The Je Ne Scai Quoi

YES, I'm in love, I feel it now,

And Cælia has undone me;
And yet I'll swear I can't tell how
The pleasing plague stole on me.

'Tis not her face that love creates,

For there no graces revel;
'Tis not her shape, for there the fates
Have rather been uncivil.

'Tis not her air, for sure in that

There's nothing more than common;
And all her sense is only chat
Like any other woman.

Her voice, her touch, might give th' alarm--

'Twas both perhaps, or neither;
In short, 'twas that provoking charm
Of Cælia altogether.

William Whitehead (1715-1785)


A tender and humorous rhyme by the Poet Laureate of England, from 1757, William Whitehead. He succeeded Colley Cibber as poet laureate. A poet and sometime playwright, he was most famous as a dramatist and most remembered now for his comedy School for Lovers.

Alluded to in Jane Austen's writing Mansfield Park when Henry Crawford declares he is 'determined to marry Fanny Price' and asks when he began to think seriously of her. His response is that: "Nothing could be more impossible than to answer such a question, though nothing could be more agreeable than to have it asked. How the pleasing plague had stolen on him, he could not say." This is an indirect reference the first stanza of Whitehead's poem:

Translated The Je Ne Scai Quoi means "the I don't know what" and many think that Crawford may have indeed thought he had no idea about his love for Fanny. A most satisfying poem, like its subject, there is nothing special about this little lyric. The rhymes are evident with an easily recognizable meter and the notion behind it invites inquiry -- "her sense is only chat/Like any other woman"? Equivalent to Cælia, the whole picture is more important that the parts. What the song creates from beginning to end is a different thing from part and parcel. A very gratifying combination in poetry.

Thanks to Rudra the strange spelling of the title had many readers perplexed has been explained, “The French verb savoir used to be spelled sçavoir, with the je form "sçai" or "sçay." Spelling reform in the early 19thc. changed this. In the Renaissance, false etymology created the belief that the origin of savoir was the Latin scire, so it began to be written sçavoir. This was incorrect because the origin of savoir is Latin sapere. The -s in "je sais" was added by analogy, because in Old French most verbs didn't have an ending for the "je" form. je chant, tu chantes, il/elle chante. Hence je sçay, tu sçais, il/elle sçait.”

Sources:

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen 29:
www.classicbookshelf.com/library/ jane_austen/mansfield_park/29/
acessed August 24, 2003.

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:
http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/whiteh01.html#1


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