Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Why 17th century French poetry is still relevant (really)

I found him in the tiny campus-housing kitchenette. He was playing host to the already raucous party, and so there was only enough time for a quick throwing of arms around each other, a pressing together of bodies, a murmured hello and a good to see you. My face pressed against his shoulder, my mouth on level with the smooth skin of his neck. I didn't seem to have a choice, my lips pressed against his skin. "Careful," he warned. With all the weight of things left unsaid was the man-child I called my boyfriend on the other side of the wall. I knew what he meant. So I slipped. So sue me. I laughed and walked away, and didn't see him again for several hours (see above-mentioned host duties), until he cornered me once again in the small kitchen.

"So do you still love me?" he said.

"Always," I said.

Later I would write about this moment in my journal, not really understanding what it meant. It would be a fantastic ending to this story if I said that it was a symbolic moment, foreshadowing a lifelong friendship that surpassed the bounds of romantic love and circumvented the ravages of time. But really, it was just two drunk kids in an apartment kitchen, not realizing that life doesn't always come with Hollywood endings. Sometimes life doesn't come with any endings at all, for that matter. Plot lines falter and disappear, never to be picked up again. People get jobs, dogs, girlfriends, lives. Phone calls, e-mails slow to a trickle and then stop altogether, until you find yourself saying, "I used to have this friend..." Une fois, j'avais un ami. Now I know why they call it the imperfect.

I don't know why he came to mind tonight. Maybe because I was reading La Fontaine, "Le Corbeau et le Renard," and I remembered how when we first met, he told me he could recite the entire poem from memory, in French. And he proceeded to give a lightning recitation, mangling pronunciation, accent and articulation until the words themselves and even what language it was supposed to be in were rendered unidentifiable.

Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché,
Tenait en son bec un fromage...

Isn't there supposed to be a moral to this story? Something about hey, didn't I used to have some cheese? In any case, it doesn't seem relevant here.

This one, however, does seem fitting:

(from La Fontaine's "Parole de Socrate")

Chacun se dit ami ; mais fol qui s’y repose :
Rien n’est plus commun que ce nom,
Rien n’est plus rare que la chose.

In my own words (and look, rhymey!) :

Everyone calls himself a friend, but he who believes it is a fool;
Nothing is more common than the word,
But a friend is rarer than a jewel.


  1. great translation and sometimes ancient history is more modern than we can possibly know.


  2. Lovely translation. I went through a bad breakup while taking pre-Revolutionary French lit back in the day... It still makes me a little sad.

  3. Where is the party host these days? No chance of a reunion? (Currently married and father of six is a reasonable excuse!)

  4. Not quite...but with a live-in girlfriend and a dog-as-child, it pretty much amounts to the same thing.