L’Abeille (Paul Valéry) (The Bee)

À Francis de Miomandre.

Quelle, et si fine, et si mortelle,
Que soit ta pointe, blonde abeille,
Je n’ai, sur ma tendre corbeille,
Jeté qu’un songe de dentelle.

Pique du sein la gourde belle,
Sur qui l’Amour meurt ou sommeille,
Qu’un peu de moi-même vermeille,
Vienne à la chair ronde et rebelle !

J’ai grand besoin d’un prompt tourment :
Un mal vif et bien terminé
Vaut mieux qu’un supplice dormant !

Soit donc mon sens illuminé
Par cette infime alerte d’or
Sans qui l’Amour meurt ou s’endort !

Lionel Abel’s translation of Valéry’s “The Bee” (1922) here.

An excerpt:

Un mal vif et bien terminé
Vaut mieux qu’un supplice dormant !

A torment prompt and soon done with
Is better than one that sleeping lies.

Valéry’s later tours de force:  Le Cimetière Marin (French and English) and La Jeune Parque (in French).

Too funny: Google Translate renders Vaut mieux qu’un supplice dormant ! as “Punishment is better than sleep!” recalling the adhan call from the muzzein at dawn for the first prayer of the day: الصلاة خير من النوم “Al-salatu khayru min an-nawm” or “Prayer is better than sleep.”

Everything simple is false. Everything which is complex is unusable.
-Paul Valéry, Notre destin et les lettres, 1937

Posted in Poetry. 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “L’Abeille”

  1. Noetica Says:

    Ah, so piquant!

    For homespun comment on this poem, see:


    Just one anagrammatic point:

    Lionel Abel = L’Abeille? No.

    An adequate rendering; so much for fidelity in metre and rhyme though. I offer this, from my own archives, which breaks faith in my preferred ways:

    The Bee

    However deadly, cruel, and keen
    O darling bee, may be your sting,
    I’m scarcely draped with anything:
    This dream of lace my only screen.

    So prick this lovely breast serene
    Where ailing Love lies languishing.
    My scarlet self I’d have you wring
    From flesh, so round and libertine!

    I dearly need some quick distress:
    A lively pain, and well-defined,
    But not this dormant mournfulness.

    So flood with light this dozing mind:
    Your golden little sting apply
    Lest Love succumb to sleep, or die.

    In haste,


  2. Nijma Says:

    So nice, thank you for that. A rendering that goes beyond the lifeless words with zest.

  3. Nijma Says:

    As always, the Noetic view has many layers of meaning, often linguistic; further meanings often emerge from the words after “sleeping on them”. Surely the Noetic translation reveals more of the meanings and inferences the writer meant to reveal than most, including meanings that are less than Parnassian. I was interested to find:

    ~the word “piquant”, surely used here as a pun, comes from Middle French piquant “pricking, stimulating, irritating,” from Old French piquer “to prick, sting, nettle”;

    ~”sting” is from Old English stingan “to prick with a small point” and PIE stengh-“to prick, sting”;

    ~and from Old French poignant and Latin pungere “to prick, pierce, sting,” we get the words “poignant”, “pungent”, “point”, “pugnacious”, and “compunction”.

    Then there is prick.

    Thank you again, Dr. No, and godspeed.

  4. A. J. P. Crown Says:

    I like your bee picture, Nij.

  5. Nijma Says:

    Thanks, AJP, I took it last summer when I was taking train photos to try to show the difference between a platform and a track. The bee was on a thistle near the train station.

    Our slugs and snails may not be very impressive, but our bumblebees are world-class.

  6. A. J. P. Crown Says:

    I often take bee pictures, usually when they’re on roses; I’ve never managed such a good one, though.

  7. Nijma Says:

    Thank you, AJP, but your own photos are very good.

    I’m trying to reconstruct how I got this one. I started out taking pictures of the thistles-these were unusually tall, then I got interested in the blossoms and seed heads. This one (1) turned out all right, as did this one (2) although the rear flower, the purple one, is slightly out of focus. The first shot of the bee-and-flower combination didn’t work at all (3); for some reason the autofocus latched on to something at the very edge of the picture. A picture of a bee on a rhododendron I took in Massachusetts two summers ago (4) almost turned out; some of the nearer petals are in focus, but not the bee. I do think our bees are more attractive than the New England bees. For illustrating Noetica’s translations, only the best bees will do.

    So if I could say how I got that picture to turn out, when the others didn’t, I would say first, my camera’s auto focus is idiosyncratic; taking several angles of the same subject increases the chances that of one of them will be good. Second, backing up a little bit from the subject seems to work. I’m guessing that the blurry Massachusetts bee was taken at a distance of about a foot, but the focused (and in-focus) Chicago bumblebee was taken at maybe 2-3 feet. I think what this might do is tell the camera’s autofocus to increase the depth of field so a deeper part of the picture is still within the area of focus. You can always crop the picture, but if it’s not in focus in the first place, you can’t fix that. Here is the good Chicago bee (5) before cropping, so you can judge the distance.

  8. Nijma Says:

    Paul Valéry’s Les Pas (The Footsteps) was written on the same manuscript as “Narcissus”, and is said to be a description of Psyche approaching the bed where her husband Eros sleeps.

    Here is my translation:

    Les Pas — Footsteps

    Tes pas, enfants de mon silence,
    Saintement, lentement placés,
    Vers le lit de ma vigilance
    Procèdent muets et glacés.

    You don’t exist, born of my solitude and of distance,
    Slowly, sacredly passing ritually
    To where I lie waiting with concentrated focus,
    A soundless, bloodless processional.
    Personne pure, ombre divine,
    Qu’ils sont doux, tes pas retenus !
    Dieux !… tous les dons que je devine
    Viennent à moi sur ces pieds nus !

    Flawless, transparent soul; holy wraith,
    You melt into me, you hold nothing back!
    O gods…all the offerings I dream of
    Come to me on those naked feet!
    Si, de tes lèvres avancées,
    Tu prépares pour l’apaiser,
    A l’habitant de mes pensées
    La nourriture d’un baiser,

    If, as your lips draw closer,
    You are ready to give solace,
    Nourish the specter of my thoughts
    With a kiss.
    Ne hâte pas cet acte tendre,
    Douceur d’être et de n’être pas,
    Car j’ai vécu de vous attendre,
    Et mon coeur n’était que vos pas.

    Do not rush this oblivion, this suspension
    In the zone between I am and I am not,
    For I am only alive in this prolonged moment with you,
    And my essence is nothing more than your footsteps.

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