Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 2
Introduction & Translation By Arthur Barker — Poems of Ronsard
Introduction & Translation By Arthur Barker
Poems of Ronsard
Pierre de Ronsard was born in 1524 and died in 1585, aged sixty-one. In addition, therefore, to the labours of the Pléiade, of which he was the leader, his life-span included the activities of Calvin (1509-1564) and the consequent internal strife in France, the publication of Pantagruel (1532), the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1558), the massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day (1572), and the publication of Montaigne's Essays (1580). In a literary sense the century might well take its name from him, for he was its greatest poet in all Europe; the greatest, says Wyndham Lewis1, of the Renaissance poets save only Shakespeare. And different as these two poets are, there is a suggestive link in Ronsard's lines:—
Le monde est le theatre, et les homes acteurs,
La Fortune qui est maistresse de la scene
Apreste les habitz, et de la vie humaine
Les Cieux et les Destins sont les grans spectateurs.....
He had other, stronger links with Britain. At the age of twelve he went to Edinburgh as a page in the suite of Queen Madeline, and to London after her death. Twenty-eight years later, Elizabeth of England send him a fine diamond after his dedication of the first two parts of his Elegies, Mascarades, et Bergerie; but the third partr was dedicated to Mary, Queen of Scots. The latter was a dedication of love, not of interest; for like so many men of his time he was in love with the lovely Queen.; and oddly enough it was another of her lovers, Chastelard, whose last act, before being executed for his habit of being found under her bed, was to read Ronsard's Hymn to Death, the last section of which opens with the noble lines:
Je te salue, heureuse et profitable Mort!
Des extremes douleurs medecin et confort......
Love and classical studies were the lights by which Ronsard lived. May we suspect that the latter, like mathematics, are aphrodisiac? His life was a series of ardent loves, extremely passionate and, for the most part, extremely painful. Cassandre, Marie (another as well as the Queen), Genèvre, Isabeau, Astrée, Hélenè, were the names of the womenwho successively spurred him to write his finest poems. Before the reign of Cassandre, however, he had published his first volumes, consisting of odes and similar pieces, including that on the choice of his burial-place, a translation of which is given below. Twenty-seven of these short stanzas are perhaps rather many, but this is the exuberance of youth. Already he had visied Germany as well as Britain, contracted the partial deafness that cut short his career as a courtier ("pox," said his detractors later), studied under Dorat at the College de Coqueret in Paris, and accumulated a deal of manuscript. In 1552 he published Les Amours, consisting of one hundred and eight-two sonnets for Cassandre—and the long series had begun which was to end in 1578 with the one hundred and forty-two sonnets for Hélène. For Cassandre, too, was written that famous little ode, Mignonne, allons vair si la rose..... which so many have attempted to translate, myself included2. Here is the "rose motif," similar to Herrick's "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," which often recurs in Ronsard and others of his period and there is a well-known ode devoted exclusively to his flower, with copious classical allusions3. The furniture of classicism became for these stars of the Pléiade so perfectly familiar that they thought in classical pagan rather than in contemporary Charistian terms. This is again exemplified in the ode to the lark, also translated below. Often we are driven to consult our Classical Dictionary, and as often do we forget the precise allusions. But what matter, since the song of the lark and the zest of life are the eternal things here, before which the lark's mythical father is no great impediment and may well be overlooked.page 9
By 1560, with the publication of his first collected edition, Ronsard's preeminence was established. Then came volume after volume, and in 1578 the seventh collected edition was reached, followed by a beautiful one-volume folio in 1584. The earlier work was continually reexamined, and hosts of alterations were made. At the same time there were years of work on his epic, La Franciade, published (unfinished) in 1572. It had only a success d'estime, and has since been forgotten except as an example of noble effort misspent. The last love-poems were still to come, after seven years' fruitless wooing of the frigid Hélène de Surgéres; and these include that most famous of all, Quand vaus serez bien vieille ... ., of which I give a translation.
But love, though it spiced much of Ronsard's life, did not fill the whole of it. Wyndham Lewis shows by quotation how much more than love can be traced in his works—genial friendships, criticism of kings and courts, feeling for Nature.
Escoute, Bucheron! Arreste un peu le bras,
Ce ne sont pas des bois que tu jettes a bas!
Ne vois-tu pas le sang lequel degoutte a force.
Des Nymphes qui vivoyent dessous la dure escorce?
Sacrilege meurdrier ... .
he writes against a woodman he find destroying his beloved Forest of Gastine.
After Hélène came a slow and painful bodily decline under gout and fever, and near the end he made a lovely adaptation of the famous dying lines of the Emperor Hadrian—
Animula vagula blandula,
Hospes comesque corporis...
Which he adapts as
Tres-cher hostesse de mon corps ...
I have tried to reecho this in English. What matter if this distant echo is faint? There will be many others, I dare say, before European literature is wholly forgotten.
1 The Lark
Believe me, how I envy thee
They life's extreme felicity
O little lark who prattlest so
Of love since first the day doth show,
And scatterest off the gentle dew
With which, the while, thou'rt drenched anew.
When phoebus first his course resumes
Thou liftest up they moistened plumes
To dry them in the sky so bright
With trembling of thy pinions light:
And leaping up with nimble bounds
Dost fill the air with lovely sounds.
Then is thy caroling so sweet
That every lover'd think it meet
To be, like thee, a bird, that he
Might throat his song so beauteously:
Then when thou dizzily hast flown
Thou once again art downward thrown
As when a maid lets spindle fall
From distaff at the evening call
Of sleep, her chin fall'n on her breast,
And takes beside the fire her rest:
page 10 Or when by day she sits and sews
And sees him in whom love's fire glows
Draw near her unexpectedly,
And droops her eyes so modestly,
Her little twisted bobbin fleet
Escapes her hand to seek her feet.
Just so dropst thou from high above,
O little lark, my little love,
Who more than nightingale dost please
That sings in bosky copse at ease.
Thy living can no man offend,
Nor dost with beak the wheat-ear rend
Asunder, as do birds we know
That work on men unending woe
By nibbling corn when it is green
Or husking what has ripened been:
But from the greening furrow's crest
Or of a fly or earthworm there
Dost to thine own a beakful bear,
Or caterpillar that has fled
From out the leaves when Winter's dead.
"Tis lying words the poets use
Who all you little larks accuse
That you betrayed to his sad fate
Your father, whom you all did hate,
By cutting from his royal head
The flaxen locks of power dread
In which the golden hair was found
Whereunto all his strength was bound.
And yet you're not alone in this
To be by poets told amiss
And greatly wronged: in woods around
The nightingale with ample sound,
But hidden by the leafage green,
Complains of them and vents her spleen.
So also does the swallow gay
Whene'er she sings as is her way.
And cease not yet, I pray, to sing
Still sweeter in your caroling
That those who dare of you to lie
May burst with swelling spite and die.
Nor cease in this regard to do
Light-heartedly, but still pursue,
When Spring returns, in your own sort
Your long-accustomed game and sport:
So never shall the nimble fingers
Of pretty shepherdess who lingers
And down among the furrows spies
You nest, and hears the chirping cries,
While you are singing stop to steal it
Nor in her breast or dress conceal it.
Live, happy birds, and ever dwell
In highest air, and ever tell
By sweetest song and nimblest wing
That once again the year's at Spring.
2 To His Soul
Sweet little soul of mine,
Tiny being, frail and fine,
Dear beloved guest within my head,
Thou descendest, helpless one,
Poor, pale, friendless one,
To the chilly kingdom of the dead;
Simple still, without remorse
Of murder, poison, spitefulness,
Treasures deigning not to keep
So beloved of common men.
Go, thy fortune seek: then
Stir me not again: I sleep.
3 Sonnets for Helen, XLIII
When you are old and sit at evening there
Beside the fire, and draw and spin your thread
You'll speak my lines and say astonished:
Ronsard my praises sang when I was fair.
Then all your handmaids, when you thus declare,
Though each with toiling nods a weary head,
Will by my name be straight awakened
And sing you praise that time shall not impair..
I shall be deep interred; my bloodless shade
Will rest in shadows of the myrtle glade:
And you'll sit by the hearth, a bent old wife,
Remorseful for my love and your pround scorn
Live, I implore you, wait no other morn:
Gather to-day the crimson bloom of life.
4 On the Choice of his Burial-Place
Ye caverns, and fountains
That from these high mountains
Here fallen so low
And ye streams, forest-bordered,
That here flow disordered,
Each fair wood and shore,
Hear me call.
When heaven and time
Shall decree my decline,
And I leave the delight
Of the light,
Then let no man break
Fair marble to make
A monument high
Where I lie:
But I ask that a tree
May cast shadow for me
From the unfading wreaths
Of its leaves.
From me let the earth
Bring an ivy to birth
That shall clasp me about
My feast-day to keep
Every year, with their sheep
The shepherds shall come
When their service is sung
And their sacrifice done,
To the isle they will speak.
Thou art greatly renowned
As his burial-ground
Whose verses we hear
Far and near!
Who never did burn
Hot with envy, nor learn
To sue for rewards
From great lords!
Nor stirred sweet emotion
By any love-portion,
Or magic that old
But from fields hereabout
Called the fair maidens out
Who stepped gaily along
To his song.
From his lyre there would sound
Such sweet harmonies round
As charmed us and this place
With their grace.
On his tomb, ever blest,
May sweet manna rest,
And breath of May evening
All around it be gay
Herbs that fade not away
And waters trembling
We holding in memory
The fame of his glory
Shall honour him here
'Tis thus will say all
As they slowly let fall
Milk and a lamb's fair
Above me, what time
I enjoy the faiur clime
Where souls ever blest
Never there shall be snow
Nor hail as here below,
Nor lightning's gleam
Nor ever shall cease
The Spring's sweet peace
And its green shall be gay
There the keen lust of things
Shall not spur earthly kings
By conquests cruel
Men as brothers shall remain
Though in death they retain
The callings they loved
When they lived.
There, there shall I fire
To Alcaeus' angry lyre,
And Sappho sings there
How he that gives ear
To the songs he may hear
Shall forever rejoice
In their voice!
When the rock in its fall
Can give torment no more,
And Tantalus ne'er again
Shall feel pain!
And the sound of the lyre
Shall allay hearts' desire,
And the spirit shall dwell
In its spell.
1 D. B. Wyndham Lewis, Ronsard. London, 1944.
2 In Twelve Echoes from France. Wellington, 1943.
3 Translation in my Twelve More Echoes. Wellington, 1944