Friday, May 7, 2010

Vigny and Byron

OK. I’ll admit it. I have little taste for most French poetry. Particularly the stuff written between Racine and Baudelaire. The weight of tradition, of good taste, of bienséance, weighs down on all poets in that century and a half, and even a very talented one like Vigny have to overcome a lot to begin writing poems that strike me as enjoyable/masterful.

To me, alexandrines seem utterly empty in any but the most masterful hands (Racine). They give me the impression of a well-worn road with deep ruts. With the limits of poetic vocabulary, the rhymes are all so predictable (“cerceuil”, “deuil”, and ”linceuil”,;“ivresse” and “tendresse; “nuages” and “orages”) and the sentiments feel formulaic.

While, in general, the 18th century is a poetry train wreck through most of Europe, in Germany, poetry explodes in the 1780’s and 1790’s with Goethe, while English poetry in the 1790’s with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake. The floodgates opened with Tieck, Novalis, Hölderlin, Eichendorff and company in Germany, and with Byron, Keats, and Shelley. French poetry lags far behind.

Take Alfred de Vigny’s Poèmes antiques et modernes, published first in 1826, but containing some later works, up to the annus mirabilis of French romanticism, 1830. Vigny is a talented poet, but he is hobbled by tradition through most of the works written before the late 1820’s.

The book, as the title implies, takes subject matter from ancient sources (Biblical and classical) as well as modern, which primarily means mediaeval. And there is a constant attempt to break out, In "Moïse" (1822) Moses is a Miltonic/Byronic ego/force of nature:m who declare st God:
J’impose mes deux mains sur le front des nuages
 Pour tarir dans leurs flancs la source des orages J’engloutis les cités sous les sables mouvants ;
 Je renverse les monts sous les ailes des vents
Forgive the awkward translation:

I set my two hands on the face of clouds
To dry up from their flanks the source of storms
I engulf cities in drifting sand
I overthrow mountains with the wings of wind.
The sentiments are the Promethean rodomontade of Romanticism, but the words and the verse fall a little flat of the ideas. Let's kook at a Biblical-era Byron poem, “The Destruction of Sennacherib”(1817) for contrast:

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,

And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed; 

And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill, 

And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

The anapestic tetrameter – the same basic pattern as an Alexandrine – but so full of life. This metric pattern is relatively unusual in English, and maintaining without sounding sing-songy it is a feat. (Compare, for example: “The Night Before Christmas”), For me, Byron gets energy and passion, by contrasting concrete everyday words with poetic diction. I think his poetry has bite, crunch, pace, directness, attributes that doesn’t come through in "Moïse".

Vigny, who was well aware of Byron and might well have read this well-known poem, strains after a Byronic tone, but he has to break the chains of Enlightenment verse to do it. We’ll look next at some of his more successful poems.

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