par Jacques Prévert
Ils sont à table
Ils ne mangent pas
Ils ne sont pas dans leur assiette
Et leur assiette se tient toute droite
Verticalement derrière leur tête.
The Last Supper
by Jacques Prévert
They are at the table
They’re not eating
They’re feeling out of sorts
And their plate is standing straight up
Vertically behind their head.
For this poem to make sense, you have to look at a previous post on this blog: Je ne suis pas dans mon assiette. The poem is built on a pun on the word assiette, plate. And you also need to have a look at one of the less famous paintings known as La Cène or The Last Supper, like this one by Jaume Huguet (around 1470):
The twelve disciples are out of sorts (pas dans leur assiette), because they are upset by the pronouncement Jesus has just made that one of them will betray him. They are also, literally, not dans leur assiette (in their plate) because leur assiette se tient toute droite derrière leur tête. See them?
Pop quiz: which of the disciples is Judas, and how can you tell?
The famous Da Vinci painting of the Last Supper doesn’t give halos to the disciples, but Prévert could easily have seen this painting (it resides in a museum in Barcelona). Many other paintings from the early and late Middle Ages also show this style of halo. Prévert’s lively (and very quirky) imagination simply filled in the gaps.
Other facts of note: à table is how you say at the table (for the purpose of eating). In fact, if you want to call your family to the dinner table, you can say A table! (ah TAH-bluh)
La Cène comes from the Latin word cena, which also gave the Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese words for dinner (which is, by the way, the last meal of the day). In French, la Cène is usually capitalized because it has come to be synonymous with the Last Supper. La Sainte Cène, on the other hand, refers to the Sacrament of Holy Communion, which recreates elements of Jesus’ Last Supper.
By the way, note the little creature under the bench in the lower left corner of the painting. Cat or dog? I believe it’s a cat, and it’s interesting to see it here. Valuable as mousers and ratters, cats were nevertheless not much appreciated in the Middle Ages, because they were suspected of spreading the plague, or the Black Death. (True, in a very backwards sense: it is thought that the killing of cats allowed the rodent population to balloon, along with the fleas and ticks the rats carried, which in turn carried the plague.)
Cats were also believed to consort with the devil. Given this reputation, one might not expect to see a cat in the same room with Jesus. But notice whose chair the cat is lurking under: yet another way of labeling Judas.
As for Jacques Prévert, he was one of the Surrealist poets in France. He lived from 1900 to 1977. He was a master of what I like to call the “serial metaphor”, where one word or image led to another, which in turn led to another, and so on, sometimes for quite a few lines of poetry. He was a real inventor of words and images, and is one of my favorite poets. If no one objects, I think we’ll come back to him one of these days!