Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Forgotten Giants: Saint-Pol Roux

saint-pol roux young
"...he was a seminal thinker, a warm human being, and a wise man who saw in 'the things,' the birds, flowers, and objects around him, indicators of some deeper reality." --Brian Merrikin Hill

The following was written by D.J. Carlile (translator of Rimbaud: The Works) as the introduction to his translation of Roux's Le Sacre de Rimbaud. Both the poem and introduction were originally published as a chapbook in 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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Five years and three months after the birth of Arthur Rimbaud in northern France, Paul-Pierre Roux was born on January 15, 1861 in Marseilles. He was a few months younger than Jules LaForgue, another of his notable contemporaries who, like Rimbaud, burned out early, dying in 1887 at 26. Rimbaud himself passed in 1891 at 37, having abandoned literature some 18 years before. All three of these poets are of the same generation and of the same aesthetic inclinations but the least well-known of them, Saint-Pol Roux, lived to be 80, and his creative life effectively spanned the decades between the Symbolists in the 19th century and the Surrealists in the 20th.

The son of middle-class parents, he abandoned his legal studies in his early 20's after becoming inordinately obsessed with the works of Paul Verlaine. At 25, he entered upon his poetic vocation as if converting to a religion, changing his civilian state for a place in the kingdom of letters with a change of name: Paul-Pierre Roux became Saint-Pol Roux. His work soon appeared in the first issue of Pléiade and a little later in Mercure de France. When asked about the significance of his new triple monogram S.P.R. he would explain that "these were the essential consonants of Shakespeare's name. And when spoken aloud they say 'Hesper' (the evening star) and 'Espère' (hope)." This obtuse comment endeared him to the burgeoning Symbolist movement.

After a period of poverty living in the Ardennes, he returned to Paris and made a small fortune from the success of Charpentier's opera Louise for which he anonymously wrote the libretto. He bought a manor house in Brittany and retired there in 1904.

saint pol roux manor
Roux at his manor house

Remy de Gourmant called him "One of the most fruitful and astonishing inventors of metaphors," and further praised "the harmony of richly colored, ingenious, and grave poems... written almost entirely in images."

By the mid-1920's, Andre Breton, chief of the Surrealists, regarded him as "among the living... the only authentic precursor of the modern movement." In the Surrealist Manifesto Breton says, "Saint-Pol Roux is Surrealist in his use of symbols."

When sleeping, Roux would post a sign on his door that read, "THE POET IS WORKING," a concept echoed by the Surrealists who emphasized the importance of dream states and the subconscious in art.

The last great banquet of what Roger Shattuck called "The Banquet Years" (the era of artists like Rousseau, Satie, Jarry, and Apollinaire) was held in honor of Saint-Pol Roux in Paris, July 1925. The Surrealists were present in force, likewise the elder Symbolists whom the Surrealists considered reactionary and "old hat." When the novelist Madame Rachilde made the comment in her speech that "a French woman must never marry a German," Breton loudly accused her of insulting his friend Max Ernst, the German painter who was also present. A food fight and shouting-match ensued. The Surrealists began chanting, "Vive l'Allemagne!" ("Long live Germany!"). They leapt onto tables and one of them swung from the chandelier, sending dishes and silverware flying. Some of them shouted, "Down with France!" out of the windows. Neighbors, hearing the commotion, gathered outside the restaurant and began to denounce the Surrealists, even threatening to lynch them. Police arrived and a riot was narrowly avoided as the building was cleared. The 65-year-old poet managed to escape without being arrested or injured, though many others were no so fortunate.

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By the decade of the 30's, Stéphane Mallarmé, Verlaine, and even Apollinaire had been accepted into the pantheon of French literature. Rimbaud, however, was still considered something of an outsider, a hooligan, a drug-addled troublemaker of questionable morality who had seduced Verlaine and destroyed his marriage. No doubt, he had written some strange and beautiful poems, the common wisdom ran, but he was nothing more than a passing anomaly, a freak of nature, a juvenile delinquent with literary pretensions, "very young, very crude, very defiant," as Arthur Symons has put it. Along with the disdainful and ironic LaForgue, he was considered a marginal figure.

Laforgue, dead at 26, "had been a dying man all his life..." Symons writes in The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1919). "Coming as he does after Rimbaud, turning the divination of the other into theories, into achieved results, he is the eternally grown up, mature to the point of self-negation, as the other is the eternal enfant terrible."

Roux, whose primary devotion was to Victor Hugo, Verlaine, and Mallarmé, had never concerned himself much with Rimbaud, whose name seldom appears in his work. The manuscript of "Le Sacre de Rimbaud" ("Rimbaud's Consecration") is therefore unique in several ways. It was never published in his lifetime: only one copy exists, and its survival was a fluke. Prompted perhaps by the publication of Benjamin Fondane's book Rimbaud the Hoodlum in 1933, Roux penned this poem — or this outline for a poem — to change prevailing opinions about Rimbaud: "It is time we saw you as a god of Destiny, as a giant of the Absolute, and NOT such a hoodlum of Immortality." That this poem is a late work makes sense if we read Roux as one of the "old men" who bring Rimbaud the scepter at his consecration. It had become clear to him that Rimbaud was part of a trinity born out of beauty: Verlaine as passion, Mallarmé as intellect, and Rimbaud as the spirit of youth. He set down this formula — this incantation — for the "street-kid" to become a god of life and poetry along with his peers. And then he tucked it away in a drawer, in a folder, in a desk.

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In the summer of 1940 the German army swept through Brittany in the final stages of its conquest of France during World War II. On the evening of Lune 23rd a German soldier broke into the manor house where Roux lived with his daughter Divine. When confronted by the inhabitants, the soldier opened fire. The poet was shot twice and his housekeeper was killed when she threw herself in front of Divine to protect her. The daughter was wounded and the soldier then attempted to rape her, but was driven away by one of the family dogs, a large Alsatian. The 80-year-old poet, bleeding from his wounds, managed to revive himself and go for help. He and his daughter survived that terrible night, but when the poet returned home three months later, he found that his house had been ransacked by the Nazis and his library of books and manuscripts burned. This was too much for him and he died a few days later in a hospital in Brest of uremia and grief.

But someone had gathered up an armful of papers from the library before it all went up in flames, and taken them away for safekeeping. Among these papers was the unfinished manuscript for "Le Sacre de Rimbaud." In 1944 the Germans bombed the manor house, leaving it in ruins.

saint-pol roux manor house ruins

During the war, the newly-discovered "Album Zutique" poems of Rimbaud were also in hiding; the manuscript was passed around via the Underground to keep it out of German hands. As George Valbon once wrote of Roux's poetry — and the sentiment might just as well apply to Rimbaud's — "Le poème, du fait même de sa presence, récuse la nuit et l'oppression" ("The poem, merely by its presence, challenges Night and Oppression").

Saint-Pol Roux, like Rimbaud, and like LaForgue, was the creator of a poetry of "singular perfection," as Symons has called it, writing of LaForgue and Rimbaud: "The old cadences, the old eloquence, the ingenuous seriousness of poetry are all banished... Disarticulated, abstract, mathematically lyrical, it gives expression, in its icy ecstasy, to a very subtle criticism of the universe, with a surprising irony of cosmical vision."

Thus, out of his rough paean to the trinity of Mallarmé-Verlaine-Rimbaud, born of beauty, Roux himself becomes a part of another trinity — Rimbaud, LaForgue, Roux — a Symbolist triad of emotion, artifice, and spirituality. Roux, the odd-man-out, the unknown quantity, at the end of his long career consecrates the other outsider and achieves a sort of fusion with him. In "Le Sacre de Rimbaud" we find a synthesis of poetry's imagistic possibilities: the natural, the mythic, and the ultimately divine are contained in the figure of Rimbaud. The street-kid, is presented as having transcended his lowly station (cabin-boy, seedling, hoodlum, sinner) to show humanity a way to the shores of a higher consciousness.

Symbolism, as Symons had defined it, is "one pathway leading through beautiful things to the eternal beauty." Saint-Pol Roux's poem, here translated into English for the first time 70 years after its composition, is a signpost on that path."

—D.J. Carlile, 2003

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Below: an excerpt from Le Sacre de Rimbaud / Rimbaud's Consecration [trans. DJC]

"Others have erected columns of books that support no entablature, no roof, nor any god. That stand upright in the wind like dead tree trunks giving no shade, even less bearing fruit. They have written much but all is erased. If they were still alive, they would find that they still haven't written enough and their future would be another once-upon-a-time, because for each of them the future ceaselessly unrolls backward.
       You didn't put together many pages but your ink was made of light and your pen, like a ray, emanated from the sun. Maybe you said nothing more than was necessary, but you said it so well that everyone in the world applies themselves to repeating it.
       In our sometime ignorance, it is sufficient to hear only a word for our soul to be cured of all knowledge... of our sickness. These words of yours aren't hackneyed, your words were not dead insects in ancient glass cases, you wrote with flowers, fruit, gestures; out of perfumes you made bouquets of images. You stripped the words naked. Words naked, the Word, just like in the beginning, you swam in the Dawn.
       You came, three magi kings, your arms full of images. Mallarmé brought Intellect. Verlaine Instinct. Rimbaud Enthusiasm. The 3 Kings of Beauty, they walked through the crowd like three fools and the scepter in their fist resembled a bauble.
       You were not the kings of dead cities from which you parted the piled-up sands.
       No, the new city is descended from your sensuous cravings and from your brain where the gods dwell.
       We come to consecrate you. We have consecrated Verlaine and Mallarmé. They have already changed just as they are themselves changed by eternity. We always see you dishonored, defiled. But we wish you to be as pure as your native joy and virginal nature. This avalanche of old timers who were children when you blinded them with all your dazzlements.
       You passed by like a ruffian, we say, not like a sower of parables.
       Imagination is not only the trajectory of genius: at the point of drop-off there is a masterpiece.
       It is time we saw you as a god of Destiny, as a giant of the Absolute, and NOT such a hoodlum of Immortality.

       No, it's not about piling up books, it's about producing the seed, it's about washing the millennial dirt from the word and offering it up all anew.

       Retrieving the natural world in the world's mess and history's muck.

       You came from the slime, from the dung to rise again in the ear of corn, in the flower.
       You set out from madness in order to arrive at wisdom.

       You rose again all the way to Instinct...

       You rise again through the stalks of centuries and find yourself before God as you were originally (in the beginning), facing the first dawn.

       And there you take for playthings the words that are born.
       You pinned down vertigoes.
       The prophet is a fool who clings to the azure and speaks to the sun.
       Hoodlum of God, priest of men, pope of mankind.
       Then you plunge into Hell which illuminates you completely.

       You have produced a climate that is more than a shiver, more than a red vest, and more than a bludgeon, you have brought all the sunbeams, all the fragrances...
       And you come crowned in fifty diamonds (rubies)."

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"RIMBAUD JUGGLES WITH THE STARS" -- A reference, perhaps, to the images in "Phrases" from Illuminations: "I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple... chains of gold from star to star, and I dance." [trans DJC]. On a tightrope over the cosmos, the poet plays gracefully with our perceptions of the Universe.

"a climate that is more than a shiver... a red vest... a bludgeon" -- The "Season in Hell" produced by Rimbaud transcends the conventional hellish torments of ice, fire, and torture (see Dante and Milton): he brings sunlight and fragrances into the sulfurous darkness. Also, "more than a red vest" is a reference to the "scarlet waistcoat" that Gautier had worn to opening night of Hugo's Hernani "to proclaim his allegiance to romantic principles," thus ushering in the era of Dandyism.