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Paris: A typewriter – and a poem by Victor Hugo

View from a window - with books

From the scrapbook of the poet

I’m at the Centre Beaubourg in Paris 4eme. It’s a bright September day. High above me the sky is sapphire blue – a pale crystal sapphire blue. Many of the leaves have turned yellow and bronze. Some are idling on the ground; occasionally they are stirred by the slightest zephyr. It’s a good time to be in Paris.

Alongside the Centre Beaubourg there are all sorts of mini ‘spectacles’ to enjoy. People are putting on one-man shows or doing portraits for the tourists and assorted passers-by. There are acrobats and jugglers; clowns too. There are moments of improvised theatre – and there are stall-holders selling bracelets and ear-rings, leather goods and lucky charms. Amongst them all is a man with a typewriter. He presents himself as a kind of poet engagé; he taps away – tap tap tap – on his old typewriter and as he does he generates short couplets or tiny poems in blank verse. I think he tries to get a feel for whomsoever stands in front of him – and then he produces a poem especially for them. It’s a charming idea and the recipients of his work are momentarily liberated from the dominant mood of screen culture as ink touches a page of paper.

In fact, the poet engagé, explicitly resists something …

His resistance places him in that long tradition of french writers – such as Victor Hugo – who adopted a deeply critical view of the wider culture and their society.

And that reminds me of something extraordinary: When I first tried to learn to speak the french language one of the best texts I was given suddenly featured examples from the work of Victor Hugo. But instead of selecting passages of his prose, the text introduced me to some of his beautiful and moving poems. My favourite is ‘Demain dès l’aube’:

It begins:

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,

Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.

J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.

Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

(A translation might be:

Tomorrow, at dawn, the moment the countryside turns pale with daylight, 
I will leave. You see, I know that you wait for me.
 I will go through forest, I will go across the mountains. 
I cannot rest far from you for long.)

And Hugo continues with a few lines about the journey but as the poem finishes we learn that it is about a tragedy. The last two lines read:

Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe

Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.

(And when I arrive, I will place on your grave

A bouquet of holly and some heather in bloom.)

Footnote: Victor Hugo wrote the poem four years after losing his daughter Léopoldine and her husband in a drowning accident.


Miserere: the Church of Saint Laurent, Paris

Miserere: the Church of Saint Laurent, Paris (on an Heritage day)

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