Literary history credits Rainer Maria Rilke with establishing European poetry’s seminal concern with the duality between inner and outer worlds. Could it be that Anna de Noailles was his precursor in this regard? Translator Norman Shapiro and Black Widow Press should be thanked for bringing her back into the discussion.
A Life of Poems, Poems of a Life by Comtesse Anna de Noailles. Translated by Norman R. Shapiro. Edited with an introduction by Catherine Perry. Black Widow Press, 387 pages, $24.
By John Taylor
At first glance, Norman R. Shapiro’s oft-virtuoso translation of the poetry of Anna de Noailles (1876–1933) seems to offer a curiosity. That the translator has brought back into an English limelight a once-famous, French figure now absent from the standard histories of French poetry is, of course, a welcome and provocative gesture. But can lines such as “Time pipes its chords; and you, bodies and souls, / Leap, in the sun, your lusty caprioles!” convince us that the countess has borne forward the torch of modernist verse so brilliantly lit by Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), and Mallarmé (1842–1898)?
Can her conventional rhymes and meters spark our interest when her contemporaries included formally audacious poets such as Max Jacob (1876–1944) and Pierre Reverdy (1889–1960), not to mention Gertrude Stein (1874–1946)? Can her effusions about nature—“When, in the orchard lush and savory, / Dawn moistens tufts of thyme with sap and dew; / When pinks waft sweet. . .”—move us still? And with similar poetics and the same theme of love, isn’t another contemporary, Catherine Pozzi (1882–1934), really so much more sensually evocative and intellectually rich?
Yet, as Catherine Perry reports in her fine introduction to A Life of Poems, Poems of a Life, Marcel Proust (1871–1922) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) took Noailles’s verse seriously and outlined ways of approaching it. Their approbation serves as a caveat: we should listen to them. Proust sees Noailles as an androgynous “poète femme” (woman poet) who is skilled at describing the natural world. When he reviewed her collection Les Éblouissements (1907) in Le Figaro, he made a crucial (if debatable) distinction. “In contrast to male poets who are unable to represent themselves among the natural beauties that they celebrate,” as he argues (in Perry’s paraphrase), “a woman poet can legitimately reconnect the body with nature, the lyric subject with its object. In this capacity, Anna de Noailles functions not only as a feminine character but also as masculine creator.” Moreover, continues Perry, Proust finds in Les Éblouissements “the central tenet that will guide the composition of his novel À la recherche du temps perdu.”
Proust himself claims that Noailles “knows that a profound idea encompassing time and space is no longer subject to their tyranny and cannot come to an end.” The self in her poetry, according to the French writer, is not “the social, contingent self” but rather a self that “personalizes works and makes them endure.” Perry calls this “transcend[ing] the particular in order to reach the universal.” Indeed, this search for universals transcending the perishable body and ephemeral social interaction—as well as Noailles’s attempt to situate her poetic project at this level—are already evident in her earliest verse. A line in a poem comprised in Le Coeur innombrable (1901), a collection published six years before Les Éblouissements, declares that “nothing in life is real but dreams and love.”
Rilke examines love in Noailles’s verse and similarly emphasizes its ability to “transcend its limited object.” Perry adds that the German-language poet “recognizes the dual qualities of receptivity and activity in the female poet, thus her androgynous qualities. He also ponders how [her poetry] reconciles the self with the external world, most prominently through the body as the subjective seat of nature. In this context, he focuses on the bird as a figure for freedom and the potential for a transfer of consciousness between immaterial space and the sensuous body.”
Noailles’s supposed literary “androgyny” is not entirely satisfactory as a critical concept, it seems to me, but Rilke and Proust are defending her poetry at a time when female poets are summarily dismissed as inferior. Be this as it may, the duality between inner and outer worlds soon thereafter becomes a seminal issue in European poetry, and literary history associates its origins with Rilke himself. Was Noailles thus his precursor in this regard?
This question certainly deserves more study and reflection. In all cases, Proust and Rilke find nourishment in Noailles’s poetry, which holds up a mirror to their own philosophical and literary intentions. In some recent, French research quoted in a footnote by Perry, Noailles is even seen as the “midwife” of À la recherche du temps perdu. Yet, once again, whereas the language of Proust in À la recherche du temps perdu and that of Rilke in his late poetry and, especially, The Duino Elegies (1912–1922), still speaks compellingly to contemporary writers and poets (of all languages), it is hard to see how Noailles’s style, her syntax and vocabulary—little matter the intellectual underpinnings they suggest—can profoundly stimulate us.
Ideas permeate her poetry, as Proust and Rilke perceived, but they are not accompanied by the modernist suspicion of language (with respect to its capacity to name) that one finds, indeed, in Proust and Rilke and, before them, in Rimbaud and Mallarmé. The fascinating stylistic edges, sometimes eccentrically yet suitably whetted, are missing; there is a certain bluntness. Here are several lines from the long-poem “Regrets,” published in L’Ombre des jours (1902) and announcing a theme, death, that is increasingly present in Noailles’s later poetry:
I want to stay among the tombs, alone;
—The dead lie buried under every stone,
Dwelling in death for all eternity. . .
The smell of water, grasses, greenery,
Rise at fair dawn and hang upon the air.
Like them, I shall one day be dwelling there,
My dancing body, stilled, my brow, a shell
Like theirs; and empty-orbited, my eyes as well.
I shall do what, my whole life, I did not:
To sleep alone, at last, will be my lot!
—All that must cease to be, all that must die:
Glances, desires, lips, kisses. . . Gone! And I
Will lie, a silent shade, a shadow mute,
Though spring—green, ruddy—bursts forth resolute
And, drenched in gold and sap, rises aloft!
However, let’s look closely at the French behind these 15 lines. Shapiro knows what the French text means and is trying to mean. His translation philosophy, which he skillfully and sometimes stunningly applies to the 150-odd poems in this generous selection, requires him to employ rhyme and regular meters systematically—here as elsewhere. The results are often witty, and I cannot think of another translator of French verse who so resourcefully transposes poetic form. (He has also recently translated, for Black Widow Press, Préversities: A Jacques Prévert Sampler.) Yet in the process, the tone necessarily shifts, sometimes in telling places. Here’s the French:
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,
J’accomplirai cet acte unique et solitaire,
Moi qui n’ai pas dormi seule, aux jours de la terre!
—Tout ce qui doit mourir, tout ce qui doit cesser,
La bouche, le regard, le désir, le baiser!
Être la chose d’ombre et l’être de silence
Tandis que le printemps vert et vermeil s’élance
Et monte trempé d’or, de sève et de moiteur!
Generally speaking, Noailles’s French diction is simpler here and—her rhyming notwithstanding—less “poetic” than Shapiro’s English. For example, the second French line literally means “The dead lie under the ground and the morning is beautiful.” Shapiro moves “beautiful morning” down to line four; this is a legitimate translating strategy, but the phrase becomes “fair dawn” in English. The “tombs” are there in French, in line one, but Noailles does not come back to them and call them “stones.” In line three, Noailles describes the air as smelling of water, grass, and “feuillage” (foliage, leaves), whereas this latter French word (probably in order to form an alliteration with “grasses”) is rendered with the rarer “greenery” (which more readily translates the equally literary French word “verdure,” as in the title of Philippe Jaccottet’s well-known collection Cahier de verdure); moreover, these fragrances “rise” and “hang upon the air,” two perceptions missing in the French.
Then a new, semantic problem crops up, partly because of these previous permutations and pirouettes. In line five, in French, Noailles states that her “corps dansant” (dancing body) will one day be “semblable à eux” (like them), which clearly refers to “les morts” (the dead) in the preceding line. In Shapiro, the “like them” of line six first seems to allude to the “water, grasses, greenery,” the group of words forming the nearest preceding plural. Only when he reiterates “dwelling there,” which rhymes with the preceding “upon the air,” does the reader begin to understand that the poet’s dancing body resembles the dead.
The next French line (No. 6) is rather clumsy, for Noailles lazily repeats “l’air” and in a semantically not unambiguous way (because of the expression “avoir l’air de,” which indicates “to look like”). She surely means “I will have the air of their brows, the emptiness of their eyes” in the sense of having become that air and emptiness. Shapiro spices up and improves this French line into “my brow, a shell / Like theirs; and empty-orbed, my eyes as well”—yet, once again, “empty-orbed” is poetically more dazzling than Noailles’s plainer “emptiness of their eyes,” and there is no “shell” in French, even if Shapiro forges an image implicitly conjuring up the “air” that should be hovering amid and around the brows of these skeletons.
Moving down to line 10, he lines up a series of four plurals (“Glances, desires, lips, kisses”), and the last two are assonant as well; but Noailles refers to a “mouth,” not to “lips.” A minor point, perhaps, but this problem of translating “bouche,” in a sensual context, occurs often in French. As a general rule, I am convinced that a translator usually needs to transpose the full mouth, not just the lips, lest passion be wanting. . .
Finally, Noailles’s “être la chose d’ombre et l’être de silence,” literally “to be the shadowy thing and the silent being,” is more straightforward than Shapiro’s cleverly permuted “a silent shade, a shadow mute.” In Noailles, one almost hears Henry James’s deathbed remark: “So this is it at last, the distinguished thing!” Regrettably, the word “thing” has vanished from the English version. This simple word is hardly trite. It recalls a salient, European poetic and philosophical concept that goes back to Edmund Husserl and to none other than Rilke. Noailles was surely aware of the resonance of the word, for she was a reader, if not of Husserl, then at least of Arthur Schopenhauer and Frederick Nietzsche. And the epistemological issue of “things” was in the air at the time. In the final two lines, she herself waxes more “poetic” than usual, but Shapiro outdoes her with his “bursts forth resolute” and his “rises aloft!”.
I could cite many other examples, from other poems, but I have no wish to nitpick. Shapiro has a coherent translation philosophy and sticks to it: he is fascinated by form and sound, and, whenever necessary, he sacrifices a closer, plainer, rendering in order to preserve a semblance of their original role. The delight that he takes in translation is even contagious. He rarely wanders far from the meaning of the French, but he nonetheless often indulges himself in translation acrobatics—and skilled he is at the sport! A reader without French who becomes interested in Noailles because of this book must keep this in mind. Taking into account the entire selection, Noailles’s French original is frequently more natural, in diction, than the English version.
This relative naturalness especially obtains when Noailles comes into her own with later poems that are more often about love and death than nature. These pieces sometimes express her tormented, passionate, extra-marital relationship with the nationalist writer Maurice Barrès (1862–1923). Poems in Les Vivants et les morts (1913), written during a period when she was temporarily estranged from Barrès, are also sometimes based on what Perry calls her “more harmonious friendship” with the poet and philosopher Henri Franck (1888–1912).
By these years, Noailles’s use of psychology, in poetry, has become subtler. In the engaging “Je me défends de toi,” for instance, she decides not to pay heed to her amorous memories, which both exalt and cast her down. She avows, “Je refuse à ma vie un baume essentiel,” literally “I do not let my life use an essential balm.” This beautiful French line is not only acutely self-revealing but also pinpoints a character trait shared by anyone caught up in the throes of amorous yearning or regret. During the day, as Noailles explains, she can refrain from “tasting the honey” that her lover’s voice and laughter has left in her soul; this is the “balm” that she purposely keeps away from her life. But by nighttime, she no longer has the energy to resist:
…For me, no honeyed cup,
No lingering balm left by your voice, your laughter:
Only that plaintive hunger, chasing after…
—But come night and I can resist no more.
My sleep lies open to the skies—no door,
No roof—and you lay siege to me, invade
My being, subdue me like the meadow laid
Before the gale…You seep in through my eyes,
My lips [“bouche” in French], my breath…
As here, Noailles’s most compelling and accomplished verse is seemingly often inspired by her affection for Barrès, by her temporary estrangement from him, and then, after 1923, by his death; and that same year her mother and another intimate friend died as well. Probably fond memories of Frank, who died much earlier, also inspire some of this late poetry. Several of these mature poems show the lasting influence of her early reading of The Greek Anthology. The collection Poème de l’amour (1924) is a long series of short poems, several of which contain aphoristic lines or distiches that formulate Noailles’s lucid pessimism. In “II,” she observes: “You alone I need; and you / Have no need of anyone!” In XXXV: “Love’s only aim: to justify / Desire’s demands.” Yet other, more optimistic, poems retain hope in the possibility of love. Were these pieces perhaps written earlier and incorporated into this later collection? Did she have new lovers? In any event, “LXIX” is particularly delicate:
If words put you too ill at ease,
Say nothing. Dream. But be not cold.
Let me speak, me, who kiss you, hold
You in my arms; like woodland breeze
That murmurs low, let me enfold
You in great whispers, hushed, like these…
L’Honneur de souffrir (1927) similarly sequences short verse. The very title (“The Honor of Suffering”) expresses not only a state of mind but also a philosophy of life. Yet however painful her own despair and grieving was, Noailles still aspires to the universal. She is increasingly intrigued by the “soul-flesh” (as opposed to the “mind-body”) problem. She views the problem from various angles but now sometimes questions at least some of the absoluteness of her youthful belief in immateriality (“Nothing in life is real but dreams and love”). She almost seems tempted to emphasize the flesh as the ultimate, genuine reality, even if flesh, in “LVII,” remains mysterious and comprises a “secret paradise”:
Limitless flesh—courageous, cursed—that fills
This body, servile and yet infinite;
For all its servitude, its mortal ills,
One feels a paradise that lurks in it…
In “XXXIV,” she likewise attributes to the soul an “excess / Of passion” that “youth lays claim to” (therefore perhaps self-deceivingly). The reality principle asserts itself in the final tribulations of the flesh:
We call it “soul”—and well we do—
That flaming, many-hued excess
Of passion that youth lays claim to.
—But when the trees stand flowerless,
A galley-slave, one day, will you
Row with your woeful oar. Ah yes!
Flesh, not the soul, weeps its distress!
Several of these concise poems are moving and thought-provoking. The challenge of discovering Noailles, though this translation, and of pondering the issues raised by Perry (and, before her, by Proust and Rilke) could profitably begin with these late-life pieces. A passage from one of them, “XC,” is particularly touching. It must have stemmed from her memory of Barrès, or perhaps of Frank:
Never had I a thing to say
To others, only you. And when
I spoke to them now and again
It was just in an offhand way—
Like breathing, walking, but my heart,
Spurning them, held its wealth apart.
We two alone stood each to each,
Infinite our familiar reach,
Pressed close or spreading wide to space.
In you alone I found my place.
Shapiro’s rendering is aptly “sobre” (sober) here, as the French would say, and the emotion, as conveyed by the English, gains in solemnity and seriousness in the process. One also perceives how intricately Noailles reflected on human relationships, be they deep or superficial. Shapiro, Perry, and Black Widow Press are certainly to be thanked for bringing her back into the discussion.
John Taylor has translated many French poets, most recently Jacques Dupin (Of Flies and Monkeys), Philippe Jaccottet (And, Nonetheless), and Pierre-Albert Jourdan (The Straw Sandals). He is the author of the three-volume essay collection Paths to Contemporary French Literature, as well as Into the Heart of European Poetry. He has written eight books of poetry and short prose, including The Apocalypse Tapestries, Now the Summer Came to Pass, and If Night is Falling.
Maybe her lines sound better in French?
But what a portrait!