Monday, 11 March 2013


The poem plays a central role in Sophus Claussen’s novel Valfart (Pilgrimage, 1896). Valfart is written as a travel memoir in the tradition of Goethe’s Italian Journey, though in Claussen’s book the narrative lends itself to the creation of a fictional world, a fantasy that is only tangentially linked to the real locations in Italy and France which the novel’s central character, the bridge-building engineer Silvio, visits. Silvio has been commissioned by a wealthy German lady to write “a treatise that was to be called Some of Italy's Oldest Bridges (Nogle af de ældste Broer i Italien)." In a sense, the novel is the treatise, in which the bridges eventually become allegorical, representing love-relationships rather than constructions of stone. The “pilgrimage” of the title is a journey to the sanctuary of the Montallegro Madonna near Rapallo, a section that forms the high point of the novel’s second part.

On the way to Italy Silvio visits Paris, where he falls in love with Célimène and has a Platonic love affair with her. The affair eventually becomes complicated by Silvio’s desire for a physical relationship, but before this happens, he attends a New Year’s celebration at which he has a hallucinatory vision of a more ancient civilization – the Persian city of Ecbatana:

Han vidste ikke helt nøjagtigt, paa hvilken Klode eller I hvilken Tid, han selv befandt sig, om han virkelig var i Paris ved et Nytaarsselskab, eller om han var med ved et nu længst forglemt Gæstebud I Ekbátana.

He was not quite sure on which planet or in which era he found himself, whether he was in Paris at a New Year’s gathering or whether he was taking part in a now long-forgotten feast in Ecbatana.

The Ecbatana poem is a curious assembly of visual and visionary, dreamlike elements, bound together in a four-footed metre. There is, however, a problem in the last line of each stanza, all of which end with the word "Ekbátana". As the Danish scholar Vilhelm Andersen once pointed out, where the metre calls for the dactylic Ek--a-ta-na, there is what he calls an “iambic dipody”, or double iamb. This has the effect of creating a slight emphasis on the "Ek-" of Ekbátana, producing a delay which means that the final syllable of the line carries a lighter stress than would normally be the case, and causes a sense of floating uncertainty, where "in a single word finite meets infinite, and materiality meets transcendence".  (For this perception I'm indebted to Dan Ringgaard's study of Claussen's poetic universe in his book Den poetiske lækage).

There are other technical problems in the poem – for example, the name ”Ekbátana” is a poor rhyme-word in Danish, and Claussen has to resort to pairing it with insignificant words like “da” and “fra”. Yet the richness of the imagery is such that this doesn’t really interfere with the reader’s appreciation of the poem as a whole.

In my English version - which I'm still working on - I have tried to maintain the metre and rhyme, though this may have led to some distortions of meaning. The Danish text follows, and after it my translation.


Jeg husker den Vaar, da mit Hjærte i Kim
undfangede Drømmen og søgte et Rim,
hvis Glans skulde synke, jeg ved ej hvorfra,
som naar Solen gik ned i Ekbátana.

En Spotter gav mig med Lærdom at ane,
at Vægten paa Ordet var Ekbatáne.
Den traurige Tosse, han ved ej da,
at Hjærtet det elsker Ekbátana.

Byen med tusind henslængte Terrasser,
Løngange, svimlende Mure - som passer
der bagerst i Persien, hvor Rosen er fra,
begravet i Minder - Ekbátana!

Hin fjærne Vaar, da min Sjæl laa i Kim
og drømte umulige Roser og Rim,
er svunden, skjønt Luften var lys ogsaa da,
som den Sol, der forsvandt bag Ekbátana.

Men Drømmen har rejst sig en Vaar i Paris,
da Verden var dyb og assyrisk og vis,
som blødte den yppigste Oldtid endda ...
Jeg har levet en Dag i Ekbátana.

Min Sjæl har flydt som en Syrings af Toner,
til Solfaldet farvede Parkernes Kroner
og Hjærtet sov ind i sin Højhed - som fra
en Solnedgang over Ekbátana.

Men Folkets Sæder? den stoltes Bedrift?
hvad nyt og sælsomt skal levnes derfra?
En Rædsel, et Vanvid i Kileskrift
paa dit Dronningelegem - Ekbátana.

Men Rosen, det dyreste, verden har drømt,
al Livets Vellyst - hvad var den da?
Et Tegn kun, en Blomst, som blev givet paa Skrømt
ved en kongelig Fest i Ekbátana.

Da blev jeg taalmodig og stolt. Jeg har drømt
en dybere Lykke, end nogen har tømt.
Lad Syndflodens Vande mig bære herfra
- jeg har levet en dag i Ekbátana.


I remember that spring, when my heart in its time
conceived the dream and searched for a rhyme,
whose glory should sink, I know not from where,
as when the sun set in Ecbátana.

A mocker advised me, with scholarly drama,
that the stress on the word was “Ecbatána”,
The sad, silly fool, he wasn’t aware
that the heart is in love with Ecbátana.

The city with terraces thousandfold sprawling,
with passages secret, walls dizzy falling
in Persia down there where the roses are,
buried in memories – Ecbátana!

That far-off spring, when my heart in its time
dreamed of impossible roses and rhyme,
has died, though the air was also light there,
like the sun that died behind Ecbátana.

But in Paris one spring the dream came to rise,
and the world became deep and Assyrian and wise,
as if still antiquity bled as of yore…
I lived for a day in Ecbátana.

My soul floated on like a syrinx of sounds
till the sun’s fall colored the parks' tree-crowns,
and the heart fell asleep in its highness, as there
in a sunset over Ecbátana.

But the people’s customs? The proud man’s feat?
What new and strange things would be left to share?
A terror, a madness, a cuneiform script
On your queenly body – Ecbátana.

But the rose, the most precious that world’s dreams know,
all life’s voluptuousness – who knew what they were?
Just a sign, a flower that was given for show
at a royal feast in Ecbátana.

I grew patient and proud. And then in my sleep
I dreamt of a fortune unemptied and deep.
Let the Flood’s waters carry me hence, afar
– I lived for a day in Ecbátana.

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