Monday, March 12, 2018

Pierre Corneille

Pierre Corneille (1606—1684) is one of France’s three great seventeenth-century dramatists — alongside Racine and Moliere. He wrote a very popular French verse translation of Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ. His most-celebrated plays include Le Cid (1637), Polyeuct (1642) and Cinna (1643). American poet Richard Wilbur is one of the many translators of his works.

Corneille’s play Polyeuct is based on the life of Polyeuctus (a Saint according to the Greek Orthodox Church). He was an Armenian officer in Rome’s army who converted to Christianity even though it was likely to mean his death.

In the play, the following section is spoken by Nearchus, trying to convince his friend Polyeuct to not postpone his baptism. Polyeuct’s wife Pauline, whom he loves dearly, is afraid that if his conversion is public, he will be martyred. Later in the play, after Polyeuct’s death, both Pauline, and her father become Christians.

The following translation is by Noel Clark.

From Polyeuct (Act One)

But how can you be sure you’ll live that long,
Or guarantee resolve will prove that strong?
Has God, in whose hands your soul and lifespan rest,
Promised to grant you a delayed request?
God is all-good, all-just but, still, His grace
Is varied in effect by time and place.
Those shafts can lose their powers of penetration,
If hearts repel them by procrastination.
The soul grows callous and God’s grace, deflected,
Less freely is bestowed, when once rejected.
That holy gift, designed to save the soul,
Descends more rarely and can find no role.
The grace inspiring you to be baptised,
Already languishes, its aim revised —
Despite the sighs of love that reached your ear,
The flames are dying and will disappear.

This post was suggested by my friend Burl Horniachek.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His latest poetry collection is Ampersand (2018, Cascade). His books are available through Amazon, and Wipf & Stock, including the anthologies The Turning Aside, and Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse.