The Word ronce.

Back in 2009 I posted about a good translation (by Emily Grosholz) of Yves Bonnefoy’s poem “Tu me dis que tu aimes le mot ronce,” from his book Ce qui fut sans lumière (translated by John Naughton, with original en face, as In the Shadow’s Light); just now, perusing wood s lot, I came across Naughton’s translation of a poem from a few pages later in the same book that focuses on the same word, ronce ‘brambles; blackberry bush,’ and I like both the poem and translation so much I’ll reproduce them here. Bonnefoy:

Le mot ronce, dis-tu ? Je me souviens
De ces barques échouées dans le varech
Que traînent les enfants les matins d’été
Avec des cris de joie dans les flaques noires

Car il en est, vois-tu, où demeure la trace
D’un feu qui y brûla à l’avant du monde
— Et sur le bois noirci, où le temps dépose
Le sel qui semble un signe mais s’efface,
Tu aimeras toi aussi l’eau qui brille.

Du feu qui va en mer la flamme est brève,
Mais quand elle s’éteint contre la vague,
Il y a des irisations dans la fumée.
Le mot ronce est semblable à ce bois qui sombre.

Et poésie, si ce mot est dicible,
N’est-ce pas de savoir, là où l’étoile
Parut conduire mais pour rien sinon la mort,

Aimer cette lumière encore ? Aimer ouvrir
L’amande de l’absence dans la parole ?


The word brambles, you say? Then I think of
Those boats stranded in sea-weed
That children drag on summer mornings
With cries of joy through dark pools of water.

Because in some, you see, there are traces
Of a fire that burned there at the prow of the world
–And on the blackened wood where time has left
The salt that seems a sign but vanishes,
You too shall love the shimmering water.

Brief is the flame that goes out to sea,
But when it is quenched against the wave,
The smoke is filled with iridescence.
–The word brambles is like this sinking wood.

And poetry, if we can use this word,
Is it not still, there where the star
Seemed to beckon, but only toward death,

Knowing how to love this light? To love
To open the kernel of absence in words?

A linguistic note: the striking French word varech ‘seaweed,’ pronounced /varek/, is from Old Norse *wrec (cf. Norwegian and Icelandic rek) and was actually borrowed into English as varec (s.v. in OED) or varech (1873 R. Browning Red Cotton Night-cap Country i. 3 “Then, dry and moist, the varech limit-line”; 1889 Guernsey News 1 Feb. “The gathering of varech in Herm commences to-morrow”); it’s a doublet of English wreck.


  1. And wrack. Bladderwrack is the ur-seaweed in my mental lexicon.

  2. The true cognate is wretch, which once meant ‘wandering hero’. Wreck is actually Norse > Normand > English. There is also a longstanding confusion with rack here: we often see rack and ruin, as if ‘torture and destruction’, though originally it was wrack and ruin in the sense of ‘things brought ashore by wave or tide, flotsam’ > ‘seaweed’.

    The English version is remarkably close to the old alliterative four-stress line of Old English verse, which goes to show how natural that form is to the language.

  3. I personally find the line The gathering of varech in Herm commences to-morrow to be as poetic as anything in the Bonnefoy poem.

  4. Trond Engen says

    And the rek- of reking, as it happens. The initial v- of the cluster vr- was variable in ON, but I won’t pretend to know the rules. I imagine dialectal with the loss more pronounced (ha!) in north and west.

  5. Trond Engen says

    I meant to say that a form *wrec looks like it might be a back-and-forth-loan across the Channel, since it looks Old English rather than Old Norse, at least orthographically. The word might well have been vrek somewhere in Old Norsia, but rek is the form listed in my ON dictionary. Modern vrak is from LG.

    (Also, i forgot the case ending in rekingr)

  6. Ah, suddenly I understand Ronceverte, WV. Which is in, um, Greenbrier County.

  7. ‘Ronce’ is also ‘burl,’ the pattern in a deformed wood grain. A picture might convince you this the meaning Bonnefoy intended.

  8. _Wretch_ is a cognate, but isn’t really the precise English equivalent. It’s from Germanic *wrakjōn-, while _wreck_ is from *wrekaⁿ. They’re both from the same root, but the stem formations are very different (reflected in the difference of senses).

    The Norse *wrec would be East Norse, not Old English; modern normalizations obscure this, but is pretty frequent in medieval Norse mss. Cleasby-Vigfusson actually cite an Old Danish _wrec_ in a Latin-Danish context, though I don’t see the form in the edition they cite (though I do see both _wrech_ and _wrac_). It might be a ghost form, but linguistically it’s pretty normal. East Norse in general retained the initial labials in *wr- and *wl- clusters much longer than Icelandic and Norwegian (a point of some interest for dating/placing certain Eddic poems).

    The family of *wrek- is really a pretty fascinating one. It’s derivatives include not just wreck, wreak, wretch, and varech (with their tangled developments in Norse, English, and French), but also German Rache and (probably) French garçon.

  9. jamessal says

    Nothing like a $10 dollar word that sounds Anglo-Saxon. If it’s Latinate, you’re showing off, but those good ole gruff Germanic rarities.

    At dawn, the roke rose revealing the rime on the ronce.

    I like it myself, so long as it remains the odd bird among its friends.

  10. Trond Engen says

    Looking for good old words starting with van- I came across:

    *vanrek* (è) n.
    l. burtkasting, vraking, d.s.s. rek; òg: eleg, vanstelt tilstand (sumst. i Tel). (VTel òg i formi “varek”). Det ligg i ~ ; det er kome i ~. Garnet er i ~. R, Rl.
    2. noko som vert vraka (VTel), R.

    1. throwing away, scrapping, the same as rek; also: poor, neglected condition (some places in Telemark) (Western Telemark also in the form “varek”).
    2. something that is being scrapped (Western Telemark)

  11. January First-of-May says

    My first mental association to ronce was Roncevaux (the setting of the Song of Roland, now Roncesvalles in Spain just off the French border)… and apparently it is, indeed, that very root, as in “valley of thorns” (though I’ve also found an interpretation as “valley of dew”).

  12. Great, I’m glad you thought to check it!

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