.

Mourning Louis XVI

We must not say in public that we mourn—
Sit still, Brigitte, and listen to your père!
If we disclose our grief we court the hate
Of France’s revolutionary swarm.
These days are bleak for those of us well-born.
Hell take that bloody butcher Robespierre,
Whose love of death all Paris cannot sate!
A devil in dissembled human form!

Forget I said that! You must understand:
My words, mes chers, are for your ears alone.
I beg you, don’t repeat them on the street!
Mon Dieu, what place is safe? Where can we flee
From the convulsions of this fractious land?
We’ve done no wrong! There’s nothing to atone
But still the mob condemns us as elite
And threatens torture if we don’t agree.

They hate achievement, all that we have built—
Our sculptures, music, art, our splendid culture,
From Rabelais and Lully to Molière.
Most grievously they loathe our holy church
And mock salvation earned by Christ’s blood spilt.
These Bible-burners, every one a vulture,
Hate all except de Sade, Rousseau, Voltaire,
And others who support their leftward lurch.

They’ve banned the very calendar we use
And claim the names of days and months offend.
They gladly would eradicate us all
While sneering through a social justice mask.
They claim their crimes will remedy abuse
But brute destruction’s all that they intend.
It seems they wish forever to recall
The pleasing victimhood in which they bask.

Today they made me face the guillotine
And watch old comrades perish one by one,
Some bravely, some defiant, some with tears.
But like our King, each one maintained his wits.
King Louis’ death still haunts me with this scene:
“I fear for France!” he shouts. Then—whoosh—it’s done.
Men rub his blood on cloth as souvenirs.
A toothless hag sits smugly by and knits.

But hush! There’s shouting near Les Invalides.
Another noble tortured to confess
Some fabricated crime, some made-up sin.
Mon Dieu—police are banging on our door!
This cash is all that’s left. Take what you need.
Sneak out the back and run to this address.
Brigitte, Antoine, my friends will take you in.
Do not look back. And think of me no more.

.

.

Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


NOTE TO READERS: If you enjoyed this poem or other content, please consider making a donation to the Society of Classical Poets.

The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments.


CODEC Stories:

25 Responses

  1. Paul Buchheit

    Brian, we may not agree on the politics, but I enjoyed your descriptive, well-written poem, and I especially liked the abcdabcd rhyming!

    Reply
  2. Margaret Coats

    Brian, magnifique use of form, with rhyme echoing thoughts to shape abcdabcd stanzas as octaves rather than quatrains. Your speaker accurately outlines the passions unsated by many executions that, eight months after the King’s death, planned to wipe out any mourning for the past by decreeing The Terror, during which persons were slaughtered not only unjustly but indiscriminately. He speaks in terms that enable us to recognize our own times. The end of the poem seems almost hopeless, but there is hope that the children who have experienced and understood the present may build a better future. They preserve the thoughts of lost culture, and may rebuild some of it when revolutionary destruction ends in suicide. Interesting that the poem tells their names but not their father’s. Still, I imagine that he lived long in their love.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Merci beaucoup, Margaret, for this comment magnifique! I’m pleased that you immediately understood that this poem is 100% about modern times, cancel culture, the jealousy between haves and have-nots, the hypocrisy of leftist compassion — even gross materialism (although I’ll credit modern culture for not selling handkerchiefs dipped in the blood of unpopular politicians.) I’m glad you also understood why I wanted to have this monologue be presented to the speaker’s children (the next generation) rather than to any other interlocutor. I did not name the speaker because I did not want him too closely associated with any historical personage since I made him up. I wanted him to be an Everyman — someone who a reader fed-up with cancel culture might relate to. I wanted this poem to be chilling but contain a kernel of optimism: my speaker’s hope is that those children (conveniently, A & B) will remember the horrors of the Reign of Terror and perhaps create a better world. That continues to be my hope as well.

      Reply
  3. Joshua C. Frank

    Brian, this is great (and I don’t usually like ABCDABCD rhyming)! It shows how similar today’s leftist takeover of the world is to its predecessor, the French Revolution. (All these revolutions against monarchies were merely single falling dominoes, of many from the Renaissance to today and beyond.) I love how you’ve put in echoes of today throughout lines 14-32.

    When I learned exactly what happened in the French Revolution, I started to wonder why people today thought of it as a good thing. Turns out it’s because modern culture is of that same spirit.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Josh. You have hit the nail on the head concerning the intent behind this poem. To some degree the French Revolution accomplished good things like the metric system. But that seems like a poor tradeoff for the Reign of Terror, the wholesale burning of Bibles and the mass execution of innocents. I put echoes of today’s cancel culture very deliberately into the lines you describe. I am hoping that social justice warriors who like to burn things and topple statues and promote things like critical race theory will experience the shock of recognition. A longshot, that’s for sure.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        The metric system a good thing? What it’s done is nearly obliterate an aesthetically and culturally satisfying system of measurement. When they start selling milk by the half-liter instead of by the quart I will stop buying it. That aside, this large poem was a nice elaboration of some not-so-nice historical events. The parallels to today are chilling.

      • Brian Yapko

        Thank you, C.B. I’m glad you used the word “chilling” because that’s exactly what I was aiming for — especially with the last stanza. And you’re right about the metric system. I still can’t wrap my head around it — especially temperatures and volumes.

  4. sally cook

    Brian –
    A fine poem, full of history and prediction. It happened, and I fear it will again. You, I, and so many others look into the future and despair. My question to you is: how do you think others in similar past situations were able to save the art of the past from extinction?

    Reply
    • Sally Cook

      Brian I apologize for my spelling mistake – I thought I was saying “A fine poem, FULL O …but it says dull….
      Nothing about your poem is dull; it is full of tensions, shades and shadows; quiet but NEVER dull. My apologies.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        Nothing to apologize for, Sally! I saw “dull” initially but I figured it was a typo because how dull can a revolution be?

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you so much, Sally! Yes, I do look into the future and see despair. The overwhelming reason I wrote this poem was so that people could recognize the parallels between today’s cancel culture and wholesale rewriting of history and social justice warrior behavior is potentially just as destructive as the actions of the mob in France. And among the Cultural Revolutionists of China, and the Bolsheviks during and after the Russian Revolution. These were terrible events spearheaded by people who thought they were doing something constructive. But they weren’t. Destroying is ever so much easier than building. You pose a very serious question which I hope everyone ponders: how do we save the art of the past from extinction? My answer, for what it’s worth, is to keep a record of everything for future generations. I don’t mean literally, but keep the flow of ideas and recollections of history out there as much as possible. That’s one of the reasons I have a penchant for writing historical poetry. I want it remembered that there was once a French Revolution in which people who thought they were good also tried to cancel history. I want the names Rabelais and Lully and Moliere remembered, along with names like Mark Twain and Margaret Mitchell and dozens of others who deserve to be remembered. That, at least, is my two cents. Keep the names of those we respect alive.

      Reply
  5. Paul Freeman

    You’ve certainly brought history alive once more, mon ami.

    I was reminded of your poem about the innkeeper from the tale of the good Samaritan.

    Using the word ‘leftist’ jarred to my ear since the word didn’t exist in that context, as far as I know, back then. Maybe ‘bloody’, ‘brutal’ or ‘brutish’ would fit. Plus you get an extra bit of alliteration! Or maybe not.

    And I’m not sure that the destruction that came with the French Revolution had much to do with envy – rather ignorance, anger, the urge to destroy and an inability to value value anything beyond the practicalities and necessities of life, food especially. Perhaps ‘loathe adornment’ rather than ‘hate achievement’. Or maybe not.

    This aside, a great Les Misérables vibe to this piece, Brian.

    Well done – again!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Paul, thank you for your kind comment. I am actually responding to yours before anyone else’s because I wanted to address your comment regarding “leftist” “leftward” etc. The term “leftist” or, generally, the “left” in a political context actually ORIGINATED in the French Revolution in 1789! I’m going to quote Wikipedia here:

      “The terms “left” and “right” appeared during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left. One deputy, the Baron de Gauville, explained: “We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp… When the National Assembly was replaced in 1791 by a Legislative Assembly composed of entirely new members, the divisions continued. “Innovators” sat on the left, “moderates” gathered in the centre, while the “conscientious defenders of the constitution” found themselves sitting on the right, where the defenders of the Ancien Régime had previously gathered…”

      There’s more, but you get the idea. So my use of the term “left” in this political context is very specifically historical!

      I’m a big fan of “Les Miserable” (even though that’s actually not the French Revolution) so I’m very pleased by your comment! Thank you, mon ami!

      Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Paul, just to quickly thank you for the suggestion. As you probably noted in my reply to Dr. Salemi, I will follow your advice and have it changed to “bloody butcher Robespierre.”

      Reply
  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    An amazing evocation of what the French Revolution was like. Have you read Nesta Webster’s excellent work on this historical catastrophe? She was one of the very best scholars on this period, and she had no sympathy for the revolutionists murderers. This poem focuses directly on the deranged mental state of those revolutionists — their sheer hatred of civilized order, hierarchy, and culture. Unfortunately we have to live with the very same types today.

    I think Paul Freeman is correct about the word “leftist.” Although the left-right division goes back to the seating arrangements at the French National Assembly of those days, I don’t know if there was a word like “gauchiste” current at that time. It is certainly true that the political idea of a left-right spectrum became generalized in European usage by the 19th century, but it may not have crystallized into a word during the Revolutionary period. Paul’s suggestion of “bloody” or “brutish” seems less anachronistic. For some reason the word “leftist” seems to carry a strong contemporary connotation.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much indeed, Joseph, for your generous comment and for the citation to Nesta Webster. I will look her up. This is a period of history which I find quite fascinating and would like to learn more about. If you see my notes to Margaret and Joshua above, the sole reason I wrote this poem was to present the parallel between the French revolutionaries and modern social justice warriors engaged in cancel culture. I’m glad that you also see the connections between these violent and destructive people who are separated by 230 years but frighteningly similar in mindset and technique.

      On the anachronism of my use of “left” as a political term… First, you posted your comment concurrently with my posting my reply to Paul, in which I cite the Wikipedia article on “the left.” Both you and the article credit the origins of “left” as a political term with the French National Assembly, going back to 1789. However, further research shows that the term “left” to refer to an actual ideology does not take place until the 1840s. So my usage IS anachronistic, but only by 50 years or so. Nevertheless, since you and Paul are both in agreement on this, I think I will go ahead and ask Mike to change it to “bloody” Robespierre. However, I will keep my description of the state’s “leftward” lurch because I think it’s less jarring than the term “leftist” and keeps tight the analogies I wanted to make regarding the French Revolution and modern times. I take a similar risk by talking about the “social justice” mask.

      And, concerning anachronisms — although no one’s commented on this, another anachronism is my allusion to Madam De Farge and her knitting, which I took from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which wasn’t written until 1859. But, rather than an anachronism, I prefer to see it as an Easter egg for the careful reader.

      Thank you again, Joseph, for your appreciation of this poem. Let me also thank you for some poetic inspiration: I had vaguely considered parallels between the modern world and Revolutionary France but it was not until I read your incredible “A Glass for my Father” that I realized how compelling the comparison was. For anyone interested in reading it, the link to your poem is here: https://classicalpoets.org/2022/06/19/a-glass-for-my-father-by-joseph-s-salemi/#/

      Reply
      • Paul Freeman

        Yep, the old lady knitting is sort of a 19th century meme that we all recognise and no film set in that period can do without.

  7. Jeff Eardley

    Brian, we are regular visitors to La Belle France and particularly the Vendee. The blood-soaked counter-revolution here is remembered in the quite superb Puy du Fou re-enactment park ( There is a whole evening of YouTube on this place) Your fine poem is ripe for a stage production. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this and may I wish you a HAPPY NEW YEAR.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Jeff! I’ll have to look up the YouTube videos on Puy du Fou — it sounds fascinating. And a very happy new year to you as well!

      Reply
  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, once again you have offered up a slice of history from the first person POV and made it accessible and relatable, but most importantly, in fine poetry that is seamless and beautiful. I have read it several times just to drink in all the exquisite intricacies of the craft. The chosen rhyme scheme makes it more conversational, and I love your use of internal rhyme… bells and whistles without the distraction – sculptures, culture, vulture (Voltaire… wonderful near-rhyme echo) all in one stanza – masterly! All of this serves to enhance a message we should all heed. There are two sides to every historic story and the angle you have presented is a lesson to all in these destructive times of cancel culture and division where the phrase “Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité” sends a shiver. Brian, you never fail to intrigue me, educate me, and inspire me. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much indeed, Susan! You always grasp the entirety of my intent from the big picture to the details. This makes you a most-appreciated reader! I’m particularly grateful for your appreciation of some of those little bits and pieces that went into writing this poem — I’m especially pleased that you noticed the Voltaire/vulture echo! On the rhyme scheme, I wanted it to be carefully rhymed since this is the voice of an educated French aristocrat, but I didn’t want the rhymes to be too apparent because I felt that might appear too orderly in a mind that was frazzled. “Conversational with hints of urgency” is what I was aiming for. As for the French Revolution itself — I’m glad you find the hypocrisy of the catchphrase “Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood” worth a shiver because modern cancel culture has indeed taken a page out of the French revolutionary playbook.

      Reply
  9. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Brian, for some reason I had missed this great poem of yours! A poem like yours with great historical accuracy and frightening results always seems to make me transpose major portions of it to the present deceptions and debacles. This was a great read that mandates I read it more than once!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Roy! I appreciate your observation of the present’s “deceptions and debacles” because in this unhappy present we are experiencing true echoes of the French Revolution.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.