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THE DEATH OF THE WOLF

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By Alfred de Vigny

Translation: Uriah Kriegel

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The Montréal Review, January 2022

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Die Wölfe (Balkankrieg) The Wolves (Balkan War) by Franz Marc (1880-1916), oil on canvas, 1913. Albright-Knox Art Gallery

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Translator’s Note:

Alfred de Vigny was probably the leading romantic poet in France of the 1830s. His poetry is distinctive in combining dramatic narrative, philosophical message, and relentless musicality (typically in finely crafted alexandrines). Balancing these different aspects of a Vigny poem in a single translation is a challenge; the present translation puts a premium on music and philosophy at the expense of literalism – following Edward FitzGerald’s memorable counsel “Better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle.”

 

I.

The clouds ran dark and gloomed over the flaming moon
As in a wildfire blaze where smoke billows in fumes,
And the woods were all dark, the horizon black soot.
We walked wholly silent, damp grass underfoot,
In the thickest of heaths and through the upland moors,
Where under tall firs that recall far-off lures,
We detected the marks of those deep-cutting claws,
Chasing after the wolf who roams sleek and marauds.
We listened in silence, breath of no inhalation,
Frozen step in mid-air – Nor wood nor plantation
Breathed into the void not the slightest of sighs
The weathercock alone cried its grief to the skies;
For, the wind rising up, soaring over the earth,
Brushed ever so lightly some dispersed towers’ girth
And the oaks down below, their elbows inclined,
Seemed almost asleep in their sprawling recline.
And stillness there hovered, when he carefully knelt,
The oldest among us in this hunter-band’s quest,
Studied the earth with great expertise; soon indeed,
He we all trusted to never err or misread,
Under his breath declared he could see recent marks
Announcing the presence of that step sure and stark
Of a pair of large wolves and a pair of their cubs.
Then we readied our knives for the sharpest of cuts,
And stowing our shotguns for their bright white shimmers,
We wove through the forest of branches and thickets.
Three stop, I included, first unsure what we saw,
Suddenly I notice two dark eyes blazing raw,
And I see beyond them four indistinct figures
Dancing under the moon in amidst the heathers,
As do day after day, with fanfare of bright sounds,
When the master returns, all our jubilant hounds.
Their forms quite resembled, and their dance did as well;
But on the wolf’s children a complete silence fell,
Well aware that nearby, his eye but half-shut,
Their great enemy, Man, is slunk low in his hut.
The father stood up now, and nearby, in her sheen
Rested like true marble his stately wolverine,
Whom the Romans worshipped, and whose flanks fur-luscious
Coddled the demigods Romulus and Remus.
The wolf stoutly sat forth, arms upright at wide berth,
His tensely hooked toenails driven into the earth.
He gathered he had failed, having been caught off guard,
His retreat route closed off and all exit paths barred;
So he snatched and he clutched, in his hot-scorching jaws,
The boldest of our hounds by his convulsing maws
And refused to unclench his sharp fangs’ iron hold,
Despite all our gunshots striking him many-fold
And our razor-sharp knives, with their pincer-like cuts,
Crossing one another when plunged deep through his guts,
Until the last moment, when the strangled chief hound,
Now dead long before him at his feet rolled around.
The wolf let him go now, then looked at us leveled.
The knives were still in him, his entrails emboweled,
To the ground they nailed him, all awash in his blood,
By our guns surrounded as by sinister flood.
He keeps holding our gaze, then lies down stretched out,
Licking off the warm blood spread all over his snout,
And not bothered to grasp how his death he had found,
Closing slow his big eyes, he dies without a sound.

II.

On my powderless gun I leaned and stood still
I started reflecting, and could not find the will
To chase his wolverine and her sons, the whole sect,
Who planned to await him, and, as I quite suspect,
Were it not for those cubs the somber fair widow
Would never desert him to suffer his deathblow;
But her foremost duty was to save them, that they
May be taught how nobly their harsh fate to obey,
How never to enter civilization’s base pact
That with Man slavish beasts have agreed to enact
Who ahead of him hunt, so to gorge at dinner,
On the rightful owners of the wood and boulder.

III.

Alas, I reflected, despite the great name of Man,
I’m ashamed of our race, so idiotic and vain.
How to depart this life, with its evils and pains,
Only you, brutes sublime, know well and comprehend.
Given all we have wrought, and what we leave behind
Only silence is great; nothing else comes to mind.
I’ve well understood you, feral nomad of wild,
And your ultimate gaze through my full heart has fired!
It said this: “If you can, make sure your soul reaches,
Tenaciously staying thoughtful and judicious,
To the highest degree of that stoic self-pride
Where, born in this forest, I immediately climbed.
Whining, weeping, praying is fit for the weakling.
Perform all-committed your charge hard and taxing
In the path in which Fate your existence has hurled
Then suffer like me and die without a word.”

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Uriah Kriegel is a professor of philosophy at Rice University and an amateur of French poetry.


 
 

 
 
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