Text: Richard H. Haswell, “A French Introduction to the Poetry,” Poe Studies, December 1978, Vol. XI, No. 2, 11:47-48


[page 47, column 2, continued:]

A French Introduction to the Poetry

Edgar Poe. Poemes/Poems. Edited by Claude Richard. Translations by Henri Parisot. Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1978. 282 pp. Paper, n.p.

Given the title, it is a bit of a surprise to discover that this collection actually presents only nineteen of Poe’s poems. Nearly three-fourths of the space is occupied by critical apparatus by Claude Richard: a chronology of Poe’s life, a long, theoretical introduction to Poe’s poetry, and a ten-page annotated bibliography of books by and about Poe. Though ostensibly designed for the French student of Poe, this arrangement still suggests as much a program as a presentation.

For the student, the chronology may be the most useful part. It runs for nearly eighty pages and is loaded with accurate and up-to-date details of Poe’s movements, publications, and entanglements, both private and literary. Richard sketches in some of the historical and literary milieu and provides an unusually full account of the posthumous editorial vicissitudes of Poe, in particular on the continent, up to the Harrison edition. Richards particular program, however — a program that will be familiar to readers of his earlier work on Poe — creeps into the chronology despite the objective format. He de-emphasizes the occasional verse, perhaps in part because it smacks too much of Byron and the Romantic poete maudit, a role Richard does not think Poe played. Much space is taken up countering Griswold’s portrait of Poe as a debauched alcoholic. Although Richard tends to favor comments friendly to Poe over other accounts with less kindliness but perhaps equal authority, everyone from ecolier to scholar should agree with his main point, that much analysis of Poe rests on very shaky facts and “no matter how right it might seem, requires clearer symptoms.”

Above all, Richard wants to see Poe as a serious artist, [page 48:] not as a mere journalist or periodical versifier. The biographical facts that Richard selects far the chronology support this position, preparing the way for his subsequent reading of Poe’s poetry, a reading which, although nearly devoid of biographical references, requires the assumption of seriousness. Richard’s essay, nearly fifty pages long, itself strikes me as unduly cerebral — deceptively so for an “introduction” to Poe’s poetry — but it is fully and coherently worked out and deserves at least a synopsis, however brief. Richard begins with some principles. Most important to him is the contention that Poe’s writing has an intent not only serious but both didactic and metaphysical. This metaphysics, apparently stable throughout Poe’s career, posits a divine unity to the universe, the universe is the artwork of God, not static but on-going, ever harmonious. Poe’s poetry attempts to make the reader grasp the divine harmony of things (“l’Unite’ de la Beaute ”) by fabricating a beauty of its own (“l’Unite esthetique ”). But human art is fundamentally flawed; the universe can be the only true creation, and therefore art does not really create, only “stages” God’s on-going artwork: “Man’s imagination cannot create anything because everything is already created.” Consequently, the intent of human art is doomed to fail; it cannot “effect” God’s order on the reader’s awareness. Authentic poetry can only celebrate a mystic quest that ends in silence; its subject can only be poetry itself, or rather the always failed and always renewed attempt at poetry, all other subjects having already been perfectly written by the “Poet-God.”

The synopsis does not do justice to Richard’s exposition, but it may be enough to see that he is placing Poe, rather early, in that tradition of disjunct neo-Platonism familiar to students of twentieth-century continental literature and criticism (Poe was forefather to both Valery and Jakobson, says Richard). The schema also allows Richard to place Poe’s poems largely into two camps. On the one hand there are the poems which remain faithful to the metaphysic: lyrics like “For Annie” and “Annabel Lee” and “Eldorado” which hymn the tireless mystical quest, or like “Israfel” or “To Helen” which, having as subject the poet’s return to poetry, remind the poet of his “true function,” which is always to be returning to poetry (apparently this circularity is the poet’s only honesty). On the other hand, there are those poems, “confessions of vagabondage,” written by the poet who has strayed (egare, devoye) from his task. In one of the more interesting readings of the essay, Richard argues that for Poe earthly passion for another human (as opposed to divine “Amour”) leads to a perversion of the mystical quest: “The object of the passion tends to replace the Universe; the sin of the passionate man is nothing but the anthropomorphizing of divine creation.” This idolatry produces sentimental and affected light verse (mievreries) like “To the River” or crassly utilitarian poems like “Elizabeth” or “An Acrostic.” The protagonists of “The Raven” and “Ulalume” are strayed poets who idolize earthly beauty and thereby lose the desire to seek unworldly Beauty. This is why the most poetic subject in the world is the death of a beautiful woman; it frees the poet to seek a higher Beauty. The despair of the strayed poet expresses itself in the stasis and infinitudes of “The City in the Sea” and “The Conqueror Worm,” both of these qualities, I suppose, being opposed to the ever-changing [column 2:] finiteness of the universe of Poe’s God.

Even this general outline of Richard’s reading indicates a neglect of certain elements of Poe’s work. It is time, Richard says, for critics of Poe’s poetry “to concern themselves with his ideas rather than his love affairs.” But I see a danger in such dichotomizing. The one thing that critics of Poe must be concerned with is the astonishing complexity of his character, which could be philosophical, passionate, and cavalier, sometimes, it seems, all at once. Nowhere, for instance, does Richard speak of Poe’s humor or of his irony — surely a misleading introduction to the poems. Nevertheless, as a speculative introduction to the metaphysical implications of Poe’s poetry, Richard’s essay deserves reading. It treats all of the major poems, integrates comprehensively all of Poe’s oeuvre (there is as much reference to the prose as to the poetry), and grounds itself solidly in previous scholarship.

The nineteen translations by Henri Parisot need only a word or two. Despite the translator’s claim that they are “rigorously faithful” to the original, the rate of mistranslation is about average for the game. Poe’s “lurid” sea turns gray (livide), his famous “viol” becomes a pansy (pensee) , his lake “dim” with mist becomes dim (sombore) like a room, his “dank” tarn becomes boggy (marecageux) , a “tantalized” spirit ends up tortured (mit au supplice) , the mist in the mid-region of Weir suddenly covers all of Weir (Au coeur de la brumeuse province de Weir) , the leaves “crisped and sere” languish and turn bleak (languissantes et mornes; mornes, incidentally, was also Mallarme’s mistranslation for “sere”). Worse, Parisot’s tendency to rely on the alexandrine constantly results in padded lines. His remarkable expansion of “It stood there!” is perhaps only the worst of many: Oui, certes, c’etait la qu’il se tenaut d’aplomb! Finally, Parisot makes little effort to convey Poe’s peculiar poetic idiom. Language antique and quirky even in Poe’s days is converted to the quotidian: “Bewinged, bedight” as ailes, pares; “Levin” as la foudre, “methought” as me sembla-t-il. It is difficult to say how one could translate the odd effect of “Lo! ‘tis a gala night / Within the lonesome latter years!” but some attempt would have been better than none.

Not that Parisot’s choice of the classic French lines, with little rhyme and now and then an eerie off-beat caesura, is a bad one to convey Poe’s curious mix of clear and murky, neoclassical and Swinburnian. I found many lines as pleasing in translation as in the original, for instance the rendering of “She revels in a region of sighs” with Wile s’ejouit en un sejour de soupirs. Sejouit is a happy find. As it turns out, Mallarme’s line is nearly as good, and rather more accurate: elle jubile dans une region de soupirs. Richard prefers the “simplicite” of Parisot’s new translations over Mallarme’s standard prose versions, in which he finds the “over-subtle twists” sometimes incompatible with Poe’s nature. Perhaps this is merely to say that Parisot’s translation tends to erase those aspects of Poe — the mocker or the humorist or the poseur — that Richard himself seems least interested in. Anyway, the French student can turn with confidence to the original English of the nineteen poems (would there were more). The texts are identified and impeccably reprinted.

Richard H. Haswell, Washington State University


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