James L. Kugel (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3700

SOURCE: Kugel, James L. “The Prince and His Star.” In The Techniques of Strangeness in Symbolist Poetry, pp. 32-42. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971.

[In the following excerpt, Kugel explicates Gérard de Nerval's “El Desdichado” (1853), viewing it as an archetypal Symbolist poem.]

The stylistic problem...

(The entire section contains 11499 words.)

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SOURCE: Kugel, James L. “The Prince and His Star.” In The Techniques of Strangeness in Symbolist Poetry, pp. 32-42. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971.

[In the following excerpt, Kugel explicates Gérard de Nerval's “El Desdichado” (1853), viewing it as an archetypal Symbolist poem.]

The stylistic problem faced by the Symbolist poet was how to make a poem strange. Of course, it is unlikely that he posed the question to himself in such a conscious way: he simply wrote poems, and each poem was itself an answer. A good answer, a satisfying answer, was followed by another attempt along the same lines; a bad answer was rejected and its direction abandoned.

Poetic strangeness, as noted earlier, first took the form of strange subjects—remote times and civilizations, taboo tastes and delights, the “plaisirs artificiels” praised by the master Baudelaire. There were also strange verse forms, which destroyed the sacred alexandrine line (again following Baudelaire) and introduced new, short, sing-song lyrics, “refrains niais, rythmes naïfs.”1 And then there was something else, more diffuse and all-encompassing, a revolutionary technique—perhaps a whole new way of writing. It was the use of “symbols,” Moréas and the others said; but …, this did not go very far in describing it.

Surely this style of writing went further than Baudelaire, further than anything else that had been done, and the new poetry shimmered with a beauty unknown before—but what was it exactly, this use of “symbols”? Again, the poet is interested in writing poems, not literary criticism; if he can keep creating this new effect without having to explain it satisfactorily, he will. And, as has been seen from the morass that is the Symbolists' terminology, this is precisely what Moréas, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Maeterlinck, and the others did do.

The first poem to achieve this symboliste effect in the French language was not, however, written by any of these men. It came far earlier, preceding by four years the publication of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal—in other words, it came long before the word Symbolist was coined. “El Desdichado” by Gérard de Nerval is still something of a wild, flashing poem today; it is difficult to imagine how this archetypal Symbolist piece must have looked to the casual reader of Le Mousquetaire as he opened his issue of December 10, 1853:


Je suis le ténébreux—le veuf—l'inconsolé,
Le prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie:
Ma seule étoile est morte,—et mon luth constellé
Porte le soleil noir de la Mélancolie.
Dans la nuit du tombeau, toi qui m'as consolé,
Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d'Italie,
La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon coeur désolé
Et la treille où le pampre à la rose s'allie.
Suis-je Amour ou Phébus? … Lusignan ou Biron?
Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la reine;
J'ai rêvé dans la grotte où nage la sirène …
Et j'ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l'Achéron:
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d'Orphée
Les soupirs de la sainte et les cris de la fée.(2)

A first reading of the sonnet will leave the reader, at the very least, puzzled. If “El Desdichado” is as good a poem as I feel it to be, that same first reading—or subsequent readings—may catch the reader up in some of the mystery of the lonely speaker's plight: the allusions to his fabulous adventures in a world of queens, castles, and dreamy sea-caves and, for all that, his overwhelming, unconsolable sadness. But whatever else the reader may feel when he finishes it, he must at least have a sense of being “out of it,” cut off from the poem—for what, after all, does he know about it?

The poem appears to be a desperate, death-bound lament of … El Desdichado.3 The reader does not know who the speaker is, although apparently a good deal of the sonnet is devoted to that subject. The speaker identifies himself as the Prince of Aquitania, Cupid, Phoebus (Apollo), Lusignan, Biron—in other words, none of these, for the very profusion of names prevents the reader from taking any one of them seriously: they are metaphors, allusive comparisons. The reader knows, or senses, that this central figure is mourning some sort of loss (he is “widowed,” he tells us in line 1, and unconsoled; his “star” is dead—line 3). But what has he lost—his woman? Is she dead, or simply gone?

And then, what is the meaning of these other phrases: “My brow is still red from the kiss of the queen”—which queen?—“In the night of the tomb,” “I have dreamt in the grotto where the siren swims”? How does all this fit together?

My purpose in posing these questions is not to introduce a thorough gloss of the source of each mysterious fragment in the poem,4 but to focus only on two phrases that occur early in the poem—“le prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie” and “ma seule étoile est morte”—and to ask, not what they mean, but how they are “strange,” how they work in the poem.

“Le prince d'Aquitaine” appears to be a reference to some figure out of French history or folklore. It, and phrases such as “la nuit du tombeau,” “le baiser de la reine,” and others, are allusions which pass unrecognized by the reader. In each case, the implication is that some specific person or thing or event is being referred to, but the reader does not know who or what. He is in the same position as someone who has never studied the Aeneid or heard of Dido and who, in the course of reading Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, comes across the lines:

                                                            In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea-banks, and waft her love
To come again to Carthage.


Not knowing who Dido is, he might still be able to piece together some of the elements of the allusion—a woman, probably sad, bidding good-bye to her lover—but he would definitely feel “outside” of the allusion, like a walker overhearing snatches of a conversation five or ten paces ahead of him.

This is how the reader of “El Desdichado” feels, faced with these “allusions to nowhere.” “Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie” sounds like an allusion to some famous legendary episode in French history—but one which, strangely, the reader doesn't quite recall. When he tries to piece together the available evidence, he receives only fragmentary impressions: “prince” to him does not mean a specific person, but only connotes youth, royalty, and days of yore. Likewise “Aquitaine” means “Old France,” “olden days,” perhaps also “Spain” (it is near the Spanish border), thus reenforcing the impression created by the Spanish title. “À la tour abolie” makes the reader think of a ruined castle, hence also of antiquity, and suggests loneliness and “living on borrowed time” (abolie). There is no meaningful way to put it all together, nothing that would make a reader say “Oh, I see!” but there is not total lack of communication either. Like the eavesdropper, the reader has caught snatches of a conversation and, he tells himself, perhaps it will become clear later on.

In a similar way, mystery hovers around the phrase “ma seule étoile est morte.” Taken literally it is an unlikely statement. People do not usually refer to heavenly bodies as “mine” or “yours,” and furthermore it is only modern astronomers who say that stars “die” or are “born,” so to say “my only star is dead” is on two counts unacceptable in its literal meaning. We therefore assume the phrase implies that some “figurative” meaning is called for—but one which is not clear.

Now étoile in French, like star in English, is one of those words around which a whole iconography has grown up. Because it was once believed that the stars controlled the destinies of men, star in many languages has the (now figurative) meaning of fate or destiny. Through a similar but apparently unrelated process, star also acquired the meaning “hope.” Via the Latin feminine stella in Roman and, later, in Christian symbolism, it gained the further significance of “beauty” or “beautiful woman.” In short, star is one of those words commonly characterized as having a great many “figurative” meanings.

One fact about such meanings is immediately apparent: they are purely conventional. A star (the heavenly body) has no more to do with hope, beauty, or fate than—say—the moon, but the latter's verbal iconography has evolved instead to inconstancy, madness, jealousy—again, for purely conventional reasons. It is the same literary tradition that makes lions courageous or mighty, roses beautiful, hearts the seat of the emotions, etc. Ultimately, iconographic meanings have a real source—an ancient belief or custom, a well-known folk-tale or saying, in short, some piece of the civilization's lore—but the source is unimportant, for the lore-based meaning has long since come into its own: it is almost part of the language.

But not quite. For just as these meanings depend on pure literary convention, so they come with the label “figurative” attached to them, they are not quite on a par with other meanings. When someone says, “Only the stars will decide the outcome of the game” or “Barbara is a rose,” a listener will understand, as part of the meaning, that the speaker is being somewhat literary, and is “speaking figuratively.” Now this “figurativeness” has nothing to do with the thing-associatedness of the usages. Were the sentences changed to read “All the stars will be in today's game” and “Barbara is a peach” the usages would no longer be perceived as “figurative”—these meanings are too common, they truly have been absorbed by the language.

All of this is a long way to explaining the reader's reaction to phrases like “Ma seule étoile est morte,” “le soleil noir de la Mélancolie,” “la fleur qui plaisait tant …” etc. In each case the reader is aware that “star,” “sun,” or “flower” is rife with iconographic possibilities, and that one figurative meaning or another is being called for—but which precise meaning is unclear. The reader is not sure he has understood. If, for example, he reads on in the poem looking for some confirmation of one reading of étoile over the others, he is disappointed: he may suspect this “star” to mean a beautiful woman, a last hope in the speaker's life, the speaker's fate—or some combination of the three. But whichever it is, no more precise information is offered. The thing the speaker has lost only goes on to be called or associated with: “le Pausilippe,” “la mer d'Italie,” “la fleur qui plaisait tant à mon coeur désolé” “la treille où le pampre à la rose s'allie.” These offer little help.

Now there is a basic similarity between the reader's reaction to “le prince d'Aquitaine” and “ma seule étoile est morte.” In both cases, he feels there is an essential bit of information which he does not have and which is necessary to full comprehension. In the first case, it is the identity of the prince, that apparent historical or legendary figure whom the reader has somehow not heard of; in the second it is that particular “figurative” meaning of étoile which will make all the vague phrases after it come clear. Of course, readers don't puzzle for hours over each phrase as it appears. In “El Desdichado,” the reader is grasping bits and pieces—he can surmise the speaker is lamenting the loss of someone or something, and that the speaker is that shadowy, noble, dashing figure from somewhere near the Pyrenees—and so he reads on. But the poem, for him, has a certain aura of mystery about it, due to the “missing information” which, it is implied, is necessary for full comprehension. In other words, the poet creates the strangeness by not telling everything, or, more precisely, by implying that not everything has been told.

This is the genius of Nerval's poem, and the fundamental discovery of the Symbolist poets. They were the first to seek out systematically this effect of withheld information, recognizing in mystery a source of beauty and depth not known in poetry before. There is a compelling urgency about Nerval's new way of writing. An anonymous communication drops onto the page, a blur: prince, tower, sadness, death, Italy, flower. Read it again. The flashing scenes group about a single idea, repeated and restated throughout the poem: the grief of deprivation or separation. Who the speaker is, what he has lost—it is important that we not know these things, for their haziness is what gives the sonnet its force and urgency. The point of the poem is not that we find these things out. The point of the poem is that we read it again and again, that we read it until the simple message—veuf, inconsolé, Mélancolie—is enough for us to glide on, until we can get so much into the poem that we can accept all its words and love their mystery.

Now I have described “le prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie” as an apparent allusion; the same description will fit “ma seule étoile est morte.” For what we tend to call an allusion in literature is simply a reference to somebody or something outside of the immediate context but (it is assumed) within the knowledge or experience of most readers. It may be a real person or a character from literature, a historical event or a scene from a novel, a legend, a primitive belief, a fact of natural science, a well-known landmark—in short, something that figures in the general lore. As has been seen, this same stock of lore is the locus of the sought-after meaning of étoile. So if an allusion can be seen as a reference to lore, it is clear that le prince d'Aquitaine differs from étoile only in its specificity; the two partake of essentially the same process.

For every allusion there is a triggering mechanism: incomplete comprehension. What makes the reader perceive “prince d'Aquitaine” as an allusion is that, as a factual statement of the speaker's identity, it adds nothing, it is unrecognized and makes no particular sense in the poem. On the most immediate level, he finds nothing to complete his understanding and so must go looking for some lore to help. Similarly, what makes the reader seek a “figurative” meaning for étoile is the fact that, taken as “heavenly body,” it doesn't make sense: it is (like soleil noir later on in the poem) a contradiction in terms, and so demands some resolution. The reader sets out to look for it.

What normally happens in an allusion is that the sought-after lore is found and the incomprehension removed. Consider, for example, a stanza of A. E. Housman's “To an Athlete Dying Young”:

Smart lad to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Taken as botanical entities, laurel and rose don't make much sense in the poem (“Why's he talking about flowers all of a sudden?” the reader may ask). Incomplete comprehension leads the reader away from these “literal” meanings to two lore-based “figurative” meanings: for rose, feminine beauty, and for laurel, accolade (here, as is clear from the context, the recognition given to young athletes). With the proper lore, the sense becomes clear: “You were smart to die at a young age, since athletic prowess fades even faster than a woman's beauty.” The allusive process has been completed.

Now the precise stylistic characteristic of “El Desdichado” is that the allusive process is not satisfied but continually frustrated. Again and again the reader is confronted with what looks like an allusion (in the broad sense I have been using the term) but he is unable to find the suitable bit of iconography that will unlock the mystery. And so, as has been seen, phrases break down into their constituent parts (le prince d'Aquitaine “means” only the sum of individual associations hovering about “prince,” “Aquitaine,” “tour,” etc.); the whole becomes disjointed and chaotic. From the shimmering fragments there emerges a pattern—the lament for something irretrievably lost—but it is like a small cry in a howling wind.

Having focused on the source of mysteriousness in the poem, it is equally important to identify two unifying elements: our knowledge of the present state of the speaker, and his attitude in his lament. Whoever he may be, emphatic restatements throughout the poem of the fact that he is le veuf and l'inconsolé continually provide a framework in which to order all the flashing allusions. For all that he is and all that he has done, he remains bereft and unconsoled. “J'ai rêvé dans la grotte où nage la sirène” is a perfect expression of his state, his fabulous experience, and his total immersion in self. The reader's awareness of this state (which begins with the first line of the poem) allows him to order all the other allusions of the poem as reiterations and elaborations of the speaker's identity. Similarly, the attitude of the speaker in the poem is clearly established. He is in a state of desperate introspection (apparent in the two parallel sets of self-characterizations beginning “Je suis” and “Suis-je”), and the magnitude of his despair is clear in the hyperboles of the second quatrain (“Rends-moi le Pausilippe …” etc.).

These two elements—the persona, or identity of the speaker of the poem, and the tone, the speaker's attitude toward the subject of the poem and toward the reader—constitute the “fixed star” of the poem.5 The mystery of the speaker's grief, along with the poem's other unknowns, is softened just enough by the one thing the reader knows for certain: the speaker is “widowed” and desperate. He who has been consoled is unconsolable, the star that is dead is dead forever. The speaker's yearnings for reunion (symbolized as “the trellis where the vine to the rose is joined”—line 8) and remembrances of his own past, which together make up the rest of the poem, only throw his present state into greater relief.

“El Desdichado” was a freak occurrence—Nerval never wrote anything quite like it again, nor did anyone else for the next twenty years. But despite its early date, it cannot be called a “precursor,” but must be considered the first Symbolist poem in French. The frustrated allusion, the well-defined persona and tone—these are the elements on which most of the greatest Symbolist poems are built. In its total effect, “El Desdichado” has that haziness, that strangeness, which the Symbolists valued so highly. Mallarmé spoke for all the Symbolists when he repeatedly asserted this mysteriousness—with all its mystical overtones—as poetry's central concern:

La poésie est l'expression, par le langage humain ramené à son rythme essentiel, du sens mystérieux des aspects de l'existence, et constitue la seule tache spirituelle.6

Toute chose sacrée et qui veut demeurer sacrée s'enveloppe de mystère.7

Il doit y avoir énigme en poésie, c'est le but de la littérature.8

Why such a poetry of mysteriousness came to be called symbolism will never be entirely clear. Much of it was the work of accident, that whim (it does not seem to have been much more) that Moréas had in calling his salon group the “symboliques,” a name that somehow stuck, like Impressionism.9 But if “symbol” did have any real meaning in the minds of the Symbolists or their critics, it seems to have been, not as the name of a single trope or figure, but as a general term for the allusive phrases or images that filled their poems, “le prince d'Aquitaine,” “ma seule étoile” and hundreds more, which became the inscrutable icons in their Temple of the Word. For this reason Nerval's “frustrated allusion” is of particular importance. It is the archetypal Symbolist device, as much a “symbol” as is any discrete element to be found in the Symbolists' poetry.


  1. The phrase is from Rimbaud's “Une Saison en Enfer” (Œuvres, p. 228). Gustave Kahn, Jules Laforgue, and Tristan Corbière were the most influential in regard to verse-form innovations. Kahn, claiming to have invented vers libre, divided his colleagues into two other groups: those who, like Mallarmé sought to “essentialize” poetry in its already existing forms, and those who, like Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Corbière, wrote lines that were “délicieusement faux exprès” (G. Kahn, préface to, Premiers Poèmes, pp. 14-17); the latter group did much with off-rhyme as well.

  2. G. de Nerval, Œuvres, 1: 693-95.

  3. The title is probably not understood by most readers—it means “the disinherited”—and is the first of many uncomprehended things in the poem. It thus serves a definite function, that of distancing the reader, and furthermore anticipates the role of “Aquitaine” in placing the speaker near the Spanish border.

  4. Such information is available (e.g. Lemaître's notes in Nerval, Œuvres) but, as will be seen, a knowledge of it only undercuts the poem's strangeness and undermines its overall effect.

  5. The two are hard to distinguish here, since the speaker's own identity and present melancholy are precisely the subject of the poem. A good discussion of tone and persona and the relationship between the two may be found in R. A. Brower, Fields of Light, pp. 19-30.

  6. Mallarmé, “Definition de la poesie,” in La Vogue, April 18, 1886 (quoted in Michaud, p. 15).

  7. From Jules Huret's “Enquête Littéraire,” reprinted in Mallarmé's Œuvres Complètes.

  8. Quoted in Michaud, p. 17; cf. Mallarmé's essay “Le Mystère dans les lettres,” Œuvres Complètes, pp. 382-87.

  9. Impressionism derived its name from a critic's jeer at an early Monet painting entitled “Impression—soleil levant.”


Brower, R. A. Fields of Light. New York, 1951.

Kahn, Gustave. Premiers Poèmes. Paris, 1897.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Œuvres complètes. Edited by H. Mondor. Paris, 1945.

Michaud, Guy. La Doctrine symboliste (Documents). Paris, 1947.

———. Message poétique du symbolisme. 3 vols. Paris, 1947.

Nerval, Gérard de. Œuvres. Edited by H. Lemaître. 2 vols. Paris, 1966.

Henri Peyre (essay date winter 1978)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4015

SOURCE: Peyre, Henri. “Verlaine: Symbolism and Popular Poetry.” Sou'wester 6, no. 1 (winter 1978): 13-26.

[In the following essay, Peyre stresses the popular origins and appeal of Verlaine's poetry.]

The extraordinary prestige which, after almost a hundred years, French Symbolism continues enjoying in half a dozen countries is a puzzling phenomenon for the observer of the literary scene. For, despite a few superficial appearances and occasional (often misleading) allusions in Symbolist manifestoes to Hegel, Schopenhauer, Shelley, Poe or Emerson, no movement was so exclusively French as that which underlay the poetry of Verlaine, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Mallarmé himself, and later Claudel and Valéry. The doctrine of French Classicism had acquired its own self-awareness through Italian and Spanish commentaries on Aristotle and Horace. The Romantics of France had generously invoked the precedents of Shakespeare, Schiller, Byron and Walter Scott. But Tristan Corbière, the adolescent Rimbaud, the Verlaine who had, at thirty-one, been released from prison, and the Mallarmé of “The Faun” owed little, if anything, to foreign examples. None of them ever guessed, before 1885 or thereabout, that he would some day be linked with a group called “Symbolist.” Neither Rimbaud nor Verlaine, not Laforgue and not even Mallarmé until late in his career, claimed the title, or the label, of “Symbolist.”

If the occasional use of esoteric symbols was to become one of the features (though not necessarily the most admirable one) of Mallarmé's poetry, Verlaine never aspired to any such profundity. Not a word remotely hinting at any privileged position granted to symbols (or to allegories, as Baudelaire had also called them) was whispered in Verlaine's celebrated “Art poétique.” The playful requirements laid down by the poet, legislating from his Belgian prison (though he published the piece only later, in 1882) were for music above all else, ambiguity and nuance as a means of preserving mystery, airy lightness of touch and the avoidance of eloquence. Those indeed are the qualities which we still cherish today in most of the best work by the Symbolists of France and other countries.

Pedantry and pretentiousness will abound in the rarefied diction and far-fetched imagery of much poetry composed during the age of Symbolism. The use of calculated riddles parading as symbols often characterizes, and mars, verses appearing in fervent little magazines. Deliberate and often altogether unnecessary obscurity then became the hallmark of a poetry which eschewed all that seemed to be carnal; it preferred to conjure up ethereal Sylphids and languorous virgins kissing only with their souls.

The surfeit of purity soon palled upon the readers of verse and brought gentle ridicule upon the movement. Before the century came to a close, a group which called itself “les Naturistes,” others who claimed to be neo-romantics (Anna de Noailles, Verhaeren), vociferous Nietzscheans who welcomed the confusion and the brutality of life in the raw with an “everlasting yea,” all turned their backs upon the cult of purity and of aristocratic spirituality of many a minor Symbolist. Soon others, who called themselves “Unanimists,” spurned the selfishness of souls indulging their solitary dreams and insisted on finding a new mystical nourishment from merging in the crowds; sociology would provide a new para-religious excitement. The French, in their poetry and painting, have seldom chosen to dwell long with Platonic love or pre-Raphaelite dreaminess. We wish here to center our remarks around another facet of the poetry written at the very time when over-refined Symbolists were contemptuous of what was simple, concrete, and, as a favorite French adjective puts it, naïve. Verlaine remains as the most felicitous master of that type of popular poetry which the bourgeois French public relishes, but inwardly disapproves of, in the songs of Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf or even Jacques Prévert.

In the Renaissance, the French had often composed songs, ballads, and madrigals which, like some of the lyrics in Shakespeare's plays or, later, those of Thomas Campion, were sung to the accompaniment of the lute. As their classical literature took over in the era of Boileau and Racine, pure lyricism became dried up. Much to the regret of the subsequent students of poetry, the France of Louis XIV, and already that of Malherbe, adopted Latin poets as their models. None of those poets of the Augustan age, from Lucretius to Ovid, not even Horace and the Virgil of the Eclogues, had addressed himself to the common man, spun fairly tales for children or aimed at popular musical effects. Even Ovid's stories of the metamorphoses of humans into gods or of goddesses into women and Horace's eulogies of wine and of playful ladies had scant appeal for those readers who did not belong to a fairly sophisticated elite. The lack of any vivid children's literature in Latin has weighed regrettably upon generations of Western youths whose imagination failed to be stimulated by the reading of Ciceronian prose forced upon them through years of grammatical drudgery.

Almost miraculously, at any rate paradoxically, popular songs such as “Malbrough s'en va t en guerre” and nursery rhymes or their French equivalent flourished during the Age of Enlightenment at the very time when the literary poets themselves cultivated prosaic rationality and polished elaborate periphrases on seasons, gardens and pseudo-Greek nymphs. Then the romantics, while claiming to put an end to poetic diction and to abolish all distinction between noble and non-noble terms, selected as their favored poetic forms sermons in verse (called “meditations” or “contemplations”), nocturnal dialogues with a Muse, descriptive pieces, epic impersonations of Moses, Samson, or Christ with Vigny, eloquent addresses to dark abysses with Hugo or political invectives against tyrants. The songs played on a Spanish guitar by Gastilbelza in Hugo's Les Rayons et les Ombres, or his spirited invitation from a lover on horseback to his lady in “Eviradnus” remain highly literary feats of a virtuoso bard. André Breton surprisingly bestowed high praise on a song by Alfred de Musset (the fifteen lines of “A Saint Blaise, à la Zuecca” of February 3, 1834) in his 1936 essay “Le merveilleux contre le mystère” (in La Clé des Champs). There indeed and in a few felicitous pieces like his “Chanson de Fortunio,” Musset proved to be, along with Gérard de Nerval, the only French poet before Verlaine who recaptured the delicately simple magic of popular poetry.

Among the French poets of the nineteenth century, Nerval was the one who had the subtlest ear for music and a genuine taste for the simple and apparently naive rhythm of popular poetry. In one of his most touching pieces, “Fantaisie,” he evoked an old tune which brought back to his memory nostalgia for the early seventeenth century: visions of castles in the style of Louis XIII, of a lady in old-fashioned dress, fair haired and black eyed, and fond dreams of having once enjoyed that vision in some earlier life. In several prose fragments, Nerval collected and transcribed the texts of folk songs from his favorite French province, the Valois, North-East of Paris. He protested against the disdain in which those who make literary opinion hold those songs sung by shepherds, carters, nurses and housemaids; rules of versification and of grammar may be disregarded in them; a non-existent “z” is freely inserted after “j'ai” or “il y a” by popular instinct (“j'ai z'un coquin de frère,” “Il y a z'un pommier”). Washer-women at the river, peasant-girls tossing hay, mariners on their barges, sang those delicate bits of poetry which delighted children and helped country people while the time away. The best, however, of Nerval's own mysterious poetry derives none of its inspiration or its music from those songs which he touchingly preserved. His verse has a music of its own, haunting and mysterious, which entrances the listener or the reader, while the enigmatic content of the legendary and mythological allusions exalts those sonnets to the level of the epic.

Although Baudelaire pondered over the relationship of poetry to music, composed a number of pieces on wine, and wrote one of the most skillful and melodious love poems in the language, “Le Jet d'Eau,” he was too concerned with his own tragic anguish ever to draw his inspiration from the so-called common people. The Breton Tristan Corbière, who died at thirty and was placed by Verlaine foremost among the “accursèd poets,” is the only one among his predecessors to have composed poetry which is close to the common man. Perhaps because it touches too exclusively on Breton themes and on the sea of which the French public has always kept shy, more probably because it hides its sentimentality under sarcasm and bitterness, Corbière's poetry has only won popularity among sophisticated readers. Verlaine thus remains the unequalled master of what the best symbolist writer on the subject, Robert de Souza, called, aptly linking the two elements in the title of his 1898 book, La Poésie populaire et le Lyrisme sentimental.

A tenuous line indeed divides sentiment or feeling from sentimentality and from that embarrassing display of emotion which the French call sensiblerie. There had lurked a dangerous indulgence in restrainedly expressing, and thereby exaggerating, one's feelings in the letters, occasionally (as with George Sand) in the novels, and (with Lamartine and Musset) in the verse of the romantics. Their forerunners, Diderot, Rousseau and Chateaubriand, had too readily taught them the virtue of tears. With the middle of the nineteenth century, men of letters and painters had turned more squeamish about laying their hearts bare and had posed as impassive and haughty scorners of the common herd which expects its artists to be its entertainers. Bitterly, self-deprecatingly, painters and poets, from Banville and Mallarmé to Rouault and Picasso, will present their own symbolic image through that of the clown. Tired of the pose of proud detachment affected by the Parnassians, fearful of dehumanizing art through the exclusion of all personal emotion, the French poets of the Symbolist or pre-Symbolist generations endeavored to restore both sentiment and a popular note into their verse.

Very few succeeded. French geography, French history and the age-old administrative and intellectual predominance of Paris seem to have conspired to relegate to a minor role both the literature of the provincial “terroir” and that which draws its theme and its tone from the so-called lower classes. Among the former, commendable poets from Britanny (like Maurice Bouchor, who composed verse to be sung with music), or from Provence or the South West, often resorted to their “langue d'oc” in its several dialects while others from the Walloon districts of Belgium revived the rustic songs of their regions. There seems to have remained a lack of passion and of verbal felicitousness in their ballads, the same failure of the power to universalize their local impressions and memories as has kept the French provincial novel from reaching greatness. The first rate portrayal of “provincial manners” in fiction was achieved most lastingly by authors born in the provinces, but who gained aesthetic distance from their place of birth: Balzac, Flaubert, Daudet, Zola, Maupassant. Other late nineteenth century poets took up the careers of tramps, chose to live as outlaws impatient with all academic and Parisian restraints, indulging their fancy. Their type of hero rejecting bourgeois life and shouting “A nous la liberté!” has scored genuine success on the screen, in the films of René Clair among others. It has climaxed in the exaltation of independence and in the affectation of coarseness and colorful language most conspicuous in Céline's early fiction. With Jean Genet, Emile Ajar (the Goncourt winner of 1975), that Rabelaisian vein has become a prolific one in the France of 1970-80, eager to shake off its bourgeois heritage and now stubbornly reluctant to let the talents from the masses be recuperated by the establishment through the uniformity of literary education.

The peril for the kind of would-be popular literature lies in its temptation to yield to a loose and almost coarse licentiousness which goes by the name of “grivoiserie”: it originally applied to mercenary soldiers who were compared to the “grive” (or thrush), for being quarrelsome and predatory like that bird. It verges on obscenity, but it does not wallow in it and it usually retains some sense of humor and biting irony. In poetry, that style flourished alongside Symbolism but in different circles (“Le Chat noir,” “Les Hydropathes”), as an antidote to the ethereal, disembodied flights of overrefined singers. The language was racy, often crude, colorful, with not a few infusions of slang and of the lingo of apaches and pimps. Jean Richepin, who was fifty when the century died and who then lived for three more decades, ending up as a member of the French Academy, remains the outstanding representative of that popular poetry. He had served a time in jail, which accrued to his prestige and inevitably led to the comparison with another “gueux” of four centuries earlier, Villon. He had been a friend of Rimbaud and of another companion of Verlaine, Germain Nouveau. However, posterity in the end turns out to be the almost exclusive monopoly of professors and authors of histories of literature. Richepin, like Albert Glatigny who preceded him, Jehan Rictus who was his contemporary, and Jacques Prévert among his successors, has been, for all practical purposes, left out from anthologies of poetry, where almost any refined singer of dreams and of blessed damozels finds himself welcomed.

The re-evaluation of Verlaine among the poets of the latter half of the nineteenth century has been among the striking features of shifting taste. With the English, American, Russian, Japanese readers, Verlaine had always been a favorite: their taste apparently went to the peculiar, and to them, enchanting music of this French poet and to the elementary simplicity of the feelings expressed in this verse. The French academics on the other hand, and many of the American professors who tend to be swayed by the critical pronouncements formulated in Paris, affected for a time to immolate Verlaine either to Rimbaud or to Mallarmé. The challenging difficulties of Mallarmé's diction and his tortuous and often tortured syntax offer a far richer scope to ingenious commentators than Verlaine's appearance of naiveté. Professors, parading in front of their class or eager to dazzle their peers in learned discussion groups, have naturally preferred to attempt far-fetched interpretations of the Illuminations or of Mallarmé's later sonnets. But Rimbaud's most devout worshipper, Paul Claudel, knew better and repeatedly lauded Verlaine, in verse and in prose.

Paul Valéry, who has too glibly been associated with Mallarmé (whose lesson he hailed while seldom, if ever, following it), claimed in his very last days, a rank second to none for Verlaine. Earlier, in an essay, he warned his readers to cease fancying that Verlaine was a “naive” or “a primitive poet.”1

That so called naive poet is a primitive who is organized, a primitive such as never existed, who proceeds from a very skillful and highly conscious artist. … There never was an art more subtle than that art, which implies that its practitioner flees from an earlier one, not at all that it precedes it.

The exquisite simplicity of the most popular among Verlaine's songs is the outcome of very careful elimination of all intellectual elements, of any attempt to analyze or to justify the feelings of the poet. Inevitably, the majority of those brief, deftly melodious songs express Verlaine's grief at his feeling spurned by his young wife (whom he had deserted in order to follow Rimbaud), at his confinement in the Belgian prison and his remorse, mostly at his conviction that his incurable lack of will power doomed to failure all his endeavors to reform. The best ones rank among the most memorable pieces in the whole range of French poetry: “O triste, triste était mon âme” in Romance sans paroles (1874), the four stanzas composed in prison, resigned, discreet, with their muffled sobbing and their limpid purity; “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit,” and perhaps the most supremely tragic of all, in Sagesse, from which all artifice, all extraneous ornament is banished, “Un grand sommeil noir.” The original title of this last, tragic twelve-line song was “Berceuse.” In it and through it, the wretched poet was allaying his own sorrowful and childish remorse.

But the poetry of joy is much rarer than that of pain. More courage is required from those who attempt it. Unless the joy stems from religious exultation or from the experience of mutual love, it runs the peril of sounding vulgar and selfish. Few pieces of poetical literature have ever proved as commonplace and stilted as the many thousands of odes, ballads, rondels and other bacchic songs celebrating wine-drinking. Verlaine certainly did not eschew vulgarity in the many facile pieces which, in his later years, he poured out in Invectives, Chair (Flesh) and collections of hasty and cheap verse scribbled between one hospital and another. But in a few of his earlier volumes he had slipped a few songs in racy language and intoxicating rhythm which stand as close to popular poetry—half sentimental, half waggish in their banter—as any left by the last century.

The four poems which we would single out as among the most original masterpieces of that type of verse are all to be found in Verlaine's richest volume, mostly composed during his years of incarceration and published in 1874. Their language and the subtleties of their sounds and rhythms have been superbly analyzed in Eleonore Zimmermann's study, Magies de Verlaine (1967). The first one is entitled “Streets,” with its original title also in English. It was inspired by the stay in London when the two poets, Verlaine and Rimbaud, roamed in Soho and enjoyed the dances around Greek street. The refrain, five times recurring, is a five-syllable line with a feminine rhyme, a spirited invitation to join the dance: “Dansons la gigue!” The stanzas themselves are made up of three octosyllabic lines, with four sets of three masculine rhymes each, in “yeux,” “ent,” “eur” and “iens.” The first two stanzas ingeniously blend the exclamation of the refrain with a nostalgic and discreetly mournful memory of a female dance partner: her mischievous eyes, clear and entrancing, her manners charmingly or unpredictably cruel and the repetition of the colloquial adverb “vraiment” in the second stanza. The tone turns even more melancholy with the third stanza, with its blend of colloquial language (“le baiser de sa bouche en fleur”) and of poetical style (“morte à mon coeur”); the phrase and the meaning are ambiguous: either the anonymous woman has forgotten all about her partner of a few hours or he has passed on to other loves and, in any case, to another country, where he is held captive by mysterious forces. All that is left of past happiness is the memory of sweet talks (“entretiens”) now invading the realm of thought and dream. In a final line, akin to a well known final stanza of Musset's “Tristesse,” Verlaine, in the simplest of terms, states how much he treasures that memory: “Et c'est le meilleur de mes biens.” The five-syllable refrain echoes once again the invitation to dance: within movement and the lulling rhythm of steps and gyrations, weighty thoughts will be displaced by harmony and dream.

Dansons la gigue!
J'aimais surtout ses jolis yeux,
Plus clairs que l'étoile des cieux,
J'aimais ses yeux malicieux.
Dansons la gigue!
Elle avait des façons vraiment
De désoler un pauvre amant,
Que c'en était vraiment charmant!
Dansons la gigue!
Mais je trouve encore meilleur
Le baiser de sa bouche en fleur,
Depuis qu'elle est morte à mon coeur.
Dansons la gigue!
Je me souviens, je me souviens
Des heures et des entretiens,
Et c'est le meilleur de mes biens.
Dansons la gigue!
Let us dance the gig!
I loved above all her pretty eyes,
Clearer than the star in the skies,
I loved her mischievous eyes.
Let us dance the gig!
Truly she had such a way
Of distressing a poor lover,
That it became truly charming!
Let us dance the gig!
But even better is to me
The kiss of her lips in bloom,
Since she died to my heart.
Let us dance the gig!
I remember, I remember
The hours and the talks gone by,
And that is my best possession.
Let us dance the gig!

The desired lightness of motion and emotion is there; but, almost inadvertently, the presence of thought, tinged by regret, has been insinuated. “Let us dance the gig” contains at the end an echo of remembrance more than an invitation to joy.

“Bruxelles—Chevaux de bois,” composed close to Brussels at or near a fair, uses a rhythm recalling the noisy spiraling of a merry-go-round. It is too long to be given here in full, but the obsession is again that of wildly spinning around and feeling giddy in the head and pleasantly forgetful of all constraint. The poet himself does not take part in the round. He amusedly observes the soldier and the maid who are enjoying their holiday; he is the thief who slyly watches the scene. He multiples the obsessive sound “ou” (“tournes,” “tours,” “souvent,” “toujours”); he shifts from colloquial or popular language in the fourth stanza to the last one which evokes the night new descending, the young couple leaving the fair together and a final suggestion of the mechanical music still resounding under a sky which may serve as a canopy for the two lovers.

Tournez, tournez! Le ciel en velours
D'astres en or se vêt lentement.
Voici partir l'amante et l'amant.
Tournez au son joyeux des tambours.
Go round, go round! The velvet sky
Slowly dresses in golden stars.
There go off the two lovers.
Go round to the joyful sound of the drums!

Seldom has the nine-syllable line been as variously and richly used by a French poet. It is no wonder that the piece has inspired composers (Charpentier, Debussy) to set it to music.

A third example may be offered. It perhaps constitutes the most genuine approximation of an authentic popular song by any French poet of the age which we like to call that of Symbolism. Once again Verlaine resorted to an English title, as he did repeatedly in those short poems which he mailed from London to his French friends who might publish them in their reviews.


J'ai peur d'un baiser
Comme d'une abeille.
Je souffre et je veille
Sans me reposer.
J'ai peur d'un baiser!
Pourtant j'aime Kate
Et ses yeux jolis.
Elle est délicate
Aux longs traits pâlis.
Oh! que j'aime Kate!
C'est Saint-Valentin!
Je dois et je n'ose
Lui dire au matin …
La terrible chose
Que Saint-Valentin
I fear a kiss
As I do a bee.
I grieve and I watch
And never resting.
I fear a kiss!
Yet I love Kate
And her pretty eyes.
She is delicate
With long pale features.
Oh! how I love Kate!
St. Valentine day!
I must, yet dare not
Tell her at morn …
A terrible thing
Valentine day is!

This poem remains one of the most genuinely gay written by Verlaine, removed from subtle identification of the poet with the shepherd, or the looming presence of regret. Here the poet has stripped himself both of the genteel sophistication of his Fêtes Galantes, and of the earthy language and slight vulgarity of some of his other popular pieces. He renders simply, and in poignant tone, the dreamy hesitation of a shepherd at the threshold of his first kiss. The naiveté and simplicity are, like those of Villon and of La Fontaine, the result of much conscious art. Through that art, and while retaining much innocence amid his calculated devices, Verlaine is unique among the French poets of the last three centuries in that he can be enjoyed equally by the sophisticated and by the artless.


  1. One of the shrewdest and wisest commentators of modern French poetry, the Australian critic James Lawler, has written a most balanced appraisal of Verlaine, “Verlaine's naïveté,” in an Australian publication in 1965 which was later collected in a book, The Language of Symbolism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 21-70.

Enid Rhodes Peschel (essay date winter 1978)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3784

SOURCE: Peschel, Enid Rhodes. “‘To Plunge Into the Bottom of the Abyss’: Rimbaud's Search for the Unknown in The Drunken Boat and Memory.Sou'wester 6, no. 1 (winter 1978): 73-85.

[In the following essay, Peschel probes the conflicting impulses, the sense of despair, and the sense of thwarted desire to discern the “unknown” that is central to Rimbaud's verse.]

Although Rimbaud's poetry was written for the most part between 1869 and 1874, it was published in the 1880s, during the heyday of French symbolism. At that time, Rimbaud's remarkable and revolutionary poetic achievements were not immediately appreciated or understood. “Aside from Rimbaud's sonnet Vowels, The Drunken Boat and several passages of A Season in Hell, Rimbaud's work and its revolutionary meaning were overlooked by the symbolists of the literary societies of 1885-1895,” notes Henri Peyre in his excellent study Qu'est-ce que le symbolisme?1 Only with later writers, in fact—with Gide, Valéry, Claudel and René Char, for example—did Rimbaud's profound influence become apparent.

Nevertheless, the writers who called themselves “symbolistes” could admire in Rimbaud the masked, elusive quality of his utterances; the primordial importance he ascribed to the symbol rather than to direct statement; his use of synaesthesia; and his haunting, lyrical musicality. This last is especially evident in his poems written during the spring and summer of 1872, like Memory and Shame and the lyrical verses he quotes in Deliriums II of A Season in Hell. Another aspect of Rimbaud's poetry which must have appealed to the symbolists and decadents of the 1880s who wished to capture in their art new states of feeling and of consciousness is Rimbaud's search, through a derangement of the senses, for what he calls the “unknown.” “I wrote down silences, nights, I recorded the inexpressible. I determined vertigoes,” he wrote in A Season in Hell.2 The symbolists of the literary societies would exalt art over nature. But before them, Rimbaud had depicted the poet-voyant's quest for the “unknown” as the ultimate emotional, moral, visionary and aesthetic experience.

In his desire to sound the secrets of the “unknown,” Rimbaud is a disciple of Baudelaire. Baudelaire's narrator in “The Voyage,” the last poem of The Flowers of Evil, reveals his desire to plunge, without regard to final punishment or reward, into the unknown of death in order to try to escape from the ennui of existence. With these words, he addresses Death, the “old captain” (“O Mort, vieux capitaine”) of his ship:

Verse-nous ton poison pour qu'il nous réconforte!
Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau,
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu'importe?
An fond de l'Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!
Pour us your poison to comfort us! our brain burns
With such fire that we wish to plunge into the bottom
Of the abyss, Hell or Heaven, what matter? into
The bottom of the Unknown to find what is new!(3)

Rimbaud is no mere follower, however. While he admires and even exalts Baudelaire in his famous letter of May 15, 1871, to Paul Demeny (hereafter called the “Lettre du voyant”),4 he also rebels against Baudelaire and goes beyond him. While Baudelaire dreams of the unknown of death as an escape, Rimbaud proclaims his desire not only to find, but also to reveal, the “unknown” itself.

How does the sixteen-year-old Rimbaud propose to discover the “unknown”? His impassioned words in the “Lettre du voyant” depict his revolutionary dreams and desires. “The Poet makes himself a voyant through a long, immense and reasoned deranging of all his senses,” he proclaims.5 By experiencing “all the forms of love, of suffering, of madness,” and by becoming a physical, social and religious outcast (“he becomes … the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed one”), Rimbaud's poet finally attains his goal: he becomes “the supreme Savant!—For he arrives at the unknown!

It is evident from these words that Rimbaud's goal of reaching the “unknown” is simultaneously full of hope and filled with despair. It is replete with hope in that it seeks novel experiences in addition to new, even ultimate, knowledge. But it intimates despair, as well, for the Poet creates himself by disorganizing himself through a derangement of his own senses. The oxymoron “reasoned deranging” (“raisonné dérèglement”) highlights Rimbaud's dual impulses for order and anarchy, for creation and disintegration. These ambivalent desires and emotions recur throughout his poetry. Constant conflicts, antithetical longings, as well as modulating moods, desires and images, become emblems of his search and of his art.

Vision and loss of vision inhere in Rimbaud's work. When the voyant arrives at the “unknown,” writes Rimbaud in the “Lettre du voyant,” he will become “crazed” and “would end up by losing the understanding of his visions … !” The “Lettre du voyant,” therefore, portrays what turns out to be Rimbaud's recurrent poetic pattern: Rebellion and sensuous derangement prepare the way for a momentary, often ecstatic, vision which then vanishes, or vanquishes the poet.

Rimbaud's celebrated poem The Drunken Boat, written only a few months after the “Lettre du voyant,” exemplifies his search for the “unknown.” Portraying in poetry the violence and vision of Rimbaud's quest, the simultaneously creative and destructive nature of his undertaking, this powerful and moving poem also traces the path of his fateful poetic pattern.

Contrasts surface almost immediately, for The Drunken Boat retells, and at times seems to relive, the experience and the results of Rimbaud's “long, immense and reasoned deranging of all his senses.” The narrator of the poem is the poet-boat. While his adventure begins passively—(he is “sailing down impassive Rivers”—he has become an active agent in his own adventure by the second stanza: “The Rivers let me sail down where I desired.”

The poet-boat's search, rooted in conflict, contrast and struggle, is a dynamic one, one that is reflected in the ever-changing images of the poem. Stanza 4, for example, balances and blends conflicting figures of a storm and a blessing, of sea and land, of intoxicated dancing on the waves and death in the sea:

La tempête a béni mes éveils maritimes.
Plus léger qu'un bouchon j'ai dansé sur les flots
Qu'on appelle rouleurs éternels de victimes,
Dix nuits, sans regretter l'oeil niais des falots!(6)
The tempest blessed my maritime awakings.
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
Which are called endless rollers of victim for ten nights,
Without missing the silly glow of the lanterns' lights.

Here, the speaker's words and his emotions create a counterpoint. While the poet-boat apparently glories in his new and joyous liberation, the fact that he says he danced ecstatically “without missing” the lights near land reveals that he is thinking about the shore. And while he ridicules that idea here, towards the end of the poem, in stanza 21, he will “long for Europe's ancient parapets.”

Throughout The Drunken Boat, opposites contrast and conjoin. The beauty of “the Poem of the Sea, / Infused with stars, and lactescent” (“le Poème / De la Mer, infusé d'astres, et lactescent”) is immediately contrasted with the horror of a drowned man sinking into the sea in stanza 6. But this drowned man is appealing, even extremely alluring, to the narrator who depicts him as “a pale flotsam in ecstasy” (“flottaison blême / Et ravie”).

Beauty and ugliness are frequently juxtaposed. Stanzas 12-14 shift rapidly back and forth from the beautiful to the repulsive: from “Rainbows stretched like bridles beneath / The horizon of the seas, to glaucous droves! (“Des arcs-en-ciel tendus commes des brides / Sous l'horizon des mers, à de glauques troupeaux!”) to fermenting fens and a rotting leviathan; and then from glaciers and “pearly waves” to

Échouages hideux au fond des golfes bruns
Où les serpents géants dévorés des punaises
Choient, des arbres tordus, avec noirs parfums!
Hideous stranded ships on the bed of brown bays
Where gigantic snakes which voracious bugs attack
Fall down, from twisted trees, with odors black!

The Drunken Boat progresses, then, not by means of a linear structure, but rather through constant modulations, through a clash of changing images that reflect the poet's warring drives. Still, an overall pattern, the one sketched in the “Lettre du voyant,” does emerge. Stanzas 1-5 of the poem develop the tale of how, through revolt and his sensuous derangements, the narrator achieved his liberation. Images of rebellion appear in stanza 1 where the “noisy Redskins” have slain the men who haul ships and have nailed “their naked bodies to colored poles.” In the next two stanzas, the now rebellious poet-boat says he is “heedless of all ships' crews” and he describes his single-minded concentration, which he compares to a child's, directed at experiencing those “triumphant confusions.” The fifth stanza contrasts and combines image of sourness and pleasure, cleansing water (suggestive of baptism) and vomit, intoxication and sickness, control and loss of control. After this initiation, the poet-boat, without his “grappling or rudder,” is at last free to pursue his quest for the “unknown.”

“And since then, I have bathed in the Poem of the Sea …” (“Et dès lors, je me suis baigné dans le Poème / De la Mer …”), he begins. Stanzas 6-22 retell, by means of constantly balancing tensions and figures, the poet's ecstasy and agony in his all-consuming search for the “unknown.” Nothing here is static: the search is relentless, incessant; the vision sought, elusive, evanescent. In a single stanza or in successive ones, beauty and ugliness contrast and conjoin, as do hope and despair, light and darkness, vision and loss of vision. Love in stanza 7 is repulsive and appealing; sudden and slow; erotic, musical, intoxicating, powerful—and bitter. Stanza 8 juxtaposes violence (“skies bursting into lightnings, undertows / And currents and waterspouts”) with the peaceful vision of “Dawn exalted like a flock of doves.” It also contains the narrator's exclamation: “And I've seen at times what man believed he saw!”, a proclamation which is as extraordinary in what it reveals as it is disappointing in what it conceals. Erotic sensuousness pervades stanzas 9-11 in which darkness and light, horrors and beautiful visions, slow and hysterical motions, religious serenity and raging forces contrast. Stanzas 12-15 oppose the wonderful and the terrible, light and darkness.

The poet's overall pattern of vision that leads to loss of vision begins to emerge clearly in stanzas 16-18, where figures of depression, martyrdom, sobbing, helplessness and death predominate. Stanzas 19-20 try to counter this, but stanza 21 returns to the theme of depression, coloring it with fear (“I who quaked …”) and then bitter disappointment (“I have regrets: / I long for Europe's ancient parapets!”). For two lines in the next stanza the poet-boat tries to overcome his despair by recalling glorious visions of his voyage: “I saw astral archipelagoes!” he says. But in the last two lines, the speaker is a suppliant seeking a luminous vision of “future Strength.”

The last three stanzas of The Drunken Boat portray the voyager's defeat. The vision has vanished, and the poet-boat is vanquished. Nevertheless, a counterpoint is also established here, this time between the wonderful-terrible past and the dejected, death-like, and yet lyrically alluring present. This present, after all, evokes a childlike innocence and purity, for here “in the embalmed air of twilight / A crouching child filled with sadness sets down to sail / A boat as frail as a Maytime butterfly” (“vers le crépuscule embaumé / Un enfant accroupi plein de tristesses, lâche / Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai”).

Although the last stanza of The Drunken Boat portrays the poet-boat's despair, still it continues to maintain that ambivalent balancing of emotion and language that so often pervades Rimbaud's poetry. The voyant is defeated here (“I can no longer … make trips,”) he says, yet he also condemns and attacks the things that now seem to overwhelm him: the “pride” around him and “the horrible eyes of prison ships.” These oppositions in The Drunken Boat reveal that conflict, which is at the heart of Rimbaud's search for the “unknown,” is also at the heart of his poetry.

Memory, a lyrical and difficult poem pervaded by what Henri Peyre calls a “polyvalent symbolism,”7 also exemplifies the poet's “plunge into the bottom of the abyss.” This time Rimbaud probes the “unknown” of subconscious memory, as well as the known of conscious memory. This poem, like The Drunken Boat, develops by means of incessant modulations that move almost relentlessly toward final despair.

Memory delves into the depths of its creator's past.8 Conflicts and shifting images resonate in all five parts of the poem. Setting the scene, Part I lyrically equates the woman figure with water. Beginning with the pure, untroubled “Clear water” of the opening phrase, the physical, emotional and symbolical scene swiftly becomes somber. Immediately, “tears” describe the “assault” against the sun by the pureness and purity of “women's white bodies” (“comme le sel des larmes d'enfance, / L'assaut au soleil des blancheurs des corps de femmes”). Next, the lines about the “pure,” and “splendid” silk of the “oriflammes / beneath the wall which some virgin maiden defended” (“la soie, en foule et de lys pur, des oriflammes / sous les murs dont quelque pucelle eut la défense”) suggest another military attack, but this time against the female—against any “virgin maiden” or against Joan of Arc, who is called “La Pucelle.” It is interesting to note that often in Rimbaud's poetry military images may evoke the poet's own father, Captain Frédéric Rimbaud, an officer who had risen from the ranks of the French Army.9 Later on in Memory, in fact, the sun (which in line 2 undergoes the “assault” by the “women's white bodies”) will be clearly associated with the male, the husband-father figure. And so, in this opening stanza, a brutal struggle between man and woman is symbolically described. The female assaults the male: the male attacks and even perhaps betrays the female, just as the soldiers attacked and betrayed “La Pucelle.”

The first stanza of Part II paints a scene of hopeful expectation, of waiting in an atmosphere that evokes erotic love and freedom. But the second stanza of Part II introduces ideas of suffering and envy. The sun, the sky's “rosy, belovèd Sphere,” is the male, the husband—but the distant husband. As in Part I, the female here is associated with purity, but now her purity is described rather ironically by the poet as something material, commercial. The Wife's “conjugal faith, which the poet compares to “the marsh marigold,” is, he says, “Purer than a gold coin” (“Plus pure qu'un louis … / … ta foi conjugale, ô l'Épouse!”). And this flower, anchored in the earth, envies the free, powerful, male-sun figure in the sky.

Part III, the middle section, dramatically depicts the conflict between the woman-water figure and the male-sun image. In the poet's progressively disturbing “memory” of his parents, the “Wife” has now become an unbending bourgeois “Madame” who “stands too rigidly” as she tramples upon the flowers under her foot. In contrast with her haughty, overbearing attitude and her somewhat pathetic, overly stiff stance is the figure of the beautiful, graceful male who, in fleeing far away from her, appears “like a thousand white angels who part on the roadway” (“Lui, comme / mille anges blancs qui se séparent sur la route”). Immediately, the woman is again contrasted with the male. While he, associated with the heat and light of the sun is called “white,” she is now his antithesis: “black, and chilly” as she runs after him in her desire to capture him.

Melancholy yearning, bitterness and sadness characterize Part IV. The flux and reflux of the poet's images reveal his sympathy for, as well as his anger toward, the abandoned woman-wife-madame. Erotic longings, in addition to a nostalgic longing for purity, a longing that recurs throughout this poem, appear in the first two exclamatory lines:

Regret des bras épais et jeunes d'herbe pure!
Or des lunes d'avril au coeur du saint lit!
Yearning for pure grass with its arms young and stout!
Gold of April moons in the heart of the holy bed!

But the next words reveal the tremendous conflicts at war within the poet's memory, for “joy” is “tormented by August evenings that made these putrescent things sprout!” (“Joie / … en proie / aux soirs d'août qui faisaient germer ces pourritures!”). The erotic desires of the first two lines have rapidly degenerated into “putrescences.”

In the second stanza of Part IV, the poet portrays his sympathy for, as well as his ironic detachment from, the woman-wife-mother figure when he exclaims: “Let her weep now beneath the ramparts!” (“Qu'elle pleure à présent sous les remparts!”). Because of her jealousy, her rigidity and her attempts to capture and hold as her prisoner the husband-father-sun, she has caused her own suffering, the poet implies. And yet his words reveal a certain amount of sympathy for this abandoned woman. All now seems stifled, lifeless: no powerful breath of life or love refreshes the scene. The only slight comfort in the oppressive, tormenting August evenings is the “poplars' breath” which, says the poet, unsentimentally, “counts as the sole breeze.” The entire scene, so different from the opening lines of the poem evoking “Clear water,” sunlight, whiteness, purity and “the frolic of angels” is now opaque, dull, lifeless: “the sheet / of water, without reflections, springless, gray.” An old dredger-man toiling away is now evoked, a figure undoubtedly symbolic of the poet-narrator who has dredged up in this poem his recollections colored with hopes, despairs and unending conflicts.

Part V, the last, may be spoken by the poet or by the old dredger-man he has become, an unhappy, powerless creature. Seated in a boat, the narrator is trapped. Now he is tormented by his sorrowful, deathlike surroundings: He is “the plaything of this eye of mournful water,” and he later calls the water “ashen” (“couleur de cendre”). Because he is caught in his past, in his memories, and in his pathetically limited physical state (“oh motionless dinghy! oh! too short arms!”), he cannot grasp any image of escape, neither one that troubles him nor even one that could comfort him:

je n'y puis prendre …
… ni l'une
ni l'autre fleur: ni la jaune qui m'importune,
là; ni la bleue, amie à l'eau couleur de cendre.
I cannot grasp either flower …
… not the yellow one, there, troubling me,
or the friendly blue one in the ashen water.

While the stanza just discussed contrasts hope and despair, the final stanza juxtaposes figures of life and of death. Amid images of decay which yet may signify the seeds of new life (“the dust of the willows shaken by a wing! / The roses or the reeds consumed a long time / Ago!”), the narrator says that his boat is trapped. Surrounded by endless water, he cannot escape in, or from, his motionless vessel. And he asks “in what slime?” is he anchored. Having plunged into the known and unknown of his past, he finds that he cannot free himself from the figures and conflicts that pervade the memories of his childhood. As in The Drunken Boat, the poet's plunge in Memory into “the bottom of the abyss” has exhausted and overcome him.

“Rimbaud draws plentifully in the most confused, the purest sometimes and the most profoundly buried in himself and in us,” writes Henri Peyre. “Poetry with Rimbaud becomes a means of exploration of the depths that lie beyond clear consciousness. … It also becomes a means of knowledge.”10The Drunken Boat and Memory, these two splendid and symbolic poems, portray Rimbaud's search for the “unknown,” for the knowledge that lies buried in those depths.

While The Drunken Boat and Memory are quite different in language, style, tone and structure, they are similar in several ways. Both poems, for example, develop and progress by means of Rimbaud's continually modulating images and ideas. In both works, ceaseless conflicts create vibrant, moving, ever-altering atmospheres in which the poet's visions finally darken, and the poet-quester is overwhelmed. Although the old dredger in his dinghy at the end of Memory is the antithesis of the intoxicated poet-boat at the height of his ecstasy, the impotent figure in his motionless boat in Memory is strangely similar to the enervated, despondent poet-boat at the end of his journey in The Drunken Boat. Both travelers are powerless, caught, unable to move for physical and emotional reasons. In each poem, the narrator's symbols evolve to create a more and more depressing, frustrating and desperate scene.

As the poetic heir of Baudelaire who sensed “forests of symbols” all around him and who wished to plunge into “the bottom of the Unknown to find what is new!”, Rimbaud sought to burst through all barriers in order to discover the new—not just what is different, but what is “unknown.” His creative-destructive search permeates his poetry and contributes to its dramatic tension. The Drunken Boat and Memory are two remarkable illustrations both of the method of Rimbaud's search and of its tragic outcome. Elusive and alluring, tormented and tormenting, the “unknown” that Rimbaud discovers reveals its riches while continuing to conceal them. His “unknown” is wonderful and terrible, beautiful and ugly, creative and destructive. It is, as the poet's phrase so beautifully puts it in War, a poem whose title portrays the inherent violence of Rimbaud's artistic undertaking, a vision of “eternal modulation” (“inflexion éternelle”).11 This is the “terrible beauty” that Rimbaud is able to bring back from his hope-filled and desperate “plunge into the bottom of the abyss.”


  1. Henri Peyre, Qu'est-ce que le symbolisme? (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1974), p. 74. All translations in this article are my own.

  2. Deliriums II in Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell. The Illuminations, trans. Enid Rhodes Peschel (New York, London, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 77.

  3. Charles Baudelaire, “Le Voyage in Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1961), p. 127.

  4. “Baudelaire is the first voyant, king of poets, a real God,” Rimbaud wrote. Arthur Rimbaud, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1972), p. 253.

  5. In Rimbaud, A Season in Hell. The Illuminations (note 2, above), p. 7.

  6. The French texts of The Drunken Boat and Memory are from the 1972 Pléiade edition (note 3, above).

  7. Qu'est-ce que le symbolisme? (note 1, above), p. 69.

  8. For a penetrating reading of this poem, see Nathaniel Wing, “Metaphor and Ambiguity in Rimbaud's ‘Mémoire,’” Romanic Review, Vol. LXIII, No. 3 (October 1972), pp. 190-210.

  9. Captain Rimbaud deserted his wife and four children when his son Arthur was six years old. For a discussion of Rimbaud's depiction of parent figures, including his association of military images with the father figure, see Enid Rhodes Peschel, Flux and Reflux Ambivalence in the Poems of Arthur Rimbaud (Genève, Switzerland: Droz, 1977), pp. 102-121.

  10. Qu'est-ce que le symbolisme? (note 1, above), p. 61.

  11. In Rimbaud, A Season in Hell. The Illuminations (note 2, above), p. 171.

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