells
That a remorseless demon rings! Worn out
They are, yet they have eyes piercing like drills,
Shining like pot-holes where the water sleeps;
Heavenly eyes, as of a little girl
Who laughs with joy at anything that shines.
- Have you observed that coffins of the old
Are nearly small enough to fit a child?
Death, in this similarity, sets up
An eerie symbol with a strange appeal,
And when I glimpse some feeble phantom there,
Part of the swarming tableau of the town,
It always seems to me this fragile soul
Is moving gently to her cradle bed;
Unless geometry occurs to me
In shapes of these contorted limbs, and I
Think how the workmen have to modify
The boxes where these bodies will be lain.
- These eyes are wells, made of a million tears,
Or crucibles where spangled metal cools...
These eyes of mystery have deathless charms
For those who suckle Tribulation's breast!
Vestal of love, from old Frascati's rooms;
Priestess of Thalia, whose name only
The buried prompter knows; celebrity
Whom Tivoli once shaded in its blooms,
All make me drunk! but with these weaker souls
Are those, making a honey of their grief,
Who've said to Sacrifice, who lent them wings,
Lift me into the sky, great Hippogriffe!
One by her homeland trained in misery,
Another whom her husband overtaxed,
One a Madonna martyred by her child -
Oh, each could make a river with her tears!
So many of these women I have stalked!
One among others, when the sun would fall
Steeping the sky in blood from ruby wounds,
Pensive, would settle on a bench alone
To listen to a concert, rich with brass,
With which the soldiers sometimes flood our parks
And pour, in evenings that revive the soul,
Such heroism in the townsmen's hearts.
She, then, upright and proud, stirred by the cause,
Vigorously inhaled this warlike song;
Sometimes her eye gleamed like an eagle's eye;
Fit for the laurel was her marble brow!
So you trudge on, stoic, without complaint,
Through the chaotic city's teeming waste,
Saints, courtesans, mothers of bleeding hearts,
Whose names, in times past, everyone had known.
You glorious ones, you who were full of grace,
Not one remembers you! some rowdy drunk
Insults you on the street with crude remarks;
A taunting child cuts capers at your heels.
O you ashamed of living, shrunken shades,
Fearful, with backs bent, how you hug the walls;
And no one greets you, strange and fated souls!
Debris of man, ripe for eternity!
But I, who from a distance mark your steps
With tenderness, and restless eye intent
As though I were your father, wondrous thought!
Unknown to you I taste a secret joy:
I see your novice passions blossoming;
Sombre or sunny, I see your lost days;
Heart multiplied, I share in all your vice!
With all your virtue shines my glowing soul!
Ruins! my family! my fellow-minds!
Each evening I will bid a grave adieu!
What of tomorrow, Eves of eighty years,
Pressed by the dreadful talon of the Lord?
Přeložil James McGowan