A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Strange Case Of Telfour Tremble

Paris: home of the unfortunate Telfour Tremble.
If any of you followed the extraordinary story of Dominic Rivron unearthing the neglected work of little-known English poet Margery Clute, you may also be intrigued by my own similar tale of literary detection.  

I was rummaging through some dimly-lit poetry shelves in the basement of a local second-hand bookshop the other day when, as chance or perhaps destiny would have it, I came upon a slender, leather-clad volume of verse bearing the gold-blocked inscription: Signes et Symboles: Poèmes Melancholiques. A closer inspection revealed the name of the author printed below the title in much smaller Gothic letters — a certain M. Telfour Tremble, Poète. Immediately a sharp frisson of excitement ran from my coccyx up my spine then into my neck. Just to be doubly sure, I took this rather tattered-looking book from the shelf and turned over a few mildewed pages. A short foreword written by none other than Paul Verlaine confirmed my original suspicion that this was an incredibly rare copy of the only published work of obscure French Symbolist poet Telfour Tremble, contemporary of Rimbaud and Mallarmé, and close friend of Jean Moréas, author of the Symbolist Manifesto of 1886.

I knew from my specialised knowledge of the period that Tremble had lit up the Parisian literary salons like a shooting star when this, his first and only collection of poems, was published; but the initial excitement seemed to quickly wear off and, after a particularly malicious review of the book had appeared in the literary journal, the Mercure de France, sales of the small print run plummeted, and Tremble vanished without trace. It was generally assumed that he joined the ragged ranks of the army of down-and-out poets who thronged the whorehouses and drinking dens of Paris at the time, and that he died in squalor — a poverty-stricken, absinthe-addicted dipsomaniac. All we know for sure, however, is that he expired, coincidentally, on his thirty-first birthday, 1st April 1900, and was buried in an unmarked grave in a remote suburban graveyard — not, as you might think befitted the status of a gifted Symbolist poet, in the cemeteries of either Père Lachaise or Montparnasse.

I bought the volume at a ridiculously cheap price from the unsuspecting bookseller and returned home gleefully with my prize. The collection contained forty-six poems in all, and I began at once the pleasurable task of translating them. Indeed, I have high hopes that eventually these English translations of mine may eventually be published in their own right — perhaps in a bilingual edition. At any rate, come what may, I'm delighted to present in this blog a sample of the work of the late M. Tremble, thereby rescuing him from obscurity at last.           

Idyll In A Sylvan Hut

How can I leave it all behind?

This slice of moon —
This wedge of Camembert —
This hot and clamorous night

With its chorus of frogs
And symphony of mosquitos
And angelic choir of nightingales?

This sturdy cabin at the woodland edge,
Its windows open
To the still air, heavy with thunder?

This humble, splintered table,
This slick knife
Which hacks at a stale baguette,

Then scores an orange skin
Quarter-wise — peasant thumbs
Peeling it like unfolding petals?

This bitter wine,
Cinnamon-spiced, with a hint of gall,
And thick and red as oxblood?

This sultry woman by my side,
Her skin gleaming with sweat,
Sticky as the summer night itself?

Her body, slight as a young boy’s,
With buttocks scarcely rounded
And breasts like tangerines?

Her animal eyes
Darting from moon to table
Then back to moon again?

This moonlit path
Winding through forests
On and on and on

And even further —
From this cabin’s portal
To the mighty Pyrenees?

How can I leave it all behind?
Yet leave it I will
For when the morning sun

Bathes the east in a diaphanous pink glow,
I’ll lift the latch and set off in the dawn
Whistling a melancholy tune.

Telfour Tremble (1869-1900)

Translated from the French by The Solitary Walker


Susan Scheid said...

I can only imagine how thrilling it would be to come across such a book and know what you had in your hands. Your translation sings. With the literary travels you've been taking as of late (looking at what's doing over at Turnstone as well), I'm put in mind of John Ashbery's translations of so many French poets (including Roussel, Reverdy, and a wonderful recent translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations). Though I'm only acquainted with the barest bit of French poetry, it's clearly a rich trail to follow. (Just as an aside, Auden placed Ashbery's work in the line of Rimbaud in his introduction to Ashbery's first book, Some Trees.)

When writing an early post or two for the blog, I followed the trail of writings about Rimbaud and was astonished to see how many differing versions existed. I enjoyed Edmund White's list of possibilities:". . . Rimbaud the Symbolist, Rimbaud the Decadent, Rimbaud the Surrealist, Rimbaud the Cabbalist, Rimbaud the Magician, Rimbaud the Saint, Rimbaud the Fascist, Rimbaud the French patriot, Rimbaud the Communard, Rimbaud the Bolshevist, Rimbaud the Honest Bourgeois, Rimbaud the Voice of the Ardennes, Rimbaud the Man of Action, Rimbaud the Adventurer, Rimbaud the Thug, and Rimbaud the Pervert!"

Your own journeying among the poets seems to me very much in the spirit of Ashbery's poem, Just Walking Around. Thanks for taking us along!

Danish dog said...


That was a fantastic discovery!

And what a wonderful poem!

Bon voyage!

Ruth said...

O Robert, what a timely discovery and what thrilling prospects! This is the sort of "chance" meeting that can alter one's life. The poem is pure delight with a hint of melancholy, given the brief history of Tremble you've shared. Bravo for this fine translation! Though I don't know the original (or French), this is a beautiful poem in its own right.

Enjoy the rest of the adventure, and may you find a publisher!

George said...

What an incredible and exciting find, Robert! How wonderful for the poet that a volume of his lost work has landed in the hands of someone with your appreciation of its significance. Translating these poems will undoubtedly be a labor of love for you, and the prospect of having the translation published and made widely available is exciting indeed!

I absolutely love the poem you have translated for us. The poem reeks of a passionate love for life, coupled with a recognition that, both periodically and ultimately, each of us must "lift the latch and set off in the dawn whistling a melancholy tune."

One final kudo, Robert. Without knowing anything about Temble other that what you have provided, this beautiful translation speaks as much to your genius as it does to the poet's.

ksam said...


Lovely. So cudos on finding the book and rescuing it from the lonely shelf in the bookstore! And now hurry up and translate more!! That was really wonderful.

Dominic Rivron said...

Proust-like, I thought, only more brief.

Then there's the striking interplay between the moon and the bread and cheese - the moon is sliced, the tangerine, divided into quarters; and then, the attributes of the moon and of the fruit morph into those of a human body.

Great the way your translation brings out these subtleties.

The Solitary Walker said...

Susan: Haven't I also heard of Rimbaud the Michelin Man too, — or is that pure fantasy?

Danish: Thought you'd be impressed, DD!

Ruth: Thrilling indeed! Such serendipitous discoveries will, I'm sad to say, become rarer and rarer as traditional bookshops give way to the less exciting (though less fusty) online variety.

George: Your enthusiasm and unbounded praise make me feel privileged and humbled to have such discerning, appreciative blog readers! Though I'm quite sure my own talent (which is a dim and flickering light, I know) is as nothing compared with the nearly-forgotten genius of M. Tremble. At least I can now go some way to revive his unjustly neglected reputation.

Karin: If you can really stomach another, your wish is my command! Watch this space.

Dominic: Your Proust comment is right on the money, Dom. And I'm so pleased you picked up on those subtle connections which I tried so hard to highlight in my translation — though my translation is a little too free and easy in places, I fear. Oh, well, no one's perfect.

dritanje said...

This is amazing solitary walker, and your own excitement shines through what you've written. Your translation is lyric, excellent, the poem has this quality I feel anyway, of wondering what will come next, what it is leading to, a melancholy, and the precision of the details. And the greatest thing is that you have indeed brought him back to life in a sense, by your discovery, by bringing his work to others. I've found that there is a strange bond that comes about from translating someone's work, as if their life slips into yours, and you feel it must work the other way too, as with any kind of love, it's never just one way -

The Solitary Walker said...

Dritanje, your sensitivity to and intuitive understanding of this poem and of my aesthetic intentions are really quite breathtaking! I can only thank you from the bottom of my heart for your perceptive comment. It's true, I feel such a deep bond with Tremble, that sometimes I think he and I are almost the same person, or at least poetic soul mates, or decadent doppelgängers in some way.

Friko said...

I’d never heard of Tremble before. How thrilling that you knew who he was when you chanced upon this volume.

Whether his work is appreciated or not, the mere fact that he is someone you yourself appreciate and are willing to translate must be a huge adventure.

I am sure you are going to have a wonderful time with him.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, he's difficult to track down, Friko — even on the Internet. I struck up a deep accord as soon as I read the very first poem in his book, 'Invocation To A Carnal Madonna', and it went from there. In just a few weeks he's become the soul-brother I never had.

Susan Scheid said...

With Rimbaud, anything is possible, so why not Michelin Man, eh?

jen revved said...

I can only assent to the other comments-- your readers are wonderfully articulate, Robert. Don't drop this project by any means... you might do a longer article and submit it to the Virginia Quarterly Review-- that would be a fabulous placement. Or even try it on The Paris Review. xxj