When You are Old

W B Yeats

 

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars

 

Pierre Ronsard (1524-85) was the central figure of the French poetry renaissance and perhaps the greatest French lyrical poet before Hugo. Like his father, Ronsard was attached to court, and served on various missions, including two to Scotland in the service of Madeleine de France and Marie de Guise. Increasing deafness caused him to withdraw from diplomacy and for seven years he studied literature and the classical authors. With du Bellay and Baïf, Ronsard attended the Collège de Coqueret, publishing his first collection of Odes in 1550, his Amours in 1552 and his Hymnes in 1555-6.

The first Odes were modelled on Pindar, and somewhat pedantic, but his later work fused mythology and nature in a spring-like expression of tenderness and lyricism. Ronsard became the most celebrated poet of Europe, achieving for his fellow practitioners the recognition of poet as vates or seer.


 

Quand vous serez bien vieille

by Pierre de Ronsard

Herewith Ronsard’s famous sonnet for Hélène accompanied by three translations, including William Butler Yeats’ variation on the theme.

Yeats’ poem is not in the same spirit as Ronsard’s. That’s not bad, it’s just different. Yeats takes a more spiritual, even ethereal tone, while Ronsard is downright earthy: the candle and spinning are commonplace symbols of sexuality.

Translating the poem is made all the more difficult by the trap that Ronsard sets for the unwary in the second stanza (explanation at the end). Both Weir and Tejada-Flores get caught in it. Otherwise, Weir’s version is a good guide to the original

 Quand vous serez bien vieille

 

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.

 Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille réveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.

Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos :
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

Sonnets pour Hélène, 1587

 

“When you are very old...”

When you are very old, at evening, by the fire,
spinning wool by candlelight and winding it in skeins,
you will say in wonderment as you recite my lines:
“Ronsard admired me in the days when I was fair.”

Then not one of your servants dozing gently there
hearing my name’s cadence break through your low repines
but will start into wakefulness out of her dreams
and bless your name — immortalised by my desire.

I’ll be underneath the ground, and a boneless shade
taking my long rest in the scented myrtle-glade,
and you’ll be an old woman, nodding towards life’s close,

regretting my love, and regretting your disdain.
Heed me, and live for now: this time won’t come again.
Come, pluck now — today — life’s so quickly-fading rose.

(originally published in Tide and Undertow by Anthony Weir, Belfast 1975)

   

What’s the “trap”? Ronsard uses an inversion for the sake of rhyme. Grammatically, bénissant refers to mon nom, and the second stanza should be deciphered as:

Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,

 Qui ne s’aille réveillant au bruit de mon nom
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.

The servant wakes up when she hears Ronsard’s name blessing Hélène’s name with immortal praise. No mistake about it: if anyone is going to be “immortal,” it’s Ronsard, not some crummy servant or even Hélène herself!

The alliterations in v, f, s, and “sh” in the first three lines are a masterpiece of poetic sonority. Can you guess what they’re intended to imitate? They’re all the more remarkable because Ronsard was deaf by the age of 20. And he wrote this poem in his old age; it is intended as much for himself as for Hélène.