Although the legend of his short, tragic life shaped the initial critical response to his work, Jules Laforgue is now recognized as one of the first modernist poets. Laforgue is notable for his technical innovations, for his ironic voices and psychologically complex persons, for his verbal and syntactic playfulness, and for his fusion of sublimely serious philosophical questions with the plainly vulgar language and concerns of ordinary life.
Laforgue developed the poetic form known as vers libre, or free verse, in which he used lines of varying length, subtle rhyming patterns, and diverse rhythms to correspond, flexibly, to shifts in mood and subject. Although Arthur Rimbaud also has been credited with inventing free verse (with his “Marine” and “Mouvement,” poems written earlier than Les Derniers Vers de Jules Laforgue), Laforgue’s innovative verse forms were published in periodicals before Rimbaud’s examples, and his Les Derniers Vers de Jules Laforgue more directly influenced the free verse of modernist poets.
Most English and American readers know Laforgue through his influence on T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens. In 1908, Eliot read about Laforgue in The Symbolist Movement in Literature, by Arthur Symons; in 1909, Eliot read Laforgue’s poems and letters selected in Œuvres complètes. Eliot’s poems influenced by Laforgue’s irony, dialogues, and verse forms include the 1909 “Nocturne,” “Humouresque,” and “Spleen,” and the more famous “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Conversation Galante,” “Portrait of a Lady,” and “La Figlia che Piange,” as well as sections of The Waste Land (1922). Pound and Crane both published translations of Laforgue’s work, and Pound praised Laforgue’s intellect dancing playfully among words. Laforguian irony and wordplay may be found in Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and in Crane’s “Chaplinesque,” among other poems. Stevens transformed Laforgue’s Impressionist images and his verse forms extensively, but the French poet’s diffused influence may be traced in such works of Stevens as “The Comedian as the Letter C,” “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.”
Laforgue anticipated the psychological narratives of both James Joyce and Marcel Proust in the interior monologue he developed in such poems as “Complainte de Lord Pierrot” and “Dimanches.” He split his monologues and dialogues into multiple voices that are wittily self-aware and self-mocking. Although the contrapuntal dialogue of his “Complainte du soir des comices agricoles” was inspired by Gustave Flaubert (in a notorious scene in Madame Bovary, 1856; the overblown romantic language of a seduction is undercut by the vulgar realism of an animal auction at a country fair), Laforgue neither relied on simple antithesis nor assumed a superior moral stance; rather, his ironic conversations and monologues offer multiple perspectives which remain irreconcilable.
Pound and Joyce delighted in Laforgue’s demolition and recombination of language. The amusing colloquialisms and revolutionary neologisms that appear in Laforgue’s verse violated poetic etiquette but revealed the psychology of his speakers. They wittily or ignorantly combine two words from different realms to disclose an unexpected association. Examples include “sangsuelles,” “éternullité,” “violuptés,” “spleenuosité,” and “crucifige” (these neologisms are derived, respectively, from blood + sensual, eternal + nullity, violation or violence + voluptuous, spleen + sinuosity, and crucify + to clot). Laforgue often fused common words, but he also correctly employed arcane, archaic, and slang words in lines of impeccably sublime diction. The shock of contrast, with the implied assertion of the validity and significance of these verbal intrusions, radically changes the poet’s relationship to language.
In his images and subjects, Laforgue, like the Impressionists and the Symbolists in painting and literature, claimed for his art both a psychological and a physical definition of reality and envisioned correlations between the sublime and the ordinary, between the spiritual and the objective worlds. Eliot, in his celebrated definition of the “objective correlative,” drew on Laforgue’s example.
Laforgue’s literary legacy also includes his black humor. In poems such as “Excuse macabre,” “Guitare,” and “Complainte des blackboulés” (“Lament of the Blackballs”), his ironic but not pompous stance treated the grim themes of death, frustration, self-doubt, boredom, melancholy, alienation, nihilism, and the failure of passion with a racy wit, slipping often into gaiety. In this, Samuel Beckett is one of Laforgue’s heirs.
The bathetic, self-centered misery of the gloomy poems Laforgue wrote from 1880 to 1882, for Le Sanglot de la terre (first pb. in Œuvres complètes de Jules Laforgue, 1902-1903), has provoked speculation about a period of depression he suffered, but these metrically conventional and sentimental verses, laboriously exploring correlations between an adolescent’s passionate psyche and the world’s turbulence, have a literary antecedent in the splenetic poems of Baudelaire, and they also betray the influence of the moral and metaphysical idealism of Schopenhauer. Recognizing the inadequacy of these early poems, Laforgue chose not to publish them.
From 1882 through 1884, Laforgue worked on a group of comic poems based on popular street ballads. In them, he experimented with unconventional metric forms, broken syntax, and introduced slang, puns, and vulgar words into poems that also played with liturgical images. In a letter, he described these poems as “psychology in the form of dream,” and they contain free associations of words and sudden juxtapositions of sublime and tawdry images. These poems were written after Laforgue had immersed himself in the philosophy of Eduard von Hartmann, whose emphasis on the unconscious profoundly shaped the poet’s definition of identity. The conflicting voices and shifting tones within Laforgue’s poetry reflect his belief in the multiple selves that coexist in any personality. Consequently, his narrative verse seems to leap between dream states and waking, among past, present, and future experiences, and from unquestioning sympathy to biting mockery, while continuing to portray one persona. Publishing delays kept these poems from appearing until 1885, but, when Les Complaintes finally appeared, the volume was enthusiastically reviewed.
Les Complaintes consists of two preliminary poems and fifty laments titled “Complainte de . . .”—with the titles playing upon the subjective-objective ambiguity of the genitive. The ambiguous titles reflect the multiple voices speaking within these dramatic poems and also the poems’ themes. For example,...
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