Looking for Laforgue: An Informal Biography
There were “deeps in him,” Ezra Pound said of Jules Laforgue; “and Laforgue more than they thought in him.” Eliot, characteristically, was more cautious in his praise, anxious not to mix Laforgue with the major poets, but generous and constant all the same. He saw him as “an admired elder brother,” “the first to teach me how to speak”: “Jules Laforgue, to whom I owe more than to any one poet in any language.” When Eliot wants to place Marvell, he adapts Laforgue: “C’était une belle âme, comme on ne fait plus à Londres.” (“He had a fine soul, of the kind they no longer make in London.”)
But were there deeps in him? This is not a question David Arkell really tries to answer, although he does quote Pound on the subject and mentions his own discovery of the deeps. Looking for Laforgue is “an informal biography,” its subtitle says, and at times it takes informality to the edge of elbow-jogging intimacy. “‘Promises, promises…,’ Sanda Mahali must have thought,” “the Berlin show was peanuts in comparison.” The writing generally is not as closely cared for as one would wish. “It turned out that Laforgue and Eliot had been married, at an interval of seventy years, in the same London church….” I suppose the sense is clear enough, but the phrasing is fraught with unintended comic possibilities. Laforgue and Eliot married. Perhaps there were deeps in them both.
Nevertheless, this is an engaging, informative book, fond of its subject but not gushing; and even the writing has its moments, as in this evocation of Baden-Baden at the time Laforgue stayed there:
There is that eternal band playing English waltzes next door; and there are hunting horns, and pianos that play fugues and Chopin nocturnes. All around there are pines, shivering and creaking like old furniture, and in among them the chattering of birds: cawing crows, tireless blackbirds, deafening swifts. And the bells: the cracked tinkle of the one downstairs, calling guests to lunch, the elevation bell of a religious procession. That saddest bell of all, the one that sounds from a thousand little German railway stations….
Most of this is paraphrase of the poet himself, but it is very well presented. There is not much to be done with the poetry in this casual approach, but letters, journals, and prose fiction, shrewdly quoted and ably translated, are at the heart of Arkell’s work, and add up to a well-shaded portrait.
Jules Laforgue, the second of eleven children, was born of French parents in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1860. The family returned to France when he was six: to Tarbes, and then Paris, where he finished his undistinguished school years. He had a gift for making loyal friends and for finding influential protectors, and these latter rescued him from a precarious literary life in the Latin Quarter by having him appointed French Reader to the Empress Augusta of Prussia. He was then twenty-one. He was given a spacious apartment in Berlin—“I can see nothing but monuments,” he wrote. “And officers with pale monocles”—and followed the court on its annual rounds of Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, Coblenz, Homburg.
His job was to read daily to the Empress from selected French newspapers like the Figaro and the Revue des Deux Mondes. He flirted timidly with various court ladies, championed the Impressionists in Berlin, and wrote his highly personal verse and prose. Of Prince William, later to become the Kaiser, he is supposed to have said, “That young man’s mad on uniforms.” He gave up his job in 1886, having proposed to an English girl, Leah Lee, who had been giving him language lessons. They were married at the end of the year, and lived in Paris for less than eight months before Laforgue succumbed to the tuberculosis that had long been racking him. As Arthur Symons later said, “He had been a dying man all his life.” Leah Laforgue, also consumptive, returned to England and died less than a year after her husband, like him having turned twenty-seven just before death.
Laforgue published his Complaintes in 1885, and his Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune the same year. Prose, verse, and translations of Whitman subsequently appeared in La Vogue, the magazine which first published Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Arkell suggests that Laforgue’s reputation rests on this late work, the prose Moralités légendaires and the free-verse Derniers Vers. It is more likely that it rests on a certain tone and repertoire widely diffused throughout his writing, but there is no doubt that Laforgue’s final years were exceptionally rich in experiments and successes.
But were there deeps in him? Critics have tended to patronize Laforgue, to see him not as Eliot’s elder brother but as his babyish precursor, and Arkell has the proper answer to such estimates. “It seems irrelevant to complain…that Laforgue was immature. One might as well say that some critics are over-ripe.”
Laforgue’s charm and originality are easy to see. He was a master of self-accusing irony, and an adept of the rhetorical mask which was to play such a large part in the theory and practice of modern poetry. His poems are populated by dandies and pierrots hiding their fears in a pose of sorry elegance. Prufrock was not meant to be Prince Hamlet, but in Laforgue’s reading not even Hamlet was up to the role. Laforgue was also one of the first practitioners of vers libre, and turned to popular verse forms when most French poets were making themselves as arcane as possible.
Mesdames et Messieurs,
Vous dont la mère est morte,
C’est le bon fossoyeur
Qui gratte à votre porte.
Les Morts C’est sous terre; Ca n’en sort Guère.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Whose mother is no more,
This is the kindly gravedigger
Scratching at your door.
The dead are down
They hardly ever
Laforgue is extraordinarily funny, very fond of pre-Joycean wordplay and allusion: “la céleste Eternullité,” “ces vendages sexciproques,” “Célibat, célibat, tout n’est que célibat,” and the wonderful “crucifige,” where the blood actually seems to congeal on the cross. Figer is to coagulate. In his short career he passed from the grandiose gloom of Vigny and Leconte de Lisle to what one might call the gaiety of doubt, the kind of posture Nietzsche recommended, but could only recommend. “Pas d’absolu; des compromis; / Tout est pas plus, tout est permis“; (“No absolute; just compromises; / Everything is not any more, everything is permitted”); “Tout est bien qui n’a pas de fin“; (“All’s well that doesn’t end”).
Such writing gives Laforgue a substantial place in literary and intellectual history, but does not answer our critical question. Or as Laforgue himself puts it: “Tout cela vous honore, / Lord Pierrot, mais encore?” (“All that is a tribute to you, / Lord Pierrot, but then what?”) There is a thinness in the poems, a sense of a mind hampered by everything it is afraid of. But we might say the same of Eliot. The awful daring of a moment’s surrender wouldn’t seem so awful if the sensibility were a little larger. It is true that Eliot’s thinness spoke to a whole generation haunted by sexual and other terrors, but that may mean simply that Laforgue arrived at the waste land early.
Laforgue’s world is a kind of permanent province of the frightened heart, a figure for a longing that knows its own uselessness. Pianos play incessantly, girls dressed in white go to mass. It is always Sunday, usually autumn, often raining. “O riches nuits! je me meurs, / La province dans le coeur!” (“Oh rich nights! I am dying, / With the provinces in my heart.”) The women are fragile, tubercular; the men distant and stylish, covering their panic with jokes and cruelty. It is a contingent world, where love is the “inclusive mania of not wanting to die absolutely” but where love itself merely exaggerates contingency. If she hadn’t loved me, a man thinks, she would have loved, A, B, C, or D, and loved them only; she was born for each of them. “Et je ne serais qu’un pis-aller, / Comme l’est mon jour dans le Temps, / Comme l’est ma place dans l’Espace….” (“And I would be only a makeshift, / As my day is in Time, / As my place is in Space….”) It is a world of missed chances, where the moment’s surrender is fluffed because the man can’t say how he feels and the woman can’t guess.
Nous nous aimions comme deux fous,
On s’est quitté sans en parler,
Un spleen me tenait exilé,
Et ce spleen me venait de tout. Bon.
Ses yeux disaient: ‘Comprenez- vous?
Pourquoi ne comprenez-vous pas?’
Mais nul n’a voulu faire le premier pas,
Voulant trop tomber ensemble à genoux.
We loved each other madly,
Left each other without speaking,
My gloom kept me in exile,
And this gloom was the effect of
Her eyes said: “Do you under-
Why don’t you understand?”
But neither of us would take the
Being too anxious to fall on our
(Do you understand?)
The trouble with seeing deeps in this world is that deeps are just what have been banished from it. This is not to say that Laforgue is shallow or immature. It is to say that shallowness and incompletion are his subjects, that he has chosen a minor kingdom while Eliot seeks the fragments of a major one. The poem I have just quoted ends
Ah! que ne suis-je tombé à tes genoux!
Ah! que n’as-tu défailli à mes genoux!
J’eusse été le modèle des époux!
Comme le frou-frou de ta robe est le modèle des frou-frou.
Ah! why did I not fall at your
Ah! why did you not faint at my
I would have been the most perfect
As the rustle of your dress is the
most perfect of rustles.
The music of the last line is very beautiful, but it lifts us without warning from the romantic despair of Chopin to the frothiness of Offenbach, and in doing so questions the grounds of the despair. So that’s the sort of model husband he would have been. “Cétait un très-au vent d’octobre paysage” (“It was a very in-the-October-wind landscape”), Laforgue writes elsewhere. It was the sort of landscape poets associate with October wind. Bad poets, who don’t know a cliché when they see one; and Laforgue himself, who likes the cliché anyway. He is very close to Flaubert in this and in other respects, and ultimately it may be more helpful to see him as Flaubert’s heir than as Eliot’s ancestor. Of course a good-humored Flaubert is about as hard to imagine as a genuinely lighthearted Eliot, but some such act of the imagination will permit us to see Laforgue without condescension. There is grace in his bleakness—“l’amour s’échange / Simple et sans foi comme un bonjour” (“Love is exchanged / As simple and as faithless as a hello”)—and a touch of darkness in his perfect grace:
Allez, stériles ritournelles,
La vie est vraie et criminelle.
Come now, infertile refrains,
Life is true and criminal.