As I conclude with the translations of Victor Hugo’s Le Poème du Jardin des Plantes, I include my own personal reflections of the Ménagerie (Zoo) in this post from my recent visit in March, 2019. This visit was otherworldly. Why?
This was my first visit back to the Jardin des Plantes since I began translating Hugo’s poems in March 2017. It has been nearly 140 years since Hugo wrote Le Poème about these very trees, paths, gardens, and animal structures within the Ménagerie that I am seeing now–built in 1794, it is the second oldest zoological garden in the world (after Tiergarten Schonbrunn, Vienna, which I will visit next month!! So cool!)
As you can see from the pictures, most of the maisons des animals (animal houses) have not changed since that time; neither have the quaint paths that encircle the 1200 occupants. Victor Hugo walked these paths with George and Jeanne, his grandchildren, and refers to the Ménagerie as the “Eden where June radiates.” Hugo would then retell these conversations with his grandchildren, in which he was guardian, through 10 poems of Le Poème du Jardin des Plantes from L’Art D’Être Grand-Père. The Jardin was created by Buffon for the expressed pleasure of the future; if not just for Georges and Jeanne! In the first of ten poems Hugo tells us about his intentions for the day:
I go to this garden because it is pleasing/To Jeanne, and that I am helpless against her/ I’m
going there to study two chasms, God and childhood.
(Who among us is not helpless against the pleas of our grandchildren!)
The poems came alive to me as I walked through the Ménagerie . I will allow Hugo’s words from his poems to paint the picture:
My sweet Georges, come and see a menagerie/ Without leaving Lutetia [the origins of Paris], let us go to Assyria/And without leaving Paris, let us go to Timbuktu.
What a beautiful place/ Where the cedar with the elm whispers.
Let us learn, let us be free, let us love, the heavens are grand;/ And let us become wise and stay ignorant./ Let us be under the infinite of honest listeners; Nothing is silent or deaf; let us see the most animals/ That we can; let us take advantage of their lessons. / Because around us, we all dream, we all think.
As God shapes the world to his will with full azure; / He mixes irony with his epic thunder;
The wind, a voice without reason, a kind of missing noise,/ Without ever explaining himself
And God, who curves the rainbow over the ocean that he tames, / After a hummingbird, gives us a mastodon! / From the world He governs, from the sky which He exaggerates; /God puts the clear obscure of the great quivering woods.
Children playing, monsters roaring./ A happy fright fills these sweet heads./ Come see the animals! They are running. What an ecstasy! We stop in front of / The cages where we see blue birds dreaming/ As if they were waiting for the month when they migrate.
And the brows are laughing, and the sun gilds them,/ And those who, born yesterday, do not speak yet,/ During these turbulences under the green branches, /Are their mysterious eyes wide open,/ And meditating.
What an angel, this child! / To have in his humble soul such a wonderful sky/ And to feel so full of light and so sweet/ May not their breath extinguish any star in you!
[Translated from Hugo’s Le Poème du Jardin Des Plantes, Poems 1-8]
Just as one hesitates to finish a really good book, I face the translation of the last 2 poems from Hugo’s Jardin des Plantes with a solemn heart. Very few works have brought me such pleasure as these. These poems combine two of my great loves: thoughts of interactions with my own grandchildren, George, Margot and Jack, and great memories of my former neighborhood, the Jardin des Plantes of Paris.
Copyright 2019. May be quoted in part of full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Fayard, Artheme, L’art d’être Grand-Père. L’œuvre de Victor Hugo. Volume 51. Les Meilleurs Livres : Paris. 1877.