“Quand Vous Serez Bien Vieille” par Pierre de Ronsard

Pierre de Ronsard wrote the sonnet “Quand Vous Serez Bien Vieille” in 1578 to taunt his 16 year old niece Hélène when she refused his amourous advances.  Carpe Diem (“Seize the day”) was a very popular theme in the Renaissance, the period during which Ronsard was writing.  Given the enormous artistic exchange between European nations during this time, Andrew Marvell had almost undoubtedly read Ronsard’s poetry (including “Quand Vous Serez Bien Vielle) when he wrote his similar but earthier “To His Coy Mistress” in England 64 years later.  Ronsard’s anger at  Hélène’s rejection of him  is clear and his projection of Hélène’s future regret at shunning his romantic interest in her was surely striking to his readers, if not to Hélène herself.

Lucienne Boyer, a popular Parisian singer in the late twenties and into the thirties sang and recorded “Quand Vous Serez Bien Vieille”.  Lyric poetry (including sonnets such as “Quand Vous Serez Bien Vieille”) was meant to be set to music; in fact the term “lyric poetry” has its etymology in “lyre” a musical instrument which once accompanied the singing of this type of poetry.  Thus Lucienne Boyer’s rendition of “Quand Vous Serez Bien Vieille” is of particular interest when studying the poem.

I have supplied “Quand Vous Serez Bien Vieille”, its English translation and a clip of Lucienne Boyer singing it below.

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.

Sonnets pour Hélène, 1587

Quand Vous Serez Bien Vieille (English)

When you are very old, at evening, by the fire,
spinning wool by candlelight and winding it in skeins,
you will say in wonderment as you recite my lines:
“Ronsard admired me in the days when I was fair.”

Then not one of your servants dozing gently there
hearing my name’s cadence break through your low repines
but will start into wakefulness out of her dreams
and bless your name — immortalised by my desire.

I’ll be underneath the ground, and a boneless shade
taking my long rest in the scented myrtle-glade,
and you’ll be an old woman, nodding towards life’s close,

regretting my love, and regretting your disdain.
Heed me, and live for now: this time won’t come again.
Come, pluck now — today — life’s so quickly-fading rose.

(originally published in Tide and Undertow by Anthony Weir, Belfast 1975)
Poem and translation taken from http://www.bewilderingstories.com

1 thought on ““Quand Vous Serez Bien Vieille” par Pierre de Ronsard

  1. Hello Melissa!

    I enjoyed your analysis, but do not agree that the speaker’s voice is angry; rather it is elegaic and regretful! But the poem is also rhetorically quite clever. The fear of the addresse’s future old age and the vision of the poet’s future death (death because he is considerably older than she) is cleverly used to convince her to rethink her rejection of him and “seize the day” – hopefully, with him, of course, but he is also too tactful to say that explicitly! He would like her to believe that he will be equally satisfied if she just gives herself to life, rather than persisting in her current course of saying “no” to it.

    Ronsard thus equates himself with “Life” and insinuates that by rejecting him she has rejected Life itself!

    In this, the poem is very similar in rhetorical strategy to Michael Drayton’s famous Sonnet 61, which I quote for you here:

    Sonnet Lxi: Since There’s No Help

    “Since there’s no help, come, let us kiss and part,
    Nay, I have done, you get no more of me,
    And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
    That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
    Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
    And when we meet at any time again
    Be it not seen in either of our brows
    That we one jot of former love retain.
    Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
    When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
    When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
    And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
    Now, if thou wouldst, when all have giv’n him over,
    From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.”

    By the way, did you know that Ronsard’s sonnet inspired the beautiful sonnet “When You are Old and Grey” by W.B. Yeats?

    The similarities are obvious:

    “When you are old and grey 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 amid a crowd of stars.”

    Please feel free to drop me a line in reply. I live in Holland, in a beautiful country village called
    “Abcoude,” set amongst dykes, grassy fields, grazing cattle and sheep, winding country rivers and, of course, windmills! If you google it, you will see some lovely photos!

    With best wishes for continuing good health for you and yours,

    Paul Gabriner

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