Tristan Corbière was born in Brittany in 1845 and died there thirty years later. He knew illness throughout his life, and it prevented him from completing his formal education. In a land of seafarers, he was acutely conscious of his physical debility. Corbière’s exacerbated sensibility is a major part of his outstanding originality. In his poems, the image that he presents of himself is never flattering. Indeed, Corbière seems greatly to have exaggerated his unattractive appearance.
Most of Corbière’s poetic production is grouped in the collection titled, in the original, Les Amours jaunes—literally, “yellow loves” or “off-color loves.” This collection, first published in 1873, went almost unnoticed. The title can scarcely be fully explained, for it seems to involve a characteristic, deliberate attempt at obfuscating originality on the part of the poet. The title may seem appropriate, however, after a reading of the pieces it covers; in fact many of the poems in the collection might be considered the product of a sickly or jaundiced view of the world.
“That,” the title of the first section of These Jaundiced Loves, offers little help to those seeking a thematic unity within the group. The title is also that of the first piece in the section. The poet frames a negative answer to the questions put to him about his art by an interlocutor. The dialogue is brought to a close by the poet, who says, “Art does not know me, and I don’t know Art.” This should not be interpreted as a declaration of ignorance on the part of an unlettered provincial. Corbière seems to have been sufficiently aware of France’s nineteenth century poets to have borrowed from some—Charles Baudelaire in particular—where it suited him, and to castigate others, notably Alphonse de Lamartine and Alfred de Musset. Rather, it might be useful to evoke the idea of an opposition between literature and art on one hand and poetry and life on the other, for what Corbière’s originality causes his poetry to lose in technical value it causes it to gain in vitality, color, relief, and strength. If Corbière’s poems seem to step outside any framework of definition, so, one is tempted to add, does life.
Corbière lived for some time in Paris, and the first section of his collection contains a sonnet sequence describing the impressions made upon him by the city. The number of writers who have contributed to the evolution of the myth of the French capital as a tentacular city seizing and devouring its unfortunate victims is great. Corbière adds his name to this company.
A poem that is on occasion included with the eight Parisian sonnets in the first chapter is titled “Paris at Night.” Certain aspects of the poem recall the “Parisian Tableaux” in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931). Like Baudelaire, Corbière evokes sinister scenes and characters and frenetic activity, while sickness and death seem to hover over the poem. “Paris at Night” and others like it remain strikingly original. In the metropolis, the Breton is reminded of home, of the sea he knows well; the comparison of the city to the sea is strange, but not forced: “It’s the sea,—a flat calm.—And the great tide/ With a far-off roar has withdrawn.” Even where the poem moves from general description to closer perspectives, Corbière’s sustained use of maritime imagery remains peculiarly appropriate: “The waves will soon come rumbling back in./ Can you hear the crabs scratching about in the dark?” “Paris at Night” illustrates some of the finer aspects of Corbière’s technique. As is the case in many others of his poems, the imagery is powerful, even shocking. There is, moreover, an element of deliberate ambiguity that leaves questions in readers’ minds. Above all, the poem becomes for readers a form of adventure on which they embark with the poet; readers are involved in the discovery of a world that unfolds before them while retaining its mystery.
Corbière’s use of irony has been much discussed. Irony generally implies the presentation of two points of view or more, the offering of landmarks, as it were, from which readers may establish proper perspective. Corbière’s approaches to irony are numerous, but they are closely related to one another. At the most basic level, the poet makes considerable use of...
(The entire section is 1806 words.)