Monday, March 1, 2021

Quote of the Day (Poet Richard Wilbur, Translating Moliere With Verve)

“I may be pious, but I’m human too:
With your celestial charms before his eyes,
A man has not the power to be wise.
I know such words sound strangely, coming from me,         
But I’m no angel, nor was meant to be,
And if you blame my passion, you must needs        
Reproach as well the charms on which it feeds.
Your loveliness I had no sooner seen
Than you became my soul’s unrivalled queen;
If, in compassion for my soul’s distress,
You’ll stoop to comfort my unworthiness,
I’ll raise to you, in thanks for that sweet manna,
An endless hymn, an infinite hosanna.
With me, of course, there need be no anxiety,
No fear of scandal or of notoriety.”— French playwright Moliere (1622-1673), Tartuffe (1664; English translation by Richard Wilbur, 1965)

Richard Wilbur, born 100 years ago today in New York City, was as honored as a poet can get: the second poet laureate of the U.S. following Robert Penn Warren, as well as a Pulitzer and National Book Award winner. His work reflects his belief, as stated in a Paris Review interview, that “the universe is full of glorious energy, that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good.”

Though it is uncharacteristic of the bulk of his work, Wilbur’s translations of Moliere, Voltaire, and Racine plays have their own unique merit, with Moliere in particular fulfilling what I usually choose in a “Quote of the Day” for the first and last days of the workweek: humor to get readers through tough hours.

I encountered Wilbur’s Tartuffe translation in a high-school anthology, and it made me eager to watch this comedy about a religious hypocrite when the Circle in the Square production was aired on public television in the 1970s. The excerpt above, I think, will give you an idea of its sprightliness, with its rhyming couplets rendering the playwright in as close an English approximation of the joy and wit of the French original as it may be possible to get.

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