Her name was Marceline Desbordes-Valmore.
Born just before French Revolution, she lived at a time of great upheaval and hardship. However, like the best poets, she was able to spin her suffering into beauty, into poetry that still strikes the heart today.
I discovered her while reading a little pocket book, sensibly titled French Poetry, several nights ago. I’d actually meant to read something by André Chénier, but the little poem on the opposite page, “Memory,” drew my eye.
Brief as it was, it struck me in just the right place. Soon I was reading the next page, and the next.
After that, I was hooked. I thought, who is this poet I’ve never heard of? Why don’t I know her work?
And how can I describe it to you?
Un petit peu about the work of Desbordes-Valmore
Often it’s hard for me to express exactly what it is about a certain poem or poet that I love. It’s too subjective. As I read, I’m left with a strong impression, an intuition, a spiritual response similar to what I experience listening to Sviridov’s Ineffable Mystery.
That’s why I’m happy to have come across this article by Louis Simpson, a translator of Desbordes-Valmore’s work. He hits the proverbial nail on the head when he calls her poetry “visionary,” with “living immediacy.”
Charles Baudelaire himself, quoted in the same article, said this:
No poet was ever more natural; none was ever less artificial. No one has been able to imitate that charm, for it is entirely original and naive.
Perhaps the word naive seems harsh, but there is something innocent about her poems, something childlike, without pretense. It is bright, immediate, and honest.
In French Poetry, the selections include “Memory” (Souvenir), “The Roses of Saadi” (Les roses de Saadi), “Apart” (Les séparés), and “The Lost Secret” (Le secret perdu). There’s a wistfulness running like a silver thread through each of these poems, as varied as they are in form and subject. I felt Desbordes-Valmore was expressing my heart, but with glowing images that made the pain seem beautiful.
Unfortunately, I can’t display the translated poems here — because copyright — but you can find a selection of originals with Louis Simpson’s translations at The New Criterion.
Poems to try …
Start with the selections in Simpson’s article, and then — if you read French — browse through this online collection of her work.
My favorite of those in French Poetry is “The Roses of Saadi,” which Simpson includes in his article. (Though he seems to have placed the first translated stanza at the end, which must be a typo. It’s not that way in the book!) The image of roses soaring away and gathering in the waves of the sea is like something from a fairy tale.
Les noeuds ont éclaté. Les roses envolées
Dans le vent, á la mer s’en sont toutes allées.
Elles ont suivi l’eau pour ne plus revenir.
La vague en a paru rouge et comme enflammée.
I even wrote a dizain in response to it, though I CANNOT post the result. (Really, it’s terrible.)
Please, if you have a moment, read “The Roses of Saadi.” How do you feel about it? How would *you* describe Marceline Desbordes-Valmore’s style?