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“Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”

Olympe de Gouges, 1791

Marie Antoinette


“Marie Antoinette in a Muslin Dress”. Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783.

I never said let them eat cake These accusations that you make Are false.  Could my extravagance Alone bankrupt the realm of France? No. Nor is incest what’s at stake. And now, since I did not forsake My family, my letters take A treasonous significance I never said. God knows these charges are all fake. Yet I must die so you can slake Your thirst with blood of innocence – Which never yet did nourish France. (But this, although my heart did ache, I never said.)


Charlotte Corday


“The fair assassin heroine of the French Revolution, Charlotte Corday”. Alonzo Chappel, 1873.

People of France, friends of peace and law, For too long have these scoundrels had their way Whose ambition is like a gaping maw They gulp your blood and make all France their prey. Yet you, their victims, still are led astray Striving for those who act in your despite And give more now, defending their foul play Than e’er you gave when liberty was your fight. People of France, now you must fight this war, And tyranny with vengeance first repay – Then Liberty, Equality restore Until at last Fraternity holds sway. Those brigands on their bloody thrones now pray Because they know the country is alight Marat has fallen to my knife this day Can Danton, Robespierre survive the night? People of France, I have not breached our law, Nor did I my beloved France betray; I killed one man to save a thousand more – One tyrant, fat with blood, rank with decay. I am content to lose my life today, If I am the last victim of their spite. But let the head of Citoyenne Corday Be now your rallying flag in this great fight, Proving that one weak hand may monsters slay When strengthened by devotion to the right. People of France, I have shown you the way. You know your enemies – arise, and fight! “Please step aside, citizen. I have never seen a guillotine before and am curious to know what it looks like.”


Olympe de Gouges


“Portrait of Marie-Olympe de Gouges”. Alexander Kucharsky, circa 1791.

What if… I wrote a play about slavery, Where black slaves act with bravery, But owners are unsavory, To show that courage lies within, And dignity does not begin With the colour of one’s skin? Or what if… Children of unwed parents might Inherit property by right Rather than starve out of our sight? And what if women could divorce Not needing proof of fault, or force, But simply as a matter of course? Or what if… In a sequel to Beaumarchais, The wicked count would have his way With poor Fanchette – but this foul play Is foiled. Chérubin marries her. From this, might readers yet infer The evils of droit de seigneur? Or what if… Now men speak of equality And freedom from authority We gave woman her liberty? We are not made only to breed. If we must for our country bleed Then let us also speak and lead! Or what if The people might vote legally When leaders act too brutally Transforming constitutionally The present state of anarchy And tyrannous oligarchy To constitutional monarchy? Or what if As children of Enlightenment We ended capital punishment Choosing prison or banishment And even spared our dethroned King Who – “Children of the Fatherland, you will avenge my death!”




“Les Tricoteuses Jacobines”. Pierre-Etienne Lesueur, 1793.

We are the working women, who advance Where working men as yet have failed to tread Hungry for justice – and hungry for bread For ourselves, and our children, and for France Let others counsel patience, and restraint We will not listen to their homilies We march for bread to feed our families The King will listen to our just complaint. We are applauded – and yet we unnerve Those men who would rule France, but can’t rule us. Forbidden to assemble, or discuss, Our only privilege is to observe. So be it.  And where disloyal blood is shed We’ll knit, and measure, and then cut the thread.


Bastille Station, Bastille Day, and the women

Bastille Station is one of the oldest stations in the Métro, having opened in July 1900 near the site of the old Bastille prison.  The Bastille was built in the 14th century, and was initially a military installation, built on the eastern side of Paris, to protect the city against attack.  By the 15th century, it held a similar sort of role to the Tower of London – part Royal castle, part penitentiary, and, as a highly defensible stronghold on the edge of Paris, it had great military significance in the Wars of Religion.  It was only really during the reign of Louis XIV that it became primarily a state prison, at first for noble prisoners, but eventually for miscreants of all stations. Of course, the Bastille’s main claim to fame was the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, which marked the opening of the French Revolution.  While this was a highly symbolic action, it was also slightly pointless – there were only seven inmates left there by July 1789, and of these, two were housed there by reason of insanity (one of them thought he was Julius Caesar), and one was imprisoned there at his family’s request on account of incest.  The other four were forgers. The castle was subsequently destroyed, and the place where it stood is now marked by a square with a central column built to commemorate the 1830 revolution.

I originally planned to take some of Robespierre’s more interesting quotes and turn them into a poem.  Only one poem didn’t seem like enough, so I thought it might be good to do one for Charlotte Corday, too, and then I remembered Olympe de Gouges, and I thought that the Tricoteuses probably deserved a poem too, and all of a sudden, I was writing about women who were guillotined during the French revolution, and Robespierre didn’t really fit in any more.  The quotes at the end of each of the first three poems are Charlotte and Olympe’s final words; Marie Antoinette’s quote was from shortly before her execution (her actual final words were ‘pardon me sir, I meant not to do it‘, to the executioner, whose foot she had stepped on).

Marie Antoinette (2 November 1755 – 16 October 1793) was, of course, Louis XVI’s unpopular Austrian queen.  She was, it seems, devoted to her family, and tried to be a good wife.  Unfortunately, she wasn’t very politically astute, and her advice to Louis was perceived to be making things worse – driving France further into bankruptcy, and favouring her Austrian connections at the expense of France.  Some of these perceptions are truer than others – Marie Antoinette was quite extravagant, and made some poor choices when it came to Finance Ministers, but in fact, France was in trouble financially before she ever arrived, and a large part of the difficulty was the refusal of the nobility to be taxed in a reasonable manner, putting the burden of taxation on the lower classes, which was both onerous and ineffective in reducing debt.  A strong, decisive king with a competent ministry might have been able to fix this, but Louis XVI seems to have been indecisive and largely ineffective, and Marie Antoinette had neither the education nor the judgment to make good decision on his behalf, let alone make them stick.  At her trial, in addition to being accused of extravagance and treasonous communications with Austria, she was also accused of incest, which caused her to appeal to the ‘mothers of France’.  While the women of France were not notable sympathetic to Marie Antoinette in general, they seem to have been in this instance, and that particular charge was dropped.

As Marie Antoinette very much represented the Ancien Régime, I wrote her poem as a Rondeau, which is a very traditional French form of poetry dating from the 13th century, and consisting of 15 lines and a fairly fiendish rhyme scheme, that was often set to music.  Marie Antoinette was fond of music and a patroness of several musicians, so this seemed to fit.

Charlotte Corday (27 July 1768 – 17 July 1793) is probably also quite well known to those with an interest in the Revolution.  She was a young woman from the country who assassinated Marat in his bath at the height of the terror, calmly pled guilty to the murder, and was guillotined a few days later.  When Charlotte went to assassinate Marat, she carried in her dress her certificate of baptism, and a letter addressed to the people of France.  In the letter, she lamented that the people of France had been so enslaved to tyranny that they now worked harder for their own harm than they ever had when fighting for liberty.  She exhorted the people of France to arise, seeing what one weak woman could do, and she hoped her severed head would be used as a standard for the new revolution.  The Montagnards, she said, were drunk on blood, glutted with it, Marat was a beast more monstrous than the hideous monsters fought by Alcides, and in short, pretty much every word of the poem that I have written for her – and certainly all the most purple bits of prose – is a direct translation of something she wrote in her letter.  She never met an adjective she didn’t like, but this is forgiveable when one is working oneself up to a noble act of self-sacrifice.  Her poem is in another traditional French poetic form, the Ballade, though I cheated a little on the chorus line at the end of each verse, because I wanted to stay as true to her actual words as possible.

Olympe de Gouges (7 May 1748 – 3 November 1793) is perhaps less well-known.  She was a feminist and a humanist, an opponent of the death penalty, an abolitionist, and a very prolific writer.  She wrote plays about the evils of slavery, and the need for divorce, wrote an unauthorised sequel to the ‘The Barber of Seville’ and ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ (plays by Beaumarchais which are now better known as operas), and wrote many, many pamphlets on a variety of topics including equality, slavery, the death penalty, marriage, divorce, and legal provisions for illegitimate children.  Her best known work these days is her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which mirrored the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, in which she pointed out that equality wasn’t very equal if it didn’t include women or slaves or black people.  Alas, Olympe also wrote quite a few pamphlets about French politics, including one that argued against the execution of Louis XVI, and another that suggested that the people should be allowed to choose their form of government, and maybe they might be better off with a constitutional monarchy than with the current republic.  Needless to say, this did not make her any friends among the Jacobin faction, and she was promptly guillotined, making her the only woman to be executed for sedition during the Terror.

Finally, to represent the working classes, and also another side of the Revolution generally, I wrote a sonnet about the Tricoteuses, the knitting women.  In October, 1789, in response to food shortages and rising prices, a group of working women marched on Versailles, demanding bread.  This unprecedented uprising of women seems to have commanded both respect and some fear – they got their bread, and were initially heralded as ‘mothers of the nation’.  Alas, the Terror found them a little bit too terrifying (or, more probably, unruly), and eventually banned them from sitting as spectators in the National Convention or assembling for political purposes.  With few other forms of political expression open to them, the women took up a station under the guillotine, knitting the red Phrygian caps that were an emblem of the revolution, and occasionally shouting angrily at those about to be executed.  I’m pretty sure that absolutely everyone ever has already thought of the three Fates (it’s that handwork connection), but it’s the sort of metaphor that is irresistible in this context…

The images I have used are all attributed above, and are all in the public domain.


Saint-Paul fleur1left Bastille fleur1right Gare de Lyon
Quai de la Rapée fleur5left Bastille fleur5right Bréguet-Sabin
Chemin Vert fleur8left Bastille fleur8right Ledru-Rollin

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