Rimbaud's Conte

Tue Jan 4, 2011

John Ashbery has a translation of Rimbaud’s “Conte” in the most recent New York Review. The final line of the poem, “La musique savante manque a notre desir” is translated there as “Wise music is missing from our desire.”

Wallace Fowlie renders it “Our desires are deprived of cunning music.” Paul Schmidt, “Our desire lacks the music of the mind.” Ashbery’s translation seems amusedly literal for the most part. He translates “les betes de luxe” as “thoroughbred animals,” which does seem better than Fowlie’s “pet animals.” (I can’t remember what Schmidt does there offhand; something with “luxury,” I think.)

What does “Conte,” mean, though? Ashbery’s translation moves away from the orientalist trappings in the poem, and it also seems to preemptively deflate any conception of it as sterile autoeroticism/psychic automatism standing for the failure of art to transform life (which I understand is the influential biographical reading proposed by √Čtiemble). An unfragmented “Kubla Khan.”

A bit of looking around tells me that the phrase “la musique savante” was used in French to describe the unwelcome contrapuntal and polyphonic complexity of Austro-Germanic music in the 19th C, which might be what Fowlie had in mind with his otherwise hard-to-understand use of “cunning.”