Laforgue, Jules 1860-1887
French poet, short story and sketch writer, essayist, and dramatist.
A member of the French Symbolist movement, Laforgue advocated abandoning popular literary conventions and maintained that art should be the expression of the subconscious mind. Perhaps best known for the impressionistic language, free-verse construction, and vivid imagery of his later poems, especially those published posthumously as Les derniers vers de Jules Laforgue, he is also widely recognized for his Moralités légendaires (Moral Tales), a collection of short stories that parody several famous literary works such as William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Imbued with Laforgue's unique imagination, these narratives are experimental combinations of symbolic prose, irreverent satire, and self-conscious caricature. Each of the tales begins with a well-known literary hero or myth and deflates it by instilling a modern and cynical sensibility. At once sardonic and playful, the tales also dramatize many typically Decadent themes, including artistic anguish, ennui, and escape from reality, as they parody literary convention and the Decadent artist himself.
Laforgue was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. His father was an indigent teacher from Gascony, who in 1866 sent his family to Tarbes, France, where Jules and his brother Emile attended school. Although exceptionally intelligent, Laforgue was a mediocre student at the Lycée Tarbes. While there he made his first attempt at prose, writing a melodramatic account of his experiences at the Lycée entitled "Stéphane Vassiliew." In 1876, he enrolled at the Lycée Fontanes in Paris, and, although he liked the school, his work did not improve; he failed his baccalaureate exams twice and never received a diploma. In 1880, while studying art and working as a part-time journalist in Paris, Laforgue met Gustave Kahn, a poet and editor of the periodical Le vogue et le symboliste, who later became his mentor. With the encouragement of Kahn and Paul Bourget, a noted literary critic, Laforgue wrote his first significant poetic work, Le sanglot de la terre, a collection that evinces the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimistic philosophy and Edward von Hartmann's concept of the unconscious mind. In 1881, Laforgue accepted the position of French-reader and secretary to Empress Augusta of Prussia. For five years he traveled with the Empress, leading a leisurely life that kept him estranged from Parisian literary circles. Les complaintes, his first poetry to employ the image of Pierrot—a white-faced mime that symbolizes humor, fate, and humanity, and personifies themes of uncertainty and anguish—was published during his stay at the Berlin court, as were L'imitation de notredame la lune and Le concile féerique, a verse drama that remained unperformed until four years after Laforgue's death. Leaving the Berlin court in 1886 after his marriage to Leah Lee, an English tutor, Laforgue move to Paris, where a particularly harsh winter severely affected his health. Supported by loans, he wrote for Kahn's periodical Le vogue and tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher for Moral Tales, until the opiates given him for his illness left him too weak to eat or work. He died, at the age of twenty-seven, virtually unknown. His Moral Tales, published within weeks of his death, were immediately acclaimed.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Laforgue's Moral Tales consists of six short stories, each a parody of a literary work or well-known myth. The ironic and witty tone of the tales lends itself not only to satire but also to self-parody, as Laforgue caricatures himself and the Decadent movement in several of the stories. "Le Miracle des roses" ("The Miracle of the Roses") was the first tale written and follows Ruth, who seems to leave love-struck suicides in her wake. Ruth, however, is afflicted with tuberculosis, the true cause of the deaths of her male acquaintances. "Salomé" parodies Gustave Flaubert's "Herodias" and several other texts of the Symbolist period. "Lohengrin, fils de Parsifal" ("Lohengrin, Son of Parsifal") is a parody of Richard Wagner's opera Lohengrin based on German legends. Laforgue subtly transforms the virtuous hero into a Decadent committed to purity and chastity—a condition which ruins his wedding night with the noble lady Elsa—thereby satirizing nineteenth-century attitudes towards women and sex. In the mock-heroic "Persée and Andromède" ("Perseus and Andromeda"), Andromeda is imprisoned on an island but refuses to leave when Perseus (who is outfitted as a fop) arrives, instead forsaking him for the dragon that watches over her. Laforgue turns the myth of "Pan et la Syrinx" ("Pan and the Syrinx") into a tale of artistic discovery and loss. His "Hamlet, ou les suites de la piété filiale" ("Hamlet, or the Consequences of Filial Piety") finds the Danish prince—now something of a Decadent artist—more interested in The Murder of Gonzago, a drama that he composed, than the vengeance for his father's murder that Shakespeare's play revolves around.
Of the six stories published in Moral Tales, "Hamlet" is by far the best known and most often discussed by commentators, although it is not universally acknowledged as the best. Critical consensus, in fact, has placed those tales that were written later, such as "Perseus and Andromeda" and "Pan and the Syrinx," above the earlier works in terms of sophistication and overall quality. Critics of the earlier works have, for example, found the satire of "Salomé" overly obvious, the plot of "The Miracles of the Roses" weak, and the ending of "Hamlet" haphazard and unconvincing. Moreover, commentators have disapproved of the ornate style of Laforgue's prose and have cited numerous purple passages throughout the stories. Nevertheless, Moral Tales as a whole has been praised for its technical finesse, imaginativeness, and ironic wit. The collection is also noteworthy for its influence on the English-speaking Modernists: Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot were well-aware of Laforgue, and his sensibility is readily apparent in much of their poetry; likewise, Laforgue's modernization of myth is an important precedent for James Joyce's Ulysses.
Moralités légendaires [Moral Tales] 1887
Other Major Works
Les complaintes (poetry) 1885
Le concile féerique (verse drama) 1886
L'imitation de notre-dame la lune ["Locutions de Pierrots I, II, III" (partial translation), 1926, published in journal Double Dealer] (poetry) 1886
Les derniers vers de Jules Laforgue (poetry) 1890
*Oeuvres complètes (poetry, verse drama, short stories, essays, and letters) 1902-03
Oeuvres complètes (poetry, verse drama, short stories, journals, essays, letters, and sketches) 1922-30
Lettres à un ami: 1880-1886 (letters) 1941
Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue (poetry, short stories, essays, letters, and sketches) 1956
Poems of Jules Laforgue (poetry) 1958
*This work includes Le sanglot de la terre, Pierrot fumiste, and Mélanges posthumes.
SOURCE: "The Buffoon of the New Eternities: Jules Laforgue," in Ivory Apes and Peacocks, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1915, pp. 32-51.
[Huneker was an American musician and critic who focused on discovering the best of European music and literature and introducing them to the American public. In the following excerpt, he records his impressions of Moral Tales, particularly commenting on the artistry and wit of "Hamlet. "]
The prose of Jules Laforgue recalls to me his description of the orchestra in "Salomé," the fourth of the Moralités légendaires. "Sur un mode allègre et fataliste, un orchestre aux instruments d'ivoire improvisait une petite overture...
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SOURCE: "Laforgue in English," in The New York Times Book Review, December 23, 1928, pp. 12-13.
[In the following review, the critic praises Moral Tales for its originality and irony.]
The embarrassment of attempting to describe or classify [Six Moral Tales] in any of the usual ways is so great that the several renowned critics quoted on the cover are driven to the most desperate extensions of their critical vocabulary. Perhaps Remy de Gourmont best expresses the unanimous dismay before its originality when he writes that the book belongs to that class of "disconcerting literature which gives you the curious (and very rare) sensation that you have never...
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SOURCE: "Our Contemporary in the Eighties," in The Bookman, New York, Vol. LXIII, No. 6, February, 1929, pp. 711-12.
[In the following review, Baugh lauds Francis Newman's 1928 translation of Moral Tales and notes the "lunar mockery" suffusing Laforgue's tales.]
Ever since these prose tales were first published—in Paris, a little more than forty years ago—a subterranean fame in several lands west of France has been in process of creation for the poet who wrote them during the last two of the twenty-seven years he lived. Jules Laforgue's apologists in at least two lands may now be permitted to emerge into the light which his compatriotic admirers have so long...
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SOURCE: "Jules Laforgue," in Poetry, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 4, July, 1951, pp. 216-22.
[Fowlie is one of the most respected and versatile critics of French literature. His works include translations of major dramatists and poets of France as well as critical studies of the major figures and movements of French letters. In the following excerpt, Fowlie discusses the nature of parody and the treatment of women and love in Moral Tales.]
A deep sentimental impulse is behind Laforgue's poetry, but a sense of modesty keeps him from revealing himself directly. What might be confession and pure sentiment is always being converted into something else by irony. He is close to...
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SOURCE: "Ironic Equilibrium," in Jules Laforgue and the Ironic Inheritance, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1953, pp. 133-69.
[In addition to Laforgue, Ramsey has written about such French poets as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Leon-Paul Fargue, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Jules Supervielle. In the following excerpt, he assesses the relative merits of the stories in Moral Tales.]
Among the unpublished papers of Laforgue is the following note, inspired no doubt by his own and his brother's art studies: 'In the great glassed-in hall of ancient art, especially about midday, when he was alone sketching among the white and calm statues. The room was deserted. It was the...
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SOURCE: "Hamlet the German and Jules Laforgue," in Yale French Studies, No. 33, 1964, pp. 92-100.
[In the following essay, Sonnenfeld maintains that Laforgue 's interpretation of William Shakespeare's fictional character Hamlet is highly influenced by German philosophy.]
"Such was the case of Hamlet the Dane, that typical literary man. He knew what it meant to be called to knowledge without being born to it," Tonio Kröger explained to his confidante Lisabeta. And so the poet-hero of Thomas Mann's novella embarked on his pilgrimage to Denmark "to stand . . . where the ghost appeared to Hamlet, bringing despair and death to that noble-souled youth." It was a similarly...
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SOURCE: "The Rest Is Silence: Hamlet as Decadent," in Jules Laforgue: Essays on a Poet's Life and Work, edited by Warren Ramsey, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969, pp. 93-110.
[Brooks is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, he argues that in the story "Hamlet" Laforque presents William Shakespeare's fictional character Hamlet as a Decadent artist, with the intention of demonstrating that "the art of the Decadents is a retreat from a reality which they are psychologically incapable of confronting." ]
The Hamlet of Jules Laforgue—one who is aware of his own mythic function: "Plus tard, on m'accusera d'avoir fait école" [Later they will...
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SOURCE: "The Moral of the Moralités," in Jules Laforgue: Essays on a Poet's Life and Work, edited by Warren Ramsey, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969, pp. 60-5.
[An American poet, author of children's verse, critic, and dramatist, Smith has also translated Laforgue's Moral Tales and Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue. In the following essay, he explores Laforgue's themes in Moral Tales, including the deflation of the archetypal hero and of myth.]
"Jules Laforgue—quelle joie!" said Huysmans, and nowhere in all his work does one feel the aptness of this remark more than in the Moralités légendaires. Here, as in his final...
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SOURCE: "Laforgue's Works," in Jules Laforgue, The Athlone Press, 1977, pp. 29-78.
[An English-born Canadian educator, critic, and poet, Collie has published several books on Laforgue and produced a 1977 edition of Laforgue's verse collection Les complaintes. He has also published several works on the English novelist George Gissing. In the following excerpt, Collie examines themes, symbols, and tone in Moral Tales.]
The exact point at which Laforgue began to write Moralités légendaires is uncertain. In all likelihood it was during the winter of 1885-6, for in June 1886 he told [his friend, the editor Gustave] Kahn he had enough to make a volume and...
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SOURCE: "Laforgue's 'Salomé' and the Poetics of Parody," in The Romanic Review, Vol. LXXV, No. 1, January, 1984, pp. 51-69.
[Hannoosh is the author of Parody and Decadence: Laforgue's "Moralités légendaires" (1989). In the following essay, she interprets the story "Salomé" as a self-reflexive parody of the Decadent movement by a Decadent author. ]
Mon volume de nouvelles, tu en connais le principe: de vieux canevas brodés d'âmes à la mode.
In these terms did Laforgue describe his only collection of stories, the Moralités légendaires, one of the two great products of his last years and one of...
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SOURCE: "French Stories for Pound and Eliot," in The New York Times Book Review, July 21, 1985, p. 10.
[In the following review, Sieburth comments on the influence of Laforgue's Moral Tales on English-speaking Modernist authors. ]
Jules Laforgue's special allure for British and American modernists is often compared to the mystique of Edgar Allan Poe among the French Symbolist poets. If many English-speaking readers remain puzzled by the spell Poe cast over the intelligence of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Valéry, so the French tend to be equally perplexed by the cult status accorded Laforgue by such talents as Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Crane and Stevens. Although his...
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SOURCE: "'Lohengrin, fils de Parsifal'," in Parody and Decadence: Laforgue's "Moralités légendaires," Ohio State University Press, 1989, pp. 128-47.
[In the following essay, Hannoosh analyzes themes and symbols in "Lohengrin, fils de Parsifal, " especially as they relate to the function of parody in the story. ]
Laforgue's "Lohengrin," written during the height of wagnérisme in 1886, leaves no doubts as to the work on which it is based: Wagner's opera of the same name. The title contains the first parodic deformation, a qualifying epithet, which both undermines and affirms the relation of the story to the parodied work. This identifies the original, while...
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SOURCE: "Towards the Derniers Vers: 'Trouver une langue'," in Jules Laforgue and Poetic Innovation, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1993, pp. 95-120.
[In the following excerpt, Holmes highlights affinities between the stories of Moral Tales and Laforgue's poetry.]
Laforgue's completion of five short stories, later to be published with one addition as the Moralités légendaires, no doubt. . . had an influence on his poetic manner, since it must have established him in his own eyes as a writer capable of sustained narrative exposition. His earlier excursions into prose had been either brief and unremarkable or had remained in fragmentary form. A...
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Arkell, David. "Apotheosis (1886)." In his Looking for Laforgue: An Informal Biography, pp. 173-202. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1979.
Briefly examines Laforgue's use of himself and his wife, Leah Lee, as models for characters in Moral Tales.
Bailey, Helen Phelps. "The Hamlet of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Laforgue." In her Hamlet in France: From Voltaire to Laforgue, pp. 137-52. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1964.
Discusses Laforgue's use of Hamlet as parody and self-caricature.
Howe, Elizabeth A. "Repeated Forms in Laforgue." Nottingham 24, No. 2 (October 1985): 41-54.
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