Arthur Symons



Jules Laforgue



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JULES LAFORGUE was born at Montevideo, of Breton parents, August 20, 1860. He died in Paris in 1887, two days before his twenty-seventh birthday. From 1880 to 1886 he had been reader to the Empress Augusta at Berlin. He married only a few months before his death. D'allures? says M. Gustave Kahn, fort correctes, de hauts gibus, des cravates sobres, des vestons anglais, des pardessus clergymans, et de par les nécessités, un parapluie immuablement placé sous le bras. His portraits show us a clean-shaved, reticent face, betraying little. With such a personality anecdotes have but small chance of appropriating those details by which expansive natures express themselves to the world. We know nothing about Laforgue which his work is not better able to tell us. The whole of that work is contained in two small volumes, one of prose, the Moralités Légend[106]aires, the other of verse, Les Complaintes, L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune, and a few other pieces, all published during the last three years of his life. The prose and verse of Laforgue, scrupulously correct, but with a new manner of correctness, owe more than any one has realised to the half-unconscious prose and verse of Rimbaud. 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.

Encore un de mes pierrots mort;
    Mort d'un chronique orphelinisme;
    C'etait un cœur plein de dandyisme
Lunaire, en un drôle de corps;

[107] he will say to us, with a familiarity of manner, as of one talking languidly, in a low voice, the lips always teased into a slightly bitter smile; and he will pass suddenly into the ironical lilt of

Hôtel garni
De l'infini,

Sphinx et Joconde
Des défunts mondes;

and from that into this solemn and smiling end of one of his last poems, his own epitaph, if you will:

Il prit froid l'autre automne,
S'étant <attardé> vers les peines des cars,
Sur la fin d'un beau jour.
Oh! ce fut pour vos cors, et ce fut pour l'automne,
Qu'il nous montra qu' "on meurt d'amour! "
On ne le verra plus aux fêtes nationales,
S'enfermer dans l'Histoire et tirer les verrous,
Il vint trop tard, il est reparti sans scandale;
O vous qui m'écoutez, rentrez chacun chez vous

The old cadences, the old eloquence, the ingenuous seriousness of poetry, are all banished, on a theory as self-denying as that which permitted Degas to dispense with recognisable beauty in his figures. Here, if ever, is modern verse, verse which dispenses with so many of the privileges of poetry, for [108] 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.

The prose of the Moralités Légendaires is perhaps even more of a discovery. Finding its origin, as I have pointed out, in the experimental prose of Rimbaud, it carries that manner to a singular perfection. Disarticulated, abstract, mathematically lyrical, it gives expression, in its icy ecstasy, to a very subtle criticism of the universe, with a surprising irony of cosmical vision. We learn from books of mediæval magic that the embraces of the devil are of a coldness so intense that it may be called, by an allowable figure of speech, fiery. Everything may be as strongly its opposite as itself, and that is why this balanced, chill, colloquial style of Laforgue has, in the paradox of its intensity, the essential heat of the most obviously emotional prose. The prose is more patient than the verse, with its more compassionate laughter at universal experience. It can laugh as seriously, as profoundly, as in that graveyard monologue of Hamlet, Laforgue's Hamlet, who, Maeterlinck ventures to [109] say, "is at moments more Hamlet than the Hamlet of Shakespeare." Let me translate a few sentences from it.

"Perhaps I have still twenty or thirty years to live, and I shall pass that way like the others. Like the others? O Totality, the misery of being there no longer! Ah! I would like to set out to-morrow, and search all through the world for the most adamantine processes of embalming. They, too, were, the little people of History, learning to read, trimming their nails, lighting the dirty lamp every evening, in love, gluttonous, vain, fond of compliments, hand-shakes, and kisses, living on bell-tower gossip, saying, 'What sort of weather shall we have to-morrow? Winter has really come. . . . We have had no plums this year.' Ah! everything is good, if it would not come to an end. And thou, Silence, pardon the Earth; the little madcap hardly knows what she is doing; on the day of the great summing-up of consciousness before the Ideal, she will be labelled with a pitiful idem in the column of the miniature evolutions of the Unique Evolution, in the column of negligeable quantities ... To die! Evidently, one dies without knowing it, as, every night, one enters upon sleep. One has no con[110]sciousness of the passing of the last lucid thought into sleep, into swooning, into death. Evidently. But to be no more, to be here no more, to be ours no more! Not even to be able, any more, to press against one's human heart, some idle afternoon, the ancient sadness contained in one little chord on the piano!"

In these always "lunar" parodies, Salomé, Lohengrin, Fils de Parsifal, Persée et Andromède, each a kind of metaphysical myth, he realises that la creature va hardiment à être cérébrale, anti-naturelle, and he has invented these fantastic puppets with an almost Japanese art of spiritual dislocation. They are, in part, a way of taking one's revenge upon science, by an ironical borrowing of its very terms, which dance in his prose and verse, derisively, at the end of a string.

In his acceptance of the fragility of things as actually a principle of art, Laforgue is a sort of transformed Watteau, showing his disdain for the world which fascinates him, in quite a different way. He has constructed his own world, lunar and actual, speaking slang and astronomy, with a constant disengaging of the visionary aspect, under which frivolity becomes an escape from the arrogance of a still more temporary mode of being, the [111] world as it appears to the sober majority. He is terribly conscious of daily life, cannot omit, mentally, a single hour of the day; and his flight to the moon is in sheer desperation. He sees what he calls l'Inconscient in every gesture, but he cannot see it without these gestures. And he sees, not only as an imposition, but as a conquest, the possibilities for art which come from the sickly modern being, with his clothes, his nerves: the mere fact that he flowers from the soil of his epoch.

It is an art of the nerves, this art of Laforgue, and it is what all art would tend towards if we followed our nerves on all their journeys. There is in it all the restlessness of modern life, the haste to escape from whatever weighs too heavily on the liberty of the moment, that capricious liberty which demands only room enough to hurry itself weary. It is distressingly conscious of the unhappiness of mortality, but it plays, somewhat uneasily, at a disdainful indifference. And it is out of these elements of caprice, fear, contempt, linked together by an embracing laughter, that it makes its existence.

Il n'y a pas de type, il y a la vie, Laforgue replies to those who come to him with classical ideals. Votre idéal est bien vite magnifiquement [112] submergé, in life itself, which should form its own art, an art deliberately ephemeral, with the attaching pathos of passing things. There is a great pity at the root of this art of Laforgue: self-pity, which extends, with the artistic sympathy, through mere clearness of vision, across the world. His laughter, which Maeterlinck has defined so admirably as "the laughter of the soul," is the laughter of Pierrot, more than half a sob, and shaken out of him with a deplorable gesture of the thin arms, thrown wide. He is a metaphysical Pierrot, Pierrot lunaire, and it is of abstract notions, the whole science of the unconscious, that he makes his showman's patter. As it is part of his manner not to distinguish between irony and pity, or even belief, we need not attempt to do so. Heine should teach us to understand at least so much of a poet who could not otherwise resemble him less. In Laforgue, sentiment is squeezed out of the world before one begins to play at ball with it.

And so, of the two, he is the more hopeless. He has invented a new manner of being René or Werther: an inflexible politeness towards man, woman, and destiny. He composes love-poems hat in hand, and smiles with an exasperating tolerance before all the transformations of the eternal femi[113]nine. He is very conscious of death, but his blague of death is, above all things, gentlemanly. He will not permit himself, at any moment, the luxury of dropping the mask: not at any moment.

Read this Autre Complainte de Lord Pierrot, with the singular pity of its cruelty, before such an imagined dropping of the mask:

Celle qui doit me mettre au courant de la Femme!
    Nous lui dirons d'abord, de mon air le moins froid:
"La somme des angles d'un triangle, chère âme,
          Est égale à deux droits"

Et si ce cri lui part: "Dieu de Dieu que je t'aime!"
    — "Dieu reconnaîtra les siens."   Ou piquée au vif:
— "Mes claviers ont du cœur, tu <seras> mon seul thème."
          Moi: "Tout est relatif."

De tous ses yeux, alors! se sentant trop banale:
    "Ah! tu ne m'<aimes> pas; tant d'autres sont jaloux!"
Et moi, d'un œil qui vers l'Inconscient s'emballe:
          "Merci, pas mal; et vous?"

"Jouons au plus fidèle!" — A quoi bon, ô Nature!
    "Autant à qui perd gagne."   Alors, autre couplet:
— "Ah! tu te lasseras le premier, j'en suis sûre."
          — "Après vous, s'il vous plaît."

Enfin, si, par un soir, elle meurt dans mes livres,
    Douce; feignant de n'en pas croire encor mes yeux,
J'aurai un: "Ah ça, mais, nous avions De Quoi vivre!
          C'était donc sérieux?

[114] And yet one realises, if one but reads him attentively enough, how much suffering and despair, and resignation to what is, after all, the inevitable, are hidden away under this disguise, and also why this disguise is possible. Laforgue died at twenty-seven: he had been a dying man all his life, and his work has the fatal evasiveness of those who shrink from remembering the one thing which they are unable to forget. Coming as he does after Rimbaud, turning the divination of the other into theories, into achieved results, he is the eternally grown up, mature to the point of self-negation, as the other is the eternal enfant terrible. He thinks intensely about life, seeing what is automatic, pathetically ludicrous in it, almost as one might who has no part in the comedy. He has the double advantage, for his art, of being condemned to death, and of being, in the admirable phrase of Villiers, "one of those who come into the world with a ray of moonlight in their brains."





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Arthur Symons: The Symbolist Movement in Literature.
London: Heinemann 1899, S. 105-114.


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Beckson, Karl u.a.: Arthur Symons.
A Bibliography.
Greensboro, NC: ELT Press 1990.

Symons, Arthur: Days and Nights.
London: Macmillan and Co. and New York 1889.

Symons, Arthur: Silhouettes.
London: Matthews & Lane 1892.
S. 13: Pastel.

Symons, Arthur: Paul Verlaine.
In: The National Review.
Bd. 19, 1892, Nr. 112, Juni, S. 501-515.

Symons, Arthur: Mr. Henley's Poetry.
In: The Fortnightly Review.
1892, August, S. 182-192. [PDF]

Symons, Arthur: The Decadent Movement in Literature.
In: Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
Bd. 87, 1893, Nr. 522, November, S. 858-867.

Symons, Arthur: Paul Verlaine.
In: The New Review.
1893, Dezember, S. 609-617. [PDF]

Symons, Arthur: London Nights.
London: Smithers 1895.

Symons, Arthur: Silhouettes.
Second edition. Revised and enlarged.
London: Smithers; New York: Richmond 1896.

Symons, Arthur: Studies in Two Literatures.
London: Smithers 1897.

Symons, Arthur: Mallarmé's "Divagations".
In: The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art.
Bd. 83, 1897, 30. Januar, S. 109-110.

Symons, Arthur: Le mysticisme de Maeterlinck.
In: La Revue des Revues.
Bd. 22, 1897, 15. September, S. 531-536.

Symons, Arthur: Stéphane Mallarmé
In: The Fortnightly Review.
1898, 1. November, S. 677-685. [PDF]

Symons, Arthur: The Symbolist Movement in Literature.
London: Heinemann 1899.

Symons, Arthur: Jules Laforgue.
In: Ders., The Symbolist Movement in Literature.
London: Heinemann 1899, S. 105-114.

Symons, Arthur: A Book of French Verse.
In: Literature. An International Gazette of Criticism.
1899, 10. November, S. 413-414.

Symons, Arthur: Ernest Dowson.
In: The Fortnightly Review.
1900, Juni, S. 947-957.

Symons, Arthur: What is Poetry?.
In: The Saturday Review.
Bd. 92, 31. August 1901, S. 271-272.

Symons, Arthur: Poems.
Bd. 1. New York: John Lane 1902.

Symons, Arthur: Poems.
Bd. 2. New York: John Lane 1902.
URL:   [London 1902]

Symons, Arthur: Lyrics.
Portland, Me.: Mosher 1903.

Symons, Arthur: Studies in Prose and Verse.
London: Dent; New York: Dutton o.J. [1904].

Symons, Arthur (Hrsg.): The Poems of Ernest Dowson.
With a Memoir by Arthur Symons, Four Illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and a Portrait by William Rothenstein.
London u. New York: Lane 1905.

Symons, Arthur: Qu'est-ce que la Poésie?
In: Vers et prose.
Bd. 3, 1905, September-November, S. 29-33.

Symons, Arthur: Studies in Seven Arts.
London: Constable 1906.
URL:   [New York 1906]

Symons, Arthur: Aspects of Verlaine.
In: The Smart Set. A Magazine of Cleverness.
Bd. 18, 1906, Nr. 1, Januar, S. 79-83.

Symons, Arthur: London. A Book of Aspects.
London: Privately printed 1909.

Symons, Arthur: Plays, Acting and Music. A Book of Theory.
London: Dutton & Company 1909.

Symons, Arthur: Art. Goncourt, DE.
In: The Encyclopædia Britannica. Eleventh Edition.
Volume XII. Cambridge, England; New York 1911, S. 231.

Symons, Arthur: Art. Mallarmé, Stéphane.
In: The Encyclopædia Britannica. Eleventh Edition.
Volume XVII. Cambridge, England; New York 1911, S. 490.

Symons, Arthur: Art. Verlaine, Paul.
In: The Encyclopædia Britannica. Eleventh Edition.
Volume XXVII. Cambridge, England; New York 1911, S. 1023-1024.

Symons, Arthur: Figures of Several Centuries.
London: Constable and Company 1916.
URL:   [New York o.J. (1916)]

Symons, Arthur: Colour Studies in Paris.
New York: Dutton & Company 1918.

Symons, Arthur: Claude Debussy.
In: The Egoist.
Bd. 5, 1918: Nr. 6, Juni-Juli, S. 82-83; Nr. 7, August, S. 93-94.

Symons, Arthur: The Symbolist Movement in Literature.
Revised and enlarged edition. New York: Dutton & Company 1919.

Symons, Arthur: Letters to W. B. Yeats, 1892-1902.
Edited by Bruce Morris.
Edinburgh: The Tragara Press 1989.

Symons, Arthur: Selected Letters, 1880-1935.
Edited by Karl Beckson and John M. Munro.
Basingstoke: Macmillan 1989.

Symons, Arthur: Selected Writings.
Edited with an introduction by Roger Holdsworth.
Manchester: Fyfield Books 2003.

Symons, Arthur: The Symbolist Movement in Literature.
Edited by Matthew Creasy.
Manchester: Carcanet 2014.

Duclos, Michèle: Un regard anglais sur le symbolisme français.
Arthur Symons, Le mouvement symboliste en littérature (1899), généalogie, traduction, influence.
Paris: L'Harmattan 2016.

Symons, Arthur: Selected Early Poems.
Edited with an introduction and notes by Jane Desmarais and Chris Baldick.
Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association 2017.

Symons, Arthur: Spiritual Adventures.
Edited with an introduction and notes by Nicholas Freeman.
Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association 2017.





Bizzotto, Elisa / Evangelista, Stefano-Maria (Hrsg.): Arthur Symons. Poet, Critic, Vagabond. Cambridge 2018.

Bootle, Sam: Laforgue, Philosophy, and Ideas of Otherness. Cambridge 2018.

Boyiopoulos, Kostas: The Decadent Image. The Poetry of Wilde, Symons and Dowson. Edinburgh 2015.

Boyiopoulos, Kostas u.a. (Hrsg.): Literary and Cultural Alternatives to Modernism. Unsettling Presences. New York u. London 2019.

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Bristow, Joseph (Hrsg.): The Fin-de-Siècle poem. English Literary Culture and the 1890s. Athens 2005.

Creasy, Matthew: 'The Neglected, the Unutterable Verlaine'. Arthur Symons, the Saturday Review, and French Literature in the 1890s. In: Victorian Periodicals Review 52.1 (2019), S. 103-123.

Danzer, Ina D.: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound und der französische Symbolismus. Heidelberg 1992 (= Heidelberger Forschungen, 29).

Ducrey, Guy: Le passeur du symbolisme français, Arthur Symons. In: 'Curious about France'. Visions littéraires victoriennes. Hrsg. von Ignacio Ramos Gay. Bern u.a. 2015, S. 137-152.

Fox, C. Jay / Stern, Carol S. / Means, Robert S.: Arthur Symons, Critic Among Critics: An Annotated Bibliography. Greensboro, NC 2007.

Freeman, Nick: Symons, Whistler: The Art of Seeing. In: Decadence and the Senses. Hrsg. von Jane Desmarais u. Alice Condé. Cambridge 2017, S. 15-31.

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Murat, Michel: Le vers libre. Paris 2008 (= Littérature de notre siècle, 36).

Pondrom, Cyrena N.: The Road from Paris. French Influence on English Poetry, 1900 – 1920. Cambridge 2010. – Zuerst 1974.

Scepi, Henri: Poétique de J. Laforgue. Paris 2000.

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Warner, Eric / Hough, Graham (Hrsg.): Strangeness and Beauty. An Anthology of Aesthetic Criticism 1840–1910. 2 Bde. Cambridge u.a. 2009.



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