Pierre de Ronsard: Poetry in a Time of Dislocation

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Pierre de Ronsard: 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 shines the spotlight on Pierre de Ronsard, named “prince of poets” by his fellow French poets during the Renaissance.

(Check out previous installments here: 
Charles Baudelaire, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul ValéryChristine de PizanPaul Verlaine, Alphonse de LamartineAnna de Noailles, Paul Éluard, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Stéphane Mallarmé, Louisa Seifert, Arthur Rimbaud, François Villon, André BretonLouise Colet, Jacques Prévert)

Pierre de Ronsard was the most prolific and adept 16th-century French Renaissance poet. His sonnets are especially lovely. The one I’ve translated echoed down through the centuries, inspiring Robert Herrick’s most famous poem as well as William Butler Yeats’ sonnet written explicitly in tribute. In any language, at any time, the poets’ meaning is clear. It resonates and challenges us to live fully and without regrets. Carpe Diem.

Photo credit: Fern Nesson

Sonnet à Hélène (1587)

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant:
« Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle ! »

Lors vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille resveillant,
Benissant1 vostre nom de louange immortelle.

Je seroy sous la terre, et fantaume sans os ;
Par les ombres Myrtheux je prendray mon repos.
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour, et vostre fier desdain.

Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dés aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.

Photo credit: Fern Nesson

My Translation

When you are very old, sitting by candlelight
spinning wool near the fire
you will recite my poems, marveling:
“Ronsard celebrated me when I was young and beautiful.”

Then your servants, hearing you speak,
no matter how tired from their day’s work
will wake at the sound of my words
blessing you in immortal verse.

I will be dead and gone, a phantom with no bones
taking my repose beneath heaven’s myrtle trees.
While you, old and bent, wait for death,
regretting my love and your proud disdain.

Mark my words!
Live now; don’t wait for tomorrow!
Gather today the roses of life!

Photo credit: Fern Nesson

Here is Herrick, borrowing a version of Ronsard’s last line for his first.

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time (1648)

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

Photo credit: Fern Nesson

And here is Yeats:

When You Are Old (1891)

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 among a crowd of stars.

Lead photo credit : Photo by Fern Nesson

More in French poetry, Pierre de Ronsard

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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] gmail.com. She's offering a special deal for Bonjour Paris readers: purchase the book at cost, a $25 discount.


  • Bonnie Powers
    2020-10-08 10:10:43
    Bonnie Powers
    This poem by Ronsard,< Sonnet à Hélène>, was not one of the first poems I studied in obtaining my French degree many ago—but is one that has always been a favorite. My professor at the time became a lifelong friend, until his passing several years ago. And now, instead of Ronsard, I unconsciously insert his image into the poem, with me being the aging one left behind.


  • Susie Laramore
    2020-10-08 08:01:57
    Susie Laramore
    Your spotlight on Ronsard was particularly enjoyable to me because years ago, as a French major in college, I used Ronsard for my senior paper. I loved his poetry then, and you have just confirmed for me that I still do.