In his essay Villon: The genius of the tavern, Irish writer Robert Lynd (1879-1949) attributes to Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti the phrase “But where are the snows of yesteryear”, his beautiful rendering in English of “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?”. It is the nostalgic refrain of the Ballade des dames du temps jadis of François Villon (ca. 1431-1463?), “poet, pimp and pickpurse” (as Swinburne qualified him), and for whose title Rossetti provides a surprisingly pedestrian and approximate interpretation. Here is what Lynd has to say:
No one has ever celebrated the inevitable passing of loveliness in lovelier verse than Villon has done in the Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis. I have heard it maintained that Rossetti has translated the radiant beauty of this ballade into his Ballad of Dead Ladies. I cannot agree. Even his beautiful translation of the refrain,
But where are the snows of yesteryear,
seems to me to injure simplicity with an ornament, and to turn natural into artificial music.
He then goes on to criticize Rossetti’s translation which he qualifies as “the beautiful writing of an exercise”, adding that “One sees how Rossetti is inclined to romanticize that which is already romantic beyond one’s dreams in its naked and golden simplicity”.
Yet this particular verse is not only very aptly translated, it is also quite a literal rendering of the original, almost word for word: antan means last year (from vulgar Latin ant anu, from ante annum), and, by extension, years past, both which are the meanings of yesteryear.
So one is left wondering as to Lynd’s qualification of Rossetti’s translation of this particular verse as artificial and adding a useless ornament. Maybe he had in mind Louisa Stuart Costello’s translation (in her Specimens of the Early Poetry of France, 1835):
Where is fled the south wind’s snow?
This surprising (mis)translation can only be attributed to a failing eyesight: Costello confused antan with autan, as it shows in her quoting the refrain in French before her rendering in English of the poem:
Autan denotes in French a southeastern cold wind. It is not to be confused with autant (meaning as much as), which happens to be the initial word of yet another strikingly elegiac refrain of a ballade of the same Villon (from his 1461 Testament):
Autant en emporte le vent
It is known to many more people than those who have ever heard of Villon in either language, as it has been used to render into French the title of Margaret Mitchell’s best-seller and that of the eponymous movie starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone With The Wind.
But this verse must have made a strong impression almost as soon as Villon penned it: it appears as the first verse of an anonymous poem which composer Pierre de la Rue (ca. 1450-1518) put in music:
Autant en emporte le vent
Qu’il n’a qu’un baiser seulement,
Combien qu’il soit donné de bouche,
Si le cueur ne donne la touche,
Ou y met son consentement,
Autant en emporte le vent.
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