Anne Hébert’s “The Alchemy of Day” was published in her poetry collection, Mystere de la Parole (Miracle of the Word) in Canada in 1960. Like most of her works, this poem received little critical attention, especially from English-speaking critics, since, even though much of Hébert’s work was translated into English, Hébert was not wellknown outside of Canada. Also, Hébert’s bestknown work, Kamouraska (1970), a novel that was adapted into a film, has overshadowed much of her other work. “The Alchemy of Day” is on its surface a nature poem, which seems to have spiritual significance as well. When one examines its historical context, however, as well as the author’s preface to Mystere de la Parole, the poem takes on added meaning. When she wrote the poem, her native Quebec was undergoing a drastic change known as the Quiet Revolution. During this time period, many residents stressed the need for a unique Quebec culture, a sentiment that ultimately led to a movement that advocated separating from Canada. As Hébert notes in her preface to the book, she feels that Quebec can never have its own identity without a unique language. In her mind, the imprecise language that existed in Quebec in 1960 kept the province from achieving cultural autonomy. The poem, then, through its depiction of a difficult conversion—symbolized with nature imagery— becomes Hébert’s attempt to ritually give birth to this language of Quebec. A current copy of the poem can be found in the reprint of A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone, which was published by Schocken Books in 1992.
The first thing to note about “The Alchemy of Day” is that it is an English translation of a French original. Because of this, and because critics note that Hébert’s poetry, like much of modern French poetry, is notably difficult to translate into English, one can best understand the poem by focusing on the conceptual meaning of the lines, as opposed to placing undue importance on single words, which may not be what the author intended.
The first line starts out with an address to an unnamed “you” character. The speaker in the poem tells this character: “Let no girl wait on you on that day when you bind your wild / wounds, bloody beast, to the black pine’s low branches.” Already, the poet has invoked the “day” from the title, but as of yet, one does not know what this day is. The “wild wounds” of the “bloody beast” invokes images of nature, as does the image of the tree, but it is still too early in the poem to know who the “you” character is, or whether this character is supposed to symbolize anything. The fact that the character is wounded and bloody immediately sets the mood for the poem. Whoever or whatever the “you” is referring to is obviously injured, so the poem begins on a sorrowful note. The second stanza introduces two sets of girls, one “around the rusty fire” and one “with violet hearts.” At this point, it is safe to assume that Hébert is speaking symbolically, since normal, human girls do not have “violet hearts.” Yet it is still too early to know who these girls are.
In the third stanza, the poet notes that “All seven of them will appear in your room carrying blue pities in / quiet amphorae hoisted on their hair.” Seven is a very spiritual number, which is found in many religions. At this point, one could guess that the number seven might have some sort of spiritual importance in the poem, too. Indeed, these seven girls are “carrying blue pities” in “amphorae,” a type of Grecian urn. Seven girls bringing flowers to the wounded “beast” invokes an image of compassion. But the description of the vases as “quiet” is curious. Generally speaking, when a poet uses an adjective such as “quiet” to describe an inanimate object such as a vase—which is not capable of making noise—it is a clue from the poet. Again, at...
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