Week 233: Quand vous serez bien vieille, by Pierre de Ronsard/The Apparition, by John Donne

Two for the price of one this week, as I thought they would make an interesting comparison. Both poems deal with what seems to be an occupational hazard of male poets: the fact of women not fancying them as much as they feel entitled to be fancied. But the spirit of the two poems is very different. Ronsard’s poem is grave, beautiful and not without compassion for the woman as he imagines her in her old age; Donne’s poem is more punchy, full of a jagged energy and vengeful to the point of vindictiveness. I value both poems greatly, but do you not get the feeling that that Ronsard’s poem, beautiful though it is, has something of the rhetorical exercise about it, while Donne really does have it in for this poor woman and doesn’t care who knows it?

Note on line 6 of the Donne poem: It was a common belief that candles guttered in the presence of ghosts.

The translation from the French is my own.

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.

Pierre de Ronsard, Sonnets pour Hélène, 1578

When you are old and sit by candlelight
Spinning your wool at the fireside, then declare,
As you read out my lines for your delight,
‘Ronsard once feted me when I was fair’.

Then not a servant-girl, knowing my fame,
Though she be half-asleep in labour’s daze,
But suddenly will wake, to hear his name
Who blessed your own with such immortal praise.

By then I shall be bodiless, a shade
At rest now in some myrtle-shadowed glade
And you old, at the fireside, stooped and gray,

Regretting my lost love and your proud scorn.
Then trust me, live, and don’t wait till the morn,
Gather the roses of this life today.

The Apparition

When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tir’d before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink;
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I’had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threat’nings rest still innocent.

John Donne (1573-1631)


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