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Vive Robert Desnos!

desnos.jpgIn May 1944 the Parisian publishing house, Librarie Gründ, put on sale a collection of thirty nursery rhymes entitled Trente chantefables pour les enfants sages à chanter sur n’importe quel air (Thirty storysongs for good children to sing to any tune). By the time the short volume appeared, its author, the poet Robert Desnos, had been arrested by the Gestapo and was on a journey that would take him through a series of concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, and ultimately to his death.

Desnos’s Chantefables, each of which focuses on an animal, were immediately popular. One of his friends, hiding from German pursuers in an attic in the Dordogne, remembered hearing children playing outside and reciting La sauterelle from the poet’s newly published book:

Saute, saute, sauterelle
Car c’est aujourd’hui jeudi.
Je sauterai, nous dit-elle,
Du lundi au samedi.

Saute, saute, sauterelle,
À travers tout le quartier.
Sautez donc, mademoiselle,
Puisque c’est votre métier.

Hop, grasshopper, hop away,
Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
I shall hop, we heard her say,
From Monday to the latter day.

Hop, grasshopper, hop away,
All around the quarter,
Hop, that’s your job all day,
Being your mother’s daughter.
(That’s what they taught her.)i

Seventy-five years on, some of the verses are still taught in French schools today – often the first experience of poetry for young children. Many have been set to music, including by composers such as Henri Barraud, Witold Lutoslawski and Jean Wiener.

The Chantefables hark back to the tradition of Charles Perrault fairy tales and Mother Goose folk rhymes, while making the occasional nod to more modern antecedents – for instance to Apollinaire’s Bestiary in Desnos’s poem ‘Le Dromadaire’. The title Chantefables itself evokes a medieval French literary genre where spoken prose was mixed with sung poetry.

crickets.jpgAt the same time, the popular, collective and sometimes dream-like nature of the poems also reflect Desnos’s own preoccupations and personal history. As Katharine Conley and other biographers have pointed out, the poet was born and grew up in the heart of Paris near Les Halles, where his father was a wholesale butcher, and he retained a life-long interest in combining low and high culture, both in his writing and his pioneering work as a radio producer and presenter.ii During the 1920s, he became a leading member of the Surrealist group, particularly adept at autohypnosis and automatic writing, pouring forth astonishing images and complex plays on words and sounds. Desnos had also written and illustrated poems for the children of friends such as Darius and Madeleine Milhaud in the decade before the war and had considered writing fairy tales during the long months of the phoney war in late 1939 and early 1940.

The fluidity and apparent simplicity of the Chantefables belie a very sophisticated poetic technique, which makes use of a wide range of metres and rhyme schemes. As might be expected, shorter metres, such as the octosyllabic line which has a long association in French with song, predominate and the weighty 12-syllable alexandrine is notable by its absence. However, Desnos does use the occasional longer line for effect, as in his delightful ‘Le Pélican’, where the final two 10-syllable lines, coming after a series of octosyllables, wittily suggest how the sequence of egg-laying could continue ad infinitum unless someone intervenes. Note also the dense sound patterning, with the nasal vowel [ɑ̃] threaded through the poem, for instance in the first stanza with Jonathan/étant/ans/pélican/dans/orient.

Le capitaine Jonathan,
Étant âgé de dix-huit ans,
Capture un jour un pélican
Dans une île d’Extrême-Orient.

Le pélican de Jonathan,
Au matin, pond un œuf tout blanc
Et il en sort un pélican
Lui ressemblant étonnamment.

Et ce deuxième pélican
Pond à son tour, un œuf tout blanc
D’où sort, inévitablement,
Un autre qui en fait autant.

Cela peut durer pendant très longtemps
Si l’on ne fait pas d’omelette avant.

A captain known as Jonathan,
Who’s turned eighteen, become a man,
Captures, one day, a pelican,
On Gan, Hainan, or Banaban.

The pelican of Jonathan
Lays a white egg, at nine a.m.
Out of it jumps a pelican
With an astonishing resem-

Blance to the first. This pelican
Lays its white egg in turn, and then,
Of course, another pelican
Jumps out to do the same again.

This state of things may never end
Unless an omelette bucks the trend.

Desnos was one of many poets who contributed to the Resistance movement during the German occupation. He formally joined the Resistance cell, AGIR, in mid-1942, around the time of the first major roundup of Jews in Paris, helping to gather information and produce false documents. Poetry, meanwhile, was to play an important part in helping to spread Resistance ideas, since it could be easily memorised in a period when it was dangerous to carry illicit printed material and poetic ambiguity could be used to hide subversive messages within apparently innocuous texts. Using pseudonyms, Desnos contributed overtly resistant poems to the clandestine anthology L’Honneur des poètes, first published in July 1943, while his major collection Contrée, appeared ‘semi-legally’ – that is, in bookshops but in small enough numbers to evade the notice of the censors – shortly after his arrest in February 1944.

chantefables.jpgDoes the fact that Chantefables was published ‘legally’ under the poet’s own name and contains verses suitable for children mean it was devoid of political content? In practice, the volume’s celebration of ‘joie de vivre’ and the poet’s use of traditional French metres, stanzaic forms and rhyming could be interpreted as a covert act of resistance when the Vichy government and the German occupiers were imposing a moralistic and increasingly brutal regime on the French population. Louis Aragon, a fellow Surrealist and resistant, who had once reviled Desnos for using classically traditional alexandrine versification – the antithesis of Surrealist practice – but who became a close comrade during the Occupation, reverted to using 8, 10 and 12-syllable lines in his wartime poetry and in essays argued strongly for the ‘Frenchness’ of rhyme (although he also introduced modern twists).

Some scholars have seen more direct references to contemporary events in the Chantefables. The zebra’s stripes for instance are described as the shadows of prison bars, while in ‘The Cuckoo’ hard times have disappeared by Saint Martin’s day, traditionally celebrated on the 11 November when the armistice ending the First World War also came into force.

A poem such as ‘La fourmi’ lends itself to an even more sombre interpretation:

Une fourmi de dix-huit mètres
Avec un chapeau sur la tête,
Ça n’existe pas, ça n’existe pas.
Une fourmi traînant un char
Plein de pingouins et de canards,
Ça n’existe pas, ça n’existe pas.
Une fourmi parlant français,
Parlant latin et javanais,
Ça n’existe pas, ça n’existe pas.
            Eh! Pourquoi pas?

Ant, an eighteen-metre ant,
Hat on head insouciant,
Cannot happen on this planet.
Ant that hauls a pair of trucks
Crammed with penguins and with ducks,
Cannot happen on this planet.
Ant that spouts with fluent ease
Latin, French and Javanese,
Cannot happen on this planet.
            Or can it?

Could the ‘fourmi’, as the novelist Gaëlle Nohant has suggested, be an oblique reference to the town of Fourmies, located in an industrial area of northern France where locomotives, 18 metres in length including their coal tenders, were built?iii Who are these different animals that are being crammed into wagons and transported amid this babel of languages? Surely this couldn’t happen – or could it?

plaque.jpgDesnos died of typhus at Terezin camp in the modern Czech Republic on the morning of 8 June 1945, a few weeks after the prisoners had been liberated by Soviet troops and less than a month before his 45th birthday. He is now recognised as one of the most important Resistance poets. A plaque commemorates the years he spent at 19 rue Mazarine in Paris’s 6th arrondissement, while two extracts from his poems for adult readers are inscribed on the walls of the Monument to the Martyrs of the Deportation, just behind Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. He is the only poet so honoured. Yet Desnos himself felt that his Chantefables might be the work for which he was most remembered. If we think how ingrained nursery rhymes are in our own memories, who’s to say he was wrong?


David Hunter
June 2020

The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation would particularly like to thank Timothy Adès for giving us permission to use his translations in this blog and Cat Zaz for permission to use her image of La Sauterelle.

i All translations © Timothy Adès and image of La Sauterelle © Cat Zaza from Storysongs/Chantefables published in a bilingual edition by Agenda Editions, 2014

ii Katherine Conley, Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life, University of Nebraska Press, 2003

iii Nohant’s novel, Légende d’un dormeur éveillé (2017) evokes the life of Robert Desnos

Posted on:Friday 5th June, 2020