Tristan Corbière’s only book, Les Amours jaunes, has been lost and found and lost again, ignored and praised, forgotten and rediscovered, in happy rotation, ever since it first appeared in 1873. Originally published at the author’s expense, it was discouragingly overpriced and quite out of place among the colourful wares of the Paris publisher Gladys frères, which ‘specialised’ in sentimental erotic fiction. Even the title may well have been a joke at the expense of early readers who would have been expecting something more conventionally carnal for their 7.50 frs. Corbière, true to form, is missing from the Harvard New History of French Literature, but this official banishment has gone unheeded, for he is back again, almost as good as new, in a parallel-text translation by Christopher Pilling.
These translations are a labour of love: heroically complete, decorously literal and slightly awkward. So much depends, in Corbière, on a recklessness that expresses itself in the twisting and hammering of poetic form. Among recent poets, John Berryman comes to mind as the ideally mischievous, ideally anguished translator of Corbière. But Pilling has done the great service of putting back into general circulation a number of long-lost pieces. This volume represents the whole of Les Amours jaunes in translation, more of Corbière than ever before, but it still fails to answer the obvious questions: what kind of poet is this and can he still speak to us?
According to one of his early biographers, Corbière kept the flattened, desiccated, leathery little corpse of a toad nailed to the wall just above the mantelpiece of the family home in Roscoff. The toad lacked the agreeable narcissism of the emblems chosen by most of his contemporaries – swans, albatrosses, skylarks and nightingales – and it had none of the charm of Nerval’s lobster, but it contributed to Corbière’s dubious local reputation as an original. The good-for-nothing son of rich old Edouard Corbière, a popular novelist and ship-owner, Tristan occupied an odd niche in the class system of the day, a place set aside for the disreputable, unhygienic but harmlessly eccentric offspring of the energetic and successful. (Flaubert was another example.)
Tristan was not merely a disappointment to his father, however. Paternal disapproval of that conventional kind could be shrugged off, or cherished as a vindication of one’s principles. Baudelaire played that game with great poise; but Corbière’s case was rather more serious. Afflicted from the age of 15 by rheumatoid arthritis, he turned on himself with a degree of malice which far surpassed everything a mocking world could say or do. In his own eyes he was a feeble, sickly, hideous thing, a shambling caricature of his vigorous and talented father. Such a son did not belong, symbolically, with the creatures of the air. His poem ‘The Toad’ stakes out his place in the slime:
Un chant dans une nuit sans air ...
La lune plaque en métal clair
Les découpures du vert sombre.
... Un chant; comme un écho, tout vif
Enterré, là, sous le massif ...
– Ça se tait: Viens, c’est là, dans l’ombre ...
– Un crapaud! – Pourquoi cette peur,
Près de moi, ton soldat fidèle!
Vois-le, poète tondu, sans aile,
Rossignol de la boue ... – Horreur! –
... Il chante. – Horreur!! – Horreur pourquoi?
Vois-tu pas son oeil de lumière ...
Non: il s’en va, froid, sous sa pierre.
Bonsoir – ce crapaud-là, c’est moi.
Pilling’s translation serves the modest purpose of elucidating the original, though we forfeit the evocative, flirtatious, nocturnal small talk of Corbière’s lovers. Without that framing elegance, the toad-world means much less to the reader:
A song on an oppressive night ...
The moon is plating with bright
Metal the dark-green cut-outs it has made.
... A song; like an echo, so alive
Buried under bushes down the drive ...
– If’s stopped: Look, he’s there, in the shade ...
– A toad! – Why this fear and trembling
With me here, your faithful conscript!
See him, poet without wings, clipped
Nightingale of the mud ... – Revolting! –
... He’s singing. – How horrible!! – If you’re told
There’s a light in his eye, won’t you see ...
No: he’s off under his stone, stone-cold.
Goodnight – that toad down there is me.
Corbière’s wingless toad-poet knows how to aggravate his self-disgust into a more generalised disdain. Verlaine, who was the first to write about Corbière, called him ‘le dédaigneux par excellence’. It was a tribute to the superlative quality of Corbière’s manner, but it doesn’t tell us the whole story of how disdain and self-mockery might, in the best of his poems, become an aggrieved prologue to words of love. How did Corbière become ‘this warped, unloved, insufferable man’, to borrow from his poem, ‘Femme’?
We know more about Corbière’s early adolescence than about any other period of his life. His family destroyed all of his letters shortly after his death, with the exception of those he wrote to his parents when he was away at school, which are more edifying and more filial than those which have survived from later years, and display, in the unsympathetic words of one critic, Corbière’s ‘morbid attachment to his family’. There is a note of growing distress beneath the schoolboy’s painful desire to please. He worked hard and won the academic prizes his father expected him to win, but it was a supreme effort and the school regime was harsh. We know from his letters that he was dismayed by the crudity and the cruelty of his peers. He missed his prosperous, affectionate, indulgent family. Nobody at school seemed to like him very much and there was a teacher who called him ‘drôle de gueule’, ‘funny-face’. A photograph of Corbière at this time shows a face wearing an expression of blank melancholy. Weeping quietly in the long bare school dormitory and rising from his bed at 5.30 to the sound of a drum, Corbière counted the days until he could return to the comforts of home: the good food, the slow, lazy mornings, his horse, his boat, his hunting kit.
In the winter of 1860, when he was 14, the first ominous physical symptoms appeared. There were chilblains on his hands that didn’t heal. His fingers became swollen, stiff and painful. He was moved to another school and placed in the care of his uncle. Then, at 17, the first signs of tuberculosis appeared. He lost weight, his muscles began to waste away, his skin turned yellow and he was perpetually short of breath. Even before the onset of his TB he had abandoned the name Edouard, which he had been given as the eldest son, and began to call himself Tristan, after the legendary Celtic warrior and doomed lover. Simply to survive the calamity of his adolescence Corbière had to create a style of aggressive negation: better to laugh disdainfully than weep tears of humiliation. Corbière embraced the grotesque, as both a way of life and a creative principle. His best poetry is also the most audacious: ‘un mélange adultère de tout’.
There is no doubt that Tristan lived and wrote in the shadow of his father. His young imagination was possessed by the many books his father had written before his son’s birth. Edouard Corbière’s novels were all of a piece: blood-and-thunder sea-stories, tales of wild adventure, reckless passion and sudden fortune. Edouard was talented and prolific, and at his peak, in the 1830s, published eight books in six years. The list included High Winds, Tales of the Coast, Sailors and the Sea, The Prisoner of War, The Three Pirates and The Slave-Trader (Le Négrier). This last was Tristan’s favourite. He was a hopeless admirer of Captain Léon, the master of Le Négrier, and his earliest ambition, declared at the age of 14, was to write books just like these. It was not encouraged: Edouard was more interested in his son’s exam marks. Away at school, Tristan kept a dozen copies of Le Négrier, neatly stashed inside his tuckbox, and gave them away to the teachers who he hoped might be nice to him.
Corbière’s earliest poetry is gathered under the collective title Gens de mer. Around the age of twenty he rewrote his father’s world: a dozen multi-volume novels are broken up and smelted down into a handful of monologues. The characters are the same – the ship’s captain, the cabin-boy, the customs man, the shipwrecker, the sailor on the razzle, the whore in the pink dress – but both the form and the effect are quite different. The son’s world is altogether darker and more destructive, and also more original.
Corbière wrote some of the best sea-poetry of the 19th century, doing for sailors what Zola wanted to do for miners and railwaymen: that is, portraying their labour in something like their own language, unclouded by either the anxiety or the idealisation that obscured the lives of the dangerous classes from their superiors. The 24 miscellaneous poems that make up Gens de mer and its companion section Armor (the Breton word for the coast of Brittany) are probably the least familiar to English and American readers. This is not the Corbière whom Verlaine, in a canny piece of publicity, consecrated as poète maudit. Neither is this the Corbière that Pound and Eliot quarried in their early work, turning him into a version of Browning. This is the Breton Corbière, a regionalist celebrating the particularities of a province which was still, even in the 1860s, stubbornly and proudly unassimilated, untouched by railways, shopping arcades and bestselling serial fiction.
He Wrote out of a romantic affinity – that of the bourgeois déclassé – for the wretched of the earth. In ‘Le Bossu Bitor’ a hunchbacked sailor suffers humiliation in a brothel at the hands of his drunken carnivalesque companions. Bitor is obviously descended from Quasimodo, but Corbière, unlike Hugo, never tries to veil the crudity of his luckless creature’s sexual appetites. He gives us a properly prosaic glimpse of a moment that scarcely figures in the respectable writings of the day. ‘Made up your mind, lovebird? – Yes ... I’ll have the fat lady in pink, the one with the crinoline.’ This is prostitution without the usual 19th-century trappings of mystery and romance. Corbière himself was quite familiar with ‘l’amour à trente sous’; fat ladies in pink were the meagre solace of long insomniac nights spent alone in Roscoff and in Paris.
Though an invalid, Corbière was drawn to write about the lives of sailors and soldiers. ‘La Pastorale de Conlie’, prompted by the disasters of the Franco-Prussian War, is a brilliant anarchist monologue written in the voice of a young soldier, a member of one of the Breton regiments left to perish in the mud of 1870 because they were thought to be hostile to the Republic. For this poem, which can stand alongside Rimbaud’s anti-war sonnets, Corbière drew on the military experiences of his sister’s husband, a volunteer soldier who had extricated himself by claiming paternity leave. It is a measure of Corbière’s isolation (or his discretion) that this volatile pamphlet-poem saw the light only in the pages of Les Amours jaunes, alongside writings of a quite different kind. Yet the radical Breton Corbière, supposedly the early Corbière, was active to the end. The original, or the late Corbière – the fully-fledged Parisian and proto-Modernist – coexisted imaginatively with the provincial romantic humanist, with his deep attachment to the archaic collective values most obviously enacted in popular religion. Breton Catholicism, with its tribe of local saints, its magical wells and springs, its extravagantly sculpted granite calvaries, its votive offerings, ossuaries and festivals of pardon, appealed enormously to Corbière because it was, in his own phrase, another ‘mélange adultère de tout’.
This side of Corbière’s imagination finds its richest, most sustained expression in ‘The Wandering Troubadour and the Pardon of Saint Anne’. The poem celebrates the great Breton festival held every year at the end of August in honour of St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary and especially revered in Brittany, where she was regarded as a local deity, related to the Celtic goddess Ana. In Pilling’s translation, the poem begins:
Blessed is the barren strand
Where, like the sea, all is bare.
Holy the chapel of Saint-Anne-
of-the Marsh with its wild air ...
Of Saint Anne whose heart’s so good,
Grandmama to little Jesus;
Around her frame of rotted wood
A rich cope ... richer than Croesus!
By her the Virgin, distaff frail
And small, awaits the Angelus;
In a niche, holding his candle,
Joseph’s ensconced, superfluous.
During the three days of the festival a great noisy, turbulent, rancid crowd of beggars, tramps, cripples, idiots, lepers and lunatics gathers in the churchyard, under the tender care of St Anne, the good mother who heals all sorrows. In this company Corbière can cast off the ingenious disdain of the unloved and conceive the possibility of some kind of community, woefully damaged and battered, but also miraculously robust and unbroken. Such moments release a poetry whose mood and tone has often reminded Corbière’s admirers of Villon. Verlaine noticed this affinity, and Pound, who had read Verlaine, passed it on. Randall Jarrell returned to the comparison in a brief essay on Corbière, published in Poetry and the Age, where he praised the ‘cruel and magical tenderness’ of the verse.
The figure who emerges at the end of the poem to embody these feelings is an elderly, one-eyed woman, a singer of ballads, who resembles, in Patrick Creagh’s translation, an early version of Yeats’s Crazy Jane:
Woman whose face is worn and green
As pebbles in a mountain stream,
Tears of love have cracked your skin!
This woman rarely appears in Les Amours jaunes. She stands somewhere at the very limit of Corbière’s imagination, like a faint image of his mother, hinting though never affirming the indestructibility of human affection. She is allowed the only smile in Corbière, a wonderful half-erased smile:
And you will see her creased face
Crease in a smile like twisted oak,
And with her scabby hand she’ll make
A proper sign of the cross.
Most of Corbière’s poems are epitaphs for himself. Cast in various poetic forms, they explore many different moods, from the mischievously satiric to the grimly self-annihilating. Corbière is particularly fond of slightly demented lists, poems of medium length that keep beginning again and again, as if hoarding their energies by moving in a tight formulaic circle. One delightfully spacious exception to this odd habit is ‘Le Poète contumace’, a poem that has attracted a whole fellowship of translators. As well as Christopher Pilling there is Randall Jarrell in his Collected Poems, Patrick Creagh in his Picture of Tristan (1965), Val Wamer in The Centenary Corbière (1974) and Peter Dale in Narrow Straits (1985). All these versions add something to our knowledge of Corbière’s genius, though the best are the imitations by Patrick Creagh.
‘Le Poète contumace’ is a colloquial-ironic self-portrait, written against the grain of romantic narcissism. The opening is satirically objective, crowded with the voices and the opinions of those who do not understand the poet. The middle section takes the form of a monologue-cum-letter to the absent lover, the one who used to understand. The mood is generous and the tone poised: ‘laugh with me if I have made you weep, And weep if I have made you laugh ...’ The finale is unlike anything else that Corbière ever wrote:
His lamp was dying down. He opened the window.
The sun was rising. He looked his letter over,
Laughed and tore it up ... The pieces of paper, white
And small in the morning air, resembled gulls in flight.
This rearranges, in a minor key, one of the great gestural end-moments in Madame Bovary, when the pieces of Emma’s letter to her lover are thrown from the window of the notorious closed carriage. When Corbière quietly dissolves his poetic existence the pieces are like ‘gulls in flight’, a comparison that holds both the poem and the poet aloft.