Category Archives: Sonnets pour Hélène

Poems from either of the two books for Hélène

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 …

Helen 2:5

N’oubliez, mon Helene, aujourd’huy qu’il faut prendre
Des cendres sur le front, qu’il n’en faut point chercher
Autre part qu’en mon cœur que vous faites seicher,
Vous riant du plaisir de le tourner en cendre.
Quel pardon pensez vous des Celestes attendre?
Le meurtre de vos yeux ne se sçauroit cacher :
Leurs rayons m’ont tué, ne pouvant estancher
La playe qu’en mon sang leur beauté fait descendre.
La douleur me consume, ayez de moy pitié.
Vous n’aurez de ma mort ny profit ny louange :
Cinq ans meritent bien quelque peu d’amitié.
Vostre volonté passe et la mienne ne change.
Amour qui voit mon cœur voit vostre mauvaistié :
Il tient l’arc en la main, gardez qu’il ne se vange.
                                                                            Don’t forget, my Helen, that today we’re supposed to put
                                                                            Ashes on our brow – ashes you need seek nowhere
                                                                            Else but in my heart which you’ve dried out,
                                                                            Laughing at the pleasure of turning it to ashes.
                                                                            What pardon do you think to gain from those in heaven ?
                                                                            The murder in your eyes cannot hide itself ;
                                                                            Their rays have killed me, being unable to staunch
                                                                            The wound which their beauty brought down into my blood.
                                                                            Sadness consumes me, have pity on me.
                                                                            You’ll gain from my death neither profit nor praise;
                                                                            Five years deserve some small amount of pity.
                                                                            Your desire passes away, but mine does not change.
                                                                            Love who sees my heart sees your wickedness;
                                                                            He holds his bow in his hand, watch out that he doesn’t take revenge.
Easter seems an appropriate time, even if Ash Wednesday is long past, for this one!
As usual Ronsard takes the germ of an idea (ashes) and elaborates it into another poetic exploration of the ashes of a lover’s heart. (Note that here it is five years of pining;  a couple of poems later (in sonnet 7), it is seven years… It might be a sign of the poems being written over a period, but more likely it’s poetic licence on Ronsard’s part.)
No variants to report in Blanchemain’s version.

Helen 2:4

Tandis que vous dancez et ballez à vostre aise,
Et masquez vostre face ainsi que vostre cœur,
Passionné d’amour, je me plains en langueur,
Ores froid comme neige, ores chaud comme braise.
Le Carnaval vous plaist : je n’ay rien qui me plaise
Sinon de souspirer contre vostre rigueur,
Vous appeller ingrate, et blasmer la longueur
Du temps que je vous sers sans que mon mal s’appaise.
Maistresse, croyez moy je ne fais que pleurer,
Lamenter, souspirer et me desesperer :
Je desire la mort et rien ne me console.
Si mon front si mes yeux ne vous en sont tesmoins,
Ma plainte vous en serve, et permettez au moins
Qu’aussi bien que le cœur je perde la parole.
                                                                            While you dance and sway at your ease
                                                                            And mask your face as you do your heart,
                                                                            I weep in melancholy, fired by love,
                                                                            Now cold as snow, now hot as a fire.
                                                                            The Carnival pleases you ; I have nothing which pleases me
                                                                            But sighing against your harshness,
                                                                            Calling you ungrateful, and complaining at the length
                                                                            Of time I’ve served you without lessening my ills.
                                                                            Mistress, believe me, I do nothing but weep,
                                                                            Lament, sigh and despair;
                                                                            I wish for death and nothing consoles me.
                                                                            If my brow, if my eyes are not your witnesses of this,
                                                                            My weeping may serve for you; but permit at least
                                                                            That, as well as my heart, I may lose my word.
I think that last line effectively means, “I can cancel my vow to you” – but I’m not sure.
An otherwise entirely conventional lover’s lament, but the reference to carnival places it at a specific moment and in a specific context: both unknown now, but still giving it a touching-point with real life.
Blanchemain’s version differs only in line 6, “Sinon ce souspirer…” (‘But this sighing against your harshness’), a use of the infinitive as a sort of noun which he obviously felt later didn’t offer the right example of correct French.


Helen 2:2

A fin qu’à tout jamais de siecle en siecle vive
La parfaite amitié que Ronsard vous portoit,
Comme vostre beauté la raison luy ostoit,
Comme vous enchaisnez sa liberté captive :
A fin que d’âge en âge à noz neveux arrive,
Que toute dans mon sang vostre figure estoit,
Et que rien sinon vous mon cœur ne souhaitoit,
Je vous fais un present de ceste Sempervive.
Elle vit longuement en sa jeune verdeur :
Long temps apres la mort je vous feray revivre,
Tant peut le docte soin d’un gentil serviteur,
Qui veut en vous servant toutes vertus ensuivre.
Vous vivrez (croyez-moy) comme Laure en grandeur,
Au moins tant que vivront les plumes et le livre.
                                                                            That for ever, from age to age, may live on
                                                                            The perfect love which Ronsard bears you,
                                                                            Since your beauty has stolen his reason,
                                                                            Since you keep in chains his captive liberty ;
                                                                            That from age to age to our descendants may be known
                                                                            How your picture was everywhere in my blood,
                                                                            And how my heart desired nothing but you,
                                                                            I make you a gift of this sempervivum
                                                                            It lives long in its youthful freshness :
                                                                            A long time after death I shall make you live again,
                                                                            So far as the learned care of a noble servant
                                                                            Who wishes in serving you to follow all the virtues.
                                                                            You shall live, believe me, like Laura in greatness,
                                                                            At least as long as live pens and books.

An ordinary offering – a succulent houseplant – generates the conceit of ‘ever-living’ through the memorial of poetry; and suddenly we are back in the world of Petrarch and Laura. As we give up pens and books for online messaging and e-books, it would be nice to think Ronsard will survive the changeover 🙂

Nicolas Richelet, early editor of the Helen poems, offers this footnote on the sempervivum:  “A kind of simple which takes its name from its nature. It is not without cause that he makes this present, sempervivum is also used to make someone fall in love. That’s why in ancient times it was attached to house doors, to chase away all hatred and hostility.”
(This use of sempervivum was apparently unknown to Culpepper, whose Herbal says ‘Our ordinary Houseleek is good for all inward heats, as well as outward, and in the eyes or other parts of the body: a posset made of the juice is singularly good in all hot agues, for it cooleth and tempereth the blood and spirits and quencheth the thirst; and is also good to stay all defluction or sharp and salt rheums in the eyes, the juice being dropped into them. If the juice be dropped into the ears, it easeth pain…. It cooleth and restraineth all hot inflammations, St. Anthony’s fire (Erysipelas), scaldings and burnings, the shingles, fretting ulcers, ringworms and the like; and much easeth the pain and the gout.’ – from Wikipedia.)
Blanchemain has only two variants, plus a third hidden in a footnote. In line 4 he has a chnage of tense, “Comme vous enchaisniez … ” (‘Since you have kept in chains …’); and in line 13 “Vous vivrez et croistrez …” (‘You shall live and increase like Laura in greatness’), which is perhaps better in meaning but has none of the rhythmic complexity of the revised version. The footnote offers a variant of the opening, “A fin qu’en renaissant …” (‘That through being reborn from age to age may live on …’), which offers two slightly different ways of reading the opening: being reborn from age to age, in order to live on; or living on from age to age through being reborn.


Helen – book 2 – sonnet 1


Let’s now turn to the last of the three main sonnet-sequences, and work towards completing the Helen series…

Soit qu’un sage amoureux ou soit qu’un sot me lise,
Il ne doit s’esbahir voyant mon chef grison,
Si je chante d’amour : tousjours un vieil tison
Cache un germe de feu sous une cendre grise.
Le bois verd à grand’ peine en le souflant s’attise,
Le sec sans le soufler brusle en toute saison.
La Lune se gaigna d’une blanche toison,
Et son vieillard Tithon l’Aurore ne mesprise.
Lecteur, je ne veux estre escolier de Platon,
Qui la vertu nous presche, et ne fait pas de mesme :
Ny volontaire Icare, ou lourdaut Phaëthon,
Perdus pour attenter une sotise extreme :
Mais sans me contrefaire ou Voleur ou Charton,
De mon gré je me noye et me brusle moy-mesme.
                                                                            Whether a wise lover or whether a fool reads me,
                                                                            He ought not to be astonished, seeing my grey hairs,
                                                                            That I’m singing of love; ancient embers always
                                                                            Hide the germ of a fire beneath the grey ash.
                                                                            Green wood is kindled with great difficulty, by blowing on it,
                                                                            But dry wood burns at any time without blowing;
                                                                            The moon has got herself a white fleece,
                                                                            And Dawn does not despise her old Tithonus.
                                                                            Reader, I do not wish to be a scholar of Plato
                                                                            Who preaches us virtue but does not do as he says;
                                                                            Nor willingly [to be] Icarus, or clumsy Phaethon,
                                                                            Destroyed by attempting their extreme folly;
                                                                            But without pretending to be that thief or carter,
                                                                            I’d willingly give myself to drowning or burning.
Beginning the second book of helen poems, Ronsard cannot avoid admitting his age and potentially foolish behaviour! But, in an image I don’t recall him using earlier, he compares how well ‘old’ and ‘young’ wood burns …
The classical references are fairly simple ones:  Aurora and her aged lover Tithonus; Icarus who flew too near the sun, Phaethon who lost control of Apollo’s sun-chariot and was killed. Note however that Ronsard re-characterises both myths (line 13):  Icarus did not steal the wings he used, but foolishly mis-used what he’d been given; and there’s no particular sense that Phaethon was unable to drive skilfully (like a ‘carter’), only that the sun-god’s horses were too much for him.
Blanchemain has one variant in his text (line 4, “Cache un germe de feu dessous la cendre grise”) not affecting the meaning, and offers a variant of line 10 in a footnote: “Qui, pour trop contempler, a tousjours le teint blesme” (‘Who from too much studying always has a pallid look’). Frankly, that version of line 10 is much more apposite – fitting the context of the outward appearances which the rest of the poem discusses – than the later variant which is only loosely picked up by the denigratory ‘thief and carter’ of line 13; presumably it was the explosion of sharp ‘t’ sounds that Ronsard sought to avoid.


Helen 2:6

Tu es seule mon cœur, mon sang et ma Deesse,
Ton œil est le filé et le RÉ bien-heureux,
Qui prend quand il luy plaist les hommes genereux,
Et se prendre des sots jamais il ne se laisse. 
Aussi honneur vertu prevoyance et sagesse,
Logent en ton esprit, lequel rend amoureux
Tous ceux qui de nature ont un cœur desireux
D’honorer les beautez d’une docte Maistresse. 
Les noms ont efficace et puissance et vertu;
Je le voy par le tien lequel m’a combatu
Et l’esprit et le corps par armes non legeres. 
Son destin m’a causé mon amoureux souci.
Voila comme de nom d’effect tu es aussi
LE RÉ DES GENEREUX, Elene de Surgeres.


                                                                            You alone are my heart, my blood, my goddess;
                                                                            Your eye is the happy line and net
                                                                            Which catches noble men whenever it wants
                                                                            And never allows itself to be caught by fools.
                                                                            Honour too, and virtue, foresight and wisdom
                                                                            Live within your soul, which makes all those
                                                                            Fall in love who naturally have a heart eager
                                                                            To honour the beauties of a learned mistress.
                                                                            Names have effect and power and magic;
                                                                            I see this through yours, which has overcome
                                                                            Me, body and soul, with its substantial weapons.
                                                                            It was the fate which caused my wound of love.
                                                                            So too by effectual name you are
                                                                            THE NET OF NOBLE SOULS, Elene de Surgeres.
A neat anagram.  Both Marty-Laveaux and Blanchemain print LE RÉ DES GENEREUX, but actually it needs to be LE RÉ DES GENEREUS (a common plural form in Ronsard anyway) for the anagram to work!
Elsewhere Blanchemain’s version diverges from Marty-Laveaux’s, with changes at the start of each ‘stanza’ but the first:
Tu es seule mon cœur, mon sang et ma deesse,
Ton œil est le filé et le ré bien-heureux
Qui prend, quand il lui plaist, les hommes genereux,
Et se prendre des sots jamais il ne se laisse. 
L’honneur, la chasteté, la vertu, la sagesse,
Logent en ton esprit, lequel rend amoureux
Tous ceux qui de nature ont un cœur desireux
D’honorer les beautez d’une docte maistresse. 
Les noms (a dit Platon) ont très grande vertu ;
Je le voy par le tien, lequel m’a combatu,
Et l’esprit et le corps par armes non legeres. 
Sa deïté causa mon amoureux soucy.
Voila comme de nom, d’effect tu es aussi
LE RÉ DES GENEREUX, Elene de Surgeres.
                                                                           You alone are my heart, my blood, my goddess;
                                                                           Your eye is the happy line and net
                                                                           Which catches noble men whenever it wants
                                                                           And never allows itself to be caught by fools.
                                                                           Honour, chastity, virtue, wisdom
                                                                           Live within your soul, which makes all those
                                                                           Fall in love who naturally have a heart eager
                                                                           To honour the beauties of a learned mistress.
                                                                           Names (said Plato) have very great magic;
                                                                           I see this through yours, which has overcome
                                                                           Me, body and soul, with its substantial weapons.
                                                                           It was the deity which caused my wound of love.
                                                                           So too by effectual name you are
                                                                           THE NET OF NOBLE SOULS, Elene de Surgeres.
Blanchemain also offers a second variant of line 12 (the opening of the final tercet): “Sa force à moy fatale a causé mon soucy” (‘Its power, fatal to me, caused my wound’).

Helen 2:3


I really should have saved the New Year’s wish poem for now! Still, happy new year everyone & here’s a beautiful opening to the year.

Amour, qui as ton regne en ce monde si ample,
Voy ta gloire et la mienne errer en ce jardin :
Voy comme son bel œil, mon bel astre divin,
Surmonte de clairté les lampes de ton Temple. 
Voy son corps des beautez le portrait et l’exemple,
Qui ressemble une Aurore au plus beau d’un matin ;
Voy son esprit, seigneur du Sort et du Destin,
Qui passe la Nature, en qui Dieu se contemple. 
Regarde-la marcher toute pensive à soy
T’emprisonner de fleurs et triompher de toy
Pressant dessous ses pas les herbes bien-heureuses. 
Voy sortir un Printemps des rayons de ses yeux :
Et voy comme à l’envy ses flames amoureuses
Embellissent la terre et serenent les cieux.
                                                                            Love, you who have the rule of this wide world,
                                                                            See your glory and mine wandering in this garden
                                                                            See how her lovely eye, my own heavenly star,
                                                                            Outshines in brightness the lamps of your temple.
                                                                            See her body, the very portrait and example of beauty,
                                                                            Like the dawn at its most beautiful in the morning;
                                                                            See her spirit, master of fate and destiny,
                                                                            Which surpasses nature and in which God recognises himself.
                                                                            Look at her walking alone, so pensive,
                                                                            Imprisoning you in flowers, triumphing over you,
                                                                            Pressing beneath her feet the fortunate grass.
                                                                            See how the rays of her eyes release a sort of Spring,
                                                                            And how enviably her loving flames
                                                                            Enhance the world and calm the heavens.
Blanchemain’s version has only a few variants:  line 4 becomes “Reluit comme une lampe ardente dans un temple” (‘Shines out like a flaming lamp in a temple’); the end of line 6 is slightly different (“au plus beau du matin”, ‘at the most beautiful time of morning’); and line 11 becomes “Voy naistre sous ses pieds les herbes bienheureuses ” (‘See the fortunate grass grow beneath her feet’).  But Blanchemain also offers us a further (footnoted) variant, a complete re-write of lines 7-9:
Voy son front, mais un ciel seigneur de mon destin,
Où comme en un mirouer Nature se contemple.
Voy-le marcher pensive, et n’aimer rien que soy.
                                                                            See her brow, rather the heaven which rules my destiny,
                                                                            In which as in a mirror nature regards herself.
                                                                            See her walking pensively, loving none but herself.
So many alternatives, all of them equally beautiful, makes for twice the pleasure. What a good way to start 2015!  Still better, I have an excuse to add a sonnet by Petrarch, which seems to have been Ronsard’s starting-point for his own sonnet.
Stiamo, Amor, a veder la gloria nostra,
cose sopra natura altere et nove:
vedi ben quanta in lei dolcezza piove,
vedi lume che ‘l cielo in terra mostra,
vedi quant’arte dora e ‘mperla e ‘nostra
l’abito electo, et mai non visto altrove,
che dolcemente i piedi et gli occhi move
per questa di bei colli ombrosa chiostra.
L’erbetta verde e i fior’ di color’ mille
sparsi sotto quel’ elce antiqua et negra
pregan pur che ‘l bel pe’ li prema o tocchi;
e ‘l ciel di vaghe et lucide faville
s’accende intorno, e ‘n vista si rallegra
d’esser fatto seren da sí belli occhi.
                                                                            Shall we stop, Love, to see our glory,
                                                                            Things strange beyond nature and new?
                                                                            See how much sweetness rains upon her,
                                                                            See the light which heaven shows on earth,
                                                                            See with what art is gilded and pearled our lady’s
                                                                            Chosen dress, never seen elsewhere,
                                                                            As she sweetly moves her feet and eyes
                                                                            Through this shady cloister of lovely hills.
                                                                            The soft green grass and flowers of a thousand colours
                                                                            Scattered under this ancient, black holm-oak
                                                                            Even pray that her fair foot will flatten or touch them;
                                                                            And the heavens blaze all around with bright,
                                                                            Wandering sparks and openly rejoices
                                                                            In being made calm by such fair eyes.