Poems of Aloysius Bertrand
translated & presented by Irène Eulriet & Rob Guthrie
Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841) is both Romantic in his use of
Medieval motifs and in the sentimental and fantastical tone of his
work, and Modernist in his historical significance as the author
of the first poem in prose. His "Gaspard of the Night" was of great
influence on such writers as Mallarmé, Huysmans, and Baudelaire,
the latter of which acknowledges Bertrand as an inspiration to the
Quatorze petits poèmes en prose. Gaspard of the
Night (1842), Bertrand's major work, is made up of the self-titled,
introductory prose poem and of the six books of the "Fantasies of
Gaspard of the Night." The poems of the "Fantasies," from which
the "Five Fingers of the Hand" is drawn, are, according to the author,
from the pen of one Gaspard of the Night, who is said to be the
devil himself. I.E. & R.G.
* * *
from Gaspard of the Night
Fantasies in the style of Rembrandt and Callot
I love Dijon like the child, the wet nurse, whose milk he sucked,
like the poet, the damsel who initiated his heart. Childhood
and poetry! How the one is ephemeral and the other deceitful!
Childhood is a butterfly that hastens to burn his white wings
in the flames of youth and poetry is like the almond tree: its
flowers are perfumed and its fruits are bitter.
was sitting apart one day in the garden of Harquebus,
so called after the arm which there distinguished, in the past,
the skill of the rider of the popinjay.
Motionless on a bench, one could have compared me to the statue
of the Bazire bastion. This masterpiece of the figurist Sévallée
and of the painter Guillot represented an abbot, sitting and reading.
His dress wasn't missing a thing. From afar, one took him for
a personage; from up close one saw that it was a plaster cast.
walker's cough dissipated the swarm of my dreams. He was a poor
devil whose appearance spoke only misery and suffering. In this
garden I had already noticed his threadbare frock coat that buttoned
up to the chin, his deformed felt hat which never a brush did
brush, his hair long like a willow, and combed like a bush of
hair, his fleshless hands, akin to the ossuaries, his mocking,
sly and sickly physiognomy, that was streamlined from a Nazarene
beard; and my conjectures had kindly settled him among the pedestrian
artists, violin players and portrait painters, whose insatiable
hunger and inextinguishable thirst condemn them to roam the earth
in the footsteps of the Wandering Jew.
two of us were now on the bench. My neighbor leafed through a
book, from the pages of which a dried flower issued without his
knowing it. I picked it up to give it back to him. The stranger,
politely nodding, lifted it to his withered lips and put it back
in the mysterious book.
flower," I hazarded to tell him, "is without a doubt the symbol
of some sweet, shrouded love? Alas! We all have one day in the
past that disenchants our future!"
"You are a poet!" he replied to me, smiling.
were now bound in conversation. On which spool was the thread
going to wind?
if that means one who has searched for art!"
"You searched for art! And did you find it?"
"Heaven grant that art were no chimera!"
"A chimera!... I too searched for that!" he cried out with the
enthusiasm of genius and an emphasis of triumph.
besought him to tell me to which charlatan he owes this discovery,
art having been for me a needle in a haystack....
had resolved," he said, "to search for art like the Rosicrucians
searched for the philosopher's stone in the Middle Ages; art,
that philosopher's stone of the nineteenth century!
question that first taxed my scholasticism. I asked myself: What
is art? Art is the science of the poet. A definition
as limpid as a diamond of the first water.
what are the elements of art? a second question which I
hesitated to answer for a few months. One evening as I
dug by the light of a smoky lamp in the charnel house of an old
bookseller's stall, I unearthed a little book in an eccentric
and unintelligible language, the title of which was emblazoned
with an amphipter that
uncoiled these two words on a banderole: Gott Liebe.
For this treasure I paid but a few pennies. I climbed to my attic,
and there, in front of the window flooded with moonlight, as I
was curiously deciphering the enigmatic book, it suddenly seemed
to me that the finger of God was lightly brushing the keyboard
of the universal organ. Thus, droning emeralds rose from the bosom
of the flowers, whose lips swoon to the kisses of the night. Oh,
surprise! Was I dreaming? A terrace, which I did not suspect by
the suave emanation of its orange tree, a young girl, clothed
in white, who was playing harpsichord, an old man, clothed in
black, who was preying on his knees! The book fell out
of my hands.
walked down to the tenants of the terrace. The old man was a minister
of the reformed religion, who had swapped his cold Thuringian
homeland for the mild exile of our Burgundy. The musician was
his unique child, blond and frail seventeen year old beauty, whose
leaves languidness was thinning out; and the book requested of
me was a German eucologe
for use in Lutheran churches and bearing a prince's arms of the
House of Anhalt-Coëthen.
Sir, don't let an ash be stirred that is not yet smothered. Elisabeth
is now just a Beatrix with an azure dress. She is dead, Sir, dead!
And here is the eucologe where she used to pour forth her timid
prayer, the rose where she exhaled her innocent soul. Flower
dried in full bud, as she was! Closed book like the book
of her destiny! Blessed relics she won't ignore in eternity,
because of the tears in which they'll be bathed, after the archangel's
trumpet having broken my tombstone, I'll dash beyond all worlds
toward the adored Virgin to finally sit by her under the eyes
"And art?" I asked him.
"What feeling in art is, was my dolorous conquest. I had
loved, I had prayed. Gott Liebe, God and
Love! But what idea in art is, still deluded my
curiosity. I thought I would find art's complement in nature.
I therefore studied nature.
left my dwelling place in the morning and didn't come back until
evening. Sometimes, leaning on the parapet of a bastion
lain in ruins, I liked, during long hours, to breathe in the wild
and pervasive perfume of the gillyflower that flecked, with its
gold bouquets, the ivy husk of Louis XI's feudal and obsolete
citadel; to see the tranquil
landscape being broken up by a gust of wind, a ray of sunlight,
or a shower of rain, the warblers and the fledglings of the hedges
dupe each other in that nursery, scattered with shadows and light,
the thrushes, which hastened from the mountains, gathering grapes
from a vine, high and bushy enough to hide the fable's hart, the
crows, set off in a tired flock, swooping down from all points
of the sky onto the horse's carcass, now abandoned by the pialey
in some verdant shallow; to hear the washerwomen, who let their
ring out at the edge of the Suzon,
and the child, who was singing a plaintive melody by turning the
rope maker's wheel under the high wall. Sometimes, I cleared
a path for my reveriesof moss and of dew, of silence and
of tranquility, far away from the city. How many times did I rob
the malevolently haunted thickets of their distaffs of red and
tart fruits at the fountain of Jouvence and at the hermitage of
Notre-Dame-d'Étang, the fountain of the spirits and the
fairies, the devil's hermitage!
How many times did I pick up the petrified whelk and the fossilized
coral on Saint-Joseph's stony heights, so gullied by the storm!
How many times did I catch crayfish in the frenzied fords of Tilles,
among the watercresses which shelter the freezing salamander and
among water lilies from which the indolent flowers yawn! How many
times did I spy the grass snake on those bogged beaches of Saulon
which hear only the monotonous coot's scream and the dirge grebe's
moaning! How many times did I stud a candle in the subterranean
caves of Asnières, where the stalactite slowly distills
the eternal drop of water from the clepsydra of the centuries!
How many times did I wail my horn atop the perpendicular rocks
of Chèvre-Morte, the diligence struggling up the path three
hundred feet under my smog's throne! And even at night, the summer
night, balsamic and diaphanous, how many times did I, like a lycanthrope
around a fire lit in the grassy, deserted valley, jig until the
first knocks of the lumberjack's axe shook the oaks! Ah!
Sir, how much allure does solitude have for the poet! I would
have been happy to live in the woods, making no more noise than
the bird that quenches its thirst in the spring, than the bee
that pecks at the hawthorn, than the acorn, whose fall bursts
* * *
The Five Fingers of the Hand
honest family where there's never been bankruptcy, where
one was ever hung.
Kin of Jean de Nivelle
The thumb is that fat Flemish innkeeper of a mocking, saucy temperament,
who is smoking at his door under the sign of the double beer of
The index finger is his wife, dry virago like a stockfish, who,
from morning on, slaps her servant, of whom she is jealous and
caresses the bottle, of which she is amorous.
The middle finger is their son, rough hewn companion, who would
be a soldier if he weren't a brewer and who would be a horse if
he weren't a man.
The ring finger is their daughter, nimble and annoying Zerbine,
who sells lace to the ladies and doesn't sell smiles to the gentlemen.
The pinky finger is the youngest of the family, crying brat who
always shakes about at his mother's belt like a little child hung
at the fang of an ogress.
The five fingers of the hand are the most fantastic stock that
ever ornamented the borders of the noble city of Harlem.
Popinjay. TN: a heraldic
charge or bearing; the sign of an inn; the figure of a parrot
fixed on a pole as a mark to shoot at.
Amphipter. EN: In the
terminology of heraldry, a winged serpent or dragon that one sees
on the occasional coat of arms.
Eucologue. EN: A prayer
book for Sunday church services and religious feasts.
The dukedom of Anhalt was one of the states of Germany, enclaved
within the Prussian province of Saxony. Coëthen was a city
of this dukedom.
Citadel. This castle,
which was forced upon Dijon as a result of Louis XI's tyrannical
mistrust at the time after Charles the Bold's death, when he seized
the dukedom to the detriment of the legitimate heiress Marie of
Burgundy, shot many times against the city, that certainly paid
it back in its own coin. Nowadays, its hoary towers are used as
the retreat of a regiment of gendarmes.
Pialey. Skinner of dead
Rouillot. EN: Name of
the battledore in the Burgundian dialect.
Suzon. A torrent that,
in the past, used to run freely through Dijon. Its waters are
nowadays collected in vaulted canals at the ramparts of the city.
The Val-de-Suzon's trout are famous in Burgundy.
chapel, nowadays closed, was occupied in 1630 by both a chaplain
and a hermit. The latter having been murdered by his companion,
a judgement of parliament condemned him to be put to the wheel
on Morimont's place.
Tilles. Generic name
given to many little rivers which water the plains-region between
Dijon and the Saône.
Werewolf, man-wolf, a kind of goblin, which, according to the
legend, wanders the night transformed as a wolf.
Zerbine. Allusion to
the Zerbinette of Molière's Treacheries of Scapin
(Fourberies de Scapin), personage of the Italian comedy:
a lively, vivacious, young, albeit dignified girl.