The poetic reveries of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore’s verses

These passages are from The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s a maddening yet enormously fulfilling and rewarding book. The excerpt I’ve quoted is from the first chapter, in which Bachelard writes about the significance of a house. I read it initially but didn’t think much of it.

For reasons I can’t remember, I reread parts of the chapter, and the first part in bold struck me like an unexpected punch to the throat. It’s a verse from a poem by the French poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. Since I read it, the line has been stuck in my head, and I’ve been mumbling it over and over again.

I pointed out earlier that the unconscious is housed. It should be added that it is well and happily housed, in the space of its happiness. The normal unconscious knows how to make itself at home everywhere, and psychoanalysis comes to the assistance of the ousted unconscious, of the unconscious that has been roughly or insidiously dislodged. But psychoanalysis sets the human being in motion, rather than at rest. It calls on him to live outside the abodes of his unconscious, to enter into life’s adventures, to come out of himself.

And naturally, its action is a salutary one. Because we must also give an exterior destiny to the interior being. To accompany psychoanalysis in this salutary action, we should have to undertake a topoanalysis of all the space that has invited us to come out of ourselves.

Emmenez.-moi, chemins! . . . (Carry me along, oh roads…) wrote Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, recalling her native Flanders (Un ruisseau de la Scarpe).

And what a dynamic, handsome object is a path! How precise the familiar hill paths remain for our muscular consciousness! A poet has expressed all this dynamism in one single line:

O, mes chemins et leur cadence Jean Caubere, Deserts (Oh, my roads and their cadence.)

When I relive dynamically the road that “climbed” the hill, I am quite sure that the road itself had muscles, or rather, counter-muscles. In my room in Paris, it is a good exercise for me to think of the road in this way. As I write this page, I feel freed of my duty to take a walk: I am sure of having gone out of my house.

And indeed we should find countless intermediaries between reality and symbols if we gave things all the movements they suggest. George Sand, dreaming beside a path of yellow sand, saw life flowing by. “What is more beautiful than a road?” she wrote. “It is the symbol and the image of an active, varied life.” (Consuelo, vol. II, p. 116).

Each one of us, then, should speak of his roads, his crossroads, his roadside benches; each one of us should make a Surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows. Thoreau said that he had the map of his fields engraved in his soul. And Jean Wahl once wrote:

Le moutonnement des hates C’est en mot que je l’ai. (The frothing of the hedges I keep deep inside me.)

It’s one beautiful and lyrical verse, but it contains multitudes. There’s an inexplicable quality to the verse that sets you in a oneiric trance. It could be because roads have a great many symbolic meanings. They signify possibilities, escape, and freedom. They also have the magical ability to induce mental time travel. When you are walking along an empty road, it’s hard not to get lost in daydreams.

Meaning of oneiric: Of or pertaining to dreams.

I can’t quite explain why the verse struck me so profoundly. I wanted to share it here as soon as I reread it, but I was searching for an English translation. The more I searched, the more it seemed like we had forgotten Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. Very little of her work has been translated into English, and I could only find one small book. It took a few weeks for me to get my hands on the book, but sadly, this poem wasn’t in it.

In the end, I had to rely on ChatGPT, Claude, and Gemini for a decent translation since the only French I know is Va te faire foutre, or “go fuck yourself.” Each AI bot had some subtle changes, but I found Gemini’s translation pretty good. I encourage you to use these AI translation tools to read multiple translations.

You can read the poem’s title as either “A Stream of the Scarpe” or “A Brook of the Scarpe.” The Scarpe is a river in France. It’s a beautiful and rich poem that has multiple interwoven themes, like connection to nature, the innocence of childhood, separation from one’s home, alienation, loss, nostalgia, hope, revival, and motherly love.

Growing up, I was lucky that I got to spend part of my childhood in proper villages. I spent time on farms with my grandparents and uncles, and I at least have some sense of the joys of spending time in nature. Reading Marceline Desbordes-Valmore’s lyrical verses made me think of those golden childhood days.

The poem also made me think about the profound sense of alienation I’ve developed with the places I grew up in as I’ve gotten older. Over the past 3–4 years, it’s hard to describe it properly, but I’ve been struggling with a strong and profound yearning for these places. It’s like the places where I spent the happiest moments of my childhood are unrelentingly calling me home. Marceline’s verses give language to these feelings.

Poetry is the language that sits really close to feelings that defy language. Poetry nudges some of our feelings of joy or confusion or desire toward feelings that we can recognize and describe. I take solace in the fact that it’s poems that we turn to in big moments of change — like the loss of someone or a marriage or the birth of a child — because poems are resourceful for finding terms that remind us of what we live with but don’t always bring into speech. — Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate

Once you read this poem, you will understand what Tracy Smith means. So let these poetic roads carry you along:

A brook of the Scarpe

Yes, I had treasures… my memory is full of them. I have dreamed-of banquets where the orphan goes to drink. Oh! what child of the plains, along the green paths, Has not, in their wandering games, possessed the universe?

Carry me along, oh roads!… But no, it is no longer the hour, I would have to run back to where one weeps, Without having looked to the bottom of the brook Whose wave wet the willow of my cradle.

It ran towards the Scarpe, crossing our streets Which were purified by the freshness of its swollen waters; And childhood with its long cries greeted its return Which made all the surrounding wells overflow.

Schoolchildren of that time, lively and noisy troop, Where are your gifts thrown into the fleeing water? The open book, sometimes your shoes for ships, And your little gardens of moss and shrubs?

Native air! food of flavor without equal, Who nourishes your children and kisses them all around; Native air impregnated with the breaths of our fields, Who makes hearts alike and inclinations alike!

And the long innocence, and the joyful smile Of our own, who have no more beautiful book to read Than their open faces and their big blue eyes, And their deep timbre from which comes sure conversation!…

Since I left your blessed breaths, Your families with easily united hands, I don’t know what bitterness has mixed with my bread, And everywhere on my day a tear has trembled.

And I no longer dared to live with a full chest Nor breathe all the air that my breath needs. One would have said that a witness would have opposed it… To live for the sake of living, oh no! I no longer dared!

No, the dear memory is only a cry of suffering! Come then, you, whose course can cross France; To your soft light I will surrender my forehead, And in your streams at least my tears will be lost.

Come revive the heart dried up with nostalgia, Take it, and flood it with fresh energy. Coming out to water the grass of our fields, Come, if only for an hour, water my regrets!

Bring with your sound one of our bees Whose swarm, though absent, buzzes in my ears, She always talks about it! they will say… But, my God, Young, we loved these bits of fire so much!

These drops of sun in our azure that shines, Dancing on the distant picture of the family, Visitors to the plains where so many flowers lodge, Honey that flies emanating from the celestial warmth!

I have seen so many pass in my father’s enclosure That it swarms at the bottom of everything I hope for; On you whose fast water has delighted my days, And gave me this voice that always sighs.

In this poignant love that I strive to return, Which I suffered for a long time before understanding it, As one rocks the worry of a pale child, Brook, you would give me back what I lack here.

Your dull sound, mingling with my mother’s spinning wheel, Taking away some bitter thought from her heart, When to give it to us she was looking over there For a delayed happiness that did not return.

This mother, she is still sitting on your shore; There she is talking to me, O sonorous memory! O my native palaces that have often been closed to me! There she is reopening them to her happy child!

I seize her dress, and her hands, and her soul again! On my half-open lip she pours her flame! No! for all the gold in the world you would not pay me This breath, this brook that makes my steps tremble!

Link to the original poem.