The Pendragon Papers (1): The Poemorph & Balzac’s Lucien Chardon
No, Barbet–no. He is a poet, a great poet; he is going to cut out
Canalis, and Beranger, and Delavigne. He will go a long way if he does
not throw himself into the river, and even so he will get as far as
the drag-nets at Saint-Cloud.
Balzac: Lost Illusions
It is March 2nd, 2023, 8:37 AM, & I am now embarking upon the composition of my Pendragon Papers. The idea is to create a platform, a forward post if you will, from where my further advances into the vast continent of poetry shall continue. My first paper concerns the Poemorph, that is to say the dislocation & projection of the poetic spirit thro a medium that is not poetry, when the suspiration of a secret poet’s soul is finally exhal’d, & the perfume of his pent up poesis permeates & invigorates his prose.
As a verb, To Poemorph means to embed poetry within the mouthpiece of a fictional character. As a noun, it is the presence & poetry of the aforedescrib’d within a piece of fiction. In the case of Honore de Balzac, one of the great 19th century French novelists, his poemorph can be found in the pages of his Lost Illusions (Illusions Perdues), in which Lucien Chardon becomes the mouthpiece of all things poetical in Balzac’s mind. Very much a mirror of Balzac’s own early years as a literary dilettante, Lucien Chardon sets forth with all the bright enthusiasm of a provincial poet & makes a play at becoming a successful poet in the metropolis of Paris. Along the way we gain a wonderful yardstick as to the state of play of poetry in France in 1837, when Balzac began his wonderful, often hilarious, tale. In this year, Baudelaire was only sixteen, & two more decades had to pass before Rimbaud was even born. Let us say Lost Illusions is set in the calm before the hurricane.
When John Milton compos’d, ‘his words, like so many nimble & airy servitors, trip about him at command,’ he could well have been writing about Balzac. A great creative artist, with supreme narrative powers, his Lost Illusions is one of the ninety novels & short stories which make up the Human Comedy, the umbrella term Balzac gave to his oeuvre, which depicts a hybrid world situated on the very boundary between real life & Balzac’s seer-like imagination, where everything is bath’d in the precise & illuminating light of Balzac’s visionary genius. His views on poetry are a case in point, which I have divide into three segments, all of which contain extracts from the actual novel. The translation is by Ellen Marriage,
The first part sees Chardon accepting his fate as a poet, which follow’d, ‘a reading which had shown the two friends that a new sun was shining over the fields of literature,’ he would soon be reading poetry to the ‘High Society’ of his native Angouleme, to no great success, complete disinterest in fact. The second part is taken, from his time in Paris, where on one occasion he, ‘felt like an embryo among these men; he had admired Nathan’s book, he had reverenced the author as an immortal; Nathan’s abject attitude before this critic, whose name and importance were both unknown to him, stupefied Lucien.’ The section we will look concerns a number of sonnets, drawn from the fictional ‘Marguerites’ manuscript, consisting of several pieces from the pens of Balzac’s own friends, including one from the only famous poet among them, Theophile Gautier, author of the Tulip, & future dedicatee of Baudelair’s Fleurs de Mal.
The final part sees Chardon, with the help of a friend, attempting to get his poetry publish’d, & what is remarkable how the vogue for buying poetry books has barely chang’d in two centuries. Altogether, I hope to have extracted some ore from the seam, to pann’d some gold from the bed, for poetry is poetry wherever it is found, any plant ever grown in the soil of Parnassus is important to record in the poetical & botanical diaries of mankind. For easier assimilation, the most important passages I shall highlight in bold.
A few habitues slipped in familiarly among the rest, so did one or two eldest sons; shy, mute young men tricked out in gorgeous jewelry, and highly honored by an invitation to this literary solemnity, the boldest men among them so far shook off the weight of awe as to chatter a good deal with Mlle. de la Haye. The women solemnly arranged themselves in a circle, and the men stood behind them. It was a quaint assemblage of wrinkled countenances and heterogeneous costumes, but none the less it seemed very alarming to Lucien, and his heart beat fast when he felt that every one was looking at him.
Lucien, luckless poet that he was, did not know that there was scarce a soul in the room besides Mme. de Bargeton who could understand poetry. The whole matter-of-fact assembly was there by a misapprehension, nor did they, for the most part, know what they had come out for to see. There are some words that draw a public as unfailingly as the clash of cymbals, the trumpet, or the mountebank’s big drum; “beauty,” “glory,” “poetry,” are words that bewitch the coarsest intellect.
He announced in an uncertain voice that, to prevent disappointment, he was about to read the masterpieces of a great poet, discovered only recently (for although Andre de Chenier’s poems appeared in 1819, no one in Angouleme had so much as heard of him).
Lucien began with Le Malade, and the poem was received with a murmur of applause; but he followed it with L’Aveugle, which proved too great a strain upon the average intellect. None but artists or those endowed with the artistic temperament can understand and sympathize with him in the diabolical torture of that reading. If poetry is to be rendered by the voice, and if the listener is to grasp all that it means, the most devout attention is essential; there should be an intimate alliance between the reader and his audience, or swift and subtle communication of the poet’s thought and feeling becomes impossible. Here this close sympathy was lacking, and Lucien in consequence was in the position of an angel who should endeavor to sing of heaven amid the chucklings of hell. An intelligent man in the sphere most stimulating to his faculties can see in every direction, like a snail; he has the keen scent of a dog, the ears of a mole; he can hear, and feel, and see all that is going on around him. A musician or a poet knows at once whether his audience is listening in admiration or fails to follow him, and feels it as the plant that revives or droops under favorable or unfavorable conditions.
When, like the dove in the deluge, he looked round for any spot on which his eyes might rest, he saw nothing but rows of impatient faces. Their owners clearly were waiting for him to make an end; they had come together to discuss questions of practical interest. With the exceptions of Laure de Rastignac, the Bishop, and two or three of the young men, they one and all looked bored. Lucien felt profoundly discouraged; he was damp with chilly perspiration; a glowing glance from Louise, to whom he turned, gave him courage to persevere to the end, but this poet’s heart was bleeding from countless wounds.
“Do you find this very amusing, Fifine?” inquired the wizened Lili, who perhaps had expected some kind of gymnastics.
“Don’t ask me what I think, dear; I cannot keep my eyes open when any one begins to read aloud.”
“I hope that Nais will not give us poetry often in the evenings,” said Francis. “If I am obliged to attend while somebody reads aloud after dinner, it upsets my digestion.”
“It was very well declaimed,” said Alexandre, “but I like whist better myself.”
After this dictum, which passed muster as a joke from the play on the word “whist,” (whisht = hush) several card-players were of the opinion that the reader’s voice needed a rest, and on this pretext one or two couples slipped away into the card-room. But Louise, and the Bishop, and pretty Laure de Rastignac besought Lucien to continue, and this time he caught the attention of his audience with Chenier’s spirited reactionary, Iambes. Several persons, carried away by his impassioned delivery, applauded the reading without understanding the sense. People of this sort are impressed by vociferation, as a coarse palate is ticked by strong spirits.
The intoxication of the poetry was upon him; he was far away from the hateful world, striving to render in speech the music that filled his soul, seeing the faces about him through a cloudy haze. He read the sombre Elegy on the Suicide, lines in the taste of a by-gone day, pervaded by sublime melancholy
Mme. de Bargeton sat with one hand buried in her curls, heedless of the havoc she wrought among them, gazing before her with unseeing eyes, alone in her drawing-room, lost in delicious dreaming; for the first time in her life she had been transported to the sphere which was hers by right of nature.
“The French language does not lend itself very readily to poetry, does it?” Astolphe remarked to Chatelet. “Cicero’s prose is a thousand times more poetical to my way of thinking.”
“The true poetry of France is song, lyric verse,” Chatelet answered.
“Which proves that our language is eminently adapted for music,” said Adrien.
When Francis and the Bishop joined the little group where Lucien stood, the circle who gave him the cup of hemlock to drain by little sips watched him with redoubled interest. The poet, luckless young man, being a total stranger, and unaware of the manners and customs of the house, could only look at Mme. de Bargeton and give embarrassed answers to embarrassing questions. He knew neither the names nor condition of the people about him; the women’s silly speeches made him blush for them, and he was at his wits’ end for a reply
“Do you work quickly?” asked Lolotte, much in the way that she would have asked a joiner “if it took long to make a box.”
The bludgeon stroke stunned Lucien, but he raised his head at Mme. De Bargeton’s reply–
“My dear, poetry does not grow in M. de Rubempre’s head like grass in our courtyards.”
“Madame, we cannot feel too reverently towards the noble spirits in whom God has set some ray of this light,” said the Bishop, addressing Lolotte. “Yes, poetry is something holy. Poetry implies suffering. How many silent nights those verses that you admire have cost! We should bow in love and reverence before the poet; his life here is almost always a life of sorrow; but God doubtless reserves a place in heaven for him among His prophets. This young man is a poet,” he added laying a hand on Lucien’s head; “do you not see the sign of Fate set on that high forehead of his?”
Glad to be so generously championed, Lucien made his acknowledgments in a grateful look, not knowing that the worthy prelate was to deal his deathblow.
Mme. de Bargeton’s eyes traveled round the hostile circle. Her glances went like arrows to the depths of her rivals’ hearts, and left them twice as furious as before.
“Ah, monseigneur,” cried Lucien, hoping to break thick heads with his golden sceptre, “but ordinary people have neither your intellect nor your charity. No one heeds our sorrows, our toil is unrecognized. The gold-digger working in the mine does not labor as we to wrest metaphors from the heart of the most ungrateful of all languages. If this is poetry–to give ideas such definite and clear expressions that all the world can see and understand–the poet must continually range through the entire scale of human intellects, so that he can satisfy the demands of all; he must conceal hard thinking and emotion, two antagonistic powers, beneath the most vivid color; he must know how to make one word cover a whole world of thought; he must give the results of whole systems of philosophy in a few picturesque lines; indeed, his songs are like seeds that must break into blossom in other hearts wherever they find the soil prepared by personal experience. How can you express unless you first have felt? And is not passion suffering.
Poetry is only brought forth after painful wanderings in the vast regions of thought and life.
“And what are you going to create for us?” asked Chatelet.
“If I were to announce such conceptions, I should give myself out for a man of genius, should I not?” answered Lucien. “And besides, such sublime creations demand a long experience of the world and a study of human passion and interests which I could not possibly have made; but I have made a beginning,” he added, with bitterness in his tone, as he took a vengeful glance round the circle; “the time of gestation is long—-“
“Then it will be a case of difficult labor,” interrupted M. du Hautoy.
“Your excellent mother might assist you,” suggested the Bishop.
The epigram, innocently made by the good prelate, the long-looked-for revenge, kindled a gleam of delight in all eyes. The smile of satisfied caste that traveled from mouth to mouth was aggravated by M. de Bargeton’s imbecility; he burst into a laugh, as usual, some moments later.
“Monseigneur, you are talking a little above our heads; these ladies do not understand your meaning,” said Mme. de Bargeton, and the words paralyzed the laughter, and drew astonished eyes upon her. “A poet who looks to the Bible for his inspiration has a mother indeed in the Church.–M. de Rubempre, will you recite ‘Saint John in Patmos’ for us, or ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’, so that his lordship may see that Rome is still the ‘Magna Parens’ of Virgil?”
“What do you think of our poet and his poetry?” Jacques asked of the Marquise. Jacques used to shoot over the lands belonging to the Pimentel family.
“Why, it is not bad for provincial poetry,” she said, smiling; “and besides, such a beautiful poet cannot do anything amiss.”
Every one thought the decision admirable; it traveled from lip to lip, gaining malignance by the way. Then Chatelet was called upon to accompany M. du Bartas on the piano while he mangled the great solo from ‘Figaro’; and the way being opened to music, the audience, as in duty bound listened while Chatelet in turn sang one of Chateaubriand’s ballads, a chivalrous ditty made in the time of the Empire.
2: THE SONNETS
Lucien was in his old place by the time that Lousteau reached the table; as the first comer, he greeted his acquaintance; they soon struck up a conversation, which grew so lively that Lucien went off in search of the manuscript of the ‘Marguerites’, while Lousteau finished his dinner. He had obtained leave to lay his sonnets before the journalist, and mistook the civility of the latter for willingness to find him a publisher, or a place on the paper. When Lucien came hurrying back again, he saw d’Arthez resting an elbow on the table in a corner of the restaurant, and knew that his friend was watching him with melancholy eyes, but he would not see d’Arthez just then; he felt the sharp pangs of poverty, the goadings of ambition, and followed Lousteau.
In the late afternoon the journalist and the neophyte went to the Luxembourg, and sat down under the trees in that part of the gardens which lies between the broad Avenue de l’Observatoire and the Rue de l’Ouest. The Rue de l’Ouest at that time was a long morass, bounded by planks and market-gardens; the houses were all at the end nearest the Rue de Vaugirard; and the walk through the gardens was so little frequented, that at the hour when Paris dines, two lovers might fall out and exchange the earnest of reconciliation without fear of intruders. There, on a bench beneath the lime-trees, Etienne Lousteau sat and listened to sample-sonnets from the ‘Marguerites’.
“The sonnet, monsieur,” said he, “is one of the most difficult forms of poetry. It has fallen almost entirely into disuse. No Frenchman can hope to rival Petrarch; for the language in which the Italian wrote, being so infinitely more pliant than French, lends itself to play of thought which our positivism (pardon the use of the expression) rejects. So it seemed to me that a volume of sonnets would be something quite new. Victor Hugo has appropriated the old, Canalis writes lighter verse, Beranger has monopolized songs, Casimir Delavigne has taken tragedy, and Lamartine the poetry of meditation.”
“Are you a ‘Classic’ or a ‘Romantic’?” inquired Lousteau.
Lucien’s astonishment betrayed such complete ignorance of the state of affairs in the republic of letters, that Lousteau thought it necessary to enlighten him.
“You have come up in the middle of a pitched battle, my dear fellow; you must make your decision at once. Literature is divided, in the first place, into several zones, but our great men are ranged in two hostile camps. The Royalists are ‘Romantics,’ the Liberals are ‘Classics.’ The divergence of taste in matters literary and divergence of political opinion coincide; and the result is a war with weapons of every sort, double-edged witticisms, subtle calumnies and nicknames ‘a outrance’, between the rising and the waning glory, and ink is shed in torrents. The odd part of it is that the Royalist-Romantics are all for liberty in literature, and for repealing laws and conventions; while the Liberal-Classics are for maintaining the unities, the Alexandrine, and the classical theme. So opinions in politics on either side are directly at variance with literary taste. If you are eclectic, you will have no one for you. Which side do you take?”
“Which is the winning side?”
“The Liberal newspapers have far more subscribers than the Royalist and Ministerial journals; still, though Canalis is for Church and King, and patronized by the Court and the clergy, he reaches other readers.–Pshaw! sonnets date back to an epoch before Boileau’s time,” said Etienne, seeing Lucien’s dismay at the prospect of choosing between two banners. “Be a Romantic. The Romantics are young men, and the Classics are pedants; the Romantics will gain the day.”
The word “pedant” was the latest epithet taken up by Romantic journalism to heap confusion on the Classical faction.
Lucien began to read, choosing first of all the title-sonnets.
The daisies in the meadows, not in vain,
In red and white and gold before our eyes,
Have written an idyll for man’s sympathies,
And set his heart’s desire in language plain.
Gold stamens set in silver filigrane
Reveal the treasures which we idolize;
And all the cost of struggle for the prize
Is symboled by a secret blood-red stain.
Was it because your petals once uncurled
When Jesus rose upon a fairer world,
And from wings shaken for a heav’nward flight
Shed grace, that still as autumn reappears
You bloom again to tell of dead delight,
To bring us back the flower of twenty years?
Lucien felt piqued by Lousteau’s complete indifference during the reading of the sonnet; he was unfamiliar as yet with the disconcerting impassibility of the professional critic, wearied by much reading of poetry, prose, and plays. Lucien was accustomed to applause. He choked down his disappointment and read another, a favorite with Mme. De Bargeton and with some of his friends in the Rue des Quatre-Vents.
“This one, perhaps, will draw a word from him,” he thought.
I am the Marguerite, fair and tall I grew
In velvet meadows, ‘mid the flowers a star.
They sought me for my beauty near and far;
My dawn, I thought, should be for ever new.
But now an all unwished-for gift I rue,
A fatal ray of knowledge shed to mar
My radiant star-crown grown oracular,
For I must speak and give an answer true.
An end of silence and of quiet days,
The Lover with two words my counsel prays;
And when my secret from my heart is reft,
When all my silver petals scattered lie,
I am the only flower neglected left,
Cast down and trodden under foot to die.
At the end, the poet looked up at his Aristarchus. Etienne Lousteau was gazing at the trees in the Pepiniere.
“Well?” asked Lucien.
“Well, my dear fellow, go on! I am listening to you, am I not? That fact in itself is as good as praise in Paris.”
“Have you had enough?” Lucien asked.
“Go on,” the other answered abruptly enough.
Lucien proceeded to read the following sonnet, but his heart was dead within him; Lousteau’s inscrutable composure froze his utterance. If he had come a little further upon the road, he would have known that between writer and writer silence or abrupt speech, under such circumstances, is a betrayal of jealousy, and outspoken admiration means a sense of relief over the discovery that the work is not above the average after all.
In Nature’s book, if rightly understood,
The rose means love, and red for beauty glows;
A pure, sweet spirit in the violet blows,
And bright the lily gleams in lowlihood.
But this strange bloom, by sun and wind unwooed,
Seems to expand and blossom ‘mid the snows,
A lily sceptreless, a scentless rose,
For dainty listlessness of maidenhood.
Yet at the opera house the petals trace
For modesty a fitting aureole;
An alabaster wreath to lay, methought,
In dusky hair o’er some fair woman’s face
Which kindles ev’n such love within the soul
As sculptured marble forms by Phidias wrought.
“What do you think of my poor sonnets?” Lucien asked, coming straight to the point.
“Do you want the truth?”
“I am young enough to like the truth, and so anxious to succeed that I can hear it without taking offence, but not without despair,” replied Lucien.
“Well, my dear fellow, the first sonnet, from its involved style, was evidently written at Angouleme; it gave you so much trouble, no doubt, that you cannot give it up. The second and third smack of Paris already; but read us one more sonnet,” he added, with a gesture that seemed charming to the provincial.
Encouraged by the request, Lucien read with more confidence, choosing a sonnet which d’Arthez and Bridau liked best, perhaps on account of its color.
I am the Tulip from Batavia’s shore;
The thrifty Fleming for my beauty rare
Pays a king’s ransom, when that I am fair,
And tall, and straight, and pure my petal’s core.
And, like some Yolande of the days of yore,
My long and amply folded skirts I wear,
O’er-painted with the blazon that I bear
–Gules, a fess azure; purpure, fretty, or.
The fingers of the Gardener divine
Have woven for me my vesture fair and fine,
Of threads of sunlight and of purple stain;
No flower so glorious in the garden bed,
But Nature, woe is me, no fragrance shed
Within my cup of Orient porcelain.
“Well?” asked Lucien after a pause, immeasurably long, as it seemed to him.
“My dear fellow,” Etienne said, gravely surveying the tips of Lucien’s boots (he had brought the pair from Angouleme, and was wearing them out). “My dear fellow, I strongly recommend you to put your ink on your boots to save blacking, and to take your pens for toothpicks, so that when you come away from Flicoteaux’s you can swagger along this picturesque alley looking as if you had dined. Get a situation of any sort or description. Run errands for a bailiff if you have the heart, be a shopman if your back is strong enough, enlist if you happen to have a taste for military music. You have the stuff of three poets in you; but before you can reach your public, you will have time to die of starvation six times over, if you intend to live on the proceeds of your poetry, that is.
“I say nothing as to your verses; they are a good deal better than all the poetical wares that are cumbering the ground in booksellers’ backshops just now. Elegant ‘nightingales’ of that sort cost a little more than the others, because they are printed on hand-made paper, but they nearly all of them come down at last to the banks of the Seine.
You may study their range of notes there any day if you care to make an instructive pilgrimage along the Quais from old Jerome’s stall by the Pont Notre Dame to the Pont Royal. You will find them all there –all the ‘Essays in Verse’, the ‘Inspirations’, the lofty flights, the hymns, and songs, and ballads, and odes; all the nestfuls hatched during the last seven years, in fact. There lie their muses, thick with dust, bespattered by every passing cab, at the mercy of every profane hand that turns them over to look at the vignette on the title-page.
3: THE PUBLISHER
“What is it about?” continued Dauriat, addressing Lucien’s protector.
“It is a volume of magnificent poetry.”
At that word, Dauriat turned to Gabusson with a gesture worthy of Talma.
“Gabusson, my friend,” he said, “from this day forward, when anybody begins to talk of works in manuscript here–Do you hear that, all of you?” he broke in upon himself; and three assistants at once emerged from among the piles of books at the sound of their employer’s wrathful voice. “If anybody comes here with manuscripts,” he continued, looking at the finger-nails of a well-kept hand, “ask him whether it is poetry or prose; and if he says poetry, show him the door at once. Verses mean reverses in the booktrade.”
“Bravo! well put, Dauriat,” cried the chorus of journalists.
“It is true!” cried the bookseller, striding about his shop with Lucien’s manuscript in his hand. “You have no idea, gentlemen, of the amount of harm that Byron, Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Casimir Delavigne, Canalis, and Beranger have done by their success. The fame of them has brought down an invasion of barbarians upon us. I know ‘this’: there are a thousand volumes of manuscript poetry going the round of the publishers at this moment, things that nobody can make head nor tail of, stories in verse that begin in the middle, like ‘The Corsair’ and ‘Lara’. They set up to be original, forsooth, and indulge in stanzas that nobody can understand, and descriptive poetry after the pattern of the younger men who discovered Delille, and imagine that they are doing something new. Poets have been swarming like cockchafers for two years past. I have lost twenty thousand francs through poetry in the last twelvemonth. You ask Gabusson! There may be immortal poets somewhere in the world; I know of some that are blooming and rosy, and have no beards on their chins as yet,” he continued, looking at Lucien; “but in the trade, young man, there are only four poets –Beranger, Casimir Delavigne, Lamartine, and Victor Hugo; as for Canalis–he is a poet made by sheer force of writing him up.”
Lucien felt that he lacked the courage to hold up his head and show his spirit before all these influential persons, who were laughing with all their might. He knew very well that he should look hopelessly ridiculous, and yet he felt consumed by a fierce desire to catch the bookseller by the throat, to ruffle the insolent composure of his cravat, to break the gold chain that glittered on the man’s chest, trample his watch under his feet, and tear him in pieces. Mortified vanity opened the door to thoughts of vengeance, and inwardly he swore eternal enmity to that bookseller. But he smiled amiably.
“Poetry is like the sun,” said Blondet, “giving life alike to primeval forests and to ants and gnats and mosquitoes. There is no virtue but has a vice to match, and literature breeds the publisher.”
“And the journalist,” said Lousteau.
Dauriat burst out laughing.
“What is this after all?” he asked, holding up the manuscript.
“A volume of sonnets that will put Petrarch to the blush,” said Lousteau.
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I say,” answered Lousteau, seeing the knowing smile that went round the group. Lucien could not take offence but he chafed inwardly.
“Very well, I will read them,” said Dauriat, with a regal gesture that marked the full extent of the concession. “If these sonnets of yours are up to the level of the nineteenth century, I will make a great poet of you, my boy.”
“If he has brains to equal his good looks, you will run no great risks,” remarked one of the greatest public speakers of the day, a deputy who was chatting with the editor of the ‘Minerve’, and a writer for the ‘Constitutionnel’.
“Fame means twelve thousand francs in reviews, and a thousand more for dinners, General,” said Dauriat. “If M. Benjamin de Constant means to write a paper on this young poet, it will not be long before I make a bargain with him.”
Well, there we have it, the first of my Pendragon Papers, playfully presented in the main by Honore de Balzac, a man who possess the enormous psychic proportions which enable a major poetical personality to exist within the pages of one his many novels. Lucien Chardon was there all along, straining to burst from the pages of prose that were his chains, & just speak to the real poets of the world. I hope in this paper, a little of his voice can now be heard, with the rest waiting to be heard in the marvellous, Lost Illusions. As for French poetry, TS Eliot describes the arrival of Baudelaire’s counter-romanticism, & an end to the poetical society in which Lucien Chardon had attempted to forge his name;
‘The invention of language, at a moment when French poetry in particular was famishing for such invention, is enough to make of Baudelaire a great poet, a great landmark in poetry.’
- ← Previous