The Last Poems of Jules LaForgue

Updated: Jul 23

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-