Anticipating the Beatles “When I’m 64” by almost 500 years, in this sonnet Ronsard not only asks his lover if she will still love him when she is old, but will she talk about the poems Ronsard wrote for her when she was young and beautiful? It’s a nice touch and another way a poet can talk about living on for posterity, this time through the direct testimony of his lover in her old age, looking back on the time when they were young.
“When you are old” – in Ronsard’s time that might have meant 54 rather than 64 (and today we might even say 84), but we get the meaning.
Quand vous serez bien vieille
Pierre de Ronsard
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.
Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille réveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.
Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos :
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.
Pierre de Ronsard, Sonnets pour Hélène, 1578
The first four lines, picture the poet’s lover as an old woman, sitting in candlelight by the fire, doing some kind of needlework and looking back at the time when the poet Ronsard wrote poems about her beauty. But then in the second four lines, Ronsard says that perhaps there will be no servant, slumbering over their work, to listen and marvel at the immortal praises of the famous poet.
For the poet will be dead and buried, and the lover just a bent old woman, living full of regret for the past love and her resistance to the poet’s advances.
So in the final two lines, Ronsard brings us back to his present time, exhorting his lover to enjoy life and his love while she can, avoiding the bitter regrets of old age. Youth and beauty are fleeting, so grab life before it is too late. Shakespeare also wrote a number of sonnets like this, of course.
The Poetry Dude