On the French ship on which I served as liaison officer during World War the officers in the wardroom would sometimes after dinner take to reciting poetry. “Rodrigue, as-tu du coeur?” one would call out, and immediately the answer would come (if memory serves) from his companion, “Non, mais j’ai du carreau,” thus turning Corneille’s famous lines in Le Cid into a card game (Roderick, have you hearts? No, but I have diamonds). The men were summoning up their school days and ridiculing the alexandrines that had been drilled into them in the classroom. I sensed that beneath their absurd declamation there was real affection, for one only makes fun of what one loves. By toying with poetry, which is the essence of language, they were concerning themselves with their own means of articulation, with words that in the deepest sense give meaning to life.

Reading this essay on French verse, I thought at...


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