Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A sweetness that makes you wonder: “When did all this actually happen?” - strange Jules Laforgue

I have concluded that much of my difficulty writing about Jules Laforgue’s Last Verses is that I have trouble sticking with a single text, the French or Donald Revell’s English.  Both are interesting.  The French is more interesting.  Perhaps tomorrow I will malign and praise the translation, but today I will use this throat-clearing preface as an anchor to the English.  Let’s look at the strangeness of Laforgue.  Revell does a great job with that.

The November weather runs through the twelve poems of Derniers Vers (“Pitch-black northern gale and howling downpour”), and so does the November hunt.  The beloved woman is compared to a hunted animal, for example, and not without sympathy (“Poor cornered animal heart, look out!”).  That idea is clear enough.  More perplexing is the recurrence of the sound of the hunt, “The Mystery of the Three Horns,” as the title of the second poem has it.

Out of the plain a horn
Blows insanely
While deep in the woods
Another replies;
The first sings yoo-hoo
To neighboring treetops,
And the second, whoo-hoo
To the echoing hills.

The “dying sun” returns from the first poem.  While before the sunset was an unconscious drunk, now it strips off its “papal garments” (“pontifical étole”) and releases “bloody sewage” into the town, a metaphor for the sunset’s red slanting light even more hideous than the drunk’s drool.  This sunset may well be the same drunk, since “Unscrupulous bootleggers” have released “Asian vitriol” into the flood, a “deluge of Chinese New Year fireworks and booze!”

The three hunters, the horn-blowers, emerge from the woods and decide to “Grab a drink \  Before we go home,” but to what effect?

Poor old horns!
So much bitterness, even in their laughter!
(I can still hear them laughing.)

Next day, the barmaid from the Grand Saint-Hubert
Found the three of them stone dead.

The cops and the coroner
Were called in,

And in due course they wrote a report
Of this most depraved of mysteries.

Despite their death, the sound of the horns can occasionally be heard in later poems.

Laforgue is mythologizing the love story at the heart of the book.  Two people meet, have a fling, fall apart.  Who cares?  The poem creates significance, or so the poet hopes.

Oh, I see… it isn’t autumn anymore,
It isn’t exile.
It’s the sweetness of legends, of the Golden Age,
Of Antigones,
A sweetness that makes you wonder:
“When did all this actually happen?”

This poem (“VIII. Legend”) also ends with a sunset, one that is “faithful to the West” just as “I was faithful to her in absolute hyperbole.”

The importance of Laforgue’s book has little to do with any of this, even with the imagery, but rather with the form, the freedom with which Laforgue breaks the rules of French prosody.  More surprising to me is how often, in one of the first books of vers libre, Laforgue follows the old rules, giving the violations their piquancy, but that is a separate topic.  Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot now had the form they needed, so they could shake out Laforgue’s contents and stuff in their own hobbyhorses and images.  Such is the nature of progress.


  1. This is the kind of irresponsible comment that should be made only after doing some basic research (and not off the cuff like this), but having read nothing of LaForgue other than your two posts on Vers Derniers, I'm wondering whether there may be some connection of these 12 poems to the 12 "month" paintings (of which but 6 remain) of Pieter Brueghel the elder? Reading your first post I flashed on an image from one of those paintings; reading your second it happened again. Having not read the poems, I expect to be embarrassed.

  2. I love the idea. Why not? If Laforgue were Austrian, with access to some of the Breughels, I would say "Absolutely!"

    The seasons do progress through the poems - e.g. in Poem VI "the tender feelings of May return" - but it is not obvious that they progress consistently.

    These poems have a sort of foreground \ background quality that is quite like Breughel. I mean, there is whatever is going on in the front, but also implied action, like those huntsmen in the woods, in the back.