A broken soul

BOOKS POETRY: LAMENTS by Jan Kochanowski trs Seamus Heaney and Stanislaw Baranczak, Faber pounds 12.99/pounds 6.99
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The Independent Culture
IN Virgil's Aeneid, a gloomy corner of the Underworld is reserved for wailing infants "laid on the funeral pyre before their parents' eyes". From Hecuba's lament for Polyxena at the gates of Troy to Isabel Allende's recent account of her daughter Paula's final illness, the shadow of lost children falls across the page as writers wrestle with the anger and bewilderment, the infinite emptiness of bereavement: "The green shoot is mown down," cried the Renaissance Polish poet Jan Kochanowski, "the ripe crop stands."

Kochanowski's Treny or Laments, a sequence of 19 poems published n 1580 after the death of his 30-month-old daughter, Ursula, represents a transitional moment in the literature of grief: a fluent classical scholar, who could read Homer n Greek and compose verse in Latin, Kochanowski wrote his greatest works in Polish, establishing a new vernacular tradition. And where the prevailing convention was to eulogise the great and the good, he honoured instead a small child, a daughter - filling the house with song and laughter, running to the door to greet her father, saying her prayers each night - whose loss in times of high infant mortality might be considered unremarkable.

Such a personal expression of grief scandalised Kochanowski's contemporaries, although Laments, even if it is barely known outside Eastern Europe, is now considered his masterpiece. Faber's new volume, jointly translated by Seamus Heaney and Stanislaw Baranczak, aims to end its obscurity - a task assisted by the perhaps surprising presence of the new Nobel prize- winner. Yet translator and source-poet have much in common - both transcend the sectarian divides of their times; both are urbane, travelled scholars, inspired above all by the countyside of their childhoods, whether Heaney's Derry lanes or Kochanowski's family estate at Czarnolas, where Ursula lived and died.

Heaney's involvement is fortuitous in other ways. Despite its directness and deceptive simplicity - "a pure breathing of Polish," as Czeslaw Milosz has commented - Kochanowski's poetry works complex transformations on his native prosody, adapting classical forms to create new genres of syllabic verse and exchanging its more natural feminine rhymes for masculine. To capture such demanding forms requires a seasoned skill. Undaunted, Heaney and Baranczak choose the hardest path of all, preserving Kochanowski's rhymed couplets and syllable counts while maintaining the concision and integrity of his original lines - an almost impossible transition from an inflected to a non-inflected language such as English.

Here, too, are Kochanowski's plain but poignant tropes - the "infectious breath" of Death, stalking the house like a thief as Ursula falls silent, a nightingale at dawn; the clothes which, like her father, "miss her body's warmth"; or the game of blind man's buff we all play "until hard edges break into our path". Heaney and Baranczak also weather "the stern gaze of Persephone's / Obliterating eyes", handling Kochanowski's numerous classical references with aplomb. Yet it is disappointing that in so short a volume (64 pages including Baranczak's eloquent introduction and the Polish text), no space could be found for a glossary - even scholars might need reminding that Erato is a Muse, or Sipylus a mountain.

In addition, more about the dynamics of the collaboration of the two writers would be welcome. Did Stanislaw Baranczak, an accomplished poet n his own right, provide rough drafts which Heaney polished? Certainly, one senses Heaney's deft hand throughout, not least in the couplets that conclude each "Lament", pinpointing its latest splinter of grief ("All your old haunts have turned to haunts of pain / And every heart is hankering in vain") while heralding the next turn of the screw.

Yet Laments charts the progression not only of a broken heart but a broken soul. Throughout, Kochanowski wrestles with the failure of either Stoic resignation or Christian salvation to comfort his grief. Equilibrium is restored only in the final "Lament", as the ghost of his mother appears to him in a dream, carrying Ursula in her arms - the father now a child again, instructed to "Believe. Take Comfort. Rest."

Heaney and Baranczak's outstanding version draws together all the elements of Kochanowski's compelling work - its limpid classical style, its Renaissance balance of pagan philosophy and Christian belief and, above all, its peculiarly modern message: that what transforms, what transcends, is not courage or faith, but loss.

! Josephine Balmer has translated Sappho for Bloodaxe Books, and her 'Classical Women Poets' will be published by the same company next month