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Ballade for His Lady Deceased

by Charles d’Orléans (1394–1465)

Alas, Death, who made you so bold?
My noble princess you possess;
My life and comfort you enfold,
My pleasure, wealth, and cheerfulness.
Since you my mistress now oppress,
Take me, her servant since we met,
For I would soon die willingly
Instead of living mournfully
In pain, affliction, and regret.

Alas for merit placed to mold
In modest bloom of youthfulness!
I beg, my God, swallow up cold
Brutish Death so pitiless.
Had she reached age’s helplessness,
Such sorrow it would not beget,
But she was seized too hastily,
And I am left pathetically
In pain, affliction, and regret.

Alas! I bide here unconsoled.
Lady, adieu, my happiness!
Now for our love the bell has tolled,
But for your soul I make redress
With alms and fasts and prayerfulness.
Though you are dead, I serve you yet,
For I have loved you loyally,
And think of you repeatedly,
In pain, affliction, and regret.

O God, above all sovereigns set,
Command that by your grace her debt
For lapses be paid speedily;
May she not linger wearily
In pain, affliction, and regret.

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Translator’s note: This poem may be about Bonne d’Armagnac, the second wife of Charles d’Orléans. The current Wikipedia article on Charles says erroneously that Bonne was divorced. Rather, Charles was taken prisoner by the victorious English at the Battle of Agincourt, and as a royal prince, held hostage in England for 25 years. During this time Bonne’s father was leader of the Orléans party in France (which became known as the Armagnac party). Bonne died 15 or 20 years after Charles was captured. The poem may, however, refer to an Englishwoman whom Charles came to love. Her identity is uncertain; she was probably the wife of a nobleman charged with the custody of the royal hostage. This lady too died before the English accepted a ransom to return the much-distraught Charles to France.

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French original

Las! Mort, qui t’a fait si hardie,
De prendre la noble princesse
Qui estoit mon confort, ma vie,
Mon bien, mon plaisir, ma richesse!
Puis que tu as prins ma maistresse,
Prens moi aussi, son serviteur,
Car j’ayme mieulx prouchainement
Mourir que languir en tourment,
En paine, soussi et douleur.

Las! De tous biens estoit garnie
Et en droite fleur de jeunesse!
Je pry à Dieu qu’il te maudie,
Faulse Mort, plaine de rudesse!
Se prise l’eusses en vieillesse,
Ce ne fust pas si grant rigueur,
Mais prise l’a hastivement,
Et m’a laissié piteusement
En paine, soussi et douleur.

Las! Je suis seul, sans compaignie.
Adieu, ma Dame, ma liesse!
Or est nostre amour departie;
Non pour tant, je vous fais promesse
Que de prieres, à largesse,
Morte vous serviray de cueur,
Sans oublier aucunement,
E vous regretteray souvent,
En paine, soussi et douleur.

Dieu, sur tout souverain Seigneur,
Ordonnez, par grace et doulceur,
De l’ame d’elle, tellement
Qu’elle ne soit pas longuement
En paine, soussi et douleur.

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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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25 Responses

  1. Paul Freeman

    As always, I’m amazed at how flawlessly you apply rhyme in a translated piece of poetry.

    Thanks for the read, Margaret.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you for the compliment, Paul. I have become more of a perfectionist about rhyme since writing for SCP. As Brian says below, I was able to keep the rhyme sound “ess,” but for proper English meter, I was only able to use one of the nine “ess” words used by Orleans (“liesse” = “happiness”). “Princess” and “mistress” don’t rhyme perfectly in English, so I had to put them in the middle of a line and find perfect rhymes with the accent on the final syllable. But at least that made more internal rhyme!

      Reply
      • Sally Cook

        Dear Margaret —
        What a clear, classic and yet contemporary translation. Hurrahs and hullabaloos to you.

        I have always wondered why translations left me out in the cold, and now I know it was because so many took the easy road of approximation.

        Yours do not. You are willing to go the extra mile that makes a translation spring to life.

        To reach a certain amount of excellence, one must always work harder than most others; at least I have always found it so, and often with fewer rewards. At least I have found it to be so; assume you also uncovered this truth in your digging.

        And of course there is my special fondness for Charles d’Orleans. Never possible to be totally objective; that may be a good thing.

      • Margaret Coats

        Thanks, Sally, for showing this appreciation which is a great reward in itself. For the most part, the reward is work well done for the original poet, who deserves to have his poems presented in English that readers can enjoy even if they know no French. I will send you more, and apologize for not doing so yet. I had a very large project given me suddenly, and there was no one else to call on. Back to checking on Charles d’Orleans soon, and sending some of what I have to you!

      • Margaret Coats

        Thank you, Carl! Your comment, made Sunday, just showed up Tuesday evening. I very much appreciate the time you took to read and the effort to respond.

  2. Brian Yapko

    Thank you for this wonderful ballade, Margaret. Wonderful and extremely sad — or perhaps triste is a better word. I have a particular interest in ballades and greatly enjoy seeing how this one was originally put-together in light of your sensitive translation. It’s especially wonderful that you were able to maintain the original’s “ess” rhyme. I have a question. Does it matter whether the envoy is 4 or 5 lines?

    A beautiful read and acknowledgment of the sadness suffered by poor Charles d’Orleans who seems to have had considerable heartache in his life.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Brian. Please see what I said to Paul above about rhyme. About the envoy, a ballade doesn’t need one at all. At first, an envoy characterized only the 5-stanza chant royal and not a 3-stanza ballade. But once ballades begin to have them, it is poet’s choice of length. I have seen a couplet envoy, and a full stanza envoy, as well as the more usual half-stanza envoy. In the above poem, with 9 lines ababbcddC per stanza, the expected envoy would be cddC. But no one can say Orleans’ choice of ccddC is wrong, or even strange. We tend to use handbooks to determine what a particular form should be, but the handbooks should be based on the full poetic tradition of that particular form. They usually are not, because how can the handbook editor ever become familiar with all the poetic traditions he is trying to distill into rules? I’d say it’s up to the poet who wants to work within a tradition to read whatever he can find to show him how earlier poets worked. He need not follow them slavishly, but to be the “classical” poets we want to be, we are looking for our places within a long and distinguished tradition.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      As for Orleans’ heartache, he ultimately adopted Nonchaloir, or “not getting heated up,” as his way of dealing with disappointment. The latter years of his life in France were spent as the most important poet in a court of versifiers. One of his short lyrics is still familiar to any educated French speaker.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Glad you enjoyed it, Mrs. Moore, and thanks for the appreciative comment.

      Reply
  3. Jeff Eardley

    Margaret, thank you for this moving translation of love and loss. I hope Charles found some happiness on his return to France and next time we are in Amboise, our thoughts will be of him and this delightful piece.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      I think Charles had a lot of fun with poetry during the many years he was able to live as center of his own court, paying no attention to his cousin the King of France. His manuscripts may be the first records of poetry challenges such as we have here at SCP. He wrote a poem and others would then take his first line and write poems of their own. His third wife (younger than he by more than 30 years) joined in. And when he died at 71, he left a young family (three children under 10 years old, including the future King Louis XII). These are, at least, happy consolations. Thanks for reading, and planning to keep this wonderful poet in mind!

      Reply
  4. Peter Hartley

    Margaret – As always I am “gob-smacked” by your erudition and most impressed, as I read in your explanations to Paul and to Brian, by your balking at the notion of rhyming unaccented syllables, even when bound by the constraints of translation. And the information you provide on the nature of the envoy in concluding these archaic metrical forms is quite fascinating. You got me reading a little bit about Charles and I note that he was joint commander of the losing side at Agincourt; despite the trials he endured in his exile he had a long life for the age in which he lived, and it seems he did manage three marriages, possibly one of them while he was in “prison”!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      He met the major love interest of his life (an Englishwoman) while he was a hostage, and much of his English poetry concerns her. As I said in the note above, she was probably married to someone else. You are right to put “prison” in quotes, as Charles’s situation rarely seems to have been uncomfortable. However, when we think that he spent the prime of his life (ages 20 to 45) in a foreign land where he was not free, that seems dismal. He did try to raise a ransom from his own lands in France sooner, but the English clearly had more to gain by holding him than by accepting even an enormous payment.

      In speaking above of the ballade tradition, I should have said that even if someone reads the very considerable number of ballades written in English, he will not get the whole story of the form. Chaucer’s ballades do make an important contribution: they contradict current academic definitions, being in rhyme royal stanzas with either a full-stanza envoy or no envoy. However, when we get to the 19th century revival of the ballade in English, writers generally stick to the most common French patterns, and explore no further. My above translation, with nine lines per stanza, is a form almost unheard of in English, although it is easy to find nine-line stanzas in French. The ONLY nine-line stanza ballade in English that I know of is W. E. Henley’s “Ballade of Aspiration.” And when I look up author, title, first line, and refrain online, it is nowhere. I am going to correct that deficiency below; there is such a non-standard English ballade, and a good one! Thanks, Peter, for showing interest!

      Reply
  5. Yael

    Wow, another superb translation of old French. I’m very impressed by your poetic translation talents and I sure enjoy the results, as I would never otherwise have the pleasure of exposure to these historical works, thank you.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Yael. You assure me that I’m fulfilling one of my most important purposes in posting these translations.

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        Margaret – To second Yael’s comment above your masterful and authoritative translations will surely do much to kindle interest in writers we would otherwise know little or nothing of. You do for mediaeval French poets what Neville Coghill’s translation of The Canterbury Tales did to kindle my interest in Chaucer forty years ago. I read the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Prologue in Middle English because I had to (for my A level) but it was only N C who persuaded me to read the whole lot! And I think you could well do the same to popularise the likes of Charles d’Orleans. Keep up the good (and very valuable) work.

      • Margaret Coats

        Peter, thank you for the hearty encouragement–even though it tells me I need to work harder than I usually do. I was rather slowly preparing one book for next year, and now it looks like it should be two books, or a double volume. But you know how rewarding this kind of labor can be!

  6. Margaret Coats

    BALLADE OF ASPIRATION
    by William Ernest Henley

    O to be somewhere by the sea,
    Far from the city’s dust and shine,
    From Mammon’s priests and from Mammon’s shrine,
    From the stony street, and the grim decree
    That over an inkstand crooks my spine,
    From the books that are and the books to be,
    And the need that makes of the sacred Nine
    A school of harridans! Sweetheart mine,
    O to be somewhere by the sea!

    Under a desk I bend my knee,
    Whether the morn be foul or fine.
    I envy the tramp, in a ditch supine,
    Or footing it over the sunlit lea,
    But I struggle and write and make no sign,
    For a labouring ox must earn his fee,
    And even a journalist has to dine;
    But O for a breath of the eglantine!
    O to be somewhere by the sea!

    Out on the links, where the wind blows free,
    And the surges gush, and the rounding brine
    Wanders and sparkles, an air like wine
    Fills the senses with pride and glee,
    In neighbour hedges are flowers to twine,
    A white sail glimmers, the foamlines flee:
    Life, love, and laziness are a trine
    Worshipful, wonderful, dear, divine . . .
    O to be somewhere by the sea!

    Out and alas for the sweet Lang Syne,
    When I was rich in a certain key–
    The key of the fields, and I hadn’t to pine
    Or to sigh in vain at the sun’s decline,
    O to be somewhere by the Sea!

    This ballade of nine-line stanzas is posted in full here because it seems to be otherwise unavailable online. It appears only on page 180 of the book, Lyric Forms from France (1922) by Helen Louise Cohen, but the copy of that book on Internet Archive is damaged, and the pages out of order, which may cause a searcher to miss the poem.

    This is the only ballade of nine-line stanzas, originally written in English, of which I know. The form is comparable to that of the ballade by Charles d’Orleans, posted above with English translation. Note that Henley’s rhyme scheme, using only two rhyme sounds, is more difficult than that of Orleans.

    Orleans: ababbcddC with envoi ccddC
    Henley: abbababbA with envoi babbA

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you for this additional information, Margaret, and for your very helpful discussion of form.

      Reply
  7. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, this admirable translation is exquisite. I love the musicality of the words. You have managed to get the poet’s creation across with beautiful, emotional and engaging English phrases. ” Ballade for His Lady Deceased” is an obvious triumph. I’ve enjoyed reading all the appreciative comments. Your postings are always a privilege to read. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you so much, Susan. Your comment about musicality made me read over the French original, which features it in a very smooth and subtle fashion. It is interesting that, within a few days of one another, we have posted poems of loss and mourning several centuries apart in composition (yours being “Breathe,” above). Styles and forms could hardly be more different, and even the expressed concerns vary–but both make a significant contribution to this genre of lyric. I really enjoy this kind of comparison, and it’s how I teach poetry.

      Reply
  8. David Watt

    Margaret, I am in awe of your skill in translating a piece, yet retaining what I believe is the sensitivity and pathos of the original. Your comments serve as an added bonus.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, David. Orleans was doing something unusual here, in showing how a man can continue chivalric service to a lady after her death. That certainly adds to the pathos expressed, much more than the common lamenting of Death, and even the cursing of Death in the second stanza. Glad to see your appreciation of this great poet.

      Reply

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