Sunday 1 December 2013

Pénélope -liberation of a woman alone

In this song, the “Penelope” mainly in Brassens’ mind is not the virtuous wife of Ulysses in the legend but the middle class wife, trapped by a rigid social code in a marriage gone stale.  Brassens suspects however that she might, on the quiet, get private relief through the sensual flights of imagination, often involuntary, which must occur to her.   These are able to give her an exhilarating freedom and offer her consolation away from the control of anyone else.  The theme is much the same as that in “Fernande” and as it is the female version, perhaps the great singer Barbara can best convey its undertones.


Toi, l'épouse modèle, le grillon du foyer(2),
Toi, qui n'as point d'accrocs dans ta rob' de mariée,
Toi, l'intraitable Pénélope,
En suivant ton petit bonhomme de bonheur(3),
Ne berces-tu jamais en tout bien tout honneur
De jolies pensées interlopes(4)?
De jolies pensées interlopes...

Derrière tes rideaux, dans ton juste milieu(5),

En attendant l'retour d'un Ulyss' de banlieue,
Penchée sur tes travaux de toile(6),
Les soirs de vague à l'âme et de mélancolie
N'as tu jamais en rêve au ciel d'un autre lit
Compté de nouvelles étoiles(7)?
Compté de nouvelles étoiles...

N'as-tu jamais encore appelé de tes voeux

L'amourette qui passe, qui vous prend aux cheveux ?
Qui vous conte des bagatelles,
Qui met la marguerite au jardin potager(8),
La pomme défendue aux branches du verger,
Et le désordre à vos dentelles?
Et le désordre à vos dentelles...

N'as-tu jamais souhaité de revoir en chemin
Cet ange, ce démon, qui, son arc à la main,
Décoche des flèches malignes,
Qui rend leur chair de femme aux plus froides statues,
Les bascul' de leur socle, bouscule leur vertu,
Arrache leur feuille de vigne(9)?
Arrache leur feuille de vigne...

N'aie crainte que le Ciel ne t'en tienne rigueur,
Il n'y a vraiment pas là de quoi fouetter un cœur(10)
Qui bat la campagne et galope (10)!
C'est la faute commune et le péché véniel(11),
C'est la face cachée de la lune de miel(12)
Et la rançon de Pénélope,

Et la rançon de Pénélope.

You the model wife, domestic paragon,
You who have no snags at all in your bridal gown
You, the intractable Penelope,
At your little fellow’s beck and call
Don’t you ever cradle in all honesty
Some pretty thoughts that just sneak in

Some pretty thoughts that just sneak in

Behind your curtains in your so correct world,
Waiting for suburban Ulysses’ return,
While engrossed in your needlework,
On evenings of emptiness and brooding
Have you ever, in dreams, on top a different bed
Counted stars quite novel to you?
Counted stars quite novel to you?

Have you never called out to the object of

Your desires, who chances by, grabs you by the hair?
Who tells you some sweet nothings,
Who puts the wild daisy in the kitchen garden,
Puts the forbidden fruit onto  the orchard boughs
And gets your lace garments all tangled up
And gets your lace garments all tangled up.

Have you never wished to bump into again
That angel, that demon, who his bow in hand,
Fires some cunning arrows
Who restores their woman's flesh to coldest statues
Rocks them from their pedestal, topples their virtue,
Snatches off  their figleaf’s cover?
Snatches off their figleaf’s cover?

Have no fear that heaven might hold you to account
There’s really nothing over which to   lash a heart 
That is led astray and goes wild
It’s a common failing, merely venial sin
It’s the hidden side of the honeyed moon
And the ransom of Penelope 

And the ransom of Penelope.

Georges Brassens - 1960 - Le mécréant

Translation notes 

1)      Pénélope – In greek mythology, Penelope is the wife of Odyseus (Ulysses in the Latin legend). After his victory in Troy, Ulysses’s journey home was constantly delayed and other men assuming his death, courted Penelope.  She resisted all pressure and remained faithful to Ulysses.  She has become the symbol of the ever-faithful wife.

2)       Grillon du foyer –The tiny chimney cricket lived in the ash of the wide chimneys of olden times  its chirping was believed to be a sign of good luck and happiness in that household. The perfect wife in the poem is the representation of the same.

3)      En suivant ton petit bonhomme de bonheur,  This phrase tells us that she was happy to take a subservient role letting her husband take the lead.

4)      De jolies pensées interlopes? – Interlope comes from the English word « interloper”, which is some-one who enters secretly, illicitly and is unwelcome

5)       Juste milieu.  There could be two meanings for milieu.  Firstly it could mean her sense of moderation.  I have chosen a second meaning of «  le milieu social ».  The setting is behind the discreetly closed curtains of a middle class suburban home.

6)       Penchée sur tes travaux de toile – In the 1930s and 1940s, conscientious wives would spend a lot of time sewing, repairing and making clothes and furnishings.  The relevance to Penelope is that she made her sewing an excuse for refusing the proposals of her many suitors, saying that she had first to complete the sewing othe shroud she was making for her elderly father-in- law- and she was careful to make very slow progress

7)      Compté de nouvelles étoiles?  Compter les étoiles – In the dictionary,  le Littré, we read that «  Compter les étoiles » means to waste your time on an unprodutive remote task.   In this poem, the stars were on the canopy over the bed that she shared with her husband and her conventional sexual routine was performed lying on her back looking up, counting the stars and paying little attention to what was happening to her down below. 

8)      Qui met la marguerite au jardin potager, - In his song « La non-demande en mariage », Brassens once again associates the daisy and domestic life:
A aucun prix moi je ne veux
Effeuiller dans le pot-au-feu la marguerite.
The daisy is the symbol of love and the vegetable garden is the symbol of domesticity and the home.  The context of both poems is extramarital relationship.

9)      Arrache leur feuille de vigne? – In English we talk of the fig-leaves and in French of the vine-leaves, which were superimposed on works of art out of prudery, when the artist had depicted sexual parts. 

10)  Here we have a contraction of two expressions (a): "il n'y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat" which means that it is something of no great importance and (b) "un esprit qui bat la campagne" which means a mind that gets misled by unreasonable arguments.

11)  C'est la faute commune et le péché véniel, - These are minor sins as defined in the Catholic Church.  According to Catholic doctrine, people who die while burdened with mortal sin will be sent to burn forever in Hell.   
    However, Brassens advises his Penelope, that her temptation would not be a mortal sin.   The creation of naughty fantasies in the mind, with no intention of actual deeds with another person are classed by the Church as « Sins of the mind ». and these are normally treated as venial sins, which implies excusable sins.

12)   C'est la face cachée de la lune de miel – I am not sure whether, in English, we have any picture of an actual moon when we talk about the honeymoon.   In French there seems to be an awareness of moon + honey, so that Brassens can make this image of the visible side of the moon and the dark side of the moon, representing our public lives and the private lives of our thoughts and imaginings. It cannot surprise us that Brassens, the great libertarian is making the case, in this song, that prisoners of circumstance, symbolised by Penelope, should be allowed to soar totally free in their personal space.

Footnote - from the newspapers

In the week when I was translating this poem, a survey was published, which stated  that couples in relationships had less sex than couples used to have 20 years ago.  The Times columnist, Janice Turner, in her article on November 28th 2013, commented on these findings, and in her last paragraph suggested an explanation of private sex that seemed to be relevant to this poem.  She wrote:

Modern couples are exhausted, working on their laptops and smart phones, claims the study. Or maybe with their shiny devices, high-speed broadband and websites for the most specialised peccadillos, they have sex, just on their own.

A Times photo of Janice Turner

Click here to return to the alphabetical list of my Brassens selection


Anonymous said...

"de jolies paroles interloques" instead of interlop.
See link below

Good job anyway

Petalouda said...

Wonderful work as usual, thank you for sharing