Tristan Corbière Essay - Critical Essays

Édouard Joachim Corbière


Tristan Corbière’s poetry is a complex compilation of the torment caused by his physical deformity, the restrictions placed on him by his illness, his love of the sea, his admiration for sailors, his love of Brittany, his love of Cuchiani, and the artistic expression of his poetic genius. Through his use of irony and unusual striking imagery, his poetry reflects his love of caricature, his obsession with the marginal, his disdain for bourgeois society, and his resentment at his own state of illness and ugliness. Corbière’s poetry remains above all else his own, imbued with an originality of expression and the juxtaposition of contradictory images, ideas, and sentiments.

Corbière lived a very hermetic life. He spent most of his life at Roscoff, wandering about the Breton coasts, sailing along the shore with his only companion, his dog Tristan. He did not participate in poetry circles and interact with other writers who were developing poetical theories. Nevertheless, Corbière is identified as a Symbolist poet and an author significant in the transition from Romanticism to Symbolism. This classification is due primarily to Verlaine’s having been made aware of Corbière’s These Jaundiced Loves and including him in The Cursed Poets. Corbière’s work does fit into the tradition of Romanticism and its evolution into Symbolism.

The sense of isolation, of being misunderstood and alienated from society (one of the major characteristics of both the Romantic poets and the Symbolists), permeates all of Corbière’s poetry. For both the Romantics and the Symbolists, the poet’s suffering from isolation had a psychological or emotional base, the result of a moi (inner self) that was different and incomprehensible to society in general. It was the reaction of the sensitive soul to the callous, unemotional materialistic world in which the poet lived. Corbière’s isolation was the result not only of a sensitive soul unable to acclimate to the world but also of his physical illness and deformity. He readily admitted his ugliness, his noticeable difference. The sailors and villagers of Roscoff referred to him as Ankou (meaning “death” in Breton). His physical appearance was a stumbling block to any love affair; his liaison with Cuchiani brought only sadness and disillusionment, as she preferred the count. His ill health forced him to live most of the time at Roscoff, far from literary circles. Consequently, Corbière’s life was in a real sense a continual antithesis: The individual he wished to be and the individual he could be were the exact opposites of each other.

Much of Corbière’s poetry transposes his life into poetical form. In his verse, he portrays himself, the Breton coast and sea, and the sailors with whom he passed time in the local taverns, as well as his experiences in Paris and with Cuchiani. His verse also reflects his attitudes and reactions to these milieu. As a poet, he was no longer Édouard Joachim; he became Tristan, connecting himself to the Tristan of Celtic legend, the long-suffering lover of Isolde. However, he also named his dog Tristan, thus equating himself...

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