A Comparaison of "The Marseillaise" by R. de Lisle
and "The Black Marseillaise" by Camille Naudin

by Danièle Harris

This text is presented in the framework of the project "The stories that history tells us:  Afro-Créole literature from 19th Century Louisiana". 

The French motto that represents the ideals for which so many people would sacrifice their lives is proclaimed in three words: “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood.”  Echoes of these words, that are engraved on public monuments, and collective memory, also resound in the two songs that we will examine: on one hand, “La Marseillaise,” written by a Frenchman, Rouget de Lisle, and on the other hand, “The Black Marseillaise,” by Camille Naudin, a black Creole from Louisiana.

As the French Revolution was beginning to take shape, Rouget de Lisle traveled up from Marseille to Paris with a band of revolutionaries; all of them were determined to overthrow France’s absolute monarchy that had been in power for several centuries.  His fellow warriors, who were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of liberty, called for vengeance in “La Marsillaise,” a song that they adopted as their battle hymn.

Almost one-hundred years later across the world, a poet dedicated to a cause no less weighty (the slavery of blacks at the hand of white masters) penned a song of unity and a call to Brotherhood.  C. Naudin titled his “song of peace” “La Marseillaise Noire” and set it to the tune composed by R. de Lisle.

A brief consideration of the two texts reveals several formal similarities:

La Marseillaise

  • 7 stanzas (8 verses each)
  • a 5-verse refrain
  • mostly eight-syllable verses
  • succession of alternate rhyme, abba rhymes schemes, and couplets
  • ABABCDDC rhyme scheme
  • EFFGF rhyme scheme in the refrain

La Marseillaise Noire

  • 5 stanzas (8 verses each)
  • A 2-verse couplet refrain
  • mostly eight-syllable verses
  • succession of alternate rhyme, abba rhymes schemes, and couplets
  • ABABCDDC rhyme scheme
  • EE rhyme scheme in the refrain

From an ideological standpoint, the two texts address the same purpose: to rally together “citizens, workers, and brothers” to win denied “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood” in order to end the abuses that one social class suffered at the hands of another.  However, each song’s respective message demonstrates decidedly different means of achieving this ideal.   He incites their rage against “these foreign troops” (l. 22), “these mercenary phalanxes” (l. 24), and these “vile tyrants” (l. 28).  He seeks to break the yoke of slavery that the kings force on the people and put an end to the enemy’s “parricidal projects” (l. 33).  He demands “vengeance—vengeance written with the blood of the “perfidious tyrants” (l. 30)—for the bloodshed of ”young heroes” (l. 35), and “the sons and consorts whose throats have been slit” (l. 8). 

Warlike and violent words, calculated to incite the fury of the “Frenchmen, magnanimous warriors” (l. 38), mark every sentence and stanza.  Repeated interjections such as “Arise children of the fatherland” (l. 1) reiterate the intended audience of each verse as well.  Question marks and exclamation points make this call to arms all the more powerful.  To crown this funerary vision, the refrain reminds us seven times of the hate filled echo calling for “the impure blood” of the enemy to water the furrows of France—an ironic proclamation in the name of “the holy love of the Fatherland” (l. 54).  This cycle of violence will continue indefinitely because if the young heroes die in combat, “France [will produce] more, […] ready to fight” (ll. 35-37).

A markedly different and more restrained tone characterizes “The Black Marseillaise, Song of Peace,” composed by Camille Naudin.  The auteur addresses his call to peace and reconciliation to the “Sons of African” (l. 1) who area also “Sad victims, Tortured by an absurd yoke” (l. 2).  In spite of the yoke of slavery that imprisons his race, he calls for forgiveness and denounces the thirst for “death, blood, and vengeance” (l. 38), as “Ungodly ignorance, Tyranny’s horrific weapon” (ll. 35-36); he make a plea to human reason, intelligence, and spirit (ll. 26-27) and to the Christian and humanitarian message of the Gospel (l. 3, l. .32).  This message proclaims that it is no longer “the skin that makes the man” (l. 28), but that every work receives in equal measure, the fruits of his labors because "the time is come for every laborer, / Whatever his color, to claim the bread that he has earned.  " (ll. 9-10).  The five repetitions of the chorus further intensify this thirst for respect, understanding, and tolerance.  This salutary and productive vision requires complete unity and must be shared by all.  It is only then that the words “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood” will ring true.

R. de Lisle’s message that reaffirms a basic human right—the desire to defend one’s country at the expense of war—is surpassed by Camille Naudin’s humanistic vision of " May each happy nation prosper." (l. 45).  Hope is then possible: “Equality, forevermore you will reign.” (l. 47).

Translated by Jennifer Gipson

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