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Ballade of Prayer to Our Lady

(in the voice of the poet’s mother)

by François Villon (1431-1463), from French by Joseph S. Salemi

Lady of Heaven, who holds earthly sway
And reigns as Empress of the hellish deep,
Receive me, one poor Christian, as I pray
That I may be among your chosen sheep—
This notwithstanding that my value’s cheap.
Your graces, Holy Dame, I hardly dare
Think can outweigh the load of sins I bear.
Without such graces, no soul hopes to fly
Upward, nor merit Heaven. So I swear:
In this faith I resolve to live and die.

To your son Jesus, say that I am His.
By Him may all my sins be cancelled out,
Grant pardon as He did the Egyptianess
Or poor Theophilus, for whose erring doubt
You gained acquittal, even though the lout
Bartered his soul to Lucifer—alas!—
Save me from coming to that evil pass,
Virgin untouched, who without plaint or sigh
Carried the Host we honor at each Mass:
In this faith I resolve to live and die.

I am a poor old woman, that is all—
Unschooled, unlettered, and devoid of wit.
My parish church has painted on the wall
A scene of Heaven, and the hellish pit.
The first shows harps and lutes. The second, it
Shows damned souls boiling in the flames’ embrace.
Grant me the first, High Goddess of all grace,
To whom all sinners must return and cry
Filled up with faith, not feigning or two-faced:
In this faith I resolve to live and die.

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L’Envoi

Virgin high-born and worthy, you gave birth
In piety to the King of Heaven and earth.
Lord Jesus, who took on our paltry worth.
Leaving His place, He came down from on high
Offering up His life to death’s cruel mirth.
Now I confess Him Lord, in wealth or dearth.
In this faith I resolve to live and die.

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Original French

Ballade Pour Prier Notre Dame

Dame du ciel, regente terrienne
Emperiere des infernaux palus
Recevez moy vostre humble chrestienne
Que comprinse soye entre vos esleus
Ce non obstant qu’oncques rien ne valus
Les biens de vous, ma dame et ma maistresse
Son trop plus grans que ne suis pecheresse
Sans lesquelz biens ame ne peut merir
N’avoir les cieulx, je n’en suis jangleresse
En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.

A vostre filz dictes que je suis sienne
De luy soyent mes pechiez abolus
Pardonne moy comme a l’Egipcienne
Ou comme il feist au clerc Theophilus
Lequel par vous fut quitte et absolus
Combien qu’il eust au deable fait promesse
Preservez moy que ne face jamais ce
Vierge portant sans rompture encourir
Le sacrement qu’on celebre a la messe
En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.

Femme je suis povrette et ancïenne
Qui riens ne sçay, oncques lettre ne lus
Au moustier voy dont paroissienne
Paradis paint ou sont harpes et lus
Et ung enfer ou dampnez sont boullus
L’ung me fait paour, l’autre joye et liesse
La joye avoir me fay, haulte Deesse
A qui pecheurs doivent tous recourir
Comblez de foy, sans fainte ne paresse
En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.

L’Envoi

Vous portastes, digne Vierge, princesse
Iesus regnant qui n’a ne fin ne cesse
Le Tout Puissant prenant nostre foiblesse
Laissa les cieulx et nous vint secourir
Offrit a mort sa tres chiere jeunesse
Nostre Seigneur tel est, tel le confesse
En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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11 Responses

  1. Margaret Coats

    Very worthy competition to Rossetti’s version, and more accurate on at least one point I notice. I’ll be reading this again and again. I used to teach the two Rossetti ballade translations and a few others as “Villon’s Greatest Hits in English,” and I said that the acrostic in the envoi here is the poet’s personal signature, seconding this affirmation he has written for his mother. Her name would not have been his nom-de-plume “Villon.”

    Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe,
    There was something so down-to-earth and contemporary going on in the 1400s in
    European arts and letters. I see it in the language you use in your translation of Villon.; I in paintings of Breughel and Bosch, and in so many frescos in Italy. The Renaissance was well on its way.
    Do you suppose something similar is its way? Thank you for giving us a translation that stimulates thought.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Sally, it wasn’t just the Renaissance period. It was ANY historical period other than the politically correct gas chamber that we are living in right now.

      I’ve recently been looking at the brilliant caricatures and cartoons of Hogarth, Gillray, and Rowlandson, from the 18th and early 19th centuries. And I’m bowled over by the freshness, the freedom, the utter unconcern with social pieties and polite niceties that these men demonstrate in their fearless drawings and etchings. And the robust savagery of their visual lampoons — wow!

      All of that freedom is gone now, in our technocrat-managed world of Nicey-Nice and sensitivity training. We live in a society of vulnerable wilting flowers and professional victims, and the self-appointed SJWs who jump to defend them from the slightest affront. A society where Dr. Seuss books can’t be published for fear of offending the sensibilities of some loudmouth minority grievance-monger.

      Villon wouldn’t have a chance today. Neither would Breughel nor Bosch.

      Reply
      • Joe Tessitore

        This is a powerful comment.
        “(T)he politically correct gas chamber that we are living in right now.” is as chilling and as accurate as it gets.

  3. BRIAN YAPKO

    I find the piety and devotion of the poor old woman deeply touching. You have done an admirable job of taking a poem that is over 500 years old and making it fresh, relevant and deeply moving. I will read this again and again.

    Reply
  4. Susan Bryant

    Joe S., thank you very much for this translation. I have only studied French at secondary school level, but I can fully appreciate the dedication afforded to produce such clarity along with perfect rhymes and meter… and then there’s the acrostic. ” Ballade of Prayer to Our Lady” is a truly remarkable accomplishment and an absolute privilege to read.

    Reply
  5. Margaret Coats

    The “freedom of speech” that Villon exercised to characterize his mother concerns doctrine especially. What I marvel at in the original is how this old woman, who describes herself as uneducated, nevertheless gets her Christology and Mariology exactly right. She is not some superstitious crone. And when Villon lived, it was not surprising that she might have learned good doctrine from both the decor of a church and the instruction of priests, or even from common conversation.

    I’ve now spent some time comparing Joseph Salemi’s translation to those of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Galway Kinnell. I said above that Salemi’s version is excellent competition to Rossetti’s, which is no small statement, as Rossetti’s poem is probably the best known ballade in English, in addition to being one of the highest quality (number three in my personal list of best ballades in English). Rossetti’s language is purposely archaic, which worked well at his time, to help readers to imagine a woman from centuries past. It continues to be much more worth reading than Kinnell’s free verse (that sometimes falls into meter). But Salemi’s version is the one to choose for clear contemporary speech, with touches of forthright diction, that still maintains the music Villon put into his mother’s mouth.

    And it exercises freedom of speech on doctrine that is being suppressed. Rossetti knew quite well that Villon’s mother would offend Protestant sensibilities among many of his readers. To his credit, he kept up Villon’s characterization of his mother as a simple yet intelligent and well-informed Christian. Kinnell deserves the same credit, but Salemi is the one who puts the doctrine in current terms that will offend or embarrass a fair number of modernist believers. Even Villon’s mother’s doctrine of redemption by atonement may bother them, but most problematic is the doctrine of Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces. It’s clearly present in Villon, though the French poet uses “biens” or “goods” as what sinners must obtain through Mary. Rossetti and Kinnell translate that as “mercies,” which is not precise, for in a Christian litany, only God is asked, “have mercy on us.” Mary and the saints are asked to pray for us (that God grant us His graces). When Catholic bishops were asked, before Vatican II, what they most wanted to do at the Council, it was to define Mary as Mediatrix of All Graces. Other things happened. But bravo, Joseph, on bringing back the idea via Villon.

    Reply
  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you for your kind words, Margaret. I think it should also be mentioned that Anthony Bonner produced an excellent bilingual edition of Villon with absolutely indispensable notes. It is not a poetic translation, but my wife Helen says that it is a top-notch work for anyone who wishes to understand Villon. Helen’s French is far superior to mine.

    Yes, the Blessed Virgin is the Mediatrix of All Graces. Vatican II could have formally established that, but the council was completely hijacked by modernists and heretics. It should be labeled a “latrocinium” (a robber council), just like Second Ephesus and Pistoia, and everything in it voided.

    Reply
  7. Margaret Coats

    Please thank Helen for her recommendation of Bonner’s work, which I neglected because I was largely interested in Villon’s lyrics. “Dame du ciel” was also translated in verse by John Payne (who was in effect the Villon Society of London) and by J. U. Nicolson, who took the trouble to render all Villon’s lyrics (including the ones merely attributed to him) into English in the original lyric forms. It is remarkable how much Villon’s works contributed to interest in French forms 100 years ago and more, with translations, adaptations, and imitations of his poems from Swinburne, W. E. Henley, Andrew Lang, and James Branch Cabell as well as poets already mentioned. In that way, he’s a father of the formalism that got derailed by formless modernist poetry.

    Vatican II is worth some attention from poets because the means of its hijacking was diabolically ambiguous language. After Mary Mediatix, the greatest interest shown in the pre-conciliar canvassing of bishops was the social kingship of Christ. That is, a clear majority of bishops wanted to deal with these topics–which were pushed into the background and stripped of significant words such as Lord, Master, King–and Advocate and Empress. In council session discussions, only 10% of bishops stood up for orthodox views and opposed novelties. And the ambiguous language of the radicals so overwhelmed the traditionalists that every bishop in attendance ultimately signed every document. With regard to Christ the King, one leader later moaned, “They have uncrowned Him.” And after that, where is the Empress of heaven, earth, and hell that Villon’s mother recognized?

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Even Lefebvre signed, although later on he deeply regretted it.

      Medieval French forms like the ballade, the rondeau, the villanelle, the triolet, the chant royal, and others had a real renaissance in late 19th-century English verse. Even now I can recall the repetends from a piece whose author has escaped my memory:

      “A dainty thing’s the villanelle;
      It serves its purpose passing well…”

      Was that Henley, Margaret? Perhaps you will remember.

      Reply
      • Margaret Coats

        Yes, that’s Henley. You’ll find the entire poem easily available on several poetry sites if you do a general search for first line and author.

        And I was quoting Lefebvre, recognized leader of traditionalists at the Council, who said, “They have uncrowned Him.”

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