Guido Gezelle, a Limpid Singer
Guido Gezelle (1830-1899).
The Flemish poet Guido Gezelle was born in Bruges on 1 May 1830 and died there on 27 November 1899. His mother was a pious, melancholy woman, his father a silver-tongued and cheerful gardener; and it is evident from his poetry that both parents had a powerful influence on his character.
In 1854, having completed his studies for the priesthood, Gezelle was appointed to the seminary at Roeselare, where he showed himself an inspiring teacher who greatly influenced a number of his students. Religion, nature and love for his native tongue and people became the principal themes of his poetry.
In 1860 he returned to Bruges, the city of his birth, first as a lecturer at the English seminary1. and later as a curate. In 1872 he became a curate in Kortrijk (Courtrai), a post he held until 1889 when he was appointed director of a community of nuns in the same city. From 1893 he lived there in retirement, at liberty to devote himself to his own work. Soon after returning to Bruges in 1899 he died.
As well as writing poetry Gezelle was also very active as a philologist and folklorist, a journalist, an editor of periodicals and as a translator, of Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha among other things. He was a child of his strict Catholic environment and of the traditional Flanders of the time. As a priest he had a strong missionary bent, being very much concerned with the spiritual welfare of his fellow-men. Through his work and his conduct he played an inspirational role in the romantic awakening of linguistic and cultural consciousness in Flanders.
Although Gezelle's poetry is predominantly religious in inspiration, in his best poems he never preaches. Here he is always the brilliant word-artist, whose poetry has lost nothing of its originality even after more than a century. No other poet has made the Dutch language to sing in so unparallelled a way.
What is marvellous about the poet Gezelle is his gift of wonder. Childlike and naïf, he lives surrounded by nature. He has no explanation for all the wonders that strike his eye and ear; but throughout his life they spur him to praise of the Creator. Gezelle's delight is always unbridled and extravagant. And even when he is overcome by loneliness and sadness his language re-
mains just as musical. His poetry is inspired by a romantic feeling for life, but clarity and simplicity are its most essential hallmarks.
As a poet, Gezelle is as much a seeker as a finder. Whatever he touches with his words rediscovers the purity of the first day. This makes him unique. It also explains why those who sought to imitate him always fell short of him. In his poetry Gezelle created a language all his own. And that is a gift only great artists have.
Translated by Tanis Guest.
The Evening and the Rose. 30 Poems translated from the Flemish by Paul Claes and Christine D'haen. Antwerp, 1989.
A new volume with translations, compiled by Paul Vincent, is in preparation.
O Rustling of the Slender Reed
Παρὰ ροδανὸν δονακῆα
Hom. II. XVIII, 576
O! rustling of the slender reed!
o if I knew your song of need!
whenever wind along you walks
and brushing them bows down your stalks,
you bow all meekly dipping, then
stand up and meekly bow again,
and bowing sing the song of need
beloved by me, o slender reed!
O! rustling of the slender reed!
how oft how oft did I recede
here by the quiet waterside,
alone and by no man espied,
and watched the rippling water flow,
and saw your limber stemlets go,
and listened to the song so sweet
you sang to me, o rustling reed!
O! rustling of the slender reed!
how many people past you speed
and hear the music of your song
but listen not and go along!
along to where the heart will haste,
along where tinkling gold betrays;
but of your sound they take no heed,
o my beloved rustling reed!
And yet, o rustling slender reed,
your voice is not so poor indeed!
God made the stream, God made your stem,
God ordered: ‘Blow...’ and breeze began
to blow, a breeze that wafted round
your stem, which struggled up and down!
God listened... and your song of need
delighted God, o rustling reed!
O no, my slender rustling reed,
my soul will not your talk impede;
my soul of God himself received
affections such as He conceived,
affections which your rustling know
whenever up and down you go:
o no, o no, my slender reed,
my soul will not your talk impede!
O! rustling of the slender reed,
resounding in my song of need,
may it complain before Thy foot,
Thou in whom both our lives take root!
o Thou, who even this poor talk
dost love of but a reedy stalk,
do not, I beg, my plaint impede:
me! feeble, pining, plaintive reed!
I am of thee
it pencilled or
not, mother dear,
unless it be
that likeness left
by thee, in me
o Might I, thee
that likeness be
but honoured be
it living in
me, honoured in
There Fell a Leaflet
(In Recollection of Beethoven's Septet)
There fell a leaflet once upon
There lay a leaflet once upon
And flow upon the leaflet did
And flow the leaflet did upon
And welter-wallow-welter in
Because the leaflet had become
As flexile and as fluid as
As pliant and as pleasant as
As quick it was and speedy as
As rumpling and as rippling as
Thus lay the fallen leaflet on
And one might say the leaflet and
Were not a leaflet one and to-
But water was leaflet and leaf-
And once a leaflet fell upon
As water ran the leaflet ran,
Stood still the leaflet stood there on
When water rose the leaflet rose
Did not descend 'less leaflet did
Did nothing 'less the leaflet did
Thus fell a leaflet once upon
And blue it was in heaven and
And blue and bright and green would blink
And leaflet laughed and laughing was
But leaflet was no leaflet no
Was no more than the leaflet then
My soul was but that leaflet: and
The sounding of two harps appeared
And blinking in the blue and in
Thus lay I in the Heaven of
The blue and blissful Heaven of
And once a leaflet fell upon
And once a leaflet lay upon
I Hear You not yet
I hear you not yet,
o nightingale, and
the easter-sun is
where stay you so long,
or have you perhaps
your solace from us
No summering, true,
no sprouting, and from
the hedges no leaflet
there is ice in the wind,
there is snow in the sky,
there is storming around
Yet loud all about
it finches and sprews;
the blackbird too laughs
it swifts and it tits,
it cuckoos in woods,
it sparrows and flaps
Where stays he so long,
the nightingale, with
his solace from us
No summering yet,
but summer it will:
the Easter-sun is
The Evening Comes so Still, so Still
The evening comes so still, so still,
so tardily treads near,
that no one knows just when the day
nor where it went from here.
'T is evening, still... surrounding me
is something, one, invisibly,
that touches me with whispering, light:
'T is evening and to rest is right.'
The trees bear up the whole wide sky
with undefiled green;
I can, so thick their foliage stands,
scarce through the gardens see;
and none I hear, all roundabout,
of the sweet-throated feathered crowd,
but, in the leaves below and dim,
the nightingale's nocturnal hymn.
He sings! Ah, if he knew his song,
how beautiful! He does not note
that singing he enthrals my ears
and chains me to his throat.
Ah, if he knew what I know well:
that thankfully I know and tell
who gave his voice to him, and me
its pleasure and felicity!
What lovely lay! What do I hear
asudden, yonder gabble?
What withering and thithering
of gibberish and babble?
Oh, frog-folk in the waterweed,
be still! Give to the silence heed:
may I that luscious warble hear...
and you, tormentors, forth from here!
Take that!... A splash about the stone,
and, with a stretchèd shin,
the frog-folk deeply dip the froth,
the stagnant froth within!...
Alas, now night and shadiness
my lovely singer will possess:
no nightingale, no row nor sough,
is to be heard... 't is over now!
o Splendour Wild and Undefiled
Of all creatures cause and primalty
o Splendour wild and undefiled
of flowers by the waterside!
How glad I see you, well-arrayed
in water stand, as God you made!
Born harmless, guileless up you rose,
there on the spot that God once chose,
there standing, in the sunshine: see
all that you do is flower be!
'T is being that my eyes beheld,
't is truth, and never double dealt;
and who through you delights my soul,
alike to you, is one and whole!
How silent is it! There's no herb
astirring that could us disturb;
no wrinkle on the lovely face
of water, full of flowery grace;
no wind, no word: around outspread,
all shadowy, all silencèd!
There, deep, deep in the water bent
blues the green-dappled firmament;
and, piercing here and there is spun
a long-drawn filament of sun.
What honour, frailty, chastity
may in one single flower be,
which, suddenly, and free of doubts
from its Creator's finger sprouts!
By Him, and by no human deed,
was planted here the humble seed;
through Him alone, and instantly,
it opened and rejoicèd me,
by teaching prayers unto me,
and being such as I should be:
beholding and believing in
all ultimate the origin,
the ground of all; still more I see
and yet not all: God's primalty!
Where Sits that Limpid Singer
Where sits that limpid singer I
can hear but seldom may descry,
in leaves forlorn,
on this blithe Mayday-morn?
He hushes dumb the fowls around,
by wondrous wealth of vocal sound,
his jug-jug lashes
the forests and the hedges.
Where sits he? I do not perceive
but hear him, hear him, hear him weave
his gay refrains:
they are chattering in the lanes.
Thus sit and sing the worker may,
before the loom, at peep of day,
from woof to shape
longlasting linen drape.
The weaver sings, his tissue tunes;
the batten clatters, the frame booms;
and swiftly tread
the spools along the thread.
Thus sits there, in mild summer air,
one warping on the weaver's chair
of green, and sheds
his thousand-coloured threads.
What is he: human, beast or what?
All sweetness, 't is a censer that
by Seraph hands
its frankincense expands.
What is he? 'T is a carillon-trill,
with teeth so sharp, with strings so shrill,
with mouths so bold,
all made of speaking gold.
He is... where I may never come,
a spark of fire, a gospel from
a higher home
than where we humans roam.
Hark! Slow with loud and lovely voice,
how deep he delves for life and joy,
as from the ground
of ample organ sound!
Now pipes he fine, now calls he shrill;
and sap of song seeps from his bill,
that from the rooftiles tumble.
Now, counted, his tales tap and thrill,
as were it on a marble sill,
where pearls in strings,
dropped from their garlands, spring.
No birds but know their melody,
their compass and delivery
in perfect way
to paint through vocal play.
It grieves me not, though old in days,
he bears the prize of song away,
and, bird of glory,
bereaves me of my laurel!
For man has never known you well,
nor rightly spoken out your spell,
o wondrous tale
of sovereign Nightingale!
Ego Flos... Cant. 2:1
I am a flower
and bloom before your eyes,
prodigious light of sun,
which, ever unimpaired,
me, puny creature, will
here daily vitalise
and me, beyond this life,
life everlasting spared.
I am a flower,
at dawn I will disclose
at dusk reclose my leaf,
and alternating, then,
as you, o sun-fire, may
new-risen, me dispose,
I wake or will entrust
my head to sleep again.
My life is but
your light: my task, my trying,
my hope, my happiness,
my only and my all;
what am I without you
but ever, ever dying;
what have I without you
that will my love enthral?
I am far from you,
although you, precious spring
of all that living is
or ever life conveys,
are nearest me of all
and, o dear sun, will sting
into my deepest depth
with all-pervading blaze.
Lift up, let down!...
untie my earthly bounds;
uproot me and undig
me...! Loose me... let me go
where summer ever is
and light of sun abounds,
where you, eternal, sole
and perfect flower blow.
Let all things be
behind, performed, fordone
that distance between us
and deepest scissures spanned;
let dawn and dusk, and all
that must depart, be gone,
and show your endless light
me in my Father's land!
All poems translated by Paul Claes and Christine D'haen.
The translators wish to thank Tanis Guest for valuable advice.