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Beranger in England

(Pall Mall Gazette, April 21, 1886)


A philosophic politician once remarked that the best possible form of government is an absolute monarchy tempered by street ballads.

Without at all agreeing with this aphorism we still cannot but regret that the new democracy does not use poetry as a means for the expression of political opinion. The Socialists, it is true, have been heard singing the later poems of Mr. William Morris, but the street ballad is really dead in England. The fact is that most modern poetry is so artificial in its form, so individual in its essence and so literary in its style, that the people as a body are little moved by it, and when they have grievances against the capitalist or the aristocrat they prefer strikes to sonnets and rioting to rondels.

Possibly, Mr. William Toynbee's pleasant little volume of translations from Beranger may be the herald of a new school. Beranger had all the qualifications for a popular poet. He wrote to be sung more than to be read; he preferred the Pont Neuf to Parnassus; he was patriotic as well as romantic, and humorous as well as humane. Translations of poetry as a rule are merely misrepresentations, but the muse of Beranger is so simple and naive that she can wear our English dress with ease and grace, and Mr. Toynbee has kept much of the mirth and music of the original. Here and there, undoubtedly, the translation could be improved upon; 'rapiers' for instance is an abominable rhyme to 'forefathers'; 'the hated arms of Albion' in the same poem is a very feeble rendering of 'le leopard de l'Anglais,' and such a verse as

'Mid France's miracles of art, Rare trophies won from art's own land, I've lived to see with burning heart The fog-bred poor triumphant stand,

reproduces very inadequately the charm of the original:

Dans nos palais, ou, pres de la victoire, Brillaient les arts, doux fruits des beaux climats, J'ai vu du Nord les peuplades sans gloire, De leurs manteaux secouer les frimas.

On the whole, however, Mr. Toynbee's work is good; Les Champs, for example, is very well translated, and so are the two delightful poems Rosette and Ma Republique; and there is a good deal of spirit in Le Marquis de Carabas:

Whom have we here in conqueror's role? Our grand old marquis, bless his soul! Whose grand old charger (mark his bone!) Has borne him back to claim his own. Note, if you please, the grand old style In which he nears his grand old pile; With what an air of grand old state He waves that blade immaculate! Hats off, hats off, for my lord to pass, The grand old Marquis of Carabas!--


though 'that blade immaculate' has hardly got the sting of 'un sabre innocent'; and in the fourth verse of the same poem, 'Marquise, you'll have the bed-chamber' does not very clearly convey the sense of the line 'La Marquise a le tabouret.' Beranger is not nearly well enough known in England, and though it is always better to read a poet in the original, still translations have their value as echoes have their music.

A Selection from the Songs of De Beranger in English Verse. By William Toynbee. (Kegan Paul.)


Oscar Wilde