Où sont les neiges d’antan?
(phr.) a sorrowful or bittersweet comment on the passage of time
Où sont les neiges d’antan? is a handy French expression of bittersweet sadness or mournfulness at the steady passing of time. It literally translates as ‘where are the snows of last year?’
That being said, that final word, antan, is more usually translated as ‘yesteryear’ or ‘yore’ in English. (Indeed it’s often claimed the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti coined the word yesteryear specifically as a translation of the French antan in 1869, but the word has since been unearthed several decades earlier than that.)
Antan itself comes from the Latin ante annum, literally meaning ‘last year’—so although a more poetic term might better suit the context here, its literal meaning is less inspiring.
That context is the French poet François Villon’s Ballade des dames du temps jadis, or his ‘Ballad of ladies of time gone by’ (though Villon himself only titled the poem Ballade in his 1461 collection, Le Testament). The poem is a reflection on various famous female figures from history and folklore, including Joan of Arc, the philosopher Héloïse, Queen Margaret of Burgundy, Alexander the Great’s companion Thaïs, and the Greek nymph Echo. At the end of the second verse—in an allusion to the supposed fate of the French thinker Jean Buridan after an alleged affair with Queen Margaret—Villon writes:
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!
[Who ordered that Buridan
Were thrown in a sack into the Seine?
Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!]
Several centuries later, this bittersweet line was picked up by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who used it as the refrain to a song in his 1936 play Round Heads and Pointed Heads. Brecht’s use of the phrase popularized it more broadly during the Second World War era (perhaps a time when a comparison between the present and years gone by may have seemed especially appropriate) and its slipped into more familiar, though not especially well-known, use in both French and English. It remains a useful and suitably poetic reflection on time gone by to this day.