03 July 2010


Because one of our finest poets, W. S. Merwin, has just been appointed as Poet Laureate of the United States, I want to take the opportunity to print one of his finest poems, Piere Vidal. I have had it on my website for the last eight years. Piere Vidal was a troubador (d. 1205) and the text is based on his vida, his own account of his life.

Ezra Pound wrote another version of the Vidal text (p. 16 here), and although it retains some of the spirit of the original, it has Pound's typical self-indulgence, and nothing of Merwin's controlled fire.  It is worth comparing the simplicity of Merwin's vocabulary with Pound's use of the thesaurus.  Interestingly, it was Pound who told the young Merwin that he needed to study the troubadours.


I saw the wolf in winter watching on the raw hill
I stood at night on top of the black tower and sang
I saw my mouth in spring float away on the river
I was a child in rooms where the furs were climbing
and each was alone and they had no eyes no faces
nothing inside them any more but the stories
they never breathed as they waved in their dreams of grass
and I sang the best songs that were sung in the world
as long as a song lasts they came by themselves to me
and I loved blades and boasting and shouting as I rode
as though I was the bright day flashing from everything
I loved being with women and their breath and their skin
and the thought of them carried me like a wind
I uttered terrible things about other men
in a time when tongues were cut out to pay for kissing
but I set my sail for the island of Venus
and a niece of the Emperor in Constantinople
and I could have become the Emperor myself
I won and I won and all the women in the world
were in love with me and they wanted what I wanted
so I thought and every one of them deceived me
I was the greatest fool in the world I was the world’s fool
I have been forgiven and came home as I dreamed
and have seen them all dancing and singing as the ship came in
and I have watched friends die and have worn black and cut off
the tails and ears of all my horses in mourning
and have shaved my head and the heads of my followers
I have been a poor man living in a rich man’s house
and I have gone back to the mountains and for one woman
I have worn the fur of a wolf and the shepherd’s dogs
have run me to earth and I have been left for dead
and have come back hearing them laughing and the furs
were hanging in the same places and I have seen
what is not there I have sung its song I have breathed
its day and it was nothing to you where were you.

Both images here are manuscript "portraits" of Piere Vidal.  The original music and text of Vidal's vida can be heard on "Troubadors" by the Clemencic Consort (also from Amazon). Another Vidal song, "Pos tornatz sui em Proensa," is performed on Paul Hillier's Proensa. Both CDs contain the original texts.  W. S. Merwin has an elegant small book of essays on Provencal and the troubador Bernart de Ventadorn in particular,  The Mays of Ventadorn.


  1. Thanks for posting this - I read both poems, but I have to say that my opinion differs from yours. Pound moved me, and Merwin left me cold by comparison.

    What you see as Pound's self-indulgence I see as vivid, raw imagery. When you mentioned 'Pound's use of the thesaurus', it made me think the poem would be like those of the many modern poets who confuse contorted verbal gymnastics with poetic skill. However, I didn't find Pound's use of archaic words forced or out of place. They seem to fit the content well.

    De gustibus non disputandum.


  2. (coming late) i found this on yt


    (as for the 2 translations, i like more the one made by the younger (poet) - i think pound is (as usually!) rather *commenting* on the poem (tmho)than translating)

  3. Thank you for the music -- I hadn't thought to look for Vidal there.

    Here is a better link for Pound, which I like better now than when I did this entry:


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