Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Noménoë

Translated from a ballad published by Hersart de la Villemarqué in Barzaz Breiz. Illustrated by John Tenniel



[Noménoë was the Alfred of the Bretons, their deliverer from the Franks under Charles the Bald, in the 9th century (a.d., 841). He is a strictly historical personage. Under him the Bretons succeeded in driving the immensely superior force of the Franks beyond the rivers of l’Oust and Vilaine ; pushed their frontier as far as Poitou, and rescued from the hands of the invader the towns of Nantes and Rennes, which have remained included in Brittany from the date of their deliverance by Noménoë. This very spirited ballad was obtained by M. de Villemarqué, from the oral recitation of a peasant of Kergerez. As in my other translations of Breton ballads, I have adhered to the metre and couplets of the original, line for line.—Tom Taylor.]


The herb of gold[1] is cut: a cloud
Across the sky hath spread its shroud.
To war!

The storm-wreaths gather, grim and grey,”
Quoth the great chief of Mount Aré.

These three weeks past so thick they fall,
Towards the marches of the Gaul——

So thick, that I no ways can see
My son returning unto me.

Good merchant, farer to and fro,
Hast tidings of my son, Karò?”

Mayhap, old chieftain of Aré;
But what his kind and calling say.”

He is a man of heart and brains,
To Roazon[2] he drove the wains;

The wains to Roazon drove he,
Horsed with good horses, three by three,—

That drew fair-shared among them all,
The Breton’s tribute to the Gaul.”

If thy son’s wains the tribute bore,
He will return to thee no more.

When that the coin was brought to scale,
Three pounds were lacking to the tale.

Then outspake the Intendant straight:
‘Vassal, thy head shall make the weight!’

With that his sword forth he abrade,
And straight smote off the young man’s head;

And by the hair the head he swung,
And in the scale, for makeweight, flung.”

The old chief at that cruel sound,
Him seemed as he would fall in swound.

Stark on the rocks he grovelled there—
His face hid with his hoary hair;

And, head on hand, made heavy moan:
Karò, my son—my darling son!”


Then forth he fares, that aged man,
And after him his kith and clan;

The aged chieftain fareth straight
Unto Noménoë’s castle-gate.

Now, tell me, tell me, thou porter bold,
If that thy master be in hold?

But, be he in, or be he out,
God guard from harm that chieftain stout.”

Or ever he had pray’d d his prayer,
Behold, Noménoë was there!

His quarry from the chase he bore,
His great hounds gambolling before:

In his right hand his bow unbent;
A wild-boar on his back uphent.

On his white hand, all fresh and red,
The blood dripp’d from the wild-boar’s head.

Fair fall you, honest mountain-clan,
Thee first, as chief, thou white-hair’d man.

Your news, your news, come tell to me:
What would you of Noménoë?”

We come for right; to know, in brief,
Hath Heaven a God,—Bretayne a chief?”

Heaven hath a God, I trow, old man;
Bretayne a chief, if ought I can.”

He can that will, thereof no doubt,
And he that can the Frank drives out—

Drives out the Frank, defends the land,
To avenge, and still avenge, doth stand;—

To avenge the living and the dead,
Me and my fair son foully sped;

My Karò, whose brave head did fall
By hand of the accursèd Gaul.

They flung his head the weights to square;
Like ripe wheat shone the golden hair.”

Therewith the old man wept outright,
That tears ran down his heard so white,

Like dew-drops on a lily flower,
That glitter at the sun-rise hour.

When of those tears the chief was ware,
A stern and bloody oath he sware:

I swear it, by this wild-boar’s head,
And by the shaft that laid him dead,

Till this plague’s wash’d from out the land,
This blood I wash not off my hand!”


Noménoë hath done, I trow,
What never chieftain did till now;

Hath sought the sea-beach, sack in hand,
To gather pebbles from the strand—

Pebbles as tribute-toll to bring
The Intendant of the baldhead king.

Noménoë hath done, I trow,
What never chieftain did till now.

Prince as he is, hath ta'en his way,
The tribute-toll himself to pay.

Fling wide the gates of Roazon,
That I may enter in, anon.

Noménoë comes within your gate,
His wains all piled with silver freight.”

Light down, my lord, into the hall,
And leave your laden wains in stall.

Leave your white horse to squire and groom,
And come to sup in the daïs-room:

To sup, but first to wash, for lo!
E'en now the washing-horn[3] they blow.”

Fullsoon, fair sir, shall my washing be made,
When that the tribute hath been weigh’d.”

The first sack from the wains they pight—
(I trow ’twas corded fair and tight)—

The first sack that they brought to scale,
’Twas found full weight and honest tale:

The second sack that they came to,
The weight therein was just and true;

The third sack from the wains they pight—
How, now! I trow this sack is light?”

The Intendant saw, and from his stand
Unto the sack he raught his hand—

He raught his hand the cords unto,
That so their knots he might undo.

From off the sack thy hand refrain;
My sword shall cut the knot in twain!”

The word had scantly passed his teeth,
When flash’d his bright sword from the sheath—

Through the Frank’s neck the falchion went,
Shear by his shoulders as he bent;

It cleft the flesh and bones in twain,
And eke the links o’ one balance-chain:

Into the scale the head plump’d straight,
And there, I trow, was honest weight!

Loud through the town the cry did go:
Hands on the slayer! Ho! Harò!"

He gallops forth out through the night;
Ho! torches, torches—on his flight!”

Light up, light up! as best ye may,
The night is black, and frore the way.

But ere ye catch me, sore I fear,
The shoes from off your feet you’ll wear—

The shoes of the gilded blue cordwain;[4]
For your scales—you’ll ne’er need them again.

Your scales of gold you will need no more,
To weigh the stones of the Breton shore!
To war!”

  1. The “herb of gold” is the mystic selage. According to Breton superstition, iron cannot approach it without the sky clouding, and disaster following.
  2. The Breton name of Rennes.
  3. This practice of sounding the horn for washing before dinner (corner l’eau it is called in old French), is still kept up at the Temple.
  4. “Cordwain:” leather of Cordova—“Cordovan.” Hence our “Cordwainer.”