Today’s poem has a striking first line, followed up by a second line which is almost as perfect – both references to classical mythology, but remarkably and economically stated. The poem is, of course, written by Joachim du Bellay in the mid 1500s. He wrote a number of poems of homesickness in exile while he was serving for several years on diplomatic missions in Rome. Not a bad place to be posted, you would think, but the poems are full of his frustration and misery at being away from his beloved France.
Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage,
Ou comme cestuy-là qui conquit la toison,
Et puis est retourné, plein d’usage et raison,
Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge !
Quand reverrai-je, hélas, de mon petit village
Fumer la cheminée, et en quelle saison
Reverrai-je le clos de ma pauvre maison,
Qui m’est une province, et beaucoup davantage ?
Plus me plaît le séjour qu’ont bâti mes aïeux,
Que des palais Romains le front audacieux,
Plus que le marbre dur me plaît l’ardoise fine :
Plus mon Loir gaulois, que le Tibre latin,
Plus mon petit Liré, que le mont Palatin,
Et plus que l’air marin la doulceur angevine.
The sense of those striking first two lines is only revealed in the third and fourth line. Ulysses and Jason are not happy because of their travels, but because they were able to come home and live out their lives to old age amongst their families and loved ones. It is the same sentiment as Dorothy’s discovery in The Wizard of Oz, that there is no place like home.
The second stanza expresses the poet’s longing to see again the familiar surroundings of his home, and his village, which is as dear to him as any province. He yearns to be back at home, bit clearly the poem is saying he doesn’t believe he will ever be able to settle down in his own native place.
The final six lines compare the virtues and charms of du Bellay’s ancestral lands with the buildings and features of Rome – and he clearly prefers his homeland – the house his forebears built is more pleasing than proud Roman palaces, slate is better than marble, the river Loir than the river Tiber, the lire hill than the Palatine, and the gentle air of Anjou than the sea air of Rome.
Happily for him, du Bellay was able to return to France after several years in Italy. And, along with Ronsard, he contributed to a rich renewal of French poetry, which we can go back to again and again to find beautiful poems, like this one.
The Poetry Dude