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Aloysius Bertrand: Two Books from Gaspard de la nuit

by John Cobley

Saturday Nov 18th, 2023




Gaspard de la nuit


Book III  The Night and Its Marvels


I.  The Gothic Room


Nox et solitudo plenae sunt diabolo     

 [The night and my bedroom are full of devils.]

The Church Fathers



“Oh!” I murmured to the night, “The earth is an scented calyx whose pistil and stamen are the sun and the stars!”


And eyes heavy with sleep, I closed the window inlaid with a cross of the Calvary, black in the yellow aureole of the stained glass.




Still, if it were only at midnight—the hour emblazoned with dragons and devils!--that the gnome gorges on the oil of my lamp!


If it were only the nurse rocking with a monotonous song, in my father’s breastplate, a little stillborn child!


If it were only the skeleton of the lansquenet imprisoned in the wainscot and knocking with forehead, elbow and knee!


If it were only my grandfather stepping down from his worm-eaten picture frame and dipping his gauntelet in the blessed water of the font!


But it’s Scarbo who’s biting my neck and who, to cauterize my bleeding wound, is plunging in his red-hot iron finger!


II.  Scarbo


My God, grant me at the hour of my death, the prayers of a priest, a shroud of linen, a coffin of fir, and a dry place.  

The prayers of Monsieur le Maréchal



“Whether you die absolved or damned,” Scarbo muttered that night in my ear, “You will have a spider web for a shroud, and I’ll bury the spider with you!”


“Oh let me have at least for a shroud,” I replied to him, my eyes red from so much weeping, “a leaf from the trembling aspen in which the breeze from the lake will rock me.”


“No,” scoffed the mocking dwarf, “You’ll be fodder for the scarab beetle that in the evening hunts gnats blinded by the setting sun!”


“Wouldn’t you prefer,” I replied, still weeping, ”Wouldn’t you prefer that I be sucked up by a tarantula with an elephant’s trunk?”


“Well,” he added, “console yourself that you’ll have for a shroud the golden mottled wrappings of a snakeskin, in which I’ll bind you like a mummy.”


And from the dark crypt of St. Bénigne, where I’ll set you upright against the wall, you’ll hear at your leisure the little children weeping in limbo.” 


III.  The Madman


A carolus coin, or else, if you prefer, a golden lamb

Manuscripts from the king’s library



With an ebony comb, the moon was grooming its hair, which silvered the hills, meadows and forests with a rain of glowworms.


Scarbo, whose treasures are plentiful, was sorting on my roof, to the cry of a weathercock, ducats and florins that were bouncing rhythmically, strewing the street with counterfeit coins.


How the madman laughed as he wandered each night through the deserted city, one eye on the moon and the other—gone!


“A pox on the moon,” he muttered, picking up the devil’s coins, “I’ll buy the pillory to warm myself in the sun!”


But the moon was still there, the waning moon, and Scarbo, in my cellar, was silently minting ducats and florins with his scales.


While, its two horns to the fore, a snail lost in the night, was seeking its way on my illuminated stained-glass.


IV.  The Dwarf


“You, on the horse!!”

“Aye! Why not. I’ve galloped so often on the Linlithgow laird’s greyhound!

Scottish Ballad



While sitting up in bed, I had captured in the shadow of my curtains this furtive moth, hatched from a ray of the moon or from a drop of dew.


A palpitating phalaena that, to release its wings captured between my fingers, was paying me a ransom of perfumes!


Suddenly the roving little beast flew off, leaving in my lap—oh horror!—a monstrous deformed larva with a human head!




“Where is your soul that I’m straddling?” “My soul, a nag lame from the toils of the day, now rests on a litter gilded with dreams.”


It escaped in terror, my soul, through the pale spider’s web of twilight, above the black horizons scalloped with black gothic bell towers.


But the dwarf, hanging onto his neighing flight, was rolling like a distaff in the tresses of its white mane. 


V.  Moonlight


Wake up, sleepyheads,

And pray for the dead.

The Cry of the Night Crier.



Oh, how sweet it is at night, when the hour trembles in the bell tower, to gaze at the moon with its nose shaped like a golden carolus!




Two lepers were moaning beneath my window, a dog was howling at the crossroads, and the cricket on my hearth was prophesying quietly.


But soon my ear no longer heard anything but deep silence. The lepers had returned to their doghouses to the blows of Jacquemart, who was beating his wife.


The dog had gone down the alley, past the partisans’ guardhouse rusted by the rain and the chilling north wind.


And the cricket had fallen asleep as soon as the last ember had snuffed out its last gleam in the fireplace ash.


And it seemed to me--so much is incoherent with a fever—that the moon, making a face, was sticking out its tongue like a hanged man!


VI.  The Ronde Under the Bell


It was a large building, almost square, surrounded by ruins. The main tower, 

which still had a clock, dominated the neighbourhood.

Fennimore Cooper



Twelve magicians were dancing a ronde under the great bell of Saint-Jean. They conjured up storm after storm, and from the depths of my bed I counted with terror twelve voices crossing the darkness in procession.


Suddenly the moon raced to hide behind the clouds, and rain mixed with lightning and thunder lashed at my window, while the weathercocks cried like sentinel cranes lashed by a downpour in the forest.


The chanterelle on my lute, attached to the headstock, shattered; my goldfinch beat its wings in its cage; some inquisitive spirit turned a page of the Roman de la rose lying on my desk.


Suddenly, thunder rumbled atop Saint-Jean. The enchanters collapsed, struck dead, and I saw from afar their books of magic burning like a torch in the black bell tower.


This frightening light of the red flames of purgatory and hell painted the walls of the gothic church and extended over neighbouring houses the shadow of the gigantic statue of Saint-Jean.


The weather cocks grew rusty; the moon melted the pearl-grey clouds; the rain fell only drop by drop from the roof edges; and the breeze, on my opening the poorly closed window, threw on my pillow my jasmine flowers shaken off by the storm.


VII.   A Dream


I’ve dreamed and dreamed, but I don’t understand a thing.

Pantagruel, Book iii



It was night. First there was–what I have seen I record--an abbey with walls cracked by the moon, a forest pierced by tortuous paths, and Le Morimont swarming with cloaks and hats.




Then came–what I have heard I record—the death knell of a bell answered by mournful sobbing from a prison cell, plaintive cries and ferocious laughter that made every leaf along the boughs tremble, and droning prayers of black penitents accompanying a criminal to torture.


Then finally–how the dream ended I record—a monk near death lying in the ashes of the dying, a struggling young girl hanging from an oak, and my disheveled self bound to the spokes of a breaking wheel by the torturer.


Dom Augustin, the deceased prior, will have, in Cordelier dress, the honors of the chapelle ardente; and Marguerite, whom her lover killed, will be buried in her white robe of innocence, between four wax candles.


As for me, the torturer’s bar [to break bones], broke like a glass on the first stroke, the torches of the black penitents were put out by torrents of rain, the crowd drifted away with the overflowing rapid streams, and I pursued other dreams until waking.



VIII.  My Great-Grandfather


Everything in the room was still in the same state, except that the tapestries were in tatters and that spiders were weaving their webs in the dust.

Walter Scott, Woodstock.



The venerable characters of the gothic tapestry, stirred by the wind, greeted each other, and my great-grandfather entered the room—my great-grandfather dead almost eighty years ago!


My great-grandfather the counselor, was here, kneeling before this prieu-dieu, his beard kissing this yellow missal that lay open and was marked with a ribbon. 


He mumbled prayers throughout the night without for a moment uncrossing his arms beneath his purple silk cape, without turning his eyes towards me, his descendant, who lay in his bed, his dusty canopied bed!


And I noticed with horror that his eyes were empty, although he appeared to be reading, that his lips were motionless although I heard him pray, that his fingers were fleshless although they glittered with jewels!


And I wondered if I was awake or asleep, if the paleness was from the moon or from Lucifer, if it was midnight or daybreak!


IX  Ondine


…………… …….. I thought I heard 

A vague harmony enchanting my sleep.

And near me spread a similar murmur

Of intermixed songs in a sad and tender voice.

Ch. Brugnot, The Two Geniuses



“Listen! Listen! It’s me, it’s Ondin who brushes with drops of water the sonorous diamonds of your window lit by the moon’s wan rays. And here in a moire silk dress, the lady chatelaine, who gazes from her balcony at the beautiful starry night and the beautiful sleeping lake.


“Each wave is an ondin swimming in the current, each current is a path winding toward my palace, and my palace is built fluidly, at the bottom of the lake, inside the triangle of fire, earth and air.


“Listen! Listen! My father is beating the croaking water with a branch of green alder, and my sisters caress with their foamy arms the fresh islands of grasses, of water lilies and gladioli, or mock the decaying bearded willow that’s fishing with a line.”




Murmuring her song, she begged me to receive her ring on my finger, to be the husband of an ondine, and to visit her palace with her in order to be the king of the lakes.


And when I replied that I loved a mortal woman, sulky and dejected, she shed some tears, burst out laughing and disappeared into the rain that trickled white down my blue stained windows.  


X.  The Salamander


He threw into the fireplace some fronds of blessed holly, which burned crackling.

Ch. Nodier, Trilby



“Cricket, my friend, are you dead, you who remain deaf to the noise of my hisses and blind to the glow of the fire?”


The cricket, no matter how affectionate the salamander’s words were, made no reply, either sleeping a magic dream or choosing to sulk.


“Oh, sing to me your evening song from your home in the ash and soot, behind the iron plate emblazoned with three heraldic fleur-de-lys!”


But the cricket still didn’t answer, and the tearful salamander sometimes listened for its voice and sometimes buzzed along with the flame of changing colours--pink, blue, red, yellow, white and violet.


“He’s dead, he’s dead, my cricket friend!” I heard something like sighs and sobs, while the flame, now livid, dwindled in the sad hearth.


“He’s dead! And since he’s dead, I want to die!” The vine branches were consumed, the flame crawled over the embers, bidding farewell to the hook, and the salamander died of apathy.


XI.  The Sabbath Hour 


Who passes so late across the valley?

H. de Latouche, Le Roi des Aulnes



It’s here! And already in the thick undergrowth, barely illuminated by the phosphoric eye of the savage cat crouched under the branches;


On the side of the rocks that, in the night, drench precipices with their brushwood hair dripping with dew and glow-worms;


On the edge of the torrent that gushes with white foam on the pines, and which drizzles a grey vapour below castles;


An innumerable crowd gathers, which the old woodcutter, plodding along paths, his load of wood on his back, hears but does not see.


And from oak to oak, from hillock to hillock, echo a thousand cries, indistinct, mournful and frightening: “Hum hum! Schup, schup! Cuckoo, cuckoo!” 


Here are the gallows! And there in the mist appears a Jew looking for something among the damp grasses, in the golden glow of a main de gloire.


Main de gloire: French legend that tells of the ritually severed hand of a hanged convict being turned into a lamp.



Book VI Silves


I.  My Cottage 


In autumn thrushes would come to rest there, attracted by the bright red berries of the rowan trees.  

Baron Monthermé


Lifting her eyes afterwards, the dear old woman saw how the north wind was tormenting the trees and wiping away the tracks of the crows hopping in the snow around the barn.

                                                            The German poet Voss—Idyll xiii


My cottage would have, in summer, the foliage of the forest for a parasol, and in autumn for a garden, on the window sill, some moss that holds pearls of rain and some gillyflowers with an almond fragrance.


But in winter, what a pleasure when the morning has shaken its bouquets of frost onto my frozen windows, to see far off on the forest edge a traveller forever fading, him and his mount, into the snow and the mist.


What a pleasure, in the evening, in front of the blazing fireplace perfumed by a bundle of juniper wood, to leaf through the chronicles of knights and monks so marvelously depicted that they still seem either to joust or to pray.


And what a pleasure in the night, at that pale and uncertain time before daybreak, to hear my cockerel crowing in my coop and the cockerel of another farm answering faintly, a sentinel perched at the outposts of the sleeping village.


Ah, if only the king were reading to us in his Louvre—Oh my muse, unprotected from the storms of life—the sovereign lord of so many fiefdoms that he doesn’t know the number of his castles, he wouldn‘t begrudge us a little cottage!



II.  Jean of the Tilles


It’s the trunk of an old willow and its pendulous branches. 

H. de Latouche, The Alder King


“My ring, my ring!” And the washerwoman’s cry frightened a rat that was spinning with a distaff in the stump of a willow.


Yet another prank of Jean des Tilles, the spiteful and mischievous water sprite, who swims, complains and laughs beneath the repeated blows of the beater!


As if it weren’t enough for him to pick ripe medlars from the thick clumps on the bank and drown them in the stream!


“Jean the thief! Jean who fishes and will be fished himself! Little Jean, food for frying that I’ll wrap in a white-flour shroud and cook in the flaming oil of the frying pan!”


But just then the crows, who were swaying on the green poplar arrows, cawed into the humid and rainy sky.


And the washerwomen, tucked up like pike anglers, stepped across the ford strewn with pebbles, foam, weeds and gladioli.



III.  October 


Farewell last beautiful days!  

Alph. de Lamartine (L’Automne)


The chimney sweeps are back, and already their cry fills the sonorous echo of the neighbourhood; just as the swallows precede spring, so they precede winter.


October, the courier of winter, raps on the door of our homes. Intermittent rain floods the opaque window panes, and the wind scatters the dead leaves of the plane trees over the deserted steps.


Now come the family evenings, so delicious when everything outdoors is snow, frost and fog, when hyacinths flower on the mantelpiece in the cosy atmosphere of the drawing room.


Here comes St. Martin’s Day with its lanterns, Christmas with its candles, New Year’s with its toys, Twelfth Night with its beans, the Carnaval with its fool’s cap.


And finally Easter with its joyous morning hymns, Easter with young girls receiving the white wafer and red eggs!


Then a little ash will have erased from our brows the drudge of six winter months, and the chimney sweeps will wave farewell from the hilltops, their native hamlet.



IV.  Chèvremorte 


And I too have been torn by the thornbushes of this desert, and every day I leave some of my skin there.

Les Martyrs, Book X


It’s not here that one breathes in the moss of the oaks and the buds of the poplar, it’s not here that the breeze and the waters murmur together of love.


No balm in the morning after the rain, in the evening during the hours of dew; and nothing to charm the ear but the cry of a tiny bird searching for a blade of grass.


Desert that no longer hears the voice of John the Baptist! Desert no longer inhabited by hermits and doves!


Thus my soul is a solitude, where on the edge of an abyss, with life on one side and death on the other, I let out a sob of despair.


The poet is like a gillyflower, frail and fragrant, that clings to granite and requires less earth than sunlight.


But alas! I no longer have sunlight since the charming eyes that revived my spirit have closed!

                                                                                                22 June 1832


Chevremorte: Chevre Morte in a hamlet near Dijon. The literal meaning is “dead goat.”


V.  One More Spring


All the thoughts, all the passions that stir the mortal soul are the slaves of love. 



One more spring, one more drop of dew that will roll around for a moment in my bitter chalice and escape like a tear.


O my youth! Your joys have been frozen by the kisses of time, but your sorrows have outlived the time that they choked on their breast.


And you who have unraveled the silk of my life, O woman! If there was a deceiver in my love story, it wasn’t me; if there was someone deceived, it wasn’t you!


O spring! Little bird of passage, our seasonal guest that sings melancholy in the heart of the poet and in the branches of the oak!


One more spring, one more ray of May sunshine on the young poet’s brow, across the  world, on the brow of an old oak, among the forests!

                                                                                                Paris, 11 May 1836



VI. The Second Man


Et nunc, Domine, tolle quaeso, animam meam a me, quia melior est mihi, mors quam vita. 

Jonah, cap. IV.3


I swear by death in a world like this. No, I wouldn’t want to be one sun younger. 

Alph. de Lamartine, Méditations


Hell! Hell and heaven! Cries of despair! Cries of joy! Blasphemies of reprobates! Harmonies of the chosen! Souls of the dead, like mountain oaks uprooted by demons! Souls of the dead, like valley flowers gathered by angels.



Sun, firmament, earth and man, all begun, all ended. A voice shook nothingness. “Sun?” called this voice from the threshold of radiant Jerusalem. “Sun?” repeated the echoes of the inconsolable Jehoshaphat. And the sun opened its golden lashes onto the chaos of the worlds.


But the firmament hung like the shred of a flag. “Firmament?” called out this voice from the threshold of radiant Jerusalem. “Firmament?” repeated the echoes of the inconsolable Jehoshaphat. And the firmament unfurled its folds of purple and azure to the winds.


But the earth sailed adrift like a lightning-struck ship that carries only ashes and bones in its hold. “Land?” called out this voice from the threshold of radiant Jerusalem. “Earth?” repeated the echoes of the inconsolable Jehoshaphat. And after the earth had dropped anchor, nature set herself, crowned with flowers, under the porch of mountains with a hundred thousand columns.


But man was missing from creation, and sad were earth and nature, the one over the absence of its king, the other over the absence of her husband. “Man?” called out this voice from the threshold of radiant Jerusalem. “Man?” repeated the echoes of the inconsolable Jehoshaphat. And the hymn of deliverance and grace did not break the seal with which death had leadened the lips of the man sleeping for eternity in the bed of the sepulchre. 


“So be it!” said this voice, and the threshold of the radiant Jerusalem veiled itself with two dark wings. “So be it!” the echoes repeated, and the inconsolable Jehoshaphat began to weep. And the trumpet of the archangel sounded from abyss to abyss, while everything crumbled into ruin with an immense crash: the firmament, the earth and the sun without man, that cornerstone of creation! 


Translation of Latin epigraph: And now, Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better for me than life.


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