Poet's Notebook: Getting around the rondeau

A poetry lesson.

click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: Getting around the rondeau
Jeanne Meinke

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine

Où ells ont, ne de cest an,

Qu’à ce refrain ne vous remaine:

Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

—from “Des Dames du Temps Jadis” by François Villon (1431-1465) —translation below*

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, but I forgot, so this will be about poetry, which is always on my mind. At college, we had to learn a second language, resulting in my taking Professor Marcel Moraud’s course in French Literature. Not having a clue (trop stupide!) that we’d eventually live for a time in France and Switzerland, I wasn’t a conscientious student. Nevertheless, I still remember the first line of Albert Camus’ L’étranger (The Stranger): “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte” (Today, mama died), and a few lines from François Villon’s ballade, “La Ballade de Dames du Temps Jadis” (“The Ballade of Ladies Gone By,” above). We barely hatched young goslings enjoyed going around campus reciting the last line, in French naturellement.

These maudlin reminiscences come about because a few alert readers of Creative Loafing asked me exactly what a rondeau is, having been subjected recently to this form. So Attention!, as we say in French and English: here it is. I’ll bring you up to contemporary times, I promise:

The rondeau is a form that evolved from the ronde or rondel, a song style in medieval courts of France, featuring repeated lines and refrains. By the 15th century, writers — Villon being the best known — began to adopt the ronde to a more literary stable shape, called the rondeau. Though prolific, Villon’s financial success with his verse was zilch (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose). Surprisingly, England’s most popular medieval poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, fared much better, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. Villon died in poverty, “broken in health and spirit.” No one knows where he’s buried.

But his poetry had staying power, and slowly, the rondeau, which Villon popularized, took root in the literary canon, changing slightly over the years to the form favored today. (Rondeau, you’ve guessed, means “round,” just as “sonnet” comes from “little song,” and villanelle from “little country or village song.”)

The rondeaux I’ve been writing — you’ll see more in future columns — each consists of 15 lines made of three stanzas, two rhymes, and a short refrain. The refrain (R) is made from the first few words of the first line, so in last week’s rondeau the refrain is “There stands the man,” taken from “There stands the man who made the jump.” (You may remember from school “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow.”) The refrain then is used as the last line of the second stanza and the last line of the poem, giving it that rounded feeling. If “A” is the first rhyme and “B” the second, this is how the outline of the three stanzas would look: (R)A, A, B, B A  /  A, A, B, R  /  A, A, B, B, A, R. Fifteen lines, two rhymes, three refrains. It’s a straitjacket, all right, and takes a long time to write — weeks, generally, if not longer. But I’m in no rush: writing and rewriting are what I like to do. Generally speaking, in starting a rondeau, I find something I want to write about, and write down lines until one seems that it could be a refrain, and take it from there. A rondeau can keep me happily occupied for a long time (though it may be easily read in a minute).

*Here’s the translation of the end of Villon’s ballade: you’ll recognize that last line. And check the notes.

Prince, do not ask me in the whole week

Where they are—or in this whole year,

Lest I bring you back to this refrain:

Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!

—This famous last line is quoted in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, when Yossarian asks, “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?” referring to a character in the book, backward to Villon, and inadvertently forward to our famous whistleblower, at the same time: a trifecta! It was also quoted in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Inglourious Basterds by Lt. Archie Hicox (played by Michael Fassbender). Poetry lives!