Resplendence (Les Éblouissements)
"Good heavens, what do you expect?" replied Sainte-Beuve to the Goncourts who claimed that people would always talk about Voltaire's genius, "I concede that one is always led to say genius where Voltaire is concerned; and between ourselves we acknowledge that he truly deserves it!" [Ms] We think of these words of Sainte-Beuve when we have just finished the final volume of Madame de Noailles' verses, Les Éblouissements, and we apply them to Madame de Noailles. We tell ourselves that if, on her account, we speak of genius, that she truly deserves it! We also think of that letter which Joubert wrote to Madame de Beaumont at the time of the appearance of Atala, and which we could also write about Les Éblouissements, if we could write sufficiently well that is:
"...There is a Venus in
this work, celestial for some, terrestrial for others, but making
herself felt to all. This book is unlike any other...
The good judge may find in it something to revisit but nothing more to desire. There is a charm, a talisman that draws our fingers to open it. This book will succeed because it is from an enchantress."
For some time, whenever La Revue des Deux Mondes, La Revue de Paris or Le Figaro introduces us to some new poetry from Madame de Noailles, we hear them ask, as if from the Song of Songs: "What is this approaching in the form of a palm-like pillar of smoke, breathing out myrrh, incense and all the powders of the perfumer?" And in her verses the poetess replied to us like the Shulamite:
"Come with me to the garden to see the pastures of the valley, to see if the vines are in bud, if the pomegranates are in blossom. My garden has groves where the pomegranate mingles with the most beautiful fruits, camphire, spikenard, saffron, canella, cinnamon, myrrh, with all varieties of fragrant trees..." I will say a word later about this garden "this garden that I always spoke of" as Madame de Noailles says in one of her pieces from Les Éblouissements, speaking of herself with a smile. But I would also like to try to speak briefly of something else, to begin with, an incidental aspect, a secondary portal, rarely visited in her work. But this threshold will lead us more quickly to the heart.
Gustave Moreau has often attempted to portray this abstraction in his paintings and watercolours: the Poet. Proud on a jewel harnessed horse, which casts a loving glance towards him, the kneeling crowd among whom we recognize all the races of the orient, whereas he belongs to none, enfolded in white muslin, mandora at his side, inhaling with passionate gravity the scent of the mystical flower which he holds in his hand, his face expressing a heavenly sadness, we ask ourselves, after looking at him closely, whether this poet is not in fact a woman. Perhaps Gustave Moreau wants to show us that if the poet is to have all humanity within him, he must have the tenderness of a woman; but if, as I believe, he also wanted to encompass in poetry the face, the clothes, the attitude of one who's soul is poetry, it is only because he has placed this scene in India or Persia that he has been able to leave us uncertain about the sex of the poet. If he had wanted to depict his poet in our own age and in our own country and nevertheless surround him with a precious beauty, he would have been obliged to make him a woman. Even in the orient, or besides even in Greece this is often the case. So then, it is a poetess that he shows us, following with one of the Muses the purple of a mountain path, where occasionally a god or a centaur passes. Elsewhere, in a watercolour framed with flowers like a Persian miniature, Peri, the tiny musician of the gods, mounted on a rearing dragon before her a sacred flower, travels the wide heavens. And always, in one or other of these figures to which the skill of the painter has given an almost religious beauty: in the poet subduing the crowd with his eloquence, in the inspired poetess just as much as the tiny traveller of the Persian sky whose songs are the charms of the gods, I have always believed I have recognized Madame de Noailles.
I do not know if Gustave Moreau was aware how much, by an indirect consequence, this beautiful conception of the Poet-woman would one day be capable of reinventing the economy of poetic work itself. In our sad age, beneath our climates, poets, I mean male poets, at the same time as they cast an ecstatic glance on a field of flowers, are obliged in some way to exclude themselves from such universal beauty, to exclude themselves, through the imagination, from the landscape. They feel that the grace they are surrounded by stops short of their bowler hat, their beard, their eyeglasses. Madame de Noailles, she knows very well that she is not the least delicious of the thousand beauties with which a radiant garden of summer glows and in which she takes her part. Why then, like the male poet who is ashamed of his own body, does she conceal her hands, as they are:
Like an exquisite bowl
In Japanese porcelain.
To have so often touched the plants
of the forests
With light caresses,
They have preserved within their secret designs
The body of small ferns.
And why won't she allow herself to see
The clear sunlight
of her face,
Her millions of rays,
...And the dawn of her cheek, and the night blue and black
With which her hair is filled.
From thence, a naturalness from which so many poets would have nothing to draw, but which, attuning herself to the miracle with the turn of her genius, makes her sometimes happen to express herself with that gracious audacity of the dead youths of ancient Greece, who, from the verses which compose their epitaph, address themselves freely to passers by. And whilst male poets, when they wish to put gentle verse into a graceful mouth, are obliged to invent a character, to put it into the mouth of a woman, Madame de Noailles, who is at the same time poet and heroine, expresses directly that which she has felt, without the artifice of any fiction, with a truth more moving. If she mourns her too short life, the little that will last of her youth and "the gentle honour of her age", if she has a craving (that admirable craving which, on each page of this book creates and quenches thirst, by turns, truly renders it "hot as suns, cool as watermelon") to go and sit "in the shade of forests", she has no need to put into another's lips her innocent regrets or her burning desires.
Being at the same time both the author and the subject of her verses, she recognizes as the same person Racine and his princess, Chénier and his young captive. A strange thing, this book [Ms] of resplendence, where the physical appearance of Madame de Noailles is apparent on almost every page, more charming still when she wishes to keep it in the background, to squeeze her body so closely against the wall.
That she will come to
resemble those nymphs on friezes
Whose leg and hand are frozen in stone,
is nevertheless one of those from which the author is most absent. All that which can constitute the social, contingent self of Madame de Noailles, that self which poets sometimes love so much to show us, is not mentioned one single time in the course of these four hundred pages. [Ms] When Alfred de Musset, who was of so little nobility that it was not worth the trouble of saying anything about it, has the impudence to tell us of "the golden hawk which adorns his helmet"; when Alfred de Vigny, elsewhere in his sublime verse, tells us of his "gilded crest of a gentleman", I defy you on reading Les Éblouissements, if you do not know that the author is called Madame de Noailles, to guess that her social position is that of an illustrious young princess, rather than someone who earns their living by going off to play the flute or picking oranges. In this way her work resembles Gustave Moreau's Indian poet who I have just been discussing: like him she does not display the characteristic traits of any caste. Even in the two pieces which she addresses to her son (what an epigraph for the marvellous Roi Tobol by André Beaunier two stanzas from one piece called Stances would make!) when she tells him of the atavism which guides him, she hardly includes any of the spirit of her ancestors upon whom anyone else would not fail to expand here; she thinks above all about her own sensibility of it, about that admirable and terrible sensibility which frightens and glorifies her to have for ever infused in "those gentle veins" of this child who received in the cradle, along with the christian name of a high constable, the heritage (so heavy to bear which would otherwise make life difficult and painful) of a great poet. So there is no other book where the self holds so much of a place and yet so little; where holding so much, and we shall see how quite shortly, of that profound self which makes these works so individual and so lasting, and so little of the self which has been defined in one single word, but to mention which would be loathsome.
In a book which I should like to write and which would be called the Six gardens of Paradise, the garden of Madame de Noailles would be the most natural of them all, and if I may say so the only one where nature alone reigns, where only poetry can penetrate. In the others nature is not always approached directly by the feelings, and even here poetry is sometimes reached (I am not by any means suggesting that this is a fault) through the bias of study or philosophy. Already visited by angels, let us leave the garden of John Ruskin [Ms] by the edge of lake Coniston about which I would have too much to say. But the garden of Maurice Maeterlink dominated by "innocent, unchanging and cool" images of a cypress and of a stone pine, such, he says, in one of the most beautiful pages of French prose from the last sixty years, that he "does not imagine any paradise or afterlife, however splendid it might be, where these trees do not have their place", this garden where the Virgil of Flanders, next to hives of straw painted in pink, yellow and tender blue, which upon entering, recall for us his preferred studies, has harvested such incomparable poetry, could we truly say that he seeks nothing else there but poetry? As, - even without having to descend, in imitation of his bees, onto the blossoming lime trees or to the pool where the valisneria waits for the hour of love to light up the surface, - he goes only to the oleanders, by the well, next to the sage violets, or explores an uncultivated corner of the olive grove: it will be in order to study a curious labiate species, a variety of chrysanthemums or orchids, which allow him to conclude the development of flowers or of victories we can gain over their subconscious, to other advances, to other victories too, which will not be won in this world of flowers but will bring humanity closer to truth and happiness. Because for this evolutionist of the absolute - if we can call him that - science, philosophy and ethics are on the same level, and the horizon of happiness and truth is not a mirage caused by our optics and intellectual perspective but the boundary of a real ideal by which we effectively reconcile ourselves.
The garden of Henri de Régnier, goodness knows how I love it. It is perhaps the first I came to know; each passing year has made it more admirable to me, and one hardly goes by without my visiting it several times, whether at M. d'Amercoeur's, M. de Heurteleure's or the princess of Termiane's, more often at Pont-aux-Belles, and never without extending my pilgrimage as far as Fresnay. As for Bas-le-Pré, even when still at a distance from the garden, as soon as I recognize its pointed turrets in the rainy sky, I feel some of the thrill that seized M. de Portebize when M. d'Oriocourt described them to him. But, except perhaps for those at Madame de Néronde's, and Madame de Néry's, the beauty of gardens for M. de Régnier is not a purely natural beauty; from Triton de Julie to the Escalier de Narcisse, above all we admire the masterpieces of sculpture, the artifices of architecture and waterworks; it is not that the fishes, as though oxidized in the bosom of the waters, do not catch there some precious beauty, and as for the flowers themselves, the ones which most fill me with passion there are those rare varieties which one perceives at the intersection of paths contained in "earthenware vases painted with emblems and apothecarian devices, with serpents for handles".
Nothing, on the contrary, seems at first closer to nature than the divine garden of Francis Jammes, in every way a true garden of Paradise, since the poet himself has told us, about this garden, that it was as exactly like Paradise as there is on earth: in the same place, not far from the blue cast iron plaque that says: "Castétis to Balansun, five kilometres", surrounded by meadows "whose sapphire lakes set in enamel bound the blue icebergs of the Pyrenees", full of common lilies and pomegranate trees, and cabbages, with the two little grey cats which he loved most in the world, and that laurel to which the children come, on Palm Sundays, to gather a branch into which they thread oranges, sugared almonds, paper flowers and birds made of spiced bread. But the beauty of flowers does not always seem to be enough for the poet. He adds the dignity given them by having appeared in the scriptures, and by having been preferred by God. And also makes them botanical. He sows oxalis in order to study the sleep of plants, and his botany turns quickly to theogony, to astrology, to the systems of the world, as well as quite simple bias, as with his old Jean de La Fontaine:
God made well what he made;
without searching for the proof,
I find it in the orange-tip butterfly.
Finally, if thanks to the patronage of M. Jean Baugnies I can one day see Claud Monet's garden, I know very well that I will see there, in a garden of tone and colour, still more than a garden of flowers, a garden which must be less the ancient garden of a flower grower than a colourist's garden, if I may say so, flowers arranged in a combination not entirely created by nature, since they were sown so as to bloom at the same time as those whose shades blend themselves together, harmonize in an infinite stretch of blue or pink and that this powerfully manifested intention of the painter has dematerialized, in some way, to everything that is not colour. Flowers of the earth and also flowers of the water, these delicate water lilies which the master has depicted in sublime canvasses of which this garden (true transposition of art even more than model for paintings, a painting already executed in nature's likeness, lit from below to the eye of a great painter) is like a lively first sketch, the palette more or less already created and delightful upon which harmonious tones are prepared.
Not in any way similar, as we have seen, to the garden of Madame de Noailles. It seems that it must have been in its honour that Emerson composed the magnificent eulogy (of which Whistler's Ten O'Clock would be the paradoxical yet defensible counterpart): "There is no need for the amateur to seek out the poet to make him appreciate a waterfall or a sun-gilt cloud, when he cannot open his eyes without seeing splendour and grace. How idle to choose a random sparkle here and there, when the indwelling necessity of things plants the rose of beauty on the brow of chaos. Oh poet, true lord of the water, earth and air, should you cross the entire universe, you will never succeed in finding one thing without beauty, without poetry." For a long time Madame de Noailles only perceived this power of her exaltation and poetic sensibility as projected by herself onto things. She did not recognize it at all, she innocently called it the splendour of the universe. Now - and it is this stage towards a more profound idealism which marks Les Éblouissements - she has taken direct consciousness of it in some excess of love, still unutilized, which she will find one day in her heart. She is "dazzled" by the world, she says, but she gives back spark for spark to the lights that it pours forth upon her. [Ms] She knows that ideas are not lost in the universe; but that the universe is present within the idea. She says to the sun: "My heart is a garden in which you are the rose." She knows that a profound idea, which has encompassed space and time within it, is no longer subdued to their tyranny and will know no end:
Such momentum cannot be
My tenderness for you will outlive my days
And my closed tomb!
Even the sight of tombs only increases her ardour and her joy, because she believes she sees "barefoot on the tombs":
A smiling Eros who feeds the doves.
...I do not know if you understand me and if the poet will be indulgent to my reverie. But very often the least verse of Les Éblouissements makes me think of those giant cypresses, or those pink sophoras, which the art of the Japanese gardener has made grow, a few centimetres high, in a bowl made of Hizen porcelain. But the imagination that contemplates them at the same time as the eyes, sees them, in the realm of perspective, for what they really are, that is to say enormous trees. And their great hand-like shadow gives to the narrow square of earth, of matting, or of pebbles where it slowly moves on sunny days, their centuries old dreams, the expanse and the majesty of a vast field or of the bank of some great river.
I would like to try to free first of all the essence and the spirit from such a book (a unique book of which one could find in the past equals but not a likeness). I have to finish and I haven't even begun to cover the beauties of it with you. Nevertheless I would like to linger upon those passages of such pure technique, as well as on others, to point out to you a passage for example, of charming French names, reviving and vibrant in the lovely light in which the poet displays them, to point out the place of honour of verse, of rhyme, of the rhyme that makes them sing, accompanied by the paired music of the neighbouring rhyme:
The gentleness of a
beautiful evening that descends on Beauvais.
I lean towards your window;
The evening descends on Chambéry;
so many deliciously accurate notations:
In our serried copses
where the calling magpie
Roves beneath the firs like a black and white fruit.
...Near the waves of the Drance
Where the glossy and fluid trout darts,
Silver swallow on watery wings.
Metaphors which recompose and give the lie to our first impression when, leading us into a wood or following a riverbank, we have thought first of all, on hearing something rustle, that it was some fruit and not a bird, or when, surprised by the commotion above the waters of a brisk flight that we thought was a bird taking wing, we then hear the trout fall back into the river. But these charming and vivid comparisons which substitute, for the verification of what something really is, the resurrection of what we have already felt (the only interesting reality) themselves vanish next to the truly sublime images, wholly created, worthy of the most beautiful of Hugo's. One would have to have read everything on the splendour, the rapture, the enthusiasm of these summer mornings where one throws back one's head in order to follow with one's eyes a bird released into the sky, to experience all the dizziness and feel all the mystery of these two last lines:
Whilst loosed from the
A gentle bird bursts forth to the summit of the world.
Do you know of a more splendid and a more perfect image than this (it is like these wonderful Waters of Damascus, which shoot forth and rise in the columns of fountains, then fall back, passing through the watery linen of their coolness and the odour of melon and juicy pears with the perfume of a rose tree):
Like a young slave
Who rises, who descends, who perfumes and who bathes!
There again, to understand all the nobility, all the purity, all the "inventiveness" of this image, so sudden and so perfect, which is born immediate and complete, one must re-read the piece, one of the most "thrusting" in expression, also one of the most fully felt of this volume, painted from beginning to end, in the face, in the presence of a sensation which is nevertheless so fleeting that one feels that the artist has had to recreate it a thousand times within herself to prolong those fleeting poses and to be able to complete her canvas after nature, - one of the most astonishing successes, the masterpiece perhaps of literary "impressionism". Let us note the passage of "blue lobsters" whose the colour might seem a bit garish, then which are pleasing to all like the "blue herons", the "pink flamingos", the "bears intoxicated with grapes" and the "young crocodiles" at the beginning of Atala which at the time seemed jarring to the eyes and afterwards have blended into the delicious colour of the whole. We point them out boldly, these blue lobsters, which we find, for our part, strong to the taste, to the abbé Morellets of the day. Then there are extraordinary pieces on Persia where:
Beautiful Persian boys in
With profiles as round as young rams,
say to the author:
We unroll for you
Where you see buried beneath arches of dog rose
Languorous lions and drowsy stags,
whilst a peacock:
Will sometimes bury in soft
His little narrow brow like a crested serpent;
of adorable stanzas on springtime, where we must note that in this verse:
Listen to the birds of my scorched throat,
the irregularity of the image adds a further beauty, exactly as in this verse from Baudelaire: "And the urns of love from which your great hearts are filled". Only a good writer who could be nothing other than a good writer would compare the heart to an urn full of love, and the voice of spring to the throat of a bird. It is only a great poet who dares to fill the heart from urns and the throat of a bird. Then regretfully letting pass a wonderful piece on Venice where:
The Dogana, in the evening,
displaying its golden orb
Appears to stop time and prolong once more
The shape of the sun which descends into the abyss
and so many others among them that I love the best, I come to the end of the volume, to the last piece, on heroes, the heroes, all the great men of the past who have entered into death with ease:
Just like the sacred
Ah, let me take my leave,
cries the poet to herself,
...allow me to rejoin
This singing, divine cortege,
Of which I am the timid and dreamy companion
Who carries the salt and the wine!
How many times, no longer having the strength to live,
Have I suddenly smiled, leaped up,
To hear the copper trumpets
Of the youth of Lodi!
How many times during my difficult journey,
My heart, when you have exhausted yourself,
Have I evoked for you in the light of the Troad
Achilles beneath a high fig tree!
All the azure tumbling into my breast each day
Gushes up into endless gestures
As one sees the gushing of twin sprays of sea water
From the intoxicated breath of dolphins!
I do not know if you have kept count of the times you have been elevated since the beginning of this piece above the rainy regions, where the author of Coeur Innombrable and l'Ombre des jours has enchanted us; here vegetation could no longer survive; you have entered regions of great altitude. Look before you: under the resplendent whiteness which alone reveals their prodigious height, the summits of the Légende des siècles, frowning ranges, - without being able to distinguish clearly in the azure where nothing separates us from them, how far distant they are - seem very close. By the great silence that prevails around all the last verses which I have quoted to you, by the purity of the breath which passes over them and inflames your passion, by the immensity of the surrounding and towering horizons, you feel that you are now indeed on a mountaintop.
Article appeared in the Figaro 15 June 1907 and reprinted in Chroniques (Libraire Gallimard, 1927).
Return to Front Page