Sunday, July 12, 2015


Hymn to Night

Night in the Greek and Latin poets usually brings rest to weary mortals. There's a lot of frenzied activity, and not very much rest, in Pierre de Ronsard's "Hinne à la Nuit" = Odes 3.9 (tr. William Stirling):
Dark Night, great Minister of Love, how faithfully
Observest thou her laws and every high decree!
    Thou goest quietly
With each impatient lover at the familiar hour:
Oh darling of the Gods, in whose celestial bower,        5
    The stars do love but thee!

The excellence of thy gifts to Nature is most rare;
Delights thou dost conceal within a silent air,
    Which true love doth enjoy,
When thy dark mantle falls about the quiet land;        10
And lovers lip to lip, and lovers hand in hand
    On fire, are mute and coy.

And when the fingers feel for naked thigh or breast
(Whose rounded colouring of all gems is the best,
    Richer than ruby seen);        15
And when the gentle tongue to cheek and forehead strays,
Reaping in one long kiss more fragrance as it plays
    Than in the East has been;

'Tis thou who watchest them, and all the torturing care,
And all the woes and griefs that beset us everywhere        20
    By thy gift are torn out.
'Tis thou who givest life to flowers and orchard trees,
And to the gardens dew, and to the skies great ease
    By hanging stars about.

If it shall please thee, goddess, of my pain make an end:        25
And bring within my arms her who too oft doth send
    Threats of grave cruelty;
So that her scornful eyes (which hold me captive yet)
Never again sear deep. So may I quite forget
    Her lovely enmity.        30
Stirling's translation is too free for my taste. He sacrifices accuracy in an attempt to reproduce the rhyme and rhythm of the original. In one departure from the French, he compares the beloved's breasts to red rubies, instead of to white ivory. Here is my own tentative, rough version of Ronsard's Hymn to Night:
Night, overseer of love affairs, loyal bailiff of Venus' courts and her holy laws, confidential companion of the impatient lover at his rendezvous, beloved by the gods, yet even more beloved by your attendant stars—

Nature admires the excellence of your gifts. You conceal under discreet silence the pleasures that ecstatic love gives, when your dark corners unite entwined lovers and they sink down together under enervating passion,

while the loving hand steals now over thigh, now over breasts that surpass any ivory ever seen, and the tongue, straying over cheek and face, gathers more perfumes and flowers, growing there, than the Orient exports.

It is you, by your divine presence, who take away worries, troubles that gnaw, and cares buried in passionate hearts. It is you who restore life to drooping orchards, roses to gardens, and constellations to darkening skies.

Please, goddess, put an end to my pain, and in my embrace tame her who is so full of cruel threats, so that the too bright torches of her eyes (eyes that hold me in thrall) no longer cause my innermost parts to burn.
The French, from Pierre de Ronsard, Oeuvres complètes, II: Odes et Bocage de 1550, précédés des Premières poésies, 1547-1549, Tome II, ed. Paul Laumonier (Paris: Librarie Hachette et Cie, 1914), pp. 21-22:
Nuit, des amours ministre, & sergente fidele
Des arrests de Venus, & des saintes lois d'elle,
    Qui secrète accompaignes
L'impatient ami de l'heure accoutumée,
O l'aimée des Dieus, mais plus encore aimée        5
    Des étoiles compagnes,

Nature de tes dons adore l'excellence,
Tu caches les plaisirs dessous muet silence
    Que l'amour jouissante
Donne, quand ton obscur étroitement assemble        10
Les amans embrassés, & qu'ils tombent ensemble
    Sous l'ardeur languissante.

Lors que l'amie main court par la cuisse, & ores
Par les tetins, ausquels ne s'acompare encores
    Nul ivoire qu'on voie,        15
Et la langue en errant sur la joüe, & la face,
Plus d'odeurs, et de fleurs, là naissantes, amasse
    Que l'Orient n'envoie.

C'est toi qui les soucis, & les gennes mordantes,
Et tout le soin enclos en nos ames ardantes        20
    Par ton présent arraches.
C'est toi qui rends la vie aux vergiers qui languissent,
Aux jardins la rousée, et aux cieus qui noircissent
    Les idoles attaches.

Mai, si te plaist déesse une fin à ma peine,        25
Et donte sous mes braz celle qui est tant pleine
    De menasses cruelles,
Affin que de ses yeus (yeus qui captif me tiennent)
Les trop ardens flambeaus plus bruler ne me viennent
    Le fond de mes mouelles.        30
Ronsard's poem is a free paraphrase of a hymn to night by Giovanni Gioviano Pontano (1426-1503). Carol Maddison, Apollo and the Nine: A History of the Ode (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1960), pp. 60-61, translates all of Pontano's hymn except the fifth stanza (lines 17-20), which I have supplied below:
Night, privy to love, you who lead
The desired maid to the passionate youth,
Cherished by the mighty gods, and enamoured, sweet night,
Of the moon's caress,

Whom alone both Genius and Hymen worship,        5
And Venus joying in her son,
When fiercely he sharpens his fatal darts,
And bends his bow.

O companion and handmaid of pleasure,
What joys in your bosom for the marriage bed and the couch!        10
What temptations sleep brings, and merriment,
And delights

Which lovers find, plunged in one another's arms,
Midst embraces and hasty whispers,
Midst playfulness and yielding struggles,        15
When passion is flame,

When lovers dart tongues to and fro, steal
Perfumed breath from protesting mouths,
And collapse together in coordinated climax after
Delicious desire has been sated.        20

You alone bring repose to the world and to men,
You lift heavy cares and bitterness
From the tired mind, and you refresh the breast
With kindly sleep.

You return to the world, your brow bound        25
With garlands of stars, and you restore the banks of violets,
Drenching them with welcome dew. You load
The field with crops.

Grant my prayers, mighty goddess,
And what I desire may I be permitted to possess,        30
Lest the dark flame burning within
Devour my heart.
The Latin, from Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, "Hymnus in Noctem," Carmina, ed. Benedetto Soldati, Vol. II: Ecloghe—Elegie—Liriche (Firenze: G. Barbèra, 1902), pp. 65-66:
Nox amoris conscia, quae furenti
Ducis optatam iuveni puellam,
Grata dis magnis et amica blandae,
        Nox bona, lunae,

Quam colunt unam Geniusque Hymenque        5
Et suo gaudens Erycina nato,
Cum ferus diras acuit sagittas.
        Tendit et arcum;

O voluptatis comes et ministra,
Quae bona ex te fert thalamus torusque,        10
Quas sopor fert illecebras iocosque

Quas simul iuncti faciunt amantes
Inter amplexus trepidumque murmur,
Inter et ludos tencrasque rixas,        15
        Dum furit ardor,

Dum micant linguis, animaeque florem
Ore deducunt querulo, parique
Concidunt motu, resoluta postquam
        Grata libido est.        20

Tu quies rerum hominumque sola,
Tu graves curas et amara fessae
Amoves menti, et refoves benigno
        Pectora somno;

Tu redis mundo redimita frontem        25
Siderum sertis, reficisque grato
Rore perfundens violaria, agros
        Frugibus exples.

Da meis finem, dea magna, votis,
Et quod optamus, liceat potiri,        30
Ne voret tristis penitus calentes
        Flamma medullas.

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