Sonnet 57

Standard
Divin Bellay, dont les nombreuses lois
Par un ardeur du peuple separée,
Ont revestu l’enfant de Cytherée
D’arcs, de flambeaux, de traits, et de carquois :
 
Si le doux feu dont jeune tu ardois,
Enflambe encor ta poitrine sacrée,
Si ton oreille encore se recrée,
D’ouir les plaints des amoureuses vois :
 
Oy ton Ronsard qui sanglote et lamente,
Pâle de peur, pendu sur la tourmente,
Croizant en vain ses mains devers les Cieux,
 
En fraile nef, sans mast, voile ne rame,
Et loin du havre où pour astre Madame
Me conduisoit du Fare de ses yeux.
 
 
 
                                                                           Divine Bellay, whom numerous statutes
                                                                           For your ardour distinct from the norm
                                                                           Have invested as the son of Venus
                                                                           With bows, torches, arrows and quiver;
 
                                                                           If the soft fire with which you burned when young
                                                                           Still flames within your holy breast,
                                                                           If your ear still enjoys
                                                                           Hearing the woes of lovers’ tongues;
 
                                                                           Then hear your Ronsard, who sobs and weeps,
                                                                           Pale with fear, suspended in torment,
                                                                           Holding his hands up in vain to Heaven,
 
                                                                           In a frail ship without mast, sail or oar,
                                                                           Far from the harbour where, like a star, my Lady
                                                                           Leads me with the beacon of her eyes.
 
 
 
Here is Ronsard writing a sonnet to his friend Joachim du Bellay, in response to one du Bellay had written him in his “Olive” (the first book of French love sonnets and inspiration for Ronsard’s own “Amours”). But, as will appear, it is not a direct response, for it is a carefully-constructed love poem about Cassandre while addressed to du Bellay.  Bellay’s, by contrast, is in praise of Ronsard himself. Should we read too much into that? I don’t think so: there’s no intended slight on du Bellay simply because Ronsard doesn’t tell him he too is marvellous! After all, both call the other ‘divine’.
 
Let’s have a look at du Bellay’s sonnet to Ronsard:
 
 
Divin Ronsard, qui de l’arc à sept cordes
Tiras premier au but de la Memoire
Les traits ailez de la françoise gloire,
Que sur ton luth hautement tu accordes.
 
Fameux harpeur et prince de nos odes,
Laisse ton Loir, hautain de ta victoire,
Et vien sonner au rivage de Loire
De tes chansons les plus nouvelles modes.
 
Enfonce l’arc du vieil Thebain archer,
Où nul que toi ne sceut onc encocher
Des doctes sœurs les sagettes divines.
 
Porte pour moy parmy le ciel des Gaules
Le sainct honneur des nymphes angevines,
Trop pesant faix pour mes foibles espaules.
 
 
 
                                                                           Divine Ronsard, who with the seven-stringed bow
                                                                           First shot at the target of Memory
                                                                           The winged arrows of French glory
                                                                           Which you tune precisely  on your lute;
 
                                                                           Famous harper and prince of our [French] odes,
                                                                           Leave your Loir, proud in your victory,
                                                                           And come to sing on the banks of the Loire
                                                                           The newest strains of your songs.
 
                                                                           Bend the bow of the old Theban archer,
                                                                           On which none but you have ever been able to notch
                                                                           The divine arrows of the learned Sisters.
 
                                                                           Bear for me among the Gallic heavens
                                                                           The holy honour of the nymphs of Anjou,
                                                                           Too weighty a deed for my feeble shoulders.
 
 
Wonderful as this poem is, it’s immediately obvious that it’s in a far more ‘learned’ style, replete with classical allusions: we know Ronsard can do this too if he wants to, so it is worth noticing that he didn’t. That is, perhaps, what sets Ronsard apart in his earliest poetry – the cultivation of a more natural style, a new way of writing French poetry which retains the art but broadens the range of subjects, of themes and of language.
 
Just how complex du Bellay’s classical references are, is worth a brief digression. In fact, trying to pinpoint them requires a digression! In lines 9-11 we have the ‘Theban archer’ and the ‘divine arrows of the learned Sisters’. Neither seem (to me) to translate simply into an obvious classical figure…
 
So, Theban archer?  Well, Ulysses famously had a bow that could not be bent by anyone else (end of the Odyssey); but he’s not Theban. Philoctetes (in Sophocles’ play) has to be lured back to the Trojan War because only he can use the essential bow; but he’s not Theban either. Diana/Artemis joins with her brother Apollo in killing Niobe’s children – Niobe was Theban, but not the gods. I think the likeliest candidate is Hercules – who is also not Theban.  Philoctetes is keeper of the bow of Hercules, which only he can draw; and Hercules married Megara, the daughter of the Theban king, before killing their children in a divinely-induce rage and thus having to undertake the twelve Labours. The children (and, some say, Megara) were venerated at, and  said to be buried in, a ‘heroon’ (hero’s tomb) at Thebes in classical times.
 
The how about the ‘divine arrows of the learned sisters’?  Well, Apollo and Artemis certainly have divine arrows – see Niobe’s fate above – but they are not ‘learned sisters’. Equally, the Muses are learned but not in the arts of war. Other groups of siblings might include the Graiai and Moirai (Fates) but they don’t use arrows. And of course the arrows in du Bellay’ metaphor are the arrows of art & poetry. So, my own hunch – no more than that – is that du Bellay is conflating the Muses and Apollo, for Apollo was ‘mousagetes’, the leader of the Muses:  Apollo brings the bow, the ‘arrows’ are the attainments of the Muses.
 
His vocabulary is also deliberately demanding of the reader:  in line 2 the target “Memoire” is clearly Remembrance or being remembered, the target of gaining a Memorial, rather than simple Memory. And in what way does du Bellay want Ronsard to sing his ‘newest modes’ on the Loire – is that new poetic forms (ode, elegy, hymn); or the stylistic innovations mentioned above; or simply ‘come and write your new poems here on the Loire’? 
 
Well, enough about du Bellay’s complexity. Let’s return to Ronsard’s artful simplicity, and look at the minor variants in Blanchemain’s earlier version:
 
 
Divin Bellay, dont les nombreuses lois
Par une ardeur du peuple separée,
Ont revestu l’enfant de Cytherée
D’arc, de flambeau, de traits, et de carquois :
 
Si le doux feu dont jeune tu ardois,
Enflambe encor ta poitrine sacrée,
Si ton oreille encore se recrée,
D’ouir les plaints des amoureuses vois :
 
Oy ton Ronsard qui sanglote et lamente,
Pâle, agité des flots de la tourmente,
Croizant en vain ses mains devers les Cieux,
 
En fraile nef, et sans voile et sans rame,
Et loin du bord où pour astre sa dame
Le conduisoit du Fare de ses yeux.
 
 
 
 
                                                                           Divine Bellay, whom numerous statutes
                                                                           For your ardour distinct from the norm
                                                                           Have invested as the son of Venus
                                                                           With bow, torch, arrows and quiver;
 
                                                                           If the soft fire with which you burned when young
                                                                           Still flames within your holy breast,
                                                                           If your ear still enjoys
                                                                           Hearing the woes of lovers’ tongues;
 
                                                                           Then hear your Ronsard, who sobs and weeps,
                                                                           Pale and tossed by waves of torment,
                                                                           Holding his hands up in vain to Heaven,
 
                                                                           In a frail ship, without either sail or oar,
                                                                           Far from the shore where, like a star, his lady
                                                                           Leads him with the beacon of her eyes.
 
 
Notably (to me at least) the early version of the ending is consistently third-person – Ronsard is ‘he’. In the later version at the top of the page, he is third-person in the first tercet but switches awkwardly to first-person in the second tercet.  That could have been easily remedied:  “Croizant en vain les mains devers les Cieux” would have done the trick. It is interesting to see that Ronsard puts the poetic effect of the repeated ‘s’ and ‘z’ sounds – and the visual effect of the other ‘s’s in the line – ahead of a strictly consistent pictorial or grammatical approach.
 
 
 
 
 
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