Category Archives: Sonnets pour Hélène

Poems from either of the two books for Hélène

Helen 2:62

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Ma Dame, je ne meurs abandonné d’espoir :
La playe est jusqu’à l’oz : je ne suis celuy mesme
Que j’estois l’autre jour, tant la douleur extréme
Forçant la patience, a dessus moy pouvoir.
 
Je ne puis ny toucher gouster n’ouïr ny voir :
J’ay perdu tous mes Sens, je suis une ombre blesme :
Mon corps n’est qu’un tombeau. Malheureux est qui aime,
Malheurueux qui se laisse à l’Amour decevoir !
 
Devenez un Achille aux playes qu’avez faites,
Un Telefe je suis, lequel s’en va perir :
Monstrez moy par pitié vos puissances parfaites,
 
Et d’un remede prompt daignez moy secourir.
Si vostre serviteur cruelle vous desfaites,
Vous n’aurez le Laurier pour l’avoir fait mourir.
 
 
 
 
                                                                            My Lady, I am dying abandoned by hope.
                                                                            My wound is to the bone. I am not even he
                                                                            Whom I was the other day, my extreme sorrow
                                                                            Beyond bearing has such power over me.
 
                                                                            I cannot touch, taste, hear or see :
                                                                            I have lost all my senses, I am a pallid shade ;
                                                                            My body is just a tomb. Unhappy he who loves,
                                                                            Unhappy he who allows himself to be deceived by love !
 
                                                                            Become an Achilles through the wounds you have given :
                                                                            I am your Telephus, who is going to die of them.
                                                                            Pity me and show your perfect power,
 
                                                                            Deign to help me with a prompt remedy.
                                                                            If you cruelly destroy your servant,
                                                                            You will not gain laurels for having killed him.
 
 
That last couplet is rather fun: a twist on the usual ‘killing me’ line, pointing out that no-one gets honoured for killing their own servant … The poem as a whole is interesting partly for showing how far our modern perception of the classics is from that of the past: Achilles we share, but Telephus?
 
The Trojan War is familiar to us, and the part of Achilles in it; and we are familiar with the ‘core’ Greek tragedies. But that the story of Telephus was a major preoccupation of the tragedians we are largely unaware – all three wrote (now lost) plays on the theme. And that familiarity with the tale extended to the renaissance, and not just in France: Shakespeare references Telephus in Henry VI part two.
 
So who was Telephus? The son of Heracles , he was wounded by Achilles in a preliminary to the Trojan War ; the wound would not heal, but the Delphic Oracle told him “your assailant will heal you”, a line which obsessed the Greeks and Romans. It turned out that he was to be healed by Achilles’ spear, not by Achilles himself, and the weapon that hurts & heals became a popular theme with  Roman poets – Horace, Ovid, Propertius and others all use it, often in this context of love poetry. Shakespeare’s use [Henry VI, Part 2, act 5.1.100–101] is witness to wider usage: “Whose smile and frown, like to Achilles’ spear / Is able with the change to kill and cure”.
 
(Wagner fans will readily see the similarities with the theme of the Holy Spear in ‘Parsifal’ which hurts and heals Amfortas.)
 
[For much more on the topic, see the vast Wikipedia article – an indication of the Telephus story’s lasting popularity through the centuries.]
 
Ronsard’s classicism of course runs deep: I like the second stanza whose details map onto the Virgilian underworld depicted in the Aeneid.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Helen 2:55

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Je te voulois nommer pour Helene, Ortygie
Renouvellant en toy d’Ortyge le renom.
Le tien est plus fatal : Helene est un beau nom,
Helene, honneur des Grecs, la terreur de Phrygie :
 
Si pour sujet fertil Homere t’a choisie,
Je puis suivant son train qui va sans compagnon,
Te chantant m’honorer, et non pas toy, sinon
Qu’il te plaise estimer ma rude Poësie.
 
Tu passes en vertus les Dames de ce temps
Aussi loin que l’Hyver est passé du Printemps,
Digne d’avoir autels, digne d’avoir Empire.
 
Laure ne te veincroit de renom ny d’honneur
Sans le Ciel qui luy donne un plus digne sonneur,
Et le mauvais destin te fait present du pire.
 
 
 
 
 
                                                                            I’d have preferred to name you, instead of Helen, Ortygian,
                                                                            Renewing in you the renown of Ortygia.
                                                                            Your own [name] is more deadly : [yet] Helen is a lovely name,
                                                                            Helen, glory of the Greeks, terror of Phrygia ;
 
                                                                            If Homer had chosen you as his fruitful subject,
                                                                            I could, following the train of him who goes without companion
                                                                            And singing of you, honour myself yet not you, unless
                                                                            It pleases you to value my crude poetry.
 
                                                                            You surpass in virtues the ladies of our time
                                                                            As far as Winter is surpassed by Spring,
                                                                            Worthy to have altars, worthy to have Dominion.
 
                                                                            Laura would not beat you in fame or honour
                                                                            If Heaven had not given her a worthier poet
                                                                            And evil destiny made you the gift of a worse one.
 
 
This poem offers a number of difficulties, which make it the more interesting: the thought is quite compressed in stanza 2, in particular.
 
The opening lines differentiate ‘Ortygie’ and ‘Ortyge’. They are both presented as nouns: yet awkwardly, classical ‘Ortygia’ is another name for Delos, while ‘Ortyga’ (perhaps the English – or Italian – equivalent of ‘Ortyge’) is a town in Sicily. The renown of Delos, yes, not least as the birthplace of the chaste goddess Artemis-Diana: is Ortyga renowned for anything? And clearly there is no way Ronsard is looking to the Greek noun ‘ortyx’ – it means a quail! So I’ve reasoned that, instead, Ronsard intends the first as an adjective formed from the second – ‘Ortygian’ from ‘Ortygia’ – even though that’s not quite what he appears to say …
 
Then, line 3: “is Helen’s ‘name’ or ‘renown’ more deadly (or, associated with death)? And whichever it is, how to manage the sharp contrast between its deadliness and Helen being ‘a lovely name’? I’ve added a ‘yet’ to make that transition. (Helen is ‘terror of the Phrygians’, being dangerous to Troy whose queen, Hecuba, was a Phrygian princess.)
 
Then stanza 2: I think the logic is, ‘if Homer had written about Helen I could follow him; but writing poetry (even about you) would only bring me honour, not you, unless you value my poetry (which would mean you would value both what I’ve written and the good things people say about it); and yet (last stanza), you have an inferior poet in me (regardless of how much you value my writing)’. Though, of course, Ronsard clearly expects people to say good things about his poetry, even if it’s inferior to Petrarch’s …
 
Petrarch is a ‘sonneur’, which is more ‘musician’ than poet; but once again it’s worth remembering that for Ronsard the two are closely linked.
 
Only one tiny variant in Blanchemain, in line 9 ‘vertu‘ instead of the plural.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Helen 2:60

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Passant dessus la tombe où Lucrece repose,
Tu versas dessus elle une moisson de fleurs :
L’eschaufant de souspirs, et l’arrosant de pleurs,
Tu monstras qu’une mort tenoit ta vie enclose.
 
Si tu aimes le corps dont la terre dispose,
Imagine ta force et conçoy tes rigueurs :
Tu me verras cruelle entre mille langueurs
Mourir puis que la mort te plaist sur toute chose.
 
C’est acte de pitié d’honorer un cercueil,
Mespriser les vivans est un signe d’orgueil.
Puis que ton naturel les fantômes embrasse,
 
Et que rien n’est de toy, s’il n’est mort, estimé,
Sans languir tant de fois, esconduit de ta grace,
Je veux du tout mourir pour estre mieux aimé.
 
 
 
 
                                                                            Passing over the tomb where Lucrece lies,
                                                                            You poured upon her a harvest of flowers :
                                                                            Warming her with your sighs, wetting her with your tears,
                                                                            You showed that the dead girl held your life prisoner.
 
                                                                            If you love the body which belongs to the earth,
                                                                            Imagine your power and consider your harshness ;
                                                                            Cruel one, you will see me among a thousand sufferings
                                                                            Dying – since death pleases you above all.
 
                                                                            It is an act of pity to honour a coffin,
                                                                            But despising the living is a sign of pride.
                                                                            Since your nature is to caress ghosts,
 
                                                                            And nothing is esteemed by you unless it is dead,
                                                                            Suffering no more by being dismissed from your favour,
                                                                            I’d prefer to die, that I might be better loved.
 
 
 
It sometimes seems that you can hear real irritation in Ronsard. To me, this is one of those places: ‘yes, Helene, it’s all very well remembering the dead, but remember the living too’. Note that, in line 3, ‘eschauffer’ carries an implied meaning of ‘arousing’ as well as ‘warming’ – as if Helen could raise Lucrece from the dead.
 
Richelet informs us that “this Lucrece was a girl from Bacqueville [Normandy], young, fair, learned, among the most perfect at Court, who was among Helen’s best friends”.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Helen 2:32

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J’avois esté saigné, ma Dame me vint voir
Lors que je languissois d’une humeur froide et lente :
Se tournant vers mon sang, comme toute riante
Me dist en se jouant, Que vostre sang est noir !
 
Le trop penser en vous a peu si bien mouvoir
L’imagination, que l’ame obeissante
A laissé la chaleur naturelle impuissante
De cuire de nourrir de faire son devoir.
 
Ne soyez plus si belle, et devenez Medée :
Colorez d’un beau sang ma face ja ridée,
Et d’un nouveau printemps faites moy r’animer.
 
Aeson vit rajeunir son escorce ancienne :
Nul charme ne sçauroit renouveller la mienne.
Si je veux rajeunir il ne faut plus aimer.
 
 
                                                                            I’d just been bled when my Lady came to see me,
                                                                            While I was suffering from a cold and indolent humour;
                                                                            Turning towards my blood, as if laughing at me,
                                                                            She said in joke, “How dark your blood is!
 
                                                                            Thinking too much has managed so to move
                                                                            Your imagination that your obedient soul
                                                                            Has lost its natural warmth, unable
                                                                            To heat, to nourish, to do its duty.”
 
                                                                            Oh, be no longer so fair, become Medea;
                                                                            Put colour in my already-lined cheeks with fresh blood,
                                                                            And make me live again with a new springtime.
 
                                                                            Aeson saw his ancient hide rejuvenated;
                                                                            But no magic could renew mine.
                                                                            If I wish to become young again, I must love no more.
 
 
Humours and bleeding – very sixteenth-century, not the medicine we know today. But all pretty elf-explanatory, I think. 
 
A couple of classical names that may not be so clear: Medea and Aeson.
 
Blanchemain to the rescue: ‘Medea, who rejuvenated with her magic the aged Æson’. Aeson was Jason’s (aged) father and, when Jason returned from Colchis with Medea, she did indeed rejuvenate him – by slitting his throat and boiling him in a pot! Aeson emerged , youn g again. It was all a plot to get rid of Pelias who was threatening to oust Aeson: promising to rejuvenate him too, Medea killed and boiled him – but without bringing him back to life.
 
Hence the references to blood, fresh and good, a new springtime, and magic. The names may also be familiar from a modern form of magic – Aeson is a parsing library for JSON (get it?), and named from these myths.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Helen 2:59

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Qu’il me soit arraché des tetins de sa mere
Ce jeune enfant Amour, et qu’il me soit vendu :
Il ne fait que de naistre, et m’a desja perdu :
Vienne quelque marchand, je le mets à l’enchere.
 
D’un si mauvais garçon la vente n’est pas chere,
J’en feray bon marché. Ah ! j’ay trop attendu.
Mais voyez comme il pleure, il m’a bien entendu.
Appaise toy mignon j’ay passé ma cholere,
 
Je ne te vendray point : au contraire je veux
Pour Page t’envover à ma maistresse Helene,
Qui toute te ressemble et d’yeux et de cheveux,
 
Aussi fine que toy, de malice aussi pleine.
Comme enfans vous croistrez, et vous jou’rés tous deux :
Quand tu seras plus grand, tu me payras ma peine.
 
 
 
 
                                                                            Oh that he could be torn from his mother’s breast,
                                                                           That young boy Love, and sold into slavery ;
                                                                           Just by being born, he has already destroyed me ;
                                                                           Let some merchant come, I put him up for auction.
 
                                                                           For so wicked a child, the price is not dear,
                                                                           I’ll sell him cheap. Ah, I’ve waited too long.
                                                                           See how he weeps, he’s understood me well.
                                                                           Calm yourself, dear, my anger is passed,
 
                                                                           I shall not sell you ; instead I would like
                                                                           To send you as my page to my mistress Helene,
                                                                           Whose eyes and hair are just like yours,
 
                                                                           Who’s as delicate as you, and as full of wickedness.
                                                                           Like children you’ll grow and you’ll play together,
                                                                           And when you’re older, you’ll repay my trouble.
 
 
 
Even though Ronsard is classicizing, this is a reminder that slavery still existed: people really could be sold.
 
Slightly unusual among these poems for pursuing one image all through the sonnet; Ronsard usually seems in these later poems to be throwing together several different thoughts or perspectives.
 
There is a variant in Blanchemain’s edition: his line 3 reads “Il ne faut plus qu’il croisse ; il m’a desja perdu !” (‘There’s no need for him to grow up, he has already destroyed me!’) – the same thought in a slightly less-concentrated form.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Helen 2:56

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J’errois en mon jardin, quand au bout d’une allee
Je vy contre l’Hyver boutonner un Soucy.
Ceste herbe et mon amour fleurissent tout ainsi :
La neige est sur ma teste, et la sienne est gelee.
 
O bien-heureuse amour en mon ame escoulee
Pour celle qui n’a point de parangon icy,
Qui m’a de ses rayons tout l’esprit esclarcy,
Qui devroit des François Minerve estre appellee :
 
En prudence Minerve, une Grace en beauté,
Junon en gravité, Diane en chasteté,
Qui sert aux mesmes Dieux, comme aux hommes d’exemple.
 
Si tu fusses venue au temps que la Vertu
S’honoroit des humains, tes vertus eussent eu
Vœuz encens et autels sacrifices et temple.
 
 
 
                                                                            I was wandering in my garden when, at the end of a path
                                                                            I saw blossoming – in the face of Winter – a marigold.
                                                                            This plant and my love both bloom this way:
                                                                            Snow is on my head, its own is frozen.
 
                                                                            O fortunate love flowing in my soul
                                                                            For her who has no equal here,
                                                                            Who has illuminated my whole spirit with her rays,
                                                                            Who ought to be called Minerva by the French;
 
                                                                            In prudence a Minerva, in beauty a Grace,
                                                                            A Juno in solemnity, a Diana in chastity,
                                                                            Who provides an example to the gods themselves, as to men.
 
                                                                            If you had come in a time when virtue
                                                                            Was honoured by mankind, your virtues would have received
                                                                            Vows, incense and altars, sacrifices and a temple.
 
 
The transition between the first stanza and the remainder is a bit rough: from the rarity of the flower in winter, and of love in old-age, to the rarity of Helen as a paragon of all virtues; and then in the final lines to the rather odd reflection on the wickedness of his own time. The latter is what we’d expect in a sonnet, perhaps, but the ormer jars a little.
 
I really don’t think any commentary on the various goddesses in lines 9-10 is needed; for once, Ronsard explains himself thoroughly for even the classical novice.
 
And Blanchemain has no variants to offer, either.

Helen 2:63

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Voyant par les soudars ma maison saccagee,
Et mon pais couvert de Mars et de la mort,
Pensant en ta beauté tu estois mon suport,
Et soudain ma tristesse en joye estoit changee.
 
Resolu je disois, Fortune s’est vangee,
Elle emporte mon bien et non mon reconfort.
Hà, que je fus trompé ! tu me fais plus de tort
Que n’eust fait une armee en bataille rangee.
 
Les soudars m’ont pillé, tu as ravy mon cœur :
Tu es plus grand voleur, j’en demande justice
Aux Dieux qui n’oseroient chastier ta rigueur.
 
Tu saccages ma vie en te faisant service :
Encores te mocquant tu braves ma langueur,
Qui me fait plus de mal que ne fait ta malice.
 
 
 
 
                                                                            Seeing my home sacked by soldiers
                                                                            And my country covered in war and death,
                                                                            Thinking of your beauty you were my support,
                                                                            And suddenly my sadness was changed to joy.
 
                                                                            Resolute, I said “Fortune has had her revenge,
                                                                            She takes away my goods but not my comfort.”
                                                                            Oh how wrong I was! You do me more wrong
                                                                            Than did an army drawn up for battle.
 
                                                                            The soldiers pillaged my goods, you have stolen my heart;
                                                                            You are a greater thief, I demand justice for this
                                                                            From the gods who did not dare punish your harshness.
 
                                                                            You sack my life as I do you service;
                                                                            Still laughing at me you reject my languishing [for you],
                                                                            Which does me more harm than does your malice.
 
 
 
I find it hard to imagine joy replacing sadness for the destruction of one’s home, however much in love you are. But such are the exaggerations of love poetry! In other respects, we see the ‘usual’ themes of the lady’s harshness exceeding even that which Fortune might throw at her lover …
 
Blanchemain provides minor variants, changes of words rather than sense:  in line 2, Ronsard sees “Et tout mon pays estre image de la mort” (‘and my whole country become a picture of death’); in line 7, a change of tense – “Hà, que je suis trompé !” ( ‘Oh how wrong I am!’); and in line 12, a simpler version of the demand, which also re-thinks the function of the word ‘rigueur’, & reverses its application: “Tu es plus digne qu’eux de cruelle rigueur.” (‘… I demand justice for this, / You are worthier than those [soldiers] of cruel punishment.”)