Posted on:Wednesday 7th October, 2020
History is littered with examples of people finally coming face-to-face with their heroes in person - only for their illusions to be cruelly dashed and dismantled. But can there be a sadder story than Rubén Darío’s encounter with the French symbolist poet, Paul Verlaine, in Paris in 1893?
First, a word about Darío and my own personal and professional fascination with his work. Darío was the Nicaraguan poet and founder of the Spanish-language literary movement known as modernismo. He died more than a century ago, in 1916. But his influence on Spanish-language poetry remains immense. Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, Octavio Paz, César Vallejo, Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, among many others, acknowledged their debt. Borges declared: 'Darío was an innovator in everything: subject matter, vocabulary, metre, the peculiar magic of certain words …We can truly call him the Liberator'.
As Pablo Neruda’s biographer and translator, I gave a talk last year at the UNAN university in León – the city in Nicaragua where Darío grew up and died at just 49 (after three decades of travel around the globe) – on the ‘possible parallels’ between Darío and Neruda. My view is that Neruda, the Chilean poet awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, remained powerfully marked by the influence of Darío throughout his life. (This runs contrary to the stance of some critics who believe Neruda rejected modernismo entirely in his later years). Indeed, to mark the centenary of Darío’s birth, Neruda dedicated a moving section of his 1967 book, La Barcarola (The Water Song), to Darío, and in it he referred to the Nicaraguan not only as ‘my father’ but ‘father of all poets’.
Since I gave that lecture in León in 2019, Found in Translation, a bilingual edition of my rhyming English translations of Darío’s poetry, was published by the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture and I returned to Nicaragua for a book tour of the country, taking in León, Managua (the capital), Granada and (most intriguingly) Bluefields, in the English-speaking Caribbean region of Nicaragua (Shearsman is bringing out a revised edition of these translations later this month in the UK). No one else, to date, has been as brave, or as foolhardy, as to attempt the challenge of preserving Darío’s use of rhyme in English. I was inspired by his important prologue to his 1896 collection, Prosas profanas, in which he wrote: ‘Since every word has a soul, there is, in every line, on top of verbal harmony, an ideal melody.’ I believe the meaning of Darío’s poetry lies as much in the musicality of the verse as in the vocabulary. Or rather, the two are intimately linked. In my translations, I have taken liberties with the line breaks and, occasionally, even the order of lines in order to retain the sound and the rhythm. I believe this is fully justified. After all, Darío’s use of metre was relentlessly playful and inventive.
This is where the French connection comes in. Darío took that inventiveness with the sound of language largely from the French nineteenth-century poets, and especially Paul Verlaine. In fact, by his own admission, Darío had dreamed of Paris as a little boy growing up in León. He wanted to write in French. And the second edition of his celebrated collection, Azul (Blue), published in Guatemala in 1890, did indeed include three poems in French: ‘Chanson crépusculaire’, ‘A Mademoiselle’, and ‘Pensée’. Unfortunately, Darío made more than one metrical ‘mistake’ in the poems, as he himself acknowledged in his autobiography, and the three poems were therefore suppressed from subsequent editions of Azul. He would not publish in French again until 1907.
Nevertheless, Darío’s poetry would be marked by the constant influence of his French ‘masters’. His critics accused him of being ‘afrancesado’ (Frenchified). They felt he had succumbed to the undue influence of French culture to the detriment of Latin American identity and independence of thought and style. Darío, on the contrary, was convinced that the influence of France and French poetry merely enhanced and enriched his own work. From the French poets – not just the symbolists and the Parnassians but their predecessors, Victor Hugo, Leconte de Lisle and Théophile Gautier – Darío borrowed many of the motifs which would become emblematic in his own writing: the swan, masks, the colour blue. But also, and perhaps above all, what he took from them was the renewal of poetic form, experimentation with metre, an unflinching rebellion against traditional rhythms. Darío was determined to break away from the ‘stranglehold’ of Spanish lyrical conventions. As the Dominican writer, Pedro Henríquez Ureña, noted in his perceptive obituary published in March 1916, a month after the poet’s death, while most Spanish-speaking poets used lines of eight or eleven syllables or the alexandrine, with its ‘rigid monotony’, Darío ‘brought a multitude of metric forms back into circulation … [Or he wrote] lines with a totally free metre and which he enriched with his own particular music …’ Henríquez Ureña correctly recognised that Darío was a revolutionary on many fronts. He shied away from clichés, developed the art of the nuance and ‘made poetry shudder anew’.
What of Paul Verlaine? References appear, implicitly or explicitly, throughout Darío’s work. In the remarkable first poem of his 1905 collection Cantos de vida y esperanza (Songs of Life and Hope), which amounts to an autobiographical portrait, Darío writes:
Y muy siglo diez y ocho, y antiguo
y muy moderno, audaz, cosmopolita;
con Hugo fuerte y con Verlaine ambiguo,
y una sed de ilusiones infinita
So very eighteenth-century and ancient
and modern, cosmopolitan, bold;
with Hugo the strong and Verlaine ambivalent
and an unquenchable thirst for illusions of old.
Why does he call Verlaine ‘ambivalent’ (in my translation)? It is a positive epithet for Darío. It implies vagueness, which for Dario, meant dreams and creative tensions. Verlaine did not merely embody an aesthetic ideal for Darío, but a range of psychological and ethical conflicts which Dario recognised as his own: a desire for goodness enmeshed with a fascination with evil, a life ensnared by ‘vice’ and redeemed through art. Those inner contradictions are what make Darío such a modern poet to this day: between the traditional and the revolutionary, between the erotic and the spiritual, between hope and despair. For Darío, as for Verlaine, ambiguity conferred sincerity.
After Verlaine’s death on January 8, 1896, at the age of 51, Darío could console himself with the thought that his work would live on. In a tribute to Verlaine which he wrote that year for the Argentinian daily, La Nación, Darío declared: ‘You died at a glorious moment: just as your name was beginning to triumph and the seeds of your ideas were beginning to grow into magnificent flowers of art, even in countries other than your own.’ And there can be no doubt that Darío saw himself as Verlaine’s Spanish-language heir.
At the same time, however, on a human level, Verlaine’s death clearly reminded him of his own fragility and mortality. Indeed, in Verlaine, Darío recognised a kindred soul not merely in their shared inner torments but in their physically tortured bodies as well (both men were heavy drinkers). In his article in La Nación, Darío wrote of Verlaine: ‘I confess that, after drowning myself in the choppy waters of his books, after penetrating the secret of that unique existence, after seeing that soul covered in scars and incurable wounds, the whole echo of celestial and profane music, always profoundly enchanting, after contemplating that figure, so imposing amid his suffering, those dark eyes, that face which had touches of Socrates, Pierrot and a child … I felt a painful affection in my heart, alongside immense admiration, for thus unhappy master!’
It is in the light both of Darío’s own horror of death and his awareness of Verlaine’s ‘dreadful nightmares and visions’ – as he called them in his article in La Nación. – that we should read the Nicaraguan’s ‘Responso a Verlaine’ (Prayer for Verlaine). This was the poem which Darío wrote shortly after the Frenchman’s death. It is difficult, in places, but it is worth quoting in full here, both in Darío’s original (for the Spanish-speakers among you), followed my brand-new (rather hasty) translation especially for this blog. Once again, I have taken some liberties in order to preserve the rhymes in English, because this is one of Darío’s most musical poems. Indeed, it is significant that Darío compares Verlaine to Pan, a music-maker. Because for Darío, poets were musicians.
Responso a Verlaine
Padre y maestro mágico, liróforo celeste
que al instrumento olímpico y a la siringa agreste
diste tu acento encantador;
¡Panida! Pan tú mismo, con coros condujiste
hacia el propíleo sacro que amaba tu alma triste,
¡al son del sistro y del tambor!
Que tu sepulcro cubra de flores Primavera,
que se humedezca el áspero hocico de la fiera
de amor si pasa por allí;
que el fúnebre recinto visite Pan bicorne;
que de sangrientas rosas el fresco abril te adorne
y de claveles de rubí.
Que si posarse quiere sobre la tumba el cuervo,
ahuyenten la negrura del pájaro protervo
el dulce canto de cristal
que Filomela vierta sobre tus tristes huesos,
o la armonía dulce de risas y de besos
de culto oculto y florestal.
Que púberes canéforas te ofrenden el acanto,
que sobre tu sepulcro no se derrame el llanto,
sino rocío, vino, miel;
que el pámpano allí brote, las flores de Citeres,
y se escuchen vagos suspiros de mujeres
¡bajo un simbólico laurel!
Que si un pastor su pífano bajo el frescor del haya,
en amorosos días, como en Virgilio, ensaya,
tu nombre ponga en la canción;
y que la virgen náyade, cuando ese nombre escuche,
con ansias y temores entre las linfas luche,
llena de miedo y de pasión.
De noche, en la montaña, en la negra montaña
de las Visiones, pase gigante sombra extraña,
sombra de un sátiro espectral;
que ella al centauro adusto con su grandeza asuste;
de una extra-humana flauta la melodía ajuste
a la harmonía sideral.
Y huya el tropel equino por la montaña vasta;
tu rostro de ultratumba bañe la luna casta
de compasiva y blanca luz;
y el Sátiro contemple, sobre un lejano monte,
una cruz que se eleve cubriendo el horizonte,
¡y un resplandor sobre la cruz!
Prayer for Verlaine
Father and magical master, creator of heavenly lyrics:
your charming accent fell on both the Olympian
instruments and the wild panpipes’ hum.
Pan-like – no, you’re Pan himself, with choirs
riding to the holy propylon which your sad soul admires
to the sound of the sistrum and the drum!
Let Spring strew flowers over your grave
and if a savage beast passes, let love bathe
its rough-skinned snout in dew.
Let two-horned Pan visit your tomb,
let fresh April garland you with the bloom
of blood-red roses, ruby carnations too.
And if a crow tries to settle on the grave,
let its blackness, perverse and depraved,
be banished by the sweet crystalline song
that Philomela chants over your poor bones
or the soft harmony of laughter, the kisses and moans
of worshippers huddled in their leafy throng.
Let young virgins offer you acanthus
and may there be no tears to dampen
your grave, but dew and honey and wine.
Let Venus’s flowers blossom amid the vines
to the sound of women’s gentle sighs
(under a laurel tree – the victory sign!)
If a shepherd, in a beech tree’s cooling shade,
should be practising his fife, as in Virgil, on a day
fit only for loving, let him sing your name.
On hearing it, the Naiad virgin will fight back the tide,
those lymphatic waves, driven by fear and desire,
terror and passion in a single flame.
At night, up in the mountains, the thick dark
mountains of Visions, let a giant shadow pass,
the strange shadow of a spectral satyr,
startling the surly centaur with its brute
size, then adjusting its tune with a superhuman flute
to the harmony of the stars.
Let the equine hordes flee through the vast
mountains and the chaste moon cast
a merciful white light on your face from beyond the grave
and let the Satyr gaze, from a distant hill,
at a cross that rises so tall as to fill
the horizon. And the cross is ablaze!
© Translated by Adam Feinstein, 2020
Space does not permit a detailed analysis of this complex poem. Suffice to say that it is not only dedicated to Verlaine but bears his heavy influence. In his short autobiography, Historia de mis libros, Darío recalled that in the poem, he had attempted to capture the ‘two sides’ of Verlaine’s ‘Pan-like’ soul: the one driven towards the ‘pagan’ pleasures of the flesh and the other towards the spiritual, between unrestrained instincts and carnal desire, on the one hand, and a need for music, harmony and order on the other. These were precisely the same two powerful and conflicting urges which drove Darío all his life.
I’ve kept you in suspense too long! Let me return to that encounter between the two men in Paris in 1893. At the time, Darío was 26 years old and Verlaine was 49. It was Darío’s friend, the Spanish novelist Alejandro Sawa, who had brought him to the Café d’Harcourt on the Boulevard St Michel. Here is Darío’s own account in his autobiography:
‘We found the Faun [Verlaine] surrounded by dubious acolytes. He was exactly as depicted in the portrait by [Eugène] Carrière. You could tell he had been drinking copiously. From time to time, he responded to the questions put to him by those around him, striking the marble of the table with his fist intermittently. We approached and Sawa introduced me as “an American poet, an admirer, etc.” I mumbled all the devotion I could muster with my poor French, ending up with the word “fame”. I have no idea what got into the unfortunate master that evening. He turned to me and, still hammering away at the table, he said to me, in a low, chesty voice: “La gloire? La gloire? Merde! Et encore merde!” (“Fame? Fame? Shit! And shit once more, I say!”) [Another eye-witness reported that, after Dario had praised Verlaine’s poetry so fulsomely, Verlaine looked Darío up and down with a look more of disgust and indifference than anything else, before uttering those dismissive words – AF]. I thought it prudent to withdraw in the hope of meeting him again on a more propitious occasion. But I could never manage that, because on the nights I saw him again, I found him more or less in the same condition. To tell the truth, it was sad, painful, grotesque and tragic.’
07 October 2020