Translated from the French by Chase Madar
Green Integer 91, 2003
Cursed poets: what a marvelous phrase.
What poet isn't cursed?
Cursed with the need to write. To invent. To make something bewildering and strange. With words.
With air. With breath.
With rejection slips and unpaid bills.
Cursed with a mind-numbing job when the need to write is desperate. Imperative. All consuming.
Cursed with lunkhead relatives who mock your efforts at something with absolutely no monetary value.
Cursed by the abrasions of an industrialized world hostile to the quest for beauty.
Cursed by the vulgarity of capitalism and vapidity and merchandising and Lady Gaga.
Cursed, most of all, by the seductions of the ineffable. The sublime. The mystic. The transcendental. The nebulous and vague.
The first time I heard the phrase “cursed poets” I was 18 and living in California, attending school at San José City College. It was 1966. I had been experimenting with amphetamines and LSD. Heavenly Blue Morning Glory Seeds. I was living on next to nothing, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with two friends, and the draft board was breathing down my back. I was infatuated with Rimbaud and Mallarmé and Baudelaire. French symbolism. Exquisite sensations. Hallucinations. Synesthesia.
I lived and breathed French symbolism for the next several years. It was a perfect fit. I despised the world. I immersed myself in the luxuries of the mind. The voluptuous billows of unbridled reverie. The exotic spices of the symbolist stratosphere. Baudelaire’s poem about the albatross who is mocked by the vulgarians of a frigate as it waddles awkwardly about on deck but assumes an awe-inspiring grace when it takes flight became my personal allegory.
My interests diverged into dada and surrealism, the New York School of poetry, the objectivists, the Black Mountain poets, the Beats, even Middle English lyrics and balladry for a time, and my singular devotion to French symbolist ideals diffused into capillaries and eddies of varying and often contradictory value. And on the worldly plane, alcoholism, depression, and menial jobs. Toilets, insomnia, and meager paychecks.
Thus it was that, some 45 years later, as happily adjusted to the world as I might ever be, I streamed France Culture’s Poème du jour avec la Comédie-Française which, for a week, was devoted to reading the work of the poets featured in Paul Verlaine’s anthology The Cursed Poets (Les poètes maudits).
Wait a minute, I thought. An anthology? Cursed poets? Paul Verlaine? I had never heard of such an anthology.
I googled it up. Lo and behold: The Cursed Poets, Paul Verlaine, Translated from the French by Chase Madar. Green Integer, 2003. I emailed John Marshall and Christine Deavel at Open Books instantly and ordered a copy.
The little book arrived within a few days. A heavily mustachioed Verlaine adorned the cover. Deep, soulful eyes looked out from a bald dome of a head. “Assembled from articles published in the journals Lutèce and La Vogue,” Madar remarks in the introduction, “the full version of Les Poètes maudits was first published in 1888. The little book helped build the reputations of the poets; it also helped fortify Verlaine’s own renown, and finances.”
Verlaine would have been 44. He had been desperately poor, living in slums and public hospitals, drinking absinthe in the cafés when he could afford it. Rimbaud, with whom Verlaine had long lost touch, was living in Harar, Ethiopia, trying to maintain an export enterprise, dealing in ivory, coffee, and guns. If asked about poetry, Rimbaud would sneer, spit, shrug his shoulders, evince utter disdain.
Verlaine includes six poets in his collection: Tristan Corbière, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Villiers De L’Isle-Adam, and Pauvre Lelian. Rimbaud and Mallarmé are well known. Corbière a little less known, perhaps best recognized as a pivotal influence on T.S. Eliot. Some may be familiar, too, with Villiers De L’Isle-Adam, who was the model for the central figure of Joris-Karl Huysman’s seminal novel, À rebours (Against the Grain or Against Nature), 1884, a gay, aristocratic aesthete named Jean Des Esseintes. The novel, which ran contrary to the conventions of naturalism, does not have a plot; it is mostly a catalogue of the tastes and inner life of Des Esseintes, whose refined tastes and unorthodox pleasures puts him in conflict with bourgeois society and causes him to retreat into an ideal world of his own creation. It is narcissism at its most brilliant and heroic, if narcissism may be considered heroic.
À rebours became the ultimate example of decadent literature. It reveled in values that were antithetical to commerce and industry: daydreaming, drug abuse, hermeticism, complexity, art for art’s sake non-utilitarianism, phantasmagoria, a curious blend of Thanatos and Eros (libido and death), and unabashed hedonism.
Villiers De L’Isle-Adam is also the subject of Edmund Wilson’s essay Axel and Rimbaud, the eighth and concluding essay in his collection Axel’s Castle: A Study In The Imaginative Literature Of 1870 - 1930. “Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s ‘Axel,’ which was published in 1890, is a sort of long dramatic poem in prose,” remarks Wilson, “which, as it was the last thing Villiers wrote, sums up and gives final expression to his peculiar idealism.”
Count Axel of Auersburg is a young man “of an admirable virile beauty,” with “a paleness almost radiant” and “an expression mysterious from thought.” He inhabits, in an atmosphere half-Wagnerian, half-romantic-Gothic, an ancient and isolated castle in the depths of the Black Forest, where he has given himself up the study of the hermetic philosophy of the alchemists and is being prepared by a Rosicrucian adept for the revelation of the ultimate mysteries.
It will be easily seen that this dreamer of Villier’s is the type of all the heroes of the Symbolists, of our day as well as his: Pater’s contemplative, inactive Marius, the exquisitely sensitive young men of his “Imaginary Portraits”; Laforgue’s Lohengrin, who, the night of wedding, shrinking from union with his Elsa, turns his back on her and embraces his pillow begging it to carry him away -- his Salome, “the victim of having tried, like all of us, to live in the factitious instead of in the honest everyday”; the Hamlet of Mallarmé’s posthumous drama, “Igitur,” who is the only character in the play and does nothing but soliloquize. And, above all, Huysman’s Des Esseintes, who set the fashion for so many other personalities, fictitious and real, of the end of the century: the neurotic nobleman who arranges for himself an existence which will completely insulate him from the world and facilitate the cultivation of refined and bizarre sensations; who sleeps by day and stays up at night and whose favorite reading is Silver Latin and the Symbolists.
André Breton included Villiers de L’Isle-Adam in his Anthologie de l’humour noir, a short story called “The Killer Of Swans” (“Le tueur de cynes”). In this story an old doctor named Tribulat Bonhomet learns that swans sing most beautifully just before they die. He decides to find out for himself, and goes to an old sacred pond amid the shadows of some ancient towering trees, a favorite haunt of a group of swans. During the day, he watches as twelve or fifteen of the birds glide languidly over the mirror-like water. Regarding, above all, the male black swan that watches over them, as he sleeps in the sunlight. At night, the black swan holds a small stone in his beak which, at the slightest alarm, he pitches forward with his long neck into the middle of the other swans as a warning.
One night, the doctor puts on some long rubber boots and a large impermeable coat and goes wading into the pond. He waits all night for the right moment to kill one of them and hear the coveted death song. At one point he has to scratch himself, and the sound causes alarm among the swans, but not hearing the signal of the stone, linger in exquisite anguish. When, at last, the light of the morning star glides over the tree branches and illumines the outline of the old doctor in the pond, the black swan hurls the stone. But it is too late. The doctor manages to kill two or three of the swans, strangling them with iron-gloved hands. The doctor hears their death song and clambers to the shore where he lies until sunrise in a voluptuous torpor.
The symbolists had a special romance for death. Death was not only a final exit out of this world of banality and materialism, but it was itself inherently beautiful. People turned pale, languished in a crepuscular somnolence before releasing their final breath. Dying had a certain majesty to it, whatever the actual condition, old or young, rich or poor, anonymous or renowned, of the person dying. We all ascend to a throne of sorts before we leave this world. Heaven veils us with an aura of sublime nobility.
Verlaine included one woman in his collection, Marceline Desbord-Valmore, who, Verlaine remarks, “is worthy of figuring among our Cursed Poets because of her apparent but absolute obscurity, and it is our imperious obligation to speak of her at length and in as great detail as possible.”
Marceline Desbordes-Valmore was born in Douai, a sub-prefecture in the Nord department in northern France, June 20th, 1786. This makes her a precursor to the French Symbolist school. She published her first work, Élégies et Romances, in 1819. John Keats was still writing. The spirit of romanticism was strong. “Religion Christless, Godless -- a book sealed; / A Senate, -- Time’s worst statute unrepealed -- / Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day,” wrote Shelley in his sonnet “England in 1819,” underscoring the mood of change and inflammation, yearning and agitation that imbued the air of Western Europe at the early part of the nineteenth century. If “religion Christless, Godless” has modern resonances, it goes to show how the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Marceline was also an actress, playing Rosine in Beaumarchais’s Le Barbier de Séville and the Opéra-Comique in Paris. She retired from the stage in 1823 and later became friends with Honoré de Balzac. He once wrote that she was the inspiration for the title character of La Cousine Bette.
Her poetry is remarkably romantic, full of religious yearning and contemplations about death and the afterlife. There is a feeling of pantheistic beauty, of the world of nature being permeated with divinity, although the mood of her poems is quite often sad. The greater one’s sense of the sublime, she seems to suggest, the more painfully aware does one become of the shortcomings of everyday reality. The world of commerce is, by contrast, noxious in the extreme.
Here, for example, is her poem “Fileuse,” which is sandwiched between two short extracts from Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder based on the poems of Friedrich Rükert. Here, also, is a link to a reading on YouTube.
un will die Sonn' so hell aufgehn,
Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn
La fileuse file en versant des larmes
Sur son lin choisi s’inclinent ses charmes.
Le fil oublié glisse de ses doigts,
Et ses chants d’oiseaux tremblent dans sa voix.
Sa quenouille est là toute négligée…
Oh! d’un jour à l’autre on est si changée!
Quoi! plus une rose à son front rêveur!
Qu’est-ce donc qu’elle a? Je crois qu’elle a peur...
Elle était hier au banc de l’enfance
Avec ses fuseaux pour toute défense;
Mais le soir l’enfant ne les avait pas
Quand quelqu’un dans l’ombre a suivi ses pas.
Personne aujourd’hui ne la voit plus rire.
En si peu d’instants qu’a-t-on pu lui dire?
Ah! pour qu’elle file en versant des pleurs,
Il faut que dans l’ombre on ait pris ses fleurs.
Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt!
Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt!
* * * * * * * * * * * *
And now, the bright sun rises
As if nothing happened during this night!
The spinner spins while pouring tears;
She impresses her charms upon her flax.
The forgotten thread slides through her fingers,
And the songs of birds tremble in her voice.
Her distaff is utterly neglected…
Oh! One is so changed from one day to the next!
What! No more rosy bloom on brow of this dreamer?
What, then, does she have? I believe she has a fear…
It was yesterday upon the bank of her childhood
With only her spindle for defense;
But one evening the child had nothing
When someone in the shadows followed her steps.
No one today sees her laugh anymore.
In those fleeting instants what might one have told her?
Ah! In order that she spin while pouring forth tears
It is necessary to take some flowers.
A little lamp is extinguished in my tent.
Hello, oh joyous light of this world.