Karel Jaromir Erben - one of the greatest of all Czech poets, now at last in English translation

'The Water-Goblin'

Today we look at a Czech poet who is one of the icons of 19th century Czech literature, Karel Jaromir Erben. I'm going to be talking to someone who knows a great deal about Erben, Susan Reynolds, who is curator of Czech and Slovak literature at the British Library in London. She has recently completed the first ever full English translation of Erben's most famous work, "Kytice" or "The Bouquet".

We'll start with the opening few lines of "The Water-Goblin". Just to put it into context, these are some of the most famous lines in Czech poetry. Every Czech school child at the age of about ten will learn these lines by heart:

On a poplar by the pool

The Goblin sat at twilight cool:

'Glow, moon, glow,

That my thread may sew.

For myself new boots I'm sewing

, On dry land and water going:

Glow, moon, glow,

That my thread may sew.

'Thursday now—tomorrow's Friday—

sew a coat all trim and tidy:

Glow, moon, glow,

That my thread may sew.

Coat of green and boots of red

, For tomorrow I'll be wed:

Glow, moon, glow,

That my thread may sew.'

This translation © Susan Reynolds 2002.

Those really are very famous lines. Czechs of any age will probably be able to recite them from memory. Can you tell me what the poem is about?

"It's a very well-known story which inspired a setting, most famously by Dvorak, about a water-goblin. You can always tell a "vodnik", a water-goblin, if you see him on dry land because he wears a green frock-coat and there's always a drop of water dripping from his left coat-tail. In some versions - in some folk-tales that Erben collected elsewhere - he's quite a comical, genial figure, but this one is slightly more sinister. He's lonely and he wants a wife, as these interesting introductory lines say. The girl on whom he has set his sights is completely unsuspecting. She lives by the lake with her old mother, and suddenly she feels compelled to go down to the lake and wash her clothes. Her mother has had a bad dream in which she dresses the girl in white and gives her a string of pearls. And this she interprets as a presage of bad news. But the girl will not listen to her mother's warnings, and off she goes to the lake. Just as she's dipping her first dress into the water, the bridge collapses and she falls in - into a whirlpool - and then we see the goblin under his tree, clapping his hands in delight.

Susan Reynolds
"Then the scene shifts, and we find ourselves in the goblin's underwater kingdom, and there, by the gates of the palace, he's mending his fishing nets, while his wife sits at his side, rocking their baby in her arms. And the baby - to show that he's a true little water-goblin - has green hair. The girl is homesick for her mother; her only light is her child. She sings sadly of how she wishes she was up on dry land in a grave rather than down there. Finally she pleads and pleads with her husband to let her go just once more to visit her mother. After a great deal of procrastination he finally says that she may for one day, but when the bells ring out for Vespers she must come straight home again.

"There are two conditions attached: she mustn't kiss or embrace anyone up there in the world above the waters, and she has to leave the baby behind as a hostage. But once she's back again, and has a joyful reunion with her mother, her mother won't let her go. The water-goblin comes to claim his bride, the mother angrily refuses to let her daughter out. He comes back repeatedly - three times - and finally, as a great storm roars over the waters, there's a great thud on the doorstep. The old mother opens the door and there lies a terrible sight:"

On the lake the storm is shrieking;

In the storm the child screams shrill;

Screams that pierce the soul with anguish,

Then they suddenly fall still.

'Oh, my mother, please, oh, please!

At those cries my blood will freeze—

Mother mine, oh, dearest mother,

Fear of him my heart does fill!'

Something fell—beneath the doorway

Moisture trickles—tinged with red.

When the old one went to open,

What she saw filled her with dread.

In their blood, two objects lying

Sent cold terror through her flying:

Baby's head—without a body;

Tiny body—with no head.

This translation © Susan Reynolds 2002.

This is pretty melodramatic stuff. Can you explain what's going on here, why Erben was writing this sort of thing at the time, exactly 150 years ago?

"Yes, this was first published in 1853, when Erben was 42 years old. He had spent many years working as an archivist in the city of Prague exploring many ancient historical documents, which gave him a strong sense of Czech history, of the country's past greatness and its future potential. But it would be a mistake to see him only as a pedant. He was a deeply musical man. He had given music lessons in his youth and he went around very widely collecting all kinds of folk-songs and ballads, stories and local traditions. He firmly believed that music came first and the words to these ballads came later. But among the ballads he found, there were some that seemed to him incomplete. This got him wondering how he could use them. Could he perhaps fit in the bits that seemed to be missing? The full title of "Kytice" reveals that it's a collection of motifs 'from Czech ballads and songs'.

"Many of these ballads do have a strong kinship with those you find elsewhere in Europe. "Zlaty kolovrat" - "The Golden Spinning-Wheel", for example, that of a step sister and her true sister, is close to an old Border ballad, and we have in "Svatebni kosile" - "The Wedding Shirts", a motif which is found in German ballads as well, where we have some kind of supernatural being, who intervenes in this world and seizes somebody who is unwilling to go with him. In this case it's a bridegroom who comes back from beyond the grave to claim his girl, and she follows him to the grave and beyond it."

Here's a short extract from the end the poem. This is where the girl has been carried away by her bridegroom, who, because she has prayed to the Virgin Mary to return him at any price, has come from beyond the grave. They travel together over hill, over dale and through the marshes until they come to his palace, which to her horror is a church surrounded by a graveyard full of crosses. Here she takes to her heels and hides in the mortuary chapel, which is already occupied by a corpse. As the bridegroom calls this dead man to rise and let the girl out, she prays fervently. Three times this happens. And now we've reached the climax:

Again—boom, boom! outside they hear;

The girl is blind and deaf with fear!

'Come on, dead fellow—stand up, hey!

Give me that living girl, I say!'

Oh, poor, poor girl! For at those words

He rises one more time—the third;

His great dim eyes roll in his head,

Upon the girl, with fright half-dead.

'Stand by me, Virgin Mary--plead

With your dear Son, and intercede!

I prayed a prayer that was not fitting:

Forgive the sin I was committing!

Oh, free me, Mary, Mother of grace

From the evil forces in this place.'

And close by, in the hamlet, hear—

A cock begins to crow, quite near,

And from the village all around

Whole companies of cocks resound.

The corpse, as he had risen before,

Suddenly sprawled upon the floor,

And all was quiet outside the room—

The crowd had fled—and her evil groom.

As folk are going to early mass,

They stand astonished as they pass:

Up there, one grave is gaping wide,

and in the dead-house stands a bride,

and, upon every burial mound,

shreds of new shirts are scattered round.

Maiden, you showed good sense indeed,

To think on God in time of need,

And from your evil groom were freed!

If you'd tried any other means,

Terrible would your end have been:

Your graceful body, white and pure,

Would have been like those shirts, for sure!

This translation © Susan Reynolds 2002.

That's quite a moral tale at the end, isn't it?

"Yes, very much so, showing once again Erben's profound Christian belief which informs so many of his poems."

This must have been very difficult to translate, because you've got the metre, you've got the rhyme, you've got an idiom which is very much of its time - of the 19th century. How did you manage to get all this into English?

Well, I think if I'd been more expert when I started with the first of the poems, "The Golden Spinning Wheel", which is over 300 lines long, I would probably never have dared to start. But I'd never had an experience like this, when I had been translating before. It was a kind of organic process, and having finished the first I could go on and do the others, but every single one is in a different metre, a different rhyme-scheme, which I did my very best to preserve, because Erben was an extremely musical man and I felt it was important to preserve the music of the words. It's almost impossible in English to preserve the stresses precisely, because Czech stresses the first syllable of the word. This we can't do in English, where many lines of poetry begin with a weak up-beat rather than a strong down-beat. But I did what I could with this. Again, the Czech vowel sounds are much more open than English and the music of the words cannot always be rendered precisely, so I had to find the nearest equivalent, or at least something which I think Erben would have recognized as something musical in a different language, but still keeping the rhyme-schemes, keeping the metres, keeping the essential music of his poetry."

When you were translating, would you recite it to yourself?

"Yes, I'd walk round the room. The rhythmical process helped quite a lot. Often I'd find I'd get stuck and getting up and walking around actually helped it!"

I have a quote here from another well-known 19th century Czech writer, Jan Neruda, who wrote of Erben - and I'll paraphrase what he wrote here:

"One day, when the rest of the world has come to recognize the Czech nation, Erben will stand among the Greats of world literature. He is a poet of antique calm. He is a lyrical poet, who is neither subjective nor reflexive, but is an objective creator...."

And Neruda continues in the same tone. This is probably a slight exaggeration, isn't it?

"I don't think it is as far as Czechs are concerned, because recently the literary periodical 'Literarni noviny' published a list of 100 favourite books of Czechs, after a widespread survey. Erben was right up there with many modern authors, but also some of his contemporaries and people like Homer at the same level. The reason why he's not better known in the outside world, of course, is the notorious difficulty of translating poetry, and I'm hoping that when - as we hope next year - these poems are going to be published in translation, this will do something to make him wider known in the rest of the world, as he deserves to be."

We'll end with another of the poems from "Kytice" - "The Bouquet". This is called "The Wild Dove".

"It tells of a young woman, who at the beginning is following her husband's funeral procession, but gradually it becomes plain that there is something very sinister here. Another suitor comes along and they get married, but gradually it is revealed that her first husband's death was not accidental. In fact she poisoned him."

Time is flying, flying,

Nothing's as before;

What was not, is coming,

What was, is no more.

Time is flying, flying;

Hours, years, have their term;

One thing never changes:

Guilt alone stands firm.

Three years he's been lying

, The dead man, in his grave;

On the mound that marks it

Fresh green grasses wave.

On the mound, grasses;

At his head, a young oak grows;

On that young oak-tree sits

A small dove, white as snow.

There it sits,

there it sits

With its plaintive coo;

Everyone who hears it feels

His heart will break in two.

One woman, most of all,

Feels hers break this way;

From her head she tears the hair,

Calling in dismay:

'Do not hoot, do not call,

Dinning in my ears;

That cruel song of yours

Through my soul does pierce!

Do not hoot, don't accuse;

My head is spinning round:

Or hoot to make it fly

In pieces at a bound!'

Water's flowing, flowing,

Wave on wave is surging,

See there, among the waves,

A white dress emerging.

Here a foot goes floating by,

There a pale hand waves;

That woman, poor lost soul,

Goes to seek her grave!

They pulled her to the bank,

Secretly to lie

Buried where footpaths cross

In a field of rye.

She had no tomb at all

As her last abode;

Only a massive stone

Pressed her with its load.

Never, though, could any stone

Lie upon her frame,

Heavy as the curse whose weight

Rests upon her name!

This translation © Susan Reynolds 2002.

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.