I stood on a bridge in Paris this February 29th, and began reciting the opening verses of a poem every Francophone person with a Baccalaureat knows by heart: "Sous le Pont Mirabeau coule la Seine......".
How can we make this gross generalisation and say that any random French person with a high school diploma can recite the poem by Apollinaire or ten verses of the epic tragedy Le Cid by Corneille? "Oh rage, oh desespoir, oh vieillesse ennemie!" The person can be from the WorldWar generation or as young as 12 today and he will recite the famous verses. This is what I tell my son in comfort and encouragement: listen, the electrician, banker, engineer, doctor, hairdressers, cook, soccer player, tv presenter....they all know these verses: you better know them too. In France, literature does not discriminate against class or occupation. No matter how scientific you are, you have to memorise those verses!
Rabelais, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Proust, Camus, Stendhal, Balzac, Pagnol, Colette....the list is much longer. You must have read them, if not the whole novels, at least extracts. In the French system, no sooner can we put two sentences together, that we are memorizing poems and constantly reading extracts, year after year after year. Who doesn't know the opening paragraph of La Chevre de Monsieur Seguin by Alphonse Daudet? Who cannot recite whole exerpts from Le Petit Prince by Saint Exupery? It is through literature that France transmits its common culture.
Therefore when my son showed me Apollinaire's poem, tears came to my eyes, in nostalgia for the first time I discovered it at his age, for the multiple times I re-read it in quest for identification with a lover staring in the stillness at his beautiful city, from a bridge (that I referred to incidentally in my post about bridges), looking towards a river that flows like time, on which his lost love drifts away.
The lyricism of the poem lends to an analytical dissection, and so I sat with my twelve year old and explained that every verse by Apollinaire was intentional, every rhythm and rhyme!
"Les jours s'en vont et je demeure" Apollinaire