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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
France: Vols. IX–X. 1876–79.


On Three Steps of Rose-colored Marble

By Alfred de Musset (1810–1857)

Translated by S. B. W.

SINCE erst that garden, known to fame,

Was lost by Adam,—cruel man!—

Where without a skirt his dame

Round an apple frisked and ran,

I do not think that on this earth,

Mid its most notable plantations,

Has been a spot more praised, more famed,

More choice, more cited, oftener named,

Than thy most tedious park, Versailles!

O gods! O shepherds! rocky vales!

O sulky Termes, satyrs old!

O pleasing scenes! O charming views!

Sweet landscape, where one may behold,

Ranged onion-wise, the little yews;

O quincunx! fountain, bowling-green,

Where every summer Sabbath-e’en,

On pleasure bent, one yawning sees

So many honest families.

And ye, imperial Roman shades!

Ye naiads, pale and stony maids,

Holding your hands outstretched to all

And shivering in your waterfall!

Stiles, modelled in obliging bushes;

Ye formal groves, wherein the thrushes

Seek plaintively their native cry;

Ye water-gods, who vainly try

Beneath your fountains to be dry;

Ye chestnut-trees, be not afraid

That I shall vex your ancient shade,

Knowing that at sundry times

I have perpetrated rhymes:

No such ruthless thought is mine.

No! I swear it by Apollo,

I swear it by the sacred Nine,

By nymphs within their basins hollow,

Who softly on three flints recline,

By yon old faun, quaint dancing-master,

Who trips it on the sward in plaster,

By thee thyself, august abode,

Who know’st save Art no other guest,

I swear by Neptune, watery god,

My verses shall not break your rest!

I know too well what is the matter;

The god of song has plagued you sore;

The poets, with their ceaseless chatter,

You brood in mournful silence o’er;

So many madrigals and odes,

Songs, ballads, sonnets, and epodes,

In which your wonders have been sung

Your tired ears have sadly wrung,

Until you slumber to the chimes

Of these interminable rhymes.

Amid these haunts where dwells ennui

For mere conformity I slept,

Or ’t was not sleep that o’er me crept,

If, dreaming, one awake may be.

O, say, my friend, do you recall

Three marble steps, of rosy hue,

Upon your way toward the lake,

When that delicious path you take

That leads the orangery through,

Left-turning from the palace wall?

I would wager it was here

Came the monarch without peer,

In the sunset, red and clear,

Down the forest dim to see

Day take flight and disappear,—

If the day could so forget

What was due to etiquette.

But what pretty steps are those!

Cursed be the foot, said we,

That would stain their tints of rose,—

Say, do you remember yet?

With what soft shades is clouded o’er

This defaced and broken floor!

See the veins of azure deep

Through the paler rose-tints creep;

Trace the slender, branching line

In the marble, pure and fine;

So through huntress Dian’s breast

White and firm as Alpine snows,

The celestial ichor flows;

Such the hand, and still more cold,

Led me leashed in days of old.

Don’t confound these steps so rare

With that other staircase where

The monarch grand, who could not wait,

Waited on Condé, stair by stair,

When he came with weary gait,

War-worn and victorious there.

Near a marble vase are these,

Of graceful shape and white as snow,

Whether ’t is classic or Chinese,

Antique or modern, others know.

I leave the question in their hands;

It is not Gothic, I can swear;

Much I like it where it stands,

Worthy vase, and neighbor kind,

And to think it I ’m inclined

Cousin to my rosy stair,

Guarding it with jealous care.

O, to see in such small space

So much beauty, so much grace!

Lovely staircase, tell us true,

How many princes, prelates proud,

Kings, marquises,—a pompous crowd,—

And ladies fair, have swept o’er you?

Ah, these last, as I should guess,

Did not vex thee with their state,

Nor didst thou groan beneath the weight

Of ermine cloak or velvet dress:

Tell us of that ambitious band

Whose dainty footstep lightest fell;

Was it the regal Montespan?

Hortense, a novel in her hand?

De Maintenon, with beads to tell?

Or gay Fontanges, with knot and fan?

Didst ever look on La Vallière?

And tell us, marble, if you can,

Which of the twain you thought most fair—

De Parabère or De Sabran?

’Twixt Sabran and De Parabère

The very Regent could not choose

When supper did his wits confuse.

Didst ever see the great Voltaire,

Who waged such war on superstition,

Who to defy the Christ did dare;

He, who aspired to the position

Of sexton to Cytherea’s fane,

When to the Pompadour he brought

His compliments, and fulsome strain,

The holy water of the court.

Hast beheld the plump Dubarry

Accoutred like a country lass,

Sipping milk, beside thee tarry,

Or tripping barefoot through the grass?

Stones who know our country’s story,

What a variegated throng

In your bygone days of glory

Down your steps have swept along!

The gay world lounged beneath these trees,

Lords and lackeys drank the breeze;

There was every sort of cattle;

O the duchesses! the tattle,

O the brave red heels that dangled

Round the ladies, flounced and spangled!

O the gossip! O the sighs!

O the flash of brilliant eyes!

O the feathers! O the stoles!

O the powder on their polls!

O the furbelows and breeches

Underneath those spreading beeches!

How many folk—not counting fools—

By the ancient fountain-pools!

Ah! it was the good old time

Of the periwig sublime;

Lives the cockney who dares grudge

One iota of its state,

He deserves, as I adjudge,

On his thick plebeian pate

Now and evermore to wear

Other ornament than hair.

Century of mocking wood,

Age of powder and of paste,

He who does not find thee good

Writes himself devoid of taste,

Lacking sentiment, and stupid,

Votary abhorred by Cupid.

Rosy marble, is ’t not so?

Yet, despite myself, I trow

Though here thy fate is fixed by chance,

Other destiny was thine;

Far away from cloudy France,

Where a warmer sun doth shine,

Near some temple, Greek or Latin,

The fair daughters of the clime

With the scent of heath and thyme

Clinging to their sandalled feet,

Treading thee in rhythmic dance,

Were a burden far more sweet

Than court-ladies, shod with satin.

Could it be for this alone

Nature formed thee in the earth,

In whose beauteous, virgin stone

Genius might have wrought a birth

Every age had joyed to own?

When with trowel and with spade

In this muddy, modern park

Thou in solemn state wert laid,

Then the outraged gods might mark

What the times had brought about,—

Mansard, in his triumph, flout

Praxiteles’ injured shade

There should have come forth of thee

Some new-born divinity.

When the marble-cutters hewed

Through thy noble block their way,

They broke in, with footsteps rude,

Where a Venus sleeping lay;

And the goddess’ wounded veins

Colored thee with roseate stains.