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In Love’s Counting House

by Charles d’Orléans (1394–1465)

One day I asked my heart to heed
A claim for pay that I commended,
And we in secret soon agreed
That he would tell, for pains expended
In risky service, what descended
To me as earnings from Love’s sweets.
Most willingly he so intended,
But said he should check his receipts.

For full accounting, there was need
To seek out charges that depended
On many an older bond or deed,
With their conditions then appended,
And later, possibly, amended.
Seeing how dark were those retreats,
The reckoning he soon suspended,
But said he should check his receipts.

Quite sluggishly did he proceed,
With idle hindrances attended,
Till his success seemed guaranteed:
There was a ledger that transcended
Other liens of pelf pretended.
My heart, exulting, quickened his beats,
The princely prize to me extended,
But said he should check his receipts.

I wondered whether I might read,
Or if his pride would be offended.
“The task your powers may exceed,”
He said, and throbbing, superintended
Recital of the whole unmended
Account of Love from balance sheets.
Long hours, I saw, his speech portended,
But said he should check his receipts.

Rankled at last, I had to concede,
“Never have I apprehended
The hidden quagmires of Love’s greed,
Or how young lovers are befriended,
Though their interests are not tended
In this trade of trumped up cheats.”
My heart the wastage reprehended,
But said he should check his receipts.

In truth, my own heart comprehended
Why I denounce Love’s suave deceits
And paltry profits early ended,
But said he should check his receipts.

.

French original

Ung jour à mon cueur devisoye
Qui en secret à moy parloit,
Et en parlant lui demandoye
Se point d’espargne fait avoit
D’aucun bien, quant Amours servoit.
Il me dist que tresvoulentiers
La verité m’en compteroit,
Mais qu’eust visité ses papiers.

Quant ce m’eut dit, il print sa voye
Et d’avecques moy se partoit,
Après entrer je le véoye
En ung comptouer qu’il avoit;
Là deçà et delà queroit,
En cherchant plusieurs vieux cayers,
Car le vray monstrer me vouloit,
Mais qu’eust visité ses papiers.

Ainsi par ung temps l’atendoye.
Tantost devers moy retournoit
Et me monstra, dont j’euz grant joye,
Ung livre qu’en sa main tenoit,
Ou quel dedens escript portoit
Ses faiz, au long et bien entiers,
Desquelz informer me feroit
Mais qu’eust visité ses papiers.

Lors demanday se j’y liroye,
Ou se mieulx lire lui plaisoit.
Il dit que trop paine prendroye,
Pour tant à lire commançait,
Et puis gettoit et assommoit
Le compte des biens et dangiers
Tout à ung, vy que revendroit
Mais qu’eust visité ses papiers.

Lors dy: Jamais je ne cuidoye,
Ne nul autre ne le croirait,
Qu’en amer, où chascun s’employe,
De prouffit n’eust plus grant exploit;
Amours ainsi les gens deçoit,
Plus ne m’aura en tel santiers.
Mon cuer bien effacier pourroit,
Mais qu’eust visité ses papiers.

Amours savoir ne me devroit
Mal gré se blasme ses metiers,
Il verroit mon gaing bien estroit,
Mais qu’eust visité ses papiers.

.

.

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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15 Responses

    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Paul, on my own behalf, and on that of the great French poet!

      Reply
  1. Sally Cook

    Your graceful and refreshing translation seems to me to be the essence of what a good translation should be. Even after seven centuries some things have not changed. The cold, sere funcioning of the heart in question might have occurred last summer, or the Tuesday previous. The dual nature of the human heart has not changed in all this time. Congratulations, Margaret on your understanding of its timeless functions, which forms the basis of many aspects of art.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Sally. This profound comment makes me wish I could have done even better at translating the French. The personal history of Charles d’Orleans shows that he was a man with deep conflicts of reason and emotion. I’m not surprised that in this poem, he effectively (yet humorously) creates a split personality of heart and self. He also wrote in English, having spent 25 years in England as a prisoner of war. I am amazed to find that his English poems have not been edited. He is said to be entirely unlike his English contemporaries: too erotic, too elaborate, too devoted to a variety of poetic forms and devices. This sounds so much like a formalist that I see why scholars are not interested!

      Reply
      • Sally Cook

        I know very little about this historical figure, but it does sound odd that his English poetry has never been edited.
        Sounds like a job made for you, Margaret. Have at it !

      • Margaret Coats

        I looked further, and found an old-spelling edition made 80 years ago, but inaccessible to most readers today. And the medieval manuscript from the British Library in London is online, in surprisingly good medieval handwriting. We could still use an edition with modernized spelling for the common reader, so I’ll have to think about it.

  2. James A. Tweedie

    Wow.

    The poet’s muse descended
    And brilliant verse ascended.
    Such magic apprehended
    Can only be called, “splendid.”

    Wow.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for the compliment in monorhyme, using the same sound I had to use 22 times, and finding two additional words that would fit. Actually, monorhyme is quite difficult, as you continue that same sound with no breather at the end of any line. Please accept my gratitude all the more!

      Reply
  3. Peter Hartley

    Margaret – my flabber is always gasted by your remarkable and erudite translations, and I am literally at a loss for words which is why I seldom feel even remotely qualified to comment on them. This is no exception, but from the pitifully little I can work out for myself from the original Old French I must also admire your accuracy too. And the way that you manage to cram all this into such a tight metre and rhyme scheme is utterly formidable! magnifique!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Cramming the poem into tight English metre and rhyme scheme means that its accuracy is not line by line. For example, I wasn’t able to render the delightful hither-and-yon search for notebooks exactly as Orleans did. But since the heart is doing its own thing in that passage, I feel entirely justified in speaking of its quickened beats and throbbing where I had room for it. Remember that a translation, however much it depends on the original, is always a new poem. That means any reader of English may enjoy it whether or not he can judge how close it is to the original.
      Always glad to have your comments, Peter, on any aspect of my work!

      Reply
  4. Brian Yapko

    Margaret, this is a very enjoyable translation of an equally enjoyable chant royal! You’ve done an impressive job considering how very exacting this fixed form is. Moreover, the content of the poem is extraordinary — it seems like such a modern subject — matters of the heart being reduced to the cold black-and-white calculations of a balance sheet. Love’s “suave deceits” and “paltry profits” and “wastage reprehended” — all are wonderfully transactional phrases on a subject that seems quite the opposite of romantic. Of course, in Medieval/early Renaissance times love was often incidental to making the right match. Thank you for this splendid historical offering.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Indeed it’s not a romantic poem, and it’s different from a complaint of the lady’s cruelty (a much more common kind of lyric). This is psychologically subtle: the speaker complains of himself. His heart has all the records (memories) of everything he’s put into love–but without any indication of earnings or profit as a result. As Sally Cook said above, the human heart has a dual nature. It is willing to sacrifice itself in love for love’s sake, but nearly always wants love or acknowledgment in return. When love is unrequited (or too little requited), even a patient lover becomes frustrated. He doesn’t lose the memories of how much he has loved, even when he finally understands there will be no return. What is powerful about this poem is the speaker personifying both parts of his psyche–heart and mind.

      We know a little about Orleans’ love life. His first and third marriages were the political contracts one would expect to be made for a king’s grandson. In my own opinion, I believe he did feel romantic love for the second wife, who was beneath him in rank. But when they had been married a few years, Orleans was found alive among the dead at the battle of Agincourt, and taken prisoner by the victorious English. He spent the next 25 years in England. His wife died after 15 or 20 years, and there is one poem (date unknown) in which he seems to bemoan the lack of news from her. During this time he also came to love an English lady (identity uncertain), who was most likely the wife of one of the English nobles responsible for his custody. Some of them treated him royally, which could have caused him guilt for loving the wife of a benefactor. The beloved Englishwoman died while Orleans was still in England, and he was distraught at this. He was certainly a man who might have felt he had loved with little or nothing to show for it. Maybe the reduction of love to accounts on balance sheets is a means of emotional self-defense. I’m glad you enjoyed the intricacies of the poem.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        The poem and your translation both tackle the dual nature of the heart quite compellingly. And the background information you convey about Charles d’Orleans makes me appreciate this wonderful poem even more. Thank you for that!

  5. Yael

    What an interesting poem and a delightful translation. Thank you very much for sharing.

    Reply

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