The Poet

25 maj 2009


Ur Maurice Sandoz Fantastic Memories:

”’This afternoon,’ said my mother, ’a pianist and a poet are coming to tea. Whatever you do, do not suggest that the pianist should play. This is his first visit and it would be in the worst possible taste.’

I must admit that this warning struck me as quite superfluous. Did not I, twice a week, have to sit for one solid hour on a hard and wabbly stool, beside Madame Froebel, being admonished to ’mind my thumb’ and ’mark the time firmly’ on the yellow keys of an ancient piano? And Madame Froebel, overconscientious, was in the habit of giving precisely sixty minutes in return for a ticket inscribed ’one hour.’

If my lesson was considered to have gone well Madame Froebel, as a reward, would sit down to the piano and play, better, I must admit, than myself, ’The Merry Peasant,’ and Heller’s ’Berceuse,’ the pieces which I then happened to be studying.

And as I had good reason to know every note of these compositions it gave me no pleasure to hear them played and never, no, never, would it have occurred to me to extend so rash an invitation to the expected visitor. It seemed to me inevitable that he would burst into the ’Berceuse’ or ’The Merry Peasant.’ I was somewhat surprised that my mother had not admonished me in the same fashion with regard to the poet, but the omission only served to prejudice me in his favour, and from the moment he arrived, I adopted him, to the exclusion of the pianist. The latter struck me as boorish, while the poet impressed me with his supreme elegance.

His hands in particular fascinated me. Their polished nails shone like dewdrops; they might have been mirrors for skylarks and no wonder that a young starling like myself fell for them at once.

His face certainly showed the pallor and gravity which I realized could belong only to a poet.

Being anxious to ingratiate myself with this disciple of Apollo, I never ceased to press the sugar basin on him, and no doubt for fear of hurting my feelings, he accepted lump after lump. Poor poet! He drank syrup that day, but I was in seventh heaven.

’Monsieur,’ I ventured timidly at last, when he had put down his cup, ’how does one write poetry?’

With an air half serious, half joking, he said: ’You need for that a Dictionary of Rhymes, plenty of cigarettes, and about ten years’ serious study of the classics.’

A gloom seemed to settle over my future. I could, at a pinch, ask for a Dictionary of Rhymes as my next birthday present, I might even succeed in appropriating my father’s cigarettes, but ten years of classical study seemed to me unsurmountable.

The two visitors departed and I was left dreaming.

But I burned to see the poet again. I succeeded, and I do not think he was displeased to hold forth to such a fervent and attentive listener. It is a fact that very few people dislike being listened to religiously.

He it was who really taught me to read and write. I am not alluding to the mechanical actions we learn at school, but to the power to read slowly, with attention, striving to visualize, down to the most intimate detail, those images that the author tries to evoke. He taught me to analyze, first by ear, then by sight, the harmony that flows from a happy phrase.

If I reserve a place for the poet in these recollections it is not from gratitude for the many true, precise, and useful things he taught me. No, it is because he gave me the key of gold that opens the doors of imaginary palaces and because he made me at home in their capricious labyrinths, where he taught me to wander about but never lose myself.

One afternoon in September, not long after our first meeting, the poet deigned to visit our garden, which he had not yet seen and which I was only too proud to exhibit.

Instead of bread and salt, those symbols of hospitality, I proposed to offer him a ripe and absolutely perfect pear, the only fruit of a tree that I had planted with my own hands, the dirty hands of a little gardener, three years before.

It was the first fruit of a ducal tree (a ’Duchesse’ pear tree). In offering it to the poet I was voluntarily sacrificing my greed, my curiosity, and three years of impatience on the altar of my admiration.

The poet contemplated the pear which hung, motionless, at the end of a branch that bowed beneath its weight.

’No, do not pick it now,’ he said. ’We will come back for it in an hour. By that time it will have attained all the attributes of perfection.’

I was, I must admit, very much astonished. But as such desires counted as orders I obeyed, quite at sea as to how the passage of one hour could influence the qualities of an already ripe and beautiful pear.

I introduced my friends the plants and flowers to my friend the writer. I showed him the Calycanthus, which gives out an aroma of strawberries over an area of a hundred meters; the aromatic turpentine; the Wellingtonia, which five people, with their arms extended, could not span. I presented him to our cedars, our chestnuts, our copper beeches, and a host of others. All these I paraded in front of the no-doubt-rather-bored eyes of the master to whom for the moment I had elected to act as mentor.

At the end of a long hour a turn in the path brought us once more to the pear tree.

I picked the fruit and handed it to my companion.

’Tell me, monsieur,’ I said (I continued to address him in this way for several months, for it did not seem to me that anything would ever authorize me to address a poet by his Christian name), ’tell me, please, why you like that pear better now than you did some time ago?’

’When we came this way an hour ago,’ answered the poet, ’the tree was in shade and its fruit hanging inert and frozen, a lifeless thing. Now it is bathed in sunlight. Place it against your cheek. Don’t you feel as if you were pressing another cheek, warm as your own? Now, with every particle of that fruit I shall taste a little of that sun that bestows its rays so charily in this terrible region of ours, which, for reasons that I cannot pretend to understand, we have christened the Temperate Zone.’

It was thus, in a garden, at the close of a beautiful day, that the poet showed me one of those secret paths that are sometimes sought for for so long by those who seek perfection in the art of living.


I was destined to visit him a year later, in Paris. It was at the beginning of October and I was with my parents, who had decided to spend the autumn in Brittany.

I was obsessed less with the prospect of seeing the sea for the first time than with that of at last visiting the home of a poet. And I was not disappointed.

An ivy-covered court separated the house from the road, stifling and deadening all sounds from without.

To my great joy I discovered that the traditional bell had been replaced by a knocker. It was made, if I remember clearly, in the form of a satyr and one had to lift him up by the horns, or possibly pull his beard, to make him fulfill his office.

The door gave on to an antechamber hung with tapestries, bearing orange and lemon trees growing in dark green tubs and embellished with fruit and birds.

Then came the drawing room, divided up by screens in Japanese lacquer. Little tables and fragile chairs were dotted here and there.

These articles of furniture seemed to me so delicate and frail that my admiration for the poet who could live among them without breaking anything increased.

In the middle of the room hung a Venetian chandelier of opal glass. It floated in the silence like a gigantic jellyfish. The felt carpet fascinated me almost as much as the chandelier. It seemed to me to be woven with those azure butterflies known as the Argus, whose wings bear a large blue eye, wide open on the summer sun.

Against the wall, to right and left of a black marble fireplace, long, narrow mirrors faced other mirrors of the same shape, and, reflecting each other, formed dream galleries which seemed to go on to infinity.

The master of the house did the honors. He showed me a peasant kitchen which served as his dining room, and which, at the moment, was in the sole possession of a green parrot.

He also showed me his bedroom, almost entirely occupied by an immense bed. I particularly admired the canopy, the corners of which were royally adorned by four ostrich plumes.

Above the cushions which ornamented the bed by day the wall was decorated with a trophy. Looking back I can still see those ancient instruments, arranged in a sheaf. A guitar in the form of a lyre, a mandolin, a viola d’amore, and a shepherd’s flute decorated with ribbons. I almost forgot the tambourine with its tiny gold cymbals. No doubt this orchestra lulled the sleeping poet’s dreams with sweet harmony.

No, I was not disillusioned. And yet, toward the end of my visit I was conscious of a slight chill. Outside, it was raining softly. The light was gray. The corner of the sky that one could see over the ivy clustered round the window was cinder-colored. Everything spoke of autumn.

’I do not like October,’ I said to the poet. ’It’s the first month that makes me think of winter.’

’You will love October in the days to come, when you are tired of the bright colors which blind one in summer. But, as you regret the summer so much, I will bring it back to you.’

He had risen and was pulling down long, lemon-yellow blinds over the windows.

’It is better already,’ he said, indicating with a gesture the illusion of sunshine that had suddenly pervaded the room, ’but we can improve on it. They say, from laziness or cowardice: ’Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well,’ which is merely a way of saying that it wasn’t really ’well’ in the first instance.’

With these words he descended to the court and closed the outside shutters, in such a manner as to leave a space between them only as large as the palm of one’s hand.

The effect was magical. In contrast to the dusk already achieved in the room the blinds, in the tiny spaces that were lighted from outside, gave out that ardent note they would have struck had a pitiless sun been shining on the windows. It seemed as if the shutters had been hastily closed to keep out the heat and glare of an August day.

The poet placed a bouquet of red roses in the path of one of these rays. It was just another bit of summer introduced into the scene. But even then my new friend did not seem quite satisfied.

He took from the chimney piece a little cardboard box and shook it with an air of mystery.

’Here is summer,’ he said. ’Here, at last, is summer.’

And he opened the apparently empty box.

At once the room was alive with the buzz of flying bees.

For an instant they filled it with their humming. Then there was a sudden shock, a double or triple impact against the windowpane. Bewildered, they stopped. A silence of two seconds, then they flew to the other end of the room, only to return and hurl themselves against the window, drunk with the false beams of the sun, a mirage evoked by the fantasy of a poet!

And that humming, that repeated impact against the window, brought back those lovely vanished days so perfectly that, when my host asked me to choose, I took a glass of lemonade instead of tea.

’He’s a magician,’ I thought, ’like the ones in the fairy tales.’

Years passed. I followed the advice of the poet. I even arrived sometimes at a comprehension of the technique of his simple yet subtle style. I knew the methods by which, at will, he surrendered himself to joy or melancholy. I even tried to pilfer some of his secrets.

Then one day he disappeared, leaving no trace.

His friends notified the police and the detectives did their best, but in vain.

There was a suggestion that he had departed secretly to taste the pleasures of some tropical island and that the ship had been wrecked on the way.

But I think myself that he had voluntarily left a world, the enchantment of which he knew he had exhausted.

When I give my imagination full reign I see the poet, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, suddenly spread his wings and sail through the air to the enchanted lawns of the Elysian fields, bearing a crystal lute and picturesquely convoyed by a swarm of golden bees.”

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