Ronsard: "When you are old" (From French)

Sonnet to Helen
By Pierre de Ronsard (mid 16th cent)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

When you sit aging under evening's star
By hearth and candle, spinning yarns and wool,
You'll sing my verse in awe and say "Ronsard
Wrought song of me when I was beautiful"

Hearing such words, your serving-maid that night,
Though half-asleep from drudging, all the same
Will wake at my name's sound and stand upright
Hailing the deathless praises of your name.

I'll be a boneless phantom resting sound
Amid the myrtly shades1 far underground.
You, by the hearth, a crone bent low in sorrow
For your proud scorn that willed my love away.
Live now, I beg of you. Wait not the morrow.
Gather the roses of your life today.

1-Resting with the shady myrtle tree often denotes peace, and its greenness suggests immortality. That myrtle leaves were an emblem of Venus also implies that Ronsard has that goddess on his side in his poetic headspace. Note, however, that this is not the only classical connotation of myrtle. See for example Virgil (Aeneid VI 440-4):

Not far from here, splayed all about, there lie
The Plains of Weeping. That is the name they bear
For here those whom brutal love has drained and ravaged
Hide on clandestine paths and under cover
Of myrtle bowers. Even here in death
Their yearnings have no mercy.
Nec procul hinc partem fusi monstrantur in omnem
Lugentes campi; sic illos nomine dicunt.
hic quos durus amor crudeli tabe peredit
secreti celant calles et myrtea circum
silva tegit; curae non ipsa in morte relinquunt.
Recording of me reciting the original in a reconstruction of late Renaissance French literary pronunciation

The Original:

Sonnet à Hélène

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant:
« Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j'estois belle ! »

Lors vous n'aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s'aille resveillant,
Benissant1 vostre nom de louange immortelle.

Je seroy sous la terre, et fantaume sans os ;
Par les ombres Myrtheux je prendray mon repos.
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour, et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m'en croyez2, n'attendez à demain :
Cueillez dés aujourd'huy les roses de la vie.

Notes on the French text:
1- Benir qqn. de qqch. in Middle French meant "congratulate/commend" (someone for something), which makes more sense contextually here than the more commonly presumed "bless with."
2- si m'en croyez in Middle French meant something more like "I implore you."


  1. Lovely translation. I've been struggling just to turn it into idiomatic English, and yet your poetic version manages to stay closer to what I perceive to be Ronsard's intentions than my wordier, prose version! Fantastic - thank you!

  2. Really exceptional translations on your page - and I can only understand the French. Amazing that you can understand so many languages on, I assume, the level of such a master. Thank you for the translations - beautiful!