Friday 11 April 2008

Les amours d'antan -His own loves of yesteryear were not at all highborn ladies

Brassens had earlier composed a song, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”*, based on a famous poem by François Villon, (c. 1431-c. 1463), which spoke of great figures of ancient legend and myth and also of more recent French history who had come to personify a romantic vision of grandeur now forever lost. In this song, Brassens describes his personal down to earth experiences of love and beauty, ironically enjoying the absence any sense of glory and social status in the exuberant promiscuity of his life without pretension.

* To see my translation of Brassens' song based on Villon's poem, please click on this following link:
"Ballade des dames du temps jadis"

Moi, mes amours d'antan c'était de la grisette(1)
Margot, la blanchecaille(2), et Fanchon, la cousette...
Pas la moindre noblesse, excusez-moi du peu,(3)
C'étaient, me direz-vous, des grâces roturières,
Des nymphes de ruisseau, des Vénus de barrière(4)...
Mon Prince, on a les dam's du temps jadis qu'on peut...

Car le coeur à vingt ans se pose où l'oeil se pose,
Le premier cotillon venu vous en impose,
La plus humble bergère est un morceau de roi.
Ça manquait de marquise, on connut la soubrette,
Faute de fleur de lys on eut la pâquerette,
Au printemps Cupidon fait flèche de tout bois...

On rencontrait la belle aux Puces(5), le dimanche :
"Je te plais, tu me plais..." et c'était dans la manche,
Et les grands sentiments n'étaient pas de rigueur.
"Je te plais, tu me plais... viens donc beau militaire..."
Dans un train de banlieue on partait pour Cythère(6),
On n'était pas tenu mêm' d'apporter son coeur...

Mimi, de prime abord, payait guère de mine,

Chez son fourreur sans doute on ignorait l'hermine,
Son habit sortait point de l'atelier d'un dieu... (7)
Mais quand, par-dessus le Moulin de la Galette(8),
Elle jetait pour vous sa parure simplette,

C'est Psyché tout entièr' qui vous sautait aux yeux. (9)

Au second rendez-vous y' avait parfois personne,
Elle avait fait faux bond, la petite amazone(10),
Mais l'on ne courait pas se pendre pour autant...

La marguerite commencée avec Suzette,
On finissait de l'effeuiller(11) avec Lisette
Et l'amour y trouvait quand même son content.(12)

C'étaient, me direz-vous, des grâces roturières,

Des nymphes de ruisseau, des Vénus de barrière...
Mais c'étaient mes amours, excusez-moi du peu,
Des Manon, des Mimi, des Suzon, des Musette,
Margot, la blanchecaille, et Fanchon, la cousette..

Mon Prince, on a les dam's du temps jadis qu'on peut...

Les trompettes de la   Renommée 1961
My own loves of yore were  just ordinary girls  
Margot, the laundress and Fanchon the young seamstress
Not genteel in the least , forgive me falling short
They were, you will say, graces from plebian backgrounds,
Nymphs from the town's gutters,  Venuses from its slums...... 
Sire,  you get ladies of yore, that you're able to.

For, at twenty, the heart  lands where the eye lands first,
The first petticoat to come by wins you over
The humblest shepherdess is a touch royal
Lacking a marchioness, one knew the serving maid
Lacking a fleur de lys one still had the daisy
In springtime Cupid turns all wood into   arrows.

One would meet the fair maid at the Sunday market
« You like me, I like you… » and it was in the bag
And grand sentiments were not expected of you.
« You like me, I like you… come on then my fine fellow.
On suburban train we set off for  Love Island
There was no need even to bring your heart along.

At first Mimi struck you as not much to look at
At her fur-shop, no doubt, ermine was unheard of,
In no way were her clothes stitched by some divine hand

But when, up over the Windmill of the Galette
She threw off for you all of her homespun garments
It was Psyché in full splendour who bedazzled you..

Upon the second date, sometimes no-one was there
She had stood you up completely, the little minx
But you didn't run and top  yourself  just for that.
The marguerite which you had plucked first with Suzette
You would end up stripping its petals  with Lisette
And, in that, love found satisfaction all the same.

They were, you will say, graces of plebian background,
Nymphs from the town's gutters,  Venuses from town slums...... 

But they're  the ones I loved,  forgive me falling short
Manons, Mimis, Musettes and the little Susies, 
Margot, the laundress and Fanchon the young seamstress.....

Sire,  you get ladies of yore, that you're able to.


1)     Grisette is very well explained in this article on the French Internet    We are told : In the same way as “les gavroches”- Paris street urchins,   “les apaches” – the Parisian tough guys, and the “les marlous”- the pimps, les “grisettes” have a prominent place among  the stock figures of old Paris. From the 17th to the 19th century, the word “grisette” meant a young Parisian working-class girl, who would typically be employed in a lowly trade such as seamstress or street seller of fruit and vegetables. Their name came from the colour of their clothing, which was of a cheap grey material.  Very often in the literature of this period, the grisette is represented as a young woman with low morals. Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Alfred de Musset and many others depicted them regularly in their writings.  There is a statue at the corner of boulevard Jules Ferry and the rue de Faubourg du Temple which represents represents a grisette in the Paris scene of 1830 and shows a girl selling roses.  The statue (below), carved in 1911 by Jean Descomps is located in the square Jules Ferry and faces the canal Saint-Martin

2)     la blanchecaille is slang for blanchisseuse

3)     excusez-moi du peu, - ."peu" of course means "little", but the straight translation "forgive me for the little" is obviously unsatisfactory.  Sometimes, however, the word is better translated by an expression of inadequacy: son peu de comprehension- his lack of understanding.

4)     Vénus de barrière- Les barrières de la ville were the town gates and these were the less desirable areas of the town where the poorer people lived and worked, with some of the women hanging around to sell themselves.  One source tells me therefore that “Vénus de barrière” is an old and literary term for “fille de joie”. A"barriere" area is very much like the one where Brassens spent the happiest years of his life in Jeanne's hovel.  The district is described in his song "La Princesse et le croque-notes."

5)     Les Puces - The most famous flea market in Paris is the one at Porte de Clignancourt, officially called Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, but known to everyone as Les Puces

6)     Cythère –the Greek island of Kythera. The island of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.  A famous painting by the famous French artist Watteau is called “Embarquement de Cythère (below). 

7)     Son habit sortait point de l'atelier d'un dieu... The refence to God’s workshop is probably to Hephaestus the Greek god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans , sculptors etc.

8)     Jeter par-dessus le Moulin de la Galette. This image contains 2 elements :
a.     The image of a place to find pleasure in Paris, which recalls Renoir’s painting of “Le Bal Du Moulin De La Galette”
b.     An image of sexual abandon because « jeter son bonnet par-dessus le moulin» means to do a flamboyant action in defiance of convention, particularly on the part of a woman.
Renoir’s picture of Parisians enjoying themselves

9)     C'est Psyché tout entièr' qui vous sautait aux yeux –In greek mythology. Psyche is a girl of great beauty, who was loved by Eros.  The statue of their kiss is very famous.  Goethe in a famous poem said that he needed to touch the body of a woman to understand the beauty of the ancient statue.

10)  Amazone,   Two meanings of this word are (i)Femme qui monte à cheval : (ii)Femme à l'âme ou aux allures virile.  As Brassens is talking about jumping, the horse reference would seem apt.

11)  “Effeuiller la marguerite”.  Wikipedia explains this very well:  He loves me, he loves me not or She loves me, she loves me not (originally effeuiller la marguerite in French) is a game of French origin in which one person seeks to determine whether the object of their affection returns that affection or not.  A person playing the game alternately speaks the phrases "He (or she) loves me," and "He loves me not," while picking one petal off a flower (usually a daisy) for each phrase. The phrase they speak on picking off the last petal supposedly represents the truth between the object of their affection loving them or not    is to play “She loves me- she loves me not”.

12)  trouvait quand même son content- The French noun « content » is found in « avoir son content de = to have one’s fill of.  Otherwise the English noun “content” is translated by “contentement” in French.

Please clickhere to return to the full alphabetical list of my Georges Brassens selection

I like this Russian version of the song by Alexandre Avanessov  He sings so closely to Brassens' style and illustrates his video with nostalgic pictures representing girl-friends of times now long past.-

Grisettes: The journalist and author Christopher Dickey makes an interesting categorisation of the women in Paris offering love.

In the Paris of 1861 whole classes of women were available—the cocottes, the lorettes, the grisettes—whose characteristics were well known to connoisseurs, even impecunious painters and poets. Some of the women were the mistresses of aristocrats and the rising rich of the bourgeoisie who could keep them in luxury, some were the mistresses of several men at a time, who might know perfectly well, but not always happily, that their paramours were the central figures in a small community of lovers. And then there were those women who worked in menial jobs, most famously as laundresses, but who also shared their favors for a few sous, hoping to climb the ladder toward greater comfort, like Émile Zola’s Nana, whatever the ultimate cost. Those were the “grisettes,” and there is even a statue dedicated to them above the Canal Saint Martin.

Post revised 12/02/2015 D.Y.

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