When Herman Gorter published May (Dutch: Mei) in 1889, this spontaneous and vibrant epic poem was immediately recognized by his peers as a landmark of Dutch literature.
May describes the magical journey of adolescence against the background of Holland’s flowery dunescapes. In brush strokes of wonder-filled impressions a stunningly unspoiled girl, May, explores the promise of springtime and the intense spiritual life of youth. Inspired in part by John Keats' Endymion (1818), the poem sings of the journey of May through nature and of her ill-fated quest for the young god Balder. It touches upon a wide range of themes, including the innocence and wonder of childhood, the hubris and disillusionment of adolescence, unattainable divine love and the inevitability of transcience. The work suggests that poetry itself may be the only way to preserve for eternity the essence of nature and of music.
Unfolding like an impressionist painting, each line of Gorter’s poem is rich with vivid sensory details–colors, textures, and sounds of the countryside that illustrate the depth and intensity of his longing, though he was just 24 when his Mei was published. Kruijff’s translation juxtaposes May’s childlike beauty and innocence with arresting and sometimes jarring images that hint at the tragedy to come: “Awakening and rising on the palms / Of her flat hands, as frail shells were crackling / Underneath her – while on her delicate chin, / Still moist from sleep, a tilted sunray shot / Off the dune’s edge, and made for trembling blood.”
Though it is more than a century old, Gorter’s signature work carries a sentiment still relevant in the modern age. Readers will find this 4,381-line poem both nostalgic and slightly gut wrenching as it inevitably kicks up memories of lost love--and lost possibility. For those who are still young at heart–or wishing to reclaim the fervor of youth–this thoughtful, lyrical translation will stir the imagination and invite consideration of what makes the heart sing, even if the joy, like May, is only temporary. The poem, though, will endure.
Takeaway: Kruijff’s translation Herman Gorter’s epic poem mourns the loss of the “sweet melancholy of youth.”
Great for fans of: Willem Kloos, Hendrik Marsman.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
Kruijff’s translation of Gorter’s Mei ably adds to the corpus of academic literature surrounding this important poet. Gorter’s Mei was published in 1889 and, to quote Kruijff, it‘stands out as one of the defining poetry works in Dutch literature; a lyrical rhyme that brings to life the ponderings on many themes: nature and love, the perishable and eternal, the physical versus the spiritual, youth and melancholy’. The translation has been done meticulously and sensitively, with great attention to detail and with a careful adherence to the principles that defined Gorter’s epic work. The spiritual and metaphysical implications of Mei’s journey are portrayed with care, while none of the beauty of Gorter’s writing is lost in translation. The intensity of Mei’s feelings are richly revealed in all the colour and richness of Gorter’s imagery as he displays the observation and knowledge of a naturalist as well as a poet. An undoubted romantic, Gorter sees nature through the lenses of an almost spiritual melancholy and nostalgia for a lost innocence and Kruijff’s translation conveys this with an intensity of language which reveals intuitive clarity of vision and profound empathy. Kruijff refers to each line of the poem ‘acting like one brush stroke in an Impressionist painting’ and this is a good analogy. The impressionists sought to portray visual sensations caused by light through the use of pure colour. They portrayed the intense beauty of the world around them and Kruijff has succeeded in retaining all the freshness of Gorter’s use of pure colour and depiction of light in Mei’s youthful journey. As he says in his introduction: ‘If you are young in mind, still blossoming and full of wonder… if you are seeking the colour of your memories, these blessed abilities to create them, to soak in the light and dark of days gone by… to open your mind once more to nature… then I believe that reading May can show you the way there and lead you back to it’. I have no hesitation in concurring with this statement and recommend that you begin this journey without loss of time.
M. Kruijff has captured the rhythm, and with it the spirit, of Gorter’s timeless spellbinder. The reader is drawn almost breathlessly onward through magnificent word-groups...'the water seethed in its eternal flames'..., 'in the glittering of mother gleamed the child'...The English is modern but not everyday, full of surprising turns of phrase which often hark back to Gorter’s famously innovative Dutch style. The result is a gripping story highlighted by exquisite lyric episodes. Before you know it, you’ll be reading it out loud! And others will be listening.
Sirah Jarocki ****
You might expect that to read a poem over 150 pages long would be a grueling undertaking. I suppose if you hate poetry and clever wordplay and beautiful symbolism and gentle syllables, it would be a terrible experience. However, if you enjoy even one of these things and are committed to reading the entirety of section 2 in one sitting, you'll likely be delighted by this book. I was continually surprised and delighted by the intricate word choices and the foamy imagery. I'll never think of the month of May quite the same way again.
Alana B *****
This story envelopes you in a cocoon of May. You get lost in her tale and of the tale of the one who loves her most. Vivid sceneries transport you across the springtime and beyond, telling the tale of the rise and fall of "May". A most enjoyable tale in verse.
Stephanie Brash ***
I really enjoyed this book, the writing technique was fabulous. The way it was written was beautiful. I would really recommend this book if you want to feel fully immersed into something
Gorter started his Mei (May) with what would quickly become the most famous line in Dutch poetry: "Een nieuwe lente en een nieuw geluid" (a new springtime and a new sound), expressing both the theme of youth and a totally fresh approach to poetry. It purposefully brings to mind the first line of John Keats' Endymion, "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever". Endymion can be regarded as a precursor to Mei. Mei continues its form and theme, but adds an impressionistic and liberated view on poetry, covering a wide range of aspects of youth. Our translation "May, an epic poem of youth" tries to convey both freshness and tribute in the following manner: "The spring is new and new the sound it brings."
In the below link, performance artist Simon Mulder beautifully recites the first lines of May.
When I was choosing my angle to write this foreword for M. Kruijff's translation of Gorter’s May, what crossed my mind was the American poet Robert Frost's famous one-liner definition of poetry: ‘Poetry is what gets lost in translation.’ As one who for decades taught Chinese poetry via translations, I can testify to the lamentably widespread truth of it.
Yet, I can also affirm that it is but a partial truth. Translations of poetry can themselves be poetry. I was more or less ‘converted to’ Chinese poetry by A. C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang (Penguin, 1965). Somehow the evocative elegance of Graham’s phrasing in English, together with his commentaries which assured me that he really did know what the originals meant, gave me the feeling that I was missing nothing by not (at that time) being able to read the originals. Rather, I was gaining a new rich source of poetic enjoyment. Since then, as a scholar I have learned to read Chinese. But I have never lost a secret preference for poetry that has been brought within the easeful and matchlessly adequate milieu of my native language. To me the ‘real’ meaning of a text is in the words I would use in retelling it to myself.
After I arrived in Holland as a graduate student in 1968, I learned Dutch pretty quickly and by three years later was already trying my hand at translating poetry. I soon discovered Herman Gorter via his wildly experimental ‘sensitivist’ Verses (Verzen, 1890) – just about the most difficult thing with which to begin. I knew that Gorter was at least equally famous for a slightly earlier work, the epic May (Mei, 1889). But May was written in regular meter and rhymed couplets, and for me at that time, this was reason enough not to read it. In the modern American poetry to which I was accustomed, it was considered slightly ridiculous to write in traditional forms – or, for that matter, to translate into them. One of my favourite poets, Robert Lowell, wrote in the introduction to his translations collected in Imitations (1958): ‘Strict metrical translators still exist...but they are taxidermists, not poets...’ So, to me for half a century Herman Gorter remained the poet of Verses but not of May.
Just a couple of months ago, in early 2021, I had an experience which confirmed me in the notion that poetry in a foreign language has perhaps the most depth for me when I can ‘acquire’ it in the language of my earliest childhood. I happened to come across M. Kruijff’s new English rendering of May. Once I started reading it, I could hardly put it down – this ‘despite’ the fact that it is written in a slightly liberalised but still recognizable variant of Gorter’s pentameter couplets. The English of Kruijff’s version is certainly not everyday English whether British or American. Nor is it the flattened, cautiously academic English of so many translations. As I perceive it, it harks back to a somewhat earlier stage at which Dutch and English were still more obviously sister languages, both rooted in an older stratum of Germanic words, rhythms, and myths which was one of Gorter’s own fountainheads while he wrote May. If the English sounds somewhat archaic, so does the original. For me, this strangely appropriate uncommon voice or tone makes the narration a delight to read.
Would Robert Frost have approved? I think so. Besides the wry quip on poetry and translation that I have quoted above, there is another statement by Frost, much less well known, that reads: ‘Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.’ It is clear from Kruijff’s introduction and acknowledgments that his own process of translation began from a powerful emotion, proceeded through a years-long process of thought, and finally ‘found words.’ The words, time and time again, are as surprising as they are memorable. In other words, this is a poetic translation of a poetic original. It is with pleasure that I heartily recommend it.
Oegstgeest, The Netherlands