Monday, January 26, 2009

Through the pane

I've always like the poem by "Ch.D." included at the beginning of Natalie Zemon Davis' Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford University Press, 1975). Here is the opening stanza:

"Born abroad, she longs for you, compagnons.
She longs to shake your hand, to share your wine.
She longs for home, four hundred years away.
Through the pane she hears you but is not heard.
She deserves your pity but will not have it. "

I immediately thought of this poem last weekend when I came across this passage in Jack Finney's time-travel novel, Time and Again (Simon & Schuster, 1970):

"There--well, there they were, the people of the stiff old woodcuts, only... these moved. The swaying coats and dresses there on the walks and crossing the street before and behind us were of new-dyed cloth--maroon, bottle-green, blue, strong brown, unfaded blacks--and I saw the shimmer of light and shadow in the appearing and disappearing long folds. And the leather and rubber they walked in pressed into and marked the slush of the street crossings; and their breaths puffed out into the winter air, momentarily visible. And through the trembling, rattling glass panes of the bus we heard their living voices, and heard a girl laugh aloud. Looking out at their winter-flushed faces, I felt like shouting for joy." (121)

Historians are not time-travellers, of course, and we are professionalized to poo-poo the "antiquarian." But the desire to hear the dead when they were living-- that desire is there, I think, for almost all of us in some form or another.

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