TRANSLATING RONSARD

translating ronsardIntroduction

In this extended look at one of the most famous but difficult of Renaissance sonnets, we:

1. start with the native hexameter, reduce to the pentameter, which is then expanded to contain the full content in an hexameter form again.

2. see what other practitioners have done.

3. examine the structure of the French text, which guides our final drafts.

4. let the work lie fallow for a while, allowing the words to find their own phrasing.

5. try out various rhyme schemes, aiming for simplicity and beauty of line.

Ronsard: Background

Quand vous serez bien vieille is probably the most celebrated of Pierre de Ronsard's (1524-85) poems. Ronsard was a central figure of the French Pléiade group, whose fusion of mythology and nature in tender lyricism gave great impetus to our Elizabethan age of songs and sonnets. {1}-{6}

Literal Translation

First the French text {7} {8} and a machine code translation:

QUAND VOUS SEREZ BIEN VIEILLE

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle.

Lors, vous n'aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s'aille réveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.

Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos :
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m'en croyez, n'attendez à demain :
Cueillez dès aujourd'hui les roses de la vie.

Sonnets pour Hélène, 1587

WHEN YOU ARE TRULY OLD

When you will be truly old, at evening, by the candle,
Sat with the fire, unwinding and spinning,
You will say, singing my verses, in filling you with wonder:
Ronsard celebrated me the time that I was beautiful.

Then, you will not have servant hearing such news,
Already under the toil to half dozing,
That to the noise of my name not go itself awakening,
Blessing your name of immortal praise.

I will be under the earth and ghost without bone:
By the myrtles' shadows I will take my rest:
You will be at the home an old squatting one,
Regretting my love and your trust to scorn.
Live, if you believe me of it, do not await to tomorrow:
Gather as early as today the roses of life.

Sonnets for Helen. 1587

First Attempt: Hexameters

The poem is rhymed abba abba ccd eed, and written in twelve syllables to the line, an hexameter form we might do well to stay with, using -ight and -ing rhymes for the opening eight lines:

When you are very old, at dusk, by candle-light,
beside the fire, the wool unravelled and re-ravelling,
you'll say, in murmuring my verses, marvelling:
How of my loveliness those times did Ronsard write.

You'll know no serving girl that toiling through the night
and in her daze of tiredness self admonishing
that will not start and find my name awakening
to your blest celebration that no time can spite.

I'll be beneath the earth, a disembodied guest
that in the shadows of the myrtles takes his rest,
while you, a bent old crone, above that house must stay.
To bitterly regret the love and faith you scorned.
Live, do not await tomorrow, but be warned
to gather in when fresh life's roses of today.

If we then smooth the lines out, and use the archaic (it is an Renaissance piece) 'despite' in place of the clumsy 'that no time can spite' we obtain:

When you are very old, at dusk, by candle light,
beside the fire, the wool unravelled and re-ravelling,
you'll say, in murmuring my verses, marvelling:
How well of my past loveliness did Ronsard write.

There'll be no serving maid that toiling through the night,
and dozing at her task, despite admonishing,
that at my name won't stir and wake and hear you sing
your praises blessed and taken out of time's despite.

By then I'll be in earth, a disembodied guest
that in the shadows of the myrtles takes his rest,
while in the croft above, a bent old crone, you'll stay
to bitterly regret the love and faith you scorned.
Do not await tomorrow only. Live, be warned
to gather in, and freshly, life's roses of today.

Previous Versions

Before going on, we ought to look at what previous translators have achieved with this admittedly difficult poem:

William Butler Yeats 1893 {9}

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Curtis Hidden Page (1903) {10}

When you are very old, by the hearth's glare,
At candle-time, spinning and winding thread,
You 'll sing my lines, and say, astonished :
Ronsard made these for me, when I was fair.

Then not a servant even, with toil and care
Almost out-worn, hearing what you have said,
Shall fail to start awake and lift her head
And bless your name with deathless praise for e'er.

Then I shall lie in earth, and my poor ghost
Take its long rest where love's dark myrtles thrive.
You, crouching by the fire, old, shrunken, grey,
Shall rue your proud disdain and my love lost. . . . ,
Hear me, love ! Wait not to-morrow live,
And pluck life's roses, oh ! to-day, today

George Wyndham 1906. {11}

When you are very old, at dusk by candle-light,
Talking beside the fire the while you spin your wool,
Singing my verse, you'll say, as something wonderful,
Thus Ronsard, long ago, for love of me did write.

Then not a serving maid, grown drowsy with the night
And slumbering o'er the task she plies beneath your rule,
But startled at my name will quit her spinningstool,
To bless your name with praise the years shall never blight.

I shall be in my grave, a disembodied ghost,
Resting where myrtles bloom along the shadowy coast :
You crouching o'er the hearth will be an aged crone,
Regretting all the love you proudly put away.
Wait for no morrow. Ah ! believe me, snatch today
The roses of your life, that shall so soon be gone.

Maurice Baring 1911 {12}

When you are old, no man will start to hear
That you were once more lovely than the day ;
Old age may change but cannot take away
From you ; and you will meet him without fear.
Yet when you think of him who loved fair things,

And singing of all beauty sang but you,
Nor dreamed you guessed the secret of his strings.
Then say : " Although he knew it not, I knew."
I shall be dead and mid the shadowy throng
In the long twilight I shall not forget ; —
You still will tread the earth with royal grace ;
And if you smile remembering my song,
A moonbeam to the kingdoms of regret
Will come and flood with light the sunless place.

G. R. Tejada-Flores, 1961 {13}

When yore gitten old at candlelight
Sittin’ at the fire gonna spin all night,
You’ll say sorta marvelin’ as y’sing my song,
“Good old Ronsard sang when Ah was young.”

Then y’won’t have a maid what hears that soun’,
Jist about t’fall asleep an’ all tired down,
Who ain’t gonna wake when she hears ma name
An’ start praisin’ yore name of immortal fame.

Ah’ll be six foot under, no skeleton,
‘Neath the myrtle groves is where my soul will run;
You’ll be dreamin’ at the hearth in a messy ole way,
Sorry you was proud, now Ah’ve gone away.
Better saddle up yore horse, don’t wait all night,
Pick yore roses today, then you’ll be all right.

Antony Weir 1975 {14}

When you are very old, at evening, by the fire,
spinning wool by candlelight and winding it in skeins,
you will say in wonderment as you recite my lines:
“Ronsard admired me in the days when I was fair.”

Then not one of your servants dozing gently there
hearing my name’s cadence break through your low repines
but will start into wakefulness out of her dreams
and bless your name — immortalised by my desire.

I’ll be underneath the ground, and a boneless shade
taking my long rest in the scented myrtle-glade,
and you’ll be an old woman, nodding towards life’s close,
regretting my love, and regretting your disdain.
Heed me, and live for now: this time won’t come again.
Come, pluck now — today — life’s so quickly-fading rose.

Norman Shapiro {15}

When you are very old, by candle's flame,
Spinning beside the fire, at end of day,
Singing my verse, admiring, you will say,
'When I was fair, Ronsard's muse I became.'

Your servant there, some weary old beldame —
Whoever she may be — nodding away,
Hearing 'Ronsard' will shake off sleep and pray
Your name be blessed, to live in deathless flame.

Buried, I shall a fleshless phantom be,
Hovering by the shadowed myrtle tree;
You, by the hearth, a pining crone, bent low,

Whose pride once scorned my love, much to your sorrow.
Heed me, live for today, wait not the morrow:
Gather life's roses while still fresh they grow.

Tony Kline 2004 {16}

When you are truly old, beside the evening candle,
Sitting by the fire, winding wool and spinning,
Murmuring my verses, you'll marvel then, in saying,
'Long ago, Ronsard sang me, when I was beautiful.'

There'll be no serving-girl of yours, who hears it all,
Even if, tired from toil, she's already drowsing,
Fails to rouse at the sound of my name's echoing,
And blesses your name, then, with praise immortal.

I'll be under the earth, a boneless phantom,
At rest in the myrtle groves of the dark kingdom:
You'll be an old woman hunched over the fire,
Regretting my love for you, your fierce disdain,
So live, believe me: don't wait for another day,
Gather them now the roses of life, and desire.

Curt. 2004 {17}

When you are old, in the evening, in the candlelight,
Seated by the fire, knitting and sowing,
You will say, while singing my verses, marvelling:
"Ronsard celebrated my beauty when I was young."

For you will have no servant who, hearing such words,
Tired and dozing from hard labor,
Who at the sound of Ronsard will not awake,
And bless your name with immortal praises.

I will be long buried, a phantom without bones
Who by the sombre myrtle-trees will myself repose;
You will be by the hearth, a stooped old woman,
Regretting my love and your proud disdain.
Live, if you believe me, and wait not for tomorrow:
Pluck today the roses of life.

Henry Weinfield 2007 {18}

Some evening when you’re old—: the light begins to wane;
You’re spinning thread beside the fire and winding off the skein—
Suddenly you recall the lines I spun and sung:
“I was the inspiration for Ronsard when I was young.”

You’ll be without a servant who hears what you have said,
And, drowsy from her labor, only yearns to be in bed,
But at the sound of Ronsard, having risen, will not raise
Blessings upon your very head with immortal praise.

I’ll be beneath the earth, a phantom without bones,
A shade who’s gone to take his rest where myrtles cast their shade;
You’ll be at the hearth, like other withered crones,
Thinking upon my love and on your proud disdain with sorrow.
If you believe me, live! don’t wait until tomorrow:
Gather the roses life holds out before they start to fade.

Verse Matters

Since it's the verbal magic that Ronsard's piece is most remembered for, any translation worth its salt should at least be pleasing verse. In short, we expect:

a. content to be expressed naturally, without awkwardness or contrivance.

b. a sensation of metre beneath the line movement (obviously waived for free verse).

c. an ear for the auditory properties of words, which give melodic variety to the base metre.

d. sequences cadenced or so arranged that the lines have coherence and integrity (especially needed for free verse styles).

e. a further word ordering that emphasizes the emotive content.

For translation we must also add:

f. a reasonably faithful rendering of the content.

Readers can make their own judgements, but I'd score the above translations as follows. Letters show where the verse requirements are broadly met, line by line, in the ten versions:

Line No.
Yeats
Page
Wyndham
Baring
Tejada-Flores
Weir
Shapiro
Kline
Curt
Weinfield
Ours
1
a b c d e f
a c e f
a b c d e f
a b c e
a b c d e f
a b c e f
a b c d e f
a b c d e f
a - e f
a b c d e
a b c d e f
2
a b c d e -
a e f
a b f
a b c e
a f
a b e f
a b c d e f
a e f
a - e f
a b c d e f
a b c f
3
a b c -
a b c e f
a b e f
a b c e
a f
a f
a b c d e f
f
a - f
a b c d e f
a b c d e f
4
b c d e -
a b c d e f
b f
-
a b c e
a c e f
d e f
e f
a - f
a b c d e f
a b c d e f
5
a b c d e -
a f
a b c f
b c
a b c e f
f
a b c d e f
a f
a - f
a b c d e f
a b c f
6
a b c d e -
a d f
a b c
b c e
a f
f
a b c d e
a f
a - f
a b c d e
a b c d e
7
a b c d e -
a b
b c
a b
a f
f
b c d e f
f
a - f
a e f
a f
8
a b c d e -
a b f
b
b
a e f
-
b c d e f
a f
a - f
a d e f
a b c
9
a b c d e -
a b c e f
a e f
a b c e
f
a e f
b c d e f
a f
- e f
a b c d e f
a b c d e f
10
a b c -
a b e
a b
a e
a e
a
b c d e f
a f
a - f
a b c d e f
a b c d e f
11
a b c e -
a b c e f
a b c e f
a b c e
a f
a e f
a b c d e
a f
a - f
a b c d e f
a b f
12
a b d -
a b c e f
b d
a b c d e
a f
a c d e f
d e f
a e f
a - e f
a d e f
a b c e f
13
-
a b c e f
a b c e f
a b c d e
a c d e
a e f
a b c d e f
a f
a - e f
a b c d e f
a b c e
14
-
a b c d e
a c
b c e
a e f
a
a b c d e f
a
a - d e f
a b c d e
a b c f

Translation is not a competition, of course, and the table only indicates adequacy in meeting requirements. Yeats' poem is neither translation nor sonnet, for example, but an individual voice with some borrowings from Ronsard. Maurice Baring's piece is charming, but now a dated and very free translation. Professor Shapiro's is a close rendering in pleasing verse, but lacks the poignant beauty of the original. Tony Kline's translations are generously provided free, but the prodigious rate of working scarcely allows time for verse refinements. G. R. Tejada-Flores' piece is a jocular attempt in a country and western style. The 'Curt' contribution is free verse. Weinfield's piece changes the rhyme scheme and imposes a heavy 6 6 division on the hexameter. And so on: translators operate under different aims and constraints, and no one version captures everything.

Pentameter Version

Despite the good 'score' on many lines, there's still a lot wrong with our rendering. But let's first reduce it to the pentameters usual in English sonnets:

When you are old, at evening's candlelight,
wool spinning by the fire, unravelling,
you'll say, to read my verses, marvelling:
'how well of beauty then could Ronsard write.'

No servant then that toiling through the night
and dozing much, despite admonishing,
but stirs to hear my name, the words that sing
of beauty favoured out of time's despite.

But I in earth, a disembodied guest
that in the myrtles' shadows takes his rest,
must leave you crouched at home, to brood and stay
repenting love and those past vows you scorned.
Ignore tomorrow. Live. In this be warned
to gather in life's roses of today.

Other Rhyme Schemes

There are many other rhyme schemes available to us, particularly for the opening quatrains:

One:

When truly old, in evening's candle rays,
Beside the fire, the wool unravelling,
And murmuring my verses, marvelling
'How beautiful I was in Ronsard's gaze.'

No servant toiling in the long night's haze
and dozing off, but has my name's awakening
in her the celebrations, echoing
my benediction of immortal praise.

Two:

When truly old, in evening's candle rays,
Sat by the fire, the wool to spin, unspin,
You'll read and wonder at my verses in
which I was beautiful to Ronsard's gaze.

No servant toiling in the long night's daze
and dozing off, but must at once begin
to hear the name through which your praises win
their benediction of immortal days.

Three:

When truly old, by evening's candle-flame,
Beside the fire, the wool unravelling,
And murmuring my verses, marvelling:
How Ronsard to my beauty gave his name.

You'll find no servant toiling on to blame
for nodding at her task, and much mistaking,
That doesn't find my name at once awaking
Words that blessed her with immortal fame.

Four:

When truly old, at dusk, in candle's flare,
sat by the fire, the wool to spin, unspin,
You'll read and sing my verses, wondering in
the words that Ronsard wrote when I was fair.

They'll be no servant in that toiling air,
though nodding at her task, then won't begin
to wake and hear my celebrations win
a fame, perpetual on your beauty there.

Five:

When you are very old, at evening's candlelight,
the wool by fireside spinning and unravelling,
you'll read my words and say, then marvelling
how of my loveliness those times did Ronsard write.

Perhaps you 'll have a servant toiling through the night
that in her tiredness dozes and is much mistaking
but hearing of my name and words at once is waking
to praise and bless your beauty out of time's despite.

Numbers one to three have possibilities, but four and five seem contrived and laboured. Perhaps all could be worked up into something acceptable, but we should first look at the original text.

Analyzing the French

If we first mark the central caesura as |, and pauses as |, we can see how the verse movement controls the expression (very simply: see Roy Lewis's analysis of French verse for details {21}):

Quand vou sse rez bien viei | lleau soir | à la chan delle |
A ssi seau près du feu | dé vi dant | et fil ant |
Di rez chan tant mes vers | en vou | sé mer vei llant |
Ron sard | me cé lé brait | du temps | que j'é tais belle |

Lors | vous n'au re zser vant | eo yant tel le nou velle |
Dé jà | sous le la beur | à de | mi som mei llant |
Qui au bruit de mon nom | ne s'ai lle | ré vei llant |
Bé ni ssant vo tre nom | de lou ange | im mor telle |

Je se rai | sous la te | rreet fan tô me | sans os |
Par le som bres myr teux | je pren drai | mon re pos |
Vou sse rez | au fo yer | un e vieille a ccrou pie |
Re gre ttant mo na mour | et vo tre fier | dé dain |
Vi vez | si m'en cro yez | n'a tten dez | à de main |
Cuei llez | dès au jour d'hui | les ro ses | de la vie |

Greatly simplifying (there's a good deal more to it, notably the phonetic patterning, for which lines 1 to 3 are especially celebrated) we can now correct our pentameter draft, line by line:

1. Originally: When you are old, at evening's candle-light,
Ronsard's line has a 6 2 4 phrasing, which we can achieve with the hexameter:
When very old, at evening, in the candlelight,
but not with the pentameter:
When very old, in evening's candlelight,
or: 'When you are old, in evening's candlelight,
or, so as to give us more room in line 2, we can move the 'fire' up into this first line:
When old, by evening's fire and candlelight,

2. Originally: wool spinning by the fire, unravelling,
Ronsard's line has a 6 3 3 phrasing, which an hexameter only approximates to:
by fire-side seated, spinning and unravelling,
or: by fireside sat, wool spinning in and loosening,
or: by fireside sat, the spindle stilled, unravelling,
or, if we have made space for this in the pentameter version:
lazily spinning and unravelling,
or: by turns both spinning and unravelling,
or: by turns wool spinning and unravelling,
or: the wool half spinning and unravelling,
or: gathering wool and then ungathering
or: the wool spun closely in and loosening,
or: wool spinning in but then unloosening,
or: the wool there spinning in and loosening,
or. there sat, wool spinning in and loosening,
or: the wool half spinning in and loosening,
or, since none of these is attractive, introduce 'spindle':
the fireside spindle stilled, unravelling,
and then remove it:
the fireside wool at rest, unravelling,
or: the fireside spinning still, unravelling,
or. the fireside wool let spin or loosening,

3. Originally: you'll say, to read my verses, marvelling:
Ronsard's line has a 6 2 4 phrasing, which we can roughly capture with the hexameter:
you'll read and sing my verses, say, in marvelling:
or: you'll say to read and sing my verses, in marvelling:
or. You'll say to read and sing my verses, marvelling:
the pentameter is not close to the phrasing but does capture the lift of last phrase:
you'll read and sing my verses, marvelling:
or: you'll say to read my verses, marvelling:
or: you'll read my verses, say, in marvelling:
or: you'll marvel at my verses, read them, sing:
or: to read my verses, marvelling, you'll sing
or: you'll take and read my verses, marvelling:

4. Originally: 'how well of beauty then could Ronsard write.'
Ronsard's line has a 2 4 2 4 phrasing, which this hexameter does largely capture:
'how well of my great beauty then did Ronsard write.'
though this is more pleasing:
'how well of my great loveliness could Ronsard write.'
For the pentameter there are various possibilities:
'of my great beauty then did Ronsard write.'
'what loveliness was mine in Ronsard's sight.'
'what loveliness I had in Ronsard's sight.'
'how beautiful I was in Ronsard's sight.'
'what beauty then was mine in Ronsard's sight.'
where the last is the closest to Ronsard's phrasing, but not the most beautiful.

5. Originally: No servant then that toiling through the night
Ronsard's line has a 1 5 6 phrasing, which we can achieve with the hexameter:
Then, they'll be no servant toiling through the night,
but this is more pleasing: And then they'll be no servant working through the night,
and the pentameter can be:
And then, no servant working through the night,
or:There'll be no servant dozing in the night

6. Originally: and dozing much, despite admonishing,
Ronsard's line has a sleepy, indistinct 2 4 2 4 phrasing, which we might render with the hexameter:
though half asleep, unstirring, past admonishing,
and with the pentameter:
and dozing on, her care diminishing,

7. Originally: but stirs to hear my name, the words that sing
Ronsard's line has a 6 3 3 phrasing, where this hexameter is smoother, picks up the echo of line 3, but is otherwise unpleasing:
my name won't wake to have its celebration bring
with the pentameter a little better, being more compressed:
but wakes to have my celebrations bring

8. Originally: of beauty favoured out of time's despite.
Ronsard's line has a 6 3 3 phrasing, which we can represent with the hexameter:
to favour your past beauty out of time's despite.
with the pentameter able to employ 'fame' as no echo of name appears in the preceding pentameter line:
to fame your loveliness from time's despite.
or: to fame your beauty out of time's despite.

9. Originally: But I in earth, a disembodied guest
Ronsard's line has a 6 2 4 phrasing, which we can achieve with the hexameter (we don't want 'boneless', incidentally, with its unfortunate culinary and psychological overtones):
But I in earth will be a pale, dismembered guest
with the pentameter again more pleasing:
But I in earth, a disembodied guest

10. Originally: that in the myrtles' shadows takes his rest,
Ronsard's line has a 6 2 4 phrasing, which proves difficult to achieve: this perhaps being the best hexameter, though rather slack:
that in the shadows of the myrtles has his rest,
changing this round in the pentameter makes for a tighter line:
will in the myrtles' shadows have my rest,

11. Originally: must leave you crouched at home, to brood and stay
Ronsard's line has a 6 2 4 phrasing, which is only partly achieved with the hexameter:
while huddled up at home, a bent old crone you'll stay
where the pentameter is again better, though not a close match to Ronsard's phrasing:
while huddled up in hearth, a crone you'll stay

12. Originally: repenting love and those past vows you scorned.
Ronsard's line has a 6 2 4 phrasing, which we can echo with the hexameter (though 'gave' does not appear in the original):
regretting love I gave, and vows, the which you scorned.
but since the line following is very broken, this may be better:
regretting love I gave, and all the vows you scorned.
with the pentameter:
regretting love and vows, the which you scorned.
although again something like this is more pleasing:
regretting love and all its vows you scorned.
or: regretting love and those sweet vows you scorned.

13. Originally: Ignore tomorrow. Live. In this be warned
Ronsard's line has an strong 2 4 2 4 phrasing, of which energy at least can be echoed with the hexameter:
Live — believe me — now, not afterwards. Be warned
or: Believe me, live for now, not afterwards: be warned
or: If you'd believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
the pentameter is similar:
Live now, not afterwards: believe me, warned
or: Live now, not afterwards: believe, be warned
or: Live, if you'll believe me, now: be warned
or: Believe me, live. By afterwards be warned

14. Originally: to gather in life's roses of today.
Ronsard's line has a 2 4 3 3 phrasing, which we can achieve with the hexameter:
to gather in afresh life's roses of today.
or: afresh to gather in life's roses of today.
or: to freshly gather in life's roses of today.
where the pentameter leaves out 'afresh':
to gather in life's roses of today.

Penultimate Drafts

If we now select and make small adjustments, the pentameter version runs:

When very old, by evening's candle-light,
the fireside wool let spin or loosening,
you'll read and marvel at my verses, sing:
'what loveliness I had in Ronsard's sight.'

There'll be no servant working through the night
and dozing off, her care diminishing,
but wakes to have my celebrations bring
to fame your beauty out of time's despite.

But I in earth, a disembodied guest,
will in the myrtles' shadows have my rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a crone you'll stay
regretting love and those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
to gather in life's roses of today.

And allows to go back to capture the sense more fully in an hexameter version:

When very old, at evening, in the candlelight,
by fireside sat, the wool let spin or loosening,
you'll read my verses, marvel at them, sing
'how well of my great loveliness could Ronsard write.'

And then they'll be no servant dozing through the night,
though working on, and care through sleep diminishing,
my name won't wake to have its celebration bring
to favour your past beauty out of time's despite.

But I in earth will be a pale, dismembered guest
that in the shadows of the myrtles has his rest,
while huddled up at home, a bent old crone you'll stay
regretting love I gave, and those past vows you scorned.
If you'd believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
to gather in afresh life's roses of today.

The two are not equivalent: the second more fully expresses the content, but the pentameter is the better verse. Hexameter lines are difficult to handle in English, apt to seem stretched or break into constituent phrases.

We can rework the pentameter version a little:

When very old, by evening's candle-light,
the spinning wool at fireside ravelling,
you'll say, astonished how my verses sing,
'what praise of beauty then could Ronsard write.'

There'll be no servant nodding through a night,
though toiling on and past admonishing,
but wakes to have my celebrations bring
to fame your loveliness from time's despite.

But I in earth, a disembodied guest,
shall in the myrtles' shade be laid to rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a crone you'll stay
regretting love and those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
to gather in life's roses of today.

Final Version

But it's still unsatisfactory. We've introduced phrases not in the original ('past admonishing') and written a second line that doesn't quite make sense. The problem, of course, is the filant, for which there are useful rhymes in French (émerveillant, sommeillant, réveillant), but little in English ('winning', 'twinning', etc.). The answer is probably to let the translation lie fallow for a while, and then allow the words to rearrange themselves and settle into the iambic rhythms of the English sonnet form:

When you are old, by evening's candle-light
at fireside spinning and revisiting
my verses, you will marvel at them, sing:
'what loveliness I had in Ronsard's sight.'

No servant toiling, nodding through the night,
that isn't at my name awakening
to hear those long-praised celebrations bring
to fame your beauty out of time's despite.

But I in earth, a disembodied guest,
shall in the shade of myrtles have my rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a crone you'll stay
regretting love and those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
to gather in life's roses of today.

We can then write another hexameter version that recaptures some of the original phrasing:

When you are old, at evening, in the candle-light
at fireside seated, spinning and revisiting
my verses, you will read and marvel at them, sing:
'how well of my great loveliness could Ronsard write.'

There'll be no servant nodding, toiling through the night,
that, half-asleep, is not at once awakening
to hear my name and its blessed celebrations bring
to favour your past beauty out of time's despite.

But then I'll be in earth, a disembodied guest
that in the shadows of the myrtles has his rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a bent old crone you'll stay
regretting love, regretting those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live for now. By afterwards be warned
to gather in afresh life's roses of today.

Or Not Quite

I have advocated learning from other translations, but hadn't fully taken my own advice. The rhymed version by Norman Shapiro became available after my earlier versions were written, and points up what should have been obvious. In trying to translate the dévidant et filant, I'd become obsessed with gerunds, the -ing rhymes, and not looked further. But if we accept Professor Shapiro's attractive solution, then the verse suddenly becomes much easier to manage:

When you are very old, by candle-light,
at fireside spinning at the close of day,
you'll read my verses, marvelling and say:
'what loveliness I had in Ronsard's sight.'

No servant nodding, toiling through the night
that from her sleep my name won't stay
to hear my celebrated words portray
in fame your beauty out of time's despite.

But I in earth, a disembodied guest,
shall in the shade of myrtles have my rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a crone you'll stay
regretting love and those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
to gather in life's roses of today.

And the hexameter:

When you are very old, and in the candle-light,
by fireside, carding, spinning through the close of day,
you'll read my verses, sing them, marvelling to say:
'how well of my great loveliness could Ronsard write.'

No servant then that nodding, toiling through the night,
that from her sleep the mention of my name won't stay
to hear again my celebrated words portray
the fame your beauty holds outside all time's despite.

But I in earth will be a disembodied guest
that in the shadows of the myrtles has his rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a bent old crone you'll stay
regretting love, regretting those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live for now. By afterwards be warned
to gather in afresh life's roses of today.

Which is better? The second is less contrived, but also rather flatter and mundane. In fact we probably need to look for another rhyme scheme, of which 'wind' etc. is an obvious possibility:

When you are old, by evening's candle-light,
at fireside, wool to wind and then unwind,
you'll read my verses, marvelling, to find
'what praise my beauty gained in Ronsard's sight.'

No servant nodding, toiling through the night,
but has the mention of my name remind
her of your loveliness my verse assigned
to fame that lasts beyond all time's despite.

But I in earth, a disembodied guest,
shall in the shade of myrtles have my rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a crone you'll stay
regretting love and those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
to gather in life's roses of today.

And the hexameter:

When very old, at evening, in the candle-light,
by fireside sat, the wool to wind and then unwind,
you'll read my verses, sing them, marvelling to find:
'how well of my great beauty then could Ronsard write.'

There'll be no servant nodding, working through the night,
but stirs to hear the mention of my name remind
her how my celebrated praises have consigned
your looks to fame that lasts beyond all time's despite.

But I in earth will be a disembodied guest
that in the shadows of the myrtles has his rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a bent old crone you'll stay
regretting love, regretting those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live for now. By afterwards be warned
to gather in afresh life's roses of today.

We can also look at rhymes with 'sat', if we're prepared to accept an archaic 'begat' and a modern use of 'at':

When you are old, by evening's candle-light,
the wool to wind, unwind, at fireside sat,
you'll read my verses, sing them, marvel that:
'my beauty won such praise in Ronsard's sight.'

No servant floundering, half-asleep at night,
who hears my name but knows what praise is at,
and wakes to hear what loveliness begat
in fame that lasts beyond all time's despite.

But I in earth, a disembodied guest,
shall in the shade of myrtles have my rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a crone you'll stay
regretting love and those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
to gather in life's roses of today.

But 'praise' is probably going to give us the better rendering:

When you are old, by evening's candle-light,
the wool to wind, unwind, at fireside blaze,
you'll read my verses, marvel at 'those days
when I was beautiful in Ronsard's sight.'

No servant nodding through her task at night
but stirs to wake and hear what homage pays
to loveliness that in my well-wrought praise
becomes immortal, past all time's despite.

But I in earth, a disembodied guest,
shall in the shade of myrtles have my rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a crone you'll stay
regretting love and those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
to gather in life's roses of today.

When the hexameter version becomes:

When very old, at evening, in the candle-light,
the spinning wool to wind, unwind, at fireside blaze,
you'll read my verses, sing them, marvelling at days
'when I was blest by loveliness in Ronsard's sight.'

There'll be no servant nodding through some task at night
but stirs, and wakes to hear me, as that homage pays
to beauty celebrated in my well-wrought praise:
your name I made immortal, past all time's despite.

But I in earth will be a disembodied guest
that in the shadows of the myrtles has his rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a bent old crone you'll stay
regretting love, regretting those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live for now. By afterwards be warned
to gather in afresh life's roses of today.

Then, if we work a little more to get 'name' back into renderings:

When you are old, by evening's candle-light,
and seated, spinning by the fireside blaze,
you'll read my verses, marvel, sing of days
'when I was beautiful in Ronsard's sight.'

No servant toiling, half asleep at night,
but starts to hear my name, and, stirring, stays
to hear your homage in my well-wrought praise
retrieve your loveliness from time's despite.

But I in earth, a disembodied guest,
shall in the shade of myrtles have my rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a crone you'll stay
regretting love and those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
to gather in life's roses of today.

And the hexameter version:

When very old, at evening, in the candle-light,
and seated, spinning wool beside the fireside blaze,
you'll read my verses, sing them, marvelling at days,
'when of my loveliness so well could Ronsard write.'

No servant there'll be, nodding, half asleep at night,
but stirs awake at mention of my name, and stays
to hear the homage of my celebrated praise
confer an immortality, past time's despite.

But I in earth will be a disembodied guest
that in the shadows of the myrtles has his rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a bent old crone you'll stay
regretting love, regretting those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live for now. By afterwards be warned
to gather in afresh life's roses of today.

Still no good? What about these:

When truly old, by evening's candle-light,
sat spinning by the fire, the wool to skein,
you'll read my verses, marvelling again
'how well of my great looks could Ronsard write.'

There'll be no servant, half asleep at night,
who'll stay unwoken at the sound, or feign
indifference as my well-won praises gain
for you enduring fame, past time's despite.

But I in earth, a disembodied guest,
shall in the shade of myrtles have my rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a crone you'll stay
regretting love and those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
to gather in life's roses of today.

And the hexameter version:

When very old, at evening, in the candle-light,
sat spinning by the fire, the wool to skein, unskein,
you'll read my verses, sing them, marvelling again
'how well of my great beauty then could Ronsard write.'

No servant there'll be nodding, half asleep at night,
who'll not to hear that music stir, and will not feign
indifference as my celebrated praises gain
for you an immortality, past time's despite.

But I in earth will be a disembodied guest
that in the shadows of the myrtles has his rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a bent old crone you'll stay
regretting love, regretting those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live for now. By afterwards be warned
to gather in afresh life's roses of today.

And Finally (Let Us All Hope)

But none of these will do. The last six lines are pleasing enough, but the opening eight in both versions are laboured and ill-constructed. But working again on the 'blaze' rhyme, we get:

When you are old, at evening's candle-light,
there skeining wool before the fireside blaze,
you'll read my verses, marvel, speak of days
'when I was beautiful in Ronsard's sight.'

No servant working, half asleep at night,
but starts at mention of my name, and stays
to hear the homage of my well-wrought praise
retrieve your loveliness from time's despite.

But I in earth, a disembodied guest,
shall in the shade of myrtles have my rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a crone you'll stay
regretting love and those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, live. By afterwards be warned
to gather in life's roses of today.

And the hexameter version:

When you are old, and in the evening's candle-light,
are spinning, back and forth, the wool by fireside blaze,
you'll read my verses, marvel at them, sing of days
'when I was young and beautiful in Ronsard's sight.'

There'll be no servant, murmuring, half asleep at night,
but starts at mention of my name, and, waking, stays
to hear the homage of my celebrated praise
confer its immortality, past time's despite.

But I in earth will be a disembodied guest
that in the shadows of the myrtles has his rest,
while huddled up in hearth, a bent old crone you'll stay,
regretting love, regretting those past vows you scorned.
Believe me, grasp the present, by afterwards be warned
to gather in at once life's roses of today.

Concluding Thoughts

To conclude the exercise, we might note:

1. All versions are rather muted, where the sounds needed to bring out the splendour of the original unfortunately don't exist in English.

2. Other translations generally tell us something, even if we end up with a very different version.

3. Though translation takes time, and many attempts are not so much finished as abandoned when results don't merit the added effort, it is often worth pushing on, month after month, till the right words come.

4. Forms don't always transfer neatly. Here the optimal line length is somewhere between the English pentameter and hexameter.

5. Ronsard's claim to fame is not what the poems say (though they are much more various than this piece suggests), but their entrancing beauty. Elizabethan poetry — Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare even — flows from Ronsard and the Pléiade poets who went back to classical roots. Certainly we have to convey Ronsard's meanings in a translation, but far more important is his verbal magic, which we must transmute from one language to another, from French poetry based on syllable arrangement to English forms in iambic metre. Different effects are obtained by different means, but they still need to make what poetry is ultimately worth reading for: that fusion of beauty, narrative power and emotive appeal that alters the state of our reading consciousness.

Notes and References

1. Ronsard, Pierre de. 2004 article in the New World Encyclopedia. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Pierre_de_Ronsard.

2. Landmarks in Continental Literature. Philip Gaskell. (1999, Routledge) Google Books.

3. Pierre de Ronsard Biography. Book Rags. 2006. http://www.bookrags.com/biography/pierre-de-ronsard/

4. Essays on the French Renaissance/Ronsard. Hilaire Belloc. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Avril._Essays_on_the_French_Renaissance/Ronsard NNA.

5. Pierre de Ronsard. Spiritus-Temporis article. 2005. http://www.spiritus-temporis.com/pierre-de-ronsard NNA./

6. Pierre de Ronsard. Wikipedia article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_de_Ronsard

7. Poésie Française. Les Grands Classiques: Pierre de Ronsard. http://poesie.webnet.fr/lesgrandsclassiques/poemes/pierre_de_ronsard/index.html

8. French and Harvard Poetry Series Website. Audio clip of À Hélène. http://www.uark.edu/depts/flaninfo/frenlit/ronsard4.mp3 NNA.

9. When You Are Old. The Rose. 1893. W.B. Yeats. PoemHunter. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/when-you-are-old/

10. Songs and Sonnets of Ronsard. Curtis Hidden Page (New York, 1903). http://www.archive.org/stream/songssonnetsofpi00ronsrich/songssonnetsofpi00ronsrich_djvu.txt

11. Ronsard & la Pleiade, with Selections from their Poetry. George Wyndham. 1906.

12. Collected Works of Maurice Baring. (John Lane, 1911). http://www.archive.org/stream/collectedpoemsof00bari/collectedpoemsof00bari_djvu.txt

13. Candlelight Blues. G. R. Tejada-Flores, 1961. Bewildering stories: Issue 177. http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue177/Ronsard_Helene.html

14. “When you are very old...” Originally published in Tide and Undertow by Anthony Weir, Belfast 1975. Bewildering stories: Issue 177. http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue177/Ronsard_Helene.html

15. Lyrics of the French Renaissance: Marot, Du Bellay, Ronsard. Norman R. Shapiro. Univ. Chicago Press. 2002.

16. Poems of Pierre de Ronsard. A.S. Kline. 2004. http://www.poetryintranslation.com/klineasronsard.htm

17. SellingWaves. Contribution posted by Curt. October 29, 2004. http://www.sellingwaves.com/archives/literature/

18. Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle by Pierre de Ronsard (1584). by Henry Weinfield. 2007. http://www.poetryporch.com/scroll07.html

19. Pierre de Ronsard: Selected Poems. Malcolm Quainton and Elizabeth Vinestock. (Penguin Books, 2002).

20. Pierre de Ronsard: Selected Poems. Christine M. Scollen-Jimack. (Bristol Classical Press, 1995).

21. On Reading French Verse. Roy Lewis. (Clarendon Press, 1982).

 

The final version is included in Diversions, a free pdf collection of translations published by Ocaso Press.

 

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