Musical glimpses – Hugo, Stevens, Baudelaire

I stumbled on this bit of Victor Hugo in a book on nineteenth century French poetry[1]:

Sara, belle d’indolence
……….Se balance
Dans un hamac, au-dessus
Du bassin d’une fontaine
……….Toute pleine
D’eau puisée à l’Ilyssus ;

Et la frêle escarpolette
……….Se reflète
Dans le transparent miroir
Avec la baigneuse blanche
……….Qui se penche,
Qui se penche pour se voir …

My first thought was simply how lovely this is; it makes you wish English could dance in rhyme as easily as French can. My second was how like a lot of Wallace Stevens it is – the Wallace Stevens of “The Load of Sugar-Cane”, say:

The going of the glade-boat
Is like water flowing;

Like water flowing
Through the green saw-grass …

I think the feeling of something like Stevens’ use of repeated phrases, simultaneously echoing something just said and pushing the poem forward into something new came to me before I  reached the repetition of “Qui se penche”; I think Hugo’s rhymes themselves were creating a similar effect, or, to put it the other way round, I find myself wondering if Stevens developed his art of repetitions partly as a way of recreating in English the kind of dance of sound that the French can do so easily with rhyme alone. Of course there are other factors too, like the shortness of line shared by this poem of Hugo’s and the kind of poem from Harmonium that I’m thinking of.

My third thought was that I should read the whole poem, which is called “Sara la baigneuse”. I was disappointed when I read it on the net, as you can do here. It’s all pleasant enough in its musical, voyeuristic way, but for my taste goes on far too long and loses its initial imaginative force both by sheer length and by its explicitness. That made me think of something Baudelaire said about the sonnet:

Parce que la forme est contraignante, l’idée jaillit plus intense … Avez-vous observé qu’un morceau de ciel, aperçu par un soupirail, ou entre deux cheminées, deux rochers, ou par une arcade, etc., donnait une idée plus profonde de l’infini que le grand panorama vu du haut d’une montagne ?

(The restrictiveness of the form means that the idea bursts forth with greater intensity … Have you noticed how a bit of sky glimpsed through a basement window, between two chimneys or through an arcade etc gives a deeper idea of infinity than the wide panorama seen from the height of a mountain?)

One of the wonders of so many of the very short, oblique poems in Harmonium is how intensely they haunt you with images and impressions they only let you see out of the corner of your eye and never allow to dissipate by resolving themselves into sense.

The opening of Hugo’s poem also reminded me strongly of Baudelaire’s wonderful, dense and sensuous “Le serpent qui danse” which starts “Que j’aime voir, chère indolente” and later has the phrase “Belle d’abandon”. You can read it here in French and in several different English translations.

[1] Pictorialist Poetics: Poetry and the Visual Arts in Nineteenth-Century France, by David Scott



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