Persephone and Anna de Noailles

March 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm (Uncategorized)

Persephone (Roman Proserpine) is,  you may recall, the goddess associated with the seasonal death and rebirth of Nature. Daughter of Demeter, the Greek Earth Goddess, she was abducted by Hades (Roman Dis), the god of the Underworld, while gathering flowers on the hillside, as immortalised in Milton’s beautiful lines

“…nor that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpine gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered…”

(Paradise Lost, Book IV, v.207-272)

Demeter wandered about distraught looking for her vanished daughter with the result that the  flowers faded, the plants  stopped growing and humanity was in danger of  extinction from famine. Eventually, Persephone was traced to the Underworld and a modus vivendi was concluded thanks to the intervention of Zeus (Hades’ elder brother and king of the gods)  : Persephone  was to stay for four months of the year in the Underworld and return to Earth during  Spring and Summer — the Greeks do not seem to have bothered with autumn.

The myth of Persephone doubtless resonated with Anna de Noailles because of its ambivalence : on the one hand Persephone’s association with flowers, youth and carefree existence and, on the other, with sorrow, separation, darkness and death.  Persephone, like Anna de Noailles herself,  belonged to two worlds, to the sunlight but also to the dark.  The blaze of summer had its equivalent  in the brilliant social life of Countess Anna de Noailles who hosted one of the leading salons of the time attended by Proust and Cocteau, but other parts of her life were spent in depression and solitude — at one time her husband had her sent to what seems to have been a kind of mental hospital in all but name. All her life, Anna de Noailles was obsessed with death

“I know not where I come from, where I am going; sometimes, in the centre of a garden, I hear the universal veins singing and rushing; my ears are familiar with the sound of things germinating and dying. Cybele and Persephone, when they listened to the earth, must have caught this sound.”

(La Domination by Anna de Noailles, p. 262, it is the heroine who is speaking Catherine Perry tells me)

Like Orpheus, who also visited the Underworld and returned, Persephone has a shamanic role as ‘crosser of boundaries’ and it was  this aspect of the myth that appealed to Anna de Noailles rather than the more simplistic role of fertility goddess. Like other mortals,  Persephone entered the land of perpetual darkness but, unlike ordinary mortals, she acquired  the power to return to the world above.  “She [Persephone] has the freedom to overstep these boundaries at will”, as Catherine Perry says  in her biography of Anna de Noailles significantly entitled Persephone Unbound

Also,  in the context of Anna de Noailles’ Nietzschean philosophy, Persephone represents the “willingness… to encounter the fateful aspects of existence” (Catherine Perry op. cit.) and there is, interestingly,  a version of the Greek myth in which Persephone, who has belatedly fallen in love with her captor Hades, declines to return to Earth at all and only accepts to do so reluctantly by order of Zeus.

Persephone, or rather Proserpine, has been a frequent subject for poets and dramatists but in the last two centuries at any rate, it is more her role as Queen of the Underworld that has inspired writers rather than her role as giver of life.

Roger Hunt Carroll has very kindly sent me his Hymns for Persephone specifically dedicated

‘To the memory of Anna de Noailles’

Here are some extracts from Roger Carroll’s elegant and soulful work :

Hymns for Persephone

3

The transcribed flower opens in her.
Its paraphrase carries her motive
through a drunken melody—
and in it all opulent petals ring.

Serenely the sounds circle
a shining silence and cover the plain:
“Persephone! Persephone!” the grasses sing
as they race toward noon.

If no other thing is sure, this is sure:
in her body’s apparition,
leaf and blossom rise again.

6

She is leaving her delicate land,
setting her eyes against the day
in which liquid reds of poppies ran
and shimmering silver birches
framed in silver the shivering hour.

From within where her reign was still
and calm, though in defeat,
she slips away, letting drafts of time
blow her gently toward autumn’s night.

But even in this exit, she must know
it’s but a moment she is gone—
a silent, almost breathless retreat.

9

There can be no farewell.
Particles of former lives she cannot leave
she treasures as her ancient charms
drawn out to enchant the dark.
She has kept them all.

It is at such appointed time
announced to her heart alone
that she takes these pieces in her hands
and hides them from the frightening sky.
She does not refuse the pounding apparitions
that rise from summer’s death:
in the antiphons of mourners’ eyes
which will not let her from their sight,
she makes the solemn retreat in her grief,
going as one deaf to hymns dying grasses sing,
deaf to the wizardry of locusts’ wings,
not hearing sad bells her forced leave-taking
rings over long shadows of the earth.
Tightly in her grasp, she holds her charms
close against her trembling breast.
Thin folds of her summer gown sheathe
her secrets and catch the predicted tear
she lets fall from her cheek.
Hers are the saddest steps in this
most sad cortège.

But listen: under her breath, in music
almost too soft for the sharpest ears,
she intones her versicle and response:

“There can be no farewell:
I will come this way again in forms
created from other lives,
bound with lilac and softer flowers
whose breath will speak my advent and reprise.”

10

Envoi

You are not lost, no, not you;
never could you be robbed
from the orchard of earth,
not from flowers in the fields,
the high grasses, no, nor from soft shrubs
that sway along the riverside.

It is we who have misplaced you,
dear and most-loved daughter of the world.
We loosened the cords of your summer gown,
and in our vision you fell in the evening light,
your hair shaded by leaves, your face behind a mask,
hidden from our careless sight.

O were it not so!
All rules that hold you are wrongly formed,
for there is nothing we may have but what deludes;
now though we think the world without song,
it is our deafness that stops earth’s tongue:
your songs continue sweet beyond our ears.

Persephone, you are not lost, merely gone aside—
but what of you would we know at all,
if the old Ancient Ones had blindly lied?

Roger Hunt Carroll

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Different Kinds of Paradise

February 27, 2010 at 7:19 pm (Literary Criticism, Poetry)

Different Kinds of Paradise

Paradise is you, beautiful white cloud-laden sky,
Or you, empty expanse, so lively and demure,
Where green-leaved spreading branches cross and multiply
Like lettering, upright, sloping, flat, ornate or pure,

Spelling out some new masterpiece the world awaits,
A book in space, sweet-scented, melancholy, rare,
A mystical Koran whose wisdom celebrates
The eternal azure and the clear sidereal air.

And paradise is you, far ranging cumulus,
Robe of an absent deity, to whom a flood
Of worn out hopes and fears each day ascend from us,
Vapours of dead desires perfumed by our heart-blood.

You also, garden paths, sombre or debonair,
Given lustre by the sun, or by the morning breeze,
Where multi-coloured flowers let down their twisted hair,
And idly preen themselves in carefree sensual ease.

 

You also are a paradise, earth that will cover me,
A mute unthinking paradise of dust and clay,
When death at length destroys the languid mystery
That binds me, oh so gently, to the beauty of today…

Anna de Noailles

 

This poem — the French  version of which is given at the end of this post — is rather more subtle than may at first appear and has a very satisfying emotional and psychological progression which is typical of Anna de Noailles and marks her impeccable (and very feminine) sense of design .

Who has not spent blissful moments stretched out on the grass staring up at the clouds?  Summer clouds speak to us of a wholly different kind of existence, a carefree, non-human existence which yet manages not to be abstract and frigid. This ‘idea’ is what Anna de Noailles introduces in the first verse,  though she adds the rather original, and certainly very striking, ‘conceit’ that the tracery of the branches, through which she sees the cloud,  is a sort of ‘book’ which has a hidden meaning. This simile is further developed in the second verse.

As a pantheist, Anna de Noailles does not believe in Plato’s eternal Forms, or in any other transcendent truth supposedly revealed in one of the the sacred books of the world (or, we might add in a collection of  ‘scientific laws’ or mathematical formulae). The ‘sacred book’, the Koran, the Principia Mathematica of Newton, is, she suggests, there above us in the tracery of the branches etched against the sky beyond — if only we could read it.

We have thus : Verse 1 the well-known human situation of staring up at the clouds, verse 2 the idea of ‘mystery’ and of something semi-divine which is yet ‘commonplace’ in the sense that is there in front of us.

verse 3 for the first time introduces a jarring note : the simile of a human or animal  sacrifice to an idol . We now have the contrast between human life ‘down here’, which is unsatisfying (‘les vapeurs du desir’) and, by implication because of the image of human or animal sacrifice, cruel and unjust, and the carefree and innocent existence of the wandering cumulus cloud. The cloud is likened, not to a god or goddess — the sort of beings who are ‘human’, i.e. degraded,  enough to require sacrifices — but simply to the dress of an ‘absent god’, absent doubtless because he does not really exist.

verse 4 takes us right down from the cloudy sky to the earth but to the life of flowers and plants (not the human world). This also is ‘a kind of paradise’, especially perhaps because flowers (which are biologically speaking  sexual organs in a quite literal sense) can interact with each other freely and harmoniously while humans cannot — “jouissent en paix du sensuel instinct”.

The opening of verse 4, which comes at first as a shock though as it transpires a necessary one,  takes us further downwards , into what is below the surface, in other  words into the tomb. In general, Anna de Noailles views death with horror, certainly not with arms outstretched as the Romantics pretended to, but from time to time also she welcomes death because it is the return of the individual to the great matrix of Nature into which she will be fully and finally absorbed. No one but Anna de Noailles could have turned up a line, so surprising and yet so simple and so ‘right’ as  ‘le paradis muet et naif qui m’attend’ to serve as an image of death.

And yet, despite all,  she cannot quite reconcile herself to personal extinction (as is required by the Buddhistic and Schopenhauerian attitude to existence) because she nonetheless regrets in the very last line of the poem the ‘beaute du temps’.

We have thus a complex and thoroughly satisfying linear psychological trajectory — one could almost plot it on a graph — from the original image of the poet lying on the ground staring up at the sky full of clouds (verse 1),  to the tracery of the branches (verse 2) which lie between the observer and the sky, up once more to the wandering cloud of verse 3 so far removed from sordid human life, then down to the carefree life of garden plants (verse 4), finally deeper into the Earth’s crust as we follow the metamorphosis of the corpse (verse 5) with a surprise return to life above ground, the life in which the poet is still immersed and in some sense wishes to be immersed, in the very last line of all.

Les Paradis

Le paradis, c’est vous, beaux cieux lourds de nuages,
Cieux vides, mais si vifs, si bons et si charmants,
Où les arbres, avec de longs et verts jambages,
Pointus, larges, légers, agités ou dormants,

Écrivent je ne sais quelle suprême histoire,
Quel livre de l’espace, odorant, triste et vain,
Quel mystique Koran, qui relate la gloire
De l’azur éternel et de l’éther divin.

Le paradis, c’est vous, voyageuse nuée,
Robe aux plis balancés d’un dieu toujours absent,
Vers qui montent sans fin, ardeur exténuée,
Les vapeurs du désir et le parfum du sang.

C’est vous le paradis, jardins gais ou maussades,
Lustrés par le soleil ou le vent du matin,
Où les fleurs de couleur déroulent leurs torsades,
Et jouissent en paix du sensuel instinct ;

Et c’est vous, sol poudreux, argileux, tiède terre,
Le paradis naïf et muet qui m’attend,
Lorsque la mort viendra rompre le mol mystère
Qui me lie, ô douceur ! à la beauté du temps…

Anna de Noailles

 

 

 

 

Sebastian Hayes

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Liebestod : Love and Death in the poetry of Anna de Noailles

January 30, 2010 at 8:21 pm (Literary Criticism, Philosophy, Poetry)

Regrets

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;
(…)

[Allez, je veux rester seule avec les tombeaux :
Les morts sont sous la terre et le matin est beau,
L’air a l’odeur de l’eau, de l’herbe, du feuillage,
Les morts sont dans la mort pour le reste de l’âge…
Un jour, mon corps dansant sera semblable à eux,
J’aurai l’air de leur front, le vide de leurs yeux…]

Anna de Noailles returns European poetry to the twin themes that obsessed the poets of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, love and death. We may perhaps trace this duality back to the enduring  cultural impact of the Black Death in the mid fourteenth century which wiped out between a quarter  and a third of the entire population of Europe in two or three years — an incredible figure that no other disease has even remotely emulated as far as we know.  As Huizinga notes, the gruesome paintings of dancing skeletons led by the figure of Death with his scythe fade imperceptibly into enthusiastic celebrations  of the here-and-now.

Our yesteryears have vanished quite,
And years to come are yet to be,
Fair maid, take thy delight, delight,
Before the shadow falls on thee.

But has not everyone always been afraid of death?  Perhaps at some level, yes, but there is considerable variety in the human response to the challenge from one society to another. Medieval man, during the ‘High’ Middle Ages at any rate, was concerned quite as much, or more, with the afterlife than with this life — and with good reason since the afterlife lasted for ever while this life  lasted little more than thirty of forty years on average. After the disastrous fourteenth century which saw both the Black Death and the start of the Hundred Years War, this perception changed markedly and the fundamental human preoccupation was not with the soul’s ultimate destiny life but rather with the ephemeral nature of this one. Though there were some, like the flagellants, who concluded that God was punishing man for his sins, others seemed to have decided that God had given up on this world altogether and that the best option was to eat, drink and be merry and not bother about the Last Judgement. An abyss separates Dante, who died some twenty years before the Black Death struck, and Boccacio who lived through it. The stories recounted by the elegant Florentines to pass the time in their country retreat while the plague raged are scarcely very edifying, nor do they show any concern for the next world. In the first chapter where Boccacio recounts in detail people’s behaviour in Florence, he writes that “Few indeed were they to whom were accorded the lamentations and bitter tears of sorrowing relations; nay, for the most part their place was taken by the laugh, the jest, the festal gathering” and he also remarks on the complete lack of modesty of women stricken with the plague, or who believed themselves to be.

In Anna de Noailles we come across a truly late medieval fascination with, and horror of,  physical decay and death which we would look for in vain  amongst her nineteenth century poetic predecessors. Indeed, if she had believed in reincarnation, I am sure she would have situated herself in the late Middle Ages. In the nineteenth century death seems to have lost much of its horror and to die young was even fashionable during the Romantic period  —  so many young people committed suicide after reading The Sorrows of Werther and suchlike books,  that the authorities even got a little alarmed, much as today’s authorities are concerned about drug addiction amongst the young.  Shelley opened one of his poems with the astonishing line,

“How wonderful is death, death and his brother sleep…”

I felt I had to check and see if Shelley (who drowned before he was thirty ) really did write this, but it is so. The line first comes up in The Daemon of the World and the first verse ends

“both [death and sleep are] so passing strange and wonderful!”

But for Anna de Noailles  there is rarely anything attractive about death —   except that it has the effect of making one savour to the full the passing ecstasies of the present life. Following Nietzsche, whose philosophy she admired, Anna de Noailles finds it necessary to emphasize the absolute finality of physical death. For

“Il n’est rien qui survive à la chaleur des veines !”

(“There is nothing that survives the [loss of] heat within our veins”)

‘Happiness’, envisaged entirely in physical terms, thus becomes a challenge, almost a spiritual discipline : in Exaltation she urges herself to

Accoutumer ses yeux, son vouloir et ses mains
À tenter le bonheur que le risque accompagne ;

(“To accustom one’s eyes, will and hands to strive for happiness which is always accompanied by risk.”)

Anna de Noailles , in her uncompromising atheistic pantheism, thus stands poised precariously between the interesting but ultimately unconvincing attempts of the Symbolists to create a sort of aesthetic hinterland between this  life and extinction, and the even more unconvincing  attempts of the Surrealists to muddy the entire issue by retreating into   ‘the unconscious’.

It may be worth stating that the recurrent Western obsession with the duality Love/Death, which perhaps reaches its paroxysm in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde,  is firmly based on biological fact. Love and death  constitute the twin poles of our biological reality. Sexual differentiation is far from being universal in nature : it is  only one reproductive system amongst many, and if, as some claim, it  is the root cause  of human ‘progress’, it is also the cause of humanity’s quasi-permanent state of  chronic insecurity and anxiety, especially amongst males  (doubtless because they feel they do not have the capacity to produce new life from inside their bodies).  Sexual differentiation  gives rise to the sense of being an individual, indeed can be said to have  created individuality.  As von Bertalanffy, a biologist,  writes in Problems of Life (pp. 49-50)

It is obvious that a fish, a dog, or a human being is an individual.  (…) But in unicellular organisms the notion of the individual becomes muddied. Through many generations they multiply merely by division. [But] individual means something ‘indivisible’…  Can we insist on calling a hydra or a turbellarian worm an individual, when these animals can be cut into as many pieces as we like, each capable of growing into a complete organism?
With individualization death enters the world of the living. …Higher animals, that are incapable of reproduction by fission as opposed to the primitive ‘dividua’ in the lower phyla, are incapable of unlimited existence; by natural wear and tear they decline into old age and death. Not inappropriately the individual could be defined in terms of death.”

Were hydra, or other unicellular creatures that reproduce by fission, to develop into intelligent beings — which is not completely inconceivable and is an eventuality I consider in my SF novel The Web of Aoullnnia — they would find it very difficult to understand what we  mean by death. To us death comes from the inside, it is a consequence of being alive,  whereas for hydra, for whom the notion of  individuality would be meaningless, they — or rather ‘it’ — would have a sense of being immortal. True, hydra or other unicellular creatures, could be wiped out as a species by a natural disaster or could become extinct through lack of nutrients, but this would, for intelligent hydra, be no more than a distant hypothetical possibility like the prospect of our inevitable demise when the sun runs out of fuel, a notion which has never troubled the sleep of anyone (except seemingly the young Bertrand Russell). For human beings, death is not a scientific hypothesis, it is  always with us whether we accept it or not, and in epochs when communal bonds weaken  and religious faith fails, this sense of mortality tends to become unbearable.

Since Anna de Noailles’ time death has, of course, made  a strong come-back in literature but usually  in the context of warfare, which is slightly different — since just conceivably warfare could be dispensed with, but death not (though some scientific crackpots claim the contrary).  In the early Sixties, death, or rather the prospect of death, became temporarily ‘in’  once more, notably amongst women poets  : Anne Seton and Sylvia Plath both wrote endlessly about death and both committed suicide, as did the female icon of the era,  Marilyn Monroe. But such poetry, apart from being unmusical and formless, is not in the same class as that of Anna de Noailles, being typically an exercise in self-indulgence rather than a genuine confrontation with biological reality.  Anna de Noailles turned fear of death into lust for life, whereas so many modern products of psychoanalysis manage to do the precise opposite : they turnfear of life into acquiescence in death. Today, in the age of triviality,  society has ‘resolved’  the entire issue by reducing love to sex and sex to a casual pastime which it is necessary to indulge in, whether you like it or not, in order to be socially acceptable,  and, as for death, it is either kept well out of sight and mind, or, alternatively, hitched onto the media juggernaut where it functions as a somewhat unusual form of reality TV.

Sebastian Hayes




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Anna de Noailles by Claude Mignot-Ogliastri

December 10, 2009 at 7:16 pm (Uncategorized)

Anna de Brancovan, comtesse de Noailles (1876 – 1933), a Greek-Rumanian princess, born and living in Paris, ascribed her poetic vocation to her childhood among musicians and to her garden in Amphion near Lake Geneva. Famous for her poems since she was 24 years old, and also a prodigious speaker among her contemporaries, she awoke languishing French literature and led “the invasion of women authors” before her friend Colette, whose later glory has survived better.

Noailles was rather forgotten in 1986, when I began my publications about her — currently available only in libraries except for the Cocteau-Noailles Correspondence, ed. Gallimard, Cahiers Cocteau no. 11, 1989. My monograph, Anna de Noailles (éd. Méridieus – Klincksieck, 1989, 456 pp.), full of unpublished documents, throws light on her formation, her literary start, her loves often struck down by death : Barrès, Henri Franck — who in 1908 – 1912 led her to renew her inspiration and to contribute to the N.R.F. — Edmond Rostand, Henri Gans. And her friends : Proust, Cocteau, Mauriac, Valèry, Jean Rostand… This survey also deals with the genesis, originality and reception of her works : after Po¬emes d’Enfance (in fact written at the age of 18), her “naturisme” sparkles in Le Cœur Innombrable (1901) and L’Ombre des Jours (1902), written before she encountered Francis Jammes’s poetry. Afterwards, in spite of illness, 17 volumes (9 verse and 8 prose works : novels, short stories, prose poems) came out during 30 years and obtained a world fame.

Anna de Noailles relives also through my separate editions of her Correspondence with Loti, Jammes, Gide, Cocteau and, more recently, my revelation (long forbidden) of the Noailles-Barrès Correspondence éd. L’Inventaire, Paris, 1994, 838 pp.

My works amend clichés : Noailles ‘pagan’? but she was nostalgic for “un dieu fraternel”; ‘oriental’ ? but chiefly in a dream; ‘Muse of Gardens’ ? more poet of life, dance, jubilation, distress (hence her hold on young readers as revealed in my study about the review Les Essais, 1904-1906, which she sponsored). Behind her traditional metrics, she breaks the Carte4siajn discourse, the corset of sonnet, the matrix of abstract vocabulary replaced by plain sensations and puissant cries. Her aesthetics of snapshot and surprise liberate our spontaneity, open our fancy to a poetic of motion, verticality, where body mingles with space, confronts love and death.

Claude Mignot-Ogliastri, Université Paul Valèry, Montpellier, France.

Note :  I am deeply grateful to Mme Claude Mignot-Ogliastri,  who has, by her writings, done so much to keep the memory of Anna de Noailles alive, for this piece which I invited her to contribute. Mme Mignot’s English is virtually perfect and, though authorised to make any corrections  I deemed necessary, I did no more than change one or two words.    Sebastian Hayes

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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

Life-Force

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.

Regrets

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

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