The story of Ronsard and Hélène

Let me tell the story in short.

Pierre de Ronsard (11 September 1524 – December 1585) was, in his own time, called the 'prince of poets'. At a very advanced age, when much of his life's work was done and he was famous, he made advances at a young lady called Hélène. She spurned him rather thoroughly, which left him feeling insulted and humiliated. he took the only revenge a poet can take, writing this poem which is known to the French even today:-

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 (published posthumously)

Translated (by me):-

When you will be well old, in the evening, by a candle,
Seated near the the fire, winding and spinning (wool),
You will say, reciting my verses, and marvelling,
Ronsard had celebrated at the time when I was beautiful.

Then, you won't have a servant hearing such news,
Already half-dozing after their labour,
Who on the sound of my name awakens again
Blessing your name of immortal praise.

I shall be under the ground, a phantom without bones
By the myrtle's shadows I shall take my rest.
You shall be by the hearth, an old hunchback*

Regretting my love and your proud disdain.
Live, if you believe me, wait not for tomorrow
Collect from today the roses on the way.

* accroupie: a person who crouches

So here's Ronsard, warning her that she is lucky he hit on her (pick the roses on the way), for when she is old she will only have wool to spin mournfully, while he lies peacefully in his grave. Ooh, What vanity!

A lot more discussion on this poem here, and another article about why spurning an old poet might backfire as a career move.

Wonder whether I will have such luck when I am old, not that I have any such luck while I am young!


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