Tag Archives: Icarus

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.