Brassens sings Paul Fort’s poem, in which he recalls, in his view, the finest day of the Belle Époque- the day he attended the mass tribute at the funeral of one of the most prominent Bohemian geniuses of the age – Paul Verlaine.
It was a time when talent was respected and a time of tolerance. The people of Paris, supported their eccentric poet, Paul Verlaine, at the end of his scandalous, dissolute life and they turned out in force for his funeral. Thousands of them thronged the elegant boulevard on that cold winter’s morning. However, as far as Paul Fort was concerned, not one of the people present came close to equalling the stature of the dead man.
L'ENTERREMENT DE VERLAINE(1)
Le revois-tu mon âme, ce Boul' Mich' d'autrefois
Et dont le plus beau jour fut un jour de beau froid:
Dieu ! S'ouvrit-il jamais une voie aussi pure
Au convoi d'un grand mort suivi de miniatures ?
Tous les grognards - petits - de Verlaine étaient là,
Toussotant, frissonnant, glissant sur le verglas,
Mais qui suivaient ce mort et la désespérance,
Morte enfin, du premier rossignol de la France.(2)
Ou plutôt du second (François de Montcorbier,(3
Voici belle lurette (4) en fut le vrai premier)
N'importe ! Lélian,(5) je vous suivrai toujours!
Premier ? Second ? Vous seul. En ce plus froid des jours.
N'importe ! Je suivrai toujours, l'âme enivrée
Ah ! folle d'une espérance désespérée (6)
Montesquiou-Fezensac(7) et Bibi-la-purée(8)
Vos deux gardes du corps, - entre tous moi dernier.
From the poem of Paul Fort
My heart, can you see that Boulevard Mich of yore
And whose finest day was a day of cold beauty
God ! Was ever city highway so pure opened up
For hearse of a great man with lesser folk behind?
All of Verlaine’s old crowd – little rated - were there
Coughing and shivering, slipping on the sheet ice
But who followed this corpse and the sense of despair,
Dead at last, of the first nightingale of the French.
Or rather, the second. (François de Montcorbier…
Here we have, by a long chalk, the firstcomer
No matter ! Lélian, I’ll follow you always.
The first ? Second ? Just you. On this coldest of days
No matter! I'll follow always, soul enraptured-
Ah ! driven mad by a hope despaired of
Montesquiou-Fezensac and Bibi-la-purée
Your two pall-bearers- among them, me, at the back.
Brassens 1960 – Le mécréant
(3) François de Montcorbier is the correct family name for the great French poet, François Villon (1431- some time after 1463) – His most famous poem “Où sont les neiges d’autan”. Fort appears to confirm that his intention was to designate the leading French poet ever in French literature, when he concedes that the distinction he had first claimed for Verlaine rightly belonged to Villon.
(4) Voici/ il y a belle lurette – This idiom means a very long time ago. (From “heurette” little hour)
(5) Lélian, : Pauvre Lelian is an anagram which his close friend and fellow poet Rimbaud, had formed from the name “Paul Verlaine”. In the nickname there is perhaps implied some mockery of Verlaine’s over-feminine sensitivity.
Verlaine had married a young girl, Mathilde in 1870, but, a year later, he fell in love with the poet Arthur Rimbaud, who was a seventeen year old student. By 1872, he had deserted his wife and child to be with his young lover. Their relationship was tempestuous and in 1873 Verlaine shot him in the arm during a drunken quarrel. He served an 18 month prison sentence as a result.
(6) folle d'une espérance désespérée – We can only speculate why the poet, Paul Fort, felt so emotional about the dashing of his personal hopes. Perhaps he is thinking bitterly of the high hopes he had had for the Théâtre d' Art which he had founded in 1890, while he was a student at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. His aim had been to promote the work of people in the arts, including his friend, Paul Verlaine, and Paul Gauguin. The venture survived no more than a couple of years.
(8) Bibi-la-purée – This was the name by which André Joseph Salis de Saglia was known. He dressed like a tramp but was one of the leading personalities of the Latin Quarter at the time and was given the title of le roi de la Bohème. He appears in the poetry of Verlaine, in James Joyce’s Ulysses and is seen in a Picasso painting.
On the morning of the funeral, he took up position by the coffin on the strength of his claim that he had been the dead man’s secretary and lover. This could have been true although he was an inveterate liar. Montesquiou, who was a pall-bearer, then intervened to protest that his ragged, eccentric dress was not in keeping with the dignity of the occasion. Bibi-la-purée was moved to a less conspicuous position, where, it is said, he took advantage to pilfer a number of unattended mourners’ umbrellas.
By the end of the day, the snobbish aristocrat and the professional bohemian were reconciled and were chatting intimately, using the “tu” form.
(9) Paul Fort - He was born in 1872 and in 1912 he was given the title of “Prince de Poètes” which he held until his death in 1960. He was a lover of the French ballad and the folk tradition. His verse, clear and rhythmic, converts fairly readily into song lyrics. Other poems by Fort on which Brassens based songs were: Le Petit Cheval – La Marine – Comme Hier – Si le bon dieu avait voulu – He recorded (spoken only) Fort’s poems – Germaine Tourangelle -Petit Verglas. Brassens also wrote a poem to commemorate Paul Fort’s funeral: L’enterrement de Paul Fort.
Two Personal Comments
1 Verlaine as the leading French poet
Paul Fort was taking a liberty in designating the leading French poets as this kind of judgement is very subjective. However, I found sympathy with him because the most active legacy that I clung to after studying a selection of French poets at “A” level fifty years ago was the verse of Verlaine. In particular, we analysed and learned by heart his Chanson d'Automne from his collection , Poèmes saturniens (1866). For years afterwards, I quoted the rich assonance of the first verse:
Les sanglots longs
Blessent mon cœur
Similarly I used to enjoy indulging in the melancholy of « Il pleure dans mon cœur » where Verlaine is at his most Lélian
Il pleure dans mon cœur
Comme il pleut sur la ville;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon cœur?
Ô bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un cœur qui s'ennuie
Ô le chant de la pluie!
From Romances sans paroles (1874)
These are lines, of course, familiar with most students of French - and that says a lot about Verlaine’s pre-eminence in French literature.!
2 Memories of France of the Belle Époque
Paul Fort is describing here a precious memory of an outstanding event in his life. My French professor used to tell an anecdote about the previous holder of his post. Although this, by then, old man was a lover of France, he had never visited Paris for fifty years. Born in the 1870s, he had lived in Paris at the turn of the century. He knew a Paris where elegant people drove around in horse drawn carriages and the streets were lit by gaslight. He had not the heart to return to Paris and erase this splendid image by superimposing that of modern Paris.
Please click here to return to the alphabetical list of my Brassens selection
The poem is recited:
Brassens-L'enterrement de Verlaine
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