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A Glass for My Father

Marie-Maurille de Virot, Mademoiselle de Sombreuil
(February 14, 1768—May 15, 1823)

My father was the Marquis de Sombreuil:
An old man when it happened, but back then
The Revolution took no note of age,
Of sex, infirmities, or past distinction.
All they saw was that our family was
Of gentle blood, and for that fact condemned.
When they came to escort him to prison
I insisted that I too should go—
I shared my father’s blood, why not his pain?
A maiden girl of twenty-four can die
As easily as men advanced in years.
They dragged us off to La Abbaye, and there
A mock tribunal of some drunken thugs
Read out the fatal judgment: father’s life
Was forfeit to the guillotine. I begged
With filial tears and pleadings. They just smirked.

One of the guards sat on a pile of corpses
Freshly slain and still warm to the touch—
Great pools of blood and gore were everywhere.
He poured red wine out for that fell tribunal
Into cups and glasses smeared by fingers
Still wet from pikes and bludgeons and curved sabers.
He took a filthy, blood-polluted glass,
Filled it with wine, and held it out to me:

Drain this glass of blood-tinged wine and we’ll
Allow you and your father to go home.
Drink a toast to our great Revolution!

They smiled in mockery, as if to say
A frightened and a well-bred noble girl
Could never put a gore-smeared glass like that
To her shy and hesitating lips.
But I reached out and took it, made the toast,
And drank it down in one impulsive swallow.
They laughed with frank amusement and surprise
That I had drunk a chalice of foul death,
Looked at me with a grudging new respect,
And released us from that hall of murder.
We hurried out to freedom and fresh air.

Still to this day I cannot hold a glass
Without revulsion and a sense of loathing.
Red wine? Just a hint of its bouquet
Turns my stomach like a foetid corpse.
They killed my father and his younger son
At a later date. My elder brother
Fell in the wars that came in terror’s wake.
I am the last of Sombreuil’s ancient line
And in my own way, I too died with them.
I leave the world this one important truth:
You crush no revolutions with a prayer,
With votive candles or a pious hope,
Or pleas for mercy, or noblesse oblige.
The only thing the Revolution fears
Is when you drink hot blood before their faces,
And swear the next cup will be filled with theirs.

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Poet’s Note: About two years after this incident at La Abbaye prison, the old Marquis de Sombreuil and one of his sons were arrested again and executed by the Revolutionists, and Mademoiselle de Sombreuil remained imprisoned until the fall of Robespierre. Her remaining brother died after the battle of Quiberon in 1795, when the murderous Revolutionist general Lazare Hoche massacred several hundred Royalist prisoners who had surrendered.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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20 Responses

  1. Margaret Coats

    Bloody good reminder of how bloodthirsty the Revolution is. But sometimes despised gentle blood like that of Marie-Maurille is equal to its distasteful challenges, even though her ability to prevail over the Revolution itself may be temporary and limited.

    Reply
  2. Michael Pietrack

    I loved the ending:

    I leave the world this one important truth:
    You crush no revolutions with a prayer,
    With votive candles or a pious hope,
    Or pleas for mercy, or noblesse oblige.
    The only thing the Revolution fears
    Is when you drink hot blood before their faces,
    And swear the next cup will be filled with theirs.

    Reply
  3. C.B. Anderson

    I loved it. You have reminded me of how, at some point, everyone must become a Sicilian in order to survive. As strange as it seems, even the French can sometimes behave like Sicilians. I would like to think that someday I might.

    Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe, this admirably crafted poem smacks of fearlessness… the writing is full of vivid, stomach-churning imagery culminating in a powerful punch-in-the-gut message against the appeasement of a godless enemy when lives are at stake… the sort of writing I aspire to. Thank you!

    Reply
  5. Brian Yapko

    Joseph, this is bone-chillingly great. Your choice of subject matter is magnificent for a dramatic monologue and your poetic voice for this character is presented with sensitivity, conviction, a sense of authenticity (both psychologically and in terms of period) all topped off with an unblinkingly hard-as-nails assessment of what it takes to win a cultural revolution.

    I cannot overstate the importance (at least in my view) of what you achieve by speaking in the first-person character of Marie-Maurille de Virot. You recreate a moment in time. You then create a tangible witness to the horrors of the French Revolution (including anarchist revolutionary thinking). The witness you create is someone that the reader can actually identify with and relate to. This, in turn, creates an emotional response to your character’s astonishing bravery when facing a situation of great injustice, pathos and danger. You never actually relate this horrible revolutionary tale to our present culture war — nor do you need to. Your argument is eloquently and pointedly presented, as is its present application. The vehicle through which you have imparted your “hot blood” message is brilliant and memorable. The lesson learned is far deeper (for me) than would be the same lesson presented in a historical essay or an opinion piece. There are many types of wonderful poetry, but for me “A Glass for My Father” is what poetry means and what it can achieve. I wish I had written this.

    Reply
  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you all for your kind comments. When I submitted this to Evan Mantyk he suggested that it be saved for publication on Fathers’ Day, since it dealt with filial devotion.

    Brian, I certainly was thinking of our current culture wars, which are about to become as savagely sanguinary as the times in which Mademoiselle de Sombreuil lived. I’m deeply pleased that you have made the connection.

    Reply
  7. Cynthia Erlandson

    You’ve told this story in a very poignant way, which causes readers to be wrapped up in it emotionally.

    Reply
  8. David Watt

    Joseph, I applaud you for this striking narration demonstrating that terror only responds to force of character or brute force. Your poem brings a sense of immediacy to an historical theme.

    Reply
  9. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe-
    This is a dark, dramatic and difficult to digest work which seems to mirror our own time. It also gives me an additional take on our own revolution. When giving a close reading to this over two dozen of my ancestors who fought there, and consider how many of them later became teetotalers.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Sally, the rise of the anti-alcohol mania and teetotalism in the United States began soon after the American Revolution, and reached the apogee of insanity in the 21st amendment and the Volstead Act. This was just the first of several mass bouts of morality-driven Puritanical madness that America suffered from. Our nation has several congenital diseases, and the biggest is called New England.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Sorry folks — I meant the 18th Amendment.

  10. Sally Cook

    Still, I’m glad they got so hopping mad they revolted. There must have been quite a bunch of conflicted Puritans.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Sally, if you want to understand the poison of New England Puritanism just consider the career of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a 19th-century Congregationalist crackpot who gassed endlessly about “temperance” and “social reform,” who sent guns and ammunition to abolitionist terrorists in Kansas (they were called “Beecher’s Bibles”), and who publicly preached against free love but wound up banging his best friend’s wife, which resulted in a scandalous public trial. He also urged underpaid workers to “sink gracefully into poverty” if their rich employers refused to raise their wages. That’s the kind of glassy-eyed dreaminess that comes out of New England clergymen.

      Reply
      • Sally Cook

        Joe, I’ve never pretended to be a Congregationalist, or any other sort of idiot. I do quite well on my own, as I am sure you already know. But did you know I had a grandmother who hired someone to erect a sign facing the end of her street that said “ALCOHOL IS POISON” ?
        Imagine this free spirit having to ride the school bus home facing that every day! No wonder I denied the solar system and drew risqué pictures.
        You may also be interested to know that early Protestant hymnals contained alternative rhyming lines. One of my favorites is, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Beecham’s (or Beecher’s) pills are just the thing.”
        You probably already knew this.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        The anti-alcohol craziness got absolutely fanatical around 1910, when pressure groups like the WCTU, the Anti-Saloon League, the Baptists and Methodists, and fundamentalist preachers like Billy Sunday wielded immense political power in many localities and states. Much of the impetus was pure anti-Catholicism, since liquor prohibition was largely aimed at Catholic immigrants (the German-Polish beer drinkers, the Irish whiskey drinkers, and the Italian wine drinkers). Nobody worried a bit about moonshine-distilling evangelical Protestants in the boondocks.

        How very interesting about your grandmother and her street sign. It’s just another symptom of the mass insanity against alcohol that seized a very large part of the American Christian population in the early twentieth century — in spite of the fact that according to scripture Christ made some damned good wine at Cana, used wine at the Last Supper, and employed the metaphor of putting wine into proper wineskins in His talk with disciples.

  11. Sally Cook

    Yes, the W.C.T.U. had a neat little song called Apples Are God’s Bottles! I always wondered as a child why Jesus turned water into wine but we weren’t allowed to have any.

    Reply
  12. Shaun C. Duncan

    Another sensational monologue and the closing message couldn’t be more timely as too many conservatives, being mild in nature, are sadly ill-equipped to face down the fanaticism of the revolutionary mob. Mademoiselle de Sombreuil’s story is a powerful reminder of the attitude we must adopt in response.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I’m deeply grateful for your comment, Shaun. The disappointment that I feel over the tepidity and laid-back irenicism of so many faux conservatives in America puts me into a depression. And most psalm-singing religionists are no better in their character, since they seem to have decided that Christianity is a slow-motion suicide pact.

      Reply

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