Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
France, Whitman in
Author:
Klawitter, George
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The first French critic to review Whitman's work was Louis Étienne, whose "Walt Whitman, poète, philosophe et 'rowdy'" appeared 1 November 1861. Given the tradition of French poetry, it is not surprising that Étienne is harsh, centering his attack on Whitman's immorality and his outlandish sense of democratic ideals. It is ironic, however, that Whitman, who admired the French for their freedom in matters both sexual and political, was drubbed for such excesses in his own poetry. Fortunately, Étienne includes in his review a generous slice of Whitman lines, the first printed French translations that have surfaced. An earlier French review supposedly appeared in 1860, but the matter has been proved to have been a hoax. Henry Clapp, a New York Whitman enthusiast who began publishing the Saturday Press in late 1858, printed an anonymous article he claimed to have gleaned from something called Bibliographie Impériale announcing a forthcoming translation of Leaves of Grass. The preface to the book purportedly projected for Whitman a stellar reception among the French who, the anonymous reviewer claimed, have lacked excellence and originality in their indigenous verse. French poets are condemned for having had no confidence in their readership, a readership they have construed as stupid, incapable of appreciating obtuse verse. The reviewer makes the astonishing claim that "a perfect poem should be completely incomprehensible" (qtd. in Greenspan 112). This is the wonder of Whitman: the more one reads him, the less one understands him. Such sentiments seem to twentieth-century readers either effusively grotesque or, on the other hand, bitterly satiric. But no periodical called Bibliographie Impériale ever existed in Paris, and the anonymous comments in the 1860 review should probably be attributed to the energy of Henry Clapp who was, after all, notorious for his championing of Whitman, so much so that the New York Sunday Atlas attributed the demise of his Saturday Press (some few weeks after the "French" review appeared) to the paper's "continual puffs of Walt Whitman's dirty 'Leaves of Grass'" (qtd. in Greenspan 111). Whitman's early penchant for writing favorable reviews of his own poetry may have encouraged Clapp to do the same, or at least it indicates in mid-nineteenth-century America a whimsical attitude towards scholarly disinterestedness.

Seven years after the first article in France, an 1868 reference to the poet by Amédée Pichot appeared in the Revue Britannique, but it is scarcely more than a short sigh of exasperation that Whitman is difficult to understand. A more substantial article appeared in 1872 when Thérèse Bentzon, under the name Mme. Blanc, published "Un Poète américain—Walt Whitman: Muscle and Pluck Forever." She decries Whitman's attack on literary idealism and accuses him of confusing genius with brute force. In her attempt to champion social integrity, she reduces Whitman to a thug more interested in grubby reality than in the improvement of people's morals. She finds Whitman arrogant in his identification of the self with the universe, a spokesman to all generations, and she faults him for mixing body and spirit, not preserving the traditional dichotomy of body as evil and soul as good. She dislikes his poetics, his confusion of poetry with prose. However, in her favor she did reprint substantial excerpts from Whitman and thus brought him more mainstream than he had been before, in the golden years of his life. Moreover, her attack prompted Emile Blémont to publish three articles that same year in Renaissance Littéraire et Artistique. Blémont's first article is largely biographical, but the second and third treat of Whitman's philosophy, Blémont linking the poet to Hegel and the reconciliation of contraries. From this essential insight, Blémont is able to reach out and accept Whitman's individualism, his American esprit, and his appreciation of science. Blémont ignored the materialism in Whitman that had bothered Bentzon: Whitman is a leader of his people, a figure Blémont romanticizes into a kind of literary messiah. A poet himself, Blémont brought the French to respect Whitman more for his ideas than for his poetics.

In 1877 Henri Cochin attacked Whitman in Le Correspondant, arguing that American libertine democracy had produced an "egalitarian madness" (634) in Whitman that threatened all social institutions at home and abroad with an excessive democratic pride. He lambastes the 1855 portrait of the poet as vulgar and pretentious. Whitman is not only a materialist, but a man without faith. Like Bentzon, however, Cochin values Whitman's patriotism: Drum-Taps he finds beautifully evocative of Whitman's devotion and service during the Civil War.

French critics warmed slowly to Whitman. For example, in 1882 Léo Quesnel represents a curious blend of admiration and condemnation. He admits that Whitman is a great writer of poetic prose, thus echoing Bentzon, but he gives three reasons why Whitman will continue to meet resistance from French readership: first, Whitman suffers in translation; second, he avoids traditional forms of metrical verse; and third, his verses lack images, do not appeal to the ears, the eyes, the imagination. This latter criticism seems woefully misfounded; Quesnel, in his haste to censure Whitman's sense of metrics, overlooks the richness of his imagery.

Once the symbolist poets discovered Whitman, however, the critics soon followed. In 1886 Jules Laforgue published translations of "Inscriptions," "O Star of France," and "A Woman Waits for Me," and he planned a complete translation of Leaves of Grass. Unfortunately, Laforgue died in 1887, but not before his verses showed distinct signs of being influenced by Whitman's free-verse style. Then the championing of Whitman fell to two French poets born in America: Stuart Merrill and Francis Vielé-Griffin. The latter published translations of Whitman between 1888 and 1908. Thereafter, the first major critic to rally to the French poets' discoveries was Gabriel Sarrazin, who published an influential article on Whitman in 1888. In it, he champions Whitman's pioneering of a new kind of verse—median to prose and poetry, and akin to Hebrew metrics—and he accepts Whitman's pantheism as a poetic philosophy lying at the heart of his material and technique, a philosophy that was antithetical to that of earlier French critics. Sarrazin concludes his article with a laudatory portrait of Whitman, much of which he lifted from Bucke's biography of the poet and which set an impassioned tone for years to come in French appreciation of the poet's life. Whitman was highly appreciative of Sarrazin's article. Four years later, Whitman's death elicited half a dozen encomiums in the French press, indicating that the tide had forever turned in appreciation. The same year Henry Bérenger translated a highly influential piece by Havelock Ellis that appeared in L'Ermitage and afforded the French a reasoned critical evaluation of the poet.

With the turn of the century came the rise of the unanimists, led by Jules Romains, whose La Vie unanime (1908) shows definite influence of Whitman's poetry. That same year Léon Bazalgette published the first full-length French biography, Walt Whitman: l'homme et son oeuvre, and one year later the first complete translation of Leaves of Grass. The biography is calm and deliberate, lacking much of the outlandish exuberance of earlier biographical pieces by the French, and endorses Whitman as much for being human as for being an important poet. We are given a picture of Whitman both as democratic and educated, two aspects of the poet that had raised concerns earlier: on the one hand the poet had been vilified as being too democratic, and on the other as being undereducated. In analyzing the soul of the poet, Bazalgette focuses on Whitman's reserve and his love of simple living, his appreciation of the individual above the law, and the acuteness of his poetic imagination. Whitman is thus a contradiction in society, but he refuses to explain himself, allowing his poetry and his very being to disarm critics. Bazalgette characterizes Whitman as "Oceanic, Adamic, Cosmic," a force that gathers all things into the "great All." The funeral rites in 1892 he terms pagan, but only because they were unconventional. Both the biography and the translation of poems brought André Gide into the Whitman fold, but only because he deplored Bazalgette's attempts to make Whitman heterosexual. In translating the poems, Bazalgette used "affection" to characterize homoerotic love and "amour" heterosexual love. Gide accused the translator of misrepresenting the poems and promised to publish a translation of his own, a book that eventually appeared in 1918 and remains today the finest French translation of Whitman. The attack by Gide did not prevent Bazalgette from publishing his critical analysis of Leaves of Grass in 1921: Le Poème-évangile de Walt Whitman.

In addition to the unanimists, the writers associated with the Abbaye movement rallied to Whitman early in the century: René Arcos, Charles Vildrac, Luc Durtain, and Georges Chennevière. For them Whitman represents a break with civilization and a return to the primitive. The group championed Bazalgette's critical works on Whitman and endorsed particularly the biographer's insistence that Whitman's life was as valuable to civilization as his poetry. For French poets, Whitman's political spirit continued to remain a valued contribution to literature, bringing to poetry a sense of revolution and freedom that the French have traditionally treasured more in their politics than in their poetics.

As Europe rolled toward World War I, French poets became more and more experimental. Occasionally they became outrageous in their assessment of Whitman. In 1913 Guillaume Apollinaire published an account of Whitman's funeral, supposedly derived from an eyewitness, detailing marching bands and an obnoxious crowd bordering on being orgiastic. Calmer voices among the "avant-garde" were Valery Larbaud, Blaise Cendrars, and Saint-John Perse, whose poetic rhythms show heavy reliance on the prosaic music of Whitman's meters.

In the aftermath of the war, France produced one of her major Whitman critics, Jean Catel, whose articles on the poet began appearing in 1923 and culminated with his major works: Walt Whitman: la naissance du poète (1929) and Rythme et langage dans la 1re édition de "Leaves of Grass" (1930). The first treats of Whitman's early years, beginning with his education and ending with the 1855 edition. Pucciani distrusts Catel's basic premises that Whitman's motivation was primarily a feeling of isolation and that his philosophical bases were more lyrical than real. Catel's failure to study effectively Whitman's fusion of the creative processes does not, however, detract from Catel's significant contribution to the study of Whitman as a complex personality. The second half of the biography is devoted to a study of the poetry itself. There Catel touches on Whitman's surrealism, sense of identity, concept of the soul, "I"-narrator, and sexuality. "Identity" he contrasts with "conformity," and the soul he sees as a force greater than the poet. The "I" is one unconscious mélange of contradiction, giving Whitman the ability to assume uncannily a female persona in the poetry. Catel's second book is limited to Whitman's poetics and represents the first work in any country to assess Whitman's life through a psychological interpretation of the poems. Whitman's poetic rhythm, Catel feels, is reflected in short bursts of words, often ungrammatical, and his punctuation follows an oral rather than written tradition. Catel groups Whitman's rhythms into "groupement binaire," "groupement ternaire," and "groupement en plus de trois," but the arrangement of these groups on the page is not important to a reader because, Catel argues, Whitman's is basically a spoken art. Somewhere between oratory and poetry, Whitman's art uses the direct action of the voice, which harks all the way back to earliest civilizations.

By the time of the Second World War, two important voices appeared in French studies of Whitman: Charles Cestre and Roger Asselineau. The former, the first chair of American literature at the Sorbonne, published articles on Whitman from 1930 to 1957 and is best remembered for his unraveling the 1860 Henry Clapp review hoax. Asselineau first published on Whitman in 1948 and remains today the single most important French critic of Whitman. In 1954 his L'Évolution de Walt Whitman appeared to great acclaim. Conceived as a continuation of Catel's study of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the book departs from Catel in that Asselineau studies editions beyond that of 1855. The work is in two parts and was published in English translation separately as The Creation of a Personality (1960) and The Creation of a Book (1962). The biography volume has met with justified praise generally, and the study of themes in volume 2 has furthered Whitman studies on two continents. Among the traditional themes explored by Asselineau in the latter book are Whitman's mysticism, spiritual materialism, identity, pantheism, democracy, and sexuality. Concluding the book are three chapters devoted to analysis of style, language, and prosody. Asselineau's 1954 book received a front-page review in the Figaro Littéraire, which article led to renewed interest in Whitman in France. American critics have accused him, however, of over-intellectualizing Whitman and ignoring Whitman's psyche. Asselineau himself admits that he gave little effort to explaining Whitman's lyricism. His subsequent translation of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1956 and was reprinted in 1972 and 1989.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson, ed. Walt Whitman Abroad. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1955.

Allen, Gay Wilson, and Ed Folsom, eds. Walt Whitman & the World. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Asselineau, Roger. L'Évolution de Walt Whitman. Paris: Didier, 1954.

Bazalgette, Léon. Le Poème-évangile de Walt Whitman. Paris: Mercure de France, 1921.

____. Walt Whitman: L'Homme et son oeuvre. Paris: Societe du Mercure de France, 1908.

Bentzon, Thérèse. "Un Poète américain—Walt Whitman: 'Muscle and Pluck Forever.'" Revue des Deux Mondes 42 (1872): 565–582.

Blémont, Emile. "La Poésie en Angleterre et aux Etats-Unis." Renaissance Litteraire et Artistique 7 (1872): 54–56; 11 (1872): 86–87; 12 (1872): 90–91.

Catel, Jean. Rythme et langage dans la 1re édition des "Leaves of Grass" (1855). Montpellier: Causse, Graille et Castelnau, 1930.

____. Walt Whitman: La naissance du poète. Paris: Rieder, 1929.

Cestre, Charles. "Un intermède de la renommée de Walt Whitman en France." Revue Anglo-Américaine 13 (1935): 136–140.

Cochin, Henri. "Un Poète américain: Walt Whitman." Le Correspondent 25 November 1877: 634–635.

Erkkila, Betsy. Walt Whitman Among the French: Poet and Myth. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Étienne, Louis. "Walt Whitman, poète, philosophe et 'rowdy.'" La Revue Européene 1 Nov. 1861: 104–117.

Greenspan, Ezra. "The Earliest French Review of Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 6 (1989): 109–116.

Klawitter, George. "Early French Expectations of Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman Review 28 (1982): 54–63.

Pucciani, Oreste F. The Literary Reputation of Walt Whitman in France. New York: Garland, 1987.

Quesnel, Léo. "La Littérature aux Etats-Unis." La Nouvelle Revue 1 (1882): 121–154.

Sarrazin, Gabriel. "Poètes modernes de l'Amérique—Walt Whitman." Nouvelle Revue 52 (1888): 164–184.


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