Like his better-known brother Maximilien, Augustin Robespierre was a prominent figure in the French Revolution. When Maximilien was arrested, Augustin insisted on being arrested with him and the brothers were guillotined on the same day, each having tried to kill himself in the hours beforehand. Augustin jumped from a window, but his fall seems only to have broken both his legs and possibly his skull. Where Maximilien had been fanatical and became dangerous to know, Augustin was a moderate. Later, on St Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte spoke of him with respect, even affection. This poem is dedicated to my dear friend, the late Mary Young, Augustin’s biographer. She saw it as her life’s work to bring Augustin out of obscurity. But for years unpublished, her work on him became her own life’s secret, joining Augustin in the shadows. Then, just months before she died in the Spring of 2012, her excellent biography on Augustin was printed privately in Turkey. It can now be found in history libraries around the world. It can also be found online here.
The last two lines of this poem were composed by Adrian. He wrote them in a psychiatric in-patient unit, where he was being held under a section of the Mental Health Act. None of us really know the size of our own footprint, or what our lives will leave behind.
I am a warehouse of faces
They betray me to the dark.
Each new mask
I pick from the store
shatters my mirror.
Who made that face ?
I ask. Whose voice was that
pouring forth just now
from lips surely not mine ?
I am a hole in a mountain.
I am a hidden hoard of gold
deep in a mountain.
I am a lost dream
under a mountain.
Augustin stands behind my ear, nibbling the lobe.
“Hey Augustin – owl now, is it ?
That ancient familiar. You glare, Augustin,
yet look fragile.” Augustin shits
dramatically down my back, then launches himself
into a sudden short silence, making it
a dangerous poem. Poem turns
into fox, fugitive with proud tail
roaming cities of between-lines.
That momentary half-starved fox-mask
hovering at my front door
is Augustin’s living face.
He could not die completely
on the scaffold, where they took him at last.
A life in shadow leaves everything still to come.
Augustin lived a hero’s life in shadow
and everything of Augustin is therefore
still to come.
Augustin loves to lurk. It’s his speciality.
Noone lurks as furtively as he.
He lurks in the spine of his biographer
and in her dreams at night.
He lurks in the forget-list
of the publishers
who turned her down.
He lurks in lost diaries
and in the dead mind
of Bonaparte. Augustin was kind,
the good leader swept off-stage
by times of tumult –
fear and malice on the one side
tidal carelessness on the other –
all requiring heads to roll
following the short roar of a blade.
Augustin left no child behind.
No midwives had crossed his threshold
issuing directives, demanding
water quickly boiled. So hauled, legs fractured,
to the scaffold, he had no fears
for what might happen to his flesh
after the blade roared. Augustin’s world
was no less upside down than yours
but still, then, set to be eternal.
So what shapes should he borrow
when your new world
squalls and whimpers to its end ?
and scarecrow uniforms
will offer purchase
among the stars ?
May Augustin through eternity
continue to be praised.
For life is an art
and cannot be erased.
When she was 14, Mary Young read a history of the French Revolution by the Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle. He mentions Augustin, the barely known younger brother of the famous and rather more dangerous Robespierre. For some mysterious reason, Mary became besotted, aged 14, with this shadowy figure Augustin and over almost a lifetime, wrote a book about him, on the back of her own research. This was despite the fact that she was not an academic and did not lead an academic life or have an academic training. She then tried to get it published and to help with that process, showed the manuscript to a well knows historian she respected. He failed to encourage her or to show approval and, shattered, and because she respected this man so much, she put the manuscript away, effectively burying it. She never talked about it. So her book went into the shadow just as Augustin himself had.
Then Mary, old by now, had to move to a flat better suited to an old person. I helped her with the move and so it was me – in the middle of all the moving of things – who discovered the manuscript and was astonished by its quality. I told a Turkish friend of mine and he got it published in Turkey. Another friend had it professionally proof-read and sent it to a professional historian based in Kingston University. This person also recognised its quality and has made sure it that the book has now been distributed to history libraries around the world. Mary saw the book just in time before she died.
I loved writing the Augustin poem and felt quite adventurous in the writing of it. The underlying theme seems to be lives that are lived in shadow. You never really know what impact your life might have. You never know how far any moment of your life, or action in your life, will reach. In the first part of the poem there is a reference to the traditional Norse dragon guarding a horde of gold under a mountain. I suspect I got that image from Tolkien. But it applies to all prisoners. And to anyone who might have become this or that, but didn’t or couldn’t. Or to anyone who slips over and falls into a psychiatric ward.
The story about Augustin’s death is a true one.