Jules Laforgue 1860–1887
French poet, short story writer, essayist, and dramatist.
Laforgue was an early experimenter in vers libre (free verse). A member of the French Symbolist movement, he advocated abandoning popular literary conventions and maintained that art should be the expression of the subconscious mind. Laforgue's earliest writings, particularly the posthumously published Le sanglot de la terre (1901-03), resemble the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Walt Whitman. The impressionistic language, fluid metric construction, and vivid imagery of his later works influenced such twentieth-century authors as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Hart Crane. While widely recognized for his Moralités légendaires (1887; Moral Tales), a collection of short stories which parody famous literary works, including William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Laforgue is perhaps best known for his final poems, published posthumously as Les derniers vers de Jules Laforgue (1890). The experimental rhythmic patterns, psychological realism, and evocative language of these poems provided the Symbolists with a dynamic model for their later, more refined free verse.
Laforgue was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. His father was an indigent teacher from Gascony, who in 1866 sent his family to Tarbes, France, where Jules and his brother Emile attended school. Although exceptionally intelligent, Laforgue was a mediocre student at the Lycée Tarbes. While there he made his first attempt at prose, writing a melodramatic account of his experiences entitled "Stéphane Vassiliew." In 1876, he enrolled at the Lycée Fontanes in Paris, and, although he liked the school, his work did not improve; he failed his baccalaureate exams twice and never received a diploma. In 1880, while studying art and working as a part-time journalist in Paris, Laforgue met Gustave Kahn, a poet and editor of the periodical Le vogue et le symboliste, who later became his mentor. With the encouragement of Kahn and Paul Bourget, a noted literary critic, Laforgue wrote his first significant poetic work, Le sanglot de la terre, a collection that evinces the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimistic philosophy and Edward von Hartmann's concept of the unconscious mind. In 1881, Laforgue accepted the position of French reader and secretary to Empress Augusta of Germany. For five years he traveled with the Empress, leading a leisurely life that kept him estranged from Parisian literary circles. Les complaintes (1885), his first poetry to employ the image of Pierrot—a white-faced mime that symbolizes humor, fate, and humanity, and personifies themes of uncertainty
and anguish—was published during his stay at the Berlin court, as were L'imitation de notre-dame la lune (1886) and Le concile féerique (1886), a verse drama that remained unperformed until four years after Laforgue's death. Leaving Berlin in 1886 after his marriage to Leah Lee, an English tutor, Laforgue moved to Paris, where a particularly harsh winter severely affected his health. Supported by loans, he wrote for Kahn's periodical Le vogue and tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher for Moral Tales until the opiates given him for his illness left him too weak to eat or work. He died, at the age of twenty-seven, virtually unknown. His Moral Tales, published within weeks of his death, were immediately acclaimed.
Laforgue's earliest poetic work is reflected in the thirtyone poems entitled Le sanglot de la terre. Laforgue himself denied the consequence of these pieces during his lifetime, but the poems themselves dramatize some of the themes that were to occupy him throughout his literary career. The subjects of these and other early works is decidedly existential in character, containing a young man's musings on cosmic despair and the lack of meaning in the universe. Laforgue abandoned these works by about 1882 in favor of a more innovative form of the complainte. Les complaintes (1885), Laforgue's first published volume of poetry, reveals a thematic affinity with the poems of sanglot along with the additional exploration of love, a topic unbroached in the earlier collection. This later volume, however, demonstrates a broad technical development and a move toward a new poetic sensibility. Laforgue's varied and innovative experiments with language began in Les complaintes, especially with the use of invented words and slang adopted from everyday speech. This work was also strongly informed by a philosophical system, specifically Edward von Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious, and exhibits Laforgue's interest in the poetic personae, particularly in that of Pierrot, a stylized projection of the author as a fin de siècle Decadent in clown-face. Pierrot is also one of the binding aspects of Laforgue's next volume, L'imitation de notre-dame la lune. The figure of the clown and images of the moon give the collection a sense of ironic detachment from nature, and pervade the work with a tone of modern sterility. In terms of technical skill, L'imitation is said to be transitional between the early experimentalism of Les complaintes and the free verse of Les denier vers. In the latter, which consists of twelve sections or monologues, Laforgue dramatized the anxieties and tensions prevalent in the modern world, including those of alienation, disillusionment, and fragmentation.
According to many critics the overall strength of Laforgue's poetry lies in his sustained use of self-ridiculing irony. His works consistently display individuals and forces locked in the drama of conflict, but undercut by a pervasive sense of parody and humor. Several critics, however, have disapproved of the dissonance in tone and theme found in many of Laforgue's poems. Some, for instance, have argued that Les dernier vers lacks unity and is marred by its ambivalence. While early critics called Les complaintes incomprehensible and decried its excessive "modernness," more recently, Laforgue has been hailed as a brilliant technical innovator and as one of the creators of modern free verse. His motto of "originality at any cost" and his outright rejection of old forms, such as his abandonment of syntax in Les dernier vers and his experimentation with language and form in Les complaintes, have added to his reputation as an iconoclast. Overall, scholars have accorded him attention in terms of his ironic wit and bold originality, even though he is often remembered more for his technical virtuosity than his intellectual depth, and for his influence on succeeding generations of poets than the quality of his own writings.