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Kenneth Cox


(Previously unpublished.)

Laforgue’s poetry is more moving and more difficult than anyone would think whose idea of it derives from Eliot’s imitations. Eliot captured some of its tones of voice, applying them to ends of his own, to mask and evade. When he found other means to do it his interest in Laforgue declined.

Pound’s never lapsed. It was Laforgue who opened his eyes to certain qualities in Propertius and it is features of Laforgue’s writing that underlie the Homage and crop out at places in Mauberley. To call it verbalism seems to degrade intellectual detachment to stylistic trickery but the facts are complex. If some of his tricks are extreme, Laforgue’s detachment is exponential: he mocks his own self-mockery. Something in him Pound always found hard to grasp but knew was there and strove to emulate. He once described it as force coinciding the fragility, great power with great nonchalance. It’s not exactly nonchalance, rather a studied offhandedness. His last word in Canto CXVI: ‘...Jules...  deeps in him...’ 

Laforgue died at twenty-seven, so all he wrote was packed into a few years of rapid development. The earliest of his poems to show individual character are thick and viscid, overcharged with concepts jostling for expression. He learned to relieve and dilute, he exploited literary modes and experimented with colloquial usages. These are the poems that established Larforgue as a stylist. Their versification is traditional, though impudent rhymes and elusive caesuras shocked diehards.

No other poems appeared in the two collections published during his lifetime.  Les Complaintes and L’Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune. Laforgue himself regarded them as provisional. It was his habit to treat everything he wrote as drafts to be reworked and poems not printed till after his death, still known by their editor’s makeshift label Derniers Vers, recast some recent writing in lines of a new-found freedom and of great emotional power. They are in vers libre but not free verse. All the same the technical advance must owe something to Whitman. Laforgue had been translating him with the help of the English girl he was to marry.

Technical and emotional development apart, the whole of Laforgue’s writing including the Derniers Vers forms a closed and coherent thought-world. His basic ideas, first intuitive then found explicit in Hartman and Schopenhauer, are Buddhistic in type. After the initial attempts to philosophize in verse their expression in his poetry becomes concrete personal and urbane.

Laforgue concerned himself first of all with the options available under cosmic dispensation to himself at the entrance into adult life: resignation to material necessity and the natural processes as against pursuit of art science or saintliness. Exasperation with the female sex, seen as antagonist of the intellect, alternates with intense desire for union. He found desire thwarted by the dominant sexuality of the age, typified by the fashion for padded buttocks and fortified foundation garments, heightening appetite but delaying and if inconvenient denying satisfaction. With women Laforgue sought and eventually found close communion and equal partnership.

For the expression of such concerns and concepts Laforgue developed an esoteric vocabulary tantamount to a private myth. It consists in a number of key words selected for their central appositeness but expanded in use to embrace large spheres of meaning. In all other respects key words behave like ordinary words. Without their apposite origins they would be no more than symbols in an arbitrary code. To limit a key word to its origin would however reduce it to metaphor. Nor is the system one of free association, suggestion suggesting suggestion with none touching firm sense. It is a concentrated and personalized instance of one of the normal processes of language generating, when communal and generational in spread, broad but limited clusters of meaning similar to Empson’s ‘complex words’.

 There is room for a study of Laforgue’s language that should collate and as far as possible expound such key or complex words. It would need to draw upon all his writing, the earliest poems as well as the latest and the prose as well as the verse. It would have to note personal significances sometimes difficult to discover because prompted by the sounds the words make or by visual properties of the things they conventionally indicate, especially their colour. Verbs normally used for animal cries like bêler hennir and ululer are for example applied to moods of human speech and geraniums is part of a complex including the female genitalia. Pending such a study the best a teacher can do is pay attention and accept the aid of an occasional gloss.

For his two basic cosmic-sexual concepts Laforgue’s primary key words are lune and soleil. In his earlier poems, where the image-making faculty is at its strongest, the lune complex is realized by sterile landscape, white-faced pierrots, the studious and unloved artist. The soleil images are in contrast bright restless colourful: flames, flowers and above all eyes.

Once his basic assumptions and procedures begin to be apprehended, Laforgue’s stylistic inventions begin to make sense. Their mutual support and inner consistency secure the impression, strong at all points in his writing, that the jokes and tricks are deadly serious. Perhaps this is what Pound meant when he called him ‘incontrovertible’.

One of Laforgue’s favourite forms is the duologue between partisans of lune and of soleil. It permits the alternate raising and lowering of register, for example between the individual assertiveness typical of lune and traditional song or conventional cliché representing soleil. The writing is thereby kept at surface level within the scope of everyday communication while deep down rooted in the basic concepts. It enables any value attached to either of the basic concepts to be subjected to criticism and revision. Here is a source of his irony, a term covering several tropes.

Laforgue puns, makes up portmanteau words and re-applies tags from the natural language, the Christian liturgy and well-known works of literature. In doing so he makes a familiar phrase bear a significance peculiar to himself and the private significance is deflated by a public phrase. In addition the things said in his poems, first those uttered by either disputant and then those emitted by the poem itself, are increasingly spiced or spiked with those colloquial exclamations which in French conversation set tone and declare intention before meaning is articulated in so many words.

A more rhetorical device, at times productive of uncertainty, is the sequence of nominal phrases thrown out with no explanatory verb and capped with an exclamation mark. A device of the time, frequent in Hugo and Rimbaud, you can’t always tell if what is apostrophized is being hailed, blessed, feared or simply invoked. Such variety of reference with uncertainty of feeling-tone may be seen in the example from the Derniers Vers quoted in Eliot’s essay on the metaphysical poets. Its subject is coitus.

Another device also used by Hugo became Laforgue’s distinctive feature. It is the practice of repeating a word two or three times in succession with effects various though similar, the invariable component being a sense of something unstoppable. In the Derniers Vers it yields a rare and subtle beauty, the word sort of punning on itself. In ‘ Remarquez que dès l’automne, l’automne!’ the first occurrence indicates the time of year, the second the nature of the season. L’automne! The very word is like a knell, signalling the approach of death. Aural perceptions now dominate the visual. With only slight change the word turns into the hunting call ton-ton taine and introduces the word for ‘horn’ repeated, signalling mounting excitement: ’ les cors, les cors, les cors!

The Derniers Vers also employ a syntactic invention, which became one of the means adopted by Pound in the later Cantos to (as he said) ‘hypostatize’ a mental entity. It consists in detaching a subordinate clause from the main verb, so promoting it to quasi-independent status while keeping the conjunction that betrays dependent origin. A resultant meaning unites absolute certainty with contingent uncertainty: ’ Et que nous mourrons’.

Laforgue was tubercular and he probably knew that marriage accelerated the disease. In the Derniers Vers excitement and foreboding alternate, each turning into the other without any lessening of Laforgue’s deprecatory manner. There is not the slightest longing for a romantic Liebestod. To the fate felt in the blood and acknowledged by the intelligence is added concern for his partner as the disease gallops towards consummation. Married on 31 December 1886, Laforgue died on 20 August 1887, his wife the year after. Those about to read the Derniers Vers for the first time are recommended to allow themselves a period of rest in which to recover from the experience.

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