No 13 - Spring/Summer 1999
The Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost
French Poetry/Ciaran Carson
Ciaran Carson: The Alexandrine Plan [Versions of sonnets by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, with French originals on facing pages]. Dublin: Gallery Press, £7.95.
There’s a parlour game played by mathematicians where the object is to name the technical term most like the title of a thriller: Bianchi’s Second Identity, say, or The Fredholm Alternative. By Plan, Ciaran Carson may allude only to marked-out space – of an allotment perhaps, eight rows of cabbages, six of runner beans. There again, he may not: the Alexandrine, the twelve-syllable line, so pervades French prosody that a conspiracy seems almost plausible. From early medieval Alexander romances (hence the name), it held sway in drama and verse of all kinds for most of the millennium. In 1800, to decline to use it could still seem a statement of repudiation, but by 1900 the supremacy had ended, and somewhere in between are the roots of French modernity. Here also are Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé, appealed to as “origins” of one movement or another for decades after their deaths and even (in Mallarmé’s case) today – posthumously contemporary, as Tennyson and Browning never have been. Baudelaire, the Father, principal works written 1840-60, painter of a damned city; Rimbaud, the Son, 1870-75, an apocalypse of adolescent disruption; Mallarmé, the Holy Ghost, 1865-97, whose locked-off worlds of artistry coloured the century to come.
The classical alexandrine is shored up by a number of rules, which were each undermined, rather as a bridge might be demolished. For instance, twelve syllables is more than an earful, so at least one pause is essential. But the unwearying halving of lines into 6/6 could stultify content as well as manner, much as the English heroic couplet could, and by 1850 poets were experimenting with 4/8, 8/4 and 4/4/4. If that seems a pretty tentative sort of rebellion, consider where it ended: in 1897, Mallarmé’s astonishing masterpiece Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard is made up of “lines” (areas, really) like so:
Une insinuation simple
au silence enroulée avec ironie
Even in regular verse, Mallarmé is more free than Rimbaud, who is more free than Baudelaire; and in their rhetorical moods, long runs of quatrains – a Romantic staple – are increasingly supplanted by extraordinary prose poems. But like the Whig version of history, to regard poetry as a steady progress towards modernism is a prejudice. One might equally say that with greater fluidity and enjambement fraying at the edges and divisions of lines, yet with stanza form and vertical layout still unquestioned, the mid-19th century was a golden age for the sonnet. Any short enough poem stood a good chance of being one.
Like mustards, sonnets divide first by nationality. The French version opens with two quatrains abba abba or abba cddc followed by two tercets carrying three rhymes (e.g. eef ggf or efg efg) and if it lacks the pungency of the English sonnet’s closing couplet it more than makes up in flavour and variety of its concluding moods. The first eight and last six lines can be launch-pad and flight, or establishing-shot and close-up, or the writer can just soldier on. There is plenty of room: where a Shakespearean sonnet offers 140 syllables, a French one of alexandrines has 168. For all this extra space, French sonnet “sequences” sometimes shift to quatrains or five-lined stanzas for discursive passages or summings-up. Baudelaire uses adjacent sonnets to oppose and parallel each other, like matched pairs of duelling pistols; Les Fleurs du Mal surely has some architecture of arrangement; but he doesn’t knock together a terraced row of sonnets to house one long argument, as his English contemporaries might (cf. Sonnets from the Portuguese, 1850, or Modern Love, 1862). The sonnets of Rimbaud and Mallarmé are generally isolated works, too, anecdotal or exemplary.
Carson has chosen for clarity over obscurity, easiness over puzzle. Mallarmé’s more exhausting epiphanies are passed over. The selection from Rimbaud favours the “road” poems, the memoirs of the teenager who ran off to Paris: not linguistic fireworks, nor mysticism. Carson faintly hints, perhaps, at a connection between the socially slumbering patriotism of France in 1870 and Ireland today, as in ‘The Green Bar’:
Pleased as Punch, I stretched my legs beneath the shamrock
Table. I admired the tacky ‘50s décor.
Then this vacant waitress in a tit-enhancing frock
Came on and wiggled up to me, her eyes galore
Long lines are seldom so speakable as Carson’s, though inevitably there are staccato moments. The idiom belongs to the present-day, but these are, after all, “versions”, and with creditable honesty the book cites the translations used as cribs. What, then, does Carson use the freedom of the “version” for? Not to alter the shape: the sonnet form and rhyme schemes are preserved. It is the text which is fair game.
A mildly tiresome adulteration of self-references casually implies a stronger unity for the book than it really possesses – Carson has both Mallarmé and Baudelaire describe themselves as “sonneteer”, as though they might have welcomed being represented only by sonnets, in a book like this: in the first case on the strength of “le sonneur” (literally “bell-ringer”), in the second case from no source at all. He has the grandiose “my alexandrine plan” where Baudelaire wrote only the self-deprecating “lignes”, not even the more usual poetic term “vers”.
Our versioneer is more engaging when his final flourishes improve on original endings, furnishing quotable last lines: an “improvement”, that is, to English tastes. In ‘O Happy Death’, the worms
Delve and seethe and eel into my ruined corpus;
Tell me all the tortures I must re-enact.
Then consult me under “death” in your thesaurus.
Baudelaire’s original conclusion to ‘Le Mort joyeux’ (“The Happy Dead Man”) is more diffuse, French rather than English mustard, and the last line refers to torture:
Pour ce vieux corps sans âme et mort parmi les morts!
Carson’s version throws out the tricky bit about souls – “c’est un corps sans âme” can be used figuratively of the living, to imply “he has no soul” – and replaces the blandness of “a dead man among the dead” with something more memorable though, of course, altogether different.
Elsewhere this book is more faithful, and it transmits much of the authentic Baudelaire style – a cloyingly sweet, repellently decayed, hypnotic sublimity, like over-strong jasmine tea laced with something you distrust. Especially good are the versions of ‘La Géante’, the most open of Baudelaire’s half-sexual fantasies about giant maternal women; and of ‘Correspondances’, one of the master’s few stand-alone masterpieces:
Like blue extended husky echoes from away
Far off, which cloud together in the inner or
The outer space of constellations in a mirror,
Shimmery perfumes, colours, sounds, all shift and sway.
This is an enjoyable short book, and not a bad introduction to the French 19th-century sonnet. As such, Peter Jay’s excellent translation of Gérard de Nerval’s 1854 sequence Les Chimères (Anvil, 1984) would make a useful supplement.
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