MARYANN CORBETT is the author of five books, most recently In Code (Able Muse, 2020). Her work has appeared widely in journals on both sides of the Atlantic, including 32 Poems, Rattle, and the Los Angeles Review of Books in the US, and The Dark Horse and PN Review in the UK. Her poetry has won the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize and the Richard Wilbur Award, has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and the Poetry Foundation website, and was included in The Best American Poetry 2018. Her sixth book, The O in the Air, is forthcoming in 2024. New poems are forthcoming in Image and Beloit Poetry Journal

Christine de Pizan (1364—c. 1430) was the first woman in France, and possibly in Europe, known to have supported herself and her family by means of her writing. She took up the pen after the death of her husband and produced several collections of poems, although she is best known now for her prose works on the role of women, such as The City of Ladies. She was the initiator of the feminist side of two important literary discussions: the exchange known as the “debate (querelle) on the Romance of the Rose” and the four-hundred-year-long “debate on women (querelle des femmes).” She can be considered the West’s first protofeminist and the first woman humanist, in the Renaissance sense of that term.

Ballade I from Les Cent Ballades

from the Middle French of Christine de Pizan, translated by Maryann Corbett

Some ask me: Write a pretty verse or two

and send it. I’ve a gift for poetry,

or so they say. Begging their pardon, though,

I scarcely have the skill they claim for me

in pleasant lyrics or in probity.

Still, their good hearts have asked. At their behest,

I’ll try, no matter how unlearnedly,

to do the work they graciously request.

My feelings are not free to render true

lines fashioned out of pleasure or of joy.

My sadness passes what all others know,

wrenching my heart out of its well-worn way.

But from the great grief that has silenced me

I can speak words enough, abundant, blessed.

Therefore I have consented willingly

to do the work they graciously request.

And to whatever reader seeks to know

how sorrow blanched my happiness away:

Death did this, when it struck an unwarned blow

at him in whom all goodness lived for me.

Death seized and set me on despair’s highway.

I dare not hope for wholeness in my breast.

Out of that sorrow comes my poetry,

which is the work men graciously request.

Prince, I have not lived long with poetry.

Take it with grace if I should fail the test.

But others ask. For their sake, I agree

to do the work they graciously request.


Aucunes gens me prient que je face
Aucuns beaulz diz, et que je leur envoye,
Et de dittier dient que j’ay la grace;
Mais, sauve soit leur paix, je ne sçaroye
Faire beaulz diz ne bons; mès toutevoye,
Puis que prié m’en ont de leur bonté,
Peine y mettray, combien qu’ignorant soie,
Pour acomplir leur bonne voulenté.

Mais je n’ay pas sentement ne espace
De faire diz de soulas ne de joye ;
Car ma douleur, qui toutes autres passe,
Mon sentement joyeux du tout desvoye;

Mais du grant dueil qui me tient morne et coye
Puis bien parler assez et a plenté;
Si en diray : voulentiers plus feroye
Pour acomplir leur bonne voulenté.

Et qui vouldra savoir pour quoy efface
Dueil tout mon bien, de legier le diroye
Ce fist la mort qui fery sanz menace
Cellui de qui trestout mon bien avoye;
Laquelle mort m’a mis et met en voye
De desespoir; ne puis je n’oz santé;
De ce feray mes dis, puis qu’on m’en proie,
Pour accomplir leur bonne voulenté.

Princes, prenez en gré se je failloie ;
Car le ditter je n’ay mie henté,
Mais maint m’en ont prié, et je l’ottroye,
Pour accomplir leur bonne voulenté.

Ballade IX from Les Cent Ballades

from the Middle French of Christine de Pizan, translated by Maryann Corbett

Hard Death, you who have dispossessed me, you

who seize my earthly comforts, you who break

my cherished habits, who oppress me so

that my own home becomes the claim you stake—

What further damages can you exact?

I live too long because of this reprieve.

I want one thing, through all my spirit’s ache:

to have through you deliverance from my grief.

I have spent five whole years lamenting now—

often, often, with tears that scored my cheek.

Five years have run now, since the hour when woe

robbed me of joy and left me slavery’s mark.

That beautiful, good, wise one—when you took him,

you sentenced me: torment without relief,

so that my anger makes me sigh and shake

and long for your deliverance from my grief.

If at that moment I had been taken too,

it would have been a far more gentle act,

for since that hour I have been laid so low

by pain, received so many a scourge’s stroke—

and every day the torturer comes back—

that I want nothing. I want no more of life.

It’s forfeit to you, payment I will make

to buy a last deliverance from my grief.

Prince, in your pity hear the plea I make

to Death: Indict me in your fatal sheaf

of pages. Let me know the judgment quickly:

Say I will have deliverance from my grief.


O dure Mort, tu m’as desheritée,
Et tout osté mon doulz mondain usage ;
Tant m’as grevée et si au bas boutée,
Que mais prisier puis pou ton seignorage.
Plus ne me pues en riens porter domage,
Fors tant sanz plus de moy laissier trop vivre.
Car je desir de trestout mon corage
Que mes griefs maulx soyent par toy delivre.

Il a cinq ans que je t’ay regraittée
Souventes fois, a trés pleureux visage,
Depuis le jour que me fu joye ostée,
Et que je cheus de franchise en servage
Quant tu m’ostas le bel et bon et sage,
Laquelle mort a tel tourment me livre
Que moult souvent souhait, pleine de rage,
Que mes griefs maulx soyent par toy delivre.

Se trés adonc tu m’eusses emportée,
Trop m’eusses fait certes grant avantage,
Car depuis lors j’ay esté si hurtée
De grans anuis, et tant reçu d’oultrage,
Et tous les jours reçoy au feur l’emplage,
Que riens ne vueil, ne n’ay desir de suivre,
Fors seulement toy paier tel truage
Que mes griefs maulx soyent par toy delivre.

Princes, oyés en pitié mon language,
Et toy Mort, pri, escry moy en ton livre,
Et fay que tost je voye tel message,
Que mes griefs maulx soyent par toy delivre.

Upon the Problem of the Envoi in the Contemporary Ballade

            “The envoi of a ballade is typically addressed to a prince.”
                        —LitCharts web page, “Ballade”

Though slant and half will often squeak you by,
it’s tricky to persuade the thing to rhyme.
With three bare possibilities, you fry
your brains and end up scrambled half the time.
And then you face the silly pantomime
of long tradition: Who on earth will do?
The way the newsreels roll them all in slime,
what prince out there’s worth dedicating to?

The little European kings? Just try
admiring rigid stick figures who mime
in medalled chests and pricey pageantry
what’s lost now to equality’s long climb.
The Saudis, credibly accused of crime
too horrible for thought, a lurid brew
of evils? The idea’s too icky. I’m
perplexed: Whom could one dedicate this to?

Maybe a different sort of royalty
would solve this (yes, we’re turning on a dime).
Some country king of braid and gold lamé
like Elvis, fat and sequinned, past his prime?
Some prelate seated on the cherubim?
Some Koch or Musk or Bezos? Sacré bleu.
Some laureled poet with a Guggenheim?
Where is a prince to dedicate this to?

Forget it, sovereigns all-too-unsublime—
anointed, crowned, and human through and through.
I think I’m done with working overtime
to find a prince to dedicate this to.

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