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Double Ballade of a Crusader

by Conon de Béthune (c.1155–1219)
translated by Margaret Coats

It would be well to fight this zeal
For making songs and penning poetry,
Since I should conquer faults I feel,
Leave her, best mistress of all gallantry
(Through whom I ought to rectify my way),
And do for God what He has done for me
With joy that spurs my soul in chivalry,
Although my body indolent would stay.

Must I be forced to the ordeal
Of serving God and Christianity,
When flesh would lust, deceive, and steal?
Let me restrain those urges bodily
And thereby double penitence display,
For Christian sufferers need cavalry
Prepared to part from France immediately;
My sorrows here should earn that better fray.

I will not wait, but take up steel
And pass beyond these tyrants’ treachery,
Who tax clerks, towns, and ranks genteel,
But never cross the heathen lands or sea;
For greed, and not through faith, the Cross wear they
Upon their breasts, a lying livery
By which they amplify Christ’s agony—
Unless I bear my cross without delay.

Crusading frauds, hear me reveal
How valueless your shameful subsidy!
What will you do, and where appeal
When you have made yourselves God’s enemy,
While all the saints their trembling tributes pay
Before His high omniscient majesty?
Despair will be the sinner steward’s fee,
Should pity not His power overlay.

God has by now, or soon will seal
These haughty barons’ fate for larceny;
Their vileness they cannot conceal,
And worst of all is its contumacy.
Defilement seize these magnates I portray!
Like birds who soil their nestlings’ nursery
They strive, but cannot taint with obloquy
Brave men who serve the King from whom they stray.

Fortune, to whom these barons kneel,
Has never granted any clemency;
Forsake, therefore, her hapless wheel
To serve the good God voluntarily.
With Him is no bad luck or chance dismay,
But through good works one merits victory;
It pleases Him to show His charity
To all the faithful who pursue His way.

About the barons I have had my say;
Let them, if they would chide discourtesy,
Complain against my master, Hugues d’Oisy,
Who taught me verse when we were boys at play.

By God, companions, in my mind’s array,
There never was a finer friend than he,
And no one in the world meant more to me
Except Gilon, whose worth grows day by day.

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Note on persons: Conon de Béthune (c.1155–1219), younger son of a noble family in the north of France, participated in the Third and Fourth Crusades. He was responsible for crusader forces receiving adequate supplies, and thus had firsthand knowledge of dishonesty in the collection of funds and materiel at home. Only ten of his poems survive. Hugues III d’Oisy (1145–1189) was a cousin of Conon de Béthune, and had a greater reputation as a poet, but only two works by him survive. Gilon (nickname for Giles) has not been identified.

Note on lyric form: The poem is a unique double ballade with double envoi. A ballade most often has three stanzas, each containing the same number of lines and ending with a refrain. A half-stanza envoi is optional. In the double ballade of six stanzas, neither refrain nor envoi is required. In this poem of rhyme scheme ababcbbc, lines with the “a” rhyme sound are octosyllabic (English tetrameter), while those with “b” and “c” rhyme sounds are decasyllabic (English pentameter).

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Original French

Bien me deüsse targier
de chançon faire et de mos et des chans,
quant me convient eslongier
de la millor de totes les vaillans;
si em puis bien faire voire vantance
ke je fas plus por Dieu ke nus amans,
si en sui mout endroit l’ame joians,
mais del cors ai et pitié et pesance.

On se doit bien efforchier
de Dieu servir, ja n’i soit li talans,
et la char vaintre et plaissier,
ki adés est de pechier desirans
adont voit Dieus la doble penitance.
Hé las, se nus se doit sauver dolans
dont doit par droit ma merite estre grans,
car plus dolans ne se part nus de France.

Ne ja por nul desirier
ne remanrai chi avoc ces tirans,
ki sont croisiet a loier
pour dismer clers et borgois et serjans,
plus en croisa convoties ke creance,
et quant la crois n’en puet estre garans,
a teus croisiés sera Dieus mout soffrans
se ne s’en venge a peu de demorance.

Vous ki dismés les croisiés,
ne despendé mie l’avoir ensi
anemi Dieu en series.
Dieus! ke porront faire si anemi,
quand tot li saint trembleront de dotance
devant Celui ki onques ne menti.
Adont seront pecheor mal bailli
se sa pities ne cuevre sa poissance.

Li ques s’en est ja vangiés
des haus barons, qui or li sont faillit.
C’or les eüst anpiriés
qui sont plus vil que onques mais ne vi!
De hait li bers qui est de tel sanblance
con li oixel qui conchïet son nit!
Po en i a n’ait son renne honi,
por tant qu’il ait sor ses homes possance.

Qui ses barons empiriés
sert san eür, ja n’ara tant servi
k’il lor em prenge pitiés;
pour cou fait boin Dieu servir, ke je di
qu’en lui servir n’a eür ne kaance,
mais ki mieus sert, et mieus li est meri.
Pleüst a Dieu k’Amours fesist ausi
ensvers tos ceaus qui ens li ont fiance.

Or vos ai dit des barons la sanblance;
si lor an poise de ceu que jou ai di,
si s’an praignent a mon mastre d’Oissi,
qui m’at apris a chanter tres m’enfance.

Par Deu, compains, adés ai ramambrance
c’onques aüst [un seul plus fin] ami,
ne tous li mons ne vadroit riens sans li,
magrei Gilon, adés croist sa vaillance.

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Note on the text: French editions of the poem may switch the order of the third and fourth stanzas. This represents variance in surviving manuscripts, probably arising from a scribal error. I prefer the order above because the first three stanzas contain all references to the speaker’s reluctance to go on crusade, and the remaining three concern only the barons. As well, some editions ignore the second envoi, or relegate it to a footnote. It is problematic because its second line lacks four syllables, and makes no sense unless an editor improvises something. The words in square brackets are my guess at what might belong there. In relation to other proposed emendations, they add very little to the meaning of the line and stanza.

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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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33 Responses

  1. Paul Buchheit

    Quite an accomplishment, Margaret. A most interesting ballad, expertly translated and rhymed.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Paul. I agree that this poem, with historical significance and the range of emotions in the speaker, is one of the most interesting of early French works.

      Reply
  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Consider the difficulty of the rhyming and syntactical feat that Margaret has managed here. She had to find twelve A rhymes, twelve B rhymes, sixteen C rhymes, and sixteen D rhymes. They had to be appropriate to the meaning of the original Old French text. She had to intertwine twelve tetrameter lines in the beginning quatrains of the first six strophes, in a 56-line poem that is predominantly translated into iambic fives. And all of this complex labor had to capture not just the voice of a medieval crusader, but also his hesitation and anger.

    Amazing work. Can any of our enemies say that the SCP isn’t a venue for polished and scholarly productions?

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Joe, for your appreciation and for explaining the difficulties here, especially as I did not fully describe them in my note on lyric form. As you notice, the author changes his rhyme scheme from ababcbbc in the first three stanzas to adadcddc in the last three, and the envois are both cddc. You may also notice that I made my English /b/ = /d/, and thus I have 28 words rhyming on the long “e” sound. This happened by accident. I first found the poem in a booklet of old verses, in slightly modernized French, that I bought at a train station. I liked it and decided to translate it, not realizing its length, as the booklet didn’t use any of the standard methods to indicate omitted portions of poems. The rhyme scheme in the booklet’s 24 lines looked a bit strange, because it showed stanzas 1, 2, and 4. I thought the author had just made a change for his last stanza, and I helped him out by regularizing the rhyme scheme in English. That is, I used the English long “e” sound for both his /b/ rhymes and his /d/ rhymes. Later, when I checked a scholarly edition, I was shocked. My fairly good existing translation was already committed to French /b/ and /d/ being the same sound in English. Happily, the English long “e” has an enormous number of rhyme words! The real problem was “eel.” I wanted “ordeal” in stanza 2, but how to find 6 more usable words on that sound? I could have added another rhyme sound to the poem, as Conon may have thought his /a/ rhymes spelled “er” and “es” to be different, even though they sound the same in French pronunciation as we know it. If so, when he moved to the second part of his double ballade, the only sound he kept was the /c/ sound from the first part. But then I noticed the words for “luck” and “chance” in stanza 6, and realized that I could use Fortune and her wheel to solve my difficulty with the first sound in each stanza. Therefore, my English rhyming is more difficult than Conon’s French, but I have some excuse from other French authors. I know of several poems in strict forms, where an expected rhyme scheme of 4, 5, or 6 sounds makes some of those sounds the same, reducing the number of them to 2 or 3 or 4. Serendipity finds suitable sounds just as it suggests words!

      Reply
  3. AB Brown

    What a great piece by a true warrior-poet. I love how you are always translating fabulous but little-known works, Margaret. Sad that only 10 of his poems survive. Waiting to read the other nine, and that Hugues d’Oisy guy also!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Andrew. The big names in the past manage to find multiple translators, while some of these obscure poets say just as much that’s worth hearing. I have been much delayed in getting out those hundred ballades by a group of knights that I once told you about, so Conon and Hugues may have to wait a while!

      Reply
  4. Brian A Yapko

    Margaret, what an amazing work of translation you undertook – and how brilliantly you have achieved it! This would be an exceedingly challenging form to pull off even if you were writing it as an original poem in English. But to take this complex ballade form and succeed in getting all of the rhymes and meter intact from Medieval French into modern English is truly a tour de force of linguistic and poetic skill.

    This is not just an amazing poem. It is an amazing historic document as it provides a fascinating first-person account of participation in the Crusades. It may have been penned in the 12th Century but it remains fresh and vital. I very much like the lines which register extreme disgust for those who have turned the Crusades into an opportunity for lining their pockets:

    “For greed, and not through faith, the Cross wear they
    Upon their breasts, a lying livery
    By which they amplify Christ’s agony—
    Unless I bear my cross without delay.”

    The contrast between those who are corrupt and the responsible innocence of the speaker is startling and perfectly modern. And the image of “amplifying Christ’s agony” is unbearable. How truly the observations and dismay of this Medieval poem speak to the same human failings as exist today. This is timeless and I hope your translation receives the considerable acclaim that it deserves. Thank you for bringing this poet and his fascinating work to our attention.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for your comment, Brian. When Evan Mantyk accepted this, he said he planned to use it in a history class. The lines you quote are what I would call the turn of the ballade, where the conflict of Conon’s feelings is resolved. He feels as you do about causing God more suffering, as his French puts it. Having recognized his own responsibility and made a decision to act, he can move on from the “Unless …” line to denounce the guilty parties. Notice that in the second ballade (of the two that make up this double ballade) he also expresses perfect confidence in God’s power and love. Among the double ballades I know (and there aren’t many of this kind of poem), this is the one that best combines two ballades, rather than merely taking advantage of more stanzas to further develop a single topic.

      Reply
  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, translation is beyond my capabilities, but I can appreciate the skill and effort that goes into breathing life into languages I don’t fully appreciate. This piece is beautiful… it has lifted my spirits and transported me to a world of words I wouldn’t have gained access to if it hadn’t been for you. For that I thank you. I would also like to thank Joe and Brian for giving me further appreciation of this work. It’s a timely piece that would serve many well to read as a lesson in today’s turbulent times.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Susan. You and Brian are right about this poem addressing our times, especially when it comes to misuse of holy things. By contrast, it offers clear-headed idealism that recognizes the difficulties in fighting for what’s good, on both the personal and the broader social level. But thinking of double ballades, I believe you’d find it worth your while to look up William Ernest Henley’s “Double Ballade of Life and Fate.” Among the lines on ladies, it has a good one on Doris.

      Reply
  6. James Sale

    Very, very accomplished work and yes, all the technical resourcefulness is wonderful, but what I like most about it is the ‘Dantean’ feeling – the values of the Mediaeval world – still palpably apparent although in a modern English idiom. Really great writing; well done.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Yes, the medieval world has many values that we (or some of us) share, but they take these things for granted, while we consciously choose to give them a place in our lives. Everything must be referred to God; arms are means for achieving good; women and love are positive forces of inspiration; poetry is a pastime for every literate person; penitence is part of life, etc. How different when these ideas and others like them are the air a society breathes!

      Reply
  7. Roy Eugene Peterson

    I do not know French, but I can greatly appreciate and admire the beauty of your translation. Joseph Salemi really put in perspective your superb feat and accomplishment.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Roy! As I’m sure you understand, this is a poem worth a lot of work, because Conon de Bethune gives us such a magnificent portrait of a soldier confident that he can overcome all challenges, within and around himself.

      Reply
  8. Cheryl Corey

    Margaret, the skill – no, artistry – that you demonstrate with translations such as this deserve wider recognition, not only here, but in France.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you so much, Cheryl. I am pleased with recognition here, among English speakers, because it means that French poetry and culture are more widely known. In France, it does sometimes happen that English translations are very useful to persons or organizations trying to gain greater appreciation for French culture from tourists, because the translations offer more than most tourists could understand with limited ability to read the French language. All the more reason to make my translations as good as they can be!

      Reply
  9. Joshua C. Frank

    Margaret, what a great choice for a poem to translate (especially in our day, when Church hierarchy worships the dollar just as much as during the Crusades), and I can say as someone who speaks French (and has translated poetry) that the translation is good too—both from the French and as an English-language poem in itself. It’s impressive that you were able to preserve both the syllable count and the strict rhyme scheme. Having done some of these, I know just how hard that is to do!

    It’s also interesting to see how little French has changed since the Middle Ages compared to English. I could see Georges Brassens setting the original French words to music.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Josh, for the many compliments here. I will say in return that your understanding of French is quite good to be able to read this original. You’re right that the language is little changed, but the spelling and local usages make a considerable contrast with the 14th, 15th, and 16th century pieces I translate. I’m glad you comment on the unworthy interest in money by too many members of the Church hierarchy today, because we need to realize the situation was very different during the Crusades. The prelates then promoted the Crusades because they had historical memory of Muslim depredations in their own land. Anyone interested can look up the Battle of Tours (732) in west central France. Christians were killed or enslaved, churches and monasteries robbed and destroyed at times long thereafter, and when armies on the ground were definitively driven out, there were still raiders from the sea in Mediterranean coastlands.

      The persons criticized by Conon above are not clerics, but lay lords who made the Crusader vow, and claimed to be helping the war effort by collecting funds and supplies, but kept some of the proceeds for themselves, and did not join the actual fighting. This conduct was more OUTRAGEOUS than I can tell in my translation, because it was the ONLY way to make money on the Crusades, and it was far beneath the ideals of the military class. Knights who made the vow, and went abroad leading a company of men suited to their rank, spent FIVE TO SIX TIMES their annual income. The Church did not collect or supply money, nor did the State. If noblemen did not have that much accumulated, which was often the case, they sold lands and drained family resources. Crusaders might never return, and if they did, they were poorer than before they left. Historian Thomas Madden, who has documented this, explains their motives: “The culture of nobility was one of public displays of piety. Lords were known as much for their love of God as for their skill on the battlefield. They were blessed by God, and it was their duty to return the fruits of that blessing to God’s people and his church. By sacrificing great wealth [to build churches or endow monasteries or to go on crusade], they were storing it up where moth and rust cannot corrupt. By defending the church and persecuted Christians abroad, they defending all that was good and true in their world. . . A crusader army was a curious mix of rich and poor, saint and sinner, motivated by every kind of pious and selfish desire, yet it could not have come into being without the pious idealism that led men to risk all to liberate the lands of Christ.”

      Reply
  10. Mia

    Dear Margaret, thank you
    As someone who speaks two languages and knows how difficult it is to go from one to another I am in awe of what you have been able to achieve.
    I am so grateful to learn from your knowledge of poetry, history and languages. Very best wishes to you

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      And to you, Mia! I am very grateful for your reading and your comment, and very happy to have introduced you to Conon de Bethune and his work.

      Reply
  11. Yael

    Wow Margaret, your great talent for poetic translation is on full display with this one. The technical challenges which you tackled and surmounted with such accomplishment are truly impressive, and I appreciate the detailed discussion and explanations about them in the comments section. I also enjoy getting to read and learn about this medieval poet of whom I had never heard before, as I have been fascinated with this period of European history ever since childhood. But the icing and cherry on top of this cake for me is the subtle spiritual narrative which is woven into the poem. It is the theme of Genesis: the Garden of Eden, the Man and the Woman, the Temptation, and the infinite sacrifice of the Son of God. The poet, having made up his mind to “do for God what He has done for me”, volunteers to leave the woman and his comfortable garden home (France) in order to crucify sin and the devil in his own body, rather than to “amplify Christ’s agony”, putting the Son of God to open shame, by corrupted personal conduct as exemplified by the barons. The poet makes it clear that he puts the full trust of his life and soul into God’s hands because he recognizes God as the source of all that is dear to him in this world, namely his country, his woman and his home. He is willing to risk everything he has in order to overcome and succeed where the first man Adam had failed in Genesis. This is the apex of honor and chivalry for the medieval noble man and your beautiful translation really brings this to life, thank you.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Yael, for this beautiful reading of the poem, supported as it is by the original French words and by my English. Indeed, Conon volunteers for crucifixion in himself and by himself, putting sin and the devil to death in order to faithfully serve Christ, crucified for him. Your interpretation reflects that of the Crusades scholar Thomas Madden, whom I just quoted above in my reply to Joshua C. Frank, regarding the motives of Crusaders. Madden also points out that most leading Crusaders were men who had everything to lose, and were willing to make the sacrifice, not only of their worldly goods, but of their family’s future prosperity. They do indeed recognize God as the source of all that is dear to them in this world, and when they take the Cross and make the crusader’s vow, they risk it all to imitate Christ and succeed where Adam failed. Thank you, Yael, for spelling this out, to the honor of medieval chivalry.

      Reply
  12. BDW

    Uc de Bewel Airs:

    As T. S. Eliot went to writers, like Jules LaForgue, Pound went to the troubadours to forge his Modernist style. He learned to “file and preen and cut words clean”, although not as elegantly as Ms. Coats has; though, of course, he was striving for an epic after reading Browning’s “Sordello”, et. al. As to Ms. Coats’ purposes I can only suppose; but her focuses are quite remarkable, and unique, for the many coats she wears.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Happy Valentine’s Day, Sir Uc! Don’t think I’ve seen that charichord before, but I’m glad you can assume a medieval identity. I was once quite interested in Ezra Pound; did my undergraduate thesis on his Personae. The lyrics are certainly the most readable and enjoyable of his works. I also own a copy of the Cantos, which I open once in a long while, but they are unreadable. If they represent his planned modernist epic, I can only observe there are vast numbers of unread epics, including some by poets more important than Pound, such as Petrarch and Ronsard.

      As you might guess from the above remarks, I have no intention of writing an epic. You have made me think a bit about my intentions. When I first began translating (mostly from French), I felt there were not enough examples of the fair forms (pejoratively called fixed forms) in English. I can increase that number more quickly by translating, and I have sought out different poets to translate, in order to present examples of these fair forms that have varied topics and styles.

      Like yourself, I have created some forms, but these are mainly to fit form to topic (that is, not to propose my invented forms as useful by others writing on diverse topics). My third flower-form poem (“Peach Blossom Dreaming”) is scheduled here at SCP for March 1. It follows “Cherry Blossom Viewing” and “Plum Blossom Blessings,” the three distinguished from one another because the stanza forms allude to the flower shapes. I can’t really proceed much farther with flower-form artistry, although I always start poems with a topic and next think of what form might be suitable for it. There is an incredible array of available forms, many of them little used in English. They include yours, and some even lesser known ones by Ernest McGaffey. I think his dates are 1861-1941; he rejected modernism and wrote some very beautiful pieces in forms such as his sextade and septime. But even he didn’t find these suitable for many poems, but went back to ballades and other long-established forms.

      In my original poetry, I simply want to follow traditional lyric kinds in my own voices. As you say, I wear many coats, hoping to make some of them appealing to others in diverse ways, while remaining true to my marguerite within.

      Reply
  13. BDW

    Uc de Bewel Airs:

    I found the “Cantos” readable, important, but a disaster. Here are some thoughts upon them from a couple of decades ago.

    On Pound’s “Cantos”
    by B. S. Eliud Acrewe
    for Clive James

    Pound’s Cantos are a heap of rubble that
    became the landscape. Fulminating loud,
    like an old prophet on his Ararat,
    he spouted disillusionment out proud
    (in his panscopic grab bag—error fat);
    and though there are a few…specks in the pan,
    still, after sluicing a hole hillside, there
    isn’t a lot of paydirt (daylight)—some flotsam
    and jetsam, just plain junk in with despair.
    They are an architectural shambles
    filled with particulars, self-pity, spite;
    the whole o’erwhelmed by Whit-manic brambles,
    suffused throughout with Eliotic blight.
    And yet, they do reflect that wretched time:
    a madding crowd of millions out of rhyme.

    I do agree that Ronsard and Petrarca are “more important poets” than Pound, yet the “Franciade” shows well the failures of Ronsard, and “Africa” reveals failures too of Petrarca. In one of my sillier moments I thought to pen an epic in a similar vein; but thankfully I came to my senses, and accepted the “Bellum Punicum” of Silius Italica as its appropriate exemplar, despite its long-winded flaws. [Was Martial’s discription of Silius as a Ciceronian Vergil absurd?]

    One problem, of the Italian, the Frenchman, and the American, was their lack of an appropriate classical line; but even more important, it’s not that easy to embrace a modern cultural complex, or even an ancient one; think, for example, of the agonies endured by Vergil, and his failures. [Lest I be taken amiss in that last main clause, I plead to my own embarrassing previous idolatry of Vergil, which once was akin to that of W. F. Jackson Knight’s.]

    I did enjoy your choice and translation of the heroic poem of Conon de Béthune. One thing I realized, after reading your translation, Pound essays, and other troubadours, that had never crossed my mind before, was how the height of the troubadours, at least according to William D. Paden, occurring around 1180-1220, was at the same time when German literature had its first great flourishing: Walther von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Hartmann von Aue, the “Niebelungenlied”, and Gottfried von Strassburg.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Bruce, you have my extreme appreciation for your poem that describes the unreadable Pound in such an entertaining way! I had a great deal more to say about Petrarch and Ronsard and cultural complexes, but the technological challenge of this comment box consumed it in one fell swoop. I’ll try again when I have time. Thanks for making this an intriguing exchange.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      To come back to the Italian (Petrarca), the Frenchman (Ronsard), and the American (Pound), you may be correct, Bruce, that their difficulty with epic was the lack of an appropriate line. You are certainly correct that the epics of each of them were failures. But Petrarch and Ronsard are more important poets because they were stunning successes who produced great quantities of memorable and influential poetry of more than one kind: Petrarch, the sonnet, the canzone, and the lyric sequence; Ronsard, the sonnet, the ode, and multiple sequences. But Pound’s most memorable piece is probably “In a Station of the Metro,” neither haiku nor couplet. I like “The Game of Chess,” but we have to admit that the poetic school of Vorticism didn’t go beyond that one poem. Pound was important for experiments and theoretical ideas, not because he worked them out in good poetry. If the Cantos are important, it’s because they were written by Pound as a Very Important Person of modernism, who lived a life that remains a topic of controversy.

      As to that first flourishing of German literature, I don’t know much about it. Still, it is interesting to consider the dates as similar to those of many troubadours in the south (Provence or Occitania, if you will), separated from Germanic lands by the French, where a great literature was developing in a closely related language, with writers including Conon de Bethune and contemporaries of whom we know too little.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Bruce, as you may perhaps come back to this discussion, I’ll respond to the point you raised that I didn’t find time for earlier. It’s the difficulty of embracing a cultural context, modern or ancient, especially when aiming to write a literary work that embodies it. We can see that Conon de Bethune in the above poem has no such problem. He is sincere about his ideals of faith and chivalry, and he easily places himself in the mainstream of what his society considered true and just and noble. I can see that Petrarch and Ronsard may have failed to formulate or to follow cultural norms of ancient Rome or of the legendary period at the beginning of French history. But Pound is certainly someone who desired to write important poetry for the modern period, but simply could not embrace many modern ideas and practices. He was a biting critic of economics in particular. And though he found that he could accept some of Mussolini’s aims, he jumped too fast to support him. He couldn’t understand that modern despotic socialism was working forward in Italy at the time–a kind of despotism similar to what condemned him for treason to America and confined him to a mental institution after the war. Pound really was a man without a culture to call his own. His was not the stuff of epic, and I suspect he considered satire a genre beneath his literary goals.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Hello again, Bruce! Because it belongs here in relation to Conon de Bethune, I’m answering what you said about Pound and the epic in a comment on my “Peach Blossom Dreaming” poem. Will answer the rest of it there. You brought up the idea that Pound not only lacked a suitable line with which to write an epic, but could not do so because of “the monstrosity of the world Pound found,” namely the monstrous modern world many of whose cultural norms he rejected. We agree that Conon de Bethune had no such problem, and you then pointed out that what Conon is doing in this double ballade is not the epic project Pound may have wished to take up, or did take up as his Cantos. Entirely correct–Conon’s poem is an admirable lyric, not an epic, and not part of a sequence of some kind (as the series of Cantos may be). We had also mentioned the epics of Petrarch and Ronsard, and you said those two writers did not need to accept the cultural norms of the times in which they placed their epics. Personally, they didn’t. But in those failed epics, they did try to make the actions of characters suit what they knew or supposed about the culture in the time and place where those actions happened. You praise their works as “fine gambits” because they attempted more than Conon did in this lyric. I don’t agree that a poet gets credit for the magnitude of his attempt when he fails. Whatever the cause of his failure (poor line, lack of verisimilitude), it remains a deficient poem. It’s possible that we could praise some passages of the Africa or the Franciade as well-written, but even there we would need to judge the passages suited to the epic attempt. If they don’t manifest epic style and acccomplish epic purposes in the way a speech or a description or an inset tale needs to, they fail as poems just as the entire epic does. Even if they seem good as a speech or a description or an inset tale, we recognize them as less than the best such pieces, because they somehow fail to support the lofty aims of the whole. I judge Pound’s Cantos as separate poems because the epic intent of the whole seems unclear. Pound may have wanted to write an epic, but I can’t detect a failed epic in the Cantos, such as we see in Petrarch’s Africa or Ronsard’s Franciade. And I think the Cantos fail individually. If you admire some as good poems on the monstrosity of the world Pound found, say which! I’ll mark them for another reading, and maybe one might come up to the achievement of Conon de Bethune in this double ballade.

      Reply
  14. Tom Rimer

    I am coming late to my reading of this strikingly successful translation because of other obligations, and reading the many comments already made by your readers provides a virtual seminar in comparative poetics and literary history in itself. So many stimulating observations and ideas are put forth.

    The poem is remarkably fresh and direct, and the poet’s stance and rhetoric seem genuine, not perfunctory. It was a special pleasure for me to print out the French text you supplied and read it aloud as I followed along with your translation on the website. Among other things, this little exercise made me realize that heard aloud (and so not distracted by the sometimes archaic spelling) the medieval language is closer to modern French than I thought.

    Thanks so much for this view into a complex moment in human history,

    Reply
  15. Margaret Coats

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Tom. When you, with all your experience in translation, call this one a “strikingly successful” translation, I can only be extremely gratified. With the emotions expressed by the author, we do indeed see how complex life could be, on an individual basis, for a person living at this moment in history. It is good to observe, at the same time, his strong faith in God, in his lady, and in his friends.

    Reply

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