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Love letter to a language
A review of An Essay on French Verse by Jacques Barzun.
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Love letter to a language
reviewed by William Jay Smith
On the French ship on which I served as liaison officer during World War the officers in the wardroom would sometimes after dinner take to reciting poetry. “Rodrigue, as-tu du coeur?” one would call out, and immediately the answer would come (if memory serves) from his companion, “Non, mais j’ai du carreau,” thus turning Corneille’s famous lines in Le Cid into a card game (Roderick, have you hearts? No, but I have diamonds). The men were summoning up their school days and ridiculing the alexandrines that had been drilled into them in the classroom. I sensed that beneath their absurd declamation there was real affection, for one only makes fun of what one loves. By toying with poetry, which is the essence of language, they were concerning themselves with their own means of articulation, with words that in the deepest sense give meaning to life.
Reading this essay on French verse, I thought at times of that shipboard scene and of its enactment of classical drama, for Jacques Barzun sets out to answer the ridicule that French poetry has often met with from English readers. His answer amounts to a love letter to the French language, a letter reasoned and balanced, simple and direct (those terms that have characterized all Professor Barzun’s writing), but understanding and passionate, a letter the intensity of which, with careful, considerate, but thorough persuasion, he invites his English reader to share. For him a poet is “the voice of the language grown conscious of itself … He sings, and regardless of who repeats his song, we catch its harmony.” It is this one voice, modulating over the centuries, that he follows, examines, and explains in these carefully documented pages.
Now most English readers, thanks to T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and their followers, know and appreciate the work of modern French poets. “Today, ‘French poetry’ is no longer a self-contradictory phrase, and sheer surprise greets the fact that its existence was ever in doubt,” Professor Barzun begins. “But even here confusion persists, for a silent proviso is attached to the modern opinion: … no French poetry before Baudelaire. Villon four hundred years earlier, qualifies by exception—he and Baudelaire share a modern mood and Villon’s traditional technique is no bar to appreciation. But between these two poles, the void.”
To understand why such a void should exist on the part of the English reader and why that reader should have devalued French poetry for over two hundred years, Professor Barzun examines the nature of the language on which that poetry is built. He recalls the blunt question that A. E. Housman put to André Gide at the University of Cambridge in 1917: “How is it that every nation has produced poetry except France?” Gide does not tell us what his answer was at the time but says that he later thought that he should have answered by matching question for question and asking “What is poetry?” since poetry is not a constant but a variable, changing with time and place and with individual or group sensibility. Since everyone agrees that poetry is untranslatable, Professor Barzun chooses to define it by indirection, by analyzing the obstacles to translation, which are “compression, strangeness fused with the natural, and the spell variously put on the ear,” the elements that perhaps Milton had in mind when he defined poetry as “simple, sensuous, and passionate.”
It is these elements that the great nineteenth-century denigrators—De Quincey, Walter Savage Landor, Matthew Arnold— found lacking in French poetry. The charges leveled at it may be summed up thus: “an endless series of twelve-syllable lines riming feebly; a preference for abstractions occasionally rising into a tirade, which at best is oratory, not poetry; an invariably moral or social subject-matter—not a bird or flower in a thousand lines—all this is but mannered prose etiolated by needlessly arbitrary rules of versification. The heavily Latinized vocabulary lacks immediacy and evocative power, and being sounded without accent yields no rhythm. As there is but one meter, thought and feeling are encased in virtually standardized propositions.” Professor Barzun sets out to prove that most of these charges are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the French language.
No two languages are closer and yet farther apart than English and French, close in their mixed history and mutual borrowings, far apart in grammar and idiom and even farther apart in the turn of thought and in the way the sounds that seem the same are pronounced. “French is a vowel language; that is the great principle to remember,” and this is the principle to which Professor Barzun returns again and again. French vowels moreover are, as Paul Valéry said, “numerous and distinctly shaded (très nuancées).” In English it is the consonants that matter and in some long words only one vowel out of several is heard. In French every vowel must be clearly pronounced. In English there is a definite stress on some part of each word. French has no real stress, only a slightly rising tone, and this lack of accentuation makes it unique among European languages. In this respect, it resembles Algonquin, which after the American War of Independence was proposed in New York as a national language to replace English. (It is curious that Professor Barzun does not mention that, in its lack of accentuation, French seems close to Japanese. I remember being told in Tokyo how baffled taxi drivers could be when American or English tourists asked for the Okura Hotel, heavily stressing the second syllable and completely transforming the word, whereas in Japanese all three vowel sounds are evenly stressed. It is because of the similarity of Japanese to French that apparently Japanese poets have produced such close approximations of Verlaine’s famous lyrics.) French is not a logical language, as foreigners have frequently assumed, but it is “implacably analytic,” and, if not clearer than other languages, one that “shows up lack of clarity at once and painfully.” It is indeed this basic lack of ambiguity that has made it seem to many English critics a lesser vessel for poetry than English.
Those critics have usually insisted that the French poets of all periods have been wedded to the alexandrine, that measure, as Landor put it, with its break “down the back like broiled mackerel.” But Professor Barzun points out that even at the height of the Neoclassical era, when the alexandrine predominated, there were lyricists and satirists who used traditional lines of six, eight, or ten syllables. He traces the alexandrine from its first deliberate use in the thirteenth century down to the sixteenth century when Ronsard, a master of all forms of poetry, remolded it for his longer works, then to the seventeenth century when the language was codified and the measure acquired its strictest rules: “Ronsard was free; Racine was hemmed in.” But even Racine, with what Robert Lowell calls his “diamond edge,” bent the rules and achieved harmony in his own way. Molière and La Fontaine each perfected a conversational style that made for great poetry. The poet who was to match Ronsard in his revolutionary role three hundred years later, even surpassing it in variety and influence, was Victor Hugo. In 1830, when the staging of his Hernani occasioned an almost physical battle in the audience, the Neoclassical system, which had endured since 1640, came to an end.
In this historical survey, Professor Barzun sets down memorable thumbnail descriptions of individual poets. In La Fontaine, for example, “art is concentration.” Of Hugo it is plain that he “thought in images and that the often overwhelming, suffocating power of his poems is due to this gift of seeing: image succeeds image to re-present the initial experience or idea.” Of Musset he writes: “If Hugo’s verse feels as if wrought on the forge, Musset’s is liquid metal cast in a mold.” The Surrealists and other modern critics have considered Verlaine an “elegant trifler,” at best a minor figure: “This unfair estimate is due to a hidden tendency in modern judgments of poetry—indeed of art in general: Verlaine offers no emphatic message… . [A]s more recent poets have bewailed the daily round and disgustedly surveyed the wasteland, they have turned to the colloquial for masochistic, denunciatory verisimilitude, a style that excludes ‘music’ such as Verlaine wrought.” When poets like Mallarmé, Laforgue, Claudel, and St.-John Perse turned their attention to English, the result was a lingual exchange of the sort that had not occurred for five hundred years: “Contact with another idiom marked a departure from the parochialism and chauvinism of French poets about their own tongue and incited them—or at least made it easy for them—to violate usage and syntax when seeking new effects.”
Harmony in versification is difficult to define and assess, and Professor Barzun shows how it is rooted in human speech and varies from poet to poet and from period to period. He insists that Pope is wrong in thinking that the sound and rhythm of words should echo the sense; they simply supply the sense in an attractive fashion. In this connection, I find his argument that onomatopoeia is a complete fiction not entirely convincing. As proof of its illusory character he tells of a Japanese friend, with whom he frequently discussed literature, who told him once that for him and some of his English-speaking friends the most beautiful word in our language was “cellardoor.” The word, he decided, had a special appeal to his friend perhaps because he found the l and r sounds difficult to pronounce and because he had never actually seen a cellar door. To the English ear the word has no charm whatever; because of its meaning it is prosaic. “Compare with it ‘celandine,’” Professor Barzun says, “where the image of the flower at once makes the sound lovely.” Here I must part company with him. Regardless of its meaning, to my ear “cellardoor,” with the pleasant shift of its vowels, is far more attractive as pure sound than “celandine,” whatever lovely image the latter may evoke.
To a poet often the sound, not just in nonsense verse, precedes the sense. Perhaps that is why Verlaine wanted music before anything else, and why T. S. Eliot said that sometimes he had the rhythm of a passage before he had the actual words. To a child mastering the language, sound comes before meaning, and the same is true in much primitive poetry. In the early English riddles the interest is frequently in the sound of the words and the sensations they call forth rather than in the answer, the logical meaning. I think that I know the meaning of Wallace Stevens’s memorable lines:
even though they seem intentionally vague, as are T.S. Eliot’s:
but in both instances the sound not only serves or echoes the meaning; it is the meaning. And the same is true in Racine’s line, describing the appearance of the Furies during Orestes’ hallucination:
“This much-praised line states quite rightly that the serpents whistle. But onomatopoeia is supposedly achieved by means of the five s’s. Now,” Professor Barzun asks, “did the snakes hiss or whistle?” And he answers: “According to convention either will do; but it is a convention, and one that holds good only when the meaning gives it support.” Letters and sounds are indeed infinitely malleable. Racine elsewhere uses the s to express tender solicitude but here at a key point, master of sound that he is, he achieves a “hiss of hate” that makes his reader—in this case, his listener—forget the literal meaning of “whistle.” The sound in this line becomes the meaning. As is shown many times in this essay, great poets break the rules when they choose and turn convention to their purpose. They give priority to sound when it is in their best interest to do so.
Among the benefits along the way in this study are the accurate observations on the nature of both French and English and the brilliance of the running translations given at the bottom of each page of the many French examples provided. As an illustration of padding (the cheville), Professor Barzun gives us Boileau’s line:
Pégase s’effarouche et recule en arrière
which he renders:
He notes that Hugo’s title Les Châtiments, the poems attacking Napoleon, is literally in English “Chastisements” but would be better translated as “Whips and Scorpions.” He points out that many titles, which are “half-grown metaphors,” are untranslatable. A la recherche du temps perdu cannot be rendered by “in search of lost time,” as current translators are doing, nor can Un homme se penche sur son passé be rendered as “a man leaning over his past.” The word “spleen,” which conveys the “unrelieved Baudelairian experience,” he defines thus: “Its connotation in French is depression; it is not tender like melancholy, nor does it carry the idea of resentment as does English ‘spleen.’ The soul is weary; every small accident underscores the hopeless, meaningless, and unchangeable character of human life; whence the horror of it.”
There have been other treatises on French versification for the English reader but none has been so thorough, so well reasoned, so free of academic jargon, and so available as this one. Because he presents and defends his great subject with such clarity, precision, and passion, Jacques Barzun has produced an absolute masterpiece. I envy the student and young lover of poetry who can take it up today and ingest the wisdom that it provides. I wish that I had had it when I went to study in France over half a century ago; it would have answered many of the questions that troubled me and for which I had to find answers myself.
It is amazing that Professor Barzun, now in his eighties, should have produced so youthful and vigorous a book, an objective study that is at the same time so personal a document. He recalls the accent with which one of his professors, a native of Provence, read Leconte de Lisle in the classroom, and how his great-grandmother, born in 1830, pronounced certain words as they had been pronounced in the early 1800s. He looks back on the time when Guillaume Apollinaire held him on his lap and told him how he planned to alter the meaning of certain words and thus to create a new language. He concludes his essay with his own translation of “Les Djinns” (Evil Spirits) by Victor Hugo, which he published under a pseudonym while an undergraduate at Columbia. In it he skillfully approximates the varied line lengths and the rhyme scheme of the original. Here are the two concluding stanzas:
Such personal testimony enlivens and enriches the historical treatment throughout.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 September 1991, on page 145
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