Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Vigny breaks loose

As noted in the previous post, Vigny starts really feeling his oats as a poet in the late 1820’s – and we will see that Hugo does the same thing at the same time.

I won’t go much into the famous “Le Cor” (1825), the anthology piece about the battle of Roncesvalles that I still remember from reading in high school – back when 4th year high school French was founded on an anthology with samples from Baudelaire, Hugo, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and the rest. The verse is still in the format of alexandrines, but it is often broken and textured, not plodding. And the sadness – even if it for long-ago mythic heroes – seems a bit more genuine.

La Frégate La Sérieuse” (1828) tells the tale of the captain of a French frigate, which sails the seas between France and India, then is sunk at Trafalgar. It's a vivid account of something within his readers’ living memory. The verse forms are varied, often anapestic, but a real turn away from alexandrines. The phrasing in the action of the battle is short, gripping, and full of nautical specificity.

Trois vaisseaux de haut bord — combattre une frégate !
 Est-ce l'art d'un marin ? le trait d'un amiral ? 
Un écumeur de mer, un forban, un pirate, 
N'eût pas agi si mal !
Three ships of the line – in combat with a frigate!
Is that the art if a sailor? the trait of an admiral?
A skimmer of the seas, a freebooter, a pirate,
Wouls have acted so evilly
This poem has broken free from both the proprieties of the older poetry and also from medievalism. It’s a really strong poem.

Then there’s one poem that strikes me as the masterpiece of the Poèmes antiques rt modernes: “Paris” (1831), and is it ever modern. The vision of Paris as a both the amazing hub of the world and a kind of blazing inferno on earth reminds me of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” and looks ahead to Baudelaire prophetic take on the city.

The poem is written as a guided tour (flying?) high above the nighttime city. Looking down on Paris and taking its measure is a trope that keeps repeating itself in French ; literature through the 19th century: Eugène de Rastignac in Père Goriot, and Aristide Saccard in Zola’s La Curée come to mind.

The city is a hellish furnace, we are guided to see:

Or ou plomb, tout métal est plongé dans la braise,
 Et jeté pour refondre en l'ardente fournaise.
 Tout brûle, craque, fume et coule ; tout cela
 Se tord, s'unit, se fend, tombe là, sort de là,
 Cela siffle et murmure ou gémit ; cela crie,
 Cela chante, cela sonne, se parle et prie
Gold or lead, every metal is plunged into the embers
And thrown to be melted down in the blazing furnace,
Everything burns, crackles, smokes, and flows; all of that
Twists, unites, splits, falls here, runs out there,
It whistles or murmurs. It cries
It sings, it sounds, speaks to itself, prays.

To me, this poem is a giant step from Vigny’s earlier poems. Like the furnace, it melts away and reshapes the old – in terms of language, poetic form, intense passion, and dark, sensual, and mighty diction. It also nails the concept of Paris as the both the leader in a new age of industrial and social reformation, along with the city as a stage for suffering and inner darkness, all of which will be theme of so much post-1830 literature.

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