Lionel Johnson



A Note upon the Practice and Theory of Verse
at the Present Time obtaining in France



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Texte zur Baudelaire-Rezeption
Texte zur Verlaine-Rezeption
Texte zur Mallarmé-Rezeption


Those of us, who converse with the modern poetry of France, or with literary friends from that great nation, are aware, that there now prevails over French poets a spirit of excellent curiosity. To be thus curious and concerned about Art, is indeed a note of the French genius: for, whereas much fine art has in England come without premeditation, and much poor art likewise; in France, it is not so. Such are the qualities of the French tongue, that its possessors cannot employ it finely, unless they meditate their designs with care, and direct with patience the expression of them: it is a tongue, in which, most of all tongues, a piece of literature depends for its success upon the felicitous choice, arrangement, and nature, of each word. Regret it, as we may, it is possible in English literature to find masterpieces, Shakespeare's or Shakespearian, which produce their fine effect by a richness and splendour of imagination; but which have no perfection of detail, no careful excellence of language, considered by strict eyes: it is no lack of appreciation, for what is still great in English literature, which forces us to confess, that verbal or minute perfection is not our strength. This it is, that makes the proper distinction of Milton, and of Arnold in our own day: that they had the classical and laborious virtues of perfection in art, yet without detriment to their poetical liberty of imagination. And, whilst I hold Shakespeare and Browning in my heart of hearts, I cannot hold them blameless about matters, in which Milton and Arnold have but little or no blame.

In France, each venture of the poets has been, after its own fashion, conducted with thought and with deliberation: it is, for the poets of France, a matter of scholarship, a mark of nobility, that poetry should be in touch with some high tradition; or, that it should go forth upon untried paths, with an anxiety and a discretion, in themselves traditional. Villon! the first great poet of France: what delicacy, what intricate and artful delicacy, pervades those poems of his, so sordid, [62] many Of them, in everything but form! Coming to the first critical age of French literature, coming to the Renaissance, to the Pléiade, the power and the charm of their work lie in its loyal sense of the Greek and Latin greatness: those dexterous odes and sonnets, lyrics and songs, gave to French readers, something as the nobler Dante had given to Italian, the capacity of feeling their fresh and modern sentiments through classic means. Not in the pedant's unreal way, but in the artist's loyal way, Ronsard or du Bellay became the Horace, the Catullus, the Ovid, of France. The next great age, the age of the Alexandrine; in part from a certain gravity, that could chaunt, but not sing; in part from a certain sense of dislike for the infinite airs and graces of the lighter lyric; pursued the way of Euripides and of Seneca. These were great men: Corneille! Racine! greater, it may be, than the present age admits; so austere are they, so majestic, and so restrained. But, when the dignity of that manner became a burden, and their confined and narrow bounds, a prison: French poets, again obedient to tradition, looked back to the Provençal Singers, and to the Renaissance: and so Romanticism came about. Luxuriant and extravagant, it yet produced great poetry: the men of 1830, though the sought for inspiration in strange places, mediaeval and barbaric, cared greatly for beauty; and for beauty, not of mere conception, not only in idea; but for beauty of form, and in expression also. It is a familiar story; we know, how from extravagance came the need of stricter bounds, once more: how Gautier laboured his verse into ivories and medallions, for refinement and lucidity, choosing the dainty material, appropriate to such work; how Baudelaire conveyed into French verse the gloom and the weight, the "majesty of grief", the mysterious music, foreign, so our ignorance might have held, to its genius, but natural through his; how M. Leconte de Lisle, a master of erudition, surveyed the whole world, classic and modern, civil and savage, with an instinct for its varied meanings, and with the power to express them, in verse laden with a tragic philosophy. We know, again, with what felicity M. de Banville, whose death we mourn, played upon the French language in such wise, that beside him, what higher praise? even Mr. Austin Dobson stammers. Romantique, Parnassien, Naturaliste: all, who [63] care for France, know these schools of art, and the various branches of them.

But we have now to say the few words, possible to an English writer, upon the last, the newest, of the French schools: and it cannot be without great caution, great deference, great submission, that I must speak. So sincerely do I feel this; so well do I recognize the difficulty of criticism and the peril of wrong judgment, incident to writers upon a foreign literature: that I will stand aside, and let a more competent writer define the schools, to which belong, not, it may be thought, too happily, the names of décadence or of symbolisme. Here is a concise view of them, by M. Antoni Lange:

"Manque d'Idées et de Formes neuves dans la littérature contemporaine: même chose en peinture et musique avant le Plein-air et le Wagnérisme. Un désir littéraire nouveau parmi l'Europe: la France, avec ses 'Décadents' qu'elle insulte, ouvre la voie.

"Histoire: chute du Romantisme, Parnassiens, le Naturalisme. Le Naturalisme a les tabulæ præsentiæ et absentiæ – métier et préparation, – et non comparationis que possède le Symbolisme, qui est philosophique.

"Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé.

"Paul Verlaine et son école: Jean Moréas, Jules Laforgue, Gustave Kahn, etc. Cette école n'est pas sortie du Romantisme et le continue.

L'école Symboliste et instrumentiste: école de Stéphane Mallarmé, dont René Ghil, Stuart Merrill, Henri de Régnier, Francis Vielé-Griffin, Emile Verhaeren, Georges Khnopff, c'est l'Ecole Nouvelle.

"Forme et matière: Symbole et musique.

"Matière, La poétique nouvelle: le TRAITÉ DU VERBE. Le tout de la théorie symboliste est dans ces mots de Mallarmé: '. . . . . brut et immédiat ici, là essentiel. . . .' La Poésie est un Symbole.

"Le point philosophique de l'Ecole: évolution, perfectionnement de l'humanité, Dieu et religion rationnels, vénération de la Raison, le sentiment dans l'intellect, oubli du Moi, universalisme des Symbolistes.

"Forme. Forme stricte. Enrichissement de la langue. Musique de la langue Française, son histoire: Hugo, [64] Gautier, Banville, Sully-Prudhomme, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé.

"Audition colorée. Une langue unissant les formes poetiques, éloquente, plastique, pictorale et musicale: l'INSTRUMENTATION PARLÉE de Rene Ghil.

"Conclusion: C'est là l'Ecole nouvelle: ‘elle est en sa période d'orage et de guerre. Elle deviendra une source d'universalisme actif et créateur pour le siècle qui vient, car il y a en elle les rayons de la Vérité.'"

Now, that is a most remarkable statement: we are here presented with a theory and a practice of poetry, involving, it would seem, Wagner's music, and Bacon's induction, and an host of scientific or philosophical things. It must either be very absurd: or very serious. I speak for myself: having read, pondered, and discussed, many volumes of this poetry, I do not find it absurd: on the contrary, I am somewhat disposed, to think it a little too serious. But that is a fault, venial indeed, in this hasty and impatient age.

In English, décadence and the literature thereof, mean this: the period, at which passion, or romance, or tragedy, or sorrow, or any other form of activity or of emotion, must be refined upon, and curiously considered, for literary treatment: an age of afterthought, of reflection. Hence come one great virtue, and one great vice: the virtue of much and careful meditation upon life, its emotions and its incidents: the vice of over subtilty and of affectation, when thought thinks upon itself, and when emotions become entangled with the consciousness of them.

In English, symbolisme, and its literature, mean this: a recognition, in things, of a double existence: their existence in nature, and their existence in mind. The sun sets: what is the impression of that upon your mind, as you say the words? Clearly, that is the "true truth" of the thing; its real and eternal significance: not the mere natural fact, but the thing, as it is in thought. So, literature is the evocation of truth from the passing show of things: a view, curiously like many philosophical views, from the days of Heraclitus to the days of Kant.

Now, in either of these schools, poetry becomes a matter of infinite. pains, and of singular attention: to catch the precise aspect of a thing, as you see or feel it; to express, [65] not the obvious and barren fact, but the inner and fruitful force of it; this is far from easy, far from trivial. And there are plenty of French versifiers, who produce mere riddles, meaningless and false, the mystifications of a trifling ingenuity. But the greater poets, whatever else may be said of them, are not of this kind: they are serious artists, true scholars, or real thinkers.

But where, it may be asked, where is the distinction of these men? Was not Rossetti, was not Baudelaire, each in his own way, mystical and reflective, following a somewhat tortuous way of thought? And did not Wordsworth, or did not Arnold, find in "the poet's consecration, and the dream," in themselves, "the light that never was, on sea or land"? Let us distinguish a little: it is in the deliberate science, the poetical science of these French poets, that their distinction lies. Each word is chosen, not for its own beauty or excellence; but, as a painter chooses his scheme of colour, or the musician his key; just so, do these poets choose, what shall be the dominant colour and tone of their poem. Now, in England we hear much vague and vicious talk about the arts, in which the terms of one are misapplied to another. In this French school, there is not this loose talk: but there is, in process of perfection, a complete science of relations between colour and sound, for poetical use. In the endeavour to make poetry universal, not parochial; to fill it with ideas of general force and value, not with arbitrary and personal ideas; not only the matter, but the form, is considered: and to the perfect truth of the one, corresponds the perfect truth of the other. So that, in this way, a symboliste poem is poetical, yet scientific: it is no longer descriptive or sensational, but, in a very real way, spiritual and true.

I cannot undertake to classify the leading writers of décadence and of symbolisme: they have points in common; some are more, some less, scientific than others; it is not for an Englishman to presume in this matter. But I will briefly mention a few of them: and so conclude an imperfect and tentative account, in which nothing must be taken for criticism, but rather for history.

M. Verlaine is now well known, and advanced in years: his poetry is musical to the verge of actual sound, in which meaning is of no value. Not that it is indeed so, with him: [66] but mere melody could scarce go farther, yet remain intelligible. His chief books, it may be thougt, are Les Fétes Galantes, Sagesse, Amour, and <Parallèlement>.

M. Mallarmé is accepted, by the younger poets, as "the master": a poet of the strictest method, with a singular combination of sweetness and austerity, the result of imagination and of science: his sonnets, and L'Après-Midi d'un Faune, for all their difficulty to foreign readers, convey a sense of his power.

M. Kahn, among the younger poets, is the most admirable, for a certain refinement of musical charm, and for a certain power of expressing a subtile and vagrant emotion, with a marvellous exactitude and delicacy: as may be seen in his Palais Nomades.

M. Ghil is the theorist; his poems, to my hesitating mind at least, are less interesting than his theories: so I will now recommend only his treatise, with a preface by M. Mallarmé, Le Traité du Verbe.

M. Moréas, a poet of some audacity, gives a singular effect of robustness, by poems not at all lacking in qualities of grace and beauty: witness Les <Cantilènes>.

Of Rimbaud and Laforgue, I do not here speak: because their names are familiar in great measure; and because, of all poets, they are the most impossible to describe. Not that these meagre sentences are put forward, as properly descriptive: but as hints of the way in which these poets affect the reader, each in his different degree and kind, by their several manners, more than by their matter.

I seem to hear some friend exclaim: "What is the use of all this talk about science? Poeta nascitur, non fit." True! a man cannot make himself a poet: but "the born poet" has to make his poetry. And the younger poets of France are "making verses", to use that sensible phrase of the last century, in a way not uninteresting, I think, to some of us English islanders.





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Bd. 6, 1891, Nr. 22, April, S. 61-66.


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