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This poem is taken from PN Review 28, Volume 9 Number 2, November - December 1982.

Choiseul and Talleyrand Charles Johnston

Author's Note

I must say at once how much I am indebted to Rohan Butler's Choiseul (Volume I), Father and Son, published by the Oxford University Press in 1980. This masterly and stimulating work fairly takes you by the shoulders and shoves you into the middle of the French eighteenth century. It gave me the idea of a verse novella setting out in some detail the incident with Madame de Pompadour which started Choiseul out on his ascent to power and fame. My narrative summarizes Choiseul's earlier and later career in the sketchiest possible form, but puts this critical incident under the magnifying glass. In so doing it is based on Choiseul's own account in his posthumously published memoirs, as well as on the unpublished essay about his life, written shortly after his death, and discovered by Butler in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in Paris.

The question which torments Choiseul is, briefly, a moral one: whether his conduct in the crucial episode was consistent with honour. In protesting so often that it was, he reveals the extent of his own doubt. The story of how he won the Pompadour's gratitude is in fact an absorbing psychological drama-and very far from the vulgar piece of bedroom power-politics which it might superficially appear. Choiseul's self-examination is all the more striking for the cold, sparse, factual account in which it is embedded. I have kept very close to this narrative, as selected and translated by Rohan Butler, since it seemed to me best to let Choiseul tell his story in his own plain style. In particular I have tried to reproduce the devastating brevity with which he analyses court intrigues. With Saint-Simon's nose for anything devious he combines an epigrammatic succinctness sometimes reminiscent of Tacitus.

It occurred to me that this particular novella would not be complete without an epilogue; hence the words spoken by Talleyrand-then in his late seventies-from his ambassadorial residence in Portland Place. My intention was to put Choiseul in focus by seeing him through the eyes of someone who was a fellow-product of the ancien régime, yet also a nineteenth-century statesman and one of the creators of the international scene in which we still exist today. Apart from that, the special value of Talleyrand in this context is that, with his blind eye in the direction of honour, he simply fails to see the point of all Choiseul's agonising on the subject. The occasional obtusenesses of the brilliant are often a rewarding theme.

To distinguish the two voices, I have allowed Choiseul to express himself in a more or less classical iambic pentameter, while Talleyrand's vehicle is a looser and more conversational rhythm.

Talleyrand's conflicting verdicts on Choiseul are based on passages from his posthumous published memoirs, and from an essay by 'Citizen Talleyrand' in 1797, both as quoted by Butler. I am indebted to my friend Philip Ziegler for his account of the ageing statesman in The Duchess of Dino (Collins, 1962).

This is the title poem of Charles Johnson's new collection, to be published by the Bodley Head on 1 July. The collection includes two verse translations from Pushkin: Graf Nulin and Mozart and Salieri.


THE point about my family is political;
our lands were not in France, but in Lorraine
where father cut a figure at the court
of the independent sovereign duke. In Paris,
though French by blood, we were the most complete
outsiders. We lived there while father served
as the envoy of Duke Francis, who went on
by marrying the Habsburg heiress to become

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