Wendy’s Week Spring in Paris: Pere Lachaise (Part Two)
By Wendy Hughes
Last week we started our journey around the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but may I remind you that if you are not the fittest of people, then take it easy as the cobbled paths can play havoc with aching joints. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, and everything is possible if you plans before hand, read up about it, decide what I want see, and go along at your own pace, taking advantage of the many seats dotted around.
In this article we shall look at some of the memorials that appealed to me, such as Moliere, Rodenbach, Chopin, Colette, and of course Oscar Wilde who spent the summer of 1894 in my home town of Worthing. Your list will be completely different mine, so do your research before arriving, study the board posted at every entrance, and most of all come with an open mind prepared to take that little diversion if you see something of interest as I did with Georges Rodenbach.
However the first on my list is the memorial to Jean-Baptise Poquelin, better known as Moliere, one of the greatest playwrights of comedy writers of all time. As you recall from last week’s article, he was one of the first to be exhumed and his body transferred to the cemetery, but what you may not know is why this came about, and that Moliere suffered for years with a pulmonary condition called tuberculosis, known to most as TB. Despite his condition he insisted on performing his play Le Madade Imaginaire, known as The Hypochondriac. This is a play concerning a man who suffers from illnesses he does not have, however Moliere really was a sick man, and whilst playing the part of the hypochondriac he succumbed to a coughing fit and later died at home before the last rites could be received. Also, as required by the Church in those days, he did not have time to renounce his profession as an actor. Armande, Moliere’s wife, pleaded with Louis XIV for him to be buried in consecrated ground, and legend informs us that it was only thanks to the intervention of the king that he was allowed at the last minute to be buried in a chapel cemetery reserved for still born infants who had not been baptised.
For the next memorial I took a detour because I noticed a tomb that intrigued me. I must admit I had never heard of Georges Rodenbach before my visit, but his tomb inspired me to discover more about the man, who was a 19th century Belgian writer and poet, best known today for his novel Bruges-la-Morte, that was turned into an opera Die Tote Stadt. Rodenbach was born in Tournai to a French mother and a German father from the Rhineland, and was related to the famous German poet Christoph Martin Wieland. The young Georges was educated at the prestigious Sint-Barbaracollege in Gent, where he became friends with the poet Emile Verhaeren. He first worked as a lawyer then became a journalist spending the last ten years of his life in Paris as the correspondent with the Journal de Bruxelles. He published eight collections of verse and four novels, as well as short stories, and some stage and criticism works, but his major volume of work came from his passionate idealism of the quiet Flemish towns where he had spent his childhood and early youth. In his best known work, Bruges-la-Morte (1892), he explains that his aim was to show the towns as a living being, associated with the moods of the spirit. Bruges-la-Morte was used by the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold as the basis for his opera Die tote Stadt. David Bowie also mentions Rodenbach in his song ‘Dancing Out In Space’ from his 2013 album The Next Day, the line being, ‘Silent as Georges Rodenbach,’ possibly referring to Rodenbach’s book of poetry ‘Le règne du silence’ (The Reign of Silence).
Another tomb I visited was that of Chopin whose work is familiar to anyone who enjoys classical music, but so difficult for anyone learning to play the piano. Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born in Warsaw where he completed his education before moving and settling in Paris at the age of 20. For most of his life he suffered ill health and died in 1849 at the age of 39 most probably of tuberculosis. His body was buried at the cemetery, but his heart was removed and buried in his homeland of Poland. The grave is usually covered in bunches of flowers and standing triumph over it is the statute of Euterpe, the muse of music who is weeping as she reflects over a broken lyre.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who was known simply as Collette was best known for rather unorthodox love life, and her novel Gigi, which tells the story of 16 year old Giberte (Gigi). When she died in 1954 she was refused a religious funeral by the Catholic Church because of divorce’s, but became the first woman in France to receive state funeral and was interred in the cemetery. Like Chopin, her grave is always covered in flowers.
No visit to the cemetery would be complete without a visit to most probably the most famous grave of all, that of Oscar Wilde, especially with his connections to my home town. His most famous work The Importance of being Earnest and was still being performed in London when Oscar had the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his lover Alfred Douglas prosecuted for libel, but the libel trial unearthed evidence that caused Wilde to drop his charges and led to his own arrest and trial for gross indecency with men, and after two more trials Oscar was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour, the then the maximum penalty, and was jailed. During his last year in prison, he wrote De Profundis, published posthumously in 1905 – a long letter which discusses his spiritual journey through his trials. Upon his release, he left immediately for Paris to escape the shame and where he wrote his last work, The Ballad f Reading Goal, a long poem commemorating harsh prison life. He died destitute in at the age of 46. His tomb is adorned by an Angel, displaying its genitalia, but was sadly defaced soon after it was erected. Today the monument can be seen covered in lipstick as woman kiss the stone, proving his popularity. Engrave on the tomb is a verse from the Ballad of Reading Goal, where he was jailed.
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.
I hope you have enjoyed your short tour and this is only a small sample of graves to visit.There was so much to see and, I for one, will be returning to the cemetery and may even tell you more about who lies in this beautiful tranquil parkland, but do put it on your list of things to visit.