The Odd Couple
the late Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) translates early Pierre Ronsard (1524-1585)
Anthony Rudolf, poet and publisher, spotted a reference to the fact that Sylvia Plath had translated a few poems by Pierre Ronsard in a footnote to her Collected Poems. Being an eager beaver, he tracked down her very own heavily annotated copy of Ronsard's Selected Poems, published by Blackwell's in 1951 - 'Sylvia Plath, Cambridge, 1956', she has written at the top right hand corner of the cover - and made a book out of them with the help of others. Here are those original poems, together with Plath's translations and an essay by Yves Bonnefoy which helps us to ruminate upon Ronsard's continuing importance as a poet.
Avant le temps tes temples fleuriront,
De peu de jours ta fin sera bornée,
Avant ton soir se clorra ta journée,
Trahis d'espoir tes pensers périront.
Sans me fleschir tes escriptz flétriront,
En ton désastre ira ma destinée,
Ta mort sera pour m'amour terminée,
De tes souspirs tes nepveux se riront.
Tu seras faict d'un vulgaire la fable,
Tu bastiras sur l'incertain du sable,
Et vainement tu peindras dans les cieulx:
Ainsi disoit la Nymphe qui m'afolle,
Lors que le ciel pour séeller sa parolle
D'un dextre ésclair fut presage a mes yieulx.
Before the time your temples have turned gray,
Your short span will end and death's voice call,
Before your eve, your sun will quit life's hall,
Betrayed by hope, your thoughts will all decay,
Not moving me your work will fade away,
My destiny will bring your fatal fall,
Your love for me will be your funeral pall,
Posterity will laugh at your sad lay.
You will be fabled in a common land,
You will build on the uncertain sand,
And vainly you will write upon the skies:
Thus spoke the Nymph who drives me to distraction,
When the heavens, sealing her prediction,
With lightning showed an omen to my eyes.
Quand au matin ma Déesse s'abille
D'un riche or crespe ombrageant ses talons,
Et que les retz de ses beaulx cheveux blondz
En cent facons ennonde et entortille:
Je l'accompagne a l'escumiere fille,
Qui or peignant les siens jaunement longz,
Or les ridant en mille crespillons
Nageoyt abord dedans uner coquille.
De femme humaine encore ne sont pas
Son ris, son front, ses gestes, ny ses pas,
Ny de ses yeulx l'une & l'autre chandelle:
Rocz, eaux, ny boys, ne celent point en eulx
Nymphe, qui ait si follastres cheveux,
Ni l'oeil si beau, ny la bouche so belle.
When in the morn the goddess sets each curl,
With rich-waved gold hiding her shoulders bare,
And when the handsome nets of her blond hair
In a hundred fashions twist and twirl:
I compare her to that foam-born girl,
Who, now combing hers, goldenly fair,
Now rippling them in myriad ringlets there,
Sailed the sea aboard a shell of pearl.
Of mortal maids not one could match her now,
Her smile, her step, her gestures nor her brow,
Nor her bright eyes, each one a glowing candle.
Rocks, lakes, and wooded wildernesses
Conceal no nymph who has such wanton tresses,
Nor eye so fine, nor mouth so beautiful.
Qui vouldra voyr dedans une jeunesse
La beaulté jointe avec la chasteté,
L'humble doulceur, la grave magesté,
Toutes vertus, & toute gentillesse:
Qui vouldra voyr les yeulx d'une déesse,
Et de noz ans la seule nouveauté,
De cette Dame oeillade la beaulté,
Que le vulgaire appelle ma maistresse.
Il apprendra comme Amour rid & mord,
Comme il guarit, comme il donne la mort,
Puis il dira voyant chose si belle:
Heureux vrayment, heureux qui peult avoyr
Heureusement cest heur que de la voyr,
Et plus heureux qui meurt pour l'amour d'elle.
Who would see at one with youthfulness
Beauty in company with chastity,
Humble sweetness, solemn majesty,
All virtues and every gentleness:
Who would see the eyes of a goddess,
And of our age the unique novelty,
Of this Lady contemplate the beauty,
Whom the common people call my mistress.
He will learn how love contracts and gnaws,
How he gives death to all who serve his cause,
Then seeing maid so fair he will aver:
Happy, truly happy is the one
Who happily can see this paragon,
More happy he who dies for love of her.
Voyci le boys, que ma sainte Angelette
Sus le printemps anime de son chant.
Voyci les fleurs que son pied va marchant,
Lors que pensive el s'esbat seullette.
Io voici la prée verdelette,
Qui prend vigueur de sa main la touchant,
Quand pas a pas pillarde va cherchant
Le bel esmail de l'herbe nouvelette.
Ici chanter, la pleurer je la vy,
Ici soubrire, & la je fus ravy
De ses beaulx yeulx par lesquelz je desvie:
Ici s'asseoir, la je la vi dancer:
Sus le mestier d'un si vague penser
Amour ourdit les trames de ma vie.
Behold the woods which my angelic queen
In the springtime livens with her song.
Behold the blooms her foot strays among
As she sports pensive on the lonely scene.
O here behold the meadows' verdant green
Which at the touching of her hand grows strong
When step by step the sweet thief goes along
Seeking the new grass-blades' lovely sheen.
Here she sang, and there I saw her cry,
Here smile, and there I was charmed fatally
By her fair eyes which wound me like a knife:
I saw her sit down here, dance in that spot:
Upon the frame of such a hazy thought
Love wove the warp and woof of my whole life.
translated by Daniel Weissbort
Ladies and gentlemen, you are gathered here to honour the memory of Ronsard and once again to address his work. But neither that celebration nor this endeavour would make sense were we no longer able to recognise ourselves in what he has written.
The first question we must therefore ask ourselves is whether Ronsard is relevant to our modern condition. It is always possible, even easy, to use a poem from another age as a screen onto which to project our dream of things, forgetting or unaware of its underlying assumptions. But once we have taken notice of these,
once Ronsard is again speaking in his own voice, does this poetry from another culture still have anything to say to us? You who must surely regard Ronsard as great enough to make such considerations superfluous, please forgive me if I raise the question.
I share your opinion, but is it not also true - hence my question - that there is something utterly obsolete, therefore inaccessible to us, in his poetry, and which moreover is so important a constituent of his experience of the world and of the self, so intimately bound up with everything else, that there is a danger his present decline might lead to his work being regarded as of no more than documentary importance, or as an example of the beauty of pure form? This component, which as such has not stood the test of time, is precisely what, in a word, might be called belief in form: though in this sense, that at another time it might have represented not merely an aspect of the poem or work of art, not just an aesthetic procedure, but the very essence of the Universe in its divine nature. I am thinking, you see, of that legacy of Greece to the Christian Middle Ages, those representations of the cosmos, which are still so vital during the Renaissance, before gradually collapsing under the assault of modern astronomy and physics.
As we now recognise, somewhat nostalgically, this was an enchanting notion, and the Greeks made good use of it. The circles, spheres, polyhedrons which Euclidian geometry defined and the most salient characteristics of which it described, glowed from within the depths of natural phenomena, creating so coherent, so close a network, from the Unitary to the Multiple, from the celestial bodies to the things of this world, that it might have passed for reality itself. After which, it is true, Hellenic thought unfortunately was unable to integrate the human creature, the individual, into this structure, locating him only at that point where form is absorbed in matter: the bearer of a spark, but imprisoned in the flesh which is subject to decay, which, even though he was also spirit, made of him something ephemeral, infusing his ardour with a certain melancholy. But the science of the Middle Ages, in the great period of Aristotle's rediscovery, was able to resolve this aporia, transforming this lovely universe into a ladder between a creator God and his creature, who had fallen but whom Christ had come to redeem. Leonardo da Vinci would soon inscribe the divine and the human within the same circle, the same play of triangles, perfect image of the ontological confidence that Christian consciousness
displayed at that time, in spite of the miseries of the period, and which is then reflected in the arts, in poetry.
In poetry especially - since when he writes, when he contrasts the practice of metre with the randomness of daily existence, the poet of that time, a Ronsard for instance, could quite easily come to the conclusion that he was merely reflecting, recalling the musical relationship between the individual and the world, and the clear evidence of divine concern. Pleased with the Universe to the extent
of never quite knowing whether he was dealing with his fellow creatures or with the divinity - the Nymphs in his poems were a metaphor for the aura which surrounded any manifestation of the feminine - Ronsard saw his writing as recapitulating this pleasure simply by virtue of its assuming a form.
This might account for the nature of his work which, with its words that never clash, with its reassuring images, suggests a consensus, a coherence, an easy harmony among things and creatures, among human and heavenly bodies: hence, the confidence, the wonder, the cosmic quality in this poet's experience of love, even of sexual love, which after all is simply the means whereby harmony overcomes materiality in the individual, vanquishing death. Melancholy, which is nothing but a scarcely repressed intuition regarding the illusory nature of belief, in these poems if not in this life, represents no more than a temptation, clearly acknowledged yet always transcended, always at least kept at arm's length. Nevertheless, for us too it follows, from this first great fact of Medieval and then Renaissance consciousness, that this poetic beauty and this confidence depend on an illusion, making them suspect. We are surely well aware that the figures of Euclidean geometry do not represent the essence of the world, the Universe is not cosmic but chaotic, with no apparent rationality behind its fragile material forms: that humanity might come to an end tomorrow, just as it began scarcely more than a day ago, without either the stars or any god noticing. What possible relevance to us,
in this new landscape of deserts and erupting volcanoes, can these poems have with their Nymphs holding up vessels from which water flows, and where the rose, with its thousand associations at every spiritual level, is the most natural subject of contemplation.
Still, they do convey a good deal, but this is because there is another - a second - order of meaning here, which I shall try to bring out by first juxtaposing two words: nature and the earth. Modern science has dispelled the notion that nature, at whatever level, might help us to discover or verify any aspect of being. Henceforth, we know that there are no signs or indications in the forms of nature of a reality ontologically superior to its phenomena. But it need not be valued in this way for the space occupied by our species to possess a reality for us - for it to be, we might even say,
a place of origin, a basis or our existence. Since the world is our home and is, it is therefore what I have called the earth, no longer meaning by this the atoms, forces, mutations and other material effects of nature, but the meadows, springs, woods that Ronsard sang, or else the deserts and the bare mountains, and even the stars in the sky, but as seen from our roads or through our windows.
Nature, the earth. And to return to poetry, an approach which, to put it simply, is no less capable now of showing us how the quality of certain works is preserved through history. As we have seen, Ronsard's poetry, at the heart of the Renaissance, has enjoyed a great, if illusory advantage, this being the belief in the divine character of Nature, as an expression of God, where we moderns recognise in it only the matrix of life. But even if Ronsard cherishes
his notion of woods, springs, meadows, of a light that seemed to come from a deeper source than the phenomena themselves, it is of these same fields, these woods that he speaks, that is, of the realities of what I call earth. And there are indications in these poems that even this apparently super-terrestrial light results from his connexion with place, his acceptance of mortality, before absenting himself to reflect upon the appearance of the spheres in a supposedly divine cosmos.
Here, however, there is an ambiguity in his poetry which is not new: other works manifest it as well. When we enter a Roman basilica, there too we discern a music of forms which is often so pure that it seems almost to demonstrate the continuity of the visible world and the spheres: but in the ground plan, in the chamber's vaulting, we perceive also man's capacity for organization, just as we sense, in the massiveness of the stone, the resistance always offered by that which exists to the artist's attempts to impose a form on it. And so, we discover again that form is as much a product of our own efforts as it is received by us from God, which does not mean that it is any less lovely, any less mysterious. Since the time of the Roman sanctuary, form has been experienced as the victory - a precarious one, of course - of our will to be present over a reality quite as dark and impenetrable as the blocks of stone out of which the vaults were constructed.
Ronsard, therefore, was simply one of those whose greatness lay in bolstering faith in the cosmic order, faith in so-called divine nature, through practice of an art which throughout life validated this notion of form on the level this time of the relationship to one's natural environment. It is true, as he tells us, that perfection is composed of 'circular things', as, for a while at that time, the motion of the stars was circular? But the clearing made by the wood-cutter in the forest is also circular. And are there Nymphs in this forest? There are, but this is because Ronsard possessed that passion for life which was reflected in the faces of the young women he adored, and because he endowed with mystery their beauty racked by torments of the heart. This poet feels everything to the full, the so-called celestial forms are in harmony for him, here and now. And it is in that respect that his spirit remains meaningful for us and his poetry acquires a universal appeal.
It is precisely because we are no longer able to read the divine in nature that it becomes important for us to reflect upon Ronsard's great work. The rainbow may well echo our joy; it no longer represents God's promise to humanity. And when the Romantic poet tried to recover the sense of the divine in the horror of chasms or in the sublimity of snowy peaks, it meant he was already resigned to leaving the world, dying. But in our disappointment we have also forgotten that if nature has lost its ontophanic value, the earth is still capable of such. Very soon after having become disenchanted, on account of science, with the cosmological models, modern culture turned away from the vales and woods of its past, because industry had distanced them from our cities, and overpopulation had reduced them to the level of scenes along the tourist route - and even poetry failed to remember them sufficiently, believing that its truth lay in projecting our drama, not in searching nature for causes, so that a remedy might be found.
Well, it was precisely this mistake that Ronsard was able to avoid, even though his idea of nature might have seemed to him perfectly adequate, and it is this that makes his work a valuable testimony and an aid even, in our time, had we but eyes for it. For half a century, we have been attached to Maurice Sceve, because his work seems to pre-date our own exploration of the life of signs, the ascendancy of language over consciousness. However, we should no longer rank him above the poets of the Pléiade, who for their part were aware of the ascendancy of reality over signs, whether it concerned a body in dance, or an oak tree under the threat of the axe. Ronsard's potential contribution, the topicality of his verse, lies in his ability to make us once more aware of the immediate, of the present: of that density of lived experience which, it is true, eludes verbal expression, yet which profoundly determines our choice of words and can lend them greater substance. He shows us what is simple. He urges us to look around us and to realize that the world is still arrayed in purple, even if our own evening is drawing near.
And we who are obsessed with polysemy and textuality should recognize that, in Ronsard, a major aspect of this discriminatory capacity, which is the poetic quality par excellence, is clarity, the rejection of all hermeticism, to which he bore witness more and more insistently, and for which moreover he was reproached in his own day. You will recall when he wrote in the Amours de Marie:
Tyard, on me blasmait, a mon commencement,
Dequoy j'estois obscur au simple populaire:
Mais on dit aujourd'huy que je suis au contraire,
Et que je me démentis, parlant trop bassement.
Tyard, I was blamed when I began
For being obscure to the common folk:
But nowadays they say I am quite the reverse
And that I give myself the lie, with too base a tongue.
These opening lines in the Marie sequence, perfectly plain, were clearly a cause for reproach, and may even seem to have remained so, from the viewpoint of the investigations we need to carry out at the limits of the unconscious and what still remains unconceived, and I would not wish to suggest that we adopt them as our model,
since poetry is not some reflection to be encapsulated in petty formulas, but that which exploits the full verbal range, symbolic as well as conceptual. Nevertheless, once they are set again in the context of the poet's destiny, I find them very moving, so lucidly do they identify and define in the work the proper exigencies of poetry. To appeal to the 'common folk'? Certainly not, in so far as, in our time at least, this would only bring one into contact with the impoverished, mutilated, demoralised stereotypes of culture. On the other hand, to be hermetic, still less so. Because whoever indulges in his own mannerisms invites uncritical imitation, reduplication: in other words, it encourages academicism. All of us are by nature obscure, each speaking his or her own language, and apparently intelligibility should not delude us on this point - there are as many secrets in Racine's writings as in Mallarmé's texts. But, obscure though it may be, poetry is nonetheless passionately committed to clarity, and this because it knows that the world, the revitalised relationship with the reality of the world, exists only in so far as the latter is, as I have said, a place: that is to say, a social entity, constituting therefore as comprehensive and immediate an exchange with others as may be.
To communicate with others, to possess if not the clarity, then at least the desire for clarity, because one tries to communicate with those who ordinarily are simply made use of by art rather than actually encountered: and so to discover them again where they are looking for themselves, and with them to haunt the future of speech, becoming the other, at least potentially, at the same time as one renounces the I that has turned into a fetish: it is because Ronsard so evidently desired this, whereas soon Malherbe and Classicism were to prefer language to speech, that we love him today. It is because he wished himself in the presence of a Marie, of an Hélene, that he is present too among us.
These extracts from Theme and Version: Plath and Ronsard by Anthony Rudolf, appear here by kind permission of its publisher, the Menard Press. The book itself, which includes additional texts and illustrations by Audrey Jones, Anthony Rudolf and Daniel Weissbort, is available from: www.inpressbooks.co.uk