Although I have spent nearly a quarter or so of my life in France and, during most of this time, maintained a keen interest in French literature, I had never heard of Jean Cassou until Timothy Adès, his gifted English translator, brought him to my attention.  Cassou seems to have been forgotten even by his own countrymen and women although he died not so long ago (1986) and seemingly had impeccable credentials politically as an active Resistant left for dead by the Germans at the liberation of Toulouse and not bad poetic credentials either since one might just place him in the slipstream of  the French surrealist movement. However, he broke decisively with the French Communist Party in 1949 for which they never forgave him; also, his occasional archaisms and the fact that his poems generally make some sort of sense presumably stopped him from being accepted as a true modernist, or post-modernist.
His 33 Sonnets composés au secret were written in a Vichy prison “nearly all in the dark, half a sonnet per night and committed to memory”. Jean Cassou was not exactly in solitary confinement since most of the time he shared a cell with another prisoner (because the prisons were full) but he was allowed no exercise, no visits, no books and no writing materials. Although Aragon sees the sonnet form as “embodying freedom under constraint”, which is fair enough in a sense, Cassou’s choice of form also had a more prosaic raison d’être : poems in strict rhyme and stanza form are a good deal easier to memorise. Also, the sonnet at fourteen lines is about the right length to at once stretch but not overburden the brain.
It would seem that the choice of form was a happy one. For me, it is wonderful to come across ‘modern’ poems that one can actually quickly learn off by heart and recite to oneself : people today seem to have forgotten that poetry is essentially something to be heard. And Cassou’s varied pace and  rich sound patterning make these poems, at their best, very eloquent indeed.
What of the content ?  Surprisingly, and yet not so, they are not really ‘prison poetry’. There are occasional outbursts of anger, patriotism and aspirations after a better life for all, as one would expect from a French Resistant and (at the time) communist party member but these are not the sonnets that appeal to me most. In a strange way, these poems bear witness to a kind of mental liberation rather than constriction : other people who have spent some time, voluntarily or not, in solitary and nearly immobile conditions have testified to this ‘expansion of inner space’.  (I must make it clear, however, that we are not talking about Abu Graib prison in Iraq or Guantanamo Bay : Cassou was not tortured or brutalised by his jailors though he could, had he  eventually been  convicted, easily have ended up in a concentration camp as so many of his comrades did.)

Emily Dickinson spent the last years of her life in a single room without exactly being a chronic invalid, seemingly by choice.  More to the point with regard to Cassou is the remarkable book, also alas completely forgotten, Solitary Confinement by the Englishman Christopher Burney recounting his (total) solitary confinement at Fresnes during eighteen months at more or less the same time as Cassou was incarcerated (for a year) at Toulouse.  (Like Cassou, Burney was suspected of being an agent of the Resistance, but absolute proof was lacking.) He writes of his first day inside :
“Being shut in this little cell was the prelude to what was to become life in a new element, a change as drastic as a transformation of the lungs to use some other gas than oxygen, a rarefaction, seeming often like death, and yet  fuller of elemental life than the red-blooded life outside.”
This is exactly what Cassou gives us in sonnet form : the surgings and outpourings of  ‘elemental life’ frozen into the words and rhythms of thirty-three fairly regular sonnets.
We should all be grateful to Timothy Adès for bringing this remarkable human document and  notable piece of  literature to the non-French reading public. (I would probably have had to be put in incommunicado myself to even think of  taking on such a daunting task as translating these poems while keeping to rhyme and stanza form.)
I give Sonnets II and VI, my favourites, first in French and then in Timothy Adès’ translation.


Mort à toute fortune, à l’espoir, à l’espace,
mais non point mort au temps qui poursuit sa moisson,
il me faut me retraire et lui céder la place,
mais dans ce dénuement grandit ma passion.

Je l’emporte avec moi dans un pays sans nom
où nuit sur nuit me pressent et m’effacent.
L’ombre y dévore l’ombre, et j’y dresse le front
à mesure qu’un mur de songe boit ma trace.

Ce n’est vie ni non plus néant. De ma veillée
les enfants nouveau-morts errent dans l’entre-deux.
Transparentes clartés, apparues, disparues,

Elans sans avenir, souvenirs sans passé,
décroître fait leur joie, expirer fait leur jeu,
et Psyché brûle en eux, les ailes étendues.

Jean Cassou


Dead to all fortune and to hope and space,
but not to time whose fullness is to be,
I must draw back, leave time to set the pace;
my passion deepens in this penury.

I take it with me to a nameless place
where night and night on night bear down on me.
Shadow eats shadow there. I show my face;
my tracks are drowned in mental masonry.

Not life, not nothingness, I cannot sleep:
in no-man’s-land my new-dead children stray.
Now here, now vanished, lucid shimmerings,

memories of no past, a forward leap
to nowhere; dearth’s their joy and death’s their play,
and Psyche burns in them with outspread wings.

Timothy Adès


Bruits lointains de la vie, divinités secrètes,
trompe d’auto, cris des enfants à la sortie,
carillon du salut à la veille des fêtes,
voiture aveugle se perdant à l’infini,

rumeurs cachées aux plis des épaisseurs muettes,
quels génies autres que l’infortune et la nuit
auraient su me conduire à l’abîme où vous êtes ?
Et je touche à tâtons vos visages amis.

Pour mériter l’accueil d’aussi profonds mystères
je me suis dépouillé de toute ma lumière :
la lumière aussitôt se cueille dans vos voix.

Qu’on me laisse à présent repasser la poterne
et remonter, portant ces reflets noirs en moi,
fleurs d’un ciel inversé, astres de ma caverne.

Jean Cassou


Life’s distant sounds, celestial, tucked away:
horns hooting, children going home to tea,
the church bells pealing for a festal day,
cars blindly heading for infinity,

rumours — wrapped, muffled, swathed; what people say:
demons of darkness and adversity
have brought me to your chasm; who but they?
I touch your friendly faces haltingly.

Such depths of mystery! To earn the right
of welcome, I dispensed with all my light.
Your voice is heard; light quickly gathers there.

Let me bring back these star-signs from my cavern,
back through the postern-gate, and upward bear
black images, flowers from an inverse heaven.

Timothy Adès

Note : The book Jean Cassou 33 Sonnets of the Resistance, which includes a number of other poems by Cassou, some in free verse and some in other rhymed forms, is published by Arc and can be ordered from their website.

Sebastian Hayes