After many years, Mathers' great translation of the Chaurapanchasika is finally back in print! Readers of Steinbeck's Cannery Row may remember the heartbreaking hymn to lost love that Doc reads at his birthday party; but the reading breaks off, tantalizingly, just before the final line. Years later, I tracked down the original in the British Library, and so learned the story behind the strange combination of rapture and heart-ache in this poem.
The poet Chaura, so the story goes, lived in 1st-century Kashmir, and fell in love with the king's daughter, Vidya, and she with him. Things took their natural course; and eventually the two were discovered. Chaura was imprisoned and condemned to die; Vidya, presumably, was sent to bed without any supper. On the night before his execution, Chaura composed a 50-stanza poem, the gist of which is, basically: yes, it was worth it.
The title for Mather's translation, Black Marigolds, is taken from an epigram by Azeddin el Mocadecci: "And sometimes we look to the end of the tale that there should be marriage-feasts, and find only, as it were, black marigolds and a silence."
A prominent feature in the original Sanskrit poem is that every stanza begins with the word 'Adyapi', a word of reminiscence; Mathers' translates this as 'Even now,' and the steady recurrence of this 'Even now' is part of what makes the poem so hypnotic. Tony Harrison, in his introduction to the book, compares the phrase to the tolling of a death bell. It works well; 'even now' implies both the summoning up of something long gone, and the sense that even in the face of death, the memory of love remains powerful. Mathers did his translation while fighting at the front in World War I; so for him, 'even now' may have had a special personal poignancy.
Rather than go on about it -- here are some samples. Chaura starts by summoning Vidya into his memory, and celebrates their time together:
If I see in my soul the citron-breasted fair one
Still gold-tinted, her face like our night stars,
Drawing unto her; her body beaten about with flame,
Wounded by the flaring spear of love,
My first of all by reason of her fresh years,
Then is my heart buried alive in snow.
The pleased intimacy of rough love
Upon the patient glory of her form
Racks me with memory; and her bright dress
As it were yellow flame, which the white hand
Shamefastly gathers in her rising haste,
The slender grace of her departing feet."
In the last stanzas, the poet bids farewell to Vidya, and farewell to life. "Even now", he says "death I take up as consolation". And finally, opening the last stanza with lines that anyone would be proud to have as an epitaph:
I know that I have savoured the hot taste of life
Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast..."
Accompanying the Chaurapanchasika in this new printing by Anvil Press is a selection of translations of shorter love poems from a variety of oriental sources -- lovely, but not of the stature of Black Marigolds, with its heady mixture of rapture, longing, sorrow and imminent death. It should be read aloud; here's hoping you have a sympathetic listener.