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.
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.
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.
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.