Leconte De Lisle

THE constellation of contemporary French poets has recently lost one of its most brilliant stars. Compared with the great luminaries of the Romantic time, this one can hardly be considered as of the first magnitude ; and during the last few years, its light, though still constant and clear, had lost something of its glow in coming, as it seemed, from a region of vast spaces and lucid atmosphere, but too distant and too cold to keep up life in a human heart. Our generation, however, saw the fullness and steadiness of its earlier glory, and may well pause for a moment over the memory of what is now extinguished forever.

None of the current easy varieties of materialism help one much in an attempt to account for the very rare and peculiar qualities of the poetry of Leconte de Lisle, for, so far as can be seen, the ascertainable external facts of his life have here very little significance; if any. Some future biographer may perhaps discover in the ancestry of the poet or among the influences of his intellectual training causes, other than are now known, which may tend more fully to explain the singular discrepancy that appears to lie between his origin and his subsequent literary career. For Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle was born in the Ile Bourbon, under the burning skies and in the midst of the tropical splendors which Bernardin de Saint-Pierre has forever associated in our minds with the group of French possessions in the Indian Ocean. After spending some years on his native island, he went to Paris at the time when the Romantic school, flushed with the elation of success, was in its heyday, the austerest critics scarcely venturing to whisper that such a triumph must some day come to an end. Surely, it might have been predicted, this was enough to fill a young artist’s heart with all the exuberance of passion, and thus decide his career as a lyrical poet. But from the outset he broke with the reigning literary mode of the day. Standing somewhat haughtily aloof from the throng of poets and poetasters who worshiped at the feet of Hugo, he soon struck out into a narrow path of his own. followed in time by a small band, and insisted on restricting the scope of poetry in a manner strongly contrasting with the cloudy theories then in vogue among the lesser Romanticists, so admirably caricatured in the Lettres de Dupuis et Cotonet of Alfred de Musset. This, so far from being the youthful turbulence of a mere frondeur of letters, was the resolve of one who, even at that early age, had determined on the ideal to which, with steady purpose, he continued to cling during his whole life. Age modified his opinions only in such a way as to make them still more reactionary. When the time came, many years later, for clearly defining his position before the French Academy as the successor of Hugo, his address showed that he still combated some of the most important principles that had been the war-cry of the generation of 1830. For the Romanticists every pulse of human feeling or emotion had poetical value; passion, in their eyes, was sacred, its very fullness and spontaneity, wherever it might occur, making of it preëminently the subject of poetical expression. As with matter, so with form. Among the many metrical inventions of the time, some are no doubt known to the reader as masterpieces of ingenuity,—I had almost said of eccentric ingenuity. With Leconte de Lisle, passion, especially the commonplace passion of the ordinary mortal, is utterly irreconcilable with the mood of the poet who rightly understands his ideal function. The Sturm und Drang period of a man’s life is not the time of his best work. The true artist is impersonal, impassive ; the wreck of a nation, a system, or a human heart may disturb the worldling, but the poet stands far above such accidents of place and time, contemplating them with immovable serenity as the phenomena of inevitable fate. In his “ central calm” he practices the lesson taught him by the spectacle of inexorable nature.

“ Pour qui sait pénétrer, Nature, dans tes voies,
L’illusion t’enserre et ta surface ment;
An fond de tes fureurs, comme au fond de tes joies,
Ta force est sans ivresse et sans emportement.
“ Tel parmi les sanglots, les rires et les haines,
Heureux qui porte en soi, d’indifférence empli,
Un impassible cæur sourd aux rumeurs humaines,
Un gouffre inviolé de silence et d’oubli! ”

(La Ravine Saint-Gilles.)

Man must suffer, but let him, especially if he be a poet, bear his pain in silence. It is vulgar and immodest to drag one’s heart, as a showman leads his chained beast, before the gaping crowd of the curious (Les Montreurs). And why weep when neither tears nor rage can avail us anything?

“ La vie est ainsi faite, il nous la faut subir.
Le faible souffre et pleure, et l’insensé s’irrite;
Mais le plus sage en rit, sachant qu’il doit mourir.
Rentre au tombeau muet où l’homme enfin
Et là, sans nul souci de la terra et du ciel,
Repose, ô malbeureux, pour le temps éternel! ”


There is, however, very little of the laughter of perfect wisdom in the poetry of Leconte de Lisle. These opinions quickened his contempt for Lamartine and Musset; for any poet, in short, in whose work the agony of the soul seeks relief through wailing or in gnashing of teeth. A still more paradoxical result of this æsthetic postulate is the exclusion from poetry of the passion of love, which comes under the general ban. The ordinary reader, with a very pardonable vicarious, if indiscreet interest in a poet’s affections, must make up his mind to disappointment, if he expects to be thrilled with such heartrending cries as La Nuit de Mai or To Mary in Heaven. That is not the note of love on the relatively few occasions when Leconte de Lisle condescends to sing of so unpoetic a subject. He never tells us clearly what joy or despair it may have brought into his own life. Les Roses d’Ispahan, Le Colibri, Le Manchy, Le Frais Matin Dorait, in spite of all their beauty, are almost impersonal. We do not pass through them to the inner shrine of the poet’s heart.1 Such a singularity would certainly seem whimsical, if the practice of reserve had not been founded on a conviction which was subsequently formulated in a dogma. The address to the French Academy, above-mentioned, distinctly states the grounds on which the poet based this article of his credo. Here there is no need to follow him, for he is Athanasius against the world. “ On pent ne pas aimer la lyre larmoyante, mais toute belle âme doit aimer la lyre d’amour.” However, he is a faint-hearted poet who does not at times beg a question of first principles, boldly postulate his theory, and then carry it into application. In the vast majority of cases, the less he gives us of Kunst-Theorie, as the too prolific German calls it, the better for us. But the verification of a principle (which is a method not sacred to science alone) is what we demand in art; and if Leconte de Lisle has failed to satisfy one natural craving in his readers, he was, at all events, consistent in the practice of his art as he understood it. A great triumph it would be for the quidnuncs of literature should his manuscripts some day reveal that he too had unpacked his heart with the words of a love-lyric.

Many readers may feel still less inclined to overlook a further deliberate omission from poetry of themes which, since the time of Burns in Great Britain and Béranger in France, most of us have grown to look on as the essence of some of the best that the last hundred years have produced; I mean the humble domestic relations, and the sufferings of the poor and needy. But if, in accordance with the demands of a rigorous æsthetic, the art of poetry, strictly understood, must confine itself within a sort of aristocratic pale, reserving its energy for the high expression of the few ideas and feelings that literally deserve the name of noble, all that can in justice be exacted of the poet is that he be true to himself. Here again the discussion of ultimate principles must be waived. Leconte de Lisle is in this respect simply an anti-Wordsworthian ; and they who on this account decline to read him expose their limitations no less clearly than he proclaimed his, — probably with less plausibility in argument. What Leconte de Lisle thought of Béranger may or may not matter. M. Brunetière, the most emphatic of contemporary critics, wonders that Béranger can be called a poet at all. But when an uncompromising theory forces us to include in our contempt the graceful and touching poetry of François Coppée, who got himself into the black books of the greater poet by writing much about humble folk and turning to the homely side of life for many of his subjects, we can assuredly feel justified in believing that what thousands of human hearts, both in France and out of it, have felt to be true and beautiful will always be poetry, whether Leconte de Lisle approved of it or not. And there are not wanting those who will say that this applies to Béranger as well.

This is the reason why Leconte de Lisle so rarely strikes one as being possessed by his subject with the divine madness described in Ion. His poems have often been compared to the motionless white figures of a sculpture gallery ; and the pet phrase splendeur marmoréenne has become so hackneyed with his French critics that one almost shrinks from quoting it. To change slightly the figure used by Gautier, instead of being, as in the superb comparison of Hugo’s Mazeppa, bound hand and foot on his Pegasus, he controls him firmly, and guides him to serene heights far above the murmur and wrangling of men. Whatever may be thought about these restrictions in so far as they affect poetry, there is much that is morally inspiring in the robustness and manly dignity they imply. It is refreshing to find that incontestably the greatest poet of France since the day of Hugo resolutely set his face against the prevailing ego-worship, which so easily degenerates into sensualism. Towards the sensitif-impulsif (in the trick phrase of our modern neuropsychologists2), for whom even the-law courts are beginning to show a flabby sort of pity, such a nature can feel nothing but lofty scorn. And though such reserve may seem, as has been freely admitted, to confine poetic energy within bounds where the great mass of men, and possibly a greater number of women, can never follow it with whole-heartedness ; though it may in time noticeably chill the poet’s feeling for struggling humanity ; yet the manly resolution, free from the slightest taint of affectation, with which this purpose was carried out must command our respect, — nay, our veneration. Since his death we have learnt that there never was any dividing line between the artistic work and the most intimate private life of Leconte de Lisle. To him who will read the poetry itself and between its lines, it must be evident that he is in presence of a character which, through sturdy resisting of temptation, through courage and selfcontrol, reached a moral level not too often exemplified in the lives of great creative artists at any time, and, unfortunately, it must be added, not often among such men in France during the last two generations.

It is remarkable indeed that this philosophical attitude should be taken by a Creole brought up in the tropics. What the Creole nature is, we in America have been fully taught by Mr. Cable and Mr. Lafcadio Hearn. But in Leconte de Lisle there are no violent changes of mood from listless, voluptuous apathy to ungovernable passion. A recent writer in the Revue Bleue seems inclined to trace here the influence of the Norman origin of the poet’s family, as well as of the Voltairean training of his father, to both of which something may be attributed without granting that they give an adequate explanation of a curious psychological puzzle. The gorgeousness of the southern climate and scenery, however, could hardly fail to leave its mark on even the most self - repressed poet, and one finds poem after poem glowing with warmth and color, such as the southern hemisphere alone can inspire. To quote with fairness from any of these (Midi, La Forêt Vierge, Les Eléphants, La Fontaine aux Lianes, etc.) would be difficult; besides, the best of them, Midi and Les Eléphants, have found their way into the anthologies, and have almost sunk to the level of drawing-room pieces. These two, with a study of night and cold above the mountain tops, called Le Sommeil du Condor, represent to many readers all the work of Leconte de Lisle. Of all these poems, an intimate knowledge of southern nature, minutely because lovingly observed, is the dominant mark. From the humming-bird to the elephant, from the frailest flower to the great tree of the jungle, everything between earth and sky hears its testimony to the loving devotion of the poet to the beauties of his native island. It is worth while to contrast with such work as this, which bears every sign of genuine interest and feeling, a short study in snow and ice (Le Paysage Polaire), of which the outlines are so vague and general that the material may easily have been obtained from a visit to the white bears’ cave in the Jardin des Plantes, or out of the pages of M. Elisée Reclus. Still, with all his love for the beauty of nature, Leconte de Lisle does not allow it long to mollify his soul. Such stanzas as the following lovely ones from Le Bernica are extremely rare in his poems :

“ Ce sont des chœurs soudains, des chansons infinies,
Un long gazouillement d’appels joyeux mêlé
Ou des plaintes d’amour à des rires unies;
Et si douces, pourtant, flottent ces harmonies,
Que le repos de fair n’en est jamais troublé.
“ Mais l’âme s’en pénètre ; elle se plonge entière,
Dans l’heureuse beauté de ce monde charmant;
Elle se sent oiseau, flour, eau vive et lumière ;
Elle revêt ta robe, Ô pureté première,
Et se repose en Dieu silencieusement.”

But the poet does not often fall into what Ruskin has called the pathetic fallacy, the fallacy that appeals to us of weaker mould when it is found in the perfect verses of Le Vallon, or in the star-song of Musset. “ La nature est là, qui t’invite et qui t’aime,” says Lamartine. No, a thousand times no, is the stern answer. Science has taken the soul out of Nature. She is blind, deaf, dumb. Everything, from the atom to the great cyclic changes of the heavens, is the slave of inexorable and inexplicable law. And as tears and rage are equally useless and puerile, so the thought of Nature as the great consoler is the supreme illusion, inherited by us from the ages of anthropomorphic faith. Her sole boon to self-torturing man is the veil she draws over the eyes that close in death.

“ Oui! le mal éternel est dans sa plénitude !
L’air du siècle est mauvais aux esprits ulcérés,
Salut, oubli du monde et de la multitude !
Reprends-nous, Ô Nature, entre tes bras sacrés!
“ Soupirs majestueux des ondes apaisées,
Murmurez plus profonds en nos cæurs soucieux !
Répandez, ô forêts, vos urnes de rosées !
Ruisselle en nous, silence étincelant des cieux!
“ Consolez-nous enfin des espérances vaines :
La route infructueuse ablessé nos pieds nuds.
Du sommet des grands caps, loin des rumeurs humaines,
O vents ! emportez-nous vers les Dieux inconnus.
Mais si rien ne répond dans l’immense étendue,
Que le stérile écho de l’éternel désir,
Adieu, déserts, où l’âme ouvre une aile éperdue,
Adieu, songe sublime, impossible à saisir !
“ Et toi, divine Mort, où tout rentre et s’efface,
Accueille tes enfants dans ton sein étoilé,
Affranchis-nous du temps, du nombre et de
Et rends-nous le repos que la vie a troublé ! ”

(Dies Iræ.)

With these, from one point of view, rather vital omissions, the range of poetical sympathy and of subjects admissible for poetic treatment still remains comprehensive enough. In these Poèmes — for only a few of them go by the lighter name of poésies — we find a great variety of topics: mythology, religion, history, legends, tales, philosophy, beauty abstract and concrete, nature, man. The compression of so much material into the three dainty volumes of a Lemerre edition is in itself a sign of consummate literary skill. Each of these subjects is grasped and unfolded with the easy strength of the master who does not shrink from the toil of learning to control both his themes and himself. There is no groping about in the vagueness of incoherent thought that has not been given time to clear itself of mist. The definite influence of Leconte de Lisle on the poets of his time may still be a matter of discussion ; but in this respect he remains free from the formidable charge which Mr. William Watson — with some justice, be it said — recently brought against Shelley. No nebulous poet shall say that his own style was formed on the model of so lucid a master. And nothing, except perhaps a natural turn for clear thinking, contributes so much to this result as study and mature reflection. The subjects in which these characteristics are most pronounced are mythology and classical story. In the former, the reader is made to pass, with apparently the same facility, from the tangled legends of India to the runes of the north, and even to subjects still further outside the range of ordinary knowledge. It must be said that the most patient of readers has some ground for finding a good many of these compositions just a trifle heavy, notwithstanding the perfection of their form. Such familiarity as the poet possesses with the details of Vedic lore and the sagas is seldom met with except among specialists ; and one forms the unfortunate suspicion that these poems were not written at white heat. Besides, the bizarre appearance of such names as Çunacépa, Kenwarc’h, Baghavat, and so forth, is far from reassuring. Whether these things are in themselves unsuited to French or to any poetry, it is hardly worth while to inquire here; but one can, at all events, take comfort in a quotation from Gautier : “ Through some rift or other, the serene thought of the poet always appears, commanding his work like a white Himalayan peak whose eternal and spotless snow can never be thawed by any sun, not even by that of India.”

It is different when one turns to the superb succession, in Poèmes Antiques, of odes and other verses on the mythology, history, and legends of Greece and Rome. This is, for the majority of competent readers, at least, much firmer and less debatable ground. Here too, interpreting the poet’s feelings through one’s own, one becomes convinced that Leconte de Lisle was all a-quiver with emotion at the very thought of the glory of ancient Greece. Where in any of his poems on such uncongenial subjects as Çurya or Viswamitra, does one come upon verses of such ample movement and faultless rhythm as in Klytie, Le Dernier Dieu, or the following stanzas from Hypatie ?

“ O vierge, qui, d’un pan de ta robe pieuse,
Couvris la tombe auguste où s’endormaient tes Dieux,
De leur culte éclipsé prêtresse harmonieuse,
Chaste et dernier rayon détaché de leurs cieux!
“ Je t’aime et te salue, ô vierge magnanime!
Quand l’orage ébranla le monde paternel,
Tu suivis dans l’exil cet Œdipe sublime,
Et tu l’enveloppas d’un amour éternel.
“ Debout, dans ta pâleur, sous les sacrés portiques
Que des peuples ingrats abandonnait l’essaim,
Pythonisse enchaînée aux trépieds prophétiques,
Les Immortels trahis palpitaient dans ton sein.
“ Tu les voyais passer dans la nue enflammée !
De science et d’amour ils t’abreuvaient encor;
Et la terre écoutait, de ton rêve charmée,
Chanter l’abeille attique entre tes lèvres d’or.”

Yes, when it comes to the final test, there is none better than this. If the reader’s pulses thrill and his voice grows husky, depend upon it the words have fallen throbbing from the poet’s pen. A Frenchman trained in the great literary traditions of his race finds it incomprehensible that such verses as those just quoted should ever pass for anything less than the most magnificent poetry. By some English critics, they, or others very like them, have been considered as dangerously near to that eloquence which is the bane of poetry.3 A still greater difficulty is that certain of our latter-day judges, not altogether ignorant in these matters, who sincerely believe that “the back of the Alexandrine has been broken” once for all, remain quite unresponsive, or even hostile, declaring that the fault lies with the poet, and not in themselves. The fallacy is too obvious to need refutation. Above all, let us, in such disputable questions, keep our words of contempt for the incompetent and insincere ; there are enough of these, at any rate, to give occupation to all the critics in the world, and that is saying a great deal. A brilliant writer, whose sympathies in literature have too strongly biased his opinions, exclaims, “ Oh, the vile old professor of rhetoric ! ” Poor professor of rhetoric! his is too often a hard lot, but in this case, fortunately, the shot is nowhere near the mark. It is regrettable indeed that such words should ever make their way out of a brasserie d’étudiants.

The reason of the poet’s love for Greece and her mythology is not far to seek. He found there, like so many of his kind, the types of ideal beauty, his one undying passion. His interest in the thousand and one strange gods of the East, the mystical speculations of Brahminism and Buddhism, and the bold legends of the north was possibly acquired ; but the disappearance of truth, and hence of beauty, from the religious fables of Greece leaves him, because of his want of faith in our own time, in inconsolable despair (Le Dernier Dieu). Philosophy and science have traveled a long way since Schiller comforted his soul after having written Die Götter Griechenlands ; and Leconte de Lisle was not the man to dupe himself with the empty words of Musset’s L’Espoir en Dieu. The wounds of reason, we have been told by a high authority,4 can be healed only by reason. Well, in the Babel of metaphysical system-building, who can say, as one who knows, that reason is doing its work ? No wonder that the Middle Ages found no favor in this poet’s eyes. To the heart of the Romanticist they appealed by the evident sincerity of their simple faith ; to his artistic sense, by their pageantry. Leconte de Lisle saw only their dark side, and in a poem entitled Les Siècles Maudits,

“ Hideux siècles de foi, de lèpre et de famine,”

he leaves no doubt whatever as to his feelings. It would have been interesting to hear him discourse on the Inferno.

Far too much has been made of his detachment from the civilization of his time, and the interests bound up with it. It is perfectly true that, for the most part, he lived in the past, keeping his ideals behind rather than in front of him, and looking on all ages since the golden days of Greece as times of barbarism or of decadence. Still, the two splendid poems of L’Italie and Le Sacre de Paris bring out all his French patriotism, and vindicate him from the common charge of indifference. Well may he say to Hypatia, —

“ Dors ! 1‘impure laideur est la reins du monde,
Et nous avons perdu le chemin de Paros ! ”

and yet the fortunes of his own country, as well as of the neighbor who ought to be her natural ally, can stir a responsive chord in him.

To us, accustomed as we are to see new fads change the spelling and pronunciation of classical words about once in ten years, the quaint inventions of the Poèmes Antiques (Khiron, Klytie, etc.) come with less of a shock than to the readers of thirty years ago. These touches of pedantry, or something very near akin to it, provoked a good deal of discussion in those days. Gustave Planche undertook to teach Leconte de Lisle the correct French equivalent for κνημíς, but for once in his life, at least, met his match. It must have been no small triumph to wring even a grumbling apology from so ungracious a critic. One can understand why Sainte-Beuve could actually so far forget his caution as to call Planche a cuistre.

The various attempts of the great world-religions to explain the relations of the Maker to the universe find, as was said, their place in these poems. In most cases, especially with the religions of the far East, the treatment is generous, or, as Mr. Dowden says, cosmopolitan ; for there is not much in these beliefs to rouse the spirit of opposition always latent in a man of early Voltairean training. Oriental creeds have hitherto had too little direct influence on Europe to be either hated or dreaded. With the God of the Old Testament and the message of Christianity it fares much worse ; these two subjects lie outside the boundaries of the poet’s toleration. And yet the former inspired the poet’s masterpiece. Different moods or temperaments may find their enjoyment in this poem or in that. Midi, for instance, fills the soul with restfulness through its assurances of ultimate peace. Hypatie echoes our loving regret for the loss of ideal beauty in the world. Dies Iræ, the poem of disillusion, represents the hopelessness of all things, — le mal du siècle, in short. But still deeper lie the questions, the eternally insoluble problems, of the existence of evil and the hardness of fate, taken up in a new reading of the story of Cain, — the poem of Qaïn, first of the Poèmes Barbares.5 Thogorma, a seer of the Israelites during the Assyrian captivity, has the following vision : Beyond the mountains, in the far-off red of sunset, he beholds the iron walls of the city of Hénokhia, built by Cain’s mighty brood. While its teeming life is asleep, a mysterious horseman is seen, in the stillness of the night, coming out of the darkness to hurl the curse of Javeh against the city of rebellion and pride, the dwelling of the accursed, and against Cain himself. Then the old Titan, who has slumbered for a thousand years on the topmost point of its battlements, raises himself slowly to answer the accuser in the presence of all his descendants, who are gathered around. Defeated, though undismayed, he gives back defiance for curses, charging the Maker with the sin of Eden and the first bloodshed. Not on man, not on Cain, rests the burden of wrong : it falls on the unjust origin of all.

“ Ai-je dit à l’argile inerte: Souffre et pleure !
Auprès de la défense ai-je mis le désir,
L’ardent attrait d’un bien impossible à saisir,
Et le songe immortel dans le néant de l’heure?
Ai-je dit de vonloir et puni d’obéir ?
“ O misère! Ai-je dit à l’implacable Maître,
Au Jaloux, tourmenteur du monde et des vivants,
Qui gronde dans la foudre et chevauche les vents,
La vie assurément est bonne, je veux naître !
Que m’importait la vie au prix où tu la vends? ”

Cain will not bow the knee in submission to Him who made Abel gentle, and the first murderer violent. In his Promethean anger he becomes the avenger of mankind by insisting on the eternal why. The answer will come with the consummation of all things, and then will be asserted the dignity of man.

“ Et ce sera mon jour ! Et, d’étoile en étoile,
Le bienheureux Eden longuement regretté
Verra renaître Abel sur mon cæur abrité ;
Et toi, mort et cousu sous la funèbre toile,
Tu t’anéantiras dans ta stérilité.”

Then comes the Flood. Through its mists Thogorma the Seer, pale with affright, sees the great form of Cain advancing slowly, amidst the death that lies around, towards the ark looming big in the darkness. Leconte de Lisle could not, like Shelley, end his poem with the fairy vision of the statelier Eden come back to men; nor could his Cain echo the last verse of Omar Khayyám’s wellknown stanza : —

“ O Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make
Aud ev’n with Paradise devise the Snake,
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d — Man’s forgiveness give —and take! ”

Blasphemy ? Yes, a good deal of the finest poetry in the world is blasphemous. Some have been known to maintain that all rebellion against the established order of things, human or divine, implies blasphemy. How much one can stand of it is generally a question of the direction it takes; and in any direction, largely a question of degree. It needs no great penetration to infer from this that Le Nazaréen, in the same volume, was not written with a view to the Sunday school.

Obviously, therefore, the conclusion lies ill proud pessimism, for the poet is too self-respecting to follow in the cynic’s way. Austere, uncompromising, he has dared to look on the work of creation, and he finds that it is not good. He is far too consistent a philosopher to buoy himself up with vague hopes, and still less disposed to console his readers with promises of such a vulgar and earthly sort as Sully Prudhomme gives to his hero, Faustus, in the very unequal poem of Le Bonheur. Though one may admit, in deference to Mr. Dowden, that Leconte de Lisle here and there (as in Qaïn, for example) seems to see dimly, “ for the race of men ... a far-off life towards which it advances,” there is nothing in this that is fundamentally irreconcilable with the assertion that, in the main, despair is his philosophical note. It seems juster to take such exceptional passages as momentary concessions to the sentiment of mysticism, born of faint desire and hope, which never quite dies out in the hardiest doubter, especially if he be a poet. For one such expression, a score — complete poems, indeed — are to be found in the strain of these stanzas from La Dernière Vision : —

“ Et d’heure en heure aussi, vous vous engloutirez,
O tourbillonnements d’étoiles éperdues,
Dans l’incommensurable effroi des étendues,
Dans les gouffres muets et noirs des cieux sacrés!
“ Et ce sera la Nuit aveugle, la grande Ombre,
Informe, dans son vide et sa stérilité,
L’abîme pacifique où gît la vanité
De ce qui fut le temps et l’espace et le nombre.”

A word or two must finally be added concerning the more strictly literary qualities of the poet, whose thought has hitherto been mainly discussed in this paper. His learning and scholarship must be apparent enough already. No one has ever ventured a whisper against their thoroughness, as has been more than once the case with the “ phenomenal erudition ” of Hugo. Indeed, the display of mere book-learning in the first division of L’Ane, for instance, is appalling to any one who does not stop to ask himself the question, how could one small head carry all that this man knew ? Hugo once privately admitted to Leconte de Lisle that in mature life he never read ; his time was too fully occupied with writing. The latter, on the contrary, like Milton, with whom he has, by the bye, several points of affinity, was a prodigious reader, with that rarest of gifts, an orderly mind; the honor of being the most learned of the French poets of our time he divides with his distinguished contemporary, M. Sully Prudhomme. The exactness of scholarship which seems to tinge the Poèmes Antiques with affectation finds its right place in admirable translations of Æschylus and Lucretius, among the very first of their kind. It would require a separate study to do anything like justice to the Miltonic stateliness of diction, the fidelity and vigor in natural description, and the finished metrical beauty of the poems of Leconte de Lisle. I will not attempt to guess what share of those qualities he owed to the laboriousness for which all great French artists are remarkable, what share to natural genius. Not every country possesses poets who undertake the translation of De Rerum Naturâ pour se former la main, or, like Gautier, read daily a page of the dictionary, in order to learn the resources of the language in which they write. This poet not only respected, but reasserted the traditions of the high caste to which he felt Himself to belong. In its eyes it was a caste, and the first duty of its members was to fulfill the task imposed on them by its exclusive mistress.

“ Fuis toujours l’æil impur, et la main du profane
Lumière de l’âme, ô Beauté ! ”

Hence the restrictions he laid on his own verse, which preserves a purity of form much despised by the Décadents. At the same time he freely admitted the best metrical changes introduced under the Romantic movement. Most of his poems being short, the charge of monotony falls to the ground, for no one feels constrained to read them all at one sitting. When taken in the right spirit, from time to time, they impress a serious reader with their solemn and sustained splendor.

Leconte de Lisle never was, and cannot become a popular poet, in the usual sense of the term. His aspirations are too high, his method is too perfect, to find favor in the daily market-place of literature. They who believe that poetry is not a matter of momentary sentiment, still less a dilettante or finicking pursuit, but a serious art, will continue to revere the memory of one who, after working his solitary way through suffering to sublime peace, lived constantly in the serene radiance of his ideals, and left his thoughts in some of the noblest poems of our time.

Paul T. Lafleur.

  1. As for the love-songs in Poèmes Antiques which go by the name of Etudes Latines, and the Chansons Ecossaises, these are but exquisitely finished metrical essays in imitation of classical or other models.
  2. What this last word means it might be a puzzle to explain. It comes from a well-known scientific periodical.
  3. In such cases, one of the most important conditions for the enjoyment of poetry in a foreign tongue is too often overlooked, namely, the value of words merely as sounds. Ever since hearing Matthew Arnold quote a few words from Sainte-Beuve, I have not wondered that a critic with a hopelessly English accent and intonation was never so carried away by the music of Hugo’s verse as, for a moment at least, to forget what looked like “ charlatanism ” in his poetry. Naturally, such limitations are rarely perceived in one’s self, and still more rarely acknowledged, however readily they are detected in others.
  4. Edward Caird, The Philosophy of Kant.
  5. An admirable discourse by Mr. Stopford Brooke on Byron’s Cain, heard by the present writer some years ago, suggested a good many parallels that might be drawn between these two poems. The attractive but difficult subject of possible indebtedness on the part of LeConte de Lisle is, however, too wide to be taken up here. It is significant that the theme of Cain has inspired three of the greatest poets of the century, —Byron, Hugo, Leconte de Lisle. Hugo, of course, treats it from a less heterodox point of view than the other two.