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Bergerette

by Marguerite de Navarre (1492–1549),
translated by Margaret Coats

O shepherdess, my friend,
On love alone I live.
True love is life’s true end,
My heart can comprehend,
And therefore I intend
_My love unceasingly to give.
O shepherdess, my friend,
On love alone I live.

Love lends me confidence,
Grants conscience calmer sense,
Builds patient competence,
_Forms faith and hope restorative;
O shepherdess, my friend,
On love alone I live.

Love is my victory,
Honor, gleaming glory;
Fashions me his story
_Of pleasure’s daily narrative.
O shepherdess, my friend,
On love alone I live.

Love has such lovely grace
That when I see his face
I find a tranquil place
_For fervent years contemplative.
O shepherdess, my friend,
On love alone I live.

Love offers deep content:
With his care provident
And arm omnipotent,
_I need no aid alternative.
O shepherdess, my friend,
On love alone I live.

Love draws me lovingly,
Attracts with gloom, then glee,
Charms me with misery.
_Alas! His changes I misgive.
O shepherdess, my friend,
On love alone I live.

Love spreads his wings to fly,
Calls me to gratify
Him by pursuit; I sigh,
_And hurry toward the fugitive.
O shepherdess, my friend,
On love alone I live.

Love, to secure my heart,
Falls in my arms by art,
And then away will dart
_In dalliance provocative.
O shepherdess, my friend,
On love alone I live.

My joy without a peer
Inspires such songful cheer,
I cry to every ear,
_“Love love, or lapse insensitive!”
O shepherdess, my friend,
On love alone I live.

Shepherdesses gracious,
For Love be amorous,
Thereby more rapturous
_Than queens of high prerogative.
O shepherdess, my friend,
On love alone I live.

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Translator’s Notes:

Marguerite de Navarre is the poet’s name as wife and queen to King Henri II of Navarre. She is also known as Marguerite d’Angoulême or Marguerite d’Alençon or Marguerite de Valois. King François I of France is her brother, and the poet Charles d’Orléans, her great-uncle.

“Bergerette,” meaning “little shepherdess,” is supplied as the poem’s title, because that is a recognized term for a virelai on a pastoral theme. For another bergerette in English, see “The Shepherdess” by Alice Meynell. The virelai is a lyric form in which all or part of the first stanza is repeated. Repetitions, like variations in line length or stanza length, can happen in a bewildering variety of patterns. Here the rhyme scheme for the first stanza is ABaaabAB, and for the other stanzas cccbAB, where the /c/ rhyme sound differs in each stanza. The /b/ line is longer than the others.

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French original

O bergere, ma mye,
Je ne vis que d’amours;
Vray amour est ma vie,
Qui d’aymer me convie.
Parquoy je n’ay envie
Que sans cesser l’ayme tousjours.
O bergere, ma mye,
Je ne vis que d’amours.

Amour est ma fiance,
Repos de conscience,
Ma force et passience,
Ma foy, mon espoir, mon secours,
O bergere, ma mye,
Je ne vis que d’amours.

Amour est ma victoire,
Mon honneur et ma gloire,
Qui me faict son histoire
[Suivre] par plaisir tous les jours.
O bergere, ma mye,
Je ne vis que d’amours.

Amour a telle grace
Qu’a contempler sa face
Jamais n’en serois lasse,
Mais y treuve les ans trop cours:
O bergere, ma mye,
Je ne vis que d’amours.

Amour tant me contente
Qu’en luy gist mon attente.
Sa main est si puissante
Qu’ailleurs je n’en vois a recours.
O bergere, ma mye,
Je ne vis que d’amours.

Amour a soy m’attire,
Me faict pleurer et rire,
Me brusle et me martire,
Las! il me faict d’estranges tours.
O bergere, ma mye,
Je ne vis que d’amours.

Amour se mect en fuitte,
Me tirant a sa suitte,
Où je faictz ma poursuicte,
Les bras tenduz a luy je cours.
O bergere, ma mye,
Je ne vis que d’amours.

Amour, pour mieulx me prendre,
En mes braz se vient rendre,
Alors fuy après me prendre
Ses saiges et plaisans destours.
O bergere, ma mye,
Je ne vis que d’amours.

Ma joye non pareille
De chanter m’appareille;
Je crie a toute aureille:
“Aymer amours ou soyez sourdz.”
O bergere, ma mye,
Je ne vis que d’amours.

Bergeres gracieuses,
Soyez donc amoreuses
D’Amour, et plus heureuses
Serez que roynes en leurs cours.
O bergere, ma mye,
Je ne vis que d’amours.

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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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21 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    Wow — this is amazingly good work! The sheer complexity of the form, and the need to replicate its rhyme scheme, would be daunting to any translator. Coats’s notes provide a helpful guide as well.

    Even in translation one can tell that these medieval French forms were written to have musical accompaniment. I found myself humming silently in my head as I read the English version.

    This is another triumph, Margaret!

    Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Great one, Margaret! I know from experience what a daunting task it is to translate something with so many rhymes! (As you know, having to find ten words that rhyme with “live” and still convey the sense of the original is not easy.) It’s good in both the original French and the English translation. (Clearly, French hasn’t changed much in 500 years.) I also know from experience that this is a great description of how love is, and you’ve managed to translate that sense beautifully as well. Well done!

      Reply
      • Margaret Coats

        Thanks, Josh. I’m glad you confirm that this is a good characterization of love (and as the author says in the 3rd line, of true love). The poem is a marvelous list of love’s varied satisfactions and stresses, skillfully traced in a few words each–and it’s primarily positive. That makes it unlike high praises or loud laments or descriptions of love’s two aspects. According to unconfirmed historical guesses, Marguerite loved a relative who was a military genius, but lost his life upon winning an important battle at age 22. She was 20 and already married for three years in the first of two political arrangements. She has a remarkable reputation for diplomacy and charity, practical ways to show a loving disposition. Not to mention that this poem says shepherdesses can be happier than queens!

    • Margaret Coats

      Joseph, I hope my work here to preserve the French meter as well as rhyme scheme contributes to the music you hear. Since French poetry depends much more than English on the number of syllables, I keep to six-syllable lines, with the longer line in each stanza being eight syllables. But mine must also be an accentual English poem, and those six-syllable lines need to be three-accent trimeter (with the eight-syllable one tetrameter). As you can see, where there is a feminine ending (as with “story” and “glory”), that means switching from iambic trimeter to trochaic trimeter. This is mixed meter indeed, but I am satisfied if it makes music for you!

      Reply
  2. Brian Yapko

    Margaret, thank you so much for this translation and introduction to Marguerite de Navarre, whose deeply romantic work is both charming and quite moving. It’s interesting to note the family connection with Charles d’Orleans, who was also greatly interested in love. Was he in fact a direct influence on Marguerite?

    I’ve never heard of the virelai form and find it quite intriguing. Thank you for explaining the meter and rhyme scheme – you had quite a task to maintain both in your English version (especially those – ive rhymes) and you manage them with great skill and sensitivity. Dr. Salemi’s comment regarding music is intriguing. This is a poem which really does cry out to be sung, or at least to have an instrumental accompaniment. But even without music this is beautiful work!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Brian. There would not have been personal influence on Marguerite from her great-uncle Charles d’Orleans, who died nearly 30 years before she was born. But she might well have had his poems, and his facility with love poetry from many perspectives may have taught her some technique. She prefers to write longer and more religious poems, and you will probably be glad to hear that this is a shorter one. It is published among her last poems, from a manuscript that places it among a small group headed “Chansons spirituelles.” Most of the poems in the group have more explicit religious wording. Could this one have been an earlier love lyric wrongly identified as spiritual? I think not, even though lovers are inclined to deify their loves, and find everything good in them. Where I have translated “arm omnipotent,” the literal wording says, “His hand is so powerful that I see no recourse elsewhere.” That seems a bit beyond love hyperbole to say of one’s human love object, but it suits the image of God’s hand or arm used in Biblical poetry. And to take the opening stanza literally, “True love is my life who conveys me to love. Thus I have no wish except to love him unceasingly always!” As you see, I am outdone by the original. When I have an opportunity, I will say more about the virelai form in another comment box, and about the poem’s “controlled eroticism” to James Sale who has remarked on it.

      Reply
  3. Yael

    Amazing translation Margaret! I really enjoyed reading both the original and your artfully crafted English version, thank you.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for your comment, Yael. I know you appreciated the part where the speaker shouts in every ear, “Love love, or be deaf!” She will deafen ears with her outcry! I could have translated, “Love love, or lose force auditive!” That is more precise, but I preferred the less technical “Lapse insensitive,” even though it suggests the unloving person loses ALL his senses.

      Reply
      • Yael

        Thank you for pointing out this technical detail Margaret. I completely agree with your choice of words here. “Force auditive” would sound stilted and clumsy in comparison to “Lapse insensitive,” which conveys the meaning just fine, even though it broadens the meaning of the passage.

  4. James Sale

    A complex tour-de-force Margaret, very skilfully executed; my favourite stanza is the last one:
    Shepherdesses gracious,
    For Love be amorous,
    Thereby more rapturous
    _Than queens of high prerogative.
    O shepherdess, my friend,
    On love alone I live.

    I especially like not just the controlled eroticism of moving, rhyme-wise, from amorous to rapturous but also the contrast between the shepherdesses and the ‘queens of high prerogative’. The alliterative, clincher refrain of the last line is also extremely powerful.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, James, for your specific comments, and for noticing “controlled eroticism.” It features prominently in the last three stanzas. I believe I have properly translated the second-to-last, except that “to secure my heart” is not as suggestive as the original “mieulx me prendre,” “the better to take me.” This is the poem’s consummation or communion stanza, and the last one of the many that begin with “Amour” or “Love.” The next, beginning, “My joy,” is the speaker’s climax, and in the final stanza (the one you like best) she recommends her experience to others. who can thus be happier than queens. It is very interesting that the lines there proceed with theological propriety from grace to love to happiness. Please see what I said to Brian above, on why to consider this a “spiritual song.” When I first read it as such, I neglected the real eroticism the author puts in it as a complete love lyric. But considering the words again for this online publication, I see a full, but as you say, controlled, description of love that includes a variety of very human touches. It has the exquisite control needed to compare human love to divine love experienced by a human being. In other lyrics where we see this approach, a male author adopts a female persona, such as Crashaw’s Saint Teresa or Henry Constable’s Mary Magdalen. Two of Constable’s Magdalen sonnets were not “controlled” enough to be published before the 20th century!

      Reply
  5. Paul Freeman

    As always, your poetry not only entertains, but educates.

    Thanks for the read, Margaret.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Paul! The poem as a thing of beauty is my main goal, but I do tend to choose kinds of lyric I want others to know better.

      Reply
  6. Sally Cook

    Margaret, this is a delicate porcelain translation. I am reminded of one of my collector’s collections of large china figurines. Curiously, I am reminded of a recent conversation with a woman who constantly tells people she loves them.
    But yours is not that; rather a direct piercing to the heart. Perhaps the short life span of that era demanded a cutting away of all extraneous fluff. In any case, your work is first class !

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you so much, Sally! I hope you noticed that the poet is a relative of Charles d’Orleans, and therefore a distant relative of yours as well. You are right that this poem shows a distinct gift of speaking very directly about the all-important subject of love, without wasting a word. I merely do my best to follow Marguerite.

      Reply
      • Sally Cook

        Dear Margaret —
        Thanks so much for your diligence in digging up my french ancestors. I am also descended from the Lord of Limerick, though I cannot count him as a poet, since he may never have picked up a pen. Perhaps the limerick was only named after him.

  7. Margaret Coats

    ABOUT THE VIRELAI FORM (as promised to Brian above) The major kinds of lyric in medieval France are ballade, rondeau, and virelai. All three have numerous variants. The 28-line ballade or the 15-line rondeau are the best known among dozens of others. For the virelai, there is no comparable basic standard, and it may have even more varieties.

    Much of the information online and even in books seems to come from persons with no experience of reading virelais. The most common description tells of a virelai with any number of 9-line stanzas of interlocking rhyme like a pantoum. This form was described by a 17th century prosodist. I have seen no example in French, but Robert Lee Brewer wrote an English one published at Writer’s Digest in 2019.

    The first stanza of a virelai provides material for repetition. One line or two lines or the entire first stanza may be what is repeated. When ONE line is repeated, it usually comes after every other stanza. When TWO lines are repeated, they may come after every stanza, as here–or the two lines may alternate as single-line repetitions after alternate stanzas, as in the Eustache Deschamps virelai “A Girl in Her Own Words” (my translation published by SCP in July 2021). If ALL lines of the first stanza are repeated as a chorus, it may come after every other stanza (as often in the virelais of Deschamps) or after a group of three stanzas (see “Douce Dame Jolie” by Guillaume de Machaut at the Wikipedia article “Virelai”).

    Other patterns of repetition can be used as well. Number of lines per stanza is not fixed. Lines may be all the same length, or of different lengths.

    When a stanza does not include any repetition from the first stanza, it may introduce different rhyme sounds. This is an artistic advantage that made the virelai a popular form (as did the greater freedom in line and stanza shape, relative to the ballade and rondeau families of forms).

    ABOUT THE BERGERETTE FORM It is sometimes said that a bergerette is a one-stanza virelai. This is false. The oft-cited “Bergerette savoyenne” by Josquin des Prez has 2 stanzas, and Christine de Pisan writes 3-stanza and 5-stanza bergerettes in her “Le Dit de La Pastoure.” A bergerette is a pastoral virelai.

    Reply
  8. Clare Tierney

    I like this as a story about love. Is it a shepherdess talking or the poetess who is a Queen? Do you really think her love is God or Jesus or a man she equates with love? It seems so very simple and happy.

    Reply
  9. Margaret Coats

    I’m glad you like the love story, Clare. Above all, that’s what the poem is, a story in which the speaker explains many things about her happy experience of love. She is speaking to a shepherdess, which suggests she may not be a shepherdess herself. We know the author is an intensely devout queen. When as poet she recommends her playful yet nearly perfect love to shepherdesses, saying Love will make them happier than queens (“happy” is the French word behind “rapturous”), she must mean either the simple love that unsophisticated persons have, or the best possible love, which is the perfect love of God in Christ. I take this poem as reflecting both. Marguerite’s best known work in prose describes a soul in search of God as father, brother, and lover. That is Trinitarian theology, but there is more to love. Here I see a wide array of feelings for a lover who is well loved though not fully understood. That belongs to anyone’s experience of love human or divine, but the divine is here in the emphasis on the lover’s power and on him as the source of everything needed for life. Marguerite in this late poem writes like any girl in love, but she and many of her readers are also souls in love.

    Reply
  10. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, I am in awe of your talent. Although my French is only high-school level, I can appreciate the enormity of the task you’ve undertaken and just wanted to say your painstaking efforts are very much appreciated. These mediaeval French forms are so lyrical and so beautiful – they appeal to me on many levels (especially this one) … and I owe you a big thank you for making them accessible to those of us whose knowledge of French is lacking.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Susan. I’m taken with these forms, as well, which is why I’ve done translations. Even when the form is fairly simple, as this one is, I learn much more about the poem when I ty to put it into rhythmical English. So glad you enjoy it!

      Reply

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