The Mysterious Barricades
François Couperin’s piece for harpsichord Les Barricades Mystérieuses has caught the imagination of many. In these pages I discuss the piece and its title and gather its echoes in music, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, the visual arts, film, and performance.
In 1937, the French Surrealist poet Maurice Blanchard (1890-1960) published a very short book of prose poems called Les Barricades Mystérieuses (Paris, GLM). Here is a translation of the entire work, as far as I know, the first in English. (Thanks to Marc Brudzinski for help; all inadequacies are entirely mine.) The poem starts with a reference to a mysterious barricade – bones blocking the road. The references to a battle in the first part of the poem suggest these bones are the corpses of fallen soldiers. In the third paragraph, the word “barrière” (both semantically and phonetically close to “barricades”) occurs five times. (It is unclear to me whether the passage entitled “Invincible Nature” is part of “The Mysterious Barricades” or a separate piece published with it.)
THE MYSTERIOUS BARRICADES
Bones were blocking the road. Too bad! I said to myself, since the one buried alive will sprout, too bad for the bones! I twisted my feet a bit, I swore by the sacred names of gods but I made a good crossing all the same. Here’s to a good crossing! Here’s to the immense sea of existence! Here’s to a whistle blast like a double ladder as the salute to the dead!It was undulating, the immense sea of existence.In my profound life, in my cow’s life, I see a fence [barrière] as high as my muffle. And I put my big cow’s mouth on the fence. And the fence tickles my ribs. And the fence makes me laugh. Then, I lick my fence with my great big cow’s tongue.
I name the constellations of the Tunisian night, the stars that are healthy and those that are not, Cassiopea, Alpha Scorpio, I give names to those I don’t know, Poincaré Scipio the Younger or Felix Faure Pompey the Great, the daisies of the blue night, we the brothers of the undulating sea, we yell flamboyant stupidities, we bring back the captain, drunk as a pig.
In the evening of a grueling day, Cupid soared off to sleep, crying: “I’m going to be happy! I’m going to disappear for ever!”
And eternity soared into the sun, announcing: “I’ve come to stay a brief moment.”
But the sun jumped into the eye of the general. And it was the evening of the battle. And the general was guiding victory with a firm hand… Oh! What an awful day!
I am the wheel that crosses plains and towns, I go bloumbloum on the paving stones to piss off the people, I break my axel and I squirt into the blooming wheat covering the ditches, I spread out like coins on marble.
The man came looking for me, the man who always wants to arrange things. He carried me on his shoulder and I made myself heavier and heavier.
A man is a stomach.
The acacia leaps from crow to crow.
Genius is the fetal state regained.
Refusal is a derailment with the dots on the “I”s and twisted frames, with a very strict security crew, with complaints for the asking.
A world pure at heart, at heart pin-stripe, charming, jagged.
Baby Jesus’s head was 24 centimeters around. The light was hiding in his light. And one could see him. Chromium merged with sulphur. The reverse side of the medal was posing for all the photographers. Fate was bound. Napoleon was reigning.
The rich factories, the Trois-Évéchés, the crepuscular smoke, the green grapes, all that reduced to powder was the prey of the weevils. The weevils, tamed they were circumcised. They were given virgin lands to populate. When there were more of them than drops of rain, in Brest, when it rains, they were shut away in a grain of wheat.
The agitators were agitating. The sun was shouting: “I am the sun!” The grain of wheat was moving, splitting open, getting stronger. And the town of Charenton was born. The rainbow, wound of the sexes, was getting an erection in his cloud.
When light-footed sleep reaches my horizon, the forest moves and the sparse bosks, somber kindlings launch themselves at the burning heart of the forest.
It snowed on the town. And on each roof of the town a turkey perched, immobile, its nose soft. At the command of the dawn, the whole town was impregnated.
The image above is a frontispiece by the artist Lucien Coutaud for the original edition.
There is an indirect reference in a poem by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan (1920-2010). His poem The Cape of Good Hope (1955), published in a limited edition but subsequently reprinted in his Poems of Thirty Years (1982) and Collected Poems (1990), has a section entitled “A Dream at the Mysterious Barricades.” The section comprises a number of verses each devoted to an artist or thinker: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Newton, Beethoven, Melville and Myakovsky. In these verses, intense descriptions of some aspect of their work or life are sometimes followed by an exhortation in the mouth of the character. Here are a few lines from the Myakovsky section, in which there is the only reference in the poem to mysterious barricades:
Myakovsky, the revolver, the room
He stopped his caged pacing, he stood gazing
Desperate, proud, through the weakly barring
Window-glass that blocked him from the stirring
And sparrow-jaunty Moscow streets of spring
As the more mysterious barricades
Locked his desire from the vision of love.
In a personal communication (facilitated by Claudia Kraskiewicz, to whom many thanks), the poet has said that he was not aware of the Couperin piece at the time he wrote the poem. He picked up the phrase “mysterious barricades” from the collection of poems by that name by the French poet Olivier Larronde.
As the epigraph to his novel The Mysterious Barricades (Douglas, Isle of Man: Times Press, 1964 – see the Fiction page on this site), Cedric Glover quotes some verse by Ursula Vaughan Williams (wife of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) entitled ‘Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mystérieuses”‘:
Chance word, chance music lead me to retrace
a way I travelled once and must again;
for what I was I search the world in vain.
Mysterious barricades lie dark between
all that I am and all that I have been.
Walled behind years of time my secret lies:
lost spirit or avenging ghost it cries
commanding me to meet it face to face.
The poem is unknown to the editor of The Complete Poems of Ursula Vaughan Williams (The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, n.d.). According to Glover’s son, Myles Glover, it was written by Vaughan Williams at the request of the author.
The Swiss francophone poet Philippe Jaccottet mentions Couperin’s piece a couple of times in his notebooks. In La Semaison (1971), one entry reads:
To keep things in their rightful place and not let death encroach on life in vain. Necessity, blessing of limitations (re-reading Henri Michaux, with unbroken admiration).
Let limitations be like the old walls of these forests, these fields: old, human, evoking less a stop, a closure, than a kind of justice and a putting in order, too, without pedantry, fertile. Mysterious barricades. Fruitful measure.
(Translated by Michael Hamburger in Seedtime, 1977, p. 48.)
In a more recent work, Ce peu de bruits (2008, p. 79), he writes:
Bernard Simeone: the ‘Mysterious Barricades’ that he loved to hear played on the harpsichord will not have protected him.
(Translated by John Taylor in And, Nonetheless: Selected Poetry and Prose, New York: Chelsea Editions, 2011. Many thanks to John Taylor for alerting me to this reference.) The reference is to the French writer and music critic Bernard Simeone whose own novella Cavatina mentions the work multiple times.
Jaccottet is the cousin of the harpsichordist Christiane Jaccottet.
Four issues of a poetry journal called The Mysterious Barricades were published in Spring 1972, Fall 1972, Spring 1973, and Winter 1976. The journal was edited by the poet Henry Weinfield. (Christine Berl, Allen Kimbrell, and Andre Kimbrell are also listed as editors in the fourth issue.) Weinfield took the name of the journal directly from Couperin’s piece. In addition, around that time, he wrote a sequence of four poems under the title Le Tombeau de Couperin, each of the four poems bearing the name of a piece by Couperin: “Passacaglia” [“Passacaille”], “The Soul in Pain” [“L’âme en peine”], “The Harlequin” [“L’Arlequine”], and “The Nightingale in Love” [“Le Rossignol en amour”]. (The poems are reprinted under the heading “The Tomb of Couperin” in Weinfield’s Without Mythologies (Dos Madress Press, 2008)).
In the fourth issue, Weinfield supplied the following preface in which he reflects on the significance of the title “The Mysterious Barricades”:
So much has changed in the two years since The Mysterious Barricades last put out an issue that even its name has acquired an entirely different significance for us. I had taken it originally from the title of a harpsichord piece by François Couperin, which I have always associated symbolically with the struggle of the artist to transcend the boundaries of the life he thereby brings into being. But for a long time I was unable to conceive of those boundaries in any but the most purely formal terms; and therefore, although I had wanted the magazine to assume its own totality and not merely to contain a series of discrete parts, the project was doomed to failure. For since from its inception the magazine had been alienated from the world, it could do little more than reify its alienation by presenting itself as a kind of anthology–precisely what I had wanted to avoid! Thus it was that The Mysterious Barricades took their revenge; and so after three issues it went the way of all little magazines.
What has resuscitated and transformed the original conception is the idea that The Mysterious Barricades should function as a vehicle for ideas which are ultimately situated in historical practice. Perhaps this is only to say that we no longer consider The Mysterious Barricades to be mysterious; or at least that we take it upon ourselves to attempt to demystify them, so that the artist, whose tragedy in this century is that he has had to exist outside of a meaningfully articulated historical context, can now begin to see himself in holistic terms.
For The Mysterious Barricades, which the real artist struggles to overcome even as he brings them into being on a more advanced level, are in no way separable from the struggles of history as a whole. Just as history unfolds according to man’s ability or inability to reproduce himself on an expanded scale, so the history of art unfolds as his primary means of expressing holistic knowledge at any given time. And certainly from this point of view it may be said of every great artist that at least in the terms of his art he is a revolutionary. Our responsibility, both to society and to art itself, is to bring the two spheres into alignment with each other.
We should make it very clear, therefore, that the contributors to this issue of The Mysterious Barricades do not necessarily reflect our own views in any way, and that the magazine does not exist only as a vehicle for artists and thinkers who are already committed to creating a socialist society and a socialist culture–a position which could hardly be tenable for any serious journal concerning itself with art in our time. One must confront the relative failure of the socialist movement in the twentieth century to attract serious artists, and the failure of those artists to be attracted to the socialist movement. Moreover, given our present circumstances, it may be, as Rosa Luxemburg said, that the utmost that can be done “is to safeguard bourgeois culture from the vandalism of the bourgeois reaction, and create the social conditions requisite for a free cultural development.” The Mysterious Barricades cannot hope by itself to bring either a new art or a new criticism into being; it can, however, serve as a vehicle for that process of realization, and as such it welcomes the participation of all serious artists and thinkers.
At least two alumni from the journal, the novelist Paul Auster (see Fiction page) and the poet Stanley Nelson (see below), continued to show an interest in Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses in later work.
Thanks to Henry Weinfield for information and permission to post text and pictures.
The Greek poet Veroniki Dalakoura published her volume The Decline of Eros in 1976. It contains the short poem “Mysterious Barricades,” written in the previous year. Here is the poem, translated by Yannis Goumas (and posted with permission of the author):
O! Where are you
How lightly François Villon
sleeps upon the harpsichord
in the forest of a god
The “departed” god and the reference to Villon, calling to mind his famous line “où sont les neiges d’antan” (“where are the snows of yesteryear”) suggest the barricades of the title are barricades between the present and past, an interpretation suggested also by Ursula Vaughan Williams and Bengt Söderbergh.
There is a use of the title of the piece in the poem “On a Seldom-Performed Entr’acte from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty” by Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1998), published in his 1982 volume An Indian Summer: 100 Recent Poems. (The volume includes poems written from 1964 to 1982; I have not been able to establish the date of this particular poem.) Here is a brief excerpt from the poem.
It is only sad and despairing
that Tchaikovsky wasted so much of his life
Upon his symphonies,
for the flowering of his lyrical genius,
His temperament and the high fever of his nostalgia
are in Eugène Onegin, and in this music we are hearing
Where he can involve himself
without too exact a statement of his involvement,
Made the more thrilling for him
because of the barricades mystérieuses of the footlights,
Over which he could project himself through his music
unequivocally into their midst,
Induce his own feelings into the singers or the dancers,
share their emotions with them,
And absorb them back again
A series of thirty-two villanelles by the American poet Jared Carter were published as Les Barricades Mystérieuses (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, to whom many thanks for permission to reprint the two poems below) in 1999. The villanelle is a complex poetic form of five three-line stanzas followed by one four-line stanza. The rhyme scheme is ABA, ABA, ABA, ABA, ABA, ABAA. The first line of the poem is repeated as the final line of the second and fourth stanzas and as the penultimate line of the sixth. The third line is repeated as the final line of the third, fifth and sixth stanzas. Thus, using bold for the first line and underline for the third line, the poem looks like this: ABA, ABA, ABA, ABA, ABA, ABAA. The danger of repetitiveness is offset by the poet’s ability to repunctuate and recontextualize the recurring lines.
On the Music page of this site I quoted the comment made on Couperin’s piece by the composer Luca Francesconi, that the piece is “infinite, interminable, with neither head nor tail.” This was in connection to the appearance of the piece at the beginning of E.R. Eddison’s novel The Worm Ouroboros, the title of which alludes to the figure of a serpent eating its own tail (see the Fiction page). One will surely be struck by the fact that the villanelle form used by Carter for this poetic sequence seems, in its own way, to embody the idea of something with neither head nor tail.
The first and last poems of the sequence also have a thematic link to the piece. The first, called “Improvisation,” seems to be giving advice on how to improvise at a keyboard instrument (such as a harpsichord). Although the Couperin piece is not an improvisation, its harmonies do drift in a way that is evoked beautifully in the poem:
To improvise, first let your fingers stray
across the keys like travelers in the snow;
each time you start, expect to lose your way.
You’ll find no staff to lean on, none to play
among the drifts the wind has left in rows.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray
beyond the path, Give up the need to say
which way is right, or what the dark stones show;
each time you start, expect to lose your way.
And what the stillness keeps, do not betray;
the one who listens is the one who knows.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray;
our over emptiness is where things weigh
the least. Go there, believe a current flows
each time you start: expect to lose your way.
Risk is the pilgrimage that cannot stay;
the keys grow silent in their smooth repose.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray.
Each time you start, expect to lose your way.
The final poem in the sequence is called “Comet”:
Somewhere not far beyond these barricades
mysterious, a single branch is burning.
To the dim light and the large circle of shade
I would return, and by the green leaves arrayed
with broken fire, regain a different learning,
somewhere not far beyond. These barricades
are all instruction now, these sounds evade
the measure, and the swarm’s impulsive churning.
To the dim light and the large circle of shade
I would be summoned–image shattered, made
again into a thousand shaped of yearning,
somewhere not far. Beyond these barricades
the scattered pieces come together, swayed
by spectral lines that draw the most discerning
to the dim light and the large circle of shade.
Along this path we cannot be conveyed
but move as particles or waves, returning–
somewhere not far, beyond these barricades–
to the dim light and the large circle of shade.
Sylviane Dupuis, a Swiss poet, published Géométrie de l’illimité in 2000. It includes several poems connected to particular pieces of music. One of them, “Dessins dans l’air” (Patterns in the Air) is linked to Les Barricades Mystérieuses and provides a beautiful description of the music (posted with the poet’s permission):
Cette pluie de gouttes solidifiées, sous les doigts
véloces qui déroulent, dans l’invisible
arabesques et volutes
— striant l’air —
on ne sait si elle hésite au bord
de l’immobile silence
ou d’un chaos
Here is a translation by me:
This burst of frozen raindrops, under fingers
rapidly unfolding unseen
whorls and arabesques
—scoring the air—
does it waver on the verge
of unmoving silence
or of chaos?
The Italian poet Silvia Brè entitles her 2001 collection of poems Le Barricate Misteriose. The note on the publisher’s website tells us that “the guiding thread of these poems is the distance that separates us from that which is unmoving and eternal.”
There is a brief reference to the piece in Adrienne Rich‘s 2006, poem “Archaic,” published in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Here is the last stanza of the poem, in which the reference occurs:
You arrived starving at midnight
I gave you warmed-up food
poured tumblers of brandy
put on Les Barricades Mystérieuses
—the only jazz in the house
We talked for hours
of lesser and greater sorrows
ended up laughing in the thicksilver
The poet Stanley Nelson (who published work in the poetry journal The Mysterious Barricades, described above) published his Limbos for Amplified Harpsichord (Presa Press) in 2007. The work is in four sections, called, as Couperin’s harpsichord suites are, ordres. Each ordre has three parts, one centered around Couperin, one around a figure called Dutchman (a 17th century painter of still lives) and one around The Man. These characters wonder in and out of each other’s sections, along with a cast of other characters, MeLord and MeLady, the Winter King and Queen, Coquette and her Gigolo, and so on. The poem as a whole is a kind of ultra-sensuous, hallucinatory, mystical and philosophical fugue. There are four references to something referred to as The Mysterious Barricade. In the following transcriptions, from pp. 10, 15, 61 and 139 (the last spanning across two of the numbered subsections) I do my best to represent the placement of the text on the page, which is of great importance in the poem. I am not confident that I have begun and ended my excerpts in the best places to maximize understanding of them.
in chill dawn, loud
in his notebook:
How to unblock the chords of The Mysterious Barricade?
How to say the shape of Harpsichord, its light-beadlets?
How to sound the strings of many lutes in one Harpsichord?
of the manorhouse has been awake in his study
long hours before the Reapers Song
Metaphysics – –
his white flame-candle
merging with a predawn
the color of winter
The Mysterious Barricade
of the Winter Kind and Queen
Ascending and descending
from the Bridal Chamber
(train of her trailing gown) Spreading
Lute-Tablature – –
Armature of the Spheres, The
Mysterious Barricade: O
Existent Light light or essence of the Great
In an interview with JoSelle Vanderhooft, for The Pedestal Magazine, Nelson has spoken of the significance of Couperin’s music in general, and of Les Barricades Mystérieuses in particular, for Limbos for Amplified Harpsichord:
SN: Well, I have a great fondness, as the book Limbos for Amplified Harpsichord shows, for Francois Couperin and his harpsichord music. I also have a great fondness for Watteau and his paintings. What I like in Watteau is his playfulness, his buoyancy. Carly Smith wrote an article for Poesa in which he mentioned what attributes poetry should have. One of them was playfulness. I’ve always taken that very seriously, you know? I don’t want to be a sober-faced, straight-forward kind of person. That’s not who I am.
JV: I can definitely see that in terms of the language you use in The City of the Sun: “Bands become glands; Cocks become socks.” I love that! But how did you transcribe that playfulness into your work?
SN: I can’t remember the name, but I had been reading several books by a British lady who was an expert on Renaissance mysticism, and the guy who’s mentioned at the end of one of them came up with this idea of the City of the Sun. It’s a kind of Renaissance mystical concept.
JV: Tell me some more about it and how you wrote this into the poem?
SN: Well, it just came to me one day. I started to write the poem, and it just took me wherever it wanted, you know? There’s one part of it I’m especially fond of, where I talk about the pillar that has all of these images on it. I’m definitely a “putter-inner” not a “cutter-outer.”
JV: Let’s get back to Couperin a little. I’d never heard of him before receiving a review copy of Limbos for Amplified Harpsichord, so I had to do a little research. I was just fascinated with how much like a harpsichord score the entire book is.
SN: He was the poet/composer for the Sun King, Louis XVI.
JV: The sun, again.
SN: Yeah. And he gave very suggestive titles to his work. One is called The Mysterious Barricade. Nobody has quite figured out what that meant. They think maybe it’s a reference to the chords themselves. I don’t know if you ever knew a guy named Dick Higgins, he’s probably before your time.
JV: I suspect so.
SN: He had a press, Something Else Press. I sent him that book, Limbos for Amplified Harpsichord. He never published the book, but he also never returned it. He said he wanted to keep reading it.
SN: And he said he had a friend who listened to the Mysterious Barricade every day. And while I was writing that poem—it took me a year to write it—the only music I listened to was Couperin harpsichord music and the piano music of Erik Satie, who in my mind was like a reincarnation of Couperin. He was quite a character. When he died, some folks went to his apartment and they found eight corduroy suits in a closet, none of which had ever been worn.
JV: What about his work strikes you as being similar to Couperin’s?
SN: There’s the same playfulness, melodic inventiveness, and it just—you know, the French had their own kind of music. It’s different from German music, let’s say. You know, in the German we get Beethoven, Bach, Mozart. But when you go to the French composers, you get Debussy, Couperin, Poulnec, Ravel. The French composers had their own province that they inhabited. And it’s very different from the Germanic works that we’re used to hearing.
In John Ashbery’s 2009 collection Planisphere, the title poem begins:
Mysterious barricades, a headrest (of sorts)
boarded the train at Shinjuku junction
to the palpable consternation of
certain other rubberneckers already installed
in the observation car of their dreams.
Given this reference and the poet’s known fondness for Couperin’s music, it is perhaps not far-fetched to see a further reference to Les Barricades Mystérieuses in the title of another poem in the same volume: “B—-‘s Mysterious Greeting.”
LaWanda Walters‘ poem “The Barricade” was published in The Georgia Review (Summer 2009) and reprinted on the Poetry Daily website (July 18th, 2009). The poem responds to the sense of energy and motion in restraint that Luke Arnason conjectures is the meaning of the title of Couperin’s piece. The poem is reprinted here with the permission of the poet:
François Couperin must have loved some girl
and known how to argue, how to twine fingers
in a dance—how one idea will break onto another
like waves that rear and kneel, how the sea’s curls must rise
in time to the moon, how a girl can kiss back.
This is what you hear in music that turns
with the steadiness of a merry-go-round,
the ornate horses ready to burst from their glass
bodies and race each other across a hill
in their real shapes—they are that excited,
ready to bolt except for this composition
the composer called a “musical barricade,”
this maze with turnings through a trimmed
suspense: the coy vistas of old boxwood,
this fond and winding argument designed to hold
a loved one fast and keep those horses,
those good horses, from galloping away.
The poet and art historian David Shapiro published “The Mysterious Barricades” in the Spring 2010 issue of The Cimarron Review. Shapiro was himself a violinist of some note in his youth and comes from a family of musicians. He writes that “at different times, as an ex-violinist with a family string quartet, I have sought an analogy between a piece of music and a poem” (personal communication). Here is the poem, reprinted with the poet’s permission:
as Milena remembers the stones of Prague
I always loved the mountains in New York
two seconds ago he loved you more than snow about an hour ago
how does Couperin matter if they are playing on the wrong instrument
Two seconds ago even the raindrops were snow
I never believed a person who said I used to be a poet
then they tell stories and later they make money
He was boring because no music was “on” two seconds ago
the bumblebee waltz period perpetual
Two seconds ago I was a poet now blank and black on a mountain in NY
Yeah you have an octet and an octave but do you have friends on television
he devoted two seconds to each line if a sestet or sextet it was like
New Orleans without beads (or beads in the trees)
Two seconds ago I forgot the melodramatic ways she destroyed my life
All the time I should have been asking You are a poet yes but are you anything else?
everything always slightly ruined because of the child behind the door
he said quite intelligently that he was nothing compared to NOT keeping his work
except for two seconds goodbye You won the prize but two seconds ago
took it away
Mortal chaos, mysterious barricades
Let us climb the facing, footholds
How far, how high must we go?
I see them in the moonlight, gray and silver
But who has built them, why?
They are so great, so high
Have they always stood here?
If forever, what is there to fear?
And is what lies beyond them near?
Once, before the Infant Child of Prague
I glimpsed what lies beyond the wall
But those who see it cannot say at all
What they have seen, what has been answered
Not do they dare to climb until invited