Le Piton des Neiges
To my friend A. Lionnet
Ocean, Ocean, when your fuming waves
Lift, roaring, making one majestic wave
From foaming heads, rearing up to air,
Appearing to touch the sky with its sublime crest;
We see its peak smoking like a vast
Crater, its huge mass mastering the waters!
The furrows that its volume compresses,
Come in fury to smash themselves at its base;
The wave rises and leaps towards its arrogant
Brow; but this one—see!—like the God of the tempest,
With foam and vapors crowns its crest,
And seems to dominate its furious aspect.
Just as in these places you prevail,
Glorious Salazian mountain, just
As from nearby mountains your aerial
Forehead towers, juts, projects!
Immense, motionless, eternal
From the high center of my isle,
Your summit, calm and noble,
Imposes and commands the gaze;
Seat of an eternal winter,
The wind besieging your
Face covered in snow and hoar-
Frost like old men’s heads.
From the cradle of the deep seas,
The eye that perceives your virile beauty,
There, upon the green daughter of the waves,
Loves your splendid decay.
And you seem in your silence,
To listen to the noise in the skies
Of the gentle, swaying breeze
Or of the north wind that rushes;
Or like a lone colossus,
Fixing a centenarian’s gaze
Upon the earth and the waves,
To dream, grave and soundless!
When day dies and shadows appear,
When the moon rises above cloud,
The ocean at your feet shines like a mirror;
From the skies, night’s orb whitens vast domes
And you see ships like white phantoms,
Sliding along the horizon under evening’s vapors
And the poor fisherman whose swift boat
Bounds lightly upon the liquid pasture
And the seabird surprised by night,
Perceive your peak from a great distance,
Navigating by your sublime summit,
Advancing cradled by the air’s breath.
And from afar on the immense sea,
By the dreaming moon’s rays,
The voyager’s startled eye
Contemplates you in silence.
The straying cloud that halts,
Seems to stir upon your summit,
As one sees floating upon their
Heads white plumes of heroes;
And your ancient and profound mass
Flooded by a gentle brightness
Seems to be the blue specter
Of wave upright on the waves’ abyss!
Ah! how many centuries have passed
Before your wrinkled face?
Yet time’s footfall is erased
From your ravaged peak.
How many days of calm and cyclone,
And of cloud and sun,
And of shipwreck and pain,
Have glimmered before your ancient eye?
Tempest, shadow, north wind, light,
All returned to primeval night,
But you with your immense height,
You were then as you are today!
Then, as now, morning’s first light,
And vanishing day’s last light,
Spread out their fires on your azure countenance;
And when dawn or night come to smile over
The world, you alone shone in the ethereal empire,
Like a lighthouse with soft and soundless glints.
Then, as now, from your sterile rocks
You poured pure and limpid torrents onto our fields;
And, ever defying the destroying tempest,
Draping your bare flanks with a cloak of vapors,
Like a spirit seated on the throne of ages,
You raised the skies to your imperious face.
Pyramids of nature,
Peaks, summits, grandeur,
Whose gigantic structure
Speaks to man of his author;
Lofty mountains, undefined entity,
Depths and disharmony
That a propitious or deadly
Spirit sowed in these remote places;
Blood-red lightning flashes,
Dark cloud, eyrie from where the storm rushes
Into the heart of the appalled heavens;
Gulfs, torrents, tempest, sea,
Carry me away in your horror!
For I love to feel the force of your
Wrath raging over me!
I love to contemplate your abysses,
Take measure of your high peaks,
Follow your sublime waves,
Be glutted with your terrors;
To constantly merge my essence
With winds, with flame, with waves,
For my heart is excited and rages
And everything inside me intensifies! . . .
—translated from the French by John Kinsella
AUGUSTE LACAUSSADE (1815–1897) was born on the French Indian Ocean possession of Bourbon, later named Ile de la Réunion, which was a slave colony until 1848. The poet’s mother, a freed slave, and his white father, a lawyer whose family was from Bourdeaux, were unable to marry due to the island’s ban on mixed marriage. Refused entry into Royal College/Bourbon College because of his illegitimacy, Lacaussade was sent to school in Nantes, France, from 1827 through 1834, and later studied medicine in Paris, dropping out in 1839 to focus on writing poetry. Lacaussade published his first volume of poems in 1839, Les Salaziennes, named after one of the island’s mountains and dedicated to Victor Hugo, one of the most prominent young French authors. Poèmes et Paysages followed in 1852 and Les Épaves in 1861.
Lacaussade also pursued a journalistic career, and joined the editorial board of Democratie pacifique in 1846, became political editor (in Brittany) of La Concorde in 1848, and eventually, in 1859, director of Revue européenne. According to Mercer Cook, one of the few literary scholars to write about Lacaussade in English, “This journalistic activity was characterized chiefly by noble humanitarian motives. . . . he campaigned ardently for liberty: liberty for the masses and freedom for the slaves.” However, Lacaussade seems to have grown more resigned to the circumstances with time, staying in France under Napoleon III and the Second Empire, receiving accolades from the French Academy (though he was never made a member), and eventually settling into a sinecure working for the Senate library from 1872 until his death in 1897. Later in life Lacaussade grew bitter that the bigotries of the time prevented his work from getting the recognition it deserved, and he remained in the shadow of the other great Creole French-language Reunionese poet of the nineteenth century, Leconte de Lisle.
In fact, it was an interest in de Lisle that drew me to la Réunion, where I first spent a month in 2013 with my family. La Réunion is a place of syncretism and great cultural diversity; of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and a range of African spiritualities; and of French and Creole languages and poetries. Social unease and intense pride in belonging are intrinsically tied in with physical isolation in the Indian Ocean, a vicious history of slavery, and a sublime landscape. A street and a few schools are named after Lacaussade, and he is known as one of the great local writers who also influenced the literature of the colonial power, France.
Lacaussade is a major poet of place, of absence as much as belonging, of reminiscence as much as engagement; in his poetry about the island, there’s both intimacy and reflective distance. And if there’s nostalgia in his configurings of remembered experience as if they were plein-air compositions, there’s nonetheless also a sophisticated politics underpinning the expression and sensibilities. Lacaussade has created his own kind of “sublime.” I believe these translations (and others I have done) mark one of the rare times Auguste Lacaussade has been translated into English. The poems that follow were first published in Les Salaziennes, with the exception of “La Cascade Saint-Suzanne,” which appeared Poèmes et Paysages.