Louis Aragon

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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...

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the love lyrics inLe 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 room evoke the traveling the couple did together, which the speaker now sees as aimless. Some of the details given remain opaque because they have a private meaning that is not revealed (“Certain names are charged with a distant thunder”); others seem to be literary allusions, such as Mazeppa’s ride (described in a poem by Lord Byron) and the bleeding trees, which to a reader who knows the works of Dante suggest that poet’s “wood of the suicides.” (Not until many years later did Aragon reveal that he had attempted suicide after the breakup with Cunard.)

The use of such arcane personal and literary allusions was a legacy of the Symbolist movement; as a young man, Aragon admired both Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé, two of the most gifted Symbolists. The Surrealist approach to imagery evolved directly out of Symbolism in its more extreme forms, such as “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”) of Rimbaud and the Chants de Maldoror (1869) of Comte de Lautréamont. Despite its hopelessness, “Poem to Shout in the Ruins” conveys the almost hallucinatory power the Surrealists saw in imagery: its ability to charge ordinary things with mystery by appealing to the buried layers of the subconscious. “Familiar objects one by one were taking on . . . the ghostly look of escaped prisoners. . . .” The poem also suggests, however, that Aragon is not content merely to explore his subconscious; he hungers for a real connection to a real woman. In his desperate desire to prolong the liaison, he tries fitfully to make a “waltz” of the poem and asks the woman to join him, “since something must still connect us,” in spitting on “what we have loved together.” Despite its prevailing tone of negation and despair, the poem anticipates two central themes of Aragon’s mature works: the belief that love between man and woman should be infinitely more than a source of casual gratification and the awareness of mortality (which the finality of parting suggests). This awareness is not morbid but tragic—the painful apprehension of death in a man whose loves and hopes were lavished on mortal existence.

“Elsa’s Eyes”

“Les Yeux d’Elsa” (“Elsa’s Eyes”), the opening poem in the collection of that name, is a good example of the metrically regular pieces Aragon produced in the 1940’s (and continued to produce, together with free verse, until the end of his life). It is particularly characteristic in that, while each stanza has internal unity, the stanzas do not follow one another in a strictly necessary order; like those of a folk song or lyrical ballad, they offer a series of related insights or observations without logical or narrative progression. Many of Aragon’s mature poems do exhibit such a progression (notably “Toi qui es la rose”—“You Who Are the Rose”), but in most cases it is subordinated to the kind of associative rhythm observed in “Poem to Shout in the Ruins.”

The imagery of “Elsa’s Eyes” is more unified than that of the earlier poem. Taking his wife’s eyes as the point of departure, the poet offers a whole array of metaphors for their blueness (sky, ocean, wildflowers), brilliance (lightning, shooting stars), and depth (a well, far countries, and constellations). The last four stanzas are more closely linked than the preceding ones and culminate in an apocalyptic vision of Elsa’s eyes surviving the end of the world. The poem as a whole, however, cannot be said to build to this climax; its power stems from the accumulation of images rather than from their arrangement. It should be noted that Aragon’s Surrealist formation is still very much in evidence here, not only in the hallucinatory quality of his images but also in their obvious connection with subconscious desires and fears. The occasional obscurities are no longer the result of a deliberate use of private or literary allusions; Aragon was already writing with a wider public in mind. Nevertheless, he continued to evoke his own deepest desires and fears in language whose occasional ambiguity reflects the ambiguity of subconscious impulses.

A relatively new departure for Aragon in this period, the serious use of religious imagery, is reflected in the references to the Three Kings and the Mother of the Seven Sorrows in “Elsa’s Eyes.” Although reared a Catholic, Aragon became an atheist in his early youth and never professed any religious faith thereafter. During World War II, however, he was impressed by the courage of Christian resisters and acquired a certain respect for the faith that sustained them in the struggle against Fascism. For his own part, Aragon began to use the vocabulary of traditional religion to extol his wife. Thus, for example, in “Elsa’s Eyes,” Elsa is described as the Mother of the Seven Sorrows, an epithet of the Virgin Mary; at the same time, Elsa is assimilated by natural forces and survives the cataclysm of the last stanza like a mysterious deity. This is partly attributable to Aragon’s rediscovery, at about this time, of the courtly love tradition in French poetry, in which the lady becomes the immediate object of the knight’s worship, whether as a mediatrix (who shows the way to God) or as a substitute for God himself. Repeatedly in Aragon’s postwar poetry, Elsa is endowed with godlike qualities, until, in Le Fou d’Elsa, a virtual apotheosis takes place: The “holy fool” for whom the book is named (a Muslim, not a Christian) is convicted of heresy for worshiping a woman—Elsa—who will not be born for four centuries.

Whenever he was questioned on the subject, Aragon insisted that his aim was not a deification of Elsa but the replacement of the transcendent God of traditional religions with a “real” object, a woman of flesh and blood who could serve as his partner in building the future. Thus, Elsa’s madman tells his judge, “I can say of her what I cannot say of God: She exists, because she will be.” At the same time, the imagery of “Elsa’s Eyes” clearly indicates that on some level there is an impulse of genuine worship, compounded of love, fear, and awe, in the poet’s relation to his wife; he turned to the courtly tradition because it struck a deep chord in him. From the very first stanza, Elsa is identified with forces of nature, not all of which are benevolent: “Your eyes are so deep that in stooping to drink/ I saw all suns reflected there/ All desperate men throw themselves there to die.” In most of the early stanzas, emphasis is laid on her grief (presumably over the effects of war), which only enhances her beauty, but the insistence on her eyes also suggests that, like God, she is all-seeing. Aragon himself often referred to his wife as his conscience, and Bernard Lecherbonnier has suggested in Le Cycle d’Elsa (1974) that the circumstances of Aragon’s upbringing created in him, first in regard to his mother and later in regard to his wife, “an obsession with self-justification that permitted the myth of god-as-love to crystallize around the person, and in particular the eyes, of Elsa.” Such an attitude is especially suggested by the final images of the poem, that of “Paradise regained and relost a hundred times” and that of Elsa’s eyes shining over the sea after the final “shipwreck” of the universe.

“You Who Are the Rose”

An attitude of worship can also be seen in “You Who Are the Rose” (from the collection entitled Elsa), but it is tempered considerably by the vulnerability of the rose, the central image around which the poem is built. Its tight construction makes this a somewhat uncharacteristic poem for Aragon, yet his technique is still that of association and accumulation rather than logical or rhetorical development. As in “Poem to Shout in the Ruins,” short syntactic units give the impression of spoken (indeed, in this poem, almost breathless) language. With an obsessiveness reminiscent of the earlier poem, the speaker worries over the flowering of the rose, which he fears will not bloom “this year” because of frost, drought, or “some subterranean sickness.” The poem has a clear dramatic structure: The tension of waiting builds steadily, with periodic breaks or breathing spaces marked by the one-line refrain “(de) la rose,” until the miraculous flowering takes place and is welcomed with a sort of prayer. The images that accumulate along the way, evoked by the poet in a kind of incantation designed to call forth the rose, are all subordinated to this central image of flowering, yet by their startling juxtaposition and suggestiveness, they clearly reflect Aragon’s Surrealist background. Thus, the dormant plant is compared to “a cross contradicting the tomb,” while two lines later its roots are “like an insinuating hand beneath the sheets caressing the sleeping thighs of winter.” The use of alliteration is excessive—as when six words beginning with gr- appear in the space of three lines—and although this serves to emphasize the incantatory quality of the verse, to hostile critics it may look like simple bad taste. Hubert Juin, a friendly critic, freely acknowledges that a certain kind of bad taste is evident in Aragon; he ascribes it to the poet’s “epic” orientation, his desire to include as much of the world as possile in his design, which precludes attention to every detail. It seems more to the point to recall that for the Surrealists, editing was a kind of dishonesty; by writing rapidly and not revising, they sought to lay bare what was most deeply buried in their psyches. What often saves Aragon from préciosité, or literary affectation, is the realism of this stream-of-consciousness technique. Caught up in the speaker’s own anxiety or fantasy, the reader does not stop to criticize the occasional banalities and lapses of taste; he follows in the poet’s wake, eager to see where the train of thought will lead.

The poignancy of “You Who Are the Rose,” as of so many of Aragon’s late poems, stems from the contrast between his exaggerated hopes—still virtually those of a young man—and the fact of old age, which threatens to deprive him of his wife and of his poetic voice. There is also, in some of his later work, a hint of sadness (although never of disillusionment) at the failure of Communism to fulfill its promise within his own lifetime. It is worth noting that in France the rose has long been associated with Socialist ideals; the poet’s fear for his wife in “You Who Are the Rose” may be doubled by a tacit fear that the promise of Marxism will not be fulfilled. The two fears are related, moreover, because Aragon saw the harmony between husband and wife as the hope of the future, the cornerstone of a just and happy (Communist) society. His anguish is that of the idealist who rejects the possibility of transcendence: His “divinity” is mortal, like him. This helps to account for the fact that he continued to write with undiminished passion until the very end of his life, for poetry held out the only prospect of immortality in which he believed. The rose is mortal, but she has a name, and the poet can conjure with it (as his conclusion emphasizes: “O rose who are your being and your name”). What is more, Elsa Triolet was herself a writer, and in the preface to an edition combining her own and her husband’s fiction, she described their mutually inspired work as the best possible memorial to their love. Aragon will probably be remembered primarily as the poet of Elsa—“Elsa’s Madman,” perhaps, in his anguished self-disclosure—but above all as Elsa’s troubadour, an ecstatic love poet who insists on the possibility of earthly happiness because he has tasted it himself.

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Aragon, Louis