Pierre de Ronsard, Pierre Corneille, and Alfred de Musset, which one is the author of Stances à Marquise?
That was the question posed by a French television station to its audience on an early Spring day. From Troyes in Champagne-Ardenne my psychiatrist friend Jacques had the kindness to send me the challenge, and provided much of the background information on Corneille discussed here. Jacques, whose main focus on the intricacies of the human mind spans decades, is a serious student of literature. It is his love of literature, and his residence in the native land of Pierre de Ronsard (in the Vendômois) during his high school years, that revive his interest in Corneille's Stances to which he juxtaposes Ronsard's Sonnet pour Hélène.
Born into a well-to-do bourgeois family in Rouen in 1608, Pierre Corneille studied law, and had a successful practice. While a lawyer, he wrote plays that caught the attention of Richelieu, who became his protector. It was his literary achievement that secured him a place in the pantheon of French greats. Admitted to the French Academy in 1647, and although later dethroned as a playwright by the younger tragedian Jean Racine, Corneille remained one of the greatest French dramatists, and a peerless practitioner in versification.
At age thirty-one, Corneille conquered Paris with Le Cid, the tragi-comedy that introduced me to the classical theater and captured my imagination at a tender age. In the play Rodrigue (the Cid) is charged by his wronged and now enfeebled father Don Diègue with redeeming the family's honor, which Don Gormas has sullied, Don Gormas the kingdom's pillar, the terror of the kingdom's enemies, the King's right arm, and the father of his sweetheart Chimène.
What a cruel fate has befallen our young hero. If he does not seek revenge, his family's honor and his will be forever tarnished and become an intolerable legacy. If he does, he will have to confront Chimène's father, whose daughter he cherishes even more than his own life. But in keeping with the spirit of the time Rodrigue has no choice: he has to discharge his duty above all. So off he goes to challenge the offending Don Gormas to a duel. The war hero, who has a certain affection for his daughter's lover, will not be drawn into an altercation. But upon Rodrigue's persistence, the exasperated Don Gormas expresses condescension for his youth and inexperience, triggering Rodrigue's ringing repartee:
...Mais pour des âmes bien nées
...But for high-born souls,
Ton bras est invaincu mais non pas
Here is the quintessential Corneille, a model of classicism, an ideal of dignity, and restraint, adept at creating memorable lines. His protagonists are forceful, proud, unyielding, dutiful, and honor-bound. If in his plays there is tension between love and duty, it is the latter that triumphs.
So when the dour Corneille in his ripe years penned the Stances à Marquise, few suspect that the playwright whose heroes speak with such vigor and logic is capable of tender feelings. But feelings he had, and strong enough to risk ridicule and sarcasm in a poem that was sure to raise a rucus.
Did Corneille, an honorable family man at a high point in his career, fall in love with La Du Parc, nicknamed Marquise, an actress with Molière's comedy troupe to whom he addressed the stanzas? Of that I have little doubt.
A wag, Georges Brassens, crafted a sequel to the stanzas, which signed under the pen name of Tristan Bernard concluded with malicious intent:
Peut-être que je serai vieille,
It may be that I will be old,
Such raging light-hearted literary tempest aside, the stanzas touch upon the universal topic of love and the passage of time. As is often the case with determined souls, there is little that time can do to dampen the feelings of affection that a man of advancing years harbors for a younger woman. His ardor like smoldering embers may lie dormant now, but like an active volcano is destined to erupt.
His consciousness of time and its implacable, indiscriminate effects is never too far below the surface. The ravages of time will surely take their tolls beyond the power of anyone to escape. Time bows to no one, to nothing, and stays its hand on none: it wilts the roses, destroys beauty, and wrinkles his front, anybody's front for that matter. All are subject to its iron rule.
In the direct and cerebral opening salvo of the Stances Corneille lays to rest any objections to age. Against time all are powerless, so why dwell on it? The indomitable male spirit braves the visible signs of time's assaults by continuing what men instinctively do, the pursuit of the female, preferably the younger ones. Corneille's approach is to openly tout his own assets, his charms. And they are dazzling and enduring by his own account. Is there anything better than charming maturity? Certainly, by this time Corneille had made his reputation in Paris with the success of Le Cid. But he chooses the one aspect of him that should impress Marquise far more than the distinction he has earned on the stage.
With the palpable pride that is emblematic of his protagonists, Corneille assures Marquise that his striking charms for now lie beyond the reach of time, and just may endure. For unlike skin-deep beauty, charms are rooted in his person. And this is what young Marquise should see in him, just as he is enamored of her soft eyes, which for a thousand years he believes to be her undying quality.
There is a certain airiness, a certain levity in Corneille's tone, not a tinge of sorrow or regret over the fleetingness of time, but a matter-of-fact statement of nature's working. Nowhere does Corneille let his awareness of time's flight cloud this positive outlook. He does not fall for sentimentality or nostalgic memories of an irretrievable past. Rather he faces the present with equanimity and stoicism. He is not alarmed by the wrinkles on his brow, realizing the futility of despair. He invokes the planets, which are totally indifferent to our fate. Our days and nights succeed one another again without regard for our feelings. He may be old now, but soon, as he likes to remind Marquise, it will be her turn. Certainly she cannot claim any credit for being young.
Now as he joins the hoary club his adulation of her glorifies her beauty, but only while he still sings her praises. Again, it is he, the proud love-stricken man in the autumn of his years, that puts her on the pedestal. Seize the opportunity, Marquise, fear not his silvery mane, but treat it with tender care for it is his.
My poet friend David, whose nom de plume Lý Lãng Nhân, Lee the Wanderer, encapsulates his penchant for incursions in the realm of creative imagination, soars like an eagle at the sight of Corneille's stanzas. With a moving pen he recreates the playwright's stirrings in a Vietnamese rendition that puts his lyrical power at the service of his romantic temperament. He has captured Corneille's feeling of love and time with such panache and sensibility that his version can well stand as an original creation in its own right.
Marquise, si mon visage
Le temps aux plus belles choses
Le même cours des planètes
Cependant j'ai quelques charmes
Vous en avez qu'on adore;
Ils pourront sauver la gloire
Chez cette race nouvelle,
Penzez-y, belle Marquise,
Pierre de Ronsard was made from a different mould altogether. He lives his feelings with an intensity and passion that is pervasive and contagious.
Together with another young poet, Joachim du Bellay, Ronsard formed a group of seven poets named after the constellation The Pleiades. The group grew in stature and influence as members wrote enduring works in the French language as well as a passionate defense of the language and culture of France at the height of the Italian Renaissance.
Ronsard distinguishes himself by his lyricism, his romantic sensibility, the sonority of his diction, and the love he conceives for three women, to one of whom, Hélène de Surgères, he dedicates numerous sonnets.
His unrequited love for Hélène fills him with a sense of urgency to seize the here and now.
Compared to Corneille, Ronsard is more passionate and visceral. He speaks from the heart. The romantic and lyrical Ronsard evokes an image of time's destructiveness and death in a disturbing fashion. Whereas Corneille reminds Marquise that her beauty is in the eye of the beholder, himself, Ronsard paints a picture of an aged Hélène, gnawed by remorse and bent with care, who will attend to her evening chores lonely and forlorn that day when Ronsard will be no more.
It is this somber consciousness of time's flight that infuses the sonnet with poignancy. He is keenly aware of the impermanence of life, and obsessed with the haunting advent of death. A day will come when his voice will be silent, his songs will be extinguished, and his bones will be dissolved. With that sense of the evanescence of all things, Ronsard reduces his horizon to the present moment, today, because that is all we have.
To the indifferent Hélène, Ronsard offers no bright prospect. It is a certainty that in due time she will be very old. She can picture that day now: the loneliness at night by candlelight, the mind-numbing chore of spinning by the fire, the memory of the days when Ronsard sang of her in the prime of her beauty. She will be singing his verses while marvelling at his eternal praises of her name. But to what avail?
When Ronsard lies silent in the ground by the fragrant shade, the decrepit Hélène crouching by the hearth and old will regret his love and her contemptuous pride. The thought of death colors his love with unspeakable gloom.
Then as the poem reaches its climax there comes an ephiphany. The cloud of despair is lifted to reveal redemption, hope, even happiness. Ronsard now points to a different world, where light reigns and darkness is dissipated. And that, Hélène, is life, to be lived now. Let time does what it always does, to fly and to destroy. But let us do what we need done: enjoy love and the blessings of life at the present moment.
This is the message of Carpe diem, of struggle against impermanence, of seeking the meaning immanent in life so as to banish from our mind the fear of being reduced to nothing.
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle
Lors vous n'aurez servante ayant telle nouvelle
Je serais sous la terre, et phantôme sans os
Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain