[ i can find no credit for this photograph of Prudhomme ]
No one reads Sully Prudhomme anymore, not even in France, I suppose, unless forced to do so at school, and then with the same ill-will that American teenagers bring to Longfellow or E. A. Robinson. It isn't hard to see why. His is not a fashionable poetics, nowadays seeming stilted and quaint in an unhappy way that we might call "didactic" or "moralizing." And yet, back in 1901, Prudhomme won the first-ever Nobel Prize in Literature, capping a career as a very popular poet and intellectual, popular even among the young. He was at the center of mainstream culture and “establishment poetry” in late-19th century, bourgeois Europe, whereas the Decadent and Symbolist poets we remember today were decidedly “fringe,” in comparison. No one reads Sully Prudhomme anymore, but everyone did, once.
But --- if we can manage to look a little askew around the corners of what we expect him to be --- there is still some interesting poetry in him, after all. Prudhomme is a poet of careful, insightful thought in graceful language under the control of craft that often enough rises to be called art. Perhaps he will never replace Mallarmé or even Paul Valéry as anyone's favorite turn-of-the-century poet, but he still deserves some attention, at least
to be remembered, now and then.
to be remembered, now and then.
I won't belabor these two poems, after all pretty short ones, with exegesis. (They aren't his most popular or best, simply the two that caught my fancy.) But in “The Ideal” Prudhomme quietly manages a very impressive bit of ideological heavy-lifting. Applying an awareness of modern cosmology --- he knows that some stars are so distant that their light hasn't yet reached the earth, billions of years after the universe came into existence --- he switches his attitude toward the ancient philosophical notion of “the Ideal” from a metaphysical plane to locate it henceforth in spatial imagination, a matter of inconceivably vast, but not infinite, distances in a physical cosmos.
“The Cliff” is another poem that re-orients traditional verities and is in harmony with the changing understanding of human nature in Prudhomme's day. It is not, of course, the ocean that modulates its message to suit the hearer, but rather each human subjectivity that perceives a different world, filtered through a shifting self made of accumulated experience, conscience, and response.
But, the poems ….
L’Idéal / The Ideal
La lune est grande, le ciel clair
Et plein d’astres, la terre est blême,
Et l’âme du monde est dans l’air.
Je rêve à l’étoile suprême,
The moon is broad, the sky
Clear and rich with lights, and air
The world's soul over pale earth.
I dream of that farthest star,
À celle qu’on n’aperçoit pas,
Mais dont la lumière voyage
Et doit venir jusqu’ici-bas
Enchanter les yeux d’un autre âge.
Which no one has ever yet seen,
But whose light is long on its way
And will at last arrive here
To charm the eyes of a later day.
Quand luira cette étoile, un jour,
La plus belle et la plus lointaine,
Dites-lui qu’elle eut mon amour,
Ô derniers de la race humaine!
You, then, last of the human race,
When that star appears above,
The fairest and most far,
Tell her of me, that she had my love.
La Falaise / The Cliff
Deux hommes sont montés sur la haute falaise;
Ils ont fermé les yeux pour écouter la mer:
« J'entends le paradis pousser des clameurs d'aise.
Et moi j'entends gémir les foules de l'enfer.»
Two men labored up a high cliff's steep rise
and closed their eyes to hear the ocean swell.
“I hear sighs of pleasure from paradise.”
“I hear throngs of the damned, shrieking in hell.”
Alors, épouvantés des songes de l'ouïe,
Ils ont rouvert les yeux sous le même soleil.
L'Océan sait parler, selon l'âme et la vie,
Aux hommes différents avec un bruit pareil.
Frightened by such vagaries of hearing, again
They look and find the same sun overhead.
---The Ocean speaks in one voice to different men,
but fits its sense to match the lives they've led.