Wednesday 15 December 2010

Gastibelza, l'homme à la carabine - Victor Hugo's famous poem

This Brassens song is based on a poem by Victor Hugo, included in his collection of poems, “Les rayons et les ombres” of 1837. The piece was inspired by a Spanish folksong, the central story of which is that of a young woman, Sabine, a girl from a Moorish family, who was so incredibly beautiful that she could have chosen any man, including the highest in the land. In the event, she chose the one who offered her the greatest wealth. This is to the dismay of the narrator, a lowly local shepherd, Gastibelza, who was madly in love with her.

Brassens - Gastibelza
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Gastibelza l'homme à la carabine

Gastibelza(1), l'homme à la carabine,(2)
Chantait ainsi :
« Quelqu'un a-t-il connu Doña Sabine ?
Quelqu'un d'ici ?
Chantez, dansez, villageois ! La nuit gagne
Le mont Falu.(3)..
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Quelqu'un de vous a-t-il connu Sabine,
Ma señora ?
Sa mère était la vieille maugrabine(4)
Qui chaque nuit criait dans la Tour Magne
Comme un hibou..
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

 « Vraiment, la reine eût près d'elle été laide
Quand, vers le soir,
Elle passait sur le pont de Tolède
En corset noir.
Un chapelet du temps de Charlemagne
Ornait son cou...
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Le roi disait, en la voyant si belle,
À son neveu :
"Pour un baiser, pour un sourire d'elle,
Pour un cheveu,
Infant Don Ruy, je donnerai l'Espagne
Et le Pérou !"
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Je ne sais pas si j'aimais cette dame,
Mais je sais bien
Que, pour avoir un regard de son âme,
Moi, pauvre chien,
J'aurais gaiement passé dix ans au bagne
Sous les verrous...
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Quand je voyais cette enfant, moi le pâtre
De ce canton,
Je croyais voir la belle Cléopâtre,
Qui, nous dit-on
Menait César, Empereur d'Allemagne,
Par le licou...
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.

« Dansez, chantez, villageois, la nuit tombe.
Sabine, un jour,
A tout vendu, sa beauté de colombe,
Tout son amour,
Pour l'anneau d'or du comte de Saldagne,
Pour un bijou...
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
M’a rendu fou.
Gastibelza, the man with hunting rifle,
Would sing this song :
Did anyone know young Dona Sabina ?
Someone from here ?
Dance, sing up, you villagers ! The darkness falls
On Mount Falou…..
The roar of the wind that blows ‘cross the mountain(4)
Will drive me mad.

Did anyone of you ever know Sabina
My senora ?
Her mother was the old Moorish woman from
Who each night screamed inside the Grand Tower
Like a screech owl
The roar of the wind that blows ‘cross the mountain
Will drive me mad.

« In truth, the queen would have, beside her, seemed plain
When t’wards even’
She went by on the bridge of Toledo
In black bodice.
A string of beads from the time of Charlemagne
Adorned her neck.
The roar of the wind that blows ‘cross the mountain
Will drive me mad.

The king said, seeing her so beautiful
To his nephew
« For one mere kiss, for a single smile from her
For just one hair,
Infant Don Ruy, I shall give the whole of Spain
And of Peru »
The roar of the wind that blows ‘cross the mountain
Will drive me mad.

« I don’t know if I truly loved that lady
But know full well
That, to get from her one heartfelt glance
I, her poor dog,
I would gladly have done ten years in the jail
Bolted inside
The roar of the wind that blows ‘cross the mountain
Will drive me mad.

“Whenever I saw this young girl, I the shepherd
Of this canton
I thought to see beautiful Cleopatra
Who, people say
Led Caesar, Emperor of Germany,(5)
By the dog collar….
The roar of the wind that blows ‘cross the mountain
Will drive me mad.

Dance, sing up, you villagers! Night is falling.
One day, Sabin’
Sold it all away, her beauty dovelike pure
All of her love,
For the gold ring of the Count of Saldagna
For one jewel
The roar of the wind that blows ‘cross the mountain
Has driven me mad.


1) Gastibelza – Hugo enjoyed the effect that can be achieved by the use of proper names. This name from the original folk song is formed by the Basque word gazte (young man) and belza (black)

2) la carabine – the carbine rifle was a shorter rifle designed for use by cavalrymen. When Franz Liszt put music to this song of Hugo, the German version of this line reads: Gastibelza the grey, old huntsman and I thought this idea replaced something once the lilt of “la carabine” was lost in the English.

3) Le mont Falu – There is peak in Corsica called Falu ( pronounced “Falou”. Hugo was capable of taking liberties when he liked the sound of a word – and sometimes it gave him a rhyme as here.

4) The wind that blows ‘cross the mountain - The Tramontane is one of the famous prevailing winds of southern Europe like the Mistral. Wikipedia tells me: “The continuous howling noise of the tramontane is said to have a disturbing effect upon the psyche.”

5) Maugrabine –Of Moorish ancestry, originating from Magreb. Notice Hugo’s use of proper names

6) Caesar, Emperor of Germany – Once again Hugo is introducing proper names - not too precisely. Although Caesar had subdued many Germanic tribes, the country of Germany did not exist at that time.

Listen to the  verve of this poem as sung by the admirable Sandrine Devienne:

Gastibeza .Hugo-Brassens par Sandrine Devienne
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I found myself asking why Hugo was attracted to re-write this Spanish folk song in his own verse. By chance, I found the answer in Hugo’s personal notes. I have copied the relevant extract and I translate it in the side column.

Les filles de village et les jolies grisettes de Bayonne se baignent avec des chemises de serge souvent fort trouées sans trop se soucier de ce que les trous montrent et de ce que les chemises cachent. 

Le second jour que j'allai à Biarritz, comme je me promenais à la marée basse au milieu des grottes, cherchant des coquillages et effarouchant les crabes qui fuyaient obliquement et s'enfonçaient dans le sable, j'entendis une voix qui sortait de derrière un rocher et qui chantait le couplet que voici en patoisant quelque peu, mais pas assez pour m'empêcher de distinguer les paroles :

Gastibelza, l'homme à la carabine,
chantait ainsi :
- quelqu'un a-t-il connu dona Sabine,
quelqu'un d'ici ?
Dansez, chantez, villageois, la nuit gagne
le mont Falu. -
Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
me rendra fou.

C'était une voix de femme. Je tournai le rocher. La chanteuse était une baigneuse. Une belle fille qui nageait vêtue d'une chemise blanche et d'un jupon court dans une petite crique fermée par deux écueils à l'entrée d'une grotte. Ses habits de paysanne gisaient sur le sable au fond de la grotte.

En m'apercevant, elle sortit à moitié de l'eau et se mit à chanter sa seconde stance, et voyant que je l'écoutais immobile et debout sur le rocher, elle me dit en souriant dans un jargon mêlé de français et d'espagnol :

- Senor estrangero, conoce usted cette chanson ?
- Je crois que oui, lui dis-je. Un peu.
- Puis je m'éloignai, mais elle ne me renvoyait pas.

Est-ce que vous ne trouvez pas dans ceci je ne sais quel air d'Ulysse écoutant la sirène ? La nature nous rejette et nous redonne sans cesse en les rajeunissant, les thèmes et les motifs innombrables sur lesquels l'imagination des hommes a construit toutes les vieilles mythologies et toutes les vieilles poésies.

Somme toute, avec sa population cordiale, ses jolies maisons blanches, ses larges dunes, son sable fin, ses grottes énormes, sa mer superbe, Biarritz est un lieu admirable.

The village girls and the pretty grisettes* of Bayonne go swimming in serge shifts often very full of holes without worrying too much about what the holes show and about what the shifts are hiding.

On the second day when I went to Biarritz, as I was walking at low tide in the midst of the caves looking for shells and scaring the crabs that scuttered off obliquely and buried themselves in the sand I heard a voice that came out from behind a rock and which sang this verse here, with a bit of local patois thrown in, but not enough to prevent me from making out the words.

Gastibelza, the man with hunting rifle,
Would sing this song :
Did anyone know young Dona Sabina ?
Someone from here ?
Sing and dance, you villagers ! The darkness falls
On Mount Falou….

It was a woman’s voice. I went round the rock. The singer was a female bather. A beautiful girl, who was swimming dressed in a white shift and a short petticoat in a little creek enclosed by two reefs at the entrance of a cave. Her peasant clothes were lying on the sand at the back of the cave.

On becoming aware of me, she came half out of the water, and seeing that I was listening to her
motionless and standing on the rock, she said to me, smiling, in garbled words mixing up French and Spanish

- Does monsieur the stranger know this song ?
- I think I do a little.
Then I moved off, but she did not tell me to leave.

Do you not find in this some kind of flavour of Ulysses listening to the siren? Nature constantly throws back to us and gives us again, while rejuvenating them, the countless themes and motifs, upon which the imagination of humankind has built all the old mythologies and all the old poetry.

All in all, with its friendly people, its pretty houses of white, is extensive dunes, its fine sand, its enormous caves, its superb sea, Biarritz is an admirable place. 

*The word grisette has been used with reference to a French working-class woman since the late 17th century. The 1694 edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française simply described a grisette as "a woman of lowly condition". By the 1835 edition of the dictionary, there were other connotations. She was described as: a young working woman who is coquettish and flirtatious. (Thanks to Wikipedia for this information)

** The town of Bayonne is a little less than 5 kilometres from Biarritz. The word Bayonne also describes this district to the north of of the Pyrenees, which is the French Basque region - the name coming from the Basque name “ Baïona”

Click here to go to the Index of my Brassens selection


Amir ben-Amram said...

I've always thought that the historic mix-up regarding Caesar and Germany is explained the speaker, the shepherd, not being very educated.

Joshua C. Frank said...

I love this one! So much more realistic than those ”happily ever after” Disney movies.

I wrote a poetic translation in English, and this page was invaluable in my research for it.