Sunday in the Place des Vosges

Before the French Revolution the Place des Vosges, in the Marais area of Paris and close to the former site of the Bastille, was known as the Place Royale. At the centre of it prowls a statue of Louis XIII, donated to this gullible monarch by his adviser, the wily and ambitious Cardinal Richelieu. In 1791, anxious to encourage funding for his military campaigns, Napoleon set off a cannonade in the square, announcing that  henceforth it would be named after the people of Les Vosges, the department that had  contributed most to the cost of  his revolutionary wars. Later, Victor Hugo lived there; his house is now a museum. The square as a whole stands as a tribute to France’s republican traditions:

 

For Christine Jordis

 

Today the people are here with a vengeance. Their cause

And hearts laid bare, these sons and daughters stride

Over the dust of kingdoms and the shuttered pride

Of this once royal square. Together they pause

Near the sagging Renaissance colonnade

Where Victor Hugo strolled, to listen briefly to a

Raucous scratch brass band serenade

The passing citizenry in ramshackle Dixieland

Blues. Above them, disregarded, ride

 

The regal equipage and pawing steed of their

One-time King, whose muffled winter drum

Limps in echoes now campaigning’s done,

Gone like his pomp, his palaces, his creed

– The lost inheritance of Louis Treize

Where, beneath the statue a devious cardinal

Once gave his lord, somebody’s daubed the phrase

  “Sa capacité perdue” in bright sanguinary

Paint, congealed like wax on a lawyer’s deed.

 

Around the plinth children are building castles

In the sand. Squinting into the waning

Sun, infant monarchs are displaying

Tiny palaces, neat Versailles de poche.

Thus all create a chateau of their own

– Each one a king or queen in training –

And know this square is theirs, this mound their throne,

This soil their presence room where, spreading

Bread for the pigeons, they banquet on brioches.

 

Two centuries ago, Napoleon’s cannon

Thundered our joint possession to the eaves.

And, now that our freedom’s granted, we each

Assume this style of doing as we please,

Knowing these others strolling to and fro

Are all co-owners of our real estate:

These children, mothers – even that lone girl who’s

So haughty that no one wants her – all celebrate

The legitimate enjoyment of our ease.

 

And only a certain gaucherie in the band, its

Stops and scrapes – the eagerness of all

Who play or listen – may serve us to recall

That disreputable local gang who,

Braving grapeshot and the Bastille’s walls,

Blundered a forced entrance and sang snatches

Of raucous song, rushing to haul

Us blinking out into the afternoon:

Our chains sawn through, our livery in patches.

 

Lovers, Vosgiens, keepers of the place,

You who survived the famine and the flood,

Who poured within this little ample space

The tribute and the sweetness of our blood,

Gather to these echoes now, flung

Not from the maelstrom of old Europe’s wars

– From any Louis’ or any Emperor’s drum –

But from the concert of a brighter cause:

The people’s Sunday, this wholly civil peace.

 

Robert Fraser

 

 


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