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The Tale of the Rose (Excerpt)

by Christine de Pisan (1364-1431), translated by Margaret Coats

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This Tale comes from the Paris home of the Duke of Orleans, brother of the King of France, where on Saint Valentine’s Day 1402, there assembled certain noble folk, rich in honor and beauty and gentility. The doors were closed, because they wished to enjoy a pleasant time in private. A supper of delectable dishes was served, but much more than the food, the guests enjoyed the company, in all of whom true and good love flourished. There was song during supper, for as each guest was graciously asked, he devised a ballade about love, of which there were many, and nothing was more to their taste. Smiles and good cheer reigned in this amiable parliament.

But Love wished to visit his loyal friends, and despite barred doors and latched windows, a great and noble lady, who later called herself the Goddess of Loyalty, entered the hall, surrounded by light. Every other beauty was pale, compared to her elegance of body, face, and movement. She approached, as if she would make a special present to the gathered company. All were eager to hear what she had to say. The following ballade conveyed her message.

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The Offer of Roses

The God of Love by me presents to you
These roses of resolve both fresh and fair,
New gathered from the pure and loyal dew
Of his domain where I his scepter bear.
If you are grateful for his cordial care,
And take the gift, and make Love’s covenant,
He wills that from this moment you prepare
To be for ladies’ honor vigilant.

Accept one lovely rose of vibrant hue;
Inhale its fragrance sweet beyond compare,
And pledge yourself to join Love’s retinue.
He sends me with this mission wheresoe’er
There may be gentlemen who are aware
Of joys and benefits that Love can grant,
Inquiring whether they the purpose share
To be for ladies’ honor vigilant.

Knights good and gallant and noble and true,
You lovers likewise, it is your affair
And solemn choice this service to pursue.
Love wills it, therefore chivalry should dare,
And hide at heart no idle, trifling air.
It is to your estate significant
That now and for your life you freely swear
To be for ladies’ honor vigilant.

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The Goddess placed a vessel on the table. It was filled with beautiful, fragrant, fresh-cut red and white roses, and with each rose was a handsome scroll containing the following ballade, expressing what Love willed that each lover should swear as he boldly took a pretty rose.

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Oath of the Order of the Rose

Good Love, I make to you my solemn promise,
And to the Rose, flower of beauty famed,
As well, to Loyalty’s intrepid Goddess,
By whose true ardor I have been inflamed,
That injuries at ladies’ honor aimed
I will oppose, and vanquish ladies’ foes,
Nor by me will a woman be defamed,
Therefore I join the Order of the Rose.

I pledge to make it my specific business
To see that ladies’ praises are proclaimed;
Each one I will respect as my own mistress.
To her, whom I my favored lady named,
Who is alone my sovereign duly claimed,
I will hold fast until my lifetime close.
All this is voluntarily declaimed;
Therefore I join the Order of the Rose.

Love I thank for his abundant kindness,
Who by this embassy my heart reclaimed,
Healing me of my inherent weakness
Through hope that strives beyond my vices tamed,
To merit virtue’s manhood unashamed.
Challenge I will, when scoundrels interpose
Expressions by which ladies might be blamed;
Therefore I join the Order of the Rose.

You princes brave, whose valor is acclaimed,
Pronounce this vow where honor’s goodness glows;
Contend when feuds against its goals are framed,
Therefore I join the Order of the Rose.

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Those in the company all rose and took the admirable vow, for it is so gentlemanly and honorable that no one could say a thing to disapprove it. It was a festival scene, each securing a rose on his chest or his arm or his head, and rejoicing in the inner faith he had undertaken to promise. The Goddess departed, but the guests lingered as long as they liked, singing and smiling happily to one another. At last they took cheerful leave, each bearing away his Rose as a token of joy.

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As the 650-line poem continues, the poet (a widow loyal to her deceased husband) experiences a vision in which she is appointed Legate of the God of Love, and in effect, Grand Mistress of the Order of the Rose. She is commissioned to spread news about it, which she does by composing the Tale. Having explained its principles, she authorizes any honorable lady in any land to confer the Order on any gentleman wishing to join, using the above oath, and a badge of any material in the shape of a rose.

The ceremony described at the beginning of the poem was doubtless a real event on February 14, 1402, with Valentina Visconti, Duchess of Orleans, taking the part of the Goddess of Loyalty. Patroness and poet were proclaiming a crusade on behalf of women, as line 20 in “The Offer of Roses” reveals. “Amours le veult” or “Love wills it” echoes the cry “Deus vult” or “God wills it” of the first crusaders.

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French original of the ballades, lines 153–176 and 197–224 of Le Dit de la Rose

Le dieu d’Amour par moy il vous presente
Ces roses ci de voulenté entiere,
Cueillies sont de tres loyal entente
Es beaulx vergiers dont je suis courtilliere.
Si vous mande qu’a tres joyeuse chiere
Preigniez le don, mais c’est par convenant
Que desormais en trestoute manière
Yrez l’onneur des dames soustenant.

Si veult qu’ainçoiz que nullui se consente
A recevoir la rose belle et chiere,
Qu’il face veu que jamaiz il n’assente
Blasme ou mesdit en nesune maniere
De femme qui son honneur tiengne chiere,
Et pour ce a vous m’envoye maintenant.
Si vouez tous qu’a parole pleniere
Yrez l’onneur des dames soustenant.

Chevaliers bons et tous de noble sente,
Et tous amans, c’est bien droit qu’il offiere
Qu’a ce veu ci vo cuer se represente;
Amours le veult, si n’y mettés enchiere,
Mais ne soit pas de voulenté legiere,
Car a l’estat de vous appartenant;
Et si jurez que jusques a la biere
Yrez l’onneur des dames soustenant.

A bonne amour je fais veu et promesse
Et a la fleur qui est rose clamée,
A la vaillant de Loyauté deesse,
Par qui nous est ceste chose informée,
Qu’a tousjours mais la bonne renommée
Je garderay de dame en toute chose
Ne par moy ja femme n’yert diffamée:
Et pour ce prens je l’Ordre de la Rose.

Et si promet a toute gentilesse
Qu’en trestous lieux et prisée et amée
Dame sera de moy comme maistresse.
Et celle qui j’ay ma dame nommée
Souveraine, loyauté confermée
Je lui tendray jusques a la parclose,
Et de ce ay voulenté affermée,
Et pour ce prens je l’Ordre de la Rose.

Et si merci Amours et son humblesse
Qui nous a cy tel semence semée
Dont j’ay espoir que serons en l’adresse
De mieulx valoir; c’est bien chose informée
Que de lui vint honneur tres renommée.
Si defendray, s’aucun est qui dire ose
Chose par quoy dame estre puist blasmée
Et pour ce prens je l’Ordre de la Rose.

Princes haultains, ou valeur est fermée,
Faites le veu, bonté y est enclose,
L’enseingne en vueil porter en mainte armée:
Et pour ce prens je l’Ordre de la Rose.

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Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.  


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22 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    A very beautiful story and a more than worthy translation of it, complete with wonderful rhyme.
    Thank you, Margaret.
    Happy Valentine’s Day❣️

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Joe! Valentine’s Day was very big in the later Middle Ages, and this is one of the most intriguing stories. The poet created evening entertainment for her royal patrons, and then extended it into a narrative with herself as visionary. I’m glad you liked my proffered entertainment for the day.

      Reply
  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Translating a ballade, while maintaining both the meaning and the rigorous rhyme-scheme, is a major achievement.

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    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Joseph. I began translating French forms because there is such a variety, and so few good English examples of each. Precision in translating form becomes essential with Christine de Pisan, Queen of Formalists in view of her love for every lyric form and every poetic device, and her delight in making variations on each. Here I am fortunate that iambic pentameter suits the French decasyllabic ballade, and that I could retain some of the author’s rhyme words.

      Reply
  3. Andrew Benson Brown

    Loved this, Margaret. Been a Christine de Pizan fan for a while, but hitherto I’ve only read her prose (including an interesting book on politics she wrote in the ‘mirror for princes’ genre). I saw that there is a new translation of ‘The Tale of the Rose’ alongside another work, ‘The God of Love’s Letter,’ in a bilingual edition that’s scheduled to be released at the end of next month, but the description didn’t say whether it’s a formal verse translation or not (drives me crazy when I encounter formal poetry translated into free verse, which I see all the time). Was wondering if you yourself were working on a complete translation? Given all the other stuff you translate on the site, you certainly have a lot of projects!

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    • Margaret Coats

      I have already done a complete translation of ‘The Tale of the Rose,’ but because it is a Valentine for my husband, the narrative framework is paraphrased in prose (of which you see some above, abridged for easy reading here). This makes it more enjoyable for someone who might not read 650 lines of octosyllabic couplets with other lyric forms interspersed. I translated the lyrics in lines approximating the original form of each, and used English tetrameter couplets for what the poet hears during her vision. I may publish this as a quickly accessible version, no matter what the forthcoming bilingual edition does. As it is bilingual, the translator may intend it just as a crib to help those who don’t read French well. That’s useful, but poorly serves those who don’t read French at all.

      Like you, I hate formal poetry translated into free verse, and prose I consider acceptable only occasionally, when the work being translated uses the form of verse ordinarily employed for lengthy narrative or factual discourse that can become tedious. In epic such as you write, of course, the poem as a whole has a form and poetic devices that ought not to be rendered in prose, if the reader wants the epic experience rather than mere knowledge of the plot. I consider a lyric inadequately translated if the form is not translated along with the meaning. If the form can be the same as the original, that’s great, but with the ballades above, I had to reject French decasyllables for English iambic pentameter, while keeping the rhyme scheme.

      Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, your labor of love is not lost on me. The works flow smoothly and beautifully in their endeavor to entertain us with a delightful slice of romance and history. I love the admirably portrayed smile and sentiment. Thank you very much and a very happy Valentine’s Day to you.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Happy Valentine’s Day to you and Mike! I always appreciate your comments, and I’m glad to know that this combination of abridged prose with a couple of ballades makes for a smooth-reading, entertaining story.

      Reply
  5. C.B. Anderson

    This is very elegant, Dr. Coats, as I’m sure the original was, though I am no Francophone. Would that I (we) had family traditions as rich as the one described here. What a different world that would be!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Just imagine a dinner with each guest ready to recite a poem! My guests are often willing to listen to as many as two poems, if they are not too long. All we can do is start something, and try to keep others smiling!

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  6. James A. Tweedie

    Margaret, I love the blend of narrative prose framing the two ballads. I am one of those you describe as being generally “willing to listen to as many as two poems, if they are not too long”! No doubt the intended recipient of this poem will also be grateful for the consideration that went into your recreation of both the poem’s origin as well as of the verses themselves.

    It was (dare I say) a “love-ly” way to get my heart in shape for tomorrow’s celebration of love.

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    • Margaret Coats

      Much appreciate your comment! And what a celebration of love today has become at SCP! Many more valentines than last year. I’m honored to have started it off with this historical one.

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  7. David Watt

    Margaret, your ballade translation comprising the offer of a rose and the subsequent oath is as beautiful and elegant as the roses described.

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    • Margaret Coats

      David, I am most grateful for the comparison of my work to roses. Some of the honor belongs to Christine de Pisan, and some as well, I believe, to Valentina Visconti, the original speaker of “The Offer of Roses.” As I was transcribing the French to make this submission, I felt that the first ballade had touches by someone other than Christine, whose voice I know very well. It is intriguing to hear (perhaps) a few words by this Italian-born patroness of the arts, who had arrived in France upon her marriage 12 years earlier.

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  8. Tom and Laurence Rimer

    Margaret — you have achieved a minor miracle — the poetry sections, with their rhyme schemes, read aloud (which we did) with a naturalness and elegance altogether in keeping with the beauty of the original.

    And, of course, the sentiments are so appropriate for the occasion!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      So nice to know that my friends did a reading and found the poems as natural as Christine certainly wanted them to be! Her speaker was the hostess for an evening that had to be
      both entertaining and convincing, and of course neither Christine nor Valentina wanted any stumbling when all those gentlemen took the oath!

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      • Tom Rimer

        I only wanted to add that we failed to comment on the beautiful photograph you used, which caught the same kind of elegant atmosphere that is in the poem.

        Tom and Laurence

      • Margaret Coats

        Bruce thanks you, as the photo is his contribution to this presentation!

  9. L Garcia

    Thank you Dr. Coates. It was a pleasure reading this amazing translation of a lovely poem! Such a refreshing, bold theme. I can’t wait to share it.

    I enjoyed reading the comments as well but I must give preference to the one that graciously refers to your work as “achieving a minor miracle”.
    Wonderful!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you in return, Mrs. Garcia. The story is, as you say, something unique. I can’t think of any other in which a new order of chivalry, intended to be universal, is founded. Christine might have thought back to King Arthur’s Roundtable or Charlemagne’s Twelve Paladins, but the Order of the Rose seems to have a clearer, more definite purpose. It conducts a crusade on behalf of women, but benefits everyone by spreading the ideal of Good Love.

      Reply
  10. Christina Lesinski

    What an elegant and classy poem, not to mention the pristine translation! Mrs. Coats, you have a true talent for language and classical prose. This rhyme scheme is so unique and challenging but you managed to make it flow smoothly. I love your choice of poetry for St. Valentine’s Day, reconnecting romance to honor and dignity. The mood, setting and style are definitely my “cup of tea.” I really enjoyed reading this beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Christina, I’m happy you enjoyed the story; it does seem to fit what I know of your own style. Thank you for taking the time to read thoroughly and to comment on exactly what you liked.

      Reply

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