This song is based mainly on a love poem which the great classical playwright, Pierre Corneille, wrote in 1658, when he was about fifty-two. Like a lot of other men of the time, he was strongly attracted to a beautiful actress in Molière’s theatrical troupe, Mme. Thérèse Du Parc, whose husband was an actor in the same company. She had been given the nickname “Marquise” – Marchioness.
In order to proposition Marquise in verse, Corneille, perhaps surprisingly, chose to deal directly with the great disparity in their ages. It is a theme that he develops over eight verses (but Brassens only uses the first three). Corneille tells her that, although it is the inevitable fate of all humans to grow old, if she joins with him, her beauty will be known for a thousand years, not from seeing her but from the words of admiration that he will pen. Readers of this poem are sometimes worried by Corneille’s conceited presumption of his immortal genius and suggest that it is a poem of self-parody. Corneille had a sense of humour and wrote a few comedies as well as his famous classical tragedies. However, Georges Brassens prefers to take him lterally, and after singing three verses from the poem, he adds a comic final verse, written by Tristan Bernard, in which Marquise tells the self-important tragedian what to do with his offer.
Marquise(2), si mon visage
A quelques traits un peu vieux,
Souvenez-vous qu'à mon âge
Vous ne vaudrez guère mieux.
Le temps aux plus belles choses
Se plaît à faire un affront
Et saura faner vos roses(3)
Comme il a ridé mon front.
Le même cours des planètes
Règle nos jours et nos nuits
On m'a vu ce que vous êtes
Vous serez ce que je suis (4)
(Le prochain couplet est la réponse imaginée de Marquise écrite par Tristan Bernard)
Peut-être que je serai vieille,
Répond Marquise, cependant
J’ai vingt-cinq ans, mon vieux Corneille (6)
Et je t'emmerde en attendant !
If Marquise you find that my face
Has some features a trifle old
Remind yourself that at my age
You will be scarcely better off.
On the most beautiful things, time
Enjoys launching its affront
And ‘ll manage to fade your roses
As he has wrinkled my brow
It’s the same course of the planets
That rules over our days and nights.
To me you’re seen just as you are
You will be just as I am.
(The next verse is an imagined reply for Marquise composed by Tristan Bernard)
“Perhaps I will be old one day,
Says Marquise in reply « however
I’m twenty-five, Corneille old chap,
And right now you can go'n get stuffed!”
(1) The traditional theme of this poem. Critics relate this poem of Corneille to a theme that recurs constantly in poetry and is put under the label of “Carpe Diem” meaning “pluck the day”. Life is so short that we must seize the moment, in the manner of reaching out and picking an apple when it is sweet and ripe.
(2) Marquise – Carpe Diem started traditionally with a dedication to a woman, in this case Mme. Thérèse Du Parc, whose nickname was “Marquise”
(3) Vos roses –A standard image in Carpe Diem poems was the fading of roses.
(4) ce que vous êtes……….. ce que je suis – the name given to this figure of speech popular with poets at that time is a “chiasmus”. It is defined as a verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first but with the parts reversed. There are many examples of this structure in the bible e.g. in Matthew 19:30: “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.”
(5) Peut-être que je serai vieille - In fact Marquise never became old. In 1667 she gave birth to a baby girl but within weeks she was pregnant again. This time she decided to terminate but the abortion went wrong and she died on the 11th of December 1668 at the age of 35 when she was at the height of her career. In 1667, she had achieved her lifetime ambition, starring in a successful classical tragedy. The role of Andromaque had been written especially for her by her lover, the great classical playwright, Racine, when he was seeking to entice her to him.
(6) J’ai vingt-cinq ans mon vieux Corneille – In this reply given to her by Tristan Bernard, Marquise points out the irony that the theme of carpe diem that he has chosen for his poem is apt for her as she is ripe for love, but Corneille is ruled out as his day is long gone. (Personal comment- 52 years was old age then but is the prime of life now!)
(7) je t'emmerde – I am grateful for the comment below that corrected my original translation and gave me some alternatives. The French dictionary that I referred to told me that it is a very offensive expression - as can be seen by the reference to "merde". It is used to tell some-one to get out of your sight, as they are nothing to you - in fact just a pile of **** I see it is as much more than a vulgar expletive -events may defeat us and love may betray us, but by our defiance we can show the life we love that we can play it at its own game.
Tristan Bernard puts a very unladylike word in the mouth of this young lady who was referred to as “Marchioness”. In fact we should not too readily assume gentility of manners from her nickname. She was a young actress in a troupe of travelling players. Even though the King himself was a patron of the theatre, the French Church condemned it as a dishonourable activity and refused Christian burial even for the most eminent actresses of the age. Marquise may not have set a very virtuous example as she was particularly subject to temptation from the great and the famous. As an outstanding beauty she was coveted by a large number of men and was apparently not always reluctant with her favours. We read that in the early years when she had to be satisfied with modest roles in Molière’s plays, she excelled as a dancer. Larousse quotes the theatrical notes of a member of the audience which tells us that she did not lay too great store on her personal dignity: "She made some notable antics, because we saw her legs and part of her thighs through its split skirt on both sides, with silk stockings attached to the top of panties”. No doubt she was very capable of the earthy repartee that Bernard imagined for her.
On reviewing the life story of Moliere's star actress, I found myself thinking of Marilyn Monroe. The sadness of the fate of Thérèse Du Parc, like Marilyn the hapless, beautiful plaything of the rich and famous, made me see her as another candle in the wind.
CARPE DIEM IN LITERATURE
The two words “Carpe Diem” are taken from an ode of the Roman poet, Horace. The full line reads “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero” – "Seize the Day, putting as little trust as possible in the future",
In English literature a poem by Robert Herrick, 1591–1674 gives a very clear illustration of this theme. The message of Herrick's poem: “To the Virgins, to make much of Time” , is that life is short, the world is beautiful, love is wonderful, and we must use the little time we have to make the most of our lot. I print Herrick’s poem below:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.
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