The Fall of Paris

Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) recorded Scarlatti’s sonatas in Paris,
1939-March, 1940. On the recording the sounds of heavy guns can
be heard at times in the background.

Landowska plays while Paris falls;
Scarlatti’s energy relives its runs
though sullen drums, beleaguered guns,
affright the ancient air.

With subtle Janus for her god
the unreal city prays and flirting smiles.
St. Louis sleeps, and troops for miles
around blaspheme, despair.

The shadow of triumphal arch
again entices Prussian youths and men,
spreads wide for strutting pride and then
engulfs all marching there.

L’Etoile becomes a blackened web.

As Hitler jigs we drink down shame.
The Opera’s hyperboles resound,
its lamps still glow, but underground
a fire begins to flare.

Beyond the barracks, yards, and cells
where victims face the brute who maims and kills
the Seine between the city’s hills
spills like a woman’s hair.

The rape is quick and sure; the troops
are satisfied, and Speer lets Paris live.
Can she survive this war?
She gives herself till forty-four
the spleen of Baudelaire,
the rictus of Voltaire.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “The Fall of Paris”?

“The Fall of Paris” was inspired by listening to a music programme on CBC Radio. They played a record of a Polish concert performer, Wanda Landowska, who was playing Scarlatti. Suddenly there were muffled thuds mixed in with the music. The CBC broadcaster explained that this was the sound of anti-aircraft guns defending the Paris region from the Luftwaffe. At the time, the technicians and her agent wanted Landowska to leave Paris and get away from the fighting. She refused to go until she had finished her Scarlatti recordings. I went to the Music Library at UBC and found the same record to listen to it again and jot down my impressions. I remembered the sound of big guns from my childhood in wartime Britain. The whole thing put me into an emotional turmoil. Then, as I was leaving the library, I met one of my students. “What are you doing here?” she asked. I explained I had been listening to Landowska. “Follow me,” she said. She took me to a wall where there was a framed sheet of paper on which Wanda Landowska had written her signature in a bold hand. I knew I was destined to write this particular poem.

What poetic techniques did you use in “The Fall of Paris”?

Inner voice: The poem started with my inner voice describing the reality heard on the record. It is in the present tense because I relive it as if it happens as I listen. Quite rapidly I found the first four lines.

Rhyme:The middle two lines in the first stanza rhymed. The double rhyme scheme moves through the poem giving continuity, just as the river Seine flows through Paris. And don’t forget that troops march in step, not just anyhow. As I worked on the poem some last lines in each stanza rhymed, so I pursued that, finding this same rhyme could also give a couplet at the poem’s end, joining the names of two of France’s greatest writers. The poem also uses lack of rhyme. The most important word “falls” stands alone! The pivotal line that stands alone in the middle does not rhyme. In the middle of the poem this single line that sums up the defeat is not part of a group of lines: “L’Etoile becomes a blackened web.”

Metaphor & Imagery: “L’Etoile is the famous circle where there’s the Arc de Triomphe, the eternal flame of the unknown soldier, and from which the Avenue des Champs Elysées and the other great avenues spread out on all sides, crossed by smaller roads; like a spider’s web. It’s a central image, the “star” blackened by war: France is caught in Hitler’s web. But the Germans are also caught in the French web, because they will be defeated. The German troops will march in victory from there, just as French troops did before and after But the Arc is also a trap. It is likened to a woman’s legs spread as she is raped by the Nazis. Again it’s an image of defeat. The Opera Garnier is the ornate home of music and harmony. The fall of Paris is material for an opera.

Allusion: Why keep referring to people or mythical figures or places in a poem? I do not deliberately pack each poem with allusions to show off knowledge! When I do make allusions, though, I do it instinctively, because it is a kind of shorthand, allowing more meaning or more feeling to be crammed into the words. Landowska, Scarlatti, the Opera building are all real, but they add atmosphere and meaning that would be lost if cut out. Hitler did dance a jig outside the famous railway carriage where German defeat in the first world war was signed. Here he rubbed French generals’ faces in the mess of their defeat. Speer was the Nazi architect. In his Memoirs he tells of Hitler suggesting on the balcony of the Opera that Paris should be dynamited, because it was more beautiful than any German city. Speer says he persuaded Hitler not to have that done but to build a German city more beautiful than Paris. This would humiliate the French. Why mention “forty-four”? Because Paris was liberated in 1944. During the war there was both collaboration and resistance. Janus, the Roman God of doorways and gates, had a head with two faces. Janus was a god of Roman Paris. The two-faced reference suggests the deception necessary for resistance. Baudelaire wrote bitter, ironic poems under the heading “Spleen”. Voltaire is famously portrayed with a grin on his lips. A free-thinker, he spent time in exile in England, like free French during World War II. He was a skeptical philosopher who knew the nastiness of life and makes bitter humour from it. Grin and bear it! Why mention St. Louis? He was a king revered by the French for his religious faith and good government. His statue stands on a tall column in the Place de la Nation in the East of Paris, where there was much street fighting and resistance during the war. He was a good ruler as opposed to Hitler and his generals in control of wartime France. All this takes much longer to say than the whole of the poem. That’s how references work. They compress meaning and sentiment, making each word count.

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