Posted on:Tuesday 26th January, 2021
Albert Mérat’s poetry is deceptively simple. Its straightforward style is actually a distillation of observation, sensitivity and emotion which results in a purity of expression conveyed with a natural sense of rhythm that came partly from a lifelong love of music. Poetry was almost his sole medium. Apart from a prose diary that he kept on one of his journeys to Italy, and some ‘fantasies’ that he gave to Paul Verlaine and which seem not to have survived, all his writing was in verse.
Mérat writes without archaisms or colloquialisms, and his sentence construction (with some exceptions in the longer poems) is uncomplicated. There are none of the allusions, neologisms and word-play used by Verlaine and Rimbaud. Verlaine, who was a lifelong friend of Mérat’s (with a significant gap in their relationship after Rimbaud’s arrival in Paris), described him in Les Mémoires d’un veuf as ‘ce poète anglais de ton’, a quality which means that his poetry translates well into English.
Carte de visite of Mérat by Nadar, Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Mérat’s life was dominated by two loves – of poetry and of women. These were each expressive of the other, with his customary sonnets encapsulating his lovers in verse, and his lovers (and the other women he observed) inspiring his poetry. In ‘Night in April II’ from Les Chimères, he even compares one of his female subjects directly to a part of a poem:
Her exemplary, life-study face
Is without a hint of temperament.
It’s the start of a poem, the prelude
To this beautiful, perfectly proportioned body.
Mérat’s other main interest in his writing was nature, a generally benign force for him, more beautiful than anything in the man-made world and an escape from the rigours of life, and of his sometimes poor mental health, which was to dog him as long as he lived. Mental illness was the main cause of his eventual suicide in 1909, after a previous, unsuccessful attempt in 1874. It was a hereditary problem for him, his father having taken his own life when Mérat was fourteen years old, and his sister suffering a nervous breakdown the same year.
The opposition within Mérat between good and poor mental health mirrors others within his personality. He was a sociable man who made many friends (a large number of whom stayed with him the whole of his life), but was troubled by periods of loneliness; he was an inveterate joiner of groups (the Parnassians, Vilains Bonshommes, Cercle des Zutistes, Hydropathes, Têtes du bois etc) but at their meetings would often observe silently, making occasional, sometimes acerbic comments; and he was a lover of women who was never able to find a wife, an issue that he would write about in later life, when it became particularly problematical for him.
Mérat’s first published poetry collection was Avril, mai, juin, in 1863, a collaboration with his friend, Léon Valade, whom he had first met at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. The two were virtually inseparable in the literary circles in which they began to mix, where they were often referred to as ‘Albert Valade and Leon Mérat’ or ‘Malade and Vérat’. The two friends contributed a roughly equal number of poems to the collection, verse commentaries on their lives and loves in contemporary Paris, which described literary and artistic culture, women they had met and the countryside surrounding the city. The style of the poets was so similar that they were almost inseparable here, too, with many people having difficulty in distinguishing their work.
Verlaine's portrait of himself, Valade and Mérat at Bobino, Morgan Library and Museum
All the poems in Avril, mai, juin were sonnets, a form that Mérat was to adopt for the majority of his writing career and one that was then undergoing a revival, having been taken up by poets such as Gautier, Nerval and Baudelaire. For Mérat, the sonnet (almost always in regular metre and rhyme) was the perfect medium, allowing him to encapsulate his subject matter succinctly and in a tightly ordered and structured way. This was important for someone whose thoughts were often at the mercy of his poor mental health. In the poem numbered XLIX in Avril, mai, juin, he writes: ‘I adore, to tell the truth, form and matter.’
Mérat loved the miniaturisation of the sonnet and its chiselled craftmanship, aspects that would be so important to the Parnassians, whose poetic ranks he would join after writing his first solo collection, Les Chimères. In ‘The Image’ from Les Souvenirs of 1872, he relates his examination of a cameo:
The image that my memory pursues in this way
Is small, and all its grace can be held
Within the margins of a sonnet: a dream, a swallow!
His poem entitled ‘Miniature’ in Avril, mai, juin is the perfect example of encapsulation and miniaturisation in the sonnet, with his subject a woman so small that she is almost a doll. Everything about her is diminutive, which results in her being disparaged by one of the men around her. Despite being tiny, however, she is ‘Thick with malice’, Mérat says, and her ‘flashing looks... Give her dance a facetious twist’. In a twist typical of many of his sonnets in this collection, she has the last laugh on her admirers.
In keeping with his love of the miniaturisation of the sonnet, over the course of his life Mérat accumulated a collection of mostly small paintings and objets d’art, which he kept in his tiny but beautiful apartment overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens. In his will, he would leave many of these pieces to the museum in Troyes, his childhood home.
Les Chimères was published in 1866, which was also the year of the first issues of the Parnasse Contemporain, in which the young poets of the ‘new Parnasse’ featured. By the magazine’s third instalment (the first had featured only Gautier and the second was devoted to Leconte de Lisle), Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, José-Maria de Heredia, François Coppée, Mérat, Léon Valade and Sully-Prudhomme were all included. Although Mérat’s poems would always retain at least an element of the intime that the Parnassians despised, he was sympathetic to the movement’s classical inspiration, concern with form, and love of beauty, and was to go on to write two collections in the Parnassian mould, L’Idole and Les Villes de marbre.
Verlaine self-portrait dedicated to Albert, c1870, Musee Carnavalet, Paris
Mérat sympathised with the poor in a way that the Parnassians did not. In his sonnet, ‘An Artist’, in Avril, mai, juin, he describes an ‘old man dazed with hunger’, viewed by a well-off passer-by whose only comment is that the starving man would make ‘a fine Rembrandt’. In Les Souvenirs, Mérat portrays the impoverished lives of ‘The Sardine Fishers’ and their families, and describes ‘The Washing Place’ frequented by the hard-working girls of Plomar. In Les Chimères a poem called ‘Proletarians’ observes a young, working-class couple struggling to survive and make a life together. This poem is dedicated to Mérat’s good friend, the politically committed Jules Andrieu, who went on to be appointed chief of personnel at Paris’s Hotel de Ville during the Commune.
Mérat is concerned, too, with the fate of animals in nineteenth-century Paris – particularly so in ‘The Cows’ from Les Souvenirs, where the animals are led to slaughter through the streets of the city, with ‘cowardly, vile’ dogs attacking them from behind:
Sometimes, in a dark fear of death,
A sharp forehead is opposed to a biting mouth
In a beautiful movement of revolt and rage.
‘Revolt’ is not something with which Mérat is usually associated, but there is a poem of this name in Avril, mai, juin, and it is another fierce protest – against ‘what the priests say’ about death. Death is no ‘angel with a laughing face who takes us in his arms’, says Mérat, but, rather:
… the blind executioner who walks alongside,
And breaks our teeth with the still-full cup.
Les Chimères was well received and in December 1866 was awarded the Mailly-Latour-Landry prize by the Académie Française. It contains less of the lighter material evident in Avril, mai, juin with, instead, a deeper emphasis on nature and a more sophisticated view of women and Mérat’s relationship with them. Although the period in which it was written was largely a happy one, there are, nevertheless, suggestions that he remained anxious about his mental stability.
After the death of Mérat’s father, his family had fallen on hard times, with his mother reduced to writing begging letters to anyone who might be able to provide them with a little money. Her financial problems had not eased by the time Mérat began a career in administration in the Préfecture de la Seine in the Hotel de Ville in 1862. He was to spend much of his small income on keeping her, as well as his sister and two young nieces, who were also now living with her. This was to put huge pressure on Mérat, which began to take a further toll on his mental health, particularly after 1870.
In ‘The Glacier II’ from Les Chimères, he writes: ‘Above, the day; below, chaos, the dark side’. This is an echo of something he had written in ‘My Charterhouse’ in Avril, mai, juin: ‘Above, the sky; below, sixty feet of emptiness.’ These lines emphasise the ‘up’ and ‘down’ of Mérat’s mental state and how instability was an ever-present worry for him. In ‘To my friend Léon Valade’ from Les Chimères, he says:
Uneasy and solemn like a madman,
With my dreams for a retinue,
I go a little, I don’t know where,
Through countries where there is snow...
In Avril, mai, juin, in ‘The Madmen’, Mérat states that his subjects ‘only see day/Through a black, tangled reason’ and are in a state of ‘bitter anguish’. In his sympathy with them, he says that they ‘hold on to... (their) pain and tears,/And do not shed (their) ancient humanity’.
In ‘Night’ from Les Souvenirs (which was written between 1866 and 1869), the darkness initially seems benign, as nature had usually been for Mérat, but he now goes on to write:
‘However, Night, I know that you are unreliable and you let us down;
Your vague, ghostly illusion terrifies me:
What if morning forgets to return?
Certainty, reason, the ordinariness of dawn...
I feel my thoughts are made of light;
Even with eyes closed, I fret for the day.’
In his poetry, Mérat was looking for control and order – but was forced on occasion to acknowledge the lurking threat of mental instability. The events of 1870-1 – the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, the establishment of the Commune and its end in the ‘Semaine Sanglante’ – would further destabilise him. Ten days before the Siege, Mérat left Paris for Royat, near Clermont-Ferrand, where he received treatment for mental illness. He returned in mid-March 1871 and was in the city throughout the Commune, including during its bloody, final week.
When Rimbaud arrived in Paris in the middle of September, Mérat was still in a fragile state after his illness, and more worried than ever about finances – his mother’s house had been bombarded during the turmoil. Mérat was one of the handful of young Parnassians who initially welcomed Rimbaud and contributed towards his upkeep in the city. He was also one of those present at Rimbaud’s recitation ‘Le Bateau ivre’. Mérat’s need for control and order, though, could not have long survived Rimbaud’s desire for the very opposite.
Cazals, F.A, cover of Hommes d'aujourd'hui by Verlaine
In terms of appearance – apart from both having striking, blue eyes – they could not have been more different. Rimbaud was often dishevelled and dirty, whereas Mérat was always well-dressed and refined. Mérat’s hair was blond and Rimbaud’s brown. Rimbaud’s hands were huge and rough, while Mérat’s were tucked out of sight, folded around the canne épée that he would hold behind him (and which Rimbaud would later seize to attack his friend, the photographer, Étienne Carjat). Mérat had worked hard to achieve his respected position in literary Paris and had a regular place at the side of Verlaine at its gatherings. Rimbaud, by his appearance, behaviour and incendiary writings, seemed to threaten all that he had – including his fragile mental stability.
In Rimbaud’s ‘Lettre du voyant’ to Paul Demeny on May 15, 1871, he had declared his intention to become a ‘voyant’ through a conscious campaign of derangement of the senses. For Mérat, such a prospect was terrifying – it was the way to madness, and it had the potential to destroy him.
In the same letter, though, Rimbaud had declared Mérat (alongside only Baudelaire and Verlaine) to already be a ‘voyant’. Rimbaud was familiar with Mérat’s writing – he would, at least, have read Les Chimères and the Parnasse Contemporain – and acknowledged that Mérat was already what he, at the time, only aspired to be.
Rimbaud would probably have been attracted to Les Chimères from its very first poem, ‘Frontispiece’, which ends:
And I, wounded, but too proud to count my wounds,
Gripped by the deep bite of (the chimeras’) teeth,
Have filled my heart with love and rebellions.
There are many commonalities between Rimbaud’s poetry and Mérat’s – too many to list here – but they include the technique of putting one adjective before a noun and another after it; a penchant for the colour blue and its various adjectival and verbal forms; similar descriptions of the sun and moon; transformation and personification of the natural world. There are also many examples of phrases and metaphors that Rimbaud borrowed or adapted from Mérat (which probably did nothing to improve Mérat’s view of him).
There are several similarities, in particular, between Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau ivre’ and Mérat’s work.
Mérat’s ‘The Long Course’ in Les Souvenirs begins in a way (particularly in its opening couplet) that would have struck a chord with the other poet:
Fatally in love with what I do not know,
I focus the strength of my soul on the unknown.
I would like to shake my wings, but everywhere
I droop to meet the shadow before my steps.
Its final two verses are like a summary of the beginning and ending of Rimbaud’s boat’s journey:
If, tempting the sea, which threatens and growls
Right in front of me, I went in search of a new world:
When, weary and wounded, I had turned away from it,
The unchanging round that measures space
Would lead my greedy eye back to that same, inflexible day,
And register the shadow in the same place.
The opening and closing lines of ‘The Current’ in the same collection read like a possible inspiration for ‘Le Bateau ivre’:
You would need, to leave the town, an old boat
That followed the water slowly, without sails or oars...
...The poplars are high, the hills are blue...
Where, then, was the tumult of the crowd, as I passed by?
I don’t know how many leagues I travelled.
‘Towpath’, again from Les Souvenirs, ends with these lines, also reminiscent of Rimbaud’s poem:
The heavy boat, led along like this, goes downriver,
Towards the sea where the sky, at dawn, is drowned in,
And drinks in, as if in a sparkling vase, the heavens.
Sometimes thought requires so much effort,
But the dream-current is invisible and sure:
The soul heads for infinity, gently rocked.
In his sonnet numbered LXXVI in Avril, mai, juin, Mérat writes: ‘I no longer belong to myself’ – a step along the way to Rimbaud’s ‘Je est un autre.’
Mérat’s ‘To G.F.’ in Les Chimères begins:
Set out on the road, warrior; get ready to conquer, take your broadsword
And beat at the past, so proud of its ancient coat of arms.
Always go forwards and, as you push back the horizon,
Never stop stamping out your deep steps on the road.
Rimbaud, who so often tramped his own ‘deep steps on the road’ would surely have appreciated this call to arms, directed at a ‘philosopher’, with its exhortation to: ‘Keep straight ahead, without looking at what you have left behind’, and warning against the malevolent ancient man whom ‘You must frighten... with the light.’
Mérat was a poet who, quite apart from his links with Rimbaud, was highly valued by the writers and artists of his generations – both Zola and Mallarmé said they were ‘ravi’ with Les Chimères and his work was praised by Hugo, Gautier, Daudet and Verlaine, among many others. After enjoying public success as the ‘poet of Paris’ in the 1870s, however, he gradually lost favour. His poetry is deeply felt, keenly observed, striking and original. He deserves to be rediscovered.
Some of the biographical material here comes from Morna Banks’s illuminating and informative PhD thesis, The Life and Works of Albert Mérat (Aberdeen, University of Aberdeen, 1979), which is highly recommended for anyone wishing to find out more about Mérat and his writing.
A comprehensive selection of Mérat’s poetry in the original French can be found on the Poésie française.fr website https://www.poesie-francaise.fr/poemes-albert-merat/.