Timothy Adès : Translator–Poet

Victor Hugo on Children

front cover of Victor Hugo, How to be a Grandfather

Victor Hugo, How to be a Grandfather, Hearing Eye 2012

Poems by Victor Hugo, the great poet of childhood, among many other things. Some of these are in How to be a Grandfather, my translation of his last book of poems, published by Hearing Eye.

All of them, except ‘Penniless Children’, are in a French volume, Hugo Jeunesse, Enfance en Poésie, compiled and published by Editions Gallimard in their Gallimard Jeunesse series.

My Goodbye to Childhood

I have such pleasant memories
Of when we twisted, thoroughly,
Our hankies into implements,
And played a game of self–defence:
We fired our massed artillery,
The apples off the local trees…
And there were dodgy rungs we climbed
With Roman pride, or twice as much:
What was that citadel we stormed?
The old neglected rabbit–hutch!

Grandma Spins Thread

Grandma spins thread. The little girl
Fancies a distaff for her doll.
Grandma nods off. Quick! Get a strand,
Creep up behind, tease one aside!
She parts a thread from all the rest,
The spindle twizzles to unwind,
She runs off chortling, in her hand
The golden wool, the saffron–dyed.
She’s like a bird that builds a nest.

What the Public Says

Five–year–old. Six–year–old.

Lions are wolves.
Animals are so naughty.
Little birds are naughty and they’re dirty.
Six (sees snakes).
Snakes are…
Five (examines them).
It’s got skin! It’s got skin on it!
Watch out, the monkey’s going to take your bonnet.
Five (sees tiger).
It’s bear’s bedtime soon, let’s see the bear.
Five (sees bear).
He climbed…
Five (sees elephant).
Horns in his mouth! Look there!
Elephant’s big. I like him.
Seven–year–old (comes up and tugs them away
from viewing the elephant
Come with me!
He’ll hit you with his hooter — can’t you see?

The Children

Four jolly children pull my jacket,
Muddle my papers, make a racket.
I’m working! — But it’s all the same
To them: they leap and shout my name,
They stop me writing, hide my pen,
Crouch down behind the sofa, then
With gales of mirth uproarious
Spring at me — Sunday’s their excuse —
Wrapped in a gaudy striped burnoose.

Life Outdoors

I sit, and they come — they know I share
Their taste for butterflies, flowers, fresh air
And animals scurrying everywhere.
They know I’m a person who’s fond of them,
They can play near me, shout and scream,
And ages ago I laughed the same:
And I laugh and I smile at them today,
Though I’m sadder now, as I watch them play.
I’m always fun and I’m never fractious,
Make cardboard models and pen–and–ink sketches:
They say so: and when we light the light,
I tell them stories that scare them at night:
I’m gentle and modest, and erudite.

They see me, and ‘Look! He’s there!’ — they’ve downed
Their toys, they run to me, they surround!
Wide eyes, so fearless and friendly too:
Such heavenly eyes, they must be blue!
Little ones climb on my knees, they’re bold;
Big ones look solemn, being so old.
They bring me a borrowed blackbird’s nest,
With scrapbooks and crayons, France’s best…

Spring Memories

In the dew she ran noiseless,
Not to wake me from night:
I opened no glass, lest
She start and take flight.

Pure dawn! My sons’ laughter,
Cool cradles and harmony,
My children and Nature,
The birds and my family.

I coughed, she grew bolder,
And skipped up, neat-paced;
She said, like one older,
“The children are dressed.”

Contented or troubled,
My heart was my fay’s,
Well–coiffed or dishevelled,
Lodestar of my gaze.

We played until sunset,
Sweet sport, charming chatter!
At dusk she, the eldest,
Used to tell me, “Come, father:

We’ll bring up your chair, you
Can tell us a story”
Their eyes were ethereal,
A radiant glory.

So I’d make up a romance
Of mayhem and murders,
Found heroes and humans
In the ceiling’s deep shadows.

They cackled and snorted!
It’s such a good joke:
Big dunderheads, thwarted
By quick little folk.

I’m a love–crazed clot

I’m a love–crazed clot.
Hey, Grandpa!
I want to go!
To go? Where to?
Just not stay here.

We won’t stay here.
Hey, Grandpa!
There might be rain.
I do hope not.
I want some rain.
Some rain? For what?
To help my beans
grow in my plot.

God makes the rain.
Well then, I want
God to make rain.

You want! You want!
Yes, what?
You see this toy:
I could destroy
it if I want
and God just can’t
stop me, he can’t!
He just cannot!

All right, don’t shout.
I didn’t shout —
I just want rain.

All right, you’re right.
So will it rain?
Yes, here’s the can:
We’ll make it rain.
On your beans
And on your plot.
Hey, Grandpa!

The Moon

Jean was sitting on the grass,
Pink and thoughtful. Up I came.
“Tell me, Jean,
Is there anything you want?”
I obey these little loves,
Watch, and try to understand
All that passes (bless them) through their heads.
Jean replied: “I’d like to see
Some animals.” I pointed out
(“Look!”) an ant, in the grass.
Jean was only half contented. “No,
Animals are big,” she said.

Bigness is their dream. The sea
Draws them to its edges, dandles them
With its throaty singing, fascinates
With its shadows and the wind’s
Scary flight;
They love terror, need the marvellous.
“Look, I have no elephant:
Would you fancy something else?
You deserve it, Jean,” I said.
“Speak.” Her tiny finger swivelled up
To the sky. “That.” Evening had begun.
There on the horizon I could see,
Rising, the enormous moon.

Jean was on Bread and Water

Jean was shut in the dark on bread and water,
For some offence. Not doing what I ought to,
I broke the ban, dropped by her, ‘on the lam’,
And slipped her a clandestine pot of jam,
Outside the law. All those who, in my town,
See that the general good is not done down,
Saw red. Jean’s voice was sweetly modulated.
“I shall not thumb my nose again,” she stated;
“I won’t make Pussy scratch me.” Uproar. “Look!”
They cried. “That child can read you like a book!
She knows how weak and wet you are. She’s seen
The way you laugh whenever there’s a scene.
How can we govern her? You overthrow
Discipline, every time. The rules just go
For nothing. Standards fall, the reins are slack.
You ruin things. What’s left to hold her back?”
I hung my head and said: “I’ve no reply.
I’m in the wrong. This is the laxity
That’s always ushered peoples to their doom.
Put me on dry bread in a darkened room.”
“You’ve earned it, and we’ll do it.” Closeted,
Jean raised her lovely eyes to me, and said,
Serene as any dear sweet–natured lamb,
“All right, I’m going to bring you pots of jam.”


Dirty things we used to say!
Dotty things we used to do!
    Loud our voices pealed.

Now, what dotty things we say!
Now, what dirty things we do!
    Now, our lips are sealed.


The King of Clogs was a hunter,
On stilts he hunted crows.
He charged for walking under,
Two euros, through the nose.

I’ve Always Loved

I’ve always loved winged creatures.
A child among the trees,
I took the little fledglings
And built them homes of reeds.
I reared them in the mosses,
And when I opened wide,
They flew, and came when called for,
Or simply stayed inside.
I loved a lovely dove, yes,
We two were lovey–doveys!
In animal behaviours,
Believe me, I’m no novice.

Penniless Children

Watch this little one with care,
Filled with God, and great in worth;
Babes, before they come to birth,
Shine above in azure air.

God in bounty gives us this:
They are sent to us on earth,
All his wisdom in their mirth,
All his mercy in their kiss.

We are warmed in their sweet light;
They are cold, and heaven shivers;
They are hungry, Eden suffers;
Happiness is theirs by right.

Men have angels in their power:
Every innocent unfed
Puts on trial the evildoer.
Thunder’s rage shall wake the dead:

God, who sent these pretty things
To our den of sleep and shadows,
Sent them down to us with wings,
Finds them wearing rags and tatters!

The Fairy

Pretty child, I am the Fay,
Yes, the Fairy. Come and play!
Where’s my kingdom? Where the sun,
Razzle–dazzle vermilion,
Bathes in warm waves’ ocean swell.
Western folk all love me well.
Mists of gold adorn their sky,
When I brush them, passing by:
Queen of lazy shadows, I
Build my magic mansions high
In the clouds of Westering.
Blue and lucent is my wing;
When I swoop and soar, my charms
Fascinate the Sylphs in swarms:
At my back they see, it seems,
Coruscating silver streams.
Rosy-pink, transparent and
Luminescent is my hand;
That’s my breath, the fragrant breeze,
Blown at dusk on fields and trees;
Tresses gleam, and lips beguile,
Singing, singing with a smile!
Mine are caves of cockleshells,
Leafy tents where pleasure dwells;
I am lulled in greenery,
Lulled on waters of the sea.
Follow, moon–child! I shall show
Where the clouds of heaven go,
Teach you how the waters flow.
Come, new companion, join my play!
Learn everything the songbirds say.

Grandfather’s Song

Dance, little daughters,
    In a ring.
Seeing your sweetness,
    Woods shall sing.

Dance, little queen–bees,
    In a ring.
Lovers in ash–groves

Dance, little dreamers,
    In a ring.
Books in the schoolrooms

Dance, little beauties,
    In a ring.
Birds with their wing–beats

Dance, little fairies,
    In a ring.
Cornflower headbands

Dance, little ladies,
    In a ring.
Gentlemen’s words come

Song to Make Little Children Dance in a Ring

In the oleander–shade,
Dancing to the tambourine,
Talk low–voiced and unafraid
Jacqueline and Jack the Lad,
Jack the Lad and Jacqueline.

Join at dusk the merry scene,
Dance, with lusty serenade:
No devotions vespertine!
Jacqueline and Jack the Lad,
Jack the Lad and Jacqueline.

Tree along the shore marine
Carved as if by burin–blade,
Black beneath a sky serene.
Jacqueline and Jack the Lad,
Jack the Lad and Jacqueline.

Wicked wolf is in the glade.
Sparrow hears the sermon said,
Sees him gobble up the grain.
Jacqueline and Jack the Lad,
Jack the Lad and Jacqueline.

Watercress and rose–marine:
Sniff them out, you leveret,
Champ the grasses, blade on blade.
Jacqueline and Jack the Lad,
Jack the Lad and Jacqueline.

In the elms, the bold young bard
Floats a quatrain: ‘Yours to win,
With a kiss, Red–Riding–Hood.’
Jacqueline and Jack the Lad,
Jack the Lad and Jacqueline.

There’s a dell that isn’t seen.
Coach and horses in the glade
Sound a light fanfaronnade!
Jacqueline and Jack the Lad,
Jack the Lad and Jacqueline.

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