Time Flows On, Paris Remains

Mirabeau Bridge in Paris


Today I arrive in Paris for a wedding and then will journey to Ljubljana to deliver a series of lectures. I have deep associations with Paris, having spent time here as a baby (1952-53), as a child (1955 and 1962), as a young teenager (1964-65), as a college student (1971), as a graduate student (1977), and as a father (1995). This time it will be as a professor about to retire.

In the Apollinaire poem that I share today, a man recalls a past love and refuses to move on, even as time and the Seine do. I wonder it will be the same with me and my Paris past. Will I feel that I have been left behind?

I certainly have wonderful memories. Like a youthful Wordworth bounding through the hills near Tintern Abbey, I bounded through Paris as a 13-year-old when my family spent a sabbatical year there. I attended a French school and, four times a day, walked under the Eiffel Tower to get there and back. Two of my younger brothers and I went everywhere together—we had the metro system memorized, attended a movie every weekend (including silent classics unavailable in the United States at the time), collected Roman soldiers and barbarian warriors, plowed through the children’s collection at the American Library, watched French television (including a dubbed version of Monsieur Ed, the talking horse), and learned magic tricks. It was the best year of my childhood.

Paris was magical in another way when I was there as a college sophomore in the spring of 1971 studying the student-worker uprising of 1968. I remember the vibrancy of the Latin Quarter and how, periodically, students would march through chanting slogans, only to be quickly followed by riot police and canisters of tear gas. I was there to study history and was thrilled that history was happening all around me.

In 1977 I visited Paris as a recently married graduate student so Paris became associated with young love. Julia and I, erotically aroused by Rodin’s sculptures and Gustave Moreau’s “Leda and the Swan” paintings, threw away her diaphragm and conceived Justin.

In 1995, trying to recreate the Paris of my childhood for my three children, I took them to a film. We wanted to see Casablanca but it was sold out (!), so instead we watched Bogart and Bacall’s To Have or Have Not, which was even better because I hadn’t seen it before. We also reveled in the Stravinsky Fountain by the modern art museum, which has the surrealist sensibility of a child. I could glimpse my childhood love of Paris in my kids.

The poetry of Apollinaire is another way to remember the past since my French professor father, the occasion for my childhood Paris trips, was a world authority on the poet. I recently described how I agonized over throwing away all of his Apollinaire research notes when preparing to move into his study. I may be a version of the poem’s ever-flowing river. but going back will bring back memories of him.

Will I be disappointed at the contrast between the Paris in my mind and present-day Paris? An old Kingston Trio song warns me of what I might encounter:

An old man returns to Paris
As every old man must
He finds the winter winds blow cold
His dreams have turned to dust.

Really grim, right? Yet I can take comfort from “Mirabeau Bridge.” Though night comes on and bells end the day, Apollinaire assures me that beautiful memories remain. “Still I stay.”

Besides, this wedding will occur on one of the “bateaux mouches” that ply their way up and down the Seine. Rather than standing separate from the ever-flowing river, we’ll dance along with it. As Andrew Marvell would observe, “though we cannot make the sun stand still/Yet we can make him run.”

We’re sure to pass under the Mirabeau Bridge. Nothing dusty about that.

Mirabeau Bridge

By Guillaume Apollinaire
Translated by Richard Wilbur

Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine
          Must I recall
     Our loves recall how then
After each sorrow joy came back again

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

Hands joined and face to face let’s stay just so
          While underneath
     The bridge of our arms shall go
Weary of endless looks the river’s flow

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

All love goes by as water to the sea
          All love goes by
     How slow life seems to me
How violent the hope of love can be

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

The days the weeks pass by beyond our ken
          Neither time past
     Nor love comes back again
Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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