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Avignon accent comes out in moments of excitement ;
or Mademoiselle Duplan, the drawing-mistress, who
wears a huge hat with feathers in the depths of her own
home and dashes out every few moments to drive the
boys from her espaliers; or M. de la Vigneraie, coarse
and subtle, with his loud voice and his pinchbeck nobility
and his domestic subterfuges.

Every one will laugh with these inhabitants of Rivray-
sur-Vince, but English readers must not be a little
philosophical in order to appreciate young Master
Georges. It is not a mere display of Podsnappery to
find him curiously exotic to our ideas of decorous youth.
But we ought to take a pleasure in him as a psychological
specimen, although so very unlike those which flourish
in our own collections. There is no cricket, of course,
at Rivray-sur-Vince, and no base-ball ; Georges neither
rides, nor shoots, nor even fishes. He smokes quantities
of little cigarettes, and he takes walks, not too far nor
too fast, and always on the shady side. In fact, the
notion of physical exercise does not enter into his head.
Notwithstanding this, Georges Dolonne is not a milksop
or a muff ; he is simply a young French gentleman in an



3IO French Profiles

immature condition. Mentally he is much more alert,
much more adroit and astute, than an English boy in
his seventeenth year would be, and the extremely
amusing part of the book — that part, indeed, where it
rises to a remarkable originality — is where the contrast
is silently drawn between what his relations and friends
believe Georges to be and insist upon his being, and the
very wide-awake young person that he really is. The
prominent place which the appearance and company of
women take in the interests of a young Frenchman at
an age when the English j-outh has scarcely awakened
to the existence of an ornamental side to sex is exempli-
fied very acutely, but with a charming reserve, in Les
Vacances d'tin Jeunc Homme Sage.

1904.



FOUR POETS



FOUR POETS

STEPHANE MALLARMfe

In the midst of the violent incidents which occupied
pubhc attention during the month of September 1898
the passing of a curious figure in the hterary life of
France was almost unobserved, Stephane Mallarme
died on the 9th at his cottage of Bichenic, near Vulaine-
sur-Seine, after a short illness. He was still in the fullness
of hfe, having been born i8th March, 1842, but he had
long seemed fragile. Five or six years ago, and at a
quieter time, the death of Mallarme would have been
a newspaper " event," for in the early nineties his
disciples managed to awaken around his name and his
very contemplative person an astonishing amount of
curiosity. This culminated in and was partly assuaged
by the pubhcation in 1893 of his Vers ct Prose, with a
dreamy portrait, a lithograph of great beauty, by Mr.
Whistler. Then Mallarme had to take his place among
things seen and known ; his works were no longer arcane ;
people had read Herodiade, and their reason had sur-
vived the test. In France, where sensations pass so
quickly, Mallarme has already long been taken for
granted.

It was part of his resolute oddity to call himself by
the sonorous name of Stephane, but I have been assured
that his god-parents gave him the humbler one of
:^tienne. He was descended from a series, uninterrupted

313



314 French Profiles



both on the father's and on the mother's side, of officials
connected with the parochial and communal registers,
and Mallarme was the quite-unexpected flower of this
sober vegetation. He was to have been a clerk himself,
but he escaped to England about 1862, and returned to
Paris only to become what he remained, professionally,
for the remainder of his life — a teacher of the English
language. While he was with us he learned to cultivate
a passion for boating ; and in the very quiet, unambitious
life of his later years to steal away to his yole d'acajou
and lose himself, in dreaming, on one of the tributaries
of the Seine was his favourite, almost his only, escapade.
In 1875 he was in London, and then my acquaintance
with him began. I have a vision of him now, the Httle,
brown, gentle person, trotting about in Bloomsbury with
an elephant folio under his arm, trying to find Mr,
Swinburne by the unassisted light of instinct.

This famous folio contained Edgar Poe's Raven,
translated by Mallarme and illustrated in the most
intimidating style by Manet, who was then still an
acquired taste. We should to-day admire these illustra-
tions, no doubt, very much; I am afraid that in 1875,
in perfidious Albion, they awakened among the few
who saw them undying mirth. Mallarme's main design
in those days was to translate the poems of Poe, urged
to it, I think, by a dictum of Baudelaire's, that such a
translation " peut etre un reve caressant, mais ne peut
etre qu'un reve." Mallarme reduced it to reality, and
no one has ever denied that his version of Poe's poems
(1888) is as admirably successful as it must have been
difficult of performance. In 1875 the Parnassc Conteni-
porain had just rejected Mallarme's first important
poem, L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune, and his revolt against
the Parnassian theories began. In 1876 he suddenly



Stephane Mallarme 315

braved opinion by two " couriers of the Decadence,"
one the Faunc, in quarto, the other a reprint of Beck-
ford's Vathek, with a preface, an octavo in vellum.
Fortunate the bibliophil of to-day who possesses these
treasures, which were received in Paris with nothing but
ridicule and are now sought after like rubies.

The longest and the most celebrated of the poems of
M. Mallarme is L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune. It appears
in the " florilege " which he published in 1893, and I
have now read it again, as I have often read it before.
To say that I understand it bit by bit, phrase by phrase,
would be excessive. But if I am asked whether this
famous miracle of unintelligibility gives me pleasure, I
answer, cordially. Yes, I even fancy that I obtain from
it as definite and as solid an impression as M. Mallarme
desires to produce. This is what I read in it : A faun —
a simple, sensuous, passionate being — wakens in the
forest at daybreak and tries to recall his experience of
the previous afternoon. Was he the fortunate recipient
of an actual visit from nymphs, white and golden
goddesses, divinely tender and indulgent ? Or is the
memory he seems to retain nothing but the shadow of
a vision, no more substantial than the " arid rain " of
notes from his own flute ? He cannot tell. Yet surely
there was, surely there is, an animal whiteness among
the brown reeds of the lake that shines out yonder ?
Were they, are they, swans ? No ! But Naiads
plunging ? Perhaps !

Vaguer and vaguer grows the impression of this
delicious experience. He would resign his woodland
godship to retain it. A garden of lilies, golden-headed,
white-stalked, behind the trellis of red roses ? Ah !
the effort is too great for his poor brain. Perhaps if
he selects one lily from the garth of hUes, one benign



3 1 6 French Profiles

and beneficent yielder of her cup to thirsty lips, the
memory, the ever-receding memory, may be forced back.
So, when he has glutted upon a bunch of grapes, he is
wont to toss the empty skins into the air and blow them
out in a visionary greediness. But no, the delicious
hour grows vaguer; experience or dream, he will now
never know which it was. The sun is warm, the grasses
yielding ; and he curls himself up again, after worship-
ping the efficacious star of wine, that he may pursue
the dubious ecstasy into the more hopeful boskages of
sleep.

This, then, is what I read in the so excessively obscure
and unintelligible L'Aprh-Midi d'un Faime ; and,
accompanied as it is with a perfect suavity of language
and melody of rhythm, I know not what more a poem
of eight pages could be expected to give. It supplies
a simple and direct impression of physical beauty, of
harmony, of colour ; it is exceedingly mellifluous, when
once the ear understands that the poet, instead of being
the slave of the alexandrine, weaves his variations round
it like a musical composer. Unfortunately, L'Apres-Midi
was written fifteen years ago, and his theories have grown
upon M. Mallarme as his have on Mr. George Meredith.
In the new collection of Vers et Prose I miss some pieces
which I used to admire — in particular, surely, Placet,
and the delightful poem called Le Guignon. Perhaps
these were too lucid for the worshippers. In return, we
have certain allegories which are terribly abstruse, and
some subfusc sonnets. I have read the following, called
Le Tombeau d'Edgard Poe, over and over and over. I
am very stupid, but I cannot tell what it says. In a
certain vague and vitreous way I think I perceive what
it means ; and we are aided now by its being punctuated,
which was not the case in the original form in which I



Stephane Mallarme 317

met with it. But, " O my Brothers, ye the Workers,"
is it not still a little difficult ?

Tel qu'cn Lui-memc enfin rctcrnitc le change,

Le Poete suscite avec un glaive nu

Son siecle epouvante de n'avoir pas connu
Que la mort triomphait dans ccttc voix ctrangc !
liux, comme un vil sursaut d'hydre oyant jadis I'angc

Donner un sens plus pur aux mots dc la tribu

Proclamerent tres haut le sortilege bu
Dans le flot sans honneur de quclquc noir melange.
Du sol et de la nuc hostiles, 6 grief !
Si notre idee avec ne sculpte un bas-relief

Dont la tombe de Foe eblouissante s'orne
Calme bloc ici-bas chu d'un desastre obscur,

Que ce granit du moins montre a jamais sa borne
Aux noirs vols du Blaspheme epars dans le futur.

Of the prose of M. Mallarme, I can here speak but
briefly. He did not publish very much of it ; and it
is all polished and cadenced like his verse, with strange
transposed adjectives and exotic nouns fantastically
employed. It is even more distinctly to be seen in his
prose than in his verse that he descends directly from
Baudelaire, and in the former that streak of Lamartine
that marks his poems is lacking.

The book called Pages can naturally be compared with
the Poemes en Prose of Baudelaire. Several of the
sketches so named are reprinted in Vers et Prose, and
they strike me as the most distinguished and satis-
factory of the published writings of M. Mallarme. They
are difficult, but far more intelligible than the enigmas
which he calls his sonnets. La Pipe, in which the sight
of an old meerschaum brings up dreams of London and
the solitary lodgings there ; Le Nenuphar Blanc, record-
ing the vision of a lovely lady, visible for one tantalising
moment to a rower in his boat; Frisson d'Hiver, the
wholly fantastic and nebulous reverie of archaic elegances
evoked by the ticking of a clock of Dresden china ; each



3i8 French Profiles

of these, and several more of these exquisite Pages, give
just that impression of mystery and allusion which the
author deems that style should give. They are exquisite
— so far as they go— pure, distinguished, ingenious ; and
the fantastic oddity of their vocabulary seems in perfect
accord with their general character.

Here is a fragment of La Pemdiieme, on which the
reader may try his skill in comprehending the New
French :

" Mais ou s'installe I'irrecusable intervention du
surnaturel, et le commencement de I'angoisse sous la-
quelle agonise mon esprit naguere seigneur, c'est quand
je vis, levant les yeux, dans la rue des antiquaires
instinctivement suivie, que i'ctais devant la boutique
d'un luthier vendeur de vieux instruments pendus au
mur, et, a terre, des palmes jaunes et les ailes enfouies en
I'ombre, d'oiseaux anciens. Je m'enfuis, bizarre, per-
sonne condamnee a porter probablement le deuil de
I'inexplicable Penultieme."

As a translator, all the world must commend M.
Mallarme. He has put the poems of Poe into French
in a way which is subtle almost without parallel. Each
version is in simple prose, but so full, so reserved, so
suavely mellifluous, that the metre and the rhymes
continue to sing in an English ear. None could enter
more tenderly than he into the strange charm of Ula-
lutne, of The Sleeper, or of TJie Raven. It is rarely
indeed that a word suggests that the melody of one, who
was a symbolist and a weaver of enigmas like himself,
has momentarily evaded the translator.

Extraordinary persistence in an idea, and extra-
ordinary patience under external discouragement, these
were eminent characteristics of Mallarme. He was not
understood. Well, he would wait a little longer. He



Stephane Mallarme 319

waited, in fact, some seventeen years before he admitted
an ungrateful public again to an examination of iiis
specimens. Meanwhile, in several highly eccentric
forms, the initiated had been allowed to buy Pages
from his works in prose and verse, at high prices, in
most limited issues. Then, in 1893, there was a burst
of celebrity and perhaps of disenchantment. When
the tom-toms and the conches are silent, and the Veiled
Prophet is revealed at last, there is always some frivolous
person who is disappointed at the revelation. Perhaps
Mallarme was not quite so thrilling when his poems could
be read by everybody as when they could only be gazed
at through the glass bookcase doors of wealthy amateurs.
But still, if everybody could now read them, not every-
body could understand them. In 1894 the amiable
poet came over here, and delivered at Oxford and at
Cambridge, cites savantes, an address of the densest
Cimmerian darkness on Music and Letters. In 1897
appeared a collection of essays in prose, called Divaga-
tions. The dictionaries will tell the rest of the story.

The problem may, perhaps, now be definitely stated.
Language, to Mallarme, was given to conceal the
obvious, to draw the eye, in direct opposition to Words-
worth's axiom, away from the object. The Parnassians
had described, defined, inexorably modelled the object,
until it stood before us as in a coloured photograph.
The aim of Mallarme was as much as possible to escape
from photographic exactitude. He aimed at illusion
only; he wrapped a mystery about his simplest utter-
ance; the abstruse and the suggestive are his peculiar
territory. His desire was to use words in such har-
monious combinations as will induce in the reader a
mood or a condition which is not mentioned in the text,
but was nevertheless paramount in the poet's mind at



320 French Profiles



the moment of composition. To a conscious aiming at
this particular effect are, it appears to me, due the
more curious characteristics of his style, and much of
the utter bewilderment which it produced on the bram
of indolent readers debauched by the facilities of
realism.^

It seems quite impossible to conjecture what posterity
will think of the poetry of Stephane Mallarme. It is
not of the class which rebuffs contemporary sympathy
by its sentiments or its subjects; the difficulty of
Mallarme consists entirely in his use of language. He
was allied with, or was taken as a master by, the young
men who have broken up and tried to remodel the
prosody of France. In popular estimation he came to
be identified with them, but in error; there are no vers
litres in Mallarme. He was resolutely misapprehended,
and perhaps, in his quiet way, he courted misappre-
hension. But if we examine very carefully in what his
eccentricity (or his originality) consisted, we shall find
it all resolving itself into a question of language. He
thought that the vaunted precision and lucidity of
French style, whether in prose or verse, was degrading
the national literature ; that poetry must preserve, or
must conquer, an embroidered garment to distinguish
her from the daily newspaper. He thought the best
ways of doing this were, firstly, to divert the mind of
the reader from the obvious and beaten paths of thought,
and secondly, to arrange in a decorative or melodic
scheme words chosen or reverted to for their peculiar
dignity and beauty.

It was strange that Mallarme never saw, or never
chose to recognise, that he was attempting the impossible.

^ See Appendix, for a letter from M. Mallarme himself on this
subject.



Stephane Mallarme 321

He went on giving us intimations of what he meant,
never the thing itself. His pubhshed verses are mere
faUings from him, vanishings, blank misgivings of a
creature moving about in worlds not realised. They
are fragments of a very singular and complicated system
which the author never carried into existence. Mal-
larme has left no " works," and, although he was always
hinting of the Work, it was never written. Even his
Virgilian Faune, even his Ovidian Hcrodiade, are merely
suggestions of the solid Latin splendour with which
he might have carried out a design he did no more than
indicate. He was a wonderful dreamer, exquisite in
his intuitions and aspirations, but with as little creative
power as has ever been linked with such shining con-
victions.

What effect will the life and death of Mallarme have
upon poetry in France ? Must it not be hoped that his
influence may prove rather temporary and transitional
than lasting ? He did excellent peripatetic service.
His conversation and example preserved alight, through
a rather prosy time, the lamp of poetic enthusiasm ; he
was a glowing ember. But, on the other hand, who can
deny that his theories and practice, ill-comprchendcd as
they were, provoked a great display of affectation and
insincerity ? Prose pour les Esseintes is a very curious
and interesting composition ; but it is not a good model
for the young. Mallarme himself, so lucid a spirit of so
obscure a writer, was well av,are of this. People, he
found, were cocksure of what his poems meant when the
interpretation was only dawning upon himself after
a generation of study. A youthful admirer once told
him, it is said, that he entirely understood the meaning
of one of his most cryptic publications. " What a
genius you have ! " replied Mallarme, with his gentle

Y



322 French Profiles



smile : " at the age of twenty you have discovered in a
week what has baffled me for thirty years."

Some of the eulogies on this poor, charming Mallarme,
with his intense and frustrated aspiration after the
perfect manner, have been a cruel satire on his prestige.
From one of these mystifications I learn that " with the
accustomed Parian (flesh of death), Mallarme associated
grafts of life unforeseen, eyes of emerald or of sapphire,
hair of gold or silver, smiles of ivory," and that these
statues " failed to fidget on their glued-down feet,
because to the brutal chisel had succeeded a proud and
delicate shiver ghmmering through the infinite, percep-
tible to the initiated alone, like the august nibbling-away
of Beauty by a white mouse ! " So far as Mallarme
and his theories are responsible for writing such as this —
and for the last fifteen years his name has been made
the centre for a prodigious amount of the like clotted
nonsense — even those who loved and respected the man
most cannot sincerely wish that his influence should
continue.

Mallarme has been employed as a synonym for
darkness, but he did not choose this as a distinction.
He was not like Donne, who, when Edward Herbert
had been extremely crabbed in an elegy on Prince
Henry, wrote one himself to " match," as Ben Jonson
tells us, Herbert " in obscureness." In a letter to
myself, some years ago, Mallarme protested with evident
sincerity against the charge of being Lycophrontic :
" excepte par maladresse ou gaucherie je ne suis pas
obscur." Yet where is obscurity to be found if not in
Don du Poeme ? What is dense if the light flows freely
through Prose pour des Esseintes ? Some of his altera-
tions of his own text betray the fact that he treated
words as musical notation, that he was far more inti-



Stephane Mallarme 32-^

mately affected by their euphonic interrelation than by
their meaning in logical sequence. In my own copy of
Les Fenetres, he has altered in MS. the line



" Que clore la main chaste dc I'lnlini "



to



" Que dore le matin chaste de I'lnfini.*

Whether the Infinite had a Hand or a Morning was
purely a question of euphony. So, what had long
appeared as " mon exotique soin " became " mon
unique soin." In short, Mallarme used words, not as
descriptive, but as suggestive means of communication
between the writer and the reader, and the object of a
poem of his was not to define what the poet was thinking
about, but to force the listener to think about it by
blocking up all routes of impression save that which led
to the desired and indicated bourne.

He was a very delightful man, whom his friends
deeply regret. He was a particularly lively talker, and
in his conversation, which was marked by good sense no
less than by a singular delicacy of perception, there was
no trace of the wilful perversity of his written style.
He had a strong sense of humour, and no one will ever
know, perhaps, how far a waggish love of mystification
entered into his theories and his experiments. He was
very much amused when Verlaine said of him that he
" considera la clartc comme une grace secondaire." It
certainly was not the grace he sought for first. We may,
perhaps, be permitted to think that he had no such
profoundly novel view of nature or of man as justified
procedures so violent as those w^hich he introduced. But ,
when we were able to comprehend him, we perceived an
exquisite fancy, great refinement of feeling and an
attitude towards fife which was uniformly and sensitively



324 French Profiles

poetical. Is it not to be supposed that when he could
no longer be understood, when we lost him in the blaze
of language, he was really more delightful than ever, if
only our gross senses could have followed him ?

1893-1898.

M. IiMILE VERHAEREN

Among those poets who have employed the French
tongue with most success in recent years, it is curious
that the two whose claims to distinction are least open
to discussion should be, not Frenchmen at all, but
Flemings of pure race. The work of M. Verhaeren has
not the amusing quality which has given a universal
significance to the dramas and treatises of M. Maeter-
linck, and he has remained obstinately faithful to the
less popular medium of verse. In our English sense of
the term, M. Maeterlinck is a poet only upon occasion,
while M. Verhaeren never appears without his singing-
robes about him. By dint of a remarkable persistency
in presenting his talent characteristically to his readers,
M. Verhaeren has risen slowly but steadily to a very
high eminence. He has out-lived the impression, which
prevailed at first, of ugliness, of squalor, of a pre-
occupation with themes and aspects radically anti-
poetical. He has conquered us deliberately, book by
book. He has proved that genius is its own best judge
of what is a good " subject," and imperceptibly we have
learned to appreciate and respect him. He is true to
himself, quite indefatigable, and we are beginning to
realise at last that he is one of the very small group of
really great poets born in Europe since 1850.

He has a local, besides his universal, claim on our
respect, since he is the pioneer and captain of the
brilliant neo-Belgian school which is now so active and



M. £mile Verhaeren 325



so prominent. His first book of verses, Les Flamandes,
of 1883, is curious to look back upon. It was tlirust
upon a perfectly hostile world of Brussels, a world with
its eyes loyally fixed on Paris. It had just the same
harsh, austere aspect which M. Verhaeren's poetry has
preserved ever since. It was utterly unlike what came
from Paris then, dear little amber-scented books of
polished sonnets, bound in vellum, with Lemerre's
familiar piochcur on the cover. It was the first shoot
of a new tree, of Franco-Flemish imaginative literature,
M. Verhaeren cared nothing for the neglect of the critics ;
he went on putting forth successive little volumes, no
less thorny, no less smelling of the dykes and dunes —
Lesi Moines in 1886, Les Soirs in 1887, Les Debacles in
1888. It was not until 1889 that M. Maeterlinck came
to his support with a first book, the Serres Chaudcs.
Meanwhile, the genius of M. Verhaeren, the product
of an individuality of extraordinary strength, pressed
steadily forward. He has gained in suppleness and
skill since then, but all that distinguishes him from other
writers, all that is himself, is to be found in these earliest
pamphlets of gaunt, realistic poetry.

The following dismal impression of London is highly
characteristic of the early Verhaeren of Les Soirs : —

" Et ce Londres de fonte ct dc bronze, mon ame,


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