Anna de Noailles : Belle Epoque Femme Fatale and Woman of Letters

November 2, 2009 at 12:25 pm (Uncategorized)

Photo of Anna de Noailles

Anna de Noailles

Although a French speaker and fairly well conversant with French poetry, I only came across the writings of Anna de Noailles (1876–1933) a year or so  ago, which shows how much she is an almost forgotten figure (not one of her many volumes of poetry is currently in print). I was at once struck by the burning sincerity and power of these poems which make the writings of Mallarmé and other Symbolists, her immediate predecessors in French poetry, appear tame and frigid.

Take, for example, the following poem which is my favourite

The Trace I Wish to Leave

I aim to thrust myself against this life so hard,
And clasp it to me fiercely, leaving such a trace,
That when the sweetness of these days I must discard
The world will keep awhile the warmth of my embrace.

The sea, spread out across the globe so lavishly,
On stormy days my fitful memory will sustain,
And in its myriad, random motions ceaselessly
Preserve the acrid, salty, savour of my pain.

What will be left of me in heath and windswept coomb?
My blazing eyes will set the yellow gorse on fire,
And the cicada perched upon a sprig of broom
Will sound the depth and poignancy of my desire.

Each spring, in fertile meadows where the skylark sings,
In lanes and wayside ditches where wild flowers grow,
The tufted  grass will tremble at the touch of unseen wings,
The phantoms of my hands that held them long ago.

My joy and restless passion will not die with me,
Nature will breathe me in, making of me a part
Of all that lives, while sorrowing humanity
Will hold the individual profile of my heart.

(translation by Sebastian Hayes)

Or again


I have the taste for what is ardent and intense,
Delirious crowds and bodies, a heroic role
In life, such bitter, acrid smells are like incense
To my tumultuous heart and my excessive soul.

From mundane tasks and cares I languish to be free,
Oh to be living now amidst the pent-up might
Of storm and spray, inhale the odour of the sea,
And breathe the morning air that silences the night.

Dawn breaks, the dazzled world returns to life again,
Birds sing, a clamour rises from the street below,
A thousand bustling noises fill my waking brain,
I am a canvas sail the wind swings to and fro.

To fill like this the days that lead towards the tomb,
Bearing a heart that’s swollen like a mellow fruit,
And leaves its juice and scent to beautify the room,
The mark of one who was in pleasure resolute.

To see spread out before me all that life can yield,
And clasp it to me fiercely like an infant boy
Hugging an unknown beast discovered in a field,
Who, ev’n when bitten, bloodstained, still is mad with joy.

To steel oneself for happiness, hand, will and eye,
Scaling the heights and depths of what the heart can bear,
To risk one’s all and the assaults of time defy,
To breathe the sparse and heady Himalayan air ;

To strive to emulate the wheeling sun and moon,
Monarch of golden day and night-time’s silvery queen,
To live like spumes of spray whipped up by a typhoon
Or like the unyielding thorn upon a wind-lashed green.

Sorrow and joy are lifelong comrades travelling home,
My heart yields always to their joint pulsating call,
I am an emerald lawn where pairs of lions roam,
Upon my lips there is the taste of honey and of gall.

And finally I celebrate that ecstasy
Of dying in full strength within the midst of  strife,
Because desire exceeds my frame’s capacity,
And what I hold inside me bursts the bonds of life.

(translation by Sebastian Hayes)

I assumed Anna de Noailles  must have been a rebellious, tormented individual who published little in her lifetime — a sort of French Charlotte Mew —  and led the recommended late nineteenth century poète maudit existence. Imagine, then, my surprise — and to a certain extent chagrin —  when I discovered that she was in her lifetime extremely successful : an aristocrat fêted by Parisian literary high society, a friend of Proust, Rostand, Gide, Cocteau, Valéry, you name them. Leading artists painted her and Rodin sculpted her. Her first collection of verse Le Cœur Innombrable (‘The Numberless Heart’) was something of a literary sensation and, since, with her long black hair and piercing eyes, she was hauntingly beautiful as well, she attained for a while almost the sort of status of Princess Diana in our own era. Reputedly, a fashionable young man, Charles Demange, committed suicide out of unrequited love for her.

One can only describe Anna de Noailles as a Romantic,  perhaps the last significant Romantic poet in French literature, and certainly the best female Romantic French poet. She has an edge which nineteenth-century Romantic writers like Lamartine, whom she resembles superficially, do not have because she was militantly atheistic and pantheistic, creating her own feminine version of Nietzsche’s tragic philosophy. She writes, for example,

Ils nous imposent l’âme, afin que lâchement
On détourne les yeux du sol, et qu’on oublie
Après l’injurieux ensevelissement,
Que sous le vin vivant tout est funèbre lie.

which I translate

They foist the soul upon us, so we cannot see
What’s underneath our feet, and in our cowardice
Deny our squalid end, the grim reality
That when the wine is drunk, there’s nothing but the lees.

Likewise, Anna de Noailles does not hide, indeed goes out of her way to emphasize, the dark side of passion : she writes, typically, “on aime plus âprement que l’on ne hait” where the ‘on’ refers to ‘woman’ — “We women love more violently than we hate”. She is also much more specific about sexual desire than male Romantic poets (including Byron) ever dared to be. The following remarkable poem, perhaps based on an affair with the writer Maurice Barrès, is the only poem I have ever come across (by a man or woman) which expresses female disappointment after sexual climax (because the male is unable to continue the experience)

The Aftermath

Above all, after climaxes the most intense
In our close-knit uniting, frenzied, barbarous,
Reclining side by side, gasping for breath, I sense
The abyss that severs us;

In silence we recline, not understanding why,
After such pent-up fury, longed-for, deep, insane,
So suddenly we find ourselves apart and lie
As separate selves again;

You are beside me but your gaze does not reveal
That eagerness I answered with a fire unknown,
You are a helpless beast gorged with its meal,
A corpse sculpted in stone;

You sleep and do  not stir — how can another know
What dream has quieted your restless mind?
But through me yet great gusts of yearning blow
Leaving their mark behind;

I cannot cease from living, O my dearest love!
My warlike frenzy underneath its peaceful air
In desperation searches round me and above
To find a passage there!

And still you lie content! The throbbing ecstasy
Of sadness coursing through my limbs, and that profound
Confusion, nothing of all this in you I see.
My love, my only love! Between yourself and me
There is no common ground.

(translation by Sebastian Hayes)

Anna de Noailles also wrote a lot about death and in a graphic way that betrays a real horror of physical disintegration, combined with a resolute acceptance of the finality of death.


Leave me among the graves, I wish to linger here,
The dead are in the ground, the day is bright and clear,
I smell sweet odours, water, leafy trees and hay,
The dead are in their death for ever and a day…
My dancing body will be hard to recognize
Quite soon, my temples cold, dark gaps instead of eyes;
Like them the solitary deed I shall perform
Though used to having by my side a body warm.
And all of this must cease ! all must expire!
Mouth, melting glances, kisses, my desire —
I shall become a thing of shadow, will be dumb
When next year’s spring, so green and rosy-cheeked will come,
An avalanche of  gold and mounting sap and dew !
Yet I who am so tender-hearted through and through,
So filled with idle hopes and dreams, so languorous,
No longer shall I greet the dawning of each day,
But motionless in sleep for evermore must stay !
Others I cannot know, happy and sensuous,
Young men with maidens at their sides will wander by
And see the labour in the fields, the corn, the vine,
The changing colours of the seasons, whereas I
Will notice nothing —  in the grave I shall recline,
And all the sweetness of this life will be a memory…
But you who read these lines will stop and think of me,
You’ll see what I once was before my glow departs;
My smiling ghost will comfort you in your ordeal
For, in your torpor and dejection, you will feel
That my cold cinders hold more passion than your hearts.

(translation by Sebastian Hayes)

Anna de Noailles also wrote three novels, long out of print : it would seem that they deal mainly with the psychological pressures on young women to conform to patriarchal society.

Stylistically, Anna de Noailles resisted the temptations of free verse, and wrote almost entirely in rhymed alexandrines or octosyllabic lines. Her diction is careful and she does not use colloquialisms. Also, despite her strongly introspective tendencies, she keeps at arm’s length stream of consciousness techniques which were already becoming fashionable at the time she did most of her writing. Twentieth century authors all too often try to find some more or less novel and ingenious  manner of evading their deepest emotions, and taking refuge in the ‘unconscious’ is an ideal way of doing this.  Anna de Noailles returns Western poetry to its dual themes of Love and Death. She, like the Elizabethans, who rarely write about anything else, realizes only too clearly that these two themes are inextricably bound together: they constitute the twin poles of our biological identity. And this biological drama, as Nietzsche and Anna de Noailles  realized, has an inescapable  tragic dimension, a dimension humanism and modernism (including postmodernism) fight shy of  and attempt to trivialize.

Why has Anna de Noailles disappeared almost without a trace?

Although her social and political views were advanced and even controversial for the time, she was, nonetheless, a Countess by marriage and a Greek/Romanian princess by birth which in the inverse snobbish era of today damns her completely. Worse still, she was associated for more than twenty years with Maurice Barrès, a leading right wing political and literary figure of the time though now completely forgotten. (The Dadaists staged a mock trial of Barrès in 1921 and condemned him to twenty years of hard labour.) Anna de Noailles did at least have the integrity of not allowing him to influence either her frequentations — she had several Jewish friends — or her public views since she aligned herself behind the small and very unpopular French pacifist movement in the run up to World War I.

One might have expected radical feminism to have resuscitated Anna de Noailles but her stance is not politically correct, since she believed there were profound gender differences between men and women, and was at pains to affirm woman in her emotional and instinctual (rather than rational) persona which, for a certain type of feminist, is hopelessly retrograde.

Anna de Noailles has been very little translated and the only full-length critical appraisal is Catherine Perry’s scholarly and erceptive Persephone Unbound, Dionysian Aesthetics in the Works of Anna de Noailles (Bucknell University Press, 2003) to which I am indebted. The best-known French biography of Anna de Noailles is by Claude Mognot-Ogliastri (Méridiens-Klincksieck, 1986), who has also edited the Correspondence between Anna de Noailles and Maurice Barrès.

Sebastian Hayes

NOTE The original French of the poems translated, along with that of other poems rendered into English, can be found in a subsequent post Anna de Noailles : Eight Poems Rendered into English

1 Comment

  1. Joseph Phillips said,

    Just a note to say a very comprehensive bilingual anthology of Noailles’ poetry will be out in Spring of 2011 from Black Widow Press. Translated by Norman R. Shapiro with an introduction by Catherine Perry.

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