Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Poetry)
In Jules Laforgue’s short but prolific writing career, he produced more than two hundred poems and many works in other literary forms, only some of which have been rescued from the papers left at his death. His surviving verse dramas include “Tessa,” written in 1877, existing in a manuscript only recently discovered; Pierrot fumiste, composed in 1882, first published in 1892; and Le Concile féerique, published in 1886, compiled from five poems originally written for Des fleurs de bonne volonté (poems that Laforgue composed between 1883 and 1886 and that first appeared in 1888). These three cabaret farces command the attention of scholars eager to explore Laforgue’s developing themes and ironic dialogue; they are not major contributions to theatrical literature.
Masterpieces of an original genre are Laforgue’s six fanciful prose tales, Moralités légendaires (1887; Six Moral Tales from Jules Laforgue, 1928), retelling myths in details both mundane and psychologically plausible. Among these, “Hamlet” and “Persée et Andromède” (“Perseus and Andromeda: Or, The Happiest One of the Triangle”) have provoked considerable admiring commentary. The actor and mime Jean-Louis Barrault performed a memorable adaptation of “Hamlet” in 1939. Several works of fiction have apparently been lost, but there survive a short autobiographical novel, Stéphane Vassiliew, written in 1881, first published in 1946, and a short autobiographical story, “Amours de la quinzième année,” written about 1879, first published in 1887.
Laforgue’s selected letters, especially those to his sister, created the legend of the poet as a self-conscious, sensitive, starving aesthete, but his letters to various other friends reveal his humor, his broad interests in philosophy, art, and music, and his acute observations of society. A fuller portrait of Laforgue’s intellectual range emerges from his critical essays on Impressionist aesthetics, on the Symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire and Tristan Corbière, and on life in the German imperial court. Laforgue’s translations of Walt Whitman’s verse were published in 1886.
Among his other essays and drafts published posthumously are some provocative comments on the cultural definitions constricting the roles of women, including “La Femme—la légende féminine,” among many others. Simone de Beauvoir, in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953), and Léon Guichard, in his critical study of Laforgue, have evaluated these comments on feminine roles.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Jules Laforgue’s poetry published in 1885 and 1886 earned for him praise from contemporary critics and established him as one of the leading innovators of poetic form at the time. The literary circle within which he moved made his classification as a Symbolist poet inevitable. His sudden death in 1887 gave his career a tragic plot, especially for literary historians eager to contribute to the mythology of doomed poets.
Laforgue’s most significant contributions to the development of modern poetry are his rhymed free verse, his verbal playfulness, his juxtaposition of melancholy and gaiety in his ironic tone, and his psychologically complex monologues and dialogues, which give voice to the unconscious and to dream states, as well as to masks consciously assumed.
Although Laforgue has often been dismissed as a minor poet, his philosophical sophistication may deserve as much praise as his technical innovations. In his poetry, Laforgue explored the conflicts between the conscious and the unconscious, exposed the illusions of rational pessimism, and exploited the literary consequences of an idealist philosophy against those of determinism (as practiced by the Naturalists), but he set all these metaphysical confrontations in the real, familiar world of trivial remarks and superficial gestures.
Bibliography (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Arkell, David. Looking for Laforgue: An Informal Biography. New York: Persea Books, 1979. A biographical study of Laforgue with a bibliography and index.
Dale, Peter, trans. Introduction to Poems of Jules Laforgue. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2001. Dale’s twenty-page introduction provides a solid overview of the poet, his body of work, and the history of the texts. This bilingual English-French edition also offers notes on the text, a brief bibliography, and indexes of both French and English titles.
Franklin, Ursula. Exiles and Ironists: Essays on the Kinship of Heine and Laforgue. New York: P. Lang, 1988. Critical analysis considering the influence of Heinrich Heine on Laforgue’s work. Includes a bibliography.
Holmes, Anne. Jules LaForgue and Poetic Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. A critical analysis focusing of Laforgue’s innovations in technique. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Howe, Elisabeth A. Stages of Self: The Dramatic Monologues of Laforgue, Valéry, and Mallarmé. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990. A study of the representations of the self in three nineteenth century French poets. Includes bibliographic references and an index.
Laforgue, Jules. Poems of Jules Laforgue. Translated by Peter Dale. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2001. Dale’s twenty-page introduction provides a solid overview of the poet, his body of work, and the history of the texts. This bilingual English-French edition also offers notes on the text, a brief bibliography, and indexes of both French and English titles.
Ramsey, Warren, ed. Jules Laforgue: Essays on a Poet’s Life and Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. A collection of critical and biographical essays with bibliographic references.
Watson, Lawrence J. Jules Laforgue: Poet of His Age. Rev. ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Ramapo College of New Jersey, 1980. A short introduction to Laforgue and his work.