Thursday, April 15, 2010

The moon-clowns of Jules Laforgue

No one is more frequently mentioned in discussions of modern poetry than Jules Laforgue...

So says William Jay Smith at the very beginning of his Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue, Greenwood Press, 1956.  What a wonderful absurdity.  Readers more knowledgeable about discussions of modern poetry circa 1956 will please let me know which one of us is wrong.  Either way, I will mention him now.

The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon (1886) is a book of poems about clowns who live on the moon.  What?  You heard me.  "Tattooed upon their pure white hearts \ Are the maxims of the Moon."  They wear black silk skullcaps and use dandelions as boutonieres.

They feed on little but thin air,
On vegetables also at times,
Rice that is whiter than their costume,
Mandarins, and hard-boiled eggs.

Laforgue describes the moon-clowns, follows them around, eavesdrops on them.  They seem to have romantic problems.  They hope, as one might expect, to transcend lunar existence and become myth.

Let's see.  Those were the moon clowns.  What else do we have?

Laforgue rewrote Hamlet, so that the Prince, upon writing his revenge tragedy, becomes bit by the bug of authorship and runs off with the theater troupe.  Hilarious, although not the whole story.

He was a deft art critic.  Laforgue's articles about Impressionist painters feel entirely up to date.  I have seen Laforgue described as an "Impressionist poet," which means that he composed his poems in the open air with newly invented oil paints, and tried to precisely capture fleeting instances of light and life.  No, that's not at all what he did, so I have no idea what "Impressionist poet" means.

Poor guy died when he was twenty-seven, of tuberculosis, a couple of years after The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon.  He'd just married an English girl he had met in Berlin.  She sounds nice.  She died a year later.  It's all so, so sad.

It comes with the force of a body blow
That the Moon is a place one cannot go.
Descend and bathe my sheet tonight
So I may wash my hands of life!


  1. That is incredibly sad. A guy who wrote a book of poems about clowns who live on the moon deserves better than that. Who knows what else he could've come up with?

  2. William Jay Smith was wrong (though maybe he was referring to dicussion-of-poetry-by-people-who-mention Jules Laforgue-a-lot, in which case he was right), but I like the sound of Laforgue a lot.

  3. Who knows what else he could've come up with?

    He did have time to invent vers libre beore he died.

    Cy - that explains it!

    Laforgue really is a lot of fun. Not as crushingly obscure as Mallarmé, not as morally suspect as Rimbaud, not as zany as Corbière.

  4. Take a look at this page, Amateur Reader:

  5. Thanks for that link - that book looks like my sort of thing. Very helpful.

  6. You're welcome. As for the moon-clowns, check out the Wikipedia "Pierrot" page.

  7. I am reading a book of Randall Jarrell's criticism, and he reviews this very book. He says, "He [Smith] is a good translator; but where Laforgue is concerned, a good translation isn't good enough. Putting Laforgue into English, ordinarily, is like transcribing "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair" for brass band. Laforgue's negligent, improvisatory elegance -- his first fine unrecapturable rapture -- goes over into no English but Eliot's, and even Eliot's has a grimness that would have troubled the lovable Laforgue."

    There is much more. The whole of this lovely book is worth reading, and this essay is wonderful.

  8. Jenny - I've come to think that a good rule of thumb is "Jarrell was always correct." I haven't read that essay, and should, but it sounds right.

  9. After reading most of this collection (Auden, Kipling & Co. -- highly highly recommended) I have to agree with that rule of thumb. He seems to have been nearly infallible. He has even convinced me on e.e. cummings. I'm suitably wowed.

  10. French auteur Jean Renoir (son of famous painter Auguste) had several possible projects to film in 1931, one of which was Laforgue's HAMLET. Unfortunately for Laforgue fans, Renoir chose LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR instead. One imagines he might not be quite so obscure had film history taken a different turn. Still might be a fun adaptation for some adventurous soul. (This obscure footnote comes from the book JEAN RENOIR: PROJECTIONS OF PARADISE - pp.122)

  11. Ah, what a wonderful imaginary film! Laforgue's Hamlet is original and eminently filmable. Oh well.

    In certain moods I call Grand Illusion the best movie ever made.

  12. Ha ha, I'm the fellow who commented on your musings on Corbiere. Went on the internet to see what I could find about Laforgue and lo and behold here I am at your wonderful site again. I just picked up Dale's translations and was wondering what other people had to say regarding them. I'm Canadian (I don't have or want a Google+ account hence I'm "anonymous"...) so my french isn't too bad. I must admit the further I read into Dale's versions the more uncomfortable I'm becoming. He claims to not take creative license but I've come across a couple of lines that, as far as I can see, completely distort the original by padding in order to maintain the meter count. That being said I'm at a loss to explain why Laforgue is not much better known. Seems to me we have the original Charly Chaplin type of character here which has proven to be such a powerful trope in modern writing. Besides Eliot's Prufrock I see the tramps of Beckett, Svevo's Zeno and some of Pessoa's personas waiting in the wings. Irony abounds but so far it hasn't hit me as either too heavy or a complete collapse into cynicism...there's still an earnest to his words that makes me feel a bit sad for the poor fellow. I wonder what this man would have done if he'd not died so young. As always hats off Tom, love your blog and musings.

  13. Your note got trapped in the comment glue, but I have freed it. That is a fine description of Laforgue at the end.

    It is not clear to me that a translator would want to be as free with Laforgue as with Corbière - Laforgue is already pretty free himself.

    I agree - Laforgue has a serious claim on readers of English poetry, but he has remained a favorite of specialists.