Jules Laforgue (1860–1887) was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, on August 16, the second son of Charles and Pauline Lacolley Laforgue. The poet’s father was a native of Tarbes, France; Jules’s mother was the daughter of a French bootmaker and former legionnaire.

As a young man, Jules studied philosophy and rhetoric. His first poems appeared in little magazines in Tarbes and Toulouse. One was a “Song of Death,” the other a dialogue between a son and his father about having to choose an occupation. Laforgue submitted poems and stories to Paul Bourget for criticism and worked as an assistant to Charles Ephrussi, an art historian and editor. On the recommendation of Bourget and Ephrussi he was appointed “reader” to the Empress Augusta of Germany and traveled with the court to Berlin.

In later years, Laforgue traveled on his own to see exhibitions of paintings and wrote “chronicles” for Ephrussi’s Gazette des Beaux Arts. We are told that he was “romantically involved with ‘R.,’ enigmatic personage attached to Court.” In 1885 he published Les Complaintes de Jules Laforgue.

T. S. Eliot said that he traced his beginnings as a poet to two influences, the later Elizabethans and the poems of Laforgue. He said that Laforgue spoke to his generation more intimately than Baudelaire seemed to do, and he ranked Laforgue with Donne and Baudelaire as “the inventor of an attitude, a system of feeling or of morals.” Some of Eliot’s early poems, notably “Portrait of a Lady” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” are modeled on Laforgue’s “complaints.”

Laforgue is important in the literature of English-speaking countries, for the poems Eliot based on Laforgue have been widely imitated. But the French do not make much of Laforgue. In the years immediately following his death his reputation stood high among readers of poetry in France, but this did not last. Scholars and critics did not write about him—he was “marginalized” as academic scholars and critics say.

Laforgue’s subject matter was original. In “Légende,” translated below, a man tells of a visit to a woman friend who has stayed at a seaside resort beyond the season. She confides that she has had an affair and the man has left her. He commiserates with her and attempts to renew their former intimacy, but she rejects his advances—men, she says, are all alike. Writing about such common experiences was all too different for scholars and critics—it broke with tradition. But for a young American in the 1920s, Laforgue’s poetry was wonderfully innovative: it was “modern.” As the critic Malcolm Cowley said of reading Laforgue during that period, “We were impressed by his subject matter … we were young and yearning, and we found it exciting to read a poet who regarded adolescence as a time of life that deserved as much serious attention as any other time.”

--Louis Simpson

Autre complainte

DE LORD PIERROT

Celle qui doit me mettre au courant de la Femme!
Nous lui dirons d’abord, de mon air le moins froid:
“La somme des angles d’un triangle, chère âme,
“Est égale à deux droits.”

Et si ce cri lui part: “Dieu de Dieu! que je t’aime!”
—“Dieu reconnaîtra les siens.” Ou piquée au vif:
—“Mes claviers ont du coeur, tu seras mon seul thème.”
Moi: “Tout est relatif.”

De tous ses yeux, alors! se sentant trop banale:
“Ah! tu ne m’aimes pas; tant d’autres sont jaloux!”
Et moi d’un oeil qui vers l’Inconscient s’emballe:
“Merci, pas mal; et vous?”

—“Jouons au plus fidèle!”—“A quoi bon, ô Nature!”
“Autant à qui perd gagne!” Alors, autre couplet:
—“Ah! tu te lasseras le premier, j’en suis sûre …”
“Après vous, s’il vous plaît.”

Enfin, si, par un soir, elle meurt dans mes livres,
Douce; feignant de n’en pas croire encor mes yeux,
J’aurai un: “Ah çà, mais, nous avions De Quoi vivre!
“C’était donc sérieux?”

by Jules Laforgue

Another complaint

of Lord Pierrot

The one who keeps me informed how a woman feels,
I shall say to her first, with my least frigid air,
”The sum of the angles of a triangle equals
Two right angles, my dear.”

And if this cry escapes her: “God, how I love you!”
”God rewards his own.” Or sadly contemplative:
”Keyboards have a heart. My theme is always of you.”

I: “All is relative.”

With blazing eyes, aware of being tedious:
”Ah, you don't love me! But so many others do!”
I with an eye racing toward the Unconscious:
”Well enough, thanks. And you?”

“Let’s see which can be more faithful.” “What’s the idea?”
”The one who loses wins.” Then another couplet:
”Ah, you would be the first to grow tired, I swear . . .”
”Go ahead. Place your bet.”

Finally, still pretending that I don't believe,
If one evening she should die, and not make a fuss,
I shall say, “How so? We had what it takes to live!
Then it was serious?”

--translated by Louis Simpson

Legende

Armorial d’anémie!
Psautier d’automne!
Offertoire de tout mon ciboire de bonheur et de génie
AvaƱt cette hostie si féminine,
Et si petite toux sèche maligne,
Qu’on voit aux jours déserts, en inconnue,
Sertie en de cendreuses toilettes qui sentent déjà l’hiver,
Se fuir le long des cris surhumains de la Mer.

Grandes amours, oh! qu’est-ce encor? …

En tout cas, des lèvres sans façon,
Des lèvres déflorées,
Et quoique mortes aux chansons,
Apres encore à la curée.
Mais les yeux d’une âme qui s’est bel et bien cloîtrée.
Enfin, voici qu’elle m’honore de ses confidences.
J’en souffre plus qu’elle ne pense.

—“Mais, chère perdue, comment votre esprit éclairé
Et le stylet d’acier de vos yeux infaillibles,
N’ont-ils pas su percer à jour la mise en frais
De cet économique et passager bellâtre?”

—“Il vient le premier; j’étais seule près de l’âtre;
Son cheval attaché à la grille
Hennissait en désespéré …”

—“C’est touchant (pauvre fille)
Et puis après?
Oh! regardez, là-bas, cet épilogue sous couleur de couchant;
Et puis, vrai,
Remarquez que dès l’automne, l’automne!
Les casinos,
Qu’on abandonne
Remisent leur piano;
Hier l’orchestre attaqua
Sa dernière polka,
Hier la dernière fanfare
Sanglotait vers les gares …”

(Oh! comme elle est maigrie!
Que va-elle devenir?
Durcissez, durcissez,
Vous, caillots de souvenir!)

—“Allons, les poteaux télégraphiques
Dans les grisailles de l’exil
Vous serviront de pleureuses de funérailles;
Moi, c’est la saison qui veut que je m’en aille,
Voici l’hiver qui vient.
Ainsi soit-il.
Ah! soignez-vous! Portez-vous bien.

Assez! assez!
C’est toi qui as commencé!

Tais-toi! Vos moindres clins d’yeux sont des parjures.
Laisse! Avec vous autres rien ne dure.
Va, je te l’assure,
Si je t’aimais, ce serait par gageure.

Tais-toi! tais-toi!
On n’aime qu’une fois!”

Ah! voici que l’on compte enfin avec Moi!

Ah! ce n’est plus l’automne, alors,
Ce n’est plus l’exil.
C’est la douceur des légendes, de l’âge d’or,
Des légendes des Antigones,
Douceur qui fait qu’on se demande:
“Quand donc cela se passait-il?”

C’est des légendes, c’est des gammes perlées,
Qu’on m’a tout enfant enseignées.
Oh! rien, vous dis-je, des estampes,
Les bêtes de la terre et les oiseaux du ciel
Enguirlandant les majuscules d’un Missel,
Il n’y a pas là tant de quoi saigner.

Saigner? moi pétri du plus pur limon de Cybèle!
Moi qui lui eusse été dans tout l’art des Adams
Des Edens aussi hyperboliquement fidèle
Que l’est le Soleil chaque soir envers l’Occident! …

by Jules Laforgue

Legende

Armorial of anemia!
Psalter of autumn!
Offering my genius and luck, the full ciborium,
To that so feminine hostess
And the dry, malignant cough
You visit on empty days, at an obscure address,
Bent over the ashes of her wardrobe as winter approaches,
Escaping the reach of the sea’s superhuman cries.

Great loves, where are they now?

They were simple in any case:
Lips that needed no introduction,
Though the song is dead and gone
Still eager for the chase.
But the eyes of a beautiful, well cloistered soul.
Finally, she is taking me into her confidence.
It is making me suffer more than she can guess.

“But, my poor dear, a person of your intelligence
And your eyes that can cut like steel,
How could they not see through the pretense
Of an opportunist, a goodlooking heel?”

“He was the first. I was alone, over there.
His horse, tied up at the gate,
Was whinnying with despair.”

“Poor girl, that’s touching!
And then?
Oh, look at that epilogue disguised as a sunset!
Then, it’s the custom,
At the first touch of autumn . . . autumn!
The casinos
That have been abandoned
Put away their pianos.
Yesterday the orchestra

Attacked its last polka.
Yesterday the last fanfare
Went sobbing to the stations. . . .”

(Oh, how thin she has grown!
What will become of her?
You clots of memory,
Harden, be as hard as stone!)

“Come now! The telegraph poles
In the graynesses of exile
Will serve you as mourners at funerals.
As for me, it is the season that wants me to go.
Winter will soon be here.
Then so be it.
Ah, take care of yourself! Take care.

Enough, enough!
You are the one who started it!

Don't speak! The slightest blink of your eyes is a lie.
Leave off! With all of you nothing is sure.
Go! If I loved you, I swear
It would have to be on a bet.

Be quiet! Be quiet!
One loves only once!”

And that is how they settle my accounts!

Ah, then it is no longer autumn
Or exile, but the sweetness
Of legends, once more the age of gold . . .
Legends about Antigones,
A sweetness that makes one wonder,
”Now when did that take place?”

It is legendary, like the stories I was told,
All the pearls of the nursery.
Oh, I tell you, in none of the pictures

Of birds of the sky and animals
In the Missal engarlanding the capitals
Is there anything that can make you bleed like this.

Bleed? I am covered in the pure mud of Cybele!
I who would have been, with all the art of Adams
In Edens, as true to her, speaking in hyperbole,
As the sun every evening to the West.

Translated by Louis Simpson