Wednesday 23 February 2011

Le testament

In this poem (1955), Brassens is borrowing a device of the French medieval poets by using the format of a pretend last will and testament to create some interesting and entertaining themes. The themes that Brassens deals with in his testament poem were triggered by a chance incident that he had witnessed. He had met a slow moving funeral procession which had taken the wrong turning and had been obliged to turn round and start again. This gave Brassens the fascinating idea that the corpse was doing a runner to escape the tomb.
The details of the will are in the final verses and, although there are humorous elements, we note that Brassens, in his early thirties, was writing a complete poem about his own death. Commentators have estimated that Brassens mentions death in two out of every three of his songs. There was reason for his pessimism as he had begun to suffer chronic health problems as early as the late 1940s. He was to be struck by his first serious illness in 1959, while still in his thirties and in spite of his escape fantasies, death came to him when he was only sixty.

Le testament(1)
Je serai triste comme un saule
Quand le Dieu qui partout me suit
Me dira, la main sur l'épaule :
"Va-t'en voir là-haut si j'y suis."(2)
Alors, du ciel et de la terre
Il me faudra faire mon deuil..
Est-il encor debout le chêne(2)
Ou le sapin(3) de mon cercueil ?
Est-il encor debout le chêne
Ou le sapin de mon cercueil ?

S'il faut aller au cimetière,
J' prendrai le chemin le plus long,(4)
J' ferai la tombe buissonnière,(5)
J' quitterai la vie à reculons...
Tant pis si les croque-morts me grondent,
Tant pis s'ils me croient fou à lier,
Je veux partir pour l'autre monde
Par le chemin des écoliers..
Je veux partir pour l'autre monde
Par le chemin des écoliers.

Avant d'aller conter fleurette
Aux belles âmes des damnées,
Je rêv' d'encore une amourette,
Je rêv' d'encor' m'enjuponner..(6)
Encore un' fois dire : "Je t'aime"...
Encore un' fois perdre le nord
En effeuillant le chrysanthème
Qui est la marguerite des morts.(7)
En effeuillant le chrysanthème
Qui est la marguerite des morts.

Dieu veuill' que ma veuve s'alarme (8)
En enterrant son compagnon,
Et qu' pour lui fair' verser des larmes
Il n'y ait pas besoin d'oignon...
Qu'elle prenne en secondes noces
Un époux de mon acabit :
Il pourra profiter d' mes bottes,
Et d' mes pantoufle' et d' mes habits.
Il pourra profiter d' mes bottes,
Et d' mes pantoufle' et d' mes habits

Qu'il boiv' mon vin, qu'il aim' ma femme,
Qu'il fum' ma pipe et mon tabac,
Mais que jamais - mort de mon âme ! –
Jamais il ne fouette mes chats...(9)
Quoique je n'ai' pas un atome,
Une ombre de méchanceté,
S'il fouett' mes chats, y'a un fantôme(10)
Qui viendra le persécuter.
S'il fouett' mes chats, y'a un fantôme
Qui viendra le persécuter.

Ici-gît une feuille morte,
Ici finit mon testament...(11)
On a marqué dessus ma porte :
"Fermé pour caus' d'enterrement."
J'ai quitté la vi' sans rancune,
J'aurai plus jamais mal aux dents :
Me v'là dans la fosse commune,
La fosse commune du temps.(12)
Me v'là dans la fosse commune,
La fosse commune du temps.

(Chanson pour l'Auvergnat) 1955

I shall be sad like a willow tree
When God who dogs each step I take
Tells me, his hand on my shoulder
"Go on and see if I’m up there
Then from the sky and from the earth 
I’ll need to tear myself away.
Is the tree still standing- the oak 
Or the pine meant for my coffin ?
Is the tree still standing- the oak
Or the pine meant for my coffin ?

If I have to go to the graveyard
I will go by the longest route
I'll skip my tomb and play truant
I’ll leave this life going backwards...
Too bad if und’takers should scold
Too bad if they think me wild to constrain,
I want to leave for the other world
Along the path where schoolboys slope
I want to leave for the other world
Along the path where schoolboys slope.

Before off to say sweet nothings
To the luscious souls of the damned
I dream of one more passion 
I dream 'gain that skirts enfold me
Of saying one more time : « I love you »
One more time lose all sense of place
Telling love with petals of chrysanths
Which are the marg’rites of the dead
Telling love with petals of chrysanths
Which are the marg’rites of the dead

God grant that my widow might fret
On burying her companion
And that for her to shed tears
There's no need at all of onions
May she take for second marriage
A spouse who is my shape and size
He’ll manage to make use of my boots
And my slippers and my old clothes.
He can make good use of my boots
And my slippers and my old clothes.

May he drink my wine, love my wife
Smoke my pipe and my tobacco
But may he never - on my soul!
Never may he maltreat my cats
Although I don't have an atom
A least touch of maliciousness`
If he maltreats my cats, there’s a ghost
Which will come to persecute him
If he maltreats my cats, there’s a ghost
Which will come to persecute him.

Here lieth a single dead leaf
Here endeth my last testament
They've placed a sign over my door
« Closed due to fam'ly bereavement »
I left life feeling no rancour
I'll never have toothache again :
Behold me in the common grave
Down in the common grave of time
Behold me in the common grave
Down in the common grave of time


1) Le Testament - The title that Brassens chose for his song was also the title of the major poetic work of François Villon. (1431 -1463). In these poems, Villon uses the device of a pretend will, which was popular in French poetry of the Middle Ages.By describing what he is leaving to people he likes and people he doesn’t like, the poet is able to amuse and voice opinions. Brassens had made a song of Villon’s most famous poem “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”(1953). In Brassens’ song we have to wait for a few verses to find out what exactly he is leaving. Later in the poem, he refers again to Villon. (See note 11 below)

2) "Va-t'en voir là-haut si j'y suis." – Although Brassens’ god is a bit tiresome, following him everywhere he goes, he’s also quite human and likes his little joke at the expense of those serious folk who have spent a portion of their time on earth disputing about the existence of God.

3) Le chêne ou le sapin – The oak coffin would be for a rich man and the pine for a poor man. Brassens has no way of knowing which wood will be used for his coffin, because show business is an uncertain career and popularity rises and falls.

4) Je prendrai le chemin le plus long – Brassens has a great love of life and is in no hurry to die. This idea of accepting death but spinning it out as long as possible becomes the refrain of a much later poem, “Mourir pour des idées” 1972.

5) )Tombe buissonnière – The idiom for playing truant is ; « faire l’école buissonnière », literally to get your schooling hidden in the bushes. When he saw a funeral hearse taking the wrong road, Brassens had the vision of the corpse in the coffin sneaking off from his own funeral and the phrase came to him : « Faire la tombe buissonière », because it had the same ring. A few days later his mind went back to the funeral that lost its way and some other images came into his mind. To the image of “faire la tombe buissonière” was added “le chemin d’écoliers” and “la marguerite des morts”. Finally he had eight images that pleased him and around them he wove his song.
(This is a summary of Brassens’ own explanation, which he gives in his introductory remarks to the second video of this song, which I have posted below)

6) Je rêv' d'encor' m'enjuponner – In my personal interpretation of these lines of the poem, Brassens is going over in his mind how it will be to say goodbye to his beloved Joha for the last time. This line links to her because in the poem which describes meeting her in the first flush of love, “J'ai rendez-vous avec vous”, he also speaks of getting enveloped in her skirts:
La demeur’ que je préfère,
C’est votre robe à froufrous.
He closes with his last « I love you » and is being untypically sentimental. (He pulls himself together in subsequent lines!)

7) Qui est la marguerite des morts.- In the Catholic countries of Europe including France, chrysanthemums have become symbols of death and are associated predominantly with funerals and graves. The flowers can be daisy-like and in France a term for them is “ marguerite de l'été de la Saint Martin” , because as an autumn flower they often enjoy Indian Summers in October and November. This gives Brassens the link to the phrase: “Effeuiller la marguerite”. This refers to the game that lovers play, plucking the petals of the daisy, while saying “She loves me – she loves me not.” He uses this image in much the same way in his song to Joha: “Saturne” and in in “Les amours d’autan”, the image becomes an image for sexual lovemaking:
la marguerite commencée avec suzette,
On finissait de l'effeuiller avec Lisette

8) ma veuve s'alarme - « S’alarmer » in the everyday usage means to get alarmed, which does not seem quite to describe the feelings expected on the part of his bereaved partner, Joha. In classical literature the verb was used with the meaning: « to be overcome with emotion » and Brassens would like to suggest without being too presumptuous. At this point the sentiment ends and Brassens starts to tease, when he suggests that the love he leaves behind might need an onion to produce tears for his departure.

9) D'autres chats à fouetter – This unfortunate image of whipping cats gives idioms such as « Il a d’autres chats à fouetter », which means he has other things to deal with. Some people read Brassens’ use of this expression as a warning not to meddle with his songs, but Brassens’ love for his cats was such that the literal meaning must apply, which he has enhanced with the metaphor. A major grievance he had against the devastatingly seductive Jo was that she was nasty with his cats- (Putain de toi).

10) Il y'a un fantôme – In this and other poems, Brassens assumes that once the unpleasant transition of death has been accomplished, the person lives on in disembodied form, much as before. In “Supplique pour être enterré sur la plage de Sète”, his idea of heaven is relaxing on a pedalo off the beach of Sète for eternity.

11) Ici finit mon testament - This is a further reference to François Villon’s “Testament”. Villon had written:
"Icy se clost le testament
Et finist du pauvre Villon"
12) La fosse commune du temps - It is time which remorselessly determines the common fate of all people.

In the introduction to this version of "Le Testament", Brassens explains in detail his composition technique on writing this song:

G Brassens le testament
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Deb Egleton said...

This has always been one of my favourite Brassens songs and this translation and analysis is amazing. Thank you for requainting me with all the complexities of his language. I studied french chanson for my finals in 1996 and took Brassens as my dissertation topic.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your work. I am half French so have listened to Brassens all my life, but only within the last year or so have had a sufficient level of French to understand a little. Your blog helps clear up mystreries I can't solve, and now I can see the beauty of the lyrics of the music I have loved for years Brassens is France and France is Brassens. If I had a euro for everytime I'd heard his songs sung there... :)

Gert said...

Thanks very much for this post.
I've been a great Brassens admirer for 26 years now. I live in Belgium and find it great to go after the meaning of the songs by means of the English language.
thanks again !

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