Jules Laforgue

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Benjamin De Casseres (essay date 1926)

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SOURCE: "Jules Laforgue," in Forty Immortals, Joseph Lawren, 1926, pp. 159-62.

[In the following essay, De Casseres records his impressions of Laforgue as an artist.]

Jules Laforgue, Frenchman, who died at twenty-seven, left three volumes—a book of poems, a book of legendary moralities and a book of epigrams and meditations.

Three great poets of modern times have left for us in their work mirrors of the beauty that is ghastly—Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Jules Laforgue. The beauty of the ghastly—whence comes it? In the poems of Laforgue one is in the midst of death and in the midst of life at once. The ghastly, the cynical, the Ideal and Absolute make up the monstrous arabesque of his nature. Moored to the wharf of the flesh, the sails of his spirit strain with breezes from the Open. What Open? The Cimmerian Open of the Néant or the light-blasting Open of a boreal Absolute?

Down the spine of the gods themselves there runs a chill at the reading of his poems and satires. And yet from them drifts a beauty, nameless and unconsecrated, ethereal and super-Chopinesque.

This unshriven Dante, whose moods were the rungs to his secret hell, was touched with moonmadness. He was an immigrant from the moon. He was moon-botanist. He tells us of its flora, its fauna, its metaphysical opalescence, its incandescent and stalactitic marvels, its bloodless arteries, its arcanum of nothing and its sadic chastity.

All speculation, all thought, all of life with its utter wisdom are in these poems, satires and thoughts. Laforgue was one of those strange beings born at the ends of time. He was one of the predestined, a nomad of metaphysical countries, the unfaithful lover of Isis, Astoreth and Astarte. He was a voluptuary of contrarieties. He volplaned with his metaphor-machine from the highest altitudes to the bogs and gutters. His anticlimaxes were more tremendous than Heine's and his flights were to the very ridge of Nirvana—where he played Pierrot!

But he came back sometimes from those heights with a fistful of stars and in tears composed a requiem for the living. His heartlessness was mystical and literary. The chastity of his satanism made him at once a Joseph and a Don Juan. Exotic to earth, sentenced to eternity, commanded by his demon to engrave a Z on all he saw and touched, yet rammed into a sack of flesh and blood: Do we wonder that in Jules Laforgue the adulterous relations of Sneer and Sob broke the bed of his brain?

To such minds, dowered with the wit of eternity, to whom all todays are ancient and all tomorrows coffins in the making, there is one escape: cosmophobia. Wing the soul with poetry and metaphysics. That flight into the azure is the magnificent eloquence of fatigue. And then there is the rapturous delight of an eternal sabotage against the instincts and manners of the average man and woman.

Cruel? Yes, divinely cruel. It is the revenge on the race, on the species, for the birth of the seraphic demon that we call the great poet. Pierrot-Fumiste? Pierrot-Parabrahma, rather! Even Time, with its suckers of the Hours, is spat upon in the miracle of art.

Laforgue was always trying to puncture the carapace of the relative with the stiletto of his absolutism. He was supremely a bovaryst, as Jules de Gaultier would say. "Chevalier of the Holy Grail," another great French writer has called Jules Laforgue. His aspiration to be nothing was his aspiration for absorption in the All. He put into poetry and satire what Hegel put into unreadable prose. At the last nothing could satisfy that soul but God, and yet he would have ventured into the Presence dressed as Harlequin—with a crown of thorns on his head.

Imprisoned in the aura of his metaphysical passion, rolling from boreal hell to boreal hell, the carapace of Reality stood against the battering of that mighty soul. He stanched the flow of thought and drove it back into the arteries of the subconscious. Still no answer.

The moon, that floating pole, was silent. Silent the brain, silent the heart; and so his dreams congealed in death, as happens to all of us.

And now the soul of Jules Laforgue is become a magnificent butterfly imprisoned in the center of an iceberg on the Moon.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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Les complaintes 1885

L'imitation de Notre-Dame la lune 1886

Les derniers vers de Jules Laforgue 1890

Poems of Jules Laforgue 1958

Other Major Works

Le concile féerique (verse drama) 1886

Moralités légendaires (short stories) 1887

[Moral Tales, 1928]

*Oeuvres complètes. 3 vols. (poetry, verse drama, short stories, essays, and letters) 1901-03

Lettres à un ami: 1880-1886 (letters) 1941

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

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

William Jay Smith (essay date 1956)

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SOURCE: "A Record of Many Voices: The Complaintes of Jules Laforgue," in The Western Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, Spring, 1956, pp. 219-27.

[In the following essay, Smith comments on Les complaintes, Laforgue 's first published collection of poetry, highlighting the poet's innovative use of language in the work.]

Les complaintes, the first volume published by Jules Laforgue during his brief life, expressed immediately and firmly a poetic personality with which succeeding generations would have to deal. The poems in the Complaintes are so very different from those of Le Sanglot de la Terre that one would think at first that they were the work of another poet. But the change is not so extraordinary as it seems; it is merely a shift in tone. The poet treats the same major themes but in a minor key, the macrocosm is reduced to microcosm: the instrument is smaller, but capable nevertheless of vibrant echoes. The pale, serious young organist in the loft is replaced by the nimble, playful, sentimental organ-grinder on the street corner. The cosmic is dealt with in terms of the ordinary and everyday. When the volume was virtually complete, Laforgue wrote to his sister that he had given up his ideal of philosophical poetry: "I find it stupid to speak in a booming voice and adopt a platform manner. Today when I am more sceptical and don't get so easily carried away and moreover control my language in more minute clown-like fashion, I write little whimsical poems with only one aim in view: to be original at any cost." Lofty poetic diction gives way to popular speech; no subject is either too grand or too trivial to be treated. The romantic dirges of the early unpublished volume are replaced by complaintes, popular laments patterned after ballads of the sort people had sung for centuries. The words of the two titles are significant—sanglot and complainte—for they suggest the fact that Laforgue thought of the earth as a living and suffering thing:

O terre, ô terre, ô race humaine,
Vous me faites bien de la peine.

The lines are said in mockery, but they are meant.

Here is the Laforgue we have come to know. Here more than anywhere else in his work the poet has put down the world of the quartier, the hotel room, the café, the gas-lit street with all the people who frequent it. He has recorded for all time the twilit atmosphere of the suburbs with the little girl playing the piano somewhere in the distance, the sadness of Sunday. One could list the titles of hundreds of books, plays, and songs that go right back to this Parisian universe that Laforgue made his own. Here are the "one-night cheap hotels" and "sawdust restaurants" that caught the imagination of T. S. Eliot and have continued to fascinate his readers:

The whole of "Prufrock" is there.

No one has been more successful than Laforgue in bringing the machinery, the shabby and sordid décor of modern life into poetry, right down to the "marbre banal du lavabo." One feels that he was compelled to make poetry out of everything, omitting, as Arthur Symons pointed out, no hour of the day or night. He does not always succeed, of course, but the attempt is impressive. Everything animate or inanimate, has its rhythm and its song, clocks and foetuses, pine trees and bells, wind and stars, space and time. He attempts throughout to record a world that is living, moving, breathing, ticking, grinding. In "Complainte des débats mélancoliques et littéraires" he writes

Deux frictions de vie courante
T'auront bien vite exorcisé.

It is the sounds of vie courante, "running life," like running water, that he catches in the rhythms of popular songs, nursery tunes, old refrains. The instrument, the reed-pipe, on which the poet plays these melodies is the "chalumeau de ses nerfs"; and Laforgue uses the word calamus of Walt Whitman, whom he admired and translated.

Laforgue stated that the reader of the Complaintes would be absolutely overcome by a glance at the table of contents; the list of titles is indeed staggering. Among them are: Complaint of the Voices under the Buddhistic Fig Tree, Complaint of pianos heard in the suburbs, Complaint of a certain Sunday, Complaint of another Sunday, Complaint of the poet's foetus, Complaint of difficult puberties, Complaint of the moon in the provinces, Complaint of the incurable angel, Complaint of prehistoric nostalgias, Complaint of the blackballed, Complaint of the wind that is bored at night, Complaint of the tall pines around an abandoned villa, Complaint of time and her lady friend, space, Complaint on the Complaints, Complaint-Epitaph. One of the most amusing and typical of the poems is the "Complaint of the Poor Knight Errant," which begins with the Knight Errant asking:

Jupes des quinze ans, aurores de femmes,
Qui veut, enfin, des palais de mon âme?

But the young ladies will have none of the "palaces of his soul" and the pilgrimage of the poor knight concludes thus:

The Knight-Errant is reduced to base reality: he is the man between the sandwich-boards wandering up and down the sidewalk, and the "palaces of the soul" are the rooms at The Knight-Errant, the hotel-restaurant he advertises. Laforgue's genius is verbal, everything exists on the surface, but always for the sake of what lies below it. Here we have the inner man, the introvert, buttressed against the external world, but held and contained within it: the man who is literally a sandwich.

The Complaintes is the record of many voices seeking to become one. In the "Complainte propitiatoire à l'inconscient," which opens the volume after the "Préludes autobiographiques," Laforgue addresses the Unconscious:

Que votre inconsciente Volonté
Soit faite dans l'Eternité!

And he means what he says. The Unconscious is what the poet saw as "the law of the world, which is the great melodic voice resulting from the symphony of the consciousness of races and individuals." Laforgue gives to Hartmann's metaphysical concept a psychological and imaginative extension. Poetry for him was no longer the romantic outpourings of the individual, as it had been in his early poems, but rather the expression of the many individuals that go to make up the one. The strength of the Complaintes lies in Laforgue's realization of the complex nature of the subconscious mind. Although he affected the air of a dilettante, he was a psychologist in poetry long before the advent of modern psychology. The discoveries of Freud and Jung, which lie behind so much of the writing of the twentieth century, owe a great deal to Hartmann. Laforgue's interest in the Unconscious and his interpretation of it prepared the way, in a very real sense, for Eliot and Joyce.

Behind all the rhythms of these poems there is one fundamental, immediate rhythm which Laforgue strives to set down: it is the human heart-beat. This is made clear in what was probably the first complainte that he composed, the "Chanson du petit hypertrophique:"

The poet is too close to his subject for this to be a successful poem, but it strikes the keynote of the work. The reader hears in the lines—in the dropping of the mute e's and the linking of the vowels with the z sound as would popular street-singers—exactly what the boy hears, the thumping heart and the voice of the mother calling from beyond the grave. Death is always somewhere between the lines of the poems, and accounts for their effect of urgency, their hurried manner, their staccato beat.

The idea of writing complaintes came to Laforgue, he tells us, during the carnival which followed the dedication of the Lion de Belfort in the Place Denfert-Rochereau on 20 September 1880. In November 1882 he had composed only five complaintes; by August 1883 he had written forty (ten were to be added later). He began immediately to look for a publisher, and finally agreed to pay Léon Vanier, who had published Verlaine's poems, to bring out the book. Vanier was so long, however, in getting around to it that the work did not appear until July 1885, by which time the author had already embarked on other important projects.

What impressed, surprised, and confounded Laforgue's contemporaries was not only his innovations in rhythms and rhyme, but the freedom of his vocabulary, his appropriation of popular speech and his invention of words. He introduced words from every branch of human activity, mixing them together as if they naturally belonged side by side and came as readily to the tongue as the simplest child's phrase. Terms from philosophy, biology, medicine, phrases from aesthetics, sentimental song titles, words from billboards and advertisements all mingle in such a fashion that one has the impression at times that the poems are collages made up from the pages of a daily newspaper. Not content with giving existing words new meanings, the poet invents new ones whenever it serves his purpose. He combines two words of very different sense which bear some orthographical resemblance; he makes nouns of adjectives and adjectives of nouns:

which might be translated:

Much of the punning and verbal invention is, of course, quite untranslatable into English: "cloches exilescentes des dies iraemissibles," "s'in-Pan-filtrer," "sangsuelles," "crucifiger." Nor does it always go so well in French; far from it. Marcel Raymond remarks that the "marriages biscornus" of some of these verbal associations have the appearance of laboratory products. Laforgue himself was later to realize that he had overdone these extravagances, and yet, in his campaign against the cliché and the hackneyed phrase, he was trying for, and at times achieved, a kind of verbal freedom that had not existed in France since Rabelais.

English, because of its double Anglo-Saxon and Latin roots, lends itself more readily than French to verbal dislocation and invention. And if we cannot translate many of the phrases of Laforgue, we can point to a contemporary English parallel. It exists where one would least expect to find it—in the nonsense poems and prose of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. It is doubtful that Jules Laforgue ever read Lear, but as an admirer of Kate Greenaway and Caldecott, he would certainly have approved of Lear's drawings for children; and he would surely have delighted in such words as "runcible," "plumdomphious," "sponge-taneously," and "scroobious." Lear and Laforgue, in their different ways, were revolting against the poetic eloquence of their day, an eloquence of which at the same time they had great appreciation. Laforgue admired the poems of Hugo, Lear wept on hearing the lyrics of Tennyson. Like Lear, Laforgue was unique in poetry, and like him he was an innovator: they both sang "warbling songs with a silvery voice and in a minor key." Laforgue is perhaps elsewhere more poignant and moving, but with this book he gave modern poetry, French and English, a new direction and a new life.

Russell S. King (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: "Jules Laforgue's Symbolist Language: Stylistic Anarchy and Aesthetic Coherence," in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2, November, 1976, pp. 1-11.

[In the following essay, King examines Laforgue's attempt to make a new language for poetic expression.]

Of the three principal poetic "movements" of nineteenth-century French literature romanticism, parnassianism and symbolism—the last was the most revolutionary in its exploration of the possibilities of language. Whereas romanticism inaugurated a new poetic sensibility, symbolism produced a new form of poetic expression. Though Mallarmé is most identified with the symbolist revolution, other poets, and most notably Laforgue, exemplified the contradictory and multi-directional nature of a venture which created a language alternating between acceptance and rejection of traditional norms, and between a language of transparent communication and anarchic obscurity.

No contemporary critic of symbolist writing in general, and Laforgue in particular, whether sympathetic or hostile, was able to ignore the problem presented by the deviant use of language. Laforgue's friend, Léo Trézenik, declared in a review that "Laforgue est un sphinx … pour les énigmes duquel peu d'Oedipes sont nés encore." Another critic insisted that "le livre de M. Laforgue demeure parfaitement inintelligible," whilst another more sympathetic reviewer of the Moralités légendaires wrote: "Si l'on ne s'arrête point aux imprévues abracadabrances d'images, aux multicolores et inusités vêtements de phrases, aux sauts de carpe des dialogues, bientôt voici de la profonde psychologie et de la philosophie nette." Incomprehension and incoherence are words which characterize the majority of responses to Laforgue: "M. Jules Laforgue … fut de toute la pléiade décadente celui qui sut le mieux allier le décousu des mots de la phrase à l'incohérence des idées." In modem criticism of symbolist writing obscurity of expression and the reader's difficulty in deciphering the poem's "message" are seen less as negative values than as defining characteristics.

Ezra Pound was perhaps the first critic to attempt some more sympathetic definition—albeit brief and questionable—of Laforgue's use of language. In an essay, "How to read," Pound divided poetry into three kinds: melopoeia ("wherein the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property"); phanopoeia ("which is the casting of images upon the visual imagination"); and logopoeia which he defined as "the dance of the intellect among words, that is to say, it employs words not only for their direct meaning, but it takes count in a special way of usage, of the context we expect to find with a word, its usual concomitants of its known acceptances, and of ironical play." According to Pound "Laforgue found or refound logopoeia." In another essay, "Irony, Laforgue, and some satire," Pound again emphasised the "verbal" quality of Laforgue's poetry: "Bad verbalism is rhetoric, or the use of cliché unconsciously, or a mere playing with phrases. But there is good verbalism, distinct from lyricism or imagism, and in this Laforgue is a master. He writes not the popular language of any country but an international tongue common to the excessively cultivated, and to those more or less familiar with French literature of the first threefourths of the nineteenth century." Thus Pound clearly identified the primary value of Laforgue's poetry, both intrinsically and in the history of French poetry, with his language and style.

However much Laforgue's verbalism may be explained in terms of a particular sensibility, it nonetheless represented a desire to create a "new poetic language", as editors and critics have been quick to point out. A more recent critic of Laforgue, Pierre Reboul, has written, with special reference to the prose "nouvelles" of Moralités légendaires: "Les Moralités sont à la fois des mythes, une 'expression' et des mots. En guerre déclarée avec le dictionnaire, ce prosateur-poète se moque de la syntaxe et du bon goût. Les compléments s'entassent et s'imbriquent, les adjectifs se multiplient, comme en surcharge, les parenthèses ruinent les exposés qu'elles coupent, les constructions pendent interruptae. Laforgue n'emploie pas une langue: il crée la sienne." Another critic, D. J. Abraham, examining Laforgue's "heritage", considered that Laforgue tended "vers la simplicité d'une nouvelle langue," with his neologisms anticipating the stylistic peculiarities of the Dadaists, Jarry and the Surrealists.

Laforgue's attempt to create a new poetic expression and his obsession with linguistic experimentation are, at a most obvious level, related to his quest for originality. In the notes and essays which make up the Mélanges posthumes the poet constantly insisted on the value of novelty and "interest", in a manner reminiscent of Baudelaire's association of beauty and surprise: "En art il s'agit d'être intéressant … Il s'agit de n'être pas médiocre. Il faut être un nouveau." Not surprisingly his claim to verbal originality depends on his occasional use of Joycian portmanteau words (sexciproque, violupté, éléphantaisiste) and his conspicuous deviations in syntax. For other critics however his originality resides rather in his use of cosmic imagery in his first collection of poems, Le Sanglot de la Terre (published posthumously in 1902), in his special sensibility which mingled pathos and burlesque in a manner which appealed so much to T. S. Eliot, and his use of popular ballad forms in Les Complaintes (1885), and in his early use of vers libres.

It is not my present intention to describe and analyse the stylo-linguistic devices characterising Laforgue's poetry, but rather to explore the "styloæsthetic" dimension of his hesitant attempt to create a new language.

Like Laforgue's contemporary critics, any modern reader of Moralités légendaires or Derniers vers is immediately aware that Laforgue was attempting something new. On the one hand there is in his poetry a tendency to simplicity and a conversational style apparent even in his earliest writing. On the other hand however this tendency is counter-balanced by another towards concision and obscurity. François Ruchon, who wrote the first major study of Laforgue [Jules Laforgue: Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre, 1924], has most clearly drawn attention to the complexity of the poet's "styles": "Il s'en faut de beaucoup que le style de Laforgue soit un. Il n'y a rien de plus complexe au contraire. Il serait plus juste de dire: ses styles. Laforgue module sur tous les tons. On rencontre chez lui des notations analytiques, concentrées, claires, dures et taillées comme des diamants, puis d'autres du plus pur impressionnisme."

The stylistic variations in Laforgue's writing in part reflect a rapid evolution which is apparent in any thematic, formal or stylistic comparison between the early Sanglot de la Terre and Derniers Vers. However the first major step towards the creation of a new form of poetic expression had already been made by the end of 1881 when he wrote in a letter to his friend, Charles Henry: "C'est vous dire que je fais pas mal de vers. Mes idées en poésie changent. Après avoir aimé les développements éloquents, puis Coppée, puis la Justice de Sully, puis baudelairien, je deviens (comme forme) kahnesque et mallarméen … Je tâtonne beaucoup les albums anglais de Kate Greenaway, Swerby, Emmerson." By the time of the composition (1883-86) of the Moralités légendaires his idiosyncratic style (or styles) was largely and distinctively formed. He described in a note, published under the heading "Rêve d'écriture" in the Mélanges posthumes, the complexity of his "ideal" style: "Ecrire une prose très claire, très simple (mais gardant toutes ses richesses), contournée non péniblement mais naïvement, du français d'Africaine géniale, du français de Christ. Et y ajouter par des images hors de notre répertoire français, tout en restant directement humaines." Already the key qualities are apparent: on the one hand those qualities which tend towards easy comprehension like clarity, simplicity, naïvety and obvious human relevance; and those which tend to difficulty: complexity of construction and unusual, novel images.

Laforgue was conscious of the difficulty of reconciling the "what one says" of naturalist writing with the "how one says it" of decadent and symbolist æsthetics:

La vie est grossière, c'est vrai—mais, pour Dieu! quand il s'agit de poésie, soyons distingués comme des œillets; disons tout, tout (ce sont en effet surtout les saletés de la vie qui doivent mettre une mélancolie humoristique dans nos vers), mais disons les choses d'une façon raffinée. Une poésie ne doit pas être une description exacte (comme une page de roman), mais noyée de rêve.

The "coarseness" and "saletés de la vie" which one more readily associates with the transitive discourse and æsthetics of naturalist prose writing are to be expressed in the self-conscious refined style of decadent-symbolism: "soyons distingués comme des œillets … disons les choses d'une façon raffinée … description noyée de rêve." The fusion of naturalism in subject matter, the frequent use of colloquial language and popular art forms, with decadent æsthetics provides one key to Laforgue's poetic universe.

This refinement of expression must not be associated with notions of eloquent communication, for eloquence would undermine the impression of dreamlike naivety which Laforgue sought to convey. Like Verlaine who urged in "Art Poétique": "Prends l'éloquence et tords-lui son cou," Laforgue condemned his early Le Sanglot de la Terre for its excessive eloquence: "J'en suis dégoûté: à cette époque je voulais être éloquent, et cela me donne aujourd'hui sur les nerfs. Faire de l'éloquence me semble si mauvais goût, si jobard." Eloquence belongs rather to the committed, passionate poet for whom poetry is primarily a vehicle of communication. "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 rejection of eloquent expression in favour of neglect of form and an appearance of childlike naïvety brings Laforgue close to Verlaine, as the poet himself recognized: "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." Laforgue's identification with Verlaine is to be explained in a large measure by the two poets' partial adoption of impressionist æsthetics: the artistic reflection of impressions of relatively insignificant life and scenes resulting from direct confrontation with, and apprehension of, ephemeral reality, unformed by the intellect and expressed with a sense of directness and immediacy rather than in elaborate diction and traditional forms. In a sense their impressionism explains their appearance of naturalism in content and symbolism in expression. The purest literary impressionist poems are the "Paysages belges" in Verlaine's Romances sans paroles (1874) and the landscape-poems of the final section of Sagesse (1881).

Laforgue's preoccupation with trivial reality is therefore not in contradiction with the main direction(s) of his æsthetic: "La vie, la vie et encore rien que la vie, c'està-dire le nouveau. Faites de la vie, vivant telle quelle, et laissez le reste, vous êtes sûrs de ne pas vous tromper." In a sense therefore Laforgue's impressionism accounts for the language which at times appears colloquial and banal rather than "literary". Nowhere is this more obvious than in the many long passages of dialogue in Moralités légendaires -the most original part according to Ruchon -which invite the reader to suppose that Laforgue is simply aiming at parody and burlesque. In fact the poet is attempting to recreate heroes and heroines (Hamlet, Lohengrin, Pan, Perseus and Andromeda, and Salome) as real, living people:

Moi, créature éphémère, un éphémère m'intéresse plus qu'un héros absolu … jamais, Dieu en est témoin, la pauvre humanité n'a produit un héros pur, et … tous ceux qu'on nous cite dans l'antiquité sont des créatures comme nous, cristallisées en légendes, ni Bouddha, ni Socrate, ni Marc-Aurèle,—je voudrais bien connaître leur vie quotidienne.

This concept of a modern hero whose daily existence is recreated, almost in terms of parody, sets itself in opposition to the moral, universal art formulated by Taine whom Laforgue vigorously condemned in his critical writings.

By the time Laforgue wrote the Moralités légendaires which portray these impressionist heroes his theory of prose writing had evolved in such a manner that the underlying principles governing prose and poetry largely coincided. Before 1883, however, Laforgue's poetic ideal centred around verse forms and was distinctly separate from "functional" prose: "Je rêve de la poésie qui ne dise rien, mais soit des bouts de rêverie sans suite. Quand on veut dire, exposer, démontrer quelque chose, il y a la prose." By the time he wrote "Salomé" he became preoccupied with the difficulties of adapting prose to literary purposes: "Tu connais l'Hérodias de Flaubert. Je viens de finir une petite "Salome" de moi. Ah! mon cher, qu'il est plus facile de tailler des strophes que d'établier de la prose! Je ne m'en étais jamais douté." The poet's difficulty in working in poetic prose partly results from the absence of any real tradition before Baudelaire's Le Spleen de Paris (1869), for the poet to accept or reject. In a sense, therefore, in adapting his own stylistic and æsthetic principles to the nouvelles he was exploring an area of poetic expression more novel than the ballad forms of Les Complaintes (1885) and perhaps almost as novel as the free verse of Derniers Vers (published in 1890). Indeed, as Pierre Reboul suggests, the poetic prose of the Moralités may well have influenced his subsequent practice of free verse.

The adoption of free verse is not an isolated phenomenon, but must be understood with reference to Laforgue's æsthetic as a whole. Without doubt the two principal stylo-linguistic features of his writing comprise his frequent rejection of standard norms of syntax and his lexical inventions. All his poetry after Le Sanglot de la Terre reflects an increasingly daring rejection of conventionally accepted syntax. As one contemporary critic declared, "les membres de phrase paraissent avoir été tirés au sort et assemblés au hasard." This supposedly hostile comment would not have displeased Laforgue whose poetic ideal was a "poésie qui ne dise rien, mais soit des bouts de rêverie sans suite." This devaluation of subject matter and the simple construction or juxtaposition of "bouts de rêverie sans suite" could never adequately be adapted to the language of logical realism.

Logical realism, positivism, analysis are totally inconsistent with Laforgue's adoption of von Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious which largely informed or reinforced the poet's intellectual and metaphysical thinking. The unconscious, both in a Freudian sense, and as a universal life force, was in a large measure the unifying factor, but not the organizing principle, of the poet's writing. The "bouts de rêverie", preconscious day dreaming, a tendency to childlike naïvety, an absence of interest in causality, insignificant "bits" of individual experience of daily existence rather than rational generalizations about universal experience, are all to be expressed in a language of "broken", incomplete syntax reflecting the non-intellectual, pre-conscious progression of the mind. Long ago Ferdinand Brunot summed up this aspect of syntax which characterises almost all symbolist writing: "Pourquoi l'école symboliste fait-elle si peu de cas de la syntaxe? La syntaxe n'est qu'un instrument logique. Les rapports qu'elle établit ont pour effet d'enchaîner les sens des éléments grammaticaux, de manière à les coordonner en propositions rigoureuses. Or, cela, c'est la langue de ceux qui cherchent à définir. L'évocation n'a que faire de ces liens." Laforgue's rejection of syntax as a "logical instrument" anticipates the Dadaists' obsession with instinct and their refusal to be concerned with any explicit explanation, motive and conscious ordering.

The absence of explanation and coordination, the transformation of normally dependent grammatical structures into independent units juxtaposed with others, the abandonment in Derniers Vers of traditional verse forms, a fusion of naturalist triviality with decadent refinement, all tend to create an impression of anarchy of expression and obscurity of content. However this appearance of anarchy and obscurity needed to be orientated towards some counterbalancing artistic coherence. There is an obvious thematic unity in the earlier collections: cosmology in Le Sanglot de la Terre and the moon in L'Imitation de Notre-Dame La Lune (1885). In a letter to Léo Trézenik in which he compared himself with Tristan Corbière he insisted: "Je vis d'une philosophie absolue et non de tics." Yet the structuring of his poetry with its thematic and grammatical discontinuity gives precisely the impression of "tics", however much there may be an underlying "philosophie absolue". This is the "philosophy of the unconscious" which evocatively and suggestively translates itself into a language of discontinuity and apparent disassociation. Only the intellectual analyst, as opposed to the symbolist, dadaist or surrealist poet, can retranslate the apparent anarchy into patterns of logic, which of course would destroy the poetry as poetry.

The Laforguian "sentence" often seems to be in a state of decomposition, a state particularly associated with social and cultural attitudes of "decadent" writing in the 1880's. Bourget, in an essay on Baudelaire, described this state in which "l'unité du livre se décompose pour laisser la place à l'indépendance de la page, où la page se décompose pour laisser la place à l'indépendance de la phrase, et la phrase pour laisser la place à l'indépendance du mot." Thus the decomposition of unity between poems - as in Baudelaire's Le Spleen de Paris and all Laforgue's collections -is related to the decomposition of the sentence, and, in its turn, to lexical decomposition, which provides an important link between Laforgue's syntactic experimentation and his lexical peculiarities. However it would perhaps be more accurate to say that, in respect of poetry as a reflection of mental processes, Laforgue's language is intended to suggest a state of pre-composition. Psychology is still in a state of dream, and has not yet reached the stage of consciousness and intellectual analysis: "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." A comparison of manuscript first drafts of poems and the final draft reveals that this reflexion of preconscious thinking has been carefully and consciously achieved: Laforgue revised his poems by "deconstructing" and "degrammaticalizing" the conventional, comprehensible sentences into concise, deviant, juxtaposed structures.

The difficulty in achieving some sense of unity was one which Laforgue constantly sought to overcome. He wrote about Le Sanglot de la Terre: "Je me suis aperçu que mon volume de vers était un ramassis de petites saletés banales et je le refais avec rage." The Moralités too seemed to be a "ramassis": "A quoi bon, je veux travailler, faire de mon volume de nouvelles quelque chose de plus qu'un médiocre bouquet de fleurs disparates. Ce sera de l'Art. D'ailleurs -hélas! je sais qu'en quatre ans je pourrais faire fortune si je voulais écrire des romans à la Guy de Maupassant. Bel-Ami est d'un maître, mais ce n'est pas de l'art pur. Peut-être ce désir de créer de l'art pur est-il un louable mais pauvre désir de nos vingt-cinq ans? Et tout n'est-il pas égal devant la face de la Mort?" Laforgue's æsthetic necessitated a reconciliation of some notion of "pure art" which at first seems restrictive with an inclusive evocation of life in all its trivial experiences and with the meanderings of the pre-conscious and unconscious mind. In a letter he suggested the image of the kaleidoscope—Verlaine too composed a poem entitled "Kaleidoscope"—which would provide a theoretical reconciliation of coherence and anarchy: "Heureusement j'aime les vers, les livres, les vrais tableaux, les bonnes eaux-fortes, des coins de nature, des toilettes de femmes, des types imprévus. Bref tout le kaléidoscope de la vie. Mais on est fini et bien misérable au fond quand la vie n'a pour vous que l'intérêt d'un kaléidoscope, n'est-ce pas?" The image of a kaleidoscope transforms the chaos-thematic and syntactic -into relatively harmonious patterns through multiplication and repetition. Within the late Laforguian poem patterning is not provided in any formal way through verse or stanza forms but through refrains and the repetition of certain lines or words at regular or irregular intervals. Similarly there is abundant parallelism and tripling of syntactic structures, particularly in vocative forms and lists of nouns. This multiplication, which often appears gratuitous, of lexical and grammatical elements within the poem parallels the patterning of thematic elements -the kaleidoscope of life - with images of the dying universe, autumn, wind, rain, boring Sundays, absence of love etc.

It is difficult to determine whether Laforgue's particular sensibility resulted from, or lead to, the æsthetic of a new poetic expression. Those critics who seek to define and describe the poet's new sensibility tend to fall into a possible psychological fallacy: the dislocations in sensibility and linguistic expression are to be explained against a background portrait of Laforgue's own psychology. Martin Turnell, in his essay in Scrutiny, interprets the movements from high to low styles in purely psychological terms: Laforgue is "ridiculing an attitude from which he is trying to free himself, but has not yet managed to do so." Guy Michaud, in Message du Symbolisme, entitles his study of Laforgue "la parodie de l'angoisse." Ruchon too follows the psychological tradition in reading Laforgue: "Laforgue est la victime d'un trouble douloureux produit par le tourment de la méditation, par l'intrusion de l'analyse dans le moindre acte de sa vie, et cet esprit, fatigué de son éternelle analyse et dissociation de lui-même, n'a aucun désir: se dépasser, se nier, s'absorber en une sorte de Nirvana." Ruchon closely equates the sensibility of Laforgue with his portrayal of Hamlet: "Tout Laforgue est dans cette étroite union d'ironie et de pensée grave, nulle part mieux réalisée que dans Hamlet." It must of course be accepted that there must exist some reciprocal relationship (of cause and effect) between the poet's particular sensibility and his writing. In the case of Laforgue, after the more philosophic-prophetic poems of Le Sanglot de la Terre, stylistic and æsthetic considerations play a more dynamic function in the moulding of words and images into poems. In a letter written in 1882, Laforgue described himself as a dilettante, and seemed to shift emphasis away from the value of poetry as an act of philosophic communication to a more playful thing-in-itself: "Sachez, cher poète, qu'avant d'avoir des ambitions littéraires, j'ai eu des enthousiasmes de prophète, et qu'à une époque je rêvais toutes les nuits que j'allais consoler Savonarole dans sa prison. Maintenant, je suis dilettante en tout, avec parfois de petits accès de nausée universelle." This humorous but certainly sincere self-portrayal as a "dilettante en tout" combines with his kaleidoscopic image of life as it is to be reflected or recreated in art.

Laforgue's admission of dilettantism underlines the multidirectional nature of almost all aspects of his writing. For Laforgue vacillated, abruptly and unexpectedly, between an intellectual's desire to use language as a medium of clear and even eloquent communication and an anti-intellectual artist's rejection of "transitive discourse". Though his basic subject matter ("la vie, vivant telle quelle") may have coincided in a large measure with that of naturalist writing (Maupassant rather than Zola), his perception of reality and the verbal means of communicating this perception reflect rather a fusion of impressionist and decadent principles and techniques. All Laforgue's writing in fact is based on polarized tensions: between colloquial language and refined ornamentation; between banality and vulgarity, and decadent artifice; between coherence and anarchy; and between an appeal to a special coterie of initiated readers and a desire to create living heroes accessible to the general public. In this manner the poet's "stylo-æsthetic" novelty with its clever juggling -logopoeia -of themes and words requires a very considerable mental agility on the part of the reader. Neologisms and unusual technical terms along with syntactic innovations reflect not only a particular sensibility but also a new form of poetic expression which is a composite of realism, naturalism, impressionism, Tainian and anti-Tainian methodologies, and which anticipates æsthetic principles associated with, for example, the language and style of the Dadaists, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.

Further Reading

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

Anecdotal approach to Laforgue's life and literary accomplishments.

Ramsey, Warren. Jules Laforgue and the Ironic Inheritance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953, 302 p.

The first critical biography of Laforgue in English.


Benamou, Michel. "Jules Laforgue." In Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination, pp. 25-44. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Traces affinities between the poetry of Laforgue and that of Wallace Stevens.

Collie, Michael. Laforgue. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1963, 120 p.

Critical biography of Laforgue that emphasizes his literary development within social and psychological contexts.

Cowley, Malcolm. "Laforgue in America: A Testimony." The Sewanee Review LXXI, No. 1 (Winter 1963): 62-74.

Investigates Laforgue's influence on early twentieth-century American writers, especially Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound.

Cutler, Maxine G. "Prosaic Language in the Poetic Text." Teaching Language Through Literature XVIII, No. 1 (December 1978): 3-16.

Explores Laforgue's use of irony and contradiction in his poem "Autre complainte de Lord Pierrot."

Fenollosa, Ernest. "Jules Laforgue." In Instigations of Ezra Pound, pp. 7-19. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1920.

Selection of six poems by Laforgue followed by an account of his significance in French literature.

Franklin, Ursula. "Laforgue and His Philosophers: The 'Paratext' in the Intertextual Maze." Nineteenth-Century French Studies 14, Nos. 3-4 (Spring-Summer 1986): 324-40.

Discusses the influence on Laforgue's poetry of the philosophies of Buddhism, Heinrich Heine, Edward von Hartmann, and Arthur Schopenhauer.

Golffing, Francis C. "Jules Laforgue." Quarterly Review of Literature III, No. 1 (1946): 55-67.

Examines the intellectual framework surrounding Laforgue's aesthetic of poetry.

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

Considers T. S. Eliot's perceptions of Laforgue, his poetry, and his philosophy.

Lehmann, A. G. "The Unconscious and Art." In The Symbolist Aesthetic in France, 1885-1895, pp. 114-24. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1950.

Contains an analysis of Laforgue's aesthetic, especially as it is informed by Edward von Hartmann's theory of the unconscious.

Morgan, Edwin. "Notes on the Metaphysics of Jules Laforgue." Poetry LXIX, No. V (February 1947): 266-72.

Outlines Laforgue's philosophical outlook as implied in his poetry.

Pound, Ezra. "Irony, Laforgue, and Some Satire." Poetry XI, No. II (November 1917): 93-8.

Marks Laforgue's importance as a transitional figure in French letters.

Quennel, Peter. "Jules Laforgue." In Baudelaire and the Symbolists, pp. 97-111. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1954.

Surveys Laforgue's development as a poet while highlighting characteristic themes in his works.

Ramsey, Warren. "Crane and Laforgue." The Sewanee Review LVIII, No. 3 (July-September 1950): 439-49.

Studies the influence of Laforgue on the poetry of Hart Crane.

Shanahan, C. M. "Irony in Laforgue, Corbière, and Eliot." Modern Philology LIII, No. 2 (November 1955): 117-28.

Traces the influence of Laforgue's self-ridiculing irony on the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

"L'Art sans Poitrine." Spectator No. 6785 (11 July 1958): 63.

Review of the Poems of Jules Laforgue that discusses his influence on English-language poets.

Symons, Arthur. "Jules Laforgue." In The Symbolist Movement in Literature, pp. 101-11. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1908.

Stylistic assessment of Laforgue's writings.

Turnell, Martin. "Jules Laforgue: Observations on the Theory and Practice of Free Verse." Cornhill Magazine 163, No. 973 (Winter 1947-48): 74-90.

Explores Laforgue's role as a technical innovator in versification.

Additional coverage of Laforgue's life and career is contained in the following source published by Gale Research: Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 5.

Michael Collie (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6697

SOURCE: "Dernier vers, " in Jules Laforgue, The Athlone Press, 1977, pp. 57-74.

[In the following essay, Collie studies the stylistic and thematic aspects of Laforgue's Dernier vers.]


Having published the boldly inventive volume Les Complaintes in 1885 and the modish L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune in 1886, Laforgue remarkably went on, the next year, to fashion for himself an entirely new type of poem which appeared posthumously as Derniers Vers. Laforgue was the first poet to write free-verse in France. By this it is not meant that he was literally the first person to write unmetrical poems with lines of varying lengths, but that he was the first poet to do so successfully. The Derniers Vers can be seen either as a natural part of Laforgue's development, as the poems to which his experimental writing of the years in Germany was naturally leading, or they can be seen as neither superior nor inferior to Les Complaintes, but just very different both from a technical and a thematic point of view. In either case, they represent a considerable achievement and constitute a landmark in the history of French poetry, inasmuch as, from this point on, writers and readers were progressively less disturbed and alarmed by the idea of unmetrical verse.

During the spring of 1886, while still a member of the Empress Augusta's household, Laforgue once again wrote a great deal, perhaps with greater determination than in earlier years. A number of things occurred to give him confidence -or, if 'confidence' is too heavily a moral word for a decadent, to increase his interest in existence. The publication of his earlier poetry had helped: it did not in the least matter that the volumes did not sell. He was involved, from December 1885, in a new love affair-with Leah Lee, whom he was to marry within the twelve-month. He was more and more determined to leave Germany, where he knew he could only stagnate imaginatively, and to live in Paris where, with any luck, he would be able to make his way as a writer. Since he was not in the least a practical person and had spent his savings on the publication of his books, he did not have a coherent plan of action. He just had the increasingly strong feeling that a French poet ought to live in Paris. This feeling was reinforced by his strengthened friendship with Gustave Kahn and by Kahn's creation of the literary magazine La Vogue. The magazine, together with the two friends' talk about it, seems to have been the catalyst which stimulated Laforgue's imagination during a twelve-month period of work in which he produced the stories that came to be called Moralités légendaires … and the poems which were for a while called Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté.

Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté is the composite title for all the poems written during 1886. Various opinions are current about the status these poems, taken as a total group, enjoy. When Dujardin and Fénéon published Les Derniers Vers de Jules Laforgue in 1890, which was the first time the poems appeared in book form, they divided the volume into three sections: Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté, Le Concile féerique, and Derniers Vers. They did this because the little dialogue called Le Concile féerique had already been extracted from the mass of poems written in 1886 and published separately as a chapbook by La Vogue and because they knew that Laforgue had prepared the twelve poems that now constitute Derniers Vers for publication as a book. In other words, Le Concile féerique and Derniers Vers are the volumes Laforgue himself made from all that he had written since the beginning of 1886. Unclear is the question of whether Laforgue would have published other poems from Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté had he lived. The existence of a titlepage for such a volume in one of the surviving manuscripts has made some people think that Laforgue did intend such a publication. Thus Pia prints the poems as a volume in his Poésies complètes. It seems more likely, however, that this intention was abandoned when Laforgue began to write Derniers Vers during the summer of 1886. This view will be assumed to be the correct one in the account which follows; that is, that when Laforgue found himself writing vigorously in the early part of 1886 he at first had in mind a volume to be called Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté but that this idea was abandoned when his previous thoughts about the writing of an entirely new kind of poem were suddenly realized in 'L'Hiver qui vient'. Once embarked upon Derniers Vers, he raided his own collection for material, as in the poems called 'Dimanches'. This means that the two sets of poems have a different status. What we now have as Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté is no more than a writer's notebook, 'un répertoire pour de nouveaux poèmes'. This is emphasized because some critics have been incapable of distinguishing critically, or indeed in any way, between the poems which Laforgue wanted to have published and those which he suppressed.

To return to the spring of 1886, Laforgue as usual found that he had more time when the court moved to Baden-Baden. It may turn out to be the case that it was in Baden over the years that he did most of his work. During this period he corresponded with Kahn. In May he announced that he had thirty-five poems for a new book; by June the number had increased to sixty. Only part of what must have been an exceptionally interesting correspondence has survived, but that it existed is clear from the frequency of Laforgue's contributions to La Vogue. The first number of La Vogue had appeared on 11 April; Laforgue had received a copy from Kahn shortly afterwards; he had contributed four poems to the fourth issue, in May, and to the fifth a prose poem, 'L'Aquarium', which is in fact a few paragraphs from one of the nouvelles, -'Salomé'. The magazine lasted for less than a year, but between May and December 1886 Laforgue contributed to twenty of its thirty issues. It has already been seen that the publication of a few of the Complaintes had a considerable effect upon Laforgue: the importance to him of this continuous publication in La Vogue could hardly be overestimated. It covered the whole period between the spring of 1886 and the Christmas of the same year, the continuous activity of writing and publishing giving some point to his otherwise chaotic existence. The first number of La Vogue had included work by Verlaine, Mallarmé, Villiers de 1'Isle-Adam, and Rim-baud, as well as by the 'Hydropathes' themselves, Henry, Bourget and Kahn. This issue, even by itself, had an impact in that it immediately made Laforgue wish to join forces with this illustrious company. In fact, he may have visited Paris briefly in May to discuss the possibility of his contributing to the magazine.

Whether he went to Paris or not, the activity associated with La Vogue had three immediate consequences. The first was that he read and thought about Rimbaud, whose work he had scarcely known until then. Kahn probably showed him the manuscript of Les Illuminations. At all events, he realized that Rimbaud was a poet whose strong imagination brought together the disparate facts of experience in the creative act of the making of a poem and that the kaleidoscope of life, whose separate, fragmented effects Laforgue had celebrated in Les Complaintes, could also render a modern art which was not merely fragmented, but which expressed the modern sensibility in unique, newly-invented configurations of words and metaphors that established their own integrity. 'Ce Rim-baud fut bien un cas. C'est un des rares qui m'étonnent. Comme il est entier! presque sans rhétorique et sans attaches.' Secondly, Laforgue and Kahn in discussion made explicit the possibility of a free-verse poem. These discussions went unrecorded for the most part, though they were later recollected by Kahn who, of course, must share the honours of having 'invented' the new type of poem. When Laforgue came to write Derniers Vers it obviously made a difference that he knew in advance that Kahn would publish them. Few other editors would even have considered doing so. Thirdly, Kahn asked Laforgue to translate Whitman. In a letter which should be dated June, not July, 1886, Laforgue tells Kahn that he has translated at least one poem: 'Je t'envoie—au moins pour boucher des trous de Moncanys—un Whitman. Lis-le, c'est un des plus Whitman du volume. Je crois l'avoir très heureusement traduit.' The translations were published in two issues of La Vogue, those for 25 June-5 July and for 5-12 July 1886. While there is no record of what Laforgue thought about Whitman, nor even any evidence that he chose these poems for a particular reason, it seems fair to speculate that Laforgue's encounter with an American poet who had already written a type of free-verse reinforced his notion that the same could be done in French. (Incidentally, when these Whitman translations were published in book form for the first time in Walt Whitman Œuvres choisies, Paris, 1918, the editor silently tidied them up, correcting Laforgue's errors and making a few other changes that would perhaps be difficult to justify.)

For the first time in his life, then, Laforgue was in touch with literary Paris, at least a part of it. His correspondence with Kahn is full of references to other little magazines -La Revue politique et littéraire, La Nouvelle revue, La Revue moderne naturaliste, La Revue contemporaine, La Revue Wagnérienne, La Revue Indépendante and several others. The friends were excited by the real possibility of avant-garde publishing. Furthermore, Laforgue had already met at a concert in Berlin at the beginning of April two of his future editors, Dujardin and Wyzewa, both of whom were also editors of journals. Wyzewa already knew Kahn, having met him first at one of Mallarmé's Tuesday evenings in 1885. It made a difference to Laforgue that this enlarged circle of friends was already sensitive to the latest developments in art and literature and was sympathetic to innovation.

Yet, whatever Laforgue may have felt about his status as a writer, and whatever view he took, theoretically, of his development as a poet, in July 1886 he consciously began to write a new type of poem. He announced this fact to Kahn and sent him 'L'Hiver qui vient'. Eleven more poems, or what were to become eleven poems in the first edition (making a total of twelve), followed during the summer and autumn of 1886 and were published in La Vogue and, in the case of the last two, in La Revue Indépendante. Back in Paris, he revised the poems for book publication. The revised text consisted of a fair copy made by Laforgue during the winter of 1886-7 when he attempted to interest Léon Vanier, and perhaps other publishers, in the possibility of book publication -this time not at the author's expense. When Vanier failed to respond positively, Laforgue sent his fair copy, by that time with both additional autograph corrections and an accretion of doodle, to Dujardin, who used it as the basis for his edition of 1890. Clearly this corrected autograph MS, now in the Jacques Doucet Library, should have replaced the magazine version for all subsequent editions of the Derniers Vers. Laforgue thoroughly revised the poems (so that the first edition is significantly different from that of La Vogue), clearly divided the poems into the twelve poems of the Derniers Vers as we now have them, and altered the epigraph. With this revision in mind and the physical evidence still available for inspection, some readers have decided that the twelve poems of the Derniers Vers are separate or, at least, separable from each other and that Laforgue rather emphasized this by the way he marked the work copy for Dujardin. On the basis of the same evidence, other readers feel that the poems have a thematic and metaphorical consistency which allows or even requires them to be regarded as a single work. There is no way to settle this question. The strongest of the poems can be read out of context and indeed they are the anthology poems of nineteenth-century free-verse. On the other hand, even the strongest poems must gain in imaginative coherence by being seen in context. It seems worth considering this possibility first.

One can think of the Derniers Vers as a whole by considering the way in which the author's own thoughts and preoccupations are gradually introduced into the complex of visual impression and mood. The first poem, 'L'Hiver qui vient', is almost entirely evocative. So is the second, 'Le Mystère des trois cors'. In these two poems, Nature is imagined as a compelling but automatic system (random fertilization, a meaningless life, death) and the cause of all this, the sun, is now itself dead, having been hunted to death across the autumn landscape, its previous splendour nothing but a mockery. After the sound of the hunting horns, there is winter, the poet's season. In the third poem, 'Dimanches', the personal element becomes more strong. The poet, though he wishes to believe in love, sees himself as a 'pauvre, pâle et piètre individu' who cannot even believe in himself. He engages perhaps in the fantasy that real engagements and real marriages are possible, but what he actually sees are the symbols of an alien world, Sundays, pianos, genteel dresses, and the young girl returning home after church whose body, one observes, knows 'qu'il appartient / A un tout autre passé que le mien!' He also fears lust, for marriage would lead him to: 'adorer d'incurables organes'. Because of the hopelessness of this, the girl should not accommodate herself to life; there should be the same rupture as between Hamlet and Ophelia; and the poet should go for a little walk to get rid of his spleen. In the next poem, also called 'Dimanches', the balance is redressed. He plays ironically with a view of the same symbol, the convent girl. He himself he imagines as a Polar Bear, a remote Arctic creature uninvolved apparently in the comings and goings of ordinary existence.

Les Jeunes Filles inviolables et frêles
Descendent vers la petite chapelle
Dont les chimériques cloches
Du joli joli dimanche
Hygiéniquement et élégamment les appellent.

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.

The fifth poem, 'Pétition', sustains the same balance. The absolute, pure love for which the poet has been craving is unobtainable. The imaginative location of the poem is an empty square, without a fountain in it, from which, at the ends of the streets which lead away in different directions, the life that other people lead is seen and heard distantly. 'Mais, à tous les bouts, d'étourdissantes fêtes foraines.' There are no absolutes, only compromise. 'Tout est pas plus, tout est permis.' That is to say, in the old determinist impasse, only what is permitted is permitted, and the individual can conceive of no life for himself outside the rigid scheme of things he sees more and more clearly the more he thinks. Despite this knowledge, however, there is still a desire for a genuine existence and this is the subject of the sixth poem, 'Simple Agonie'. The sensibility which makes the poet a pariah and sets him away from the world also inclines him to 'les sympathies de mai', the seductive allurement of rebirth, the provocative pleasures of a springtime almost irresistible to a Nihilist, so that his poems are ambiguous, insubstantial things, like the life of an insect. Laforgue in these poems is, in other words, that very modern figure who lets the weaknesses of his own personality be the lens through which a faithful, credible view is given definition. In moral art, where there is an emphasis upon the possibility of things being better than they are observed to be, limitations of personality are thought to weaken the impact of the work; in art which is taking care not to be moral but has a different ambition, in this case impressionistic, a character who is sensitive even in an anaemic way is taken to be a greater guarantee of authenticity than his more heroic predecessors.

The next poem, 'Solo de Lune', which is discussed in greater detail below, is the recapitulation, as in music. In 'Légende', the seventh of the twelve poems, it is the woman who argues with the man to make him or let him feel that there is something more than exile, at least 'the sweetness of legend'. The ninth and tenth poems were published together in La Vogue as 'Les Amours'. In the first, there is another masculine-feminine dramatic situation, again from the point of view of the woman who, as sure of love as 'du vide insensé de mon cœur', might come, 'évadée, demi-morte, / Se rouler sur le paillasson que j'ai mis à cet effet devant ma porte'. Once again there is the ambivalent male detachment of the poet who desires yet desires not to desire the craving for affection confused with a haughty disdain for it, in a formulation in which disdain expresses love and love is the expression of disdain. In the next poem, more or less a continuation emotionally, the poet laments the fact that his life has been spent on the quayside of existence from which he never departs on a journey of any significance. No Odysseys for him.

J'aurai passé ma vie le long des quais
A faillir m'embarquer
Dans de bien funestes histoires.

Finally, the twelfth of the Derniers Vers has as epigraph Hamlet's speech to Ophelia beginning with the words: 'Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?' In this context the poet recalls his home town:

Un couvent dans ma ville natale
Douce de vingt mille âmes à peine,
Entre le lycée et la préfecture
Et vis à vis la cathédrale …

and, rather than consign his lover to such a fate, prefers to be 'two in the chimney corner', resigned to the 'fatalistic hymn' of existence and still seeing it, existence, as 'a deafening fairground'. So it must always be, if it depends upon men and women: 'Frailty thy name is woman: everything's routine.' The poem then ends with lines which, despite the reference to Baudelaire, would be hollow indeed without the substance of twelve poems behind them:

O Nature, donne-moi la force et le courage
De me croire en âge,
O Nature, relève-moi le front!
Puisque, tôt ou tard, nous mourrons …

Theoretically, then, the poems are a single, well sustained, tone poem in which the fin-de-siècle atmosphere of pessimism and disbelief is the world also of psychological tension, of psychological disaccord, of tension between man and woman, of desires that are never fulfilled, and of fears and anxieties which are never completely understood but are expressible only in negatives. The predicaments, situations, insights of the poems, as well as their half-statements and ambivalences are metaphors for existence itself, psychological metaphors which predicate the fractured world of misunderstanding and personal alienation. In this sense, the poems are not about a situation, anecdotally; rather they are the situation -the world of disillusion now given an artistic not a doctrinaire treatment. Thematically, the poems protect each other, as it were, from over particular exegesis and by their unity of language and metaphor insist upon the qualities of the tone poem, like something in Whistler or Debussy.

Quite clearly, Laforgue had achieved something a good deal more substantial than the previous 'kaleidoscope' poems. He has given the twelve poems an imaginative unity and turned away from, and left behind, the naïveté of plain statement.

Even the reader who is impressed by the symphonic variation of the Derniers Vers as a whole will be necessarily affected also by the exceptional originality of individual poems. Laforgue's innovation was to write a longer poem than any in Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté—a poem whose length was not predetermined by logic of thought or metaphor. If Valéry's 'Le Cimetière Marin' is at one end of the scale of tight, poetic discipline and organization, poems like 'L'Hiver qui vient' are at the other. There is a kind of poem where the pattern of thought or metaphor takes the reader naturally to a 'conclusion' which satisfies because of the feeling that the imaginative implications of the poem have been thoroughly worked out and 'realized'. This is the opposite of what Laforgue does in Derniers Vers. In fact, the reader is denied the satisfactions of form and logical consistency. These are replaced by a psychological consistency which is expressed in sets of complementary and conflicting image patterns. By psychological consistency one means that the images and metaphors of a particular poem taken together constituted the worid of the poem's fictive poet, whose view may be arbitrary, perverse, sentimental, without being invalid for that reason, since nothing of a general nature is being asserted. The philosophical attitudinizing of Le Sanglot de la Terre has been overcome. Lofty or grandly pessimistic ideas about humanity are not proposed. Nothing is proposed. Rather, an interwoven pattern of poetic ideas is made to represent the inner world of an imagined poet who is not Laforgue. The best way to demonstrate this is to discuss a poem in some detail, and since the author of the present book has already written about the Derniers Vers in two other places and since space is limited, a examination of a single poem, 'Solo de Lune', must suffice.

Even Laforgue's friend, Bourget, refused to comment on 'Solo de Lune' and the other poems in the volume because they were 'si peu traditionnels'. Part of the effect of the poem is obviously its deliberate 'anti-literature' character; for that period it was extremely unusual, almost aggressively different, iconoclastic, provocative. Even when the poem is made familiar by re-reading, its fragmented, poetic world still has this disturbing effect, at least on the surface.

The superficial qualities of the poem that contributed to its initial impact were its apparent incoherence, its rather sensational phrasing, and the negative attitudes to life that it seemed to imply. The poem lacks logical structure or development: there are time shifts, shifts of tense, without explanation. The occasion of the poem and its imaginative direction must be deduced, if they can be grasped at all, from incomplete dialogue, ellipses, and statements made out of context. At first it seems an occasional poem whose occasion is almost completely concealed. Secondly, the language of the poem is aggressive and startling. The man and woman of the poem, who desired but failed to achieve love and understanding, are 'maniaques de bonheur' because happiness is not to be expected in the world, a sentiment not everyone was prepared to accept in 1886. The juxtaposition of 'marriage' and 'bonheur' seems forced, merely for effect. At first reading the poem seems frustratingly evasive when it might have been explicit and overly explicit when it might have been discreet. With the unexpressed love that eluded both man and woman the poet associates a bitter sexuality:

Oh! que de soirs je vais me rendre infâme
En ton honneur!

while in the same compulsively ironical vein, and almost immediately, he takes away from the seriousness of the poem with a brilliant image, which is also a pun, in which the moon is seen as a 'croissant' in the 'confiserie' of the cloudy night sky. In these two examples, one sees easily enough the 'decadence' of which early readers complained. Thirdly, the poem, though a type of love poem, seemed to deny the normally understood human verities in as much as the poet adopts a cynical, detached, nihilistic attitude to the possibility of a real relation between man and woman. Married or unmarried their life would lack meaning: 'On s'endurcira chacun pour soi'. What does it matter? the poem appears to say. 'Tout n'en va pas moins à la Mort'.

What seemed difficult in 1886 is easily accessible, in retrospect, since the poem is a period-piece but, though a period-piece, a modern poem. It is an example, an excellent one, of fin-de-siècle or Nihilist literary art, a 'solo' performance because the poet is solitary, knows no absolutes and has only his own unsatisfactory experiences to live by, and a 'solo de lune' because the sun, with implications of fecundity and meaning, is denied and because the poet's song asserts not the romantic feelings associated with moon-light but the opposite, the lack of love and fulfilment. Therefore: 'ô nulle musique'. Much of the phrasing derives from and belongs to the period, particularly lines like: 'Un spleen me tenait exilé', where 'spleen' is being used in its Baudelairian sense of disgust or nausea caused by the world from which the poet is alienated, and where 'exilé', denoting the individual intellect or 'déraciné' (that is, not a literal exile but one in which the individual is cut off imaginatively from the normal processes of life), would out of the poem be a mere cliché but here is not. In the next line: 'Et ce spleen me venait de tout', one sees the way in which the decadent poet replaced the social values and social absolutes in which he could not believe with equally vast, but negative generalities of his own. Every aspect of life engenders this nausea, a nausea which is associated, in this group of lines, with 'foolish' love and inarticulate parting.

To the extent that the poem is about a relationship between man and woman it is informed by the pessimism of the age. The lovers fail to communicate their desires: 'Pourquoi ne comprenez-vous pas?' Having failed, the poet is resigned to the loss: 'Accumulons l'irréparable!' Conscious of age-old sexual compulsions—'O vieillissante pécheresse'—he is not able to respond to her unspoken desire, although he imagines, ironically, 'un beau couple d'amants' who act out their love freely, that is 'hors la loi'. Fulfilment is denied or, rather, genuine, human love is denied: 'Je n'ai que l'amitié des chambres d'hôtel.' This overriding pessimism is a type of despair but one which is expressed with such persistent irony that the poem can assert itself at the very time the experience behind it is eluding the reader. He would have been a model husband. 'J'eusse été le modèle des époux!' but, such is the implication, only by accepting the charade of nature and sacrificing individuality for the sake of playing a rôle: 'Comme le frou-frou de ta robe est le modèle des frou-frou.' A brilliantly laconic conclusion.

'Solo de Lune' only seems incoherent. Its organizing principle is not logic but it has an internal poetic integrity nonetheless. First the free-verse is used with complete control. As mentioned already, Laforgue was the first poet to master the 'form'. Though metre has been abandoned and though the poem is in not stanzas but 'paragraphs' made of lines of different length, it is held together by a firm, rhythmical movement, by rhyme (sometimes of a preposterous kind), by internal rhyme and assonance, and more generally by a tonal assurance that holds in place detail that, by itself, would be quite alarming. It is a tone-poem: a poem aspiring to musical not rational coherence. Reading it aloud reveals this perfectly well. Second, the poem reflects a new interest in the poetry of the unconscious. The poet is Ariel, detached from the workaday world. Sensations, presentiments, fleeting insights, ephemeral experiences, make up the fabric of life, not ordered thought or organized social habits. It is a stream of consciousness poem asserting the validity of personal experience however incoherent, as against the 'meanings' of normal life. Thus, to the poet lying on the roof of a diligence or coach, smoking, alone, reflecting on what might have been, longing for love and sympathy though not believing in either, and going over in his mind ('récapitulons') his feelings about a relationship which did not mature, everything that is perceived or thought takes a place in the total impression, which is entirely located in and indeed created by the poet's mind. He travels a 'route en grand rêve'. The physical and the metaphysical come together in momentary associations as the coach travels through the night. In the moment which is the poem ('O fugacité de cette heure') everything is recalled ('Dans ces inondations du fleuve du Léthé') and everything is lost.

Third, the poem is a sustained piece of poetic irony in a recognizably modern mode. It has a deliberately anti-romantic vein. A marriage will not take place. Indeed, Laforgue pokes fun at matrimonial expectations partly by making mock use of stilted, romantic language, as in

Mais nul n'a fait le premier pas
Pour tomber ensemble à genoux. Ah! …

partly by imagining a colourless wedding by moonlight, not a wedding in the light of the sun which would signify fecundity and a belief in life but rather a celebration of the poet's essential loneliness: 'Noce de feux de Bengale noyant mon infortune'. The irony is sustained and habitual, a style, a way of thought, something more deeply ingrained than a mere striving after effect. To take only one example, Laforgue is the type of poet who enjoys the play on words in lines like

Mais nul n'a fait le premier pas

where 'nul' is a key, tonal word in the poem, where 'pas' is a pun, where the pun is combined with an ancient resonant word (for lovers), i.e. 'tomber', but where, though they fall, they do not fall far enough, but only, like puppets, to their knees. Yet this sort of thing is in passing. It is a detail absorbed within the highly wrought fabric of the poem as a whole.

The new sounds, the new imaginative patterns of 'Solo de Lune' have for some readers proved as impenetrable or as unpalatable as the new effects of Wagner for Laforgue's contemporaries. English readers will have in mind perhaps the resistance of the old guard brought up on metre when the issue became crucial at the turn of the century: the way Bridges edited Hopkins so that he would be accessible to the reader accustomed to mid-Victorian metrical poems; or those chillingly conservative discussions by Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen about the state of English poetry just before the first world war, talk which showed only too well how they felt obliged to search for a modern poem within the traditional received forms; or the letters of Rupert Brooke, dating from the same period, which express his nostalgia for ancient forms and his dependence upon the correct English of the educated. As everyone knows, the break only happened in the second decade of the twentieth century with Pound and T. S. Eliot, which is a measure of the popular resistance to the unmetrical. In France, one might mention the comparable but bizarre reluctance of generations of readers to accept Saint-John Perse who was 'si peu traditionnel'. Even when he was at last recognized, in France, as a major poet there were still critics prepared to show us orthodox Racinian lines embedded in his verse paragraphs. No wonder that there were readers who literally could not hear a Laforgue poem. Laforgue's genius was clearly not of the traditional kind, or at least not in this sense. His world was that of Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, of Huysmans and Proust, of Rimbaud and Apollinaire, of Debussy and Stravinsky. A poem like 'Solo de Lune' was a highly crafted tone poem whose quite daring internal modulations were analogous to their novel harmonies and dissonances. That Laforgue had achieved in poetry what others had achieved in painting and music is much easier to see now than then. 'Solo de lune', and the other strong poems in Derniers Vers, constituted an artistic breakthrough. After them it needed a poet of exceptional ability to resort to conventional metres and forms.

Evidence of conscious care and craftsmanship can also be seen in the third of the Derniers Vers, 'Dimanches', though in a different way. This is one of those with ancestors in earlier collections and in particular in Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté. Poems with thematic or tonal relations to the Derniers Vers poem include 'Le vrai de la chose', 'Célibat, Célibat, tout n'est que Célibat', 'Gare au bord de le mer', and poems xxvIII and xxx in Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté, which are also called 'Dimanches'. A reader new to Laforgue may well wish to check for himself the relationship between the published poems and the rejected ones. By comparison with the finished poem, these earlier poems are more like improvisations on a theme played by some artist whose imagination is stalking the form by which his sustained but vague sense of a subject may be realized. Not only are these thematic preoccupations seen to have greater significance when they are absorbed into the substance of the longer poem, but the play of words is also no longer there for the sake of the exercise, but now contributes in an artistically consistent way to the counterpoint of the tone-poem. Though it is not possible here to compare these poems in detail, an example will show the kind of change that Laforgue makes.

The 'Dimanches' in the Derniers Vers begins with the lines:

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

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

The 'I' of the poem sees himself as the equivalent of the Pygmalion of Moreau, or the pre-Raphaelite Pygmalion who spurns the world, disregards the women of his home town, dreams of an ideal love, is inspired to create the ideal form in art, and is rewarded by a statue so perfect that it comes to life, so that he is after all confronted by a real Galatea. The irony of this would be very congenial to Laforgue. Since, at more or less the same time, Laforgue (in his letter to Kahn of June 1886) was considering an article on Ruskin, and since there are many references to English painters like Burne-Jones and Madox-Brown, both in the letters and in Mélanges posthumes, it is tempting to suppose that Laforgue's interest had increased since his meeting with Leah Lee, and that he in fact knew of Burne-Jones' four paintings on the theme of Pygmalion and Galatea. Though there are other pre-Raphaelite passages in the Derniers Vers which substantiate his general interest, the precise point is of course hypothetical. The reference to Pygmalion has the same effect as the reference to Watteau in 'L'Hiver qui vient': very economically it throws the first lines into a new perspective. It does this in the same way as in a painting a tension is produced by the juxtaposition of objects not immediately expected together. It is also a more than usually oblique way of speaking about himself, the self-knowledge implied here being at least more forceful than the open confessions of the earlier poems.

The 'Dimanches' xxx of Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté is at any rate a much cruder piece of work. In it the poet plays with a conceit. Marriage is a dancing, colourful life-buoy; he a morose Corsair, who knows he has been shipwrecked for ever. Immediately after this, the last lines of the poem:

Un soir, je crus en Moi! J'en faillis me fiancer!
Est-ce possible … Où donc tout ça est-il passé! …

Chez moi, c'est Galathée aveuglant Pygmalion!
Ah! faudrait modifier cette situation …

In the Derniers Vers version a good part of the bathos of this has been omitted, the essential metaphor retained. Laforgue was aware of the weakness of his distinction between the Ideal and the Real, though for him it was 'impossible to alter this situation'. 'Dimanches' xxvIII in Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté also makes it clear that this same distinction is behind his interest in Hamlet, since the epigraph of the poem is Hamlet's conversation with Ophelia in the play scene. The poem in the Derniers Vers is the expression of the dilemma of the fatalist. Either he chooses to compromise himself by accepting the world on terms he knows to be unsatisfactory or, alternatively, he remains aloof without any consolation at all, and certainly without the satisfaction of believing in his own judgment. But, despite the thematic similarity between the two poems, and the similarity is so close that the first can be used to elucidate the second, it is immediately obvious that it is the 'Dimanches' of the Derniers Vers that is the more mature work, with a greater internal integrity.

These examples are not isolated ones. The eighth and ninth poems in the Derniers Vers, for instance, are quite heavily dependent upon Des Fleurs de Bonne Volonté. Drawing upon his earlier poems at will, he achieves the poem that in a sense had been haunting him for many years: 'une poésie qui serait de la psychologie dans une forme de rêve … d'inextricables symphonies avec une phrase (un sujet) mélodique, dont le dessin reparaît de temps en temps.'

The single example that space permits will be the last half of the Derniers Vers III 'Dimanches':

Oh! voilà que ton piano
Me recommence, si natal maintenant!
Et ton cœur qui s'ignore s'y ânonne
En ritournelles de bastringues à tout venant,
Et ta pauvre chair s'y fait mal! …
A moi, Walkyries!
Walkyries des hypocondries et des tueries!

Ah! que je te les tordrais avec plaisir,
Ce corps bijou, ce cœur à ténor,
Et te dirais leur fait, et puis encore
La manière de s'en servir
De s'en servir à deux,
Si tu voulais seulement m'approfondir ensuite un peu!

Non, non! C'est sucer la chair d'un cœur élu,
Adorer d'incurables organes
S'entrevoir avant que les tissus se fanent
En monomanes, en reclus!

Et ce n'est pas sa chair qui me serait tout,
Et je ne serais pas qu'un grand cœur pour elle,
Mais quoi s'en aller faire les fous
Dans des histoires fraternelles!
L'âme et la chair, la chair et l'âme,
C'est l'Esprit édénique et fier
D'être un peu l'Homme avec la Femme.

En attendant, oh! garde-toi des coups de tête,
Oh! file ton rouet et prie et reste honnête.

—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.

Again there is the balance or counterpoint of the last lines, anticipating for example passages in Joyce. Disgust is weighed against charity, then dissolved into a final irony. He will tolerate neither a bluntly sexual union nor an anaemic brotherly affair, a Platonic friendship. Rather, he will go for a little walk: 'Go out and buy a pennyworth of hellebore.' This hellebore, with its highly pertinent and delightful reference back to the tortoise and the hare of La Fontaine, is both the realist's laxative that will purge the poet of the neuroticism of the poem and the traditional remedy for madness. The irony that at the earlier date was expressed in ostentatiously violent and shocking contrasts is now achieved economically with the pointing of a single word.

Laforgue died without having the satisfaction of seeing Derniers Vers published in book form. Dujardin's important editions of 1890 and 1894 did not achieve wide circulation. Not until the Mercure de France edition of 1902-3 were the poems published in the normal sense, and even then it took T. S. Eliot to understand their significance for the modern poet.

Elisabeth A. Howe (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3935

SOURCE: "Self-mockery: Laforgue," in Stages of Self: The Dramatic Monologues of Laforgue, Valéry & Mallarmé, Ohio University Press, 1990, pp. 51-91.

[In the following excerpt, Howe undertakes a stylistic analysis of Laforgue 's poetry that focuses on its dramatic qualities.]

i) From unicity to multiplicity

Quand j'organise une descente en Moi,
J'en conviens, je trouve là, attablée,
Une société un peu bien mêlée,
Et que je n'ai point vue à mes octrois.

Such is the experience of the speaker of Laforgue's poem "Ballade." "JE est un autre," Rimbaud had written some fifteen years earlier, in the context of his critical remarks about Romantic poetry; Laforgue shares this sense of the "otherness" of the self, insisting indeed on the presence of a multiplicity of "others." According to Warren Ramsey, Laforgue had learned from the philosopher Hartmann "to think of the human individual as an aggregate, a sum of many individuals." Such a viewpoint must clearly affect the nature of the poetic "I," tending to invalidate the notion of the single, unified persona typical of Browning's early dramatic monologues, and of the lyric "I" associated with Romantic poetry. Yet Laforgue had begun writing in a highly Romantic vein: the speaker of the poems collected under the title Le Sanglot de la terre, but never published, 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"). These poems are of a philosophical cast, inspired by Laforgue's reading of Hartmann and his knowledge of Schopenhauer; the tone is for the most part one of high seriousness. Meditations on the fate of mankind produce a sense of cosmic despair:

Eternité, pardon. Je le vois, notre terre
N'est, dans l'universel hosannah des splendeurs,
Qu'un atome où se se joue une farce éphémère.
("Farce éphémère")

The speaker of these poems pontificates about Man and Life in verse reminiscent of both Hugo and Baudelaire:

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

…. .

La femme hurle aux nuits, se tord et mord ses draps
Pour pondre des enfants vils, malheureux, ingrats.
("Litanies de misère")

Already in February 1881 Laforgue expressed "disgust" with this early verse; by 1882 he was more emphatic: "Je me suis aperçu que mon volume de vers était un ramassis de petites saletés banales et je le refais avec rage." The result of this burst of activity in 1883 was the Complaintes, published in 1885.

[Warren Ramsey notes in Jules Laforgue and the Ironic Inheritance, 1953, that there exists] in the majority of the Complaintes, "a movement towards dramatization, a tendency, having its origin in self-awareness and selfdefence, to exteriorize the lyric emotion." This exteriorization is achieved largely through the use of different voices, leading away from the straightforward expression of the personal feeling of a single "I." 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:

The themes of the Complaintes are often similar to those of the Sanglot poems, but they are treated differently. Instead of the first-person diction of Le Sanglot de la terre, thoughts and feelings are distributed among many voices belonging to different personae and expressed indirectly, resulting in a much lighter, less morbid type of verse, even when the subject is still death. In the poem "Guitare," from the Sanglot collection, a solemn narrating (or sermonizing) voice predicts, in alternating alexandrines and octosyllables, the death of a beautiful Parisienne and how soon she will be forgotten by her contemporaries. No "I" speaks in this poem, but the address to the lady in the second person presupposes a first-person "shifter," a lyric "I," as the serious-minded speaker of these lines. In the Complaintes, however, the very different "Complainte de l'oubli des morts" also treats the theme of the dead being forgotten by the living, but the identity of the poem's speaker radically alters the tone of the poem. Rather than a heavily moralistic accent we hear the more light-hearted, if wistful, voice of the grave-digger, a man with plenty of experience of death, which explains his familiar, almost flippant remarks:

He has considerable sympathy for the dead ("Pauvres morts hors des villes!") and his attitude to the living is not without sympathy, though the very nature of his employment represents a threat to them, as he gently points out:

Mesdames et Messieurs,
Vous dont la soeur est morte,
Ouvrez au fossoyeux
Qui claque à votre porte;

Si vous n'avez pitié,
Il viendra (sans rancune)
Vous tirer par les pieds,
Une nuit de grand'lune!

The introduction of the grave-digger's voice, the shorter lines and choppier rhythms, together with the removal of the Baudelairean emphasis on pourriture that we find in "Guitare," transform a slow-moving, trite poem-sermon into a much more original and effective one.

The question of love arises less often than one might expect in the Sanglot collection, the "I" of these poems being preoccupied with his own destiny to the exclusion of all else. In one poem, however, "Pour le livre d'amour," he complains that

Je puis mourir demain et je n'ai pas aimé.
Mes lèvres n'ont jamais touché lèvres de femme,
Nulle ne m'a donné dans un regard son âme,
Nulle ne m'a tenu contre son coeur pâmé.

Je n'ai fait que souffrir….

This expression of personal distress can easily be read as that of the poet himself. At one point in the Complaintes we hear virtually the same phrase, "Nulle ne songe à m'aimer un peu," but the whole tone of this poem, the "Complainte de l'automne monotone," suggests an ironical attitude on the part of the speaker towards himself, a self-awareness which tends, as Ramsey says, to "exteriorize the lyric emotion":

The words "nulle ne veut m'aimer" recur again in the Complaintes but this time in the mouth of a third person, the "lui" of the "Complaintes des pubertés difficiles"—a thin disguise for Laforgue himself perhaps, but a disguise nevertheless, once more indicating a desire to disclaim direct responsibility for the utterance:

Mais lui, cabré devant ces soirs accoutumés,
Où montait la gaîté des enfants de son âge,
Seul au balcon, disait, les yeux brûlés de rages:
"J'ai du génie, enfin: nulle ne veut m'aimer!"

Laforgue uses various disguises, or masks, throughout the Complaintes: the "ange incurable" and the "Chevalier errant," the "roi de Thulé," the "Sage de Paris" and, most of all, Pierrot. Each disguise makes possible the utterance of a new voice. 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 [Looking for Laforgue, 1979], for the "multiple selves of Laforgue and others." It is significant that this move from a unified to a multiple self accompanies Laforgue's choice of a more popular, collective form, since the complainte was originally a type of folk-song. Henri Davenson, in his Livre des chansons, distinguishes two categories of oral folk-song, "les rondes ou chansons à danser que caractérise la présence d'un refrain," and "les complaintes ou récits continus" which have affinities with English "complaints" and ballads. 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.

According to Laforgue himself, he first thought of writing poems based on complaintes on September 20, 1880, during a celebration in the Place Danfert-Rochereau, when he heard—not of course for the first time—popular songs sung in the street. By the late nineteenth century, the style of the complainte had lost the freshness and vigour of the original folk-songs. Davenson is reluctant even to mention the "compositions auxquelles avait fini par se restreindre le nom de complainte," namely "chansons volontairement composées à l'intention du public populaire … qui prétendaient descendre du peuple, et qui en fait étaient descendues bien bas." They had become "récits détaillés …d'un prosaïsme écoeurant et … d'une intolérable tristesse"; their sentimentality can be seen reflected in the work of poets such as Richepin. Nevertheless, Laforgue seizes on those aspects of the complaintes which suit his purposes. He frequently imitates the popular diction of the complainte, for the phrasing, syntax and vocabulary of his second volume of poetry are far removed from the more literary tone of Le Sanglot. The songs sung by organ-grinders and other street musicians employed, not the traditional versification of poetry but the rhythms of popular speech, in which mute "e's" did not count as syllables and the hiatus between vowels was filled with a "z" or a "t" sound. Laforgue sometimes adopts these features, as if to emphasize that what we hear is not his voice but the anonymous speech of the "folk," as in:

Je suis-t-il malhûreux!
("Autre complainte de l'orgue de barbarie")

C'est l'printemps qui s'amène
("Complainte des printemps")

Voyez l'homme, voyez!
Si ça n'fait pas pitié!
("Complainte du pauvre corps humain")

and in the two poems which he indicates as being variations on actual songs, the "Complainte du pauvre jeune homme" and the "Complainte de l'époux outragé."

Davenson defines complaintes as "récits continus," in opposition to the "chanson" or "ronde." Like the ballad, the complainte implies narrative, which is, to some extent, a feature of Laforgue's Complaintes. Almost all his speakers have a story to tell, usually involving a loss they have sustained and which forms the subject of their lament: a lost love in the "Complainte de la bonne défunte" or the "Complainte des blackboulés," lost innocence in the "Complainte du roi de Thulé," lost wealth and health in the "Complainte des grands pins dans une villa abandonnée." However, the affinity of the Complaintes to the ballad is limited, since the latter is essentially a third-person form, whereas the Complaintes, as well as Laforgue's later poetry, are written in the first person: they are monologues and many of them, specifically, dramatic monologues.

ii) Dramatic monologue and interior monologue

It is significant that, like Browning, though in a much more modest fashion, Laforgue began his career by attempting to write plays, as well as poetry. In 1882—the year he abandoned the Sanglot de la terre poems—he wrote, but did not complete, Pierrot fumiste, in which the hero puts on "the same ironic and poignant comic mask" as Lord Pierrot in the Complaintes. According to Haskell Block, Laforgue "planned several plays … and worked on at least some of them," in 1882-83, as his correspondence shows. Apart from the unfinished Pierrot fumiste, however, his only published play, or playlet, is Le Concile féérique (1886), a verse drama composed of five poems from the Fleurs de bonne volonté, which Laforgue had decided not to publish.

Various critics have noted the basically dramatic impulse of Laforgue's poetry, though few refer to his poems as dramatic monologues. Block talks of the "intrinsically dramatic character of Laforgue's poetry with its complex interplay of several voices," and Ramsey mentions the "dramatic form of the most characteristic Complaintes," with their dialogues of "many voices." Not surprisingly, the "many voices" heard in Laforgue's Complaintes and later collections often engage one another in dialogue, and dialogue is inherently dramatic, since it constitutes the distinctive form of stage drama. Again it represents a move away from the authoritative discourse of a central "I," allowing room for the speech of others or for internal debate. In some of Laforgue's earlier poems, opposing voices are channelled into an actual dialogue between two speakers like the "LUI" and "ELLE" of the "Complainte des formalités nuptiales." The "Complainte sous le figuier boudhique" boasts four sets of speakers, all named; but more commonly speakers are not designated in this way, the alternations in their speech being indicated by the use of quotation marks, as in the "Complainte des grands pins dans une villa abandonnée." Sometimes the main speaker's words are not enclosed in quotation marks, only those of his imaginary interlocutor, for example in the "Complainte des printemps," the "Complainte des pianos …" and Derniers vers VIII and IX. Finally, the voices of the dialogue can reflect opposing views solely within the mind of one speaker—the conflicting attitudes of the "société un peu bien mêlée" making up the self:

Mais, Tout va la reprendre!—Alors Tout m'en absout.
Mais, Elle est ton bonheur!—Non, je suis trop immense
Trop chose.
("Complainte des Consolations")

The frequent suggestion of a dialogue within the mind of one speaker, as in this poem and especially in the Derniers vers, reflects the fact that many of Laforgue's speakers are engaged in some form of conflict with themselves, which again contributes an element of drama to his poems, since conflict is in itself essentially dramatic. Indeed, Laforgue's personae are nearly always torn between two opposite impulses: between the desire for love and a mocking rejection of it, as in Derniers vers IX; between a feeling of sympathy for women and an instinctive suspicion of their motives (e.g., in Dv V and VIII); between a sensual and an ideal love (Dv III and "Complainte de Lord Pierrot"); between patient devotion and impatient desire ("Locutions des Pierrots, I"). Whereas the speakers of Browning's early dramatic monologues are not engaged in any conflict with themselves, only with the outside world, their freedom from inner division confirming their status as characters with well-defined personalities and views, Laforgue's protagonists, on the contrary, suffer from inner conflicts, doubts and hesitations, and from a general lack of confidence that makes it hard for them to establish their own identity. The speaker of Dv III confides:

… 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.

The dramatic irony in Browning's poems, arising from the discrepancy between the speaker's apprehension of his situation and the reader's understanding of it, leads to collusion between author and reader behind the speaker's back; the factor causing the speaker to distort reality is, very often, simply his own personality, with its prejudices and blind spots. In Laforgue's work there is still enough emphasis on character traits for the reader (and the poet) similarly to judge the speakers—but not behind their backs, because they forestall criticism by judging themselves, too. Thus the speaker of Dv IX avoids being labelled as incurably romantic in his desire to "Faire naître un 'Je t'aime!'" by the irony implicit in the sheer exaggeration of his wishes:

Qu'il vienne, comme à l'aimant la foudre,
Et dans mon ciel d'orage qui craque et qui s'ouvre,
Et alors, les averses lustrales jusqu'au matin,
Le grand clapissement des averses toute la nuit! Enfin!

Again, in Dv XII, the patent irony of the speaker's exclamation "Oh! arrose, arrose / Mon coeur si brûlant, ma chair si intéressante!" shows that although he feels desperate and melancholy, he is also the sort of sophisticated person who—like the reader and the poet—finds desperate melancholy ludicrous. The drama in Laforgue's poems derives more from the internal conflict within the speaker and from the irony that discloses it, than from any discrepancy between his view of himself and our own.

The presence of dialogue in Laforgue's poetry disguises, paradoxically, another essential difference between his monologues and those of Browning. In the majority of Browning's dramatic monologues, the speaker directly addresses a listener, with the poem as a whole representing one side of a dialogue. In most of Laforgue's poems, however, the speakers are alone; any dialogue is purely imaginary, consisting either of comments which the speaker mentally attributes to someone else or words which one side of his personality addresses to another, within the privacy of his own mind. In other words these monologues present, not the speech of a given character to an interlocutor, but his private thoughts, his inner language. For this reason, Laforgue's poems are sometimes referred to as "interior" rather than "dramatic" monologues. J. P. Houston, for example, suggests [in French Symbolism and the Modernist Movement, 1980] that the "monologue created by Laforgue is largely an inner one, and if the analogy with drama is appropriate to the monologue invented by Browning, that with the stream-of-consciousness novel is more so in this case." Interior monologue, as practised by Joyce and by Dujardin before him, strives to transcribe in writing the random, fragmentary nature of the "stream of consciousness," of thought as it is formed in the mind. Dujardin asserts that interior monologue represents "un discours antérieur à toute organisation logique"; its form is therefore very simple: "il se réalise en phrases directes réduites au minimum syntaxial." He admits, however, that interior monologue cannot claim to reproduce man's barely-conscious thought-processes verbatim, but can only give the impression of doing so: "Le monologue intérieur ne doit pas donner la pensée 'tout venat,' mais en donner l'impression." This impression is conveyed partly by the use of short "direct sentences" with very loose and abbreviated syntax, and partly by the way the thoughts expressed jump from one subject to another, by a process of free association, often without any apparent logical connection: "Notre pensée court d'un plan à l'autre avec une rapidité qui après coup peut sembler mais n'est pas de la simultanéité; et c'est précisément cette course" à bâtons rompus' dont le monologue intérieur donne l'impression."

Laforgue's Derniers vers, in particular, answer to some of these criteria. Written in vers libres, where each line represents a unit of meaning, they adopt a loose, elliptical syntax impossible in regular verse:

Noire bise, averse glapissante,
Et fleuve noire, et maisons closes,
Et quartiers sinistres comme des Morgues,
Et l'Attardé qui à la remorque traîne
Toute la misère des coeurs et des choses,
Et la souillure des innocentes qui traînent….
(Derniers vers XII)

The paratactic arrangement of this passage, with juxtaposition replacing logical subordination, is typical of the Derniers vers, and of the interior monologue, since the barely-formulated thoughts which spring from the stream of consciousness have not yet been ordered by logic. They tend to be linked together by a process of free-association, also found in certain passages of the Derniers vers, for example the opening of Dv X, where the basic themes—of love-making and marriage—conjure up a variety of unexpected but related images:

O géraniums diaphanes, guerroyeurs sortilèges,
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,
Angélus! n'en pouvoir plus
De débâcles nuptiales! de débâcles nuptiales! …

These characteristics of Laforgue's poetry have led Scarfe to claim not only that he wrote interior monologues, but that he invented the form; in an essay on Eliot [in Eliot in Perspective, edited by Graham Martin, 1970], he asserts that Laforgue "invented a new kind of dramatic monologue, usually known as the interior or internal monologue, close to common speech," and implies that Dujardin developed the technique of Les Lauriers sont coupés from Laforgue "without acknowledgement." It is true that many lines in Laforgue resemble "common speech' in rhythm, vocabulary and syntax, but at the same time the abundance of scientific, erudite, foreign and archaic words in his poetry destroys the illusion of oral speech, and with it the impression of spontaneity appropriate to interior monologue. In any case, the allpervading irony of his poetry (to which these verbal juxtapositions contribute) suggests a fully-conscious, deliberate type of writing, irony being the opposite of spontaneous. Furthermore, it is difficult to see how the acoustic effects Laforgue achieves through alliteration, assonance and rhyme can be associated with the supposedly barely-formulated thoughts of the stream of consciousness; or indeed how poetry, which always involves organisational principles of one kind or another, could ever seriously attempt to imitate the disorderly ramblings of the inner monologue.

Though it may be true, then, that certain features of Laforgue's poetry, such as the use of parataxis and of free association, influenced his friend Dujardin to some extent, the claim that Laforgue "invented the internal monologue" is exaggerated. Both interior monologue and poems like Laforgue's Derniers vers present a character's thoughts rather than his speech, but there is another important difference between the two, besides the issue of spontaneity. The thoughts of Laforgue's monologues are concentrated on a specific problem or event, unlike the loosely-connected discourse of interior monologue which supposedly records a character's stream of consciousness over a period of time and is not directed solely at a particular topic. Wayne Booth makes this point regarding Stephen's interior monologue in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which "unlike speech in a dramatic scene," does not "lead us to suspect that the thoughts have been in any way aimed at an effect." The discourse of a Laforguian monologue, however, like "speech in a dramatic scene," is aimed at an effect. Apart from the poem's effect on the reader, obtained by the deliberate manipulation of rhythms, sounds, or images, and dramatic effects achieved through irony, the speakers themselves have an aim, namely to come to terms with a specific problem or event around which the whole poem revolves. Such problems are, for example, in Dv VII—regret for a lost love; in XI—the faithlessness of women, and how to deal with it; in X—the conflict between the speaker's need for independence and his nostalgia for a "petit intérieur" to share with his "petite quotidienne"; in V—a call for a change from love as practised by men and women of the time to the type of love-relationship the speaker advocates, in which the woman would no longer be regarded as an "angel," but as man's equal. In these poems, all the thoughts expressed are in some way relevant to those themes, whereas in interior monologue the thought "court d'un plan à l'autre," as Dujardin says, reflecting the "course à bâtons rompus" of the stream of consciousness. The content of a Joycean interior monologue is often very much affected by the subject's surroundings, which impinge on his thoughts, but in Laforgue's Derniers vers the speaker's present position is not necessarily mentioned at all; if so, then it is directly relevant to the problem in hand, as in Dv III:

Or, cette nuit anniversaire, toutes les Walkyries du vent
Sont revenues beugler par les fentes de ma porte:
Vae soli!

or in Dv VII:

Voici qu'il fait très très-frais
Oh! si à la même heure,
Elle va de même le long des forêts….

Laforgue's monologues, then, though they may have some stylistic similarities with interior monologue, are "aimed at an effect—that of examining and attempting to solve a problem which worries the speaker, or of resolving a conflict within him—and to this extent they are dramatic.

John McCann (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6638

SOURCE: "Jules Laforgue: Constructing the Text," in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 46, No. 5, 1991, pp. 276-93.

[In the following essay, McCann explains the creation of meaning in Laforgue 's poetry as a process characterized by intertextuality and the changeable nature of language.]

Many readers may share James Hiddleston's bafflement when faced with Laforgue's writing:

Calembours, jeux de mots, barbarismes, anacoluthes, non-sens, babil, intertextes saccagés, comment sortir de ce tournoiement chaotique de signifiants apparemment coupés pour toujours de leurs signifiés?

Hiddleston here outlines the main difficulties confronting the reader who tries to establish the meaning of Laforgue's verse. But there is a problem with what Hiddleston proposes as the central principle underlying these semantic difficulties: what are 'signifiants apparemment coupés … de leurs signifiés? Surely a 'signifiant' presupposes a linkage to a 'signifié' or 'signifiés'? This point seems to be conceded by Hiddleston when he uses 'apparemment', which implies that the 'signifiants' are only apparently cut off from their 'signifiés'—as though in reality they are still safely attached.

This permits Hiddleston to argue [in Laforgue aujourd'hui, 1988, edited by James Hiddleston] that sense is still possible. For him, Laforgue's language is ultimately revelatory:

Pourtant les mots sont là pour (comme on disait) révéler les obsessions: feuilles, vent, sang, dimanches, couchants, pianos, vendanges …, et l'on ne saurait nier l'effect cathartique que produit la lecture. Le miracle, c'est que Laforgue ait réussi à faire de tant de fragments éphémères et du disparate de son expérience un univers unique, entièrement "sui generis", et qui compte parmi les plus émouvants et peut-être parmi les plus durables du dix-neuvième siècle.

Laforgue's poetic world is a collage, made up of 'fragments éphémères.' Yet it is constructed in such a way as to be meaningful. It is 'émouvant' for it touches a nerve of understanding within us.

However, Hiddleston is dealing with two different types of meaning. In the first extract quoted above, he is concerned with the semantic content of language. It is this which is so difficult to pin down. In the second quotation, he is interested in the context to which language refers, Laforgue's obsessions, and in the context which it shapes, the 'univers unique.' The question that arises is how it is possible to have a meaningful text that tells the reader something about the world to which it refers when the words in the text are 'signifiants apparemment coupés pour toujours de leurs signifiés.'

There is a third type of meaning that needs to be considered: the significance of our lives, our feeling that it is for some purpose that we live in the universe. Laforgue is in constant search for such meaningfulness in the world:

Throughout the early poems, his thinking is dominated by a world whose meaning is denied to mankind. It produces in him a variety of reactions including the numbing despair found in 'Spleen.' This poem creates an enclosed world in which Laforgue is trapped between 'Tout m'ennuie ajourd'hui' and 'je m'ennuie encor.' Physical displacement is no solution since there is in the streets nothing to excite his interest.

The second quatrain is particularly interesting:

Je regarde sans voir fouillant mon vieux cerveau,
Et machinalement sur la vitre ternie
Je fais du bout du doigt de la calligraphie.
Bah! sortons, je verrai peut-être du nouveau.

The word 'machinalement' is significant for it indicates that the mind is not fully engaged in what is being done. This is important for it is the mind that distinguishes us from the machine and allows us to make meaning. So, what Laforgue is writing is not the bearer of any intended meaning. It has no signified. In other words, this would be an example of what would happen if 'signifiants' were really rather than apparently 'coupés de leurs signifiés.' What would be left would be, not a signifier on its own, but something different—what Laforgue calls 'calligraphie.' What we have is a simulacrum of language, a non-functioning model. There is substance—the marks on the window—without any meaningful content. Consequently, there is neither signifier nor signified.

Laforgue's 'calligraphie' is an object and no more. It has no spiritual, intellectual or emotional charge to convey. Hiddleston would find here no 'tournoiement' nor would he find it 'émouvant.' The letters on the window are meaningless and random in their order. In this respect they are to be distinguished from the fully functioning language of the poem which is the meaningful arrangement of letters into a text.

Walter Ong argues [in Oralicy and Literacy: The Technologising of the Word, 1982] that dealing with language in its written form affects our experience of it:

Sound, as has earlier been explained, exists only when it is going out of existence. I cannot have all the word present at once: when I say 'existence,' by the time I get to the '-tence,' the 'exis-' is gone. The alphabet implies that matters are otherwise, that a word is a thing, not an event, that it is present all at once, and that it can be cut up into little pieces, which can even be written forwards and pronounced backwards: 'p-a-r-t' can be pronounced 'trap.' If you put the word 'part' on a sound tape and reverse the tape, you do not get 'trap,' but a completely different sound, neither 'part' nor 'trap.'

Words, then, may be considered not just as signs composed of signifiers and signifieds but as being composed of letters, the irreducible building-blocks of written script just as atoms are the building blocks of the world. In other words, it is not only Laforgue's poetic world which is made up of 'fragments éphémères,' but words themselves—the fragments in this case being letters which can be brought together into various combinations which may or may not be signs belonging to a signifying system.

This may appear to be an empirical view of language but is in fact as analytical and abstract as the Saussurean division into signifiers and signifieds. In this case the division is into the letters of the alphabet, or as Ong would put it: language is 'cut up into little pieces.' Our alphabet, which is a variant of the one invented by the Greeks, does not attempt to depict objects as do pictograms. Nor does it try to transcribe actual sound units as do syllabaries. The latter, as their name suggests, treat the syllable as the smallest possible sound unit—a reasonable procedure since that is the least that we can pronounce. The alphabet, on the other hand goes beyond the syllable, analysing the subsounds that compose it, as Eric Havelock explains [in The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences, 1982]:

Whereas all syllabic systems, including the Semitic shorthand, aim to reproduce the actual spoken units on a one-for-one basis, the Greek produces an atomic system which breaks all units into at least two abstract components and possibly more.

These abstract components which from the basis of our writing are consonants and vowels. It is the former which makes abstraction necessary and useful. A 'consonant' as its name suggests cannot be pronounced in isolation but must always be attached to a vowel. Consequently, a 'b' can be isolated as an abstract idea in writing but when enunciated there will always be a vowel attached to it. A pure 'b' can never be pronounced and, even when we seek to isolate it in speech, as when we spell aloud, the 'b' is always followed by the sound 'i,' thereby becoming a syllable. It is only in alphabetic writing that a 'b' can exist other than as part of a syllable. This ability to divide a sound unit into constituent elements allows the writer to use a limited number of symbols in a variety of permutations so that any sound unit can be conveyed. One result of this is that we also start to consider the spoken language as being capable of similar division. For example, the word 'part' may be thought of as being made up of the sounds 'p-a-r-t' whereas Ong's example of the tape shows that this is not the case. We rarely think of the spoken language as a continuum but rather as an sequence of objects made of smaller basic soundunits or phonemes.

Such an atomistic view of language accords with Laforgue's vision of the structure of the world:

The world of which he is a part is, as he has put it earlier, an 'incessant va et vient / D'atomes éternels.' In short the same bits are shuffled around eternally, just as a basic stock of letters or phonemes is shuffled around to make new bits of language.

The whole world and even the very language used to describe it is made up of Hiddleston's 'fragments éphémères.' Such a view helps us understand better how Laforgue's writing functions. Take the case of words like 'éternullité.' What sort of a signifier are we dealing with here? Does describing language atomistically, as a series of marks help? It does—provided we extend the sense of 'mark' to include that which strikes the ear as well as the eye.

Daniel Grojnowski explains Laforgue's neologisms as follows [in Jules Laforgue et l'originalité, 1988]:

Le plus souvent c'est en effet la sexualité qui met Laforgue en verve de néologie. Au moment où ils sont énoncés, les vocables se chargent d'un sens second. La contiguïté phonique produit un signifiant parasitaire qui démystifie le premier, à moins qu'il ne lui confère sa plénitude signifiante. Les mots font l'amour et s'engrossent les uns les autres:

Grojnowski's description of words making love is a witty one but it is limited—a fact acknowledged by the expression 'le plus souvent.' Yet, Grojnowski points us in the right direction. Time becomes space and the 'moment où ils sont énoncés' becomes 'la contiguïte phonique.' Language becomes a spatial phenomenon and this spatialization, this turning of language into a thing, is a prerequisite for the neologisms. It permits us to perceive them as collages. These, furthermore, are not haphazard but are at the service of meaning. They modify it by stripping away romantic accretions—as in 'violupté,' made up of fragments of 'violence' and 'volupté'—a neologism which also brings out the element of cruelty in the voluptuous, thereby restoring to the word its 'plénitude signifiante.' Sometimes the collage is apparent to the ear, but in others, notably 'sangsuelles,' the effect is more perceptible in the written form. In both cases language is treated as thing—either an acoustic or visual object capable of being broken into fragments which can then be used to form new and interesting words.

Indeed, such an argument would be supported by the following claim by Grojnowski:

Plus de trente fois répété, le mot LUNE incante par anagramme l'entité NULE, de même que RIEN recèle et dissémine NIER.

In the first example there is a collage of the written and spoken forms with the inclusion of the 'e,' silent in both cases and so perceptible only to the eye, and the use of a single '1' instead of the double '1' the eye expects, the justification being that there is no difference in sound. In the second case, the anagram is visual: it is not the sounds of 'rien' that are rearranged but its letters. This is a slightly more complex version of the expressive possibilities hinted at by Ong's example of 't-r-a-p' and 'p-a-r-t.'

The process can be carried a stage further, as Grojnowski argues:

Le jeu des mots transforme les virtualités de la compétence en performance de fait. Si l'"Eternullité" comprend également l' "Ether-nullité," elle produit également l'"Ether-nue-litée" dans sons sens érotique et cosmique. Alors que l'univers est agi par un seul et même tropisme, "omniversel" produit fatalement "omni-vers-celle," et ainsi de suite.

Thus the reader is invited to read beyond the level of the word, to scrutinize its component atoms and see that they too have logic and sense. Meaning is present in abundance. Yet, if all this is made possible through points of resemblance between language and 'calligraphie,' why is it that 'calligraphie' is devoid of meaning? What is it that allows language to function as a means of communication while 'calligraphie' does not?

That something is missing is clear. Language is calligraphie combined with something else. Remove this vital element and all that is left is the nonfunctioning model found above in 'Spleen.' A parallel may be drawn here between language and man. In many traditions, the latter is held to be an amalgam of body and spirit. The body is the physical substance while the spirit animates it. When the spirit is separated from the body as in death, then the body ceases to function:

The corpse is unable to move under its own power. Rather, it has movement imposed upon it. Furthermore, it is impelled into an area where the living cannot follow. Thus the mourners accompany the body to the graveside. The 'prêtre âgé' whose sounds are echoed by 'ce libéré de l'être' is a threshold figure but one who remains firmly on this side of the grave. The separation of the living and the dead is brought out by the rupture between 'on,' the anonymous source of the corpse's movement, and the 'Le,' the corpse itself. In addition the break is over a stanza and the suddenly shortened lines, whose endings are clearly marked by rhyme, convey the impression of an object receding from view.

The description of the body as 'ce libéré de l'être' suggests that the living being is made up of two parts, one of which is the 'être' and the other of which is the remains thrown into the grave. The idea is a striking, and perhaps even perverse, inversion of the traditional notion of the spirit being liberated from the body. In this case the liberation is ironic since without its spiritual essence, its 'être,' the body ceases to function and becomes a mere simulacrum of a human being. A parallel may be drawn here with the split between signified and signifier which turns normal 'écriture' into 'calligraphie,' so that the latter may be said to be the cadaver of writing.

Language is like human beings, or for that matter the world—a collection of atoms, which in this case are letters, animated by some force which gives them meaning and purpose. The question then arises of whether or not the world is like a piece of writing and so capable of decipherment like any written text:

Je songe à notre Terre, atome d'un moment,
Dans l'Infini criblé d'étoiles éternelles,
Au peu qu'ont déchiffré nos débiles prunelles,
Au Tout qui nous est clos inexorablement.
('Triste, triste')

Hence, we constantly see Laforgue questioning the stars, seeking the meaning and purpose of the universe. Yet the only reply is silence as in 'Sanglot perdu' which concludes:

"Quelqu'un veille-t-il aux nuits solennelles?
Qu'on parle! Est-ce oubli, hasard ou courroux?
Pourquoi notre sort? C'est à rendre fous!" …
—Les étoiles d'or rêvaient éternelles …

The last line is a repetition of the first line of the poem but with a slightly different function a pattern repeated elsewhere in these early poems. However, the meaning in context of each line, its referential as opposed to semantic meaning, is different. When the line first appears it suggests the possibility that the stars may be aroused to give a response whereas its second appearance indicates the unchanging indifference of the heavens to humanity.

It is important to distinguish here between what changes and what does not. The stars do not change. They are in the same pattern as before and these patterns to not respond to the probing by humanity. The words and letters used are the same in the first line and in the last. Semantically there is no difference. What changes is the situation they describe. The reality to which an utterance refers, therefore, is detachable. It can be replaced by a different one. If it is not replaced, if the words do not refer, then they become truly dead, as uncommunicative as the letters Laforgue draws on the windowpane. On the other hand, meaning can only make itself manifest through the material of language—it cannot be apprehended otherwise. If it exists outside language, then it is cut off from our apprehension of it.

This is what lies at the heart of the story told in the 'Complainte du Roi de Thulé':

The king is a man obsessed by change and yet unable to come to terms with it. He is himself 'Immaculé,' insulated from sin and the corruption that it brings but deeply hurt by the nature of the changing world: '[il] Pleurait sur la métempsychose / Des lys en roses.' At last, he follows the dying sun as it withdraws from the world, beyond the coral reefs and shipwrecks.

The poem, however, does not follow the king all the way. It goes as far as the edge of the known world and then watches the king as he descends out of view. When the king returns, he is transformed:

Not only has the masculine become feminine in the change from 'roi' to 'ombre,' but the physical has been changed into the spiritual. The king is a spirit of pure and absolute love. He contrasts with the particular and physical 'amants,' whose plural suggests a dependence on each other. Yet, how does this spirit make itself felt in the world? The answer is through language—but not perhaps as we normally understand it. The shade's language is described as a 'scie,' that is, language which exists in a pre-fixed form. In fact, as in 'Sanglot perdu,' the poem ends with a reprise of the opening. These words, which even on their initial appearance recall a popular song, Gounod's Faust, a poem by Goethe and a song by

Schubert, are quoted as a bloc but, as in 'Sanglot perdu,' their significance is different from that of their first appearance. We are less tempted to look through them than at them. Their nature as artefact—or as part of an artefact—is more obvious. They are not about the king but are the king in so far as they are the only means by which we can apprehend him.

It is thus possible to say that for Laforgue, language is like matter. It is made of a limited number of letters just as matter is made of the atoms of the elements listed in the periodic table. Moreover, the combinations that we call words can themselves be combined into bigger groupings which are sentences or phrases just as substances such as clay can be made into bricks or iron into rods. It is possible furthermore to take phrases and sentences, bits of language, and use them to build other structures just as bricks make houses or rods are used to create a piece of machinery. Morover, just as it is possible to reuse bricks or rods in other structures of which they were not originally a part, so it is possible to use bits of language from other sources to make up a text. Sometimes as has been seen this will be simply reprises within poems. On other occasions there will be re-use of elements from one poem to another as in:

Dans l'Infini criblé d'étoiles éternelles
('Triste, triste')

Dans l'Infini criblé d'éternelles splendeurs

Another clear example of this is the re-using of elements from Les Fleurs de Bonne Volonté in the composition of the Derniers Vers. Yet it is clear from the above example and from a study of the parallels between the two collections mentioned above that Laforgue is capable of varying existing elements when he uses them again.

Using old material in new ways enables Laforgue to exploit the clich—something normally avoided in poetry. 'Autre complainte de lord Pierrot' demonstrates how the cliché may be successfully used:

The literal meaning of each item of speech is clear and poses no difficulties. Each in fact is a cliché, whose meaning in most contexts is accepted without reflection. A conversation built up of clichés is one where the speakers assemble ready-made elements so as to speed to a conclusion without having to stop for thought along the way. In fact, the way they are normally combined is also ruled by cliché so that when the expression 'que je t'aime' is met it is not hard to predict a likely response. No real meaning, nothing of any significance, is communicated. What happens in this poem is that the literal meanings of each of the elements do not fit into a coherent whole. This is because Pierrot's speech, although just as cliché-ridden as the woman's and therefore just as pointless, uses clichés inappropriate to the situation. There is no predictability. He is breaking the conventions, providing new combinations rather like those in 'violupté,' except that these are at the level of the sentence. In so doing, he forces the reader to look at the words and try to work out a way of proceeding from one utterance to the next. The cliché'd ways of relating one to another do not work and so new relationships are sought that will allow the various utterances to form a coherent dialogue. As was the case with the neologisms, this can bring out shades of meaning that were potentially there in the original but which habit had obscured. Thus when the penultimate line of the above quotation claims that the bond between the lovers is unique, the reply claims that everything is relative to everything else. Such a denial of exclusivity can be seen to be relevant to what has preceded it so that Pierrot's side of the dialogue is an oblique and ironic commentary on the woman's. Behind the literal meaning of the words lies hidden another meaning that can only be discovered by considering the way the various utterances relate to each other. The context of an atterance, determined by its relationship to other utterances, thus determines its meaning, changing it into something new.

This element of change is very important. It is change that is the basis of all life—which is as Laforgue has put it above a 'perpétuelle échange de matière' or a 'métempsychose.' The dead body has lost its power to change just as the king has lost his power to say anything new in words new-minted for the occasion. Yet that limitation does not apply to Laforgue when writing his poetry. Unlike the occasion when he writes on the window, Laforgue is dealing with a language that is capable of change and where change is significant. Altering a meaningless letter in a meaningless sequence makes no difference—and difference is what lies at the heart of meaning. Thus the words of the king repeated unchangingly by him, have, as we have seen, a different meaning for the reader on each appearance because the latter takes into account the context as well as semantics.

Once again we are confronted with the phenomenon whereby meaning is not indissolubly linked to a particular form of words or a particular form of words tied down to just one meaning even though meaning cannot make itself manifest except through these words. Language is a medium for meaning. Without language there would be no meaning and without meaning there would be no language. However, the link between the two is subject to flux. As we have seen, meaning may change even though the language may be the same but, by the same token, language itself may be subject to alteration. It no less than human beings is subject to the rearrangement of living matter described in 'Triste, triste':

Puis nous allons fleurir les beaux pissenlits d'or.

This is what distinguishes living matter from what is inert: the possibility of absorbing other matter into the organism and making it part of itself.

Transformation is a part of both life and language. Laforgue's starting point for this process is below the level of the word. His building blocks are smaller and this is what allows him to create neologisms such as 'violupté' or 'éternullité.' Furthermore, the reader understands what is being said—he grasps the compositional principles that lie behind such new words. This is because he accepts that words are made up of sub-units which are combined in a meaningful way.

However, if change is an essential part of life, then the question of its being a source of anguish must be tackled. As was seen in the 'Complainte du Roi de Thulé,' it was 'métempsychose' that caused his weeping. The purity of the lily was being changed into the rose with its intimations of passion, blood and mortality. Change is presented as a change for the worse. This is true elsewhere in Laforgue's poetry as, for example, 'Locutions des Pierrots xiv':

Retroussant d'un air de défi
Mes manches de mandarin pâle,
J'arrondis ma bouche et—j'exhale
Des conseils doux de Crucifix.

Christ is reborn as Pierrot. His miracles and teachings become a magician's tricks and patter. The world is gradually winding down and what exists now is a lesser version of what happened in the past. The grandeur of Christ finds its modern counterpart in Pierrot. Yet, even in the very heart of Pierrot's ridiculousness, there is still preserved some of the grandeur that was Christ's. The comparison is double-edged. It presents Pierrot as a figure of both tragedy and farce.

Thus change is diminution but it is not total loss. Something of value is preserved as life is recycled, as can be seen in the following example from the 'Complainte de l'ange incurable':

Où vont les gants d'avril et les rames d'antan?

which echoes Villon's refrain:

Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

The re-use of Villon is more than just decorative. It is more than a learned allusion that allows Laforgue to show off the extent of his reading. Instead it is there to express meaning. Villon's language is dislocated in the 'tournoiement chaotique' that is Laforgue's poetic practice so that it expresses Laforgue's meaning rather than Villon's. Laforgue is not quoting Villon but rather using words similar to his but with a meaning that is the former's alone. Thus the imagery is changed to fit the poem's evocation of a lakeside in Spring while at the same time 'rames' which belongs to the literary register underscores the point made by the reference to Villon—that this is a linguistic artefact. Change is vital to meaning and it is the difference between Laforgue and Villon rather than literal quotation that is of interest to the reader. Thus the change from Villon's 'sont' to Laforgue's 'vont' is atomistic, a mere letter's difference, but that one change alters the meaning considerably. The semantic gap between the two words is indicative of the different perceptions each poet is conveying. Villon is lamenting irrevocable loss. It is a state which is incapable of change. Laforgue, on the other hand, is lamenting the process of loss. Unlike Villon's snows, Laforgue's gloves are still here even though they are under threat. The latter is thus aware of losing something but is equally conscious that something is still left.

A parallel may be drawn here with the situations of the mourners and the corpse later in the poem. The corpse cannot move of its own volition and so is dead. The mourners on the other hand may be moving towards the grave, an intimation of their own mortality, but as long as they are moving they are still alive. The paradox is that life is a process of movement towards death. Once we stop moving towards death, we die. Change may be a sign of decay but it is also a sign of vitality. Villon's words are changed and in the process become less noble. However, Laforgue's version of them gives them a new meaning: he revitalizes them. This is the 'du nouveau' denied the writer of 'calligraphie' in 'Spleen.' It is found not in objects—whether they be things or words—but rather in the meanings they convey to us.

Consequently, intertextuality, the use of other authors' texts, is of a piece with what we have seen of Laforgue's thought. The world is made up of atoms and in a similar fashion language is made up of letters. Whatever is in the world is constructed by nature or man just as a text is constructed by its author. The laws of science mean that nothing is truly destroyed, nothing truly created—matter is endlessly recycled albeit in new forms. This applies to man as well as to what he creates. He has a repertoire of letters with which he can compose. He also has a stock of letters already assembled into words. In addition, there is at his disposal a set of pre-fabricated texts from other authors or even his own works. Laforgue's achievement is to realize that all this is part of a continuum, a single process. He understands how language is built up into a poetic text and exploits that knowledge to create 'du nouveau'—strange forms and structures that nevertheless signify. He changes and adapts the raw material that is in front of him. He dismantles language so as to build anew, using only the elements that he needs and discarding the rest. It is the same poetic process that produces both 'violupté' and:

Où vont les gants d'avril, et les rames d'antan?

Hiddleston, however, takes a more negative view of Laforgue's intertextuality:

Grâce à l'envoûtement de ces multiples échos on croit d'abord éprouver la même ouverture de notre mémoire et de notre espace culturels que dans "Les Phares", mais on a vite fait de se rendre compte que l'effet en est beaucoup plus nuancé et ambigu. Le procédé, qu'emploie Laforgue est en fin de compte assez analogue à l'ironie de la répétition, mais là encore il s'agit d'une ironie qui démolit non seulement les textes auxquels elle renvoie, mais qui est elle aussi démolie du même coup. Le texte laforguien semble en effet se défaire sous nos yeux pour se déclarer tout aussi gratuit et éphémère que les intertextes dont il s'est nourri.

For him Laforgue's poetry shows a tendency to self-destruct and at times is reduced to 'un simple exercise de style, ou pis encore à un jeu de mots.' Indeed, he speaks of Laforgue's poetry in terms which betoken failure:

Ce qui manque à la parole laforguienne c'est la capacité d'établir des vérités stables et permanentes, ou d'affirmer quoi que ce soit, et d'organiser le disparate des énoncés en un ensemble cohérent de significations.

Yet just a few lines later Hiddleston makes the claim (quoted above) about the value of Laforgue's work:

Le miracle, c'est que Laforgue ait réussi à faire de tant de fragments éphémères et du disparate de son expérience un univers unique, entièrement "sui generis", et qui compte parmi les plus émouvants et peut-être parmi les plus durables du dix-neuvième siècle.

While not explaining how this comes about—it is a 'miracle'—the above does seem to point to some constructive process or other within Laforgue's poetry. The verb 'faire' echoes and reverses the earlier use of 'se défaire' and 'univers' implies some sort of coherence or fitting together of parts into a whole. Consequently, though Hiddleston lays great stress on the negative aspects of Laforgue's poetic practice, there is also a recognition that his poetry is itself a positive achievement. What Laforgue has done is create a fictional universe out of fragments of text, just as the King of Thule's veil is woven from threads. It is important to make this point in view of Hiddleston's earlier remark about Laforgue's poetry being at times reduced to the level of word play. What Laforgue is working with is language and ultimately that is what his poems are—verbal creations.

However, these exist in time and are affected by it. Hiddleston's phrase 'tournoiement chaotique' shows not just spatial movement but also implies movement in time (for without time there cannot be movement) and that this movement is no more than going round in meaningless circles. Yet, time is also essential to life and creativity. Without movement in time, there is only death. The corpse in the 'Complainte de l'ange incurable' is displaced in space but as a corpse he is no longer free to move in the dimension of time. Similarly, the unchanging calligraphy on the window conveys no meaning either to Laforgue or the reader—unlike the shifting, protean language forms found elsewhere in the poems. The true enemy of the meaningful is stability, lack of movement or change.

Movement may lead to the break down of order and passing time erode language as 'L'Hiver qui vient' makes clear:

C'est la saison, c'est la saison, la rouille envahit les masses,
La rouille ronge en leurs spleens kilométriques
Les fils télégraphiques des grandes routes où nul ne passe.

Yet this is not such a clear case as may at first appear. Rust does indeed do its work over time but it is particularly associated with disuse—as though an object in constant movement is kept clean of rust. This suggestion is reinforced by the reference to the unused roads along which no-one travels. The lack of movement contributes to their air of decay.

Later in the poem there is further evidence for the ambiguous nature of time:

Non, non! C'est la saison et la planète falote!
Que l'autan, que l'autan
Effiloche les savates que le Temps se tricote!
C'est la saison, oh déchirements! c'est la saison!
Tous les ans, tous les ans,
J'essaierai en chœur d'en donner la note.

In the midst of this unravelling and tearing of the fabric of the world—a process which is cyclic and thus involves time—we find that time itself is fighting a battle against decay. It creates while the wind destroys. However, what it makes is already old ('savates') but this is to be expected in a universe where matter is endlessly recycled. Nothing can be new but rather everything is posterior to and hence older than that which preceded it. The verbs in the third line are also significant. They are positioned at either end of the verse and there is an aural echo of the vowels 'i' and 'o' and a visual echo that is even more extended—'e,' 'i,'o' and 'e.' They are like two evenly matched fighters squaring up to each other. Furthermore, both verbs are in the present tense so that this is a continuous state of affairs—neither gets the upper hand. Compare the difference were 'se tricote' to be put into the perfect tense. In that case it would precede and be vanquished by 'Effiloche.' Here, however, the 'Effiloche' precedes 'se tricote' thus setting up in the reader's mind the possibility that first the old slippers are unravelled and then they are knitted again using the same thread. Consequently dismantling is a prerequisite of construction.

Not only that, but the re-use of the thread is a form of conservation. It is not completely destroyed but is given a new form. This also applies to the bits and pieces of language that Laforgue uses. At its most basic and indeed obvious level, the use of language prevents it rusting. Language forms die through lack of use. The same applies, however, to larger language units—the intertexts. As we have seen, Hiddleston claims that Laforgue's use of other texts is 'une ironie qui démolit non seulement les textes auxquels elle renvoie, mais qui est elle aussi démolie du même coup.' If we look at the example from Villon quoted above in the light of the relationship between 'Effiloche' and 'se tricote,' we will see that Hiddleston is only half right. The Villon original is fragmented but it is also re-used. It is brought into a nineteenth-century poem. This is not so much a 'renvoi' as a 'rappel.' Villon is preserved by the allusion—he is not destroyed by it. His relevance for Laforgue is proclaimed. In a similar way, Pierrot restores the memory of Christ albeit in different form from what we normally expect. Whatever we may think of this, there can be no denying that, for Laforgue, Christ is a part of Pierrot and so is preserved through him. The alternative is oblivion. Laforgue, like the King of Thule, weaves his text and preserves the past.

To let things stand is to let them rot, fall into oblivion and meaninglessness. This is the fate of the corpse in the grave while the calligraphy on the window has never had any place in the significant order of things. It is quite unlike the written language whose physical form it shares. As Eric Havelock points out, the primary function of writing is to preserve:

The function of the original model [i.e. writing as developed by the Greeks] was not to replace a prior knowledge of spoken speech but to trigger a recall of that knowledge. Its effective use depended upon the requirement that the oral vocabulary of the reader first be fluent and educated. The alphabet was and is an instrument of acoustic recognition, and only that.

J. Hillis Miller [in The Future of Literary Theory, 1989, edited by Ralph Cohen] would agree:

What rationale for the study of the humanities should be put in place of the old consensus? I think there can be only one answer. Preservation, conversation (sic), the keeping of the archives, the whole work of memory remembering, and memorialization: yes, this remains an indispensable task of humanistic study. But our past is remembered differently now and some different things are now recalled into memory, for example, black literature or the history of women and writing by women. Memory and the storing and interpretation of what is remembered is not a passive but a vital and passionate act, an act each generation does anew and differently as it appropriates history for its own purposes.

This is what Laforgue does. He stores experience in the patterns of his texts—but it is an active not a passive process. He reinterprets and updates. The past is not a mummified past but one that is incorporated into the present. Change, both in its positive and negative aspects, is embraced and incorporated into the preservation of our past and present. The 'tournoiement' of the poetry is not ultimately 'chaotique.' The language is not a babbling or gratuitous word-play. If we are baffled it is because our fixed ideas are being broken down so that something new and memorable can be built up from the fragments. It is this that makes for what Hiddleston recognizes as the durability of Laforgue's writing. Yet this is a durability that incorporates the flexible, the protean. It is in constant movement so that it may always move us.

Anne Holmes (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7281

SOURCE: "Les Complaints: 'Les refrains des rues'," in Jules Laforgue and Poetic Innovation, Clarendon Press, 1993, pp. 30-49.

[In the following essay, Holmes investigates the interplay of style, theme, and poetic technique in Laforgue 's Les complaintes.]


'Les vers pompeux sont embêtants', wrote André Gill, and by 1882 Laforgue agreed with him. Having distanced himself from the poets whom he had at first imitated, he found for his [second] volume a quite different model. It was surprisingly remote: the plaintive and burlesque complainte of the sixteenth century, but Laforgue coupled this with later folk-songs, down to the doggerel jingles of his day, a combination of traditional popular proverb and 'refrains des rues' of the contemporary world. The model was useful to him chiefly in two ways. Since the complainte was a popular genre, intended to be spoken or sung, Laforgue was released from traditional elevated verse, and solemn self-absorption became technically impossible. The tone adopted by the complainte, although it was an antiquated form, established a 'modern' down-to-earth familiarity and realism, which forced him to attempt to implant the immediacy of the oral into the written. Secondly, his complainte was a 'rewriting', a variant on an earlier text. He was forced also to deviate from his model: that is, to write indirectly and ironically. Laforgue's parlando style and his irony both develop therefore from this inspired move.

Variations on a recognizable model create a variety of effects. They invite us to re-examine the human 'truth' behind the familiar but discarded model: they offer us a new view; they offer it in such a way that it is clear that it also is relative and likely to be superseded. If the new view is itself undercut by irony, we cannot escape the realization that we inhabit a world that offers nothing more substantial than subjective and shifting impressions. Laforgue's talent for responsiveness, his floating sensibility, his wit and intellectual acuteness were all called into play by this approach, without his having the possibility of making a direct comment on the world. He could now cultivate the enigmatic and the elusive, the qualities that had no place in philosophical verse, but which were central to his artistic personality and, by now, to his credo.

His new aesthetic emphasized the perfume rather than the flower—an analogy he drew directly from Bourget. 'Je rêve de la poésie qui ne dise rien', he wrote, 'mais soit des bouts de rêverie sans suite.' He also spoke, as we have seen, of 'de la psychologie dans une forme de rêve', and of 'd'inextricables symphonies avec une phrase (un sujet) mélodique, dont le dessin reparaît de temps en temps'. In the copy of the Complaintes that he sent to his sister Marie, conscious that she would find the poems strange and probably incomprehensible, he insisted that he had not changed at heart: 'Il n'a pas changé, ce cœur. Il est toujours aussi gros. Il est devenu un peu plus littéraire, voilà tout.' By many of the poems he noted particular dates and events to show that they sprang from his personal life. It was the distancing from these origins that was now aesthetically important, however, because, in Laforgue's words, 'Une poésie ne doit pas être une description exacte, (comme une page de roman), mais noyée de rêve.' The subjects could be mundane—the barrel-organ, for example—their poetic value would depend on the poet's inner world or his 'fantaisie'. So, simultaneously, in Baudelaire's famous definition, the reader is offered object and subject: 'le monde extérieur à l'artiste et l'artiste lui-même'. The genre of the Laforguian complainte depends on this fusion, unexpectedly creating an interior monologue from the most trivial elements of the external world. Not the least of the effects frequently created in the Complaintes is that of the pathos of objects: pianos and barrel-organs, an abandoned villa or an empty casino, hospital beds or old photographs; less obviously, but equally poignantly, such things as a Sèvres vase illustrating a pastoral idyll, or a lopsided windowblind on which hangs a forgotten pair of gaiters.

In 'Plainte d'automne', a prose poem that … Laforgue admired, Mallarmé had asked why the vulgar music of the barrel-organ, which can, of course, be seen as the musical equivalent of the folk-song, should have the power to move him deeply: 'Maintenant qu'il murmurait un air joyeusement vulgaire et qui mit la gaîté au cœur des faubourgs, un air suranné, banal: d'où vient que sa ritournelle m'allait à l'âme et me faisait pleurer comme une ballade romantique?' What has been described as 'une esthétique de la platitude', is based on the paradox of the banality that gives rise to deep emotion, and fittingly, it owed its origin to an event similar to that referred to by Mallarmé.

It was the celebration of the inauguration of the lion of Belfort, the statute in the place Denfert Rochereau, on 20 September 1880, and Laforgue recorded it vividly in a fragment that reveals the triviality of the occasion, as well as his own sense of alienated desolation.

—Fête de nuit. Inaugurat, du lion de Belfort—pauvre—triste—temps triste. place d'Enfer, Observatoire, fête foraine. Des chevaux [de] bois tourant. des balançoires, des marchands de ferrailles, des faiseurs de caramels, des somnambules, des tourniquets où des étudiants ont gagné un vase de nuit au fond duquel un œil en émail peint regardait. Un cirque avec des toiles grossièrement peintes éclairées par des quinquets fumeux et fétides, deux femmes en maillot fané se promenant sur les planches, gueulant. Des musiciens faisant rage dans des cuivres bosselés dominés par la grosse caisse, boum! boum! Un paillasse avec un large pantalon, montant jusqu'au cou et serrant les chevilles, au dos une horloge brodée, perruque d'étoupe rouge, chapeau pointu blanc, masque de farine qui se plissait, se ridait quand il se pâmait sans conviction (ce monsieur, ce frère a ses soucis comme vous et moi—Drôle!).

Une noce entière occupait un manège de chevaux de bois, la mariée en jupon sali dans tous les gargots graisseux de l'arrondissement, se disputait avec le loueur, lui mettait ses deux poings sous le nez. Le marié bêtement s'esclaffait. Une femme de la noce vomissait des flaques de vin, où un chien lappait. Une autre lui tapait maternellement dans le dos pour exciter, faciliter; bougonnant—il n'y avait pas de bon sens après avoir bu et mangé toute la journée à aller tourner sur des chevaux de bois.

Des ménages d'ivrognes. Un souteneur faisant sortir une bande de filles dont l'une adorable et triste avait un bleu sous l'oeil, elles buvaient du vin—odeurs de quinquets, glapissement des montreurs, mélancolie des orgues jouant des airs de carrefours d'automne, en haut les étoiles vierges et éternelles—Drôle de planète!

In this passage Laforgue observes the human pathos of the failed festivity. Dissonances prevail: the crude student humour, the hints of dingy poverty, the clowns' unconvincing gestures, the vulgar arguments of bride and groom, the bride's soiled dress, the pretty young prostitute with a black eye. An outsider, Laforgue could have written with Charles Cros: 'Moi je vis la vie à côté, | Pleurant alors que c'est la fête.' He was to relive even these memories 'à côté', as he revived them for the Complaintes amid the luxury of the German court, which, while it suited his innate yearning for elegance, contributed a further sense of exile. Already in these 1880 notes he registered an ironic distance from the scene, with his concluding 'Drôle de planète'. The complainte emerged specifically from the singing of the two women, an unaccompanied singing that Laforgue described unromantically as 'gueulant'. That and other refrains, of course: 'Pour goûter cette chose', he wrote later to Kahn, 'il faudrait chanter les refrains sur un air de cor de chasse que j'ai entendu dans mon enfance en province.' But it took time for him to see that he must in a sense be these women, and that he must impersonate not only them, but the many voices at the festivity. The truth that the 'sincere' tone was inevitably insincere, that only oblique methods could hope to capture the actual complexity of his response to life had still to be fully assimilated. He continued, at first, simply to record his personal lament:

Oh! la vie est trop triste, incurablement triste!
Aux fêtes d'ici-bas j'ai toujours sangloté.
('Soir de carnaval')

or to describe such scenes objectively:

J'errais par la banlieue en fête, un soir d'été.
Et, triste d'avoir vu cette femelle enceinte

Glapissant aux quinquets devant sa toile peinte,
Près des chevaux de bois je m'étais arrêté.
('Hue, carcan!')

Two early complaintes, 'Complainte de l'organiste de Nice' and 'La Chanson du petit hypertrophique', which Laforgue rejected for his volume, prefigure his later style. In both of them the main character is a double, on whom the poet projects his suffering. He probably rejected them because of the strong emotional element that they both contain, allowing into his volume rewritings of early poems with a more obviously satirical slant, but this now seems a mistake. Both are subtle poems that show how cliché can be rejuvenated to serve effects of pathos. In the first Laforgue describes the artist's exaggerated sorrow at the imagined death of a girl he does not know, and the final irony is directed at the poet for trying to compose a poem from so 'fictional' a subject. The idea is one that Laforgue did not abandon: he developed it in a later complainte and in the eleventh of the Derniers Vers. The irony of 'La Chanson du petit hypertrophique' is of a similar kind. There is no attempt to mock the sufferings of the child narrator, but childish slang and metrical abbreviations ridicule the kind of poetry that might be expected to result from such a theme.

The simplest form of complainte used by Laforgue is that based on a popular song. The well-known words and tune form a background to the revised version. The method—if we consider the 'Complainte du pauvre jeune homme', based on 'Quand le bonhomm' revint du bois'—takes a tragic narrative, here the suicide of a young man whose wife has abandoned him, and treats it with the anonymity and detachment of a newspaper item. As with Mallarmé's barrel-organ, the insistently cheerful rhythm drives home the pathos of the banal but tragic plot. The simplicity is deceptive, and must be so if the poem is not to be merely trivial itself. The young man is a persona of the poet, sensitive, lonely, given to ennui. His wife's desertion causes the tragedy, but the scene has already been well prepared. His is a 'belle âme', ill at ease in the modern world. While nostalgia for the nobility of soul of former happier times pervades the poem, it is simultaneously mocked: a belle âme is not merely something not 'found' in modern times: it is something, apparently man-made, that is no longer 'produced'. Laforgue's 'rewritings' complicate and fuse worlds, as do the neologisms that he invented most successfully at this period, and which he described as 'cet accouplement de mots qui n'ont qu'une harmonie de rêve mais font dans la réalité des couples impossibles (et qui ont pour moi le charme insoluble, obsédant, entêtant des antinomies en métaphysique …)'. In the 'Complainte de l'époux outragé', the rewriting of the little tale of adultery that is the subject of the song 'Qu'allais-tu faire à la fontaine?', Laforgue mixes religion and the erotic, parodying the solemn treatment often given to this combination in contemporary verse. In the 'Complainte de Lord Pierrot' the folk-song 'Au clair de la lune', a common-place rhyme about the ruses of physical seduction, is the prelude to the most melancholy, idealistic, and rambling of divagations on the subject of sexual desire. 'Mon ami Pierrot' becomes the enigmatic 'Lord Pierrot', half English reticence, half commedia dell'arte mask. It is his 'cervelle' not his 'chandelle' that is dead, and the shared assonance ironically drives home the distance between the worlds that the two versions inhabit. As the later moralité 'Persée et Andromède' moves from one legend, that of Perseus and Andromeda, to a second, that of Beauty and the Beast, so here one folk-song, 'Au clair de la lune', gives way to another, 'Il pleut, il pleut bergère', appropriate to the poem's final plunge into melancholy.

In the 'Complainte de cette bonne lune' the folk-song 'Sur le pont d'Avignon' serves to introduce a celestial dance in 'l'giron du Patron' (God), in which the moon, a Cinderella-figure among the dazzling stars, far from finding her Prince Charming, rejects all invitations to the dance, because of her concern for her poor sister, the earth. So, instead of a picture in which 'all's right with the world'—and with heaven, too—which the original owed to the magical and religious associations of ritual dances on bridges, we are offered a humorous debunking of all such 'certainties', as the dialogue between the two parties degenerates into a vulgar brawl between celestial bodies. 'Est-ce assez idiot?', Laforgue wrote to [Gustave] Kahn when he sent him the preposterously inventive 'Complainte du fœtus de Poète', and one might ask the same of this poem.

There are rewritings that are less frivolous but equally transform their 'model'. Goethe's poem 'Es war ein König in Thule', the model for the 'Complainte du roi de Thulé', is a lyric celebrating marital fidelity, symbolized by the golden goblet bequeathed to the king by his wife on her death, which he hurls into the waves as his own death approaches. Against this uplifting example, Laforgue sets one that he places even higher. His king substitutes renunciation for fidelity. Instead of the devoted couple, we have a solitary figure, described in a cosmic landscape of great splendour, descending to mysterious polar regions to console a dying sun. In the final stanza the image of the absolute, to which the 'real' is sacrificed, is offered to young lovers as a more elevated and inspiring goal than theirs—a vision of 'amour pur'. Goethe's romantic depiction of conjugal love in the face of age and death lingers behind a poem that offers a more modern and ambiguous image, the power of which depends on the beauty of exalted negation:

This poem, like the 'Complainte de Lord Pierrot', might well be described as 'de la psychologie dans une forme de rêve', but poems where the model is woven into the text, itself forming part of the dream, best fit this description. The 'Complainte des pianos qu'on entend dans les quartiers aisés' is an example, Here the complainte, 'Tu t'en vas et tu nous laisses I Tu nous laiss's et tu t'en vas', is introduced as the words that accompany the piano notes that the narrator, a solitary flâneur, hears as he wanders through the streets in the town's well-to-do suburbs. The poem is composed of four regularly repeated strains, each set in counterpoint to the others. Differing line- and stanza-lengths make the pattern perfectly clear: two belong essentially to the narrator, and are followed by two that represent the thoughts of the girls whom he imagines playing the piano in the seclusion of their homes or convent schools. The poem moves from present to future as the narrator envisages the loveless mariages de convenance for which the girls are destined in place of the romantic love to which they aspire and which is the subject of the ritournelles they practise on the piano. The whole poem—both the image of the narrator, similarly lost in an inner world that aspires to the romantic, and the image of the present desert and future emotional death reserved for the girls—has sprung from the overheard piano tune, itself inseparable from the words of a popular song. Two lines from the song, repeated five times, are subtly modulated by the lines that complete the quatrain, in each case offering a glimpse of a different aspect of the girls' lives, and moving in an imaginative progression that leads to the final brutal glimpse of a future, the reverse of their aspirations, from which they will look back to their bored piano-playing days with longing:

'Tu t'en vas et tu nous laisses,
Tu nous laiss's et tu t'en vas.
Que ne suis-je morte à la messe!
O mois, ô linges, ô repas!'

The complainte is not impenetrable, as has been suggested, but it is built on an elliptical technique that asks the reader to juxtapose and reconstruct its contrasting and mobile elements. The elements are themselves elliptical, and this is appropriate since the barely conscious world towards which the poem is directed speaks most convincingly in brief, intense ejaculations. The poem represents a journey inwards from the deceptively urbane and leisurely opening stanza, with its undercurrents of obsession and its reference to nerves where the heart would be more natural:

Menez l'âme que les Lettres ont bien nourrie,
Les pianos, les pianos, dans les quartiers aisés!
Premiers soirs, sans pardessus, chaste flânerie,
Aux complaintes des nerfs incompris ou brisés.

Laforgue's volume of Complaintes was found incomprehensible by most reviewers, and this despite the fact that the 'modern' and the burlesque were fashionable at the time, with the supposed Adoré Floupette's Les Déliquescences, which appeared in May 1885, being an example of a more frivolous excursion into parody. The tradition by now included Charles Cros's Le Coffret de Santal (1873), Corbière's Les Amours jaunes (1873), and Richepin's La Chanson des gueux (1876). But the Complaintes were just too baffling, too 'modern'—'de l'ultra-moderne', as one perceptive reviewer put it: 'Si vous aimez la vraie modernité, pas celle d'hier ni d'aujourd'hui, mais celle de demain, je vous conseillerai … Les Complaintes de M. Jules Laforgue. C'est de 1' ultra-moderne.' The majority of reviewers felt that they were being fooled. 'Si ça continue', one wrote, 'il suffira dans six ans … d'écrire comme un Javanais: pour être un poète de génie.' Laforgue wrote one review himself, made emendations to another, written by Charles Henry, and was amazed at the perspicacity of one critic, Léo d'Orfer. His review stressed the remarkable range of the Complaintes, the aspect that we shall consider next. But it also described what has been the present subject: how 'des lambeaux de refrains populaires, des demicouplets de vieilles romances criaillées dans les cours, … toutes les chansons et chansonnettes des rues, des bois, de l'alcôve, de l'église, de la causerie bourgeoise, des grands discours, du peuple et de la solitude' could be accommodated to 'la sauce de la complainte'. 'Pour ma part', d'Orfer wrote, 'j'avais rêvé un genre de poèmes où tous les prosaïsmes et les vulgarités de la vie réelle trouveraient place à côté d'envolées superbes, les uns étant l'intelligence des autres.' This combination was what he had found in Laforgue's Complaintes, and it is one that the twentieth century, schooled to an aesthetic that finds dissonance indispensable, is prepared to take seriously.


J.-P. Richard points out the variety and ambiguity to be found in even the titles of the Complaintes. Some are votive laments, pleas dedicated to an external power ('Complainte propitiatoire à l'Inconscient', 'Complainte à Notre-Dame des soirs'); some are laments whose theme is an aspect of the insufficiency of life ('Complainte sur certains ennuis', 'Complainte sur certains temps déplacés'); most use the genitive form (de, du, des), but, since they employ both subjective and objective genitives, even this does not confer unity on them. The reader is, as Richard suggests, disorientated:

Il arrive pourtant que l'ambiguïté, toujours grammaticalement possible, de la préposition s'actualise peu ou prou dans l'énoncé de tel ou tel titre, et que le lecteur ne sache plus dès lors, au cœur d'un petit trouble signifiant, si l'être nommé dans la seconde partie de la séquence titre est celui qui porte la parole ou celui que la parole vise.

As we have seen in the case of the 'Complainte des pianos', the poem cannot be read simply as the lament of the pianos. It is dependent on a range of agents, and illustrates a number of subjectivities: on the one hand, the notes of music, the popular song, the Catholic bourgeois setting; on the other, the 'psychologies' of the girls, the narrator, and the poet. The result, in the laments of musical instruments, is a situation in which the discourse (again in Richard's words) 'tout à la fois s'adresse à eux [musical instruments], traite d'eux et constitue une transposition (phrasée) de ce qu'ils sont censés prononcer (directement) ou connoter (indirectement) sur le mode musical', and the final effect is 'un certain flou de l'énonciation qui répond, on le sait, à l'un des effets les plus vivement recherchés par la poétique laforguienne: la délocalisation du moi, la confusion discursive du sujet et de l'objet, le demi-naufrage (joué) du sens.' This effect is further increased by the fact that the representation of a multiplicity of voices is a deliberate aim; voices that are merely overheard, that emerge from a void, mobile voices representing moments in a changing narrative, and whose mobility matches that of the equally variable moods and personae of the narrator. Laforgue had learnt from Hartmann, as Warren Ramsey points out [in Jules Laforgue and the Ironic Inheritance, 1953], 'to think of the human individual as an aggregate, a sum of many individuals'.

In this climate of ambiguity and uncertainty what order and consistency do we find? Y.-A. Favre argues that we have a 'livre' rather than an 'album'; that is, a highly structured whole, and there is evidence that this is the case with all Laforgue's volumes, with the exception of the Derniers Vers, about whose intended final structure we know almost nothing. Plans were not rigid, however. The original Complaintes, significantly called simply 'Quelques Complaintes de la vie', first numbered twenty poems, then grew to forty and to fifty with the help of Laforgue's publisher Léon Vanier, 'Fabius Cunctator', as Laforgue named him. The new poems were interpolated casually, and when Laforgue sent Vanier a fiftieth poem, he told him to place it 'n'importe où' in the volume. He insisted on the placing of two key poems, however: the opening 'Préludes autobiographiques', which was to be 'answered' by the late 'Complainte du Sage de Paris': 'Cette préface explique la dernière et longue litanie qui ferme le volume.' But, with characteristic flexibility, he added two short poems to this litany, closing his volume in a more oblique and light-hearted fashion. One is the 'Complainte des complaintes', which serves as an apology for, and defence of, the volume: the other, the 'Complainte-épitaphe' uses disyllabic quatrains and tercets in a parody of the sonnet form. Pointing forward to future exercises in ellipticism, such as 'Avant-dernier Mot', and taking a leaf from various contemporary fumiste productions, it sums up the themes and the method of the volume, the latter by reference to other art-forms, in a supreme distancing act:

La Femme,
Mon âme:
Ah! quels
Qu'on blâme
Mes gammes!
Un fou
Et danse.

Silence …
Lui, où?

'La Femme', 'mon àme' are, of course, seen through a dedication to the unconscious, which, deliberately blurred with an ascetic Buddhism, is the subject of the early votive poems. Even the 'Complainte-Placet de Faust fils' is, as Favre points out, a plea to nature. (It is simultaneously a parody of Sully Prudhomme's sentimental poem 'Prière' and of Goethe's Faust's intellectual and guilt-ridden universe.) The volume represents a personal and moral journey from rejection and disillusionment to some kind of acceptance or resignation, a schema surprisingly parallel to Laforgue's plans for the Sanglot, a fact that might easily be overlooked because of the new volume's contrasting register and because love, which was largely absent from the Sanglot poems, has now become a central theme.

The second poem of the volume, 'Complainte propitiatoire à l'Inconscient', already sets up the technique of parallel discourses that we saw in the 'Complainte des pianos'. Here, more simply, the leading couplet takes the form of a prayer addressed to the unconscious, while the following quatrain develops an interior monologue in which 'la Pensée', from which the unconscious should deliver man, is, all too obviously, failing to find a solution to his distress. Both discourses follow a linear progression: the couplets offer ordered parodie echoes of the Lord's Prayer ('Votre Nom', 'Volonté', 'quotidienne', 'Pardonnez-nous nos offenses', 'délivrez-nous'), while the quatrains move through the obvious range of possible human ideals: love as an absolute, the Christianity of the mystic, that of the missionary, the 'religion' of art. The intellect from which man is to be delivered is both a 'lèpre originelle' and an 'ivresse insensée', since it has created these false and impossible ideals. The advance in technique over such a Sanglot poem as 'Marche funèbre pour la mort de la terre', which also functions by ordered antithesis, is striking. In 'Marche funèbre' the refrain is unchanging and the monologue explicit. Here we inhabit immediately a puzzling, elliptical, and challenging world, with parody at its centre.

Fifteen of the Complaintes are composed on this model, which can, as we saw in the 'Complainte des pianos', become more intricate. In that poem each voice was subdivided. In other complaintes the dialogue is extended by a third voice, frequently that of a narrator, who either introduces the poem, encloses it in a first and final stanza, or develops a contrasting point of view in its conclusion. The two opposed but interrelating main voices usually contrast a general with a particular view. In the 'Complainte de l'orgue de barbarie', for example, the barrel-organ regurgitates the commonplaces of life in disabused and cynical five-syllable quatrains. These alternate with couplets—a stanza not commonly employed for the nerve-centre of a poem—expressing individual emotion: here that of a woman, and moving from ecstasy to fear and despair. These ordered snatches of an individual's life, which nevertheless illustrate the idées reçues of the street organ, progress, as in the 'Complainte des pianos', from romantic dreams to desolation, and emphasize here also that 'la vie est vraie et criminelle'. The poem thus conveys a sense of passing time by means of narrative, and of simultaneity by means of its parallel discourses.

In the 'Complainte des grands pins dans une villa abandonnée' the personified street organ is replaced by the pines, and the personal lament of a disinherited and lonely young man provides the human narrative. The personification of objects that act as witnesses to the human situation is one way of diversifying the moi, since Laforgue's voice, already lent to the introductory narrator and to the young man (or girl) who is the main character, has 'become' also the voice of the pines (or street organ). The poem is an amalgam of voices, functioning in relation to each other. It is an amalgam or 'fugue' of moods also, since wit constantly breaks through, tempering the evident pathos. The sun is sulking, the clouds are 'paquets de bitume', the young man will go to Montmartre 'en cinquième classe'. And yet the lament, carried by the moaning of the pines in the wind, has the ability to inspire what Mallarmé, speaking of the street organ, called 'desperate reverie': 'l'orgue de Barbarie, dans le crépuscule du souvenir, m'a fait désespérément rêver…. Je la [its crude music] savourai lentement et je ne lançai pas un sou par la fenêtre de peur de me déranger et de m'apercevoir que l'instrument ne chantait pas seul.'

A complainte of which we happen, quite exceptionally, to have an early draft, 'Complainte du fœtus de poète', introduces the contrasting strain only in the later version, illustrating Laforgue's inclination to complicate and to 'blur' his original texts. 'Je les retoucherai, je les noierai un peu plus', he wrote to his sister: 'La poésie doit être à la vie ce qu'un concert de parfums est à un parterre de fleurs.' As he did this, he was drawing poetry closer to the related art-forms of music and painting, establishing the 'pont mystérieux' of which Delacroix wrote: 'L'écrivain écrit presque tout pour être compris. Dans la peinture il s'établit comme un pont mystérieux entre l'âme des personnages et celle du spectateur.'

The techniques of theatre were useful to Laforgue in this attempt. Two complaintes ('Complainte des voix sous le figuier bouddhique', and 'Complainte des formalités nuptiales') employ named characters and, consequently, display considerable formal variety. The former, expanding mingled Buddhist and Hartmannian sentiments, was one that Laforgue considered important, writing to his publisher: 'Une erreur dans cette pièce me désolerait.' Both point forward in their form to Le Concile féerique, a drama composed of unpublished poems taken from Des Fleurs de bonne volonté.

Techniques drawn from the monologue form developed in the theatre of Coquelin the Younger abound: colloquialisms, the direct address to a supposed spectator, the apostrophe, the aside. One remembers that Mallarmé had originally hoped that 'L'Après-midi d'un faune' might be recited at the Théâtre-Français, and that its second title, after he rejected 'Improvisation d'un faune', was 'Monologue d'un faune'. A number of the personae that Laforgue employs for the self are … connected with legend or folk-song: the Pierrot, the King of Thule, the knight errant, the poor young man, the betrayed husband, the 'blackboulé', or more fantastic versions of the self: the son of Faust, the foetus of the poet, the incurable angel, the poor human body. They are 'characters' who, however strange, are lent familiarity by the definite article that always introduces them. But this familiarity is also belied by the twist that Laforgue gives to the expected personage. We have a knight errant whose only concern appears to be his inability to inspire love, an angel who regrets nothing so much as his purity, a poet-foetus in place of Baudelaire's infant-poet. Antecedents are not necessarily literary. Bizet's Carmen, an opera much in vogue throughout Western Europe in 1885, provides the twist in the 'Complainte des blackboulés'. By quoting the opening words of the famous Escamillo/Carmen duet, 'Si tu m'aimes', Laforgue places behind the 'blackboulé', who is nursing a sadistic revenge, the dramatic figure of the betrayed Don José, and thus behind the harsh introspection of an apparently morbid psyche the normalization provided by the legitimate passions of a tragic narrative.

Sometimes the stylized persona is abandoned, and we are given monologues more directly attributable to the poet. The result is not simplification—rather the reverse. The more successful and substantial of these poems illustrate the divisions in the self that will be further developed in the Derniers Vers. 'Complainte d'une convalescence en mai', for example, is an occasional poem with a mockphilosophical theme. The tedium of convalescence leads to meditation on life's fundamental problems and to a recognition that the narrator's 'grandes angoisses métaphysiques I Sont passées à l'état de chagrins domestiques'. The fragility of the narrator's affirmations is stressed in a dialogue with the self that employs mobile pronouns, a technique that Laforgue uses elsewhere. A 'je' takes issue with a self-addressed 'tu' in free Apollinairean fashion ('Et toi, cerveau confit dans l'alcool de l'Orgueil'), and the two add up to an internal 'nous' ('Nous savons ce qu'il nous reste à faire'). This 'nous' echoes the external 'nous' of the poem's epigraph, the well-known statement referring to Pascal's barbed iron belt: 'Nous n'avons su toutes ces choses qu'après sa mort', an epigraph that, while it indicates that the subject of the poem will be concealed pain, emphasizes also the distance between the Pascalian world and the mundane region inhabited by this poem. The complainte employs the alexandrine couplet to combine the presentation of suffering with its subversion ('Convalescence bien folle, comme on peut voir'), while offering on the way a number of bold elliptical formulations: 'Si la Mort, de son van, avait chosé mon être', for example, or 'Qui m'a jamais rêvé?' [emphasis added].

'Complainte d'un certain dimanche', another interior monologue, is an occasional poem whose occasion, the departure of the loved woman, becomes clear only in the third stanza. Before this we have aphorisms about the relations between the sexes, strongly coloured by the endof-the-affair moment of which we are as yet unaware. Employing the discontinuous technique that Laforgue was to develop further in free verse, it again evokes the disunity of the self. The stanza that introduces the love theme displays three stances towards love in only four lines. We move from apparently bewildered self-questioning to an expression of overstated devotion, and from this to a stock romantic description, the cliché element in which leaves the emotion (such as it is) intact:

Shifting stances, again emphasized by a mobile narrative method (the girl is both 'elle' and 'tu'), reflect the frightening inner lack of centre, which is set against the equally alarming anonymity of the external world. Loss of a sense of identity does not imply any absence of feeling, however. Philosophical generalizations and pseudo-conclusions are interrupted by shock expressions of fear or horror:

Que d'yeux, en éventail, en ogive, ou d'inceste,
Depuis que l'Être espère, ont réclamé leurs droits!
O ciels, les yeux pourrissent-ils comme le reste?

When the narrator finally confesses his fear of solitude, which was the theme of many Sanglot poems, we find that we have now been offered a landscape in which to situate it, and that it is a nuanced landscape, created from a series of fleeting perceptions—snapshots, as it were, necessarily surrounded by unbridgeable gaps between the pictures, which nevertheless inhabit a recognizable and all too human psychological terrain.

Frequently, the narrator surfaces from these explorations of inner turmoil in a final neat reversal or disclaimer, a technique that we find in the Derniers Vers. In this poem it is the shift in the last line from 'Faudra-t-il vivre monotone?' to 'Tâchons de vivre monotone'; in the 'Complainte d'une convalescence en mai' we have the (already quoted) dismissive 'Convalescence bien folle, comme on peut voir'; it is the 'C'était donc sérieux?' of 'Autre Complainte de Lord Pierrot'; the unexpected throw-away, 'Ces êtres-là sont adorables', of 'Complainte sur certains ennuis'; or the Eliotesque ending of 'Complainte des débats mélancoliques et littéraires':

O Hélène, j'erre en ma chambre;
Et tandis que tu prends le thé,
Là-bas, dans l'or d'un fier septembre,
Je frissonne de tous mes membres,
En m'inquiétant de ta santé.
Tandis que, d'un autre côté …

The reversals and disclaimers, like the use of the refrain, illustrate the centrality to the volume of techniques of counterpoint. They can be found almost buried in stylistic devices. 'Grande Complainte de la ville de Paris'—a poem that hurls discord and fragmentation at the reader, and is, correspondingly, the only poem in the volume to be written in prose—contains units recuperable as octosyllables and alexandrines, as well as many rhyming effects that set up disturbing echoes of the traditionally rhythmical at the heart of the poem's prose modernity. 'Complainte d'un autre dimanche' uses internal crossed rhyme, as Grojnowksi has convincingly shown [in Jules Laforgue et l'originalité, 1988], to create the en abyme effect of a poem within a poem. Contrapuntal links are formed between poems; this poem, for example, stands in apposition to its predecessor, 'Complainte d'un certain dimanche', confronting and reflecting it. The same can be said of the two Lord Pierrot poems. But chiefly, of course, systems of opposition and relationship function between the parts of the poem. The narrator's personal lament in 'Complainte d'un autre dimanche' is set against the apparent objectivity of a precisely observed pictorial setting that turns out to be an accurate reflection of the narrator's internal landscape. The transience of the former, emphasized by first and last lines (C'était un très-au vent d'octobre paysage'; 'Ce, fut un bien au vent d'octobre paysage … '), echoes the human instability that, as we have seen, is the true subject of the poem.

Ultimately, despite the scope it offered for the portrayal of a range of different and changing voices, Laforgue began to find the complainte form limiting rather than liberating. It had enabled him to discover and explore a number of ironic distancing techniques, but the many voices had become, self-confessedly, 'gerbes … d'un défunt moi'. He moved on, at first to the still greater artifice of L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la lune, and finally, in the Derniers Vers, to an abandonment of formal stylization—and even of versification—in his constant attempt to record the impact of reality, or, in Gide's later words, to present 'la rivalité du monde réel et de la représentation que nous nous en faisons'.

The aim pursued in the Complaintes necessarily involved breaking some of the venerated rules of French versification and, therefore, adopting a vers libéré. This might be thought natural in any case in a volume that derived its inspiration from folk-song. But the same critics who found the work intolerably obscure no doubt considered that Laforgue, like Donne before him, 'for not keeping of accent deserved hanging'. Laforgue's handling of rhyme came in for particularly vehement treatment. One critic had the wit at least to realize that the transgressions were intended: 'Il est évident qu'on dira des Complaintes que ce n'est pas rimé suivant les règles données par le maître Banville. Mais cette indépendance prosodique a au moins cela pour elle, qu'elle n'est pas le résultat de l'impuissance. C'est voulu.'

Laforgue insisted that his poems were 'rimées à la diable', and by this he meant that he had sought out bold and interesting rhymes and had neglected convention. Instead of alternating masculine and feminine rhymes, 'Complainte d'un autre dimanche' uses feminine rhymes throughout, a technique that Verlaine had pioneered for effects of delicate evocation. Laforgue rhymes for the ear and not the eye. He seems actually to cultivate the juxtaposition of singular and plural rhyming words that he had recommended to Mme Mültzer already in 1882. Rimes pauvres are common, but so are intensive rhyming effects, created by repeating a rhyme three or more times, often in complex patterns related to the formal structure of the poem. ('Complainte de la bonne défunte' uses the same two feminine rhymes throughout the entire poem; 'Complainte des printemps' uses the same feminine rhyme in the poem's quatrains only; 'Autre Complainte de l'orgue de barbarie' uses each rhyme in its main stanzas three times, the refrain rhyme six times.) Experimentation is constantly in evidence. In 'Complainte des pubertés difficiles' one rhyme is regularly carried over from one stanza to the next, reducing the separateness of stanzas. In 'Complainte de la fin des journées' the refrain uses the same rhymes throughout, and is thus set apart from the main stream of the poem. In 'Complainte de l'ange incurable' the rhymes of the first two couplets are regularly repeated in the poem's short refrain, and act as wan echoes of the main text. Dissonances occur in place of, and in addition to, rhymes, as in the complex patterning of 'Complainte du roi de Thulé', and can result, as here, in a sense of subtle musicality, caused by the combination of rhyme and the related dissonance, of repetition and a variation on it. Rhyming on proper names or on words drawn from foreign vocabularies (and sometimes on both at once) lends the rhyme exoticism or humour; as in 'Missouri' and 'Paris' ('Complainte de la lune en province'), 'draps' and 'Lèda' ('Complainte de Lord Pierrot'), or 'affiche' and 'sandwiche' ('Complainte du pauvre chevalier-errant'). The 'sans-gêne' of Laforgue's rhymes, the quality he twice praised in Kahn's, is one of their most engaging characteristics, as can be seen in the following:

Les fiords bleus de la Norwège
Les pôles, les mers, que sais-je?
('Complainte de la lune en province')

Si tu savais, maman Nature,
Comme Je m'aime en tes ennuis,
Tu m'enverrais une enfant pure,
Chaste aux "et puis?"
('Complainte-Placet de Faust fils')

or in the more provocative lines of 'Complainte d'une convalescence en mai', with their humorous hesitancy:

Je ne veux accuser personne, bien qu'on eût
Pu, ce me semble, mon bon cœur étant connu …

Laforgue's sensitivity to the weighting of syllables and to relative degrees of stress leads to a range of novel rhythmical effects, which we can be sure were calculated. Short lines, like stanzas, are contrasted with long, the caesura is eradicated or the line disrupted by unexpected or frequent breaks, the impair is used for effects of disharmony and ambivalence, notably in the hendecasyllable of 'Complainte du fœtus de poète', with its constantly shifting main stress. In 'Complainte du pauvre chevalier-errant' Laforgue created what he called a 'strophe absolument inédite à vers de 14 pieds', which he asked Henry to emphasize in the review that he wrote of the Complaintes. These experimental rhyming and syllabic combinations formed part of Laforgue's attempt to make details of technique relate to meaning. 'Que pensez-vous du vers de onze pieds?', he wrote to Kahn, 'et par la même occasion, que pensez-vous aussi de l'infini?' As a result, even his experimental lines have an integrity such as might be expected from more predetermined forms. A more rigid approach towards prosody would have seemed to him, paradoxical as this may appear, a betrayal of the artistic purity to which he aspired. He set out the position most directly when he defended himself against accusations of imitating Corbière: 'Corbière ne s'occupe ni de la strophe ni des rimes (sauf comme un tremplin à concetti) et jamais de rythmes, et je m'en suis préoccupé au point d'en apporter de nouvelles et de nouveaux. J'ai voulu faire de la symphonie et de la mélodie.' The 'melody' involved using a vocabulary that frequently appeared unpoetic—familiar and tongue-in-cheek—when this contributed to the particular poetic effect that he desired. It involved shocking his critics by rhyming 'Saint-Malo' with 'sanglots', and 'bocks' with 'coq'. It involved using varied and eccentric syllabic lengths and intricate contrapuntal patterning, so that the poetic line, far from being a mechanical unit, became the base for a series of live combinations. Being concerned with 'stanzas and rhymes' meant the creation of new effects, rather than adherence to the formulations of the past, offering the reader a constant interplay between the traditional and the original, the expected and the novel. Laforgue was no doubt in agreement with (and perhaps behind) these sentences from Henry's review of the Complainte: 'M. Jules Laforgue fut ainsi conduit à un genre de composition où la tenue prosodique conventionnelle n'est pas de rigueur. De là ces complaintes … entrelacis de notes perpétuelles, échos d'humour de belle race, trouvailles de formules, bouquet de rythmes et de rimes dont la variété réjouit le savant parfois inquiet du nombre.'

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Laforgue, Jules (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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