Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2892
Although the legend of his short, tragic life shaped the initial critical response to his work, Jules Laforgue is now recognized as one of the first modernist poets. Laforgue is notable for his technical innovations, for his ironic voices and psychologically complex persons, for his verbal and syntactic playfulness, and for his fusion of sublimely serious philosophical questions with the plainly vulgar language and concerns of ordinary life.
Laforgue developed the poetic form known as vers libre, or free verse, in which he used lines of varying length, subtle rhyming patterns, and diverse rhythms to correspond, flexibly, to shifts in mood and subject. Although Arthur Rimbaud also has been credited with inventing free verse (with his “Marine” and “Mouvement,” poems written earlier than Les Derniers Vers de Jules Laforgue), Laforgue’s innovative verse forms were published in periodicals before Rimbaud’s examples, and his Les Derniers Vers de Jules Laforgue more directly influenced the free verse of modernist poets.
Most English and American readers know Laforgue through his influence on T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens. In 1908, Eliot read about Laforgue in The Symbolist Movement in Literature, by Arthur Symons; in 1909, Eliot read Laforgue’s poems and letters selected in Œuvres complètes. Eliot’s poems influenced by Laforgue’s irony, dialogues, and verse forms include the 1909 “Nocturne,” “Humouresque,” and “Spleen,” and the more famous “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Conversation Galante,” “Portrait of a Lady,” and “La Figlia che Piange,” as well as sections of The Waste Land (1922). Pound and Crane both published translations of Laforgue’s work, and Pound praised Laforgue’s intellect dancing playfully among words. Laforguian irony and wordplay may be found in Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and in Crane’s “Chaplinesque,” among other poems. Stevens transformed Laforgue’s Impressionist images and his verse forms extensively, but the French poet’s diffused influence may be traced in such works of Stevens as “The Comedian as the Letter C,” “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.”
Laforgue anticipated the psychological narratives of both James Joyce and Marcel Proust in the interior monologue he developed in such poems as “Complainte de Lord Pierrot” and “Dimanches.” He split his monologues and dialogues into multiple voices that are wittily self-aware and self-mocking. Although the contrapuntal dialogue of his “Complainte du soir des comices agricoles” was inspired by Gustave Flaubert (in a notorious scene in Madame Bovary, 1856; the overblown romantic language of a seduction is undercut by the vulgar realism of an animal auction at a country fair), Laforgue neither relied on simple antithesis nor assumed a superior moral stance; rather, his ironic conversations and monologues offer multiple perspectives which remain irreconcilable.
Pound and Joyce delighted in Laforgue’s demolition and recombination of language. The amusing colloquialisms and revolutionary neologisms that appear in Laforgue’s verse violated poetic etiquette but revealed the psychology of his speakers. They wittily or ignorantly combine two words from different realms to disclose an unexpected association. Examples include “sangsuelles,” “éternullité,” “violuptés,” “spleenuosité,” and “crucifige” (these neologisms are derived, respectively, from blood + sensual, eternal + nullity, violation or violence + voluptuous, spleen + sinuosity, and crucify + to clot). Laforgue often fused common words, but he also correctly employed arcane, archaic, and slang words in lines of impeccably sublime diction. The shock of contrast, with the implied assertion of the validity and significance of these verbal intrusions, radically changes the poet’s relationship to language.
In his images and subjects, Laforgue, like the Impressionists and the Symbolists in painting and literature, claimed for his art both a psychological and a physical definition of reality and envisioned correlations between the sublime and the ordinary, between the spiritual and the objective worlds. Eliot, in his celebrated definition of the “objective correlative,” drew on Laforgue’s example.
Laforgue’s literary legacy also includes his black humor. In poems such as “Excuse macabre,” “Guitare,” and “Complainte des blackboulés” (“Lament of the Blackballs”), his ironic but not pompous stance treated the grim themes of death, frustration, self-doubt, boredom, melancholy, alienation, nihilism, and the failure of passion with a racy wit, slipping often into gaiety. In this, Samuel Beckett is one of Laforgue’s heirs.
The bathetic, self-centered misery of the gloomy poems Laforgue wrote from 1880 to 1882, for Le Sanglot de la terre (first pb. in Œuvres complètes de Jules Laforgue, 1902-1903), has provoked speculation about a period of depression he suffered, but these metrically conventional and sentimental verses, laboriously exploring correlations between an adolescent’s passionate psyche and the world’s turbulence, have a literary antecedent in the splenetic poems of Baudelaire, and they also betray the influence of the moral and metaphysical idealism of Schopenhauer. Recognizing the inadequacy of these early poems, Laforgue chose not to publish them.
From 1882 through 1884, Laforgue worked on a group of comic poems based on popular street ballads. In them, he experimented with unconventional metric forms, broken syntax, and introduced slang, puns, and vulgar words into poems that also played with liturgical images. In a letter, he described these poems as “psychology in the form of dream,” and they contain free associations of words and sudden juxtapositions of sublime and tawdry images. These poems were written after Laforgue had immersed himself in the philosophy of Eduard von Hartmann, whose emphasis on the unconscious profoundly shaped the poet’s definition of identity. The conflicting voices and shifting tones within Laforgue’s poetry reflect his belief in the multiple selves that coexist in any personality. Consequently, his narrative verse seems to leap between dream states and waking, among past, present, and future experiences, and from unquestioning sympathy to biting mockery, while continuing to portray one persona. Publishing delays kept these poems from appearing until 1885, but, when Les Complaintes finally appeared, the volume was enthusiastically reviewed.
Les Complaintes consists of two preliminary poems and fifty laments titled “Complainte de . . .”—with the titles playing upon the subjective-objective ambiguity of the genitive. The ambiguous titles reflect the multiple voices speaking within these dramatic poems and also the poems’ themes. For example, “Complainte de Lord Pierrot” is a divided interior monologue spoken by Pierrot, and his lament also defines his identity; “Complainte du soir des comices agricoles” is set during the night of the country fair and may also be heard as the lament of that night; “Complainte des pianos qu’on entend dans les quartiers aisés” is both a lament of a man walking in well-to-do neighborhoods, who hears and is aroused by the sounds of girls’ piano practice, and an imaginary dialogue between the man and the pianos concerning the girls’ inarticulate, romantic illusions, and their sexuality.
In “Complainte de Lord Pierrot,” the individual is divided in time and in space, with Pierrot singing a self-mocking version of the ballad “Au clair de la lune,” then commenting in rhymed couplets on his sexual timidity and inexperience, then in irregularly rhymed ten-syllable lines imagining himself under the influence of Venus, dressed as a swan, boldly coupling with Leda, then abruptly shifting to a mocking couplet, “—Tout cela vous honore,/ Lord Pierrot, mais encore?” (“All that pays you tribute,/ Lord Pierrot, but what next?”), which becomes a two-line refrain as it is repeated later in the poem. Similarly, in “Complainte des pianos qu’on entend dans les quartiers aisés,” the lonely speaker meditates on desirable young girls who provoke his sexual longing, but a two-line refrain, echoing a popular song, seems to tease and mock him: “Tu t’en vas et tu nous quittes,/ Tu nous quitt’s et tu t’en vas!” (“You depart and you leave us/ You leave us and you depart!”). As readers familiar with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” will recognize, Eliot adopted Laforgue’s device, the ironic couplet refrain, in his lines rhyming “come and go” with “Michelangelo.”
Just as Pierrot’s various moods are expressed in different verse forms, so the sexual longing, the self-doubting mockery, the erotic curiosity, and the contemptuous cynicism of a lonely man are represented in the shifting forms of “Complainte des pianos qu’on entend dans les quartiers aisés,” in which the syllabic length of the lines changes with each stanza. The basic group of four verse forms, recurring five times in the same order, comprises a quatrain of irregular Alexandrines rhymed abab, followed by a rhymed couplet of seven-syllable lines, followed by a rhymed couplet of four-syllable lines, and concluded by a quatrain of seven-syllable lines rhymed abab, the first two lines being some version of the refrain, “Tu t’en vas et tu nous laisses,/ Tu nous laiss’s et tu t’en vas.” Although these shifts create the impression, on a first reading, of the free-flowing and disparate lines of thought within the lonely man’s mind, the larger formal pattern is quite elaborate. The poem seems a patchwork of quatrains and couplets, in which the significant pattern of the whole shifts as one focuses on different combinations of the parts. Are the girls singing to the man? Is he imagining their mockery? The deliberate ambiguity reflects the psychological complexity of Laforgue’s portrait and also the inevitability of change: from innocence to experience, from the sublimity of imaginary voyeurism to the vulgar reality of physical sexuality, from spiritual eroticism to the ordinary, routine materialism of life—embodied in the ludicrous exclamations on the month, the underclothes, and the routine meal of the final line: “Ô mois, ô linges, ô repas!”
L’Imitation de Notre-Dame la lune
The twenty-two poems for L’Imitation de Notre-Dame la lune were written at lightning speed, in six weeks of 1885, and dedicated to Laforgue’s friend Kahn and to Salammbô, Flaubert’s fictional pagan priestess. These litanies in praise of the moon ridicule the excessive zeal and overstated piety that characterize both Salammbô’s behavior and most public professions of idolatrous worship. Utilizing the literary conventions associating the moon and the cultural archetype “woman,” Laforgue mocks the lunatic lover who throws himself at the feet of the woman (“aux pieds de la femme,” in the poem “Guitare”), and his obsessive myth defining woman as mysterious, cruel, changeable, and purely sensual is exposed in the allusions to Delilah, Eve, the Sphinx, and La Joconde (the Mona Lisa).
The eminent lunologist in L’Imitation de Notre-Dame la lune is Pierrot, whose ancestor is Pagliacco, of the commedia dell’arte, but who, in the French tradition, became fused with Harlequin. The Pierrot figure in Laforgue’s poetry has contradictory characteristics: He is both a disappointed lover, melancholy and vulnerable, and a deceiving lover, frivolous and cynical. In either mode, Pierrot avoids the entangling responsibilities of love. This clown, in whiteface, with his long skinny neck, dilated eyes, reddened mouth, and black skullcap, both longs for a woman and fears passion. He closely resembles Eliot’s Prufrock.
Des fleurs de bonne volonté
Des fleurs de bonne volonté is, in part, a response to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857; Flowers of Evil, 1909). Written in 1886, these fifty-six poems reflect Laforgue’s fascination with Hamlet’s indecisiveness. Throughout these poems, he sprinkled epigraphs from Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s verbal duels, and his persona agonizes over his own inability to marry. Like Hamlet, this character cannot allow himself to trust a woman. Unlike Baudelaire, who treats the infidelity of woman as a cosmic truth, Laforgue focuses on the psychology of the lover whose fear of betrayal paralyzes him. Like Jaques in As You Like It (1599-1600), this character’s cynicism makes him miserable. His assertion in “Célibat, célibat, tout n’est que célibat” that human history is the history of one unmarried man at first seems ridiculous, a product of his obsession, but one may read the dramatic situation of these poems, the prolonged hesitation before risking a commitment, as an extended metaphor for human history.
Twelve different poems in this collection bear the title “Dimanches” (Sundays), and each portrays a profoundly melancholic state of mind; images of rain, gray skies, and the haunting refrain of a piano recur throughout. As Laforgue dissects ennui in these Impressionistic poems, it is self-generated and circles from dissatisfaction to longing for release, to fearing change, to resigning oneself to the misery of inaction.
“Dimanches” is representative. It consists of four stanzas, with the second and the fourth in parentheses. The first, invoking autumn, associates the fall of leaves with death and love’s suffering; the second, replying parenthetically, pleads that the speaker can believe in himself only in moments when he is lost; the third raises the possibility of marriage; and the fourth replies with a hypothesis—what if he could believe in himself and then marry?—followed by a renunciation expressed in a self-wounding comparison: “C’est Galatée aveuglant Pygmalion!” (it is Galatea blinding Pygmalion!). Laforgue’s use of myth here suggests that the artist, by dedicating himself to the abstract ideal of incorruptible beauty, comes to be transfixed by his own artifice; similarly, the woman, imprisoned in the statuesque role of perfect physical beauty, becomes a seductress as she embraces the one who created that role. The circular dialogue this speaker conducts with himself imprisons him in his own unhappiness.
When Laforgue decided to marry, he decided not to publish Des fleurs de bonne volonté, but he did rework several of the poems into his new poems in free verse. Laforgue’s final poems develop his earlier themes with greater technical and psychological sophistication.
Les Derniers Vers de Jules Laforgue
The twelve free-verse poems of Les Derniers Vers de Jules Laforgue cohere as twelve movements of one long symphony might; their interrelated themes and recapitulated forms reward close reading extended to the structure of the whole. Laforgue’s extraordinary technical and thematic control reveals itself in the illusion of free-flowing lines, which, although irregular in length and grouped in no conventional stanzas, are linked by careful alliteration, internal harmonies, and end rhymes. The lines are grouped thematically, developing a mood, or symbol, or idea, in verse paragraphs, thus creating a verbal image of the memories, free associations, recurrent dreams, and self-conscious observations that compose an individual’s interior universe.
Laforgue again treats the theme of an overly sensitive man, agonizing about the extent and the limits of his self-knowledge, who seeks release in a loving companion, but, associating sexuality with death, despairs of love. The personal tragedy, finally, is given broad cultural significance by Laforgue’s allusions to historical events, to literary antecedents, to musical revolutions, to paintings, and to powerful myths. These poems, like Impressionist paintings, take into account the sensibility of the viewer and appeal to the imagination through associated sensual memories. Unlike Stéphane Mallarmé, Laforgue does not invoke the poet as sole symbol for humankind; moreover, the ivory tower of abstract thought and artifice does not confine Laforgue’s persona, whose feelings and sensual impressions reflect factory smoke as well as fog, spittle as well as the sun’s blinding white disk, the pettiness of objects consumed daily as well as the tragic grandeur of human mortality glimpsed in a sunset or in the coming of winter.
“L’Hiver qui vient,” the first poem of the collection, illustrates the broader references and more radical techniques. Laforgue breaks poetic convention with his first line: “Blocus sentimental! Messageries du Levant!” (emotional blockade! Levantine carrier ships!). The line nullifies syntax by exclamation and alludes by echo to the glory and grim cost of the Napoleonic War’s Continental System (known as the “blocus continental”) and the eastern packet ships running the blockade. Neither national history nor seasonal change is the subject; rather, both are employed as correlatives of the persona’s mood, a complex mixture of self-indulgent pity, rage against frustration, and ironic mockery. Facing the coming of winter yet again, the persona recalls associated feelings, images, and events: a child’s loneliness at the lycée, the ennui of rainy Sundays, the end of a love affair, the suffering of soldiers far from home, the end of a fox hunt, each day’s death of the sun, and the misery of urban life. From the music of Richard Wagner, Laforgue had learned to interweave distinctive themes representing complex passions. The weeping and sighing of autumnal rain and wind, the miserable coughing of a consumptive, the sad tones of hunting horns (imitated in “Ton ton, ton taine, ton ton!”) resound in the poem, evoking compassion for the cornered creature, nostalgia for a lost social order, and the longing for an unattainable happiness. Laforgue’s aim in these musical, free-verse poems may be understood in his last line of “L’Hiver qui vient”: “J’essaierai en choeur d’en donner la note” (I will try, in this choir, to give it its note).
Perceiving the human situation as essentially hopeless and feeling the tragic disparity between glorious aspirations and sordid or merely ordinary lives, Laforgue nevertheless rejects the Romantic poet’s uncontrolled sentimentalism, undercutting self-pity by vulgar language, tawdry details, and the wry commentary of a rhymed couplet. His characteristic fusion of sensitivity and ironic distance, his representation of divided psychological states, his masterful exploitation of free verse to evoke shifting moods and associated ideas, his consciously comic treatment of serious subjects, and his playful re-creation of language mark Laforgue as one of the first modernist poets.