Jules Laforgue

Start Free Trial

George Moore (essay date 1891)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1348

SOURCE: "Two Unknown Poets," in Impressions and Opinions, Brentano's, n.d., pp. 95-102.

[In the late nineteenth century, Laforgue was still largely unknown to English and American readers; in the essay excerpted below, Moore seeks to expand the poet's reputation by articulating his own appreciation.]

[The] two young poets of whom I am going to speak have always attracted me. My sympathies were engaged by the strange and sad stories which surround them, and were confirmed by the personal talent manifested in all they wrote. Their names?—Arthur Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue, names for the first time printed in an English newspaper. But it is not infrequent for me to introduce French genius to the few among us who are willing to allow themselves to be interested in artistic work. It was I who introduced that adorable poet, Paul Verlaine, to English readers; it was I who wrote first about that ineffable book, A Rebours, the value of which has since been so copiously acknowledged. Possibly the same success will attend my present adventure, and in a season the plagiarist and his pursuers will make riot amid the tender beauties of Le Miracle des Roses, L'Imitation de Notre Dame la Lune, and Les Premieres Communions. Be this as it may, I concern myself with my sensations of these strange poets, whose talents and whose tragic ends have interested me so singularly. The poet that death has nipped in the first blossom of his talent, the girl that dies in her bridal month, the first poems, the first kisses, my soul goes out to one as to the other. . . .

I have now to try, in a few English words, to give a sensation of the delicious talent of Jules Laforgue—delicious, delicate, and evanescent as French pastry. Can I help you to see this Watteau de cafè-concert? I will ask you to think of the beauty of a moth fluttering in the soft twilight of a summer month. Touch it not, lest you destroy the delicate dust of its wings. I hold it on my forefinger now, examine the beautiful markings. Limitation de Notre Dame la Lune, Fleurs de Bonne Volonté, Les Moralités Légendaires, Le Miracle des Roses, etc. Is there not in these titles something like genius? and is it possible that any one not touched with genius could have invented L'Imitation de Notre Dame la Lune? I have called Laforgue a Watteau de cafe-concert because his imagination was as fanciful as that painter's, and because he adopted in his style the familiarity of the cafe-concert, transforming, raising it by the enchantment of his genius. What I am writing should in truth be delivered in a literary academy with closed doors. But do not gather up your skirts, for in the end I may be able to leave on this page some faint shadow of my beautiful moth. Here is a little poem which appears to me to be wholly exquisite, and scintillant with French grace:—

Mon Sort est orphelin, les vêpres ont tu leurs cloches. . .
Et ces pianos ritournellent, jamais las! . . .
Oh! monter, leur expliquer mon apostolat!
Oh! du moins, leur tourner les pages, être là,
Les consoler! (J'ai des consolations plein les poches) . . .

Les pianos se sont clos. Un seul, en grand deuil, s'obstine . . .
Oh! qui que tu sois, soeur! à genoux, à tâtons,
Baiser le bas de ta robe dans l'abandon! . . .
Pourvu qu'après, tu me chasses, disant: 'Pardon!
'Pardon, m'sieu, mais j'en aime un autre, et suis sa cousine.

Oh! que je suis bien infortuné sur cette Terre! . . .
Et puis si malheureux de ne pas être Ailleurs!
Ailleurs, loin de ce savant siècle batailleur. . . .
C'est là que je m'crgerai un petit intérieur,
Avec Une dont, comme de Moi, Tout n'a que faire.

Une maigre qui me parlait,
Les yeux hallucinés de Gloires virginales,
De rendre l'âme, sans scandale,
Dans un flacon de sels anglais . . .

Une qui me fit oublier
Mon art et ses rançons d'absurdes saturnales,
En attisant, gauche vestale,
L'Aurore dans mes oreillers. . . .

Et que son regard
Comme ma rime
Ne permit pas le moindre doute à cet égard.

Hard to understand? I admit it, but how winning and how unlike anybody! Isn't it strange that the beginning and the end of French poetry are almost incomprehensible—Ronsard and Laforgue? And his prose is as exquisite, and as wilful; and his titles! Le Miracle des Roses!

Jamais, jamais, jamais cette petite ville d'eaux ne s'en douta, avec son inculte conseil Municipal dé1égué par les montagnards rapaces et nullement opéra comique malgré leur costume.

Ah, que tout n'est-il opéra comique! . . . Que tout n'évolue-t-il en mesure sur cette valse anglaise, Myosotis, qu'on entendait cette année-là (moi navré dans les coins) au Casino, valse si décemment mélancolique, si ésotériquement dernier, derniers beaux jours! . . . (Cette valse, ah! si je pouvais en inoculer d'un mot le sentiment avant de vous laisser entrer dans cette histoire!)—O gants jamais rajeunies par les benzines! O brillant et mélancolique va et vien de ces existences! O apparence de bonheur si pardonnable! O beautés qui veilleront dans les dentelles noires, au coin du feu, sans comprendre la conduite des fils viveurs et musetés qu'elles mirent au monde avec une si chaste mélancolie! . . .

Petite ville, petite ville de mon coeur.

I think that even these, the first twenty lines of Le Miracle des Roses, testify a style, full of grace and fancy, and incurably his own. Nor can I easily imagine anything more wilful than his evocation of this watering-place, and the story sketched with crow-quill pen and mauve ink—the story of the consumptive Ruth, dying amid tea-roses, the blood-red roses that she loves having been forbidden her. Nor can we help being doubly attracted to this story when we consider its significance and its foretelling of the poet's own end. For if Rimbaud's fulgurant verses correspond to the passions that forced him to fly from life and hide his soul in a convent, Laforgue's fancies harmonise equally with the facts of his blameless and sad existence, so sad and so little. We know that he was reader to the Empress of Germany—happy indeed was the selection; and we envy more than the bauble of her wealth the hours she passed with Laforgue. One winter's day in Berlin, Jules saw a girl skating as none ever skated before—the grace of the waist, the flowing boa, and the feet lifted beneath the dark skirt, filled him with happiness. The beautiful skater was an English girl. I hardly remember the name, but I know that it recalled Annabel Lee, as, indeed, the story of this love recalls a tale by Edgar Poe. He resigned his place as reader to the Empress and married; and he and the beautiful English girl came to Paris in the hope that literature would yield them a living. But Laforgue's genius was of the kind that wins the sympathy of the elect, and instead of making his living with his pen Jules grew more and more consumptive. I have heard that the young couple lived in a poor apartment—two or three rooms—and that the beautiful English girl, now stricken with the dreadful malady, passed between the rooms with tisanes. Friends climbed the high stairs to see them on Thursday evenings; a few admirers attended Jules's funeral, and published the volume he left in his desk, Les Moralités Légendaires; the girl died soon after—two or three months. How did she live during the brief interval, where is she buried? Nobody knows. Yet I have a very separate and complete sensation of these two little lives. I was their friend although I never saw them, and I shall not forget them, though I never visit their forgotten graves, nor shall I cease to cherish L 'Imitation de Notre Dame la Lune and Les Fleurs de Bonne Volonté, though the ordinary readers of verse allow these books to lie in the limbo of embryonic things.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1319

Jules Laforgue 1860-1887

French poet, short story and sketch writer, essayist, and dramatist. For further information, see .

Jules Laforgue was an early experimenter in vers libre (free verse), a stylistic innovation that became popular in the second half of the nineteenth century and released poetry from the traditional conventions of meter and stanza. Like the early French Symbolists with whom he was associated, Laforgue advocated abandoning literary convention and maintained that art should be the expression of the subconscious mind. His work was read by only a small circle of French readers at the time of his death, but in subsequent years his reputation grew, even to the point that he became a major influence on many twentieth-century writers in English, including Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Today both his prose and poetry are highly regarded and studied, but he is best known for the Derniers vers (1890), a volume of poems published after his death that firmly established his position as an initiator of free verse. The experimental rhythmic patterns, psychological realism, and evocative language of the Derniers vers provided the Symbolists with a model for their later development of free verse.

Biographical Information

Laforgue was born at Montevideo, Uruguay. His father was a poor teacher from Gascony who in 1866 sent his family to Tarbes, France, where Jules and his brother É mile attended school. Although exceptionally intelligent, Laforgue was a mediocre student at the Lycée Tarbes. In 1876, he enrolled at the Lycée Fontanes in Paris where, although he liked the school, his work did not improve. Laforgue twice failed his baccalaureate exams, and never received a diploma. In 1880, while studying art and working as a part-time journalist in Paris, Laforgue met Gustave Kahn, a leader in the Symbolist movement, poet, and editor of the periodical Le vogue et le symboliste. Laforgue's association with Kahn, who became his mentor, as well as with Charles Henry and literary critic Paul Bourget, was the most crucial of his career. With Bourget's help, Laforgue obtained his first job as apprentice poetcritic to Charles Ephrussi, editor of the journal Gazette des beaux-arts, who taught Laforgue much about art and literature and encouraged him to write. Although he generally disliked Laforgue's early work, Bourget became Laforgue's personal literary critic during this period, helping him improve his style. In 1881, Laforgue accepted the position of French-reader and secretary to Empress Augusta of Prussia; for five years he traveled with the Empress and her entourage. Although he found the position boring and rigidly structured, Laforgue was nonetheless prolific during this time, completing and publishing two volumes of poetry—Les complaintes (1885) and L 'imitation de notredame la lune (1886)—and a verse drama titled Le concile féerique (1886). He left the Berlin court in 1886 when he married Leah Lee, a young English tutor. The couple moved to Paris, where a particularly harsh winter severely affected Laforgue's health. He wrote for Kahn's periodical Le vogue and tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher for his volume of short stories, the Moralités légendaires (1887). Supported by loans from Bourget and Ephrussi, money from anonymous donors, and payment by friends for articles that were never published, Laforgue continued to write until the opiates given him for his illness left him too weak to work or to eat. He died, at the age of twenty-seven, virtually unknown.

Major Works

Le Sanglot de la terre (1902-3), a group of 29 posthumously published poems, exhibits the fundamental characteristics of Laforgue's poetry: his sense of irony and his disaffection or sense of alienation. According to critics, it also betrays most clearly the poet's influences, especially Charles Baudelaire and Walt Whitman, whose early experiments in free verse Laforgue translated into French. Laforgue's early work was also deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimistic philosophy and Eduard von Hartmann's concept of the unconscious mind. In the Complaintes Laforgue fashioned a series of monologues based on conventional French character types and traditional street songs. His mixture of fine art with what was considered the "low" style of popular tradition challenged assumed notions of the separation between high culture and popular culture. The voices he adopted in the songs initiated Laforgue's use of personas (speaking through the voices of different characters in a poem, some not unlike the poet and some at a great distance from the poet); some scholars have compared this practice, which Laforgue developed in all of his following work, with Robert Browning's dramatic monologues. Among the most famous of the voices first heard in the Complaintes is Laforgue's version of Pierrot, the "clown" figure who would become one of Laforgue's best-known mouthpieces. The two works that most established Laforgue's reputation, however, were both published after his death: the Moralités légendaires only a few weeks after Laforgue's death and the Derniers vers in 1890. Each tale in the Moralités takes a legendary character with whom his readers would have been familiar, such as Hamlet or Salomé, and reworks the tale with a parodic air. The stories, which have earned as much attention from critics as has any of his poetry, demonstrate at once the writer's aptitude with language, characterization, and irony. The Derniers vers appears to be either one poem with an intricate, twelvepart structure or twelve closely-related poems; the matter remains open to debate since the work was put together from the poet's posthumous papers, without any directions or statement of intent. The work, which juxtaposes common objects and romantic ideals, shows the signs of Laforgue's continued work with monologue. The poems' most marked trait, however, is that they demonstrate the point Laforgue had reached in his experiments with free verse; most commentators agree that the volume presents the strongest example to date of free verse.

Critical Reception

Laforgue's participation, however tangential, in the Symbolist movement and his verse experimentation constituted the initial impetus for critical attention. Commentators trying to determine the shape and character of Symbolism discussed Laforgue's proximity to it, usually deciding that he was clearly included in the aesthetic influences of early Symbolism and, in turn, had a considerable influence on later Symbolists, but that he was nonetheless at a distance from the formal social circles and artistic principles of the school. His relationship to this avant-garde depends largely on his commitment to developing new literary forms to express a new sensibility, as both George Turnell and Malcolm Cowley have argued. Turnell specifically characterizes Laforgue as an urban poet whose innovative verse captured the human experience as rural economy and population shifted to the cities in the nineteenth century. Laforgue's early death has continued to provide the impetus for a major debate in Laforgue criticism, since it remains a matter of speculation how the poet's work would have changed as he grew older. Consequently, some critics have surmised that what Laforgue's writings represent is the product of an immature artistic genius. The large body of scholarship focusing on Laforgue's influence on other poets often addresses how his own later work might have compared with the works of those influenced by him. Close readings of Laforgue's poetry and prose have concerned themselves largely with the exact meaning of certain elements in the poet's work. The different voices that Laforgue refined through the Complaintes have prompted comparisons to Victorian "dramatic monologues," with some critics arguing that Laforgue deserves credit for introducing the dramatic monologue into French literature, and others terming them "interior monologues." E. J. Stormon has claimed that the poet merely "twists his face into various stylized expressions." There are also extensive discussions of both Laforgue's Hamlet and his Pierrot, as well as of more abstract elements, such as his notion of the Unconscious and his images of women. More recently, critics have focused less exclusively on Laforgue's major works. The early novel Stéphane Vassiliew (first published in 1946) and the unpublished play Tessa have attracted attention, and appreciation of Laforgue's stature as an aesthetic critic in his own right has grown.

Aline Gorren (essay date 1893)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 323

SOURCE: "The French Symbolists," in Scribner's Magazine, Vol. XIII, No. 3, March, 1893, pp. 337-52.

[In this excerpt, Gorren places Laforgue in the context of other poets associated with Symbolism, commenting on both his similarities with and his differences from them.]

. . . [Love] of the barest rhythmic notation, and of that unseizable distinction that lurks in folk-songs and popular legends, tempted Jules Laforgue . . . —Jules Laforgue, charming and charmeur, who died at the age of twenty-seven, delicate, well-bred wizard who was like no one ever but himself.

He also tried the mixing of prose and verse. His verse was always of the sort that the Symbolists approve; its harmonies and its unity were "psychic rather than syllabic." He had all audacities as to feet and accent. His poetry indeed seems little else than rhythmic prose divided, typographically, into separate lines. His prose, on the other hand, has poetical cadences, returns upon itself that give the effect of a refrain, vague reminiscences of rhymes, and of those sub-rhymes, in a minor key, that are formed by assonances. In his prose tales, the unique Moralités Légendaires, he breaks into verse whenever the thought seems to sing itself into the lyric shape. Those two leading qualities, which the Symbolist work always, in some measure, possesses (or seeks to possess), an abiding sense of the absolute retained in treating of the most fugitive accidents and appearances, and a penetration of the hidden analogies existent in phenomena the most divergent, are developed in Laforgue to a degree of keenness the more striking because of his determined touching of things by their lightest, their almost frivolous, side. He tends back to the centres continually; always he gives the feeling of the affinities behind the veil; and the operation is the more pungent that it is invested with his peculiar humor, a half sentimental, wholly tasteful spirit of mockery, that, in exactly the same mixture of ingredients, belongs to no other Frenchman. . . .

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 108

Les complaintes (poetry) 1885

Le concile féerique (verse drama) 1886

L'imitation de notre-dame la lune ["Locutions de Pierrots I, II, III" (partial translation), 1926, published in journal Double Dealer] (poetry) 1886 Moralités légendaires [Moral Tales] (short stories) 1887

Les derniers vers de Jules Laforgue (poetry) 1890

*Oeuvres complètes (poetry, verse drama, short stories, essays, and letters) 1902-03

Oeuvres complètes (poetry, verse drama, short stories, journals, essays, letters, and sketches) 1922-30 Lettres à un ami: 1880-1886 (letters) 1941

Stéphane Vassiliew (novel) 1946

Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue (poetry, short stories, essays, letters, and sketches) 1956

Poems of Jules Laforgue (poetry) 1958

*This work includes Le sanglot de la terre, Pierrot fumiste, and Melanges posthumes.

G. M. Turnell (essay date 1936)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7432

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Jules Laforgue," in Scrutiny: A Quarterly Review, Vol. V, No. 2, September, 1936, pp. 128-49.

[In the following essay, Turnell addresses many of the issues central to early-twentieth-century Laforgue studies: Baudelaire's influence on the poet's development; the poet's artistic immaturity at the time of his death; his stylistic relationship to Romanticism and Classicism; and his contribution to the creation of vers libre.]

The influence of Laforgue on modern poetry has been decisive. In the ordinary way it is a mistake to distinguish too sharply between the influence of a writer's outlook and the influence of his style or, as I should prefer to call it, his method. In the case of Laforgue, however, some sort of distinction between the two is necessary. I think the point can be illustrated by a comparison between Mr. Pound and Mr. Eliot. It seems to me that Laforgue's influence on Mr. Pound has been almost exclusively of the first, and his most lasting influence on Mr. Eliot of the second kind. It is Mr. Pound's limitation that his best work is sometimes no more than the mature expression of Laforgue's outlook—the mature expression of an outlook that was essentially immature in the sense of uncompleted, a term to which I shall try to give precision later. Now one of the most indubitable signs of Mr. Eliot's originality is that his development since Prufrock and Portrait of a Lady has always been away from the outlook of his master. In The Waste Land he has clearly learnt all there was to learn technically from the Derniers vers and used it to express something infinitely richer and more complex.

For this reason I wish to concentrate in this paper on the method of Laforgue. I may as well begin by recording my own opinion that, from a technical point of view and to a critic writing with Mr. Eliot's work before him, the Derniers vers is the most important single poem published in Europe since the seventeenth century, though its intrinsic merits fall far short of the best work of Baudelaire, Corbière and Rimbaud. 'When we get to Laforgue,' wrote Mr. Eliot in one of his illuminating asides [in a review of Baudelaire and the Symbolists in the Criterion, December, 1929], 'we find a poet who seems to express even more clearly even than Baudelaire the difficulties of his own age: he speaks to us, or spoke to my generation, more intimately than Baudelaire. Only later we conclude that Laforgue's "present" is a narrower "present" than Baudelaire's, and that Baudelaire's present extends to more of the past and more of the future.

The 'intimacy' with which Laforgue speaks to us and the 'narrowness' of his outlook are factors of the first importance and need to be carefully investigated—investigated, as Mr. Eliot points out, in relation to Baudelaire. For Baudelaire dominates his age to such a degree that his contemporaries and successors can only be placed in relation to him. There are lines in the Sanglot de la terre, Laforgue's earliest collection of verse, which an intelligent candidate in a practical criticism paper at Cambridge might pardonably attribute to the author of the Fleurs du mal. For instance:

O convoi solennel des soleils magnifiques,
Nouez et dénouez vos vastes masses d'or,
Doucement, tristement, sur de graves musiques,
Menez le deuil tèrs lent de votre soeur qui dort.

But though the mistake might be made with a short extract, it would scarcely happen with a whole poem.

Le blanc soleil de juin amollit les trottoirs.
Sur mon lit, seul, prostré" comme en ma sepulture
(Close de rideaux blancs, oeuvre d'une main pure),
Je râle doucement aux extases des soirs.

Un relent énervant expire d'un mouchoir
Et proméne sur mes lèvres sa chevelure
Et, comme un piano voisin rêve en mesure,
Je tournoie au concert rythmé des encensoirs.

Tout est un songe. Oh! viens, corps soyeux que j'adore,
Fondons-nous, et sans but, plus oublieux encore;
Et tiédis longuement ainsi mes yeux fermés.

Depuis l'éternité, croyez-le bien, Madame,
L'Archet qui sur nos nerfs pince ces tristes gammes
Appelait pour ce jour nos atomes charmés.

There is a good deal of Baudelaire here. The rhythm of some of the lines is his. Amollit is one of the soft, voluptuous words that he loved; and the sepulture, the extases des soirs and the encensoirs are all part of the furniture of the Fleurs du mal. But often when Laforgue is being most imitative, he will suddenly become most himself. The prostrate young man is a glimpse of the peculiar spiritual defeatism which contributes so largely to the sense of 'intimacy' we get from his work. We shall meet the curtained windows and the pianos again and again—they are an important part of Laforgue's symbolism. We shall also meet the adolescent hunger not simply for love, but for chaste love which is so different both from the weary satiety of Baudelaire and the healthy animality of Corbière. The main pure looks forward to the

Jeunes Filles inviolables et frêles

of the Derniers vers. It is significant that Laforgue's 'chastity' is essentially negative. Indeed, his half-heartedness about sexual love and his recoil from the physical contribute more than anything to the impression of immaturity that his verse creates. The last three lines of the poem are the most characteristic of all. They point to the Complaintes and indicate the direction his development was to take.

Although the fact that Laforgue's development after the Sanglot de la terre was always away from Baudelaire is one of the clearest signs of his originality, it is also one of the clearest signs of his limitation—not merely a personal limitation, but a limitation inherent in the age. In placing Laforgue we have to remember that his 'intimacy' and his 'narrowness' are inseparable. In other words, his limitations are peculiarly a function of his genius. With this reservation, it can be said that his practice is a radical and thorough-going criticism of the work of Baudelaire. It can be seen in his language and imagery, in his versification, and in his wit. I propose to consider them in that order.

Laforgue tried, as Corbière before him had tried, to get rid of the old worn out 'poetic' words; but both his aim and his procedure were different from Corbière's and far more like Donne's. Corbière's work represents the restoration of an old language rather than the invention of a new one. He tried to purge words of their romantic associations and restore their natural properties in order to express an elemental, and in a sense a primitive experience. Thus where Corbière's language is simple Laforgue's is extremely sophisticated, but it marks a definite extension of the field of poetry. He had to forge a language which would express the new feelings that were emerging with the progress of urban civilization and which would also express his peculiar and, it seems to me, very limited disillusion. His third group of poems, Limitation de Notre-Dame de la lune, is the product of a period of the wildest experiments with language; and the results of these experiments can be seen all through his work. It is completely successful in

La rouille ronge en leurs spleens kilométriques
Les fils télégraphiques des grandes routes où nul ne passe

which admirably express his own particular ennui, but is unsuccessful and forced in

Armorial d'anémie!
Psautiers d'automne!

As with his imagery, so with his language. He did not merely use words which had been considered unpoetic, he invented new ones. The sort of words he invented and the way he invented are curiously reminiscent of Donne when faced with a similar situation. He has, for instance, énnuiversel, éternullité, sexiproque, enflaquer, féminiculture, kilométrique, lunalogue, ritourneller, spleenuosite. [In a footnote, the author adds: "A poet's vocabulary is one of the most reliable indications of his outlook. For the sake of completeness it is worth pointing out a further difference between Corbière and Laforgue. Corbière's preference was for the firm, virile words like faraud, farouche, contumace, brute: Laforgue's for words suggesting impotence and disease like phtisie pulmonaire, anémie, langueurs, débilité, palpitations. A study of their work suggests that Corbière was concerned to defend certain primary human experiences which were in danger of being destroyed by the development of civilization, while Laforgue was content to register their destruction with a melancholy resignation."]

Contemporary critics have stressed the 'counter-romantic' tendency of Baudelaire's poetry, but it is generally recognized that it retained certain romantic traits. Superficially Laforgue's experiments with language seem to complete Baudelaire's work by making a clean sweep of those romantic elements from which he had failed to free himself. This view strikes me as frankly mistaken. There were certainly romantic elements in Baudelaire, but they were accidentals and not essentials. They were his macabre sensationalism and a love of the theatrical and not, as is commonly supposed, his use of the grand style or of words (apparently) borrowed from the vocabulary of the Romantics like beauté, tristesse, solitaire, splendeur—the words which, in Laforgue's admirable phrase, enchasublent the subject. His use of them has little in common with that of the Romantics—a point of capital importance in discussing his relations with Laforgue.

What makes Baudelaire a very great figure indeed is that he explored the potentialities of human experience far more thoroughly than any of his contemporaries, and was capable of regarding the human situation from a greater number of different angles than they. The deepest thing in his poetry is his awareness of the contrast between the potential splendour of human life and its actual squalor. This perpetual contrast could not have been adequately expressed in the style and language of Laforgue, which have a sort of thinness—excellent no doubt for Laforgue's purpose, but useless for Baudelaire's. What Baudelaire had to say could only have been said in the ample measure of the alexandrine and in a language that described the present and at the same time suggested what had been lost.

The difference between the two poets can be seen most clearly in their presentation of Paris. The Paris of Baudelaire has the universality and the impersonality of great poetry which we do not find in Laforgue's. There is nothing absurd in the parallels that French critics are fond of drawing between Baudelaire's Paris and the Inferno, but no one could possibly make the same claim for Laforgue. In comparison his Paris is local and personal. But if Laforgue seems narrow and pedestrian in comparison with Baudelaire, if he can only offer one point of view, it is not altogether his fault. With Baudelaire something went out of French poetry and, except for a fugitive reappearance in Rimbaud, went out for good.

The origins of free verse have been the source of a good deal of speculation in France, mostly of a somewhat fruitless nature. Gourmont's chapter in the Esthétique de la langue frangaise contains one or two suggestive remarks, but on the whole it is disappointing, and in one particular thoroughly misleading. Gourmont was too good a critic not to realize that the free verse of a writer like Laforgue was something completely new; but when he goes on to trace parallels between nineteenth-century free verse and free verse in Latin compositions of the eighth century—he had a maddening strain of pedantry which comes out to the full in this book—he is simply confusing the issues. He is not the only person who has done it. 'The vers libre of Jules Laforgue . . .' wrote Mr. Eliot [in his Introduction to Selected Poems of Ezra Pound], 'is free verse in much the same way that the later verse of Shakespeare, Webster, Tourneur, is free verse: that is to say, it stretches, contracts, and distorts the traditional French measure as later Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry stretches, contracts and distorts the blank verse measure.'

It is interesting to learn, as we do from Mr. Eliot's Introduction, that his own versification was based on a study of Laforgue and the later Elizabethans; but the connection is a personal one and the suggestion that there is some objective relation between the two strikes me as hopelessly misleading. And to speak of Laforgue as one who 'stretches, contracts and distorts' the alexandrine is to minimize his technical brilliance unnecessarily.

Mr. Edouard Dujardin, Laforgue's editor and the reputed inventor of the 'silent monologue,' is a more satisfactory guide. In an article published in the Mercure de France [in 1921] he argues that free verse was not the invention of a single poet, but the spontaneous result of a collective movement. That is the main point. A vital art-form must be the spontaneous outcome of the conditions in which the artist is living. Free verse appeared when it did because it was the only medium capable of expressing the modern poet's experience. It is essentially a nineteenth-century phenomenon. It has nothing to do with the versification of any other period. Its real affinities are with similar movements in the other arts—with impressionism in painting, the silent monologue in the novel and—most striking of all—with the cinema.

This is not the place to discuss the relations between the different arts in detail, but it is only when we see modern poetry in relation to painting, the novel and the cinema that we are in a position to appreciate the importance of free verse and 'place' the poets of the movement. The simultaneous appearance of free verse and impressionism was due to changes that had been going on in the European sensibility. They were the outcome of the same impulse and as literary critics it is our business to isolate that impulse.

Free verse and impressionism were both movements of liberation, simultaneous reactions against romanticism and a decadent classicism. It was Laforgue's achievement to have realized that the grand style was all over and done with and that the poet's experience could no longer be forced into the cadre of the alexandrine. He saw that traditional verse-forms were incapable of expressing the subtleties of the modern sensibility and in particular the movement of the contemporary mind. And the impressionist realized that the classical painter's angle of vision had become stereotyped and distorted the artist's experience. Thus there appears to me to be a connection between the disuse of the alexandrine and the disuse of the classical line of David and Ingres. Baudelaire, as usual, puts his finger on the point when he says La phrase poétique peut imiter la ligne horizontale, la ligne droite ascendante, la ligne droite descendante. What is striking about poetry is the disappearance of line, of the sculptural element that we find in Vigny, Leconte de Lisle and in Baudelaire's own La Beauté. As a final comment there is Baudelaire's criticism of Ingres. Le grand défaut de M. Ingres, he wrote, est de vouloir imposer à chaque type qui pose sous son oeil un perfectionnement plus ou moins despotique emprunté au répertoire des idées classiques.

It is necessary to carry the analysis a stage further, to go behind art to changes that were taking place in the mind of Europe. Classical theories of art are based ultimately on classical metaphysics, on the assumption that reality is independent of the perceiving mind and that the function of the artist is to represent it. The origins of modern art go back to the period when the classical metaphysic was challenged by the rise of the idealist philosophies. It is a change, in other words, from a philosophy of being to a philosophy of knowing. It no longer matters what a thing is—what matters is my experience of it. Thus the idealist's assertion that the real was not independent of mind, but a synthesis of the perceiving subject and the thing perceived, meant that the artist was no longer occupied with things but with his reactions to them. It means that instead of the mind conforming to the real, the real is made to conform to the mind which imposes its own pattern on everything.

The implications of these theories are patent. Classical metaphysics, by insisting that the real was the same for all and that everyone had a similar experience of it, guaranteed the social basis of art. The art produced under its influence tended to express what was common to all—to be the consummate expression of a social experience. In departing from this assumption that artist rejects the social basis of art, but he reveals human nature to itself in a way that would otherwise have been unthinkable.

Le vrai vers libre, wrote Gourmont, est conçu comme tel, c'est-à-dire comme fragment dessiné sur le modèle de son idée émotive, et non plus déterminé par la loi fixe du nombre.

In short, anything that was likely to fetter the artist's experience, to interfere with the idée émotive, was removed. Laforgue gave to poetry an instrument that was capable of reflecting the rapidly shifting vision of our time. The Derniers vers is a poem of 816 lines which registers the constant shift and change of feeling, the play of feeling within a prevailing mood, that a sensitive person experiences in modern urban conditions. Its great virtues are the fidelity and insight with which the changes are recorded, its great fault the absence of any unity but the poet's personality. It contains astonishing passages, but is not completely successful as a criticism of the human situation. It does not possess the same finality in this respect as The Waste Land because of the absence of any intellectual structure. But this in no way alters its technical importance. Take the beginning of the fourth section:

C'est l'automne, l'automne, l'automne,
Le grand vent et toute sa séquelle
De représailles! et de musiques! . . .
Rideaux tirés, clôture annuelle,
Chute des feuilles, des Antigones, des Philomèles:
Mon fossoyeur, Alas poor Yorick!
Les remue à la pelle! . . .

'Autumn'—symbol of a definite emotional state in this poem—restates the principal theme of the poem, the dominant mood. The repetition shows the poet's growing despair. The next two lines refer back to the storm in the previous section. The wind that roars and thunders all through the Derniers vers is no romantic accompaniment, but a symbol of the tumult going on in the poet's mind. The drawn curtains, tattered notices on the hoardings and falling leaves are familiar symbols of ennui and despair. The precise images and exact noting of the names on the play bills fix the particular scene in the mind. I take Antigone and Philomel to stand for certain human values which are in the process of disappearing. They may also be symbols of the departed glamour of 'the Season' and suggest the poet's sense of exile from the gay and prosperous world. The mingling of the falling leaves and the fragments of the play bills is deliberate: the general mood is related to the loss of particular values (spiritual and material). The reference to HamletHamlet played a role of capital importance in Laforgue's development—is the focal point of the passage. It deftly continues the literary allusion and at the same time provides an ironical comment on the whole situation—on the futility of certain virtues in a civilization like our own. The image of the comic grave-digger disrespectfully turning up the bones of the dead suggests the crossing-sweeper whisking away the relics of past splendour. The suddenness of the gesture is an admirable instance of Laforgue's technical dexterity. The whole passage is a good illustration of the way in which the pliancy of Laforgue's medium and his method of allusion enable him to evoke the mood of the entire poem whenever he likes and to bring it into relation with a particular situation. This alone is a technical innovation of the first importance.

'Words, images and entire friezes of imagery recur, not once or twice but constantly,' wrote Mr. Quennell of Laforgue. The implication that Laforgue's range of feeling is limited is true, but this does not mean that his use of stock-imagery is a short-coming. Indeed, part of his achievement was to have worked out an elaborate system of reference and association, a sort of poetic short-hand. The recurring image, which has been brilliantly developed in The Waste Land, is an important part of the system.

One of the results of the change of sensibility already discussed was that the emotional life of Europe was suddenly divided, forming new combinations of feeling. A verse-form was needed which would not only express the rapid change from one feeling to its opposite, but would also show the mind simultaneously possessed by diverse and even conflicting feelings. Thus instead of describing emotion, Laforgue translates it into precise, visual images which recur again and again. They are symbols in the strict sense, or as he himself described them, phrases mélodiques. In his latest work they are used with kaleidoscopic effect and constantly shifted so as to form new patterns of feeling. The 'meaning' of his poetry, indeed, often consists in the relations between the symbols, in the sudden transitions from one emotion to its opposite. The most important symbols are the processions of school girls going two by two to Mass which stand for innocence and faith in contrast to the poet's sophistication and unbelief; Paris streets on Sunday afternoons and the mingling of the out-of-tune piano with the vespers bell suggesting the receding tide of faith; the curtained windows suggesting boredom and bourgeois degradation of life; and the storm discussed above.

The symbol of autumn, which plays the same part in the Derniers vers as spring in The Waste Land, is so important that it needs some elucidation. The poem begins:

Blocus sentimental! Messageries du Levant! . . .
Oh, tombée de la pluie! Oh! tombée de la nuit,
Oh! le vent! . . .
La Toussaint, la Noël et la Nouvelle Année,
Oh, dans les bruines, toutes mes cheminées! . . .
D'usines . . .

Laforgue seldom used the device of omitting his main verbs more skilfully than he does in this remarkable passage. It suggests a state of complete instability—an instability that could only be represented by the poet's powerlessness to make any statement about his feelings at all. The halting rhythms and broken lines give the impression of some one floundering helplessly in the dark, struggling pathetically against the storm without making any headway; and, by implication, of the poet's powerlessness to dominate his own emotions.

The sudden impact of Blocus sentimental on the reader is tremendous. It gives a physical sense of emotional inhibition which is heightened by the succession of short, abrupt phrases that seem to beat down on one like the rain and the gusts of wind. Messageries du Levant means a biting east wind—the sort of wind that numbs. In this way emotional numbness and physical numbness become associated. The description of the rain and the dark emphasizes the feeling of helplessness. The names of the principal winter feasts suggest a long, dreary expanse of time. Bruines refers back to the second line: the image is the obliteration of the landscape by the rain and the dark, and is clearly intended to express the poet's sense of personal obliteration. Toutes mes cheminées suggests a total loss of direction. The fading of the factories in the mist may refer to the world of practical activity from which the poet is cut off. The sudden break at usines gives the sensation of collapse which is emphasized a few lines later by

Il bruine;
Dans la forêt mouillée, les toiles d'araignées
Ploient sous les gouttes d'eau, et c'est leur ruine.

The bending of the spiders' webs reinforces the image of the man bending under the storm. This is clinched by ruine which is the theme of the Derniers vers as death is the theme of The Waste Land.

The expression of the mood of the poem is so complete in these lines that the merest reference—as, for instance, in the passage from the fourth section analysed above—is sufficient to evoke the whole.

The opening of the third section is one of the finest passages in the Derniers vers:

Ainsi donc, pauvre, pâle et piètre individu
Qui ne croit à son Moi qu'à ses moments perdus,
Je vis s'effacer ma fiancée
Emportée par le cours des choses,
Telle l'épine voit s'effeuiller,
Sous prétexte de soir sa meilleure rose.
Or, cette nuit anniversaire, toutes les Walkyries du vent
Sont revenues beugler par les fentes de ma porte:

Vae soli!
Mais, ah! qu'importe?
Il fallait m'en étourdir avant!
Trop tard! ma petite folie est morte!
Qu'importe Vae soli!
Je ne trouverai plus ma petite folie.

Le grand vent bâillonné,
S'endimanche enfin le ciel du matin.
Et alors, eh! allez donc, carillonnez,
Toutes cloches des bons dimanches!
Et passez layettes et collerettes et robes blanches
Dans un frou-frou de lavandes et de thym
Vers l'encens et les brioches!
Tout pour la famille, quoi! Vae soli! C'est certain.

These lines are a perfect example of Laforgue's peculiarly delicate sensibility. They are also an admirable example of his transition from one set of feelings to another.

The pauvre, pâle et piètre individu re-emphasizes the poet's devastating sense of his own helplessness which is characteristic of all Laforgue's work. The Moi contrasts the poet's real helplessness with his assumed bravado and attempts to pass it off as a joke. S'effacer re-introduces the obliteration motif. The woman is snatched away and becomes part of the world from which the poet is cut off. Emportée . . . suggests movement, suggests someone irresistibly carried away and lost, which is one of the themes of the poem. L'épine—the desolate, despoiled thorn goes back to pauvre, pâle et piètre. The short, broken lines which follow suggest the short, violent gusts of the storm and, at the same time, the feverish workings of the mind.

The change from the short line to the long and gradually lengthening line in the second part indicates the calm which follows the storm. The transition is superbly managed. The calm of nature reflects the calm of the poet, though we must not overlook the implication that it is a calm born of exhaustion. Bâillorné, 'gagged,' is another instance of the word that pulls us up short. S'endimanche is the pivotal word of the passage and links two sets of images—the calm of nature and spiritual calm. This is reinforced by the troop of girls going to Mass. The sound of the storm merges into the carolling of church bells. The whistling of the wind (blowing away the rose leaves) is replaced by the delicate frou-frou of the dresses; the smell of the rose, with its romantic associations, by the scent of lavender suggesting domestic peace, clean clothes and neat drawers. The reference to brioches (bread that is blessed and given to the faithful to take home) is apparently used to contrast the families united in the Faith with the outcast poet. (Hence the repeated Vae soli!)

There is a passage in the seventh section which calls for comment:

Où est-elle à cette heure?
Peut-être qu'elle pleure . . .
Où est-elle à cette heure?
Oh! du moins, soigne-toi, je t'en conjure!

O fraîcheur des bois le long de la route,
O châle de mélancolie, toute âme est un peu aux écoutes,
Que ma vie
Fait envie!
Cette impériale de diligence tient de la magie.

I have chosen this as an example of cinema technique. It is a common cinematic device—very much used by Pudovkin—to show a perfectly calm landscape after a scene of great emotional intensity. In this passage feeling is worked up to its maximum by the use of short, abrupt lines (paralleled by the short staccato Russian cutting), the agonized self-questioning and the hysterical Soigne-toi, then there is a sudden change to landscape. The word fraîcheur comes with a shock of inexpressible relief. (It should be noted that Mr. Eliot has made use of this device—the opening of The Waste Land is a good instance—by his references to flowers and the sea which provide the same form of release as this passage).

The importance of Laforgue's work should now be apparent. The result of his experiments was that the contemporary poet found an instrument at hand which was capable of expressing the full complexity of his outlook. This is a different thing from saying that Laforgue's own poetry is complex or mature. In spite of the fact that his feelings are often complicated, his outlook is neither complex nor mature. His poetry is a little deceptive. When one first comes to it, it appears far more complex than it really is. It is only later that one sees that it has a surface-complexity which is sometimes little more than a peculiar kind of verbiage. His symbolism depends for its success on a close correspondence between the symbol and the emotion symbolized; but Laforgue was sometimes inclined to throw unusual words and images together in the hope that something astonishing would come of it. It is a fault that we find repeatedly in the Imitation de Notre-Dame de la lune (e.g. the piece called La lune est stérile), but there are also instances in the Derniers vers. I wish to examine in detail a passage from the tenth section.

O géraniums diaphanes, guerroyeurs sortileges,
Sacrilèges monomanes!
Emballages, dévergondages, douches! O pressoirs
Des vendanges des grands soirs!
Layettes aux abois,
Thyrses au fond des bois!
Transfusions, représailles,
Relevailles, compresses et l'éternelle potion,
Angelus! n'en pouvoir plus
De débâcles nuptiales! de bébâcles nuptiales! . . .

This passage has been singled out by Mr. Eliot as an example of 'something which looks very like the [metaphysical] conceit' in French poetry. I cannot help feeling that there is a strange confusion here. It is an example of Laforgue's impressionist psychological notation, and though it certainly has the surface-complexity noted above, it has nothing of the genuine complexity of the metaphysical conceit. There are words suggesting violent attacks and counter-attacks like guerroyeurs, sortilèges, représailles. There is another group suggesting compression—emballages, pressoirs, compresses—which is set off against words suggesting outburst or overflow—dévergondages, douches, transfusions. A further group is less obscure—words like layettes, relevailles, Angelus, meaning baby-clothing, churchings, religion, apparently signify happy married life as opposed to the débâcles nuptiales. They may also be contrasted with the violence and confusion suggested by the first two lines.

The feelings are certainly 'tangled,' but I find nothing that can be called 'a whole of tangled feelings'—though clearly there ought to be. If the poet's aim was to suggest mental conflict, a tug of war between opposing feelings, what he tried to do is very imperfectly realized. What I wish to contrast is the internal disconnection of the passage with the internal coherence of Donne's conceits. There seems to me to be one essential difference between the metaphysical conceit and Laforgue's method of psychological association. A conceit like 'On a round ball' or the compasses is a unity in which the parts are rigorously subordinated to a central purpose. It is an intellectual process, and it is the intellectual element that distinguishes it from the apparent conceits in Laforgue's poetry. The metaphysical conceit is used to relate a particular experience—one might almost call it a thought-experience—to a general body of principles and not, as with Laforgue, simply to relate a particular feeling to a general body of feelings. Thus the structure of Donne's work is intellectual in a way that Laforgue's is not. It is also apparent from the internal disconnection of this passage that Laforgue's attitude was necessarily fragmentary and disconnected too.

This difference between Laforgue and the Metaphysical Poets is so vital that I must be forgiven for underlining it. 'Donne, Corbière, Laforgue,' wrote Mr. Eliot in [A Garland for John Donne, 1931] 'begin with their own feelings, and their limitation is that they do not always get much outside or beyond; Shakespeare, one feels, arrives at an objective world by a process from himself, whoever he was, as the centre and starting point . . . With the Donne and the French poets the pattern is given by what goes on in the mind, rather than by the exterior events which provoke the mental activity and play of thought and feeling.'

This is an acute criticism of Laforgue; but it is only partly true of Corbière and scarcely true at all of Donne. It is not true of Donne because Donne was after all a Christian; and however personal his religion may have been, it did provide a point of reference outside his immediate feelings. His mind and outlook show the impress of a training in scholastic philosophy, and the tension we find in his work comes precisely from the endeavour to integrate new experiences into a system of traditional philosophy. The weakness of Laforgue's poetry, as we have it, is largely due to the fact that he had no system—his preoccupation with German philosophy is decisive on this point—and that his only point of reference was his own personality. Thus one feels obliged to dissent when Mr. Eliot remarks that 'A poet like Donne, or like Baudelaire or Laforgue, may almost be considered the inventor of an attitude, a system of feeling or of morals. This confuses the issues by attributing to Laforgue precisely that quality which Donne and Baudelaire possessed and which he was without. What makes Donne and Baudelaire 'bigger' men than their contemporaries is the fact that in their work the mood of the moment—the personal mood—is subordinated to something lasting and impersonal which can be described as an 'outlook' in the fullest sense of the term. For Donne and for Baudelaire the problem was never merely a personal one: there was a complete correspondence between the personal problem and the problem of the age. With Laforgue, one feels, the problem was largely a personal one, far more personal than critics have realized.

Laforgue's wit has had a considerable influence on later poets and has also attracted a great deal of attention from critics. It must be confessed, however, that the influence has not been wholly for the good and that the critical attention has not always been of the right kind. The criticism has been on the whole too indulgent, and it has not discriminated sufficiently between the use to which his wit ought to have been put and the uses to which it was put. It has never been pointed out that it sometimes degenerates into a trick or that it is far too limited an instrument to serve as the basis of an outlook. There is an immense difference in this respect between the wit of Corbière and the wit of Laforgue. Corbière's wit is essentially positive and is used in the service of an aggressive attitude, while Laforgue's is negative and is often used not to affirm a position, but to avoid taking up a position at all.

The proper use of Laforgue's wit is as an ironic commentary on experience—a use which is well illustrated by the opening of the fifth section of the Derniers vers:

Amour absolu, carrefour sans fontaine;
Mais, â tous les bouts, d'étourdissantes fêtes foraines.

Jamais franches,
Ou le poing sur la hanche:
Avec toutes, l'amour s'échange
Simple et sans foi comme un bonjour.

There is a deliberate contrast between the solemn opening in the romantic style and the brisk movement of the next four lines, suggesting the bustle and the crude tunes of the fair. Le poing sur la hanche probably refers to the gesture of the hardboiled prostitute and provides further comment of the opening line. Simple et sans foi comme un bonjour is a cynical and startling final comment which is entirely successful.

There is a better known, but less successful example in the tenth section:

J'aurai passé ma vie le long des quais
A faillir m'embarquer
Dans de bien funestes histoires,
Tout cela pour l'amour
De mon coeur fou de la gloire d'amour.

Oh, qu'ils sont pittoresques les trains manqués! . . .

The procedure is the same as in the last passage. The wit consists largely in the tone, in the 'levity' of the treatment. The suspended image at the close performs the same function as before—the sudden concentration of the whole feeling of the passage into a single image raises it to a fresh level of intensity and seriousness. The passage as a whole, however, is unconvincing. It leaves us with the same feeling of uneasiness that we get from the Autre complainte de Lord Pierrot, in spite of the undeniable brilliance of that poem, and from a good deal that Laforgue wrote besides. For the poet is not as detached or as single-minded as he tries to appear. There is something specious about the jaunty, man-of-the-world attitude which is used to conceal the underlying sentimentality. A comparison between these lines and Corbière's Poète contumace, where the same method is used to express a genuinely mature attitude, should be decisive.

The truth is that Laforgue's wit is often an attempt to solve his own emotional problems. Thus in the Autre complainte de Lord Pierrot his criticism of romantic love is ineffectual as criticism because it is perfectly clear that he is ridiculing an attitude from which he is trying to free himself, but has not yet managed to do so. The fact that he uses irony as a means to something else makes disasters inevitable. One nearly always has the feeling that his wit may collapse at any moment into sentimentality, and this sometimes happens even in the Derniers vers:

Bref, j'allais me donner d'un 'Je vous aime'
Quand je m'avisai non sans peine
Que d'abord je ne me possédais pas bien moimême.

This is a palpable attempt to pass off one's confusion as a joke.

I can make my point best in considering an important but neglected side of Laforgue's poetry—his religious symbolism. We might begin by comparing some lines from Baudelaire's Franciscae meae laudes with a passage from a poem in the Fleurs de bonne volonté:

Esto sertis implicata
O femina delicata,
Per quam solvuntur peccata. . . .
Quum vitiorum tempestas
Turbabat omnes semitas
Apparuisti, Deitas,
Velut Stella salutaris
In naufragiis amaris . . .

Laforgue has:

J'aime, j'aime de tout mon siècle! cette hostie
Féminine en si vierge et destructible chair
Qu'on voit, au point du jour, altièrement sertie
Dans de cendreuses toilettes déjà d'hiver,
Se fuir le long des cris surhumains de la mer!

Superficially the procedure is the same—an ironic contrast between the sacredness of the subject and the levity of the poet's tone—but the result is entirely different. Baudelaire combines two opposing feelings in order to form a new and perverse one. By an ingenious twist solvuntur peccata is made to suggest liberation from sin by salvation and liberation from desire through satisfaction, and this is emphasized by the play on salutaris. Laforgue compares a successful seduction with the reception of the Sacrament. The woman is described as cette hostie féminine and hostie is given its double sense of Sacrament and Victim.

The difference between the two passages is primarily a difference of tone. It is clear that for Baudelaire the religious emotion was at least as real as the sexual, and his words could be accurately described as blasphemous. The allusions in Laforgue, on the other hand, are those of a man who has consciously and deliberatley detached himself from the Faith. The words have lost something of their former meaning and become convenient counters, and there is an instinctive lack of reverence which prevents them from being blasphemous in the way in which Baudelaire's undoubtedly are. What is strikingly new is the note of spiritual apathy. It is very marked in the little known Petite prière sans prétentions:

Et laissez-nous en paix, morts aux mondes meilleurs,
Paître, dans notre coin, et fomiquer, et rire! . . .
Paître, dans notre coin, et forniquer et rire! . . .

where the last line appears to be a mocking imitation of an invisible congregation repeating the prayer after the priest.

Laforgue's peculiar state of mind is revealed most strikingly, however, in a passage from the Derniers vers:

Ah! moi, je demeure l'Ours Blanc!
Je suis venu par ces banquises
Plus pures que les communiantes en blanc . . .
Moi, je ne vais pas à l'église,
Moi, je suis le Grand Chancelier de l'Analyse,
Qu'on se le dise.

This passage is clearly intended as a contrast between the poet's sophistication and unbelief and the innocence and faith of the children going to Mass. The important point is the use of capitals for Ours Blanc and Grand Chancelier de l'Analyse. The bear represents the outcast poet, but is deliberately turned into a comic bear. It is the trick—familiar in the later work of Mr. Aldous Huxley—of a writer who wishes to express a point of view without committing himself definitely to any one position, and takes refuge in caricature. The poet chooses to present himself as the nineteenth-century sceptic, but is careful not to identify himself too closely with the tradition of Renan and Taine. The passage is not altogether successful—it is obviously the voice of the romantic young man and not that of the convinced sceptic—but it illustrates the way in which Laforgue was using poetry in an attempt to solve his personal problems.

The passage is important for another reason. It shows that in spite of his curious intellectual timidity, Laforgue did recognize the necessity of taking up a definite position and that at bottom he was not content with the evasion he practised. There seems to me to be a marked tendency in his later work to free himself from all accepted attitudes—from traditional religion and traditional (romantic) love—as he had freed himself from traditional verse-forms. At the time of his death the process was incomplete and it is impossible to say how much further it would have gone. He seemed to be moving towards a position of spiritual neutrality and was very far from formulating anything resembling a positive outlook at all. His detachment was still incomplete, and his interest in German philosophy shows that he felt the need of a substitute for the thing he had abandoned. All this makes him a bad master as far as the content of his work is concerned and explains why the influence of his very seductive spiritual defeatism on later poets has been unfortunate. It is possible that he might have become 'the inventor of an attitude,' but we cannot be certain. The disparity between his technical maturity and his emotional immaturity tells heavily against him; and his extreme spiritual defeatism makes one wonder whether he had it in him to develop a positive attitude towards anything.

What would have happened can only be a matter of conjecture. It is important to stress the fact that Laforgue was trying to work out a position. He therefore belongs to Baudelaire and his school and not to Mallarmé and his descendants. The significance of Mallarmé and Valéry is that they make a definite attempt to dispense with a positive outlook of any sort. This explains the negative element, the constant preoccupation with sterility, that we find in Mallarmé. And I cannot help feeling that 'pure poetry,' for which he was ultimately responsible, is a subtle form of escapism. It is an attempt to make the worship of form a substitute for an outlook, and it therefore becomes a means of avoiding the necessity of committing oneself to a position at all.

Warren Ramsey (essay date 1953)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4397

SOURCE: "The World Is My Idea," in Jules Laforgue and the Ironic Inheritance, Oxford University Press, 1953, pp. 42-58.

[In the following excerpt, Ramseya leading Laforgue scholarexplores how the different philosophers then popular with Paris intellectuals shaped Laforgue's poetry. In particular, he traces Laforgue's familiarity with and use of the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann.]

There are two kinds of influence, as André Gide remarked: that felt by an individual and that undergone by a group. The influence of Schopenhauer in France during the 'seventies and 'eighties was of the second sort. This philosopher's subjective idealism, his belief that investigation of the external world could not lead to truth were readily seconded because they were intimately related to fundamental nineteenth-century attitudes. The Romantics had been nothing if not self-centered, even though a second stage in the work of many a poet—and pessimistic philosopher, too, for that matter—had been a program for social betterment. Along with the scientific faith that knowledge would give power over the physical universe there had coexisted, often in the mind of a single man—Alfred de Vigny, for instance—a despairing awareness that such power had no truth in it, that control over physical forces could not bring contact with reality. Schopenhauer was the most formidable of Western Buddhists; but before he became known in France a number of writers, notably Leconte de Lisle and that physician friend of Mallarmé who called himself Jean Lahor, had proclaimed in Buddhistic terms the illusoriness of phenomena and found in this religion the hopelessness it usually engenders in a European mind. The Buddhists had been preceded by other anti-materialists who were vaguely Christian. Then there had been the mordant analysts of motives, heirs of the nihilistic eighteenth-century moralists. And beneath all, informing all, had been the pensive melancholy of René, of which Chateaubriand would never have written without examples from beyond the Rhine.

Schopenhauer found refuge in contemplation, in the play of ideas, and in veneration of art. So had a French generation disappointed in more outward hopes by the failure of the midcentury revolution. Several of Taine's and Renan's works are as much monuments to 'pessimism' as Books I, II, and IV of The World as Will and Idea; and Book HI of that work, 'The Object of Art,' is the major theoretical document in a European movement of art for art's sake.

The ground was well prepared when, in 1870, a liberal journalist and politician, Challemel-Lacour, published the record of his pilgrimage to Frankfurt, home of 'A Contemporary Buddhist in Germany: Arthur Schopenhauer.' hallemel-Lacour knew little about metaphysics and communicated less. But he had visited Schopenhauer at home and at the Hôtel d'Angleterre, where the old philosopher took his meals and berated humanity, and he carried away enough acid to etch a good likeness. This anecdotic article set off the avalanche. A Sorbonne professor named Elme-Marie Caro dazzled his public with an eloquent, empty book on nineteenth-century pessimism. In 1874 appeared a model of lucid exposition, La Philosophie de Schopenhauer by Théodule Ribot, a philosopher-psychologist who was later to write significantly on the artistic imagination and the Unconscious. Thereafter came a spate of articles, some of them technical, and though Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung was still untranslated, the key ideas of Schopenhauer were at hand for all to ponder. Here was what the age demanded: a system of thought based on withdrawal from society, on commitment to art, on contemplative zeal and heroism. With compelling force it gripped older men like Renan, younger men like Bourget, and there was no excuse for a still younger man like Laforgue to remain ignorant of it, even though his German was virtually non-existent.

Laforgue never carried Schopenhauer's work about with him, reading and rereading it all, as he did Eduard von Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious. Schopenhauer's thought was for him something underlying and overshadowing. For that very reason it is well to look at some of the Schopenhauerian ideas absorbed into the 'Castéchisme pessimiste,' Laforgue's most complete statement of his aims at the age of about twenty. For these ideas, close kin to those he took from other sources, became the felt thoughts of his poetry; while the ideas of Hartmann, studied later, were the raw material for an aesthetics sometimes hauled bodily into the verse.

'The world is my idea.' Schopenhauer begins his work with this concise statement of the Idealist position. Such a view is far from novel. One is reminded of the position taken by the expounder of Bishop Berkeley's philosophy to whom Samuel Johnson remarked, 'Pray, sir, do not leave us, for we may perhaps forget to think of you, and then you will cease to exist.' It was not from Berkeley, however, that the young Laforgue drew his conviction that there is no object without a subject, no planet without a perceiving eye:

L'homme, ce fou rêveur d'un piètre mondicule . . .
Man, mad dreamer of a petty planet . . .

In the most ambitious of his early poems, he addresses the earth in these terms:

C'était un songe, oh! oui, tu n 'as jamais été!
Tout est seul! nul témoin! rien ne voit, rien ne pense . . .

It was a dream, ah! yes, and thou hast never been!
All is alone! no witness! nothing sees or thinks . . .

If humanity should become extinct, a possibility envisioned throughout the early poems, the earth would have been nightmare.

We even find, in the verse of a later period, a poem about Time and Space as forms of the faculty of knowledge. It has a saving satirical title, 'Complainte du Temps et de sa commère l'Espace.' But what other poet of that day (or this) would have presumed to write about the categories, man's means of knowing about the world that is his idea, 'fondement de la connaissance'? There is no mention of causality in this poem. Since Schopenhauer maintained, in opposition to Kant, that causal relation is as indispensable a condition of the world-idea as Time and Space, this poem is not Schopenhauerian; but no doubt it deserves the epithet of 'Kantian' which André Beaunier applied to it.

The world is a structure supported by my perceptions, made possible by temporal and spatial and causal relations. It is the cause-and-effect relation, the interlocking of events, that makes possible scientific inquiry. Schopenhauer, Hartmann, and their literary disciples such as Laforgue were not hostile to science—these three were all amateur scientists. They did, however, deny that science can deal only with the idea, with appearances. Within and everywhere around, 'objectifying' itself in phenomena of which the individual is one, is the ultimate reality, the Will. Philosophically, it is the thing-in-itself, the noumenon, with which only contemplation, never the measurement of things sensed, can establish contact. Psychologically, it is the potential of powerful impulses that dominate and dwarf all possible activities of reason, the 'ferocious and libidinous gorilla' which, said Taine, lurks within civilized man. Schopenhauer the moralist, who probably outweighs in importance Schopenhauer the metaphysician, was a writer who commented pithily on the power of the gorilla and the shakiness of its cage.

Men, especially the optimistic, socially minded, forward-looking bourgeois whom Hegel's philosophy flattered, were told to recognize their true condition, each one alone in an illusory world. It would be wrong, however, to suppose that man cannot find footing, attain to reality. Some of those who hastened to attach the label 'pessimism' to this Idealist philosophy were simply materialists, accustomed to looking for material rewards. Men, if they are worth anything, are in search of reality, of something approaching the ultimate reality, the thing-in-itself. And here we begin to deal with another kind of idea, the Platonic archetype, to which, Schopenhauer tells us, the thing-in-itself bears a strong resemblance. The Platonic ideas, he says, are 'the first degree of objectification' of the Will. And the human intelligence, evolved at first by the Will only as a tool for its own purposes, can by concentrated attention produce a sort of superfluity of itself capable of regarding the archetypal ideas, capable of aesthetic experience. The genius is the man who can lose himself utterly in objective contemplation. The talented artist and the amateur of art are, in different degrees, contemplatives. And the aim for everyone, as Laforgue writes in his Catechism, is serene contemplation, by which one 'escapes from oneself, is freed for an instant from Time, Space, and Numbers, dies to the consciousness of one's individuality, and attains to the great liberty, which is escape from the Illusory.' It may have been arbitrary, as Ribot pointed out in 1874 and as many a critic has done since, for Schopenhauer to place the Platonic ideas first in the series of phenomena proceeding from that 'blind force' which is Will. One must fight down Will in order to contemplate something that is the outgrowth of Will. Nevertheless, this paradox within Schopenhauer's thought was, like his admirable prose style, evidence of the importance he attached to art and it helped to gain him some of his best disciples, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Laforgue.

Escape from the multiplicity of phenomena by means of artistic experience is rare, however—the privilege of the few. So are those degrees of relative objectivity reached in philosophical and scientific inquiry. There is another route of escape, which Schopenhauer calls 'the most serious, since it relates to the action of men, the matter which concerns everyone directly and can be foreign or indifferent to none.' Moral perfection through suppression of the personal will is reached by several stages; and the individual progresses to the extent that he sees through the network of appearances. The just man has so far penetrated the Web of Maya as to perceive that he should not interfere with the interests of others, individuals like himself. But the truly virtuous man, realizing that all individuation is illusory, that all individuals are lost in the great whole, that one is simultaneously the slayer and the slain, will feel an active sympathy for all his fellows, victims of the same human limitations. So grievous is the state of man that love can only take the form of pity. 'The incentive to virtuous action is simply the knowledge of the suffering of others, directly understood from one's own suffering and placed on a level with it . . . Pure love (.. . caritas) is by nature sympathy.' As Laforgue writes in his Catechism, 'Sympathy, the first gift of the sage.' To the extent that the individual sees clearly, he will seek to share the sufferings of others, to mortify the will within himself. So the twenty year old poet sets down his rule: 'one must suffer for at least two years: fast, mortify oneself, bleed with pity and universal love, visit the hospitals, contemplate hideous and pitiful diseases, all forms of filthiness, become steeped in history in general and in detail, telling oneself that that is real, that all these billions of individuals had hearts, senses, aspirations to happiness; one must read history with sympathy . . . like Carlyle and Michelet.

Remembering his 'two years in the libraries' and his asceticism, we realize that Laforgue actually tried the more radical kinds of renunciation. We are in a better position to understand such passages as the following:

Je n'ai fait que souffrir, pour toute la nature,
Pour les êtres, le vent, les fleurs, le firmament,
Souffrir par tous mes nerfs, minutieusement,
Souffrir de n'avoir pas d'âme encore assez pure.

"Pour le Livre d'amour'

I have done naught but suffer, for all nature,
For the creatures, the wind, the flowers, the firmament,
Suffer in bone and nerve and every fiber,
Suffer for my soul's impediment.

When, in 'Pour la Mort de la terre,' the poet asks,

Où donc est Çakia, coeur chaste et trop sublime,
Qui saigna pour tout être et dit la bonne Loi?
Et Jésus triste et doux qui douta de la Foi
Dont il avait vécu, dont il mourait victime?

Where now is Sakya, chaste heart that aimed too high,
Who bled for all and spoke the saving Word?
And melancholy Jesus who mistrusted
The faith he lived and by which He would die?

We realize that the figure of Philoctetes, subject of early preoccupations with the discipline of suffering, is for the time being supplanted by other figures. Chief among these, for Laforgue as for Schopenhauer, is the Buddha, although Jesus is counted among the very great and good.

Of course Laforgue was not a Schopenhauerian only because of the metaphysics which demonstrates so beautifully that unseen things are real and that the vision of truth must be prepared by mortification. For him as for several generations of writers, Schopenhauer was the educator, the disquieter, whose sayings contained the cure for naïveté. Like the Swiss diarist Amiel, whose searching self-examinations were published when Laforgue was twenty-two, he began with Schopenhauer the aphorist; and since he did not remain a thoroughgoing philosophical pessimist for long, he may be said to have ended with the aphoristic Schopenhauer as well. Trenchant sayings in the minor works, some of them encountered second-hand, were assimilated and helped to shape a point of view. Woman as the 'undersized, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped, short-legged' adversary, to quote the celebrated passage from the Parerga—a creature without metaphysical aspiration or capacity for objectivity, embodiment of perverse will seeking to perpetuate itself by the 'universal dupery'—woman thus understood comprises half the cast of characters in Laforgue's writings. True, such a view of womankind is in his case an ironic device rather than a heartfelt conviction. But from Pierrot to Lohengrin to Hamlet, his characters act on Schopenhauer's suggestion that chastity is the only solution and resolutely steer clear of further objectification. The refrain 'Célibat, célibat, tout n'est que célibat,' which runs like a pure silver thread through the verse and prose, is not so much a statement of fact as a program.

The poet may have learned something about irony from the philosopher, especially from the preface to the long-delayed second edition of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, where Schopenhauer advises the Hegelians to continue their twenty-five-year conspiracy of silence indefinitely. Key words, including the all-important 'ennui,' have about the same meaning in the two writers. And the whole legend of Schopenhauer the man worked strongly on a youthful imagination. One of the two literary pilgrimages Laforgue made was to Frankfurt (the other being to Elsinore), at some inconvenience to himself and in spite of the Empress Augusta's outspoken aversion for 'that horrid man.'

Still another kind of idea, in addition to the worldidea and the Platonic archetype, was to occupy Laforgue's imagination. He was to spend more and more time with Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious, was to hold with this dissident Schopenhauerian that a Will which goes on objectifying itself cannot be purposeless, that present and co-ordinate with Will in the Absolute must be Idea: the creative Idea of Hegel working through history, through the manifold activities of the human mind, toward its own perfection. A systematic pessimist proceeding from the assumption that the ultimate reality is evil—that Laforgue emphatically was not. A temperamental pessimist like Leopardi, able to abide the view of the darkness at the end of a philosophy of negation—that he was not either. 'Un coeur tendre qui hait le néant vaste et noir,' he rebelled in various ways against such views of man's destination. Fertile in contrasts as he was, reacting to the thought of a century, he was even tinged with the religion of science, the positivism that Schopenhauer considered most pernicious. He neutralized a pessimistic world view, as did Vigny in 'La Bouteille a la mer,' by affirming that the individual's unlucky voyage leads somewhere: the observations one man makes will enable others to avoid his shipwreck. Laforgue writes of 'the cathedral of Herbert Spencer,' brings the evolutionary theory into his aesthetics. And from another positivist, Camille Flammarion, he seems to have taken the imagery of his longest early poem and the most striking imagery of Le Sanglot de la terre as a whole.

'If the innumerable creative floods,' wrote Lucretius in a passage quoted by Flammarion in his Pluralité des mondes habités, 'surge and flow in myriad varied forms through infinite space, should they have brought forth in their fecund strife only the orb of the earth and its celestial vault? Can we believe that beyond this world so vast a mass of elements is condemned to idle repose? .. . If the generative principles gave birth to masses whence have issued the heavens, the waves, the earth and its inhabitants, it must be supposed that in the remainder of the void the elements of matter have given birth to numberless animated beings, to skies, seas, earths, have sowed feet in the aerial floods. Wherever immense matter can find a space to contain it and no obstacle to its free expansion, it will give birth to life in various forms; and if the mass of elements is such that all ages and all beings together would be insufficient even to count them, and if nature has endowed these elements with the faculties which it has accorded to the generative principles of our globe, the elements, in the other regions of space, must have scattered other beings, mortals, and worlds.'

It would be hard to prove that Laforgue read the curious monument to pseudo-scientific legend in which these sonorous words are quoted. But it is more than likely that he did. The poet of our time who has the most in common with Laforgue, Jules Supervielle, gives much of the credit for his first important volume of verse to a popular treatise on astronomy that he picked up in the early 'twenties. It had a liberating effect on his imagination, supplying him with striking dynamic imagery. Some work had such an effect on Laforgue, and it is a plausible guess that it was Flammarion's.

Published in 1862, La Pluralité des mondes habités was the first book of an astronomer with a flair for popularization and conjecture. In the preface to one of the numerous editions (twenty-five by 1876), the author expresses surprise, probably justified, at his success. Twenty years before, nothing astronomical would have been very popular. As the century progressed, however, the general imagination was stirred more and more by expanding knowledge of the heavens, and within a decade after its publication Flammarion's book had appeared in ten languages. There was literally a world-wide surge of curiosity about what the heavens might contain. On the part of one young poet there was certainty:

En tous sens, je le sais, sur ces mondes lointains,
Pèlerins comme nous des pâles solitudes,

Dans la douceur des nuits tendant vers nous les mains,
Des Humanités soeurs rêvent par multitudes!


Songez! depuis des flots sans fin d'éternités,
Cet azur qui toujours en tous les sens recule,
De troupeaux de soleils á tout jamais pullule,
Chacun d'eux conduisant des mondes habités . . .

—'Farce éphémera'

Un coin! et tout là-bas déroulement d'espaces
A I'infini! Peuples de frères plus heureux!
Qui ne retrouveront pas même, un jour, nos traces
Quand ils voyageront a leur tour par ces lieux!

—'Curiosités déplacées'

On every side, I know, on those far worlds,
Pilgrims like us of the pale solitudes,
In the softness of the nights stretching toward us their hands,
Sister peoples dream in multitudes!

Consider, for unmeasured floods of time
This azure surging forth on every side
Has swarmed with troops of suns incessantly,
Each one among them with its peopled worlds.

This little world! And those deploying spaces
Ad infinitum! Races of happier brothers
Who one day will not even know we were,
When their path crosses where we crossed before.

The Vedas taught that the human soul sojourns in the stars after its earthly incarnation. Xenophanes and Epicurus believed in the plurality of worlds, and Christiaan Huygens wrote in Cosmotheoros: 'It is not possible that those who are of the opinion of Copernicus and believe truly that the earth we inhabit is one of those that turn about the sun and receive light from it, should not also believe that other planets are inhabited, cultivated and adorned like ours.' Kant not only had assumed that other planets were inhabited but had also established a whole hierarchy of the perfection of their inhabitants according to distance from the sun. Laforgue's first collection of verse provides us with the only modern poetry on the subject.

Whether under the influence of the summary of evolutionary doctrine that Flammarion undertakes in another place, or as a result of readings in Spencer and Darwin, Laforgue also gives poetic expression to what has frequently been called 'the key idea of the nineteenth century.' A planet

après bien des siècles de jours lents,
Aux baisers du soleil sent tressaillir ses flancs,

La vie éclot au fond des mers des premiers âges,
Monades, vibrions, polypiers, coquillages.

Puis les vastes poissons, reptiles, crustacés
Râclant les pins géants de leurs dos cuirassés.

Puis la plainte des bois, la nuit, sous les rafales,
Les fauves, les oiseaux, le cri-cri des cigales.

Enfin paraît un jour, grêle, blême d'effroi,
L 'homme au front vers I 'azur, le grand maudit, le roi . . .

—'Litanies de misère'

after many ages of slow days,
Feels its flanks shudder at the sun's embrace.
Life spawns within the prehistoric sea,
Monads, vibriones, polyps, Crustacea.
Then the vast fishes, reptiles, things with scales
Scrape giant pine trees with their armored tails.
And then the plaint of forests tempest-stirred,
Wild beasts and birds and the cicadas' chirr.
Until one day, frail and beset with fears,
Man the accursed, the struggling king appears.

In the same poem there is description of the birth of the planets, inorganic evolution:

Un lac incandescent tombe et puis s'éparpille
En vingt blocs qu' il entraîne ainsi qu'une famille.

An incandescent lake falls and is scattered
In twenty masses it leads family-like.

Another poem has an apostrophe to the mother-nebula:

O fleuve chaotique, ô Nébuleuse-mère,
Dont sortit le Soleil, notre père puissant . . .

—'Crépuscule de dimanche d'été'

Chaotic river, mother-nebula
Whence sprang the sun, our puissant father . . .

In fact, imagery drawn from pseudo-scientific and scientific sources is in great part responsible for the quality of Laforgue's strange, troubled, technically fluent early poetry. Sully-Prudhomme was also writing melancholy 'scientific' verse during the last quarter of the century. But Sully-Prudhomme sadly lacked capacity for creating metaphors. Only Laforgue, in France, succeeded in making poetry out of objects revealed by 'the marvelous tube.'

His best sustained poem of this period is 'Pour la Mort de la terre.' The extinction of life upon the earth, or the extinction of the living earth, was much in his mind at this time. Perhaps the big work on Dürer with which he was helping Ephrussi kept scenes of death and apocalypse before his eyes; or perhaps the palpitations of the heart he complained of late in 1880. 'Pour la Mort de la terre' is his nearest approach to the 'macabre epic of humanity' projected in his letter to Kahn. The opening quatrain is addressed to the suns:

O convoi solennel des soleils magnifiques,
Nouez et dénouez vos vastes masses d'or,
Doucement, tristement, sur de graves musiques,
Menez le deuil très lent de votre soeur qui dort.

O solemn progress of resplendent suns,
Wind and unwind your massive golden trails,
Mildly and sadly to religious hymns,
Conduct the mourning of your sister gone.

In eight stanzas of eight lines each the stages of the world's history are evoked. Six stanzas end:

Non, dors, c 'est bien fini, dors pour l'éternité.

The line

O convoi solennel des soleils magnifiques

returns between stanzas as a refrain. The poet foresees a time when the earth will be 'une épave énorme et solitaire .. . un bloc inerte et tragique,' quite different from what it was toward the other end of its history, when there were only:

. . . les pantoums du vent, la clameur des flots sourds,
Et les bruissements argentins des feuillages.

.. . the wind's pantoums, the stubborn waves' complaint,
And the silvery murmurs of the foliage.

However, the intruder appeared:

Mais l'être impur paraît! ce frêle révolté
De la sainte Maia déchire les beaux voiles
Et le sanglot des temps jaillit vers les étoiles . . .

But the infirm creature appears, the feeble rebel
Snatching away the veils of holy Maya.
The dirge of ages rises toward the stars.

The Middle Ages are evoked in Romantic terms. The fifth stanza is a series of exclamations, a list of things to be lost with earth—invention, music, arts and science—and although the formal interest is slight, the twentieth-century reader thinks of another vision of the eclipse of culture, Paul Valéry's, in 'A Thousand Despairing Hamlets.' After the musings on Buddha and Jesus already quoted, the poem reaches its highest degree of concreteness in the penultimate stanza:

Et plus rien! ô Vénus de marbre! eaux-fortes vaines!
Cerveau fou de Hegel! doux refrains consolants!
Clochers brodés à jour et consumés d'élans.
Livres où l'homme mit d'inutiles victoires!
Tout ce qu'a la fureur de tes fils enfanté,
Tout ce qui fut ta fange et ta splendeur si brève,
O Terre, est maintenant comme un rêve, un grand rêve . . .

Then nothing more! O marble Venus! vain designs!
Mad brain of Hegel! Mild consoling songs!
Lace-light steeples spent with man's aspirings.
Books wherein man his futile gains inscribed!
All that the fury of your sons engendered,
All of your mire and momentary splendor,
O earth, is now like a dream, a great dream.

This is oratorical verse, eloquence of a kind whose neck Laforgue would be at pains to wring a little later on. But as the poem ends slipping into the Schopenhauerian dark, 'sans nom dans le noir sans mémoire,' we cannot fail to admire the poet for the amount of intellectual history he has compressed into a poem and a collection.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

Arkell, David. Looking for Laforgue: An Informal Biography. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1979, 248 p.

A major biography of Laforgue in English. Imparts biographical detail in casual tone and reprints many letters and other documents concerning Laforgue's life.

Collie, Michael. "An Evaluation." In Jules Laforgue, pp. 90-112. London: Athlone Press, 1977.

Attempts to define Laforgue's worldview, emphasizing in particular the poet's notions of the body, desire, and women.

Cowley, Malcolm. "Laforgue in America: A Testimony." In his And I Worked at the Writer's Trade: Chapters of Literary History, 1918-1978, pp. 69-81. New York: Viking Press, 1978.

Explores, largely through personal memory, Laforgue's influence on early twentieth-century American writers.

Eliot, T. S. "The Nineteenth Century: Summary and Comparison" and "Laforgue and Corbière in Our Time." In his The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, pp. 207-28 and 281-98. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1993.

Originally delivered as lectures in 1926 and 1933, the essays define Laforgue as a modern receptacle of seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry, placing him between that tradition and Eliot's own age.

Erkkila, Betsy. "Walt Whitman and Jules Laforgue." Walt Whitman Review 24, No. 1 (March 1978): 71-77.

Argues that Whitman was a primary influence on Laforgue, especially regarding his experiments with free verse.

Hannoosh, Michele. "The Early Laforgue: Tessa." French Forum 8, No. 1 (January 1983): 20-32.

Offers a rare discussion of Laforgue's unpublished play, Tessa, which he wrote almost a year before his first poem. Hannoosh demonstrates connections between Tessa and Laforgue's later work.

——. "Metaphysicality and Belief: Eliot on Laforgue." Comparative Literature 39, No. 4 (Fall 1987): 340-51.

Examines Laforgue's influence on Eliot beyond poetic similarities, with specific attention to the lectures, collected in The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, in which Eliot offers his evaluation of Laforgue's metaphysical qualities.

Parody and Decadence: Laforgue 's "Moralités légendaires. " Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1989, 241 p.

Studies Laforgue's collection of short stories in-depth, considering them in the context of late-nineteenth-century French aesthetics.

"The Poet as Art Critic: Laforgue's Aesthetic Theory." Modern Language Review 79, No. 3 (July 1984): 553-69.

Gathers information from disparate sources—Laforgue's notebooks, published and unpublished articles—in order to suggest Laforgue's guiding aesthetic principles and to demonstrate his aptitude as a critic of the visual arts.

Holmes, Anne. "Jules Laforgue's 1883 'Agenda': Love and Art." French Studies XLVII, No. 4 (October 1993): 422-34.

Reconstructs Laforgue's theories of aesthetics and desire from passages in his notes for the year 1883.

Newman, Francis. An introduction to Six Moral Tales from Jules Laforgue, by Jules Laforgue, edited and translated by Francis Newman, pp. 9-26. New York: Horace Liverlight, 1928.

A general discussion of Moral Tales that includes a brief overview of Laforgue's life.

Peyre, Henri. "Jules Laforgue: 1860-1887." In The Poem Itself, edited by Stanley Burnshaw, pp. 60-3. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Brief, focused comments on four of Laforgue's major poems. Peyre provides the original French text, his English translation, and a short textual analysis of each poem.

Ramsey, Warren, ed. Jules Laforgue: Essays on a Poet's Life and Work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press; London, Amsterdam: Feffer & Simons, 1969, 194 p.

A collection of essays by such critics as Ramsey, Henri Peyre, Peter Brooks, and William Jay Smith. Includes comparisons of Laforgue's work with that of other writers, as well as discussions of Laforgue's style, symbolism, and dramatic presentation.

Scofield, Martin. '"Your Only Jig-Maker': Jules Laforgue." In his The Ghosts of Hamlet, pp. 34-44. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Investigates Laforgue's literary preoccupation with Hamlet.

Smith, William Jay. An Introduction to Moral Tales by Jules Laforgue, translated by William Jay Smith, pp. xi-xxvi. New York: New Directions Books, 1985.

Biographical, thematic, and cultural overview of Moral Tales.

Sonnenfeld, Albert. "Hamlet and the German Jules Laforgue." Yale French Studies No. 33 (December 1964): 92-100.

With Helen Phelps Bailey and Scofield (see above), one of the primary studies of Laforgue's use of the Hamlet figure throughout his work.

Unger, Leonard. "Laforgue, Conrad, and T. S. Eliot." In his The Man in the Name: Essays on the Experience of Poetry, pp. 190-242. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956.

Cites examples of Laforgue's influence on the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

Additional coverage of Laforgue's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 5; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 20.

Helen Phelps Bailey (essay date 1964)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5064

SOURCE: "The Hamlet of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Laforgue," in Hamlet in France: From Voltaire to Laforgue, Librairie Droz, 1964, pp. 137-52.

[The following excerpt from Bailey's book treats the Symbolist fascination with Hamlet; she contends, through an analysis of "Hamlet" and other references to the figure in Laforgue's writings, that Laforgue identified with Hamlet.]

With the emergence of Symbolism, Hamlet may be said to have come into his own. Shakespeare's spiritually embattled hero, with his intuition of things undreamed-of in a corrupt and sordid world, found a congenial element in the climate of ideality that nurtured poetry in the last half of the century. The interpretations of Laforgue and Mallarmé, ironic in the one case, exalted in the other, reveal a sensitivity to Hamlet's scope and mystery rarely rivaled in the literature of Hamlet commentary. They took the Prince of Denmark out of the theater, in the strict sense of the term, to make of him a symbolic figure undefined by time or space, a potential hero, haunted by the specter of the absolute, harassed by cosmic doubt.

It was Hamlet's irreducible complexity and his frustration that endeared him to the poets. They saw in him their own reflections, or interpreted their "unique" individual attitudes and feelings in terms of what they conceived his to be. . . .

Laforgue took ironic delight in the image of himself as Hamlet; Villiers de L'Isle Adam is said to have modeled his attitudes and gestures on the mad Hamlet of Rouvière. Even Verlaine, who "preferred the ballet to Shakespeare," according to Arthur Symons, occasionally quoted "To be, or not to be." For the young Morèas, there were only "two subjects of conversation: his own poems and Hamlet."

In the foyer of Symbolism on the rue de Rome, Hamlet was a beloved subject. [In Nos Rencontres, 1931] Régnier writes of having seen at Mallarmé's a pastel by Manet representing Hamlet in the graveyard scene; he mentions Shakespeare's Prince among the ideal heroes evoked by the master at his famous "Tuesdays": "Sometimes it was a Shakespeare who furnished Mallarmé with a revealing commentary, sometimes a Wagner who suggested to him vast possibilities. We believed then that we saw the lance of Parsifal gleaming or the black plume of Hamlet's toque waving in the wind." . . .

To his preoccupation with the Prince of Denmark, Laforgue brought the insight of a poet and an artist and all the forms of determinist thought that flourished in his time. His was a richly stocked mind that yearned to submerge itself in "the Universal Principle of the Unconscious." He made Hamlet the symbol of an unrelenting dualism that he knew too well: a longing for the absolute, frustrated by a sense of the accidental and a haunting suspicion that all adds up to nothing; a sense of the responsibility of genius—to itself—with a spirit bowed under the weight of futility, the "A quoi bon?"

It has been said that Hamlet was for Jules Laforgue what Saint Anthony was for Flaubert. Unquestionably, among the countless characters of literature that shared the poet's private world, none was associated more constantly or more profoundly with his thoughts and feelings than Lord Hamlet.

Two of Laforgue's earliest poems, the first composed when he was nineteen, the second at the age of twenty, attest a curious affinity for the Hamlet of the graveyard scene. "Guitare" (1879) is a characteristically Laforguian development of the "Now get you to my lady's chamber" lines in Hamlet's Yorick speech. "Excuse macabre" (1880) reveals the future author of the Moralités légendaires in one of his most "Hamletic" and sardonic moods. He addresses himself to a skull, presumably the little monkey skull he kept among his treasures, here called Margaretha after the "fiancee of [his] fourteenth year, . . . [the] so pale .. . so cold Marguerite."

So, Marguerite, my lovéd one, for me,
Who believe all ends on earth in cemeteries,
An old skull is all that's left of you!
Isn't that the fate of all in nature?
The Hugos and the Caesars,—a bit of dust blown by the wind;
Suns the sky is strewn with,
Worlds will all some day be swallowed up in nothingness,
Marguerite, my lovéd one! . . .
And since, when all is said and done, there's nothing
That is not smoke and vanity,
Your skull .. . I may sell it, may I not,
Marguerite, my lovéd one?

The Fleurs de bonne volonté are preppered with epigraphs from Shakespeare's Hamlet, mainly from the Prince's conversation with Ophelia; in one of the Fleurs, the fair Ophelia is summoned to console the poet's loneliness. Two passages from Shakespeare's play preface the Derniers Vers, composed presumably after the poet's marriage and shortly before his death: Hamlet's "I have not art to reckon my groans thine evermore, [sic] most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him," signed "J.L."; and Ophelia's description of Hamlet's strange behavior on his visit to her, ending with Polonius's "This is the very ecstasy of love."

We infer, then, that Laforgue never ceased to think of himself as Hamlet. To some who knew him, the identification seemed well founded. [In "Essai Sur Jules Laforgue," Mercure de France] Camille Mauclair wrote of Laforgue in 1896: "He has something of that Hamlet that he loved so much . . . He has Hamlet's reserved, almost naive manner, the lack of affectation, the recent learning still bringing into the conversations with Horatio the metaphysical impressions and argumentations of Elsinore [sic], the sentimental aimlessness, and a world of dreams in conflict with the world of facts. He does not have his father to avenge, he has his soul to free . . . [and] if he does not kill Polonius, at least, like the other Hamlet, he cares little whether or not that 'nobody' sees the strange things he shows him in the clouds. He has his imploring and imperious ghost, the Unconscious, and he converses with it continually, objectifies it by calling it forth, obeys it by rejecting all social scruples and by gratifying his sensibility, as Hamlet does his instinct and his devotion. He is Hamlet on the boulevard . . ."

In Laforgue's "Hamlet or the Consequences of Filial Piety," Shakespeare's drama of a noble prince driven by duty to avenge his father's murder becomes the symbolic tale of a would-be "hero," striving—unheroically—to "free his soul." The Elizabethan tragedy becomes the ironic history of a nineteenth-century intellectual, whose duty to avenge a wrong dissolves like wax under the flame of his ambition to project his latent individuality and his unique significance. Laforgue relates the story of an exceptional man, an artist, who feels that with his gift of a sixth sense, he "might have been a Messiah" except that a prodigious diversity of tastes and talents, complicated by chronic "universal nausea," precluded concentration on the role.

Laforgue centered all the complexity of the Tragedy of Hamlet on the psychology of his hero. The characters are few: the Prince of Denmark; the usurper and the Queen, called Fengo and Gerutha, as in Belieferest; Laertes; two gravediggers; and two figures of Laforgue's invention: the players, Kate and William. There is no Ghost; no Horatio to share Hamlet's mental solitude; no Polonius: Hamlet has disposed of him before the story opens. Ophelia, though much talked of, never appears alive; the name of Fortinbras figures merely as a threat to the future fortunes of the state of Denmark. The plot is slight; our attention is focused on the hero's meditations and his recurrent, ever fruitless resolutions to engage in action. The scene encompasses the distance from Hamlet's "ivory tower" to the graveyard. The time is explicitly established as evening on the fourteenth of July, 1601.

Laforgue's setting mirrors his hero's soul. Even the sea embodies a spirit of ineffectualness and a futile longing for heroic action: " . . . the free and hardworking Sund, flowing along its ordinary course in nondescript waves, waiting for the wind and the hour to frolic in masterly style with the poor boats of the fishermen (the only feeling the fatality that weighs on them leaves them capable of)." Hamlet's solitary tower stands on a kind of "sterile promontory" like "a forgotten leprous sentinel." At its base, amid the "faded bouquets of ephemeral festivities," rots the refuse of the palace greenhouses. No royal swans grace the sickly surface of the stagnant cove. Of its two windows, one "shows in dirty gray the sky, the open sea, existence without end"; through the other, comes to Hamlet the perpetual plaint of the wind in the trees of the royal forest.

Hamlet's room evokes "an incurable .. . an insolvent autumn." Its walls are hung with views of Jutland—"impeccably naive" paintings at which Hamlet "spits heroically" in passing. Between the windows hang two full-length portraits: one of Hamlet "en dandy," smiling appealingly against a ground of sulphurous twilight; the other of the late King Horwendill, his father, portrayed with a "roguish, faun-like eye" and bright new armor. An etcher's instruments hopelessly corroded from disuse, an organ, and a heap of books bear witness to pursuits abandoned; a chaise longue and a full-length mirror suggest the dandy following Baudelaire's counsel to "live and sleep before a mirror" in the practice of the "cult of self." A buffet with a secret lock attests a fear of poisoning. Finally, two waxen statuettes representing Fengo and Gerutha, both "moulded with a vengeful thumb," each with a needle through its heart, symbolize the vengeance of a Hamlet who will "speak daggers, but use none."

We meet the "hero" musing at his tower window as he awaits the arrival of the strolling players. His first speech voices the same soul-sickness that made Shakespeare's Prince find "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable .. . all the uses of this world," the same longing for relief from the pain of consciousness. But it is not his father's death and his mother's o'er-hasty marriage that obsess Laforgue's "pariah." He has a special problem: an irresistible vocation to be a Hero in an ephemeral world where all things seem mediocre and absurd. "Un héros; ou simplement vivre" is his "To be, or not to be:"

—Ah! just to take it nice and easy like those waves . . .

—Ah! if only I were pushed to take the trouble! . . . but everything is so precious in minutes and so fleeting! And the only practical thing is to keep still, keep still and act consistently . . .

—Stability! Stability! thy name is Woman .. . life's all right, if it has to be. But a hero! And to come into the world in the first place, domesticated by an age and environments! Is that a proper, fair fight for a hero? .. . A hero! and let all things else be curtain raisers! .. . A hero! Or simply live. Method, Method, what do you expect of me? You know very well that I have eaten of the fruit of the Unconscious! . . .

In his mounting impatience at the players' tardiness, Hamlet's thoughts turn to more immediate concerns: the smarting in his fingers, for example, caused by the act of tearing up Ophelia's letters which she had written on heavy first-quality paper, "the whim of a little upstart." Ophelia has been missing for some twenty-four hours, presumably since she learned that her father had been killed by Hamlet; but Hamlet is not worried for her safety. He tells himself that she was not for him in any case: she never would have understood him.

At the sight of the boat that brings the players across the cove, Hamlet remembers the two notebooks on his writing table and suddenly recalls what he set out to do: to exalt his filial piety and goad himself to vengeance by putting into words his father's murder. In the fervor of creation, he became so absorbed in the work itself that he forgot it was his "father murdered," his "mother stained," his throne that were the question. "I forgot as I went along," he says, "that the subject was my father murdered, robbed of all the living he had left in this precious world (poor man, poor man!), my mother prostituted (a sight that ruined woman for me and drove me to send the heavenly Ophelia to her death from shame and deterioration!), my throne, after all! I was going along merrily with the fictions of a fine subject . . ." So intense was his concern with form, so impartial his genius in presenting the case of the evil traitor beside that of the good hero, that he even forgot to give the needles in the hearts of the waxen statuettes their daily turn. He chides himself for this neglect of duty, calling himself "ham" and "little monster," and thinks what he might do if the times and his milieu were not so unpropitious.

The arrival of the players, Kate and William, breaks in on Hamlet's mediations. He receives them eagerly, calling them "my brothers," and offering them English cigarettes. Not even a reminder from the Queen that they must get on with the funeral of Polonius alters his determination to have a play performed at once. It has to be the play that he has written, and he gives the actors a script to study. This proves to be the Murder of Gonzago, with a few retouches by Laforgue. The player-queen prétends to be hulling strawberries as she watches over her sleeping spouse; the usurper is not "Lucianus, nephew to the King," but Claudius, the King's brother; the poison poured "delicately" into the victim's ear is not "juice of hebona" but lead melted in a spoon by the conspirators. William is assigned the role of Claudius; Kate will play the Queen.

Laforgue's Hamlet, like his counterpart, has advice to give the players. He points out certain passages that must be emphasized, others that may be skipped, though he is so fond of these he cannot refrain from taking time to read them before his audience of two.

The time is set for the performance; the players, pocketing the money Hamlet offers them, go off convinced they have been rightly warned of Hamlet's madness. For his part, Hamlet—"the man of action"—spends five minutes dreaming about his play, "peak[ing] / Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of [his] cause," then bursts into a long soliloquy. The monologue begins determinedly enough, in a mood reminiscent of the final passage of the "Hecuba" soliloquy:

That's got it. Mr. Fengo will understand. A word to the wise .. . ! And there'll be nothing left for me to do but act, just sign my name! To act! To kill him! make him spew forth his life . . .

But the unhappy Hamlet cannot fix his thoughts for long on a deed so removed from his obsession:

. . . I must act! I must kill, or I must escape from here! Oh! to escape! .. . O freedom! freedom! To love, to live, to dream, to be famous, far away! Oh! dear aurea mediocritas! Yes, what Hamlet lacks is freedom . . .

His sense of the preciousness of his existence, of the uniqueness of his individuality, takes over:

And after all, to think that I exist! That I have my very own life! Eternity in itself before my birth, eternity in itself after my death. And I spend my days killing time this way! And old age coming on .. . I can't just stand here, anonymous, marking time! And to leave Memoirs is not enough for me. O Hamlet! Hamlet! If they only knew! . . . Ah! How alone I am! And, to tell the truth, the times have nothing to do with it. I have five senses that connect me to life; but this sixth sense, this sense of the Infinite! . . .

He closes the circle of these meditations with a grandiloquent restatement of his determination to act:

Yes, I'll go away; I'll come back anonymous among decent people; and I'll get married for always and for every day. That would have been, of all my ideas, the most Hamletic! But tonight, I have to act; we must show who we are! Forward over the tombs, like Nature!

On his way to the graveyard, he pauses to hurl the body of a canary he has strangled at the head of a girl who sits nearby, crocheting; such "strange, destructive impulses" have been not infrequent since his father's "irregular" death. His remorse for this gratuitous brutality, though intense, is short-lived; he reassures himself that he was simply seeking practice for the deed to come, as when he had killed Polonius. That Laforgue had in mind Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia in the nunnery scene, is suggested by his comment: " . . . Hamlet hasn't yet come to realize that he had thought little more of the sad Ophelia (oh! little more, poor bird) . . ."

The sight of groups of workers returning to their homes sets off another of Hamlet's soliloquies, this time on the social order and the absurdity of his passion as a youth to better it. At last he arrives at the graveyard, too late for the burial of Polonius, but in time to find the gravediggers still at work: one arranging the wreaths on Polonius's tomb, the other preparing Yorick's grave to receive the body of Ophelia. With the perfect impassivity of the dandy as Baudelaire described him, Hamlet learns from the gravedigger's gossip that he is not, after all, Gerutha's son, but the son of the beautiful gypsy, Yorick's mother, hence the brother of a court fool and "not the self-made man he thought he was." He listens unmoved as the gravedigger tells him that the body of Ophelia has been recovered near the dam, that Prince Hamlet is said to have lost his wits, and that, in view of all these portents of disaster, he has himself converted his small savings into Norwegian bonds, against the probable annexation of the realm by Fortinbras.

Still outwardly unmoved, but with that "latent fire that lets itself be sensed, that could shine forth, but will not," this Hamlet speaks his Yorick speech, a kind of symphonic discourse on death and the Eternal. Phrases borrowed here and there from Shakespeare's hero are interwoven with some of the nihilist's familiar themes. Consideration of the fate of Yorick leads him to contemplate his own. To be sure, he reflects, with the accumulation of trivial actions that make up everyday existence, all the little people of history have come to this. But Hamlet, with his "sixth sense of the Infinite," with his intimation of a special mission, and his enormous love of life, Hamlet cannot be like all the rest: "Well, what am I waiting here for?—Death! death! Do we have time to think about it, however gifted we may be? I, die! Come now! We'll talk about it later, we have time . . . But not to be any more; not to be there; not to be a part of it all any more! Never again to be able to press against one's human heart, on any afternoon, the sadness of centuries held in a tiny chord on the piano." Unable to feel what death is like, he concludes that life must want something from him still. Once more, the dreaming Hamlet has talked himself into coming to grips with action.

But the funeral of Ophelia intervenes. This "hero" does not leap into the grave, nor challenge Laertes to vie with him in proof of love; he merely "unpacks his heart with words." Taking the skull of Yorick with him to place among his treasures, between one of Ophelia's gloves and his own first tooth, Hamlet returns to his tower, again determined to do something. What he does is to settle with Kate the arrangements for the performance of his play, promising to run away with her as soon as the play is over; then before he quits his ivory tower, he carefully melts down the statuettes, dissolving the sordid past in a pool of molten wax.

During the play episode, Hamlet sits alone in a corner of the gallery, imagining the effect his words would have on a Paris audience. When he observes the King and Queen, it is only to conclude from their indifference that his play still needs revising. Early in the second act, even before the player-tyrant enters, Fengo faints; Gerutha rises stiffly to her feet; and in the general confusion, Hamlet stammers "Music! Music! So it was true! And I wouldn't believe it!"

Confronted with his proof (whether it be proof of Fengo's guilt or of his own genius is not clear), he sees in the present danger to his life a new pretext for immediate escape. He salvages his manuscript and rides off with Kate toward Paris and a life of glory in the arts.

When they reach the graveyard, Hamlet suddenly dismounts, "stung by some mysterious tarantula," goes to Ophelia's grave and stands, arms folded, waiting. There is no duel, but it is Laertes who determines Hamlet's fate. He steps from behind a tombstone, stabs the Prince and flees, as the dying Hamlet murmurs "qualis . . . artifex . . . pereo!" Kate, discovering Hamlet's body on the grave, concludes he must have killed himself for love. "One Hamlet less," Laforgue concludes; "but the race is not lost, we may be sure."

Beneath the exaggeration of this portrait is discernible the poignant sympathy of one who feels he belongs to the race of Hamlets. Irony, that "vengeance of the vanquished," as Baudelaire called it, is in every line. The effect is a caricature at once of Laforgue himself and of the Romantic figures whose stories filled his poet's mind. It is as if Laforgue had made an image of himself with features of his literary forebears and plunged a needle through its heart. Physically, the identification with himself is unmistakable. Though he made Hamlet out to be thirty (that autumnal age in the Romantic's life), hence five years older than himself, he gave him his own chestnut-colored hair, growing to a peak over a lofty brow; his pale, smooth-shaven face and expression of gentle, meditative melancholy; his gray-blue eyes with their deep, abstracted gaze that made him seem always to be "trying to touch the Real with invisible antennae"; his customary black costume; his slow, calm gait.

In character, ideas, and interests, the details of resemblance are no less remarkable: the etcher's laboratory, the foreign cigarettes, the prophet's enthusiasms dwindled into dilettantism, the adherence to the philosophy of the unconscious, the mixed feelings about women, the "universal nausea," the rage at humanity's indifference to his "divine" heart.

It was Laforgue, but it might have been his Hamlet, who wrote to Sanda Mahali in 1882: "Know, dear poet, that before I had literary ambitions, I had the enthusiasms of a prophet, and at one period, I dreamed every night of going to console Savonarola in his prison. Now I am a dilettante in everything, with sometimes minor attacks of universal nausea. I watch the carnival of life pass by . . . I smoke mild cigarettes, I write verse and prose, perhaps do an occasional etching, and I wait for death."

An echo of Hamlet's praise for "A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards / [Has] ta'en with equal thanks . . ." and in whom "blood and judgment are so well comedled" sounds in a letter of Laforgue's to his friend Charles Ephrussi: "I drag along like a snail, very slowly, through the pages of an Ollendorff for my German. Then I think, and after thinking, I doubt . . . And I'm bored . . . If it were enough to believe that one had talent to have it, I would have talent.—You are safe and sound, you work steadily and conscientiously, without remorse. You have a great aim and you hold to it. You have never worn yourself out in useless dreams."

This Hamlet, like his creator, is exceptionally gifted, attuned to "the inexhaustible symphony of the universal soul," torn between the absolute and the ephemeral, attracted and repelled by the aurea mediocritas, frustrated in his ambition to be a hero. Like Laforgue, he is paralyzed by boredom and filled with a longing to be free. Hamlet says: "My rare gift of assimilation / Will interfere with my vocation. / Ah! how superiorly bored I am!" To describe himself, Laforgue wrote: "A weather-vane of the thirty-six seasons, / I am too many to say yes or no." Hamlet, rationalizing his treatment of Ophelia on the ground that, even with her "celestial gaze," she turned out to be only "female" like the rest, speaks for the young poet who found it hard to forgive the "angels" of his fancies for being merely women. Finally, the plaintive "Oh! how dear are the trains I've missed . . ." might have been his Hamlet's epitaph, as well as the comment he meant it to be on his own frustrated life.

Laforgue recast Shakespeare's Hamlet in the mold of a decadent Romantic, bestowed on him his own doubts and conflicts, and played on the image the lights of contemporary thought. The Hamlet he saw was an incurable dreamer, though a disenchanted one, the victim of a malady very like a neurosis, doomed from the start by an unfelicitous combination of heredity and environment and by the conflict in his soul. The adversaries in the fatal struggle would appear to be the self, fighting for release and recognition, and a pressing obligation that no amount of reasoning can make him really believe in. For Laforgue, Hamlet's "antic disposition" seems to spring from "sore distraction": not dementia, but the madness of genius unrecognized or misunderstood, and ineffectual. Laertes—"the excellent Laertes," that "fool of humanity"—calls Hamlet "a poor demented fellow, irresponsible according to the latest advances in science." Kate says: "Oh! you must be unique and misunderstood! and not mad, as all these people with their spurs and toothpicks say. But what a lot of suffering you must have caused!"

Laforgue apparently meant to honor Hamlet's claim to have loved Ophelia. It is the "now legendary and mysterious Ophelia," symbol of the ideal, who draws him away from Kate and life. In his interpretation of Hamlet's conduct toward her—the acts by which his cruelty is symbolized, the invention of Kate, the confusion of Kate with Ophelia, the identification of Kate with the Queen in the role of Baptista—the poet seems to have anticipated the Freudian Hamlet described by Ernest Jones [in Hamlet and Oedipus, 1954].

For Laforgue, the enigma of Hamlet was the enigma of life itself. Had he been inclined to treat it gravely, he might have presented it in the terms of Mallarmé. But Laforgue systematically shied away from gravity. What he called his "dilettantism" and his universal skepticism made him treat Hamlet's tragedy in terms of the absurd. In an imaginary interview with Shakespeare's Prince at Elsinore, he apologized: "I'm the only one who takes you lightly, your Highness, à la Yorick, . . . because it's all too much for me." He pictured Hamlet shouting crazily: "Aux armes! citoyens. There's no more reason!" and groaning in despair at the impossibility of attaining the ideal. He fancied himself, infected by Hamlet's madness, wildly dancing the Criterion of Human Certitude. ".. . This dance consists in describing with the feet the figure of the square of the hypotenuse, that Gibraltar of certainty, a simple and immortal figure; the only thing is that as you perform the last step, you don't know why, you inevitably stumble and fall on your face."

Absurd or not, Prince Hamlet was, according to Laforgue, "the master of us all," "tomorrow's ancestor." And there were some in Paris, the poet reassured His Highness, who were cultivating His special legend: Arthur Rimbaud, for example, "who died of it . . ." and Paul Bourget "who cultivates and aggravates it, with enough correctness, however, to stop (pretending to recoil) at nihilism."

Laforgue might also have named Henri de Régnier, had he been able to look into the young poet's heart. But it was twenty years before Régnier made public his own espousal of Hamlet's legend in the following poem, one of three "Feuillets retrouvés dans un exemplaire de Shakespeare." . . .

For Régnier, as for Mallarmé and for Laforgue, the Tragedy of Hamlet was more than the masterful dramatization of an absorbing chronicle. It was the symbol of man's struggle to resolve into one the duality created in him by the conflict between thought and action. Régnier wrote [in "Hamlet a Paris," Le Gaulois, 1899]: "What Hamlet is watching for is not so much an opportunity to kill the King as the furtive instant when he will be at one with himself, when his desire to act and his aversion to action will fuse into one will." He imagined Hamlet talking with Mallarmé at Elsinore, envying the poet his pure, integral life, a life unmarred by any action that was not intellectual and speculative. And he pictured Hamlet deploring his own wretched and equivocal existence, in which action diverted him from meditation and chance was stronger than destiny.

With the Symbolists, Hamlet took on some of the traits of that figure of "periods of decline" that Baudelaire called the "dandy" [in "Le Peintre de la vie moderne," Curiosités esthétiques]: the "hero," conscious of the aristocratic superiority of his intellect, filled with a "burning need to create an originality of [his] own," in whom the cult of self "can survive the pursuit of the happiness to be found in others, in woman, for example, . . . even all that people call illusions." Significantly, the Symbolists saw in the tragedy of Hamlet, not action impeded by morbid melancholy or reflection, as had their elders, the Romantics, but rather the image of mundane action thwarting their pursuit of the ideal—or the ephemeral. The very equivocal nature of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the "discords unresolved" that vibrate in the mind provoking endless speculation, the "sense of frustration, futility, and human inadequacy" that makes up "the burden of the whole symphony:" [John Dover Wilson, What Happens in HAMLET, 1937,] these Laforgue and his fellow Symbolists responded to. These are the themes Laforgue transposed in his ironic idiom to define the "Hamletism" that marks the literature of doubt, disillusion, and frustration of the late nineteenth century. Perhaps Régnier was right when he imagined Hamlet saying at the end of his interview with Mallarmé: "But tell me about that dear Jules Laforgue. He and Shakespeare understood me."

. . . [Laforgue's] Hamlet is more profound than Shakespeare's Hamlet, . . . it is tenderer, and wittier, and more charming, and wiser.

Frances Newman, in "Introduction" to Six Moral Tales of Jules Laforgue, 1928.

E. J. Stormon (essay date 1965)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4780

SOURCE: "Some Notes on T. S. Eliot and Jules Laforgue," in Essays in French Literature, Vol. 2, November, 1965, pp. 103-14.

[In the following essay, Stormon charts the apparent echoes of Laforgue in Eliot's verse. The critic sees an affinity between the two poets based mainly on Laforgue's "reaching after some vital hidden centre, " which Stormon equates with Eliot's objective correlative.]

In December 1908, Eliot, then aged twenty, discovered Arthur Symons' book, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, in the Library of the Harvard Union, and found himself excited by the quotations in it, particularly those from Laforgue. Shortly afterwards, he went to Schoenhof s foreign bookshop in Boston, and had the good fortune to light on the three volumes of the 1901-1903 edition of the Œuvres complètes de Jules Laforgue (Mercure de France). In Laforgue's verse he found a form of expression which helped him to say the kind of thing that he wanted to say himself, and a temperament akin to his own—two aspects, as he notes, of the same thing. Laforgue, he tells us, "was the first to teach me how to speak, to teach me the poetic possibilities of my own idiom of speech." It is important to realize that it was a distinctive English idiom that was in question, and that the outlook and attitudes that came to expression in it reveal growing differences from those of Laforgue, as well as some striking resemblances. Full account has not yet been taken of the points of contact between the two poets, or of the points at which they part company, so that, in spite of all that has been written on this subject, it may be worth while to look at it again.

What would Eliot have found in that germinal volume of Poésies of the early Mercure de France edition? Laforgue had died in 1887, just as he was coming to poetic maturity, and had left a good deal of published and unpublished verse behind him, some of it brilliant, agile, and witty, some of it histrionically cynical, some of it accomplished and moving, some of it merely adolescent. The edition of 1902, which Eliot used, brought much of this material together, though in a far from definitive text. It will repay us to look in a summary way at the various collections of verse drawn on for this volume, for this will remind us of the various stages of Laforgue's astonishing and pitifully short career, and help us look over Eliot's shoulder, as it were, as he works his way through the pages that are going to enable him [to] bring his feelings to focus and organize his language over the following few years.

First there was Le Sanglot de la terre, a group of twenty-nine poems representing Laforgue in his late teens and very early twenties. "I was sojouring in the cosmic", he later said of this period, and the poems are in consequence full of night, eternity, the void, dying stars and suns, and in particular of a vermin-bearing earth which is source of a mysterious throe, and is moving inevitably towards extinction. Some vestiges of a quasi-religious feeling have survived the collapse of faith, and have become associated with the earth and the poet's own heart, or with the image of the rose window in Notre Dame Cathedral. But the characteristic attitude here gradually shaping itself is one of ironic distrust towards a Nature that secures its ends through illusion, or of jaunty, quizzical, mockery before the mystery of existence: "Je défiais l'instinct avec un rire amer"; "Je fume au nez des dieux de fines cigarettes." In partial contrast with the would-be sardonic feeling, the language shows a young man aiming at a full-mouthed, rather facile eloquence, with a still somewhat naïve reliance on the declamatory qualities of the classical alexandrine.

The Complaintes are much more oblique in manner and sophisticated in content. By now Laforgue has assimilated the system, such as it is, of Eduard von Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious, and feels that he has gained a definitive insight into the origin of natural appetite and human consciousness, and into the emptiness into which they will disappear when the Unconscious Absolute completes its unfolding. This philosophy (we need not pause now to pass judgment on it) is not so much expounded as used as a perspective in which the situations and the attitudes of the speakers in the Complaintes are to be seen. The poet may be said to assume a number of masks, but it might be more accurate to say that he twists his own face into various stylized expressions—the blank, abstracted look of a moonstruck Pierrot being the most notable—and finds in the language that goes with these personœ some slightly dramatized equivalent for his own characteristic feelings. The resounding eloquence of the early poems is now replaced by verbal subtlety—by wit, irony and blague, beneath which a tragic poignancy is often discernible. The style is complex and nimble, capable of rendering a rapid, complicated play of mind and the criss-crossing of different feelings. Laforgue here breaks away from his over-solemn sonnets and resounding alexandrines to cultivate a great variety of forms. He imitates popular airs, catches up snatches of dialogue, speaks colloquially out of carefully contrived situations, or rehearses dramatic moments in retrospect. A certain number of the Complaintes are virtuoso constructions, having not much more consistency than a house of cards, but others survive as genuine poems, bitter-sweet, quizzical, a little exhibitionist, but sometimes with an appealing suggestion of pathos behind them.

In L'Imitation de Notre Dame la Lune, Laforgue moves towards a more musical, "purer" type of poetry, bathed in the moonlight which it celebrates. The poet transforms himself for much of the time into Pierrot, one of the "lunologues éminents", and talks in character, but with greater imaginative richness and metrical precision than before.

The poems of the last section, Derniers vers and Des Fleurs de bonne volonté, reveal a Laforgue fast maturing in command over his material and his medium.

The esprit de système with which he had earlier expounded his deep-seated pessimism is no longer obtrusive, and there are occasional signs that he is coming to more positive terms with life. The Fleurs de bonne volonté, reproduced more extensively in the second Mercure de France edition, contain a few well poised, knowledgeably witty poems like the dryly pathetic "Ballade"; others are simply brouillons turned to better account in the Derniers vers, or set aside to be worked over again for other purposes. The Derniers vers themselves mark quite a significant new stage, and call for special comment. They consist of twelve monologues in a free verse measure developed out of the alexandrine, and allowing of expansion or contraction according to the pulse of the feeling, with rhymes echoing in a haunting irregular sequence. The structural principle is obviously musical, and this is reinforced by the sound-effects of blowing horns and autumnal wind and by other devices, without however quite reaching the dominance that it is meant to have:

Oh! que . . .
Ma mélodie, toute et unique monte,
Dans le soir et redouble, et fasse tout ce qu'elle peut
Et dise la chose qu'est la chose,
Et retombe, et reprenne,
Et fasse de la peine,
O solo de sanglots,
Et reprenne et retombe
Selon la tâche qui lui incombe.

The monologue allows bits and pieces of dramatic situations to unfold from narrative, but all is absorbed into a covering "stream of consciousness" in which the real continuity of the poem is maintained.—This then is the supple and resourceful medium to which he eventually found his way, and in which he achieves his most assured and rounded-out expression.

Eliot himself has identified the four poems in his first volume which he wrote directly under the influence of Laforgue; they are "Conversation Galante", "Portrait of a Lady", "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", and "La Figlia Che Piange", in that order. There were three earlier pieces in the Laforgue manner which he allowed to remain in the comparative obscurity of the Harvard Advocate, and which do not call for any further attention than has been already given them. Nor need we linger over certain obvious points of contact between the two poets in "Rhapsody on a Windy Night", a poem which Eliot himself associates with a further phase. It is the four poems which have been clearly grouped "sous le signe de Laforgue" that will best bear the weight of an enquiry. In addition, however, we may note what may be a significant reminiscence in the fourth of Eliot's early "Preludes".

(i) "Prelude" IV

The tone and movement of these verses hardly suggest those of Laforgue, but there is an interesting correspondence between the central concern here and the one quasi-religious image in Le Sanglot de la terre. This has been described by François Ruchon, with slightly exaggerated emphasis, as follows:

L'image autour de laquelle le Sanglot semble construit, est celle d'un Cœur douloureux, qui saigne, qui pleure, le cœur d'un Christ humain et sidéral qui souffre pour la création entière, dans le majestueux décor des couchants, ou qui est exposeé comme une hostie sanglante, dans la gloire des cathédrales où brasillent les verriéres.

That is to dwell perhaps too much on the physical aspect of the image. Laforgue is really reaching after the idea of some hidden vital centre, which is a "Cœur où l'univers palpite", a "Cœur universal ruisselant de douceur", a "cœur de la Terre", which is in some sense a projection and extension of his own heart, and is connected, as was noted above, with experiences before the rose window of Notre Dame.

Eliot speaks, not of a "heart", but of a "soul", and this at first appears like a self-projection ("His soul stretched tight across the skies"). Then he feels his way to a further and deeper suggestion:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing

The analogy with the early Laforgue is close, and there may be some literary dependence. The case is strengthened by the "cosmic" imagery of the following lines, where Eliot, having moved in quickly to check crass comment, resignedly accepts the contrast between the idea he is groping for and the mindless turning of the spheres:

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots

We may compare, from Le Sanglot de la terre, "les mondes /. . . . vont continuer leurs rondes", and allow for the possibility of a contaminatio with the figure in the Complaintes of a bent old woman gathering wood, though the resemblance in this latter case is tenuous.

(ii) "Conversation Galante"

This admirable little jeu d'esprit takes its cue, not merely from the two far more serious poems by Laforgue which are clearly in question (Autre Complainte de Lord Pierrot, Pierrots), but from a number of other conversation-pieces as well. The night, the moon, music and a keyboard, the Absolute, a man with a complicated sensibility, a woman confidently banal—this is the familiar stock-in-trade of the Complaintes and Imitation de Notre Dame la Lune. What saves Eliot's verses from being mere pastiche is that there is a genuine transposition of the Laforgue theme into a different idiom, with a different set of evocations. The male speaker, moreover, is not really Pierrot, but a somewhat literary young man whose clowning consists in executing arabesques of romantic nonsense to impress and tantalize his female partner (possibly an older woman), and then in exploiting the un-self-conscious bathos of her replies with mock-gallantry:

"You, madam, are the eternal humorist,
The eternal enemy of the absolute,
Giving our vagrant moods the slightest twist!
With your air indifferent and imperious
At a stroke, our mad poetics to confute—"
And—"Are we then so serious?"

In Laforgue's poems, on the other hand, it is the woman who makes the advances, and Pierrot who caps her pathetically sincere but banal declarations with cynical comment. But this Pierrot is only apparently heartless; he is really living in another dimension, with an eye cocked devotedly towards the Unconscious. In the second poem, even after reminding himself that romantic love is a "salair illusoire / Du capitaliste Idéal", he allows the woman to have the better of the argument, at least in this sense, that if she dies, she simply changes the words of the song by passing into the processes of Nature which create fresh illusions, and this time Pierrot will perhaps succumb.

Eliot's poem is little more than a brilliant playful exercise; it has none of the pathos, or philosophic bite of Laforgue's pieces; and is relatively kind only by being innocuous. The contrast is clearest where the borrowing is most literal. In Autre Complainte, Lord Pierrot, imagining the death of the woman, can still pretend to taunt her on the grounds that they both had all they needed for life as we know it, and that there was no point in taking things to heart and dying over it:

J'aurai un "Ah ça, mais nous avions De Quoi vivre!
C'était donc sérieux?"

There is pity as well as raillerie in this "C'était donc sérieux?". Eliot's "Are we then so serious?" is given to the woman, and does not exceed the requirements of verbal anti-climax.

We must resist the temptation to put more pressure on this small poem than it will bear. It is already an achievement to have adopted the Laforgue manner to the resources of English speech, and to have brought off the blague and the repartee so smartly in impeccable, if minor verse.

(iii) "Portrait of a Lady"

From here on, it is the fluid, musical monologue of Laforgue's Derniers vers that Eliot eliminates, and indeed surpasses. In this kind of poem, it is not so much the argument or narrative that matters as the tone and condition of sensibility which is suggested. Here, perhaps more than elsewhere, the well-known distinction holds good: what the poem says, by way of individual statements, is very much subordinate to what it is, in virtue of the pattern of feelings which it brings to expression within the movement of the verse. The situations, the dialogue, or that side of it which is rehearsed, melt into the musing of the speaker, and are drawn into the rhythm of his voice. Laforgue was aware of the importance of musical effect in maintaining continuity through all the convolutions of the monologue, and occasionally incorporates his own tonal suggestions into the matter of his poem, so that it is harder than ever to make any discrimination between fond and forme:

Je ne puis quitter ce ton: que d'échos!

Eliot, too, sometimes doubles back on his own voice:

This music is successful with a dying fall,
Now that we talk of dying

The situation in "Portrait of a Lady" is brought about, as in "Conversation Galante", by the discordant juxtaposition of two sensibilities, that of the young male speaker, and that of a woman. The woman's fluent, pretentious clichés, pitiful and second-rate, fail to engage the young man's more distinctive, personal feelings, though they still jangle and bewilder him, and make him wonder whether it is his own fault that he does not respond. What makes it worse is that the woman is much older ("about to reach her journey's end"), and is rather desperately reaching out for affection and support:

The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune
Of a broken violin on an August afternoon:
"I am always sure that you understand
My feelings, always sure that you feel,
Sure that across the gulf you stretch your hand"

The best comment on this kind of situation is one that Laforgue himself supplies:

Enfin, voici qu'elle m'honore de ses confidences.
J'en souffre plus qu'elle ne pense

The poet, or the speaker, is forced back into a kind of self-consciousness in which he is both the person in the situation, making certain conventional gestures, and also another person looking quizzically on. Laforgue's Pierrots are habitually like this—

En tête à tête avec la femme
Ils ont toujours l'air d'être un tiers

But there are certain differences. Pierrot has his philosophical principles ("on a des principes"), and can at least pretend to a ruthless cynicism:

—Oh! là, là, ce n'est peut-être pour des prunes,
Qu'on a fait ses classes ici-bas?

Eliot's young man contents himself with a little subtle and inoffensive ambiguity:

".. . Youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see."
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea

In fact, what separates him from the woman is no sense of "à quoi bon?", no deep distrust of Nature's ends, but simply a difference in age and sensibility. (As we shall see, the philosophic perspectives, hardly present in this poem, open out in "Prufrock"). And even so, he is not at all sure of his own position, or the validity of his own feelings. In some ways, the woman, with all her stock attitudes and second-hand phrases, has a dignity and consistency which transcend her words, while he has to invent all sorts of Protean self-transformations to bring himself even to piecemeal expression. Like a Laforgue speaker, he is "trop nombreux pour dire oui ou non", but he has the grace to be conscious of this as a possible judgment on himself ("My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark").

The speakers in both Eliot's and Laforgue's poems do much the same kind of thing by way of keeping up appearances ("Allons, fumons une pipette de tabac"; cf. "Vous fumez dans vos bocks"; "Let us take the air in a tobacco trance, / Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks"). On occasions, however, even the hackneyed tunes of near-by pianos or barrel-organs catch them out and break up their composure ("le moindre orgu' de Barbari / . . . m'empoigne aux entrailles"; "Except when a street piano, mechanical and tired, / Reiterates some worn-out common song"). But when they envisage the possible death of the woman, they differ very considerably. Laforgue's Pierrots either pretend that she missed the point, by taking things seriously, or that, as the Eternal Feminine, she will have her revenge anyhow. Eliot's speaker sublimates her death with romantic evocations ("evening yellow and rose", the "dying fall" of the music, etc.), and admits that, in terms of human dignity, she might well have turned the tables on him:

Would she not have the advantage after all?
 . . . And should I have the right to smile?

Laforgue's speakers, perhaps because they look to the Unconscious and know metaphysical secrets, always have the right to smile.

(iv) "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

"Prufrock" is a very accomplished and moving performance indeed, although it was some years before this was widely recognized. It is an objective persona poem, where the speaker remains distinct from both poet and reader, though related to, and finally involving both. Its triumph consists in its power to catch nuances of feeling, hesitations, inflexions in the voice, glimpses of ideals, wistful dreams, complications of sensibility, contrasts and collisions between inner feeling and outward fact—all this in a wonderful flow of music, with wit and allusiveness, and a strange poetry that successfully assmilates toasts and tea, ices, coffee-spoons, sprinkled streets and yellow fog. It has the further virtue that the predicament which it explores has far-reaching implications which give finally on a much more impressive philosophy than the kind of thing which Laforgue took over from Hartmann (though to say this is perhaps to take into account other poems to which "Prufrock" looks forward).

In several important ways the poem approximates to Laforgue. The medium is once again the vers libre of Laforgue's last period, somewhat more richly orchestrated in English. It is a poetry that exhibits, rather than describes, states of feeling, very much in the manner of the Derniers vers. It is concerned with an apparently unbridgeable gap between the inner life of the speaker and the external world—between the imaginative and emotional need, on the one hand, and the social convention and the factual human response, on the. other. Laforgue had evidently had acute experience of the same problem, and the analogies in his verse are so close here as to serve almost as a commentary on the "Prufrock" still to come. In the end, however, Laforgue goes one way, and Prufrock-Eliot another.

A certain amount of the detail in the English poem finds its counterpart in Laforgue's French, though there is hardly any exact replication. The more obvious similarities may be mentioned briefly. The "yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes" is probably related, as has often been noted, to Laforgue's "gaz jaune et mourant des brumeux boulevards", but the cat-image ("rubs its back", "licked its tongue", "curled . . . and fell asleep") suggests an analogy with the animal-conceit in the Complaintes ("le vent galope ventre a terre"). The shock-tactics of "The evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table" were probably suggested by the opening lines of the same poem ("Le couchant de sang est tache / Comme un tablier de boucher"); and there may be some loose connection between the streets that "lead you to an overwhelming question" and the image in Notre Dame des Soirs, "(Vous) m'agacez au tournant d'une verité". The lamp-light, cups, marmalade and tea, of "Prufrock" may have come, in part, from a desire to emulate the lines in Derniers vers:

Lampes, estampes, thé, petits-fours,
Serez-vous mes seules amours!

At the same time, Eliot would almost certainly have been influenced by this kind of juxtaposition to produce his own music out of apparently refractory material:

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee-spoons

We may further compare, for unexpected sound-effects, Eliot's

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis

with Laforgue's whimsical

J'eusse été le modéle des époux!
Comme le frou-frou de ta robe est le modèle des frou-frou

What is far more important, however, than this kind of cross-reference, is the fact that in "Prufrock" Eliot is at last dealing in depth with the kind of impasse with which Laforgue is most characteristically concerned. Put in its most general form, this can be explained as the inhibiting, paralysing, contrast between one's inner life and the outer world. In one of his early poems, Laforgue complained naïvely:

Qui m'avait donc grisé de tant d'espoirs menteurs?

In this later verse he hits on the idea of the mind (Pygmalion) being blocked from contact with the real order by the very ideal which it projects (Galatea):

Mon Moi, c'est Galathée aveuglant Pygmalion!
Impossible de modifier cette situation

Sometimes Laforgue thinks of himself as an ashamed Ariel, hovering over a disconcerting présent which remains irremediably out of relationship with his feelings:

Mais le cru, quotidien, et trop voyant Present!
Et qui vous met au pied du mur, et qui vous dit:
"A 1'instant, ou bonsoir!" et ne fait pas crédit,
Et m'éourdit le cœur de ses airs suffisants!

(Prufrock, with a bald spot in the middle of his hair, is in no position to think of himself as Ariel, or indeed as any of the Dramatis Personæ except the Fool, but he too is prevented from bringing his inner life into contact with the external order—in this case, by the dread of "eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase", or simply of the uncomprehending, shattering response: "That is not what I mean at all"; cf. the woman's "air de dire 'de quoi'".)

The theme is taken up again in the Derniers vers, where the poet seems to be passing his life on quais, failing to embark, or waving to departing boats from the end of the jetty. On the other hand—and this is where the important difference between the two poets opens up—Laforgue is fundamentally sceptical about the ideals (particularly those concerning human love) which his mind cannot help forming, and he tries again and again to strip them of their illusory quality, as he sees it. The contrast with Eliot is at its most acute in the very poem that seems to announce "Prufrock":

La nuit bruine sur les villes
Se raser le masque, s'orner
D'un frac deuil, avec art dîner
Puis, parmi les vierges débiles,
Prendre un air imbécile

The outer scene might serve either poet, but the inner attitude is Laforgue's alone. Prufrock's wistful idealism is left open and uninhibited: arms in the lamplight, "downed with soft brown hair" retain their tender suggestions; the mermaids, "combing the white hair of the waves blown back / When the wind blows the water white and black", are not dismissed or cancelled out. Laforgue's speaker, on the other hand, though "gonflé d'idéal", works out his own idyll in terms of anti-romance: he dreams of an uncomplicated, primitive love-affair with a prehistoric "enfant bestiale et brûlée", her mouth sticky with apricot-juice, while the brotherly frogs croak sobbing music in the background! There is more than a touch of blague in this, of course, but there is also a clear intention to denude the romantic instinct of any mystical values, an intention amply attested by several other poems of a later period (cf. especially L 'Aurore-Promise).

In Eliot's poem, the romantic élan, though at odds with the world in which Prufrock must live, is not really inhibited at all. Prufrock's predicament (and he is here extended to include the reader) is that, if he tries to bring his inner life into contact with the outer world, something dies within him, and if he does not, he never succeeds in becoming quite real:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown

At this stage the problem ceases to be the same as Laforgue's, and it is no accident that here, at the end of the poem, it is rather to Gérard de Nerval's incantatory line (quoted in Symons' book) that he seems to turn:

J'ai rêvé dans la grotte où nage la sirène

The further exploration will be towards Reality in and beyond Appearance.

(v) "La Figlia Che Piange"

This poem both creates and explores a romantic image which is intensified by a suggestion of strange beauty shining through loss. The lines give substance to the work of art indicated by the title, so that in a way this is a poem about writing a poem. The epigraph from Virgil ("O quam te memorem virgo . . . ?") hints that we are going to be concerned with the indefinable aura of meaning set up by the central image, and with a problem of expression.

Eliot is still using the kind of free verse that he developed out of Laforgue, but with a tone and content of feeling that seem to owe nothing to his predecessor, unless there be some remote connection with the wistful and uncharacteristic Complainte de la bonne défunte. Even the one line taken over from another part of Laforgue, the famous "Simple et sans foi comme un bonjour", occurs in a new context, with a greatly changed meaning.

On the other hand, there is a procedural analogy which is worth noting. Eliot clearly arranges his situation at first within a special art-dimension, while standing outside it himself, like a stage-director before the proscenium-arch. But then, just as clearly, he allows the scene to work upon him until he becomes involved in it, so that two dimensions become one in an expanded poem, which includes the composing poet as well as the scene which he composes. This method of composition could well have been suggested by the eighth section of Derniers vers, where Laforgue sets up a dialogue within a fiction, surrounds it with a sense of autumn and exile in the past, and then finally invades it himself.

"La Figlia Che Piange", in its treatment of an evocative tragic beauty, looks forward to one or two images in "The Waste Land", and beyond that to the controlled religious romanticism of "Ash Wednesday". We do not know what Laforgue's further development would have been like, had he lived, but there is no indication that it would have taken any course like this.

A. G. Lehmann (essay date 1968)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2646

SOURCE: "Poetic Knowledge," in The Symbolist Aesthetic in France, 1885-1895, second edition, Basil Blackwell, 1968, pp. 74-128.

[In the excerpt that follows, Lehmann places Laforgue's use of the terms rêve and the Unconscious in the context of how Symbolist poets in general understood certain abstract concepts.]

Rimbaud undoubtedly thought—and many others have done so too—that in a world of ever-increasing uniformity and restriction, dreams offered the only safe refuge for a poet anxious to expand his individuality and enjoy that measure of freedom which is necessary for the cultivation of metaphorical warts on the face. The attitude is understandable, but fallacious: firstly, because the strangeness of a dream is no guarantee that a poem written out of it will be good poetry; secondly, because not long afterwards it became plain that dreams are not quite as 'free' as he had hoped. Rimbaud's merits as a poet rest on something very different from his capacity to have strange dreams in greater number than anyone else, just as Van Gogh's greatness is something more than an insistence on yellow. The strange dreams and the yellows are not excluded from the greatness: they are used by it.

When we come to the minor dignitaries of the symbolist movement, to the generation of 1885-90, the term 'rêve', used in relation to the material and the nature of poetic vision, loses almost all clear meaning and becomes little better than the slogan it continually tends to degenerate into. Where a Mallarmé had given it an approximate function in an organized theory of art, the late-comers handled it wildely; and it picked up a large number of connotations, each corresponding to the particular interest or bent of its user, and not always easily separable from its neighbours.

Laforgue, one of the earlier symbolist adepts of 'German idealism', uses 'rêve' simply as a handy term for reminding his readers that the world they—and he—lived in is a world of 'Fiction'—'une simple légende':

Je suis un pessimiste mystique .. . la vie est trop triste, trop sale. L'histoire est un vieux cauchemar bariolé qui ne se doute pas que les meilleures plaisanteries sont les plus courtes. La planéte terre était parfaitement inutile. Enfin, peut-être Tout n'êstil que rêve, seulement celui qui nous rêve ferait bien de hâter le cuvage de son opium.

He also confused the possibility that we are somebody else's dream (like Alice and the Red King) with the possibility that what we see (or what we think) has no more objective validity than one of our dreams: that both are equally the products of illusion:

. . . ne sachons que nous enivrer des paradis sans fond de nos sens et fleurir sincèrement nos rêves sur l'heure qui est a nous.

Here we are verging on the problem of our knowledge of the external world, in which (at least for the greater part of his adult life) he professes a simply solipsist view. . . .

It is, in fact, very hard so to strip our minds of modern psychological perspectives as to come to a fair understanding of what the term 'unconscious' (Jnconscieni) signified around 1885. Clinical research was already under way; but not along lines calculated to encourage enthusiasm or even interest among poets; the early popular exponent of the Unconscious was in fact Edouard von Hartmann in Germany with his Philosophie der Unbewussten (1869). It is enough to say that in this writer's work the Unconscious is not primarily an integral part of the individual mind-body structure, but a metaphysical entity—a transcendental principle, in the succession of Fichte's Ego, Hegel's Idea, or Schopenhauer's Will. Laforgue at any rate did not often make the confusion, popular in later times, between a metaphysical principle and a psychological entity; but as a result, his views on the relation between art and the Unconscious are marred even more by their extreme theoretical frailty than by the fragmentary nature of their presentation to the world. The Unconscious, we learn, is the '. . . raison explicative, suffisante, unique, intestine, dynamique, adéquate, de l'histoire universelle de la vie'. It is 'L'Afrique intérieure de notre Inconscient domaine'; that is to say, it enters into every individual, as part of the cosmos. It is in constant evolution; therefore art, which aspires continuously to its 'expression' (how, in this respect, it is distinct from other human activities we are not told), must evolve—must overcome the temptation to become static, in the shape of convention, rule, cliché, genre; these latter, besides, lead to 'ennui', or loss of fresh emotional spontancity. Every work of art must continually also pass out of circulation, for the same reason.

Laforgue's aesthetic is from the outset both anti-intellectualist and anti-formalist. Intellectualism in art (personified for him by Taine) is pernicious because it distracts the artist's energies from bringing the Unconscious to consciousness—in other words, from attending to his feelings:

Aujourd'hui, tout préconiser .. . la culture excessive de la raison, de la logique, de la conscience. La culture bénie de l'avenir est la déculture, la mise en jachère. Nous allons a la dessication: squelettes de cuir, a lunettes, rationalistes, anatomiques. Retournons, mes frères, vers les grandes eaux de 1'Inconscient.

Formalism in art is pernicious because art aspires to hold up the mirror to the Unconscious, which is constantly evolving, constantly changing: the classical ideals:

. . . posent d'abord que l'art est chargé de corriger la nature, comme s'il pouvait être d'autres lois d'harmonie que celles du tel quel de la vie.

No art 'forms' as such are genuine:

. . . II n'y a pas de type (de beauté), il y a la vie.

. . . Tout m'intéiesse, car je m'incline pieusement devant 1'Inconscient.

. . . Chaque homme est, selon son moment dans le temps, son milieu de race et de condition sociale, un moment dévolution individuelle, un certain clavier sur lequel le monde extérieur joue d'une certaine façon. Mon clavier est perpétuellement changeant, il n'y en a pas un autre identique au mien, tous les claviers sont légitimes.

The Unconscious, however, slips down from its transcendental throne to become sensation, that which is given:

L'homme de génie reçoit ses impressions ou plutôt les subit sans les avoir voulues;

and this gives us the clue both to what place the Unconscious occupies in art for him, and in a measure what sort of activity art is: on the one hand:

. . . la production esthétique a sa source dans 1'Inconscient;

and on the other hand:

L'invention et la réalisation du Beau derivent de processus inconscients, dont le résultat se traduit dans la conscience par le sentiment et 1'invention du Beau.

Is this a theory of inspiration? Laforgue's biographer Ruchon thinks so: the Unconscious implants somehow or other greater and more valuable sensations in the inspired artist for him to spy out: his task is simply to appreciate this fact and transcribe them. Art reflects Tanarchie même de la vie'. But if what it reflects is the Unconscious, or as it would be more expedient to say, the pre-conscious, art itself is undeniably conscious; and this is something which some of Laforgue's exponents in the twentieth century would do well to ponder. The fact does not seem to have been always clear in his own mind either: but he never allowed theory to interfere so radically with practice as to prevent him composing deliberately: how else could he have come to choose vers libre?

Laforgue's premature juxtaposition of conscious and unconscious in the definition of art brings in its train some curious consequences. First, the famous paradox, put into his mind by reflections on the contemporary novel and its laborious psychological dissections and analysis:

Epier les instincts avec autant que possible absence de calcul, de volonté, de peur de les faire dévier de leur nature, de les influencer.

This is, of course, pure delight to the surrealist, who claims to have found the means of putting into practice an ideal enunciated by the great predecessor. But he wilfully misunderstands Laforgue's intention. To spy out something is to become conscious of it, not to reproduce it unconsciously for future inspection by one's self or someone else. Laforgue wants his art to reproduce on the conscious level the 'feelings' in the Unconscious level of the mind. The Bergsonian, realizing this, shrugs his shoulders pityingly: Laforgue evidently did not realize that the pure intuition to which he was plainly referring cannot be attended to and given verbal equivalents without the inevitable distortions arising from the use of language. The matter is not as simple as that, however; and if the surrealist is brazen, the Bergsonian is disingenuous. Laforgue supposed that there are in the dim recesses of the mind certain instincts accessible, though not easily accessible, to careful introspection; and that they can readily be incorporated into conscious knowledge. But, in fact, these 'instincts' which occupy so much of Hartmann's book are of the realm of physiology: they are a class of event which, if a prerequisite of knowledge, are not themselves knowledge. We know what we imagine about them; we observe and interpret the phenomena associated with them; but we cannot re-live them. Knowledge descends no further than imagination will take it; and Laforgue is asking for something that does not exist when he asks for intuitive knowledge of instincts—complexes on the level of sensation. To 'know' sensation is to transform it.

The second curious consequence is somewhat more practical. There is no doubt that the aesthetic outlined above, for all its ambiguity, demands the scrapping of all rigid formulae for the attainment of 'Beauty', and puts in its place some sort of standard according to which the artist finds within himself the ideal of excellence: as Beaunier observes [in La poésie rouveller, 1902], 'Laforgue a conçu l'art comme un moyen d'expression'. But the ideal of expression is nowhere enlarged on by him in any positive statements, and it is difficult to see how it could be; less still is it ever linked with that process by which sensation is turned into knowledge; 'expression' in Laforgue's context means jettisoning all rules for beauty's attainment, and then embodying in language sensations which have never been expressed before. Originality is thus one limiting feature of expression, indeed, a hallmark of genius: but sensation is from an impersonal realm, the 'Unconscious', and is having to be turned into personal art. Laforgue speaks at times as if the personality of the artist was beneath attention, and only the broad stream of art down the ages, not its individual members, worthy of attention, as reflecting the evolution of the Unconscious. The poet must, in fact, be free, simply because not to be free would frustrate the Unconscious, seat of genius. The artist is not an individual living in a historical context which influences his work: he is torchbearer to a biological continuity which is sited beneath the levels on which it can be discussed:

Qui veut expliquer génie par les deux seuls facteurs visibles et palpables, la créature, ses conditions de vie, son milieu, ignore le vrai et fécond milieu de chaque être, l'invisible atmosphére d'une conscience dans laquelle il vit et se développe.

And again, the artist is not concerned with Taine's search for essential characteristics: on the contrary;

Pas de milieu. Se hausser jusqu'au génie fatal et imperturbable—ou être intéressant comme la mode, c'est-à-dire chercheur pour révolution.

So that, if asked about 'expression', Laforgue would say his aim to be the expression of a moment in the self-development of the Unconscious—the moment embodied on this occasion in the artist's sensations. There is therefore a sort of condominion on sensation; and though Laforgue nowhere says as much, the artist's satisfaction with his own presentation of an experience can be the only guarantee that he is doing justice to the rights of his great co-partner. This consideration is missing from Laforgue's aesthetic, just as Taine's 'caractère essentiel', though apparent to the eyė of the historian, is absent from the mind of the working artist. Had it been present it must have led to modification of other parts of the theory. As it is, the glaring deficiency in Laforgue's views is that every time he wants to judge a work of art bad, he can do no more than allege that it reflects inadequately the Unconscious in its latest phase of evolution.

This brings us to the third result of Hartmann's system in Laforgue's hands. We have seen that the artist must be original on pain of falsifying the processes of the Unconscious; but what are the limits of originality? With this question we are trespassing on problems dealt with in the following chapter, and we can at this point do no more than answer briefly: the limits are simply whatever Laforgue cares to propose to himself. Vers libre, a few delicious monstrosities of vocabulary, a new Schadenfreude of specially sophisticated tone—these are the main signs in his poetry of faithfulness to the Unconscious. But surely many forms in his writing are unoriginal? For every new word he coins (and he coins them always from old) there are ten thousand that he takes meekly from the accepted language; and a one-sided claim for the artist to be original tails off into ridicule when we reflect that the painter's colours are unoriginal; that the musician uses an accepted chromatic scale of twelve semitones; that the poet uses at least some of the language his mother teaches him; and so on.

By now it should be becoming plain what position L 'Inconscient occupies in these fragments of an aesthetic. As regards the actual operations of creating a poem or a picture the grand principle is as helpless as a flounder; it could be forgotten, and the artist's sensation remains; its dynamic evolution can be denied outright and there would still remain good grounds for freeing the artist from convention and imitative restrictions; it is asserted that the artist is a servant, but by the very nature of things there is no means to support this claim. With one hand it takes the scale of aesthetic value away from the artist and places it in an inaccessible region of sensation, but with the other it returns his responsibility to him by allowing that he can embody the aspirations of the Unconscious with more or less efficiency; and so at the end leaves us very much where we started in our quest for aesthetic judgements of value. Evidently, then, when we look for reasons why Laforgue should take so fervently to Hartmann's metaphysic, the same answer comes up that suggests itself in the case of solipsism: he was looking for a reasoned justification of licence, a counter to the traditional arguments of formalism. Almost as important, Laforgue was conscious of the need to attack Taine's historical-determinist and intellectualist aesthetic, to place the artist in a position where he can do good work and bad work and be praised or blamed for it; and for this he deemed the Philosophy of the Unconscious a proper weapon.

But the leading question of what sort of consciousness art gives, this philosophy is obviously not fitted to answer; Hartmann's early ventures specifically into aesthetic were in fact conducted in a heavy beer-garden atmosphere of hedonism. Laforgue ignores them, and dies before Hartmann's Aesthetik is published; the consequent lacunae in his theories can only be filled conjecturally.

Laforgue's doctrine of the Unconscious, while ascribing each artist to a unique position in the cosmic process, have been seen to link him very loosely with its underlying principle; so loosely, indeed, that there is some doubt in our minds how far he can rightly be called a 'poet of the Unconscious' at all. . . .

Russell S. King (essay date 1978)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2307

SOURCE: "The Poet as Clown: Variations on a Theme in Nineteenth-Century French Poetry," in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 33, No. 3, 1978, pp. 238-52.

[In the essay excerpted below, King offers a detailed history and interpretation of the clown figure in French literature, concluding with a study of Laforgue's Pierrot, who is "both the frivolous dilettante and Christ-like prophet-victim. "]

Banville's "Le Saut du tremplin," Baudelaire's "Le Vieux Saltimbanque," Verlaine's "Le Clown," Mallarmé's "Le Pitre châtié" and Laforgue's "Pierrots" all seek to suggest a modern, post-romantic image of the artist as a mocked and mocking performer. The full implications of this image, which could need a far more extensive treatment than is possible here, are sometimes profoundly psychological, with the poet's compulsion both to flaunt and to conceal the self, sometimes aesthetic, with a desire to glorify and question the nature and function of art, and always metaphysical, in the exploration of the delicate relationship between life and art, reality and illusion.

This "self-portrait as a clown" has become a standard allegory of the artist in twentieth-century painting, with, for example, the Harlequin figure of Picasso's At the Lapin Agile (1905), Georges Rouault's innumerable sad and wounded Pierrots and clowns, and Bernard Buffet's series of 1955, etc. In a sense such paintings are readily accommodated in a seemingly unilinear tradition which really began with Watteau's Gilles (1717-19), and includes Daumier's "saltimbanques" paintings of the 1860's, Cézanne's Pierrot and Harlequin (1888), and the many circus paintings of the 1880's and 1890's: Degas' Miss Lola at the Cirque Fernando (1879), Toulouse-Lautrec's The Equestrian (1888), At the Nouveau-Cirque: Five Stuffed Shirts (1891), At the Moulin-Rouge: The Clown Mademoiselle Cha-U-Kao (1895), and Seurat's The Circus (1891).

However this apparently unilinear history was more complex, a literature-inspired phenomenon, developing particularly from the nineteenth-century models in poetry and the popular theatre, from the debased derivatives of the commedia dell'arte popularized by Gaspard and Charles Deburau at the Théâtre des Funambules in the late 1820's, and from the rise of the circus clown. There was a kind of symbolic equivalence and a gradual process of mythification of Pierrot and Harlequin, the court jester, the vagabond showman, the gypsy violinist, and the white-faced clown. And later in the nineteenth-century, elements of Hamlet and Christ were added. Indeed the French language, like English, possesses a range of more or less synonymous labels: saltimbanque, bouffon, comédien, pitre, paillasse, clown, pasquín, baladin. And whilst each of these terms belongs to an often distinct tradition and implies different qualities, they have been blurred into symbolic analogues of the psychological and existential complexities of the artist as he perceives and projects himself.

With the antithetical basis of French romantic aesthetics the wise fool or the tragic clown could have been represented as appropriate if obvious allegories of the "modern" artist. The clown-jester-gypsy, with their obvious implication of geographical and historical alienation—other places especially the East and other times—should have appeared admirably attractive to the romantic sensibility. Moreover the negative metaphysics of Schopenhaurian pessimism needed a compensatory antidote such as a comic mask or positive social function to avoid the fate of Goethe's Werther (1777), Chateaubriand's René (1802), or Musset's Rolla (1834). Indeed Beaumarchais' "Je me presse de rire de tout, de peur d'être obligé d'en pleurer," underscores the metaphysical relationship between laughter and tears, despair and exhilaration, the comic and the tragic, between tolerable and intolerable existence, which was more powerfully echoed in Byron's: "And if I laugh at any mortal thing, This that I may not weep."

Yet in French romantic literature, Musset's Fantasio (1834) is one of the few illustrations of this image of the modern artist. If Fantasio has "le mois de mai sur les joues," he still has "le mois de janvier dans le cœur." Musset's hero attempts to escape the painful responsibility of existential consciousness by retreating into the relative ease of mechanical, pre-ordained existence as a court jester. Moreover Fantasio is not only a metaphysical refugee, but also an almost sterile artist, constantly mocking the value of his function: metaphysical doubts have led to doubts about aesthetic values and his own ability to create and communicate; a metaphysical negative is, in his case, not easily converted into an aesthetic positive: "Un sonnet vaut mieux qu'un long poème, et un verre de vin vaut mieux qu'un sonnet," he quips. The idea of the artist as clown—whether clever acrobatic showman or clumsy scapegoat—was scarcely compatible with the more serious tone of Hugo's Olympian image of the poet-prophet, or Musset's lyrical dialectic on poetic creativity between Muse and Poet, or Vigny's ivory-tower stoic, or Lamartine's sombre meditator. . . .

[The] "Pierrot-clown" figure emerged as a dominant, sustained analogue of the poet in the poetry of Jules Laforgue (1860-87). Indeed no artist, with the exception of Georges Rouault in the twentieth century, is more intimately identified with the clown-like figure of Pierrot. Laforgue's second (first published) collection of poems, Les Complaintes (1885) contains three poems, "Complainte de Lord Pierrot," "Autre Complainte de Lord Pierrot," and "Complainte des Noces de Pierrot," and his next collection L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune (1886), contains a long sequence of poems entitled "Pierrots" and a "Locutions des Pierrots."

Although Laforgue's interest centres round this traditional commedia dell'arte figure, in fact the modern circus clown quite probably provided the initial stimulus. Laforgue wrote in a letter in 1882: "Adorez-vous le cirque? Je viens d'y passer cinq soirées consécutives. Les clowns me paraissent arrivés à la vraie sagesse. Je devrais être clown, j'ai manqué ma destinée; c'est irrévocablement fini. N'est-ce pas qu'il est trop tard pour que je m'y mette?" And this same fascination with circus life is echoed in his largely autobiographical novel, Stéphane Vassiliew, published only in 1946.

The identification of poet and Pierrot cannot be separated from the poet's ambivalent aesthetics, with its mixture of obscure symbolist principles and familiar impressionism, its fusion of universal myth and popular expression and art forms, illustrated particularly in the ballads of Les Complaintes and the Moralités légendaires. As Guy Michaud wrote in his Message Poétique du Symbolisme (1947), "Son cerveau est un carrefour où se bousculent pêle-mêle les races, les idées, les philosophies, les religions." Of all the nineteenth-century poets Laforgue was the most intellectual and anti-intellectual: cosmogony in Le Sanglot de la Terre and theories of the unconscious, culled from, and reinforced by, Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious, provided the intellectual dynamics of his writing. Yet Schopenhaurian pessimism and even Hartmann's theories proved largely unproductive and sterile to the poetic sensibility, for doubt and apathy were the inevitable consequences of philosophic meditation: "Puis je pense et, après avoir pensé, je doute. Je doute si notre pensée rime à quelque chose de réel dans l'univers. Et je m'ennuie."

This ambiguous philosophical stance is paralleled by a style which too points in different directions: a curious fusion and juxtaposition of the serious and esoteric on the one hand, and, on the other, colloquial banalities, which produced the hybrid style which influenced T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. "Je trouve stupide de faire la grosse voix et de jouer de l'éloquence. Aujourd'hui que je suis plus sceptique et que je m'emballe moins aisément et que d'autre part, je possède ma langue d'une façon plus minutieuse, plus clownesque, j'écris de petits poèmes de fantaisie, n'ayant qu'un but: faire de l'original à tout prix." This dual, clown-like style not only resulted from the poet's scepticism, but it also most adequately reflected in linguistic terms the mental processes of the conscious and unconsious mind. "Je rêve de la poésie qui ne dise rien, mais soit des bouts de rêverie sans suite." And this inconsequential, non-didactic, apparently naive style was one which Laforgue recognised and admired in Verlaine: "La 'Sagesse' de Verlaine—Quel vrai poète—C'est bien celui dont je me rapproche le plus—négligence absolue de la forme, plaintes d'enfant."

The serio-comic, dandified yet naive clown alone would reconcile such incompatible vacillations. "Pierrot lunaire" became the perfect vehicle for the fragmented, disrupted "bouts de rêverie" of both the Freudian and the Jungian unconscious. And stylistically the Pierrot poems fuse wit, humour, irony, satire and parody, invalidating normal distinctions and classifications. Like Verlaine's and Baudelaire's poetic analogues, Laforgue's Pierrots are portrayed with detachment, both humorously and ironically, as if the "je" were another person, and with few overt invitations to sentimentalize or sympathize:

C'est sur un cou qui, raide, émerge
D'une fraise empesée idem,
Une face imberbe au cold-cream,

Un air d'hydrocéphale asperge.
Les yeux sont noyés de l'opium
De l'indulgence universelle,
La bouche clownesque ensorcèle
Comme un singulier géranium. ("Pierrots" I)

Laforgue's original imagery—"faire de l'original à tout prix"—of asparagus and geranium would normally suggest parody. Yet there are profound psychological and metaphysical implications, for Pierrot provides not only the means whereby life can be both lived and rejected, the self exposed and masked, but it also satisfies the individual poet's mythopoeic desire for permanence and integration:

Je ne suis qu'un viveur lunaire
Qui fait des ronds dans les bassins,
Et cela, sans autre dessein
Que devenir un légendaire.
Retroussant d'un air de défi
Mes manches de mandarin pâle,
J'arrondis ma bouche et—j'exhale
Des conseils doux de Crucifix.
Ah! oui, devenir légendaire,
Au seuil des siècles charlatans!
Mais où sont les Lunes d'antan?
Et que Dieu n'est-il à refaire? ("Locutions des Pierrots" XVI).

Pierrot is both the frivolous dilettante and Christ-like prophet-victim, but a prophet who proves to offer no positive message. He is the elegant, superior black-costumed, Hamlet-like dandy, Lord Pierrot, yet he chooses to play the role of a white-faced, white-costumed simpleton:

Ces dandys de la Lune
S'imposent, en effet,
De chanter "s'il vous plaît?"
De la blonde à la brune.
Car c'est des gens blasés;
Et s'ils vous semblent dupes,
Çà et là de la Jupe
Lange à cicatriser,
Croyez qu'ils font la bête
Afin d'avoir des seins,
Pis-aller de coussins
A leurs savantes têtes. ("Pierrots" II).

Indeed this traditional role of the commedia dell 'arte with Pierrot vainly, attempting to seduce Woman (Columbine, Eve, Maya) reflects Laforgue's own experience as a timid but sceptical lover, and provides the subject and theme of the majority of the "Pierrot" poems in Les Complaintes and L'Imitation:

En tête-à-tête avec la femme
Ils ont toujours l'air d'être un tiers,
Confondent demain avec hier,
Et demandent Rien avec âme!
Jurent "je t'aime!" l'air là-bas,
D'une voix sans timbre, en extase,
Et concluent aux plus folles phrases
Par des: "Mon Dieu, n'insistons pas?"("Pierrots" III).

Pierrot serves as the unifying symbol and image in Laforgue's writing just as the dandy does in Baudelaire: metaphysics, aesthetics, and the personal relationship with "others" could only be reconciled by adopting a persona such as that of the clown, which is by definition dual and contradictory.

Laforgue's contradictory portrayal of Pierrot blends tradition and modernity more completely than any of the earlier clown figures of Banville, Baudelaire, Verlaine or Mallarmé. There are two surprising features of these poets' portrayal: firstly, the obvious "sorrow behind the greasepaint" aspect—as in Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (1892)—is only a secondary characteristic; and secondly, the symbolic value varied so widely: Banville's optimistic acrobatic clown, Baudelaire's old, collapsed showman, Verlaine's malleable joker, Mallarmé's showman punished for removing his make-up and costume, and Laforgue's Pierrots buffeted by the contradictory dictates of the unconscious. Such variations reveal that the clown figure, though richly suggestive, is in a sense an "empty" one, and certainly far from being frozen into a standardized significance. Jean Starobinski concludes [in Portrait de l'artiste en saltim banque, 1970] that, in fact, the clown allegory is vacant of meaning: "Qu'on ne se hâte donc pas de leur assigner un rôle, une fonction, un sens; il faut leur accorder la licence de n'être rien de plus qu'un jeu insensé. La gratuité, l'absence de signification est, si je puis dire, leur air natal." Externally imposed meanings can be multiplied ad infinitum. In the 1830's, under the influence of the Deburaus, Pierrot was equated with the people, just as he was later identified with Hamlet by Laforgue, and with the suffering Christ, particularly by Max Jacob and Rouault, whose paintings of Christ and Pierrot frequently resemble each other closely.

However "what the clown symbolizes" is more varied than "why the clown symbolizes." Nineteenth-century French poetry marked a progression, from romanticism, through parnassianism to decadent-symbolism, towards almost total self-reflexiveness. The gulf separating the realm of art from the realm of lived experience and objective reality was an ever increasing one, and the clown, as a blatantly proclaimed actor and champion of artifice, set himself in total contrast, physically and spiritually, with his audience and society in general. A rebel against realism, or rather his audience's concept of realism, he perceived more profoundly than his audience the comedy of life, that "all the world's a stage"; and, symbolically, by rejecting surface realism, by means of his make-up, costume and comic mask, he was demonstrating a deeper consciousness of the illusory nature of life and death. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Daumier and Picasso were attracted to both the clown and Don Quixote almost at the same time.

The nineteenth-century poets were more concerned, superficially, by the "what" rather than the "why" of the clown's symbolic value. Yet the reasons for the clown gradually emerging as a nineteenth and twentieth-century allegory of the artist, with a wide variety of meanings, are sine qua non determinants. Relationships between artist-clown and audience, between art and life, between appearance and reality, between innocence and wisdom, between the glorification and vilification of art, are all central to an understanding of the varied aesthetics of nineteenth-century art, and are all symbolically posed by the representation of the clown.

Elisabeth A. Howe (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5741

SOURCE: "Repeated Forms in Laforgue," in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, October, 1985, pp. 41-54.

[In the following essay, Howe conducts a close study of Laforgue's verse, substantiating her assertion that the poet uses cliché and convention to forge his unconventional poetic forms.]

"Mais tu ne peux que te répéter, ô honte!" exclaims the speaker of "Simple agonie" (Derniers vers, VI), referring to himself. This statement applies to all Laforgue's characters, who, whether consciously or otherwise, merely act out the roles in which society has cast them. Playing a part, in life as on the stage, equates to repeating a script, consisting in this case of the ready-made, banal phrases people utter every day—phrases learnt from others and which can scarcely claim, therefore, to represent the genuine self-expression of the speaker. A sense of frustration and weariness caused by observation of the conventional nature of people's behaviour and language is evident throughout Laforgue's poetry from the Complaintes to the Derniers vers. At the same time his own deliberate quotation of stereotyped expressions becomes, paradoxically, a strategy of originality, a means of parodying both Romantic rhetoric and bourgeois eloquence: a technique which other post-Romantic writers, such as Flaubert and Lautréamont, also adapted to their own ends.

Like Flaubert before him, Laforgue began his career by writing in a distinctly Romantic vein himself. One of the main differences between his earliest collection of verse, Le Sanglot de la terre, which he never published, and his subsequent Complaintes, is the move away from the bombastic self-expression of a central unified "I", typical of much Romantic poetry, towards an anonymous multiplicity. The speaker of the Sanglot poems dwells constantly on his own personal preoccupations: his awe at the vastness of the universe; his shocked awareness of the insignificance and transience of man's life; his horror of death. "Je puis mourir demain" is an oft-repeated phrase, and he hates to think that after death "Tout se fera sans moi!" ("L'Impossible"). The disgust Laforgue later felt for the Sanglot poems was undoubtedly partly inspired by their self-centred mode of writing: in the "Préludes autobiographiques", a long poem which he insisted on including as a prologue to the Complaintes in order to show what his literary "autobiography" had been and how his poetic aims had changed, he mocks his former tendency to see himself as the centre of the universe:

Qu'à ma mort, tout frémirait, du cèdre à l'hysope;
Que ce Temps, déraillant, tomberait en syncope,
Que, pour venir jeter sur mes lèvres des fleurs,
Les Soleils très navrés détraqueraient leurs choeurs.

In the majority of the Complaintes, on the other hand, Warren Ramsey notes "a movement towards dramatization, a tendency, having its origin in self-awareness and self-defence, to exteriorize the lyric emotion" [in Jules Laforgue and the Ironic Inheritance, 1953]. This extėriorization is achieved largely through the use of different voices expressing the thoughts and feelings of various personae: the "ange incurable" and the "Chevalier errant", the "roi de Thulé", the "Sage de Paris" and, most important of all, Pierrot. Dispersion and repetition replace the unique utterance of the Sanglot poems. In subsequent collections also, L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la lune and the Derniers vers, different voices can be heard, speaking, in David Arkell's words, for the "multiple selves of Laforgue and others" [Looking for Laforgue, 1979]. It is significant that the move from a unified to a multiple self accompanies Laforgue's imitation of a more popular, collective form, the complainte having been originally a type of folksong or ballad. Ballads are a form without an author not only because they are often anonymous, but because they specifically aim at objectivity: the "I" of the poet is never mentioned, only that of the various characters. Laforgue seems to be seeking a similar kind of anonymity by attributing his poems to different speakers. He also frequently imitates the popular diction of the complainte, as if to emphasize that what we hear is not his voice but the anonymous speech of the "folk".

Laforgue first makes use in the Complaintes of the Pierrot figure who was later to feature prominently in L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la lune; his predilection for this stock character can be linked with his move away from the personal poetry of Le Sanglot to the ready-made form of the complainte. His adoption of set form and stock figure is accompanied by the use of ready-made language—the repetition of fixed expressions and clichés. The traditional Pierrot's role was mimed, and his mimicry involved a repertoire of conventional gestures; Laforgue, of course, has to use words, but he does so in such a way as to suggest that language, too, can be merely gesture: his Pierrots (and other speakers) trot out the stock phrases dictated by convention for use in certain situations. To women, for example, they address declarations couched in the rhetoric traditionally associated with love:

Ange! tu m'as compris,
A la vie, à la mort!

while thinking

Ah! passer là-dessus l'éponge! . . .
(L'Imitation, "Pierrots")

Being a comic figure, however, Pierrot likes to give an unexpected twist to the conventional phrases he proffers. In the famous "Autre complainte de Lord Pierrot", the lady's banal exclamation "Ah! tu ne m'aimes pas; tant d'autres sont jaloux!" is countered by Pierrot with another, totally inappropriate, cliché: "Merci, pas mal; et vous?" Similarly, to the lady's accusation "Ah! tu te lasseras le premier, j'en suis sûre . . ." Pierrot responds with a stereotyped expression from another context but which makes admirable sense here, too: "Après vous, s'il vous plaît!" The twist which Pierrot gives to banal, stereotyped phrases empties them of any last shred of meaning they may have had when used in their normal context; they become as hollow as refrains like "tirelan-laire" or "diguedondaine" in the popular songs Laforgue was imitating in the Complaintes. The implication must be that language, like the conventional gestures of mime, is a question of habit and custom. The automatic responses which people exchange daily are pure ritual, devoid of profound content, revealing and communicating nothing of value. This type of play with language at once distinguishes Laforgue's Pierrot from, say, Verlaine's.

As important to Laforgue as the figure of Pierrot is that of Hamlet, who resembles Pierrot in many respects: both of them are stereotypes (Hamlet having certainly become one by the late nineteenth century), both are taken from the stage and are very much aware of themselves as performers and actors, i.e. repeaters of roles and scripts. The Hamlet of the Moralités légendaires deliberately plays the role of l 'Incompris for the benefit of the young girl whose canary he has killed:

—Oh! pardon, pardon! Je ne l'ai pas fait exprès! Ordonne-moi toutes les expiations. Mais je suis si bon! J'ai un cœur d'or comme on n'en fait plus. Tu me comprends, n'est-ce pas, Toi?

—O monseigneur, monseigneur! balbutie la petite fille. Oh! si vous saviez! Je vous comprends tant! Je vous aime depuis si longtemps! J'ai tout compris . . .

Hamlet se lève. "Encore une!" pense-t-il.

Here we see again, as with Pierrot, that role-playing tends to be accompanied by an addiction to an appropriate type of rhetoric—in this instance, as very frequently in Laforgue, that of love.

Despite their mockery of women's readiness to accept the conventional stereotyped roles offered by society, Hamlet and Pierrot are themselves obliged to adopt similar poses, to "vivre de vieux compromis", as Lord Pierrot puts it in his "Complainte". This is what they find so repugnant about life, and why they are so ready to criticize those people who seem perfectly satisfied with the "vieux compromis", the fixed patterns of speech and behaviour imposed by social convention or literary example. The difficulty they themselves experience in asserting their own personality stems partly from a lack of self-knowledge; the Hamlet-like speaker of the Derniers vers finds it impossible to declare his love because he does not know himself: "d'abord je ne me possédais pas bien moi-même," he declares in DvIII. In addition, Laforgue's male speakers are aware of a multiplicity of selves within them, of the "société un peu bien mêlée" mentioned in the poem "Ballade" (Des fleurs de bonne volonté). All Laforgue's men are torn between different versions of themselves; Pierrot's violent fluctuations, sometimes within one poem, between flippant and serious moods, between brutality and tenderness, suggest a dislocated personality, as J.A. Hiddleston points out [in Essai sur Laforgue et les Derniers vers, 1980]: "Pierrot incarne dans sa personne la discontinuité et la dislocation internes, le manque d'équilibre entre les émotions et l'intelligence, bref les contradictions du poète-héros .. . Pas plus que le poète, Pierrot n'est un, mais innombrable."

In Laforgue's poetry we witness a dislocation of the very notion of personality, and language plays an important part in this process; his poems convey the impression that character is the stereotyped phrases in which it expresses itself. [Michael] Riffaterre points out [in Essais de stylistique structurale, 1971] that to make a literary character speak in stereotyped phrases almost automatically deprives him of personality because they imply conformity to ready-made attitudes or standards:

La formule figée, parce qu'elle est inséparable de certaines attitudes sociales ou morales, sert à l'auteur à situer son personnage: il n'a qu'à mettre sur ses lèvres les modes verbales d'un milieu donné . . . Recueillir des automatismes, c'est choisir delibérément de voir l'homme sous un mauvais jour, dans les comportements sociaux ou mentaux par lesquels il abdique sa personnalité.

These statements appear in Riffaterre's essay on "Le Cliché dans la prose littéraire", but they apply equally well to Laforgue's poetry. Thus John E. Jackson speaks [in La Question du moi, 1971] of the "usure du langage chez Laforgue" and suggests that "les mots sont en voie, pour lui, de perdre leur créance sémantique. Ils sont formules, stéréotypes, c'est-a-dire omnitude autonome, désinvestie de presque tout répondant au moi qui les profère". A similar phenomenon is typical of the early poetry of T.S. Eliot, particularly in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Portrait of a Lady"; Jackson comments that the way in which "le langage échoue ici coïncide avec l'échec de Prufrock . . . d'affirmer librement, au-delà du stéréotype, une individualité propre .. . qui ose .. . imposer sa singularité".

Hamlet and Pierrot find it difficult to "imposer sa singularité" not only because of a lack of self-knowledge and an awareness of the plurality of the Self, but because, as they realize, language simply does not allow one to be original. The uniqueness which they both feel ("—Et, au fond, dire que j'existe! Que j'ai ma vie à moi!" exclaims the Hamlet of the Moralités) can only be expressed with the "Words, words, words" of other people. Both personae confront the problem of how, using language, to break out of the established patterns of language, and the answers proposed are extreme. One is to indulge in the type of word-play practised by Hamlet and Pierrot, ironically twisting the meanings of words; ultimately this remains unsatisfactory, however, since it precludes any meaningful communication with their interlocutors. A second possibility is silence: "rien n'est pratique que se taire, se taire, et agir en conséquence," says the Hamlet of the Moralités. ("Agir" would be another way of expressing oneself, but a notoriously difficult one for Shakespeare's Hamlet and Laforgue's; as Albert Sonnenfield says [in "Hamlet the German and Jules Laforgue," Yale French Studies, 1964], for Laforgue's Hamlet, "action means acting", i.e. once again the repetition of a role.) Silence is also the solution adopted by Laforgue's Pierrot fumiste, in that he offers no explanation for his peculiar conduct; besides, the role of Pierrot was traditionally mimed, and therefore silent. The alternative to silence is death, which befalls both Shakespeare's and Laforgue's Hamlets; and death, of course, means silence, as the former's dying words proclaim.

Rather than an original, fully-developed personality, Laforgue's personae possess only certain recognizable traits—jealousy, faithlessness, timidity, tenderness, brutality, sentimentality—endlessly repeated and, through irony, endlessly negated. Laforgue's universe is one of repeition; instead of presenting an authentic, unique self, his speakers demonstrate that the "I" is a place where repetitions are gathered: "Mais tu ne peux que te répéter, ô honte!" This "shame" is attendant on both behaviour and language: people who adopt stereotyped roles inevitably express themselves in a language appropriate to that role—which is equally stereotyped. Laforgue clearly demonstrates this in his use of clichés, the clichés of a sophisticated group of people playing endless love-games, asserting that "On n'aime qu'une fois", accusing one another: "Assez! assez! / C'est toi qui as commencé" (Dv VIII), or assuring one another that "Je t'aime pour toi seul" (L'Imitation, "Pierrots (on a des principes)"). Laforgue's personae all have similar voices, because the things they say tend to be what they have heard other people say.

In the section of Laforgue's Mélanges posthumes entitled "Sur la femme", the following passage appears, under the subheading "Première entrevue d'aveux":

Dès qu'on s'est bien dit et dûment déclaré "je t'aime", un silence, presque un froid. Alors, celui des deux qui est destiné à s'en aller plus tard (c'est fatal) commence ses inutiles litanies rétrospectives: "Ah! moi, il y a longtemps déjà! . . . Tenez, vous ne saurez jamais! . . . Oh! la première fois que je vous vis . . . etc."

Such phrases are typical of Laforgue's speakers. The girl in Derniers vers IX talks of her "vie faite exprès", and affirms: "ma destinée se borne . . . / A te suivre" because "c'est bien toi et non un autre". Just as we saw Hamlet greeting such trite declarations with a scathing "Encore une!" so the speaker of this poem takes an ironical view of them and of the girl, as he imagines her rolling about on his doormat. Again, the male speaker in this poem, though playing a role, is conscious of doing so and mocks himself for it, whereas the girl, like Laforgue's other women, has no distance on her language: she says what she means, or what she thinks she means. The cynical attitude of the male speakers shows up the clichés for what they are: trite, empty phrases passed from mouth to mouth but devoid of any true meaning—the sort of phrases Flaubert collected in his Dictionnaire des idées reçues, or, more appropriately since the context is almost always one of love, by Roland Barthes in his Fragments d'un discours amoureux. According to Laforgue's men, "love" is simply a matter of being in love with the discourse of love. Thus the speaker of "Sur une défunte" (Dv XI) suggests that a woman can make the same declarations indifferently to "les nobles A, B, C ou D", to any of whom she will say:

"Oh, tes yeux, ta démarche!
Oh, le son fatal de ta voix!
Voilà si longtemps que je te cherche!
Oh, c'est bien Toi, cette fois! . . ."

The man implies that these are simply empty verbal formulas which can be reproduced at will, as they are in so many of Laforgue's poems, either deliberately (by the men), or unconsciously (by the women). Here as elsewhere Laforgue emphasizes the sheer automatism of a language that purports to speak the heart: the discourse of love is never original, but always a repetition of what someone has said previously, and cannot therefore represent the authentic expression of the unique Self. Along with the notion of love, this view of language as repetition undermines the very concept of interiority itself; for, since words are always exterior, repeated, overheard, the individual can never possess language, which remains outside him, belonging to others as well as to himself.

Needless to say, the notions of repetivity and externality apply not only to the language of love but to language in general; they are central to the influential theory of intertextuality outlined by [Mikhail] Bakhtin, who stresses that no single utterance can claim to be totally individual or unique. The words we use, he says [in Esthétique et théorie du roman, 1978], have been used by others and are inevitably impregnated with their intentions: "Le langage n'est pas un milieu neutre. Il ne devient pas aisément, librement, la propriété du locuteur. Il est peuplé et surpeuplé d'intentions étrangères." It follows therefore that "tout énoncé se rapporte aussi à des énoncés antérieurs, donnant ainsi lieu à des relations intertextuelles''[according to Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtine: le principe dialogique, 1981]. This is the case not only in works of literature, of course, but, as Bakhtin points out, in everyday speech, where the social context plays an important role: "Aucun énoncé en général ne peut être attribué au seul locuteur: il est le produit de l'interaction des locuteurs et, plus largement, le produit de toute cette situation sociale complexe, dans laquelle il a surgi." Stereotyped expressions offer a privileged, extreme illustration of this state of affairs. At the end of "Dimanches" (Dv III), the speaker temporarily adopts a motherly, protective attitude which expresses itself in clichés and makes light of the sufferings of the "Pauvre, pâle et piètre individu" recounted earlier in the poem:

—Allons, dernier des poètes,
Toujours enfermé tu te rendras malade!
Vois, il fait beau temps tout le monde est dehors,
Va donc acheter deux sous d'ellébore,
Ça te fera une petite promenade.

In lines 2-3 and 5 we can hear, as well as the poet's voice, that of any mother talking to her child, and the speaker parodies this voice while at the same time offering a valid comment on his own behavior. He is temporarily looking at himself from the outside, or as Bakhtin puts it "avec les yeux d'un autre homme, d'un autre représentant de [s]on groupe social ou de [s]a classe". The resulting speech is, in Bakhtin's terminology, "double-voiced", i.e. it is an utterance in which two voices can be heard, even though only one speech act is involved.

In Laforgue (as in Flaubert) such phrases are often, though not always, signalled typographically by italics, quotation marks or points de suspension:

.. . le pur flacon des vives gouttes
Sera, comme il convient, d'eau propre baptisé. ("Complainte des pianos . . .")
Oh! ce fut pour vos cors, et ce fut pour l'automne,
Qu'il nous montra qu'"on meurt d'amour"! (Dv VI)

Leurs Altesses congratulèrent le Tétrarque, se félicitant eux-mêmes du bon vent qui .. . à pareil glorieux jour .. . en ces îles,—et terminèrent par l'éloge de la capitale . . . ("Salomé")

Other, non-typographical marks of distanciation include exaggeration, repetition and accumulation. In Derniers vers IX, the speaker parodies the utterance of an intense, passionate young girl; his voice can be heard through hers because of the sheer exaggeration of her claims:

"Pour moi, tu n'es pas comme les autres hommes,
Ils sont ces messieurs, toi tu viens des cieux.
Ta bouche me fait baisser les yeux
Et ton port me transporte
Et je m'en découvre des trésors!"

A certain weakness in the logic of the girl's argument also indicates irony:

"Tu me demandes pourquoi toi et non un autre,
Ah! laisse, c'est bien toi et non un autre.
J'en suis sûre comme du vide insensé de mon cœur
Et comme de votre air mortellement moqueur."

The man's mocking voice can be heard distinctly in this unconvincing choice of comparisons, as well as in the insistent acoustic repetitions he puts into the girl's mouth (port, transporte, trésors; pleure, soeurs, peur, meure).

The quotation of stereotyped expressions such as those uttered by the girl in this poem represents at once a mimetic and a parodic procedure: mimetic in that it imitates the language a naïve girl might use in reality; parodic in that the speaker of the poem clearly views her utterances in an ironic light, passing "du portrait à la charge" [according to Riffaterre]. This tendency for the quotation of clichés to slide from mimesis into parody is explored by Ruth Amossy and Elisheva Rosen [in Les Discours du cliché, 1982]. In the realist novel—and in Laforgue's poetry—the use of clichés helps to establish the feeling of "reality", since they inject into a literary text the discourse of a "texte culturel extérieur au récit", namely that of everyday life. Judiciously placed, therefore, "le cliché assure la crédibilité de la narration en la conformant au savoir du public et, conséquemment, en provoquant une reconnaissance confondue avec la connaissance du réel". However, the artificiality of this procedure becomes evident when the "device is bared" and it becomes a parodie gesture (marked, typographically or otherwise, as in the examples from Laforgue quoted above):

Le cliché ne contribue néanmoins à consolider l'édifice du vraisemblable qu'en le marquant du sceau de la conventionnalité. Le procédé, en effet, se laisse aisément reconnaître et la figure originellement destinée à "masquer les lois du texte" tend précisément à les exhiber .. . Le même fait de langage se voit dès lors attribuer, à des niveaux différents, deux fonctions inverses: d'une part le cliché renforce une vérité commune, renvoie à un savoir préétabli, "naturel"; de l'autre, il en dénonce la conventionnalité et la facticité.

If the deliberate "quotation" of stereotyped phrases tends to become a parodie gesture, parody, conversely, cannot exist without quotation, or repetition, since the parodie text constitutes, by definition, a text constructed with other texts. As Claude Bouché points out [in Lautréamont: du lieu commun à la parodie, 1974], "appliquée à la parodie, la méthode intertextuelle n'est plus seulement une option parmi d'autres possibles". All texts are "intertextual" but some are deliberately and systematically so, particularly those which employ parody and related devices. In Laforgue we find parody of Romantic poets, of Flaubert and Mallarmé, and of Laforgue himself. The poem "Solo de lune" (Dv VII) contains the lines "Tout n'en va pas moins à la mort, / Y a pas de port", which echo Lamartine's "Le Lac": "L'homme n'a point de port, le temps n'a point de rive; / Il coule, et nous passons!" However, parody of specific texts is much more frequent in the Moralités than in Laforgue's poetry: Bouché devotes a section of his book on Lautréamont to a thorough analysis of "Hamlet" as a typical example of parody; "Salomé" parodies Flaubert's "Hérodias", and a page of "Hamlet" echoes St. Julien 1' Hospitalier's massacre of animals. Another target of "Salomé" could be Mallarmé's "Hérodiade" (of which the "Scéne" had been published in 1869), as well as the many Symbolist evocations of Salomé: Laforgue's heroine dies, significantly, "moins victime des hasards illettrés que d'avoir voulu vivre dans le factice et non à la bonne franquette à l'instar de chacun de nous". "Pan et la Syrinx" parodies the myth, but Laforgue undoubtedly has in mind also Mallarmé's L'Après-midi d'un faune. Syrinx declares to Pan that "l'art, c'est le désir perpétué . . .", recalling the Faun's desire to "perpetuate" the nymphs in his song. And Pan, after Syrinx's disappearance, exclaims, echoing the Faun (and Faust): "O Syrinx, t'ai-je rêvée?" following this with his own formulation of the Faun's dilemma: "encore une fois . . . je n'aurai pas eu la présence d'esprit de me pénétrer du fait de la présence des choses!"

Laforgue sometimes parodies, in the Moralités, attitudes or phrases from his own earlier works. Lohengrin and Elsa "tombèrent ensemble aux genoux l'un de l'autre; ensemble, mais, hélas! plus ou moins fatalement"—which represents an ironie rendering of the wistful lines from "Solo de lune":

Ses yeux disaient: "Comprenez-vous?
Pourquoi ne comprenez-vous pas?"
Mais nul n'a voulu faire le premier pas,
Voulant trop tomber ensemble à genoux.

Salomé incongruously delivers a long speech on the theme of "le Néant" and "l'Inconscient" about which Laforgue used to write somewhat more seriously in the Sanglot poems; and Pan has the following exchange with Syrinx:

"O Syrinx! voyez et comprenez la Terre .. . et la circulation de la vie! . . . Tout est dans Tout!"
"Tout est dans Tout! Vraiment? Ah, ces gens à formules!"

One of the parodie procedures mentioned by Bouché is "la Stéréotypie", which involves the multiple, diffuse referent of a discours, rather than a particular text:

Avec la Stéréotypie, on débouche sur le vaste domaine des poncifs et des "topoi", des clichés et des lieux communs . . . Styles éculés et situations-types se recontrent un peu partout: dans les livres, certes, mais aussi dans les journaux, la publicité, les messages politiques, le langage de la rue, bref, dans tout ce qui est manifestation écrite ou orale collective.

"Stéréotypie" of this diffuse type forms the main thrust of the parodic impulse of Laforgue's poetry, and it accompanies the parody of specific texts in the Moralités. We have already seen examples of the "lieux communs" of everyday speech, particularly of the discourse of love; in addition, parody of literary stereotypes, especially the "topoi" of Romantic poetry, is prevalent in both the poetry and the Moralités. Laforgue cannot describe a sunset without remembering the innumerable Romantic evocations of that phenomenon; accordingly, his "soleil fichu" "Gît sur le flanc, dans les genêts, sur son manteau, / Un soleil blanc comme un crachat d'estaminet" (Dv I); or alternatively it "Lâche les écluses du Grand-Collecteur / En mille pactoles" (Dv II). In "Persée et Andromède" we are prepared for yet another "couchant qui va faire le beau", and sure enough: "L'Astre Pacha, / Son É minence Rouge . . . / Descend, mortellement triomphal", until someone kicks this "citrouille crevée" over the horizon. Romantic seascapes, leading to many a digression on Time, Infinity, changelessness, etc., are parodied by Laforgue at the beginning of "Persée et Andromède":

La mer! de quelque côté qu'on la surveille, des heures et des heures, à quelque moment qu'on la surprenne: toujours elle-même . . . empire de l'insociable, grande histoire qui se tait, cataclysme mal digéré . . . Bref pas l'étoffe d'une amie (oh, vraiment! renoncer à cette idée, et même à l'espoir de partager ses rancunes après confidences, si seul à seul qu'on soit depuis des temps avec elle).

(These last remarks are aimed no doubt at poems like Baudelaire's "L'Homme et la mer", which personifies the sea and suggests an affinity between it and man.) "Salomé" presents, more succinctly, "la mer, toujours nouvelle et respectable, la Mer puisqu'il n'y a pas d'autre nom pour la nommer".

Within the area of Stéréotypie, Laforgue does not restrict his parody to the topoi of Romanticism in particular, but embraces various more general literary conventions. The notion of the hero is one of his favourite targets: "Je voudrais bien connaître leur vie quotidienne," he exclaims in an interesting passage about heroes published in Mélanges posthumes. When he refers to mythical figures it is not to exalt them; on the contrary, he cuts them down to size and shows that they, too, act out the roles society casts for them. In "Lohengrin", Elsa, playing the part of the modest, misrepresented virgin, "s'avance sur l'estrade, tête basse, l'air positivement blessé". She declares "angéliquement", "Je crois être innocente. O méprises cruelles!" but adds under her breath, "Mon Dieu, que de cancans!" As soon as Lohengrin arrives she begins to see herself in the traditional image of a warrior-hero's wife: "Je ne saurai que laver, chaque matin, votre armure de cristal, avec mes larmes . . .". Similar parody of pseudo-heroic discourse and gestures which in fact amount simply to narrative convention occurs in all the Moralités. Perseus, "plein de chic" and mounted on Pegasus, describes circles over the head of Andromeda in order to impress her, but is promptly deflated by the phrase "Ce jeune héros a l'air fameusement sûr de son affaire". Hamlet, too, adopts a variety of roles and poses, and is quite aware (unlike Perseus) of their conventionality. When a gravedigger interrupts his pseudo-philosophical musings over Yorick's skull to announce the arrival of Ophelia's funeral procession, "le premier mouvement du penseur Hamlet est de singer à ravir le clown réveillé par un coup de mailloche à grosse caisse dans le dos; et c'est tout juste qu'il le réprime" (emphasis added). His favourite role, that of artist, dictates his last words: "Ah! . . . qualis . . . artifex . . . pereo!"; for even in death, Hamlet assumes a pose: "Notre héros s'affaisse sur ses genoux orgueilleux, dans le gazon, et vomit des gorgées de sang, et fait l'animal talonné par une mort certaine." The clichés here ("s'affaisse", "gorgées de sang", "talonné par une mort certaine") emphasize that this "heroic" pose in fact represents nothing more than a narrative device.

Laforgue parodies other conventional literary practices, such as the framing device, which is used at the end (but not the beginning) of "Persée et Andromède". At one point in "Le Miracle des roses" he ridicules the assumption in traditional novels that the narrator can actually see the scene he evokes: "Approchonsnous, de grâce," he says when wishing to describe a detail. Long descriptive passages such as those in Flaubert's "Hérodias" are also imitated in a parodic spirit by Laforgue, for example in the description of the Tetrarch's palace ("Salomé") or of the "Villa-Nuptiale" ("Lohengrin"). In the poetry, Laforgue parodies traditional rhymes, pairing, "tombeau", for example, not with "flambeau" or some other "suitable" word, but with "lavabo" ("Complainte du vent qui s'ennuie la nuit"). In "Complainte des printemps" "Angélus" is rhymed irreverently with "foetus". Parody of the vocabulary of Catholicism abounds, especially in the early verse but also in later works, for example at the beginning of "Légende" (Dv VIII) or in the Grand-Priest's salutation in "Lohengrin": "Je vous salue, Vierge des nuits, plaine de glace".

Distinguishing between pastiche and parody, Bouché states that pastiche imitates only the style of a text, whereas parody can deal with any aspect of it, and he relates this to a similar distinction between cliché and lieu commun, quoting Rémy de Gourmont: "cliché représente la matérialité même de la phrase; lieu commun, plutôt la banalité de l'idée." Riffaterre, too, emphasizes that a cliché must be "un fait de style": "la Stéréotypie à elle seule ne fait pas le cliché: il faut encore que la séquence verbale figée par l'usage présente un fait de style, qu'il s'agisse d'une métaphore comme fourmilière humaine, d'une antithèse comme meurtre juridique, d'une hyperbole comme mortelles inquiétudes, etc." We have seen Laforgue parodying clichés of this type in the Moralités (e.g. "talonné par une mort certaine"); he also "renews" them sometimes by altering one or more words, as in the example quoted by Riffaterre of the birds "qui ont élu volière dans les frondaisons"; or he deliberately underscores them, for instance when "le cliché 'public houleux'" is said to come into Hamlet's mind as he surveys the scene in the theatre; or when, Lohengrin having dismissed his swan, the narrator declares: "Oh, sublime façon de brûler ses vaisseaux!" The poetry, however, offers far more examples of lieux communs: stereotyped expressions which are not figures of speech; Laforgue is concerned not only with their "style" or form but with the attitudes they betray, with the mentality of the speakers who proffer them so uncritically. Amossy and Rosen claim that "le lieu commun . . . renvoie à une Stéréotypie de la pensée et non de l'unité discursive", though in practice the two tend to go hand in hand, stereotyped language reflecting "Stéréotypie de la pensée". The ironic quotation of clichés or lieux communs often represents a device for suggesting criticism of the assumptions underlying them. As Amossy says of Eugénie Grandet, "C'est souvent à la faveur d'un jeu de mots ou d'un emploi ironique du cliché que certaines valeurs consacrées se voient tournées en dérision". Laforgue's love-sick ladies are condemned out of their own mouths by the platitudes they utter.

Laforgue's constant repetition of empty verbal formulas, whether of a literary or an everyday type, inevitably suggests that there is nothing but "Words, words, words"; that language refers to no reality beyond itself. "A mesure que la répétition se répète," says Shoshana Felman [in La Folie et la chose littéraire, 1978] of Flaubert's Un coeur simple, "le signe linguistique se décale à la fois de son sens et de son référent;" she concludes that the function of clichés is "de nous forcer à réfléchir l'arbitraire du signe, qu'ils mettent en évidence, en dénonçant du même coup l'illusion réaliste et référentielle". This property of the cliché, or of "la Stéréotypie"; accentuates the feeling we have, reading Laforgue, that his is a universe of words eminently conscious of itself as such, aware of its own non-referentiality. As Bouché says of the Chants de Maldoror and Poésies, Laforgue's works, written within fifteen or twenty years of Lautréamont' s, "se situent à la croisée de ces mouvements multiples qui ne cessent de ramener l'écriture à elle-même"—a statement which of course applies with at least equal force to Flaubert. Furthermore, the stereotyped phrases constantly issuing from the mouths of stock characters such as Laforgue's Pierrot and Hamlet emphasize that language is a barrier to, rather than a vehicle for, genuine self-expression. The "I" in Laforgue sees itself not just as split into two but as adopting a multiplicity of poses and playing a succession of different roles over and over again. All the Self can do is repeat itself; it is as "intertextual" as its language.

Anne Holmes (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6457

SOURCE: "Towards the Derniers Vers: 'Trouver une langue'," in Jules Laforgue and Poetic Innovation, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1993, pp. 95-120.

[In the following excerpt, Holmes examines some of the elements that moved Laforgue toward free verse. She considers the influence of Impressionist aesthetics and looks at how Laforgue's poetic prose in Moralités légendaires allowed him to experiment more boldly in Derniers Vers.]

The Derniers Vers was the first volume in French to be composed entirely in free verse, and it owes some of its fame to this fact. The poems were not published as a volume until after Laforgue's death, but eleven of the twelve appeared during his lifetime, ten in pairs in Kahn's La Vogue, and one in Téodor de Wyzewa's Revue indépendante.... In free verse he was a leader, but he was nevertheless influenced by a number of factors that determined the particular direction he followed. . . .


A poet does not react merely to the work of other poets. His style may develop and change as a result of his interest in other art-forms or of his writing in other genres. Both these factors were present in Laforgue's case. Throughout the time when he was moving towards his final poetic style he was also composing short stories, to which he attached considerable importance. And if a sophisticated interest in the visual arts, particularly painting, had been a constant factor since his Parisian days, it is perhaps most significant at this time, when a clear parallel can be established between the methods and aims of the art he particularly admired—that of the Impressionists—and his own liberated compositional methods.

A brief survey of the many strands that contributed to Laforgue's expertise in the visual arts may be useful here. He had had private drawing-lessons as a child and several witty sketches survive as testimony to his skill. . . . After failing his baccalauréat three times, he turned to the École des beaux-arts, where, like his older brother Émile, he studied under Henri Lehmann and met the painter Seurat. His first job in Paris was that of secretary to the art-collector Charles Ephrussi, one of Proust's models for Charles Swann, who was preparing his edition of Dürer's drawings, and it was in his study, lined with paintings by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Sisley, and Berthe Morisot, among others, that he became familiar with Impressionist painting and made the acquaintance of Manet. While a student in Paris, he attended Taine's lectures on art, which were later summarized to form his Philosophie de I 'art, took copious notes, some of which survive in manuscript, and arrived ultimately at a position strongly opposed to Taine's, which he put forward in his notes on Impressionism and, less directly, in 'L'Art moderne en Allemagne', and in his contributions to the Gazette des beaux-arts and its supplement, the Chronique des arts et de la curiosité. At moments of creative discouragement he considered the possibility of making his name as an art critic.

The suggestion that a connection can be traced between Laforgue's interest in painting in general, and in Impressionism in particular, and his poetic style and ambitions is not an idea that would have seemed strange to his contemporaries. Baudelaire's views on the relatedness of the art-forms—the visual arts, literature, and music—were by now common currency, and his famous essay Le Peintre de la vie moderne was interpreted with poetry as well as the visual arts in mind. Zola freely acknowledged a literary debt to Impressionist painting: 'Je n'ai pas seulement soutenu les Impressionnistes', he wrote, 'je les ai traduits en littérature, par les touches, notes, colorations, par la palette de beaucoup de mes descriptions,' and, significantly stressing the fact that Impressionist painting contributed to literary innovation, he confessed: 'Dans tous mes livres .. . j'ai été en contact et échange avec les peintres.'

Laforgue was convinced of the naturalness of applying the methods of the visual arts to literature. In one passage, the importance of which cannot be overstressed, he contrasted the Impressionists' 'œil naturel' with traditional academic vision, dominated by concepts that he considered artificial, such as line, relief, and perspective. The natural—or Impressionist—eye saw the external world as it really appears, that is, in multiple gradations of prismatic colour:

où académique ne voit que la lumière blanche, à l'état épandu, l'impressionniste la voit baignant tout non de morte blancheur, mais de mille combats vibrants, de riches décompositions prismatiques. Où l'académique ne voit que le dessin extérieur enfermant le modelé, il voit les réelles lignes vivantes sans forme géométrique mais bâties de mille touches irrégulières qui, de loin, établissent la vie. . . . L'impressionniste voit et rend la nature telle qu'elle est, c'est-à-dire uniquement en vibrations colorées.

The painting that was Laforgue's favourite in Ephrussi's collection, Monet's 'Baignade à la Grenouillère' (now in the National Gallery), certainly offers a picture of nature—and particularly of the reflective surface of water—'uniquement en vibrations colorées' by means of 'mille touches irrégulières'. These were not achieved with ease, any more than was Laforgue's apparently spontaneous verse. Monet referred to the painting as a 'pochade', though it is in fact somewhere between a rough draft and a finished painting. The use of X-rays has given us a different and much more painstaking image of Impressionist techniques. It has shown how even this painting was much altered during composition, and that it contains surprisingly elaborate combinations of coloured pigments. The Impressionists understood that the human experience of colour is not of single, determinate hues, but of a complex shifting process of interaction. Awareness of this fact led to the emphasis they placed on relationships rather than on objects, a perception that was also central to Laforgue's view of his artistic material. Interestingly, Seurat referred to the technique that he invented not primarily as 'pointillisme', but as 'divisionisme', a term that also highlights relationships rather than objects.

Laforgue drew a parallel between the Impressionist sensitivity to the variety and complexity of visual experience and the 'symphonic' ambitions of Wagner, linking both to the Hartmannian unconscious law governing the universe: 'Plus de mélodie isolée, le tout est une symphonie qui est la vie vivante et variante, comme "les voix de la forêt" des théories de Wagner en concurrence vitale pour la grande voix de la forêt, comme l'Inconscient, loi du monde, est la grande voix mélodique, résultante de la symphonie des consciences de races et d'individus.' Finally, he stated that the central principle behind the Impressionist school had been adopted by writers: 'Ce principe a été, non systématiquement, mais par génie appliqué en poésie et dans le roman chez nous.' No doubt he had Zola and Huysmans in mind for the novel.

As in the case of Baudelaire's essay Le Peintre de la vie moderne, much that Laforgue says about the visual arts in his notes on Impressionism can be applied to literature, and it may well be that his study of painting helped him to develop and refine his general aesthetic principles. As Patrick Heron has said [in "Late Picasso," Modern Painters, 1, 1988], 'painting is the greatest externaliser of feeling; it renders perceptions actual.' Laforgue's admiration for the Impressionists' fidelity to their perceptions, and for their translation of them into the medium of paint ('something stated out there in the daylight'), no doubt encouraged his similar translation of perceptions into language. When he writes in his art criticism: 'l'objet et le sujet sont donc irrémédiablement mouvants, insaisissables et insaisissants', one feels it is the poet as much as the art critic speaking, and the same could be said of the following highly significant fragment, also from his art criticism: 'Chaque homme est selon son moment dans le temps, son milieu de race et de condition sociale, son moment d'évolution individuelle, un certain clavier sur lequel le monde extérieur joue d'une certaine façon. Mon clavier est perpétuellement changeant et il n'y en a pas un autre identique au mien. Tous les claviers sont légitimes.' Moral criteria are therefore clearly rejected in the evaluation of art. ('La morale n'a rien à voir avec l'art pur, pas plus qu'avec l'amour pur.') The mistake of Taine and his followers was to seek 'par des voies morales, littéraires, spiritualistes, l'idéal plastique'. Like Baudelaire, Laforgue insisted on modernity: 'Il s'agit de n'être pas médiocre. Il faut être un nouveau.' Only in this way could art be interesting, which was of primary importance. He rejected mimetic art; not only was it impossible ('l'œuvre ne sera jamais l'équivalent de la réalité fugitive'), but also it denied the relative nature of 'la vie incessament ondulatoire' and of the human being, that 'créature incomplète et éphémère'. So Laforgue appreciated Impressionism, seeing in it, as Proust was later to do, the 'varied landscape of the hours'. 'There is no better writing on Impressionism that Laforgue's: his excess seems bound up with his powers of description,' writes T. J. Clark [in The Painting of Modern Life, 1985], responding to Laforgue's insight, to his receptivity to the new, as well as to his enthusiasm. Of course, what Laforgue brought to his appreciation of Impressionism—taste and sensitivity apart—was the understanding provided by a parallel endeavour, while what he learnt most importantly from Impressionism was to trust the complex and shifting impressions of life that constituted his subjective 'perceptions', and to consider them as natural and valid—indeed, the only legitimate—material for his art.

The 'modern', the ephemeral, the fragmentary, the inconsequential were the realms of the Impressionist painter, as they were also of Laforgue the poet. Impressionist paintings offered glimpses into human existences. Manet, for example, was accused of painting pictures that simply could not be decoded. Had the duel in Le Déjeuner taken place or not? What was the relationship of the two women in Le Balconi Was the waitress in Un bar aux Folies Bergère a prostitute or a respectable employee—or something in between? Integration was refused both at the narrative and at the pictorial level. A contingent world was presented that was indecipherable, while it was simultaneously recognizable and highly suggestive. The topics selected, echoing the rootlessness and anonymity of life in the modern city, appeared arbitrary, having no known before or after. They were, in Laforgue's words, 'sans nécessité'. In a significant passage Laforgue explained why these, rather than classical subjects, attracted the modern sensibility:

Littérairement, avec des goûts d'historien, d'antiquaire, nous pouvons être amoureux sincèrement d'un type de femme du passé, Diane chasseresse, l'Antiope, la Joconde, Marie la Sanguinaire, la Muse de Cortone, la Junon de la villa Ludovici ou Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, Mademoiselle Aïssé, ou Poppée, femme de Néron;—mais telle grisette de Paris, telle jeune fille de salon, telle tête de Burne Jones, telle parisienne de Nittis, etc. . . . —nous fera seule sangloter, nous remuera jusqu'au tréfond de nos entrailles, parce qu'elles sont les sœurs immédiates de notre éphémère, et cela avec son allure d'aujourd'hui, sa coiffure, sa toilette, son regard moderne.

It was a question of the flash of recognition, identification, and, therefore, sympathy. Manet, like Laforgue, captured moments—frequently moments of non-communication between people, as in Laforgue's imagined dialogues, or moments when figures withdrew from the surface world and lost themselves in private meditation. The next minute they would return to the ordinary business of living, but the pause captured by the painting parallels the interior monologues of Laforgue's narrators, and similarly represents the inner level of reverie in an essentially 'modern' and psychological manner.

If the 'modern' interest of Laforgue's subjects in the Derniers Vers matched those of the Impressionists, so did his treatment of them, for these paintings were initially criticized for their refusal to take seriously the traditional demands of form, for the haphazard placing of figures in space, and for the unco-ordinated gazes of these figures. In Le Siècle of 11 June 1869 Jules Castagnary claimed that: 'Rien d'arbitraire et rien de superflu, telle est la loi de toute composition artistique'; 'comme les personnages dans une comédie, il faut que dans un tableau chaque figure soit à son plan, remplisse son rôle et concoure ainsi à l'expression de l'idée générale.' This was precisely what he did not find in Manet's paintings. In a parallel way, Maurice Grammont, in his Petit Traité de versification francaise (1908), refused to entertain the idea that free verse could be considered seriously as poetry, and this also was to be expected. It fulfilled no expectations of regularity, since neither rhyme nor syllabic length could be anticipated: it similarly attacked hallowed traditions. Its harmonies, like those of Impressionist painting, were variable, irrational, and obscure.

The Impressionists' aim of achieving a carefully contrived irregularity was, like Laforgue's, often reached only at a late stage in composition. The most original elements in Manet's paintings have been shown frequently to be late additions; the cat or the choker in the Olympia painting, for example, which was originally much closer to Titian's Venus of Urbino than it is in its final form, as was Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe to the Giorgione-Titian Concert champêtre. And, like Laforgue, Manet gloried in originality and 'modernity': 'ils n'ont cessé de me dire que j'étais inégal'; 'ils ne pourraient rien dire de plus élogieux', he insisted. 'Cela a toujours été mon ambition de ne pas demeurer égal à moi-même, de ne pas refaire, le lendemain, ce que j'avais fait la veille, de m'inspirer constamment d'un aspect nouveau, de chercher à faire entendre une note nouvelle.'

If the links between the visual arts and poetry are most clearly seen in the case of Impressionism, Laforgue's poetry nevertheless reflects his many artistic enthusiasms: for Watteau and Gustave Moreau, for the Pre-Raphaelites, and also his more recent German admirations, for Adolf Menzel, like Laforgue—and Huysmans—a 'poet' of factory chimneys, and for Arnold Böcklin, whose bizarre and anachronistic mythological figures influenced not only Laforgue's verse, but also, and more obviously, his Moralités légendaires. His aim in art criticism was to convey the sensation of the 'world' reated by a particular painter, to write 'une série d'études où, par une accumulation de mots (sens et sonorités) choisis, de faits, de sentiments dans la gamme d'un peintre, je donnerai la sensation du monde créé par ce peintre.' He belongs quite clearly to that group of poets, of which Gautier and Baudelaire are the most prominent, who see their task as analogous to, and intimately connected with, that of the painter, in that both create a world from their imaginative and subjective transformation of a changing reality. It is hardly surprising that Laforgue's poetic aims and methods should match in particular those of the Impressionists, who similarly discovered what might be termed a rhetoric of immediacy.

Laforgue's completion of five short stories, later to be published with one addition as the Moralités légendaires, no doubt also had an influence on his poetic manner, since it must have established him in his own eyes as a writer capable of sustained narrative exposition. His earlier excursions into prose had been either brief and unremarkable or had remained in fragmentary form. A connection can be traced between the successful writing of these Moralités and Laforgue's move to the longer poem. The Derniers Vers are all significantly longer than any of the Fleurs. They breathe a greater poetic confidence and expansiveness, which in turn lend the poems greater substance and, ultimately, greater subtlety.

Laforgue's explicit aim in the Moralités was to write short stories that were radically different from those of either Maupassant or Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Given his constant desire for originality, this was hardly surprising. By Pound's time the short story had, in his opinion, 'become vapid, because sixty thousand story writers [had] all set themselves to imitating De Maupassant'. The finely wrought parodic element in the Moralités, however, implied 'definitely that certain things in prose were at an end'. Pound draws a parallel between Laforgue's satire in the Moralités and Flaubert's in Bouvard et Pécuchet, 'if one may compare the flight of a butterfly with the progress of an ox'. What Laforgue also did in the Moralités, ironically, was to bring the short story closer to poetry. He speaks of his stories as if they were a volume of poems: 'Je veux . . . faire de mon volume de nouvelles quelque chose de plus qu'un médiocre bouquet de fleurs disparates. Ce sera de l'Art.' Laforgue can scarcely have used the word 'fleur', a recognized metaphor for poem, without intending the parallel to be drawn. It is therefore legitimate to examine the characteristics that the short stories share with Laforgue's verse, and the light they shed on it.

If we consider first their narrative mode and their presentation of character, we see that Laforgue's narrator clearly directs his observations to his reader, keeping himself well in view, so that his sensibility remains the final impression of the stories, as it is of the poems. He establishes an early familiarity with the reader, and the style of his stories, as of his verse, frequently has the intimate character of speech and a deceptive appearance of spontaneity. The narrative voice comments, enumerates, questions, and is both unfailingly courteous and at the same time elusively flippant. The techniques vary, as can be seen from the following examples from 'Persée et Andromède', the moralité that has been most often linked with the Derniers Vers, partly because Leah Lee [Laforgue's wife] seems to be the inspiration behind both works:

Elle a poussé ainsi, vous dis-je . . .

Mais où va-t-elle ainsi, ô puberté, puberté! . . .

Pauvre Andromède, on voit qu'elle ne sait pas où prendre son être pour l'exorciser . . .

Ah! elle s'étirera et gémira jusques à quand?

These brief examples illustrate as many narrative modes: direct intervention, exclamation, interpretative comment, interrogation. Narrative intrusions can frequently, as in Laforgue's verse, consist of a single word. For example, Andromède is described as 'irréprochablement nue'. But the possibility of reproach has its existence in a mind external to the characters, since there is no indication that Andromède is aware of her nudity, and certainly none that either she or the dragon considered it a matter for self-reproach. It belongs to a world that the narrator and reader share.

The short stories offer, therefore, a self-conscious dialogue with the reader, the interior monologue of two or more voices of the self (here the narrator and the dragon, since the dragon is clearly a persona of the poet, as, of course, are Hamlet and Lohengrin), and the interior monologue of the other main character (here Andromède, and always a girl)—that is, precisely the elements that we have already found in many of the Fleurs poems, and those which will be given more expanded poetic treatment in the Derniers Vers. As Alain-Fournier remarked [in a 1926 letter to Jacques Rivière]: 'Il [Laforgue] est à la fois l'auteur et le personnage et le lecteur de son livre . . . Can 'est plus du roman, c'est autre chose.'

If the narrator had already been developed with subtlety and complexity in the Fleurs, the 'jeune fille' had been given more summary treatment. The various heroines of the Moralités are much more detailed and sympathetic creations, and it is arguable that the 'fiancée' of the Derniers Vers, with her strong emotional appeal, owes a great deal to these carefully worked portrayals of femininity. Andromède has been linked by all critics with Leah Lee, and the change in Laforgue's writing doubtless reflects his love. We have a heroine intellligent enough to see through the fake hero, Persée, and to bring about her own salvation by her love for the dragon, so that the story of Perseus and Andromeda becomes that of Beauty and Beast, and offers us Laforgue's only happy ending. Andromède, bored, restless, lonely on her island with only the dragon for company, awaiting a transformation in her destiny that is slow in coming, is the epitome of the feminine situation, as well as being the representation of the 'âme du jour'. Not only is she convincingly human; she is portrayed with a comprehension and a tenderness that are an elaboration on anything we have seen in the Fleurs, and which remind us of these qualities in the Derniers Vers, in a poem such as 'Dimanches IV', for example.

The Moralités consist of two contrasting elements, as must any retelling of myth: a modern and 'realistic' element, and a legendary and imaginary element. Laforgue called the stories 'de vieux canevas brodés d'âmes à la mode'. The later poems offer a parallel contrast between the immediate and modern—conveyed by the main narrative of the poem—and the literary and mythical—conveyed by metaphor and intertextuality. The roles may be reversed, but the essential components are the same, and it is therefore not surprising that some of the techniques of the Moralités should find themselves reflected in the Derniers Vers. There are many analogies between the 'poetic' passages in the Moralités and aspects of the writing of the Derniers Vers.

If we continue to take as our main examples 'Persée et Andromède' and 'L'Hiver qui vient', we see that, like the poem, the short story evokes an atmosphere from the start. A poetic mood is immediately set by the imprecise but suggestive details given of the island where Andromède and the dragon live: 'O Patrie monotone et imméritée! . . . L'île seule, en jaunes grises dunes; sous des ciels migrateurs; et puis partout la mer bornant la vue, les cris et l'espérance et la mélancolie.' The interaction between physical and emotional, concrete and abstract, is present in the first sentences of the story. Images support the poetic mood, and frequently have both the delicate precision and the humorous unexpectedness of those in Laforgue's verse; for example, the following description of a brief rainbow: 'et c'est sur le dos des vagues la caresse d'un arc-en-ciel comme une riche dorade qui a monté un instant et aussitôt replonge, stupidement méfiante'. The technical devices of poetry abound: the rhetorical question, the theatrical aside, apostrophe, parenthesis, enumeration, and that particular use of repetition that consists of the recapitulation of a word as a basis for its further development, which Laforgue used so frequently in the Moralités that his first publishers, perhaps considering the repetition an oversight, frequently cut it out: 'Andromède reste là . . . hébétée devant l'horizon, l'horizon magique dont elle n'a pas voulu . . .' 'Mais sa [the sea's] plainte ne couvre pas les petits gémissements, les petits gémissements aigus et rauques d'Andromède, qui . . . scrute sans y penser le mécanisme des flots, des flots naissant et mourant à perte de vue.'

This technique appears in more complex guises in 'L'Hiver qui vient': the similarity can be seen, however, in two simple examples:

Sur une litière de jaunes genêts
De jaunes genêts
Les sous-bois ne sont plus qu'un fumier de feuilles mortes;
Feuilles, folioles, qu'un bon vent vous emporte . . .

The fact that, as Laforgue wrote the more poetic passages in 'Persée et Andromède', he was moving towards the rhythms and sonorities that he would employ in his free verse is most clear if we transpose two short passages into free verse:

sa chère falaise où
la nuit descend, la nuit sérieuse,
oh! sérieuse pour la vie!
si sérieuse et insaisissable . . .

Où va-t-elle ainsi, ô puberté, puberté!
par le vent et les dunes,
avec ces abois de blessée?

In the second example we can observe even the deceptively casual 'rhyming' of free verse. In both we sense the rhythmical phrasing that is central to this form. 'There are highly wrought passages of prose in the Moralités which, given a nudge . . . break into vers libre, ' writes David Arkell, and by that, ironically, one means that they naturally tend to divide into the balanced binary and ternary subdivisions of regular verse, so that the prose reader experiences the sensation of inhabiting a poetic world. In his first moralité Laforgue had found the writing of prose a painful process: 'Qu'il est plus facile de tailler des strophes que d'établir de la prose!', he confessed to Charles Henry. But it was a craft he learned as he composed his increasingly 'poetic' stories. In 'L'Hiver qui vient' he moved into free verse with a simultaneous sense of release from the tyrannies of rhyme and the syllabic count, and with the ease and assurance gained in part from the careful shaping of prose sentences into rhythmically balanced units.


This was, then, in brief outline, the climate—both external and personal—in which Laforgue moved towards a new conception of what poetry might be. For we cannot doubt that this was a dramatic turning-point in the history of French poetry, which, after the introduction of free verse, could never be remotely the same again. If a later poet, such as Valéry, selected a regular metre for his poem, this now implied a rejection of free verse. If a poet chose to write in free verse, he could do so using a range of subtle alliances with regular metre that his reader was intended to recognize. A free-verse poet who included an alexandrine couplet or an octosyllabic quatrain in his poem now meant something by this inclusion, over and above what was conveyed by the metre itself. Insertions in regular metre took on the status of signs; they had become quotations from another world, and had thus acquired overtones of traditionalism, archaism, or parody. And when a free-verse poet devised novel rhythmical variations or harmonies, these also were enjoyed as deviations from a known norm. No such choices were innocent, and every choice was an implicit statement of intent. Regular metre, with its long and intricate history, stood firmly behind free verse, and it would be very far from the truth to see free verse merely in terms of liberation.

In the early twentieth century young avant-garde poets such as Apollinaire and Max Jacob criticized Laforgue. He was thought not to have been bold enough. Among other things, he was accused of having gone only some of the way towards the liberation of verse: he used so many rhymes, so many octosyllables and alexandrines. The reverse of this accusation would have been more accurate. Laforgue recognized from the start, like Éluard later, that free verse existed in relation to regular verse, that this was unavoidable, and that it was a possible source of richness.

If the move to free verse, especially among younger poets, became something of a stampede, the revolution that had taken place was not quickly understood. Mallarmé, as we have seen, so accurate in his description of what free verse actually was, nevertheless termed it 'une heureuse trouvaille', a phrase that might be applied to something as particularized as the 'impair'. (Gérard Genette, with the advantage of hindsight, more correctly calls it 'une mutation . . . profonde'.) Mallarmé's compliment to Laforgue, that he 'nous initia au charme certain du vers faux', also gives the innovation less than its due, while limiting it severely, and it is clear that he really considered traditional verse and prose poetry—the forms he himself used, with the remarkable exception of 'Un coup de dés . . .'—to be the main alternative choices facing the poet. He, of course, considered the 'liberated' alexandrine to be a major innovation, writing of'L'Après-midi d'un faune': 'J'y essayais, en effet, de mettre, à côté de l'alexandrin dans toute sa tenue, une sorte de jeu courant pianoté autour, comme qui dirait d'un accompagnement musical fait par le poète lui-même et ne permettant au vers officiel de sortir que dans les grandes occasions.' Laforgue thought quite differently. He chose free verse as opposed to regular metre, writing to Kahn emphatically: 'Je ne ferai jamais plus de vers qu'ainsi', and 'j'aurai un volume ainsi en arrivant à Paris. Je ne fais que ça.' And there is no evidence that he wrote again in any other form. Debauve makes the interesting, but in my view not entirely convincing, suggestion that he might have relented to some extent with regard to his poems in vers libéré had he lived longer. Clearly, the twelve poems in free verse were too few to make up a volume. It is possible, he suggests, that, after his marriage, when he was already seriously ill, he considered making more use of the Fleurs, and, of course, had he added some poems in vers libéré to the Derniers Vers, he would have ended up with a hybrid volume like Kahn's Les Palais nomades, published in 1887. We are not in a position to judge with certainty, since Laforgue's literary correspondence ceased entirely once he was in Paris. My view is that, being more wholeheartedly committed to free verse at this point than Kahn was, he would not have departed from this form. He might have expanded and reshaped poems from the Fleurs (as in III, IV, V, VII, VIII, IX, and X), or written new ones (as in XI and XII).

The evolution of his first free-verse poem, 'L'Hiver qui vient', can be traced with confidence, since three significantly different versions of it survive. They are the early text published by Kahn in La Vogue in September 1886, a later undated and undatable manuscript on which some changes have been made in a neat and careful hand, and the text published by É douard Dujardin after Laforgue's death, containing his latest alterations. The major changes are between the La Vogue text and the manuscript, and they are mainly augmentative in character. The poem becomes considerably enriched by two kinds of addition. The first is unexpected, because it consists of the details of the external world, and provides the concrete frame, as it were, of the poem. But if one remembers that the poem is essentially the re-creation of a stream of consciousness, it is perhaps not so surprising that what apparently causes it, but is in reality the background to it, should be developed in its later versions. The 'cheminées d'usines' (which certainly appear intrinsic to the poem), the 'journaux', the 'statistiques sanitaires', the 'spectacles agricoles', and even the pianos are not in the La Vogue text, and appear in the poem only in the manuscript version. The inclusion of such banal elements alters (as Barbara Johnson argues of Baudelaire's famous 'batterie de cuisine') not so much our view of the objects themselves, as our perception of the nature of the 'poetic'.

The other kind of addition, a more predictable one, links the poem with art and myth, and so widens its horizons. The monologue acquires richness and depth by these allusions, typically brief, which invite a smile while they offer a spark of illumination. So the 'ornières' (with their Rimbaldian echoes) rise 'en don quichottesques rails', evoking momentarily a delightful world of naïve idealisms, or the picnic baskets conjure up the delicate and elegant idylls painted by Watteau ('Tous les paniers Watteau sous les marronniers'), or the mention of Red Riding Hood transports us to a world of fable. All these references enter the poem only in the manuscript text. (The only reference of this kind present in the La Vogue text is a more conventionally classical one, to the river Pactolus, which, like the sun, turns everything to gold.) They help to convey the multilayered quality of the mind, for, as outer landscapes inform the inner 'état d'âme', so the inner landscape surfaces in the images offered by art. They are all more deceiving than they appear. Don Quixote is a tragic as well as a delightfully comic figure; Watteau's idylls do not celebrate anything more elevated than sensual pleasure; and Red Riding Hood was eaten by the wolf. The poem gains complexity by their inclusion, becoming wittier and more poignant simultaneously.

Laforgue also made diminutive changes, chiefly removing anaphora of too simple a kind. The most interesting of these changes is the play with the poem's ending. In the first line of the La Vogue text quoted below he used irony to undercut his wish to portray the season of death:

Nul n'en rendra raison,
Tous les ans, tous les ans,
J'essaierai en chœur d'en chanter la note.

In the manuscript version he moved this irony to the end of the poem.

Tous les ans, tous les ans,
J'essaierai en chœur d'en donner la note,
Pour mes compatriotes,
Mais qu'on ne me demande pas la raison! . . .

But the last two lines are crossed out, and they are not present in the final text. He was clearly still tempted at this late stage to adopt such self-mocking rhetoric—an echo of his former self, recalling the manuscript dedication of the first poem of the Fleurs 'aux français de demain'. The removal of these lines allows the poem to end more affirmatively, with the poet's intention to evoke every autumn the season that he had always found particularly compelling, and which he described in 'Persée et Andromède' as 'esthétique par excellence'.

Of course, we also find substitutive changes, and these reflect a movement towards greater refinement of expression. The following two examples show subtly heightened emotion. In the first, the inclusion of 'loin' in the manuscript version of the description of the soldiers ('Ou les sommiers des ambulances / Pour les soldats loin de la France') adds a sense of exile to the existing awareness of their wounds. In the second example intentionality is replaced by anxious enquiry, as 'Vous serez mes seules amours' becomes, after the manuscript stage, 'Serez-vous pas mes seules amours?' liché and sentimentality are removed: thus 'perles d'eau' become 'gouttes d'eau', and the gardens that were first 'pauvres' (La Vogue), then 'souffreteux' (manuscript), settle for the understated 'modestes'.

More interesting, from the angle of free verse, is the division of the long Whitmanesque line, retained at the manuscript stage, but divided later. Two examples will illustrate the point (in each case, the manuscript version precedes the final version):

Sur une litière de jaunes genêts d'automne
Sur une litière de jaunes genêts
De jaunes genêts d'automne.
Oh! dans les bruines, toutes mes cheminées d'usines . . .
Oh! dans les bruines, toutes mes cheminées! . . . D'usines . . .

The first introduces musicality; the second gives 'usines' prominence. The bathos of the unexpectedly short line in this second example is a feature of Laforgue's free verse. The most striking incidence of it in this poem is the addition of the words 'Des spectacles agricoles' to the splendidly bombastic line that precedes it:

Soleils plénipotentiaires des travaux en blonds Pactoles
Des spectacles agricoles.

Laforgue chiefly divides lines, however, for more obviously lyrical effects. The poems after 'L'Hiver qui vient' were, on average, composed of shorter lines of more even lengths, as Laforgue gave increasing importance to the creation of rhythm.

The textual changes to 'L'Hiver qui vient' frequently provide new rhymes, internal rhymes and assonances. When Laforgue introduces the delightful Don Quixote allusion, he is at the same time creating a 'rime alternée' with 'bercails'. The Watteau reference results in a 'rime plate' with the preceding line. When he introduces the image of the ocean of roofs—'Devant l'océan de toitures des faubourgs'—he is creating a rhyme for 'Serez-vous pas mes seules amours?' When he changes:

Que l'autan, que l'autan
Effiloche les savates du temps

to the witty:

Que l'autan, que l'autan
Effiloche les savates que le temps se tricote!

he is not only creating a rhyme for 'la planète falote'; he is also, by means of alliteration and assonance, heightening the sound patterning of the two lines. And this is generally the case. Laforgue's free verse would seem to illustrate Whitman's belief [articulated in the Preface to Leaves of Grass] that 'free growth' progresses inevitably to form: 'The rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws, and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs and roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges, and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form.'

As one examines this increasingly delicate phonetic and rhythmical progression, it is difficult to accept Kahn's analysis [in "Préface sur le vers libre"] of Laforgue's reasons for moving to free verse as the whole truth: 'Dans un affranchissement du vers, je cherchais une musique plus complexe, et Laforgue s'inquiétait d'un mode de donner la sensation même, la vérité plus stricte, plus lacée, sans chevilles aucunes, avec le plus d'acuité possible et le plus d'accent personnel, comme parlé.' This is a very good description of Laforgue's psychological quest, which is not in doubt, and Kahn defines accurately the two main areas of innovation—the psychological and the musical—but what, one may ask, can the psychological be without the musical, or the musical without the psychological? Kahn is talking about emphases, but, even so, Laforgue's many references to rhythm and musicality in his letters to him make this a puzzling statement. No doubt, in the early 1880s Kahn did awaken or develop Laforgue's interest in the incantatory quality of poetry, and in the spring of 1882 Laforgue wrote to Charles Henry: 'je deviens (comme forme) kahiiesque et mallarméen'. In the same letter, however, he made the centrally important, and by now thoroughly familiar, statement that illustrates beyond all doubt his interest in the musicality of verse, and in which we find musicality and psychology combined, as they surely must always be: 'Je songe à une poésie qui serait de la psychologie dans une forme de rêve, avec des fleurs, du vent, des senteurs. D'inextricables symphonies avec une phrase (un sujet) mélodique, dont le dessin reparaît de temps en temps.' Reflecting Laforgue's poetic aspirations at a time when he still wrote in regular metre, this description seems particularly applicable to free verse as he developed it.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access



Laforgue, Jules (Poetry Criticism)