A couple of years ago I read parts of Jules Laforgue’s The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon, an 1886 collection of poems about clowns who live on the moon, as well as the rest of the old Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue. That book is a treasure, but I do remember being a bit puzzled by the claim that Laforgue was the inventor of vers libre and central influence on Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. I suspect that the variety of Laforgue’s writing, and the oddity of those moon clowns, blurred my focus. A new book makes it all clear.
Derniers Vers (1890) is a posthumous collection – poor Laforgue died when he was twenty-seven – of twelve poems. They may or may not be designed as a unit, although they feel like they are. The poet, depressed by the oncoming winter, reflects on a love affair gone wrong; that, perhaps, is the story. Or the November of the last poem could be a year, or many years, after the autumn of the first poems. Within the sequence, though, the voice is indeterminate and likely moves among different characters or positions.
We begin in the rain, thinking of “The Winter Ahead:”
In the sodden forest, spiderwebs
Bend under plops of raindrops, and that’s the end of them [et c’est leur ruine]…
Tonight the dying sun sprawls on a hilltop,
Turns onto his side, in the heather, in his overcoat.
A sun as white as barfly’s phlegm
On a litter of yellow heather,
Yellow autumn heather.
All of this is more or less literally translated by Donald Revell in Last Verses (2011). On the one hand, the poet’s attitude is almost unbearably Romantic, abandoning himself to the pathetic fallacy, using the rain to reinforce his dismal mood, although what real Romantic would compare the setting sun to a disgusting drunk?
Even the blaring hunting horns do not move the sun:
He just lies there, like a gland torn out of somebody’s throat,
Shivering, utterly alone.
The poetic poet reasserts himself, though, with that final repetition, unfortunately much less song-like in English than French:
Sur une litière de jaunes genets
De jaunes genets d’automne.
I chose this passage because it has so many of the typical features of these poems, the mix of Romantic and anti-Romantic imagery, and the range of tone, from elevated to colloquial, even coarse. A couple of poems later (“III. Sundays”), the love interest has been introduced, which hardly improves matters. The poem ends with the poet trying to shore up his own confidence:
And as for you, last of the poets,
Get out a little. You look terrible.
It’s a nice enough day. People are out and about.
Take a walk to the drugstore.
Fix yourself up.
I fear this advice should also be directed at me, the last of the critics; my excuse is that it only amounts to thirty pages of text, the book is confoundingly complex. I will try again tomorrow. Perhaps this reviewer at Three Percent got it right.