Tristan Corbière (kawr-byehr) was the son of Jean Antoine Rene Édouard Corbière, a famous political satirist, journalist, publisher, and writer of sea stories, among them the well-known “Le Négrier” (1832), who was also active as a businessman at Morlaix, the town near the family home in Brittany. Born Édouard-Joachim Corbière, the poet adopted the first name Tristan, but no one knows exactly why or when he did this.
Young Corbière attended school at Morlaix and, later, at Sainte-Brieuc and Nantes. By his sixteenth year, he was forced to leave school because of illness, apparently a combination of rheumatism and heart problems. Except for brief periods spent in southern France and Italy, the poet remained in Brittany, near the sea he loved. His fellow Bretons called him a specter of death and considered him an eccentric. He accentuated the oddity of his appearance by shaving his head of all hair, including his eyebrows. His only joys seem to have been writing, drinking, and sailing his boat, Le Négrier (named after his father’s story).
Corbière died almost unknown as a poet, shortly before his thirtieth birthday. His fame began only when Paul Verlaine included him in his series of poètes maudits, or “accursed poets,” in 1884. In his own epitaph, Corbière described himself as “philosopher, stray, stillborn.” Yet in the twentieth century Corbière came to be regarded as a great French poet and as an important influence on later French and English poets, including T. S. Eliot, especially in his realism and colloquialism and in his use of symbols. Like later poets, too, Corbière used combinations of folklore and sophisticated elements in unusual combinations.