Saturday, 8 June 2013

Ver-Vert, or the Jesuit and the parrot

The Jesuits of eighteenth-century France were not quite the narrow minded anti-philosophes that later stereotypes would have us believe. 

Jean-Baptiste Gresset after he left the Jesuits
Painting in Versailles by Louis Tocqué

Jean-Baptiste Gresset was set to become one of their number -  a junior teacher of twenty-five,  on the road to becoming a full Jesuit  - when he caused a minor literary sensation with his poem Ver-Vert ou les voyages du perroquet de Nevers  in 1734.

The poem was too light of touch to be seriously anti-clerical but it certainly isn't too flattering towards the sisters of the Visitation in Nevers. In fact there is more than a hint of naughty-nun about it. 

Ver-Vert is quite well know - but here is a nice English translation I found.

Ver-Vert, or the Nunnery Parrot

Ver-Vert the parrot, indulged pet of the Visitandine nuns of Nevers, is both beautiful and innocent:

AT Nevers once, some time ago,
     The pet of certain sisters there,
     Flourished a parrot, one so fair,
So trained in all a bird can know,
     As to deserve a better fate —
     Did happiness on merit wait.
Ver-Vert, such was the parrot’s name,
     Young yet, and innocent of wrong,
Transplanted from some Indian stream,
     Was placed these cloistered nuns among.
Bright-hued was he, and gay, but sage;
Frank, as befitted childhood’s age,
     And free from evil thought or word:
     In short he was the very bird
To choose for such a sacred cage.

The pampered parrot enjoys free run (flight?) of the convent, including an ample share of sugary treats normally reserved for Father Confessor

Needs not to tell what love he won,
What cares received, from every nun;
How, next to the confessor, he
Reigned in each heart; and though it be
Sinful to weakness to succumb,
Ver-Vert, the bird, was first with some.
Advertisment for Chocolat Guérin-Boutron 
He shared in these serene retreats
The sirups, jellies, and the sweets
Made by the sisters to excite
The holy father’s appetite.
For him ’twas free to do or say
Whate’er he pleased — ’twas still his way.
No circle could be pleasant where
There was not in the midst Ver-Vert.
To whistle, chirrup, sing, and fly;
And all the while with modesty,
Just like a novice, timid yet
And ever fearful to forget,
Never, unquestioned, silence broke,
Yet answered all, though twenty spoke;
Just as great Cæsar, between whiles,
Wrote all at once five different styles.

He even gets to spend the night with young nubile nuns and share the secrets of their toilette

At night his pleasure was to roam
From one to other for a home;
Happy, too happy, was the nun
Whose cell his wayward choice had won.

Jacquand Claude, 1835
Musée de Bro
ution, Bourg-en-Bresse,
He wandered here and wandered there,
But, truth to say, ’twas very rare
That fancy led him to the cell
Where any ancient dame might dwell.
No, rather would his choice be laid
Where some young sister’s couch was made;
There would he sleep the long night through,
Till daylight broke and slumbers flew;
And then, so privileged and free,
The sister’s first toilet might see.
Toilet I say, but whisper low,
Somewhere I’ve read, but do not know,
Nun’s mirrors must be quite as true
As, ladies, is required of you;
And, just a fashion in the world
Must here be fringed and there be curled,
So also in the simple part
Of veils and bands there lies an art;
For that light throng of frivolous imps
     Who scale o’er walls and creep through bars,
Can give to stiffest veils and gimps
     A grace that satin never wears.

Being a parrot, he is a trifle loquacious, but his repertoire is suitably pious:

Of course, you guess, at such a school,
Ver-Vert, by parrot’s instinct-rule,
     Endowed with speech, his ladies took
For pattern; and, except at meat,
Le Perroquet au parloir - Vert-Vert
Jean Michel Moreau,1817 Pen & ink

When all the nuns in silence eat,
     Talked fast and long, and like a book.
He was not, mark, one of these light
And worldly birds, corrupted quite
By secular concerns, and who
Know mundane follies through and through;
     Ver-Vert was piously inclined;
A fair soul led by innocence,
Unsullied his intelligence,
     No rude words lingered in his mind.
But then he knew each canticle,
     Oremus, and the colloquies,
His Benedicite said well,
     The litany, and charities.
Instructed still, he grows more wise,
The pupil with the teacher vies;
He imitates their very tones,
The softened notes, the pious groans,
The long-drawn sighs, by which they prove
How they adore, and how they love;
 And knows at length — a holy part —
The breviary all by heart

The rot sets in when Ver-Vert is packed off  to visit the mother house at Nantes on a Loire boat in the dubious company of “a nurse, a monk, a Gascon pair,  three fair nymphs, two soldiers brave”,  At first he is shocked by their language, but he soon catches on:

     No Christian words are these he hears:
The bold dragoons with barrack slang
     Confused his head and turned his brain;
To unknown deities they sang
     In quite an unaccustomed strain.
The Gascons and the ladies three

Illustration from  La Gazette d'Orléans website
Conversed in language odd but free;
The boatmen all in chorus swore
Oaths never heard by him before.
And, sad and glum, Ver-Vert sat still
In silence, though against his will.

But presently the bird they spy,
And for their own diversion try
To make him talk. The monk begins
With some light questions on his sins;
 Ver-Vert looks up, and with a sigh.
“Ave!  my sister,” makes reply:
And as they roar with laughter long,
Suspects, somehow, he’s answered wrong.
Proud was his spirit, until then
Unchecked by scoff of vulgar men;
And so he could not brook to see
His words exposed to contumely.
Alas, with patience, Ver-Vert lost
     The first bloom of his innocence.
That gone, how little did it cost
     To curse the nuns and their pretence
To teach him French? Well might they laugh:
The nuns, he found, had left out half —
The half, too, most for beauty made,
The nervous tone, the dainty shade;
To learn this half — the better lore —
He speaks but little, thinks the more.

     At first the parrot, so far wise,
Perceives that all he learned before,
     The chants, the hymns, the languid sighs,
And all the language of the nuns,
Must be forgotten, and at once.
In two short days the task was done,
And soldier’s wit ’gainst prayer of nun,
So fresh, so bright, so pleasant seemed,
That in less time than could be dreamed
(Too soon youth lends itself to evil)
He cursed and swore like any devil.
     By steps, the proverb says, we go
From bad to worse, from sin to crime;
     Ver-Vert reversed the rule, and so
Served no novitiate’s tedious time.
219 Full-fledged professor of all sin,
Whate’er they said he marked within;
Ran their whole dictionary through.
And all the wicked language knew;
Till one day, at an oath suppressed,
He finished it, with swelling breast.
Loud was the praise, great the applause;

Ver-Vert duly arrives at Nantes but soon reveals his corruption:

      The sisters, charmed with such a bird,
Press round him, chattering all at once,
As is the way, I’m told, with nuns,
     That even thunder fell unheard.
Jean Michel Roudier,
L'arrivée the Ver-Vert chez les visitandines de Nantes
After 1847, Musée de la Loire Cosne
He during all the clatter sat,
Deigning no word, or this, or that.
Only with strange, libertine gaze,
     Rolling his eyes from nun to nun.
First scandal. Not without amaze,
     The holy ladies saw how one
So pious could so rudely stare.
Then came the prioress, and there
First questioned him. For answer all,
     Disdainfully he spread his wings,
Careless what horror might befall,
     And thus replied to these poor things,
“Gadzooks! Ods bodikins! What fools!”
At this infringement of the rules
Which mere politeness teaches, “Fie,
     My dearest brother,” one began.
In jeering tones he made reply,
Till cold her very life-blood ran.

Jean-François Millet,1839 (private collection)

“Great Heaven! Is this a sorcerer?
     Is this the saintly praying bird
They boast so much of at Nevers,
     Ver-Vert, of whom so much is heard?
Is this —”  Here Ver-Vert, sad to say,
Took up the tale in his new way.
He imitated first the young,
The novices, with chattering tongue;
Their babble and their little ways,
Their yawning fits at times of praise.
     Then turning to the ancient ones,
Whose virtues brought respect to Nantes,
He mocked at large their nasal chants,
     Their coughs, their grumblings, and their groans.
But worse did follow. Filled with rage,
He beat his wings and bit the cage;
He thundered sacrilegious words
Ne’er heard before from beak of birds;
All that he’d learned on board the ship
Flowed now from that corrupted lip;
Terms fraught with horrid blasphemy
(Mostly beginning with a d...)
Hovered about his impious beak —
The young nuns thought him talking Greek,
Till with an oath so full, so round.
     That even the youngest understood,
He ended. At the frightful sound
     Multivious fled the sisterhood,
All smitten with terrific panic,
Ran pell-mell from the imp satanic;
’Twas by a fall that Mother Ruth
Then lost her last remaining tooth.

Ver-Vert is sent smartly back to Nevers  where the nuns deliberate his punishment

File:Sainte-Marie Nevers.jpg
Chapelle Saint-Marie, Nevers
Once part of the Visitandine convent
No good he has to say. They vote. 
     Two sibyls write the fatal word 
Of death; and two, more kindly taught, 
     Propose to send him back again 
To the profane place whence he came, 
     Brought by a Brahman — but in vain: 
The rest resolve, with common sense, 
Two months of total abstinence, 
Three of retreat, of silence four; 
Garden and biscuits, board and bed, 
And play shall be prohibited. 
Nor this the whole; in all the space 
Should he not see a pretty face. 
A gaoler harsh, a guardian grim, 
With greatest care they chose for him, 
The oldest, ugliest, sourest nun, 
An ape in veils, a skeleton, 
Bent double with her eighty years; 
She’d move the hardest sinner’s tears

Poor Ver-Vert! The parrot, suitably penitent, is finally released from his prison

Imprisonment of Ver-Vert 
François-Marius Granet (1775-1849)
 Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence

So passed Ver-Vert his term; in spite
     Of all his gaoler’s jealous care,
The sisters gave him some delight,
And now and then improved his fare
But chained and caged, in dungeon fast,
Bitter the sweetest almonds taste.
Taught by his sufferings to be wise,
Touched, maybe, by their tearful eyes,
The contrite parrot tries to turn
     Repentant thoughts from things of ill;
Tries holiness again to learn
     Recovers soon his ancient skill,
And talks like any pious dean.
     Sure the conversion is not feigned,
The ancient conclave meet again,
     And to his prison put an end.
Oh! happy day, when Ver-Vert, free,
Returns his sisters’ pet to be!

Sadly this is not a tale with a happy ending – no sooner is Ver-Vert restored to favour than he succombs fatally to to a surfeit of sugary indulgence

A festival, a day of joy,
Wit no vexation, no annoy,
 Death of Ver-Vert
Louis Charles Auguste Couder, c.1830
Museum of Beauvais
Each moment given up to mirth,
     And all by love together bound!
But ah! the fleeting joy of earth
     Too soon is untrustworthy found:
The songs, and chants, and cheerful hours,
The dormitory wreathed with flowers,
Full liberty, a tumult sweet,
     And nothing, nothing that could tell
Of sorrow hiding ’neath their feet,
     Of death advancing to their cell.
Passing too quick from diet rude,
From plain dry bread to richer food,
With sugar tempted, crammed with sweets,
Tempted with almonds and such meats,
Poor Ver-Vert feels his roses change
Into the cypress dark and strange.
He droops, he sinks. In vain they try
     By every art to stave off fate.
Their very love makes Ver-Vert worse;
     Their cares his death accelerate.
Victim of love, of love he tires,
And with a few last words expires.
These last words, faint and hard to hear,
Vain consolation, pious were.


English translation of Ver-Vert:
 From The World’s Wit and Humor, Volume X, French — Rutebœuf to Balzac; The Review of Reviews Company; New York; 1906; pp. 213-225.

The unacknowledged pictures are all taken from the "Gresset" pages on Harry van Boxtel's truly awesome Parrot Museum website

No comments:

Post a Comment