(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Despite the length of Louis Aragon’s poetic career and the perceptible evolution of his style in the course of six decades, there is a remarkable unity in the corpus of his poetry. This unity results from stylistic as well as thematic continuities, for even when he turned from free verse to more traditional metric forms, he managed to preserve the fluency of spoken language. In fact, his most highly structured verse has some of the qualities of stream-of-consciousness narrative. There are a variety of reasons for this. Aragon began to write as a very young boy and continued writing, steadily and copiously, throughout his life. As critic Hubert Juin has observed, Aragon never needed to keep a journal or diary because “his work itself was his journal,” into which he poured his eager questions and reflections on what most closely concerned him.

This confessional impulse was reinforced and given direction in Aragon’s Surrealist period by experiments with automatic writing, a technique adapted for literary use primarily by Breton and Philippe Soupault. By writing quickly without revising and by resisting the impulse to edit or censor the flow of words, the Surrealistis hoped to tap their subconscious minds and so to “save literature from rhetoric” (as Juin puts it). Literature was not all they hoped to save, moreover, for “rhetoric” had poisoned the social and political spheres as well; in liberating the subconscious, Aragon and his friends sought to break old and unjust patterns of thought and life. They also expected this powerful and hitherto untapped source to fuel the human imagination for the work of social renewal. Although Aragon repudiated the Surrealist attitude (which was basically anarchistic) when he embraced Communism as the pattern of the future, he never lost the stylistic freedom that automatic writing had fostered, nor did he become complacent about the “solution” he had found. Like his relationship with his wife, in which his hopes for the future were anchored, Aragon’s Communism was a source of pain as well as of fulfillment: the deeper his love and commitment, the greater his vulnerability. Thus, poetry remained for him, as it had been in his youth, a form of questioning in which he explored the world and his relation to it.

There were, nevertheless, perceptible changes in Aragon’s style during the course of his career. After the Dadaist and Surrealist periods, when he wrote mainly free verse (although there are metrically regular poems even in his early collections), Aragon turned to more traditional prosody—including rhyme—in the desire to make his verses singable. At the same time, he sought to renew and broaden the range of available rhymes by adopting new definitions of masculine and feminine rhyme based on pronunciation rather than on spelling. He also applied the notion of enjambment to rhyme, allowing not only the last syllable of a line but also the first letter or letters of the following line to count as constituent elements of a rhyme. Partly as a result of the conditions under which they were composed, Aragon’s Resistance poems are for the most part short and self-contained, although Le Musée grévin (the wax museum) is a single long poem, and the pieces in Brocéliande are linked by allusions to the knights of the Arthurian cycle, whom Aragon saw as the symbolic counterparts of the Resistance fighters.

Aragon’s postwar collections are more unified, and beginning with Les Yeux et la mémoire (eyes and memory), they might almost be described as book-length poems broken into short “chapters” of varying meters. Many of these “chapters,” however, can stand alone as finished pieces; good examples are the love lyrics in Le Fou d’Elsa (some of which have been set to music, like the war poems) and the vignette from Le Roman inachevé (the unfinished romance) beginning “Marguerite, Madeleine, et Marie,” which describes Aragon’s mother and aunts—whom he thought of as his sisters—dressing for a dance. Within his longer sequences, Aragon skillfully uses shifts of meter to signal changes of mood and does not hesitate to lapse into prose when occasion warrants—for example, when, in Le Roman inachevé, he is suddenly overwhelmed by the weariness and pain of old age: “The verse breaks in my hands, my old hands, swollen and knotted with veins.” Such disclaimers to the contrary, Aragon was never in greater control of his medium than in these poems of his old age, culminating in Elsa, Le Fou d’Elsa (Elsa’s madman), and Les Chambres (the rooms). Le Fou d’Elsa is perhaps his greatest tour de force, a kind of epic (depicting the end of Muslim rule in Spain, with the fall of Granada in 1492) made up of hundreds of lyric pieces, along with some dialogue and prose commentary. As Juin has remarked, Aragon tends to alternate between two tones, the epic and the elegiac, and Le Fou d’Elsa is a perfect vehicle for both. The grand scale of the book gives full sweep to Aragon’s epic vision of past and future regimes, while the inserted lyrics preserve the reduced scale proper to elegy.

In order to appreciate the texture of Aragon’s poetry—his characteristic interweaving of image and theme, diction and syntax—it is necessary to examine a few of his poems in detail. Choosing one poem from each of the three distinct phases of his career (the Surrealist, Resistance, and postwar periods), all dealing with his central theme, the love of a woman, makes it possible to demonstrate both the continuities and the changes in his poetry during the greater part of his career. All three poems are in his elegiac vein, the mode easiest to examine at close range and the most fertile for Aragon. The occasional false notes in his verse tend to be struck when he assumes the triumphalist pose of the committed Marxist. When he speaks of his wife, his very excesses suggest a shattering sincerity, especially when the subject is separation, age, or death.

“Poem to Shout in the Ruins”

“Poème à crier dans les ruines” (“Poem to Shout in the Ruins”), although addressed to a woman, is not addressed to Elsa, whom Aragon had yet to meet when it was written. The poem records the bitterness of an affair that has recently ended and from which the poet seems to have expected more than his lover did. Like most of Aragon’s work, the poem is heavily autobiographical; the woman involved was American heiress Nancy Cunard, with whom Aragon had lived for about a year, and the allusions to travel throughout the poem recall trips the couple had taken together. Although the poem opens with a passage that might be described as expository, and although it moves from particular details to a general observation and closes with a sort of reprise, it strikes the reader as more loosely organized than it actually is. This impression results from its rhythm being that of association—the train of thought created when a person dwells on a single topic for a sustained period of time. Because the topic is unhappy love and the bitterness of rejection, the process of association takes on an obsessive quality, and although the resulting monologue is ostensibly addressed to the lover, the title suggests that neither she nor anyone else is expected to respond. The overall effect, then, is that of an interior monologue, and its power stems not from any cogency of argument (the “rhetoric” rejected by the Surrealists) but from the cumulative effects of obsessive repetition. Thus, the speaker’s memories are evoked in a kind of litany (“I remember your shoulder/ I remember your elbow/ I remember your linen.”); later, struck by the realization that memory implies the past tense, he piles up verbs in the passé simple (as in “Loved Was Came Caressed”), the tense used for completed action.

The lack of a rhetorical framework in the poem is paralleled by the absence of any central image or images. Although many arresting images appear, they are not linked in any design but remain isolated, reinforcing the sense of meaninglessness that has overwhelmed the speaker. The “little rented cars” and mirrors left unclaimed in a baggage...

(The entire section is 3365 words.)