Adolphe Cohn



The French Symbolists.


Literatur: Cohn
Literatur: The Bookman (New York)

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Texte zur Baudelaire-Rezeption
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Texte zur Theorie und Rezeption des Symbolismus





[89] It may be seriously questioned whether great poetry is ever found in any school of poetry. When France produced her great lyric singers she knew of no such school. Sturdily independent were Lamartine, Béranger, Alfred de Musset; and although the Romantic poets who followed the lead of Victor Hugo were so dazzled by his genius as to conceive of no beauty save in imitation of him, they can hardly be considered to have formed a school; and, moreover, from their midst nothing great came save the works of the great master who stood at their head and out of their circle because so far above them. But as soon as the great masters disappeared or began to rest, schools began to appear — that is, rules began to be laid down, the strict observance of which, more than the sincere and powerful expression of internal emotion, came to be considered, by a small circle at least, the stamp by which a work of art was recognised.

Le Parnasse — this was the not overmodest name given to their group by the men who tried to create a new poetical code by turning into imperative laws some of Hugo's spontaneous practices. The "sonorous echo" which Hugo claimed his soul to be had little attraction for them. The fulness of his rhymes, the abruptness of the rhythm in some of his stanzas, the dazzling éclat of some of his words, the rich coloring and the sharp outline of his metaphors they admired above all, and were determined to reproduce in their own works. Already Leconte de Lisle and Théophile Gautier, one with the fervour of an apostle, the other with the cool head of a pleasure-loving sceptic, had shown them what could be achieved in that direction. They followed, hardly ever equalling them, these masters of patiently constructed verse. With them the poet's study became a regular workshop; they toiled with hammer and chisel; they knew how to hew, and carve, and polish marbles and stones of all descriptions, and their hand acquired such skill as to enable them to find a snug corner for chips of every possible size and shape. And all this was done without in the least relaxing the severity of the old rules of French poetry. To sum it up in a phrase which is familiar to all students of French art theories, the Parnasse was the school of la difficulté vaincue. The Parnassiens went so far that one of their youngest disciples, in 1866, openly declared war against . . . inspiration!

Oh! l'Inspiration superbe et souveraine,
    L'Egérie aux regards lumineux et profonds,
Le Genium commode et l'Erato soudaine,
    L'Ange des vieux tableaux avec des ors au fond!

      *             *             *             *             *

Ce qu'il nous faut à nous, les Suprêmes Poètes
    Qui vénérons les Dieux et qui n'y croyons pas,
A nous dont nul rayon n'auréola les tétes,
    Dont nulle Béatrix n'a dirigé les pas,

A nous qui ciselons les mots comme des coupes,
    Et qui faisons des vers émus très froidement,
A nous qu'on ne voit point aller jamais par groupes
    Harmonieux, au bord des lacs et nous pâmant,

Ce qu'il nous faut à nous, c'est, aux lueurs des lampes,
    La science conquise et le sommeil dompté.
C'est le front dans les mains du vieux Faust des estampes,
    C'est l'Obstination et c'est la Volonté!

      *             *             *             *             *

Libre à nos inspirés, cœurs qu'une œillade enflamme,
    D'abandonner leur être au vent, comme un bouleau.
Pauvres gens! l'Art n'est pas d'éparpiller son âme;
    Est-elle en marbre ou non, la Vénus de Milo?

[90] Strange to say, the young poet who sang these lines was soon to be hailed as the leader of an uncompromising reaction against the Parnasse; he was to glory in the name (was it not a nick name at first?) of décadent; and more perhaps than any French poet of our time he has since then éparpillé son âme. He was then only twenty-two years of age; he is now past fifty. His name is Paul Verlaine.

This transformation, however, was not a sudden one. There are two very distinct periods in Verlaine's poetical career, and they are separated from each other by a long interval. During the first period he is simply a very clever and very brilliant parnassien. In his Poèmes Saturniens (1865), in his Fêtes Galantes (1869), in La Bonne Chanson (1870) no sign can be detected of any revolutionary purpose. All the rules of French versification are strictly obeyed, and as much attention is paid to the quality of rhymes as in the poems of even Théodore de Banville. The poet thus far had remained true to his first utterances; his lines were the productions not of spontaneous overflowing emotion, but of patient labour. The labour, moreover, was not unrewarded. No lover of French poetry could fail to discover real music in several of the songs of La Bonne Chanson, for instance. Already Verlaine made charming use of the decasyllabic metre, so admirably handled by Alfred de Musset in his Conseils à une Parisienne, in which poem, however, the poet of the Nuits, afraid, as it were, of his own boldness, intermingled pentasyllabics with his decasyllabics. Verlaine moves one step further, and merrily sings:

L'hiver a cessé; la lumière est tiède
    Et danse, du sol au firmament clair.
Il faut que le cœur le plus triste cède
    A l'immense joie éparse dans l'air.

Between La Bonne Chanson and Sagesse eleven years elapsed. The Verlaine of Sagesse is, to all appearances, a new man and a new poet. He has suffered, sinned, repented, fallen again, and begun a strange series of oscillations between God and Satan. Several years have been spent by him in a pious retreat at the "Chartreuse" of Montreuil-sur-mer; he has acquired the habit of introspection. Language he now values, not as some plastic material out of which to carve any shape that may suit his fancy, but simply for the expression of his joys and sorrows, of his hopes and terrors. No man ever more conscientiously burned what he had worshipped and worshipped that which he had formerly destroyed. The painstaking industry of the versifier he despises no less than he hates the light-hearted scoffing of his former utterances. In his revolt against the set rules which might interfere with the free expression of his various moods, he goes so far as to reject even the rhyme which Banville, the law-maker of the Parnasse Contemporain, had declared to be the generating element of French verse. All lovers of poetry in France now repeat his famous tercets:

O mon Dieu, vous m'avez blessé d'amour,
Et la blessure est encore vibrante,
O mon Dieu, vous m'avez blessé d'amour.

Voici mon front, qui n'a pu que rougir,
Pour l'escabeau de vos pieds adorables,
Voici mon front qui n'a pu que rougir.

Voici mes mains, qui n'ont pas travaillé,
Pour les charbons ardents et l'encens rare,
Voici mes mains qui n'ont pas travaillé.

*             *             *             *             *      

Dieu de terreur et Dieu de sainteté,
Hélas! ce noir abîme de mon crime,
Dieu de terreur et Dieu de sainteté.

Vous, Dieu de paix, de joie et de bonheur,
Toutes mes peurs, toutes mes ignorances,
Vous, Dieu de paix, de joie et de bonheur

[91] Vous connaissez tout cela, tout cela,
Et que je suis plus pauvre que personne,
Vous connaissez tout cela, tout cela.

Mais ce que j'ai, mon Dieu, je vous le donne.

It happened, when Verlaine published Sagesse, in 1881, that a number of young men were trying to break away from the old restraints of French poetry. They were first and last individualists. They would submit to no rule; and as many a line, many a stanza in Sagesse was full of combinations which Boileau and Banville — far as they are from each other in their theories — would have agreed in condemning as unpardonable sins, these young poets united in greeting Verlaine as their chief and idol. One point, however, they overlooked, though of the greatest importance. All their labours had for their objects the discovery of new poetical forms, of new modes of expression, while Verlaine simply sought to relieve his heart, whether in its sorrowful or happy moods, of a load of emotion which he could not retain within. They are not without their excuse, since Verlaine himself indeed welcomed them, and wanted to become their spokesman and sponsor before the public.

They were all young save one, whom perhaps at heart they admired a great deal more than they did Verlaine; a poet whose verse was a good deal more form less than anything in Sagesse, whose utterances had nothing of the clearness of Verlaine, whose poems and manifestoes were at times — for the public at large at least - strings of unintelligible riddles. We refer to Stéphane Mallarmé, whose Après-midi d'un Faune and Petite Philologie had been published in 1877 and 1878, and who had just edited Beckford's Vathek.

It is just about that time that a hostile critic taunted them with being nothing but poets of decay, and that they took up the name of décadents, flung at them as an insult, insisting on making it a glorious title, claiming that décadence is simply a more advanced form of civilisation. In this they showed the influence of Charles Baudelaire, which was beginning to act powerfully upon them, and to which Verlaine himself soon after submitted.




[161] One of the most curious features of the situation already described is the large number of poets that France was suddenly discovered to have; to the poets of what we might call the old orthodox school — to Sully Prudhomme, François Coppée, Catulle Mendès, Jean Richepin, Armand Sylvestre, Maurice Bouchor, José Maria de Hérédia, Maurice Rollinat, Léon Dierx, Jean Lahor, Charles Grandmougin, Eugène Manuel, and many others — had soon to be added Adoré Floupette, René Ghil, Noël Loumo, Anatole Baju, Jules Laforgue, Jean Moréas, Stuart Merrill, Armand Mundel, Tristan Corbière, Paul Adam, Henri de Régnier, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Vignier, Gustave Kahn, Francis Vielé Griffin, Laurent Tailhade, Ernest Raynaud, Albert Jhouney, Saint-Pol Roux, who awarded to himself the name of Le Magnifique, and a crowd of others.

A number of periodicals sprang up devoted to the expounding and propagating of the new poetical gospel and to the publication of the productions of its followers, Le Chat Noir, Le Décadent, Le Scapin, and especially La Plume; stranger than all, a publisher was found who volunteered to put these productions in book form before the public. This courageous man's name, Léon Vanier, should certainly not be forgotten in a review of the main features of this poetical agitation.

Poetical? "Aye, there's the rub!" Is it possible for one country to have at one time so many poets? Was not France more poetical when only a few names had to be added to those of Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny and Alfred de Musset? Indeed, one of the truest poets of the period, Sully-Prudhomme, struck by the formlessness of these young men's utterances, warned them that rhythm is not in itself poetry, and that French literature is remarkably rich in pages of magnificent rhythmic prose.

Then, in addition to their revolt against the trammels of the old versification, what was these young men's message? Alas! few were those who could understand their lines. Who will undertake to explain the opening quatrain of Stéphane Mallarmé's best known sonnet?

Une dentelle s'abolit
Dans le doute du jeu suprême
A n'entrouvrir comme un blasphème
Qu'absence éternelle de lit

It seemed, indeed, that there was a set purpose to strip the French language [162] of its most striking quality - clearness. Attacks were not wanting; but the new poets found a defender, as we said, in Verlaine, who then published his Poètes Maudits, and a kind of law-maker in a young Greek, Jean Moréas, who rejected the name of décadent, and announced the formation of the symbolist school. Baudelaire was hailed as the ancestor; one of his lines,

"Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent",

was quoted as stating the main principle of a new "Art Poétique". Arthur Rimbaud, who perhaps was simply thinking of perpetrating some huge joke, published his famous sonnet on the colour of the vowels,

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, V vert, O bleu, voyelles,
Je dirai quelques jours vos naissances latentes

and René Ghil insisted that I is not red, but blue. And still there was in all that something else than pure nonsense. These men did achieve some good; they showed that the time had come to discard some of the old restraints; they wrote dodecasyllabics that were harmonious, though without a cæsura right in the middle of the line; they re-introduced combinations of vowels familiar to the poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but proscribed afterward by Boileau and by all the French poets since Boileau's time. Even in prose they showed that too great a desire for clearness had resulted in too frequent a use of the most unmeaning and unsuggestive of words, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. The following lines of Stéphane Mallarmé, while tersely setting forth some of the new theories, are an admirable specimen of a French more compact perhaps than anything written since the seventeenth century, while in no way deficient in clearness:

Un lettré français, ses lectures interrompues à la mort de Victor Hugo, il y a quelques ans, ne peut, s'il les souhaite poursuivre, qu'être déconcerté. Hugo, dans sa tâche mystérieuse, rabattit toute la prose, philosophie, éloquence, histoire au vers, et, comme il était le vers personnellement, il confisqua chez qui pense, discourre ou narre, presque le droit à s'énoncer. Monument dans le désert, avec le silence loin; dans une crypte, la divinité ainsi d'une majestueuse idée inconsciente, à savoir que la forme appelée vers est simplement elle-même la littérature; que vers il y a sitôt que s'accentue la diction, rhythme dès que style. Notre vers, je le crois, avec respect attendit que le géant qui l'identifiait à sa main tenace et plus ferme toujours de forgeron, vînt à manquer; pour, lui, se rompre.

Le remarquable est que, pour la première fois, au cours de l'histoire littéraire d'aucun peuple, concurremment aux grandes orgues générales et séculaires, où s'exalte, d'après un latent clavier, l'orthodoxie, quiconque avec son jeu et son ouie individuels se peut composer un instrument, dès qu'il souffle, le frôle ou frappe avec science: en user à part et le dédier aussi à la langue.

Une haute liberté littéraire d'acquise, la plus neuve: je ne vois, et ce reste mon intense opinion, effacement de rien qui ait été beau dans le passé, je demeure convaincu que dans les occasions amples on obéira toujours à la tradition solennelle, dont la prépondérance relève du génie classique; seulement lorsqu'il n'y aura pas lieu, à cause d'une sentimentale bouffée ou pour une anecdote, de déranger les échos vénérables, on regardera à le faire. Toute âme est une mélodie, qu'il s'agit de renouer; et pour cela, sont la flûte et la viole de chacun. Selon moi jaillit tard une condition vraie ou la possibilité, de s'exprimer non seulement, mais de se moduler à son gré. . . .

Parler n'a trait à la réalité des choses que commercialement; en littérature, cela se contente d'y faire une allusion ou de distraire leur qualité pour incorporer quelque idée. A cette condition s'élance le chant qu'il soit la joie d'être allégé.

No readers of the above passages will be surprised to hear that their author should have proved an admirable translater of English poetry. His rendering of Poe's poems, especially of "The Raven," is nothing short of wonderful. He has undoubtedly enriched the French [163] language and demonstrated its hitherto unrecognised power to reproduce foreign masterpieces without forcing them, against their spirit, into the cast-iron mould of its complicated syntax. Part of this must be due to his close, continuous contact with English literature. M. Mallarmé is one of the professors of English in the most intellectually alert of the Parisian lycées, the Lycée Condorcet.

English influence, moreover, is also discernible in Verlaine's poetry. Verlaine resided a good deal in England, and his productions certainly owe to English literature a quality which the plain-spoken poetry of France formerly lacked — that is, suggestiveness. The favourite painter both of Verlaine and Mallarmé is Whistler; and one of Mallarmé's most curious writings is his Ten o'clock de Monsieur Whistler.

To return to Verlaine, who remains, after all, the most striking, the most interesting because the truest of the poets who broke away from the old limitations, we have had from him since the publication of Sagesse a number of collections which could not very well be spared. In Jadis et Naguère, still more in Romances sans paroles, musical effects are found which are truly new in French poetry. Thus the following treatment of one of the formerly forbidden metres, the hendecasyllabic:

Il faut, voyez-vous, nous pardonner les choses.
De cette façon, nous serons bien heureuses,
Et si notre vie a des instants moroses,
Du moins nous serons, n'est-ce pas? deux pleureuses.

We hardly need to call the reader's attention to the languishing effect due, in addition to the metre itself, to the fact that contrary to all the rules of old French poetry, Verlaine has here entirely discarded the masculine rhymes and trusted entirely to the feminine. Every one of the lines of the quatrain, and of the whole piece for that matter, ends with a mute, none with a sonorous syllable.

But we strike here the weakness of this new movement. It pays too much attention to form, too little to matter. One school succeeds another. The décadents become the Symbolists; now symbolism itself is dead, and its earliest herald, Jean Moréas, the poet of the Syrtes and the Cantilènes, presides over the destinies of the Ecole Gréco-Romane. We had almost said that all this production belongs to what is known as pure literature, but we remembered in time that some pieces of Odes en son honneur and of Parallèlement, both by Verlaine, can hardly be called pure literature. Moreover, even putting aside the double entendre implied in the foregoing lines, what singles Verlaine out of the crowd of contemporary versifiers is the intensity of his subjectivism. All this poetry, indeed, is subjective; but while Mallarmé, Francis Vielé Griffin, Henri de Régnier are dealing merely with the rare and exquisite impressions (this is what they are after) which they are constantly trying to receive, Verlaine translates real and powerful emotions. He is constantly swinging from an ascetic and mystic Christianity to an exuberant and frightfully plain-spoken paganism, but he is sincere in both. He sins with unutterable delight and revels in the description of his sin, then sinks on his knees and smites his breast with all the might he can control, and weeps bitter tears of repentance until he exults in the hope of forgiveness. His poetry is human, it is sincere. But in his poetry, as well as in his life, his rejection of all rule, of all self-control, of all submission to the law of usefulness to and respect for his fellow-man has, in spite of his rare gifts, stopped him short — very far short, indeed — of the height reached by the great singers of the human race.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Bookman (New York).
Bd. 1, 1895:
Nr. 2, März, S. 89-91
Nr. 3, April, S. 161-163.

Gezeichnet: Adolphe Cohn.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The Bookman (New York)   online







Literatur: Cohn

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Foster, Edward: Decadents, Symbolists, & Aesthetes in America. Fin-de-Siècle American Poetry: an Anthology. Jersey City, NJ 2000.

MacLeod, Kirsten: American Little Magazines of the Fin de Siecle. Art, Protest, and Cultural Transformation. Toronto u.a. 2018.

Newcomb, John T.: The Twentieth Century Begins. In: The Cambridge History of American Poetry. Hrsg. von Alfred Bendixen u.a. Cambridge 2015, S. 497-518.

Taupin, René: The Influence of French Symbolism on Modern American Poetry. New York, NY u.a. 1985.



Literatur: The Bookman (New York)

Mott, Frank L.: "The Bookman". A History of American Magazines. Volume IV: 1885-1905. Cambridge, MA 1957, S. 432-441.

Sherbo, Arthur: Henry James in The Bookman of New York. In: The Henry James Review 13.3 (1992), S. 215-227.



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer