Monthly Archives: May 2017

Helen 2:7

Ha que ta Loy fut bonne, et digne d’estre apprise,
Grand Moise, grand Prophete, et grand Minos de Dieu,
Qui sage commandas au vague peuple Hebrieu,
Que la liberté fust apres sept ans remise !
Je voudrois grand Guerrier, que celle que j’ay prise
Pour Dame, et qui se sied de mon cœur au milieu,
Voulust qu’en mon endroit ton ordonnance eust lieu,
Et qu’au bout de sept ans m’eust remis en franchise.
Sept ans sont ja passez qu’en servage je suis ;
Servir encor sept ans de bon cœur je la puis,
Pourveu qu’au bout du temps de son cœur je jouïsse.
Mais ceste Grecque Helene ayant peu de souci
Des statuts des Hebrieux, d’un courage endurci
Contre les loix de Dieu n’affranchit mon service.
                                                                            Ah, how good and worth being learned is your Law,
                                                                            Great Moses, great prophet, great judge from God,
                                                                            Who wisely instructed the wandering Hebrew people
                                                                            That liberty would be given back to them after seven years.
                                                                            I wish, great warrior, that she whom I’ve chosen
                                                                            As my Lady, and who sits in the midst of my heart,
                                                                            Would agree that your command applied in my case,
                                                                            And at the end of seven years had given me back my freedom.
                                                                            Seven years have now passed while I’ve been in servitude;
                                                                            I could happily serve another seven years
                                                                            Provided that, at the end of that time, I’d won her heart.
                                                                            But this Greek Helen has little regard for
                                                                            The statutes of the Hebrews, and with hardened courage
                                                                            Contravening the laws of God she does not free me from my service.
It’s quite unusual for Ronsard to build a poem around Biblical rather than classical stories: so much so that we might wonder if there was a special reason to demonstrate his orthodoxy. Of course, the religious wars in France were rumbling on for much of his adult life, and there is a great quantity of poetry and prose by Ronsard defending the Catholic side against its Protestant attackers. But to link the poems to Helen with this background seems faintly absurd.
The story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt is well-known (from phrases like “Let my people go!”, “the Promised Land”, to films like “The Ten Commandments”). What is also well-known is that, after offending God at Mt Sinai when Moses was receiving the Ten Commandmnets, the tribes of Israel were condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. How odd, then, that Ronsard should choose the ‘magic’ number 7 instead. It is of course the number of perfection in Catholic numerology: so perhaps Ronsard is contrasting that perfection with the imperfection of his love? It may even be that 7 years really did fit his relationship with Helen – but we saw in poem 5 that he also claimed it was 5 years… (Again being faintly absurd, is it relevant that in poem 5 it’s 5 years; and in poem 7 it’s 7 years…?)
Other incidental notes: in line 2, note that Moses is indeed a ‘Judge’, the first of the Biblical judges (there is of course a whole book about his successors); but perhaps this is also a reference to classical mythologies, where Minos rules in the Underworld as ‘judge’ of the dead, with the suggestion here that helen will pay for her misdemeanours one way or another!
Blanchemain’s authorised text contaions only one variant:  at the beginning of line 13, the younger Ronsard has “De la loy des Hebrieux”, repeating ‘law’ from line 1 instead of finding a synonym as his older self did. But Blanchemain also footnotes another, larger, variant in lines 3-4:
Qui, grand legislateur, commandas à l’Hebrieu
Qu’après sept ans passez liberté fust acquise.
                                                                            The great legislator who instructed the Hebrew [people]
                                                                            That after seven years had passed their freedom would be gained.
This offers an alternative view of the Biblical ‘7 years’: no longer ‘wandering’ in the desert, Moses might here be talking to the Israelites at the beginning of his campaign for freedom, before the plagues of Egypt. But it must be said there is (as far as I know) no suggestion elsewhere that the 10 plagues of Egypt spanned 7 years …