Wednesday, July 23, 2008



A common way in literature to express a recipe for happiness is by means of a macarism. A macarism (from Greek μακαρισμός) is just a fancy word for beatitude. It consists of an adjective meaning happy, a relative or indefinite pronoun, and whatever action or state is supposed to lead to happiness.

A poem by Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560) exquisitely expresses the happiness of returning home after a long absence. It starts out with a macarism. Here are some translations into English, followed by the French original.

Translated by Richard Wilbur:
Happy the man who, journeying far and wide
As Jason or Ulysses did, can then
Turn homeward, seasoned in the ways of men,
And claim his own, and there in peace abide!

When shall I see the chimney-smoke divide
The sky above my little town: ah, when
Stroll the small gardens of that house again
Which is my realm and crown, and more beside?

Better I love the plain, secluded home
My fathers built, than bold façades of Rome;
Slate pleases me as marble cannot do;

Better than Tiber's flood my quiet Loire,
Those little hills than these, and dearer far
Than great sea winds the zephyrs of Anjou.
Translated by Austin Dobson:
Happy the man, like wise Ulysses tried,
Or him of yore that gat the Fleece of Gold,
Who comes at last, from travels manifold,
Among his kith and kindred to abide!

When shall I see, from my small hamlet-side,
Once more the blue and curling smoke unrolled?
When the poor boundaries of my house behold—
Poor, but to me as any province wide?

Ah, more than these imperious piles of Rome
Laugh the low portals of my boyhood's home!
More than their marble must its slate-roof be!

More than the Tiber's flood my Loire is still!
More than the Palatine my native hill,
And the soft air of Anjou than the sea!
Translated by G.K. Chesterton:
Happy, who like Ulysses or that lord
That raped the fleece, returning full and sage,
With usage and the world's wide reason stored,
With his own kin can wait the end of age.

When shall I see, when shall I see, God knows
My little village smoke; or pass the door,
The old dear door of that unhappy house
That is to me a kingdom and much more?

Mightier to me the house my fathers made
Than your audacious heads, O Halls of Rome!
More than immortal marbles undecayed,
The thin sad slates that cover up my home.

More than your Tiber is my Loire to me,
Than Palatine my little Lyre there;
And more than all the winds of all the sea
The quiet kindness of the Angevin air.
Richmond Lattimore and C.H. Sisson also translated du Bellay's poem, but I can't find their translations on the World Wide Web. Here is the French original:
Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage,
Ou comme cestuy-là qui conquit la toison,
Et puis est retourné, plein d'usage et raison,
Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge!

Quand reverrai-je, hélas, de mon petit village
Fumer la cheminée, et en quelle saison
Reverrai-je le clos de ma pauvre maison,
Qui m'est une province, et beaucoup davantage?

Plus me plaît le séjour qu'ont bâti mes aïeux,
Que des palais Romains le front audacieux,
Plus que le marbre dur me plaît l'ardoise fine:

Plus mon Loire gaulois, que le Tibre latin,
Plus mon petit Liré, que le mont Palatin,
Et plus que l'air marin la doulceur angevine.
In his book Avril: Being Essays on the Poetry of the French Renaissance, Hilaire Belloc discusses this poem:
It was of a large gray house, moated, a town beside it, yet not far from woods and standing in rough fields, pure Angevin, Tourmélière, the Manor house of Liré, his home, that Du Bellay wrote this, the most dignified and perhaps the last of his sonnets. The sadness which is the permanent, though sometimes the unrecognized, moderator of his race, which had pierced through in his latter misfortunes, and which had tortured him to the cry that has been printed on the preceding page, here reached a final and a most noble form: something much higher than melancholy, and more majestic than regret. He turned to his estate, the mould of his family, a roof, the inheritance of which had formed his original burden and had at last crushed him; but he turned to it with affection. If one may use so small a word in connection with a great poet, the gentleman in him remembered an ancestral repose.

There is very much in the Sonnet to mark that development of French verse in which Du Bellay played so great a part. The inversion of the sentence, a trick which gives a special character to all the later formal drama is prominent: the convention of contrast, the purely classical allusion, are mixed with a spirit that is still spontaneous and even naïf. But every word is chosen, and it is especially noteworthy to discover so early that restraint in epithet which is the charm but also the danger of what French style has since become. Of this there are two examples here: the eleventh line and the last, which rhymes with it. To contrast slate with marble would be impossible prose save for the exact adjective "fine," which puts you at once into Anjou. The last line, in spite of its exquisite murmur, would be grotesque if the "air marin" were meant for the sea-shore. Coming as it does after the suggestions of the Octave it gives you suddenly sea-faring: Ulysses, Jason, his own voyages, the long way to Rome, which he knew; and in the "douceur Angevine" you have for a final foil to such wanderings, not only in the meaning of the words, but in their very sound, the hearth and the return.
Related posts:Update: Thanks to Pierre Wechter for pointing out a misprint in my quotation of du Bellay (Loir, now corrected to Loire).

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