Bonsoir la compagnie

U 14.1534-6: Closingtime, gents. Eh? Rome boose for the Bloom toff [...] Play low, pardner. Slide. Bonsoir la compagnie.

There are several options we can chose from to explain where Joyce’s “Bonsoir la compagnie” comes from. The most straightforward is that it is simply a conventional French expression of farewell (literally ‘Goodnight the company’).

But Joyce often refers to songs, and Don Gifford is surely right in taking this route, writing:

Hodgart and Worthington (Song in the Works of James Joyce [New York, 1959]) list this as the title of a song by Maud, but it also seems likely that it is an allusion to the drinking song "Vive l'Amour".

This doesn’t tell us enough, though. It’s quite possible that James Joyce or his father was familiar with Constance Maud’s song Bonsoir la Compagnie, published by Boosey and Co in 1896 (there is a rare copy in the British Library). 1896 was quite early in Constance Maud’s career, but she had already published several songs, and in the previous year had published the fictional tale Wagner’s Heroes.

Bonsoir la Compagnie received a pleasing notice in Hearth and Home:

One of the latest and indeed prettiest songs is "Bonsoir la Compagnie", by Constance Maud. Miss Maud is not a prolific song-writer, but all her work bears the stamp of true artistic merit and genuine worth.

Hearth and Home (1896) 30 April

Constance Maud was not responsible for the words, which (Hearth and Home continues) "are translated from the Old French by Sir Edwin Arnold". In fact, the English poet and writer Edwin Arnold included his translation of "A Farewell", "from the French" in his poetical collection Lotus and Jewel, with other poems in 1887. The three verses of "A Farewell" read as follows:

To four-score years my years have come;

At such an age to shuffle home

Full time it seems to be:

So now, without regret, I go,

Gayly my packing-up I do;

Bonsoir, la Compagnie!

When no more in this world I dwell

Where I shall live I can’t quite tell;

Dear God! Be that with Thee!

Thou wilt ordain nothing save right,

Why should I feel then grief or fright?

Bonsoir, la Compagnie!

Of pleasant days I had my share;

For love and fame no more I care;

Good sooth, they weary me!

A gentleman, when fit for nought,

Takes leave politely, as he ought:

Bonsoir, la Compagnie!

In France the tune or "air" Bonsoir, la Compagnie dates back to at least 1724, where it may be found – to different words - in Le theatre de la foire, ou L'opera comique (Paris, vol. 4, p. 63). We can find the musical score in Chansons Choisies (Geneva, 1782, vol. 3, No. 17 (at end)), which opens as illustrated.

And this 1782 version includes the poem which Arnold translates – and which was not unfamiliar to French and English readers at the time. It is by a pleasure-loving French cleric, Gabriel Charles de L’Attaignant - the Abbé de L’Attaignant. One might see some similarities between Joyce’s life and that of L’Attaignant:

Attaignant (Gabriel Charles de l'), a French poet, was born at Paris in 1697, educated for the church, and made a canon of Rheims. He passed his life, however, in Paris, keeping all sorts of company, good and bad, and rendering himself universally agreeable by his impromptus, his songs, and madrigals, some of which were of a satirical kind, and occasionally involved him in quarrels.

A. Chalmers General Biographical Dictionary (1812, vol. 3, p. 104)

The biographical dictionary carries on:

Towards the close of his life, he renounced the world, and was made a convert to piety by the abbé Gautier, who was afterwards the confessor of Voltaire.

L’Attaignant was known for his ‘drinking songs and other occasional poetry’. Although it sounds as if it could be a drinking song, Bonsoir, la Compagnie comes from the period of his conversion to piety. Arnold transposed verses two and three. The text, as presented in 1782, reads:

J’aurai bientôt quatre vingts ans

Je crois qu’à cet âge il est tems

De dédaigner la vie.

Aussi je la perds sans regret,

Et je fais gaiment mon paquet;

Bon soir la compagnie.

J’ai goûté de tous plaisirs;

J’ai perdu jusques aux desirs;

A présent je m’ennuie.

Lorsque l’on n’est plus bon à rien,

On se retira, & lon fait bien;

Bon soir la compagnie.

Lorsque d’ici je sortirai,

Je ne sais pas trop où j’irai;

Mais en Dieu je me fie.

Il ne peut me mener que bien;

Aussi je n’appréhende rien;

Bon soir la compagnie.

Bernard Benstock aptly notes (in Narrative Con/texts in Ulysses, p. 193) that Bannon, who has just found out that Bloom is his new girlfriend's father, and Mulligan, who wants to give Stephen the slip to Westland Row station, are taking French leave.

John Simpson

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