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Ballade des dames du temps jadis

(François Villon, ca. 1460)


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 riviere ou sus estan,
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu’humaine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?

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

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

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

 



Literal translation:

Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Times

Tell me where, or in what land
is Flora, the lovely Roman,
or Archipiades, or Thaïs,
who was her first cousin;
or Echo, replying whenever called
across river or pool,
and whose beauty was more than human?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Where is that brilliant lady Heloise,
for whose sake Peter Abelard was castrated
and became a monk at Saint-Denis?
He suffered that misfortune because of his love for her.
And where is that queen who
ordered that Buridan
be thrown into the Seine in a sack?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Queen Blanche, white as a lily,
who sang with a siren’s voice;
Big-footed Bertha, Beatrice, Alice,
Arembourg who ruled over Maine;
and Joan, the good maiden of Lorraine
who was burned by the English at Rouen —
where are they, where, O sovereign Virgin?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?

Prince, do not ask in a week
where they are, or in a year.
The only answer you will get is this refrain:
But where are the snows of yesteryear?


________

NOTES (partly based on the notes in Anthony Bonner’s bilingual edition of Villon’s Complete Works, Bantam, 1960):
      Flora was a celebrated Roman courtesan mentioned by Juvenal. “Archipiada” is thought to be Villon’s misremembering of Alcibiades, an Athenian man (a friend of Socrates who appears in Plato’s Symposium) who was reputed to be a model of beauty, and who in the Middle Ages was therefore assumed to be a woman. Thaïs (featured in a novel by Anatole France and an opera by Massenet) was an Athenian courtesan who accompanied Alexander the Great to Egypt. Calling her Archipiada’s “first cousin” is a way of saying that they were equally beautiful. Echo “was once one of Juno’s attendants, and became the confidant of Jupiter’s amours. Her loquacity, however, displeased Jupiter; and she was deprived of the power of speech by Juno, and only permitted to answer the questions that were put to her. Pan was one of her admirers. Echo, after she had been punished by Juno, fell in love with Narcissus, and, on being despised by him, she pined away, and was changed into a stone, which was still permitted to retain the power of voice” (Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary).
      Peter Abelard was one of the greatest medieval philosophers. He recounts his affair with Heloise in The Story of My Misfortunes, which is usually included in editions of their letters. Rexroth discusses them in More Classics Revisited and recommends Helen Waddell’s fictional retelling, Peter Abelard, as a good introduction. Buridan, a renowned 14th-century scholar at the University of Paris, was also the hero of a famous legend. When he was a student it was rumored that the Queen of France was inviting students to her palace (which bordered on the Seine), giving them fine meals, sleeping with them, and then having them tied up in a sack and tossed to a watery death in the river. Buridan managed to get himself an invitation, and everything the rumors said turned out to be true. For three days they ate, drank, listened to sweet music and made love. Then came his time to be tossed out the window. But Buridan had arranged for a barge full of hay to pass beneath the palace. As he landed in it, his fellow students guiding the barge dropped a large rock into the river to reassure the Queen. (Unfortunately for the credibility of the story, the queen in question, Jeanne de Navarre, died when Buridan was about five years old.)
      Queen Blanche was Blanche de Castille, mother of Louis IX. Big-footed Bertha, Beatrice and Alice were heroines of a medieval tale of chivalry. Arembourg was the heir of Maine, a province in northwest France. The “good maiden of Lorraine” was Joan of Arc, the young woman who roused the French to victories over the English, but who was then captured and burned at the stake in 1431.
      The concluding four-line stanza, called the envoi, was traditionally addressed to the poet’s patron (or hoped-for patron).

 



Free translation:

Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Times

Tell me where or in what land
is Lucretia, the lovely Roman;
Cleopatra or Salomé,
or so many other famous women?
Or that ancient goddess Echo,
always sending the same reply,
and whose beauty was much more than human?
— Where are the snows of years gone by?

Where’s that brilliant lady Heloise,
for whose sake her secret lover
Peter Abelard became a monk
when he was gelded by her brothers?
And where now is that evil queen who
condemned her old loves to die,
tied up and tossed into the river?
— Where are the snows of years gone by?

Where is Dante’s Beatrice,
Guinevere or Isabel,
or fair Helen for whose sake
heroes fought and Troy fell,
or Joan of Arc, the gallant maiden
who was doomed to the fire,
where are they now, O Holy Virgin?
— Where are the snows of years gone by?

Milord, don’t ask me where they are,
in what land or in what time.
The only answer I can give is:
“Where are the snows of years gone by?”

(Translated by Ken Knabb, 1999)

 



“Villon is the very archetype, the poet laureate of 500 years of the counterculture. So clearly does he speak for a way of life that his name has become a common noun and adjective in European languages.”
(Rexroth, Subversive Aspects of Popular Songs) This “Ballade” is Villon’s most famous poem. The French version reproduced above largely follows Brassens’s printed version, which leaves much of the archaic spelling, but modernizes it in a few places. Note that final e’s, which are usually silent in French, are pronounced when singing. The free translation replaces some of the most obscure references with others that are more well known without being anachronistic. It was designed to be sung to Georges Brassens’s tune, which he recorded on his first LP (1954). You can hear him singing it here. When sung, the last two lines in each stanza are repeated. I sing the French version and then continue right into the English one, or vice versa. I play it in C, in which case the chords go as follows:

C
Tell me where, or in what land
        G7                   C
is Lucretia, the lovely Roman;

Cleopatra or Salomé,
         G7                        C
or so many other famous women?
F
Or that ancient goddess Echo,
            Em                       A7
always sending the same reply,
                  F                                       C
and whose beauty was much more than human —
                       G7                          A7
Where are the snows of years gone by?
                  F                                        C
and whose beauty was much more than human —
                       G7                          C
Where are the snows of years gone by?

The concluding four-line stanza is sung like the final four lines of the full stanzas, preceded by an instrumental break that fills in for the missing four lines.


 


 

[George Brassens and the French “Renaissance of Song”]

[George Brassens et la “renaissance” de la chanson française]

[D’autres textes en français]

 

     


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