Labyrinth of Love cover

Charles Ross
Series Editor, Renaissance and Medieval Studies

I discovered Henry Weinfield when I heard him reciting lines from his translation of Hesiod’s Theogony to a group of poets and translators who were walking behind me in Hoboken, New Jersey.

I was in search of real pizza, during a conference lunch break, not the stuff they sell in the midwest. What I found, instead, was a genuine poet. The voice was mesmerizing, a low and intense baritone, utterly serious, and it is that voice that can be heard again in Henry Weinfield’s new selection of verses from the Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard, The Labyrinth of Love: Selected Sonnets and Other Poems (Parlor Press, 2021).

Ronsard is the great poet of love, the extoller of women, and the finder of the finest French rhymes. When Mercutio challenges Romeo to rhyme “love” and “dove,” we hear a distorted echo of the influence of Ronsard. His sonnets bridged the gap between Dante and Petrarch, centuries earlier, and Shakespeare, a few decades later. His poetry was immediately successful, bringing him the patronage of the kings and queens of France and making him the most famous of the mid-sixteenth century French poets who formed the Pléiade, named after a constellation of seven bright stars. But who today has read him beyond a dwindling number who might have seen Quand vous serez bien vieille, his most celebrated a poem, or Ode á Cassandre, in an anthology?

Was Ronsard a bounder? He wrote books of poems dedicated to Cassandra, Marie, and Helène. Did he corrupt young girls? Does he give a glimpse into another time and place and leave it to us to know better how to behave today than, as Fran Liebowicz has put it, we did ten minutes ago? Is the voice of the poetry Ronsard at all? These poems, it seems to me, give us a look at an earlier Renaissance Romeo, unhappily in love with Rosalind before much more tragically falling for Juliet. Romeo, too, is a poet, and Leonardo DiCaprio captures the idea in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet by scribbling verses in a pocket notebook before puzzling his friend Benvolio with his thoughts on love.

Both Ronsard and Romeo wonder about the power of love. Here is an instance of one of several answers for “Whoever wants to know what love is” from among Henry Weinfield’s new translations:

He’ll come to know that Love is without reason,
A sweet deception, a fine-seeming prison,
A hope that on the wind would make us feed:
And he will know that that man is deceived,
Who, like a wandering blind man, has received
An infant as his master and his guide.
Il cognoistra qu’Amour est sans raison,
Un doux abus, une belle prison,
Un vain espoir qui de vent nous vient paistre:
Et cognoistra que l’homme se deçoit,
Quand plein d’erreur un aveugle il reçoit
Pour sa conduire, un enfant pour son maistre.

Poor Ronsard, so trite, so melodic—but then, so like Shakespeare’s Lysander, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who tells us that love is:

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say 'Behold!'
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.

(Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.1.144-149)

Or consider what occurs to Romeo’s mind when he surveys the devastation caused by the brawl between servants of the Montagues and Capulets the opening scene:

                         What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?

(Romeo and Juliet 1.1.173-182)

Ronsard may have been reading Petrarch, but Shakespeare is more likely to have read poems such as this one by Ronsard:

Amazed, I think—a hundred times a day—
On Love, what mood sustains him, makes him stay,
What place he holds within these hearts of ours,
And what his essence is and what his powers.
That stars have influence, I know this well,
And that the sea will always ebb and swell;
I know that all things gather in the One;
But Love eludes me and remains unknown.
I’m certain that he is a puissant God,
That, changeable, he sometimes makes abode
Within my heart and sometimes in my veins;
That his effects are never of the best,
The fruit he bears being sour to the taste,
Its tree weighed down with sorrows and with pains.

Weinfield’s rendering—“Amazed, I think—a hundred times a day— / On Love, what mood sustains him, makes him stay”—probably comes as close as possible to "Cent fois le jour esbahi je repense, / Que c’est qu’Amour, quelle humeur l’entretient” (The Labyrinth of Love (p. 24). For all the similarities between English and French, no language presents more challenges in translation. The bumpy accents of English struggle to reproduce the ever eliding lines of French verse. The rocky shoals of false friends in French can wreck unsturdy English vessels. What is one to do when Cupid’s bow is said to be “inside our hearts”?: Quel est son arc, et quelle place il tient / Dedans nos coeurs, et quelle est son essence.” It must give way to the amazed poet’s considering “What place he [Love] hold within these hearts of ours, / And what his essence is and what his powers.” Weinfield’s fluid rendering and heightened use of sound brilliantly smooth over difficult figures of speech.

It seems as normal for the voice of the poems to exclaim “The Apples are the gift that Love accords: / O warlike Atalanta, this you know; And you, Cydippe, still have cause to rue / How piercing were the letter’s golden words” as it is for Lucentio, Shakespeare’s figure for the average but literate lover in The Taming of the Shrew, to observe to his servant Tranio, on seeing fair Bianca, “ I saw sweet beauty in her face, / Such as the daughter of Agenor had, / That made great Jove to humble him to her hand, / When with his knees he kiss’d the Cretan strand” (Taming 1.1.168-171).

In this new volume, then, we can see how Ronsard’s diction domesticates classical myth. Those who find Ronsard either too much of a man, or less than one, might think of Terry Malloy, the prize fighter in the film On the Waterfront (1954), when he falls for Edie Doyle. In a famous unscripted scene, Marlon Brando is said to have picked up her glove and held it as he and Eva Saint Marie walked along the Hoboken waterfront waterfront. We may not have read Ronsard, but we have known him. And his art endures in this new volume, elegantly designed by David Blakesley, editor and publisher of Parlor Press.

26 January 2021

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