That this is a sonnet by du Bellay on the glories of ancient Rome only becomes apparent at the very end of the poem. He builds up to this by a series of metaphors, so like a Rubik’s cube where the symmetrical pattern is only revealed with the final twist, the object of those metaphors is held back until the final lines of the sonnet. Perhaps it was a challenge to the audience as to who could guess the meaning of the poem first, before it got to the end?
Joachim DU BELLAY (1522-1560)
Comme on passe en été le torrent sans danger
Comme on passe en été le torrent sans danger,
Qui soulait en hiver être roi de la plaine,
Et ravir par les champs d’une fuite hautaine
L’espoir du laboureur et l’espoir du berger :
Comme on voit les couards animaux outrager
Le courageux lion gisant dessus l’arène,
Ensanglanter leurs dents, et d’une audace vaine
Provoquer l’ennemi qui ne se peut venger :
Et comme devant Troie on vit des Grecs encor
Braver les moins vaillants autour du corps d’Hector :
Ainsi ceux qui jadis soulaient, à tête basse,
Du triomphe romain la gloire accompagner,
Sur ces poudreux tombeaux exercent leur audace,
Et osent les vaincus les vainqueurs dédaigner.
The metaphors are all about the bringing low of mighty forces, and how lesser beings can safely mock the remnants of those mighty forces. The first four lines deal with a mighty river, which in full flood would destroy the surrounding countryside and carry off the crops and flocks of the farmers and shepherds. But in summer the river is reduced to a tiny trickle and everybody can cross without danger.
The second four lines, see the lion lying weakened, perhaps dying, in the desert and the animals which are normally its prey gathered round mocking it, knowing it is too weak to attack.
The next metaphor has the Greek soldiers at the siege of Troy taunting the body of the Trojan hero Hector after he has been killed by Achilles.
And then we get to the object of the metaphor with the word “Ainsi” in the eleventh line – in this way all those who used to be dragged through the streets as captives in a Roman procession of triumph (afterwards to be executed or enslaved) can now mock and disdain the remnants of ancient Rome, its dusty monuments. The defeated of old now have the upper hand.
Rome in the 16th century by all accounts was a pretty dismal city, du Bellay hated his time there, but any visitor could compare the squalor and discomfort of contemporary Rome with the signs of the glorious and luxurious city which had existed at the height of the Roman Empire.
The Poetry Dude