As we all struggle with our confinement during this holiest of seasons, I busy myself with two endless activities: making repairs to a home battered by having barracked my eight sons over the years and revisiting favorite authors, especially poets. For the first time in a long while, I have picked up a book of verse by Francis Jammes, a mostly forgotten French poet whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, and it is like discovering a long-lost friend.
Born in southwestern France near the Pyrenées, Jammes was a mediocre student who failed the baccalauréat (the post high school exam required for advanced studies) with a particularly low mark in French, a zero in fact! As a young man, he supported himself as a notary clerk. But at about the age of thirty, he achieved almost instant fame with the publication of his first poems in literary magazines, followed by a series of very well-received volumes of poetry. His clear and direct verse ran counter to the cerebral symbolist poetry of his contemporaries, and I have always found it somewhat surprising that Jammes was read at all. Nevertheless, his work sold well enough that he was able to devote himself entirely to literature.
His early poems are best described as lyrical but pagan—that’s what Jammes called them—with only a faint nostalgia for Christian piety, celebrating the beauty of nature, the salutary aspects of rural life, and the charm of chaste young maidens. Not only was his verse very popular with the public, Jammes was widely praised by fellow writers, including Catholics. Yet he was himself an unbeliever.
All that changed after meeting Paul Claudel, the spiritual godfather of the entire 20th-century Catholic literary renaissance. Dazzled and inspired by Claudel, Jammes rediscovered the Faith: “I was lost in wonder, a sort of happy astonishment. Catholicism had entered into my life,” he wrote. Jammes later married a young admirer, with whom he would eventually have seven children. For the rest of his life, he rarely strayed from his corner of rural France, living almost in a self-imposed quarantine, oblivious to the literary trends in Paris and the outside world. In stark contrast to the “age of anxiety” in which he lived, Jammes was contented, cheerful, and domestic. His pastimes were gardening, hunting, conservation, and all manner of sports.
Claudel praised Jammes’s mature Christian poetry, saying that “no one has better expressed the importance and the dignity of the common people who surround us.” Though few people read Jammes today—an indictment of us, I think, rather than him—he was important enough in his own day to have his poetic style identified by the eponymous term, le Jammisme, which refers to his credo as much as his style: “Nature is the only school … whom the poet must imitate as simply and faithfully as possible. […] There is only one ‘system,’ which is the Truth and praise of God.”
Jammes found his remarkable and highly inventive voice in the most ordinary people and objects around him. His vocabulary is bucolic and agricultural, such as when rhyming words like râteau (rake) and posteau (fence post). Sometimes he imparts personality to familiar objects, like an old buffet cabinet whose sticky aromas recall happy meals shared by successive generations of the family. He had a tender feeling for donkeys, and praises them in numerous poems, with a playful certitude that they would see paradise! In Jammes, even the most profound mysteries, like the realization of Christ’s constant love for each person, are expressed in very simple, everyday images, such as here in the steady blowing on embers to bring forth the warmth of fire:
I think of your love watching over my soul,
like a poor man’s breath drawing flame from the coal
In one of my favorite poems—and the very one I most needed to read at this time when I find it distressingly easy to criticize our beleaguered clergy—Jammes pays a beautiful tribute to an elderly curé, the parish priest in a small village. My labored translation is as far from the weightless beauty of Jammisme as anything can be, but perhaps the reader will accept my mea culpa and grant me a partial indulgence.
“To An Old Parish Priest”
Oh, whitened hair! And a child’s face! Oh, poverty
You conceal humble sufferings born,
Like a bird hides her clutch amid the thorn.
Nested in thorns your heart is hatched,
with warmth unmatched!
From this half-open thing, a dove takes wing,
White as a crib, white as a crypt.
Your serenity shines high
like the Christmas sky.
Yet have you not felt the thrusting lance
Of crimes confessed in dark and silence?
You listened to those horrible words
but God, alone, heard.
You did not flinch. Your beautiful bare hand
on the bowed sinner’s brow did gently land.
Thus around you shines a pure ray
of love each day,
Whether you walk in the fragrant rose garden,
Or grace the murderer or adulterer with pardon.
I cannot read this poem without thinking of an ancient, saintly priest I encountered when living in France. Though Bordeaux is hardly a country village, it is divided into small neighborhoods from which many of their inhabitants seldom stray. The kindly old priest I met celebrated daily Mass on an obscure side altar of the Église-Saint-Ferdinand before a public of about seven believers. He was saying the Novus Ordo, but one could hardly know, as he whispered the entire Mass ad orientem (there was no other way) so bent over as to look entirely crushed by the fearsome weight of the sacrifice and a longing for self-effacement. One got the impression that he would disappear entirely if he could, but if you approached him after Mass, he was as kindly and patient as your grandmother, and as sweet and slow-moving as honey. I was new to the Mass in French, and I asked him one day where I might acquire a French language missal. (French churches rarely have liturgical guides of any kind on hand.) I thought I saw tears in his eyes when he joyfully retreated to the sacristy to rummage through an old cabinet. What he handed to me turned out to be an English-Portuguese Mass book, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him, as I surmised that he could no longer see well enough to tell the difference.
I was not his most faithful parishioner, to say the least. So now, all these years later, deprived of the Mass as we are, I think with much regret—as I should—of all the Masses that I could have attended, but failed to attend. That is what I am trying to keep foremost in my mind during this quarantine while I repair cracks in drywall and leaf through dusty books of forgotten verse.