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Ballade des dames du temps jadis
Ballad of the Dead Ladies
A Poem by François Villon (1431-1463?)
Translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Title
Villon's Language
Rossetti's Translation
Rossetti's Neologism
Summary
Theme
Figures of Speech
English Version
Notes
Original French Version
Modern French Versions
Biography of Villon
Biography of Rossetti
Study Questions
Writing Topics
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Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
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Type of Work

Verse Genre

.......François Villon's famous poem is a ballade, as the French title indicates. Although the word ballade may be translated as ballad, a French ballade differs from an English ballad in that the former is a lyric poem and the latter a narrative poem. (A lyric poem expresses strong emotions or an idea; a ballad tells a story). However, a ballade is similar to a ballad in its use of a refrain, a repeated line or passage. 
.......A ballade generally contains three eight-line stanzas followed by a four-line stanza called an envoi (a conclusion with parting advice or a summation), as in “Ballade des dames du temps jadis.” An eight-line ballade stanza generally has a rhyme scheme of ababbcbc. The rhyme scheme of the envoi is bcbc. Usually, each line contains eight syllables.

Thematic Genre

.......Scholars also classify “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” as an ubi sunt poem. Ubi sunt is Latin for where are. A poem in this category laments the passing of people, places, things, or ideas by rhetorically asking where they are now in order to call attention to the inexorable passage of time and the inevitability of death, decay, and obsolescence. François Villon's poem asks where certain historical and mythological personages are.

Title and Its Translation

.......François Villon named his poem "Ballade." His editor, Clément Marot (1496-1544), lengthened the title to "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" in a 1533 edition of Villon's poems (Les Oeuvres de Françoys Villon). One may translate the title of the poem in many ways, including “Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Days,” “Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past,” and “Ballad of the Ladies of a Distant Age.” In the nineteenth century, English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti—who himself wrote many famous poems, such as "The Blessed Damozel"—translated the title as "Ballad of the Dead Ladies," taking the liberty of rendering temps jadis as dead. Literally, temps jadis means a remote or distant age or a time long ago. As used by Villon, the term can include the ancient age of mythology, as well as the historical past. But Rossetti's use of the word dead works well in his translation of the title: It is brief and to the point, and the historical ladies of the poem are, after all, quite dead. Rossetti's translation of the entire poem, which appears on this page, is probably the finest rendering of it in English. His translation of ballade as ballad may be justified because of the presence of the refrain. (See Type of Work for the difference between a ballade and a ballad.)

Villon's Language: Middle French

.......Villon wrote "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" in Middle French, spoken and written roughly between 1340 and the first decade of the seventeenth century. Middle French was preceded by Old French and succeeded by Modern French. 

Rossetti's English Translation

.......When he translated Villon's poem, Dante Gabrielle Rossetti had to convert Middle French words to their modern equivalents in order to understand the poem. An example of a Middle French word is royne, meaning queen; the Modern French equivalent is reine. After completing the translation, he faced a daunting task: to cast the poem in Villon's ballade format—using the same rhyme scheme and the same number of stanzas and lines, as well as approximating the same number of syllables per line—while attempting to retain the tone and aesthetic beauty of the poem. The consensus among literary critics is that Rossetti's finished product is a masterpiece in its own right. 

Rossetti's Neologism

.......The refrain (Where are the snows of yester-year) is among the most oft-quoted lines in English literature. It contains a word of Rossetti's own invention, yester-year, which has entered English dictionaries as yesteryear. To create the neologism, he combined two existing words: yester and year. He used the new word as a meaning for d'antan (line 8, Villon French version). D'antan is an adjectival prepositional phrase (de + antan elided). It means of or from an earlier time. French words and phrases with a similar meaning include autrefois, d'autrefois, jadis, de jadis, passé, and il y a longtemps

Summary

.......In the first three stanzas, the poem's speaker asks where famous women of long ago—women of history and myth—have gone. (The poem also mentions several men who associated with the women.) In the final stanza, the speaker addresses his listener, a prince, telling him never to ask about these women unless he also asks where the snows of long ago have gone. This conclusion is a reminder that death claims everyone, even women immortalized by their deeds, just as the warming temperatures of spring melt the snows of winter. 

Theme
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.......The theme of the poem is the inexorable march of time and the inevitability of death, as noted in the speaker's wistful reflection on the past. In particular, the poem laments the passing of once-famous ladies. They are all dead; their glory has disappeared. The refrain (at the end of each stanza) sums up the theme with a metaphor comparing the past and its people to snow that eventually melts and disappears: Mais sont les neiges d'antan? (Where are the snows of yester-year?). William Shakespeare used similar imagery in Henry VI Part I to describe the transiency of glory, comparing glory to the rippling circle created when a pebble falls into water. Here is the passage:

Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought. (1.2.139-141) 
Figures of Speech

.......At the end of each stanza, the poet presents this refrain: But where are the snows of yester-year? (Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!). The refrain is a metaphor that compares the past—as well as the people of the past—to snow that has melted. 
.......The poem also makes effective use of other figures of speech. Following are examples:
Alliteration (English Version)
.......H sound: beheld of no man, / Only heard on river and mere— / She whose beauty was more than human (lines 5-7)
.......Y consonant sound: yester-year (lines 8, 16, 24, 28)
.......P sound: put priesthood (line 11)
.......S sound: Sewed in a sack's mouth down the River Seine (line 15)
.......B sound: Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice (line 19)
.......N sound: Nay, never (line 25)
Simile, English Version Use of like, as, or than to compare unlike things
.......White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies, / With a voice like any mermaiden (lines 17-18)
Alliteration (Allitération), French Version
.......D sound: Ballade des dames du temps jadis (title)
.......L sound: Est Flora, la belle Rommaine; (line 2)
.......P sound:Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne / Pierre Esbaillart à Saint-Denis? (lines 10-11)
.......S sound: Pour son amour ot cest essoyne (line 12)
.......V sound: Où sont elles, Vierge souvraine? (line 23)
Simile (Comparaison), French Version Comparison using comme, ainsi que, and any other French term equivalent to like or as
.......La royne Blanche comme lis (line 17)

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Ballad of the Dead Ladies
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Translation of "Ballade des dames du temps jadis".

Tell me now in what hidden way1 is
Lady Flora2 the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia,3 and where is Thais,4
Neither of them the fairer woman?.
Where is Echo,5 beheld of no man,.................................5
Only heard on river and mere,—6.
She whose beauty was more than human? ....
But where are the snows of yester-year?.

Where's Héloise, the learned nun,.
For whose sake Abeillard,7 I ween,8..................................10
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?.
(From Love he won such dule9 and teen!10)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen.
Who willed that Buridan should steer.
Sewed in a sack's mouth down the Seine? ...10..................15
But where are the snows of yester-year?.

White Queen Blanche,11 like a queen of lilies,.
With a voice like any mermaiden,—.
Bertha Broadfoot,12 Beatrice, Alice,.
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,—13.............................20
And that good Joan14 whom Englishmen.
At Rouen doomed and burned her there, -15
Mother of God, where are they then? ....
But where are the snows of yester-year?.

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,16................................25
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,.
Save with this much for an overword,—17
But where are the snows of yester-year?.
 

Notes

1. Hidden way
Byway, archway, back alley, secret trysting place
2. Flora
Reference to a prostitute named Flora or a Roman goddess named Flora. 
Flora the Prostitute: The Greek biographer and historian Plutarch (AD 46-119?) refers to her as a courtesan favored by Pompey the Great (106-48 BC), the Roman general and statesman who was defeated by Julius Caesar in the Roman civil war. The reference appears in "Life of Pompey," a chapter in Plutarch's Parallel Lives. The latter is a collection of biographies about famous Greeks and Romans.
Flora the Goddess: In Roman mythology, she is the goddess of flowers and of plants and trees that bear fruit. She was pictured on coins as a beautiful young woman wearing a wreath of flowers. Because of her identification with reproduction in nature, she was associated with sex, fertility, and love. In the third century BC, the Romans began celebrating a festival in her honor. A temple dedicated to her was erected in Rome near the Circus Maximus, a stadium for chariot races.
3. Hipparchia
Villon used the name Archipiada in his Middle French poem. Rossetti changed the word to Hipparchia, the name of a Thracian woman who became the companion of the Greek cynic philosopher Crates. However, it is possible that Villon, in using Archipiada, was referring to Alcibiades (450-404 BC), a Greek general and statesman who was said to be extremely handsome. References to him in Plato's works led some later writers—perhaps including Villon—to presume that Alcibiades was a woman. 
4. Thais
Courtesan who accompanied Alexander the Great (356-323 BC).
5. Echo
See the study guide for Narcissus and Echo.
6. Héloise, Abeillard
Héloïse (1098-1164) and Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Abelard, a theologian and philosopher, began tutoring Héloïse, the niece of the canon of Notre Dame in 1117 or 1118 and they fell in love. After she gave birth to his child, they married. Angry relatives of Héloïse had Abelard castrated. She lived the rest of her life in a convent as a nun, and he entered a monastery and became its abbot. 
7. mere
Small lake, pond.
8. ween
Suppose, imagine, think.
9. dule
In Gaelic (the Celtic language of Scotland), dule means pain, agony, distress. Dool is an alternate spelling. In Great Britain in earlier centuries, trees that were used as hanging gallows came to be known as dule trees because of the suffering and sorrow associated with them. 
10. teen
Archaic word for suffering, misery. 
11. Queen, Buridan
Queen (royne, in Villon's Middle French) is a reference to the queen dowager of Burgundy, according to a note in the 1920 Oxford Book of French Verse. This note (number 32)  appears at Bartleby.com. The queen was said to have ordered the murder of Jean Buridan (1300-1358), a philosopher and scientist in Paris with whom she kept company. After tiring of him, she had him placed in a sack and thrown into the River Seine, but he managed to escape, according to accounts that cannot be fully documented. 
12. Queen Blanche
Probably a reference to the Spanish wife of King Louis VIII of France, Blanche of Castille (1188-1252).
13. Bertha Broadfoot
Bertrada of Laon, mother of Charlemagne (742-814) king of the Franks. Laon is a city in northern France. 
14. Beatrice . . . Ermengarde
Characters in old French stories.
15. Joan
Joan of Arc (1412-1431), the saintly peasant girl who was burned at the stake by the English. She is now a French national heroine.
16. Fair lord
It was customary for a poet to address an envoi (the final stanza) to his patron or to a courtier or member of the royal family. Villon uses Prince.
17. overword
Another word for refrain (repeated line or passage).

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Ballade des dames du temps jadis
By François Villon (1431-1463?).

Dictes moy où, n’en quel pays,.
Est Flora, la belle Rommaine;.
Archipiada, ne Thaïs,.
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;.
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on maine. 5
Dessus riviere ou sus estan,.
Qui beaulté ot trop plus qu’humaine?.
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!.

Où est la tres sage Helloïs,.
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne. 10
Pierre Esbaillart à Saint-Denis?.
Pour son amour ot cest essoyne...
Semblablement, où est la royne.
Qui commanda que Buridan.
Fust gecté en ung sac en Saine?. 15
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!.

La royne Blanche comme lis,.
Qui chantoit à voix de seraine;.
Berte au grant pié, Bietris, Allis;.
Haremburgis qui tint le Maine,. 20
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,.
Qu’Englois brulerent à Rouan;.
Où sont elles, Vierge souvraine? ….
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!.

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine. 25
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,.
Que ce reffrain ne vous remaine:.
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!.

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Ballade des dames du temps jadis

Modern French Versions (Copyrighted)

La Philologie Française
Patricia Terry and Maurice Z. Schroder, Metamorphoses (Journal), Smith College
Peter Dale, Anvil Press
French Today
 

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Study Questions and Writing Topics

1. Write a ballade or a ballad on a subject of your choice.
2. Write an ubi sunt poem on a subject of your choice. (See Type of Work, above, for information on this genre.)
2. If you are a French student, do either 1 or 2 in French. 
3..François Villon was a well-educated intellectual and a great poet. He was also a thief and a brawler who was repeatedly imprisoned. Research his life. Then write an essay that discusses how his personal experiences influenced his poetry.

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