Godspeed, Sweet Intent


Our Correspondents

Hunting the sound stack in the rondels of D’Orléans.

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, oil on canvas, 1852–55.

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair (detail), oil on canvas, 1852–55.

In the March 1915 issue of Poetry magazine (page 254), the following poem appeared for the first time in print: 


Young men riding in the street
In the bright new season
Spur without reason,
Causing their steeds to leap.

And at the pace they keep
Their horses’ armored feet
Strike sparks from the cobbled street
In the bright new season.

I first encountered it, seventy or seventy-five years later, in Personæ: The Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound. I did not know at that time whether d’Orléans was a person or a place, nor did I look into it. I was charmed by the poem—more than I knew—but there were many pieces in Personæ that interested me more. By the time I turned thirty, I could recite at least two dozen of Pound’s shorter poems from memory. “Image from D’Orleans” was not one of them. 

I say I was charmed more than I knew, but how can you be more charmed than you know. That’s easy, you let ideas get in the way. Idea #1: I only like poems with good lines. Idea #2: I only like poems that say something interesting. Maybe you’re a little bit like me? Maybe those two ideas seem rock-solid to you?

They’re cute, but the problem is, working together, they prevent you from knowing you’re charmed by things other than content. If a poem’s main goodness is that it makes a neat little Celtic knot of ee sounds, you will like the poem, but you won’t know how much until years later, when your ideas relax.

I remember very well how surprising it was to me, when Nadya snatched up Personæ one day and proceeded to read to me from the section where “Image from D’Orleans” appears. She did not know which poems I was specially devoted to, so she neither sought them out nor avoided them. Again and again, I insisted on being shown the book—which I thought I knew—because I couldn’t believe that what I had just heard had been in there all along. “Image from D’Orleans” was one of these.

The footnotes in the Library of America Pound will not tell you how to find d’Orléans’ fifteenth-century original. But K. K. Ruthven’s 1969 Guide to Ezra Pound’s “Personæ” (1926) has you covered: Ruthven quotes the French poem in full, and tells you its number and some other things, but—get ready for disappointment—Ruthven does not translate the poem. So, unless you’re good with French from the 1400s, you don’t get to find out whether Pound’s translation is weird, wild, or what. 

I independently located d’Orléans’s original a few months ago without knowing about Ruthven. I was reading an extremely stimulating book: The French Chansons of Charles D’Orléans, edited and translated by Sarah Spence (Garland, 1986). Here is the original poem:

Jeunes amoureux nouveaulx
En la nouvelle saison,
Par les rues, sans raison,
Chevauchent, faisans les saulx.
Et font saillir des carreaulx
Le feu, comme de cherbon,
     Jeunes amoureux nouveaulx.
Je ne sçay se leurs travaulx
Ilz emploient bien ou non,
Mais piqués de l’esperon
Sont autant que leurs chevaulx
     Jeunes amoureux nouveaulx.

Here is Spence’s hyperliteral translation:

Young new lovers,
In the new season,
Down the streets, carefree,
They saunter, making leaps and passes.
And they make the cobblestones
Leap as fire does coal.
     Young new lovers.
I don’t know if their labors
Are well-spent or not,
But pricked by the spur
They are just like their horses,
     Young new lovers.

She says, in a footnote, that she has put “leaps and passes” where the French merely says “leaps” because to “make a leap” was an idiom for what we call making a pass at somebody.

Note that Pound has translated the sound pattern much more than what the poem says. He wants the mysterious satisfaction of the return-to-tonic, which is, after all, the raison d’être of this form. He gets everything else wrong, yet he is right. He may not give you that particular poem, but he gives you d’Orléans.

Lewis Turco’s New Book of Forms (1986) would call d’Orléans’s piece a rondel. Rondeaux—not the same thing—are supposedly longer, and rondines a bit shorter; rondeleys are shorter still. There appear to be millions of rules. I gotta say, though: If you look at a document like The Penguin Book of French Verse, 1: To the Fifteenth Century (1961), it seems many French-writing poets (and English-writing editors) throughout history have neglected to study and digest their Turco. In the real world, the word rondeau covers almost all cases.

Anyhow, I find it quite difficult to explain to myself, or anyone else, why the repetitions and confinement-to-two-rhyme-sounds should result in such an attractive thing. Regarding this and quite a few other poetic phenomena, I prefer to describe the matter in terms of pathology. You either have the disease or you don’t. Same thing with baby-talk nicknames. Same thing with the concept of literary allusion. Same thing with death metal.

I wanted to see what a trimeter rondel closely following d’Orléans’s rhyme scheme might sound like in English, and concocted the following pastiche. It is not exactly like “[Jeunes amoureux nouveaulx … ],” but it is exactly like the majority of d’Orléans’s chansons.

Say anything, my pen,
For this is not the thing.
She will not hear you sing,
For all your acumen.
Take kinder counsel then,
This final day of spring.
Say anything my pen,
For this is not the thing.

Wild animal in glen,
Indefatigable thing,
Time was, you felt the sting—
But if any ask you when,
Say anything, my pen.

With “hyperliteral” translations of d’Orléans, you have to use your imagination to supply the grace and what I call the “sound stack.” With my poem, the sounds are all there, but you have to pretend the content is good. Or you can always learn some French and take your roundels, -dines, and -deaux as God intended.

I’ll close by quoting the most charming rondeau in English. It was just-short-of-certainly written by Geoffrey Chaucer, in the late fourteenth century, around fifty years before d’Orléans. I have modernized most of the spellings, but I had to leave a few words in Middle English, to preserve the pentameter. I may have botched line four; I don’t know how to scan it. In line five I translated an idiom.

Since I from love escapèd am so fat,
I never think to be in his prison lean;
Since I am free, I count him not a bean.

He may answer, and sayè this or that;
I <pay no mind*>, I speak right as I mean.
   Since I from love escapèd am so fat,
   I never think to be in his prison lean.

Love has my name y-struck out of his slat,
And he is struck out from my bookès clean
Forevermore; there is no other mean.
   Since I from love escapèd am so fat,
   I never think to be in his prison lean;
   Since I am free, I count him not a bean.


* The original reads, “do no fors.”

Anthony Madrid now lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His first book is called I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium Books, 2012). He is a correspondent for the Daily.