La peinture á l’huile Est bien difficile, Mais c’est beaucoup plus beau Que la peinture á l’eau.
The translation: “Oil painting / Is certainly hard, / But it’s much lovelier / Than watercolour.” For reasons unknown, Winston Churchill came up with what is almost a Clerihew in style, but in French, as a comment in his little 1948 book ‘Painting as a Pastime‘.
Churchill first took up painting in 1915 at age 40 when he was removed as First Lord of the Admiralty. His fall was a result of the disastrous Dardanelles and Gallipoli attacks on Turkey that he had organised.
He took up painting for distraction, but it became increasingly a part of his life. He didn’t have hopes of making money from his “daubs”, and didn’t consider he had mastered the art. As he wrote in that slim book, “When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so to get to the bottom of the subject.” Early on he submitted and exhibited under pseudonyms as a way of assessing his abilities without the influence of his name. In 1921 he exhibited at Galerie Druet in Paris under the pseudonym Charles Morin and sold six paintings for £30 each. In 1947 he submitted paintings to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition under the name David Winter, and was successful with two of them.
He continued to paint for over 40 years, landscapes when the weather was obliging, still lifes when stuck indoors. Wherever he travelled–Morocco and Egypt, France and Italy, Jamaica, Canada and the US–his easel, brushes and paints went with him and were put to use. He produced at least 500 paintings, giving many away and not keeping records of them. You can see several of his paintings here if you scroll to the bottom.
‘Photo: Churchill painting a view of the Sorgue river in 1948, photographer unknown
Les sanglots longs Des violons De l’automne Blessent mon cœur D’une langueur Monotone.
Tout suffocant Et blême, quand Sonne l’heure, Je me souviens Des jours anciens Et je pleure;
Et je m’en vais Au vent mauvais Qui m’emporte Deçà, delà, Pareil à la Feuille morte.
English translation: Autumn Song
The long sobs Of the violins Of autumn Wound my heart With a monotonous Languor.
All breathless And pale, when The clock strikes, I remember The old days And I cry;
And I go In the ill wind Which carries me Here, there, Like the Dead leaf.
Published as part of his first collection ‘Poèmes saturniens’ in his early 20s, ‘Chanson d’automne’ has always been one of Paul Verlaine’s most popular poems. Even if a very young man saying “I remember the old days, and I cry” seems as questionable as the teenage Mary Hopkin singing “Those were the days, my friend”, the poem rings true. And Verlaine was certainly unsettled. Attracted to men, he soon married a young woman to try to “heal himself of the disease”. But then came Rimbaud.
Le Bateau ivre
Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles, Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs : Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs.
English translation: The Drunken Boat
As I went down impassive rivers, I no longer felt myself guided by the haulers: Yelling Redskins used them as targets Having nailed them naked to coloured stakes.
This is the first quatrain of Arthur Rimbaud’s 100-line poem The Drunken Boat, one of his very best, written when he was 16. It is technically traditional, written in alexandrine quatrains rhyming abab. Told in the voice of the boat itself on a river, the drunken boat is throwing off the restrictions and requirements of its old life, feeling an inescapable desire to follow the natural flow to its destiny, the sea. Some of the sights are appalling (like a dead whale rotting), some ecstatic (like phosphorescent waters), as the boat fills with water and the desire to be completely absorbed.
Earlier that year Rimbaud had explained his approach to poetry in a letter: “I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It’s really not my fault.”
He then introduced himself to Verlaine by letter with various poems including The Drunken Boat. Verlaine, 11 years older than him, invited him to stay and fell for him completely. Rimbaud moved in, behaved scummily (belching and spitting at the table, talking with his mouth full) and made an immediate enemy of Mrs Verlaine who he only ever referred to as “the rat”. He had to leave. None of Verlaine’s friends could put up with him, so Verlaine rented rooms for him. Within a year Verlaine had effectively abandoned wife and young son, moving in with Rimbaud, and so together to London, then Brussels. Having fired a couple of pistol shots at Rimbaud in a fit of drunken jealousy, Verlaine was imprisoned for 18 months. Rimbaud moved on to new lovers and new countries–Java, Aden, Ethiopia, writing ever more experimental poetry, before returning to die in France at age 37. Verlaine taught in England for a few years, then taught English in France; he fell in love with one of his pupils, but lost him to typhus. He wrote increasingly symbolist poetry and sank into drug addiction, alcoholism (absinthe, of course) and poverty. He died five years after Rimbaud, aged 51.
And now the French government is grappling with a petition to relocate both poets from their comparatively obscure burial places to the Pantheon, “alongside other great literary figures like Voltaire, Rousseau, Dumas, Hugo and Malraux”. The Culture Minister is in favour of the idea, but there is an angry backlash. There is a BBC story here.
But there is no argument that the poetry itself is among the best produced by France.
Üks kaks kolm neli
For some food to fill your belly;
Jeden dwa trzy cztery
Language may be shaky, very,
Uno dos tres cuatro
But they’ll love you if you’re up to
Eins zwei drei vier
Trying freely, laughing freer.
This poem, more fully titled “(On the value of learning languages, when) Roughing It In Europe”, was originally published in Unsplendid, actually a splendid magazine that unfortunately has been quiet for the past couple of years. The poem dates back to my early hitchhiking days, when I was based in Copenhagen but wandering around Europe, North Africa and North America. My experience was that you could wander into any country without any plans, prior contacts or knowledge of the language, and survive so long as you quickly learned to say Yes, No, Please, Thank you, Hello, Goodbye and to count from zero to ten – and so long as you smiled, and were comfortable being laughed at for all kinds of mistakes. Case in point: the word “zoozh” that I learned for “two” in Morocco won’t get you very far in most Arabic-speaking countries… So it goes.
Technically, this poem written in a simple form, 11 rhymed couplets, four feet to a line. The second line of each couplet has mostly trochaic feet (i.e. with two syllables, a stressed or accented one followed by an unstressed one). But the first line of each couplet is simply counting out 1-2-3-4 in different languages, and therefore the feet vary with the words of the language. But as we are used to counting to four in a steady rhythm, everything sounds rhythmic regardless of the number of syllables.
So this shows another type of “form”: each couplet is structured the same in the sense of the first line counting 1-2-3-4, always in a new language, and the second line having four feet and rhyming with its first line’s “four”. And therefore the poem has a “nonce” form – I created this form for this specific poem; it was created “for the nonce”.