10. 14. 2017. 15:41

János Arany: Mistress Ágnes and Bards of Wales

translated by Bernard Adams

This year, we're celebrating the bicentenary of János Arany's birth. One of the giants of 19th century Hungarian literature and poetry, we're pleased to present two of his ballads, Mistress Ágnes (published here for the first time) and the Bards of Wales, in a new translation by Bernard Adams.

JÁNOS ARANY (1817-1882)

MISTRESS ÁGNES
(1853)

Mistress Ágnes in the river
Laundering her sullied linen,
Linen white but linen bloodied,
Plucked at by the flowing waters.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

First the children of the village
Cluster round her: "Mistress Ágnes,
What's this linen that you launder?"
"Hush, my pullet's blood has splashed it."
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

Village women then forgather.
"Mistress Ágnes, where's your husband?"
"In the house asleep, my lovely,
Don't call in, you'll likely wake him."
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

Next the constable: "Come, Ágnes,
Come along now to the lock-up."
"Oh, my lovely, I can't leave now,
Not until I've washed this mark out."
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

Deep beneath the ground the cell lies,
Scarce a gleam of sun admitted.
One sole ray its only daylight
And the gloom's alive with spectres.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

All day long the hapless Ágnes
Has this narrow world to look at,
One eye glued to that small lancet
That is all the light allowed her,
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

For no sooner looks she elsewhere
Than a ghastly tumult rises.
If that little light were lacking
She would surely lose her senses.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

Now at last, long time elapsing,
Turns the key, the cell-door opens,
And she's led before the judges
Humbly there to stand, contritely.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

Tidily she smoothes her clothing,
Straightens on her head the kerchief,
Strokes her auburn locks to order,
Lest she should be thought unbalanced.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

Seated at the green-clothed table,
Line of venerable grey-beards
Sorrowfully look upon her
As she's led in: not a murmur.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

"Ágnes, girl, what have you done now?
Heinous crime, grave allegation.
He that did the deed, your lover,
Claims that you were his accomplice."
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

"He that was your husband's killer
Dies tomorrow on the gallows.
You in prison cell shall languish
All your life on bread and water."
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

Mistress Ágnes looks about her:
Has she lost her wits, she wonders.
Voices hears, the words she catches;
"She's in her right mind," they're saying.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

But the words about her husband
Are beyond her understanding.
All that's plain to her is that she
Nevermore will be allowed home.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

So she weeps, lamenting loudly,
Tears burst forth as freely flowing
As the dew slips from a lily,
Pearls of water from swan's plumage.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

"Oh, Your Worships! Oh, Your Lordships!
Have regard to God, Your Honours!
Back at home there's work awaits me,
I cannot sit here in prison!"
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

"All befouled I found my linen,
I must wash away the bloodstains!
If such filth I have to leave there
Quite beside myself I shall be!"
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

At this plea the learned judges
Knowingly glance each at other.
Not a syllable is spoken,
By their looks the vote is taken.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

"Home you go, you hapless woman!
Launder clean your sullied linen.
Home you go, the Lord be with you,
Grant you grace and strength unfailing."
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

Mistress Ágnes in the river
Laundering anew her linen,
Linen white, by now long spotless,
Plucked at by the flowing waters.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

Clean though it may be, that linen,
Not a trace of blood upon it,
Ágnes sees it ever clearer
As it was that night precisely,
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

And from dawn until late evening
Lingers by the flood, her shadow
Falling on the foaming billows,
Tousled hair by breezes ruffled,
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

In the moonlit night she lingers
As the swirling waters glisten,
Wields implacably the gleaming
Mallet in the darkling silence.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

Thus year in, year out she labours,
Ceaselessly, whate'er the season.
Blazing suns of summer scorch her,
Blue her knees in cold of winter.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

Now her tousled hair is whitened,
No more locks of auburn lustre,
Ugly wrinkles spoil the erstwhile
Smoothness of her lovely features.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

And so Ágnes in the river
Launders on and on the ancient
Rags and tatters of her linen,
Plucked at by relentless waters.
Lord, in Thy mercy, forsake us not.

 

*

BARDS OF WALES 
(1857)

Edward the king, the English king,
Forward spurred his grey.
Fain would I see the land of Wales,
Tell me its worth, I pray.

Has it rich pasture, rivers, woods,
Arable land besides?
All well watered with their blood
That 'gainst me dared to rise?

What of the Welsh, that wretched breed?
Are they as content
As I would wish, and as the ox
That 'neath the yoke is pent?

Zounds, my liege, the finest jewel
In thy crown is Wales.
Plough and pasture, woods and streams
Adorn its hills and vales.

While the Welsh, that wretched breed,
Not a murmur raise.
Silent are their hovels all
As neglected graves.

Edward the king, the English king,
Onward spurred his grey.
Silence reigned where'er he went
And no man said him nay.

Montgomery the castle was,
Montgomery its lord,
Where one fateful evening
The king found bed and board.

Game and fish and every dish
That eye and tongue delight
Were served him by a hundred men.
It was a wondrous sight.

All manner of meat and drink there was
That this fine isle can bear.
Many a wine from overseas
Foamed and sparkled there.

My lords and gentles! Will none of you
Raise his cup to me?
My lords and gentles . . . Dogs of Wales,
Own you no fealty?

Game and fish and every dish
Delightful to the sense
I here perceive, but in yourselves
A devilish pretence.

My lords and gentles! Faithless curs,
Will you not drink to me?
Where is a bard to praise my name
And sing my victory?

Pale of cheek, the noble Welsh
Looked around: in dread
And in fury met their eyes;
Not a word was said.

Conversation ceased forthwith,
Not a breath was heard.
White of head, from near the door
Arose an ancient bard.

Here, O king, is one will sing
Thy deeds that so inspire.
Weapons clashed, the dying gasped
As he swept the lyre.

Weapons clash, the dying gasp,
The sun sets in lakes of gore.
Before the beasts of night a feast
Hast thou spread, my lord.

Piled like sheaves at harvest-time
The thousands put to the sword,
And they that live weep as they glean.
This is thy work, my lord.

Out! To the stake! The king's command.
That was exceeding hard.
A softer song is what we need.
Arose a younger bard.

O, softly blows the evening breeze
O'er Milford, off the sea.
In it moan the grief of widows,
Maidens' misery.

Bear ye no children to be slaves,
Ye mothers, do not nurse . . .
Him to the stake the king dismissed
As brusquely as the first.

But recklessly, unbidden too,
A third rose in his stead.
The theme itself sang from the harp,
And this is what it said:

The brave have perished in the fight –
Mark thou my words, O king! –
No bard of Wales will sing thy name,
None stoop to such a thing.

The harp preserves their memory –
Mark thou my words, O king! –
A curse on thy head is every song
The bards of Wales shall sing.

We shall see! The king commands,
And dreadful is his word,
That any bard that will not sing
His praise shall not be spared.

His henchmen left to course the land
At the king's behest.
So in high Montgomery
Took place the famous feast.

Edward the king, the English king,
Homeward spurred his grey.
All round the pyres lit up the sky
Of those that said him nay.

'Tis said five hundred chose to die,

Went singing to their doom;
None could bring himself to sing
To English Edward's tune.

What is that sound? In London's streets
Who is it sings so late?
The Lord Mayor's life is forfeit if
The king is kept awake.

Now silence deep: not a fly's wing
Inside or out is stirred.
The king lies waking – risks his head
Who utters but a word!

Let there be music! Fife and drum,
And let the trumpet bray!
The curses of that feast in Wales
Ring in my ears this day.

But o'er the sound of fife and drum
And brazen trumpet's clang
Five hundred voices raise the song
That the martyrs sang.

 

*

Bernard Adams was born in 1937 in the Black Country of the English West Midlands. Educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, he did his National Service in the regimental band of the Royal Scots Greys, then read Hungarian and Russian at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was awarded Heim Foundation/PEN America Center translation awards in 2008 and 2012, and in the same years won second prize in the John Dryden translation competition in the U.K. In 2009 he received a translation award from the Füst Milán Foundation of the Hungarian Academy of Science. He has published some 30 titles. In 2006 he moved to Hungary, and now lives at Zánka on the north side of Lake Balaton.