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.