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The Last Poems of Jules LaForgue

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

Introduction

1.

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.


2.

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.


3.

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.


4.

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.


5.

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.


6.

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 note 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 offer two poems as samples; the full translation is available in Last Poems of Jules LaForgue, from Nine Mile Books. https://www.ninemile.org/product-page/last-poems-of-jules-laforgue



I.  The Coming Of Winter


Sentimental blockade!  Steamships from the East! Rain!  Downpour of night! & wind!… 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.



III.    Sundays


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: Vae soli! 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…. Ah, Valkyries! 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.


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