(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Émile Verhaeren’s first collection of poetry, Les Flamandes (the Flemish), was a propitious beginning. While it contained a considerable strain of Naturalism, derived from the French novelist Émile Zola and from the Belgian poet Camille Lemonnier, Les Flamandes was an unusually accomplished performance for a first work. The collection demonstrates Verhaeren’s ability to convey a sense of both the vitality and the brutality of life by means of a harsh diction and a dynamic rhythm; it also reveals his painterly gift for visual imagery.

“The Peasants”

Of this collection of poems, the introductory section to “Les Paysans” (“The Peasants”) is the most often anthologized. The poem consists of an introduction followed by three sections, all four parts making a complete statement or picture in itself. Verhaeren’s pictorial sense, as well as his interest in art history and its influence on his poetry, is apparent in the first line of “The Peasants,” in which Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the eighteenth century genre painter, is mentioned. Greuze is known for his highly sentimentalized vision of the peasants; in the words of Verhaeren, “Ces hommes de labour, que Greuze affadissait/ Dans les molles couleurs de paysanneries” (These men of labor, which Greuze romanticized/ In pale colors of the rustic scene). Verhaeren goes on to describe how beautiful these paintings looked amid the rococo decor of a Louis-Quinze salon. With this devastating reference to the leading icon maker of the myth of the happy peasant, Verhaeren constructs in this work the very illusion he seeks to shatter. He concludes the opening lines of this poem with a scathing dismissal of this myth: “Les voici noirs, grossiers, bestiaux—ils sont tels” (They are dull, coarse, bestial—all that).

In the nineteenth century, the myth of the peasant as revolutionary, which was created in the eighteenth century by the events of the French Revolution, pervaded the political scene, despite the fact that the peasants repeatedly showed themselves to be the mainstay of conservative, even Royalist, governments. Verhaeren observes that ill-educated people are unable to formulate a larger view of...

(The entire section is 905 words.)