Daniel Thaly: Poet of St. Pierre

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Daniel Thaly (1878-1950), a Dominican/Martinican poet now chiefly forgotten but whose verses had won him extensive fame in the early twentieth century, commemorated the tragedy of Mont Pelée through poems whose evocation of the Antillean landscape is etched with the searing pain of the loss of so many friends when the town of St. Pierre was destroyed by the 1902 eruption. The loss of twenty-nine thousand lives within minutes of the main eruption touched Thaly profoundly, as he had been for many years a student at the Lycée St. Pierre and lost relatives, former classmates, teachers, and lifetime friends. He will return again and again to the eruption as a theme in his poetry, as a sort of leit motif that permeates all the collections. But the concreteness of Thaly’s evocations are not limited to the destruction of St. Pierre-they form the core of a profoundly autobiographical element in his poetry, through which he often constructs a version of himself as a citizen divided between Roseau and the St. Pierre that vanished under a cloud of ash while he was away:

In the St. Pierre of days gone by a thousand fountains sang.

Three-masted schooners with their colorful sails moored at our port

While their captains strolled across the Place Bertin.

 In the Saint-Pierre of days gone by young women laughed,

Oblivious to death haunting their every step,

They danced a mazourque to the blue beat of the flames.

                                                “Poem XXXIV: St. Pierre”

Thaly, who published eight volumes of poetry in French, worked during most of his career as a doctor in Dominica. Some of his poems were set to music by Paul Le Flem (1881-1984) and he was the inspiration for Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s short story “It Falls into Place.”

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