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Review: 33 Sonnets of the Resistance, by Jean Cassou

W S Milne, Agenda, Vol. 40, No. 4, Autumn/Winter 2004

Alistair Elliot informs us that Jean Cassou composed 33 Sonnets of the Resistance in a Vichy prison in Toulouse between December 13th 1941 and February 1942, in solitary confinement: 'They were nearly all composed in the dark, half a sonnet per night and committed to memory'. In 1944 Louis Aragon (himself the composer of that great French poem of resistance, 'Richard II Quarante') wrote an impassioned essay on the sequence, saying that Cassou's sonnets represented 'the voice of France herself' and were to be read as 'the expression of freedom under constraint, the embodiment of thought in fetters... The poem is his great act of defiance... Let the prison crumble, and let only the poetry survive it! And that poetry, for all its imposed secrecy and solitude, will certainly outlive all our prisons'. What Elliot aptly calls 'the formal suit of the sonnet' serves Cassou's purposes well. It cuts across national frontiers by its very form (although Aragon does not interpret it as such, preferring only to think of Cassou's French models), being one of the oldest shapes in post classical European poetry:

Through dawns of blue

healed spirit, they shall come to welcome you,
and hand in hand you'll know again your three
great sisters: Freedom, Love and Poetry...

O God of justice, throned not in the skies,
but in the heart of man, and his wrath,
will you not spread your wings at last on earth?

'The burning, living word' of Cassou's poetry reveals 'sparkling harmonies' even 'where shadow eats shadow...on the dark wine stain of the ground'. Such resistance reminds one of the best of Robert Desnos' work and of that 'unconquerable voice' which will always triumph over brutality. Cassou's poems deserve to be better known than they are, and Arc has provided all readers with an invaluable service in publishing Timothy Ades' fine translations.