À Grenelle

Suddenly Bruant’s poem made sense.

For the 3rd day of National Poetry Month, here’s a slice of life from Aristide Bruant.

My little bookstore.

I live in the most boring arrondissement of Paris.  The 15th typically doesn’t even show up in tourist guide-books–it’s the biggest arrondissement in the city, but it’s just a residential neighborhood, plain and simple.  (Plain and simple is an adverb, not an adjective–see the English notes below.)  The pearl of my little corner of the 15th is a small used bookstore on the boulevard Grenelle.  The floor is almost completely covered with stacks of books, to the point that if the owner ever has a heart attack in there, they will have to empty the store to get the stretcher inside–it’s adorable, and if the owner sees something that he thinks I’ll like, he puts it aside for me.


Aristide Bruant. He’s usually pictured wearing a wide-brimmed hat, but you can find such depictions anywhere… Source: http://www.dutempsdescerisesauxfeuillesmortes.net, https://goo.gl/rcFw9e

And yet: this being Paris, there are centuries of history everywhere around me.  An afternoon’s walk often takes me through the side streets to the west of the École militaire, the military academy that was meant to increase the size of the French officer corps by making it possible for the sons of non-aristocrats to get into it.  (Napoleon learned his craft there.)  Amongst those streets was the red-light district of this very military neighborhood, and the poet Aristide Bruant immortalized it in À Grenelle.

Much of this poem puzzled the shit out of me (see the English notes below for what that means) until the day that I walked into my little bookstore and the owner showed me something that he was saving for me.  Called Les mots et la chose, the trame (premise?) of Jean-Claude Carrière’s epistolary novel is that a retired lexicographer gets a letter in the mail from a struggling actress who pays her bills by dubbing pornographic films into French.  She’s tired of the limited vocabulary that she’s asked to use, and she requests that the lexicographer suggest some alternatives.  (Note the subjunctive: that the lexicographer suggest, not suggests.)  The rest of the book is his responses, with separate chapters for penises, breasts, la chose itself, etc.

IMG_0495Suddenly Bruant’s poem made sense.  Faire sentinelle: to stand guard, but also to have an erection.  La chapelle: chapel, but also vagina.  Other plays on words are more obvious, at least to a veteran (which I am, but Trump isn’t, having been excused from Vietnam due to a sore foot, although apparently said foot did not deter him from being an enthusiastic athlete).  Montaient à l’assaut de mes mamelons: the word le mamelon is a nipple or a small hill, and lemme tell ya, assaulting a hill is a highly technical undertaking–higher ground gives the defender a major advantage, and assaulting hills is the kind of thing that you really have to practice.  I was also impressed by the technical accuracy of this verse: …des lanciers, // Des dragons et des cuirassiers // Qui me montraient à me tenir en selle… Specifically, the fact that these soldiers who are teaching her “to stay in the saddle” (do French men all share the universally-held American man’s wish to “die in the saddle”?) are all mounted (i.e. on horseback) troops of one sort or another: lanciers and cuirassiers were cavalry troops, and dragons were “mounted infantry,” meaning that they travelled on horseback, but dismounted to fight.

There’s cool stuff in the poem for grammarians, as well–most notably, this line: J’en ai-t-y connu des lanciers…  Us anglophones struggle with both and en, and finding both of the together and with an inversion…well, good luck finding anything that complicated ever again, and if you do, please tell us about it in the comments…

Yvette Guilbert in 1885. I HATE the Toulouse-Lautrec paintings of her, but looking at this photo, you can see why he did what he did with her… Source: franceculture.fr, https://goo.gl/RknwY1

Bruant’s poem was eventually recorded by Yvette Guilbert, and more recently by Patachou.  I hum it in my head whenever my train passes by the Chaussée d’Antin metro station, for reasons that will become clear when you get to the last verse.

À Grenelle

Aristide Bruant

Quand je vois des filles de dix-sept ans,
Ça me fait penser qu’y a bien longtemps
Moi aussi, je l’ai été, pucelle,
A Grenelle!Mais c’est un quartier plein de soldats,
On en rencontre à tous les pas,
Jour et nuit, ‘font sentinelles,
A Grenelle!J’en ai-t-y connu des lanciers,
Des dragons et des cuirassiers
Qui me montraient à me tenir en selle
A Grenelle!Fantassins, officiers, colons,
Montaient à l’assaut de mes mamelons!
Ils me prenaient pour une citadelle!
A Grenelle!

Moi, je les prenais tous pour amants,
Je commandais tous les régiments,
On m’appelait “Mâme la Colonelle”,
A Grenelle!

Mais ça me rapportait que de l’honneur,
Car si l’amour, ça fait le bonheur,
On fait pas fortune avec elle,
A Grenelle!

Bientôt je m’aperçus que mes beaux yeux
Sonnaient l’extinction des feux,
On se mirait plus dans ma prunelle
A Grenelle!

Mes bras, mes jambes, mes appâts,
Tout ça foutait le camp à grands pas,
J’osais plus faire la petite chapelle
A Grenelle!

Aujourd’hui que j’ai plus de position,
Les régiments me font une pension:
On me laisse manger à la gamelle,
A Grenelle!

Ça prouve que quand on est putain,
Faut s’établir Chaussée d’Antin,
Au lieu de se faire une clientèle
A Grenelle!

Scroll down for the English notes.

The Chaussée d’Antin stop on line 7. Picture source: me.

English notes

plain and simpleClearly; without any complexity (Wiktionary).  Plain and simple is what linguists call a sentential or sentence-level adverb.  It describes the speaker’s attitude towards the assertion being made by the rest of the sentence: in this case, that the assertion is indisputably true.  Plain and simple is unusual in that most sentential adverbs come at the beginning of the sentence (Luckily, we didn’t miss the train); in contrast, plain and simple usually comes at the end of the sentence.  Some examples from the enTenTen13 corpus at the Sketch Engine web site, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them:

  • It doesn’t work, plain and simple.
  • Those things are just evil, plain and simple.
  • A mood disorder is an illness, plain and simple.
  • Seriously addressing the long-term fiscal problem means restraining entitlement spending growth, plain and simple.
  • That is the reason for the obesity epidemic, plain and simple.

to verb the shit out ofa delightful English adverb (well, maybe American–I don’t actually know much about British English) that intensifies the action of the verb.

  • Found : At most gay bars, probably confusing the shit out of everyone.
  • When and if it does happen it won’t freak the shit out of you…
  • The group is preparing to shock the shit out of tourists.
  • If there is one thing ATLA is overflowing with, it’s ladies absolutely walloping the shit out of everyone.
  • There’s not a critic in the world who could say anything to me, because I kick the shit out of myself way worse than anybody ever could.
  • What happened here was the jury didn’t like the victim, and so the wrong-doer got a walk, and frankly that should scare the shit out of you.
  • If you want this to be a legitimate sport, start running it like one and stop embarassing the shit out of everyone who has supported your organization since the get go.

Note that the modified verb is usually one with a negative sense–to confuse, to beat, to shock, to wallop (to hit very hard), to scare, to embarrass.  (Yes, it’s spelled wrong in the example above.)  But, it doesn’t have to be a negative verb; using it with a positive one is odd, though, and that gives a certain flavor to such uses.

  • I plan to enjoy the shit out of it.
  • I’d buy the shit out of those tickets.
  • Then go find your Peter Brand and hire the shit out of him before someone else does.
  • Choir! – but you have, right? – they are everyday people who get together on Tuesdays or Wednesdays to sing the shit out of something, usually a popular song from the last 30 years or so.
  • I want to marry the shit out of you and then I want to put a baby inside you as soon as you’ll let me.

7 thoughts on “À Grenelle”

  1. Aristide Bruant was the archetype of a very Parisian species, “les chansonniers”, late 1800s-early 1900s . The center of these song makers (who could also be singers) was more Montmartre (the famous Chat Noir) or the “guinguettes” along the Marne river than Grenelle . In a way these chansonniers were the descendants of the troubadours, the Greek aedes, a very old tradition . Of course thet liked to mix slang and classical, sexual or political hints and word plays .
    I like the title “Les mots et la chose” for, as you may know, “la chose” was the hypocritical way the bourgeoisie named coitus .
    Popular French notes : “faire la petite chapelle” in classical slang exactly means for a woman lifting her skirt high up, facing the audience .
    “J’en ai-t-y + past participle is a popular colloquial and now outdated way . You can drop the “-t-y” for the meaning, “j’en ai -t-y vu” means “j’en ai vu”, I saw some of them . The “-t-y” addition is always made in a funny intention and sometimes, as here, it means I saw not only some of them but really many of them .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. By coincidence, I just ran across “guinguette” (and “guinget”) this morning with reference to bals musettes and similar goings-on during the Second Empire period.


  2. A question: I’ve been really unclear about whether to think about Bruant and his buddies du même acabit as poets versus song-writers. Any thoughts on that for me?


    1. Chansonniers are not from the same level . Gainsbourg once famously said that he was doing “un art mineur”, opposed to poetry, classical music, theatre, etc … We could say the same thing, chansonniers did “un art mineur” . And they were not always poets : often they played with words, double-meanings, easily sexual or political about their time, there were many sorts of productions coming from them .
      But they were quintessentially practicing a Parisian attitude, linked to all the provocation that Paris popular classes provided to the world, from humour to revolutions . And some poetry too . I tell you, what you see and know is not Paris, Paris needed its working class inside the city, without this the splendid painters and writers who came from every country to work in Paris would not have been able to afford a hotel and a life there . And there would not have been any of the several French revolutions .

      Liked by 1 person

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