Celebrating the New Year with gifts of sweets and poetry

‘Telle maison reçoit au jour de l’an quinze à dix-huit cents livres de bonbons’ (and how much poetry?) (CC0 Paris Musées / Maison de Balzac)

What better time of year than this to have a look at the overlap in the New Year traditions of giving sweets and poetry? The two traditions are linked in a curious volume entitled Tableau du premier jour de l’an, ou je vous la souhaite bonne et heureuse (‘À l’île des Bonbons’, [1816]). Here, at the end of the preface, the ‘dieu des papillotes’ disappears, scattering New Year paraphernalia in his wake:

‘laissant dans sa course aérienne une odeur de caramel, de vanille, et semant sur son passage, comme un ballon qui se dégage de son lest, une quantité prodigieuse de cornets de taffetas, de satin pailleté, de bonbons, de devises, de vers, que le vent emportait malgré leur lourdeur et leur penchant naturel à tomber à plat…

The antithesis between heavy and light, ballast and airiness hints at the ephemeral quality of these bonbons, devises and vers.

Title page of Recueil de quatrains, sixains et huitains, sur le vin, les dames et l’amour; choisis dans les œuvres des poètes francais du 1er et du 2e ordre, depuis Clément Marot jusqu’à Demoustier (Paris, Imprimerie de Gillé, 1815)

Sweets and verse are also closely associated in a book (let’s call it that for the moment) recently acquired by the Bodleian Library. The Recueil de quatrains, sixains et huitains, sur le vin, les dames et l’amour; choisis dans les œuvres des poètes francais du 1er et du 2e ordre, depuis Clément Marot jusqu’à Demoustier (Paris, 1815) assembles poems about wine, women and love, dating from the 16th to the 18th century (including by Voltaire). It would not stand out of the mass of recueils of ‘light verse’ that were published until well into the 19th century were it not for its size and layout. Measuring a mere 8.3 by 7 cm, printed single-sided, each page contains three poems of varying lengths together making up sixteen lines of verse. These peculiarities are explained by an advertisement on the back of the title page which asks ‘Messieurs les Confiseurs’ to buy not the book per se, but, rather, its printed sheets in order to cut them up and package them with their ‘bonbons de cette année’.

The poems included in this recueil are thus print ephemera that have survived only because they have been bound together in a kind of sample intended to persuade confectioners to buy poetry in bulk. Confectioners could perhaps have read them in a linear fashion, but the lucky recipients would only have read an arbitrary selection, the size of which would depend on the number of gifts received.

The advertisement on the back of the title page: ‘Ces poésies […] sont destinées à remplacer dans les bonbons de cette année les devises qu’on y voit ordinairement.’

The ‘afterlife’ of 18th-century (and earlier) poésie fugitive is testament to its malleability: for example, what may originally have been a private token of gallantry or love, could become, decades or centuries later, more or less mass-produced items, still intended for use in a social setting, in which their amorous tone might have implied similar feelings on the part of the sweet-giver – or they could simply have been enjoyed as a conversation-starter, a bit like a modern-day fortune cookie or Carambar.

The ‘book’ prompts us to think of the ephemerality of poésie fugitive, not so much in terms of the poems disappearing, but, rather, in terms of them reappearing but in changing circumstances, material forms and settings. The volume is a reminder of the reusability that is characteristic of this kind of poetry, a reusability emphasised by the use of generic names: about twenty out of its 216 poems are addressed to ‘Iris’, for example. These texts could be used (or reused) by anyone, not unlike the way in which, in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), Christian de Neuvillette acts as a mouthpiece for Cyrano’s sweet-talking verses addressed to Roxane. The highly conventional nature of the poems makes it possible for them to be adapted to ever-changing social and sociable situations, without the text having to change significantly. In fact, Cyrano himself hints at that when he claims to always carry spare love poems about his person:

The binding that preserved ephemeral poetry

‘Nous avons toujours, nous, dans nos poches,
Des épîtres à des Chloris… de nos caboches,
Car nous sommes ceux-là qui pour amante n’ont
Que du rêve soufflé dans la bulle d’un nom!’

Wrapping food in verse could pose a risk to the perceived value of poetry. Using printed paper, or paper that has been written on, in order to wrap food can be a clear indicator that the words on the paper are no longer valued (think of newspapers). When, again in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Ragueneau wraps the pastries that he made in bags that his wife has made out of his friends’ poetry, he reluctantly picks one that has the ‘sonnet à Philis’ on it, only to immediately express his horror at the desecration of the poetry: ‘“Philis!…” Sur ce doux nom, une tache de beurre!… / “Philis!…”’ And yet the relation between food and poetry, sugar and verse need not be one where the value of the one (food to be preserved) trumps the other, but could also be one where their respective values are intended to complement each other.

In honour of Rostand, here are two poems from our bonbonnière, one addressed to Philis and the other mocking Cloris. The first is by Chaulieu:

‘Le respect est de glace et l’Amour est de flamme,
Ils ne sauraient tous deux compatir dans une âme;
Mais ils peuvent, Philis, y régner tour-à-tour,
L’Amour toute la nuit, et le respect le jour.’

The second is by Brébeuf:

‘Cloris quitte et reprend, par un rare mystère,
Jeune et vieille peau tour-à-tour,
Et la Cloris de nuit serait bien la grand’mère
De la Cloris de jour.’

The obvious commonalities between these two poems, despite the fairly arbitrary criteria used to select them, illustrate how assembling different poems with a couple of sweets could have prompted a search for (more or less) hidden connections between the texts. It also stresses the sometimes disturbing proximity between madrigals and epigrams in this collection of poetry. There are 214 more poems in the recueil and many more connections to be made and judgements to be passed as to whether the poems take flight or tombent à plat. But this is for the coming year (and an article to be published in the Bodleian Library Record). In the meantime, je vous la souhaite bonne et heureuse!

– Roman Kuhn


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