Mark Hutcheson, ANOTHER STAB AT AN "AFTER ... " POEM

The poem which follows, "To Soul Lone Tempts", was begun in Autumn 1992 at Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick, and completed the following Spring in Dún Laoghaire. It is a response to another sonnet I had written earlier, in the Spring of 1992, but while that sonnet, "The Grain of Wheat", drew on the Gospel of John and was a commitment to Christian discipleship, "TO SOUL LONE TEMPTS" borrows from the French nineteenth-century Symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, and lolled in the "lush whoring rooms" where "Inbreathes Abyss herds tombs". (See GOSPEL OF LUKE, 8:26-39, especially verses 27 and 30-33).

To speak first of formal borrowing, Mallarmé in "Au seul souci de voyager" (also printed below and preceded by a very rough translation of it by myself) was experimenting with line length. While the standard line of French verse is twelve syllables long (the Alexandrine), here Mallarmé is pruning it down severely to an eight-syllable line. Consequently, in "To Soul Lone Tempts", I cut back from the standard ten-syllable line of English verse (the iambic pentameter) to a six-syllable line (iambic trimeter).

I also follow Mallarmé in stanza construction which, in this case, is more of an experiment for him than for me, since he is using the Shakespearean pattern - three quatrains of cross-rhyme (abab) and a rhyming couplet - and deviating from the usual French model (based on the fourteenth-century Italian sonneteer Petrarch) - two quatrains of embracing rhyme (abba) and two tercets.

In rhyming too I echo Mallarmé. In the first line his "seul" becomes my "soul", which is a slant-rhyme occurring in the same position in the line, the second syllable, but rhyming then with the next word, "lone" which translates the meaning of "seul". Also in the first line he rhymes on "voyager" and, while I cannot catch this phonically, I do semantically with "travel". But the most interesting case is the closing couplet:

Par son chant reflété jusqu'au
Sourire du pâle Vasco.


Wood firing blood Damasco
Catch smirk pass spectral Vasco.

I was tempted to rhyme with "Tabasco" - somewhat kitsch! - until "Damasco" hit me. It has the notion of red (the damask rose), which ties in with the wood and blood of the Crucifixion alluded to here; even better, it hints at the conversion of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, he who brings the good "annonce nouvelle" mentioned by Mallarmé in stanza two of his sonnet.

Finally, I think each stanza of my poem takes specifically from the corresponding stanzas of Mallarmé's. Apart from "soul" and "travel" of the first quatrain and Vasco da Gama in the couplet, in the second quatrain Mallarmé's "Plongeante" is muted into "Hawk plunge but soar Hell harrow", which not only changes the motion but also the type of bird, or at least defines it more particularly. Also the "caravelle" changes into Noah's ark: "in sigh dark" is in fact "inside ark", a type of sound pun beloved of the French. Then, in the third quatrain, Mallarmé's "annonce nouvelle" becomes "Such Gospel never heard" and "Sirenic better word", both of which are bitterly ironic inversions of the Gospel of Christ since they lead to fornication and hell.

These are my own modest thoughts on how I have done an "After ... " poem in the general fashion of, let us say, Derek Mahon. While I provide here a deliberate translation of Mallarmé and would wish absolutely that it be judged as a translation rather than an imitation or adaptation, it is naturally my sonnet that means most to me. Dare I hope that it is more than a pale reflection of the original Vasco, and has become a fresh, new, individual poem of its own? As always, let the reader decide.


To soul lone tempts damned travel
Past coal-black passion's splendour
- Voluptuous toast this ravel
Pure curse choke-chains December

Nude ecstasy piped Skylark
Gores hymn-flesh whose barbed arrow
Few fear brings safe in sigh dark
Hawk plunge but soar Hell harrow

Such Gospel never heard
Hug groves lush whoring rooms
Sirenic better word
Inbreathes Abyss herds tombs

Wood firing blood Damasco
Catch smirk pass spectral Vasco


To sole concern of voyaging
Past splendid murky India
- This greeting be the messenger
Of time, the cape your stern sails round

As on some yard or other low
So plunging with the caravel
Was foaming ever in its frolics
A bird announcing new evangel

Who cried out on a monotone
Without the helm once varying
A bearing of no use at all
Just night, despair and precious stone

Thus by its song reflected to
The smile on Vasco's pallid face

[Translation by Mark Hutcheson]


Au seul souci de voyager
Outre une Inde splendide et trouble
- Ce salut soit le messager
Du temps, cap que ta poupe double

Comme sur quelque vergue bas
Plongeante avec la caravelle
Écumait toujours en ébats
Un oiseau d'annonce nouvelle

Qui criait monotonement
Sans que la barre ne varie
Un inutile gisement
Nuit, désespoir et pierrerie

Par son chant reflété jusqu‚au
Sourire du pâle Vasco.