Posted on:Tuesday 29th September, 2020
Some prominent figures in literary or musical history would have been surprised – and sometimes horrified – by their posthumous reputations. Sir Arthur Sullivan’s grand opera Ivanhoe and cantata The Golden Legend, both much lauded in their day, are now completely overshadowed by his operettas, as are the many satires and dramas written by his collaborator W. S. Gilbert. Edward Lear was one of the greatest ornithological illustrators of his age as well as an active composer (setting many of Tennyson’s poems, for example) but he is now known mainly for his nonsense verse and limericks. Similarly, the Parnassian poet Albert Mérat is now remembered, if he is remembered at all, for two spats involving Rimbaud and Verlaine. However, a little digging unearths a more interesting and complex story.
Early in 1872, Henri Fantin-Latour decided to represent a poetic soirée in a painting known as Un coin de table, which was intended for that year’s Salon and now resides in the Musée d’Orsay. The artist’s proposed models, including Rimbaud, Verlaine and Mérat, were all involved in a new literary magazine, La Renaissance littéraire et artistique. But when Mérat discovered that the other two poets would feature in the painting, he refused to pose. Years later he explained that he had withdrawn as a protest against Rimbaud’s wounding of the journalist and photographer Etienne Carjat with a swordstick during a dinner in March 1872. Although there are different versions of the story, the upshot was that Mérat was replaced with a vase of flowers.i
Some years earlier, in June 1869, Mérat had published a collection of twenty sonnets under the title L’Idole. Most of the poems celebrated different parts of the female body, including the hands, teeth, neck, breasts and shoulders. Verlaine and Rimbaud famously produced a parody of Mérat’s work, the ‘Sonnet du Trou du Cul’ (‘Sonnet to an Arsehole’), probably around late 1871. It reads:
Obscur et froncé comme un œillet violet
Il respire, humblement tapi parmi la mousse
Humide encor d’amour qui suit la fuite douce
Des Fesses blanches jusqu’au cœur de son ourlet.
Des filaments pareils à des larmes de lait
Ont pleuré, sous le vent cruel qui les repousse,
À travers de petits caillots de marne rousse
Pour s’aller perdre où la pente les appelait.
Mon Rêve s’aboucha souvent à sa ventouse;
Mon âme, du coït matériel jalouse,
En fit son larmier fauve et son nid de sanglots.
C’est l’olive pâmée, et la flute câline;
C’est le tube où descend la céleste praline:
Chanaan féminin dans les moiteurs enclos!
Dark and wrinkled like a deep pink carnation
It breathes, humbly nestled among the moss
Still wet with love that follows the gentle flight
Of the white Buttocks to the heart of its border.
Filaments like tears of milk
Have wept, under the cruel wind pushing them back,
Over small clots of reddish marl
And there lose themselves where the slope called them.
In my Dream my mouth was often placed on its opening;
My soul, jealous of the physical coitus,
Made of it its fawny tear-bottle and its nest of sobs.
It is the fainting olive, and the cajoling flute;
It is the tube where the heavenly praline descends:
A feminine Canaan enclosed in moisture!ii
The parody made its way into the Album zutique, a collection of mocking and at times obscene poems and drawings produced by members of the radical Cercle Zutique (‘zut’ or ‘damn’ being their response to the literary establishment). The poem was falsely signed ‘Albert Mérat’, followed by Verlaine and Rimbaud’s initials. In a letter of 1883 Verlaine claimed that he had composed the quatrains while the tercets were Rimbaud’s.
These incidents, amusing though they are, misrepresent Mérat’s significance as a poet and his complex relationship with Rimbaud and Verlaine. In December 1866, for instance, the Académie française had awarded Mérat a prize for his collection Les Chimères, and he was an important contributor to the volumes of the Parnasse contemporain. Mérat was also nominally a member of the Zutiste circle, although he generally avoided their gatherings and did not contribute any poems.
In his famous ‘Seer’ letter to Paul Demeny of 15 May 1871, Rimbaud himself bracketed Mérat with Verlaine as one of two ‘voyants’ from the new Parnassian school of poetry. Some critics have even seen hints of Mérat’s influence in works by Rimbaud such as Le Bateau ivre. Mérat’s poem ‘Le Courant’, published in the Parnasse contemporain in March 1870 does indeed begin ‘Il faudrait, pour quitter la ville, un vieux bateau, / Suivant l’eau lentement, sans voiles et sans rames’ (‘To leave the city you’d need an old boat / following the current slowly, without sails or oars’).iii It was only when the two poets met in person after Rimbaud’s arrival in Paris in the autumn of 1871 that conflict erupted, possibly exacerbated by the younger poet’s contempt for Mérat’s resumption of his administrative career at the Mairie de Paris following the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune.
Verlaine and Mérat, meanwhile, had met and developed a close friendship during the 1860s and their dealings stretched over several decades. One of Verlaine’s poems in his 1884 collection Jadis et Naguère addressed ‘mon très cher Mérat’, while another was dedicated to him. As late as the 1890s, Verlaine published an article about his erstwhile friend in the series Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui. While noting a certain coldness in Mérat’s manner and his ‘réserve britannique’, he highlighted L’Idole’s novelty in celebrating the female anatomy in all its physicality – or, as Verlaine put it, ‘le culte…de la Femme charnelle’ – even if he argued that Mérat had missed something by focusing so much on exterior form. Verlaine also understood that Mérat had wanted to offer a more intimate set of celebrations than finally appeared in the collection. As Mérat wrote in the penultimate sonnet of L’Idole: ‘Je veux voir et nommer la forme toute entière / Qui n’a point de détails honteux ou mal venus’ (‘I want to see and name the whole form / Which has no shameful or unwelcome details’). But his publisher Lemerre intervened and cuts were made.
Ultimately, the parodic ‘Sonnet to an Arsehole’ is perhaps the greatest tribute Verlaine and Rimbaud paid to Mérat. Yann Mortelette, for instance, has pointed out how the rhymes mousse-douce-rousse in the quatrains mirror a similar set of rhymes (in the plural) in L’Idole’s ‘Sonnet des épaules’.iv The metaphor of the ‘ourlet’ (meaning ‘hem’ – ‘border’ in the translation above) in the fourth line of the parody is likewise borrowed from the ‘Sonnet de l’oreille’ where Mérat uses the words ‘ourlet clair’ to designate the edge of the ear.
The close reading of Mérat’s collection which is evident in Verlaine and Rimbaud’s parody may therefore suggest a certain fascination on their part with the (potentially subversive) poetic opportunities offered by the other man’s work. As Robert St. Clair argues, ‘the parodic text, depending as it does on complicity, implication, and opposition – on, in a word, relations – among texts, is, in other words, par excellence the territory in which we encounter poets as readers’.v And would it be entirely fanciful to see the sonnet as addressing – in an explicit and transgressional way – a part of the body that Mérat himself might have wished to celebrate had publishing decorum not prevailed?
Unlike Verlaine, Mérat remained in the ranks of the Parnassians after 1871 and continued to publish collections of poems until 1880 when his administrative career in the Senate took precedence. He was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1888 and ultimately rose to a senior position in the Senate library. In 1900 he returned to poetry and published several more volumes before committing suicide in 1909 following a period of illness and depression.
Let’s leave the last word to a modern poet, Stephen Romer, whose ‘Metamorphosis’ in his collection Set Thy Love in Order, with its nod to Ovid in the poem’s title, describes with much wit and elegance Mérat’s character and literary fate.vi
Poor Albert Mérat,
le grand Albert,
the elegant, the choleric,
known to his friends as
‘the scornful cigar’
met his nemesis
in a baby-faced terror
stalking in from the countryside
with huge hands and huge feet
burning up the foothills
of Young Parnassus.
Genius came at poor Albert
with a sneer and a sword-stick.
He too had his sensitive Chimères
praised by l’oncle Hugo,
he too had his ode to the anus
censured by Lemerre –
he too had his promising beginnings.
He too wore his pen down
and then walked out
of a dreary sinecure.
Wit, wag, Zutiste à ses heures,
ladies man, gossip, poet, poseur.
Yet of Albert Merat
who took fright
nothing is left
but a pot of flowers.
i For a fascinating reading of what this painting of a literary circle might tell us about the poetry of the period, see Robert St. Clair, ‘Zut pictura poiesis: Lyric Relations and Legacies in Coin de table and the Sonnet du trou du cul,’ in Poets as Readers in Nineteenth-Century France: Critical Reflections, Joseph Acquisto, Adrianna Paliyenko, and Catherine Witt, eds. (London: IGRS, 2015), 149-168
ii Translated by Wallace Fowlie, from Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)
iii See, for example, Yann Mortelette’s article ‘Albert Mérat ou le renversement d’une idole’, published in Parade Sauvage, no 29 (2018), 83-96
iv Mortelette, ibid, 87
v St. Clair, ‘Zut pictura poiesis’, 151. St. Clair also points to the ‘dimension of critique’ in any parody. Mérat’s refusal to pose with Rimbaud and Verlaine may have been motivated as much by their parodic approach to L’Idole as by their loutish behaviour
vi Stephen Romer, Set Thy Love in Order: New and Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2017). I would like to thank Stephen for giving permission to reproduce his poem ‘Metamorphosis’