Skip main navigation

Talking of Michelangelo

In this short article, Lead Educator Patrick Thom points out the importance of spotting capital letters and shows where this may lead.

There is a word in Musset’s ‘Sur une morte’, which we looked at last week, that may have escaped your attention.

At the end of the first line, the word ‘Nuit’, a perfectly ordinary noun, is given a capital letter. Why might that be? In the same sentence, ‘Michel-Ange’ is given capitals, but that is a proper name, so you would expect it. In the second stanza, ‘Dieu’ has a capital letter, but that is perhaps His due. And the last word of the fourth stanza, Prière, is also capitalized. We should always assume that a poet has made deliberate choices, so if we really want to understand the poem, we need to know why this word Nuit has been singled out.

The clue lies in ‘Michel-Ange’. If you put his name and Nuit into a search engine, you will immediately come up with the answer. The reference is to a statue carved by Michelangelo, a recumbent nude female figure with, to my eyes at least, curiously distorted proportions, gracing one side of a marble tomb. There is a balancing figure of Jour on the other side. While this is not an outright negative, Musset certainly calls the beauty of the statue into question, and by extension, the beauty of ‘elle’.

The point here is that our understanding of the poem is conditioned by our ability to pick up on this very specific allusion. In the next step, we will take that rather further.

This article is from the free online

How to Read French Poetry

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now