Monday, July 30, 2018

ELEVEN: Writers


Baudelaire ranks as the protopoet of Symbolism. This designation can be understood in two ways. On the one hand, he is the precursor, the John the Baptist as it were of the movement. On the other hand, he is the first in the series, crystallizing some of the quintessential features of the movement.

The pote's biological father, who was elderly when he was married, died when his son was only five. Throughout his life Baudelaire remained closely attached to his mother.

As he showed no sign of taking up a profession, he mother (who had remarried) sent him on a voyage to India (1841). However, he jumped ship at Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, and returned to France. Then he returned to France. Afterwards he never traveled outside of France and Belgium.

On reaching twenty-one he came into his father’s inheritance, which he proceeded to squander on the proverbial wine, women, and song-—as well as paintings (he was a small-time collector and dealer). His mother, alarmed at his accumulating debts, placed him on a tiny monthly allowance, administered by a strict lawyer. These sums were never enough, and much of Baudelaire’s life was spent in scrounging together an existence. It may be that he would never have written much, except for the need to earn money. That this activity was never sufficient is a commentary on the way in which modern society starves its creative figures.

One should remember that Baudelaire’s first public identity was as an art critic. He debuted with his Salon of 1845, when he was only twenty-four. Painting was his love as a consumer (and for a time as a quasi-dealer), more perhaps than literature. (Offering little private recitals for friends, he was already a closet poet, but this activity was not generally known.) His biological father had been an artist, though a mediocre one, and Baudelaire had practiced drawing as a child.

In this first Salon Baudelaire says he will be impartial, contradicting this assertion the following year with the triple-P declaration: “partial, passionate, and political.”

His reliance on the neologism modernité (Chateaubriand, Balzac) becomes salient in the second Salon (1846).

He views Delacroix as the consummate artist, the most original of all time. By rallying to this great Romantic he hitched his wagon to a star. For Baudelaire Delacroix excelled both in color (the conventional wisdom) but also in drawing. This commitment lead to conflict with his theories, to which the artist’s work only partially conformed. Much of Delacroix’s work is literary and historical, such as the “Barque of Dante” (1822). . Thus there remained a serious problem: how to reconcile Delacroix’s subjects-—ancient, medieval, Orientalist-—with the ideal of modernity. The answer he eventually came up with is that modernity is a sentiment not a straight-jacket. But not everyone will agree that the definition of modernity can be so elastic.

A chance find in a periodical (a translation of the story “The Black Cat”) led to a life-long obsession with Edgar Allan Poe, whom he seems to have regarded as a literary counterpart to Delacroix. Baudelaire spent sixteen years translating the American writer. Poe too was not limited to modern subjects.

Baudelaire’s concern with beauty was matched by his interest in caricature. The yoking together of beauty and ugliness was to become characteristic in his poetry. The intersection of beauty and ugliness is rooted in the modern city, and Baudelaire’s understanding of this inseparability is one of the features that make him THE pioneering modernist in poetry.

This perception of the fusion of beauty and ugliness is not unproblematic. A notorious example is the poem “La Charogne” (The Carcass). Here Baudelaire recalls going out one morning with his mistress on a walk, where they came upon a carcass (apparently of a horse or donkey). The legs of the beast are thrust up into the air like a “lecherous whore.” The effect of the light on the oozing carcass is striking. There is also a sinister synaesthesia—the combination of the odor with the buzzing of the flies. At the end, the poet rudely says to his companion that she too will be like that one day. Several mitigating considerations may be suggested. The last comment might belong to the “world enough and time” category. Let us enjoy each other while we can. But why doesn’t the poet indicate that he too will be that way. After all, the theme of the medieval and Renaissance memento mori is that this fate awaits us all (illustrated with the predella of Masaccio’s Trinity). Also, Rembrandt and others had previously explored the counterintuitive aesthetic interest of the dead carcass of an animal. When all is said, though, this poem remains unpleasantly transgressive. It reveals an almost boundless capacity for disgust, one that the writer has not brought fully under control.

As the two later Salons show, Baudelaire’s praise of originality in art came to be tempered by the acknowledgement that all truly successful works must have both an eternal and a transitory aspect. For this reason his essay on Constantin Guys, who was exclusively present-minded, fails to convince. 

Let us turn now to a theme of special interest to this course. The “mystical” Baudelaire is not present in the first two Salons of ’45 and ‘46. That seems to have crystallized ca. 1852. The Salon of 1859 has some indications (the word specialité), and perhaps more generally in the sovereign role ascribed to the imagination (“the queen of the faculties”). The imagination now supersedes imitation of nature—and perhaps modernity as well.

Swedenborg, at first mediated by Balzac, was the principle source of Baudelaire’s mystical ideas of analogy. This is shown by the adoption of the term “correspondence” (poem no. 4 in Les Fleurs). However, Swedenborg himself depended on older ideas, as seen in his striking evocation of the microcosm-macrocosm idea. Here the cosmos is compared to a gigantic human being (a theme already illustrated in Les Tres Riches Heures, ca. 1416). It has been argued that Baudelaire’s interest in mysticism is grounded more generally in the rhetorical theory of analogy, which goes back to Antiquity. At all events, care must be taken not to exaggerate the role of this interest-—even though it was of supreme importance to the Symbolists.

The death of Delacroix in 1863 was a great shock. After his passing we had entered into the decrepitude of art (as he tactlessly remarked to Manet). This historical pessimism is sometimes termed “declinism.” Compare the relationship of Vasari to Michelangelo. Vasari too believed that with the death of his hero art could only decline.

In Les Fleurs du Mal the link with art takes the form of a series of ekphrasis poems, evoking paintings and sculptures, whether real or imaginary. The “real” sources are generally minor works, such as sculptures by Ernest Christophe, suggesting that they were merely pretexts for the poem.

The sixth poem in the first edition of Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) is entitled “Les Phares” (“The Beacons”). Here he cites eight artists of particular importance, allocating a quatrain to each. The artists are (in the order given) Rubens, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Puget, Watteau, Goya, and Delacroix. As it is not chronological, the sequence seems hard to understand, though perhaps these figures are intended as precursors of Baudelaire’s idol, Delacroix. Otherwise, the octet is admirably balanced. There are two Netherlandish artists, two Italians, one Spaniard, and three Frenchmen. Three media--painting, printmaking, and sculpture--are covered. Three of the artists are “twofers,” active in two media. Michelangelo was both a sculptor and a painter. And while Rembrandt and Goya were major painters, Baudelaire probably owed his acquaintance to them mainly through their prints. Baudelaire recognized the distinction between the linear and painterly modes, which was based ultimately on the contrast between the disegno of Renaissance Florence and the colore of Venice. The eight all adhere to the painterly mode. Significantly, Baudelaire begins with Rubens, the standard-bearer in the ca. 1700 battle over whether Rubens or Poussin was the ideal painter. In 1708 the critic Roger de Piles had hedged; not so Baudelaire. His worthies are all from the Rubéniste camp.

Such lists have a considerable history, of which Baudelaire was only partially aware. 

The template stems from the poet Ludovico Ariosto, who formerly enjoyed an almost universal esteem. Cantos 32 and 33 of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (final version, 1532) concern the Castle of Tristan, remarkable for its murals that prophetically illustrate future events. In order to illustrate the power of artists, the poet gives two lists: a somewhat hypothetical ancient Greek one (derived from Pliny the Elder) and a modern Italian one. The latter ranks as the first ”beacon list” I have been able to find. Here it is: Leonardo, Andrea Mantegna, Bellini, the two Dossi brothers, Michelangelo, Sebastiano del Piombo, Raphael, and Titian. All are Italian. 

In a theoretical treatise of 1590 the Milanese artist and writer Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo selected seven top artists, correlated with the seven planets and seven metals. Lomazzo’s supremes are Michelangelo, Gaudenzio Ferrari, Polidoro Caravaggio (these last two are local luminaries), Leonardo, Raphael, Mantegna, and Titian. Along with Michelangelo, these last four would certainly still command assent.  

When Lomazzo’s treatise was published in an English rendering in 1598, the translator added the names of English artists, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. The adaptation and recreation of the lists in Northern Europe shows a process of gradual internationalization, the results of which are fully evident in Baudelaire’s latter-day roster.

Despite the “Correspondences” so beloved of the later Symbolists, critics of the poems tend to ignore Baudelaire’s mystical side. The conventional wisdom is that Baudelaire is the poet of modernity and subjectivity, who works out his destiny in the modern city, with all its grandeur and squalor. As we have seen, the theme of the union of beauty and ugliness is highlighted in “La Charogne.”

What makes Baudelaire most modern, at least in the sense of a precursor, is his incipient challenge to the venerable doctrine of the harmony of levels of style. According to this view there are three literary modes: the elevated, the middling, and the low. Each of these situations calls for a distinctive use of language. (We still have survivals of the idea, as seen in the shock that greeted Cheney’s admonition to Senator Leahy that he perform an act of contortionist sexuality on himself.)  

Marked by his immersion in a modern metropolis, Baudelaire attends to the contrasts it affords. Still, in Les Fleurs du Mal, he clings to the constraints of the standard apparatus of French poetry. The aesthetic of his late poems in prose foregrounds more frankly the “somersaults” required by modern urban living.

With the passage of time we can identify several downsides of Baudelaire’s poetry. 1) Embedded in Les Fleurs du Mal are three minicycles, devoted to the women in his life. Even seen in the most charitable light, his relationships with women can only be regarded as neurotic. He sees them as inextricable from the pervasiveness of le Mal. Interestingly, the cycle of poems was originally to be entitled Les Lesbiennes. No one is quite sure why. He ended up with three poems about female same-sex love, but that is hardly enough to establish the theme of the whole. 2) Baudelaire is much taken with a kind of bargain-basement Satanism, le Mal again. He is tormented by a sense of guilt and the horrors that it portends. To be sure, this preoccupation lends drama—as in the last poem of the enlarged edition, where he accepts the abyss, whether “it leads to Heaven or Hell.” This preoccupation is connected with his pervasive depression, his spleen or ennui. Still, most modern readers find this obsession with damnation hard to accept. (Interestingly, in one poem he identifies le Mal with le Néant, nothingness, a term that is to enjoy a considerable fortune.)

By the way, was Baudelaire really the first modern poet in any language? Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass precedes him by two years, and is more innovative metrically. (Baudelaire knew Poe, of course, as well as Emerson and Longfellow, but not Whitman.)

In summary Baudelaire faces in two directions, towards tradition and towards the future. His involvement with the city of Paris is emblematic. He grew up in a still half-medieval city, but he lived to see most of the transformations effected by Haussmann.

PAUL VERLAINE (1844-1896).

Born in Metz, Paul Verlaine was educated at a lycée in Paris and then took up a post in the civil service. He began writing poetry at an early age, and was initially influenced by the Parnassien movement and its leader, Charles Leconte de Lisle. Verlaine's first published collection, Poèmes saturniens (1867), though adversely commented upon by Sainte-Beuve, established him as a poet of promise and originality.

Verlaine's private life spills over into his work, beginning with his love for Mathilde Mauté, who was a disciple of Louise Michel, a radical leader. Mauté became Verlaine's wife. At first Mathilde seemed the more interesting of the two, for her husband came across as a kind of accountant. This perception would soon change.

In September of 1871 Verlaine received the first letter from the stripling Arthur Rimbaud. By 1872 he had lost interest in Mathilde and effectively abandoned her and their son, preferring the company of his new lover, a situation that had a devastating effect on the insecure and overemotional Verlaine. He now became a heavy drinker, and shot Rimbaud in a jealous rage, wounding him, but not mortally. Verlaine was arrested and subjected to a humiliating medico-legal examination, including his intimate correspondence with his lover and the accusations of Verlaine's wife about the nature of their relationship. Jailed for 18 months, Verlaine produced some of his best poetry in confinement. He returned to Catholicism, a change which influenced his work (and earned him the vicious mockery of the inconstant Rimbaud.) 

After his release from prison, Verlaine traveled to England, where he worked for some years as a teacher and produced another successful collection, Sagesse, this one heavily religious. He returned to France in 1877 and, while teaching English at a school in Rethel, became infatuated with one of his pupils, Lucien Létinois, who inspired Verlaine to write further poems. Verlaine was devastated when the boy died of typhus.

Verlaine's last years witnessed a descent into drug-addiction, alcoholism, and poverty. Yet his poetry gained new adherents and was recognized as ground-breaking. The poems served as a source of inspiration to several composers, such as Gabriel Fauré, who set many of his poems to music, including La bonne chanson, and Claude Debussy, who turned the entire Fêtes galantes into a classic mélodie album.

Several artists painted Verlaine's portrait, among them Henri Fantin-Latour, Antonio de la Gándara, Eugène Carrière, Frédéric Cazalis, and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen.

Verlaine’s early lyrics are characterized by delicate evocations of landscapes, some tinged with nostalgia (for the 18th century, above all). Some are correlated with his inner states. As he experienced the whiplash of his attraction to both women and men, his poetry became more personal and intense.  

His “The Art of Poetry” (1884) sets forth several themes dear to the Symbolists, including the preeminence of musicality and the importance of the nuance. The sonnet “Languor” (1884) is a wonderful expression of the siting of decadence in the late Roman Empire. Both these poems appear in the collection Jadis et naguère, which must have played a key role in the formulation of the Symbolist aesthetic.

In addition to his loyalty to the “decadent” label, Verlaine coined the expression "poète maudit" (accursed poet) in 1884 to refer to a number of poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud who had fought against poetic conventions and suffered social rebuke or had been ignored by the critics. In the 20th century the idea was extended to the “peintres maudits.”

ARTHUR RIMBAUD (1854-1896).

Arthur Rimbaud was born into the provincial middle class of Charleville in the Ardennes in northeastern France. As a boy he was a restless but brilliant student. By the age of fifteen he had won several prizes, composing original verses and dialogues in Latin.

In 1870 his teacher Georges Izambard became Rimbaud's literary mentor and his verses in French began to improve rapidly. He frequently ran away from home and may have briefly joined the Paris Commune of 1871, which he portrayed in his poem “L'orgie parisienne ou Paris se repeuple” (The Parisian Orgy or, Paris Repopulates). He may have been raped by drunken Communard soldiers (his poem "Le cœur supplicié" ["The Tortured Heart"] suggests so). By this time he had become an anarchist, started drinking and amused himself by shocking the local bourgeoisie with his shabby dress and long hair. He returned to Paris in late September 1871 at the invitation of Paul Verlaine (after Rimbaud had sent him a letter containing several samples of his work) and resided briefly in Verlaine's home. Verlaine, who was married, promptly fell in love with the sullen, blue-eyed, overgrown (5 ft 10 in), light-brown-haired young man. They became lovers, leading a wild, vagabond life spiced by absinthe and hashish. They scandalized the Parisian literary coterie on account of the outrageous behavior of Rimbaud, the archetypal enfant terrible, who throughout this period continued to write strikingly innovative, visionary verse.

Rimbaud's and Verlaine's stormy love affair took them to London in 1872. In Brussels in July 1873 Rimbaud committed himself to journey to Paris with or without Verlaine. In a drunken rage, Verlaine shot at him, one of the two shots striking the 19-year-old in the left wrist.

Rimbaud eventually withdrew the complaint, but the judge sentenced Verlaine to prison. Rimbaud returned home to Charleville and completed his Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) in prose, widely regarded as one of the pioneering instances of modern Symbolist writing and a reflection of that "drôle de ménage" (odd partnership) life with Verlaine, his "pitoyable frère" ("pitiful brother") and "vierge folle" ("mad virgin") to whom he was "l'époux infernal" ("the infernal husband"). One of the segments bears the enigmatic title “Alchemie du verbe.”

In 1874 he returned to London with the poet Germain Nouveau and put together his pathbreaking Illuminations. Alternative titles for these prose poems are “Painted Plates” and “Colored Plates,” suggesting that he may have been influenced by the illuminated manuscripts he saw in the British Museum.

Rimbaud and Verlaine met for the last time in March 1875 in Stuttgart, Germany, after Verlaine's release from prison and his conversion to Catholicism. By then Rimbaud had given up writing and decided on a steady, working life; some speculate he was fed up with his former wild living, while others suggest he sought to become rich and independent to afford living one day as a carefree poet and man of letters. He continued to roam extensively in Europe, mostly on foot. He traveled to Cyprus and in 1880 finally settled in Aden as an employee in the Bardey agency. He had several native women as lovers. In 1884 he quit the job at Bardey's and became a merchant on his own in Harar, Ethiopia. He made a small fortune as a gun-runner, but Rimbaud developed right-knee synovitis which degenerated into a carcinoma. His deteriorating health forced him to return to France in 1891, where his leg was amputated on May 27. Rimbaud died in Marseille on November 10, 1891, at age 37.

Rimbaud’s most celebrated single poem is his sonnet on the vowels, which has invited various esoteric interpretations. Whatever it may ultimately mean, it ranks as a famous set piece on the theme of synaesthesia.

One of Rimbaud’s most challenging statements is “Je est un autre” (I is someone else.) Reflection suggests that he was questioning the age-old Western commitment to the integrity of the personality. This declaration occurs in the outpouring known as the “Seer Letter” of May 1871. As he states: “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses. Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison so that only essence remains. He undergoes unspeakable tortures that require complete faith and superhuman strength, rendering him the ultimate Invalid among men, the master criminal, the first among the damned--and the supreme Savant! For he arrives at the unknown.”

Rimbaud’s influence in modern literature, music, and art has been pervasive. His life in Paris was dramatized in a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio called "Total Eclipse" (1995). Among the creative figures who have felt the influence of Rimbaud are French poets in general, the Surrealists, the Beat Poets, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, William S. Burroughs, Bob Kaufman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Hugo Pratt, Mário Cesariny de Vasconcelos, Sérgio Godinho, Klaus Kinski, Dwid Hellion of Integrity, Jack Kerouac, Philippe Sollers, Patti Smith, Bruce Chatwin, Penny Rimbaud, Jim Morrison, John Hall, Bob Dylan, Richard Hell, Joe Strummer, John Lennon, Rozz Williams, and David Wojnarowicz. 

Bob Dylan refers to Rimbaud in his song "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" from Blood on the Tracks: "Situations have ended sad, / Relationships have all been bad. / Mine've been like Verlaine's and Rimbaud. / But there's no way I can compare / All them scenes to this affair, / You're gonna make me lonesome when you go."

The composer Benjamin Britten began his scintillating settings of Les Illuminations in Suffolk in March 1939 and completed them a few months later in the USA. The work has been choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton and Richard


As an adolescent, he learned English in order to read Poe, traveling to London to improve his knowledge. This background qualified him for his profession as an English teacher. In his early years there was not enough money, requiring him to supplement his income with publishing tasks. In addition to his standing as the supreme French Symbolist poet, Mallarmé exercised influence through his salons, gatherings of intellectuals on Tuesday evenings. For many years, those in the know regarded the sessions in his apartment on the rue de Rome as the heart of Paris intellectual life, with W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Stefan George, Paul Verlaine, and many more in attendance. In this main room, filled with ciagar smoke, Mallarmé held court as judge, jester, and king.

His earlier work owes much to the example by Charles Baudelaire. Yet Mallarmé’s mature style anticipates many of the fusions between poetry and the other arts that were to blossom in the Dadaist, Surrealist, and Futurist movements, where the tension between the words themselves and the way they were displayed on the page was explored. But whereas much of this latter work was concerned principally with form, Mallarmé's work engaged the interplay of style and content. This is particularly evident in the highly innovative “Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard” (A roll of the dice will never abolish chance) of 1897, his last major poem. This work, which opened the way for concrete poetry, displays a kind of figure/ground interplay, in which the blank spaces seem as important as the text.

Unlike Baudelaire, Zola, and Huysmans, Mallarmé declined to write formal Salon critiques, though he was closely engaged with contemporary painting. He and Manet were neighbors, and for ten years the poet visited the artist in his studio almost daily. The poet wrote three pieces defending his friend (the longest appearing in English in a London art monthly). The two friends collaborated on an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Mallarmé also wrote on Whistler and Berthe Morisot (a catalogue for her posthumous exhibition). Artists were welcome at the poet’s Salons.

Coming to terms with Mallarmé is one of the most challenging tasks in the whole history of Western literature. He is a supremely “difficult” poet. Sometimes, in my frustration with him, I have thought that I had rather succumb to a bad case of the ‘flu than to have to confront those darned poems one more time. All the same, he is the indispensable linchpin of the Symbolist Movement. There is no way getting around him.

At first the concision of his corpus seems help. Quantitatively speaking, he was surely the least productive of all major poets. The oeuvre that he approved for collection amounts to a little more than 100 pages. Scholars have augmented this total several times with other poems, published and unpublished, and juvenilia.

As one might expect, a mountain of scholarship has accumulated to decode the work. Some hold that this endeavor goes contrary to Mallarmé’s intention, which was to create “open” works that defy any complete resolution. At all events, it is imperative to look at his work in French (with the helpful crib afforded by the bilingual Oxford volume), for much turns upon relations of sound and sense that are integral to that language. But take heart: someone remarked that it would have been better if Mallarmé had written his poems in German!

As the Blackmores remark, "[f]or him … the vital role of poetry was to purge language of its everyday setting.” In this he indicated one of the main paths of defamiliarization or estrangement, that deliberate departure from everything ordinary, indeed everything that we normally expect, that is characteristic of the most challenging twentieth-century poets, such as Eliot and Pound, George and Rilke. In Mallarmé’s case, the achievement is all the more remarkable in that he keeps to standard verse forms. The subversion of language—which the poet would call a return to its true nature—takes place on the deepest level

All things considered, it must be acknowledged that Mallarmé is one of the French poets most difficult to translate. The conventional wisdom ascribes this difficulty to the inherently vague nature of much of his work, but this explanation is a simplification. Close reading of his work in the original French reveals that the role of sound relationships between the words in the poetry equals, or even surpasses, the standard meanings of the words themselves. This principle may generate new meanings in the spoken text which are not evident on reading the work on the page. It is this aspect of the work that eludes translation (especially when attempting a more literal fidelity to the words as well), since it arises from ambiguities residing in the phonology of the spoken French language. It may be that this “pure sound” aspect of his poetry that has led to its inspiring musical compositions, and to its direct comparison with music. This method also anticipates that of abstract painting in the early 20th century.

A good example of this play of sound appears in Roger Pearson's book Unfolding Mallarmé, in his analysis of the “Sonnet en '-yx'.” The poem opens with the phrase “ses purs ongles” (her pure nails), whose first syllables when spoken aloud sound very similar to the words “c'est pur son” (it's pure sound'\). This use of homophony, along with resulting relationships and layers of meanings, is simply impossible to capture accurately through translation.

As the high priest of modern poetry, Mallarmé seems formidable for the reasons stated. However, he had a lighter side. For eleven months he edited a ladies’ fashion magazine, writing the contributions under female pseudonyms. Much of his poetic work is occasional, and therefore more approachable. In the end, though, one comes back the fearsome, hermetic Scriptures of modern poetry-—the core oeuvre.

The Introduction to the Oxford volume provides a useful discussion of the poet’s commitment to suggestion, nuance, and the thing not said. In a famous sentence Mallarmé formulated the 25/75 rule. Mere statement or “naming” affords only one-quarter—25%--of the value of a poem. By contrast, the other 75% provides the true measure of the enjoyment and appreciation of the poem. In that 75%, or so it seems to me, lies the essence of the Symbolist quest. Its exact content, of course, Mallarmé does not divulge. “Those who say, don’t know; those who know, don’t say.”

One should examine the poems for references to decadence (esp. pp.83-85) and nothingness (le néant; cf. p. 20). Mallarmé remarked that “destruction is my Beatrice.”

Mallarmé’s take on the Salome-Herodias theme is very different from that of other writers. For the demonic temptress, the poet substitutes an icon figure—perhaps an icon of the artistic challenge as such.

“The Windows” p. 10-13, offers parallels with Symbolist paintings.

In “The Demon of Analogy” (p. 88ff.) Mallarmé defends “accidental” relations of words. In his view, these links are not accidental at all, but take us into the realm of the essences of words. The poet preferred traditional verse forms, but in his affirmation of the “secret” links of words, he was farseeing. He implicitly posited the concept of the poem as an artifact, not dependent on relations with the outside world. The instructor offered a tentative English-language parallel: the word “word” encloses the word “or,” suggesting the inherent variability of word choices.

Mallarmé's poetry has elicited several musical pieces, notably Claude Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" (1894), a free interpretation of Mallarmé's poem “L'après-midi d'un faune” (1876), which creates powerful impressions by the use of striking but isolated phrases. Maurice Ravel set Mallarmé's poetry to music in "Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé" (1913). Other composers to use his poetry in song include Darius Milhaud ("Chansons bas de Stéphane Mallarmé," 1917) and Pierre Boulez ("Pli selon pli," 1957-62).

The contemporary Belgian visual artist Marcel Broodthaers was strongly influenced by Mallarmé, as evidenced by his “Un coup de dés,” based on the typographical layout of Mallarmé, but with the words blacked over by bars.



For details of the writer’s biography, see Robert Baldick, The Life of J.-K. Huysmans, which has just been reissued by Dedalus Press.

Through most of his adult life Joris-Karl Huysmans produced art criticism. In a recent collection this amounts to almost 600 pages. In this way he “discovered” Gustave Moreau four years before assigning him a starring role in Against Nature.

As it happens, though, Huysmans’ most important discovery in art did not concern a contemporary artist, but one who had lived in the 16th century. In an 1888 tour of Germany he was deeply affected by seeing Grünewald’ “Crucifixion” in the Kassel Gallery. “Never before had realism attempted such a subject; never before had a painter explored the divine charnel house so thoroughly, or dipped his brush so brutally in running sores and bleeding wounds. It was outrageous and it was horrifying. Grünewald was the most daring of realists, without a doubt; but as one gazed upon this Redeemer of the doss-house, this God of the morgue, thee was wrought a change. Gleams of light filtered from the ulcerous head; a superhuman radiance illumined the gangrenous flesh and the tortured features.” Later, Huysmans traveled to Colmar, where he saw Grünewald’s masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece. Huysmans is generally credited with reviving interest in this hitherto obscure artist. In their turn, Grunewald’s works have presided over a major trend of 20th century art, Expressionism. They proved to be tragically attuned to the bloodiest of centuries, the 20th.

Grünewald makes an appearance in chapter one of La-bas. Like Against NatureLa-bas is a “bachelor novel.” Yet the hero, Durtal, is much more sociable and reasonable than Des Esseintes. There is a kind of book within the book, because Durtal is writing a study of Gilles de Rais, the 15th-century Bluebeard. His researches lead him to discover a group of Satanists in Paris (the Black Mass scene).

After this Huysmans accomplished his final reinvention as a novelist, one that is imbued with his newfound Catholicism.


The bizarre details of his life seem almost more fascinating than his works. He was born in Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, to a distinguished aristocratic family. His parents, Marquis Joseph-Toussaint and Marie-Françoise were not rich, however, and were financially supported by Marie's aunt, Mademoiselle de Kerinou. His father became obsessed with the idea he could restore the family fortune by finding the lost treasure of the Knights of Malta, reputedly buried near Quintin during the French Revolution. Consequently, he spent large sums of money buying land, excavating it and then selling it at a loss when he failed to find anything of value.

The young Villiers' education was troubled (he attended over half a dozen different schools) but from an early age his family were convinced he was an artistic genius: as a child he composed poetry and music.

In 1860 his aunt gave him enough money to allow him to live in Paris permanently. He had already acquired a reputation in literary circles for his inspired, alcohol-fuelled monologues. Some held that, like Oscar Wilde, he was more talented as a conversationalist than a writer. Villiers began living a Bohemian life, frequenting the Brasserie des Martyrs, where he met his idol Baudelaire, who encouraged him to read the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

His attempts at securing a suitable bride for himself would all end in failure. In 1867, he asked Théophile Gautier for the hand of his daughter Estelle, but Gautier--who had turned his back on the Bohemian world of his youth and would not let his child marry a writer with few prospects--turned him down. His plans for marriage to an English heiress, Anna Eyre Powell, were equally unsuccessful. Villiers finally took to living with Marie Dantine, the illiterate widow of a Belgian coachman. In 1881, she gave birth to Villiers' son, Victor (nicknamed "Totor").

A high point of Villiers' life was his trip to see his hero Richard Wagner at Triebschen in 1869. Villiers read from the manuscript of his play La Révolte and the composer declared that the Frenchman was a "true poet".

Disaster came in 1871 with the death of Villiers' aunt, and the end of her financial support. Though Villiers had many admirers in literary circles (the most important being his close friend Stéphane Mallarmé), mainstream newspapers found his fiction too eccentric to be saleable and few theaters shied away from his plays. Villiers was forced to take odd jobs to support his family: he gave boxing lessons and apparently worked in a funeral parlor and as a mountebank's assistant for a time. Another money-making scheme Villiers considered was reciting his poetry to a paying public in a cage full of tigers, but he later thought better of the idea.

According to his friend Léon Bloy, Villiers was so poor he had to write most of his novel L'Eve future lying on his belly on bare floorboards because the bailiffs had taken away all the furniture. His poverty only increased his sense of aristocratic pride. In 1875, he attempted to sue a playwright he believed had insulted one of his ancestors, Maréchal Jean de Villiers de l'Isle Adam. In 1881, Villiers stood unsuccessfully for parliament as a candidate for the legitimist party. By the 1880s, there was some change in fortune: Villiers' fame began to grow, but not his finances. The publishers Calmann-Lévy accepted his Contes cruels, but the sum they offered Villiers was negligible. The volume did, however, come to the attention of J.-K. Huysmans, who praised Villiers' work in his highly influential novel A rebours. But by this time, Villiers was dying of stomach cancer.

Villiers' works, which owe a good deal to the Gothick tradition, are often fantastic in plot and filled with mystery and horror. Important among them are the drama Axel (1890), the novel L'Ève future ("The Eve of the Future,” 1886), and the short-story collection, Contes cruels (1883).

The novel  L'Ève future concerns Lord Ewald, a wealthy Englishman, who discovers his ideal beloved during a train journey. There was a problem, though, as her trivial mind does not match her sublime exterior. To solve this problem, he visits his friend Thomas Edison in Menlo Park, New Jersey, who agrees to create an android which will be an exact replica of the woman, with the proper spiritual sensitivity within. Unfortunately, the replica is lost when Lord Ewald returns by sea to England. In this novel Villiers coined the term “android" (andréide in French

Villiers held that the imagination has within it much more beauty than reality itself, existing at a level which nothing real could compare.

Axël was the work Villiers considered his masterpiece, although critical opinion has often been reluctant to agree with him, placing far higher value on his fiction. Villiers began work on the piece around 1869 and had still not put the finishing touches to it when he died. It was first published posthumously in 1890. The play is heavily influenced by the Romantic theatre of Victor Hugo, as well as Goethe's Faust and the music dramas of Richard Wagner. The play's most famous line is Axël's "Vivre? les serviteurs feront cela pour nous" ("Living? Our servants will do that for us"). Edmund Wilson used the title Axel's Castle for his study of early Modernist literature.


Despite the fact that he was a minor writer, Dujardin ranks as the inventor of the literary technique known as stream of consciousness.

Dujardin became editor for the journal Revue Indépendente in 1886, and it was here that his first works were published. His participation in this journal resulted in it being recognized as an important voice for the symbolists. Thus Dujardin was a kind of facilitator or manager of Symbolism.

His landmark work is a short novel of 1888, Les lauriers sont coupés. The work traces the movements of the hero Daniel Prince in Paris during one evening, between between 6 PM and 12:30 AM. Dujardin takes us into the mind of the hero, and we see and hear everything as it registers in his awareness. This is the method of the stream of consciousness. James Joyce was a great admirer of this work, and he utilized the method in Ulysses, especially in the thoughts of Leopold Blum and the famous concluding monologue of Molly Bloom. Others who have followed Dujardin in using this device are Virginia Woolf (The Waves), William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, and Carlos Fuentes. One could almost say that modern prose fiction could not exist without Dujardin’s method of the stream of consciousness.

Something of a dandy, Dujardin had expensive tastes in clothing, and was a familiar figure in Parisian nightlife. His many romantic flings were noted and he had had numerous relationships with actresses, models, and other glamorous women.

His literary works are extensive and include numerous plays, poems and novels. In his later years Dujardin dabbled in far-out theories about the origins of Judaism and Christianity


He was born in Tournai and went to school in Ghent, where he became friends with the poet Emile Verhaeren. Rodenbach worked as a lawyer and journalist. He spent the last ten years of his life in Paris as the correspondent of the Journal de Bruxelles, and was an intimate of Edmond de Goncourt. He published eight collections of verse and four novels, as well as short stories, stage works and criticism. He produced some Parisian and purely imitative work; but a major part of his production is the outcome of a passionate idealism of the quiet Flemish towns in which he had passed his childhood and early youth.

In his best known work, Bruges-la-Morte (1892), he explains that his aim is to evoke the town as a living being, associated with the moods of the spirit, counseling, dissuading from and prompting action. The novel concerns the grief that the hero experiences at the death of his beloved wife Marie. In his rambles through the city he meets another woman, Mariette, who seems just like Marie, but is frivolous and unfaithful. The novel was turned into an opera by Erich Korngold (performed this fall at the City Opera).


While he made his debut as a Symbolist poet, Maeterlinck’s main activity was as a playwright. Of the original group he was the only Symbolist to have won the Nobel Prize in literature (1911). (Yeats received the Prize in 1923.)

Maeterlinck’s masterpiece is the play Pelléas et Mélisande (1892). It is set at an indeterminate place during an indeterminate period. It seems to be somewhere on the border between France and the Dutch-speaking area; it is medieval, or is it Renaissance? We first discover Mélisande weaping by a fountain. Her origins are never explained—a mystery within an enigma. Against these indeterminate features Maeterlinck tells his story of the forbidden, doomed love of the title characters.

The play has been the basis of several pieces of music. Nowadays even better known than the play is the opera by Claude Debussy (1902), which builds upon the Symbolist features of the play adding music that is perfectly suited to it, and thereby creating a composite work of art, one of the ultimate aspirations of the period. Earlier, in 1898, Gabriel Fauré had written incidental music for the play, from which he later extracted a suite. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius also wrote incidental music for it in 1905. The story is also the basis for the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s early symphonic poem "Pelleas und Melisande" of 1902-03.


When Yeats was young, his family moved first from Sandymount, County Dublin, to County Sligo, and then to London, to enable his father John to further his career as an artist. At first, the Yeats children were educated at home. Their mother, who was homesick for Sligo, entertained them with stories and folktales from her county of birth.

Yeats' early work tended to focus on the Romantic style, based on Irish lore, best described by the title of his 1893 collection The Celtic Twilight. During the ‘nineties, coached by his friend Arthur Symonds, he attached himself to Symbolism. In his forties, inspired by his relationships with modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and his involvement in Irish nationalist politics, he moved towards a harder, more modern style. In this way Yeats was a bridge from Symbolism to Modernism.

Even before he began to write poetry, Yeats had come to associate poetry with religious ideas and thoughts of sentimental elements. Describing his childhood in later years, he described his "one unshakable belief" as "whatever of philosophy has been made poetry is alone... I thought ... that if a powerful and benevolent spirit has shaped the destiny of this world, we can better discover that destiny from the words that have gathered up the heart's desire of the world."

Yeats' early poetry drew heavily on Irish myth and folklore. His first significant publication was The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889). The long title poem was based on the poems of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology.

His other early poems are lyrics on the themes of love or mystical and esoteric subjects. The Yeats family had returned to London in 1887, and in 1890 Yeats co-founded the Rhymer's Club with Ernest Rhys. This was a group of like-minded poets who met regularly and published anthologies in 1892 and 1894.

Yeats had a life-long interest in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism, and astrology. He read extensively on these subjects all through his life. In 1885, he and friends formed the Dublin Hermetic Order. This society held its first meeting on 16 June, with Yeats in the chair. The same year, the Dublin Theosophical lodge was opened with the involvement of Brahmin Mohini Chatterjee. Yeats attended his first séance the following year.

Throughout his life Yeats' mystical inclinations--informed by the writings of Swedenborg and Hindu religion (Yeats translated The Ten Principal Upanishads, 1938) with Shri Purohit Swami), theosophical beliefs, and the occult--formed much of the basis of late poetry. After his marriage, he and his wife dabbled with a form of automatic writing, Mrs. Yeats contacting a spirit guide she called "Leo Africanus."

GERTRUDE STEIN (1874-1946).

Born into a talented German-Jewish family, Gertrude Stein had the good fortune to study with William James at Harvard. After 1903 she lived mainly in Paris, forming a durable partnership with Alice B. Toklas.

Three Lives (1909), Stein’s first published book, was begun in 1905, before she had absorbed the full lesson of Picasso and the Cubists. Easily accessible and full of human interest, Three Lives does not provide an adequate measure of Stein’s capacity for innovation. Written in 1912 and published two years later, Tender Buttons, is a remarkable advance, facilitated by her contacts with the Parisian milieu. This little book is a landmark, since it is one of the first literary works in any language to provide a plausible counterpart for Abstraction.

The first part, on objects shows a remarkable similarity to her friend Picasso’s Cubist still lifes of the same period. Both may have been influenced by the bodegones of the Spanish baroque (e.g. the example seen by Sánchez-Cotán)

In writing the book she said she “needed to completely face the difficulty of how to include what is seen with hearing and listening.” Note the synaesthesia motif. Elaborating on this point Stein noted that it was her “first conscious struggle with the problem of correlating sight, sound and sense and eliminating rhythm.” The last phrase seems to men that she renounced poetry in all of its forms, as prose was challenging enough.

As a first approach, it is best to read Tender Buttons in small sections. Nonetheless, it has a tripartite structure: objects, food, and room. Together these themes evoke Stein’s coupled, domestic life with Alice B. Toklas. More generally, they pertain to “woman’s sphere,” as conceived of a hundred years ago. (Some have detected sexual themes here and there, with hidden anatomical references.)

Broadly speaking, the book may be said to be about similarity and nonsimilarity, and about causation and noncausation. The first is shown in the unusual juxtapositions, possibly following Lautréamont’s talisman: “Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine on an operating table.”

Several stylistic devices put causality into question. The frequent use of the word “and” implies contiguity but not necessarily anything more. And the omission of question marks in sentences that seem to be questions, elides these sentences into a uniform whole. Declarative sentences and questions are all one thing. The suppression of the difference implies the zetematic (questioning) nature of reality.


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