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La feuille

De ta tige détachée
Pauvre feuille desséchée,
Où vas-tu? — Je n’en sais rien.
L’orage a brisé le chêne
Qui seul était mon soutien:
De son inconstante haleine,
Le zéphir ou l’aquilon
Depuis ce jour me promène
De la forêt à la plaine,
De la montagne au vallon.
Je vais où le vent me mène,
Sans me plaindre ou m’effrayer;
Je vais où va toute chose,
Où va la feuille de rose
Et la feuille de laurier.


Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834) fut l’auteur de tragédies et de Fables. (Source: Mon premier livre de poèmes / choisis par Jacques Charpentreau, 1983. Collection Petite Enfance heureuse)
Antoine-Vincent Arnault lived in the “interesting times” of revolution in France, and his own life partook generously of the social and political upheavals of the turn of that century. He later authored a 4-volume memoir, Souvenirs d’un sexagénaire (1833) and collaborated on the Vie politique et militaire de Napoléon 1er (1822). Though his literary endeavours were primarily as dramatist, he is now better known for his Fables (published 1813, 1815 and 1826), collections of “graceful verse” (Wikipedia).

A fable is a short work—usually a story—whose characters tend to be animals (or plants, or other non-human elements of nature), and which communicates a moral, a lesson about life / living life, for humans. I see it as a macro-metaphor which, as poems do, can contain (micro-)metaphors within it. Allegory is the proper term for such a “macro-metaphor”. A wonderful definition appears in A Treasury of Poems for Almost Every Possibility, edited by Allie Esiri and Rachel Kelly, illustrated by Natasha Law: an allegory is a method of telling two stories simultaneously, one of which carries a moral or social message. (Examples given are Aesop’s Fables and Orwell’s Animal Farm.)
“La feuille” is such a simple poem, but it can be followed on several levels — which makes translation not as easy as it may initially appear. (I’ve not yet sought out translations of the poem into English.) Consider the alliteration in the first line: d t t d tsh‘ — is it accidental or deliberate on the poet’s part? Funny thing is, I didn’t truly notice it until I began memorizing the poem /am working on improving my French language skills/. Making this effort to memorize is a little like drawing / sketching a picture from life; you develop an intimacy with your subject which otherwise might be difficult to achieve. In fact, the subject/object boundary itself begins to blur, even reverse, in an unexpected way.)

As for the ‘spirit’ of the poem . . . it brings to my mind a recent broadcast by CBC Radio, on the weekly program Tapestry (available as podcast); its very engaging host, Mary Hynes, interviews Philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci, who has challenged himself to live like a Stoic for one year. It’s a most interesting conversation about cultivating the Stoic virtues of courage, self-control, practical wisdom, and justice / equanimity in the modern world (the segment runs for about 23 minutes, one-half of the hour-long show).

(to activate the link, add www. in front of it in your browser)

Finally, a very tertiary and finnicky note: the book I have in hand (Mon premier livre…) names the series title as Petite Enfance heureuse, in a couple of places. Whereas it’s my understanding that French-language titles are to have only the first word capitalized . . . though I’m sure I’ve seen titles beginning with the definite article (indefinite, too?) also capitalizing the noun following. Maybe after an initial article or adjective, it’s fine. Un peu de mystère!