by James Graham
Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2008
Word Count: 874
Related Works: At the crossroads
Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises
I walk the Way of the Communards (taxi
from Quai d’Orsay to the main gates
of Père Lachaise - C’est l’endroit, ici.
Merci, Monsieur.) This is the place.
At the tourist office, first station of pilgrimage,
I ask directions not to the tomb of Piaf (whom I love)
or Balzac or Delacroix, but to the Mur des Fédérés,
the monument to seamstresses and metal-workers.
The way is steep. I climb, and rest, and climb again.
This is the way of sorrow. This is the place.
Facts are incised stones. They stand against time.
A bronze-worker ran the postal service (efficiently, all
historians agree). Though eighty-five percent
of the Commune’s revenue was spent
on arms and men to keep their fragile city
safe for two months against the murderous hate
of the grand bourgeoisie, the Versaillais,
Still, children of Paris had school meals. This fact
of their full stomachs is built into the wall.
For two months there was no hunger in the city.
This fact is written in the enduring stone.
There are roses here, and a simple plaque,
Aux morts de la Commune - for here in the final days
seamstresses and metal-workers died; and widows
who came to claim the bloody corpses of their men
were machine-gunned here, their children too.
Je ne vivrai point sans souffrir un jour.
Every man and woman and child who lived,
or was found, in the Rue des Rosiers, was killed: a model
for our modern massacres of innocents.
Elsewhere, commanders of the Versaillais
had prisoners marched past them, and
‘à droite’, ‘à gauche’ they ordered:
death or hard labour. This is the place
of sorrow. C’est l’endroit, ici. I am not alone:
some are still climbing and others have already climbed
the steep pilgrims’ path, and stand silent here.
C’était un crime terrible, n’est-ce pas?
- Oui, contre la classe ouvriere.
They were not blameless, the Communards:
their principal crime was their self-government,
but there were ordinary crimes: two generals were murdered
(in the same Rue des Rosiers) and a dozen priests;
and many a saint had a broken nose, and many a cherub
lay dismembered on the floors of churches;
But I declare, with Severine who wrote in the Cri du Peuple:
‘I am with the poor always, despite their errors,
despite their faults, despite their crimes’.
Et j’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises.
This poem resulted from a visit I made last summer to the memorial to the dead of the Paris Commune (1871). It was one of the most moving experiences of my life and one that will remain with me. The poem turned out to be one of those that need footnotes - but after trial and error I found it was the only kind of poem I could write on this subject.
My apologies to any members who know French history and language and don’t need to be told most of this. If any of my facts or translations are wrong, please correct me!
The Paris Commune. The Commune lasted from 26 March until 28 May 1871. In the course of the Franco-Prussian War, which had been started by the French in July 1870, the Prussian army reached Paris and laid seige to the city. The government retreated to Versailles. The years leading up to the war had been one of the most wretched in the city’s history, at least as far as the poor were concerned. A telling statistic is that about 60% of the dead were thrown into common pits because families could not afford a funeral.
After a popular uprising, the Commune was elected on March 26. During its short lifetime it introduced votes for women; set up canteens in poor districts and provided school meals; began paying pensions to war widows, including women who had lost their men but had not been legally married to them; ordered pawnbrokers to redeem goods without charge; and other measures.
The Versailles government saw the Commune as a serious threat. As soon as peace had been made with the Prussians, government forces were sent into Paris to ‘restore order’. The way they went about this can only be described as an orgy of killing.
Père Lachaise. The cemetery in the Paris suburb of Belleville where many famous people are buried. Belleville however was one of the most strongly Communard districts, and against a wall at the south-eastern end of the cemetery, thousands were more or less indiscriminately shot. The wall (the ‘Federals Wall’) now carries a memorial plaque, and nearby there is a memorial to French men and women who died in the Spanish Civil War.
‘Le Temps des Cerises’ (Cherry Time) was a popular sentimental song at the time of the Commune. The lines quoted in the poem are:
Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises - When we will sing (about) cherry time.
Je ne vivrai point sans souffrir un jour - I will not live one day without suffering.
Et j’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises - And I will always love cherry time.
The Cri du Peuple was a Paris newspaper.
Conversation at the wall. ‘It was a terrible crime, wasn’t it?’ ‘Yes, against the working class.’