I adore the poetry of Francis Thompson, but he is often incomprehensible to modern readers. So I thought, “I will translate his English into English.” Then I thought, “This is insane,” and I stopped. Enjoy the wreckage, and the original.

The Dread of Height (Translation)

“If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” Jn 9:41

Sweet and painful wine,
Most dangerous to me:
Grapes from Heaven’s vine,
Foretaste of where souls strive to be,
Tempting with inverted delight;
Emptying life of taste
With its better bite,
Making the good earth waste,
And breathing unbearable.

How will I content my mouth with mortality?
Secret music, sweetest music
From distance drifting its lone flight,
Down to where night dies in the night,
Music that is too grievous of the height
For safe and low delight,
For bounded hearts that try to hold the sea!

So let it be,
Though the sweet is great, and though my heart is small:
So let it be,
Though music, dear music – though you wake in me
No joy, no joy at all;
Although you only wake
The deepest sadness, measure of delight
Without which I could not know the height,
Did I not know

[translation stops here]

The Dread of Height (Original)

Francis Thompson

If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say: We
see: your sin remaineth. JOHN ix. 41.

Not the Circean wine
Most perilous is for pain:
Grapes of the heavens’ star-loaden vine,
Whereto the lofty-placed
Thoughts of fair souls attain,
Tempt with a more retributive delight,
And do disrelish all life’s sober taste.
‘Tis to have drunk too well
The drink that is divine,
Maketh the kind earth waste,
And breath intolerable.

Ah me!
How shall my mouth content it with mortality?
Lo, secret music, sweetest music,
From distances of distance drifting its lone flight,
Down the arcane where Night would perish in night,
Like a god’s loosened locks slips undulously:
Music that is too grievous of the height
For safe and low delight,
Too infinite,
For bounded hearts which yet would girth the sea!

So let it be,
Though sweet be great, and though my heart be small:
So let it be,
O music, music, though you wake in me
No joy, no joy at all;
Although you only wake
Uttermost sadness, measure of delight,
Which else I could not credit to the height,
Did I not know,
That ill is statured to its opposite;
Did I not know,
And even of sadness so,
Of utter sadness make,
Of extreme sad a rod to mete
The incredible excess of unsensed sweet,
And mystic wall of strange felicity.
So let it be,
Though sweet be great, and though my heart be small,
And bitter meat
The food of gods for men to eat;
Yea, John ate daintier, and did tread
Less ways of heat,
Than whom to their wind-carpeted
High banquet-hall,
And golden love-feasts, the fair stars entreat.

But ah withal,
Some hold, some stay,
O difficult Joy, I pray,
Some arms of thine,
Not only, only arms of mine!
Lest like a weary girl I fall
From clasping love so high,
And lacking thus thine arms, then may
Most hapless I
Turn utterly to love of basest rate;
For low they fall whose fall is from the sky.
Yea, who me shall secure
But I of height grown desperate
Surcease my wing, and my lost fate
Be dashed from pure
To broken writhings in the shameful slime:
Lower than man, for I dreamed higher,
Thrust down, by how much I aspire,
And damned with drink of immortality?
For such things be,
Yea, and the lowest reach of reeky Hell
Is but made possible
By forta’en breath of Heaven’s austerest clime.

These tidings from the vast to bring
Needeth not doctor nor divine,
Too well, too well
My flesh doth know the heart-perturbing thing;
That dread theology alone
Is mine,
Most native and my own;
And ever with victorious toil
When I have made
Of the deific peaks dim escalade,
My soul with anguish and recoil
Doth like a city in an earthquake rock,
As at my feet the abyss is cloven then,
With deeper menace than for other men,
Of my potential cousinship with mire;
That all my conquered skies do grow a hollow mock,
My fearful powers retire,
No longer strong,
Reversing the shook banners of their song.

Ah, for a heart less native to high Heaven,
A hooded eye, for jesses and restraint,
Or for a will accipitrine to pursue!
The veil of tutelar flesh to simple livers given,
Or those brave-fledging fervours of the Saint,
Whose heavenly falcon-craft doth never taint,
Nor they in sickest time their ample virtue mew.

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