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For a Catholic poet in eighteenth-century France, accurately translating or paraphrasing the Bible was in itself an expression of the Truth. For a writer like Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan (1709-1784), brother of the future Bishop of Le Puy and Archbishop of Vienne, accuracy in these matters was a major concern. After all, he knew not only Latin and Greek but also Hebrew (which he had studied precisely to prepare himself for composing his book of poems based on various biblical texts), and often relied on the Hebrew text rather than following the Vulgate, which he discovered did not always follow the Hebrew literally. "Qu'on ne s'imagine pas connaître toutes les richesses poétiques de l'Ecriture," Le Franc tells us in the Discours préliminaire to his Poésies sacrées, "si on n'en juge que par la traduction latine. Il en est beaucoup resté dans l'original" ["Don't imagine that you know all the richness of the poetry of the Scriptures if you judge only by the Latin translation. Much remains in the original" (p. xj). He gives an example drawn from Psalm 138: "Si sumpsero pennas meas diluculo, et habitavero in extremis maris," which he translates literally as "Si je prends mes ailes au point du jour, et si je vais habiter aux extrémités de la mer" ["If I take my wings at the break of day and go to live at the end of the sea"], adding: "L'hébreu dit: 'Je prendrai les ailes de l'aurore, etc....'" [The Hebrew says: "I will take the wings of the Dawn, etc....'"]. His verse reads:
Quand des ailes de l'auroreHe goes on to say that if a poet doesn't know Hebrew, he should at least make use of the Greek version that the Vulgate is based on (p. xij).
J'emprunterais le secours,
Et qu'aux mers du peu;le More
J'irais terminer mon cours,...
[Even if I were to rely on
The wings of Dawn,
And in the sea of the Moors
I were to end my flight,...]
Dieu a lui-même inspiré la poésie aux hommes. Il a voulu que pour célébrer ses grandeurs, sa puissance, ses miséricordes, sa bonté, que pour exprimer sa colère et son indignation, on se servît d'un langage figuré, hardi, mélodieux, assujetti à des mesures sonores et cadencées qui le distinguassent de la marche unie du discours ordinaire et commun. [God himself inspired men to write poetry. To celebrate his grandeur, his power, his mercy, his goodness, to express his anger and his indignation, he wanted men to use a language that is at once full of images, bold, melodious, subject to sonorous and cadenced measures, so as to distinguish it from the ordinary and common way of speaking.]Finding this language, what Faguet calls a "fougue verbale" ["verbal ardor"] (p. 137) is one of the tasks of the author of religious verse, a task that Le Franc sets before himself.
De la musique avant toute chose,The musical effect, if we are to believe Verlaine, is created especially by lines of odd-numbered syllables, rather than the more static even-syllabic lines of traditional French prosody (in French, syllables rather than metrical feet are counted). Verlaine's poem, written 130 years after Le Franc's, has 9-syllable lines; the lines by Le Franc quoted above have seven syllables. Nor is this the only example of the use of "musical" lines in the Poésies sacrées: Le Franc has lines of five and seven syllables scattered throughout the first four books of this volume.
Et pour cela préfère l'Impair...
[Music first of all,
And for that, prefer lines of odd-numbered syllables...]
Mais si l'on avoue que [les psaumes] ont été faits pour être mis en musique et chantés, on ne saurait disconvenir qu'il n'ait fallu pour les plier avec plus de grâce aux différentes modulations du chant, un mélange de brèves et de longues arrangées avec plus d'art et de symmétrie que dans la prose. ...[Les rimes] y sont amenées pour flatter l'oreille et pour favoriser le chant.[But if you agree that [the Psalms] were made to be put into music and sung, you would also have to agree that they must be provided with more grace in the different modulations of song, with a mixture of long and short syllables arranged with more art and symmetry than in prose. ...[Rhyme] is introduced to appeal to the ear and to favor singing.]He adds that a "mélange symmétrique de strophes inégales formerait un contraste harmonieux" ["a symmetrical mixture of stanzas of unequal length forms a harmonious contrast"] and that poetry must "imiter la musique, dont le charme consiste dans une mélodieuse variété de tons et d'accordes" ["imitate music, whose charm consists in a melodious variety of tones and accords"] (pp. liv-lv). (5)
is time to illustrate some of what I have proposed up to now. Let me begin
by giving some examples of Beauty and Harmony expressed through Muscularity,
and especially of Muscularity discovered in the pursuit of Truth, which
(linguistically speaking) is to be found rather in the original Hebrew
text of the Sacred Scriptures than in the Latin of the official Vulgate
version of St. Jerome.
I mentioned above that Le Franc used bold and unexpectedly strong expressions to capture the attention of the reader. This desire he renders explicit when he says that the author must write "impetuous and audacious beginnings which surprise the reader" (p. xxxv). Some of his Odes begin with images that are even more energetic than those found in the Hebrew. For instance, Ode IV, taken from Psalms 13 and 15, begins in the Latin:
Dixit insipiens in corde suo:
"Non est Deus."
Corrupti sunt, abominanda egerunt;
non est, qui faciat bonum.
[The fool says in his heart, /"God does not exist!"/ They are corrupt, they go about spreading abominations;/ there is none who does good.] In the Hebrew the beginning is nearly identical: (6)
L'insensé dit en soi-même: "Il n'y a pas de Dieu!"Le Franc's opening scene is much more dramatic:
leur conduite n'est que corruption et perversité,
aucun ne fait le bien!
[The fool says to himself, "There is no God!"/ their conduct is all corruption and perversity,/ not one does good!]
L'impie a dit: brisons ces temples,Insensé ("fool") is a term that recurs often in the Bible with a non-psychological, religious meaning: it is the opposite of the term used later in the psalm, sage or wise man, that is, a person who seeks God. Note that Le Franc's translation is far more accurate than the Vulgate or the King James Bible ("The fool says in his heart..."), although Truth to tell, he turns the non-believer into a fanatic, as his next phrase shows: this is no simple abstraction, but is rather an example of the behavior of non-believers. Indeed, whereas the Hebrew and the Latin continue to deal in abstractions, apparently intended to show the result of their disbelief ("They are corrupt, they have done abominable things" in the Vulgate, "their conduct is all corruption and perversity" in the Hebrew), Le Franc makes us see his unbeliever act: he destroys temples, he carries his foul examples with him as he walks. Attention to the particular image is underscored by the poet's continuing to focus on the individual as an exemplum of the entire class; the earlier texts rapidly establish their abstract tone by moving to the plural. A small example, but a telling one; and an arresting opening image.
Non, je ne connais pas de Dieu.
Il le dit, et porte en tout lieu
Ses pas impurs et ses exemples.
[The unbeliever said: "Tear down these temples,/ No, I know no God."/He says this, and he brings everywhere he goes/ His impure steps and his [bad] examples.]
Exsurgat Deus, et dissipentur inimici eius,Le Franc's version has a more powerful effect, a bold opening statement that Finch states has an individual tone that is quite unlike that in other poems (p. 199): and in which Faguet underlines the "mouvement," the "vigueur," the "verdeur" ("vitality") of the text (p. 137):
et fugiant qui oderunt eum a facie eius.
Sicut deficit fumus, deficiant;
sicut fluit cera a facie ignis,
sic percant peccatores a facie Dei.
[May God arise, and may his enemies disappear,/ and may those who hate him flee from his face./ As the smoke dissipates, may they dissipate,/ as the wax melts before the face of the fire [Hebrew: before the fire], may the sinners perish before the face of God.]
Dieu se lève, tombez, roi, temple, autel, idole.We note in passing the movement from passive to active voice, a grammatical change that allows the poet to remain faithful to his source while developing its poetic possibilities.
Au feu de ses regards, au son de sa parole
Les Philistins ont fui.
Tel le vent dans les airs chasse au loin la fumée;
Tel un brasier ardent voit la cire enflammée
Bouillonner devant lui.
[God arises: fall, king, temple, altar, idol. /In the fire of his glance, at the sound of his word,/ The Philistines have fled./ So the wind in the airs drives the smoke afar;/ So a heated cauldron sees the flaming wax/ Boil before it.]
extendens caelum sicut pellem.The text is an attenuation of the Hebrew, which reads:
Qui tegis aquis superiora eius,
qui pones nubem ascensum tuum,
qui ambulas super pennas ventorum,
qui facis angelos tuos spiritus
et ministros ignem urentem;
[et tu] déploies les cieux comme une tente!The Vulgate softens the Hebrew by substituting statements for exclamations, by replacing the metaphor of gusts of wind as God's messengers with a less dramatic statement (they are directly called angels), and by consistently using the second person singular rather than shifting between the second and third persons.
[Puis] il façonne avec les eaux sa haute demeure,
des nuées, il se fait un char,
il s'avance sur les ailes du vent;
Des souffles [de la tempête] il fait ses messagers,
et ses serviteurs, du feu et de la flamme [de l'orage]!
[(and you) unfurl the heavens like a tent!
(Then) he makes his heavenly home from water,
with clouds he makes a coach,
he goes forward on the wings of the wind;
He makes his messengers out of the (stormy) gusts of wind!
and his servants, out of the fire and the flame (of the storm)!]
Ainsi qu'un pavillon tissu d'or et de soie,Although stronger than the Vulgate, the Hebrew text is virtually devoid of detail. Le Franc's translation develops each image more fully. For instance, the biblical concision ("you unfurl the heavens like a tent!") gives way to details of immense size ("vaste"), of colors ("or", "soie" [i.e., white], "azur"), of texture ("soie"). Le Franc even finds a biblical image (the hand of God) to add grandeur and majesty to the scene. The creation of the stars and other heavenly bodies, not mentioned in the Hebrew text, is elegantly elaborated in the French version ("Il peuple leurs déserts d'astres étincelants"), an image in which darkness and light, day and night, nothingness and plenitude, are all delicately touched upon. And while Le Franc makes no mention of the coach in which God travels on the wings of the winds, he does present the deity as a titan striding on the clouds and walking on the winds. The final verse in this sample is expanded to the 10-line strophe of the second stanza. The Muscularity of these lines is worth considering here. Note that the Hebrew, in its sublime concision, merely states (albeit with an exclamation point indicating admiration, wonder and awe) that God created the angels from winds and fire and lightning. Le Franc has God speak; immediately the heavens collapse, the sea groans, lightning and thunder strike, the north wind flies; the storm thus suggested seems to stretch into infinite space and infinite time, causing vast numbers of angels ("légions d'esprits fidèles") to fly in response to his call. These servants are guided by a devouring zeal, and the image of fire and lightning is converted to the speed at which they fly. The power, the Muscularity of these lines, unanticipated in but yet suggested by the Hebrew text, is in perfect harmony with the idea the author is trying to convey, the awe-inspiring power of God at the moment of creation. There is, furthermore, an order and a sense of beauty in this, uniting in a seamless whole the strands of our themes.
Le vaste azur des cieux sous sa main se déploie:
Il peuple leurs déserts d'astres étincelants.
Les eaux autour de lui demeurent suspendues.
Il foule aux pieds les nues,
Et marche sur les vents.
Fait-il entendre sa parole,
Les cieux croulent, la mer gémit,
La foudre part, l'aquilon vole,
La terre en silence frémit.
Du seuil des portes éternelles,
Des légions d'esprits fidèles
A sa voix s'élancent dans l'air.
Un zèle dévorant les guide,
Et leur essor est plus rapide
Que le feu brûlant de l'éclair.
[Like a tent woven of gold and silk
The vast blue of the heavens unfolds under his hand:
He peoples their deserts with glistening stars.
The waters remain suspended around him;
He tramples the clouds with his feet,
And walks on the winds.
Should he make his voice heard,
The heavens collapse, the sea groans,
The thunder roars, the north wind flies,
The earth trembles in silence.
From the threshhold of the eternal gates,
Legions of faithful spirits
At the sound of his voice hurl themselves in the air.
A devouring zeal guides them,
And their flight is mor rapid
Than the burning fire of the lightning.]
Il dit: et je répète à peineWhile conceding that Ezechiel intended to depict the end of the Babylonian Captivity, Le Franc avers that the second meaning, the resurrection of the dead, was more important than this, referring to the "astonishing impression" that this tableau made, filling the faithful simultaneously with "terror and consolation" (p. 213).
Les oracles de son pouvoir,
Que j'entends partout dans la plaine
Ces os avec bruit se mouvoir.
Dans leurs liens ils se replacent,
Les nerfs croissent et s'entrelacent,
Le sang inonde les canaux;
La chair renaît et se colore:
L'âme seule manquait encore
A ces habitants des tombeaux.
Mais le Seigneur se fit entendre,
Et je m'écriai plein d'ardeur:
Esprit, hâtez-vous de descendre,
Venez, esprit réparateur;
Soufflez des quatre vents du monde,
Soufflez votre chaleur féconde
Sur ces corps prêts d'ouvrir les yeux.
Soudain le prodige s'achève
Et ce peuple de morts se lève,
Etonnés de revoir les cieux.
Le Seigneur est jaloux, il aime la vengeance,Le Franc writes: "On remarque dans le texte sacré des assemblages plus bizarres et plus choquants en apparence, du singulier avec le pluriel. Et qu'on ne dise pas que ce sont là des tours propres et particuliers à l'hébreu, qui s'accordent mal avec le caractère et le génie de la langue française. Cette incompatibilité disparaît dans la poésie." ["You can see in the sacred texts passages [that are] more bizarre and more shocking [than texts like those seen above], mixtures of singular and plural. And let it not be said that these are characteristics of Hebrew which do not accord with the character and genius of the French language. This incompatibility disappears in poetry" (p. xxix)]. It is evident that Le Franc believed that French poetry could be made more powerful by incorporating the language and the images found in the Hebrew text of the Bible, and that he intended to offer his book as an example of what future poets might accomplish. (8)
Il hait avec fureur l'ennemi qui l'offense,
Sa haine est sans pitié, son courroux est cruel:
Il est lent à punir, mais c'est en Dieu qu'il frappe;
Et nul crime n'échappe
Aux coups inattendus de son glaive éternel.
Accompagné des vents, entouré des orages,
Il marche sur la foudre et brise les nuages;
Mer, tu le vois paraître, il te parle, et tu fuis.
Tout fleuve est desséché, tout champ devient stérile,
Bazan n'est plus fertile,
Le Liban perd ses fleurs et le Carmel ses fruits.
Il renverse les monts, il dissout les collines,
La terre a tressailli sous leurs vastes ruines,
L'univers tremble au bruit de ses coups effrayants.
Quel pouvoir bravera sa puissance invincible,
Et de ce Dieu terrible
Quel mortel soutiendra les regards foudroyants?
Sa colère est un feu qui dévore la pierre,
Un souffle destructeur qui ravage la terre,
Dépeuple les états, et détrône les rois.
Mais il plaint ses enfants au jour de leur tristesse;
Et du mal qui les presse,
Il guérit tous les coeurs qui connaissent ses droits.
1. While both Chérel (p. 50) and Faguet (pp. 131-132) cite this same passage, neither of them does more than approve of his boldness in making use of the original Hebrew text to give more force to his expression than the Vulgate which "affaiblit ou affadit l'original" ["weakens or dulls the original"] (Faguet, p. 131).
2. Very little has been written on this topic. Faguet addresses it to some extent in discussing a few poems; in their books Duffo, Braun and Robichez devote a good number of pages to Le Franc's esthetics of poetry but tend to glide over this aspect of his composition Braun discusses it to some extent in a comparison between Le Franc and Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, pp. 127-138; Robichez, among his observations, notes the vehemence of Le Franc's language when he attacks his enemies, listing some 80 words of invective in Le Franc's prose vocabulary); Braun, in articles dealing the Poésies sacrées [cf. the two other articles reproduced here, "Antiphilosophiedans les Poésies sacrées..." and "La Bible dans les Poésies sacrées..."], treats other aspects of Le Franc's poetic output, although in "La Bible" he does discuss some of these issues, pp. 357-362; Jacques Vier says (but without reference to any particular poem) that Le Franc's book is one of the "joyaux poétiques" [poetic jewels"] of the century and that he gives the poetry of his age "quelques-uns de ses plus vigoureux caractères" ["some of its most vigorous expressions"] (I, 612).
3. Le Triomphe de l'Harmonie / Divertissement / Par M. Lefranc / Mis en musique par Mlle Butier / 1730. This short piece, still unpublished, can be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Manuscrits fonds français 9293, Collection de Solleine, pp. 47-51. Dated and signed, it consists of two scenes in one act.
4. Le Triomphe de l'Harmonie, ballet héroïque, music by Grenet, in OEuvres, III, 1-56. This opera-ballet was performed in Paris in 1737 and 1738.
5. Robert Finch is particularly sensitive to the musical quality of the Poésies sacrées, comparing the various poems to musical compositions consisting of movements, vivace, adagio, moderato: "like music, especially music of the time, these lyrical movements can hardly be appreciated in short snippets but must be followed throughout their changing web of orchestration from beginning to end" (The Sixth Sense, p. 200). Indeed, Finch believes that the first four books of the Poésies sacrées, being "admirably suited for the purpose, there is little doubt [Le Franc] hoped they might be set to music" (p. 195).
6. I am giving the Hebrew text in French translation; the text of the Vulgate and the literal translation from Hebrew to French come from the exegetical Bible prepared under the general editorship of Louis Pirot and Albert Clamer, La Sainte Bible, texte latin et traduction française d'après les textes originaux avec un commentaire exégétique et théologique (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1950). The psalms, constituting vol. V of this edition, were translated and annotated by E. Pannier and revised by H. Renard. As a check for accuracy in the translation, I have consulted The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America 1955).
7. Finch points out (p. 199) the brilliant opening movement of this poem, which we are unable to present here because of space limitations. I am not presenting the Latin and Hebrew versions of this and the following propheties, since it is not Truth we are examining but rather the kind of subject matter Pompignan chose for some of his poems.
8. There is little support for Chérel's judgment (p. 53) that poetic translations of the Bible were a popular genre in the eighteenth century; his own meager listings show that only scattered poems were published, for the most part, after the death of Louis XIV (he lists only nine poems for the entire year of 1735 and two for 1759, the years he chose to prove his point). If Le Franc's poems have not been studied more extensively, it is largely because Voltaire succeeded in attaching ridicule to his name and his works, as critics have unanimously demonstrated; but it is also in large measure because the genre has not attracted a large readership for some 300 years.
Braun, Theodore E. D., Un Ennemi de Voltaire: Le Franc de Pompignan--Sa vie, ses oeuvres, ses rapports avec Voltaire. Paris: Lettres Modernes Minard, 1972
¯ "Antiphilosophie dans les Poésies sacrées de Le Franc de Pompignan," Revue de l'Université d'Ottawa/University of Ottawa Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 3 (1984), 9-15
¯ "La Bible dans les Poésies sacrées de Le Franc de Pompignan," in Yvon Belaval et Dominique Bourel, eds., Le Siècle des Lumières et la Bible. Paris: Beauchesne, 1986, pp. 355-364
Chérel, Albert, De Télémaque à Candide. Paris: J. de Gigord, 1933
Duffo, Fr.-Albert, Jean-Jacques Lefranc, marquis de Pompignan. Poète et magistrat (1709-1784). Paris: Picard, 1913
Faguet, Emile, Histoire de la Littérature Française de la Renaissance au Romantisme, Vol. IX. Paris, Boivin, 1935
Finch, Robert, The Sixth Sense: Individualism in French Poetry, 1686-1760. Toronto, Univeristy of Toronto Press, 1966
Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text, The, Vol. II. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955
Le Franc de Pompignan, Jean-Jacques, OEuvres. Paris: Nyon l'aîné, 1784
Pirot, Louis, and Albert Clamer, general editors, La Sainte Bible, texte latin et traduction française d'après les textes originaux avec un commentaire exégétique et théologique. Vol. V, Les Psaumes, translated and annotated by E. Pannier and revised by H. Renard. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1950
Robichez, Guillaume, J.-J. Lefranc de Pompignan: Un Humaniste chrétien au siècle des lumières. Paris: SEDES, 1987
Vier, Jacques, Histoire de la Littérature française du XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Armand Colin, 1970
Last Updated 3 August 2001