As much as we may berate them and bandy around unflattering stereotypes (it’s all done with affection, and who doesn’t love berets, baguettes and onions?), our French cousins have contributed a lot to our culture. You only need to peruse a list of expressions exported from français that are regularly used in the English language to realise this – á la mode (which, amusingly, when translated into English means ‘with ice cream’ – not something commonly associated with high fashion, given its indulgent – see: fattening – quality), pièce de resistance, bon appètit…even when referring to something rather mundane, not up to the usual highest of standards or otherwise just plain bad, the phrases still manage to convey a certain je ne sais quoi .
One particular concept transferred from French to English that has always fascinated and perplexed me in equal measure is that of dèjá vu. Meaning ‘already seen’, the term has been slightly extended in its incorporation into the English language to refer to the mysterious phenomenon of having distinctly felt that you have experienced something apparently new at some previous point in your life. I experience dèjá vu quite frequently, and would wonder if such occurrences meant I was special in some way, or otherwise a character in a sci-fi novel where said dèjá vu would unravel itself to reveal some unbelievable and superior alternative reality (a rather nice little fantasy for dull days). However, my experiences are so utterly banal that I’m fairly certain they do not warrant speculation about anything quite as exciting. Dèjá vu occurs when I am carrying out the most boring and simplistic of tasks, when I read or view a certain thing and overhear a specific conversation at the same time; that’s when I swear I’ve been here and done the same thing before. No interesting theories of recollection, the workings of memory or parallel worlds. Perhaps some evidence for a past life, or several, but given the sheer dreariness of the various situations, that would just leave me bitterly disappointed.
Providing a far more idealised view of the strange feeling of dèjá vu is Dante Gabriel Rossetti in this week’s featured poem, Sudden Light. As with his painting, much of Rossetti’s poetry was concerned with sensuality and there’s definitely a preoccupation with love in this poem; an earlier version, published in 1863 and featuring in Poems, 1870, contained a final stanza much more obviously focused on an intimate relationship than the one which replaces it in the 1881 edition, and is given here. The original final stanza was as follows:
Then, now,—perchance again! . . . .
O round mine eyes your tresses shake!
Shall we not lie as we have lain
Thus for Love’s sake,
And sleep, and wake, yet never break the chain?
The idea of a romantic reoccurrence, to return from one life to the next to a same lover or ‘soulmate’ is an idea both beautiful and perhaps unsettling, depending upon how you consider it. It is also a notion which is in keeping with Rossetti’s fascination with both the physical and the spiritual; the intertwining of thought with feeling. Sudden Light appeared in Poems, 1870 in a section entitled ‘Sonnets and Songs’ which was the precursor to what many consider to be Rossetti’s crowning poetic achievement, The House of Life. This complex collection of sonnets attempted to mark and capture ‘the feelings of a fleeting moment’ within an intimate relationship and highlighted Rossetti’s own desire to transcend these passing temporal moments in time, instead creating something more meaningful and everlasting. Though it was eventually published as a separate stand-alone poem, Sudden Light encapsulates this impossible search for a higher meaning, a ‘perfect moment’ which every other moment in life revolves around.
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
You have been mine before –
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall, – I knew it all of yore.
Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time’s eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death’s despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)