Edward Dowden

 

 

On some French Writers of Verse, 1830-1877.

 

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THÉOPHILE GAUTIER writing about ten years ago, compared the reader of contemporary French poetry to a wanderer at spring-time in a wood:— "In the grass, trodden by few feet, a slender path is discovered; we follow its first windings; upon its edges, below the oaks and half hidden under last autumn's withered leaves, we divine by a dim perfume the presence of violets. From among the branches, through which the wind moves with a vague murmur, we hear the song of an invisible bird. It flies at our approach to gain a remoter covert with sudden stroke of wings. We pluck a few violets, and muse on the song of the bird, and go forward. But presently the little wood changes to a forest; glades open, carpeted with grass; rivulets babble around mossy stones, or lie in rocky basins into which the deer gazes at his mirrored form. The violets become less shy, and offer themselves to the hand that gathers. Our tiny nosegay grows to a sheaf with added lily of the valley, the wilding rose, and all the tangled bloom of the woods. From trees, shrubs, thickets, from the forest depths, rise a thousand voices, which ring together — finches, redbreasts, the titmouse, the thrush, the blackbird — while in hurried notes noisier than the rest some jays and magpies jargon, flinging down their dissonance in midst of the general harmony." *

It must he confessed, however, that if the singing birds are many, there are few of sovereign note, and that rarely is any supreme song audible which makes for itself a central space of silence. The contemporary poets of France, setting apart Victor Hugo, are each like one faculty or one fragment of a great poet. We feel how absurd it would be to expect from any writer of their kind a modern Divine Comedy, a poem rendering into imaginative form all science, all theology, the best contemporary tendencies of art, the most fervid political passion, the most exalted human love, the clearest vision of human life, the highest hopes and prophecies of the future, and at the same time the completest culture and guidance obtainable from the past. On the contrary, each writer lives and sings by virtue of some peculiar strength or grace, and runs the risk of becoming a specialist in technique. The poets are ready to complain that the public are indifferent to poetry (though such is in fact far from being the case); some effect to despise the people and to care only for the judgment of amateurs, some acquire a genuine disdain [279] of popularity, and each one ends by writing for a coterie. The coterie consists of a group of persons who, by exclusive attention to certain qualities of a work of art, have come to admire those qualities extravagantly; the artist who labours for them abandons the effort toward universality, accepts his province, and where he has succeeded there he remains. He is tempted to become an imitator of himself, to reproduce his special effects, to accentuate his peculiarities of style. One elects to found his fame upon melody and colour, one upon his plastic quality, one upon fidelity to the idea; this writer excels in sonnets, and that in triolets; one is the poet of despair, and another the poet of joy. In each there is something set, something prepense, something of parti pris: it calls for some manliness of character not on all occasions to pose oneself in the admired attitude.

Victor Hugo alone is a master artist — a master artist with gigantic faults — in all departments. We are sensible in every line of his that it has been uttered to an audience of all France, and more than France. His are the large effects, and spaces, and freedom; and when he poses himself it is not with a dainty attitudinising, but with an extravagance of posture which expects to justify itself to the sympathy of a vast and excited crowd. His is the liberal hand which will not be curbed. Fresco pleases him, nor are the most exquisite refinements and delicate felicities unsuitable to the artist of large designs. He works suspended in the dome with fiery eagerness for the upgazing throng below, the sound of whose voices and impatient footsteps reaches him only in a confused murmur. His faults, as well as his excellences, correspond with his position as of one who is in presence of a sympathising and credulous multitude; when he is not grand he is grandiose; sometimes he reminds us of Paul Veronese, and sometimes of the Musée Wiertz; when he is not a true prophet he is a false one, but still a prophet: —

Oh, the crowd must have emphatic warrant!
Theirs the Sinai-forehead's clovon brilliance,
Right-arm's rod-sweep, tongue's imperial fiat.

Victor Hugo has been and is an enfranchising power in French poetry. After studying the fine mechanism of those Parisian toys turned out of the workshops of celebrated verse-makers, we lift our eyes and see the great alexandrine of Victor Hugo surging and springing, alive and ashine, from crest to hollow, and our pride of petty perfection is abated; we know ourselves to be encompassed with the beauty and the mystery of life.

No poet has appeared in France since 1830 who has been able to exercise undisputed sway and bend to his will the imaginations of all men. At that time there was a truly national movement in literature, a movement which brought into harmonious relation qualities so various as the gracious refinement of Alfred de Vigny and Hugo's strangeness of splendour, the vague spiritual reverie of Lamartine and all that was sensuous and all that was passionate in the heart of Musset. It was an [280] unlucky name which got attached to these writers and their fellows — "the Romantic school." There had been a Romantic school in Germany, which, unable as it was to win the solid prizes of the world by wrestling for them with the real forces of nature and of society, had retreated to a fanciful realm where imaginary treasures were abundant — treasures of spurious sentiment and facile marvels of imagination. Some members of the school had gained a pale aureole around poetic brows by yielding themselves as sentimental-æsthetic converts to the Church of Rome. They died and left no seed. Heine, the last of the Romanticists, the first of the modems, adorned the crosses of their graves with wreaths into which flowers of mocking significance were woven, and strewed blossoms to their memory which held each for honey in its cup a drop of corrosive irony. Thus the German Romantic school was impotent, and its fate was a little piteous. It was by a critical misnomer that the French movement bore the same name. There was, it is true, a certain predilection on the part of Hugo and others for subjects taken from the Middle Ages; there was at first no direct antagonism to the Catholic Church, but rather the contrary, and the author of Odes et Ballades delighted to celebrate the baptism of a duke or the consecration of a king. But these traits were superficial. The Romantic movement in its essence was a return to nature and to reality. In the great age of the Renaissance, in Italy, in England, in Flanders, an unbounded interest was manifested by the artists and by their public in classical mythology; but Michael Angelo and Titian, and the English dramatists and Rubens, handled classical mythology with entire freedom, so that in many respects no art is less like that of Greece than the art of the Renaissance. In like manner the mediævalism of the French Romantic school was, in the main, not archæological nor sentimental, but modern, passionate, and vital. The new demands upon art were made in the spirit of frank self-pleasing. Verso, declared the Romantic leaders, was no longer to be pronounced good or bad according to the degree in which it conformed to certain rules that formulated the pleasures of courtiers and persons of quality whose skulls were filled with the dust of two centuries. New desires have arisen, and it is right that they should be gratified. Freedom of movement, large chromatic effects, limitless variety of forms, novel and rich rhymes, spaces, and colour, and animation delight us, and modern verse must give us these. Self-contemplation is a habit of our minds; we love to utter to ourselves our joys and griefs, our hopes and fears, our pieties and sensualities, our aspirations and our declensions, our loyalties and our treasons, our faiths and our scepticisms, our heroisms and our weaknesses, our illusions and our disillusionings; the ode and the elegy must expand to receive all these. Our imagination is capable of audacities; we as well as Shakspere's generation can hurry in two hours from event to event through the crowded incidents of a lifetime, can pass from city to city and from land to land; the drama must recognise such a fact as this, and must modify itself accordingly. Such was the spirit of the [281] Romantic movement, and because, notwithstanding some feverishness and extravagance and folly, it was upon the whole a sane and vigorous spirit, the Romantic movement throve and bore fruit. The subsequent lives of the foremost men of that movement illustrate by undesigned coincidence its true character. The plaintive lover of Elvire became the standard-bearer — somewhat consciously chivalrous, it may be — of the tricolour in 1848, champion of what supposed itself to be the advanced party of order in opposition to anarchy on the one hand and reaction on the other. The royalist odes of Hugo ceased to be written, and by a strange series of metamorphoses his poems became the brief democratic epics of La Légende des Siècles. And Sainte-Beuve, ever the one same personality, yet never in the same position for two successive years, the sometime disciple of Lamennais in his neo-Catholic period, and inoculated with fervour and elevation, afterwards the genial sceptic with certain faiths of his own — Sainte-Beuve preserved his identity by nothing so truly as by his capacity for assuming Protean diversities of form, and no day of his life passed without adding something to his store of erudition, something to the range and flexibility of his sympathies, to the refinement of his perception and the sureness of his tact and taste; a man framed for enjoyment and for toil, to whom every moment of life was a moment of growth. The leaders of the French Romantic movement, after their period of impulsive youth, were still vital and progressive; they did not shrivel and harden; they were not disembowelled, and embalmed honourably, and swathed in the mummy cloth.

"They all come from Chateaubriand," was Goethe's remark to Eckermann with reference to Victor Hugo and other French poets of 1827. They all resembled Chateaubriand at least in this, that in a greater or less degree all, like him, were sufferers from — or shall we say, enjoyers of? – the characteristic melancholy of the nineteenth century (la maladie du siécle), and all, like him, were prone to self-confession. When Hugo's chords clashed with less impetuous sound, as when he sang his Songs of Twilight, the undertone of sadness could be distinguished. The soul of Lamartine wasted itself in vague yearning for something which should be satisfying, something beautiful but unattainable as the stars. Musset cried because his wounds smarted, and because he was frank and like a child. Sainte-Beuve studied his ailments with curious interest, and tried all remedies in turn. Each of these men was healed of his disease — Lamartine by political activity and ambition, Victor Hugo by his democratic faith and fervour, Musset by death, Sainte-Beuve by indulgent time, by manifold pleasures enriching his nature, and by the happy consciousness of certain faculties ripening hour by hour.

The self-confession which was the poetical habit of the Romantic poets in their earlier period was a result of the expansive character of the movement, which in this respect carried on the tradition handed down through Chateaubriand from Rousseau. The greater part of the poetry which was not strictly dramatic was personal. The poet was himself the [282] central object of his art; he caressed his own emotions, he nourished his reverie, he lingered long in the company of his sorrows, he was endlessly effusive. In the ode, the elegy, the sonnet, he sang himself through all his varying moods. The excess of this manner, the affectations it induced, and, after the style had been much cultivated, the banality of these poetic sorrows and aspirations, inevitably resulted in a reaction. When the expansive movement had reached its limit, a movement of concentration, not so powerful but as real, commenced. Gautier, by his natural disposition, was less effusive than the rest; he was less an emotional egotist, and this circumstance had unquestionably a share in delaying his popularity as a poet until the influence of Musset was on the wane. To Gautier and to Baudelaire there appeared to be something feminine in Musset's sensibility and his eager demand for sympathy. They discerned in what was called the poetry of the heart a certain disorder, an absence of superintendence, which are contrary to the true spirit of art. It is the imagination, not the emotions, which possesses plastic power. Full authority had previously been given to passion, and it had been represented as infallible; now it was asserted that the heart is a secondary and subordinate organ in the artist's nature. "The heart," says Baudelaire, "contains passion; the heart contains devotion, crime; the imagination alone contains poetry." "Sensibility of the heart is not absolutely favourable to the work of a poet. Extreme sensibility of heart may even be injurious to it. Sensibility of the imagination is of another kind; it knows to choose, to judge, to compare, to avoid this, to seek that, rapidly, spontaneously." Naturally, as a part of this movement of concentration, an increased value was set upon the workmanship of verse, and strict metrical forms — forms not of the old classical types, but rich, varied, and subtle — began to replace such nebulous luminosity as was diffused over many of the pages of Lamartine.

Point de contraintes fausses!
Mais que pour marcher droit
          Tu chausses
Muse, un cothurne étroit.

The pole opposite to Musset and the poetry of the heart was reached by neither Gautier nor Baudelaire, but has perhaps been touched by the one poet who in recent years has been accepted by a circle of élite readers as a master, and who is certainly the creator of a style — Leconte dc Lisle. In real life a spirituel irony suffices to protect his heart; in his verse, if once and again a cry for escape from the turmoil of existence into the irrevocable peace, the great night and silence of death, forms itself upon his lips, for the most part they are closed with stoical compression against all utterance of personal feeling, while with an enforced calm he proceeds to make his imaginative studies of thoughts and things.

It is noted by Charles Baudelaire that upon the one side Gautier continued the great school of melancholy created by Chateaubriand, and upon the other side "he introduced into poetry a new element, which [283] may be named 'consolation, by means of the arts.'" From Gautier's latest poetry the melancholy has almost disappeared; the genius of art has subdued the demon of pain. Thus an escape was effected by him from la maladie du siécle. Gautier's nature was indeed one framed for a rich enjoyment of life, but such a nature is not out of the reach of a nameless enervating sadness. Gautier, however, possessed an amulet virtuous to repel the invasion of despondency. If happiness is nowhere else to be found, it is to be found unfailingly in the presence, and still more in the creation, of beauty. Let the world go its way, and the kings and the peoples strive, and the priests and philosophers wrangle, at least to make a perfect verse is to be out of time, master of all change, and free of every creed. Though Gautier's was a very positive imagination, there is something almost of the mystic's passion in this devotion to art. It includes the infinite and absolute of plastic perfection, of flawless workmanship, which, if endlessly pursued and never attained, leaves the heart as empty and yearning as was that of Lamartine in his religious musings. The combat with rebellious matter, the struggle to impose upon its shapeless anarchy the pure idea of the imagination, has the glory of a combat à outrance. To pursue an outline and never wrong its delicate, immortal beauty is a kind of religious service; to be the guardian of pure contour is to purchase to oneself a good degree. In the contemplation of a curve, as in the contemplation of a dogma, it is possible to find oneself led at the last up to an O altitudo!

Still this devotion to beauty, to beauty alone, or if not alone yet above all else, was a part of the movement of concentration. It was a kind of hedonist asceticism. A cloistered monk engaged in his round of devotions and mortifications is not more remote from the ideal of sane and complete manhood than was the cultured master of the school of art for art, who could isolate himself from the fears and hopes of his country in her hour of extreme peril to fuse his enamels and cut his cameos. It is certainly well, in a period from which great ideas and large ardours are absent that the æsthetic faculty should keep itself alive, even if not conscious of its highest functions, by the pursuit of beauty out of all relation to conscience, to religion, or the needs and aspirations of a people. And unquestionably by limiting his range an artist can more readily approach to a miniature perfection, and can push certain qualities of his work to a higher degree of development. But the century succeeding the French Revolution, the century in which science rejoices as a young man to run a race, is not an age of Byzantine effeteness and sterility. Persons who do not receive an exquisite thrill from curious beauty and flawless workmanship have not a right to speak scornfully of these things; but it is possible for one who does receive such exquisite excitement to refuse himself, for the sake of better, larger, wiser things to come, some of these moments of refined delight.

                        The shelves are crowded with perfumes;
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it, and like it;
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

[284] An artist who should fling himself abroad upon the great hopes and fears, the great strivings and sorrows, the great deeds and thoughts, of our century might indeed suffer as an artist; his work might come forth as faulty as that of the early Christian painters, with other and less engaging tokens of immaturity than their naïve innocence and childlike trustfulness; but his work, like theirs, might prove a prophecy; and if the name of art were denied to it, such work might yet be a wind in our lips, a light in our eyes, more precious for our needs than anything which in our time can be brought to complete and flawless form by the plastic imagination.

The counter-tendencies which a young poet meets in Paris of the Revolution, which contains within it the Paris of "art for art," are amusingly illustrated in a recent prose confession of æsthetic faith by M. Raoul Lafagette. * The young poet arrived from the provinces bearing letters of introduction to some great persons, among others to Eugène Pelletan and Tbéophile Gautier. On hearing of manuscript verses, the democratic deputy favoured his visitor with a résumé of his views on human progress, which reads like a chapter from the Profession de Foi du XIXe Siécle. "Why do you write in verse? No one cares for it now. It is little read, and not at all sold. It is a hieratic form destined to disappear. In the childhood of humanity verse had its raison d'être. . . . The first songs are hymns, outbursts of terror or of enthusiasm. . . . But in our age of sceptical maturity and republican independence verse is a superannuated form. We prefer prose, which, by virtue of its freedom of movement, accords more truly with the instincts of democracy." Whereupon followed a demonstration of the same principles from the spectacle of external nature, in which the crystal is type of the strophe, and "the masterpiece which dominates this hierarchy" — woman — with her undulating grace is the analogue of prose. M. Lafagette, enlightened but unconvinced, did not tear up his manuscripts, but carried them a few days afterwards, with a letter of introduction from George Sand, to the house of Gautier.

The exquisite jewellor of the Émaux et Camées received the young man with almost paternal kindness, but, when he had read the two pieces of verse submitted to him by the neophyte, spoke as follows: — "Your verses are forty years older than yourself. They are too old, therefore — that is to say, too young. Poets sang in this manner in 1830. Nowadays we desire a more compressed, more concrete, kind of poetry. Lamartine is a sublime hard, but his vague effusions are no longer to our taste. Musset is a great poet, but an exceedingly bad model. Read Hugo much, who is the true master. Read Leconte de Lisle and Th"odore do Banville." "And Théophile Gautier?" timidly murmured the visitor. "And me too a little, if you please to do so," replied Gautier, smiling. "You see," he went on, "the arithmetic is in existence: we have not to invent it; we have only to learn it. One must learn to be at home in fugue and counterpoint, and render one's talent supple and limber [285] by the gymnastic of words. Words have an individual and a relative value. They should be chosen before being placed in position. This word is a mere pebble, that a fine pearl or an amethyst. Do you read the dictionary? It is the most fruitful and interesting of books. In art the handicraft is almost everything. Inspiration — yes, inspiration is a very pretty thing, but a little banale; it is so universal. Every bourgeois is more or less affected by a sunrise or sunset. He has a certain measure of inspiration. The absolute distinction of the artist is not so much his capacity to feel nature as his power of rendering it. This power is a gift, but also a conquest. In genius there is as much of science as of instinct. Your verses are full of imagination and of sentiment, but they are deficient in composition. You are a poet, and must not abandon poetry. Only I advise you to make three or four thousand verses, and, before you publish anything, burn them."

It is impossible to refuse a certain tribute of admiration to a workman so loyal to his craft. One must needs sympathise with the ascetic of beauty as well as with the ascetic of holiness. Would it not be lamentable to see the author of the Imitation losing himself in a bustling philanthropy, or endeavouring, for the sake of wider culture, to acquire connoisseurship in the fine arts? And should we not have had cause to grieve if Gautier had taken to the politician's stump or the moralist's chair? When a man possesses a rare faculty, we like to see him jealously preserving it. It is good husbandry for the world to let a poet make verses, and to let a painter point. There are indeed occasions — occasions which are the test of highest human virtue — when the precious vases of a cabinet might well be employed to feed men and women in a charity soup-kitchen, when a Regnault must offer his breast to the bullets side by side with a piece of commonest mortal clay, when all differences between men are submerged in the flood of our deep humanity; but such are not ordinary occasions. If Gautier grows poetical only in presence of certain objects, and poetry be his highest vocation, we applaud him for resolutely refusing to look at other things, how interesting soever to politician or philanthropist. But why did Gautier grow poetical only in presence of a few selected and comparatively trivial objects which he called beautiful? The answer is, because Gautier was Gautier, and not Dante or Shakespere. His doctrine with reference to art expresses the limitations of his nature. It is pleasant to walk over the acre of the exquisite horticulturist, and useful to learn how perfect prize-plants can be reared in their charming little pots. But yonder are the mountains, the moors, the forest, the sea. That will be an evil day for English poetry when to the universality of nature and life and the great masters is preferred the provinciality of a Parisian cénacle.

Solomon, while trying all experiments of life, gave his heart for a season to know madness and folly. Such an experimenter in evil holds his permanent self in reserve, and, whether he be worse or better, is not in the same class with the vulgar libertine. "I said in mine heart, 'Go to now; I will prove thee with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure:' and behold this also is vanity." Such was the experiment made with his imagination by Charles Baudelaire, and his confession was |286] that of the preacher, "This also is vanity." In him we have at least the comfort of dealing with no quacksalver who cries for sale some new antidote to the sorrow of the century; he acknowledges that he has found our disease immedicable, only adding, whether for our grief or our consolation, that the plague-spot is as old as the human race itself, though now, in this age of accumulated shames and poisonous fungus-growths above dead things, it may drive deeper a more cancerous sting. Baudelaire confesses failure, if not as frankly as Musset, yet with more decision. The two poets — both tasters of the fruit of the tree of evil — present an impressive contrast. Musset's wound bleeds; the iron remains in Baudelaire's flesh, and no blood flows, but his face betrays the agony. Musset rebels against the cruelty of his fate; Baudelaire yields with stoical resignation, interrupted only by a short, involuntary iron cry. In Musset the sensibilities predominate; in Baudelaire the intellect. Musset accepts the chance enjoyment which lies in his way; Baudelaire (I speak of him only as seen in his art) chooses, discriminates, knows the artifices by which to heighten pleasure. The former was satisfied for the time by transitory gratifications, as a child's thirst in summer is quenched by a drink, and his sorrow is only disappointment. But Baudelaire, who never quite parts from a higher self kept in reserve, is not for a moment satisfied with the flowers or fruits of evil, and he is still haunted and waylaid by the ideal beauty and calm which by contrast become the sources of so much of his bitterness.

Baudelaire was in a distinguishing degree an intellectual artist. Unelaborated passion, he held, was unfit matter for poetry. The peculiar intensity — a masculine, not a feminine, intensity — of his most characteristic pieces was attained by the constringent force of the intellect acting upon vividly imagined passion. He looked with considerable scorn, as did Gautier, upon writers who proclaim their inspiration, and who do not precisely know whither their genius is about to take them. "He blamed himself whenever he produced anything other than what he had determined to make, even though it were a powerful and original work." * It would have been evidence of a juster intellect if he had recognised the truth which underlies the cant about inspiration. There is in every great artist a stored-up, inherited instinct underlying all that he consciously performs, and which only works the less surely and the less continuously when an attempt is made to turn the full light of the intellect upon its hidden operations. The greatest poets, painters, musicians, have known and have directly or indirectly acknowledged this. To Goethe it seemed to point to a weakness in Schiller that he did not go to work with a certain unconsciousness, but reflected on all he did. Wilhelm Meister the author describes as "one of the most incalculable productions," adding, "I myself can scarcely be said to have the key to it." "Faust is quite incommensurable, and all attempts to bring it nearer to |287] the understanding are in vain." "Idea [in Tasso]!" exclaimed Goethe; "as if I knew anything about it. I had the life of Tasso — I had my own life. . . . I can truly say of my production, It is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh." * Where an unconscious energy unites itself in the artist with his conscious activity, and these interpenetrate one another, the work of art comes forth, as Schelling has stated it, possessed of the highest clearness of the understanding, together with that inscrutable reality by virtue of which art-products resemble the works of nature. The enlarging, the enriching, the disciplining of his total character is that which produces the main alterations in a writer's style, down even to the arrangement of pauses in his verse. Allowing for all that can by deliberate effort be acquired in technical mastery, there is something which lies deeper than any conscious volition. In the last resort "all beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain."

But Baudelaire loved with a peculiar and almost diseased passion what in the strictest sense is not artistic, but rather artificial, something which does not complete nature, but is contrasted with and opposed to nature. And he justified his preference for the artificial by a theory. With the youth of the world great and simple emotions have disappeared. Then was the dawn, then the breezes whose wings had never flagged, then the virginal horizons; then generous hope, and spontaneous faith, and piteous illusion, and natural affections, and the first thoughts that came, and frank self-utterance. But now life is complex, refined, curious, subtle. A thousand cross and counter influences shatter the primitive emotions into multitudinous fragments. Let us accept the facts of the world. "Literature," Gautier wrote, expounding the principles of his friend, "is like the day; it has a morning, a noon, an evening, and a night. Without idly discussing whether the dawn should be preferred to the twilight, one must paint during one's own hour, what ever that happens to be, and with a palette furnished with the colours needed to render the effects proper to that hour. The coppery reds, the greenish gold, the hues of turquoise melting into sapphire, all the colours which burn and decompose, the clouds of strange and monstrous forms, penetrated by jets of light, and which seem the gigantic ruining of an aerial Babel — do not these suggest as much poetry as the rosy-fringed dawn, which notwithstanding we do not mean to despise?" This plea for the "style of decadence" is admirably expressed, but, although the question may appear to persons of refinement a little banale, we must venture to ask, Is it true? In this round world of ours a sunset and a sunrise are for ever taking place at the same hour. In the sunset of the old religions appeared to such eyes as turned toward the springs of light that mysterious glimmer over the hills of Judæa; in the sunset of the [288] empire, turbulent and rich with livid strains of decay, appeared the fiery morning of the barbarian races; in the twilight of feudalism the light was widening for a new age of industry, science, and democracy. A method by which it is possible to secure oneself against ever witnessing a dawn is that of self-seclusion in a little chamber illuminated by a single narrow window which fronts the west—some closet

            Long to quiet vowed,
With method and drooping arras hung.

There let quaint odours now allure and provoke, and now lull the sense; let the lute be delicately touched, and if in the shadows the demon of ennui should lurk, let forms of curious beauty be present to embarrass him in his approaches. To be indifferent to science, to treat politics as "an affair for National Guards," to detest the vulgar feelings of the bourgeoisie, are habits of mind very favourable for the discovery that the "style of decadence" is the characteristically modern style. And in truth so much of cheap zeal and noisy claptrap have found their centre in the word "progress," so many millenniums have been announced, so often has the cry been heard "Christ is here!" with the counter-cry "Christ is there!" that it is hardly strange that a writer hating imposture, dreading delusions, and conscious of singular gifts should sever himself from the popular movement. Nor was it a luxurious quietism which Baudelaire sought; in all his work there is an active intellectual element. It is this which gives his poems that astringency which is grateful to a cultured palate. They possess some of the concentration and the keenness of logic, and, like a syllogism, compel assent. Dangerous the floating perfume of these Fleurs du Mal may seem at first, because its strangeness mounts to the brain and makes the senses swim; but presently we regain possession of ourselves, and do not lose it a second time; we examine with curious interest the exotic blooms, and taste the peculiar bitter-sweetness of their dews, and stroke the metallic veining of their leaves, and do not die.

It must also be insisted upon that Baudelaire was no devotee of horror, hideousness, and crime. These things exercised indeed a cruel fascination over the Romantic poet's imagination, but they were known as evil by virtue of an ideal of beauty and goodness which never deserted him. Baudelaire might deliberately send forth his imagination upon an analytic study of evil, but his intellect was not to be duped by sin. That which is hideous and detestable in Baudelaire's poetry is the offspring of a civilisation where the soil is fat and poisoned with decay. It is perhaps well that a poetical study of such things should be carried out with thoroughness, in order that, the "style of decadence" having been pushed to its extreme limit, men may estimate at the full value what it has to offer to them. The misery and ugliness of our modern life excited Baudelaire's curiosity, set his imagination abnormally to work, and made him miserable. And he sought a restorative not in simple delights, [289] which seemed to him to belong, to the youth of the world, but in sought-out pleasures; against the artificial he used the artificial as a lenitive, and nature retreated farther and farther into the distance.

Some of his English critics have spoken of Baudelaire as if he were the most eminent member of the school of form in French poetry. To the question, Does Charles Baudelaire belong to the school of art for art? M. Lafagette answers, In no wise. The truth is that Baudelaire's power of vision was not circumscribed by the bounds of his own activity as an artist, and he perceived truths which he did not find himself individually able to put to use. While loyal in his devotion to form, and accepting his place, he had a melancholy consciousness that the movement to which he belonged, though perhaps provisionally needful, was incomplete in its designs, and if pushed to an extreme might prove dangerous — nay, even fatal — to art. At times he writes in a way which might even have contented Proudhon. "The puerile utopia of the school of art for art, in excluding morality, and often even passion, was necessarily sterile. It placed itself in flagrant contravention of the genius of humanity. In the name of higher principles, which constitute the universal life of man, we are warranted in declaring it guilty of heterodoxy." And elsewhere, "Literature must go to rehabilitate its powers in a better atmosphere. The time is not far distant when it will be understood that all literature which refuses to advance fraternally between science and philosophy is a homicidal and a suicidal literature."

To associate poetry fraternally with the higher thought of our own day has been part of the work of M. Leconte de Lisle. The effort of criticism in our time has been before all else to see things as they are, without partiality, without obtrusion of personal liking or disliking, without the impertinence of blame or of applause. To see things as they are is the effort of Leconte de Lisle's poetry. Critical curiosity gratifies itself by the accurate perception of facts, and of their relations one to another. In like manner the imagination deligths to comprehend after its own fashion the chief attitudes which the spirit of man has assumed in presence of external nature, of God, of life and death, to enter into the faiths of past ages and races while yet holding essentially aloof from them, to distinguish the main features of former societies of men, and to illuminate these without permitting our passions to disturb their calm. Baudelaire happily compared Leconte de Lisle to his distinguished contemporary Ernest Renan. "Notwithstanding the difference between their respective provinces, every person of clear-sighted intelligence will feel that the comparison is just. In the poet, as in the philosopher, I find the same ardent yet impartial curiosity with reference to religions, and the same spirit of universal love, not for humanity in itself, but for the various forms in which man in every age and clime has incarnated beauty and truth. Neither the one nor the other ever offends by absurd impiety. To portray in beautiful verses, of a luminous and tranquil kind, the different modes in which man, up to the present time, has adored God. [290] and sought the beautiful, such has been the object . . . which Leconte de Lisle has assigned to his poetry." Such poetry, it will be perceived, has close affinities with science, and yet it is in its essence the work of the skilled imagination. It possesses the ardour and the calm of science. One cannot look at the remarkable portrait of the poet by Rajon with out recognising the aspiring intellect, the robust enthusiasm, the capacity for sustained effort, of Leconte de Lisle. The lifted head, with eyes which gaze steadfastly forward, might well be that of a sculptor contemplating the block in which he sees the enthralled form of beauty whose deliverance he is presently to effect. * The products of this enthusiasm possess a marmoreal calm; and it is the union of the highest energy with a lofty tranquillity which distinguishes the method of this artist. To persons who expect from poetry a shallow excitement, to persons whose imagination has not been nourished by the intellect, it is possible that Leconte de Lisle's chief poems may seem masterpieces of the genre ennuyant. It calls for some disengagement from self, and from the common preoccupations of our lives, to be able to transfer our total being into a world of thoughts and things remote and alien. The imaginative Pantheon of the average reader contains the familiar figures of the gods of Greece and Rome; it is embarrassing when house-room and welcome are required all at once for a throng of strangers of appalling aspect and names gathered from India, from Egypt, from Scandinavia, even from the Polynesian islands, and still more embarrassing to find among the antique gods certain well-known shapes arrived from Palestine which seek admission on equal terms with the rest. And it must be admitted that, after a trial of one's powers of sustained receptiveness by Leconte de Lisle, a trial which cannot be carried through without some fortitude of the imagination, we turn with a peculiar sense of relief to such lyrical sprightliness as that of Théodore de Banville, and find no small recreation for the eye in his mirthful antics upon the tight rope.

Yet Leconte de Lisle's poems are no mere works of erudite archæology. He too, although possessed of a social faith, is, like Baudelaire, ill at ease in the present time. At first upon making his acquaintance we say, Here at least is a man who has escaped the sorrow of our age, who has not known "the something that infects the world;" and we surmise that perhaps it is his Creole blood, perhaps the unvitiated air of his native Isle of Bourbon, which has left him sane and sound. But presently we perceive that this is not so. The stoicism, the impassiveness, the enforced serenity, the strict self-suppression, the resolved impersonality of his writings reveal the fact that he too has been a sufferer. These constitute the regimen by which he would gain sanity and strength. Are you unhappy? Then utter no cry, suppress the idle tear, forbear to turn the tender emotion upon yourself, place yourself under the influ[291]ence of things beautiful, calm, and remote, resign your imagination in absolute obedience to the object. And if, after practising such discipline, your unhappiness still survive, the physician adds, Accept the inevitable. Is it so strange and bitter to be defeated? Or does not every law of nature fulfil its course indifferent to our joy or suffering? Bear your sorrow as you would bear the shining of the stars or the falling of the rain.

Thus, while Baudelaire studied with curious attention the evils of his time, and tasked his imagination to render an account of what was abnormal and diseased in the world around him, Leconte de Lisle turns away to seek for calm in the contemplation of nature in her virgin grace or her teeming maternal forces, and of man in states of society and under religious beliefs which possess for us an imaginative and scientific interest rather than the more pressing and painful interest of actuality. To Greece he is attracted as to the immortal patron of beauty; to the primitive peoples of the North, because among them he finds a massive force of passion and of muscle which contrasts happily with the trivialities of the boulevard; to India, because there sages had learned the secret that this turmoil of life is Mâyâ (the divine illusion), and that behind Mâyâ lies the silence and calm of "le divin Néant." We may prepare ourselves for a fashion of pessimism among our small poets of culture at an early date, and doubtless "le divin Néant" will be celebrated by many self-complacent prophets of despair. Leconte de Lisle is not a pessimist; for the race of men he sees a far-off light towards which it advances, and for his own part life is to be endured and rendered as beautiful and grand as may be with noble forms and the light of large ideas.

Among the poems of Leconte de Lisle his studies of external nature take a high place. When he sets himself down before an object resolved to make it his own by complete imaginative possession, he is not a mere descriptive poet. The great animal painter is not he who can most dexterously imitate wools and furs, but he who can pluck out the heart of the mystery of each form of animal life; and the same may be said of the painter of mountain or of sea. That which he seeks to discover is the true ideal — that is to say, that part of the real which is the most essential as distinguished from the accidental, the permanent as distinguished from the temporary, the dominant as distinguished from the subordinate. He who by penetrative vision can discover the ideal in each thing, or, in plain words, its essential characteristics, may fearlessly go on to paint furs and wools to perfection. And such is the method of Leconte de Lisle. In his choice of subjects (for the poet chooses rather than is chosen by them) he is attracted by the beauty and the wonder of strange exotic things and places. Two moments of the day in the tropics seem to contain for his imagination the highest poetry of the four-and-twenty hours — the dawn, with its solitude, its freshness in the heavens, and light odours rising from the earth, its tender stirring in the foliage and the flowers; and then mid-noon, with the torrent of light, the oppression of [292] loaded heat, the moveless air, and the languor of all living things. The life in the jungle at midday is the subject of a remarkable study familiar to all readers of Leconte de Lisle. The huge panther lies asleep, his belly to the air, his claws dilating unconsciously, his burning breath escaping as from a furnace, his rosy tongue lolling; around him perfect silence, only the gliding python advancing his head, and the cantharides vibrating in the transparent air: —

Lui, baigné par la flamme et remuant la queue,
Il dort tout un soleil sous l'immensité bleue.

In contrast with this poem, and others of the torrid atmosphere, we find all that is delicious in shadowy repose, in dewy freshness, in the light singing of streams, in the flowers of wan green places, present with us while we read "La Fontaine aux Lianes" and "La Ravine Saint-Gilles." "La Manchy" ("manchy," the palanquin of the Isle Bourbon), so softly breathed upon by the sea-wind and impregnated with exquisite odours of the East, moves delicately forward like the rhythmical stopping of the Hindoo bearers. But of higher imaginative power than any of these is the short piece entitled "Le Sommeil du Condor." No study of the poetry of animal life is of more exciting strangeness and at the same time of more mysterious solemnity than this. Beyond the ladder of the precipitous Cordilleras, beyond the eagle-haunted mists, the vast bird sits: —

L'envergure pendante et rouge par endroits,
Le vaste oiseau, tout plein d'une morne indolence,
Regarde l'Amérique et l'espace en silence,
Et le sombre soleil qui meurt dans ses yeux froids.

And night rolls from the east over the wild pampas, putting to sleep Chili and the Pacific Sea and the divine horizon, and rises with billowy shadows from peak to peak: —

Lui, comme un spectre, seul, an front du pic allier,
Baigné d‘une lueur qui saigne sur la neige,
Il attend cette mer sinistre qui l'assiége:
Elle arrive, déferle, et le couvre en entier.
Dans l'abîme sans fond la Croix australe allume
Sur les côtes du ciel sou phare constellé.
Il râle de plaisir, il agite sa plume,
Il érige son cou musculeux et pelé;
Il s'enléve, en fouettant, l'âpre neige des Andes;
Dans un cri rauque il monte où n'atteint pas le vent,
Et, loin du globe noir, loin de l'astre vivant,
Il dort dans l'air glacé, les ailes toutes grandes. *

None of the most characteristic poems of Leconte de Lisle treat of social subjects which lie near to us in time and place. His poetry selects [293] as its organs certain of his faculties, and rejects others. To express his political creed he would require to formulate it in prose. Christian and mediæval subjects are treated with the same aloofness, the same hauteur, and the same sympathy of intellect as those belonging to ancient Greece and Rome, or to the "barbarian" nations of Judaea, of Egypt, of pagan Europe. But under this impartiality as an artist lie strenuous convictions both with respect to the régime of feudalism and the dogma of the age of faith, and, indeed, the impartiality sometimes impresses the reader who compares the poems with the author's prose confessions of belief as partaking somewhat of the nature of an imperturbable artistic irony. The commoner, more superficial irony is excluded from Leconte de Lisle's work as an artist, but it is made ample use of in the volume Histoire populaire du Christianisme, a little treatise which, professing to represent Christian history as told by Christian historians, is certainly not distinguished by the judicial spirit or even by common historical accuracy.

It is not to be wondered at that Leconte de Lisle should be regarded as a master by younger poets who aspire to be something more than mere singers of love and wine. He represents intellect, he represents science in connection with art; he has more of mass than Gautier, more of sanity, or at least of serenity, than Baudelaire; he is distinguished by a rare self-regulating energy of the imagination; he owns a sovereign command over form, a severity and breadth of poetical style which is not to be found in the Émaux et Camées, nor even in the Fleurs du Mal. But it is true that his subjects of predilection are too much subjects from the museum. He is not a mere antiquary; in his manner of aloofness and of intellectual sympathy he is essentially modern, and in the museum he remains a poet. Still we should like to know of love which was other than that possessed by a mummy; we should like to know of a religion which is not on show as a curiosity in a glass-case; outside we hear the throng in the streets of a great city, and wonder what the lives of our fellow-men are like, and what they signify to them; we think of the fields in which we ourselves were children, and which we did not study curiously, but so tenderly loved.

Within the last ten or twelve years no star of the second or third magnitude has quite succeeded in disengaging itself from the nebulous brilliancy of poetical reputations, which is made up by writers of a younger generation than those already glanced at in this article. M. Coppée's poetry possesses elegance, but hardly in a high sense beauty; it possesses sentiment, but hardly passion; and its idyllic tenderness and refinement are those of the Luxembourg gardens rather than of the plains and hill-sides of the provinces. There is more promise of distinction in M. Catulle Mendès; but it cannot be said that he has, even in his more recent poems, certainly discovered his true direction. In the Soirs moroses he is still, in a measure, a, pupil of Baudelaire. In the Contes épiques there is something of Leconte de Lisle united with something — especially [294] in the treatment of the dénouement of each story — which has been obtained from Victor Hugo. In the earlier Philomela are pieces which could hardly have been written had not Théodore de Banville taught modern poets to unite lyrical impulse with the most delicate technical manipulations, and others which have, as it were, an odour acquired from lying among the verses of Théophile Gautier. Two poems of considerable length exhibit the highest attainment of the talent of M. Catulle Mendès. Hesperus is the story of a little old Jew of Frankfort-on-the-Main, a dwarf, persecuted by the children and living in misery, yet in his ecstatic trances and visions the possessor of treasures of joy and love. Brightness and gloom are brought together in this poem with as magical and fascinating a power as in some of Rembrandt's etchings; the subject is one which would have been treated with a passionate analysis by Balzac. Le Soleil de Minuit is a dramatic poem, the scene of which is laid among the ice-fields of the Polar world. Its human creatures are conceived as untamed animals possessed of fierce appetites and passions, not restrained, and yet already a little modified by the fears and superstitions which are the projections of the primitive conscience of mankind. * It must be said that some of the impressiveness of the poem is gained by its entire disregard — a disregard which one is expected to accept as the artist's duty to his subject — of the reserves of speech that are recognised as human in our developed state of society, from which we have in some degree worked out the original man-bear and woman-wolf. M. Catulle Mendès belongs in the main to the school of "art for art," but he combines qualities which had been divided between its leaders, and he brings over to it some of the strangeness and splendour of Victor Hugo. Two other young poets illustrate the reaction against the school of art for art, which might have been anticipated as inevitable, and which has already become apparent. In Les Chansons joyeuses Maurice Bouchor attempted to lead back French poetry to the spirit of facile mirth, the praise of youth and wine, of love and laughter. The Parnassians were to be pelted from their thrones with roses. His second volume — Les Poëmes de l'Amour et de la Mer — is written in a more grave and tender spirit; it is the lyrical confession of the sorrow of unfulfilled love, and from love the poet at the last turns for consolation to the fraternal comradeship of art. M. Lafagette puts forth a more ambitious programme. It is his aim to preserve all that has been attained for form and technical mastery of verse by the school of the Parnassians, and to employ this as an artist under influences proceeding from the political convictions of an ardent republican and a philosophical doctrine which it pleases him to term un naturalisme rationaliste. His earliest volume certainly confirmed the judgment of Gautier that his verses were deficient in composition, but M. Lafagette has diligently improved the quality of his workmanship, and in Les Accalmies he has for a season laid by his sword to take in hand [295] the chisel and the burin; some of the sonnets and triolets — dated in Revolutionary style, "Messidor, an 83," "Floréal, an 82," might have been written in some luxurious studio under the Second Empire. Essentially, however, M. Lafagette's motto is found in the words of Victor Hugo: "De nos jours l'écrivain doit étre au besoin un combattant; malheur au talent a travers lequel on ne voit pas un conscience!" One may trust that, whether or not in our own country a tendency exist to follow the leadership of the French masters of form, in France their influence is about to be reduced to just proportions. In M. Lafagette's devotion to beauty and to art there mingles a social purpose somewhat akin to that which appeared in the school of Saint-Simon, and which served long since to inspire the writers of "Young Germany." But, apart from the consideration of the truth or falsehood of the faiths which lie at the basis of the art of M. Lafagette, it is a significant fact that writers who have been in the presence of the poetry of "art for art" brought to the most exquisite degree of refinement, should feel that this does not suffice, and that art, severed from a social faith, becomes, sooner or later, inevitably sterile.

Non, non, ton règne est clos, ô race veule et vaine!
  – Dans l'or pur nous savons bien sertir, comme toi,
  Des joyaux ciselés; mais une mâle foi
Nous anime, et le sang qui brûle notre veine
  Nous voulons l'infuser a l'Art en désarroi.

Que la forme éclalante incarne la justice;
  Songe que l'Art n'est pas un but, mais un moyen,
  Frére! adore le Beau, car ce culte est païen,
Mais fixe-lui le Vrai pour éternel solstice;
  Aime, hais, souffre, vis, sois homme et citoyen.

What social doctrine shall inspire the poetry of the future? It is not meant here to attempt an answer to this question; but one more French writer of verse may be named as illustrating the perplexities and hesitations of our age. Sainte-Beuve observed of M. Sully Prudhomme that he belonged to none of the schools of contemporary poetry. "His was rather the noble ambition of conciliating them, of deriving from them, and reuniting in himself what was good in each. With much skill in the treatment of form, he was not indifferent to the idea; and among ideas, he did not adopt any group to the exclusion of the rest." This rightly defines the position of Sully Prudhomme. Like Leconte de Lisle, he is intellectual, but, unlike that master, he is tender; his intellect is not severe and haughty, but humane and sympathetic; and the sympathy which he gives is more than that which takes its origin from scientific curiosity. He does not traverse the world of ideas as an aristocrat who from his eminence of thought surveys and studies many things, of which none can succeed in mastering his reason or really gaining his affections. Rather he yields to this influence, and yields again to that, and is in danger of "losing himself in countless adjustments." He has perceptions of truth on one side and on the other, and can deny none of them. [296] There is something in the pantheistic way of thinking which seems need ful to his imaginative interpretation of the facts of consciousness; there is something in theism which corresponds with the cravings of his heart; yet he cannot deny a lurking doubt that after all the agnostic may be in the right. This is the burden which he bears, a divided intellect, for ever adapting itself to what appear to be diverse forms of truth. He is not angry with modern science or modern industry; he would, if possible, conciliate the real with the ideal. He loves the colour of Gautier's verse, the passion and vivid humanity of Musset, and can value the abstractedness, the aspiration, the Druidic nature-worship of Laprade; he would fain possess something of each; and his manifold sympathies leave him sad and restless. Sully Prudhomme's unhappiness arises from the lack of a cause, a creed, a church, a loyalty, a love, to which he can devote his total being, and know that such devotion is the highest wisdom. He is a born eclectic, and the only remedy he can apply to his malady is more eclecticism. He may serve as a pathetic witness to the truth that culture, as we too often conceive it nowadays, may lead to an issue less fortunate than that of asceticism. In Edgar Quinet's poetical romance Merlin the great enchanter traverses a vast desert to visit the abbey of the famous Prester John. The architecture of the abbey struck Merlin with astonishment. It was a composite style, formed of the pagoda, the Greek temple, the synagogue, the mosque, the basilica, the cathedral, without counting an almost innumerable number of marabouts, minarets, Byzantine and Gothic chapels. When Prester John appears, the magician beholds before him an august old man, with beard of snow descending to his waist. "Upon his head he wore a turban enriched with a sapphire cross. At his neck hung a golden crescent, and he supported himself upon a staff after the manner of a Brahman. Three children followed him, who supported each upon the breast an open book. The first was the collection of the Vedas, the second was the Bible, the third the Koran. At certain moments Prester John stopped and read a few lines from one of the sacred volumes which always remained open before him; after which he continued his walk, with eyes fixed upon the stars." Prester John was Quinet's type of the eclectic philosopher, and he may equally well represent the modern man of spurious culture. Prester John's architecture is not a true conciliation of styles, nor Prester John's faith of creeds.

M. Sully Prudhomme, however, if he has dwelt for a while in the eclectic abbey, has not divided his heart between ideals of beauty and realities of shame. He is for ever returning to an aspiration after truth, after beauty, after simplicity of life, and yet he has never wandered far from these; and part of his moral perplexity arises from suggestions and checks to which a person of harder or narrower personality would have been insensible. There is in him something of feminine susceptibility and sensitiveness; and that a man should possess portion of a woman's tenderness is not wholly ill.

 

 

[Die Anmerkungen stehen als Fußnoten auf den in eckigen Klammern bezeichneten Seiten]

[278] *  Rapport sur le Progrès des Lettres. Publication faite sous les auspices du Ministère de l'Instruction Publique (1868).   zurück

[284] *  La Poésie: son Passé, son Présent, son Avenir (1877). M. Lafagette's introduction to Gautier and Gautier's daughter is also described in verse in his Chants d'un Montagnard.   zurück

[286] *  Th. Gautier, notice prefixed to Fleurs du Mal, p. 72.   zurück

[287] * The quotations are from Goethe's Conversations with Eckermann.   zurück

[287] †  Schelling On the Relation between the Plastic Art and Nature. See also some interesting remarks on this subject in Hartmann, Philosophie des Unbewussten, bk. vii., and Ruskin, The Mystery of Lift and its Arts.   zurück

[290] * See also the portrait in words by Théodore do Banville, Camées Parisiens, troisième série.   zurück

[292] * "Le Sommeil du Condor," "Les Jungles," "Le Manchy," and the noble poem of melancholy "Le Midi," are given in the fourth volume of Crépet's Les Poëtes français, an excellent introduction to modern French poetry as far as about fifteen years ago.   zurück

[294] * A notice of these poems by Mr. E. W. Gosse will be found in a review of M. Mendès' collected poems in the Academy, June 16, 1877.   zurück

 

 

 

 

Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Cornhill Magazine.
Bd. 36, 1877, September, S. 278-296.

Gezeichnet: EDWARD DOWDEN.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).


The Cornhill Magazine   online
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000522322

 

 

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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer