"Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames"
The d'Antin Manuscript
"Discovered, Edited, and Annotated" by
Luis d'Antin van Rooten
My editorial policy is to present only English language poetry, but then there's Luis van Rooten's ingenious Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames. What to do with that? Is it English? Sounds like English, a bit. Is it French? Looks like French, a bit. Is it poetry? Perhaps not, but it's a lot of fun with verse. Van Rooten's "discovery" of these forty "antique...fragmentary poems" in 1967, and his probing and meaningful literary exegesis (wink, wink) puts us deeply in his debt. I guess...
Van Rooten provides, in a Foreword, his explanation for the appearance of these verses (footnotes are Mr.Van Rooten's):
To detail the exact manner by which "The d'Antin Mss. Mots d'Heures1: Gousses, Rames"2 came to my hand would be too tedious and of but little moment here. Suffice it to say these curious verses were part of the meagre possessions of one François Charles Fernand d'Antin, retired school teacher, who died at the age of ninety-three in January of the Year of our Lord, 1950, while marking papers.3 Some three years later, as the only surviving relative of the deceased, I received his personal effects through the kind offices of Maître Théophile Gustave Pol Plôn, Notaire, of Aix-en-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhône, France.
We present overleaf some sample 'fragmentary poems' from "Mots d'Heures," along with possibly helpful "strangely familiar" English verses. Note that van Rooten, after his thorough study of the originals, neither suggested nor implied any relationship with such verses. While he was certainly aware of a few unexpected confluences of sound in the spoken lyrics, he would likely have put this down to the laws of chance. It is said that forty percent of English words have their cognates in French, so statistically speaking he may have been right.
The pitiful little packet remitted to me included a ribbon-tied bundle of love letters from one Luisa Contampré, soprano, who died of tuberculosis while "en tournée" in Athens, Greece; a holograph of Napoleon III; some postcards marked "Vues de Naples et de Pompéi"; and a prescription for falling hair. All these I consigned to the eternal discretion of my fireplace. An excellent recipe for turbot in saffron found welcome in my kitchen archives, and the thin sheaf of fragmentary poems here presented soon became the object of intriguing study and speculation.
What are they? Who wrote them? When? These are but a few of the many questions they evoke.
The "Mots d'Heures" are written in an antique and scholarly script on a few sheets of handmade paper, Canson et Montgolfier, watermarked 1788. If they are earlier in origin (a decided Gothic flavor makes this an almost imperative assumption), the transcriber of these fragments has so modernized the words as to make it impossible to date the verses on the basis of orthography. The cryptic phrasing, the disconnected thoughts, the mysterious allusion to places and people suggest at first an affinity to the prophetic quatrains of Nostradamus. On the other hand, violent epigrams were a popular form of insult in those centuries when wit was sharp but life was cheap. Again, they may be the salty, mundane commentaries of some earthy prelate, who nonetheless dreaded the "auto-da-fé," should his ideas be circulated too freely. Finally - they may be the creations of some Gothic cultural link midway between François Rabelais on the one hand and James Joyce on the other.
The most fascinating quality of these verses is found upon reading them aloud in the sonorous, measured classic style made famous by the Comédie Française at the turn of the century and whose greatest exponents were Coquelin, Lucian Guitry, Mounet-Sully and the divine Sarah; these poems then assume a strangely familiar, almost nostalgic, homely quality.
I present the "Mots d'Heures," therefore, to the public, as fully annotated as careful research permits. Although my work on them has reached a dead end, I sincerely hope some more perceptive scholar, with the help of my notes, will bring greater clarification to these esoteric fragments. "Che altro con meglio pletro cantara."4
1. "Words of the Hours." A more poetic title than the more familiar "Book of Hours."
A religious or philosophic background is tacitly indicated by this title.
2. "Gousses, Rames." A "gousse" is a clove or section, as in the bulb of the garlic plant. We can therefore assume that this implies
"Root and Branch," or a complete unity. Alas, would only that the poems had come down to us so.
3. The vestigial remnant of an occupation, become the escape mechanism of an academician's senility.
4. Dante. The Divine Comedy.
It should be said that some elementary knowledge of French pronunciation will be necessary to get full enjoyment out of these verses. But actual understanding of French will be of little help. (In fact, from personal experience I can report that native French speakers find nothing either amusing or interesting in these verses at all, while my English-speaking French-stotterers are rolling on the floor gasping convulsively from laughter.) On the other hand, if you are a native English speaker, a recollection of your childhood and its lyric treasures will be of enormous help.
In any case you're invited to proceed to our selections: