“With a torch in your pocket, and the wind at your heels…”

Disentangling sickly cucumber vines, dispatching peppers that chose not to thrive—the maudlin side of late summer gardening got me thinking this week about Walahfrid Strabo, the 9th-century abbot and gardener who tutored Charlemagne’s grandson. Walahfrid was famously unafraid of hard work, so perhaps I cheapened his memory when I sat down to translate his poem “To a Friend.”

Because the poem is only 10 lines long and grammatically compact, I made the same careless assumption as the day I broke ground in my garden: “How hard can this be?”

AD AMICUM

Cum splendor lunae fulgescat ab aethere purae,
Tu sta sub divo cernens speculamine miro
Qualiter ex luna splendescat, lampade pura,
Et splendore suo caros amplecitur uno
Corpore divisos, sed mentis amore ligatos.
Si facies faciem spectare nequivit amantem,
Hoc saltem nobis lumen sit pignus amoris.
Hos tibi versiculos fidus transmisit amicus;
Si de parte tua fidei stat fixa catena,
Nunc precor, ut valeas felix per saecula cuncta.

I haven’t been in a Latin classroom for 15 years, so when I try to translate verse, I get that Flowers for Algernon feeling—but it’s not hard to render this poem into clunky English prose:

“TO A FRIEND: When the splendor of the moon glitters from the pure heavens, stand under the sky and behold with wonder as you see the pure light shine from the moon, see its brilliance embrace dear ones divided bodily but connected by love in their minds. If face may not gaze on beloved face, then at least let this light be proof of our love. Your faithful friend has sent these little verses. If, for your part, your bond of loyalty stands firm, then I pray you be happy and well forever.”

Translating Latin poetry into English is a nasty job; you’re duty-bound to smother some gasping aspect of meaning or form and bury it deep in your notes. Lines of Latin verse don’t rhyme at the ends; they’re ruled by vowel quantity, using long and short vowels where we use stressed and unstressed syllables. Walahfrid composes hexameter lines: the first four feet have to be dactyls or spondees, the fifth foot is usually a dactyl, and the sixth foot is always spondaic—but there are also three places where a good Latin hexameter line ought to have a caesura, and at least two places where it’s verboten to break up a word across different feet.

Ever versatile, “Hexameter Hank” Longfellow adapted the form for English metrical verse in the 1,400-line Evangeline: “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” (I’ve tried it too by adapting elegiac couplets, which alternate hexameter and pentameter.)

So I sat down to translate Walahfrid’s poem, expecting to be done in a day.  I stumbled first on the diction: A poet who varies his language is a translator’s dream, so I frowned to realize that Walahfrid twice uses both pura (“clear, pure, simple, plain”) and splendor (“brilliance, brightness, luster”).

Using the same word twice (and then doing it twice) emphasizes a bond between two friends, but that’s just a small part of what’s going on in this poem. You don’t need to know a word of Latin to see it:

Cum splendor lunae fulgescat ab aethere purae,
Tu sta sub divo cernens speculamine miro
Qualiter ex luna splendescat, lampade pura,
Et splendore suo caros amplecitur uno
Corpore divisos, sed mentis amore ligatos.
Si facies faciem spectare nequivit amantem,
Hoc saltem nobis lumen sit pignus amoris.
Hos tibi versiculos fidus transmisit amicus;
Si de parte tua fidei stat fixa catena,
Nunc precor, ut valeas felix per saecula cuncta.

Rhyme! Medieval Latin poets often played with internal rhyme, but one German scholar in 1965 spotted Walahfrid doing something special: Each line has two rhyming syllables, one on a rising, stressed syllable, the other on a falling, unstressed syllable. Like Walahfrid and his friend, they’re distant, and a little bit different, but share a bond. At the end, the tenth line brings them as close as can be in an idiom that means “forever.”

Are there artful ways to render this in English? I tried:

“When the pure moon sends forth its brightness in splendor from the heavens…”

Bleah. Even if I pretend that’s a proper rhyme, the hexameter is lifeless, and the diction is novice, pocket-dictionary stuff. Walahfrid may have bonded by moonlight with his long-distance friend, but I won’t be the one to craft an English translation that illuminates modern readers with a medieval truth: that the body and soul of a poem are one.

5 thoughts on ““With a torch in your pocket, and the wind at your heels…”

  1. In the Latin, the first rhyming word (lunae) in English is a noun and the second (purae) is an adjective, correct? Is it the same in Latin, the parts of speech, I mean.

    And you are near-rhyming using an English verb(al phrase) paired with the idea of a noun taking in a pure aether (i.e., heavens).

    What all does the Latin word fulgescat encompass? You use glitter in the first but sends brightness in the second. My little Google translator picks shines for (what I hope) is the infinitive form, but I only guessed at its being a verb.

    Agreed, really tough to decide how to approach the work. Love what you are doing with it. Makes me think. Have fun with your puzzle.

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  2. Hi, Elsa! Good to hear from you. Yep, you’re right about the parts of speech in that first line. “Fulgescere” is “to glitter” or “to flash”; when you see that “esc” in a Latin verb, it additionally implies the beginning of a process or a change of state, which is tough to convey in English with elegance or subtlety.

    The basic sense of Walahfrid’s poem could be a good fit any of a number of poetic forms in English, but the embedded rhyme is so vital to the meaning that my effort will probably end with that one awful line…

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  3. I appreciate the vote of confidence, Pete. I’ll likely move on to greener poetic pastures, but this one is gonna nag at me.

    I should add that internal rhyme isn’t the problem per se; it’s that in each line, one rhyme is stressed and the other is unstressed. In English, that might turn out to be either too faint to be noticeable or clangingly obvious.

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  4. St. Thomas Aquinas uses end rhyme in his hymns, in “Pange Lingua” and “O Salutaris Hostia”, for example. Of course, he was another four centuries on.

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