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 www.bewilderingstories.com