Between Virtue and Innocence: In Defence of Prose Poetry

By | 1 February 2001

Alighting upon the comparison of an exchange of letters, a contemporary reader of this passage, itself a fragment among many published in Schlegel’s journal the Athenäum would have been reminded of Goethe’s other highly influential novel, Young Werthers Suffering (Die Leiden des jungen Werther), which is an epistolary novel, not unusual for the eighteenth century (Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses is another notable example) except that the protagonist, being a painter, tends to steer the reader toward a visual recognition of even the most abstract emotions which digress and rise out of the material descriptions; it is an affect confirmed by comments such as ‘What I recently said to you about painting, is just as pertinent to the written arts’ (was ich dir neulich von der maleri sagte, gilt gewiß auch von der Dichtkunst), which then invites the reader to make the reverse inversion. A few lines on from this, Werther describes an impression which occurred to him on that day ‘Ich habe heute eine Szene gehabt,’ a phrase which, I think cannot be aptly translated — ‘Today a scene occurred to me’ rings absurd. ‘For what should poetry be, scene and idyll?’ (doch was soll Dichtung, Szene und Idyll?) he asks, foregrounding the instantaneous, spatial nature and therefore pictorial nature of what he wishes to convey; impressions embossed (gebosselt) upon his mind. 1

Werther was a dreamer whose perceptions of the world were greater than what the world held up to him; it was Novalis who capitalised on the notion that only the fragment could reflect the intensity of imaginative and oneiric experience, since it was a form of precise and brief containment, but it was also more than this. A dream’s imperviousness to accurate representation was for the early Novalis in particular the fundamental allegory of Nature’s unmasterable mystery which yet disclosed truthful snippets of intensities as assurances of a suprasensory energy. The almost violent brevity of the fragment could suggest an inversely greater amount of material which the medium of words in themselves signified poorly, but which needed signification for this poetic, numinous, unreal invocation to occur. Because it did not have the same inheritance of form as verse, the fragment could, feasibly, move freely across the neighbouring arts of painting and music, borrowing from each. To move across such affective regions was to mimic the extratemporal powers of dream-states for which recollection and anticipation, past and future were subsumed into the one moment, a spatial unified core. ‘Downward turn I to the hallowed, ineffable and beriddled night. Remote lies the world sunken in a deep grave wasted and alone is its soul,’ wrote Novalis in Hymns to the Night (Hymnen an die Nacht).2 Here his ambitions with the prose fragment are most clear. As a paean to solitary oneiric experience, about half of the poem was finally published as prose, modified from its original conception as lyric (mostly) free verse. Its coupling with traditional versification has the striking effect of accenting the way we are acclimatised to the fragmentariness of verse; with the prose, through habit of the form more than anything else, connections between disconnected abstractions are harder made.

With its references to light and the earth’s beneficence notwithstanding, the sombre, morbid tenor of this hymn cycle which did the most to feed the deathliness in the Novalis myth was a welcome release to several succeeding generations of Romantics, above all in France. Gérard de Nerval, was the first writer of note to have grasped and assimilated the part of Goethe’s legacy which lay in Novalis precocious experiments and the contributions of Friedrich Schlegel and his associated circle. Nerval, who at the age of nineteen published a fairly pedestrian translation of Goethe’s Faust, is revered for the short masterpiece Sylvie, one of those cases of isolated recognition within a generous output, much of high quality. Sylvie, whose ethereal perfection intimidated even the dauntless Genet, is a story conceived as a series of short passages each of which describes a specific scene in which the sensory details emerge as highly selective. The floating character of this narrative owes itself to the way Nerval confined himself to seemingly arbitrary associations drawn from distant recollections of a signification which is all but concealed. Agreement is close to unanimous that Sylvie, in its gentle evocative power, is among the best approximations in literature of dream that there is. Proust called it a ‘dream of a dream’. 3

Proust was a serious admirer of Nerval. Proust worked with tableau fiction on a grand scale in the novel he attempted before A la recherche du temps perdu, Jean Santeuil, a sequence of remarkably small chapters each recounting a small number of transactions or sensations. In his essay on Nerval he constantly refers to the signification of Sylvie in terms of tableaux. One of the chapters in Sylvie is entitled ‘Voyage à Cythère’, a literary tableau which sets up connections with the famous painting by Watteau of the same name. Here Nerval’s allusion to Watteau is telling, apposite to the unruffled, airy stillness of each prose tableau which surrounds it. Watteau’s paintings are typified by a timelessness, a kind of stasis in action; there is no progression, and the movements he depicts are without vectors; his figures remain agreeably still, eternally ready for what will never happen. Writing on Watteau Proust commented that each figure is ‘always frozen in a life of mist, a soul in love with light and colour.’ 4 What attracted Proust to Monet concerted attention to form which remains indiscernible and imprecise lured him to Nerval in his entranced fixation on scenes of an intimacy which yet remains impalpable, unreachable. Nerval in Sylvie wrote that Proust ‘strove laboriously to define himself to himself, to clarify obscure nuances, profound laws, the almost ungraspable impressions of the human soul.’ 5 The Romantic Agony is in embarking upon a quest which cannot be achieved. Sheer shortness of length and the whites of the page between each fragment, like innocent, non-ornate frames, attest to zones of aphasia, blindness and inarticulability; for Nerval, as it was for Watteau, the embarkation to or from (for the painting actually has two titles) Cythera will never be accomplished, it remains locked within the frame of the picture.

The bridge between Nerval’s later work and Baudelaire’s prose poems, the Le Spleen de Paris (1869) is Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit (1842), once again short sequences dedicated to a free-roving solitary subject, oscillating between testimony, observation, exaggeration and airy dream experience. Bertrand subtitled his suite of prose poems, ‘Fantasies in the manner of Rembrandt and Callot’ 6 the first a master of rich tenebroso, the second of the grotesque, best known for his graphic images of the commedia dell’arte in France at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In the dedication at the opening of his prose poems, Baudelaire confesses to emulating Bertrand while emphasising modern life. ‘Who has not’ Baudelaire asks, ‘during one’s more ambitious days (dans les jours d’ambition) dreamed of a miracle of poetic prose (une prose poétique), musical without rhythm or rhyme, and as supple and abrupt in its adaptation to the lyrical stirrings (mouvements) of the heart, to the amplitudes (ondulations) of reverie, to the flights of consciousness.’ 7 No less than Les Fleurs du mal merges beauty with horror in a harmonious lyric form, Baudelaire wanted to return the higher art of poetry to the street back to the mundanities implied in prose. In both cases he wanted to defile poetry without ever having to lose his love for it, which means to enjoy decay without ever having to relinquish beauty. The prose poem is not a nexus between poetry and prose, as if the two were reconciled, rather with the poetic prose fragment the poetised moment tends to remain in the world, whereas traditional poetry is a gesture of sublation. The Hegelian tradition sees poetry as the highest of the arts because it is the most disembodied and conceptual; prose poetry and fragments share some of these interests but celebrate the disadvantage of actively partaking in the other arts painting, music as opposed to perfecting them.

  1. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1775), Zürich 1986, 17—8.
  2. Novalis, Hymnen an die Nacht (1799—1800), Werke in Zwei Bäden, I: 109. Published after his death by Schlegel and Novalis’ brother Karl. Sources conflict as to the exact format they should have taken. See also Wm. Arcander O’Brien Novalis. Signs of Revolution Duke U.P. 1995, 256—71.
  3. Marcel Proust, ‘Gérard de Nerval’ (1907—8), Contre Sainte-Beuve, Paris 1971, 237.
  4. Proust, ‘Watteau’, Contre Sainte-Bauve, 667.
  5. Proust, ‘Nerval’, op. cit., 237.
  6. Aloysius Bertrand, Gaspard de la Nuit (1842) Paris 1980. See also Max Milner’s preface to this edition, 7—52, and the author’s preface (79) where the relation to the two-dimensional art is decisive: ‘yet here, besides fantasies in the manner of Rembrandt and Callot, studies after van Eyck, Lucas of Leydon, Albrecht Dürer, Peeter Neef, Breughel of Velours, Breughel of Hell, Van-Ostade, Gerard Dow, Salvator Rosa, Murillo, Fuseli and many other masters of different schools.’
  7. Charles Baudelaire, ‘À Arsène Houssaye’, preface to Le Spleen de Paris (1867), Oevres complètes, Paris 1984, 382.
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