In November 1875, in a gas-lit flat over a rain-soaked street in Tours, a law student sat together with a young Portuguese widow. They were rifling through her letters. She had been a minor actress in Bordeaux and had played at the Haymarket Theatre and elsewhere. She had had an English lover who once gave her an anthology of poems. “Regarde, c’est vraiment bien,” she said, pronouncing it vrai-mon, and she went on to read with her Portuguese accent and voice:
Tiger, tiger burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The young Frenchman, who knew some English, was charmed with this, and right then and there the result was the following:
Tigre féroce, aux yeux de charbon
Brûlant et hurlant dans la forêt nocturne
Quel grand chasseur, quel petit peintre
Encadreraient ta logique fière?
“Grand” chasseur and “petit” peintre reflected the kind of royalist anti-intellectualism that this law student fancied circa 1875, but “logique fière” for “fearful symmetry” was the inevitable intrusion of the Cartesian spirit.
Two decades passed. Our young Frenchman had inherited of a modest fortune, wherewith he bought himself a seat in the département of Ile-et-Vilaine and even had a small volume of verse published by the title of Essais parnassiens, all of which gave him a mildly sophisticated reputation in the provincial town where he lived. His subsequent destiny interests us no more. What concerns us is the fact that on a bright summer day in 1894 Essais parnassiens was picked up on the Quai Voltaire by Alistair Constant, an aspiring young habitué of the Café Royal circle, fresh out from the occasionally strawberries-and-champagne world of Oxford and hopeful of appearing in print in the Orange Book, which was to be launched in the autumn of that year. Alistair had just received this telegram from Oscar: “DEAR BOY. ANY ENGLISH POEM WILL DO AS LONG AS IT IS IN FRENCH.” Whereafter Alistair composed:
Fiery orange, tiger lily
Crying high for you to see
Defying the trampling hunter
How small your logic seems to me.
A smallish little thing. There occurred now the Entente Cordiale and, in consequence, a rise in the interest devoted to English literature, including the onetime, for Frenchmen, incomprehensible field of English poesy. Aristide Enjalbert, who found the first (and only) number of the Orange Book in the Reading Circle of Pan, dreamed of the strange and savage feline beauty of Paris in the night: images of La Dame aux Camelias and of the eventual odor of leather and gasoline fumes swept through his head. By 1910, the Baudelaire spirit had arrived even in the Midi:
O belle tigresse, féroce et ivre
Arpentes trottoirs dans la
métropole de nuit
Toujours dédaignant tes chasseurs philistins
Ta logique ne cache qu’un noble
In 1925, Fitzgerald Ashby, aet. 25, possessor of a yearly income of $25,000, comes to Paris:
Wind-drunk swaying poplar trees
Rumble on the roof of France
Their geometric carpentries
Ignore the thick-lipped tourists’ dance.
He had been careening southward in a red Hispano driven by Caresse Crosby. The trip was not a success. In the Pyrenees it rained. Fitzgerald Ashby had his usual trouble with “chasseurs” and “chaussures“; from “arpentant” he slipped into “carpentry”; still he felt that he had understood philistinism perfectly. This came through clear and strong to all readers of the Left Bank Review, where Jean-Luc Boiteux found the poem in 1938. Boiteux was a cultural pessimist, an adherent of the Front Populaire, an admirer of the American New Deal. Hence his, probably unconscious, translation of poplars into peoples:
La Fraîcheur des aubes des jeunes
Pénètre les toits qui cachent les joueurs,
Ils subissent l’assaut des odeurs nocturnes
Encombrant leurs grands et dynamiques fureurs.
One world war and nearly three decades later a tired American, sitting in a cafe in Tours, saw a cartoon in an American newspaper. A seedy tiger, wearing a two-star kepi, unmistakably equipped with the form and gait of General de Gaulle, was trying to pull an old army tank on which was written “Europe.” The “assaut” suddenly rang in his ear, as he remembered the theme from a jingle contest sponsored by a gasoline company:
Happy Hank was an earnest Yank
Unlike his good friend. Fancy Frank
He followed Esso’s good advice
He put his tiger in the tank.