Friday, 12 November 2010

L’enterrement de Verlaine – The Funeral of Verlaine

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.

The date is early January 1896 and the scene is the Boulevard Saint Michel (referred to colloquially as the Boul’ Mich) in the Latin Quarter. The backdrop is beauty and elegance in an era when the good things in life were enjoyed.

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.


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


(1) L’enterrement de Verlaine. -Verlaine was only 51 when he died. During his last years in Paris, he had descended into alcoholism and drug addiction. He lived in poverty in slum lodgings and passed periods in public hospitals. He spent his days drinking absinthe in Paris cafés and this is a photo of the poet around 1895. Throughout this time, he continued to be acclaimed the leading poet of France.

(2) Le premier rossignol de la France – Fort appears to be making the very controversial claim that there had been no previous French poet to equal Verlaine. Many people would propose different candidates for this first position – Musset, Vigny, Hugo etc. If he is merely saying that Verlaine had been given the honorific role of “Prince des poètes”, this is factually true as he held this title from 1894 until his death. If he is saying that Verlaine brought a unique musicality to French poetry many would agree enthusiastically.

(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.

(7)Montesquiou-Fezensac. To modern readers, the two proper names on the penultimate line must be meaningless, but these were big, well known personalities in France at the turn of the 20th century. The Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac was a descendant of d'Artagnan, whose tale is told in Dumas’ « The Three musketeers.” Montesquiou-Fezensac attempted Symbolist poetry and was an art collector and homosexual dandy. It is believed that he was the model for the Proustian character, the Baron de Charlus in Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”.

(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
Des violons
De l'automne
Blessent mon cœur
D'une langueur

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.

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The poem is recited:

Brassens-L'enterrement de Verlaine
Uploaded by irisfromparis. - Explore more music videos.

Colombine - This poem by Verlaine tells of the female star character of the Italian mime theatre.


Brassens put music to this lilting, melodic poem of Paul Verlaine. The poet tells how someone who ruthlessly exploits his or her sexual charm is able to reduce to a state of abject subjugation those who fall victim - and Verlaine’s life story suggests that perhaps he should know! To illustrate this farcical, human situation, he enacts a typical scene, performed by the Italian mime theatre the Commedia dell'arte.(1)

Verlaine's Colombine

Léandre le sot,
Pierrot qui d'un saut
De puce
Franchit le buisson,
Cassandre sous son

Arlequin aussi,
Cet aigrefin si
Aux costumes fous,
Les yeux luisant sous
Son masque,

Do, mi, sol, mi, fa,
Tout ce monde va,
Rit, chante
Et danse devant
Une frêle enfant
Dont les yeux pervers
Comme les yeux verts
Des chattes
Gardent ses appas (2)
Et disent :
"A bas les pattes ! "

A verse with no words is played next and then Brassens sings the following as his last verse:

L'implacable enfant,
Preste et relevant
Ses jupes,
La rose au chapeau,
Conduit son troupeau
De dupes !

From the poem of Paul Verlaine
Song by Georges Brassens -1955 - Chanson pour l'auvergnat

Silly Leander,
Pierrot who with one
Flea-like jump
Springs over the bush
Cassander neath his
Deep monk’s cowl,

Harlequin also,
That cheating rogue so
Full of guile
In crazy costume,
His keen eyes glinting
Neath his mask

Do, mi, so, mi, fa,
All these go along
Laugh and sing
They dance in front of
A skinny girl who
Means trouble
Whose eyes of menace
Like the bright green eyes
Of felines
Guard her body’s charms
As they say
Wand’ring hands, keep off!

The child, hard to please
Spry and with her skirts
Lifted high
The rose in her hat
Leads on her flock of
Those she fools!


1)The Commedia dell'arte - The poem gives a glimpse of the “Commedia dell'arte”, the Italian theatre which was popular to French audiences during three centuries. Molière knew it well and its influence is seen in his comedies. Two hundred years later, Balzac, in “Le Père Goriot” shows the members of Parisian high society making a weekly visit to the Italian theatre.

The noble and distinguished people who attended this theatre were enjoying boisterous knockabout comedy, which could be very racy. There was comic portrayal of sex and the plot was often based on sexual infidelity and promiscuity. Situations which enacted shipwrecks and fires allowed the actresses to cast off their clothes.

The admirable skill of these players was to go onstage to perform an unwritten drama which, to a great extent, they improvised on the spot.

The theatre had stock characters and we meet some of them in this poem:
• The young lovers- often naïve. In this poem Leander is the young hero, foolishly besotted (with Colombine).
• The easily deceived old man. In this poem it is Cassander, who is wearing a hood to hide his lustful pursuit of the young girl temptress, Colombine.
• The cheeky young serving girl was very often called Colombine as here. She was usually completely amoral and although she had a lover, she shared her favours as she liked.

• The rascally servants. There were usually several of these. They were usually lazy scoundrels and sometimes cruel and cunning. Although they deceived others, they were often so stupid that they were themselves open to deception. Verlaine gives us here the two most well-known:
a. Pierrot was the white faced clown – hence the acrobatics.

b. Harlequin was one of the characters who traditionally wore a mask. He was deeply in love with Colombine, who caused him great jealousy.

(2) Gardent ses appas – « Les appas » mean charms or charming features. A plural noun with the same sound would be « Les appâts » - the bait used to catch your prey. Both could apply to the armoury of the predatory female.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Misogynie à part - For him to mention his partner's quirks in their sex life is not misogyny

Explicit lines in this poem make it suitable only for adult readers. After long hesitation, I include it because I see in the song true Brassens qualities and genuine Brassens fun –as can be seen from the audience reaction in the video.
This poem describes a dysfunctional relationship where the girl while enjoying passionate and adventurous lovemaking, spoils her lover’s experience by insisting on elements of middle class gentility and by merging her sexual ecstasy with the religious ecstasy it aroused in her.

Misogynie à part

Misogynie à part, le sage avait raison :
Il y a les emmerdantes,(1) on en trouve à foison,
En foule elles se pressent,
Il y a les emmerdeuses(1), un peu plus raffinées,
Et puis, très nettement au-dessus du panier,
Y a les emmerderesses(1).

La mienne, à elle seule, sur tout's surenchérit,
Ell' relève à la fois des trois catégories,
Véritable prodige,
Emmerdante, emmerdeuse, emmerderesse itou,
Elle passe, ell' dépasse, elle surpasse tout,
Ell' m'emmerde, vous dis-je.

Mon dieu, pardonnez-moi ces propos bien amers,
Ell' m'emmerde, ell' m'emmerde, ell' m'emmerde, ell' m'emmer-
De, elle abuse, elle attige.
Ell' m'emmerde et j' regrett' mes bell's amours avec
La p'tite Enfant d' Marie (3) que m'a soufflée l'évêque,
Ell' m'emmerde, vous dis-je.

Ell' m'emmerde, ell' m'emmerde, et m'oblige à me cu-
Rer les ongles avant de confirmer son cul,
Or, c'est pas Callipyge(4).
Et la charité seul' pouss' ma main résignée
Vers ce cul rabat-joie, conique, renfrogné,
Ell' m'emmerde, vous dis-je.

Ell' m'emmerde, ell' m'emmerde, je le répète et quand
Ell' me tape sur le ventre, elle garde ses gants,
Et ça me désoblige.
Outre que ça dénote un grand manque de tact,
Ça n' favorise pas tellement le contact,
Ell' m'emmerde, vous dis-je.

Ell' m'emmerde, ell' m'emmerd' , quand je tombe à genoux
Pour certain's dévotions qui sont bien de chez nous
Et qui donn'nt le vertige,
Croyant l'heure venue de chanter le Credo,
Elle m'ouvre tout grand son missel sur le dos,
Ell' m'emmerde, vous dis-je.

Ell' m'emmerde, ell' m'emmerde, à la fornication
Ell' s'emmerde, ell' s'emmerde avec ostentation, (5)
Ell' s'emmerde, vous dis-je
Au lieu de s'écrier : "Encore ! hardi ! hardi !"
Ell' déclam' du Claudel (6) ! du Claudel, j'ai bien dit,
Alors ça, ça me fige.

Ell' m'emmerde, ell' m'emmerd', j'admets que ce Claudel
Soit un homm' de génie, un poète immortel,
J' reconnais son prestige,
Mais qu'on aille chercher dedans son œuvre pie,
Un aphrodisiaque, non, ça, c'est d' l'utopie!(8)
Ell' m'emmerde, vous dis-je.

Georges Brassens

In the album: 1969 - La religieuse

Misogyny apart, the wise man was quite right
There are enmerdant girls, you find them in plenty
In great hordes, they come at you,
There are enmerdous girls, a little more refined

And then very clearly, at the top of the heap
There are the enmerderesses.

Mine stands out alone, outclasses the whole lot
She ticks at the same time all three boxes
Veritable prodigy
Enmerdant, enmerdous, enmerderesse the lot.
She goes further, outstrips, she surpasses them all,
She enmerds me, I tell you.

Oh god, pray pardon me these very bitter words
She enmerds me, she enmerds me, she enmerds me
Takes advantage, goes too far.

She enmerds me and I regret my fine amours spent with
The Sunday School girl whom, the bishop pinched from me.
She enmerds me, I tell you.

She enmerds, she enmerds, and forces me to clean
Up my nails before I confirm her bum.
Now she is no Callipyge
And charity alone drives my resign-ed hand
To this joyless bottom, cone-shaped, sad looking
She enmerds me I tell you.

She enmerds me, she enmerds me, I repeat it and when
She’s pumping on my stomach, she keeps on her gloves
And this causes me offence.
Besides this displaying a great lack of tact,

It doesn't much help the physical contact
She enmerds me I tell you.

She enmerds, she enmerds, when I fall to my knees
For certain devotions that are OK with the French
And which bring on dizzy spells
Believing the time's come for chanting the creed
She flings open out wide her missel on my back
She enmerds me, I tell you.

She enmerds me, she enmerds me during fornication
She enmerds me, enmerds me with her ostentation.
She enmerds me, I tell you.
Instead of crying out : « Once more ! Go on! Go on!
She declaims from Claudel ! From Claudel you heard right.
Well that turns me right off..

She enmerds me, she enmerds me, I admit that this Claudel
Is a man of genius, a poet immortal
I acknowledge his prestige
But that one goes seeking within his wordy tomes(7)
An aphrodisiac, no that’s just fantasy!
She enmerds me, I tell you.


(1) emmerdantes, emmerdeuses, emmerderesses - These words and the idea behind them come from Paul Valéry (1871-1945) the famous poet, critic and essayist. Like Brassens, Valéry was born in Sètes and like Brassens is buried there – but not in the same cemetery. Brassens talks about him in another poem on this website – see Supplique pour être enterré à la plage de Sète - .
Valéry is quoted as saying: « Il y a trois sortes de femmes: les emmerdeuses, les emmerdantes... et les emmerderesses ».
Emmerder.  -My Collins dictionary lists the verb « emmerder » to badly annoy/ to bug someone.
 emmerdant Collins lists “emmerdant”, the participle used as an adjective, to translate the word “annoying” with pejorative force suggesting various English oaths.  Thus says Collins, emmerdant could describe someone who is: damned annoying / a damned nuisance/  a pain in the neck.  Other dictionaries say a pain in the ass/  a real drag/ a lousy bore.
L’emmerdant – The noun form would use the above expressions e.g.  “quel emmerdant!” = what a bloody nuisance. C’est une emmerdante could translate- She is real trouble
 Un emmerdeur”/ une emmerdeuse  Collins translates as the same as “Emmerdant”, thus :a damned nuisance/ a pain in the neck. You could also say He/ She is real trouble/ He/ she is a right pain in the ass and variations on all the expressions above.
Emmerderesse - Collins and the French dictionaries do not give the word “emmerderesse », which Valéry seems to have invented himself by analogy with other words made feminine with the suffix “esse” e.g. “pécheur”/ “pécheresse” = sinner.

A lot of looking up in dictionaries has merely shown me that all Valery’s three words mean the same and if there is a gradation, it is only in Valéry’s mind.
All these words are based on the word “merde” which means “s**t”. Although this word is used more freely in French and lacks the shock of the English translation, its basic meaning still applies.
On translating this poem, I tried to use the words “annoy” “irritate” “exasperate”, but found them very deficient in meaning. In desperation, I have imitated my colleagues in sociology and invented my own code word:
To enmerd = to drive people to desperation by imposing on them a load of pointless, demeaning rubbish (merde)

2) Misogynie à part – Who is the misogynist? Paul Valéry seems to be saying that all women are guilty of emmerdement, which is a very sweeping condemnation of the female sex. This is obviously a misogynistic remark. I feel that Brassens shows by his choice of title that he recognised the misogyny of Valéry’s sentiments, but, all the same, he was glad to use Valéry’s terminology as a springboard for this provocative song.

3) La p'tite Enfant d' Marie – The 1930s saw the growth of political youth movements. In the Soviet Union, there were the pioneers. In Germany, there was the Hitler Youth. The Catholic Church formed a youth movement for boys, called « Les Croisés » and for girls called “Les Enfants de Marie” aimed particularly against Communist atheism which had growing support among the left-wing in France. This membership gives an expectation of strict sexual morals.

4) Vénus callipyge - The statue of the Venus Kallipygos is now in the Royal Museum in Naples. The worship of this Venus had been widespread in Ancient Greece and then had spread to Italy. The word Kallipygos is formed by an adjective, Κάλλος, which means beautiful and a noun πυγὴ, which means bum.

5) Ell' m'emmerde, ell' m'emmerde - This word, emphatic in itself, is made even more emphatic by its repetition, six times in three lines. However, some of the humour comes from the sense that this is a pretend indignation, while describing their mutual pleasure. Also the style of their lovemaking seems to be an established routine to which each returned willingly. No doubt, Brassens was fascinated and amused by his quirky young partner. The vehemence of his overstatement is comic as we see from the reaction of singer and audience.

6) Ell' déclam' du Claudel - Paul Claudel (1868 -1955) was a very prominent man of letters, who produced an incredible output of poems, plays, travel books, literary criticism and more. His plays were extremely long- one lasting eleven hours. In his writings, he expressed his very strong faith in Roman Catholicism. Like many influential French Catholics, he had been a strong supporter of the ideals of the collaborationist Vichy government of General Pétain, to whom he addressed a eulogical poem. This background served to limit Claudel’s appeal to those on the political left, such as Brassens.
The article about Claudel in Wikipedia, has a sentence which seems relevant to this poem. We read there that Claudel used “scenes of passionate, obsessive human love to convey with great power God's infinite love for humanity”. Above the physical detail of lovemaking, which Brassens has described in his poem, most people are probably aware of a spiritual dimension- although not necessarily with religious connotations. In the play Les Miserables, Jean Valjean says "to love another person is to see the face of God.". There is another quotation- also from Victor Hugo I think- that when two people make love, God is always present at that altar.

Perhaps the unconventional, strong-minded young girl gets the better in this poem! At the start we had expectations that she would have conformist, life-denying inhibitions but instead she emerges as an individualist, seeking her own answers. Despite his over-loud protestations against his partner, Brassens has given us another example of one of life’s eccentrics, so dear to him.

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