How the strange path of reading led me to Madame George

My reading this morning has led me through strange paths to the extraordinary lyrics of Madame George, which Van Morrison thought his greatest song and I’ve been listening to for 40 years without ever reading the lyrics. I’m listening to it now, and it’s beautiful. (When I went to Venice for eight weeks and could take only a few CDs I could listen to again and again Astral Weeks was the only  rock album that met the criterion.)

My convoluted path began with Andrew Roberts’s biography of Napoleon. I read how he brought his Italian mistress, Giuseppina Grassini, to sing at the Paris Opera. I’d read previously how she said how he was no lover and how Napoleon, a man who set great store by efficiency, boasted that he had the job done in three minutes.

I looked for a picture of Grassini on my phone and found this painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

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I also found at the same time the picture of Lucretia by Lucas Cranach that clearly supplied some of the inspiration for Le Brun’s picture. Perhaps Napoleon and others would have had Cranach’s picture in mind when they saw Le Brun’s picture, and we can imagine what thoughts went through their minds.

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I also found this picture and wasn’t sure if it might be Grassini.

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So I looked and found that it was Mademoiselle Georges, who followed Grassini as Napoleon’s mistress. I read too that Grassini and Georges both became mistresses of the Duke of Wellington, so they competed in bed as well as on the battlefield. I’ve no idea what kind of lover Wellington was, but I should look that up next.

I turned to my third book of the morning, Bertrand Russel’s History of Western Philosophy, and read about Heraclitus, who was a sort of ancient Greek Nietzsche and perhaps more of a poet than philosopher:

  • The way up and the way down is one and the same
  • God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger—and, I can’t help adding, life and death.
  • Nothing ever is, everything is becoming
  • We step and do not step into thesame rivers: we are, and are not

Surely, I thought, T S Eliot must have read Heraclitus.

And so to my final book of the morning, Emily Bronte’s The Complete Poems, and I read:

The sword so bright from battles won

With unseen rust is fretting

The evening comes before the noon

The scare risen sun is setting

It was, I suspect, a combination of the three books that put Madame George into my mind as I climbed out of bed. I couldn’t at first think what it referred to, but Google led me quickly to the Van Morrison song, and I read for the first time the extraordinary lyrics:

Down on Cyprus Avenue

With a childlike vision leaping into view

Clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe

Ford and Fitzroy, Madame George

Marching with the soldier boy behind

He’s much older with hat on drinking wine

And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through

The cool night air like Shalimar

And outside they’re making all the stops

The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops

Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops

Happy taken Madame George

That’s when you fall

Whoa, that’s when you fall

Yeah, that’s when you fall

When you fall into a trance

A sitting on a sofa playing games of chance

With your folded arms and history books you glance

Into the eyes of Madame George

And you think you found the bag

You’re getting weaker and your knees begin to sag

In the corner playing dominoes in drag

The one and only Madame George

And then from outside the frosty window raps

She jumps up and says Lord have mercy I think it’s the cops

And immediately drops everything she gots

Down into the street below

And you know you gotta go

On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row

Throwing pennies at the bridges down below

And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow

Say goodbye to Madame George

Dry your eye for Madame George

Wonder why for Madame George

And as you leave, the room is filled with music, laughing, music,

Dancing, music all around the room

And all the little boys come around, walking away from it all

So cold

And as you’re about to leave

She jumps up and says Hey love, you forgot your gloves

And the gloves to love to love the gloves…

To say goodbye to Madame George

Dry your eye for Madame George

Wonder why for Madame George

Dry your eyes for Madame George

Say goodbye in the wind and the rain on the back street

In the backstreet, in the back street

Say goodbye to Madame George

In the backstreet, in the back street, in the back street

Down home, down home in the back street

Gotta go

Say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

Dry your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye…

Say goodbye to Madame George

And the loves to love to love the love

Say goodbye

Oooo

Mmmm

Say goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye to Madame George

Dry your eye for Madame George

Wonder why for Madame George

The love’s to love the love’s to love the love’s to love…

Say goodbye, goodbye

Get on the train

Get on the train, the train, the train…

This is the train, this is the train…

Whoa, say goodbye, goodbye…

Get on the train, get on the train..

 

Van Morrison said in an interview “I haven’t got a clue what that song is about or who Madame George might have been.” He must have been stoned when he wrote the poem, everybody was in 1968.

Tom Nolan, I discover from Wikipedia, thought that Madame George might be Georgie Hyde-Lees, wife W B Yeats who acted as Yeats’ muse through automatic writing and inducing trances.  Morrison loved Yeats, and these lines from Madame George, argues Nolan, point to, Hyde-Lees

That’s when you fall into a trance

Sitting on a sofa playing games of chance

With your folded arms in history books you glance

Into the eyes of Madame George.

Surely these lines could also point to Napoleon’s Madame Georges.

Finally, I reflect on Jeff Drazen, once editor of the New England Journal of Medicine,  bemoaning how the decline in people visiting the library meant the death of serendipidity. Foolish man: my wonderful journey, all before 8 am, would have been impossible without a smart phone and Google.

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