Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The big good poets of French Romanticism - finally I make use of my French - for all of the good it does me

I have in front of me The Oxford Book of French Verse, first published in 1907, “Chosen by St. John Lucas,” a 500 page collection of French poems in French, with only the introduction and notes in English.  Just about half of the book covers the 19th century, and half of that is just four poets: Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, and Alfred de Musset.  Those are the poets I want to linger over here.  You may note that I have skipped the Revolution and the “little bad poets of the Empire,” as the saint calls them (p. xxx).  I was going to say something dismissive, but not that cruel.  For whatever reason, Bonaparte was not good for French literature.

It roared back to life in the 1820s, first with the poets, then the theatre, and then the novel and its variants, but that will be more in the 1830s.  It began with The Poetic Meditations (1820) of Lamartine, and for him that is almost where it ended, since he used his fame to go into politics.  Inventing French Romanticism was only one of his accomplishments.

I am not entirely sure what French Romanticism is.  It is in large part an argument with French Classicism, and I am not so sure what that is.  I am reading an old school edition of Hugo’s Les feuillles d’automnes (Autumn Leaves, 1831) which includes notes about Hugo’s many violation of Classical rules, such as when he uses feminine rhymes inappropriately or puts the caesura in the wrong place.  If you say so, I think.  An advanced topic in French prosody.  Anyway, these poets are doing it wrong, however subtly, which was once pretty exciting.

My memory of the relevant English translations:

There’s a pretty good translation of Lamartine’s Meditations.

There is a functional but dull translation of Musset’s complete poems.

Given his stature, there is not much Hugo in English.

There is close to no Vigny in English.  No idea why.

A short selected Musset and selected Vigny would be valuable additions to English literature, hint hint, poetic translators.  Vigny and Musset have plays available in good English.  See Vigny’s Chatterton (1835) for some intense French Romanticism as reflected in an imaginary version of an actual misunderstood, doomed teenage poet.

I read that one in French while reading Vigny’s complete poems, now that I could.  I have also been filling in some Hugo, a tiny fraction of his thousands of pages of poems.  That would be a feat, reading Hugo’s complete poems.

Vigny wrote narrative poems, mostly in rhyming couplets.  Stories about Roland, Jesus, “The Anger of Samson,” (the death of) “Moses,” “The Death of the Wolf” – how the French love stories about wolves.  I could not believe how many children’s books there are about wolves, both funny and scary.  The hunter in the poem kills the wolf, but learns that wolves are better than people, or no worse.

Early Hugo has been a surprise and just what I expected.  He was immediately Hugolian, from the poems written when he was 18, hugely skilled, confident or a blowhard depending on one’s taste.  His first few little books, collected in Odes and Ballads (1828), are all political, legitimist, about the great fallen heroes who fought the Revolution.  I certainly learned the word for “executioner,” since it appears in every poem.  This is not the Hugo who is the champion of the powerless.  The primary victim of capital punishment he has in mind is Louis XVI.

Hugo changed quickly.  Maybe the poor are the subjects of the last half of Odes et Ballades.  I only read the first half.  Hugo exhausted me.

I have one complaint, which I can at this point make about Vigny and Hugo: they were not great rhymers.  They use lots of conventional rhymes, and there is clearly no penalty for repeating them in poem after poem – ombre / sombre (shadow / dark) , orage / nuage or orage / ombrage (storm / snow, shady), essor / trésor (flight / treasure) – that last one is the worst, since it is so phony.  The poets of a couple of a generation later wouldn’t allow this.  Paul Verlaine put an end to it.


  1. This makes me glad of English, which has so many rhyme words for poets--and they can be from such different parts of a sentence. And that makes for diverse choices and surprise.

    I haven't read these poets since high school, when I did an independent study that hit a lot of French poets...and scraped through many of them with my terrible, terrible French. Surprises me that anybody let me do such a thing, back then.

    Vigny had a stanza form he invented and used multiple times. I just looked it up: ababccb. Must have been hard to fulfill and make live with "lots of conventional rhymes."

  2. Hugo exhausted everyone. "Hugo, - hélas!"

  3. These were poets deeply concerned with originality, so it was a little surprising to see that the rhymes were did not, in this sense, matter so much. Well, it gave ;ater poets something to do.

    I have wondered the same thing, Marly, about many papers or projects from high school, or college. "But I knew nothing!" I guess that is how we learn, but I pity the teacher a little.

    I was so naive about Hugo. "These are just lyric poems, no problem." Yes, but they are odes, and this is Hugo. They are heavy poems.

  4. Here's a nice non-heavy one:

    On doute
    La nuit …
    Tout fuit,
    Tout passe;
    Le bruit.

  5. "Les Djinns"! Yes, that is a whole 'nother thing.

  6. I'm not a reader of poetry.

    I always wondered how Lamartine could be both a Romantic poet and a politician.

  7. The sensibilities seem pretty different, don't they?