Of Things (an excerpt)

The following is an excerpt from a translated excerpt of ‘Of Things’ by Frances Jammes:

“The sadness which disengages from things that have fallen into disuse is infinite. In the attic of this house whose inhabitants I did not know, a little girl’s dress and her doll lie desolate. And here is an iron-pointed staff which once bit into the earth of the green hills, and a sun-bonnet now barely visible in the dim light from the garret window. They have been abandoned since many years, and I am wholly certain that they would be happy again to enjoy, the one the freshness of the moss, and the other the summer sky.

Things tenderly cared for show their gratitude to us, and are ever ready to offer us their soul when once we have refreshed it. They are like those roses of the desert which expand infinitely when a little water brings back to their memory the azure of lost wells.

In my modest drawing-room there is a child’s chair. My father played with it during his passage from Guadeloupe to France when he was seven years old. He remembered distinctly that he sat on it in the ship’s salon, and looked at pictures which the captain had lent him. The island wood of which it was made must have been stout for it withstood the games of a little boy. The piece of furniture had drifted into my home, and slept there almost forgotten. Its soul too had been asleep for many long years, because the child who cherished it was no more, and no other children had come to perch on it like birds.

But just recently my house was made merry by my little niece who was just seven. On my work table she had found an old book with plates of flowers. When I entered the room I found her sitting on the little chair in the lamplight, looking at the charming pictures, just as once a long time ago her grandfather had done. And I was deeply touched. And I said to myself that this little girl alone had been able to make the soul of the chair live again, and that the gentle soul of the chair had bewitched the candour of the child. There was between her and this object a mysterious affinity. The one could not help but go to the other, and it would be awakened by her alone.

Things are gentle. They never do harm voluntarily. They are the sisters of the spirits. They protect us, and we let our thoughts rest upon them. Our thoughts need them for resting-places as perfume needs flowers.

The prisoner, whom no human soul can any longer console, must feel tenderly toward his pallet and his earthen jug. When everything has been refused him by his fellows his obscure bed gives him sleep and his jug quenches his thirst. And even if it separates him from all the world without, the very barrenness of his walls stands between him and his executioners. The child who has been punished loves the pillow on which he cries; for when every one of an evening has hurt and scolded him, he finds consolation in the soul of the silent down. It is like a friend who remains silent in order to calm a friend.

But it is not only out of the silence of things that is born their sympathy for us. They have secret harmonies. Sometimes they weep in the forest which René fills with his tempestuous soul; and sometimes they sing on the lake where another poet dreams.”

The translation was by Gladys Edgerton. It can be found in ‘The Book of Masks’, an anthology of translated French Symbolist and Decadent writings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, published by Atlas Press (1994).

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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