Blog Post

To a Corpse

Okay, I've turned forty.  On my birthday I celebrated my obsolescence by translating a sonnet titled "To a Corpse."

The author is the Polish Baroque poet Jan Andrzej Morsztyn (1621-93) and, believe it or not, it's a love poem.  No, it's not an exercise in necrophilia.  Rather, it takes a cliche--"better off dead than in love"--and elaborates freely:


Leżysz zabity i jam też zabity,
     Ty - strzałą śmierci, ja - strzałą miłości,
     Ty krwie. ja w sobie nie mam rumianości.
     Ty jawne świece, ja mam płomień skryty.

Tyś na twarz suknem żałobnym nakryty,
     Jam zawarł zmysły w okropnej ciemności,
     Ty masz związane ręce. ja wolności
     Zbywszy mam rozum łańcuchem powity.

Ty jednak milczysz, a mój język kwili,
     Ty nic nie czujesz, ja cierpię ból srodze,
     Tyś jak lód. a jam w piekielnej śreżodze.

Ty się rozsypiesz prochem w małej chwili,
     Ja się nie mogę, stawszy się żywiołem
     Wiecznym mych ogniów, rozsypać popiołem.

* * *


You lie dead.  Me too.  You've been shot
by death's arrow.  Love's arrow got me.
You're ruddy with blood.  There's no red on me.
You have open candles; my flame's secret.
Your face is wrapped in funeral cloth.
My senses are lost in horrible dark.
Your hands are bound.  Formerly free,
My mind has been fettered in chains.
You're always silent, my tongue mewls,
You feel nothing, I suffer sorely,
You're like ice, and I'm in hellfire.
You'll shortly scatter into dust.
I can't scatter the everlasting core
Of my conflagration like ash.

I particularly like the sonnet's use of straightforward declarative statements.  You are ABC.  I am XYZ.  This rhetorical structure gives the poem a matter-of-fact tone and a straight-ahead momentum that don't really jive with the loopiness of the subject matter.  You could imagine Bella Swan, Elena Gilbert, Buffy Summers, or any of the stilted-prose heroines of Gothdom descending into a dim crypt, pausing in front of a shrouded body surrounded by flickering candles, and delivering a version of "To a Corpse" as an impassioned oh-so-earnest monologue.

Or -- you could compare Morsztyn's poem to the Italian original by Giambattista Marino (1569-1625), or you could take a look at how Caravaggio depicts corpses in The Death of the Virgin (1601-05) and The Entombment of Christ (1602-03) . . . but those options make me sound forty.  I'll stick with Twilight and try to remain hip and with it.

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English
Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.