Death and Poetry

Sat, Sep 3, 2011 at 11:11 PM

"The Story of Civilization", Vol XI, "The Age of Napoleon", "The two most famous poets of the Revolutionary decade began far apart in decoration and style, and ended under the same knife in 1794. Philippe-Francois Favre d'Eglantine composed pretty verses and successful plays; he became president of the Cordeliers Club, secretary to Danton, and deputy in the Convention, where he voted for the expulsion of the Girondins and the beheading of the King. Appointed to the committee for devising a new calendar, he invented many of the picturesquely seasonal names for its months. On January 11, 1794, he was arrested on charges of malversation, forgery, and dealings with foreign agents and mercantile profiteers. At his trial he sang his charming ballad "Il pleut, il pleut, bergere; rentre tes blancs moutons" ("It is raining, it is raining, shepherd; bring in your white sheep"); but the jurors had no ear for pastorals. On his way to the guillotine (April 5, 1794) he distributed copies of his poems to the people."

There is a certain lunacy in revolutions. There is a peculiar virtue in lunacy during lunatic times. What better description of the Terror in Paris than this? One of the two greatest poets of the period reciting poems at his trial and distributing copies of his poems on the way to the guillotine?

Should one laugh, or should one stand and salute at the death of Philippe-Francois. Do you see his final actions as silly vanity, or as amazing calm in the face of death. There are certainly less courageous ways to meet death than reciting poems on the way to the guillotine.

There are many stories like this of the Revolution. Men who had served the cause gallantly, sent remorselessly to their dooms on momentary fits of passion or political flurries.

Death was in the air, but Opera and Theatre flourished, Parisians continued to sing and dance and drink. Actors and singers were idolized.

If you were sent to the Guillotine, well, you were not alone. You joined a worthy and distinguished company.

Philippe had the faults of a poet, falling in love with the passions of his time. He died like a man, and a poet, facing death with poetry, defying death with art, his life's work.

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