Translating Manzoni On Cinco De Mayo


Alessandro Manzoni, going to a Halloween party, dressed as Byron.

I have already written the music for that catastrophe — seventeen years ago.
-Ludwig van Beethoven, upon learning that Napoleon had died

All criticism is a form of autobiography.
-Oscar Wilde


Dear readers,

Napoleon is dead, Alessandro Manzoni is dead, Ludwig van Beethoven is dead, and I am far from well myself.

Everyone who translated Manzoni is also dead. T. W. Parsons translated him in the 1870s, and is famous for doing so while wearing a blindfold that prevented him from checking the original text. (Read the Parsons here.) The Rev. J. F. Bingham translated him, too, during what appears to be some kind of pre-Chaucerian period. (You can read that catastrophe here.)

What better way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo than with my very own translation of Alessandro Manzoni’s “May 5th (an Ode)”? Seriously, I didn’t know about this poem until yesterday, and it’s gorgeous.

L’originale (in italiano) è qui. Caveat emptor: the original is a rather poor imitation of the poem printed below.

Mine is a diligent, but intentionally loose, translation. In some places I’ve used more modern diction instead of literally translating Manzoni’s sometimes archaic phrasing.

Enjoy. Poetry and margaritas, amirite? Nothing beats that.


He is gone: bereft of breath,
unheeding, unmoving,
reclaimed by mortal ruin.
The astonished Earth reels
in stricken silence
when the announcement is made
wondering about his final, fateful hour
and about another hour, not yet come,
when another’s tread, like his
trampling through her fields,
will compound the dust with blood.

Alone, my soul contemplated him
upon his dazzling throne,
and at each instant
of every eventuality
that befell him.
He fell, he rose, and then
he was laid low
but I made no reply
to a thousand others.
I was equally innocent
of fawning on him,
and of slandering his name
as cowards did.

Only now do I loose my genius upon him
now, at the end of the age
inscribing upon his urn
one verse that may, perhaps, survive.

From the Alps to the Pyramids,
the Manzanar to the Rhine —
like the lightning,
following the flash —
surveying Scylla, from Tanais,
seeking one ocean
from the shore of the other…
Was this true greatness?
That is for posterity to decide.
As for us, we bow to the Most High
who plucked him out, that he might
put His stamp upon the world.

The stormy, pensive joy
of a great enterprise,
in the rebellious heart
that feared to be anything
less than sovereign —
this won, and kept, such a prize
as seemed like madness to even dream of.
He proved all, surpassed all:
greater glory in the midst of danger,
the escape and the victory,
the palace, and the sorrow of exile.
Twice in the dust.
Twice up on high.

Two ages, up in arms against each other,
Made him their referee
As if waiting upon Fate’s decree.
He charmed them into silence,
Tamed their bloody impulses,
Enthroned far above the fray.
Then he vanished,
To spend his days in idleness,
Circumscribed, reduced.
This figure who inspired
So much envy,
so much devotion,
inextinguishable hatred,
and undiminished love.

Like the waves that break
upon the shipwrecked sailor
And rain down, frothing with fury
Around him, and upon him
As he looks in vain to find
The intangible, far shore —
Thus did his memories drag
His soul down, into the depths.
How many times had he tried
To engrave his place in the lists of Fame,
Only to grow feeble, and tired,
His hand finally slipping from the page?

In the waning light,
In the hour of dying,
as the lightning buckled
and vanished from his eyes,
as he stood with his arms folded…
How often then do his days of power
Assail him?
His mind reaches back
To the tents on the move,
the flash of muskets in the trenches,
the surging line of the moving cavalry,
Then would he order, and command,
And in that instant, be obeyed.

Alas! Perhaps, after so much agony,
The spirit may break,
And fall, and despair,
But for the heavenly Host
That vindicated him, took pity
Upon him, raised him up again,
Into purer spheres, to the
paths of hope, which lead
through flowers and meadows
to the fields of Eternity.

Beautiful, benevolent, immortal
Faith, claiming one of her own,
Remembers him thus: Rejoice!
Here is one who could never
Bend to the disgrace of Golgotha
From such great heights.
You who reads this,
leave his weary ashes in peace.
Forbear. Hold your tongue.
God, who gives us breath,
Who is our anchor and our consolation,
He is there, with the departed,
In that deserted resting-place.