To and fro the hanging men go

Magpies and crows have dug our eyes out // And yanked out our beards and eyebrows

I’m not typically a fan of pie charts, but this one is…special… Scroll down for some notes on what to and fro means, as well as musings about potential French equivalents.


Poetically, my latest obsession is François Villon.  Having lived in the 1300s, the details of his life are not super-clear, beyond the facts that he was semi-adopted by an influential clergyman, then well-educated, in the process doing a lot of drinking, fighting, whoring,  some theft and a bit of murder.  A couple of pardons from the gallows let him live long enough to go into exile a couple times, in the process of which he disappears from the historical record entirely at the age of 31.  In the meantime, he wrote some truly amazing poetry. If you’re anglophone, you most likely know one line from his poetry, although perhaps nothing else:

…but where are the snows of yesteryear?

On the other hand, if you’re French and you only know of one thing by him, it’s probably La ballade des pendus, “The Ballad of the Hanging Men” (my translation, sorry).

La pluie nous a débués et lavés
Et le soleil désséchés et noircis
Pies, corbeaux, nous ont les yeux cavés
Et arrachés la barbe et les sourcils
Jamais nul temps nous sommes assis
Puis ça, puis là, comme le vent varie
À son plaisir sans cesser nous charie
Plus bécquetés d’oiseaux que dés à coudre
Ne soyez donc de notre confrérie
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre.

Where this becomes relevant is puis ça, puis là, comme le vent varie.  Here’s my attempt at a translation:

The rain has — and washed us
And the sun dried us out and blackened us
Magpies and crows have dug our eyes out
And yanked out our beards and eyebrows
We can never, ever sit down
To and fro, as the wind varies
Carrying us around as it likes, without end
More pecked-out by birds than thimbles
So, don’t be of our fellowship
But pray to God that he absolve all of us

WordReference.com translates to and fro as d’avant en arrière, which is OK in a literal sense, but doesn’t capture the feeling of it at all.  Then again, I can’t swear that it’s a great translation for puis ça, puis là, either.  Here and there could work (ça et là); hither and yon works, but it’s somewhat humorous, which doesn’t fit here at all.  The mysteries of translation…

I’ll leave you with my favorite reading of La ballade des pendus. It’s by one Gérald Robert, who appears to be a voice actor by profession, and/but does one fuck of a good Ballade.   Thanks for the great pie chart, LJJ, and for telling me about Villon, Phil d’Ange, and if someone can tell me what débué means, I would be very appreciative!

4 thoughts on “To and fro the hanging men go”

  1. Hello, congrats for your attempt of a translation . I always thought that translating poetry is an impossible task .
    Congrats too for your new taste for François Villon, a man who for me is in poetry like Jerome Bosch in painting, several centuries ahead of his time . Villon was not considered important between the XVIIth and XIXth centuries until the greatest real French poets IMO, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine recognized and celebrated his genius .
    They chanted their ancestor, their prototype, the oldest prophet of their lineage, what we call ” les poètes maudits”. Well, Villon died young, at 32, and partly led a life of a poor wanderer on the roads, he spent time in jail, he was banned, he was condemned to death, but his great writing talent made several princes to help or save him regularly . To sum it up, an exceptional character who fitted the adventurous romantism of the late 1800s and the 1900s .
    His poetry is really out of his time (the end of the 100 years war), and is incredibly modern -and great . No wonder that after the 3 symbolist poets above the immense Georges Brassens put several of his poems in music . In France, a creative genius who is also an outlaw holds a sort of mythic status among a half (my half) of the population .

    About “débué”, this word has disappeared . In middle French dictionaries they say it means “lessiver” . La lessive nowadays is the washing powder, a detergent, so “débué” means something like washed out . I’m a bit puzzled because in modern French , “la buée” is the fogging we find on windshields or windows in the morning, no relation with cleansing . Well, there still is a relation with water, that’s for sure .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the context–I hadn’t thought at all about how the Romantics would have appreciated Villon.

      “Débués et lavés” is a tough one to translate, but an interesting one… Yes, “washed out” would make sense for débué. Since he follows it with lavé, it sorta blocks using “washed out” here. Maybe “faded,” in which case I would want to switch the order–“washed and faded.” Because (this is weird–never occurred to me before) you would use “washed out” for many things, but NOT things that actually get washed, for which you use “faded”–does this sentence even make sense any more??–the order “washed and faded” feels a lot better to me.

      Thanks again for mentioning Villon–it must be two or three years ago that you pointed me toward him, but I’m finally getting there! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. i wonder how you manage to read this six centuries old French, it’s not comfortable for me you know !
    The 3 poets I mentioned are not classified in French literature as “Romantics” but as “Symbolists”, a posterior wave . When I spoke of late XIXth romantism I was thinking of “popular romantism”, after the Commune, after “Le Temps des Cerises”, bearing the lights from Gracchus Baboeuf, Proudhon, Blanqui, the authentic world lighthouses of revolution, when the penniless outlaw wanderer could become a star . Arthur Rimbaud was a penniless outlaw wanderer too .
    As you remember my allusions about Villon, I wonder if you ever sent a glance to Georges Brassens . He’s of course highly respected now but decades ago he was not well accepted by the official circles and in his youth by the police and the judges neither. Brassens was a song maker, but for many of us including myself he’s a master of French language in its highest form, poetry . Books of Brassens texts are easy to find like we’d find Baudelaire’s poems .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, good question about how I read it! The answer: side-by-side Old/Modern French.

      Good point about the Romanticists coming later–I can never keep the late 19th century straight.

      I will check out Brassens–thanks for the recommendation.

      Liked by 1 person

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