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Archive for December, 2011

Gustave Flaubert (December 12 1821 – May 8 1880)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She gave up playing the piano. Why practice? Who would ever hear her? Since she would never play for an audience, in a short-sleeved velvet dress, on an Erard piano, skimming over the ivory keys with the lightest of fingers, never feel a murmur of ecstasy rising about her, what was the point of practicing any more?  She left her sketch books and tapestry in the cupboard. What was the use? What was the use? Sewing made her nervous.

“I’ve read everything,” she said to herself.

So she sat there idly, holding the tongs in the fire until they turned red, or watching the rain fall.

How sad she felt on Sundays, when the church bell sounded for vespers!  She stood in a kind of expectant daze, listening as each broken note rang out again, and again.  A cat was stalking about the rooftops,  arching its back in the last pale rays of sunshine. The wind blew trails of dust along the highroad. In the distance, a dog howled now and then, and the bell kept up its tolling, each monotonous note dying out over the countryside.

Meanwhile, people had begun to walk home from church. Women in polished wooden shoes, farmers in new smocks, little children gamboling bareheaded before them, everyone was going home. Five or six of the men, always the same, would linger in front of the inn, playing their game of tip-penny until dark.

The winter was a cold one. Every morning the window panes were thick with frost, and the one light which shone through them, as through ground glass, sometimes grew no brighter all day.  The lamps had to be lit by four in the afternoon.

On sunny days Emma went out in the garden. Dew had left silvery lace on the cabbages, gleaming filaments stretching from one to the other. No birds sang; everything seemed asleep, the espaliered trees under their covering of straw, the grapevines like a great sick snake beneath the coping of the wall where, if one looked closely, one could see large wood lice dragging along on their many legs. Among the spruce trees near the hedge, the curate, in a tricorn, reading his breviary, had lost his right foot and the plaster, peeling because of the frost, had left white blotches on his face.

She then went back upstairs, closed her door, stirred the coals and, settling languidly by the warm fire, felt boredom sinking down upon her more oppressively than ever. She would have liked to chat with the maid, but a sense of propriety held her back.

Every day, at the same time, the schoolmaster in his black silk cap would throw open his shutters, and the village policeman would pass, his sword buckled over his smock. Morning and evening, the post horses would be led across the street, three by three, to drink at the pond. Now and then a bell would tinkle on a cafe door, and if it were windy, one could hear the little copper basins which the hairdresser used as his shop sign, clanking on their two iron rods.  The hairdresser’s window display consisted of an old print of dated fashions pasted on one window pane,  and the wax bust of a woman with yellow hair.  He, too, was discontented; he mourned his wasted talents, his hopeless future, and dreamed of owning a shop in some large city, Rouen perhaps, on the harbour, or near the theatre district. Meanwhile, he paced gloomily up and down the main street of Tostes, from the town hall to the church, waiting for customers.  Every time Madame Bovary looked out, she saw him there, like a sentry on duty, wearing a rough woolen jacket, his cap perched to one side.

Sometimes, in the afternoon a man’s head would appear outside the parlour window, a tan face with black  side-whiskers, white teeth showing through a gentle broad smile. Right away a waltz would be heard,  and on top of the barrel organ, miniature dancers would start to whirl about within a doll-size parlour: ladies in pink turbans, Tyrolleans in short jackets,  monkeys in black tail coats, gentlemen in knee breeches. Round and round they went, between chairs, sofas, tiny console tables, reflected many times in fragments of mirror held together at the edges by gold paper.  The man turned the crank, looking to the right, to the left, and up at the windows. Once in a while as he shot a long stream of brown saliva against the curbstone, he would lift the organ onto his knee to relieve his shoulders from the weight of the strap. Now lingering and sad, now joyous and swift, the music rumbled forth from the box, through a pink taffeta curtain behind a curving brass grill. Worldly echoes reached Emma’s ears, melodies heard in theatres, some in drawing rooms, or played for dancing beneath crystal chandeliers. Never-ending sarabands kept ringing in her head while her thoughts, like dancing girls on a flowered carpet, leapt high at each note, from dream to dream, from sorrow to sorrow. After the man had caught a few coins in his cap, he pulled an old cover of blue wool over the organ, slung it on his back, and walked away with heavy footsteps. She watched him go.

 

 

Extracted from the 1969 translation of Madame Bovary by Merloyd Lawrence, Riverstone Editions, Houghton Mifflin Company.

 

 

 

 

Sufficient ink has been spilled on the subject of Emma that the addition of a few more drops from me could hardly be necessary. I posted this excerpt because  I found these two pages of  Flaubert’s novel to be so very  very vivid and unforgettable, that ever since I first read it I have never been able to cease entirely from thinking about it.

I think Emma Bovary’s tragic life is in its own way very mysterious. She feels a chronic dissatisfaction with her circumstances  – and she resorts to men for a remedy – which I daresay was her greatest mistake – but then she didn’t have a choice – did she? If she had been blessed with sufficient wealth or more intelligence, or a social circle more to her liking – or perhaps all three –  she might have been happier: or she might have settled for something less than what she had hoped for – though not for the muted satisfactions of an ordinary wife, – but i doubt it: and at any rate Flaubert saw to it she was not lucky enough to find out. If he had, his novel would not have been as scandalous and as disturbing as the eternally hypocritical French  bourgeoisie of his time found it to be, and, for identical reasons, it would not have enjoyed the success it did. Though Flaubert (and his publisher), like Radclyffe Hall, was prosecuted for outraging public morality with a story about a woman who broke the sexual rules set for women by society, the prosecution was unsuccessful.

Emma Bovary’s  dissatisfaction, framed with great clarity and the minimum of plot distractions, is what retains a lingering fascination for me. Flaubert interests me far less than Emma.  It is her inner emptiness that gets my attention, and you can see it expressing itself here. If Flaubert made her foolish and trite in her mental formulations, he also endowed her with an almost heroic force that drove her as far away from her soft beginnings as a country girl as she could possibly go.  It is this force – this restless dissatisfaction, this seeking for something beyond the rooted circumstances of her unfulfilling life – that I find fascinating. So many women, of limited (and perhaps also not so limited) intelligence,  whose lives are dull and humdrum and ordinary  and whose circumstances resemble Emma’s, remain pinned in place by the events that befall them. Emma however did not. I find the force that drove her to her inevitable ruin to be mysterious and worthy of contemplation, because I think it has its origins not in mere discontent. but in a genuine need for not merely an existence, but the valid aspiration for a life which had meaning and the promise of fulfillment which went beyond the roles of wife and mother. It was not that she merely reached beyond the fog of her discontent of her ordinary life, but that she didn’t reach far enough. Emma’s tragedy is that what she was groping for and reaching for did not exist in her world. She lived in a time when the idea of human aspirations beyond marriage and motherhood simply did not apply to women. French bourgeois mores, stretched beyond endurance by half a century of upheaval and calamity, had snapped back firmly into place following the excesses of the revolution and the disasters of the Napoleonic campaigns.

Emma is a fictionalised character based on a woman named Delphine Delmare, who had lived in the village of Ry, close to Rouen, Flaubert’s home, and who like Emma had married a country doctor, and committed suicide after running up debts she could not repay. Like Emma, Delphine had taken lovers, and ruined her reputation. Though Flaubert vehemently denied he had based Emma on any real woman, the facts too neatly contradict his assertion. I suspect that the need to fill in the blanks about Delphine’s life, to ask the questions and try to provide, if not  an answer, then at least a coherent account which might lend itself to the suggestion of an answer, may have been what motivated Flaubert to write his novel.

Just as Balzac based “La Grand Bretèche” in the crumbling shadow of a Napoleonic past, Flaubert based Madame Bovary within the entrenched dullness of the  reign of king Louis Philippe, who was unflatteringly described as “bourgeois” and who left his imprint of middle class conventionalism on his times. It is the dominant background of his novel. The pains Flaubert took over this work are legendary – 3600 hand-written pages in which he strove indefatigably  for a detailed realism. One feels that the sheer weight of detail alone would serve as a sort of explanation of Emma’s  (considered at the time to be outrageously shocking) choices and actions  – and some satisfying resolution of the question in our minds – some ‘truth’.

But Flaubert is steadfast in denying us satisfaction in this regard. Like Balzac he covertly disparages – and  punishes his female characters for their sexual transgressions, but he also punishes ‘the innocent’ – Emma’s little daughter,  perhaps in order to reveal how the sins of the mothers are indeed visited upon the children.  This is where I think Flaubert truly showed himself to be a dedicated votary of the Muse of topical realism, in a clear departure from the romantic notions which had infused French novel-writing up to that time.

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Barbara (June 9 1930 – November 24 1997)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dis Quand Reviendras-tu?

 

 

 
Voilà combien de jours, voilà combien de nuits,
Voilà combien de temps que tu es reparti,
Tu m’as dit cette fois, c’est le dernier voyage,
Pour nos cœurs déchirés, c’est le dernier naufrage,
Au printemps, tu verras, je serai de retour,
Le printemps, c’est joli pour se parler d’amour,
Nous irons voir ensemble les jardins refleuris,
Et déambulerons dans les rues de Paris,

Dis, quand reviendras-tu,
Dis, au moins le sais-tu,
Que tout le temps qui passe,
Ne se rattrape guère,
Que tout le temps perdu,
Ne se rattrape plus,

Le printemps s’est enfui depuis longtemps déjà,
Craquent les feuilles mortes, brûlent les feux de bois,
A voir Paris si beau dans cette fin d’automne,
Soudain je m’alanguis, je rêve, je frissonne,
Je tangue, je chavire, et comme la rengaine,
Je vais, je viens, je vire, je me tourne, je me traîne,
Ton image me hante, je te parle tout bas,
Et j’ai le mal d’amour, et j’ai le mal de toi,

Dis, quand reviendras-tu,
Dis, au moins le sais-tu,
Que tout le temps qui passe,
Ne se rattrape guère,
Que tout le temps perdu,
Ne se rattrape plus,

J’ai beau t’aimer encore, j’ai beau t’aimer toujours,
J’ai beau n’aimer que toi, j’ai beau t’aimer d’amour,
Si tu ne comprends pas qu’il te faut revenir,
Je ferai de nous deux mes plus beaux souvenirs,
Je reprendrai la route, le monde m’émerveille,
J’irai me réchauffer à un autre soleil,
Je ne suis pas de celles qui meurent de chagrin,
Je n’ai pas la vertu des femmes de marins,

Dis, quand reviendras-tu,
Dis, au moins le sais-tu,
Que tout le temps qui passe,
Ne se rattrape guère,
Que tout le temps perdu,
Ne se rattrape plus…

 

 

 

 

La Solitude

 

 

 
Je l’ai trouvée devant ma porte,
Un soir, que je rentrais chez moi.
Partout, elle me fait escorte.
Elle est revenue, elle est là,
La renifleuse des amours mortes.
Elle m’a suivie, pas à pas.
La garce, que le Diable l’emporte !
Elle est revenue, elle est là

Avec sa gueule de carême
Avec ses larges yeux cernés,
Elle nous fait le cœur à la traîne,
Elle nous fait le cœur à pleurer,
Elle nous fait des mains blêmes
Et de longues nuits désolées.
La garce ! Elle nous ferait même
L’hiver au plein cœur de l’été.

Dans ta triste robe de moire
Avec tes cheveux mal peignés,
T’as la mine du désespoir,
Tu n’es pas belle à regarder.
Allez, va t-en porter ailleurs
Ta triste gueule de l’ennui.
Je n’ai pas le goût du malheur.
Va t-en voir ailleurs si j’y suis !

Je veux encore rouler des hanches,
Je veux me saouler de printemps,
Je veux m’en payer, des nuits blanches,
A cœur qui bat, à cœur battant.
Avant que sonne l’heure blême
Et jusqu’à mon souffle dernier,
Je veux encore dire “je t’aime”
Et vouloir mourir d’aimer.

Elle a dit : “Ouvre-moi ta porte.
Je t’avais suivie pas à pas.
Je sais que tes amours sont mortes.
Je suis revenue, me voilà.
Ils t’ont récité leurs poèmes,
Tes beaux messieurs, tes beaux enfants,
Tes faux Rimbaud, tes faux Verlaine.
Eh ! bien, c’est fini, maintenant.”

Depuis, elle me fait des nuits blanches.
Elle s’est pendue à mon cou,
Elle s’est enroulée à mes genoux.
Partout, elle me fait escorte
Et elle me suit, pas à pas.
Elle m’attend devant ma porte.
Elle est revenue, elle est là,
La solitude, la solitude…

 

Solitude
I found her in front of my door one evening when I returned home. She accompanies me everywhere  – she has come back – she is there, the stalker of dead loves. She followed me step by step.  That little bitch, to heck with her.
She has returned, there she is. With her lenten mouth her large hollow eyes. For us she makes the heart trail behind, she makes the heart weep – she makes the hands pallid and the long nights desolate. That little bitch, she makes us have winter in the full heart of summer.  In your sad robe of watered silk, your hair all unkempt, you wear the face of despair, you are unlovely to see. Go away, leave, go and take your sad bored mouth somewhere else. I have no taste for sadness, go away, and look somewhere else in case I’m there!
I want to swing my hips again, I want to get drunk on spring. I want to be paid in sleepless nights with a heart that beats – a beating heart. Before the tolling of that pale hour and until my last breath I want to say again “I love you” and I want to die for love.
She said “Open your door.  I’ve been following you step by step.  I know your loves are dead, I returned – here I am. They have declaimed their poems, your fine gentlemen, your lovely children, your fake Rimbaud, your fake Verlaine. Well fine, that’s all over now. Since then she has given me sleepless nights, she has hung on my neck and has curled herself up in my lap. She goes with me everywhere. She dogs my every step. She waits for me outside my door. She has returned, she is there….
Solitude,  – solitude….

 

 

 

 

Plus Rien

 

 

Plus rien, plus rien
Que le silence,
Ta main, ma main
Et le silence
Des mots. Pourquoi ?
Quelle importance !
Demain, plus tard,
Les confidences.
Si douce, ta bouche
Et je m’affole.
Je roule, m’enroule
Et tu t’affoles.
La nuit profonde,
La fin du monde,
Une gerbe de feu
Pour se connaitre,
Se reconnaitre,
Pourpre et or et puis bleue,
Plus rien, plus rien
Que le silence,
C’est bien, nos mains
Et ce silence…

 

 

 

Nothing More

Nothing more, nothing more but the silence – your hand – your hand – and the silence. Some words? What for? Tomorrow, later, secrets. So sweet, your mouth, and I go crazy. I curl up in myself and you go crazy. The deep night, the end of the world, a burst of flame –  to know oneself  – to recognise oneself, purple and gold then blue, nothing more,  nothing more, but the silence. Its good, our hands, and this silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Le Mal de Vivre

 

 
Ça ne prévient pas quand ça arrive
Ça vient de loin
Ça c’est promené de rive en rive
La gueule en coin
Et puis un matin, au réveil
C’est presque rien
Mais c’est là, ça vous ensommeille
Au creux des reins

Le mal de vivre
Le mal de vivre
Qu’il faut bien vivre
Vaille que vivre

On peut le mettre en bandoulière
Ou comme un bijou à la main
Comme une fleur en boutonnière
Ou juste à la pointe du sein
C’est pas forcément la misère
C’est pas Valmy, c’est pas Verdun
Mais c’est des larmes aux paupières
Au jour qui meurt, au jour qui vient

Le mal de vivre
Le mal de vivre
Qu’il faut bien vivre
Vaille que vivre

Qu’on soit de Rome ou d’Amérique
Qu’on soit de Londres ou de Pékin
Qu’on soit d’Egypte ou bien d’Afrique
Ou de la porte Saint-Martin
On fait tous la même prière
On fait tous le même chemin
Qu’il est long lorsqu’il faut le faire
Avec son mal au creux des reins

Ils ont beau vouloir nous comprendre
Ceux qui nous viennent les mains nues
Nous ne voulons plus les entendre
On ne peut pas, on n’en peut plus
Et tous seuls dans le silence
D’une nuit qui n’en finit plus
Voilà que soudain on y pense
A ceux qui n’en sont pas revenus

Du mal de vivre
Leur mal de vivre
Qu’ils devaient vivre
Vaille que vivre

Et sans prévenir, ça arrive
Ça vient de loin
Ça c’est promené de rive en rive
Le rire en coin
Et puis un matin, au réveil
C’est presque rien
Mais c’est là, ça vous émerveille
Au creux des reins

La joie de vivre
La joie de vivre
Oh, viens la vivre
Ta joie de vivre

 

 

 

Les Insomnies

 

 

A voir tant de gens qui dorment et s’endorment à la nuit,
Je finirai, c’est fatal, par pouvoir m’endormir aussi.
A voir tant d’yeux qui se ferment, couchés dans leur lit,
Je finirai par comprendre qu’il faut que je m’endorme aussi.

J’en ai connu des grands, des beaux, des bien bâtis, des gentils
Qui venaient pour me bercer et combattre mes insomnies
Mais au matin, je les retrouvais, endormis dans mon lit
Pendant que je veillais seule, en combattant mes insomnies.

A force de compter les moutons qui sautent dans mon lit,
J’ai un immense troupeau qui se promène dans mes nuits.
Qu’ils aillent brouter ailleurs, par exemple, dans vos prairies.
Labourage et pâturage ne sont pas mes travaux de nuit,

Sans compter les absents qui me reviennent dans mes nuits.
J’ai quelquefois des vivants qui me donnent des insomnies
Et je gravis mon calvaire, sur les escaliers de la nuit.
J’ai déjà connu l’enfer, connaîtrai-je le paradis ?

Le paradis, ce serait, pour moi, de m’endormir la nuit
Mais je rêve que je rêve qu’on a tué mes insomnies
Et que, pâles, en robe blanche, on les a couchées dans un lit
A tant rêver que j’en rêve, les revoilà, mes insomnies.

Je rôde comme les chats, je glisse comme les souris
Et Dieu, lui-même, ne sait pas ce que je peux faire de mes nuits.
Mourir ou s’endormir, ce n’est pas du tout la même chose.
Pourtant, c’est pareillement se coucher les paupières closes.
Une longue nuit, où je les avais tous deux confondus,
Peu s’en fallut, au matin, que je ne me réveille plus.

Mais au ciel de mon lit, y avait les pompiers de Paris.
Au pied de mon lit, les adjudants de la gendarmerie.
Ô Messieurs dites-moi, ce que vous faites là, je vous prie.
Madame, nous sommes là pour veiller sur vos insomnies.

En un cortège chagrin, viennent mes parents, mes amis.
Gravement, au nom du Père, du Fils et puis du Saint-Esprit,
Si après l’heure, c’est plus l’heure, avant, ce ne l’est pas non plus,
Ce n’est pas l’heure en tout cas, mais grand merci d’être venus.

Je les vois déjà rire de leurs fines plaisanteries,
Ceux qui prétendent connaître un remède à mes insomnies.
Un médecin pour mes nuits, j’y avais pensé, moi aussi.
C’est contre lui que je couche mes plus belles insomnies.

A voir tant de gens qui dorment et s’endorment à la nuit,
J’aurais fini, c’est fatal, par pouvoir m’endormir aussi
Mais si s’endormir c’est mourir, ah laissez-moi mes insomnies.
J’aime mieux vivre en enfer que dormir en paradis.
Si s’endormir c’est mourir, ah laissez-moi mes insomnies.
J’aime mieux vivre en enfer que de mourir en paradis…

 

 

 

 

Au Cœur de la Nuit

 

 
J’ai le souvenir d’une nuit
Une nuit de mon enfance
Toute pareille à celle-ci
Une longue nuit de silence.

Moi qui ne me souviens jamais
Du passé qui m’importune
C’est drôle, j’ai gardé le secret
De cette longue nuit sans lune.

J’ai le souvenir d’une nuit
D’une nuit de mon enfance
Toute pareille à celle-ci
Une longue nuit de silence.

Soudain, je me suis réveillée.
Il y avait une présence.
Soudain, je me suis réveillée
Dans une demi-somnolence.

C’était au dehors. On parlait
A voix basse, comme un murmure
Comme un sanglot étouffé
Au dehors, j’en étais sûre.

J’ai le souvenir d’une nuit
D’une nuit de mon enfance
Toute pareille à celle-ci
Une longue nuit de silence.

J’allais, à demi éveillée
Guidée par l’étrange murmure.
J’allais, à demi éveillée
Suivant une allée obscure.

Il y eut, je me le rappelle
Surgissant de l’allée obscure
Il y eut un bruissement d’ailes
Là, tout contre ma figure.

C’était au cœur de la nuit.
C’était une forêt profonde.
C’était là, comme cette nuit
Un bruit sourd venant d’outre-tombe.

Qui es-tu pour me revenir ?
Quel est donc le mal qui t’enchaîne ?
Qui es-tu pour me revenir
Et veux-tu que, vers toi, je vienne ?

S’il le faut, j’irai encore
Tant et tant de nuits profondes
Sans jamais revoir l’aurore
Sans jamais revoir le monde

Pour qu’enfin tu puisses dormir
Pour qu’enfin ton cœur se repose
Que tu finisses de mourir
Sous tes paupières déjà closes.

J’ai le souvenir d’une nuit
Une nuit de mon enfance
Toute pareille à celle-ci
Froide et lourde de silence

 

From the Heart of the Night.

I have the memory of a night, a night in my childhood, a night exactly like this one, a long night of silence.  I, who never look back on the past that bothers me, it’s strange that I held on to the secret of this long, moonless night. I have the memory of a night, a night in my childhood, a night exactly like this one, a long night of silence.  Suddenly I was awakened, and I felt a presence: suddenly I was roused into a half-sleep.  It was outside, someone was speaking in a low voice, like a murmur, like a muffled sob; I was sure it was outside. I have the memory of a night, a night of my childhood, a night exactly like this one, a long night of silence.  I was going, half awake, guided by that strange murmur; I was moving along, following into a shadowy path.  There was, I remember, arising from that shadowy path, there was was a rustle of wings – there, right against my face. It was at dead of night, it was was a deep forest, it was there, like night, a dull sound, emerging from beyond the grave. Who are you, to return to me? And whatever is the evil that shackles you? Who are you, to return to me? And do you want me to come towards you? If it is necessary, I will go again for how every many deep nights, without ever seeing the dawn again – without ever seeing the world again. So that at last you can sleep, so at last your heart can rest, may you finish your dying under your already closed eyelids. I have the memory of a night, a night of my childhood, that seems exactly like this one, cold and heavy with silence.

 

 

 

 

Parce Que

 

 
C’est parce que ton épaule à mon épaule,
Ta bouche à mes cheveux
Et ta main sur mon cou,
C’est parce que, dans mes reins,
Quand ton souffle me frôle,
C’est parce que tes mains,
C’est parce que joue à joue,
C’est parce qu’au matin,
C’est parce qu’à la nuit,
Quand tu dis “viens”, je viens.
Tu souris, je souris.
C’est parce qu’ici ou là,
Dans un autre pays,
Pourvu que tu y sois,
C’est toujours mon pays.
C’est parce que je t’aime
Que je préfère m’en aller.
C’est mieux, bien mieux, de se quitter
Avant que ne meure le temps d’aimer.

C’est parce que j’ai peur de voir s’endeuiller
Les minutes, les heures, les secondes passées,
C’est parce que je sais qu’il faut un presque rien
Pour défaire une nuit et se perdre au matin.
Je ne laisserai pas pencher sur notre lit
Ni l’ombre d’un regret, ni l’ombre d’un ennui.
Je ne laisserai pas mourir au fil des jours
Ce qui fut toi et moi, ce qui fut notre amour.
Pour qu’il ne soit jamais emporté par le temps,
Je l’emporte moi-même. Il restera vivant.

Oh laisse-moi, je t’aime
Mais je préfère m’en aller.
C’est mieux, tu sais, de se quitter
Avant que ne meure le temps d’aimer.

J’en ai vu, comme nous, qui allaient à pas lents
Et portaient leur amour comme on porte un enfant.
J’en ai vu, comme nous, qui allaient à pas lents
Et tombaient à genoux, dans le soir finissant.
Je les ai retrouvés, furieux et combattant
Comme deux loups blessés. Que sont-ils maintenant ?

Ca, je ne veux pas. Je t’aime.
Je ne veux pas nous déchirer.
C’est mieux, tu sais, de nous quitter
Avant que ne meure le temps d’aimer.
C’est mieux, bien mieux, de nous quitter
Avant que ne meure le temps d’aimer…

 

 

 

 

 

Because (I love you)
Its because  –  shoulder at my shoulder,  your mouth against my hair, and your hand on my neck, its because deep inside me, when your breath brushes  against me, its because your hands, its because cheek to cheek – its because in the morning – its because at night. When you say ” come” I come, you smile, I smile, its because here or there, in another land – as long as you are there, its always my land.
 Because I love you, I prefer to leave,  it is better, much better, to leave before the time to love should die.
Its because I fear to see plunged into grief  the passing hours and minutes and seconds, it’s because I know it takes next to nothing to undo a night, to be abandoned in the morning. I will let neither the shadow of regret nor the shadow of boredom hover over our bed . I will not let die as days go by what  we were, you and I and what was our love. So that it will never to be swept away by time, I will remove myself. It will remain alive.  Oh let me leave – I love you, but I prefer to leave. It is better, you know, to leave before the time of love dies. I have seen some, like us, who would drag their steps, and would carry their love as one carries a child. I have seen some, like us, who would drag their steps and then fall to their knees at the end of the evening.  I have found them, furious and fighting, like two wounded wolves. What are they now? That, I do not want. I love you. I don’t want us to be undone. It is better, you know, for us to leave each other before the time to love should die.

 

 

 

 

Mein Kompliment

(Chapeau Bas)

 

 
War das nun Gottes Hand,
war es die Hand des Teufels?
Wer hat mit diesem Blau
den Himmel heut bespannt?
Wer streute auf den See das viele Sonnenlicht,
das auf dem Wasser sich in tausend Blitzen bricht?
War das nun Gottes Hand, war es die Hand des Teufels?
Wer hat das Segelboot in dieses Bild gefügt,
das dort im Sommerwind am Quai vor Anker liegt
und sich voll Ungeduld schon auf den Wellen wiegt?
Hat das Gott so gemacht?
Hat’s der Teufel erdacht?
Haben beide gemeinsam dies Wunder vollbracht?
Leider kann ich nicht sagen,
woran man das erkennt,
doch ich sag’ für diesen Tag:
“Merci, mein Kompliment!”
War das nun Gottes Hand,
war es die Hand des Teufels?
Von wem wohl die Idee zu dieser Rose stammt?
Für wen erblühte sie,
ein Traum aus rotem Samt,
für welche Dame die heut welches Herz entflammt?
War das nun Gottes Hand,
war es die Hand des Teufels?
Die Beeren, leuchtend rot, Im grünen Laub versteckt!
Das Mädchen, das sich dort so in der Sonne reckt!
Die Freude, jung zu sein, hat es noch nicht entdeckt…
Hat das Gott so gemacht?
Hat’s der Teufel erdacht?
Haben beide gemeinsam dies Wunder vollbracht?
Leider kann ich nicht sagen,
woran man das erkennt,
doch ich sag’ für diesen Tag:
“Merci, mein Kompliment!”
Das weiße Segelboot,
das weite Himmelszelt!
Das reife Obst am Baum,
das gold’ne Weizenfeld!
Das große Sommerglück,
das fast die Herzen sprengt.
Wer es auch war, er hat
es dir und mir geschenkt!
Hat das Gott so gemacht?
Hat’s der Teufel erdacht?
Haben beide gemeinsam dies Wunder vollbracht?
Leider kann ich nicht sagen,
woran man das erkennt,
doch ich sag’ für soviel Glück:
“Messieurs, mein Kompliment!”
sag’ für dich und mich: “Merci, mein Kompliment!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapeau Bas

 

 

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Honoré Balzac (May 20 1799 – August 16 1850)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ah! madame,” replied the doctor, “I have some appalling stories in my collection. But each one has its proper hour in a conversation–you know the pretty jest recorded by Chamfort, and said to the Duc de Fronsac: ‘Between your sally and the present moment lie ten bottles of champagne.'”
“But it is two in the morning, and the story of Rosina has prepared us,” said the mistress of the house.
“Tell us, Monsieur Bianchon!” was the cry on every side.
The obliging doctor bowed, and silence reigned.
“At about a hundred paces from Vendome, on the banks of the Loir,” said he, “stands an old brown house, crowned with very high roofs, and so completely isolated that there is nothing near it, not even a fetid tannery or a squalid tavern, such as are commonly seen outside small towns. In front of this house is a garden down to the river, where the box shrubs, formerly clipped close to edge the walks, now straggle at their own will. A few willows, rooted in the stream, have grown up quickly like an enclosing fence, and half hide the house. The wild plants we call weeds have clothed the bank with their beautiful luxuriance. The fruit-trees, neglected for these ten years past, no longer bear a crop, and their suckers have formed a thicket. The espaliers are like a copse. The paths, once graveled, are overgrown with purslane; but, to be accurate there is no trace of a path.
“Looking down from the hilltop, to which cling the ruins of the old castle of the Dukes of Vendome, the only spot whence the eye can see into this enclosure, we think that at a time, difficult now to determine, this spot of earth must have been the joy of some country gentleman devoted to roses and tulips, in a word, to horticulture, but above all a lover of choice fruit. An arbor is visible, or rather the wreck of an arbor, and under it a table still stands not entirely destroyed by time. At the aspect of this garden that is no more, the negative joys of the peaceful life of the provinces may be divined as we divine the history of a worthy tradesman when we read the epitaph on his tomb. To complete the mournful and tender impressions which seize the soul, on one of the walls there is a sundial graced with this homely Christian motto, ‘Ultimam cogita.’
“The roof of this house is dreadfully dilapidated; the outside shutters are always closed; the balconies are hung with swallows’ nests; the doors are for ever shut. Straggling grasses have outlined the flagstones of the steps with green; the ironwork is rusty. Moon and sun, winter, summer, and snow have eaten into the wood, warped the boards, peeled off the paint. The dreary silence is broken only by birds and cats, polecats, rats, and mice, free to scamper round, and fight, and eat each other. An invisible hand has written over it all: ‘Mystery.’
“If, prompted by curiosity, you go to look at this house from the street, you will see a large gate, with a round-arched top; the children have made many holes in it. I learned later that this door had been blocked for ten years. Through these irregular breaches you will see that the side towards the courtyard is in perfect harmony with the side towards the garden. The same ruin prevails. Tufts of weeds outline the paving-stones; the walls are scored by enormous cracks, and the blackened coping is laced with a thousand festoons of pellitory. The stone steps are disjointed; the bell-cord is rotten; the gutter-spouts broken. What fire from heaven could have fallen there? By what decree has salt been sown on this dwelling? Has God been mocked here? Or was France betrayed? These are the questions we ask ourselves. Reptiles crawl over it, but give no reply. This empty and deserted house is a vast enigma of which the answer is known to none.
“It was formerly a little domain, held in fief, and is known as La Grande Breteche. During my stay at Vendome, where Despleins had left me in charge of a rich patient, the sight of this strange dwelling became one of my keenest pleasures. Was it not far better than a ruin? Certain memories of indisputable authenticity attach themselves to a ruin; but this house, still standing, though being slowly destroyed by an avenging hand, contained a secret, an unrevealed thought. At the very least, it testified to a caprice. More than once in the evening I boarded the hedge, run wild, which surrounded the enclosure. I braved scratches, I got into this ownerless garden, this plot which was no longer public or private; I lingered there for hours gazing at the disorder. I would not, as the price of the story to which this strange scene no doubt was due, have asked a single question of any gossiping native. On that spot I wove delightful romances, and abandoned myself to little debauches of melancholy which enchanted me.
If I had known the reason–perhaps quite commonplace–of this neglect, I should have lost the unwritten poetry which intoxicated me. To me this refuge represented the most various phases of human life, shadowed by misfortune; sometimes the peace of the graveyard without the dead, who speak in the language of epitaphs; one day I saw in it the home of lepers; another, the house of the Atridae; but, above all, I found there provincial life, with its contemplative ideas, its hour-glass existence. I often wept there, I never laughed.
“More than once I felt involuntary terrors as I heard overhead the dull hum of the wings of some hurrying wood-pigeon. The earth is dank; you must be on the watch for lizards, vipers, and frogs, wandering about with the wild freedom of nature; above all, you must have no fear of cold, for in a few moments you feel an icy cloak settle on your shoulders, like the Commendatore’s hand on Don Giovanni’s neck.
“One evening I felt a shudder; the wind had turned an old rusty weathercock, and the creaking sounded like a cry from the house, at the very moment when I was finishing a gloomy drama to account for this monumental embodiment of woe. I returned to my inn, lost in gloomy thoughts. When I had supped, the hostess came into my room with an air of mystery, and said, ‘Monsieur, here is Monsieur Regnault.’
“‘Who is Monsieur Regnault?’
“‘What, sir, do you not know Monsieur Regnault?–Well, that’s odd,’ said she, leaving the room.
“On a sudden I saw a man appear, tall, slim, dressed in black, hat in hand, who came in like a ram ready to butt his opponent, showing a receding forehead, a small pointed head, and a colorless face of the hue of a glass of dirty water. You would have taken him for an usher. The stranger wore an old coat, much worn at the seams; but he had a diamond in his shirt frill, and gold rings in his ears.
“‘Monsieur,’ said I, ‘whom have I the honor of addressing?’–He took a chair, placed himself in front of my fire, put his hat on my table, and answered while he rubbed his hands: ‘Dear me, it is very cold. –Monsieur, I am Monsieur Regnault.’
“I was encouraging myself by saying to myself, ‘Il bondo cani! Seek!’
“‘I am,’ he went on, ‘notary at Vendome.’
“‘I am delighted to hear it, monsieur,’ I exclaimed. ‘But I am not in a position to make a will for reasons best known to myself.’
“‘One moment!’ said he, holding up his hand as though to gain silence. ‘Allow me, monsieur, allow me! I am informed that you sometimes go to walk in the garden of la Grande Breteche.’
“‘Yes, monsieur.’
“‘One moment!’ said he, repeating his gesture. ‘That constitutes a misdemeanor. Monsieur, as executor under the will of the late Comtesse de Merret, I come in her name to beg you to discontinue the practice. One moment! I am not a Turk, and do not wish to make a crime of it. And besides, you are free to be ignorant of the circumstances which compel me to leave the finest mansion in Vendome to fall into ruin. Nevertheless, monsieur, you must be a man of education, and you should know that the laws forbid, under heavy penalties, any trespass on enclosed property. A hedge is the same as a wall. But, the state in which the place is left may be an excuse for your curiosity. For my part, I should be quite content to make you free to come and go in the house; but being bound to respect the will of the testatrix, I have the honor, monsieur, to beg that you will go into the garden no more. I myself, monsieur, since the will was read, have never set foot in the house, which, as I had the honor of informing you, is part of the estate of the late Madame de Merret. We have done nothing there but verify the number of doors and windows to assess the taxes I have to pay annually out of the funds left for that purpose by the late Madame de Merret. Ah! my dear sir, her will made a great commotion in the town.’
“The good man paused to blow his nose. I respected his volubility, perfectly understanding that the administration of Madame de Merret’s estate had been the most important event of his life, his reputation, his glory, his Restoration. As I was forced to bid farewell to my beautiful reveries and romances, I was to reject learning the truth on official authority.
“‘Monsieur,’ said I, ‘would it be indiscreet if I were to ask you the reasons for such eccentricity?’
“At these words an expression, which revealed all the pleasure which men feel who are accustomed to ride a hobby, overspread the lawyer’s countenance. He pulled up the collar of his shirt with an air, took out his snuffbox, opened it, and offered me a pinch; on my refusing, he took a large one. He was happy! A man who has no hobby does not know all the good to be got out of life. A hobby is the happy medium between a passion and a monomania. At this moment I understood the whole bearing of Sterne’s charming passion, and had a perfect idea of the delight with which my uncle Toby, encouraged by Trim, bestrode his hobby-horse.
“‘Monsieur,’ said Monsieur Regnault, ‘I was head-clerk in Monsieur Roguin’s office, in Paris.
A first-rate house, which you may have heard mentioned? No! An unfortunate bankruptcy made it famous.–Not having money enough to purchase a practice in Paris at the price to which they were run up in 1816, I came here and bought my predecessor’s business. I had relations in Vendome; among others, a wealthy aunt, who allowed me to marry her daughter.–Monsieur,’ he went on after a little pause, ‘three months after being licensed by the Keeper of the Seals, one evening, as I was going to bed–it was before my marriage–I was sent for by Madame la Comtesse de Merret, to her Chateau of Merret. Her maid, a good girl, who is now a servant in this inn, was waiting at my door with the Countess’ own carriage. Ah! one moment! I ought to tell you that Monsieur le Comte de Merret had gone to Paris to die two months before I came here. He came to a miserable end, flinging himself into every kind of dissipation. You understand?
“‘On the day when he left, Madame la Comtesse had quitted la Grand Breteche, having dismantled it. Some people even say that she had burnt all the furniture, the hangings–in short, all the chattels and furniture whatever used in furnishing the premises now let by the said M.–(Dear, what am I saying? I beg your pardon, I thought I was dictating a lease.)–In short, that she burnt everything in the meadow at Merret. Have you been to Merret, monsieur?–No,’ said he, answering himself, ‘Ah, it is a very fine place.’
“‘For about three months previously,’ he went on, with a jerk of his head, ‘the Count and Countess had lived in a very eccentric way; they admitted no visitors; Madame lived on the ground-floor, and Monsieur on the first floor. When the Countess was left alone, she was never seen excepting at church. Subsequently, at home, at the chateau, she refused to see the friends, whether gentlemen or ladies, who went to call on her. She was already very much altered when she left la Grande Breteche to go to Merret. That dear lady–I say dear lady, for it was she who gave me this diamond, but indeed I saw her but once–that kind lady was very ill; she had, no doubt, given up all hope, for she died without choosing to send for a doctor; indeed, many of our ladies fancied she was not quite right in her head. Well, sir, my curiosity was strangely excited by hearing that Madame de Merret had need of my services. Nor was I the only person who took an interest in the affair. That very night, though it was already late, all the town knew that I was going to Merret.
“‘The waiting-woman replied but vaguely to the questions I asked her on the way; nevertheless, she told me that her mistress had received the Sacrament in the course of the day at the hands of the Cure of Merret, and seemed unlikely to live through the night. It was about eleven when I reached the chateau. I went up the great staircase. After crossing some large, lofty, dark rooms, diabolically cold and damp, I reached the state bedroom where the Countess lay. From the rumors that were current concerning this lady (monsieur, I should never end if I were to repeat all the tales that were told about her), I had imagined her a coquette. Imagine, then, that I had great difficulty in seeing her in the great bed where she was lying. To be sure, to light this enormous room, with old-fashioned heavy cornices, and so thick with dust that merely to see it was enough to make you sneeze, she had only an old Argand lamp. Ah! but you have not been to Merret. Well, the bed is one of those old world beds, with a high tester hung with flowered chintz. A small table stood by the bed, on which I saw an “Imitation of Christ,” which, by the way, I bought for my wife, as well as the lamp. There were also a deep armchair for her confidential maid, and two small chairs. There was no fire. That was all the furniture, not enough to fill ten lines in an inventory.
“‘My dear sir, if you had seen, as I then saw, that vast room, papered and hung with brown, you would have felt yourself transported into a scene of a romance. It was icy, nay more, funereal,’ and he lifted his hand with a theatrical gesture and paused.
“‘By dint of seeking, as I approached the bed, at last I saw Madame de Merret, under the glimmer of the lamp, which fell on the pillows. Her face was as yellow as wax, and as narrow as two folded hands. The Countess had a lace cap showing her abundant hair, but as white as linen thread. She was sitting up in bed, and seemed to keep upright with great difficulty. Her large black eyes, dimmed by fever, no doubt, and half-dead already, hardly moved under the bony arch of her eyebrows.–There,’ he added, pointing to his own brow. ‘Her forehead was clammy; her fleshless hands were like bones covered with soft skin; the veins and muscles were perfectly visible. She must have been very handsome; but at this moment I was startled into an indescribable emotion at the sight. Never, said those who wrapped her in her shroud, had any living creature been so emaciated and lived. In short, it was awful to behold! Sickness so consumed that woman, that she was no more than a phantom.
Her lips, which were pale violet, seemed to me not to move when she spoke to me.
“‘Though my profession has familiarized me with such spectacles, by calling me not infrequently to the bedside of the dying to record their last wishes, I confess that families in tears and the agonies I have seen were as nothing in comparison with this lonely and silent woman in her vast chateau. I heard not the least sound, I did not perceive the movement which the sufferer’s breathing ought to have given to the sheets that covered her, and I stood motionless, absorbed in looking at her in a sort of stupor. In fancy I am there still. At last her large eyes moved; she tried to raise her right hand, but it fell back on the bed, and she uttered these words, which came like a breath, for her voice was no longer a voice: “I have waited for you with the greatest impatience.” A bright flush rose to her cheeks. It was a great effort to her to speak.
“‘”Madame,” I began. She signed to me to be silent. At that moment the old housekeeper rose and said in my ear, “Do not speak; Madame la Comtesse is not in a state to bear the slightest noise, and what you say might agitate her.”
“‘I sat down. A few instants after, Madame de Merret collected all her remaining strength to move her right hand, and slipped it, not without infinite difficulty, under the bolster; she then paused a moment. With a last effort she withdrew her hand; and when she brought out a sealed paper, drops of perspiration rolled from her brow. “I place my will in your hands–Oh! God! Oh!” and that was all. She clutched a crucifix that lay on the bed, lifted it hastily to her lips, and died.
“‘The expression of her eyes still makes me shudder as I think of it. She must have suffered much! There was joy in her last glance, and it remained stamped on her dead eyes.
“‘I brought away the will, and when it was opened I found that Madame de Merret had appointed me her executor. She left the whole of her property to the hospital at Vendome excepting a few legacies. But these were her instructions as relating to la Grande Breteche: She ordered me to leave the place, for fifty years counting from the day of her death, in the state in which it might be at the time of her death, forbidding any one, whoever he might be, to enter the apartments, prohibiting any repairs whatever, and even settling a salary to pay watchmen if it were needful to secure the absolute fulfilment of her intentions. At the expiration of that term, if the will of the testatrix has been duly carried out, the house is to become the property of my heirs, for, as you know, a notary cannot take a bequest. Otherwise la Grande Breteche reverts to the heirs-at-law, but on condition of fulfilling certain conditions set forth in a codicil to the will, which is not to be opened till the expiration of the said term of fifty years. The will has not been disputed, so—-‘ And without finishing his sentence, the lanky notary looked at me with an air of triumph; I made him quite happy by offering him my congratulations.
“‘Monsieur,’ I said in conclusion, ‘you have so vividly impressed me that I fancy I see the dying woman whiter than her sheets; her glittering eyes frighten me; I shall dream of her to-night.–But you must have formed some idea as to the instructions contained in that extraordinary will.’
“‘Monsieur,’ said he, with comical reticence, ‘I never allow myself to criticise the conduct of a person who honors me with the gift of a diamond.’
“However, I soon loosened the tongue of the discreet notary of Vendome, who communicated to me, not without long digressions, the opinions of the deep politicians of both sexes whose judgments are law in Vendome. But these opinions were so contradictory, so diffuse, that I was near falling asleep in spite of the interest I felt in this authentic history. The notary’s ponderous voice and monotonous accent, accustomed no doubt to listen to himself and to make himself listened to by his clients or fellow-townsmen, were too much for my curiosity. Happily, he soon went away.
“‘Ah, ha, monsieur,’ said he on the stairs, ‘a good many persons would be glad to live five-and-forty years longer; but–one moment!’ and he laid the first finger of his right hand to his nostril with a cunning look, as much as to say, ‘Mark my words!–To last as long as that–as long as that,’ said he, ‘you must not be past sixty now.’
“I closed my door, having been roused from my apathy by this last speech, which the notary thought very funny; then I sat down in my armchair, with my feet on the fire-dogs. I had lost myself in a romance a la Radcliffe, constructed on the juridical base given me by Monsieur Regnault, when the door, opened by a woman’s cautious hand, turned on the hinges. I saw my landlady come in, a buxom, florid dame, always good-humored, who had missed her calling in life. She was a Fleming, who ought to have seen the light in a picture by Teniers.
“‘Well, monsieur,’ said she, ‘Monsieur Regnault has no doubt been giving you his history of la Grande Breteche?’
“‘Yes, Madame Lepas.’
“‘And what did he tell you?’
“I repeated in a few words the creepy and sinister story of Madame de Merret.
At each sentence my hostess put her head forward, looking at me with an innkeeper’s keen scrutiny, a happy compromise between the instinct of a police constable, the astuteness of a spy, and the cunning of a dealer.
“‘My good Madame Lepas,’ said I as I ended, ‘you seem to know more about it. Heh? If not, why have you come up to me?’
“‘On my word, as an honest woman—-‘
“‘Do not swear; your eyes are big with a secret. You knew Monsieur de Merret; what sort of man was he?’
“‘Monsieur de Merret–well, you see he was a man you never could see the top of, he was so tall! A very good gentleman, from Picardy, and who had, as we say, his head close to his cap. He paid for everything down, so as never to have difficulties with any one. He was hot-tempered, you see! All our ladies liked him very much.’
“‘Because he was hot-tempered?’ I asked her.
“‘Well, may be,’ said she; ‘and you may suppose, sir, that a man had to have something to show for a figurehead before he could marry Madame de Merret, who, without any reflection on others, was the handsomest and richest heiress in our parts. She had about twenty thousand francs a year. All the town was at the wedding; the bride was pretty and sweet-looking, quite a gem of a woman. Oh, they were a handsome couple in their day!’
“‘And were they happy together?’
“‘Hm, hm! so-so–so far as can be guessed, for, as you may suppose, we of the common sort were not hail-fellow-well-met with them.–Madame de Merret was a kind woman and very pleasant, who had no doubt sometimes to put up with her husband’s tantrums. But though he was rather haughty, we were fond of him. After all, it was his place to behave so. When a man is a born nobleman, you see—-‘
“‘Still, there must have been some catastrophe for Monsieur and Madame de Merret to part so violently?’
“‘I did not say there was any catastrophe, sir. I know nothing about it.’
“‘Indeed. Well, now, I am sure you know everything.’
“‘Well, sir, I will tell you the whole story.–When I saw Monsieur Regnault go up to see you, it struck me that he would speak to you about Madame de Merret as having to do with la Grande Breteche. That put it into my head to ask your advice, sir, seeming to me that you are a man of good judgment and incapable of playing a poor woman like me false–for I never did any one a wrong, and yet I am tormented by my conscience. Up to now I have never dared to say a word to the people of these parts; they are all chatter-mags, with tongues like knives. And never till now, sir, have I had any traveler here who stayed so long in the inn as you have, and to whom I could tell the history of the fifteen thousand francs—-‘
“‘My dear Madame Lepas, if there is anything in your story of a nature to compromise me,’ I said, interrupting the flow of her words, ‘I would not hear it for all the world.’
“‘You need have no fears,’ said she; ‘you will see.’
“Her eagerness made me suspect that I was not the only person to whom my worthy landlady had communicated the secret of which I was to be the sole possessor, but I listened.
“‘Monsieur,’ said she, ‘when the Emperor sent the Spaniards here, prisoners of war and others, I was required to lodge at the charge of the Government a young Spaniard sent to Vendome on parole. Notwithstanding his parole, he had to show himself every day to the sub-prefect. He was a Spanish grandee–neither more nor less. He had a name in os and dia, something like Bagos de Feredia. I wrote his name down in my books, and you may see it if you like. Ah! he was a handsome young fellow for a Spaniard, who are all ugly they say. He was not more than five feet two or three in height, but so well made; and he had little hands that he kept so beautifully! Ah! you should have seen them. He had as many brushes for his hands as a woman has for her toilet. He had thick, black hair, a flame in his eye, a somewhat coppery complexion, but which I admired all the same. He wore the finest linen I have ever seen, though I have had princesses to lodge here, and, among others, General Bertrand, the Duc and Duchesse d’Abrantes, Monsieur Descazes, and the King of Spain. He did not eat much, but he had such polite and amiable ways that it was impossible to owe him a grudge for that. Oh! I was very fond of him, though he did not say four words to me in a day, and it was impossible to have the least bit of talk with him; if he was spoken to, he did not answer; it is a way, a mania they all have, it would seem.
“‘He read his breviary like a priest, and went to mass and all the services quite regularly. And where did he post himself?–we found this out later.–Within two yards of Madame de Merret’s chapel. As he took that place the very first time he entered the church, no one imagined that there was any purpose in it. Besides, he never raised his nose above his book, poor young man! And then, monsieur, of an evening he went for a walk on the hill among the ruins of the old castle. It was his only amusement, poor man; it reminded him of his native land.
They say that Spain is all hills!
“‘One evening, a few days after he was sent here, he was out very late. I was rather uneasy when he did not come in till just on the stroke of midnight; but we all got used to his whims; he took the key of the door, and we never sat up for him. He lived in a house belonging to us in the Rue des Casernes. Well, then, one of our stable-boys told us one evening that, going down to wash the horses in the river, he fancied he had seen the Spanish Grandee swimming some little way off, just like a fish. When he came in, I told him to be careful of the weeds, and he seemed put out at having been seen in the water.
“‘At last, monsieur, one day, or rather one morning, we did not find him in his room; he had not come back. By hunting through his things, I found a written paper in the drawer of his table, with fifty pieces of Spanish gold of the kind they call doubloons, worth about five thousand francs; and in a little sealed box ten thousand francs worth of diamonds. The paper said that in case he should not return, he left us this money and these diamonds in trust to found masses to thank God for his escape and for his salvation.
“‘At that time I still had my husband, who ran off in search of him. And this is the queer part of the story: he brought back the Spaniard’s clothes, which he had found under a big stone on a sort of breakwater along the river bank, nearly opposite la Grande Breteche. My husband went so early that no one saw him. After reading the letter, he burnt the clothes, and, in obedience to Count Feredia’s wish, we announced that he had escaped.
“‘The sub-prefect set all the constabulary at his heels; but, pshaw! he was never caught. Lepas believed that the Spaniard had drowned himself. I, sir, have never thought so; I believe, on the contrary, that he had something to do with the business about Madame de Merret, seeing that Rosalie told me that the crucifix her mistress was so fond of that she had it buried with her, was made of ebony and silver; now in the early days of his stay here, Monsieur Feredia had one of ebony and silver which I never saw later.–And now, monsieur, do not you say that I need have no remorse about the Spaniard’s fifteen thousand francs? Are they not really and truly mine?’
“‘Certainly.–But have you never tried to question Rosalie?’ said I.
“‘Oh, to be sure I have, sir. But what is to be done? That girl is like a wall. She knows something, but it is impossible to make her talk.’
“After chatting with me for a few minutes, my hostess left me a prey to vague and sinister thoughts, to romantic curiosity, and a religious dread, not unlike the deep emotion which comes upon us when we go into a dark church at night and discern a feeble light glimmering under a lofty vault–a dim figure glides across–the sweep of a gown or of a priest’s cassock is audible–and we shiver! La Grande Breteche, with its rank grasses, its shuttered windows, its rusty iron-work, its locked doors, its deserted rooms, suddenly rose before me in fantastic vividness. I tried to get into the mysterious dwelling to search out the heart of this solemn story, this drama which had killed three persons.
“Rosalie became in my eyes the most interesting being in Vendome. As I studied her, I detected signs of an inmost thought, in spite of the blooming health that glowed in her dimpled face. There was in her soul some element of ruth or of hope; her manner suggested a secret, like the expression of devout souls who pray in excess, or of a girl who has killed her child and for ever hears its last cry. Nevertheless, she was simple and clumsy in her ways; her vacant smile had nothing criminal in it, and you would have pronounced her innocent only from seeing the large red and blue checked kerchief that covered her stalwart bust, tucked into the tight-laced bodice of a lilac- and white-striped gown. ‘No,’ said I to myself, ‘I will not quit Vendome without knowing the whole history of la Grande Breteche. To achieve this end, I will make love to Rosalie if it proves necessary.’
“‘Rosalie!’ said I one evening.
“‘Your servant, sir?’
“‘You are not married?’ She started a little.
“‘Oh! there is no lack of men if ever I take a fancy to be miserable!’ she replied, laughing. She got over her agitation at once; for every woman, from the highest lady to the inn-servant inclusive, has a native presence of mind.
“‘Yes; you are fresh and good-looking enough never to lack lovers! But tell me, Rosalie, why did you become an inn-servant on leaving Madame de Merret? Did she not leave you some little annuity?’
“‘Oh yes, sir. But my place here is the best in all the town of Vendome.’
“This reply was such an one as judges and attorneys call evasive. Rosalie, as it seemed to me, held in this romantic affair the place of the middle square of the chess-board: she was at the very centre of the interest and of the truth; she appeared to me to be tied into the knot of it. It was not a case for ordinary love-making; this girl contained the last chapter of a romance, and from that moment all my attentions were devoted to Rosalie.
By dint of studying the girl, I observed in her, as in every woman whom we make our ruling thought, a variety of good qualities; she was clean and neat; she was handsome, I need not say; she soon was possessed of every charm that desire can lend to a woman in whatever rank of life. A fortnight after the notary’s visit, one evening, or rather one morning, in the small hours, I said to Rosalie:
“‘Come, tell me all you know about Madame de Merret.’
“‘Oh!’ she said, ‘I will tell you; but keep the secret carefully.’
“‘All right, my child; I will keep all your secrets with a thief’s honor, which is the most loyal known.’
“‘If it is all the same to you,’ said she, ‘I would rather it should be with your own.’
“Thereupon she set her head-kerchief straight, and settled herself to tell the tale; for there is no doubt a particular attitude of confidence and security is necessary to the telling of a narrative. The best tales are told at a certain hour–just as we are all here at table. No one ever told a story well standing up, or fasting.
“If I were to reproduce exactly Rosalie’s diffuse eloquence, a whole volume would scarcely contain it. Now, as the event of which she gave me a confused account stands exactly midway between the notary’s gossip and that of Madame Lepas, as precisely as the middle term of a rule-of-three sum stands between the first and third, I have only to relate it in as few words as may be. I shall therefore be brief.
“The room at la Grande Breteche in which Madame de Merret slept was on the ground floor; a little cupboard in the wall, about four feet deep, served her to hang her dresses in. Three months before the evening of which I have to relate the events, Madame de Merret had been seriously ailing, so much so that her husband had left her to herself, and had his own bedroom on the first floor. By one of those accidents which it is impossible to foresee, he came in that evening two hours later than usual from the club, where he went to read the papers and talk politics with the residents in the neighborhood. His wife supposed him to have come in, to be in bed and asleep. But the invasion of France had been the subject of a very animated discussion; the game of billiards had waxed vehement; he had lost forty francs, an enormous sum at Vendome, where everybody is thrifty, and where social habits are restrained within the bounds of a simplicity worthy of all praise, and the foundation perhaps of a form of true happiness which no Parisian would care for.
“For some time past Monsieur de Merret had been satisfied to ask Rosalie whether his wife was in bed; on the girl’s replying always in the affirmative, he at once went to his own room, with the good faith that comes of habit and confidence. But this evening, on coming in, he took it into his head to go to see Madame de Merret, to tell her of his ill-luck, and perhaps to find consolation. During dinner he had observed that his wife was very becomingly dressed; he reflected as he came home from the club that his wife was certainly much better, that convalescence had improved her beauty, discovering it, as husbands discover everything, a little too late. Instead of calling Rosalie, who was in the kitchen at the moment watching the cook and the coachman playing a puzzling hand at cards, Monsieur de Merret made his way to his wife’s room by the light of his lantern, which he set down at the lowest step of the stairs. His step, easy to recognize, rang under the vaulted passage.
“At the instant when the gentleman turned the key to enter his wife’s room, he fancied he heard the door shut of the closet of which I have spoken; but when he went in, Madame de Merret was alone, standing in front of the fireplace. The unsuspecting husband fancied that Rosalie was in the cupboard; nevertheless, a doubt, ringing in his ears like a peal of bells, put him on his guard; he looked at his wife, and read in her eyes an indescribably anxious and haunted expression.
“‘You are very late,’ said she.–Her voice, usually so clear and sweet, struck him as being slightly husky.
“Monsieur de Merret made no reply, for at this moment Rosalie came in. This was like a thunder-clap. He walked up and down the room, going from one window to another at a regular pace, his arms folded.
“‘Have you had bad news, or are you ill?’ his wife asked him timidly, while Rosalie helped her to undress. He made no reply.
“‘You can go, Rosalie,’ said Madame de Merret to her maid; ‘I can put in my curl-papers myself.’–She scented disaster at the mere aspect of her husband’s face, and wished to be alone with him. As soon as Rosalie was gone, or supposed to be gone, for she lingered a few minutes in the passage, Monsieur de Merret came and stood facing his wife, and said coldly, ‘Madame, there is some one in your cupboard!’ She looked at her husband calmly, and replied quite simply, ‘No, monsieur.’
“This ‘No’ wrung Monsieur de Merret’s heart; he did not believe it; and yet his wife had never appeared purer or more saintly than she seemed to be at this moment.
He rose to go and open the closet door. Madame de Merret took his hand, stopped him, looked at him sadly, and said in a voice of strange emotion, ‘Remember, if you should find no one there, everything must be at an end between you and me.’
“The extraordinary dignity of his wife’s attitude filled him with deep esteem for her, and inspired him with one of those resolves which need only a grander stage to become immortal.
“‘No, Josephine,’ he said, ‘I will not open it. In either event we should be parted for ever. Listen; I know all the purity of your soul, I know you lead a saintly life, and would not commit a deadly sin to save your life.’–At these words Madame de Merret looked at her husband with a haggard stare.–‘See, here is your crucifix,’ he went on. ‘Swear to me before God that there is no one in there; I will believe you–I will never open that door.’
“Madame de Merret took up the crucifix and said, ‘I swear it.’
“‘Louder,’ said her husband; ‘and repeat: “I swear before God that there is nobody in that closet.”‘ She repeated the words without flinching.
“‘That will do,’ said Monsieur de Merret coldly. After a moment’s silence: ‘You have there a fine piece of work which I never saw before,’ said he, examining the crucifix of ebony and silver, very artistically wrought.
“‘I found it at Duvivier’s; last year when that troop of Spanish prisoners came through Vendome, he bought it of a Spanish monk.’
“‘Indeed,’ said Monsieur de Merret, hanging the crucifix on its nail; and he rang the bell.
“He had to wait for Rosalie. Monsieur de Merret went forward quickly to meet her, led her into the bay of the window that looked on to the garden, and said to her in an undertone:
“‘I know that Gorenflot wants to marry you, that poverty alone prevents your setting up house, and that you told him you would not be his wife till he found means to become a master mason.–Well, go and fetch him; tell him to come here with his trowel and tools. Contrive to wake no one in his house but himself. His reward will be beyond your wishes. Above all, go out without saying a word–or else!’ and he frowned.
“Rosalie was going, and he called her back. ‘Here, take my latch-key,’ said he.
“‘Jean!’ Monsieur de Merret called in a voice of thunder down the passage. Jean, who was both coachman and confidential servant, left his cards and came.
“‘Go to bed, all of you,’ said his master, beckoning him to come close; and the gentleman added in a whisper, ‘When they are all asleep –mind, asleep–you understand?–come down and tell me.’
“Monsieur de Merret, who had never lost sight of his wife while giving his orders, quietly came back to her at the fireside, and began to tell her the details of the game of billiards and the discussion at the club. When Rosalie returned she found Monsieur and Madame de Merret conversing amiably.
“Not long before this Monsieur de Merret had had new ceilings made to all the reception-rooms on the ground floor. Plaster is very scarce at Vendome; the price is enhanced by the cost of carriage; the gentleman had therefore had a considerable quantity delivered to him, knowing that he could always find purchasers for what might be left. It was this circumstance which suggested the plan he carried out.
“‘Gorenflot is here, sir,’ said Rosalie in a whisper.
“‘Tell him to come in,’ said her master aloud.
“Madame de Merret turned paler when she saw the mason.
“‘Gorenflot,’ said her husband, ‘go and fetch some bricks from the coach-house; bring enough to wall up the door of this cupboard; you can use the plaster that is left for cement.’ Then, dragging Rosalie and the workman close to him–‘Listen, Gorenflot,’ said he, in a low voice, ‘you are to sleep here to-night; but to-morrow morning you shall have a passport to take you abroad to a place I will tell you of. I will give you six thousand francs for your journey. You must live in that town for ten years; if you find you do not like it, you may settle in another, but it must be in the same country. Go through Paris and wait there till I join you. I will there give you an agreement for six thousand francs more, to be paid to you on your return, provided you have carried out the conditions of the bargain. For that price you are to keep perfect silence as to what you have to do this night. To you, Rosalie, I will secure ten thousand francs, which will not be paid to you till your wedding day, and on condition of your marrying Gorenflot; but, to get married, you must hold your tongue. If not, no wedding gift!’
“‘Rosalie,’ said Madame de Merret, ‘come and brush my hair.’
“Her husband quietly walked up and down the room, keeping an eye on the door, on the mason, and on his wife, but without any insulting display of suspicion. Gorenflot could not help making some noise. Madame de Merret seized a moment when he was unloading some bricks, and when her husband was at the other end of the room to say to Rosalie: ‘My dear child, I will give you a thousand francs a year if only you will tell Gorenflot to leave a crack at the bottom.’ Then she added aloud quite coolly: ‘You had better help him.’
“Monsieur and Madame de Merret were silent all the time while Gorenflot was walling up the door.
This silence was intentional on the husband’s part; he did not wish to give his wife the opportunity of saying anything with a double meaning. On Madame de Merret’s side it was pride or prudence. When the wall was half built up the cunning mason took advantage of his master’s back being turned to break one of the two panes in the top of the door with a blow of his pick. By this Madame de Merret understood that Rosalie had spoken to Gorenflot. They all three then saw the face of a dark, gloomy-looking man, with black hair and flaming eyes.
“Before her husband turned round again the poor woman had nodded to the stranger, to whom the signal was meant to convey, ‘Hope.’
“At four o’clock, as the day was dawning, for it was the month of September, the work was done. The mason was placed in charge of Jean, and Monsieur de Merret slept in his wife’s room.
“Next morning when he got up he said with apparent carelessness, ‘Oh, by the way, I must go to the Maire for the passport.’ He put on his hat, took two or three steps towards the door, paused, and took the crucifix. His wife was trembling with joy.
“‘He will go to Duvivier’s,’ thought she.
“As soon as he had left, Madame de Merret rang for Rosalie, and then in a terrible voice she cried: ‘The pick! Bring the pick! and set to work. I saw how Gorenflot did it yesterday; we shall have time to make a gap and build it up again.’
“In an instant Rosalie had brought her mistress a sort of cleaver; she, with a vehemence of which no words can give an idea, set to work to demolish the wall. She had already got out a few bricks, when, turning to deal a stronger blow than before, she saw behind her Monsieur de Merret. She fainted away.
“‘Lay madame on her bed,’ said he coldly.
“Foreseeing what would certainly happen in his absence, he had laid this trap for his wife; he had merely written to the Maire and sent for Duvivier. The jeweler arrived just as the disorder in the room had been repaired.
“‘Duvivier,’ asked Monsieur de Merret, ‘did not you buy some crucifixes of the Spaniards who passed through the town?’
“‘No, monsieur.’
“‘Very good; thank you,’ said he, flashing a tiger’s glare at his wife. ‘Jean,’ he added, turning to his confidential valet, ‘you can serve my meals here in Madame de Merret’s room. She is ill, and I shall not leave her till she recovers.’
“The cruel man remained in his wife’s room for twenty days. During the earlier time, when there was some little noise in the closet, and Josephine wanted to intercede for the dying man, he said, without allowing her to utter a word, ‘You swore on the Cross that there was no one there.'”

After this story all the ladies rose from table, and thus the spell under which Bianchon had held them was broken. But there were some among them who had almost shivered at the last words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translated By
Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

read this story for the first time when I was an impressionable 14 or15 years old, and not surprisingly, it has stayed with me ever since.  I found it in a volume of French short-stories lying among some dusty old books in the store room of my grandfather’s house in Kandy, Ceylon, I had no idea how it got there or who brought it home. Who had read it before I had? How did it find its way into the store-room and not into one of the numerous book shelves?  The storeroom was where my grandfather ‘hid’  some of his possessions, such as a pistol from WW1. I remember reading the whole anthology at one sitting, but this is the only story I remembered clearly and in its entirety.

It is easy to see why such a plot could become indelibly imprinted in the mind: The story ends with the final paragraph, but the action continues in our haunted minds. For me the image of the Spanish lover, the grandee Don Feredia, gallantly keeping his silence — in fact the silence of the grave but that he was immured — is gallantry taken to the extreme. In reality, I now suppose, he might not have died a prolonged death of thirst and starvation, as I first imagined, but by the relatively merciful means of suffocation. Once the limited supply of  oxygen in that small enclosed space had been used up, he would have swiftly lost consciousness, and breathed his last.

The fear of being buried alive was a very real one, in the days when the deceased were put in the ground within days — and sometimes hours —  of their death. This baleful preoccupation must have tormented the minds of the living with frightening visions of coming to after burial,  and banging  futilely on the coffin lid in the dark and claustrophobic remainder of life. And who can forget the opening scene of the movie Dr Zhivago when we the audience are made to see his mother’s burial from what might have been her point of view had she been alive in the coffin as the clods of earth thudded on the glass face-plate on the coffin lid, blocking out for all eternity every ray of blessed light. Certainly Sophocles made us writhe in vicarious disquiet at the fate of Antigone, and Edgar Allan Poe exploited this delectable species of horror in his short-story “The Cask of Amontillado,” and so did Verdi in his opera Aïda, but none of these works has for me the same diabolical frisson of horror as ‘La Grand Bretèche’.

The austere gallantry of the noble Spanish grandee and the  cold-blooded vindictiveness of the cuckolded French husband unfold in the historic context of The Peninsular War which began in 1807.  France, with Spain as her ally opposed Portugal and England for ownership of the Iberian peninsula. But two years later, in 1808, France (meaning Napoleon Bonaparte) turned traitor to her ally, and the war continued until 1814, the decisive end coming  with Napoleon’s Belgian debacle in the waterlogged summer of 1815.  Therefore we must suppose that it was  sometime between 1808 and 1814 when the grandee must have been taken prisoner. The partisans, Spain’s improvised army of opposition, harassed the brutal French invaders with their guerilla tactics like a swarm of stinging, biting insects, and Goya was present to memorably depict some of the  ensuing horrors. With the seeds for Napoleon’s ultimate defeat being been sown in Russia in 1812, and his capture and imprisonment following 9 years later, the period of history in which this story takes shape, came to an end, at least for the French.

I daresay the setbacks and humiliations being suffered by the French Grand Armée at the hands of the Spanish may have been fresh in the mind of Monsieur Merret when he discovered his wife’s perfidy, and as Spooner might have had it,  ‘hell hath no fury’ is sauce for the gander as well. But the story might have ended quite differently: a single cry would have ended the entombment — the Spaniard might well have had his sword with him — and the husband was unarmed — but the time to act would have been in the first moments of discovery, before the mason was summoned.  Clearly something could have been managed – Aeschylus, I recall, described a situation in which a wife and her lover opportunely did away with an equally unloved and unprepossessing husband as Monsieur Merret appears to have been, and  besides, there were no blood-thirsty young adult progeny of the Merrets waiting in the wings, eager to exact revenge.

But Balzac with his French sensibilities neatly avoids the equal parts of tragedy admixed with squalor that pervades so much of Greek drama, though both bring into sharp focus the pathology of patriarchal foolishness. And besides, the problem about narrating such a tragedy, is the constraint imposed by the writer. It is the law of the unavoidably inopportune — it is God’s law, so to speak and cannot be broken without making the story unravel. A game can only be played if the players agree to follow its rules, and therefore there can be no games without rules. Antigone had to foolishly insist that a corpse should be buried, and was willing to be buried alive as a consequence of accomplishing her idée fixe. Aïda on the other hand was slightly more practical. If one must die for love, it makes a little more sense than not, to die with one’s lover, albeit slowly and in total darkness.

The Doctor, who heard the tale from Madame Merret’s former maid Rosalie, refers to the writer Ann Radcliffe, who was the original populariser of the gothic novel, the currency of which was enhanced and enlarged by subsequent writers such as  the Marquis de Sade, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe and satirised by Jane Austen in her novel  Northanger Abbey. Thus, Balzac too places himself in their famous company, though he himself was above all a realistic novelist, and not at in the least an exponent of the gothic oeuvre.

The character of M. Merret is cast very unsympathetically in Balzac’s story — but I wonder if there is not something to be pitied in his predicament. Though he was not a noble like the Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo, who could — and did with impunity — murder his wife (who was also his cousin) and her lover when he caught them in flagrante delicto, as well as his infant son whom he suspected of being illegitimate, Merret might have had his servants overpower the grandee and do him some serious injury, which might have served as a salve to his injured pride.  The price of such a reprisal would have been loss of standing and public humiliation, and just the thought of such an outcome might have caused him to desist. One can imagine the thoughts that must have raced through his head during the terse exchange with his wife when she swore on the cross that the closet was unoccupied. Merret could not escape from his own predicament —  unless  of course he forgave his wife, but even so — he must have known that her love was lost to him — and had indeed been so  for some time. So he may have resolved  instead to take delight in her misery and deprivation. As a consequence of this decision, along with her he destroyed himself as well. Merret may have realised to his bitter chagrin, that no matter how completely his interests as a husband were supported and upheld by law and society, he could not secure the love of his wife, neither could he secure its mere symbol — her fidelity. Like Carlo Gesualdo, M. Merret suffered for his actions. Love can be a powerful destroyer, whichever side of the wall one is on.

But to see inside the wall, or rather to compel us to gaze behind it with our own mind’s eye is Balzac’s mission — one in which he succeeded admirably, particularly in my own personal experience. As a schoolboy Balzac endured many hours in ‘the dungeon’ — the basement in his school — as a punishment for classroom infractions. However, he had the consolation of excellent companions — his books, and he read them all to his great advantage, for they sharpened his already acute imagination to a much greater degree than before.  The compulsion to ‘see’ things, and to see inside them is the powerful need of a certain type of mind. When I was a child of five or six, I used to play with marbles, and I spent hours turning them around in the light, examining the fixed swirls of mysterious colour. I remember breaking some open in order to extract those variegated flames — and finding them unextractable and taunting in their elusiveness. I gazed at the fluorescent blinking eye of my aunt’s radio for hours, trying to see through it to the orchestras of miniature musicians I knew were hidden within, and I cut open the chest of my Teddy Bear (I still have him) in order to find his heart and then to insert my treasures of seeds and game counters and marbles as viable substitutes. I think of these acts now as being the earliest glimmers in my psyche of a deep desire to delve into the unseen and to find the hidden life in things. As a child in boarding school I too endured many hours of punishment for comparatively light offenses, such as sneaking a shower outside my allotted time on the shower schedule, or reading during study hour. This I did with dogged persistence, until all my books were confiscated, never to be returned. I then resorted to reading the bible — the only book left to me (I still have it, it was given to me by my grandmother when I was 10 years old) and as a consequence I became privy to all God’s shameful secrets which are kept so assiduously hidden from the pulpit. In a sense this is where my rejection of religion had its inception. The things that are revealed, and those that are hidden in life, sometimes tend to exchange places. The secretion and immurement of the Spanish grandee revealed the hidden state and condition of the Merrets’ marriage, their relationship,  and the terrible larger reality surrounding it.  Whatever is hidden  within will in the end tend to manifest without on a far grander and deeper scale, and it will be unavoidable and un-evadeable to boot.

The themes and motifs of Balzac’s story are quite familiar to us outside of this particular narrative context. One thinks reflexively of the countless gays and lesbians who as a consequence of their kind of forbidden love, had to live and die in another kind of silence, one that lasted throughout their lives. There is no need to elaborate on this, the stories in both fact and fiction are too innumerable to recount. The lamentable costs and consequences of  the necessity of keeping silence, of ‘being in the closet,’ of hidden love, and the need for concealment and deception. The fear of discovery which sometimes results in murder or suicide or death by misadventure. Countless gays and lesbians have shared a fate which echoed that of the Spaniard, who may only have been forced to endure a few airless hours, while they lived whole lives steeped in the sloughs of pain and fear and guilt, dying for their love in silence or at best in dissimulation.  The Spanish grandee was prepared to die for something he valued —  the honour of his mistress as well as the love he cherished for her. The terrible potency  of his resolve  ‘to die for love’ especially a  love that has been lost —  cannot but haunt us who can count ourselves  to be scattered amongst the Doctor’s uneasy audience, and so it should.
As the imperative on the sundial read, Ultimum cogita – Think of your end.

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Robert Graves (July 24 1895 - December 7 1985)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Gabble-gabble,… brethren, …gabble – gabble!”
My window frames forest and heather.
I hardly hear the tuneful babble,
Not knowing not much caring whether
The text is praise or exhortation,
Prayer or thanksgiving, or damnation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside it blows wetter and wetter,
The tossing trees never stay still.
I shift my elbows to catch better
The full round and sweep of heathered hill.
The tortured copse bends to and fro
In silence like a shadow-show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The parson’s voice runs like a river
Over smooth rocks, I like this church:
The pews are staid, they never shiver,
They never bend or sway or lurch.
“Prayer,” says the kind voice, “is like a chain
That draws down Grace from Heaven again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I add the hymns up, over and over,
Until there’s not the least mistake.
Seven-seventy-one. (look! there’s a plover!
It’s gone!) Who’s that Saint by the lake?
The red light from his mantle passes
Across the broad memorial brasses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s pleasant here for dreams and thinking,
Lolling and letting reason nod,
With ugly serious people linking
Sad prayers to a forgiving God….
But a dumb blast sets the trees swaying
With furious zeal like madmen praying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alright then, in deference to recent comments,  here is a belated 2¢ worth.

 

 

The marvelous thing about this poem – besides its astringency,  vibrancy and  precocious irreverence, is the that it observes the present moment with the use of all the natural  senses – excepting perhaps smell – the absence of which, in the close confines of a weather-beset English congregation might have been more than just a qualified mercy.

It is interesting for me to see Graves use the characteristically very female literary device of ‘Stream of Consciousness’,  in order to drive his poem, and in addition, to place before us the streaming thoughts of this very appealing child.

Others, of course most notably James Joyce, plundered the form and made off with the loot to his great remunerative and professional advantage, (though Dorothy  Richardson herself, who invented the style,  died in poverty) but I don’t think that before I came across this poem, I had found Graves to have adopted this particular style.

As  I read “A Boy in Church,” the thought began to occur to me for the first time that this form and style may indeed have originated in the mind of the little Dorothy Richardson during her childhood. 

And why shouldn’t it after all? Neotony is of course one of the outstanding hallmarks of cognitively superiorly developed species —  and the skills and perceptions we form in childhood repeatedly prove to be the fertile ground from which our most vigorous adult perceptions spring. The works of Virgina Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are replete with childhood recollections, retrieved, re-worked and re-inserted directly into their novels and short-stories.

The consciousness in Grave’s  poem is brisk, with no trace of  the  laxity  one expects to find in the company of wandering thoughts  frequently provoked when in boring surroundings. There is a huge appreciation for each of the things which rise up to charm engage and captivate the mind, both inside the church and in the rain-sodden world outside.

The trees swaying in the drunken ecstasy of their prayers are in stark, melodramatic contrast to the parson’s trite and banal addresses: this service after all, is demonstrably missing the uninhibited histrionics of Pentecostal fervour , and instead  asserts the very staid, steadfast and carefully measured  progress of the Church of England ritual.

The boy likes the weighted substantiality of his place of worship, which is echoed reassuringly in the well put-together pews and their sober solidity. This is unsurprising, because even as children find them to be dull and restrictive, the steady reliable social norms and structures  which surround them tend to provide children with the stable white noise in the backgrounds of their childhoods, over which the real orchestra of original thinking can make its more complex music.

The windows in my own childhood church (staunchly Methodist) I remember as being above my head level and translucent, so as to permit the entrance of light but not of distractions. This might have been a very good thing for us schoolgirls for whom attendance at two church services on Sundays was compulsory. Nevertheless we contrived to while away the tedious hours playing with our handkerchiefs, folding and unfolding the corners to make little roses, and surreptitiously scraping the beeswax off the pews to form into little grey balls, as prisoners are said in the past to have rolled up their prison bread as a means of keeping count of the days, and we used these little grey masses to stick our collection money onto the backs of the pews which faced us.

The hymns were always curious and wonderful – I remember most of them even now. They were never the anæmic, politically correct pablum one hears today, but settled and confident in doctrinal assurance. They were firmly unembarrassed in their assertions and  prejudices. One hymn in particular comes to mind – “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, which had a verse in which Ceylon was described as being a place “Where every prospect pleases but only man is vile.” We all sang these lines imperturbably and   without a trace of disquiet.

As a product of a British Colonial upbringing, I absorbed much of its calm certainties in the love of order which expresses itself in my tastes even today.  When I say  ‘order’ I don’t mean the staleness of unquestioned assumptions etc, but the beauty and balance required in order to make coherent the fast flowing current of thought and give it the structure it needs to stand up as a piece of writing. Respect for order is something I always recognise and appreciate in a Grave’s poem: Order such as  can take the onrush of thoughts and usher them in diligent retrospect into the necessary complements of stanzas, rhymes, metres etc needed to make a poem, but with the unobtrusive practicality which places such linguistic implements in attendance of the main subject  so to speak, so that they stand like attentive guardians who watch a child at play without interfering, unless she appears to be about to stumble into the deep end of the fish pond.

This Robert Graves does as he does everything else – vibrantly, efficiently, admirably and believably in matters of original insight and thinking – even in a deceptively simple little poem such as this. Graves brought the same degree of Lexical, Philological and Orthographic polish and rigour to his prose works, both fiction and non-fiction, which is why in these times of passive and negligent reading, he is not nearly as appreciated as other writers who are far less deserving of recognition.

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Franz Schubert (January 31, 1797–November 19, 1828)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(October 5 1794 – September 30 1827)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brigitte Fassbaender

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An English translation of  Schubert’s Winterreise, settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller.  A synopsis of the story told by the poems.
The twenty-four poems of Winterreise were written in 1821 and 1822 and published in full in 1824.  The first twelve poems were published separately in 1823.  Schubert made his settings of the poems in 1827.
This version of the poems is based on the 1895 translation of Dr Theodore Baker, first published by Schirmer.  However, there are important differences.  Baker’s translation, designed to be sung with Schubert’s music, reproduces the metres of the original.  This version is in blank verse and is designed purely to introduce modern readers to the poems.  I have ignored the original metrical scheme in order to make the poems easy to read, but I have tried to make the translation as accurate as possible.  I have also tried to use a vocabulary that suggests romantic poetry.

 

 
 Synopsis
Winterreise is primarily about feelings and atmosphere, but there is nevertheless a story, albeit told in a fragmented narrative.  A young man, the hero (or anti-hero) of the poems, arrives in an idyllic village in May (Good Night).  There he befriends a family of mother, father and daughter and is invited to live with them (Good Night).  He falls in love with the daughter and his love is returned, or so he is led to believe (Benumbed).  However, the daughter rejects him to marry a wealthy suitor with the approval of her parents (The Vane).  It is now winter and the hero leaves his adopted home in the dead of night, writing a farewell message to his beloved (Good Night).  As he leaves the town crows shower him with snow from the roofs (Looking Back) and he begins a painful journey, constantly tortured by memories of his past happiness (Frozen Tears, On the River, The Watercourse). As he leaves the town he is joined by a raven, possibly symbolic of a death wish (The Raven).  Eventually he arrives at another town (Solitude) where it seems that he stays for some time as he writes of the post arriving there (The Post).  The cycle ends with a particularly bleak image.  An organ-grinder or hurdy-gurdy man has a pitch near the village where he plies his trade ignored by the villagers and harassed by dogs.  It is ironic that in this final poem the poet asks if the hurdy-gurdy man will set the poet’s songs to music, an invitation that was ultimately accepted by Schubert.

 

Barry Mitchell, July 2009.

 

 

 

 

 
 The Poems

 

 

 

 13. The Post (Die Post)

 

 

The post-horn rings
Rings through the streets
Heart, where do these feelings come from?

The post has no news for me
So heart, why do you grieve?

The post has arrived
From the town
Where once, my heart
I loved so dearly

I’ll ask the postman, Heart
If he has been to that town
And if he has seen
The fair one you loved

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 
14. The Gray Head (Der greise Kopf)

A white sheen covers my head
A frost has done its work
I imagine I am old and grey
A pleasant dream for me

But then comes the thaw
My hair returns to black
Once more I am young
And peace is far away

They say one night of torment
Can make black hair turn white
The frost leaves my hair untouched
I have wandered but must wander more

 

 

 

 

15. The Raven (Die Krähe)

 

 

A raven has flown beside me
Since the day I left the town
Raven, bird of ill-omen
Will you ever leave me?

Do you stalk me
In the hope I will be yours?
My journey can’t last much longer
My strength begins to fail

Raven, surely you will be true
Until death overtakes me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16. The Last Hope (Letzte Hoffnung)

 

 

A few gaudy leaves remain
On the winter branches
I shelter beneath
I begin to dream

I stare at one leaf
I stake my hopes on it
If the breeze moves it
I shiver and shake with fear

If the leaf falls
And flutters down
My hopes will fall with it
My heart will sink too
My last hope will be gone

 

 

 

 

17.  In the Village (Im Dorfe)

 

 

The watchdogs are barking
And straining at their chains
The people are sleeping
And the village is at rest

What dreams they have
What joyful pleasures
Of good, of evil
According to their souls

But in the light of morning
Their treasures are all gone
What then? – They’ve had their fill
But hope in vain their dreams are real

Bark long, bark loud
My brave guards
The world sleeps
But gives me no rest!

My dreams have ended in tears
Why should I linger here?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18. The Stormy Morning (Der Sturmische Morgen)

 

 

A storm has ripped
The grey robe of the sky
The clouds fly apart
In wild disorder

A flame reaches out and grasps the earth
The scene without, the soul within
One hot and fiery
The other cold and bleak

 

 

 

 

19.  Illusion (Täuschung)

 

 

I see a flickering guiding light
To left and right, now here, now there
I’ll follow this light, though I know
It will mislead and tease me

Those who are lost, as I am
Will trust a friendly guiding light
That in the darkness, ice and snow
Shows the path to welcoming house

I see a fair face within
This trickery is my gain

 

 

 

 

20.  The Guide-Post (Der Wegweiser)

 

 

Why should I leave the beaten path
Where the other wanderers tread?
Why do I seek hidden tracks
On unmarked mountain snow?

I have injured no one
No need to shun mankind
It is only foolishness
That makes me seek the wild

At every crossing there is a post
It points towards the town
I will travel far beyond them
I’ll seek rest, but find none

I see a guidepost standing
Before my face it stands
It points me to a path
One no wanderer can retrace

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 
21.  The Wayside Inn (Das Wirthaus)

 

 

I’ve laboured upon my journey
A path to this lonely graveyard
I was looking for a welcoming inn
To rest my weary head

These green funeral wreaths
You could be the sign
That tells the tired traveller
That a cool retreat awaits

Among all your rooms
Do you have one for me?
I’m tired and ready to rest
Unwelcoming inn, do you deny me shelter?

 

 

 

 

22.  Courage (Mut!)

 

 

Snow falls on my cheek
I carelessly brush it away
If my heart speaks of its troubles
I’ll drown it out with a happy song

I won’t listen to the heart’s complaints
I won’t listen to its fears
I’m content to wander
Through the wind and the snow

I have my trusty staff
I have my cheerful song
We will journey on together

 

 

 

 

23.  The Mock Suns (Die Nebensonnen)

 

 

I saw three suns in the bright cold sky
I stared at them long and hard
Unmoving they stared back at me
As if they would last forever

You three do not belong to me
Go and shine on others
I used to have three suns
But the best two have gone

 

If the third goes out
I will welcome the darkness

 

 

 

 

 

 

24.  The Organ-Grinder (Der Leiermann)

 

 

Up behind the village
The organ grinder has his pitch
He stands barefoot or shuffles
On the frozen ground

With stiff fingers
He coaxes out the sound
His saucer is empty
Gifts for him are rare

No one listens to him
Or looks at him, or cares
Dogs snarl at him
Dogs chase him

But he wears a smile
He shows no fear or disappointment
But turns the handle round and round

Shall I join you on your journey?
Will you play the music to my songs?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Into the Woods by Ralph Parker

 

 

 

http://ralphparkerart.wordpress.com/

Creek in Winter by Ralph Parker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://theoryofmusic.wordpress.com/2009/07/18/english-translation-of-schuberts-winterreise-poems-by-w-muller/#comment-961

Credit for the Translation, Text and Tags goes to Barry Mitchell, without whose work this post would not exist.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigitte_Fassbaender

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winterreise

 

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Franz Schubert (January 32 1797 – November 19 1828)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(October 7 1794 – September 30 1827)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brigitte Fassbaender

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An English translation of  Schubert’s Winterreise, settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller.  A synopsis of the story told by the poems.

The twenty-four poems of Winterreise were written in 1821 and 1822 and published in full in 1824.  The first twelve poems were published separately in 1823.  Schubert made his settings of the poems in 1827.

This version of the poems is based on the 1895 translation of Dr Theodore Baker, first published by Schirmer.  However, there are important differences.  Baker’s translation, designed to be sung with Schubert’s music, reproduces the metres of the original.  This version is in blank verse and is designed purely to introduce modern readers to the poems.  I have ignored the original metrical scheme in order to make the poems easy to read, but I have tried to make the translation as accurate as possible.  I have also tried to use a vocabulary that suggests romantic poetry.

Synopsis

Winterreise is primarily about feelings and atmosphere, but there is nevertheless a story, albeit told in a fragmented narrative.  A young man, the hero (or anti-hero) of the poems, arrives in an idyllic village in May (Good Night).  There he befriends a family of mother, father and daughter and is invited to live with them (Good Night).  He falls in love with the daughter and his love is returned, or so he is led to believe (Benumbed).  However, the daughter rejects him to marry a wealthy suitor with the approval of her parents (The Vane).  It is now winter and the hero leaves his adopted home in the dead of night, writing a farewell message to his beloved (Good Night).  As he leaves the town crows shower him with snow from the roofs (Looking Back) and he begins a painful journey, constantly tortured by memories of his past happiness (Frozen Tears, On the River, The Watercourse). As he leaves the town he is joined by a raven, possibly symbolic of a death wish (The Raven).  Eventually he arrives at another town (Solitude) where it seems that he stays for some time as he writes of the post arriving there (The Post).  The cycle ends with a particularly bleak image.  An organ-grinder or hurdy-gurdy man has a pitch near the village where he plies his trade ignored by the villagers and harassed by dogs.  It is ironic that in this final poem the poet asks if the hurdy-gurdy man will set the poet’s songs to music, an invitation that was ultimately accepted by Schubert.

Barry Mitchell, July 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Poems.

 

 

1.  Good Night (Gute Nacht)

 

As a stranger I arrived

As a stranger I shall leave

I remember a perfect day in May

How bright the flowers, how cool the breeze

The maiden had a friendly smile

The mother had kind words

But now the world is dreary

With a winter path before me

I can’t choose the season

To depart from this place

I won’t delay or ponder

I must begin my journey now

The bright moon lights my path

It will guide me on my road

I see the snow-covered meadow

I see where deer have trod

A voice within says – go now

Why linger and delay?

Leave the dogs to bay at the moon

Before her father’s gate

For love is a thing of changes

God has made it so

Ever-changing from old to new

God has made it so

So love delights in changes

Good night, my love, good night

Love is a thing of changes

Good night, my love, good night

I’ll not disturb your sleep

But I’ll write over your door

A simple farewell message

Good night, my love, good night

These are the last words spoken

Soon I’ll be out of sight

A simple farewell message

Goodnight, my love, good night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. The Vane (Die Wetterfahne)

 

 

The wind is turning the weathervane

On the roof of my sweetheart’s house

Round and round it mocks and teases

Teases and mocks my sighs and my tears

If only I’d seen this fickle symbol

Before I entered that house

I would not have hoped so much

Of one inconstant, though so fair

For Nature plays with our hearts

As the wind plays with the vane

What do they care if my heart is dying?

Their child will be a wealthy bride

 

 

 

 

 

3. Frozen Tears (Gefrorne Tränen)

 

 

Some frozen tears

Cling to my face

Have I really been crying

And not noticed them flow?

Teardrops, heavy teardrops

What chills you through

What turns you into ice

Like drops of early dew?

From this poor bosom tears flow

Flow with burning heat

Flow enough to melt

The winter frost and snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Benumbed (Erstarrung)

 

 

I look for traces of her footsteps

I look for them in vain

Where leaning on my arm

She crossed the bright green field

I’ll kiss the wintry carpet

And with my scalding tears

Dissolve the freezing snow

I’ll bring that field to life again

Do flowers still bloom?

Is the grass still green?

All the flowers have died

The grass is withered and thin

Earth, can you remind me

Of yesterday’s happiness

When my sorrows fall silent

Who will speak to me of her?

It seems my heart is frozen

Her face etched on the ice

If my heart ever melts

Her face will fade away

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. The Linden Tree (Der Lindenbaum)

 

 

Before the doorway is a well

A Linden-tree stands there

Many times I’ve sought its shade

A place of rest and pleasant dreams

When dreaming there I carved

Some words of love upon the bark

Both joy and sorrow

Drew me to that shady spot

But today I must wander

Through this blackest night

In darkness I passed this tree

But couldn’t bear to look

I heard the branches rustle

As if they spoke to me

Come to me my old friend

Find peace with me

Cruel winds were blowing

Coldly cutting my face

My hat was blown behind me

I quickly sped on my way

I’m now many miles distant

From that dear old Linden-tree

But I still hear it whisper

“Come – find peace with me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. The Watercourse (Wasserflut)

 

 

My tears have made

Deep marks in the snow

The cold flakes

Absorbing all my sorrows

When the grass begins to grow

And feels a warmer breeze

The swelling ice begins to break

And the sun melts the snow

Snow, you know of my yearnings

Tell me, where do you go?

Take my tears with you

As you flow to the stream

Flow through the town together

Go where the road leads

You’ll feel my hot tears

As you pass where my loved-one lives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. On the River (Auf dem Flusse)

 

 

River, once so restless

Flowing fast and bright

Why are you now so still

Lifeless, chilled and silent

A hard and icy case

Is now your winter prison

You lie cold and dreary

Pressed fast upon the earth

I’ll write upon your cover

With a pointed stone

My loved one’s name

A day and a time

The day when I first met her

The day when my love began

I’ll draw a broken ring

Around that name and date

Does my heart see

Your image in this river?

Does it swell and quiver

In its own icy case?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Looking Back (Rückblick)

 

 

It feels like I’m walking on fireThough underfoot is ice and snow

I’ve hardly time to draw breath

So keen am I to leave that town

Every stone has made me stumble

In my haste to get away

From every roof  I’ve passed

Crows have showered me with snow

How different when I arrived

How well you greeted me then

Your shining happy streets

Where the lark and nightingale sang

A Linden-tree whispered in the breeze

The murmur of the sparkling stream

Then the spell cast upon my heart

From a beautiful maiden’s eyes

Now when I think of that day

I’m tempted to turn and look back

To retrace my weary way

To stand before my loved one’s house

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Will O’ the Wisp (Irrlicht)

 

 

Will O’ the Wisp has led me

Deep into a rocky maze

I look from right to left

I seek a path, but there is none

I’m about to lose my way

All paths appear the same

Our joys and sorrows are no more real

Than this teasing phantom light

Through the gorge where the river rushed

I’ll calmly travel on

Every river flows to the sea

Every sorrow will come to an end

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. Rest (Rast)

 

 

At last I rest and only now

I feel weary

Nothing could tire me

While I pressed on

Over desolate winter paths

I was carried along as if on wings

It was too cold to stop

The winter wind helped me on my way

A helping hand on my back

 

 

 

 

 

 

11. Spring Dreams (Frühlingstraum)

 

 

I dreamt of flowers in many colours

That burst forth in May

I dreamt of the grassy meadow

And the sound of endless birdsong

When the cock crowed

I awoke in my bed

Eveything was cold and dismal

And ravens croaked overhead

Who drew those leafy flowers

Upon the window pane?

Why do you mock the dreamer

Whose garden blooms in winter?

I dreamt of a lovely maiden

And of the love we shared

I dreamt of sweet kisses

And blissful caresses

When the cock crowed

I started from my dreams

Now I’m sitting alone

With a memory of that dream

My eyes are closing again

Once more my heart begins to throb

Will leaves ever turn green?

Will I ever embrace my sweetheart?

 

 

 

 

 

 

12. Solitude (Einsamkeit)

 

 

Dark clouds are drifting

Across the bright blue sky

Soft breezes gently sigh

In the dark forest

But in moody silence

I walk with sluggish feet

Alone and unnoticed

In this busy street

Why is the air so tranquil!

Why is the world so fair!

Even in the raging storm

I never felt such despair

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://theoryofmusic.wordpress.com/2009/07/18/english-translation-of-schuberts-winterreise-poems-by-w-muller/#comment-961

Credit for the Translation, Text and Tags goes to Barry Mitchell, without whose work this post would not exist.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigitte_Fassbaender

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winterreise

 

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John Donne, (1572 –1631)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portrait of himself commissioned by Donne, supposing how he would appear at the Apocolypse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘TIS the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,

Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world’s whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d ; yet all these seem to laugh,

Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be:

At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know ; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now for the prosaic version.

 

 

It is the very end of the year, and it is St. Lucy’s day, with scarcely any light. The sun is exhausted and only shines sporadically — it gives no steady illumination. Starlight is feeble, and the world’s life seems to have drained itself into the ground and made it waterlogged like a person with edema. Life  itself has sunk to the very bottom and seems dead and buried. Still, all these things  seem positively cheerful in comparison to me.  I am reduced to feeling like the words engraved on a tombstone.

So study me all of you who will be lovers next spring — which seems to me as far away as another life — because I feel I have become like death itself, though love with its magic did distill out of my nothingness the deepest and most concentrated essence of myself.  Love has ruined me. He has now re-made me out of absence, darkness and death, almost as if I had been born out of nonexistent things.

Everyone else seems to have the best of all good things. They are made of life, soul, form, body, spirit — they are real.  I, on the other hand, have been boiled away and evaporated and have become a grave containing emptiness  — a grave in which emptiness is buried.

So many times in the past we wept together and almost drowned in our tears. Together we lost all sense of order and coherence, becoming chaotic when we had to pay attention to anything besides each other. When we were apart we were lifeless as corpses.

But I am by her death made into a nothing, like the universe before the moment of creation. I am like a magical potion made out of this anti-matter. Even if I were a real human being (and I know what that is like because I used to be one) I would think myself better off if I were an animal.

Even plants and stones have feelings, and they are more real and alive than I am.  They are capable of loving and hating. Even if I were a nothing, a mere object, I would have the capacity to cast a shadow when light shone on me. But I am truly nothing, and the sun will never shine for me again.

All of you — and you lovers – spring will come around for you, and let you feel passion. Go ahead and enjoy your summer!  Since she is enjoying and celebrating this long night, let me get ready for her, and let me call this hour her vigil, and her evening, since it is the end of both the year and this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can honestly admit to never having been an admirer of the ‘male poetical canon’., and of one of its hoary stalwarts, John Donne, in particular. Donne  has always left me figuratively scratching my head and wondering what all the fuss was about.The reasons for the reverential  awe with which such poems as ‘Death be not Proud’ are referred to and quoted have always escaped me, though in the past I tried assiduously try to understand them.  Although I can to some degree acknowledge the originality of Donne’s  stylistic innovations and his quirky language, style aside, the question that comes to my mind is: what about content? The far-fetched artifice of his early profane poetry with its idiosyncratic conceits gave way in his later years to a hortatory species of  religious hand-wringing, chest-beating, repentance, retraction and self-deprecation which were in their way far more dismaying than his celebrations of youthful lust.I am about as tolerant as the next woman when it comes to human weakness, but I can find no such accommodation for Donne. In this I think it is fair to compare him to Leo Tolstoy. Both men married 16 year old girls and kept their wives continuously pregnant – Tolstoy having fathered 13 children and Donne 12. Donne doubtless would have broken Tolstoy’s record had his wife not inconveniently died on August 15th 1617 at the age of 32 after being delivered of  her twelfth child, a stillborn infant, 5 days earlier.
Both Donne and Tolstoy were former rakes who ‘got religion’ and were a little too glad to preach it. If there are two things that pollute poetry as badly a load of pesticides cast in a river, in my view they would be politics and religion. Both these rely heavily on declaiming and mendacity for their propagation and success, and most noxiously reprehensible of all, an unchecked enthusiasm for misleading the gullible, credulous and foolish for the purpose of venal self-enrichment.
When Donne found his path to professional and pecuniary advancement blocked by his Roman Catholicism, in 1615 (probably after his wife’s death)  he switched his allegiance to the more promising Church of England. He had belatedly received his dowry six years earlier around 1607, which must have relieved at least a few financial pressures, but 1615 marked the upswing of Donne’s monetary and career prospects.  Although his brief imprisonment subsequent to his marriage had forfeited him his post of  Member of Parliament, he sufficiently regained his professional footing to subsequently rise to the rank of Royal Chaplain to King Charles I. He had found a solution for his money troubles by renouncing his religion and turning his coat to suit his sovereigns Charles . In fact, Donne preached his final sermon  “Death’s Dual”  in February 1631, in the presence of this singularly unfortunate monarch who was later condemned (and the sentence publicly carried out) to death by beheading.
True, Donne had been plagued by the many deaths in his family besides that of his wife and still born infant in 1615, (eight of his children died before the age of 10) but his possible grief of bereavement  appears to have been surpassed by pecuniary concerns. Though he acknowledged that these deaths meant he had fewer mouths to feed, he complained he could ill afford the burial expenses.  In this he seems to resemble the mother of the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, who rejoiced at the death of several  of her children because she would be spared the expense of having to rear them. Apparently burial expenses in early nineteenth century Italy were not so great a burden as Donne found them to be in seventeenth-century England. Considering all this, it seems to me silly and more than a bit fatuous for Donne to have obsessed so tenaciously over the prospect of his own death, while those about him were dropping like flies. Nor did his anxious apprehension cease at death’s dark portal, but ventured in metaphysical guise a bit beyond it, into distressing speculations about the trouble God might encounter in trying to  reassemble the scatted atoms of the long deceased. Donne expected that his own body would be so reconstructed on the day of the apocalypse, and he had a portrait of himself painted clad in his shroud. This he hung on his wall to serve as a reassurance he would resume an enhanced version of life following a brief post-mortem interruption.

“A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” notwithstanding, Donne’s stiff upper lip  was less due to an accommodation with death,  than to a fervent belief in the hereafter where he would share God’s heavenly glory. Donne’s ambitions were never modest.

Donne’s poem about St Lucy’s day, which was published posthumously in 1633, is thought to have been written in 1627 when both his patron Lucy Countess of Bedford as well as Donne’s fifth child Lucy, then aged 18,  to whom the countess had stood as godmother, died.

By this time Donne had been enjoying his handsomely remunerated position as Dean of St. Paul’s for a period of around six years. Three years before that he had received his doctorate in divinity from Cambridge, so in the years before his death Donne had achieved many of his worldly ambitions, and perhaps all of his spiritual ones as well.  Besides, it must have been especially gratifying to him to be earning his bread whilst also following his vocation. I consider most preachers to be by temperament attention seekers and getters, so it must have suited Donne very well to be paid for declaiming from the pulpit with the authority of the Church of England fully behind his hortatory efforts.

Why then these abysmal thoughts, so inconsistent with Christian faith of the saved soul and the happily hereafter?  In his lustful irreverent youth Donne was filled with energy and optimism. Now as a well-paid, well-respected and well-situated prelate comes this baleful moan of a poem, and at that, less a real poem than a really bad sermon.

Here again we find the exaggeratedly stretched conceits of Donne’s habitual vanity, as he steadily works himself into an increasingly abject position, when those very conceits compel him to a contortionis’st twisting and distending of sinews in order to cram himself in to a tighter and tighter confinement. But Donne first makes sure we know ahead of time that his chosen box has been lined with rusty nails.

In his downward progress from animal to vegetable to mineral he goes on grinding away in his plummeting trajectory straight into a pulverised residue of the insensate.  It is so very difficult to be charitable, and to find any dignity in Donne’s insistent self-indulgence and the soggy ‘hydroptik’ of his dropsical preachments.  Now that ‘the alembic’ – that uterine symbol of fulfillment, wholeness and merging lovers – has lost its original meaning, and has been left behind in the past of Donne’s  former  manipulations of women  and his persuasions of  them to venery (The Flea). The wine of younger love has now turned to the vinegar of sour grapes as he invidiously induces lovers, by means of his preachments, to feel anxious on account of their futures. Donne’s alchemical conceit has been reduced to a mere chemical precipitate.

Perhaps in thinking about young lovers he recalls own his precipitous marriage, and its unfortunate consequences (imprisonment and temporary forfeiture of dowry) and sees that those ‘bad’ times were not so bad after all compared to his condition when nearing the completion of his sixth decade.This rambling, uneven, muddled, befuddled bizarre rumination, points to a mind that can no longer resort to poetry – if indeed it ever did so. I can’t imagine that Donne thought well of his wife – for in his eyes women were “at their best mummy (and yes, he meant the Egyptian kind) possessed.”  Nor does he, for all his vociferations, appear to possess the consolations of religion. In the past he had toyed with the idea of suicide, but fear and religious scruple in equal parts, no doubt deterred him.  As is usual in depressives, and before the era of Prozac, he may have stumbled upon the fact that for even a person of average intelligence, (despite his ‘convictions’) there is no real consolation to be found in religion.
In fact Donne may have increased the volume of his assertions in order to drown out the still, small voice which refused to stop whispering “it ain’t necessarily so”. This might have proved to be an unsettling , and even unhinging experience for Donne. In fact, I have been wondering if I have not heard in the first few lines of this poem,  and particularly in their sinister sibilant sounds, an echo of the speech of that that other poor forsaken creature given to demented whispers,  Tolkien’s Gollum.Perhaps middle-age and depression hit Donne hard. I think I can understand that, and also that Donne might have considered himself better-off when he was scrounging off his friends and begetting brats anon – 12 in 16 years – than as a comfortable widower having a mid-life-crisis.  Perhaps he was secretly losing his faith – who knows: But one grey day in December, nearing the winter solstice, he sat down to write.  It seems clear he was sapped by depression, and this depression may have been  ( in those days of scant artificial light) to be suffering from what we refer to as ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’.  Donne was obviously feeling dead inside. The future seems impossibly remote. The year too is slowly dying, and nature seems to be in bathetic consonance with his inner darkness. He is beginning to have have doubts about his survival, and his very being, when he unreservedly succumbs to self-pity, and claims that Love has transmuted him into the essence of nothing.Then there enters the note of envy and petulance he cannot keep out. He emerges from his black despair in order to indulge in invidious thoughts. “Oh those lovers”, he might have said to himself, “how happily  they will soon slip into their springtime rut – but Oh! What immensely heavy reasons I have for  lamenting my own sad lot. “I think it is at this point Donne may have realised he has the makings of a workable poem, and decided to try and make something of it. He may have begun to reminisce, and found he could profitably mine a different seam, and put it to his advantage. He might have alternated between a restating of his condition, and asseverating he was more pitiful than the dumb beasts – No! more pitiful even than inanimate objects (albeit objects which have feelings). One moment he felt himself to be a substance refined to its its ultimate essence, then to be less substantial than even a shadow.Now Donne finds he has worked his poem as far as he can take it, and has wedged it into a dark corner of nothingness.  It is like a black hole from which not even a photon of light can emerge.  Inspiration has long since fled. Perhaps he remembers an unfinished sermon, an unwritten letter – perhaps he smells dinner cooking, or the candle may be near to being burned out. Since preaching comes easily to Donne, he comes up with a handy exhortation to the lovers of the world whom he was envying but a few short moments ago. He briefly gives them a snarky warning as he throws a bucket or two of cold water on what he imagines will be their moment of happiness. This done he feels his confidence restored, and he suddenly finds he has happened on a way to neatly end his poem.  Perhaps he had decided that after his long night’s vigil with St. Lucy, he was going to wait for the very Spring which only a few moments before he was saying was as far away as the next life. Never mind that since he had pronounced himself as being so very close to death, the next life would have been much closer than any Spring could be.

It must not have been all that bad after all. We know that Donne recovered sufficiently from his funk to write his poem  “Sappho and Philænis,” (published posthumously in 1631) and said to be the earliest English example of a lesbian love poem.

So here then is my conclusion:

 

 

This is by no means a true poem, but the gloom induced by falling under the  somber spell of a dark winter evening, and the overall deadness of the season. That is not to say that the Muse, on a day so significant to her offices,  may not have peeked in  Donne’s cloudy window, but Preacher Donne soon shooed her away with his foolish maunderings.

It is confused, whining and bathetic. There are even grammatical errors. I want to ask what is the object the word day’s in the first line possesses?
What can day’s Lucy’s possibly mean?

If it is a wanton bid for pity, I think Donne should not have importuned quite so crudely and insistently.  He might have done better if he had left it to us to give it freely, rather than trying to extract it by force. Even if one is very badly off, whining is not the best way to gain interest.

“Were I am man “ etc – makes absolutely no sense.  All these faults are compounded by extraordinary exaggeration and excessive mental gymnastics  “If I an ordinary nothing”  etc tell me that he is not so despairing as to disavow verbal slithering.  And then he is so so patronising – his love is noble, but the love of others is animalistic and capricious ( like a goat)
and not only that, but hell and its fires must be evoked to chasten lovers he must feel to be inferior to himself

Donne may have supposed he recovered his investment of time, paper, ink and tallow, but in my view it would have been better if he had just had an early dinner an gone to bed instead.

Ah…. the great metaphysical poets!

* In Donne’s time, the calendar would have placed St. Lucy’s day around the 13th of December, but in our Calendar it falls in December 21st.

Donne's home.

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