This short story is taken from Alphonse Daudet’s Letters From My Mill, translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley (Boston: Little, Brown & co, 1901).
The Poet Mistral
Last Sunday, on rising, I fancied I had waked in the rue du Faubourg-Montmartre. It rained, the sky was gray, the mill melancholy. I was afraid to spend that cold, rainy day at home, and suddenly a desire came to me to go and warm myself up beside Frederic Mistral, that great poet, who lives three leagues away from my pines in his little village of Maillane.
No sooner thought than gone; a myrtle-wood stick, my Montaigne, a wrap, and I am off!
No one in the fields. Our noble Catholic Provence leaves the earth to rest on Sundays. The farmhouses are closed, the dogs are alone in the yards. Now and then I meet the waggon of a carrier with its streaming hood, or an old woman wrapped in her mantle, colour of dead leaves, or mules in their gala trappings, saddle-cloths of blue and white matweed, scarlet pompons and silver bells, drawing at a trot a carriole of the farm hands going to mass; and away over there, through the fog, I see a boat on the pond and a fisherman standing to cast his net. No possibility of reading on the way. The rain is falling in torrents and the tramontana is dashing it in bucketfuls on my face. I do the way at a rush; and after a walk of three hours I see before me the little cypress wood in the middle of which Maillane shelters itself in dread of the wind.
Not a cat in the village streets; everybody is at high-mass. As I pass before the church the trombones are snorting and I see the lighted candles through the panes of coloured glass.
The poet’s house is at the extreme end of the village, the last house to the left on the road to Saint-Remy, a tiny house of one storey with a garden in front. I enter softly. No one! The door of the salon is closed, but I hear behind it some one who is walking about and talking. The voice and step are known to me. I stop a moment in the little whitewashed passage, my hand on the button of the door, quite agitated. My heart is beating. He is there. At work. Must I wait till the strophe is composed? I’ faith, no. I will enter.
Ah! Parisians, when the poet of Maillane went to you to show Paris to his Mireille, and you saw him in your salons, that Chactas in a dress coat, a stiff collar, and the tall hat which hampered him, as did his fame, you thought that was Mistral. No, it was not he. There is but one Mistral in the world, he whom I surprised last Sunday in his village with a felt hat on one ear, a jacket, no waistcoat, a red Catalan waistband round his loins, his eye blazing, the fire of inspiration on his cheek-bones, superb, with a kind smile, graceful as a Greek shepherd, and walking up and down, his hands in his pockets, making poetry.
‘What? is it you?’ cried Mistral, springing to embrace me. ‘What a good idea of yours to come! This is the fête day of Maillane. We have a band from Avignon, bulls, a procession, the farandole; it will all be magnificent. My mother will soon be home from mass; we shall have breakfast, and then, zou we’11 go and see the pretty girls dance.’ While he spoke, I looked with emotion at the little salon hung in light colours, which I had not seen for a long time, but where I had passed so many glorious hours. Nothing was changed. Still the same sofa with yellow squares, the two armchairs of straw, the Venus without arms, the Venus of Aries on the mantel, the portrait of the poet by Hebert, his photograph by Etienne Carjat and, in a corner, near the window, the desk (a shabby little registration-clerk’s desk) piled with old volumes and dictionaries. At the centre of the desk I saw a large open manuscript. This was Calendal, Mistral’s new poem, which will appear on Christmas-day of the present year. This poem, Mistral has been working at for seven years, and it is now six months since he wrote the last line of it; but he dares not part from it yet. You understand, there is always a verse to polish, a rhyme more sonorous to find. Though Mistral composes wholly in the Provençal language, he writes and rewrites his lines as if all the world could read them in their own tongue and do justice to his labour as a good workman. Oh! the noble poet! it is surely of Mistral that Montaigne might have said:
‘Do you remember him of whom it was asked why he took such trouble about an art which could reach the knowledge of so few persons? “The few are enough for me,” he answered. “One is enough. None is enough.”’
I took the manuscript of Calendal in my hand, and I turned its leaves with emotion. Suddenly a burst of fifes and tambourines sounded in the street beneath the windows, and behold, my Mistral rushing to his closet, bringing out glasses and bottles, dragging the table to the middle of the salon, and opening the door to the musicians, saying to me as he did so: ‘Don’t laugh. They have come to serenade me. I am a municipal councillor.’
The little room became crowded with people. They laid their tambourines on the chairs and put their old banner in a corner. Boiled wine circulated. Then, when several bottles had been emptied to the health of M. Frédéric and they had gravely conversed together about the festival -- would the farandole be as fine as last year? would the bulls behave properly? -- the musicians retired to go and greet the other members of the Council with a like serenade. At this moment Mistral’s mother appeared. In a turn of the hand the table is laid with a fine white cloth and two places. I know the customs of the house. I know that when Mistral has company his mother never sits at table. The poor old woman speaks only Provençal, and would feel very ill at her ease with Frenchmen. Besides, she is wanted in the kitchen.
Dieu! the good meal I made that morning: a bit of roast kid, some mountain cheese, grape jelly, figs, and muscat grapes. The whole washed down with that good Château-neuf des Papes that has so fine a rosy colour in the glasses. At dessert, I fetched the poem and laid it on the table before Mistral.
‘But we said we would go out,’ said the poet, smiling.
‘No, no! Calendal! Calendal!’
Mistral resigned himself, and in his soft and musical voice, beating time to his lines with his hand, he sang the first quatrain:
‘Of a girl mad
with love, I have told the sad adventure, and
I now will sing, if God so wills, a child of Cassis
a poor little sardine fisher.’
Without, the bells were ringing for vespers, the fire-crackers burst in the square, the fifes and the tambourines marched up and down, and the bulls of the Camargue, held ready for the race, bellowed loudly. I, my elbows on the cloth, and with tears in my eyes, I listened to the tale of the little Provençal fisher-lad.
Calendal was only a fisher-lad; love made him a hero. To win the heart of his darling, the lovely Estérella, he undertook marvellous things, beside which the labours of Hercules, those twelve labours, were nothing. Once, taking a notion to be rich, he invented a formidable fishing-net, and with it he brought into port all the fish of the sea. Again, ’t was the terrible bandit of the gorges of Ollioules, Count Sévéran, whom he drove to his eyrie on the heights, with his cut-throats and concubines.
What a bold little chap, this Calendal! One day at Sainte-Baume, he met two parties of knights, come to settle their quarrel by orthodox blows at the tomb of Maître Jacques, a Provençal who, an it please you, built the frame of the temple of Solomon. Calendal, fearing nothing, rushed head-long in the midst of the killing, appeasing the knights with his tongue. Other superhuman undertakings! Among the rocks of Lure, was a forest of cedars, inaccessible, where never a woodsman dared to go. Calendal went. There he lived all alone for thirty days. During those thirty days the sound of his axe was heard, driven deep in the trees. The forest moaned; one after another its old, giant trees fell and were rolled to the foot of the precipice, so that when Calendal came down not a cedar remained on the mountain.
At last, in reward for such prowess, the sardine fisher obtains the love of Estérella, and is named first consul by the dwellers in Cassis. That is the tale of Calendal; but Calendal matters but little. What there is above all in the poem is Provence; Provence of the sea, Provence of the mountain; with its history, legends, manners, customs, landscapes a whole people, naïve and free, who have found their great poet before he dies. And now, line out your railways, plant those telegraph poles, drive the Provençal tongue from the schools! Provence will live eternally in Mireille and in Calendal.
‘Enough of poesy!’ cried Mistral, closing his manuscript. ‘Let us go and see the fête.’
We started; the whole village was in the streets; a great north wind had swept the sky, which was gleaming, joyous, on the dark red roofs that were damp with rain. We got there in time to see the return of the procession. For an hour it was one interminable defiling of cowled penitents, white penitents, blue penitents, gray penitents; sisterhoods of veiled women, rose-coloured banners with golden flowers, great gilded wooden saints, much tarnished, carried on the shoulders of men, female saints in earthenware, coloured like idols, with bouquets in their hands, copes, monstrances, a green velvet dais, a crucifix swathed in white silk undulating to the breeze in the light of sun and torches, amid psalms, litanies, and bells madly ringing.
The procession over, the saints put back in their chapel, we went to see the bulls, then the games on the barn-floors, the wrestling, the three jumps, the strangle-cat, the bottle-game, and the whole of the pretty fun of a Provence fete. Night was coming on when we returned to Maillane. On the square, before the little cafë where Mistral goes in the evening to play a game with his friend Zidore, a great bonfire was lighted. The farandole was organized. Open-work paper lanterns were lighted in the dark corners: youth took the field; and soon, at the call of the tambourines, began, around the flame, a whirling, noisy dance, which would last all night.
After supper, too weary to go about any longer, Mistral and I went up to his chamber, a modest peasant’s chamber, with two large beds. The walls are not papered, the rafters of the ceiling are visible. Four years ago, when the Academy gave to the author of Mireille that prize of three thousand francs, Madame Mistral had an idea. ‘Suppose we paper and ceil your room?’ ‘No! no!’ cried Mistral, ‘that’s the money of poets, don’t touch it.’ So the room was left bare; but so long as the money of poets lasted those who rapped at Mistral’s door found his purse open.
I had brought up the sheets of Calendal, for I wanted to make him read me a passage before I went to sleep. Mistral chose the pottery incident; and here it is in a few words:
The scene is a great repast, I know not where. They bring upon the table a magnificent service of the glazed pottery of Moustiers. In the centre of each plate, designed in blue on the enamel, is a Provençal subject; a whole history of the region is there. It is wonderful to see with what love the beautiful service is described, a verse to every plate, and each a little poem of naïve and learned workmanship, finished as an idyll of Theocritus.
While Mistral was repeating his poems in that beautiful Provençal language, more than three-fourths Latin, the language that queens once spoke and none but shepherds can now understand, I admired within me that man; and, reflecting on the condition of ruin in which he found his mother-tongue and what he had made of it, I fancied myself in one of those old palaces of the princes of Baux, such as we still see in the Alpilles, roofless, without rails to the porticos, without sashes to the windows, the trefoil of the arches broken, the blazon on the doorways eaten by mosses, hens marauding in the courts of honour, porkers wallowing beneath the dainty columns of the galleries, donkeys browsing in the chapel where the grass is green, and pigeons drinking from the holy-water basins now filled by rain, while among these dilapidated remains of the past, two or three families have built themselves huts in the flanks of the old palace. Then, some fine day, the son of a peasant is seized with admiration for these grand ruins; he is indignant at seeing them so profaned: quick, quick, he drives out the cattle and the poultry from the court of honour and the fairies lending him a hand he reconstructs the great staircase, replaces the panels of the walls, the sashes of the windows, builds up the towers, regilds the throne and its hall, and raises once more upon its base the vast old palace of other days, where popes and empresses lodged and lived.
That restored palace is the Provençal language.
That son of a peasant is Mistral.