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Dancer with Rose by Marie Laurencin (Photo credit: www.scene4.com)

I have translated “Marie,” mostly literally, a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire (26 August 1880 – 9 November 1918) set to music by singer-songwriter Léo Ferré. Marie is Marie Laurencin (31 October 1883 – 8 June 1956), an “avant-garde” artist and advocate of Cubism, but not a follower of the movement. However, she was a moderniste. Marie’s paintings are relatively easy to identify. Her style is quite unique.

Marie Laurencin was acquainted with a large number of artists, literary figures, and persons associated with Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes, one of whom was a young Pablo Picasso. She also attended the salons of wealthy United States expatriates who made Paris their base and helped propel to fame and sometimes to wealth artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque.

Wealthy American Gertrude Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas, had a salon at 27, rue de Fleurus. Other American expatriates and salonnières were Claribel and Etta Cone. Marie Laurencin knew famed lesbian writer Natalie Clifford Barney who had a salon at 20, rue Jacob and died in Paris. Many American mécènes (patrons) left their Paris quarters when World War II broke out, dooming Jews, homosexuals and those who were “different.”

Celebrated artist Marie Laurencin was very different. Marie was married to German Baron Otto von Waëtjen from 1814 until 1820, but she was romantically involved with revered and now legendary poet Guillaume Apollinaire, born Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki. Apollinaire was wounded during World War I and died two years later. He was a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, a flu akin to the Swine flu of 1976, but as merciless as the plague.



1) Vous y dansiez petite fille
Y danserez-vous mère-grand
C’est la maclotte qui sautille (maclotte is a old dance)
Toutes les cloches sonneront
Quand donc reviendrez-vous Marie

This is where you danced as a little girl/ Will you dance there as a grandmother/
This is maclotte (an old dance) hopping about/ All the bells will ring/
So when will you come back Marie

2) Les masques sont silencieux
Et la musique est si lointaine
Qu’elle semble venir des cieux
Oui je veux vous aimer mais vous aimer à peine
Et mon mal est délicieux

The masks are silent/ And the music so distant/
That it seems descended from heaven/ Yes, I want to love you, but love you barely/
And my disease is delicious

3) Les brebis s’en vont dans la neige (s’en aller = to go away) 
Flocons de laine et ceux d’argent
Des soldats passent et que n’ai-je
Un cœur à moi ce cœur changeant
Changeant et puis encor que sais-je

Sheep wade away in the snow/ Wool flakes and those of silver/
Soldiers pass by and would that I hadA heart of my own, this changing heart/
Changing and then also what do I know

4) Sais-je où s’en iront tes cheveux
Crépus comme mer qui moutonne (from mouton: lamb)
Sais-je où s’en iront tes cheveux
Et tes mains feuilles de l’automne
Que jonchent aussi nos aveux

Do I know where your hair will go/ Frizzy like the foaming sea/
Do I know where your hair will go/ And your hands the leaves of autumn/
Also strewn with our avowals

5) Je passais au bord de la Seine
Un livre ancien sous le bras
Le fleuve est pareil à ma peine
Il s’écoule et ne tarit pas
Quand donc finira la semaine (return to [1])

I was walking along the Seine/ An old book under my arm/
The river is like my sorrow/ It flows and does not end/
So when will the week be done
(return to [1])

Short comments and Notes

  • In the fourth stanza, I used the word “foaming” to translate moutonner (from sheep, un mouton). (4)
  • In the third stanza, I made the sheep “wade away” in the snow. In the French song, they are simply going away: s’en aller). (3)
  • The imagery used by Apollinaire includes the sheep’s fur and hair: animal, human.
  • The imagery also includes the masques (2), as in a masquerade ball and the commedia dell’arte.   
  • In fact, Marie Laurencin’s “Dancer,” shown above, is dressed like Harlequin, a masque and a stock character in the commedia dell’arte.
  • The word snow (neige) takes us to François Villon‘s “neige d’antan” (Ballade du temps jadis) (3) and to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”
  • However, the first character Apollinaire introduces is a little girl, petite fille, who will be mère-grand (as mère-grand in The Little Red Riding Hood). (Time passes.) 
  • In Marie Laurencin’s painting, the dancer carries a rose. Roses die, so let us seize the day. The poem therefore contains a carpe diem (Pierre de Ronsard‘s Hélène): “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” (petite fille/mère grand)
  • We have colours, that of the sheep and of the snow: white, but also silver or grey (grey hair).
  • We hear bells. (1)
  • There is an allusion to soldiers. Apollinaire had been a soldier.
  • In the fifth stanza, the poet introduces himself: “Je”. He is walking by the Seine which flows unendingly. (5)
  • Marie is an anagram of aimer: to love.


This is a rich poem one wishes to explore further, but…

I thank you for your kind words. They’ve helped. My university and the insurance company played with my life and it has been extremely painful. So I am pleased I have my WordPress colleagues and send all of you my love.

With my kindest regards.  

Léo Ferré sings “Marie,” by Guillaume Apollinaire,

Fille au chapeau bleu et noir, vers 1950

Fille au chapeau bleu et noir, vers 1950

© Micheline Walker
28 June 2015