Translator's Note: “Octonaires on the World’s Vanity and Inconstancy”
John Calvin and contemplative poetry?! The poet I loosely translate here, Antoine de Chandieu, studied under that famous Christian reformer in Geneva before returning to lead the growing Protestant movement in France. Chandieu churned out spiritual, theological,and polemical tracts into the cauldron of mid-sixteenth-century Europe, but he also wrote lyric poems throughout his life. The Octonaires, a series of fifty eight-line poems (many of which were set to devotional music still performed today), is the pick of the lot for me. In snatches, these chansons contain the pressurized mix of artistic inspiration and spiritual hesitation that characterizes a proud line within the Protestant aesthetic tradition. It’s a continuum that’s hard to commit to—the work is often full of stubborn ambivalence towards both art and spirit—but in English I see it stretching from George Herbert through Emily Dickinson and up to Jack Spicer and Basil Bunting.
Chandieu’s Octonaires anticipate the finest elements of this line without actually achieving them. Nonetheless, these octets use formal surprise to express the vocational uncertainty the churchman must have felt toward the end of his life, after St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, when French Catholics killed thousands of French Protestants and damaged the new ecclesiastical foundation Chandieu had labored for. In the original Octonaires, written in the decade following that massacre, there is a shaky audacity to the statements on politics and religion. It’s the wounded boldness of human language seeking to conform to a divine Word that seems sometimes to have fallen silent itself.
In A Gathered Church, Donald Davie sketches a Calvinist aesthetic: “sensual pleasure deployed with an unusually frugal, and therefore exquisite, fastidiousness.” As I made these Octonaires into poems in English, I took liberties in striving for a further frugality: my concern was to bring both the desire and the bitterness of Chandieu’s voice into a contemporary idiom. The paradox in the act of poetic translation—altering language and spirit in the attempt to preserve them— seems entirely in line with the reformed religious practices for which Chandieu risked his life. —nk
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This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine