There used to be several good secondhand bookshops in Brighton's Duke Street, and in one of them about twenty years ago I bought Geoffrey Grigson's Faber Book of Poetry and Places (1980). It is, as you would expect with Grigson, an excellent survey of the British landscape in poetry, and includes many of the poems in his earlier anthology The Poet's Eye. One thing I like about this selection is that Grigson can't resist including a selection of poems on France and Italy ("across the Channel, up to the present (but how will it be later?) our general emotions have flowed with most willingness and familiarity into France and Italy ... so I add a section for each country.") There are only five English poems in the France section, two of which describe the Channel coast -Wordsworth's 'Evening on Calais Beach' ("Breathless with adoration; the broad sun / Is sinking down in its tranquillity") and Arthur Symons' sad vision of Dieppe:
At Dieppe: Green and Grey
to Walter Sickert
The grey-green stretch of sandy grass,
A sea of lead, a sky of slate;
Already autumn in the air, alas!
One stark monotony of stone,
The long hotel, acutely white,
Against the after-sunset light
Withers grey-green, and takes the grass's tone.
Listless and endless it outlies,
And means, to you and me, no more
Than any pebble on the shore,
Or this indifferent moment as it dies.
The other three poems in English are Matthew Arnold's 'Scenes from Carnac', Roy Campbell's imagistic 'Fishing Boats in Martiques' and an extract from Alexander Hume's descriptive poem 'Of the Day Estivall' (1599) (called in the anthology 'Midsummer Day in France'). Hume's poem featured in Arthur Quiller-Couch's 1919 Oxford Book of English Verse as 'A Summer Day'. But was it really about France? Grigson has an interesting endnote - 'though he became a severe Puritan, Alexander Hume went to Paris as a young man to study law. During his four years in France he must have visited, I would say on the evidence of this poem, the neighbourhood of Bourdeaux, and then have written this wine-country piece - perhaps about the country where the Dordogne flows into the Gironde - amazed by a Midsummer Day's heat so different from his Scotch summers. Scotch commentators like to deny that he is picturing a French scene, but what about the salads with olive oil, the wine in caves, the peaches, and the honey plums, i.e. reines claudes or greengages, which reached the British Isles only in 1724?'
Which French poems of place does Grigson include alongside these English verses? Here's a list:
- A sonnet of Joachim du Bellay's evoking Liré (near the château of La Turmelière where he was born)
- Various poems by du Bellay's friend Pierre de Ronsard set in Blois, Couture and Vendômois
- The 'Stances' of Honorat de Racan (1618)
- André Chénier on the river Seine
- The beginning of a long poem by Pierre Lebrun recording a return to Tancarville, where he grew up; Grigson's endnote says that 'petrol, not moss and leaves and the tidal Seine, is the modern smell of Tancarville, from the barges which go up and down under the great modern suspension bridge'
- An extract from the Cuban poet José María de Heredia's Les trophées ('La Mer de Bretagne' section) on Brittany
- Victor Hugo's 'Près d'Avranches' (1843) and a 'Lettre' from Champagne
- Tristan Corbière's 'Au Vieux Roscoff'
- Part of 'Paris aux réverbères' by Alphonse Esquiros
- Paris again in Verlaine's 'Nocturne Parisien'
- Two poems by Paul Claudel - 'Châteaux de Loire' and 'The Cathedral and the Plain', the latter an extract from 'Présentation de la Beauce à Notre-Dame de Chartres' (but wasn't this actually written by Charles Péguy not Paul Claudel?)
- And finally, Guillaume Apollinaire on 'Le Pont Mirabeau'
Des vallons de Bourgogne, ô toi, fille limpide,
Qui pares de raisins ton front pur et liquide,
Belle Seine, à pas lents de ton berceau sacré
Descends, tandis qu’assise en cet antre azuré,
D’un vers syracusain la Muse de Mantoue
Fait résonner ton onde où le cygne se joue.