Summer Serenade

In myth,  men and women are gilded with mysticism.  Their stories glitter with magic, like the metallic thread that roams through a rare fabric.  Their existences are heavy with explanation:  oceans, stars, trees, seasons, winds – all are attached to their fearsome destinies.

In fable, animals face off against each other in stories designed to teach and charm.  Blessed with voices and wit, they live side by side in whimsical pairings awash in humanity’s frailties.  Fox and lion, tortoise and hare, wolf and crane, ant and grasshopper:  their lives are lessons in behavior and etiquette; the gentility of beasts.

In the late 17th century, Jean de la Fontaine continued the tradition of myth and fable.  The story of the ant and grasshopper became a poem about “la cigale et la fourmi”:  the cicada and the ant.   A paen to hard work and dour summers, 

“Cicada, having sung her song
All summer long,
Found herself without a crumb
When winter winds did come.
Not a scrap was there to find
Of fly or earthworm, any kind.”

it continues the theme of humiliation and hunger…

”Hungry, she ran off to cry
To neighbor Ant, and specify:
Asking for a loan of grist,
A seed or two so she’d subsist
Just until the coming spring.
She said, “I’ll pay you everything
Before fall, my word as animal,
Interest and principal.”

…the shame of unbridled joy

“Well, no hasty lender is the Ant;
It’s her finest virtue by a lot.
“And what did you do when it was hot?”
She then asked this mendicant.
“To all comers, night and day,
I sang. I hope you don’t mind.”


Winter Calls

La Fontaine’s story was re-written as a comic opera in 1890:  a garish year of painted faces, legendary waists and the half-world that lurked in velvet evenings and on velvet beds.  In “Cigale” the roles changed:  during the course of the entertainment, both characters suffered; both behave shamefully.

But this is Paris and the century exposed its decadence like a pair of feminine ankles:  something that was always there, but always hidden, until the petticoats were pulled up.    “Cigale”, for all of its didactic origins, was full of song and color, performed by actresses whose voices trembled like a bird’s; who wore blissful, feminine costumes.  Their curves winked through the sheer fabrics like wicked invitations.

Pretty Insects

Singing For Her Supper

“Cigale” – and her serenade to the golden, endless season – became another word for irresponsible celebration, an excuse for the song and dance which would prove to be her downfall.  A nightclub, La Cigale, was opened in 1887 – enlarged in 1894 – and would be the center of many stunning evenings and stunned dawns.

A Time To Sing

On the Parisian stage, the cicada was portrayed as a generous woman who takes pity on the “La Pauvrette” (the poor little one – no longer the ant).  After being comforted and fed, “La Pauvrette” became cruel and heartless when the situation was reversed.  Shattered by the north wind, Cigale dies in the snow:   her mandolin – which she played throughout the summer – silent beside her.

Sad Music

Braving centuries and interpretations, Cigale’s fate rode a distant journey back to de la Fontaine’s poem…back to the pitiless winter and the ant’s unwelcome answer to her lamentations:

“You sang?” Why, my joy is unconfined.
Now dance the winter away.”


8 responses to “Summer Serenade

  1. Wow! That ant was harsh!
    But, really, the amount of info you manage to find on this subject…I wouldn’t have known where to even begin.
    Fascinating and interesting! 🙂

  2. I would like to recommend a book to you, Miss A.

    It is “Shades of Milk and Honey” by Mary Robinette Kowal. Think Jane Austen (but less wordy) with magic. Real, actual illusion-weaving is needed by gentlewomen.

    It made me want to wear a bonnet, and curtsy, and go to Bath, and say “La!”

  3. The narrative doesn’t seem to address one of the cicada’s finest defenses of its bloodline—young that burrow into the ground, only to emerge years later. While the cicada was out singing, mostly likely she was laying a few eggs, too. The ant had better watch herself when the cicada’s aggrieved young appear on the scene!

  4. lovely post; so lovely, even through a painful rotting tooth I smiled.

  5. Lauri – I’ve come across many postcards with gaily-decorated ladies, with ‘Cigale’ printed in the margin. I’ve always wondered what in the world that meant, and surprisingly there was alot the world had to offer!

    LT – I like that milk and honey can also come in shades – not only tastes. Oh, la, I’ve been to Bath – such a charming Regency vacation! I didn’t have time to go to the Pump Room, however, using that time to rest by the river and watch the ducks.

    phantomxii – That is a very good point. It’s a comforting thought that generations of children will eventually rise up to take vengence on mama’s tormentor.

    allycat – Agh, terrible tooth! So sorry, my dear – I’m glad that this little post took you your mind off the pain…if for just a little!

  6. Fascinating Aubrey and I love the illustrations – especially singing for her supper.

  7. Coming back from a two-month blog hiatus has made me realize just how much I have missed your stories!

  8. Where were you when I was stuying French and history and French history? Have I ever even heard some of these (true) tales of yours? Non.
    And so I listen and enjoy, immensely!!!!

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