Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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.
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.
and Its Translation
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,
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.)
Language: Middle French
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.
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.
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,
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, passé, and il y a longtemps.
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 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:
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
Till by broad spreading
it disperse to nought. (1.2.139-141)
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.
poem also makes effective use of other figures of speech. Following are
sound: beheld of no man, / Only heard
on river and mere— / She whose beauty
was more than
human (lines 5-7)
consonant sound: yester-year
(lines 8, 16, 24, 28)
sound: put priesthood
sound: Sewed in a sack's
mouth down the River Seine (line 15)
sound: Bertha Broadfoot,
Beatrice (line 19)
sound: Nay, never
Simile, English Version
Use of like, as, or than to compare unlike things
Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies, / With a voice like any mermaiden
temps jadis (title)
sound: Est Flora,
belle Rommaine; (line 2)
sound:Pour qui fut chastré
et puis moyne / Pierre
Esbaillart à Saint-Denis? (lines 10-11)
sound: Pour son amour ot cest
essoyne (line 12)
sound: Où sont elles, Vierge
souvraine? (line 23)
French Version Comparison using comme, ainsi que, and
any other French term equivalent to like or as
royne Blanche comme lis (line 17)
of the Dead Ladies
Gabriel Rossetti's Translation of "Ballade des dames du temps jadis".
Tell me now in what hidden
the lovely Roman?
and where is Thais,4
Neither of them the fairer
Where is Echo,5
beheld of no man,.................................5
Only heard on river and
She whose beauty was more
than human? ....
But where are the snows
Where's Héloise, the
For whose sake Abeillard,7
Lost manhood and put priesthood
(From Love he won such dule9
And where, I pray you, is
Who willed that Buridan
Sewed in a sack's mouth
down the Seine? ...10..................15
But where are the snows
White Queen Blanche,11
like a queen of lilies,.
With a voice like any mermaiden,—.
And Ermengarde the lady
And that good Joan14
At Rouen doomed and burned
her there, -15
Mother of God, where are
they then? ....
But where are the snows
Nay, never ask this week,
Where they are gone, nor
yet this year,.
Save with this much for
But where are the snows
1. Hidden way
Byway, archway, back alley,
secret trysting place
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
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.
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.
Courtesan who accompanied
Alexander the Great (356-323 BC).
See the study guide for
6. Héloise, Abeillard
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.
Small lake, pond.
Suppose, imagine, think.
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.
Archaic word for suffering,
11. Queen, Buridan
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
14. Beatrice . . . Ermengarde
Characters in old French
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.
Another word for refrain
(repeated line or passage).
des dames du temps jadis
François Villon (1431-1463?).
Dictes moy où, n’en
Est Flora, la belle Rommaine;.
Archipiada, ne Thaïs,.
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;.
Echo, parlant quand bruyt
Dessus riviere ou sus estan,.
Qui beaulté ot trop
Mais où sont les
Où est la tres sage
Pour qui fut chastré
et puis moyne.
Pierre Esbaillart à
Pour son amour ot cest essoyne...
est la royne.
Qui commanda que Buridan.
Fust gecté en ung
sac en Saine?.
Mais où sont les
La royne Blanche comme lis,.
Qui chantoit à voix
Berte au grant pié,
Haremburgis qui tint le
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,.
Qu’Englois brulerent à
Où sont elles, Vierge
Mais où sont les
Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine.
Où elles sont, ne
de cest an,.
Que ce reffrain ne vous
Mais où sont les
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.)
If you are a French student, do either 1 or 2 in French.
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