Friday, 4 November 2016

Moncrif's cats (cont.)

Quite apart from arcane details of cat history, Moncrif's Les Chats preserves for us many splendid  titbits concerning contemporary pet cats and their aristocratic and literary lady owners.

Letters Six & Seven: Ménine, cat of the duchesse de Lesdiguières

Paule-Françoise de Gondi (1655-1716) duchesse de Lesdiguières, was a wealthy young widow and the niece of Cardinal de Retz. There is a portrait by Antoine Pezey (with an engraving by Drévet) which shows her with her beloved cat  Ménine  on her lap.  Ménine, it may be noted, was not an angora but an ordinary grey cat with yellow/gold eyes. Her death in 1684 at the age of eight was commemorated in a sonnet composed by no less a personnage than François-Séraphin Régnier-Desmarais, the perpetual secretary of the Académie française.   Moncrif reproduces this "famous sonnet" which centers on the slightly improbably theme of the little she-cat's fierce chastity.

Here it is in French - I can't find an English translation and I don't intend to attempt one!


Menine aux yeux dorez, au poil doux, gris & fin ;
La charmante Menine, unique en son espece ;
Menine, les amours d'une illustre Duchesse,
Et dont plus d'un Mortel envioit le destin :
Menine qui jamais ne connut de Menin,
Et qui fut de son temps des Chattes la Lucresse ;

Chatte pour tout le monde, & pour les Chats Tygresse :
Au milieu de ses jours en a trouvé la fin.
Que lui sert maintenant, que dédaigneuse & fiere,
Jamais d'aucun Matou, sur aucune goutiére,
Elle n'ait écouté les amoureux regrets !
La Parque étend ses droits sur tout ce qui respire,
Et de ne rien aimer, tout le fruit qu'on retire,
C'est une triste vie, & puis la mort après.

The cat-themed Micetto website has a commentary:

So distraught was Ménine's mistress, that she had a little tomb built in the garden of the hôtel de Lesdiguières  (previously hôtel de Zamet)  near the Bastille, with a pretty epitaph:

Sa Maitresse qui
Ci git une Chatte jolie: n'aima rien,
L'aima jusque à la folie;
Pourquoi le dire? On le voit bien.

There are various descriptions of the monument and, thanks to the illustration in Moncrif's book, we know exactly what it looked like.  An effigy of beloved feline reclines on a cushion with a base in the form of a funerary urn.  The figure of the cat was apparently in black marble and the rest of the monument in white.  The hotel was later demolished but it is said that the remains of the mausoleum were briefly rediscovered during the course of construction work  for Hausseman's boulevards in the mid 19th century.

Letter Seven:  Marlamain, cat of the  duchesse du Maine

Moncrif was a familiar figure at the court of the duchesse du Maine at Sceaux; the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal owns copies of Les Chats with the arms of both the duc and the duchesse.  The duchesse was well-known for her love of cats.  Moncrif cites the verses "worthy of being engraved in the temple of the Graces" which the duchess composed in honour of her cat Marlamain. (The poem is a "Rondeau Marotique", a form inspired by the Renaissance poet Clément Marot.)

De mon Minon veux faire le tableau,
Besoin seroit d'un excellent pinceau,
Pour crayonner si grande gentillesse ;
Attraits si fins, si mignarde souplesse ;
Mais las ne suis que chetif Poëtereau,
Dirai pourtant qu'il n'est rien de si beau,
Que Cupidon tant joli Jouvenceau,
Pas n'a l'esprit ne la délicatesse
De mon Minon.
Que si Jupin se changeoit de nouveau,
Plus ne seroit Serpent, Signe, ou Taureau ;
Ains pour toucher quelque gente Maitresse,
Se dépouillant de sa divine espece,
Revêtiroit la figure & la peau,
De mon Minon.
Gentil Minon, ma joye & mon soulas,
Pour celebrer dignement tes apas,
Voudrois pouvoir r'appeller à la vie
Cil qui chanta le Moineau de Lesbie ;
Ou bien cetui qui jadis composa
Carmes exquis pour la charmante Issa.
Mais las en vain tes tenebreux rivages,
Evoquerois si fameus personages !
Il te faut donc aujourd'hui contenter,
De ce Rondeau qu'amour m'a sçu dicter.

Edmund Gosse rendered the last section into English thus:

My pretty puss, my solace and delight, 
To celebrate thy loveliness aright 
I ought to call to life the bard who sung 
Of Lesbians sparrow with so sweet a tongue ; 
But tis in vain to summon here to me 
So famous a dead personage as he. 
And you must take contentedly to-day 
This poor rondeau that Cupid wafts your way.

Montcrif gives the following account of the loyal Marlamain's demise:

Half an hour before he expired, he made his distress known by wanting to be carried into the apartment of his illustrious mistress.  Once beside her, he mustered all his remaining strength for the most tender of farewells; a few moments later, he made it known he wanted to be carried out, no doubt to spare her the sight of his death; he was taken back to his chamber where he expired. His final breath was one of those gentle tender miauws he was accustomed to make to when honoured with the caresses of the mistress who had given him such fame.

Moncrif says that he himself has written an epitaph for the cat, but prefers to publish the one written by "Monsieur de la Mothe". On the strength of this, the poem is usually ascribed to François La Mothe le Vayer  (who died in 1672!).   My money is on Antoine Houdar de la Motte, a ubiquitous figure in the salons of the early 18th century.

Edmund Gosse has the following translation: 

Puss passer-by, within this simple tomb
  Lies one whose life fell Atropos hath shred;
The happiest cat on earth hath heard her doom,
  And sleeps for ever in a marble bed.
Alas! what long delicious days I’ve seen!
  O cats of Egypt, my illustrious sires,
You who on altars, bound with garlands green,—
  Have melted hearts, and kindled fond desires,—
Hymns in your praise were paid, and offerings too,
  But I’m not jealous of those rights divine,
Since Ludovisa loved me, close and true,
  Your ancient glory was less proud than mine.
To live a simple pussy by her side
Was nobler far than to be deified.

 Translations by Edmund Gosse, Gossip in a Library (1914)  p.141-7

Copies of Les Chats in the Arsenal library:

Letter Ten:  the Will of Madame Dupuy

In Letter Ten Moncrif describes a celebrated legal case which involved a harpist, one Mademoiselle Dupuy, née Jeanne Félix, who died on 7th October 1677 leaving two houses and a substantial pension to her pet cat.  It was Mlle Dupuy's conviction that she owed her skill as a musician to the cat, who sat beside her while she performed and gave her the benefit of  his critical appraisal. Sadly the will was contested and relatives eventually wrested the bequest from the unfortunate feline. The story made a stir at the time; it was  written up in the Mercure galant for July 1678 and even earned a mention in Bayle's Dictionnaire.  Les Chats has an illustration showing the musical puss on the deathbed of his mistress whilst two attorneys draw up the will. 
Mercure galant, July 1678, p132-138.
Dictionnaire historique et critique

Appendices - the poetry of Madame Deshoulières

Antoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshoulières (1637-94) was a writer of Epicurean lyric poetry much admired in the later 17th century. She published various popular idylls in which her cat Grisset and various pets belonging to her friends are endowed with human sensibility.   Her half-serious theme was that animals who follow nature, live more wisely and enjoy greater happiness that do human beings. At the end of his book, Moncrif reproduces a set of madrigals, which take the form of love letters between Grisset and Tata, the marquise de Mongla's neutered tom.  Grisset assures the unfortunate Tata that she seeks only a gallant friendship, but he rejects her declaration of platonic love;  there is no such thing as a feline Lucretia; they should flirt as is the nature of cats.  Grisset then falls for Cochon, the dog of the  maréchal de Vivonne.  The same characters reappeared in Les Chats ou la mort de Cochon,  a "lyric tragedy" of 1688, which Moncrif also reproduces.  In Letter Eight he solemnly advocates a performance of the piece by a troupe of cat actors. There is even a splendid illustration. 

(Actually I am beginning to think Moncrif's critics were quite kind - this is verging on the  delusional....think I'll stop here!)


Katharine M. Rogers, The Cat and the Human Imagination: Feline Images from Bast to Garfield (2001)  University of Michigan Press, p.85-6 (Mme Deshoulières)

Nicolas Molovanovic La princesse Palatine: protectrice des animaux Versailles, 2012, p.53-4 (Mlle Dupuy) p.58 (Mme Deshoulières)

1 comment:

  1. Moncrif is on my list of French and German cats books to translate and put online in English, but it hasn't reached the top of the pile I'm afraid.