This sonnet from Pierre de Ronsard is supposed to be one of the last poems he wrote, while lying on his deathbed in his final days. Certainly the subject matter of the poem bears this out. It is both sad to read him witnessing his own decomposition, fully aware of the accelerating approach of death, but at the same time it is quite uplifting that he still had the sharpness of mind and the force of will to continue composing fine poetry. It as if he was holding on to the essence of himself, just as everything corporeal and material was wasting away.
And there is also some dark humour here, the notion of himself as already a skeleton seems to be more ironic or self-mocking than self-pitying. The title and the first line translate loosely as “Now all I have is my bones, I am just like a skeleton”. Well, those bones still knew how to write.
Je n’ay plus que les os, un Schelette je semble
Je n’ay plus que les os, un Schelette je semble,
Decharné, denervé, demusclé, depoulpé,
Que le trait de la mort sans pardon a frappé,
Je n’ose voir mes bras que de peur je ne tremble.
Apollon et son filZ deux grans maistres ensemble,
Ne me sçauroient guerir, leur mestier m’a trompé,
Adieu plaisant soleil, mon oeil est estoupé,
Mon corps s’en va descendre où tout se disassemble.
Quel amy me voyant en ce point despouillé
Ne remporte au logis un oeil triste et mouillé,
Me consolant au lict et me baisant la face,
En essuiant mes yeux par la mort endormis ?
Adieu chers compaignons, adieu mes chers amis,
Je m’en vay le premier vous preparer la place.
Recueil : Derniers vers
I love the second line also for its cumulative impact of disintegration and dematerialization of the poet’s body -“unfleshed, un-nerved, un-muscled, un-pulped”, all the signs of a prosperous and healthy life are evaporating because death is near. He daren’t even look at his arm because he will see it is trembling. There follows a classical reference to Apollo, the sun-god of classical mythology who was also the God of medicine, who couldn’t save him, even helped by his son (I’m not sure which of Apollo’s many sons would be referred to here.)
In the last six lines, Ronsard comments on friends coming to visit him, and unable to stop themselves from crying at his pitiful state as they return to their homes. But it sounds like the poet is more pitying them rather than himself – for the final line is to tell his friends they will die too, Ronsard is just going first to prepare for their arrival. In a sense he will play the role of the skull in their portrait, a memento mori which they can read and reflect on after his passing.
It is indeed a fine poem from a dying man.
The Poetry Dude