The Nature of Home in Acadian and Guadeloupean Poetry

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Through financial support from the Institut d’études acadiennes (IÉA) at the Université de Moncton and in connection with the international research project Trois siècles de migrations francophones en Amérique du Nord (1640-1940) , my recent studies focus on the presence of the language of “homeland (pays natal)” in Guadeloupean and Acadian press in the early twentieth century. In preparing for the Atlantic Canada Studies conference held in May 2022, I stumbled across paintings by artists Herménégilde Chiasson (Acadian) and Ronald Cyrille (Guadeloupean) that captured my attention. In observing Chiasson’s Un homme et une femme regardent un arbre en fleurs (1996) and Cyrille’s Freedom (2018), I felt struck by the grandeur given to the natural word and the minimization of human invention. In reflecting further on the small ovals at the bottom of each painting, I pondered a message of birth and renewal, a natural process in our world that often includes experiences of agony and sentiments of wonder. This sense of the power and wonder of the natural environment is not novice to the discourse of these societies, and permeates much of their earliest poetry featured in the newspapers Guadeloupe littéraire and L’Évangéline (1905-1914).

Herménégilde Chiasson, Un homme et une femme regardent un arbre en fleurs, Oil sticks on paper, 1996, Collection of Raoul and Annette Boudreau
(featured with artist’s permission, for more information visit sheilahughmackay.ca)
Ronald Cyrille aka B.Bird, Freedom, Mixed media on canvas, c. 2018
(featured with artist’s permission, for more information visit https://www.krystelannart.com)

Oruno Lara, a Black man whose father was enslaved until 1843, published Guadeloupe littéraire beginning in 1907. Lara’s local contributors were often Black or mixed-race, yet as members of the more educated elite they tended to exalt the nature and seasons of the islands while rarely mentioning struggles endured by the laboring, formerly enslaved class.1 In the poem “Chute de feuilles,” Florelle Réache describes the falling of dead leaves from the palm, coconut, and banana trees, telling how the palm trees “deliver their immense leaves like a parasol that no longer adorns them.” She portrays the palm trees as being above all and majestic, and recounts laying in the grass at twilight to watch the leaves fall over her and onto the ground. Réache’s poem reflects her sense of intimacy and awe of the seasonal environment in Guadeloupe, as she states that for her this process of death that later results in rejuvenation is “always a new spectacle.”2

René Orthez, “Une belle nuit à la boucan,” Guadeloupe littéraire, 19 April 1908

Similarly, in “Une belle nuit à la boucan” René Orthez reflects on the relationship between man and nature, concluding that “nature, in its imposing grandeur, cannot keep me from the realization of how we, men, we are little next to the infinite.” Like Florelle’s praise of the island’s environment, Orthez describes “the imposing mass of the volcanic chain of Guadeloupe” that he sees under the “myriad of stars” in the sky, and that to him proves “ravishing.”3 These poems are only a few of many that follow the exaltation of the natural environment rooted in French romanticism, but begin to extol Guadeloupe’s flora, fauna, and climate.

Scholar Jack Corzani argues that Guadeloupean poetry of this period shows how their emerging writers were “imitators” of various French writers, but proved “more conservative than their models.”4 While Guadeloupe littéraire and L’Évangéline featured works by French poets such as Fernand Gregh, François Coppée, Alfred de Musset, and Edmond Rostand, this conservatism tended to go to further extremes in early Acadian poetry as authors such as Victor Hugo and Émile Zola were banned from reading lists in the Collège Saint-Joseph.5 Nonetheless, like Guadeloupean descriptions of the island’s natural environment, Acadians also brought their own geography and seasons into their poems.

Sylvio de la Baie, “L’Automne,” L’Évangéline, 9 November 1905

Several Acadian poems describe the autumn season that serves as a critical period of cyclical change in Atlantic Canada. In “L’Automne” Sylvio de la Baie describes walking through forest trails and beholding valleys “without greenery,” as the trees have lost their leaves to the wind. Like with Florelle Réache’s depiction of being surrounded by dead and falling leaves from the banana, palm, and coconut trees, de la Baie illustrates the bareness of the elm and birch that were “Stripped by the wind, parched by the storm.” The theme of death in nature continues with “pines” that “moaned their funeral laments,” while “the frost had come to reap the flowers.”6 In “Heures d’automne” there is another illustration of the fall season, with its leaves that “put a rug under our feet” while wildflowers, daffodils, and pincushions “die in the path.” The poet addresses land and agriculture in recounting how the harvest has been pulled from the land and “…the land seems weary / Of its long fertility.” In addition to the death of the flowers and the weariness of the land, this poem concludes with the observation that for those seeing the surrounding images of mortality, “We feel something also / Die in the depths of our soul” thus tying the spirit of man to changes in the natural world.7

For these societies who began to put into print the language of “homeland (pays natal)” and whose early writers were influenced by French romanticism, veneration of the natural environment, respect to its power, and awe of its cyclical and seasonal nature permeated their poetry. The contemporary paintings of Cyrille and Chiasson minimize human inventions of electricity, advertising, and transportation that in many ways dictate our daily existence. They bring to the forefront the continuing power of the natural world, even for societies who have seen their economic dependence on agriculture and fisheries often impeded. These paintings remind us that while their labor and economy has undergone significant change over the last century, the Guadeloupean and Acadian communities that evolved through colonial histories of violence and diaspora feature early twentieth century writers whose discourse concerning nature went hand-in-hand with a possessive claim of occupying a “homeland,” thus contributing to the development and sustenance of a nationalist identity.


Notes

[1] Oruno Lara’s wife Agathe Réache, who often published under the pseudonym Renervillia, provided poems describing seasons in the first issue of almost every month from 1910-1913. See, for example, Renervillia, “DÉCEMBRE,” Guadeloupe Littéraire, 4 December 1910, BnF Gallica; Renervillia, “FÉVRIER,” Guadeloupe Littéraire, 5 February 1911; Renervillia, “POÈME DE JUIN,” Guadeloupe Littéraire, 2 June 1912; Renervillia, “NOVEMBRE,” Guadeloupe Littéraire, 17 November 1913.

[2] Florelle Réache, “CHUTE DE FEUILLES,” Guadeloupe Littéraire, 29 March 1908. “C’est pour moi un spectacle toujours nouveau.”

[3] René Orthez, “UNE BELLE NUIT A LA BOUCAN,” Guadeloupe Littéraire, 19 April 1908. “…la nature dans son imposante grandeur et ne pouvait m’empêcher de reconnaître combien, nous, les hommes, nous sommes peu de chose à côté de l’infini…”; “… je voyais comme une ombre épaisse, la masse imposante de la chaîne volcanique de la Guadeloupe…”

[4] Jack Corzani, La Littérature des Antilles-Guyane Françaises, Tome II (Fort-de-France: Désormeaux, 1978), 104.

[5] For poems by these mentioned poets, see for example, Edmond Rostand, “SONNET A COQUELIN,” Guadeloupe Littéraire, 9 October 1910; Edmond Rostand, “LA CATHEDRALE DE RHEIMS,” L’Évangéline, 18 November 1914, UNB Archives and Special Collections; François Coppée, “Octobre,” Guadeloupe Littéraire, 28 June 1908; François Coppée, “La Guitare,” L’Évangéline, 4 March 1914; Feernand (sic) Gregh, “O BON SOLEIL,” Guadeloupe Littéraire, 27 November 1910; Fernand Gregh, “LES HEURES,” L’Évangéline, 18 February 1914; Alfred de Musset, “LA NUIT DE MAI,” Guadeloupe Littéraire, 5 October 1913; Alfred de Musset, “L’Horloge,” L’Évangéline, 17 June 1914. Concerning the banning of the works of Hugo and Zola, see Chantal Richard, “Emergent Acadian Nationalism, 1864-1955,” in New Brunswick at the Crossroads: Literary Ferment and Social Change in the East, ed. Tony Tremblay (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017), 60.

[6] Sylvio de la Baie, “L’AUTOMNE,” L’Évangéline, 9 November 1905. “Et les pins gémissaient leurs complaintes funèbres”; “Le givre était venu pour moissonner les fleurs”

[7] “HEURES D’AUTOMNE,” L’Évangéline, 19 October 1910. “Et la terre semble lassée / De sa longe fécondité”; Nous sentons quelque chose aussi / Mourir dans le fond de notre âme.”

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Leanna Thomas

PhD Candidate at University of New Brunswick
Leanna Thomas is a White settler doctoral candidate at the University of New Brunswick, Canada. Through funding from a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier scholarship she is comparing how twentieth-century literature has contributed to creating historical narratives of resilience and survival for francophone communities under colonialism in Atlantic Canada and the Caribbean. Prior to attending UNB, she studied Acadians’ resettlement in Louisiana following their Deportation from Canada at the University of Central Florida, and she has articles featured in Louisiana History, Acadiensis, and Small Axe.

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