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French Perspectives - A Peasant Hero Of Provence

( Originally Published 1916 )

ANY one who has made a long stay in Arles knows Charloun, the old peasant poet of Le Paradou. When he fails to come in from his village to the Wednesday market, the cronies and farmer-folk on the promenade des Lices find bargaining dull, and the Félibres, who had hoped to get a song out of their brother bard, sit gloomily at the café tables in the place du Forum, and declare that the morning has been wasted. As for popular festivals at the Arena or at Saint-Trophime, they are never complete without Charloun. Sometimes he reluctantly occupies a place of honor near M. Mistral and the other celebrities; but you can always find him afterwards in the midst of the crowd, leaning with sagging knees on his almond stick, his rusty hat jauntily set on his white head, and his keen, sagacious old face vividly reflecting all the humor and significance of the scene.

Pilgrims to the ruined stronghold of Les Baux are even more likely to encounter him — "There goes our poet," whispers the guide respectfully — and do not soon forget the look of his thickset figure as he strides off over the wild spurs of the Alpilles. There is something immemorial about him, and he seems as much a part of the hills as the tufts of holly and juniper and evergreen oak whose roots cling so fast to the solid rock. He is, in fact, a sort of genius loci, and his native village of Le Paradou, once a part of the terre Baussenque, lies just below the height where the splendid marauding Seigneurs ruled and their lovely Queens held Court of Love.

It was in Le Paradou itself that I first made his acquaintance. We had started on our expedition from Arles, Soeur Colombe and I, by a grass-grown railway that wanders out through level fields and vines toward the jagged chain of the Alpilles. We passed below the great gray pile of the Abbey of Montmajour, paused at Fontveille, with its thin old wraiths of flour-mills, dear to readers of Daudet, and found ourselves in rolling country, violet with flowering thyme and rosemary. As we drew nearer to the Alpilles the slopes on the left grew steeper, more rugged, scarred with limestone, burned with sunlight, and we came into the midst of almond and olive trees — gnarled, red-soiled orchards climbing up to meet the strange, sharp crags that made the skyline.

The neat little white box of a station where we descended, with its neat little rose-hung trellises, looks like a toy forgotten by a child in the rough-hewn landscape. It stands on a white road at some distance from the village, and the chef de gare, his chair tilted against the wall, seemed lost in contemplation of the fantastic peaks that loomed before him.

"Charloun?" — down scraped the chair, and he was at our side with one bound, proving himself no exception to the rule that every Provençal loves a lover of poetry. Charloun, pardi! lived at the very end of the village street, the very last house. "You are perhaps the ladies he is expecting, friends of his Avignon friends? A fine moral character, our Félibre, ma Soeur, much respected in the community; a good Catholic, too," he assured my companion. "And as for his gifts, Mesdames, — well, our Charloun may have seventy-odd years of hard work behind him, but he's as full of sap as one of his own olive trees," continued the station-keeper admiringly. "He's not what you might call a sentimental poet — does n't sing of the great ladies up there at Les Baux; Alix and Queen Jeanne" — there was a shade of regret in the admission. "He's written with the sweat of his brow, has Charloun. An old friend of mine, of course, — even a collaborator, as you might say. Many a poetic evening have we spent in my station —" Bursting with village pride and devoured with curiosity, he started us on our way.

Le Paradou is shaded by the usual double row of plane trees; in the radiant April sunlight the roof the delicate, fluttering leaves spread over our heads was so transparent as to be almost impalpable. Yet the village had a very serious air; the iron tables in front of the café were deserted; no gossips stood in the baker's red-curtained door-way. We walked on, past a scattering row of brownish stone cottages, and were just reaching the garden of the last one, which had a fig tree against the wall, when the sound of quick foot-steps behind us made us turn around; a square-built, vigorous old man with a stubbly white beard was swinging after us, stick in hand. He walked as men do who have faced the sun and wind all their lives, and driven a plough through many a tough bit of soil. A long black cape hung from his shoulders over his rough clothes; a rusty sombrero added a dash of gallantry; and the keen look he gave us under the puckered wrinkles between his eyes left us in no doubt as to his identity.

"This is well thought!" — It was a kindly greeting, and he unlocked the door with haste and ushered us into the whitewashed kitchen.

"The house of an old bachelor, Madamisello," he explained, with a vaguely apologetic gesture which included the huge fireplace, where a pot hung on a crane beside a pile of twigs, and a clutter of dishes and papers on the table. "Such as you see me, I do for myself since my old mother is gone. The other room is better — come in there, then. Remettez-vous, remettez-vous," he continued, in the odd idiom of the Midi, setting some chairs with jerky courtesy before the hearth, which was here well swept and hung with a chintz smoke-ruffle. His French halted a little, as if he had to think it out as he went along, and he wandered about his best kitchen a shade uneasily. He was obviously worried lest he might not play the part of Félibre for a foreign lady in just the proper way.

" What have I to show you? " he began. "Here is my translation of Homer into Provençal. It was a long work; I did it for the glory of our language " — his clear blue eyes, one of which turns a little, searched my face for understanding. "Not from the Greek, from the French," he added. "I never had but six months' schooling in my life. What more have I to show you? Tenez" — he returned from a doubtful tour of the other room with a notebook which he opened on my knee — "here is a drama in four acts I have just finished." The pages were covered with an exquisitely careful, slender handwriting which one would not have believed of peasant origin. Next he brought me a German translation of his poems. He was getting a certain satisfaction out of acting his rôle, yet he was too sincerely modest really to enjoy it. You should have seen the warm change that came over him when I spread out my copy of his "Cant dou Terraire" (" Songs of the Soil") and asked him to explain a phrase in the "Moulin d'Ôli," the song of the olive press.

"Madamisello! — you understand Provençal?" His old brown face grew into friendly wrinkles and his eyes shone obliquely at me as he drew up a chair, comfortably crossed his baggy knees and took the thin, paper-bound volume from my hand.

"Suppose you sing it for us, M. Charloun?"

"Que," said he, tilting his head and looking at me between narrowed lids with an expressive smile, half-mockery, half-observant kindliness, that seemed to reveal much of his character. "So you have heard that Charloun sings? It is quite true, since God willed it; and all my verses, as you see from the music printed with the text, are meant to be sung. Where do I get the airs? To tell you perhaps would n't be easy. I pick them up here and there — songs of the good old time that were oftener heard in field and farm fifty years ago than they are to-day -- some, look you, have an echo of the religious wars, or come down from church music — bits I hear in cafés and arrange after my own idea. But you do well to ask for the `Moulin d'Ôli.' That is a very old air. And in this village, we live, as you may say, by our olives. It has a native note — vouz allez voir":

"At the olive mill — of the Mas d'Escanin — we eat aiolli, every single morning — then when we've had our fill we go to tend the press --with the bailiff of the mill — who sets the pace for us."

He gave the rhythm, as popular chansonniers traditionally do, a sort of plodding monotony of emphasis, and now and then raised his right arm and lifted his chin at the same time, with his witty slanting look, as if to drive the measure and meaning of his song into our ears. His voice had a full, mellow quality that was nearer to the richness of Spain than to the sentimental Italian quaver, and struck in deeper than the senses. It blended with the soft cadences of the Provencal and made the traditional rite of olive-pressing very vivid to us.

We saw the men of Le Paradou gathered at the "great farm" of the village, and in lusty spirit pushing together at the bar of the olive press when the bailiff gave the word. How the oil sparkled, and what a jolly spluttering noise it made as it flowed down into the stone trough, to the tune of the bells of a strong pair of turning mules! And how brave was the shout that went up when, at last, after all the careful processes were done, the chaland was seen appearing over the hill, with a bottle of fine crusty wine in which old and young joined in a health to next year!

"That, certainly," — Charloun scratched his beard, savoring our appreciation, "is one of the best of the `songs of work and trade." He read out the titles lingeringly: there were songs of harvesters and reapers, of vine-tenders, and ox-herds, and wagoners, and quarriers, and many other laborers in the farms, and vineyards, and grazing lands of the neighboring Crau and Camargue. "Geography is a queer thing, eh, Madamisello? here austere, there bountiful. Just a few miles to the north of us, in Saint-Remy, in Vaucluse, life is rich, full of ease. We of Le Paradou have a hardier lot. You've been to Les Baux? You've seen from the hills the wide moors and marshes that stretch from our olive orchards to the salt lakes and the Mediterranean? — a melancholy expanse, to your eye. But what would you? —we belong to it. There's something sober in our bone and sinew."

One song led to the next. "I ought, pardi! to save my voice for Sunday," Charloun would re-mind himself, "but here's just one more." So we had love-songs with pathetic minor harmonies that took us over the stony hill-paths and into the shepherds' huts; we heard the gay swing of farandole and mazurka in the villages on Sunday afternoons; we listened to the story of "Ma Galino" (" My Hen ") and "The Broken Plough," an epic of the revolt of Robin, his faithful mule. Charloun has a witty and affectionate understanding of animal psychology, and his friends and comrades of the barnyard have played an important part in his life. He even took us into the confidence of his difficulties with the sheriff's officer, in a song called "Ma Sesido" ("The Seizure of my Goods").

" This," he told us, with something of the ruse of the peasant kindling his eye, "is a humorous tale — perhaps the most popular of all my songs in the department." The turns of phrase have, indeed, all the racy expressiveness of popular speech; Blanchard, the pompous huissier, is inimitably characterized, and Charloun does not spare the meager contents of his own poor little house. "Oh, friend Blanchard," pleads the chorus — Charloun had escaped to the attic when the enemy entered, with his two gardes-champêtres. "It's true I'm a bit late with my taxes; but this is such a bad year! Go, pray, and tell the collector that he be not so zealous; in three or four days I'll step around to see him!" Blanchard, however, "straight as a poplar," only bends his neck stiffly to note everything in his inventory: a pot with beans beginning to boil; a picture of St. Peter and the cock, "which you would say was just ready to crow"; a bread-trough; a warming-pan; a bed, two pairs of old trousers, full of holes... .

"Allons! will you have for the very last the `Return of the Mountain Shepherds'? You know, Madamisello, all our flocks have to go to the Alps in summer, and when we see them streaming back over the dusty road it is a great emotion — or the Carol I sing up there at Les Baux, at the midnight mass of the shepherds on Christmas Eve — ah, ah, ma Soeur, it's beautiful" —Soeur Colombe's eyes were bright — "when the dark old church is alight, and the youngest of the flock is laid on the altar of the sheepshearers."

I believe the old man would be singing yet if I had n't asked him what first led him to write verses.

"Ah, ma brave Demoiselle" — I saw that the question brought us nearer — "it was `Mireille.' And why not? The village schoolmaster lent it to my father. `Thou must read it to thy children,' he told him. My father did n't, mon Dieu, care about it. To say truth, at first on me, too, it made little impression; the beautiful language of Mistral was n't the rude patois we of Le Paradou spoke. But, as I used to work at my olives, the rhythm began to sound in my head. And I said to myself I would try to make verses, too, in the Provençal tongue, according to my own idea, for my Provence, for my comrades. How many little birds on the sumac bushes, when one is young, Madamisello!" He sighed and rubbed his bristly chin.

"Look you," he began again, with some little hesitation, "I believe you understand? I am talking of intimate and sacred things. Poetry just comes, like a spring. You don't know why — or why it sometimes stops coming. One must be willing to say only a little, if need be. Above all, never invent — say only what one knows and feels. That 's the only virtue I have, moi qui vous parle. Try for an effect and it's lost. Look at those Parisians. They go on because they have once begun. Ah, ah, pressure, fame — we have no Lamartines now. And then, there is commerce, parbleu! It is industry that prevents you from having great poets in America now, is n't it so? I read of Pittsburg in my newspaper; it sounds like as two pebbles to Salon, — eh? You know Salon, that large manufacturing town not far from here? There are, I'm told, as many as thirteen thousand inhabitants! Well, there is n't a writer in the place. In a village dose by live two or three poets. I thank the belle Sainte Vierge that I was born in a village."

"Yet as to time," I objected, "you can't have had much more than the Salonais."

"For writing? I believe you, my poor young lady! Only, till my old age, when the other laborers were resting in the heat of the day; I was the oldest of a sizable family, so it was n' t merely our olives I had to tend. In bad years or idle seasons I had to hire out, here and there — turn reaper and shearer and vintager. For that mat-ter, work is the common lot; only the sickest will die of it, as my mother used to say. She had a tongue of her own, and no patience with versifying; a poet to her was a badaud, a songe-creux — some sort of lazy loon." He shook his head rue-fully. "She was right in her way; it is n't sous one gets out of it, to be sure. But sometimes, Madamisello, it seems hard, do you know, that nobody in one's family understands? I have one brother left — but when he comes to see me, can I talk to him as I do to you? Nenni ! he would only laugh. If I 'd had a wife and children to keep, even my siestas would have been lost to poetry. So I've stayed single. It's lonely, I don't say to the contrary — but one must make sacrifices in this life, Madamisello. Tenez, when I'm going to give an evening of singing anywhere, to the guardians of the wild Camargue cattle, or at Beaucaire on a Sunday, I can't touch wine during the week. Everything has its cost. But poetry, as for that, comes while you 're working," ended Charloun. "I have dug my best rhymes out of a field at the foot of the Alpilles. That's why I still keep a piece of land. I wake at three in the morning, nowadays, and things begin — God be praised — to sing in my head. If the verse does n't come, I say my prayers again — in this life one must have faith. But if the bon Dieu does n't happen to send a rhyme, I get up and take my spade and go out."

When we returned to the station, we found the chef de gare watching for us, and eager to hear our impressions of his "collaborator." He, also, was a Félibre, he confided, and gave a rhapsodic description of his station at four in the morning — the silence, the nightingales at dawn! But the duties of his profession were very severe; he was not, like Charloun, able "to live his life." " Charloun has a few thousand francs, but what does he make of them? He cares nothing for money. When he is composing he forgets to eat, pecaïre! He might not have had a comfortable roof to his head if we of Le Paradou had n't united to buy him his house. All the same he is right — he lives his life, and for everything he has his idea, pardi ! "

"Did you ever hear how he tried the stone-mason's trade?" By this time the station keeper had pressed us to accept chairs by his trellis. "No? That was when I was a little boy, years ago: Our great Mistral relates it in the preface to the `Cant dou Terraire.' Well, then, at Le Paradou they decided to build a new cemetery; Charloun, to every one's surprise, — for he was no mason, — took the contract at the lowest bidding, and slaved early and late with old Robin, his mule, hauling the stone and building the walls. What for? — he did n't make water to drink! It was, if you'll credit it," — our companion was fluttering the pages in haste and turned a deaf ear to the whistle of our approaching train, — "for the pleasure of writing on the cross that stands in the middle of the enclosure a patriotic verse in our native tongue; `So that in one hundred years,' he said, `in five hundred years, — in perhaps one thou-sand years, — those who read this carved stone will know that at Le Paradou they spoke Provençal!' "

In spite of Charloun's devotion to the cause of the Provençal renaissance, he was for many years unable, for lack of time and means, to make an actual part of the Felibrige. Now, in the increasing ease of his advancing years, it is delightful to find him one of the most popular members of the brotherhood of Provençal poets. When, a month after my excursion to Le Paradou, I saw them all gathered together at Aix-en-Provence for the great septennial fêtes of Sainte-Estelle, Charloun seemed one of the most genuinely representative members of their happy poetic democracy. His homely songs were very much in demand; at the Cour d'Amour the crowd joined, thousands strong, in the chorus to "Ma Sesido," and his compeers split their sides laughing at his tale of his "Voyage à Paris."

Who would not have liked to meet him in front of the Pantheon, leaning on his almond staff! The journey to Paris was the great adventure of his old age — perhaps, indeed of his whole humble life. For to travel even so far as Aix is a tremendous affair for Charloun. Arles is familiar ground, but it is difficult to induce him to visit Avignon, and he is never so much himself as in his native village.

Charloun's own fête, thanks to the efforts of his "collaborator," was celebrated at Le Paradou in June; a charming family festival on traditional lines, it proved, such as every true lover of the "province of provinces" most appreciates. Imagine the Félibres and the groups of poetical friends from Arles, and Avignon, and Tarascon descending from the toy train on, a hot Sunday morning, mopping their faces with red bandanas, opening their green umbrellas, — for the June sun was merciless, — and blinking as they emerged into the white glare. The Félibre station-keeper, proud and joyously perspiring, marshalled us all into line: the entire population of the country had gathered to receive us. There were pretty girls in white coiffes and kerchiefs, handsome youths in white trousers and red sashes, shepherds, farmers and their women-folk, sunburnt "gardians" from the Camargue, children, and village gossips, and important civic authorities.

Headed by two bands of musicians — the Lyre de Beaucaire and the Tambourinaires de Maillane had kindly offered their services — our procession advanced under the plane trees. The far end of the village was soon reached, the drums and flutes sounded their loudest flourishes; and Charloun appeared, a fine, clumsy, touching figure, at the door of the little brown cottage. His eyes were sparkling, but he did n't know quite where to look.

There was, however, no resisting the ardent tribute of popular admiration. He was embraced, slapped on the back, swept on into the "order of the day," which continued according to precedent. First came a speech overflowing with "regionalism" from M. le Maire at the Town Hall. He did not fail to recall that Charloun had built the Town Hall, as he had the cemetery, for the sole profit and glory of writing a Provençal verse over the door. When the State had had its say, we proceeded to the village church to hear a solemn mass, with old Provençal canticles, and a sermon on the "Cult of our native church-tower."

The lunch that followed at the café, and in the fields, unloosed tongues and set the farandole whirling down the dusty shade of the road. And the afternoon ended with a programme of music and poetry before the old façade of the Mas d'Escanin, which dates from the time of the Seigneurs of Les Baux.

A pair of Charloun's friends stole away from the festivities in the late afternoon, and striking in through one of the red-soiled valleys, where the olive trees roll in soft gray lines to the foot of the Alpilles, scrambled up through sliding pebbles and close-growing patches of thyme and gorse to the top of the nearest mountain spur. The hour had diffused an intense purity of light over the wastes of timeless stone; the strange, silent peaks seemed burning with an austere radiance; and the acrid sweetness of herbs, steeped all day in the hot Provençal sunshine, rose to the wide blue vault above.

The Alpilles must have had as somber a beauty, we reflected, when the Romans were encamped up there on the tortured heights between Les Baux and Glanum (Saint-Remy), waiting and watching for the Barbarians. In those days Charloun would have scouted for Marius in these same rocky solitudes, and heard the same pebbles dropping down into the valley, beneath his cautious foot. I saw him hunting partridges among the prickly juniper bushes for the Counts of Les Baux, in the fierce days when the hills ran with blood, and feasting was heavy after battle in the halls that now make so grim and riddled an out-line against the sky. Yes, we agreed, Charloun was a genius loci; the guardian of this admirable desolation; the very spirit of the fruitful olive orchards that cling to its lower slopes. He could no more utterly perish, one felt, than the characteristic tree of his Midi, which carries immortality in its heart.

" Just look at that hoary old olive," said my companion, as we climbed down again into the orchard; "the tree, I mean, all twisted and bent with age, that has its branches propped up, and its trunk full of plaster. It must be a thousand years old. If you'd seen it last autumn you'd have called it dead, I'll wager, — hollow trunk, withered branches, dropping leaves! But a Provençal farmer will never admit that one of his ancestral olives can die. He just nurses it a little, puts a patch here and a crutch there and a good warm blanket of rich earth about the roots. And see how right he is! With the first spring sunshine all these slim green shoots begin to feather out " —my friend laid an affectionate hand on the crabbed bark. "I can feel the sap flowing! And look at the newly budding leaves; the old tree is born again and will outlive another century, another thousand years, perhaps!"

At this moment a sudden wave of music and a long sound of cheering rose from the homely cluster of roofs at our feet to remind us that Charloun's festival must be nearly at an end. Soon a lively mass of tiny figures began to emerge from the village onto the ribbon of white road: the hero, flanked by the tambourins and galoubets, which were striking up a last aubade, was escorting his admirers to the evening train. The sunset light made a bright halo about the dusty procession, drew long, slanting rays across the wide blue haze of the plain beyond, and touched the distant salt lakes with a red gleam.

"Ah!" said my Provençal friend, as we made our way through the valley toward the station, "is it not good to know, in this practical century of ours, — good especially for an American to know that there is still one country where poets are sages, and poetry gets almost more than its due? "

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