The mention of Nicolas Denisot in a recent post sent me off looking for more information. I was fascinated to discover that Ronsard had been one of several Pleiade poets (others were du Bellay and Baif) who contributed poems to a book Denisot saw through the presses in 1551. It was of course early days for the Pleaide poets but it’s still an impressive list! And it secured Denisot’s reputation as a poet.
The book was the Tombeau de Marguerite de Valois Royne de Navarre; you can read it here. But this book was itself a translation (or rather a set of translations) by these French poets of the Hecatodistichon composed by Denisot’s erstwhile pupils in England. For he had spent two or three years there as their tutor before being recalled to France, and their poem in memory of Margaret of Navarre, who died late in 1549 shortly after Denisot’s return to France, no doubt reflected Denisot’s own style and preferences as much as their own. At any rate, Denisot enthusiastically saw the Hecatodistichon through the presses in 1550, and then prevailed on his humanist friends to pull together the Tombeau, whose subtitle is: “Composed first in Latin Distichs by three sisters and Princesses in England; then translated into Greek, Italian and French by several excellent poets of France.” Daurat provided the Greek translation; du Bellay, Denisot and Baif the French; and Jean Pierre de Mesme (who had previously translated Ariosto into French) provided the Italian.
The three princesses were the Seymour sisters – Anne, Margaret and Jane; it’s believed their father hoped to marry Jane to Edward VI, so the family certainly did move in the highest circles. Ronsard’s ode sets their work up as the dawn of culture in England, hitherto ‘barbarous’, and he indicates hopes for an Anglo-French literary rapprochement built on these foundations. Richelet adds notes on the ode (re-published in 1552 in Ronsard’s book 5) to the effect that the ode is “for three learned daughters of England, instructed and taught by Denisot, count of Alsinois”; “because at that time these three ladies had composed a book in Christian distichs, in Latin, terrifically well written, which were soon translated into Greek, Italian and French, and were dedicated to Mme Marguerite, only sister of king Henry II”.
|Quand les filles d’Achelois, Les trois belles chanteresses, Qui des homme par leurs vois Estoient les enchanteresses, Virent jaunir la toison, Et les soldars de Jason Ramer la barque argienne Sur la mer Sicilienne, Elles, d’ordre, flanc à flanc, Oisives au front des ondes, D’un peigne d’yvoire blanc Frisotoient leurs tresses blondes, Et mignotant de leurs yeux Les attraits delicieux, Aguignoient la nef passante D’une œillade languissante. Puis souspirerent un chant De leurs gorges nompareilles, Par douce force alléchant Les plus gaillardes aureilles ; Afin que le son pipeur Fraudast le premier labeur Des chevaliers de la Grece Amorcés de leur caresse. Ja ces demi-dieux estoient Prests de tomber en servage, Et jà domptés se jettoient Dans la prison du rivage, Sans Orphée, qui, soudain Prenant son luth en la main, Opposé vers elles, joue Loin des autres sur la proue, Afin que le contre-son De sa repoussante lyre Perdist au vent la chanson Premier qu’entrer au navire, Et qu’il tirast des dangers Ces demi-dieux passagers Qui devoient par la Libye Porter leur mere affoiblie. Mais si ce harpeur fameux Oyoit le luth des Serenes Qui sonne aux bords escumeux Des Albionnes arenes, Son luth payen il fendroit Et disciple se rendroit Dessous leur chanson chrestienne Dont la voix passe la sienne. Car luy, enflé de vains mots, Devisoit à l’aventure Ou des membres du Chaos Ou du sein de la Nature ; Mais ces vierges chantent mieux Le vray manouvrier des cieux, Et sa demeure eternelle, Et ceux qui vivent en elle. Las ! ce qu’on void de mondain Jamais ferme ne se fonde, Ains fuit et refuit soudain Comme le branle d’une onde Qui ne cesse de rouler, De s’avancer et couler, Tant que rampant il arrive D’un grand heurt contre la rive. La science, auparavant Si long temps orientale, Peu à peu marchant avant, S’apparoist occidentale, Et sans jamais se borner N’a point cessé de tourner, Tant qu’elle soit parvenue A l’autre rive incogneue. Là de son grave sourcy Vint affoler le courage De ces trois vierges icy, Les trois seules de nostre âge, Et si bien les sceut tenter, Qu’ores on les oit chanter Maint vers jumeau qui surmonte Les nostres, rouges de honte. Par vous, vierges de renom, Vrais peintres de la mémoire, Des autres vierges le nom Sera clair en vostre gloire. Et puis que le ciel benin Au doux sexe feminin Fait naistre chose si rare D’un lieu jadis tant barbare, Denisot se vante heuré D’avoir oublié sa terre, Et passager demeuré Trois ans en vostre Angleterre, Et d’avoir cogneu vos yeux, Où les amours gracieux Doucement leurs fleches dardent Contre ceux qui vous regardent. Voire et d’avoir quelquefois Tant levé sa petitesse, Que sous l’outil de sa vois Il polit vostre jeunesse, Vous ouvrant les beaux secrets Des vieux Latins et les Grecs, Dont l’honneur se renouvelle Par vostre muse nouvelle. Io, puis que les esprits D’Angleterre et de la France, Bandez d’un ligue, ont pris Le fer contre l’ignorance, Et que nos roys se sont faits D’ennemis amis parfaits, Tuans la guerre cruelle Par une paix mutuelle, Advienne qu’une de vous, Nouant la mer passagere, Se joigne à quelqu’un de nous Par une nopce estrangere ; Lors vos escrits avancez Se verront recompensez D’une chanson mieux sonnée, Qui cri’ra vostre hymenée.||When the daughters of Achelous, The three fair singers Who were with their voices Enchantresses of men, Saw the fleece growing golden, And Jason’s soldiers Rowing the ship, the Argo, On the Sicilian sea, Lined up side by side Lazily at the front of the waves, With combs of white ivory They were curling their blonde tresses And, hinting with their eyes At their delicious attractions, Making signs to the passing ship With a languishing look. Then they sigh a song From their peerless throats, With its sweet force alluring The strongest ears; So that the snaring sound Draws the Greek knights From their primary task, Attracted by their caresses. Now would those half-gods have been Ready to fall into slavery, Now overcome would they have thrown themselves Into the river’s prison, Unless Orpheus, suddenly Taking up his lute in his hand, Opposing the ladies had played Far from the others on the [ship’s] prow, So that the counter-tune Of his lyre, repelling it, Lost in the wind the song Which first came aboard the ship, And drew away from danger Those half-god travellers Who needed to take Through Libya their enfeebled mother. But if that famous harper Heard the lute of the Sirens Which plays on the foamy edges Of Albion’s sands, His pagan lute he would break And would become a disciple Of their Christian song Whose tones surpass his own. For he, full of empty words, Invented at random Out of the limbs of Chaos Or the heart of Nature; But these maids sing better Of the true maker of the heavens And his eternal home And those who live in it. Alas, what you see in the world Never rests firm on its foundations, But ebbs and flows suddenly Like the motion of the waves Which never stop rolling, Advancing and falling back, As long as they come crashing With a great shock against the shore. Knowledge, hitherto For so long a thing of the East, Little by little moving forward Now appeared in the West, And without ever limiting itself Never stopped changing, So that it arrived At the other shore unknown. There with its haughty gravity It arrived to bewilder the courage Of these three maids here, The only three of our age, And so well did it tempt them That soon you could hear them singing Many a paired verse which outdid Our own, which blush with shame. Through you, maidens of renown, True painters of memory, The fame of other maidens Will be bright in your glory. And since benign heaven Made to be born so rare a thing In the sweet feminine sex, And in a place hitherto so barbarous, Denisot boasts himself happy To have forgotten his own land And remained a traveller For three years in your England, And to have known your eyes From which gracious cupids Softly dart their arrows Against those who look on you. Indeed sometimes [he boasts] of having So raised up his own littleness That with the tool of his own talent He polished up your youthfulness, Opening to you the fair secrets Of the ancient Latins and Greeks, Whose honour is renewed In your new muse. Ah, since the spirits Of England and of France, Bound in a league, have taken up Arms against ignorance, And since our kings have become, Instead of enemies, perfect friends Killing cruel war Through a mutual peace, May it come about that one of you, Swimming the passage of the sea, Might join herself with some one of us In a foreign marriage; Then your precocious writings Will see themselves rewarded With a song better played, Which will announce your wedding.|
(Let me admit that the second line of that last stanza is a bit of a paraphrase! “Nouer” was an antique word even in Ronsard’s day, equivalent to “nager” (‘to swim’).)
The poem falls into three equal sections: the classical introduction, the generalities about the awakening of culture in England; and then the specific praise of the three ladies. In the classical opening, Achelous was the chief river-deity of classical myth and father of the Sirens. The legend of Jason and the Argonauts, in search of the Golden Fleece, is well-known, though it’s usually the meeting of Odysseus and the Sirens we read; less well-known is that Orpheus was one of the Argonauts.