The wool sweater

Recently, a lovely French knitter pointed out to me a sweet sad song called Le tricot de laine (The wool sweater) from Théodore Botrel, a French singer-songwriter, poet and playwright. The knitter in the ballad is called Lena, a diminutive for Hélène, and I couldn´t but not share it with you all!

But first let me tell you a bit more about the author of the song, Jean-Baptiste-Théodore-Marie Botrel (1868-1925), who is best known for his popular songs about his native Brittany, of which the most famous is La Paimpolaise (The Paimpol Girl). You can listen to it for example here.

The Paimpol girl ballad tells about a fisherman from the fishing village of Paimpol who dies at sea while fishing in Iceland, thinking of his native village and especially of the girl who is waiting for him there. The song is extremely popular and has become an hymn for Britany.
This verse has always made me cry:

Et quand la vague le désigne
L´appelant de sa grosse voix
Le brave islandais se résigne
Et faisant un signe de croix
Attends le trépas

(And when the wave points at him
Calling him with its big voice
The brave Icelander is resigned
And with a sign of cross
Waits for his death)

Fishermen going fishing to Iceland were indeed commonly called Icelanders.

The choice of Paimpol village in the song probably derived from the popularity of Pierre Loti’s novel, Pêcheur d’Islande (An Iceland fisherman). The novel depicts the romantic but inevitably sad story between Gaud, a young and rich Breton girl returning to her natal Paimpol where she met and fell in love with Yann, a fisherman who sails each summer season to the stormy Iceland cod grounds.

(painting from Jules Breton, 1878)

As faith has it, I lived a couple of years rue Pierre Loti in Brest when I was a child and have been dreaming about Iceland ever since! If you are wondering why I choose to call my brand Tricoteuse d´Islande / Icelandic Knitter, do not look further!

But let´s go back now to The wool sweater. You can listen to it here.

I made a translation of the lyrics in English, sorry it´s not the best… but at least you will get the meaning!
The images are postcards that were made to illustrate Théodore Botrel´s songs: there should be one per verse but there is one I couldn´t find.

Malgré le grand vent
Qui gronde sans trêve
Léna Le Morvan
S’en vient à la grève
S’en vient en chantant
Une cantilène
Tout en tricotant
Un beau gilet de laine.

(Despite the strong wind
That growls without respite
Léna Le Morvan
Comes to the shore
Comes singing
A cantilena
While knitting
A beautiful wool sweater)

Son point de tricot
Connu d’elle seule
Lui vient de Margot
Sa défunte aïeule
Et son homme, un fier
Et beau capitaine
Mettra cet hiver
Ce beau gilet de laine.

(Her knit stitch
Known to her alone
Comes from Margot
Her late grand-mother
And her man, a proud
And handsome captain
Will wear this winter
This beautiful wool sweater.)

Sur un bâtiment
De pêche il commande
Mais en ce moment
Il revient d’Islande.
Jamais reprisé
Huit mois à la peine
Qu’il doit être usé
Son vieux gilet de laine.

(On a fishing ship
He gives his orders
But at the moment
He returns from Iceland.
Never having been darned
For eight months
what it must be worn
His old wool sweater.)

La mer aujourd’hui
A l’air de lui dire:
J’amène celui
Que ton coeur désire
Songeant au retour
La joyeuse Hélène
Met tout son amour
Dans son tricot de laine.

(The sea today
Seems to tell her:
I bring the one
Who your heart desires.
Thinking of his return
Merry Hélène
Puts all her love
In knitting the wool sweater.)

Près d’elle soudain
L’océan qui bave
Jette avec dédain
Une horrible épave
C’est un naufragé
Recouvert à peine
D’un ciré rongé
Et d’un tricot de laine.

Jetant son tricot
Dans la mer menteuse
Avec un sanglot
Meurt la tricoteuse
Sur le corps mi-nu
Que la vague amène
Elle a reconnu
Son vieux tricot de laine.

(Suddenly near her
The drooling ocean
Throws with disdain
A horrible wreck
He is a shipwrecked
Barely covered
Of a gnawed wax
And a wool sweater.

Throwing away her knitting
In the lying sea
With a sob
Dies the knitter.
On the half-naked body
Brought by the wave
She recognised
The old wool sweater.)

It´s very sad but I hope you enjoyed it nevertheless!


2 thoughts on “The wool sweater

  1. helene magnusson says:

    From Sabrina:
    Hi Helene,

    I greatly enjoyed your blog post about the Breton songs and also the illustrations though I must say that Helene looked rather old in the postcards – perhaps she had had a hard life waiting for her Icelander!

    I was reminded of another literary case of a drowning victim being recognised by a piece of knitting. It occurs in the Irish play ‘Riders to the Sea’ by J.M. Synge, written around the same time. Here a young man has been lost at sea and the family is sent a few scraps of clothing from a body washed ashore “in the far north”. The young man’s sister recognises the stocking (or sock) as one she has knitted:

    CATHLEEN [taking the stocking]. It’s a plain stocking.
    NORA. It’s the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three-score stitches, and I dropped four of them.
    CATHLEEN [counts the stitches]. It’s that number is in it. [Crying out] Ah, Nora, isn’ it a bitter thing to think of him floating that way to the far north, and no one to keen him but the black hags that be flying on the sea?
    NORA. And isn’t it a pitiful thing when there is nothing left of a man who was a great rower and fisher but a bit of an old shirt and a plain stocking?

    No doubt this sort of scene was often enough played out in real life over the centuries among fishing communities.

    Well, by rights we should have been on our Spring tour by now. The word here is that overseas travel is not going to be permitted ‘anytime soon’.
    Hopefully it will be a year hence.

  2. helene magnusson says:

    From Milette

    Hello Helene,

    Thank you for introducing me to the ballads of Theodore Botrel with the old recordings. They are beautifully sad. I was thinking, maybe the missing illustration you were looking for (for Tricot de Laine) is the one on the cover of the record?
    I often look at the photos of our group trip to iceland and remember the adventures we had with you. You gave it a special magical spirit.

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