François Villon: Poetry in a Time of Dislocation

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François Villon: Poetry in a Time of Dislocation

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in the series “Poetry in a Time of Dislocation.” Fine art photographer Fern Nesson asserts that the place for art is critical during this time of pandemic, and she has immersed herself in the French poets, translating important works and sharing them as photo essays. This week, Fern heads back in time to the Late Middle Ages to feature 15th century poet François Villon.

(Check out previous installments here: 
Charles Baudelaire,
Guillaume Apollinaire, 

Paul Valéry
Christine de Pizan
Paul Verlaine, 
Alphonse de Lamartine
Anna de Noailles
Paul Éluard
Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
Stéphane Mallarmé

Louisa Seifert
Arthur Rimbaud)

Villon was the best known French poet of the Middle Ages but, remarkably, his poems read as if they were written just yesterday. Nostalgia and irony, it seems, communicate throughout the ages. Take, for example, the exquisitely beautiful “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis” written in (medieval) French in 1461:

Photo credit: Fern Nesson

“Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis”

Dictes moy où, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Romaine ;
Archipiada, ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on maine
Dessus rivière ou sus estan,
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu’humaine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

La royne Blanche comme ung lys,
Qui chantoit à voix de sereine;
Berthe au grand pied, Bietris, Allys;
Harembourges qui tint le Mayne,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’Anglois bruslerent à Rouen;
Où sont-ilz, Vierge souveraine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu’à ce refrain ne vous remaine:
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Photo credit: Fern Nesson

My Translation

Tell me where in which land
is Flora, the beautiful Roman
or Archpiadia, or Thaïs,
her first cousin?
Where is Echo
who speaks in the ripples of streams,
and whose beauty is supernal?

But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Where is Heloise
for whose love Abelard was castrated
and banished to the monastery of St. Denis?
He suffered so!
Where, too, is Queen Marguerite
by whose order Buridan was drowned
in the Seine?

But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Or Queen Blanche, white as a lily,
who bewitched men with her voice?
Where Bertha, Beatrice, Allys,
Ermengarde, Countess of Maine?
And Joan of Arc,
burned at the stake in Rouen?
Where are they now, Our Lady?

But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Do not ask where they are, Prince,
neither now nor ever.
For this will be your only answer:

But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Lead photo credit : Photo credit: Fern Nesson

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Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fern Nesson is a fine art photographer with an MFA in photography. She visits Paris regularly where she captures interior scenes. Her work is abstract, and brings fresh perspective to lovers of Paris, while also illuminating interesting museum exhibitions and cultural events taking place in the City of Light. She recently published a book compilation of the popular Bonjour Paris series "50 Things I Miss About Paris." Purchase this beautiful, photography-filled book on Amazon or contact Fern directly by email: fernlnesson [at] She's offering a special deal for Bonjour Paris readers: purchase the book at cost, a $25 discount.


  • Fern L. Nesson
    2020-09-11 11:19:58
    Fern L. Nesson
    Dear Ellen, I am delighted that you like my work. It has been inspiring for me as well. I am a fine arthave photographer but this is my first (public) venture as a translator. Translation allows me to get inside a poet's heart and brain, giving me to access beauty in a very special way. (And it has been a real comfort during these challenging times!) F.


  • Ellen A.
    2020-09-10 10:27:18
    Ellen A.
    This has been a very inspiring series, Fern. Your translations have helped me appreciate each of these poets much more than I could on my own, and your photographs are so expressive. The "snows of yesteryear" is another excellent choice, a treasure hundreds of years old. I'm happy that Bonjour Paris will have these archived, so we can go back and enjoy them again.