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Meandering through la Belle-Époque.



Filled with foreboding vis-à-vis attempting to do for Covid-19 what Homer did for Troy, I decided to concentrate on painting…

PROMPTED BY JOHN Ashbery’s advice to avoid writing about experiences everyone goes through, such as the death of an elderly relative, and hearing through the grapevine that Alan Jenkins at the TLS was overwhelmed by virus poems back in March, I decided to avoid writing if possible, in order to dodge what we are all going through. It’s true to say that Ashbery would probably have warned against writing about anything – as his own poems exist in themselves, for the most part, and are not very often about something. Still, filled with foreboding vis-à-vis attempting to do for Covid-19 what Homer did for Troy, I decided to concentrate on painting, as I consider myself a ‘Sunday painter’, and enjoy dabbling in water-colour.

Seeking to analyse this urge, I noticed that I was pretty much averse to reading as well. I had planned to immerse myself in Thackeray’s History of Henry Esmond, followed by The Virginians, since I had been enjoying The Book of Snobs, and I love Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon…but…it was no good – I preferred Netflix. What was I after? I didn’t want to paint anything in particular. I was in need of a mindless activity, just to keep from dwelling on the subject to be avoided. For this reason, I began painting what I call my ‘pallets’. I should call them palettes, I suppose, but I’m referring to the small sheets of cartridge paper I use to test out brush marks and reduce the paint-load while executing a figurative sketch, and ‘palette’ suggests something oval, French and rather grand, with a hole for the thumb and a smock to go with it. So I’ll invoke poetic licence, and go on calling my cartridge test sheets ‘pallets’.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

Sheets covered with splodges bleeding into each other, random strokes, small manifestations of chaos. Initially I limited my allowance to one colour that I might add to any one pallet, in order to find something, to resolve…to resolve what? God knows. But to turn these pallets, which, being a Narcissist, I had never destroyed, into paintings in their own right. It was painting for the sake of mindlessness. Each effort created its own crisis and ultimately manifested a resolution in any way that happened to be expedient or just imagined, without an obvious stylistic coherence. It was absorbing, packed with suspense, and always at risk of failure. Sometimes a work was resolved in one move, at other times, in despair I would dowse the pallet under the tap, see what now emerged, dripping, start again, and then impulsively attack blindly or dilute some colour delicately, spreading it further over the paper. Each presented itself as an emotional crisis that had little or nothing to do with self-imprisonment, mortality, contagion and the rest. It was glorious. It kept me away from posting more incendiary comments on Facebook than was in my best interests. Each day I was obliged to adopt a fresh aesthetic, a new perspective.

Mindlessness — it serves me well. It has something to do with William James and The Gospel of Relaxation; something to do with Alan Watts and his Taoist sense of irony, of letting things just emerge, of not trying too hard, of never allowing your art to drown in your message – as is very much the case with Spike Lee’s new movie (on Netflix) Da 5 Bloods.

But in the most intriguing way, one thing leads to another, which is why this essay has ‘Meandering’ in its title. One of the positive aspects of my pallet painting project was that I began to actually look at some of my art books. I am a bibliomaniac. I purchase far more books than I read. I am like the Battersea Dogs’ Home for books. A book thumps through my letter-box. I tear off the packaging, experience a sense of satisfaction — and find a space for it on my shelves. But now I had a reason for looking at some of the lovely collections of reproductions I had stored away. I started with the Unpainted Pictures of Emil Nolde, which is what the artist called the bold and deliciously free paintings executed in the isolation of his home between 1938 and 1945 after the Nazis had confiscated his works from German museums and prohibited him from practising his profession. Spontaneous and fantastic, they seemed to me to have often begun from something random – a wash in this colour thrown against a wash from that – and his looseness was just what I was after.

From Nolde, I turned to Manet – as an antidote, you could say – and from Manet, I turned to Vuillard, and this late Impressionist (I hate the word post) had a quality of disunity, of multifarious focus, of an image emerging over which nothing exerted a unifying influence. Take his Interior, painted in 1893 (facing page 54 of Stuart Preston’s excellent book, Vuillard)1. There’s a woman wearing a speckled dress laying out linen, I think, to dry. The room has a dense and complex wallpaper. The door is wallpapered too, believe it or not, and a man is halfway through it, or rather half of a man is through it, amidst the wallpaper. There is a window open, wallpapered with cluster-roses perhaps, or cherry blossom, whatever is going on outdoors, and in front of this a maid is laying out more linen on the balcony rail, and in front of her there is more linen and a chair and next to it stands the woman wearing the speckled dress. The eye moves in a circular way through each of these fields.

One thing leads to another. I reached the last reproduction in the book, of a woman in bed. The lamps are lit but veiled. Somehow it feels like daylight in a room with the curtains are drawn. She is not asleep. She appears to be entertaining a visitor, in a social rather than a sexual way, as if the bed were a chaise-longue. Her dark hair which is turning to grey is held by ribbons of orange. She is writing. Once I noticed the pen, I turned to Preston’s commentary.

The portrait at the top of this page, painted around 1932, of La Comtesse de Noialles…

…existing in several versions, gave Vuillard more trouble than almost any other. Time and again he would return to Madame de Noailles’s apartment, 40 Rue Scheffer, to verify this detail or that, making innumerable sketches of the hands, the flowered coverlet, even of the speaking tube, all of which studies furnished raw material for the finished portrait that, as was his custom, he created wholly in the studio. When completed, some acclaimed it a masterpiece while others placed it on a far lower level, complaining about the vulgar, flashy color and about Vuillard’s increasing interest in trivial detail. Anna de Noailles herself noticed the artist’s encyclopaedic observation. “For heaven’s sake hide that tube of vaseline,” she would cry. “M. Vuillard paints everything he sees.”

Whether the final aesthetic verdict on the painting is favourable or not, one can only be grateful that Vuillard undertook the task of portraying this famous lady, an almost neurotically brilliant writer who flashed like a meteor across the skies of the social and literary worlds of Paris during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Of mixed Greek, Turkish, and Romanian blood, married into one of the very grandest French families, this exotic genius took the world by storm because of her beauty, her literary gifts, and her amazing, near-hypnotic powers of conversation. Maurice Barrès, reported to have been her lover, described her as ‘the most sensitive point in the universe,’ and although the impassioned romanticism of her poetry may nowadays have gone out of fashion it will not necessarily remain so. Vuillard painted this portrait the year before her death at the age of fifty-seven. She was already ill, but had the habit of receiving people in her bedroom as she reclined in her big Louis XVI bed, alternately languorous and excessively vital. ‘I never knew a girl to toss about in bed so,’ said the novelist Abel Flermant. This whirlwind could not have been an easy sitter for Vuillard, but the results of their encounter will for long be of the greatest fascination.” 2

Ah, by 1932, a relic of La Belle Époque – considered to have begun in 1871, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War and ending at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. It was the golden age of wall-paper, as Vuillard depicted it: an epoch captured in terms of criticism by J.-K Huysmans in his Modern Art, very ably translated by Brendan King and published in English for the first time only early this year by Dedalus.

At a time when the Impressionists were being ridiculed, or worse still ignored, Huysmans, considered a decadent, and author of two of my favourite books, À Rebours and Là-bas, defiantly proclaimed Degas to be the best painter in France. He reviewed the Salons of 1879-82 and the Independent Exhibitions of 1880-82, more or less room by room, and hung floor to ceiling as at our own execrable R. A. Summer Shows. He prefers the affiches for revues, strip-clubs and circuses that get pasted on those roofed green pill-boxes you find on Parisian corners to the over-stuffed studies endorsed by the evening-dressed elite.

He has analyses, which remain enlightening, of the works of artists lit by a genius new for the time — and often hung close to the ceiling, if included at all, in the official Salon that assured you professional and social success: He picks out Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Manet (who he can also fault), Berthe Morisot, Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, — but he also has a strong sense of craftsmanship and book printing, and devotes several perceptive pages to the innovative British illustrators of the time – Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway. But what makes these articles so entertaining is the invective Huysmans can employ when, labelling the official Salon of 1879 the “stock-exchange for oils”, he proceeds to demolish the art establishment of his day:

His articles, collected as L’Art moderne (1883), have never before been translated into English, probably because he is the least known of the writer-critics, and his French is often not straightforward… Rarely can it have been such fun to read translated denunciations of so many forgotten French pictures.”

—Julian Barnes in The London Review of Books, 2 April 2020

And, as Nicholas White observes in The Times Literary Supplement, ‘…particularly appealing to the reader will be the inclusion, in the main body of the text, of small black-and-white illustrations for a number of paintings referred to, some taken from the original Salon catalogues.’

So this is what “Modern Art” meant in the 1890s. And here I should interject that this is why I take issue with the term. Back then, for Huysmans, it meant an emphasis on naturalness, on honest handling and matière over a Raphael look and varnish, plus a social urge to present living reality. After Éluard, Duchamp, Picasso and Breton, though, handling had taken over so completely it had become abstraction, while collage and the surreal were also coming in, and so “Modern Art” meant something else, and it meant something else in the ‘sixties, when pop art and hard edge or expressionist abstraction were the rage, and so it just means the art of now — and what ‘post-now’ is, I’m not sure.

But to get back to La Belle Époque. Julian Barnes is correct, Huysmans has puncturing put-downs of mythological nudes ascending to heaven because they are painted as if they were balloons. He praises Degas’ 1879 picture of Miss Lola – ascending by the strength of her teeth to the peak of the Cirque Fernando. After all, that’s real. Like some Rowlandson cartoon (of whom he was an admirer) he can launch arse-cannonades of invective at the pictures which had pride of place in the official venue, with its reek of war-nostalgia, its walls giving pride of place to professional masters of cliché, trompe l’oeil “experts” and those churning out some grand or pious message over the length of a wall. He can’t bear precious limited editions of illustrated books printed in some 1669 Elzevir to look antiquated, so he is not of a pre-Raphaelite inclination either. In an age when noble subjects were de rigeur, he considers it absurd for a painter:

To try to ennoble painting using the methods commonly taught in art schools; it’s therefore quite useless to chose subjects that are said to be more ‘elevated’ than others, because subjects are nothing in themselves. Everything depends on the way in which they are treated, and beside there is nothing so licentious or so sordid that it cannot be purified in the fire of art.” 3

Huysmans recognises The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer by Degas as “completely individual, completely modern”. And then he guides us towards a Study of a Nude by Gaugin:

“This is a girl of our time, and a girl who isn’t posing for the gallery, who is neither lascivious nor simpering, who occupies herself quite simply with repairing her clothes.” 4

What was urgent then was the impression. The word is sculptural in origin perhaps – Carpeaux kneading the clay in which he would model the first impression of a grand subject – and the resulting rough terracotta suddenly perceived as more authentic in its unfinished spontaneity than the final outcome in polished marble. Huysmans adds to this notion what Berenson might later call ‘tactile values’. He is no Ruskin: he is perfectly aware that females have tufts between their thighs (or used to, before the West became so pre-adolescent). He is sure that a painter must convey the senses that he as an author explores so brilliantly in À Rebours – the scent of a society dame, and how it differs from the smell of a street-walker. The feel of satin or velvet, or of the buff on a top-hat (ah, the top-hat, that impressionist icon – Degas probably painted them best). And then you needed to convey the sound of the woodland, the breeze and a factory’s siren. But don’t expect a language tempered by some ‘woke’ sense of the correct. Speaking appreciatively of The Client by Jean-Louis Forain, he says:

What’s extraordinary in this work is the powerful sense of reality that emerges; these whores are brothel whores, not any other kind whore, and if their postures, their provocative odours, and their gamey skin — under the gas flames that illuminate this watercolour washed in gouache with an uncannily precise truthfulness — are firmly and so straightforwardly rendered, undoubtedly for the first time, then their character, their humanity, whether bestial or puerile, is no less so. All the philosophy of love for sale is in this scene, in which, after having voluntarily entered, driven by animal desire, the gentleman reflects and, his ardour cooling, ends up remaining insensible to their offers.”5

Huysmans is not a chauvinist. Throughout his articles he cites the work of women artists and he is eager to champion Berthe Morisot and Marie Cassat. What he stands for is realism. And for him, reality is conveyed via its impression.

The impression must include everything, like a poem; the scene it conveys authenticated by each and every sense.

The impression must include everything, like a poem; the scene it conveys authenticated by each and every sense. Realising this, through Huysmans’ stimulating reviews, I began to wonder about literary impressionism. Who could be considered an impressionist poet? Verlaine? For me, like Marie Cassat, much of the time, he’s a bit wishy-washy. However, as I’ve mentioned, my own ongoing watercolour project had prompted me to open yet another art-book, a magisterial volume on Manet (Manet, a Retrospective)6 which assembles wonderful passages of what was written about the artist in his lifetime, and in it I had found the Irish author George Moore’s “impression” of what it was like to sit for Manet in his studio:

It was quite a simple place. Manet expended his aestheticism on his canvases, and not upon tapestries and inlaid cabinets. There was very little in his studio except his pictures: a sofa, a rocking-chair, a table for his paints, and a marble table on iron supports, such as one sees in cafes. Being a fresh-complexioned, fair-haired young man, the type most suitable to Manet’s palette, he at once asked me to sit. His first intention was to paint me in a cafe; he had met me in a cafe, and he thought he could realise his impression of me in the first surrounding he had seen me in.”

The portrait did not come right; ultimately it was destroyed; but it gave me every opportunity of studying Manet’s method of painting. Strictly speaking, he had no method; painting with him was a pure instinct. Painting was one of the ways his nature manifested itself. That frank, fearless, prompt nature manifested itself in everything that concerned him —in his large plain studio, full of light as a conservatory; in his simple, scrupulous clothes, and yet with a touch of the dandy about them; in decisive speech, quick, hearty, and informed with a manly and sincere understanding of life. Never was an artist’s inner nature in more direct conformity with his work. There were no circumlocutions in Manet’s nature, there were none in his art.

The colour of my hair never gave me a thought until Manet began to paint it. Then the blonde gold that came up under his brush filled me with admiration, and I was astonished when, a few days after, I saw him scrape off the rough paint and prepare to start afresh.

‘Are you going to get a new canvas? ‘

‘No; this will do very well.’

‘But you can’t paint yellow ochre on yellow ochre without getting it dirty?’

‘Yes, I think I can. You go and sit down.’

Half-an-hour after he had entirely repainted the hair, and without losing anything of its brightness. He painted it again and again; every time it came out brighter and fresher, and the painting never seemed to lose anything in quality. That this portrait cost him infinite labour and was eventually destroyed matters nothing; my point is merely that he could paint yellow over yellow without getting the colour muddy.”7

Focused so on the visual, it’s a description, for me, more than an impression. I need my ears, my nose, my skin to be engaged. And perhaps what is also there in an impression, whether verbal or visual, is the species of mental energy, the relationship, painter to subject, subject to painter. Manet always wanted to seem spontaneous, but there was often something deliberate about it that got in the way, or created a hint of what Baudrillard might call the hyperreal, an uneasy sense of collage and backdrop – in Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, for instance, there’s a dislocation, modernist in a later sort of way. It’s a set-up. Personally, that is what draws me to Manet. However, George Moore seems to have seen it differently, and as part of a more natural process, for he goes on:

One day, seeing that I was in difficulties with a black, he took a brush from my hand, and it seemed to have hardly touched the canvas when the ugly heaviness of my tiresome black began to disappear. There came into it grey and shimmering lights, the shadows filled up with air, and silk seemed to float and rustle. There was no method – there was no trick; he merely painted. My palette was the same to him as his own; he did not prepare his palette; his colour did not exist on his palette before he put it on the canvas; but working under the immediate dictation of his eye, he snatched the tints instinctively, without premeditation. Ah! that marvellous hand, those thick fingers holding the brush so firmly – some what heavily; how malleable, how obedient, that most rebellious material, oil-colour, was to his touch. He did with it what he liked. I believe he could rub a picture over with Prussian blue without experiencing any inconvenience; half-an-hour after the colour would be fine and beautiful.”

With its emphasis on holding, touching, rubbing, this paragraph has more, to me, of what might be called impressionist writing. And I soon realised, as I began looking into the work of this somewhat faded woman sitting up in bed with pen in hand in Vuillard’s painting, that I might have found a writer who might be called a “post-impressionist”, to (grudgingly) employ Roger Fry’s irritating term.

Anna, Comtesse Mathieu de Noailles (15 November 1876 – 30 April 1933) was an aristocrat, a socialist and a feminist. She wrote three novels, an autobiography, and many collections of poetry. Her books sold better than Colette’s.

She was the first woman to become a Commander of the Legion of Honour, the first woman to be received in the Royal Belgian Academy of French Language and Literature, and she was honoured with the “Grand Prix” of the Académie Française in 1921. Her reputation even carried over to the United States, where she was nominated, alongside Marcel Proust, for Vanity Fair’s 1923 “Hall of Fame”.

She had friendly relations with the intellectual, literary and artistic elite of the day including Marcel Proust, Francis Jammes, Colette, André Gide, Frédéric Mistral, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Jean Cocteau, Pierre Loti, Paul Hervieu, and Max Jacob. So popular was she that various artists of her day, including Vuillard, Jean de Gaigneron, Antonio de la Gandara, Ignacio Zuloaga, Kees van Dongen, Jacques Émile Blanche, and the British portrait painter Philip de László all sought to capture her in their work. In 1906 her image was sculpted by Auguste Rodin. The clay model can be seen today in the Musée Rodin in Paris, and the finished marble bust is on display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

She was familiar with the work of writers in several languages – appreciating Heinrich Heine as well as Rilke. She admired Francois Villon, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and Paul Valéry. And she mediates these influences, mingling the lyricism of Verlaine and Valéry with the earthiness of Villon and Rimbaud. However, sadly, she has been, very largely, written out of history, at least for much of the twentieth century. Not one anthology of French poetry that I had in my teens ever included an example of her work. As I discovered more about her, finding myself at first intrigued and then enthralled by her poetry, I reflected on what I suppose is Karma. How little sway we exert over our destinies; how our reputations, in our lifetimes or after, are simply beyond our knowing or control.

Intent on restoring the Comtesse to the Pantheon, Catherine Perry has written an exhaustive analysis of her work: Persephone Unbound: Dionysian Aesthetics in the Works of Anna De Noailles. She has this to say concerning the poet’s rejection by the twentieth century:

After the upheavals of the First World War, French literature becomes progressively infused with the depersonalizing values and practices of Modernism, understood here as the rejection of a Romantic cult of subjectivity and emotion, accompanied by the practice of artistic forms that depart from tradition. Henceforth poets hardly occupy–nor do they often wish to occupy–the exalted position they would claim in former times. Even as she admired Noailles’ poetry, the Argentinian writer Victoria Ocampo judged that, on account of its traditional form, it belonged to a “poetic cycle that was reaching its ultimate phase.” As Roger Allard put it more bluntly in a review of L’Honneur de Souffrir, this was “a time when the very name of poetry made one smile.”8

As Perry points out later:

With respect to Noailles’ poetry in particular, critics, stumbling upon the traditional verse patterns she adopted, have often failed to acknowledge the modernity of her lyric voice. The apparent discrepancy between form and content in her verse, where concepts and images frequently strive to dissolve a classical structure, is nonetheless a defining trait of this writer, situated as she was at the cusp of the antithetical world views of late nineteenth-century Romanticism and early twentieth-century Modernism.”9

Anna was so adept, she could use traditional form to write swiftly and impressionistically – however ironic that may sound – and she responds to this critical assault herself in 1913, with an attack on vers libre and open form:

The majority of these young poets neglect rhyme, believe themselves freed. . . . But rhyme is the tip, the thorn, that hooks, fixes sentiment. . . . Rhyme and traditional form are akin to the universal palpitation where all hearts can understand one another.”10

She considered free verse destructive rather than liberating: “There is prose, there is verse, and there are the intangible laws that constitute them.” These quotes that come from Perry’s book demonstrate that it’s a book that is indispensable for anyone who intends to take Anna de Noialles seriously.

Perhaps, as a study, it is too serious. Perry seems fascinated the issue of transience and mortality in the work. She identifies Schopenhauer, initially, and Nietzsche, later and more endurably, as her philosophical influences. She points out that Noailles refused to be considered a romantic — as was all too often assumed. She draws our attention to a 1926 interview in which the poet declared, “The Romantics are those who do not make words adhere closely to ideas and whose feelings do not reflect the incisiveness of an inner fire.” Incisiveness is the key word here, since Noailles’ poems are particular in their use of descriptive words, their inclusion of specific sensations and visual detail.

Perry is at her best when articulating the Dionysian impulse in the work of the Comtesse. She points out that she “venerated excess” — and she shows how, in a 1906 letter to Maurice Barrès, Anna “expresses a temptation to give up her work rather than falsify it in order to please Ferdinand Brunetière, who refused to publish some of her poems in the forthcoming volume of la Revue des Deux Mondes: “I think Brunetière would accept other poems that would be, as my mother-in-law says, neither pagan nor sensual . . .”

Schopenhauer had shown her a world from which God was absent, a universe devoid of meaning. Such a condition might be viewed with horror of course, but, for Noailles, poetry itself is the salvation, with a liberating immersion in the sheer plasticity of artistic creativity and a natural inclination towards the sensuality that drives procreation. Myself, I perceive four transitional stages in her poetry: a mythological, Hellenistic intellectuality that starts to incline towards the natural, which in turn changes into an obsession with emotional attraction, and this finally approaches the morbid as her end draws near.

Perry provides us with a brilliant analysis of her poem, ‘Les Plaintes d’Ariane’:

In the Greek myth, Ariadne, daughter to King Minos, helps the hero Theseus by giving him a thread to guide him back from the labyrinth in which he will slay the Minotaur. After the successful completion of his task, Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos, while he goes off to seek new amorous adventures. When left alone, Ariadne bereaves the departure of Theseus and implores his return. Moved by her plight, the god Dionysus takes her for his consort and transforms her into a divinity who finds her place in the sky as a constellation, appropriately so, as her name in Greek comes from the verb ‘to shine.’ In Nietzsche’s version of her complaint, Ariadne does not bereave Theseus but, in the words of a critic, she ‘learns to affirm life, to “love” life and to implore the return of its suffering.’

….Prior to her nuptials with the god, Ariadne has to undergo the transformation, even the destruction, of her old self, a self linked to the spirit of dependence and of resentment that Nietzsche’s ethics of heroism condemns. The second section of Anna de Noailles’ 1902 collection L’Ombre des Jours, which contains a series of poems set in antiquity, ends with her own version of ‘Ariadne’s Complaint’ [by Nietzsche – my parentheses]. Whether or not her poem ‘Les Plaintes d’Ariane’ was inspired by Nietzsche, it unquestionably draws upon Noailles’ maternal origins in Crete, the Greek island where myth locates the birth of Ariadne. In contrast to the tradition exemplified by Ovid’s Heroids, [sic] Noailles’ ‘Ariadne’ does not lament the betrayal of Theseus nor does she appeal to him in the hope of his return; she does not even acknowledge her former lover by name. Instead, with an uneven rhythm that accords with the content of the poem, she directs a wild invocation to the forces of nature. From an initial desire to have pain conjured out of the body, the poem progresses toward a desire for the heart’s fragmentation and dissolution amidst the elements of nature, and culminates in the rejection of Ariadne’s former self, or soul.”11

Perry identifies the sun as a life force in this poetry. This, for me, seems rather an intellectual sun, and an approach which cites Lacan and Deleuze appropriately enough, and can be seen in the context of a climate typical of Paris. Instead of these Hellenistic paeans, the work of Anna de Noailles that moves me most is a poetry of childhood and of gardens. I get the feeling that we get less intellectual as we mature — and that Anna’s poetry may have had its roots in philosophy, but, after all, she liked getting earth beneath her nails.

Remember, she was hugely popular in her day, the ‘Instagram poet’ of her time, adored by adolescents — which even today incites hubris in any anthologising male. However, it is surely the sign of a great poet that the work can be open to conflicting interpretations. My admiration stems from the matière of her verse, its inimitable texture. Proust compared her poetry to impressionist painting, and at the time, as Perry points out, in literature, “a diffuse movement, broadly defined by the term ‘Naturism’, was then in vogue, but Noailles did not specifically partake of it, preferring to remain independent.”

Norman R. Shapiro has translated many of her poems in A Life of Poems, Poems of a Life (Black Widow Press, Boston 2012), a volume devoted to her work. I pass over these “translations” without comment. Shapiro is a professional. This book is one of the many translations he has done from the French. Thank God it includes Anna’s original text – and it has good notes and a useful introduction by Catherine Perry. The trouble is, I don’t believe poems can be translated, since poetry is so often made of the accidental ambiguities that enrich any language but which do not transfer into another. English cannot convey the French sense of a peach! I still enjoy those Penguin translations in prose that accompanied their anthologies of French, German and Spanish verse. A poem can only be “echoed” by the version it inspires in a poet who speaks another language. (An accompanying contribution to the Fortnightly comprises a handful of the versions I have made of those poems of hers that I find particularly striking.)

But as can be seen from A Life of Poems, Poems of a Life, even her juvenilia demonstrates technical mastery. She has the rhythmic sweep of Swinburne, and his ardour, but her vocabulary is less generalised than his and more scintillating, stippled as it is with the names of flowers, plants and specific colours. Rather than Swinburne, perhaps Rudyard Kipling would make a better comparison. She wrote a poem in praise of Kipling, though she is rarely so Jingoistic. But the truth is, her voice is unique.

Anna de Noailles is a plein air poet, and her descriptions of landscapes and gardens are genuine impressions, loaded with suggestion.

Unlike her friend Valéry, she is not an adherent to the notion of a poesie pure, nor concerned with Stéphane Mallarmé’s notion of the whiteness of the page. Rather, she might acknowledge a kinship with the sexual honesty of D. H. Lawrence. Anna de Noailles is a plein air poet, and her descriptions of landscapes and gardens are genuine impressions, loaded with suggestion. All the senses are brought into play: the way a garden gate sweeps the gravel beneath it, how the scent of jasmine may strengthen in the dusk, how there is a texture to the taste of a peach together with the hint of something forbidden.

She sets out to make a poem in very much the way a painter may set up in front of a landscape: a painter determined to be true to the new naturalism, and include the factory’s chimney and the smoke from a passing train. But there is something fauve about Anna, and about her poetic work. For all its mastery of form, it remains true to Dionysus. It is wild. Its hues are intense. The poems are bouquets loaded with textures, colours and smells. Beneath the surprising array of specific words for plants and objects there is a deep under-vocabulary to which she returns again and again (as did Swinburne). So often did she come back to the theme of childhood in particular, and to childhood memories of gardens, that to my mind, for Anna, the garden is childhood. Her limited underpinning vocabulary supports a layered symbolism. Dawn is youth, night is ultimately death. Dawn is also Spring. Summer is intense, voluptuous pleasure. Winter is age, separation and alienation. Her spirit is split between that of the bacchante and that of the anchorite, just as the year divides into warm and cold seasons.

Simple as this formula may sound, it nevertheless affords her an ability to touch on far from simple subjects. But these she can express with the voice of a child naming the plants as if using their names for the first time, or she can express adolescence with the voice of a girl “dying for this or for that” – or she can give the impression of the closure of life, as it seems for an aging person. It is all there. And she recognises that the tragedy of adolescence is that it rips the naïve spirit away from the honest, greedy hedonism of childhood, which celebrates all the stimulation nature can offer, and replaces it with a sexual focus that causes the vocabulary to become entangled in mere “I”s and “You”s. Introspection takes over, together with those abstract nouns that deal with some internal state of affairs and herald in a state of melancholy womanhood and emotional cliché.

Anna de Noailles can also give a garden scene a disturbing ambivalence, just as one may sense an ambivalence in some of Manet’s best known works – for instance, in a perceptive review in the New Statesman of a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, Manet: Portraying Life, Craig Raine had this to say:

Contemporary critics were puzzled by The Railway. Unsurprisingly, because the railway consists largely of background smoke. In the foreground, we have a young girl and Meurent looking straight at the viewer, her face an expressionless mask. In her lap she has a puppy and an unopened fan – both emblems, both clues, both related. Neither, I would suggest, innocent. The fan is waiting to be spread. She also has an open book in her lap. An index finger is keeping her place, inserted into the bare pages….The young girl faces away. She is looking through the railings. She has a big bow, gift-wrapping her like a parcel. Her dress is inappropriate for outdoors. Her shoulders are naked. She is wearing earrings. Her hair is coiffed in an adult way. She looks like a grown-up. But her arm has visible puppy fat. To the girl’s right there is a bunch of green grapes resting on a vine leaf . . . I think we are in Jimmy Savile territory, in one of the intractable, unpaintable margins of modern life. Except that Manet has managed to paint it. The girl is for sale. Not so you would notice, unless you were looking. The painting keeps its counsel. It doesn’t denounce or declaim like a Zola. Its careful, realistically concealed innuendo is the merest whisper – audible only if you are listening very, very carefully.” 

The Comtesse has a similar ability to allude to unsettling issues, both personal and social. I have detected one poem which seems to be referring to syphilis. There’s a poem about migraine — which she suffered from, with her thin, artistic nose. Pædophilia is suggested in more than one poem. She can evoke the claustrophobia of a relationship and appear to go into detail about masturbation, and yet, as with Manet, it is still ‘careful, realistically concealed innuendo.’

Her garden is the earth, but also the world, the world of La Belle Époque. And I must say, her world has captured me. When I first started reading her poems, I sensed her rapidly moving from branch to branch in some orchard at the age of seven or eight, just as I had done. As an only child, I have always dreamt of meeting myself as a girl. It’s possible that no one with a sister can quite comprehend what I mean by this. Such an intellectual, physical and emotional twin has been my Platonic ideal, and she even has a poem that suggests that she writes for a time when she will no longer exist, and that she hopes that some young man will fall hopelessly in love with her through her book, neglect his contemporary lady-friends and clasp her to his heart. Well, she has found me at last! It is a shame that I am already in my seventies, and that she died almost a century ago.

Anthony HowellAnthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbookThe Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and PracticeDetails about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).

Note: Anthony Howell has also provided 13 English-language ‘versions’ of poems by Anna de Noailles. They appear here.


  1. Thames & Hudson, 1985.
  2. Vuillard, p. 126.
  3. Huysmans, p. 179.
  4. Ibid, p. 232.
  5. Ibid, p. 119
  6. Edited by T.A. Gronberg, Park Lane, NY 1990
  7. George Moore, Modern Painting;  originally: London: Walter Scott publishers, 1893.
  8. p. 18.
  9. Ibid, p.20
  10. Ibid. p.25./
  11. Ibid p. 57.
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Art Beck
Art Beck
3 years ago

A rich wandering read. And I’m thrilled that after taking a translator’s silent umbrage at the author’s proclaiming he doesn’t think poems can be translated – I find a link to his very beautiful translations of this untranslatable poet. I’m glad his Anna charmed him off that high horse.

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