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A Heart Under a Cassock: Intimacies of a Seminarist

 

...0 Thimothina Labinette! Today when I have donned the sacred robes, I can recall the passion, now chilled and dormant under the cassock, which, last year, made my young man’s heart beat under my seminarist’s hood!...

 

...May 1st, 18...

...Spring is here. The young vine of Abbé... is budding in its earthen pot: the tree in the yard has little shoots tender as fresh raindrops on its branches; the other day, on leaving the study, I saw at a third floor window something like the nasal mushroom of the Sup... J’s shoes smell a little; and I have remarked that the pupils go out very often to... in the yard; they who lived in the study like moles, thick, sunken in their bellies, setting their faces toward the stove, with a breath as heavy and hot as that of cows! They stay quite long out in the air, now, and, when they come back, snigger, and reclose the isthmus of their trousers quite minutely... no, I am mistaken, quite slowly—with fussing, seeming to revel, mechanically, in that operation which is in itself nothing but futile...

 

May 2nd...

The Sup... came down yesterday from his room, and, closing his eyes, hiding his hands, fearful and shivery, he shuffled four paces into the yard his canon’s slippers!...

 

Here my heart is beating time in my breast, and my breast is beating against my grimy desk! Oh! now I detest the time when pupils were like fat sheep sweating in their dirty habits, and slept in the stinking atmosphere of the study, under the gaslight, in the dull warmth of the stove!... I stretch my arms! I sigh, I stretch my legs... I feel things in my head, oh! things!

 

...May 4th...

You know, yesterday, I could no longer stand it: I spread, like the angel Gabriel, the wings of my heart. The breath of the blessed spirit ran through my being! I took my lyre, and I sang:

 

Draw near,

Great Mary!

Mother dear!

Of sweet Jesus!

Sanctus Christus!

0 pregnant Virgin,

0 mother sainted,

Hear our prayer!

 

O! if you knew the mysterious effluvia which shook my soul while I plucked the petals of this poetic rose! I took my cithara, and, like the psalmist, I raised my innocent and pure voice into celestial altitudes!!! 0 altitudo altitudinum!...

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...May 7th...

Alas! my poetry has folded its wings, but, like Galileo, I will say, overwhelmed with insult and torture: And yet it moves!—Read: they move!—I had committed the imprudence of letting fall the preceding confidence... J... picked it up, J... the most ferocious of Jansenists, the most rigorous henchman of the Sup... and brought it to his master, in secret; but the monster, to sink me under universal insult, had had my poetry passed from hand to hand among all his friends!

 

Yesterday, the Sup... summons me: I enter his apartment, I am standing before him, strong within.  On his bald brow quivered like a furtive spark his last red hair; his eyes emerged from his fat, but calm, peaceable; his nose, like a ball bat, was moved by its habitual swing; he was whispering an oremus; he wet the tip of his thumb, turned some leaves of his book, and took out a small grimy piece of paper, folded...

 

Greaeaeat Maaryy!...

Moootherer Deaeaearr!

 

He debased my poetry! he spat on my rose! he played Brid’oison, Joseph, the clod, to dirty, to sully this virginal song! He stuttered and prolonged each syllable with a snigger of concentrated hate and when he had come to the fifth verse... Pregegnant Virgin! he stopped, contorted his pronunciation, and he—!! exploded: Pregnant Virgin! Pregnant Virgin! he said this with a tone, gathering with a shiver his prominent abdomen, with a tone so frightful, that a modest redness covered my brow. I fell to my knees, my arms toward the ceiling, and I cried out:

0 father!...

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—Your lyyyre! your cithara! young man! your cithara! mysterious effluvia! which shook your soul! I would have liked to see! Young soul, I remark in that, in that impious confession, something of the worldly, a dangerous abandon, impulses, in a word!...

 

He stopped talking, shivered from top to bottom his abdomen: then, solemn:

 

—Young man, do you have faith!...

 

—Father, why that word? Are your lips jesting?... Yes, I believe all that my mother says... the Holy Church!

 

—But... Pregnant Virgin!... That is conception, that, young man, that is conception!...

 

—Father! I believe in conception!...

 

—You are right! young man! That is a thing...

 

...He stopped talking...—Then: young J... made a report to me in which he notes in you an opening of the legs, from day to day more notorious, in your study habits; he affirms having seen you spread out all your length under your table, in the fashion of a young man... gangling. These are facts to which you have nothing to answer... Come close, on your knees, very close to me; I want to question you with mildness; answer: do you open your legs very much, in the study?

 

Then he placed his hand on my shoulder, around the neck, and his eyes grew bright, and he made me say things about this opening of the legs... You know, I prefer to tell you it was disgusting, who know what that means, those scenes!...

 

So, they had ratted on me, they had slandered my heart and my modesty—and I could say nothing to that, the reports, the anonymous letters of pupils one against another, to the Sup... being authorized and ordered —and I came to that room, f... myself under the hand of that fat man!... Oh! the seminary!...

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May 10th...

Oh! my schoolmates are horrifyingly spiteful and horrifyingly lascivious. In the study, they know all, those profane, the story of my verses, and, as soon as I turn my back, I encounter the face of wheezing D... who whispers to me: What about your cithara? your cithara? and your journal? Then, idiot L... resumes: Your lyre? your cithara? Then three or four whisper in chorus:

 

Great Mary,

Mother dear!

 

Me, I am a great oaf—Jesus, I do not kick myself!—But after all, I do not rat, I do not write anonymous letters, and I have my holy poetry and my modesty!...

 

May 12th...

 

Cannot you divine wherefore of love I die?

The flower tells me: greetings; the bird gives me good day.

Greetings: spring is here! the angel of tenderness!

Not divine wherefore I seethe with drunkenness!

My grandmother’s angel, my infant cradle’s angel,

Cannot you divine that to a bird I change,

That my lyre shivers and my wings follow

Like the swallow?...

 

I made these verses yesterday, during recess; I entered the chapel, I shut myself in the confessional, and there, my young poetry could palpitate and fly off, in dream and silence, toward the spheres of love. Then, as they come to rob me of my least papers in my pockets, night and day, I have sewn these verses to the bottom of my last vestment, that which touches immediately my skin, and, during study, I pull, under my clothes, my poetry onto my heart, and I press it a long time, dreaming...

 

May 15th...

Events are so hurried, since my last confidence, and events quite solemn, events that must influence my future’-and interior life in a way without doubt quite terrible!

 

Thimothina Labinette, I adore you!

 

Thimothina Labinette, I adore you! I adore you! let me sing upon my lute, like the divine Psalmist upon his Psaltery, how I have seen you, and how my heart leaped upon thine for an eternal love!

 

Thursday, it was a free day: us, we go out for two hours; I had gone out: my mother, in her last letter, had told me: “...you shall go, my son, to superficially occupy your day off with Monsieur Césarin Labinette, a regular visitor to your late father, to whom you must be presented one day or other before your ordination...”

 

... I presented myself to Monsieur Labinette who obliged me greatly by banishing me, without a word, to the kitchen: his daughter, Thimothina, remained alone with me, grabbed a towel, wiped a heavy bulbous bowl resting against her heart, said to me all of sudden, after a long silence: So, Monsieur Léonard?...

 

Until then, confounded at seeing myself with this young creature in the solitude of that kitchen, I had lowered my eyes and invoked in my heart the sacred name of Mary: I raised my head blushing, and, before the beauty of my interlocutress, I could only mumble a weak: Mademoiselle?...

 

Thimothine! you were beautiful! If I were a painter, I would reproduce on canvas your sacred features under this title: Virgin with bowl! But I am only a poet, and my tongue can only celebrate you incompletely...

 

The black stove, with its holes where coals blazed like red eyes, let escape, from its saucepans in thin wisps of steam, a celestial odor of cabbage-and-bean soup; and before it, inhaling with your sweet nose the odor of those vegetables, watching your great cat with your beautiful gray eyes, o Virgin with bowl, you wiped your vessel! The flat and bright coils of your hair stuck modestly to your brow yellow as the sun; from your eyes ran a bluish furrow all the way to the middle of your cheeks, as with Santa Teresa! your nose, full of the odor of beans, lifted its delicate nostrils; a light down, winding upon your lips, contributed not a little to giving a beautiful energy to your visage; and, at your chin, shone a beautiful brown mark where beautiful scatterbrained hairs quivered: your hair was sagely held to your occiput with pins; but a short lock had escaped... I sought vainly your breasts; you have none: you disdain those worldly ornaments: your heart is your breasts!... When you turned around to strike with your broad foot your gilded cat, I saw your shoulder blades jutting out and lifting your dress, and I was pierced with love, before the graceful writhing of the two pronounced arches of your back!...

 

From that moment, I adored you: I adored, not your hair, not your shoulder blades, not your writhing inferiorly posterior: what I love in a woman, in a virgin, is holy modesty; what makes me leap in love, is modesty and piety; that is what I adored in you, young shepherdess!...

 

I attempted to make her see my passion; and, for the rest, my heart, my heart gave me away! I did not answer save with broken words her questions; several times, I said Madame, instead of Mademoiselle, in my turmoil! Little by little, in the magic accents of her voice, I felt myself succumbing; in the end I resolved to give myself up, let it all go: and, to I know not what question she addressed to me, I leaned back on my seat, I placed one hand on my heart, with the other I seized in my pocket a rosary of which I slip the pale crucifix, and, one eye on Thimothina, the other on heaven, I answered dolorously and tenderly, like a hart to a hind:

 

—Oh! yes! Mademoiselle... Thimothina!!!!

 

Miserere! Miserere!—Into my eye open deliciously toward the ceiling all at once falls a brine-drop, distilling from a ham hanging above me, and, when, all red with shame, woken up in my passion, I dropped my brow, I perceived that I had in my left hand, instead of a rosary, only a brown baby-bottle;—my mother had entrusted me with it last year to give the little one of mother what’s-her-name!—From the eye which I aimed at the ceiling proceeded the bitter brine;—but, from the eye which regarded you, o Thimothina, a tear flowed, tear of love, and tear of pain!...

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Some time, an hour later, when Thimothina announced a composed collation of haricots and an omelet with bacon, entirely moved by her charms, I responded in an undertone:—My heart is so full, you know, that it has wrecked my stomach!—And I sat down at table; oh! I still feel it, her heart had responded to mine’s appeal; during the brief collation, she didn’t eat:

 

Do you not find a smell around? she said again; her father understood nothing; but my heart understood it: the Rose of David, Rose of Jesse, Rose mystic of Scripture; Love!

 

She got up brusquely, went to a corner of the kitchen, and, revealing the double flower of her loins, she plunged her arm into a vague pile of boots, of diverse footgear, from which darted her great cat; and flung all that in an old empty cupboard; then she returned to her seat, and interrogated the atmosphere with an uneasy manner; all at once, she knitted her brow, and shouted:

 

—It still smells!...

 

—Yes, it smells, responded her father rather stupidly (he could not understand, profane he!).

 

I perceived clearly that all of it was in my virgin flesh only the interior movements of her passion!  I adored her and savored with love the golden omelet, and my hands beat time with the fork, and, under the table, my feet shook with joy in my shoes!...

 

But, what came to me as a flash of light, like a token of eternal love, like a diamond of tenderness on the part of Thimothina, was the adorable goodness she had, at my departure, to offer me a pair of white socks, with a smile and these words:

 

—Would you like these for your feet. Monsieur Léonard?

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May 16th...

Thimothina! I adore you, you and your father and your cat...

 

Thimothina {               

Vas devotionis,

Rosa mystica,

Turris Davidica, Ora pro nobis!

Coeli porta,

Stella Maris,

 

May 17th...

What matter to me now the noise of the world and the noise of the study? What matter they whom sloth and languor bow at my sides? This morning, every brow, heavy with sleep, was glued to the tables; a snore, like the clarion call of the last judgment, a snore heavy and slow arose from that vast Gethsemane. I, stoical, serene, erect and rising above all these dead like a palm-tree above ruins, scorning the incongruous odors and noise, I held my head in my hand, I heard my heart full of Thimothina beating, and my eyes plunged into the azure of the sky, caught sight of through the upper pane of the window!...

 

May 18th...

I thank the Holy Spirit who inspired me to these charming verses: these verses, I shall set in my heart: and, when heaven gives me the sight of Thimothina again, I shall give them to her, in exchange for her socks!...

 

I called it “The Breeze”:

 

In its cottony retreat

Sleeps the zephyr soft-breathed:

In its nest wooly and silky

Sleeps the zephyr with chin cheerfulest!

 

When the zephyr its wing raises

In its cottony retreat,

When it runs where the flower pleases,

Its soft breath smells sweet!

 

0 breeze quintessentialized!

0 quintessence of love!

When the morning dew has dried,

It smells so sweet in the sun!

 

Jesus! Joseph! Jesus! Mary!

It is like a condor’s wing

Making slumbrous he who’s praying!

It pierces us and makes us sleep!

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The end is too interior and too sweet: I conserve it in the tabernacle of my soul. Next free day, I shall read it to my divine and odorous Thimothina.

 

Let us wait in calm and reflection.

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Date uncertain.—Let us wait!...

 

June 16th...

Lord, may Thy will be done: I will put no obstacle there! If You wish to turn off from Your servant the love of Thimothina, it’s up to You, doubtless: but. Lord Jesus, have you not loved as well, and did not the spear of love teach you to condescend to the suffering of the wretched! Pray for me!

 

Oh! I awaited long that two-hour outing on June 15th: I had constrained my soul, telling it: You shall be free that day. June 15th, I had combed my several modest hairs, and, using an odorous pink pomade, I had pasted them to my brow, like Thimothina’s coils; I had pomaded my eyebrows; had minutely brushed my black habit, remedied certain regrettable deficiencies in my toilet, and presented myself at the awaited doorbell of M. Césarin Labinette. He arrived, after a rather long time, his skullcap a little gallantly over one ear, a tuft of hair stiff and heavily pomaded lashing his face like a scar, one hand in the pocket of his yellow-flowered dressing gown, the other on the latch... He tossed me a dry good day, wrinkled his nose in tossing a glance at my black-laced shoes, and went off before me, his hands in both pockets, gathering before him his dressing gown, like Abbé... with his cassock, and modeling thus for my sight his inferior part.

 

I followed him.

 

He crossed the kitchen, and I entered after him his living room. Oh! that living room! I have fixed it in my memory with pins of recollection! The wallpaper was of brown flowers; on the mantel, an enormous clock of dark wood, with columns; two blue vases with roses; on the walls, a painting of the battle of Inkerman; and a pencil drawing, by a friend of Césarin, representing a mill with its stone, clapping out a little stream like spittle, a drawing scrawled in charcoal by all who learn to draw. Poetry is quite preferable!...

 

In the middle of the living room, a table with green cloth, around which my heart saw only Thimothina, although there were present a friend of M. Césarin, former executor of sacristan tasks in the parish of..., and his spouse, Madame de Riflandouille, and though M. Césarin himself came to rest his elbows on it again upon my entrance.

 

I took a stuffed chair, reflecting that one part of myself was going to rest on tapestrywork made without a doubt by Thimothina, I greeted everyone, and, my black hat laid upon the table, before me, like a rampart, listened...

 

I did not speak, but my heart did! The gentlemen continued their card game underway: I noticed that they tried to outdo each other cheating, and this gave me a rather painful surprise. The game over, these persons sat in a circle around the empty fireplace; I was in one of the corners, hidden nearly by the enormous friend of Césarin, whose chair alone separated me from Thimothina; I was content in myself with the little attention they gave my person; consigned behind the chair of the sacristan emeritus, I could let my face reveal my heart’s movements without being remarked by anyone; I gave myself up then to a sweet abandon; and I let the conversation warm up and get going among those three persons; for Thimothina spoke but rarely; she cast upon her seminarist glances of love, and not daring to look him in the face, she directed her bright eyes toward my highly-

polished shoes!... I, behind the fat sacristan, I gave myself up to my heart.

 

I began by leaning toward Thimothina, raising my eyes to heaven. She had turned away. I sat back again, and, my head fallen to my breast, I uttered a sigh; she did not budge. I checked my buttons, set my lips going, made a slight sign of the cross; she saw nothing. Then, transported, furious with love, I bent very deeply toward her, keeping my hands as at communion, and uttering an ah!... prolonged and dolorous; Miserere! as I gesticulated, as I prayed, I fell from my chair with a thud, and the fat sacristan turned around giggling, and Thimothina said to her father:

 

—Hello, M. Léonard has landed!

 

Her father giggled! Miserere!

 

The sacristan replanted me, red with shame and weak with love, on my stuffed chair, and found me a place. But I dropped my eyes, I tried to sleep! That gathering was troublesome to me, it did not divine the love I suffered with there in the dark: I tried to sleep! but I heard the conversation turning about me!...

 

I reopened weakly my eyes...

 

Césarin and the sacristan each smoked a lean cigar, with every possible daintiness, which rendered their persons frightfully ridiculous: the sacristan’s wife, on the edge of her seat, her sunken bosom leaning forward, having behind her all the yellow waves of her dress swallowing her up to the neck, and opening around her one sole flounce, was deliciously plucking the petals of a rose: a ghastly smile half-opened her lips, and showed upon her meager gums two black, yellow teeth, like the ceramic of an old stove.—You, Thimothina, you were beautiful, with your white collaret, your lowered eyes, and your flat coils.

 

—He’s an up-and-coming young man; his present unveils his future, the sacristan said while letting go a stream of gray smoke.

 

—Oh! M. Léonard will bring fame to his robes, twanged the sacristine, and her two eyes appeared...

 

Me, I blushed like a good boy; I saw that the chairs were moving away from me, and that they were murmuring about me...

 

Thimothina kept looking at my shoes; the two filthy teeth were menacing... the sacristan laughed ironically: I kept my head down...

 

—Lamartine is dead... all at once said Thimothina.

 

Dear Thimothina! It was for your adorer, for your poor poet Léonard, that you hurled into the conversation that name, Lamartine; then I lifted my hand, I felt that the thought alone would remake virginity for all these profane, I felt my wings palpitate, and I said, beaming, with my eye on Thimothina:

 

—He had fine jewels in his crown, the author of Méditations poétiques!

 

—The swan of verse is defunct! said the sacristine.

 

—Yes, but he sang his dirge, I replied, filled with enthusiasm.

 

—But, shouted the sacristine, M. Léonard is a poet too! His mother showed me last year some essays of his muse...

 

I made use of audacity:

 

—Oh! Madame, I brought neither my lyre nor my cithara; but...

 

—Oh! your cithara! you shall bring it another day...

 

—But, that notwithstanding, if it does not displease the honorable—and I drew a piece of paper from my pocket,—I shall read you some verses... I dedicate them to mademoiselle Thimothina.

 

—Yes! yes! young man! very well! Recite, recite, go to the end of the room...

 

I stepped back... Thimothina looked at my shoes... The sacristine acted the Madonna; the two gentlemen leaned toward one another... I blushed, I coughed, and I said singing tenderly:

 

In its cottony retreat

Sleeps the zephyr soft-breathed...

In its nest wooly and silky

Sleeps the zephyr with chin cheerfulest.

 

The entire audience sniggered: the gentlemen leaned toward one another making crude puns; but what was especially horrifying was the look of the sacristine, who, eye to heaven, acted the mystic, and smiled with her ghastly teeth! Thimothina, Thimothina died laughing! That pierced me with a mortal blow, Thimothina held her sides!...

 

—A soft zephyr in cotton, that’s sweet, that’s sweet!... le père Césarin said, sniffing...

 

I thought I noticed something... But that roar of laughter lasted only a second: everyone tried to regain a straight face, which broke again from time to time...

 

—Continue, young man, it’s good, it’s good!

 

When the zephyr its wing raises

In its cottony retreat...

When it runs where the flower pleases,

Its soft breath smells sweet...

 

This time, a guffaw shook my listeners; Thimothina looked at my shoes: I was warm, my feet burned under her regard, and swam in sweat; for I told myself: These socks I have been wearing for a month are a gift of her love, these looks she casts on my feet are a witness of her love: she adores me!

 

And then I know not what faint smell seemed to come from my shoes: oh! I understood the horrible laughter of the gathering! I understood that lost in this nasty group, Thimothina Labinette, Thimothina could never give free rein to her passion! I understood that I must swallow, I as well, this dolorous love budded in my heart one May afternoon, in a Labinette kitchen, before the posterior writhing of the Virgin with bow!!

 

Four o’clock, the time of return, rang on the living room clock; overcome, burning with love and mad with pain, I grabbed my hat, fled upsetting a chair, crossed the hall murmuring: I adore Thimothina, and fled to the seminary without stopping...

 

The skirts of my black habit flew behind me, in the wind, like sinister birds!...

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June 30th...

From now on, I leave to the divine muse the care of soothing my pain; a martyr to love at eighteen, and, in my affliction, thinking of another martyr to the sex that makes our joy and happiness, having no more the one I love, I shall love the faith! May Christ, may Mary take me to their bosom: I follow them; I am not worthy to untie the laces of Jesus’ shoes; but my grief! my torment! I too, at eighteen years and seven months, bear a cross, a crown of thorns! but, in my hand, in place of a reed, I have a cithara! There the balm for my wound shall be!...

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One year later, August 1st.

Today, they have garbed me in the sacred robes; I shall serve God; I shall have a cure and a modest handmaiden in a rich village. I have faith; I shall work out my salvation, and without being extravagant, I shall live like a good servant of God with his handmaiden. My mother the Holy Church will warm me in her bosom: blessed be she! blessed be God!

 

...As to that cruelly cherished passion I have locked in the depths of my heart, I can bear it with constancy: without reviving it precisely, I shall at times recall it to memory; those things are quite sweet!—I, moreover, was born for love and faith!—May it be one day, come back to this town, I shall have the happiness of confessing my dear Thimothina? Then, I conserve a sweet memory of her: for a year, I have not removed the socks that she gave me...

 

Those socks, my God! I shall keep them on my feet even in your Paradise!...

 

 

Arthur Rimbaud, tr. C. Mulrooney