Although Jules Laforgue’s span of creative activity was tragically brief (about nine years), his poetry attests a prolific and versatile innovator. His artistic evolution carried him from the traditional Alexandrines and somewhat oratorical poems of the posthumous Le Sanglot de la terre, written between 1878 and 1882, to experimentation with the rhythm and mood of chansons populaires in Les Complaintes and, finally, to culmination in Les Derniers Vers de Jules Laforgue. Here Laforgue made frequent use of free verse and of what he himself described as psychology in dream form presented in melodic and rhythmic patterns of verse.
“Funeral March for the Death of the Earth,” the most celebrated of the poems in Le Sanglot de la terre, reveals a young poet who is not afraid to indulge in an uninhibited display of his personal views and to capitulate to a rather bleak pessimism concerning the state of the universe. The poet’s cries of despair as he bombastically depicts the horrors of civilization and the corpse of the earth are rarely muted, as they are in succeeding works. Certain lines (“The nocturnal silence of echoless calm,/ Floats, an immense and solitary wreck”) are reminiscent of Charles Baudelaire, the precursor of Symbolist poetry whose spell and sphere of influence were ubiquitous in the late nineteenth century.
One of the most distinctive qualities of Laforgue’s own personal manner is effective in Les Complaintes: The poet cultivates a witty and mocking detachment as an antidote to the blunt expression of personal feelings. The theme of death recurs often in Laforgue’s poetry, but it is not personified as a sinister figure in “Complaint About Forgetting the Dead”; Laforguian irony changes death into the “good gravedigger” who scratches at the door. If you refuse to welcome him,
If you can’t be polite,He’ll come (but not in spite)and drag you by your feetInto some moonlit night!
The “complaints,” named for a folk-song style that the poet imitates, also reveal a flair for inventing humorous anecdotes and dialogues couched in colloquial language; a case in point is the “Complaint of the Outraged Husband,” an amusing conversation in verse form between an irate husband, who insists he saw his wife flirting with an officer in church, and his wife, who maintains with injured innocence that she was piously conversing with a “life-size Christ.”
A predilection for creating a cast of characters and for dramatizing experience remains a permanent characteristic of Laforgue’s style; it reappears most notably in 1886 in the form of a verse drama titled Le Concile féerique (The Faerie Council). This work, which again demonstrates the poet’s preference for depersonalized expression of his sentiments, places onstage the Gentleman, who bemoans the indifference of the cosmos and the tedium of existence, and the Lady, who offers her charms as a cure for his ennui. The subject is typically Laforguian: Love is...
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