Wednesday, 20 January 2010

La legende de la nonne - Hugo's poetry finds full scope in the savagery of medieval superstition

Brassens put to music nine verses of this famous poem written by Victor Hugo in 1828. (I include Hugo's poem in full along with my translation at the end of this post.) 


Left - Portrait of Victor Hugo



Orthodox Christians might perhaps regard this poem as a salutary warning not to transgress the rules of the Church. It would seem however that Hugo’s intent - as well as to write a powerful, evocative poem - was to draw attention to a practice in education of instilling fabricated terrors in the minds of young children, at an age when they have no defence, in order to exercise permanent control over them through life.

We can expect Georges Brassens, who was hostile to institutional authority, including that of the Church, to share Hugo's misgivings about these educational methods.



La légende de la nonne - The legend of the nun


Venez, vous dont l'œil étincelle,( 1)
Pour entendre une histoire encor’
Approchez, je vous dirai celle
De Doña Padilla del Flor.
Elle était d'Alanje, où s'entassent
Les collines et les halliers.
Enfants, voici des bœufs (2) qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers.


Il est des filles à Grenade,
Il en est à Séville aussi,
Qui, pour la moindre sérénade,
À l'amour demandent merci;
Il en est que parfois embrassent,
Le soir, de hardis cavaliers.
Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers.


Ce n'est pas sur ce ton frivole
Qu'il faut parler de Padilla,
Car jamais prunelle espagnole
D'un feu plus chaste ne brilla;
Elle fuyait ceux qui pourchassent
Les filles sous les peupliers.
Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers.


Elle prit le voile à Tolède,
Au grand soupir des gens du lieu,
Comme si, quand on n'est pas laide,
On n’avait droit d'épouser Dieu.(5)
Peu s'en fallut que ne pleurassent
Les soudards et les écoliers.
Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers.

Or, la belle à peine cloîtrée,
Amour en son cœur s'installa.
Un fier brigand de la contrée
Vint alors et dit : "Me voilà !"
Quelquefois les brigands surpassent
En audace les chevaliers
Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers.



Il était laid: les traits austères,
La main plus rude que le gant ;
Mais l'amour a bien des mystères,
Et la nonne aima le brigand.
On voit des biches qui remplacent
Leurs beaux cerfs par des sangliers.(6)
Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers.




La nonne osa, dit la chronique,
Au brigand par l'enfer conduit,
Aux pieds de Sainte Véronique (7)
Donner un rendez-vous la nuit,
À l'heure où les corbeaux croassent,
Volant dans l'ombre par milliers.
Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers.


Or quand, dans la nef descendue,
La nonne appela le bandit,
Au lieu de la voix attendue,
C'est la foudre qui répondit.
Dieu voulut que ses coups frappassent
Les amants par Satan liés.
Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent
Cachez vos rouges tabliers.



Cette histoire de la novice,
Saint Ildefonse, abbé, voulut (8)
Qu'afin de préserver du vice
Les vierges qui font leur salut,
Les prieures la racontassent
Dans tous les couvents réguliers.
Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent
Cachez vos rouges tabliers.


Verses taken by Brassens from the poem of Victor Hugo written in 1828

Brassens song:1955 - Chanson pour l'Auvergnat

Come near, you whose eyes sparkle bright
To hear me tell a story again,
Gather round, I will tell the one
Of Doña Padilla del Flor
She came from Alanje, where mount up high
The hillsides and the brushland.
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.(3)


There are girls in Grenada
There are some in Seville as well
Who at the slightest serenade
Are left begging mercy from love
And some of them chance to be kissed
By bold suitors, at eventide.(4)
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


It is not in such  light manner
That we should speak of Padilla
For never a Spanish eye
Has shone with a fire so chaste
She would flee from men who chased
Girls beneath the poplar trees
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


In Toledo she took the veil
To shocked sighs from the local men
As if, when one is not plain,
You’d no right to get wed to God
They were very close to tears
Ordinary lads and scholars
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


Now, scarce was the maid in cloisters,
Love for a man seized her heart
A proud brigand from thereabouts
Then had come and said: « Behold me ».
Sometimes brigands go far beyond
Noble knights in daring
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


He was ugly : his looks austere
His hand rougher than a glove
But love has mysteries aplenty
And the nun fell for the brigand
You see female deer who oust
Handsome bucks to be with wild boar
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.



The nun dared, so history tells us
With the brigand, under hell’s lead
At the feet of St. Veronique
To arrange a night rendez-vous,
At the hour when the crows caw loud
Flying thousands strong in the dark.
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


Now when, having walked down the nave
The nun called out for the bandit’
 Instead of the voice expected
T’was a thunderbolt which replied
God wished  its blasts to strike down
The lovers by Satan conjoined
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.




This tale of the novice nun
Ildefonse, priest and saint, wanted
For the purpose of keeping from vice
Virgins who seek their salvation
Prioresses to relate
In all the regular convents.
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.





Translation Notes

1) « vous dont l'oeil étincelle » The nun is telling her horrific tale to happy young children

2) « bœufs qui passent » - boeufs is the word for cattle, but the word is often used for bullocks- Larousse tells me. 
We all know about "a red rag to a bull” and hence the teacher nun's anxiety. However the use of these two lines as a final refrain to each verse, when they have no link with actual tale, gives us another message. Their teacher is deliberately filling the defenceless minds with exaggerated fears and the final verse of the poem explains that this is deliberate in order to exert religious discipline. 3) “vos rouges tabliers” The children would wear smocks to protect their clothes during the school day.
4) The inappropriate, excited detail suggests the sexual repression of the celibate nuns

5) « épouser Dieu » When a novice nun made her vows, the ritual was of marriage to Jesus Christ and a ring was put on her finger.

6)On voit des biches qui remplacent leurs beaux cerfs par des sangliers - The nuns equate human love with unnatural animal mating.

7) Sainte Véronique. They are to meet under the statue of Saint Veronica.

8) « Cette histoire de la novice, Saint Ildefonse, abbé, voulut » This last verse is also the last verse of Hugo’s poem. Here Hugo gives the name of the church dignitary from whom this story originated and gives his motive: to frighten any nuns tempted to break their vows.

We should expect Hugo, the great humanitarian defender of downtrodden people to be hostile to this abuse of the innocence of children. We should be wary, however, of associating Hugo too closely with pure rationalism. Hugo was mystic who believed he was able to converse with Virgil, Shakespeare and Jesus Christ - but perhaps not with the Christ of Saint Ildefonse's depiction!

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Barbara gets the lilt of the poetry in her recording of Brassens' song:





THE FULL TEXT OF HUGO'S POEM WITH TRANSLATION



This poem is regarded as one of Hugo’s most beautiful poems. Unfortunately the best verses are the later ones that Brassens did not include. We can understand that it would have been a very long song if he had!

In these omitted verses the poetic imagination of the great man of French literature is given full scope as he describes the nightmarish ordeals undergone by the tortured lovers as they emerge from the jaws of hell each night in their frustrated quest to meet together. As well as the epic horror there is also the lyrical pathos of the tragedy of two human beings, whose fatal crime was to fall in love. 



Venez, vous dont l’œil étincelle,
Pour entendre une histoire encor,
Approchez : je vous dirai celle
De doña Padilla del Flor.
Elle était d’Alanje, où s’entassent
Les collines et les halliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers ! 



Il est des filles à Grenade,
Il en est à Séville aussi,
Qui, pour la moindre sérénade,
À l’amour demandent merci ;
Il en est que d’abord embrassent,
Le soir, de hardis cavaliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !



Ce n’est pas sur ce ton frivole
Qu’il faut parler de Padilla,
Car jamais prunelle espagnole
D’un feu plus chaste ne brilla ;
Elle fuyait ceux qui pourchassent
Les filles sous les peupliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !



Rien ne touchait ce cœur farouche,
Ni doux soins, ni propos joyeux ;
Pour un mot d’une belle bouche,
Pour un signe de deux beaux yeux,
On sait qu’il n’est rien que ne fassent
Les seigneurs et les bacheliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !



Elle prit le voile à Tolède,
Au grand soupir des gens du lieu,
Comme si, quand on n’est pas laide,
On avait droit d’épouser Dieu.
Peu s’en fallut que ne pleurassent
Les soudards et les écoliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !



Mais elle disait : « Loin du monde,
Vivre et prier pour les méchants !
Quel bonheur ! quelle paix profonde
Dans la prière et dans les chants !
Là, si les démons nous menacent,
Les anges sont nos boucliers ! »
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !



Or, la belle à peine cloîtrée,
Amour en son cœur s’installa.
Un fier brigand de la contrée
Vint alors et dit : Me voilà !
Quelquefois les brigands surpassent
En audace les chevaliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers ! 




Il était laid : les traits austères,
La main plus rude que le gant ;
Mais l’amour a bien des mystères,
Et la nonne aima le brigand.
On voit des biches qui remplacent
Leurs beaux cerfs par des sangliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !



Pour franchir la sainte limite,
Pour approcher du saint couvent,
Souvent le brigand d’un ermite
Prenait le cilice et souvent
La cotte de maille où s’enchâssent
Les croix noires des Templiers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !







La nonne osa, dit la chronique,
Au brigand par l’enfer conduit,
Aux pieds de sainte Véronique
Donner un rendez-vous la nuit,
À l’heure où les corbeaux croassent,
Volant dans l’ombre par milliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !



Padilla voulait, anathème !
Oubliant sa vie en un jour,
Se livrer, dans l’église même,
Sainte à l’enfer, vierge à l’amour,
Jusqu’à l’heure pâle où s’effacent
Les cierges sur les chandeliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !





Or quand, dans la nef descendue,
La nonne appela le bandit,
Au lieu de la voix attendue,
C’est la foudre qui répondit.
Dieu voulu que ses coups frappassent
Les amants par Satan liés.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers ! 






Aujourd’hui, des fureurs divines
Le pâtre enflammant ses récits,
Vous montre au penchant des ravines
Quelques tronçons de murs noircis,
Deux clochers que les ans crevassent,
Dont l’abri tuerait ses béliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !






Quand la nuit, du cloître gothique
Brunissant les portails béants,
Change à l’horizon fantastique
Les deux clochers en deux géants ;
À l’heure où les corbeaux croassent,
Volant dans l’ombre par milliers...
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !





Une nonne, avec une lampe,
Sort d’une cellule à minuit ;
Le long des murs le spectre rampe,
Un autre fantôme le suit ;
Des chaînes sur leurs pieds s’amassent,
De lourds carcans sont leurs colliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !





La lampe vient, s’éclipse, brille,
Sous les arceaux court se cacher,
Puis tremble derrière une grille,
Puis scintille au bout d’un clocher ;
Et ses rayons dans l’ombre tracent
Des fantômes multipliés.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !






Les deux spectres qu’un feu dévore,
Traînant leur suaire en lambeaux,
Se cherchent pour s’unir encore,
En trébuchant sur des tombeaux ;
Leurs pas aveugles s’embarrassent
Dans les marches des escaliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !



Mais ce sont des escaliers fées,
Qui sous eux s’embrouillent toujours ;
L’un est aux caves étouffées,
Quand l’autre marche au front des tours ;
Sous leurs pieds, sans fin se déplacent
Les étages et les paliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !





Élevant leurs voix sépulcrales,

Se cherchant les bras étendus,
Ils vont... Les magiques spirales
Mêlent leurs pas toujours perdus ;
Ils s’épuisent et se harassent
En détours, sans cesse oubliés.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers ! 


La pluie alors, à larges gouttes,

Bat les vitraux frêles et froids ;
Le vent siffle aux brèches des voûtes ;
Une plainte sort des beffrois ;
On entend des soupirs qui glacent,
Des rires d’esprits familiers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers ! 





Une voix faible, une voix haute,

Disent : « Quand finiront les jours ?
Ah ! nous souffrons par notre faute ;
Mais l’éternité, c’est toujours !
Là, les mains des heures se lassent
À retourner les sabliers... »
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !





L’enfer, hélas ! ne peut s’éteindre.

Toutes les nuits, dans ce manoir,
Se cherchent sans jamais s’atteindre
Une ombre blanche, un spectre noir,
Jusqu’à l’heure pâle où s’effacent
Les cierges sur les chandeliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !





Si, tremblant à ces bruits étranges,
Quelque nocturne voyageur,
En se signant demande aux anges
Sur qui sévit le Dieu vengeur,
Des serpents de feu qui s’enlacent
Tracent deux noms sur les piliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers ! 






Cette histoire de la novice,
Saint Ildefonse, abbé, voulut
Qu’afin de préserver du vice
Les vierges qui font leur salut,
Les prieures la racontassent
Dans tous les couvents réguliers.
- Enfants, voici des bœufs qui passent,
Cachez vos rouges tabliers !
Come near, you whose eyes sparkle bright
To hear me tell a story again,
Gather round, I will tell the one
Of Doña Padilla del Flor
She came from Alanje, where mount up high
The hillsides and the brushland.
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.(3)


There are girls in Grenada
There are some in Seville as well
Who at the slightest serenade
Are left begging love for mercy
And some of them chance to be kissed
By bold suitors, at eventide.(4)
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.

It is not in such  light manner
That we should speak of Padilla
For never a Spanish eye
Has shone with a fire so chaste
She would flee from men who chased
Girls beneath the poplar trees
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.

Nothing could touch this steadfast heart
Not kindnesses nor merry chat
For a word from beautiful mouth
For a sign from two lovely eyes
They knew there was nothing doing
The noblemen and the scholars
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


In Toledo she took the veil
To shocked sighs from the local men
As if, when one is not ugly,
You’d no right to get wed to God
They were very close to tears
Both the roughnecks and the scholars
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


But she would say:”Far from the world
To live and pray for the wicked!
What happiness!  What deep peace!
In the praying and in the chants!
There if the demons threaten us
The angels are our shields!”
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.

Now, scarce was the maid in cloisters,
Love in her heart found a firm place
A proud brigand from thereabouts
Then turned up and said: « Here I am! ».
Sometimes brigands go far beyond
Noble knights in audacity
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.



He was ugly : his looks austere
His hand rougher than a glove
But love has mysteries aplenty
And the nun fell for the brigand
You see female deer who oust
Handsome bucks to be with wild boar
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.

To cross the holy boundary
To approach the holy convent
Oft the brigand from a hermit
Would take the cassock and often
The coat of mail in which are set
The black crosses of the Templars
- Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


The nun dared, so the chronicle tells,
With the brigand, under hell’s lead
At the feet of St. Veronique
To arrange a night rendez-vous,
At the hour when the crows caw loud
Flying thousands strong in the dark.
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.

Padilla wanted- anathema !
Forgetting her life in one day
To give herself in the church itself
Sacred for hell, virginal for love,
Until the pale hour when burn out
The candles on the candlesticks
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores

Now when, having walked down the nave
The nun called out for the bandit’
 Instead of the voice expected
T’was a thunderbolt which replied
God wished  its blasts to strike down
The lovers by Satan conjoined
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.

Nowadays, with furies divine
The shepherd impassioning his tales
Points out on the slope of the ravines
A few remains of blackened walls
Two steeples that the years have gnawed
Whose shelter would kill his rams
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.



When night, on the gothic cloister
Burnishing the gaping portals
Changes on the eery horizon
The two steeples to two giants
At time of day when the crows caw loud
Flying in thousands in the darkness
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


A nun, holding a lamp
Comes from a cell on midnight
Along the walls the spectre creeps
Another phantom follows
Chains upon their feet are stacked
Heavy iron yokes form their collars
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


The lamp comes, is hid, shines
Neath the arches runs for cover
Then dithers behind a grill
Then sparkles at the end of a steeple
And its beams in the darkness trace
Phantoms in countless numbers
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.

The two spectres devoured by fire
Trailing their shrouds in tatters
Seek once more to be together
Staggering over the tombstones ;
Their blind footsteps lose their way
On the steps of the stairways
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


But these are fairy staircases
In confused tangle neath them,
One to the suffocating cellars
When the other leads to the front of the towers.
Beneath their feet is a constant shift
Of levels and of landings.
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


Raising their sepulcral voices
Seeking each other, arms outstretched,
They go… The magic spirals
Merge their steps forever lost:
Grown weary they exhaust themselves
In detours, always forgotten
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.

The rain falls then in big drops
Beats the stained panes frail and cold
The wind whistles through gaps in vaults
A moan comes from the belfries
One hears sighs which make blood run cold
Laughter of ghostly spirits. –
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.

One voice weak, one voice loud
Say : “When are the days to end?”
Ah ! We suffer through our own fault
But eternity, is forever!
There the hands grow weary turning
Over the sandglasses of time ….
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.



Hell alas can never burn out
All the nights in this old house
They seek each other never to touch
A shadow white, a spectre black
Until the pale hour when die out
The candles upon their candlesticks
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


If trembling at these strange sounds
Some nocturnal traveller
Crossing himself asks the angels
‘Gainst whom the avenging God rages,
Some close-writhing  serpents of fire
Trace two names upon the pillars
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.


This tale of the novice nun
Ildefonse, priest and saint, wanted
For the purpose of keeping from vice
Virgins who seek their salvation
That prioresses should tell
In all the regular convents.
Children here are bullocks passing
Cover your bright red pinafores.





















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