“Cyrano” by David Jauss

A portrait of the historical Cyrano de Bergerac.
A portrait of the historical Cyrano de Bergerac.

How we admire Cyrano’s suffering,
his noble silence, the purity
of a love kept secret, as he whispers

into the ear of his dying rival
It’s you she loves. Unwitnessed,
his lie wins him no praise, much less love

and thus we define goodness as a form
of privacy. But what if he believed
God was watching, as all-knowing and voyeuristic

as a moviegoer? An audience
taints every good act, a judge
corrupts it utterly. So faith

is the greatest obstacle
to virtue? I’m falling
through this though when I hear her,

a woman two rows down, weeping so loudly I suspect
a grief too personal to be expressed
except in public. Her shoulders

shudder with each sob, she whips
her head back and forth,
as if saying the word no over and over

to someone not there. Or is she
talking to her life? Sympathy
is one disguise curiosity wears:

if I comfort her, I wonder, would she tell me
the sorrow that sits down with her
each day for dinner, the pain

that makes her bed each morning?
I believe she would, and I’m tempted
to be the audience that would give her grief

its twist of pleasure. But I turn back
to the movie and try not to listen
as her sobs gradually subside. In an hour

we sit through twenty-seven minutes of darkness —
the black spaces between frames —
and though we can’t see it, we feel it

behind the images light casts
on the blank screen: the blue sky,
the green lawn, and Roxanne’s face,

beautifully ignorant, as Cyrano, now old
and dying, visits one last time,
his secret the only thing

holding him, and us, up.


A statue of the de Bergerac character with his comically-enlarged nose.
A statue of the de Bergerac character with his comically-enlarged nose.

David Jauss is the author of four collections of short stories, two collections of poetry, and two books of essays, in addition to countless other stand-alone poems and stories published through a variety of literary journals. A native of Minnesota, Jauss studied at Southern Minnesota College, Syracuse University, and the University of Iowa. He taught Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock from 1980 to 2014, and has taught the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts since 1998. From 1981 to 1991 he was the editor for the literary journal Crazyhorse, and he is a member of the editorial board for Hunger Mountain: the Vermont College of Fine Arts Journal of Arts and Letters.

“Cyrano” was originally published in the first issue of Shenandoah’s forty-fifth volume, printed in spring 1995. The poem is also available in Jauss’s collection Improvising Rivers.

The poem revolves around an audience watching a film version of Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac as a vehicle to explore themes of isolation, virtue, and, above all, witness. The narrator ponders on the seeming altruism of Cyrano’s actions and tries to apply his moral reflections to his own life. But this exploration of Cyrano’s morality is only a means for Jauss to reach the poem’s primary fascination: the notion of witness. In the narrator’s wonderings, even God is reconfigured as a voyeur whose omniscience potentially precludes any moral action. The narrator is snapped out of his borderline-blasphemy by the sobs of another audience member. Having been forced to witness this public display of extremely private emotions (“grief too personal to be expressed/ except in public” [17-18]), the narrator frames his reaction not in terms of empathy or concern but instead exhibits merely abstract curiosity, even dismissing sympathy as a “one disguise curiosity wears” (24). After briefly considering acting the audience to the woman’s sorrows, the narrator turns his attention back to the film, but finds that witnessing is not a voluntary act as he “[tries] not to listen/ as her sobs gradually subside” (31-32). After her sobs die down, the narrator returns his attention and the poem’s focus to the movie, where he notes the unseen emptiness that underlies and surrounds the flashing images of light projected onto the screen. The narrator closes the poem as it began, by focusing on Cyrano’s secret anguish that is consumed as entertainment to an audience about which de Bergerac can never know.