Jottings Logo - John Fraser



Saying Simply

Verlaine afterthoughts


In the poems that we looked at last time, Verlaine observes the required alternation of “masculine” and “feminine” line-endings. This may seem a small matter, but it indicates that he is precisely making verses and not just drifting along on currents of feelings. He also scrupulously observes syllable counts, though at times one may have to hunt for the “missing” syllables.

As we move from stanza to stanza, something a bit different is likely to happen in each new stanza. We’re not simply getting repetitions of effects.


I notice that in Chanson d’Automne the first lines of the stanzas are syntactically different from each other. We move in them from adjective to participle to verb. The three last lines of the stanzas are also syntactically different.


In the first stanza we have a kind of slowed-down on-going, generalized thingy-ness—slowly-bowed musical notes (deep? vibrato?), an elegaic season, a single-toned inaction.


In the second there’s more psychological action and, as it were, real time.

He/She (but strictly speaking, the syntax may not compel us to attach the first three lines immediately to the speaker), feels as though suffocating, and is unhealthily pale.

The striking clock (a church clock?) locates him at a specific point in time, and he recalls a past that emphatically is not the present—a presumably lost and happier past.


The third stanza, syntactically an extension of the second, moves fast, especially in lines four and five, but his “going” in it is more of a being taken than an act, and the speed-up in lines four and five, with their rapid slide into line six, ends on the physical thinginess of a dead leaf—or, more precisely, “la/ Feuille morte,” with the emphasis falling on “morte.”


La Lune Blanche could have been printed as three stanzas rhyming ababcc, with a click-effect in each of the concluding couplets.

But that is not how we assimilate the poem.


The first four lines of the opening stanza are syntactically complete but perhaps not quite complete semantically (what kind of voice? one might wonder).

The fifth line is hooked on to what has come before, but doesn’t clarify the meaning in terms of “plot” and is deliberately marked as uncompleted.

The verbless sixth line is free-standing, and its logical relationship to what has gone before is elliptical.

Are the (imagined) voices those of the beloved, absent from the scene? Is the effect of the voices to bring her to his mind? Or is she there beside him?


The first four lines of each of the next two stanzas also form a self-sufficient unit that is then amplified. I notice that the free-standing lines are also syntactically different from each other.


The first stanza of Clair de Lune has a lot of s-sounds in it, I notice.


The verbs in the first stanza come in the first two lines and are undramatic (“est”,“vont”).

The fourth line in the stanza is significantly different in feeling from the first.

If the whole stanza were like the first, the poem might be a bit dreamy in the conventional sense of the word—undulating, “soft”.

But the fourth line, with the sharp-sounding words “déguisement fantasques” picking up on “masques et bergamasques,” emphases the exterior fantasticalness as much as the interior feeling.

“Quasi,” so strange a rhyme word, is pivotal, I would think, with respect to a shift in feeling away from what has come so far in the stanza.


In the second stanza, the participles come in the first two lines this time, and the verbs in the last two form parts of more emphatic and free-standing assertions, the first of them literal, and the second curiously tactile.

However, the relation of the second to the first isn’t immediately obvious.

I mean, it isn’t obviously pointing a moral or softening a blow, and if the poem were to end there, as the simple changing of comma to period would permit, we would be in some doubt as to how we were to feel about it all.


The third stanza, all of it hanging syntactically from what has gone before, seems to switch away from any moral emphasis.

The calm clear brightness of the moonlight (see a dictionary on “clair”) is both sad and beautiful, affecting non-human beings (the birds dream, the fountains sob with ecstacy) in a way that lies deeper than the play-acting in the first two stanzas.

“Sangloter” is a strong word here.

“Jets” is repeated and emphasized in the aurally slower-moving last line, framed both by “grand” and by the striking word “sveltes”.

It seems to me natural to want to pause after “d’eau” in the final line, with the result that “sveltes” hovers with respect to its relationship to the part of the line before it and after it.

It seems to me natural to want to group together “sveltes parmi les marbres” as one reads the poem out.

But then logic reminds one that “sveltes” should be hooking back to “les grands jets d’eau.”

And yet a tension remains, as in Hardy at times.


Am I alone in feeling an erotic aspect to this final stanza, given also that a number of those marble objects (for there would be urns too) are presumably the nude or nearly-nude representation of classical beings from a reputedly simpler age?


I had thought for awhile that it would have made little difference (other than metrical) had the opening statement of the poem been “Votre âme est comme un paysage choisi.”

The line would have been weakened in the sense that a word like “comme” is colourless and abstract.

But similes and metaphors can be very close at times, and merely saying that something is so doesn’t magically make it so.

If one says that someone’s a pig, that doesn’t mean that his body changes and he goes around oinking.

But I now see that committing oneself explicitly to a comparison in the first stanza would have pretty well obliged one to come back to explicit comparing at the start of the second.


I am morally certain, in reply to that question last time, that not only the “masques” are masqueraders (cf the use in English of the word “domino” to describe the wearers of a certain kind of costume, as well as the costume itself) but also the “bergamasques.”

We are told that on this choice landscape there go charming masques and bergamasques. “Go” would seem to me an odd word to use of a dance.

Moreover, there is no comma after “bergamasques,” so that it is the masques and bergamasques who are, syntactically, playing lutes and dancing.

It would be odd, and linguistically wasteful in a way uncharacteristic of Verlaine in these poems, to say that dances were dancing.

And I don’t believe that the statement “Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur” can be attached grammatically, or expressively, to dances, at least not in a way that seems consonant with Verlaine’s chaste syntax in these handout poems.

I noticed that in one of the major French dictionaries that I went to consult, the illustrative quotation supporting the notion that the word “bergamasque” means (only) a dance was taken from... “Clair de lune.”

I am reminded of the anecdote of how Thomas Hardy, finding himself puzzled in later life by the meaning of some country word (an admirer may have asked him about it) went to the great Oxford English Dictionary and found that the source there given was... one of his own novels.


It has also occurred to me that in Fêtes Galantes Verlaine created, in the popular literary/artistic imagination, the stylized elegance of that imagined landscape in which figures completely lost inside their costumes and roles—figures, in fact, who appear to be those roles—join and separate in a structured erotic freedom.

In Watteau’s scenes we have recognizably 18th-century upper-class individuals at play in costumes that are not remarkably distant from upper-class party finery then. But can one imagine the Duc d’Avignon, or whoever, squeezed into the skin-tight costume of a theatrical Harlequin?

As I think I said, Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s great quintessential defining of French erotic-theatrical Romanticism in the movie Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) is relevant here.


Return To Top
Saying Simply Verlaine Mallarme Suspiciousness Referentiality Holderlin Yeats Hopkins Hopkins2 Woolf