Île aux Cygnes is a long, skinny slip of land in the middle of the Seine. The artificial island was engineered in 1827 to stabilize the old wooden Pont de Grenelle, which was threatened by river currents.
Oddly, the innocuous-sounding Swan Island is associated with historical moments of despotism, revolution, and colonialism.
First, the despotism of Louis XIV. Swan Island was named after an older Swan Island upstream (now merged with the Left Bank). That earlier island became home to the Sun King’s prized Danish swans, along with an army of swan keepers, catchers, and doctors. The newer Swan Island appropriated the name of the older one, thus retaining the memory of the absolute monarch’s fowl whims.
Below: a sleeping swan along the Seine, its beak nestled in its wing. Possibly a royal descendant.
Swan Island is also linked with the overthrow of monarchy by both the American and French Revolutions: a monumental Statue of Liberty raises her torch at the foot of the island. For the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence in 1876, the people of France proposed to the United States the creation of the colossal copper Statue of Liberty by French sculptor Bartholdi. The statue thus celebrates the alliance between the two countries in liberating the American colonies from the royal British yoke.
After the Statue of Liberty was installed on Ellis Island, the 1889 centennial of the French Revolution rolled around. The American expat community in Paris returned the compliment by presenting their adopted city with a quarter-size replica of Bartholdi’s statue, which found a fortuitous home at the downstream end of Swan Island.
A spectacular (if gaudy) spot for night cruises to pause . . .
Lastly, colonialism. At the 1937 Paris Expo, Swan Island hosted pavilions that were devoted to France’s colonial empire: Tunisia, Lebanon, Madagascar, Corsica, French Equatorial Africa, Martinique, Indochina, and on and on. Thus did Swan Island become associated with the subjugation of peoples by the very nation that had earlier thrown off its own shackles.
Today, Île aux Cygnes invites a quiet stroll, the Seine always in view on either side. Not surprisingly, it’s a favoured haunt of lovers.
Apropos of Liberty Enlightening the World . . .
The Flame of Liberty, at the northern end of Pont de l’Alma:
The Flame of Liberty. An exact replica of the Statue of Liberty’s flame offered to the people of France by donors throughout the world as a symbol of the Franco-American friendship. On the occasion of the centennial of the International Herald Tribune. Paris 1887-1987.
The tips of Île de la Cité & Île St-Louis
In contrast to Swan Island’s climactic finale of the Statue of Liberty, the tips of Île de la Cité and Île St-Louis quietly understate their farthest reaches.
Square Barye: a place to observe the waters of the Seine irrevocably split.
Île de la Cité
A willow at the end of Square du Vert-Gallant offers shade and privacy as you approach the point where the waters of the Seine merge again:
Across the street from Paris’ Roman amphitheatre is a place devoted to Benjamin Fondane, Romanian-French poet and philosopher who was murdered at Auschwitz at the age of 45.
Fondane lived a precarious existence in France, trying to conceal his Jewish heritage from Nazi occupiers and their French collaborators. He was arrested in 1944, sent to the Drancy transit camp near Paris, and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
An excerpt from Fondane’s “Exodus”:
Whether they burn us up or nail us up whether our luck turns bad or good, Why do you think we should give a damn? The only true songs are human ones
from L’Exode, tr. Pierre L’Abée
Place Benjamin Fondane is, to my mind, one of the most moving spaces in Paris:
The paving stones define a profoundly spare place: a sunken circle at an impasse. Inside that recessed circle is a welling up, at once a refusal to sink as well as a persistence of memory.
A park for a Polish exile: Square Cyprian Norwid
Cyprian Norwid, a Late-Romantic poet, was part of the Great Emigration of thousands of Polish nationals exiled during political upheavals. Many, like Norwid and Chopin, took up residence in Paris.
What’s not to love about a park dedicated to a poet? . . .
Square des Poètes
. . . Or one dedicated to hundreds of poets?
Scores of plaques, each inscribed with a few lines by a French poet, are affixed to boulders along the park’s paths.
Below: Rimbaud recalls his carefree youth of summer, closing his eyes and smelling linden flowers and wine. I can’t think of this poem without hearing Léo Ferré singing it.
In his Testament, Villon regrets his wasted youth.
Alas, if only I had studied during my foolish youth and followed the straight and narrow, I’d now have a house with a soft bed.
Chenier was guillotined at the age of 31, a victim of The Terror. The lines below speak of Auteuil, a neighbourhood where the literati of Paris gathered at their beloved watering holes, united in their poetic rivalry. I hope Chenier is still there.
Desnos, an active member of the French Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. After being sent to three different Nazi concentration camps, he ended up in Theresienstadt, a camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. He died of typhoid at age 44, a month after the camp was liberated.
The excerpt below, from his poem “Tomorrow,” speaks of hope in a suspended state of despair, as if one were waiting for dawn in perpetual darkness.
Now, from the depths of night, we still bear witness to the splendor of the day and all its moments. If we don’t sleep, it’s to watch for dawn, which will prove that we’re finally living in the present.