Ballade At Thirty-Five - Poem by Dorothy Parker

It is very understandable that Carla Bruni should be in sympathy with the expression of feminist independence in this poem.  Its author was the famous American writer and media personality, Dorothy Parker (1893 –1967), who wrote this poem in 1926 (when she was 33 years old not 35 as the title claims).

Dorothy Parker had overcome the problems of her family situation and by personal dedication had achieved early success.  From the age of 20, she wrote articles for the national magazines, first Vogue then Vanity Fair then the New Yorker.  She was the first American woman to establish herself as an influential theatre critic. Her work brought her great popularity and sufficient wealth to lead an active and sometimes riotous social life. She had a gift for vivid expression, equipped with a devastating wit that sometimes got her into trouble.

 Now in her early thirties, she had come to a low point in her personal life. She was breaking up with her husband, Eddie Parker, whom she had married in 1917 before she was famous and her life had become complicated by her multiple relationships with unsuitable men.  

This is a poem of defiance by an independent young lady in the face of all that the world could throw at her and is an expression of her resolve to remain true to herself.

YouTube Video


Ballade at thirty-five by Dorothy Parker




This, no song of an ingénue(1),

This, no ballad of innocence;

This, the rhyme of a lady who

Followed ever her natural bents(2).

This, a solo of sapience(3),

This, a chantey(4) of sophistry(5),

This, the sum of experiments,--

I loved them until they loved me.

repeat

I loved them until they loved me.

I loved them until they loved me.



 

Decked in garments of sable(6) hue,

Daubed with ashes(7) of myriad(8) Lents,

Wearing shower bouquets(9) of rue(10),

Walk I ever in penitence.

Oft I roam, as my heart repents,

Through God's acre of memory(11),

Marking stones(12), in my reverence,

"I loved them until they loved me."

repeat

"I loved them until they loved me."

"I loved them until they loved me."



 

Pictures pass me in long review,--

Marching columns of dead events.

I was tender(13), and, often, true(14);

Ever a prey to coincidence (15).

Always knew I the consequence;

Always saw what the end would be.

We're as Nature has made us(16)----hence

I loved them until they loved me.

repeat

"I loved them until they loved me."

I loved them until they loved me.



 

 

 

 “Princes, never I'd give offense,

Won't you think of me tenderly(12)?

Here's my strength and my weakness, gents(17)  ……….

 

This, no song of an ingénue,

This, no ballad of innocence;

This, the rhyme of a lady who ………(18)


Hmmm…

 

In this column, I put into my own words how I understand and respond to this poem by Dorothy Parker.


She says that this is, in no way, the song of a woman unfamiliar with the ways of the world, no song of innocence, but the poem of a lady who has always followed her natural inclinations.  This is the personal song of someone who knows all about things, a song written by someone who knows how to play with words.  It is the lesson she has learnt from all the relationships she has experienced and she sums it up thus: 

“She used to love men until the moment that they started to love her.”

 

 

In the second verse she tells how,  often, in her memory, she thinks of the men that she has loved in the past.  In this review, she uses  the image is of a visit to a graveyard.  She is sombrely dressed and her mood is of regret and  repentance but as her mind fixes on different lovers, her conclusion is as before:

“She used to love them until the moment that they started to love her.”



 

 

 With total frankness, she tells of the large number of men she has known and of the times they shared with her.  There are so many of them that they form a long parade  in her mind.  She had been loving and often faithful to them – implying that sometimes she had been unfaithful! She explains this by saying that she was prone to have two or more love affairs running at the same time.   She had no illusions, knowing the   complications and how things would end.

Human beings are as nature has made us thus:

“She used to love them until the moment that they started to love her.”

 

 

Finally she assures her past lovers that she would never have wished to cause them offence and asks them to think of her with love.

She tells them that this is her strength and her weakness and we recall from the first verse what this consists of – She is a lady who always followed her natural inclinations.


Carla Bruni indicates her approval

TRANSLATION NOTES

 

  1. an ingénue = an innocent or unsophisticated woman

  2. Followed ever her natural bents – This will be discussed in note 18 below

  3. sapience =  wisdom, understanding

  4. chantey = a song with alternating solo and chorus, of a kind originally sung by sailors while performing physical labour together.

  5. Sophistry is a term used to describe ways of thinking ad arguing that dates back to the philosophers of Ancient Greece.  In modern usage the term is largely derogatory, meaning the use of reasoning, which although clever and subtle is fallacious and deceptive and often deliberately so

  6. Sable (hue)– meaning dark coloured, representing the black of mourning.  In fact the sable is a creature with a short tail and dark brown fur, native to Japan and Siberia and is valued for its fur

  7. shower bouquets = Traditional wedding shower bouquets are flower arrangements intended for a fairy tale wedding.

  8. Rue = Regret – As an abstract noun “rue” means: repentance; regret:. However it is also the name for a plant: a European strong-scented perennial woody herb (Ruta graveolens of the family Rutaceae, the rue family) that has bitter leaves used medicinally.

  9. Ashes = These are applied in the rituals of Lent in the Catholic Churches. - The Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020), in his Lives of the Saints, writes, "We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast."

  10. Myriad - countless or extremely great in number.

  11. acre of memory - Memory of Acre is a relic in Dante's Inferno. This tells us that Dante succeeds in jumping up to the high platforms over the pool of blood and thus reaches the Souls and the Memory of Acre Relic (Relic 30/31). This relic was extremely useful since it allowed the bearer to use the Holy Cross for protection for ever after.  Dorothy Parker seems to be quite learned. I found this information on Dante on the following webpage:

    http://uk.ign.com/wikis/dantes-inferno/Walkthrough_-_Descent_into_Violence_Part_3

     

  12. Marking stones – Dorothy Parker’s learned reference to “Dante’s Inferno” puzzles me  but I see the acre as a graveyard and the stones to be gravestones.  These symbolise the many love affairs in her life that have come to an end.

  13. I was tender - One meaning of tender is "showing gentleness, kindness, and affection".

  14. (She was) often, true.  This is the poet teasing us.  She tells us that she was often faithful to her lovers and in the flow of the verse we think “That’s admirable”.  But ideal love is “always true” and what she has actually told us is that she sometimes enjoyed illicit sex. 

  15. Ever a prey to coincidence. This neat abstract phrase serves to skate over the reality, but , in fact, the “coinciding” came about because she had two or more lovers at the same time. Her claim that she was a victim of this arrangement does not convince, as habitual promiscuity must imply a large measure of consent on her part.  This humorous line illustrates the poet's use of sophistry that she  had promised in line six.

  16. We're as Nature has made us----.  The poet makes no apology for her conduct, she acts in the way that nature has programmed into her and is true to herself

  17. Here's my strength and my weakness, gents.  Biographers tell us that she had a weakness for handsome young men  and that she suffered emotionally in at least a couple of her relationships.  However the first verse has told us that she herself was no helpless innocent.  She was very proficient in the power play of love and the chorus that is the last line of each verse tells how she asserted her dominance in each relationship -  She loved the man until the moment when he loved her. Since my student days, I have remembered the following French quotation, which I used to believe was from Voltaire : « En amour il y en a toujours un qui aime et un qui se laisse aimer. »  In this imbalance, the partner who merely consents to be loved is able to control the relationship.    Dorothy Parker expresses her view of the inequality of passion elsewhere, for example in the following witty rhyme:  By the time you swear you're his,- Shivering and sighing -and he vows his passion is,- Infinite, undying-Lady make note of this -- One of you is lying.”   She says the same in "The portable Dorothy Parker": "If he wanted me, he could get me. He knows where I am. He knows I'm waiting here. He's so sure of me, so sure. I wonder why they hate you, as soon as they are sure of you" .  (There is a French saying: « suis-moi je te fuis, fuis moi je te suis ». Run after me,  I run away from you.  Run away from me I run after you )                                                                                                         

  18. Georges Brassens dealt with the same theme of unequal passion in his song "Quatre-vingt-quinze pour cent"


  19. This, the rhyme of a lady who ……… In her choice of last line Carla Bruni tells us the words in the poem which meant most to her, but she does not finish the sentence.  She leaves us to recall the line from the first verse, which talks of "a lady who followed ever her natural bents". We know that Carla Bruni in her youth asserted the same rights.

Dorothy Parker- The formidable lady whom I have got to know while preparing this post
This is a picture of Dorothy Parker in the 1920s with the literary group  "The Algonquins".  The men from left to right are Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx (of the Marx brothers), Alexander Woollcott.

Eight lines of hers sum up the complexities of this gifted young lady: 
INVENTORY
Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye

Among the experiences listed above, we note that she has known sorrow, is troubled by doubt, has had disappointment in love.  It is ominous that she cannot get enough champagne .

Of the three things she expects to have until she dies, listed in the last line of the poem above, her expectations are probably right about only one.

After studying the two Dorothy Parker poems that Carla Bruni sings on this album, I wanted to leave them as the statement of a woman  who remained triumphantly mistress of her own fate.  I knew very little about her life story but hoped to see her determination confirmed in the details of her biography.  I put together my own notes about her to this purpose and have posted these  on this Carla Bruni website - please click "Dorothy Parker - My biography".

At the end of these biographical notes,  I will face the question whether, Dorothy Parker emerged from life's struggles as the winner - the question posed by the two poems.






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