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.
Tristan Corbière was born Édouard Joachim Corbière, the eldest son of Édouard Corbière and Angélique Aspasie Puyo, on July 18, 1845, at their estate near Morlaix, France. He was named after his father, Édouard, and his maternal grandfather, Joachim Puyo. Corbière’s father had been a sailor and was an author of sea novels and a businessman. Throughout his life, Corbière was tormented by his desire to be a sailor, but his ill health prevented him from realizing his dream. Corbière remained at home until he was fourteen years old, when he became a boarding student at a school in Saint-Brieuc. Corbière missed his family and home, and he did not enjoy school. He spent much time drawing and painting, a talent that was shared by several members of his mother’s family. He was particularly good at drawing caricatures. While at school, he began to be troubled by the first symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Before long, his health worsened such that he left the school at Saint-Brieuc. He was diagnosed with a rheumatoid arthritis associated with tuberculosis. His parents sent him to Nantes to live with his uncle, a medical doctor. He was enrolled in school at Nantes as a day student but soon had to leave school because of his health. He and his mother went to Provence, where he underwent treatments at Cannes and at Luchon. At the end of 1862, they returned to the family home, Bourboulon, at Morlaix. Corbière began writing less than complimentary poems about various important people of the town.
On the advice of his uncle, Corbière moved into his parents’ summer home at Roscoff in the summer of 1863. He spent much time alone, wrote poetry, and lived the life of a sailor to the extent that his health permitted. He wore a sailor’s outfit, smoked a pipe, passed time in the port bars that the sailors frequented, and sailed in his small boat along the coastline. He was fond of dogs...
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