Here are some things we think we know about Jules LaForgue (1860 – 1887), the great 19th century French poet whose outsized influence on many 20th century Modernist English and American poets remains in evidence on poets today in tone, voice, and image:
He was young—very young: He died of tuberculosis ether two days before or four days after his 27th birthday (sources disagree).
He never wrote in English. Those who discovered him, or were influenced by him, read him in French, or read each other’s translations of his work.
He did not have an extensive publication history while alive. The books of his poetry published in his lifetime were Les Complaintes, (“The Complaints”), and L’Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune (The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon), both in 1885, both hailed today as masterpieces. They are outshone for many readers by a posthumously published work, the more mature and fully realized Derniers Vers (Last Poems) (1890), translated here.
He came from a large but an oddly distant family: His mother died in 1876 while giving birth to a 12th child. LaForgue wrote that he barely knew her. He described his father as a man whom timidity had made hard. He did not attend his funeral.
He was employed well for a time before giving it up: From November 1881 until 1886, while still in his 20’s, he served as the French reader for the Empress Augusta, a well-paying job that left him plenty of free time to read and write and gave him opportunities for travel as the German court moved from Berlin to Baden-Baden and others cities depending on season.
He fell in love, and it changed everything: He left the court in 1886, risking the Empress’ displeasure, and married Leah Lee, an Englishwoman, about whom he said (meaning it as a compliment), “There are three sexes — the man, the woman, and the Englishwoman.” She may also have been the model for Andromede in his story, “Persee and Andromede.”
Settled love was short-lived for him: The marriage took place in London, in freezing weather on New Years Eve, 1886, after which the couple moved to France, living in extreme and apparently unexpected poverty. He died a year after the marriage, in 1887, of tuberculosis. His wife died the year after, of the same disease. She is said to have laughed hysterically at his funeral.
He was an innovator, one of the first French poets to write in free verse. The major poetic influence on him was Walt Whitman, whom he translated badly. His Whitman translations are said to be “poetic,” inaccurate, sometimes nonsensical. His major French influences were Baudelaire and Rimbaud.
He was a pessimist, a follower of Schopenhauer and Hartmann, horrified by pain, seeing the Universe as basically a mistake from which we must try to free ourselves. At the same time he seems to have believed that art, done right, can express the never-erring Unconscious, or inner being of the Universe, making such art a direct reflection of fundamental reality.
He believed that there was a link between chastity and truth, and a difference between woman and Woman. He thought women enslaved and enslaving, forced into that position by their treatment in society. (More on this below.)
His English was terrible. He could barely read it. He picked his way in translations word by word with a French-English dictionary, and the help of Leah Lee; neither provide much aid in conquering American idioms.
His examples in style, imagery, voice, and tone helped Eliot, Pound, and Crane find their voice, as Whitman, badly understood, helped him find his.
He thought the truth of the moment as valid as Eternal Truth, and indeed that concentration on the eternal distracted from actual experience. This aesthetic set him against high-flown rhetoric, in favor of the immediacy of slang and colloquialism, and in favor of an aesthetic that would be faithful to experience and opposed to transforming it into a category, into pre-described and accepted notions of wisdom or beauty. The marginal thus for him became philosophically the essential, the quip a sufficient and perhaps the only appropriate response to a brutal and brutalizing world.
His impact on other poets was profound. T.S. Eliot described his tutelage to LaForgue as a “sort of possession by a stronger personality,” and you can see the debt clearly in poems such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Portrait of a Lady,” and parts of “The Wasteland,” all of them inconceivable without the influence of LaForgue.
Pound called him “an angel with whom our modern poetic Jacob must struggle“ and “perhaps the most sophisticated of all the French poets.”
Crane read him in 1920, though he was likely exposed to him second hand, via Prufrock and Other Observations, as early as 1917. That 1920 date is the important one, though, since from October of that year until late January of the next, he wrote virtually no poetry. This was unusual. Something was changing for him, possibly spurred in part by his reading. The poem that he produced in February 1921, “Black Tambourine,” is really his first mature verse. He translated, loosely, three of LaForgue’s poems under the title “Locutions des Pierrots,” in a magazine called the Double Dealer: “Your eyes, those pools with soft rushes…” They were not good translations but were perhaps necessary ones. Later, Whitman became his muse, as he had been for LaForgue.
Eliot initially discovered LaForgue through a book, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, by Arthur Symons (E. P. Dutton & Company, 1919), an extended introduction to a series of French writers, from Balzac through Rimbaud. About LaForgue, Symons wrote:
Verse and prose are alike a kind of travesty, making subtle use of colloquialism, slang, neologism, technical terms, for their allusive, their factitious, their reflected meanings, with which one can play, very seriously. The verse is alert, troubled, swaying, deliberately uncertain, hating rhetoric so piously that it prefers, and finds its piquancy in, the ridiculously obvious. It is really vers libre, but at the same time correct verse, before vers libre had been invented. And it carries, as far as that theory has ever been carried, the theory which demands an instantaneous notation (Whistler, let us say) of the figure or landscape which one, has been accustomed to define with such rigorous exactitude. Verse, always elegant, is broken up into a kind of mockery of prose…..
Here, if ever, is modern verse, verse which dispenses with so many of the privileges of poetry, for an ideal quite of its own. It is, after all, a very self-conscious ideal, becoming artificial through its extreme naturalness; for in poetry it is not “natural” to say things quite so much in the manner of the moment, with however ironical an intention.
This was appealing to Eliot at the time, and necessary to his development as a poet. Later, he would say (in his Clark Lectures) of his one-time spiritual guide, that he was trapped by his “effusion of adolescent sentiment and he remained, for us, imprisoned within his own adolescence.” Even so, the influence remained life-long. You can see it in his work as late as in Four Quartets.
How bad was LaForgue’s English? Well, his Whitman translations were titled “Brins d’Herbes (Traduit de l’étonnant poëte américain Walt Whitman),” meaning literally “Blades of Grasses (Translated from the astonishing American poet, Walt Whitman).” Throughout there are phrases that make no sense in French.
But so what? LaForgue took from Whitman what he needed, not the same thing as taking all that Whitman had to offer, or the essential Whitman; perhaps he only ever read an invented poet named Whitman, that is, a poet invented through his bad translation but necessary to his own development: In other words, what he found, and needed, from Whitman, may not have been there at all.
No matter. What he created from his selective use of invented influences was different than what had gone before in French poetry. It was a new note, and one that translated well to the English of American writers who read him.
Here’s an interesting take on the relation between the two poets, an abstract of an article “The Body Poetic: Laforgue’s Translations of Whitman,” by Samuel Douglas Bootle, Dix-Neuf Vol. 20 , Iss. 1,2016:
This article explores Jules Laforgue’s 1886 translations of a selection of poems from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and their connections with his broader oeuvre through a thematic lens — that of corporeality. Both poets give a prominent role to embodiment, but there are significant disparities between their representations of bodily experience. Whitman’s treatment of sexuality is forthright, betraying the influence of contemporary scientific discourse, while Laforgue uses jocular periphrasis; Whitman tends to portray vigorously healthy bodies, while Laforgue’s poetry is riddled with illness and weakness. These differences are tied to their disparate conceptions of their roles as poets. Whitman sees his creative project as inherently political, his aesthetics being founded on the metaphorical equivalence between body, text, and nation; Laforgue, on the other hand, rejects this political role, focusing his attention on the suffering of the individual body. In contrast to Whitman’s expansiveness, then, Laforgue’s poetic self remains essentially bounded.
One might note that in contrast to Whitman, anyone’s poetic self would seem “essentially bounded.” I like the comparison, however, as the use of Whitman forces the more rigid and extreme statements of their differences. The overt can be helpful is shedding light where needed.
LaForgue’s treatment of women in his poems may be confusing at first, as he seems to be moving toward them and away, wanting and patronizing, courting and fleeing. His most interesting, and perhaps complete, expression of his feelings about the other sex is in Melanges posthumes (1901-3),
No, woman is not our brother; by forcing her into idleness and corrupting her, we have made her a being unknown and apart, possessing no weapon except her sex — which not only leads to perpetual warfare, but is also an unfair weapon — in adoration or in hatred, but never our frank companions, closing their ranks with esprit de corps in the freemasonry of their sex — but with the mistrustfulness of the eternal little slave. O young ladies, when will you be our brothers, our bosom friends, with no ulterior motive of exploitation! When shall we exchange an honest handshake!
This sense of desire and exasperation are present in the poems, along with his need to break free from existing morality and his sense of enslavement and the tragedy of that enslavement. They are all there as explicit or implicit self-dialogues throughout the Last Poems. His reaction to women, to sex, to relations, is never simple. It may even be regarded as rather forward-looking for his time, this notion of how society and culture corrupts the role of women and the relations between the sexes.
Published three years after LaForgue’s death, Derniers Vers (Last Poems) (1890) is considered the first volume of free verse in French poetry (excluding the prose poems of Aloysius Bertrand, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud). It is an odd mix of old and new—new technique, new images, new concentrations, of older themes, subjects, and ideas, for example, the quest-like seeking of the ideal in the figure of woman.
What is striking throughout the poems is their sense of spontaneity, almost of improvisation, the lines seeming to appear as they occur in the mind: This is not the “and then” construction of a story being told, but the semi-random sequence of the mind at work and play, always longing to be free, and sometimes managing it. As he says in one of the poems, “To arms, citizens! This has nothing to do with REASON.”
This is not quite Frank O’Hara-level spontaneous aesthetics, but as Gustave Kahn, a poet and friend of LaForgue, said of Last Poems, LaForgue sought to free himself of “every literary artifice of presentation” and this sequence of his Last Poems bears “the imprint of this strong desire to reproduce thought, to catch the heartbeat without ever sacrificing anything to symmetry or verbal redundancy.”
LaForgue spoke of this new style and of what he thought he had achieved in a letter to Kahn: “I forget about rhyme, forget about the numbers of syllables, I forget about the break-up of stanzas, my lines begin at the margin like prose. the old regular stanza comes back only when it can be in the form of a popular quatrain, etc.”
These poems have been called LaForgue’s last testament, a climax of sorts, and can be treated as related in their use and choice of images, for example, of the hunting horns, or of the church bells that occur throughout. The poems are about love (or Love), the quest for it, and its difficulties. There are the striking images of the girls in white moving at speed toward both infinity and innocence, of the passage of time, the end of a day being a death, of the sun. Death is an obsession throughout these poems of love, appearing in roles as Ennui or as the Moon. There are some places in these poems where he describes the process of his poem, as if he was thinking and writing it at the same time:
I’m on my back, smoking, facing the sky,
On the roof of the coach,
My body jolted as we go
But my soul dancing like Ariel;
Not sweet, not bitter, my lovely soul dances,
O roads, hills, smoke, valleys,
O my beautiful soul, let’s go over it all again:…
There is so much in these poems that is wonderful and strange — and much that now seems familiar, used as we all are to seeing versions of LaForgue’s voice and tone, his play of contradictions, absorbed in the work of others. Having all the last poems together may give a chance to experience the real strangeness and wonder of these.
I am indebted to other translations and other work in preparing these notes and poems: Jules LaForgue, Selected Poems (Penguin Books, 1998); Poems of Jules LaForgue, Trans. Patricia Terry (University of California Press, 1958); “Crane and LaForgue,” Warren Ramsey, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1950), pp. 439-449; “Moon Solo: The Last Poems of LaForgue,” William Jay Smith, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1956), pp. 444-458. All have been extremely helpful in thinking about this work. Very early on I had tremendous help from Linda Orr, Professor Emeritus of Romance Studies at Duke University; her comments made a great difference in my approach to the poems. Any errors here, as well as the mode of translation I have chosen, are entirely my fault and responsibility.
I should also include here a not on these translations: No poem is ever strictly “translated,” or even “transported” from one language to another. At best it is imitated, perhaps, sometimes closely, sometimes loosely. I have tried in these to give a sense of the work, and where a line our phrase admitted of more than one meaning for interpretation, I have tried to broaden the sense by including them. The original French of these poems is available in many places online, and readers will have their own sense of the poems after comparing these to the originals. These translations are meant to provide only a starting point into this work. I hope that they are helpful.
I. The Coming Of Winter
Sentimental blockade! Steamships from the East!
Rain! Downpour of night!
All Saints, Christmas & New Year’s, all of them passing,
& in the drizzle, my chimneys of home!…
My factory chimneys….
There’s nowhere to sit, all the benches are wet;
Listen, it’s all over till next year,
All the benches are wet, the woods are rust-colored,
The hunting-horns are lost to long sad songs.
You storms in from the channel,
You’ve spoiled our last Sunday.
The drizzle continues;
In the forests, the spiderwebs
Fall under the rain, they’re ruined.
You plenipotentiary suns that have swollen
The gold rivers of our great country fairs,
Where are you buried now?
Tonight I see one of you, a spent sun dying
Helpless at the top of the hill,
He lies on his side, among the flowers,
His great-cloak under him like a litter,
He’s white as spit on the barroom floor,
& he lies there as on the litter of a yellow broom,
On the yellow broom of autumn.
While the horns call to him,
They want him to return!….
To return to himself!
But listen! Listen! It’s the death-call!
O sad anthem, won’t you just play & be done with!…
O music, all gone crazy!
& he lies there like a gland ripped out of a throat,
& he shivers, without friends!….
Hurry, hurry, for it is the death-call!
It’s this winter we know so well that is coming now;
On the turnings of the high roads,
That’s no sweet innocence there,
No Little Red Riding Hood coming there!…
The rut-marks from last months’ carts are still in the road,
Rising up like rails, dream-like, quixotic,
Toward the fleeing patrols of the storm-clouds
That go where the wind drives them,
To sheepfolds above the Atlantic!….
Hurry, hurry, for we know this season so well, too well.
For tonight the wind has made such beautiful clouds!
O wreckage, O nests, O modest little gardens!
O my heart & my sleep: O echoes of hatchets!….
Green leaves still on the branches,
The underbrush no more than a heap of dead leaves;
Leaves, leaflets, let us pray that a good wind carries you
Swarming toward the pond,
Or to the fire of the gamekeeper,
Or into the mattresses of ambulances
For soldiers far from France.
It’s the season, the season, rust invades the masses,
Rust torments their little kilometric spleens,
The telegraph wires on the high roads where no one goes.
The horns, the horns—so sad!…
It is so sad!…
They are going, they are changing tone as they go,
They are changing their tone & their music,
The long sounds changing now,
The horns, the horns,
Voices gone on the North Wind.
But I cannot leave them, this poem, these sounds, these echoes!….
It’s the season, my season, good-bye grape-harvests,
Here come the rains with the vast patience of angels,
Goodbye grape-harvests, & good-bye baskets of the harvesters,
Goodbye lovely Watteau-like baskets
& skirts of the dancers under the chestnut trees,
Now is the time of coughing in high-school dormitories,
The time of medicinal tea before no familiar hearth,
Pulmonary consumption saddening the neighborhood,
The misery of all places where people live close together.
You, woolens, rubbers, medicine, dreams,
Parted curtains on balconies above the strand
Facing the ocean of roofs of the working-class suburbs,
Lamps, prints, tea, petits-four,
You will be my only loves!….
(O, & have you seen these, here beside the piano,
The sober & church-like mysteries
Of the sanitation statistics from our weekly journals?)
No! No! It is the season & the strange planet.
May the storm, the storm
Unravel Time’s shoddy knit slippers!
It is the season, O tearing! O heartbreak, the season!
Every year for all my years,
Let me try to give its true choruses, & its rightful voice.
II. The Mystery Of The Three Horns
On the plain a horn
Blown long till breath is gone,
Another, from the forest’s heart,
The one chants its own song
To the neighboring woods,
The other its responding song
To the echoing hills.
The one on the plain
Felt the veins on its its forehead
In the grove the other
Saved the best of its power
Till a later time.
—Where are you hiding,
My beautiful horn?
You’re really wicked!
—I’m looking for my love,
Down there, calling me
To watch the setting sun.
—I hear you! I love you!
—To be in love, yes, that’s very sweet;
But look: There’s the sun killing itself, right in front of you!
The sun puts off its pontifical stole,
Loosens the locks,
& a thousand rivers
Drain through the under-sky,
Rekindling in the windows
Of artistic liquor-dealers
In a hundred bottles of exotic vitriol!….
& the pond, bloody, suddenly opening, spread-out,
& the mares of the sun’s chariot drowning there,
Rearing, splashing, finally settling
In a deluge of industrial ash & alcohol!….
The hard sands & cinders of the horizon
Are quick to absorb that display of a poisons.
Yes this is it,
The song the song the song of their glories!….
Suddenly the dismayed horns
Find themselves nose to nose;
They are three!
The wind rises, it’s suddenly cold.
Can’t you hear the song, the song of their glories!….
Linking arms everyone goes
Back to their homes,
—“Can’t we stop somewhere
For a drink first?”
Poor horns! Poor horns!
How bitter their laughter became.
(I hear them still).
The next day, the hostess at the Grand-St.-Hubert
Found them, all three of them, dead.
So someone went & got the authorities
Of that locality
Who began an investigation into the history
Of this very immoral mystery.
My original plan was to say just once but extremely well, “I Love You,”
But I couldn’t say it without pain,
I have no patience for such self-possession.
(C’mon, Self, this is all just Galatea dazzling Pygmalion again;
Some things never change).
So what then, you poor pale pitiful Self,
Who never believes in yourself
Except for in a few lost moments,
I see how your love disappears,
Yes I see exactly how it disappears,
Carried off by the flow of things, I see it
The way thorns see petals fall
From their best roses under pretext of night.
This is the anniversary night of the failed good Love,
When all the Valkyries of the wind
Come back roaring under the crack of my door:
What’s it mean?
It stuns me, I stagger around!
(Maybe it should have stunned me before)….
Too late! Any hope for madness is quite gone now.
Yes, ok, but what’s it mean, Vae soli!
Sad. Because I know: It won’t be found again. (Another good- bye).
Then the great wind gets suddenly quiet, gets dignified,
Dressed in its Sunday best under the beautiful morning sky.
Go ahead, announce it,
Do it with a thousand bells, for it’s the Sunday of our goodness.
Put on the diapers & the stiff collars & white dresses,
Think of yourselves walking under the rustling of lavender & thyme,
Toward the incense & just-baked cakes!
All this for the family! This! Vae soli!
Yes, we know it, it’s what counts ….
The young girl with her ivory prayer-book
Modestly enters her house again.
I see her, that little body made innocent again,
& it pleases me, knowing she is part of
A whole other past that’s not mine!
But what about my body, my own poor little sister,
It has an ache in its tough-minded soul….
Here that old piano
Begins in me again, trying to find some tune to keep birthdays going,
& the heart, ignorant of its own foolish stammerings
In the burlesque of low dance-halls you have come to,
& your poor flesh, which has committed every sin,
Hurting itself again & again….
Valkyries of hypochondria, & of real slaughter!
I confess it, I disfigured you with pleasure,
O my jewel of a body, O my true pure tenor’s heart,
How often you have tried to make me do right,
Speaking out to me in a rage,
In fact speaking out with rage enough for two.
(If only you had wanted to be a little like the others afterward.)
No, no! It is the sweetness of the body surrounded by one chosen heart,
Adored by these incurable organs of ours, look at them,
They want to visit one another, to be this close then fade,
They are monomaniacs, they want to be like two recluses huddled together.
But really, it is not the body. I have perfect self-control.
It is not that I possess such a great heart for some woman either.
But there are other things, madnesses that come suddenly
In the history of relationships!
(I have already forgotten her).
Ah, soul & body, body & soul—
Look at them, everywhere, these spirits Edenic & proud
Of being, for a little while, a man with a woman.
But wait a minute. Let’s be a little careful about this.
It’s already like taking a serious blow to the head.
Put away that old complaining spinning-wheel song, pray & stay honest.
Do what’s right.
—Think of yourself for a change, you, least of the poets.
Always shut up like this, you’ll get sick.
Look: the weather is lovely, there’s a whole world out there, waiting, undiscovered, unexplored, all yours.
Go & buy not one, but two hellbores, those
Classical purges for madness, & try & take a little walk.
It is autumn, autumn, the autumn
Of the great wind & its full sequel
Of reprisals! & falling musics….
Of curtains drawn, annual closings,
The falling of leaves & old prints, of Antigones & Philomelas!
My gravedigger: Alas, poor Yorick!
Who then turns a few well-chosen spadefulls….
Long Live Love, & all other short blazes!….
The young girls so inviolable & so fragile
Walk down toward the little chapel
While the chimerical bells
Of this lovely lovely Sunday
That is so hygienic & elegant call to them.
As if everything were perfect around them!
As if everything were Sunday!
As if you could be so hard & sullen at their approach….
But yes, that’s me alright. I’m the Great White Polar Bear,
I walk out on the ice-floes that are more pure
Than even these little communicants in their whites….
Yes that’s me, who does not go to church,
Who is the Grand Chancellor of Analysis,
Who is (why fight it?) whatever anyone says I am.
I say so, & yet—& yet what is there about all this that is so anemic?
C’mon, tell your problems to an old friend….
Really? Really & truly?
So then I turn toward the sea, the elements,
All that is part of the vast black grumbling around us….
Yes, this is the real sacred!
It gives us everything we need (whether we ask for it or not).
It gives us an enormous roaring insomnia!
But how poor the colors of these attractions are….
But us, what about us,
Drunk, drunk to the gills with astonishment,
So astonished that one of us is on his knees even now!….
Think how we trembled
That first grand night
When in the pure blossom of despair
We suddenly wanted only to die together!
O poor burning martyred miracle,
Where do you hide now!
Miracle one does not even attempt to touch
Except in this blinding, divine delirium.
Yes you, miracle, I’m speaking to you,
You must stay hidden, like some violet-colored ideal,
The Universe sleepless because of you,
The generations of planets already at your breast like infants,
The funerals beginning, & the long days of church-going with all the other women.
But all this is really much higher
Than even God & even than this thought!
Truthfully, nothing holds me anymore but those sweet eyes on high,
Totally unconscious, full of the deep colors of real thought,
So frail, so fragile,
& all the mortal atoms waiting,
All, all that living womb & hearth in her….
O pardon her if, in spite of herself,
In spite of everything that maybe is good for her,
Sometimes her eyes half-shut, just a little,
As if to ask you, just a little,
Just to move you to pity her a little.
She is so frail, so fragile, & always giving herself
To these masses, until the act itself seems a kind of game,
She turns her head slightly toward you, come,
Look at these bunches of first violets,
& her eyes are downcast & her head tilts back toward you….
O innocence, it is not the restlessness of conquests with me, not any more,
But a genuine interest in the Afterlife.
O if we could only leave this life
Together, now, during High Mass,
Sickened as we are by our own species,
Which even now yawns, glutted & farting,
At the very doors….
Absolute love: crossroads without a single fountain.
But at every turn, the dizzying fury of fairgrounds & holidays.
No one is free,
Everyone stands around with their hands on their hips:
Everywhere, love changes hands simply & with about as much real commitment & belief
As people show when saying “Good Morning” to each other.
The bouquet of orange-blossoms, armor-plated in satin,
Is fading, it is fading,
The rose-colored windows of the church
That have seen so many weddings served up by the fat woman of circumstance,
As couples begin the great waltz, rushing toward the common grave…. Such a sad race!
Nothing is left, everything is compromised;
Nothing remains, everything is permitted.
And yet on these nights you come to me, you Circes,
Dark-hooded figures to your Titus,
Enormous grief showing in your eyes like a real thought!
I want you to pass,
Venus after Venus, all beautiful,
Lips open, smiles so broad that the gums show, like dead royalty,
Stretching & yawning in your drowsiness, arms lifted to the sun,
& the air filled with the huge sound of cicadas.
Then suddenly taking on the tall violet-color of poppies,
As if some domestic sacrilege had been committed,
Raising a forefinger: Silence!
They pass, they pass, they have the eyes of virgins,
Eyes with the blue-tints of sun-dials,
You can hear the hour of desire strike for them,
The hour kept safe for them, for the Eternal Female,
The hour of their immortality.
At the first word
Their eyes will half-close,
They will seem to swoon, there will be singing,
& the virgins will come, in their flowered robes,
That will not have real flowers on them, but only flowers
Of the skin, as if their nerves had penetrated right there, through everything,
But their destiny, O Lord, is to get in the way of everything.
O history of slaves!
Look at their little rooms!
You can almost watch them descend
Toward the next stage, going down floor by floor,
The sophistication of feeling welling up in them until they reach the cellar
(Talk about mixing good food with bad!),
Where they are watched over by the least likely guardian angel of good housekeeping!
Then comes the great suicide, the cold soullessness sets in,
The enormous Amen is said, & there is nothing feminine in it,
& the vacancy begins, the time of secrets & superiority sets in,
It comes with this eternal distraught air,
A grand manner of saying, “For what?
Speak to me! What is it for? What is there more than this?”
My God, it is the whole ideal of becoming angels
That has stripped them of their wings & halos!
If only the Ideal had stripped them of these angel roles instead!
If only a woman could accept a man as an equal,
If only the Ideal could be banished forever from their eyes,
If only we could get down to real human exchanges,
& become true brothers & sisters in the heart,
If only the whole notion of lovers & fiancees could be totally passe,
& we could be united for eternity,
With simple, human, infinite exchanges of love
Filling our days to the end of our days,
Our arms taking equally whatever is offered,
& the love-drums & the love-trumpets
Sounding a retreat from this current war,
So that when we walked out, there on the steps before each house
We would toast the health of all the old bad dead years
& we would feel no regrets,
There would be a new knowledge of things covering all of our part of the country,
An entirely new & different song that at first would be only regional perhaps,
But it could spread,
& since this is the only world we’re going to be able to live in,
The only one we have ever lived in,
Come, my friends, let us try that new song, let us at least try.
VI. Simple Agony
O pariah!—& here they come again, those May-feelings.
You just want to go on repeating yourself, it’s shameful.
You’re all filled up with yourself, a pod that never burst.
You know very well what it means to be like this,
Caught up in the pride of your own strength, pariah,
Just as you know that it is not everything.
Prophecy of the instant when we are completely alone
With our true natures—& song, my song,
You are everything & you are unique, ascending again & again
Into the night-sky, doing everything you can,
Speaking of things as they really are,
Falling, then recovering
Making something completely new of the pain inflicted,
Traveling alone among huge crying,
Recovering, then falling,
According to the tasks which are incumbent upon you to fulfill.
O may this music of mine
Be crucified, sacrificed,
Like in some old religious photograph
Leaning back on the posts, head in hands, & so sad….
I’m going to find other themes,
Themes more mortal & more sublime.
O hell, given a world like this one
I’m going to make myself a world more human.
The souls in my world will be made of pure music,
& all these puerile carnal interests that occupy us now,
This long fanfare of nights,
Will be recognized as what they are: barbarism,
Acts wholly without hope.
Will be the only festivals…
Who’s going to stop me?
On my bed I pile up all the scandal sheets, dirty underwear,
Fashion designs, all kinds of photographs,
All the best, everything that makes Paris Paris,
Until this is a regular womb of society.
Such a nothingness gathered here,
& even if no one intercedes & no protest is ever spoken,
It will never be enough,
Because there is only one thing that offers hope for cure,
& that is to destroy everything.
O fanfares of all the nights!
All that barbarism,
All these goings-on without hope,
In vain we’ll stamp our feet,
But we’ll never be more cruel than life,
There will always be animals unjustly beaten
& women never beautiful enough….
What nothingness is gathered here,
Let no one try to stop us,
For we must destroy everything.
Rejoice, Earthly Pariah.
You will go on, without hope.
You will see dawn come down to the night
When to have nothing is to have everything,
Because there’s always a little more more
When nothing’s left,
There, at the end, when dawn comes down to the night.
Rejoice, Pariah of this world!
The artistic ones
Keep saying, “Really, all this just comes too late.”
It’s not reasonable
To press so hard toward this ending.
To arms, citizens! This has nothing to do with REASON.
He caught at cold the end of autumn,
Hanging behind the pain of those horns
At the end of a beautiful day.
It happened because of the horns,
& because of the beautiful days of autumn,
He showed us what it means to die for love,
& one day perhaps we’ll wake up too
& be just like the others, lovers of death,
No one will observe the national holidays anymore,
Everyone will be locked in history & drawing the bolt,
It’s all going to happen soon, & so I say this with no desire to hurt:
All of you who can hear me now, go home, & hide.
VII. Alone With Moonlight
I’m on my back, smoking, facing the sky,
On the roof of the coach,
My body jolted as we go
But my soul dancing like Ariel;
Not sweet, not bitter, my lovely soul dances,
O roads, hills, smoke, valleys,
O my beautiful soul, let’s go over it all again:
We loved each other crazily, she & I,
& parted wordlessly,
My temper, the way I am, kept me exiled,
My temper that was roused by everything. Just so.
Her eyes asked, “Do you understand?
But why don’t you understand?”
But neither of us would ever take that first step,
The idea was, we had to fall to our knees together
At the exact same instant. (Do you understand?)
Where is she now?
Maybe she’s crying…
Where is she now?
O take care of yourself, I beg you.
O coolness of the woods along this route,
This shawl of melancholy, the soul’s guardedness
That never quite abandons us—
Everyone feels it, but how much those others ask
Of my life! How jealous they must be!
For here I am & the roof of this coach is magical.
Let’s pile up all the irreparable things in one place!
Let’s do better than our fates ever expected or allowed!
There are more stars tonight than the sand
Of seas where others may have seen her body as she bathes;
But you know, it doesn’t matter, not in the end,
For everything moves toward Death,
There’s no safe haven.
Years will pass,
We’ll all grow harder, each of us separate from the other,
& often say to ourselves (I already see myself doing it),
“If only I’d known…” or even married say, “If only I’d know, if only…”
O cursed rendezvous, O heart grown sterile…
I’ve behaved badly.
Maniacs for happiness, wanting so much,
What shall we do? I with my soul,
She with her fallible youth!
O aging sinner,
How many nights I’ll be untrue to myself
From now on, in your honor!
Her eyes winked, “Do you understand?
But why don’t you understand?”
But neither of us could take that first step
To fall to our knees together. Ah!….
The Moon is rising.
O high road of the great lost dreams….
We’ve passed the cotton mills, the saw mils,
There’s nothing out there now but the milestone markers,
Like little clouds of confectioner’s rose,
While the slender crescent of the moon rises,
O road of dreams, O music that never was….
In this pine wood that has been dark forever
How many clean deep hidden bedrooms!
O for an evening’s elopement there!
Already I see myself there,
There are lovers, I can see them together, a beautiful pair,
Gesturing toward each other, lawless, wild gestures.
& I pass & leave them behind,
& lie down facing the sky,
& the road turns, & I am Ariel,
& no one waits for me, I am going nowhere,
I have only the sad friendship of hotel rooms.
The Moon rises,
O high road of great dreams,
O road without end,
Here is the Inn
Where they light the lanterns,
& we paused to drink a glass of milk,
& then begin again,
With the sounds of the crickets all around,
Under the stars of July.
O light of the Moon,
Bengal lights, like the fire of weddings
Drowning my misfortunes,
Shadows of poplars along the route…
The listening mountain stream
Is singing, & listening to itself singing…
In these floodings of the river of death…
Alone in the moonlight,
Challenging me to write,
O this night of the road,
O stars, terrifying, so many,
O quickly-passing hour,
O if there was something to hold
Against the coming autumn….
It’s become cold, very cold,
What if at this hour
She too was traveling through forests
To drown her unhappiness
In these moonlight visions…
I know her, how she loves to stay out late—
I can imagine how she’ll have forgotten her scarf,
& she’ll catch cold, lost in the beauty if the hour,
Look after yourself, I beg you,
I can’t bear to hear that cough…
Why didn’t I fall at your knees when I had the chance!
Why didn’t you faint at my knees when you had the chance!
I’d have been the perfect husband, I know it,
Perfect in exactly the way that the rustle of your dress
Moving through the night is perfect.
Heraldries of anemia!
Psalter of autumn!
Offertory chalice in which I have placed all my happiness & spirit
For a sacrifice to something so feminine
With that little dry cough, unknown,
Seen on these days when everything is completely deserted,
Held-down, ash-gray, loneliness mounted
Like a jewel on a dressing table,
In which we can already detect the final coming of winter
Fleeing past the superhuman cries of the sea.
Yes. Grand passions, terrific stories of love: but then what?…
More of the same: lips with no particular shape,
Autumn lips, deflowered lips, fading, fading,
& although pretty much dead to all love-songs,
Still hungry & bitter at the hunt,
But those eyes—they are the eyes of someone good & beautiful
But utterly closed in, as if locked in a cloister.
Finally she honors me with her confidences.
These hurt me more than she thinks.
“But my most darling, given your enlightened spirit,
Given the marvelous steel stilettos of those infallible eyes,
Given all that, on that cold & miserable day, how could you not see through
That complete & total low-budget fop?”
“He came first; I was alone near the fireplace;
His horse, tied to the front gate,
Sounded so desperately, like a lost soul…”
“Yes. That’s touching (poor girl).
Wait. Look. Right there. That sunset epilogue come just in time for bed.
Have you noticed lately that when it is autumn, it is, I mean, really autumn?
Which are abandoned now,
Put away their pianos;
Yesterday, the orchestra ravaged
Its last polka,
Yesterday the final fanfare
Sobbed all the way to the railroad station…”
(Oh! But she is so thin!
What is she doing to herself?
Clots of memory!)
“Let’s go, the telephone poles
In their gray exile
Will serve as your funeral mourners;
As for me, this is the season that makes me want to get out of here,
For already winter is coming.
So ok. Take care of yourself. Keep well.
You’re the one who started all this!
“Silence! The least blink of your eye is a great lie
Stop! With people like you nothing is forever.
Really, let me assure you,
I could only love you on a bet, & I have doubts about even that!
“Silence! Shut up!
You only love once.”
Good. Now she must have a final reckoning with me.
But look—it’s not autumn anymore, therefore
The exile is over.
Now begins the sweetness of all the legends, the age of gold,
The legends of all Antigones.
They come with a sweetness that makes you want to ask,
“Did all that really happen? When?”
Yes, it’s all legends, it’s the lost pearls of the piano keys
That taught me as a child,
It’s nothing, it’s what we heard about, it’s those beautiful prints
& the beasts of the earth & the birds of the air
Garlanded into the capital letters of a religious Missal;
& really, there’s not enough there to make you bleed when all is said & done?
Bleed? Me?—The one moulded from the purest slime of the Cybele,
Made to be everything that the art of all the Adams
Of all the Edens ever promised, as faithful to her
As the sun is to the farthest western horizon….
O if that one, one night, would come to me, freely,
Seeking only the chance to drink at my lips, or die…
O baptism of my whole reason for being!
To give birth to one good “I Love you!”
& then travel past men & gods
Under my window,
All of them lowering their eyes.
If it would come like lightning to a magnet,
Then my sky of storms would crack & open,
& the sudden showers of light would begin & last into the dawn
& there would be enormous thunder & sudden showers all night long!
That’s the end I want!
If only she would come! & lowering her eyes
& wiping her feet
At the threshold of our church, O ancestors,
Ministers of Compassion,
“To me, you are not like other men,
They’re only men, you have come from the skies.
Your lips make me lower my eyes
Your whole bearing carries me away
& I hold these treasures for myself! They are mine!
I know perfectly well that my destiny is now bound up in yours
(Yes, I have already adjusted to that fact)
To following you until you turn around, toward me
& I can tell you the beautiful truth about yourself!
“Truly, I do not think about the rest; I will wait
With all the tenderness of a life made purposeful especially for this.
“But I must tell you also that I cry at night,
That my sisters are really afraid I will die.
“I weep alone in corners, I have no interest in anything,
You have no idea how much I cried last Sunday, behind my prayer-book.
“You ask me why it’s you & not another,
Just believe me, it’s you & not another.
“I know this as well as I know the empty madness of my heart,
Or as I know that terrible mockery of yours.”
So she would come, a fugitive having escaped from something else, half-dead now,
To writhe on the mat that I placed for just that purpose at my door
& she would come to me with those eyes that are absolutely mad
& she would follow me with those eyes, everywhere, everywhere!
O diaphanous geraniums, magical street-warriors & enchantments,
Excitements, lewdness, douches! O wine-presses
Of certain truly terrific nights!
Diapers & barking,
Thyrsi in the deep woods!
Getting up again, cold compresses & endless potions,
Angelus! Complete loss of will
From nuptial debacles! & nuptial debacles!….
& then, O my loves,
Everything in her days is for me,
O my little mine, O my quotidian,
In my little interior world,
& I mean it—for it is nowhere else!
O my little quotidian….
Then what? O some genius,
Improvisations & insomnias!
Then? The one who watches everything,
The dreamer in the corner:
“How far she is from me! How beautiful!
Who is she? Whose is she?
O beautiful stranger! To speak to her! To take her away!”
(& actually, when the ball is done & the music ends,
She’d follow me away in a simply pure & predestined way.)
& then I would avoid her for weeks,
After having hurt her seriously,
& then give her a time to meet again,
& make up, & begin playing our house-games again.
& then lose her for months & months
Until I can no longer recognize even her voice!….
Yes Time corrupts everything,
But doesn’t get rid of anything!
& then, no longer able to wander,
Hypochondria & rain,
Alone under ancient skies,
Playing the fool
Without a fire or a place for it
(Poor poor fool without love)
& then I have to fall very low
To purify this flesh of mine
Exulting at dawn
Fleeing from myself on some train
O Belles-Lettres, O Beaux-Arts,
Like an angel apart from the others
I shall have spent my life on railroad platforms
Ready to leave
Like some character in a disastrous story
& all for love,
All because my heart is crazy for the real glories of love.
How picturesque these missed trains are….
Always I hear, “See you soon! See you real soon!”
I think of boats
At the end of the jetty….
& of jetties so perfectly constructed
Against the sea
XI. On The Defunct Thing
You don’t love me anymore,
Wouldn’t love me anymore,
There’s no more between us
Than a fraternal occasion!…
—Ah, she doesn’t love me!
Because she would not take even that first step
That would have let us fall together at each other’s feet.
But if she had met
A, B, C, or D instead of me
She’d have loved them well enough.
I see it, I can see them…
Listen! I see her
With the noble A, B, C, or D,
She was born for each of them,
It’s him, whoever & whichever he it is,
She reflects him, as she should,
She’s in rare form, in a perfect gesture
She shakes her head & says with a little laugh,
That nothing can stop or change
This astounding destiny from her.
It’s him, & she tells him,
“O your eyes, your walk!
O the incredible sound of your voice!
How long I’ve sought you!
O it’s you, really you, & so good that you have come like this…”
He turns the light down a little,
He bends her toward his heart,
He kisses her temple,
& at the place of her orphan heart…
He lulls her to sleep with his sad kisses,
He moves her almost to pity with his little love-talk,
He has some serious motives in all this,
He speaks of Destiny,
He swears by everything that exists,
& then, the fatal hour sounds.
Perhaps I am outside during all this,
Wandering nowhere in particular with her in my heart
At how dark her windows are.
Or she is at his house, where she feels at home,
& as we’ve seen, she loves him, with a wild fidelity,
With all the beauty of her nights….
I have seen them! This is more than I can take.
She has this air of great great fidelity
With her huge eyes shining so brightly
In a face made wholly new by all this.
I’d never be anything but a last resort.
Never anything but second best,
Like my day in Time
My place in Space
& I couldn’t settle
For that kind of depravity!…
No! No! With her it’s all or nothing!
& so I’ll go off like a fool
Striding though the autumn
With its high wind that says everything!
I’ll tell myself, “O this time
She is very distant, she weeps,
The great autumn wind weeps also.”
& I am alone at home,
& my noble heart is chilled,
& I am without love, & without anyone,
Because everything is misery everything is autumn,
Everything is hard & without mercy.
But if I could have loved you the way you wanted
You would have thought that the highest good:
Sure. Right. No thanks!
Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I myself am indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things, that it were better that my mother had not borne me. We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. — Hamlet
Black north wind, howling downpour,
& black river, closed-up houses,
& parts of town sinister as Morgues,
& someone alone, late for something, bringing with him
All the misery of the heart & of everything,
& the innocence that has been dirtied by coming here
& that now cries to the storm: “Oh? Water, yes, for my heart
Which is burning so, for my flesh which so obsesses me!”
O she who is my heart & my flesh, what is she doing?….
If she is out in this vile weather
From what too-human adventures is she returning?
& if she is inside,
Unable to sleep because of the great wind,
Is she thinking on Happiness,
That kind of happiness that can come at any price,
& saying: “Anything O anything, rather than let my heart
Still be so misunderstood?”
Be careful, be careful poor desperate heart.
(Languor, debilitations, palpitations, tears,
This miserable wish to be my wife!)
O motherland, O family!
& the soul turned away
From really heroic destinies
Beyond those even of the old maids
& that’s it, all over for this year!
Black night, closed houses, great wind,
Yes, to a nunnery, to a nunnery!
A convent in my native village,
A lovely place of hardly 20,000 people,
Standing between the school & the prefect’s offices,
& facing the cathedral
With anonymous women in gray robes
Always in prayer, at housework, or sewing;
& that’s enough for them….
& to scorn without envy
All that’s not part of this life
Of a Virgin of the Provinces,
& to walk always with a cold indifferent air
& lowered eyes.
O but I don’t want to see you in this scene
That would be so fatal to your real life,
& how you face looks so wretched behind the closed doors,
& your poor sad little indistinct gestures,
Until you grow perhaps incapable even of weeping.
But it won’t happen & cannot be
Because you are not like the others
Shrinking back behind the curtains
When the bedtime sun wallows in the sunset of its own blood!
O you are not old enough,
Promise that you’ll never be old enough,
Promise to stay exactly like the real image of yourself, good as gold….
The night is forever black,
The wind is sad almost beyond comprehension,
& everything tells an old story,
That there must always be two before the chimney fire,
The story of couples,
& that everything must be secure in the house, cobbled together in a fatalistic hymn!
But you—don’t give in
To these games, they are so vile…
Or to the great pity of November!
Stay in your little room,
Or go, with a cold & indifferent air,
Your lovely eyes
But she is out there, where the night is so endlessly black,
This life is one deadening dizzying circus!
All acts are creature-acts, everything is mere habit,
Without any real meaning!
The only sure thing is, we shall all die.
But if I am to love these stories
Behind the orphan heroine’s beautiful eyes,
Nature, give me the strength & the courage
To believe that I’m old enough
Nature, let me face the truth,
Lift up my head,
Since, sooner or later, we shall all die….