|Portrait of Edmond Rostand by Pascaud, 1901|
In August of 1914, the Germany army invaded Belgium and pushed into France. Almost immediately there arose French reports of German war atrocities, including accounts of rapes, massacres, and the burning of villages. These were later published in Documents Relating to the War, authored by the French Commission to establish acts committed by the enemy in violation of the law of nations (1915).* The book was translated and reprinted numerous times during the war, appearing in English in The New York Times Current History of the European War (1917). In Documents, one eye-witness tells of a curé who was arrested in the village of Fraimbois. Confronting German officers, the village priest asked why they had burned his beehives and received the reply, “What do you expect? It is war!”
Edmond Rostand, best known for his play Cyrano de Bergerac, shaped the story into a poem that merges history, fable, and patriotic political commentary.** An excerpt of the poem appears below; it can be read in its entirety in French Poems of the Great War, translated by Ian Higgins.
How pleasing: straight away, they burned some beehives…
O bees, tumbling, buzzing gold in the blue air,
As long as you’re aloft they haven’t triumphed,
O last little glimmer from the golden age!
‘But why ever are you burning my bees?’
The curé of Fraimbois asked the German brute.
‘That’s war!’ replied the General. – Yes, war as waged
By the horde on the buzz and pride of freedom.
Why, then, did they burn this hive of straw?
Because the hive at work intoned a psalm
As it fashioned what resembled sunbeams.
And earlier, remember, on entering Brussels,
The Chiefs had issued orders to their thugs
As janissaries† rush to please their vizier,
So the soldiers joyed to stamp down the flowers.
That they should blithely now be burning beehives
Is simple logic: it is but one short step,
One goose-step, from trampled flowers to bees in flames.
How they flared and crackled in the blue air,
And dropped! A fine sight; and the perfumed wax
Streaming black! And then, burn a beehive,
And up in smoke go famous names as well—
Plato, Vergil, La Fontaine, Maeterlinck—
Alongside the bees, as if to fade away,
A further fading out of humanism
To mark the triumph of the feldgrau lout.
The bee is spirit visible in light,
A drop of honey risen on two wings!
How might it ever find forgiveness from
Such clods? The bee is instant choice, sureness
Of touch and taste: briefly floating, exploring—
Then aim, effort, balance, judgement, skill!
And when the human mind in wonderment
Sees, deep in a hive, its own destiny
Mysteriously sketched out by pure instinct,
To serve the Hun it is disinclined! Rather
This sweet, free order than their Discipline!
Yes, hives murmur. – All murmuring will
Yes, hives murmur. – All murmuring will
At once be shriven, purged and burnt alive!
‘But why,’ the poor priest asked, ‘why burn my beehives?’
Pleasing, then, that to the bees’ good shepherd
The Burner of bees said ‘That’s war.’ –Their war, yes,
But what of ours?
In those first, tragic days,
When our troops were moving north to Belgium,
It is told that French armoured cavalry
Rode through a Flemish village – I forget
The name – their horses festooned with roses,
|French cavalry, Paris 1914|
Singing, as they rode, the Marseillaise –
But through their teeth, mouths closed, simply humming;
And it was magnificent. And this hum
Of Latin anger from across all those flowers,
Wordless, and gestureless, was the growl
Of mind and soul, it was conscience, and reason;
The sound of storm and oratory, pious,
Threatening, and with a fierce, golden
Calm. Not a single mouth was seen to move,
As though it were the flowers themselves that hummed.
And those who heard it, eyes filled with tears, thought
To hear, in the reddening evening dust,
Some kind of strange Marseillaise hummed by bees…
Thus, with purity and purpose, did our men
Transmute their warlike anthem into a swarm’s hum,
As north they rode, prepared for ambush, prepared to die
For beehives and to save the honey of the world!
--Edmond Rostand, trans. Ian Higgins
Opening with the bitter irony, the poem condemns the German troops for their rush to destroy life and beauty. In maliciously burning the bees, the invading army has killed the “last little glimmer from the golden age” and launched the world into the chaos and horror of modern, industrialized war.
|French postcard, © Library of International|
Not only has Rostand associated bees with religious martyrs and the enchantment of the natural world (“the hive…intoned a psalm/ As it fashioned…sunbeams”), but bees are one of the oldest symbols of French royalty and power, dating from the Merovingian rulers of the 5th century and adopted by Napoleon as the emblem of his reign. Repeatedly, the poem links the industrious, selfless bees with France and its army: both bees and French troops hum with the “buzz and pride of freedom,” and both are associated with democracy, culture, industriousness, and peace.
Rostand argues that to burn a hive is to annihilate the ideals expressed by philosophers and authors who wrote of the winged insects: bees settled on Plato’s lips when he was a child; Virgil describes his hopes for Rome’s political renewal in “The Bees”; La Fontaine’s fable “The Hornets and the Bees” praises the bees for their practical approach to conflict resolution, and Maeterlinck’s Life of the Bee celebrates their “harmonious concord.”
In burning the hives, the Germans have shown themselves to be opposed to all that the bees represent. The poem depicts German troops as earth-bound clods and brutes who joyfully trample flowers and transform all they touch to ugliness. The grey-clad soldiers blithely watch as perfumed beeswax rises in black smoke and as the bees themselves, like a “drop of honey risen on two wings,” flare, crackle, and fall to the ground.
Rostand’s poem does not object to the war. Instead, it commends the poilu for their “purity and purpose.” As they hum the Marseillaise, their national anthem, the men of France are “prepared to die/ For beehives and to save the honey of the world.”††
*Documents relatifs á la guerre, by Commission instituée en vue de constater les actes commis par l’ennemi en violation du droit des gens.
**For other patriotic and nationalistic war poems, see “Hymn of Hate,” “New Year’s Wishes to the German Army,” “Going to the Front,” “A Litany in the Desert,” and “America at War.”
†Elite troops of the Ottoman Sultan - his household bodyguards (dating from 14th century).
†† Katharine Tynan’s poem “Telling the Bees” is another poem that relates bees to the Great War.