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Quand vous serez bien vieille

by Pierre de Ronsard

Herewith Ronsard’s famous sonnet for Hélène accompanied by three translations, including William Butler Yeats’ variation on the theme.

Yeats’ poem is not in the same spirit as Ronsard’s. That’s not bad, it’s just different. Yeats takes a more spiritual, even ethereal tone, while Ronsard is downright earthy: the candle and spinning are commonplace symbols of sexuality.

Translating the poem is made all the more difficult by the trap that Ronsard sets for the unwary in the second stanza (explanation at the end). Both Weir and Tejada-Flores get caught in it. Otherwise, Weir’s version is a good guide to the original, and Tejada-Flores’ is a humorous and original translation in country western style!

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 very old...”

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.

— originally published in Tide and Undertow
by Anthony Weir, Belfast 1975

When You Are Old

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 mountain overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

— A free paraphrase by W.B. Yeats
in his 1893 collection The Rose.

Candlelight Blues

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.

— G. R. Tejada-Flores, 1961

The last stanza poses a problem for translators. It begins with a play on a double meaning: Regrettant mon amour means “Missing my love” or “Yearning for my love” while Regrettant [...] votre fier dédain means “Regretting [...] your haughty disdain.”

But what is the “trap”? In the second stanza, Ronsard uses an inversion for the sake of rhyme. Grammatically, bénissant refers to mon nom, and the stanza should be deciphered as:

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

The servant wakes up when she hears Ronsard’s name blessing Hélène’s name with immortal praise. No mistake about it: if anyone is going to be “immortal,” it’s Ronsard, not some crummy servante or even Hélène herself!

The alliterations in v, f, s, and “sh” in the first stanza are a masterpiece of poetic sonority. Can you guess what they’re intended to imitate? They’re all the more remarkable because Ronsard was deaf by the age of 20. And he wrote this poem in his old age; it is intended as much for himself as for Hélène. Do you give up on the significance of the sibilant and fricative sound effects? Consider, if you will, 16th-century dentistry...

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