Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?
may oo saw lay NEZH-uh dah-TAH?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?
Now that the snow has nearly all melted, it seems a good time to pose this question: Où sont les neiges d’antan?
We owe this line of poetry to 15th-century French poet François Villon, but he is far from the first to invoke the theme. Latin poetry often called on the “ubi sunt?” theme: Where are they? These reflections on the fleeting nature of life often led to a second, equally popular theme: “carpe diem”, or Seize the day. If life is short, enjoy it today.
In Villon’s case, he was bewailing the passing of women from times past–famous lovers such as Héloïse, famous beauties like Helen of Troy, and many others. The refrain of his poem is today’s phrase. The only real thing snow has in common with his theme is how fast it is gone. (Villon probably never lived through a winter like Chicago’s most recent one.)
There’s a copy of the whole poem in the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballade_des_dames_du_temps_jadis.
The word d’antan is archaic–no longer used, though it probably enjoyed wide currency in Villon’s time. It probably came from a word that is presumed to have existed in popular Latin, *anteannum: the previous year, last year. As for the English, Where are the snows of yesteryear? we owe that to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the famous nineteenth-century poet, who invented the word yesteryear to convey the meaning of d’antan.
And Villon’s widely-quoted line has appeared in such utterly different contexts as Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, the recent movie Inglourious Basterds, and a song by the French songwriter Georges Brassens.