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SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

The Sleep of the Condor 1858

Charles-René Marie Leconte de Lisle

Translated from French by David R. Slavitt

Beyond the cold impervious heights of the Andes,
beyond the ghostly fogs in which the black
eagles nest, but higher, he circles back
and forth above the lava runnels. On these
huge wings, touched with red, lazily soaring
the enormous indolent condor glides and flies,
glaring down at empty space with eyes 
indifferent—or even sullen—at the boring
continent stretched out below in space.
Those glittering eyes reflect the sun as it sets
and night rolls in from the east. The darkness lets
the savage pampas huddled under the face
of sheer cliffs disappear. Now Chile sleeps.
The cities and towns of its coastline, from this height,
dwindle to dreams of themselves in the fading light.
The featureless Pacific Ocean sweeps
away to that horizon of the mind
that even heaven can hardly comprehend.  
Blackness engulfs the landscape to extend
from sand to the ever higher hills, behind
which are the lofty mountain tops. The tide
of darkness rises inexorably; it seeks
a shred of red still visible on the peaks
where it seems the ice has been wounded and has died.  
Still rising, it nears the lone and spectral bird
that almost disappears except for the glint
of the Southern Cross that offers at least a hint
of motion somewhere up there. Undeterred,
he screams in delight, swoops and soars, and stirs
the snow into wraith-like puffs that soon subside
before he climbs even higher for his ride
in the cold and emptiness that he prefers.
Below him a busy planet bustles. Its noise
does not come anywhere close to him in the air
and its primordial emptiness. Hanging there,
he dozes in an icy equipoise.


Le Sommeil du Condor 1858

Par delà l’escalier des roides cordillères, 
par delà les brouillards hantés des aigles noirs, 
plus haut que les sommets creusés en entonnoirs 
où bout le flux sanglant des laves familières, 
l’envergure pendante et rouge par endroits, 
le vaste oiseau, tout plein d’une morne indolence, 
regarde l’Amérique et l’espace en silence, 
et le sombre soleil qui meurt dans ses yeux froids. 
La nuit roule de l’est, où les pampas sauvages 
sous les monts étagés s’élargissent sans fin; 
elle endort le Chili, les villes, les rivages, 
et la mer Pacifique et l’horizon divin; 
du continent muet elle s’est emparée:    
des sables aux coteaux, des gorges aux versants, 
de cime en cime, elle enfle, en tourbillons croissants,
le lourd débordement de sa haute marée. 
Lui, comme un spectre, seul, au front du pic altier, 
baigné d’une lueur qui saigne sur la neige, 
il attend cette mer sinistre qui l’assiège: 
elle arrive, déferle, et le couvre en entier. 
Dans l’abîme sans fond la croix australe allume 
sur les côtes du ciel son phare constellé. 
Il râle de plaisir, il agite sa plume, 
il érige son cou musculeux et pelé, 
il s’enlève en fouettant l’âpre neige des Andes, 
dans un cri rauque il monte où n’atteint pas le vent, 
et, loin du globe noir, loin de l’astre vivant, 
il dort dans l’air glacé, les ailes toutes grandes. 


SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Charles-René Marie Leconte de Lisle

was born on October 22, 1818 on the island of Réunion off the southeast coast of Africa. From that simple sentence, much of his oeuvre can be logically inferred. A fellow like that goes to Paris and finds himself among the feathers and frou-frou of the July Monarchy, which was a bizarrely optimistic moment in French culture, materialist, luxurious, confident, and altogether hypocritical, for the gap between rich and poor was wider than it had been at any time since the Ancien Régime. Leconte de Lisle had grown up on his father’s sugar plantation which was operated by slaves. And he had a kind of disgust for what he saw around him, the artificiality and smugness whetting his appetite for the cliffs, beaches, and wildernesses of Réunion.


SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

David R. Slavitt

is the author of over 100 books—non-fiction, novels, poetry, short fiction, and translations. His work has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Best American Poetry, Boulevard, Poetry, Texas Review, and The Yale Review.

His most recent books include Change of Address: Poems New and Selected (LSU Press), Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets (Northwestern University Press), and a new translation of Sophocles’ Theban Plays (Yale University Press), Four Greenlandic Poets (New American Press), and Overture (Outpost19).

Forthcoming volumes: The Other Four Plays of Sophocles and Civil Wars and Other Poems.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury