Ramez Qureshi

Stuart Merrill
The White Tomb: Selected Writing

Talisman House, Publishers, 1999, 182 pp., $16.95. [Order from SPD]

“The ‘Nineties’ tried your game/And died ...” Thus utters a well-wisher to Pound’s persona in his breakthrough “Mauberley” poem. The legendary 1890’s. The age of Mallarmé and Wilde. Of Symons and the early Yeats. The age of aesthetes and decadents, when symbolism and sonority were the guiding vectors in poetics. It was the age when the cult of art, no, Art, reigned supreme, the years when as Mario Praz had it, the “Romantic Agony” came to its culmination. It was the age of Pater’s sensibility of aesthetic religiosity, when he could write in Marius the Epicurean, “the products of the imagination must themselves be held to present the most perfect forms of life.” Wilde could irresponsibly conclude his preface to Dorian Gray by celebrating, “All art is quite useless.” Transport yourself back to the Paris of Verlaine. “The Mood,” as Frank Kermode put it, “is that of the violent Lautrec drawings of Guilbert and Jane Avril, of dancers calling themselves Grille d’Egout or La Goulue, of café-concerts with such names as Le Divan Japonais and prostitutes with such noms de guerre as Outamoro.” As Symons put it: “The art of knowing how to be/Part lewd, aesthetical in part/And fin-de-siècle essentially” was the attraction of the day. The game died. But it left us with a flood of literature after the drought since Victorianism and the American Renaissance, and would fertilize, through the influence of Laforgue on Eliot, de Goncourt on Pound — the center of Anglo-American modernism. Perhaps no one testified for the age so sincerely and succinctly as Stuart Merrill as he opens his “Credo”: “I believe Beauty is the condition of the perfect life, just as important as Virtue and Truth.”

Stuart Merrill? His name may not ring a bell. No, he is not as renowned as Wilde, Mallarmé, or Verlaine. Yet, Merrill, a bilingual American exile in France, was one of the most important writers of that fabled era, and Edward Foster of Talisman Press has just released a generous selection of his writings, The White Tomb, the first volume of Merrill’s work to appear in this country in over a century. Merrill had his champions; Rexroth wrote, “In the whole period, from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson to Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost, the greatest American poet is Stuart Merrill.” Mallarmé, a close friend, said to him, “such a poet you are, intuitive and exact.” Yet, when the time came for cruel canonizing attrition of that period, the likes of Edmund Wilson had Merrill forgotten. For anyone interested in the era of aesthetic exuberance, Foster’s volume is a godsend.

Who was this Merrill? Quite a specimen. Born to George and Emma Merrill as Stuart Fitzrandolph Merrill on August 1, 1863 in Hempstead, Long Island, Merrill grew up in a strictly conservative wealthy Protestant family. In 1866, his father received a diplomatic appointment to Paris, where Merrill would learn the French tongue, and live, for the next nineteen years. In Paris, Merrill’s school instructors included none the other than Mallarmé, his classmates included future noted fin-de-siècles Fontainas, Ghil, Mikhaël, Quillard, and Vanor — he grew up in literature, and ran a weekly journal, Le Fou, before returning to the States in 1884. Obeying his stern father’s wishes, Merrill attended law school, all the while continuing to write in both French and English, publishing his first book of poems, Les Gammes, in Paris, bringing him wide crititical acclaim in Europe. As his literary career took off he participated in radical political causes, siding with the anarchists in the famous Haymarket riots, for which his father disinherited him (his mother would support him financially throughout his life). Merrill put out Pastels in Prose in 1890, his only book ever to be published in America; it gave the states its first look at the exciting poetics of radical France. William Dean Howells was certainly not on native grounds when writing its introduction: “I do not know the history of the French Poem in Prose,” but predicted that the new form, among whose practitioners Merrill had included Baudelaire and Mallarmé, had “come to stay.” The book also included Chinese poetry, and Rexroth suggests Pound needed Merrill’s Gautier to write Cathay. The same year, Merrill left for Europe permanently. He had a partner, “Bob,” later a wife. He published several more books before his death of heart disease in 1915, including Les Fastes in 1891, Petits poems d’automne in 1895, and a collection of his work from 1887-1897. During his life his influence was transatlantic. He made Yeats and Symons known in France, Mallarmé and Verlaine known in America. A key member of Mallarmé’s inner circle, this self-described “poet of sonorities and splendors” partook equally with Wilde and company during the Bacchic revelry.

And now Foster has summoned Merrill from the grave in what must be one of the more important recent publishing events of modernist texts in the alternative press, ranking with the appearance of Inventions of the March Hare in the mainstream press, the poems of Dunbar in the university presses. Foster has exemplified what Walter Benjamin had in mind when he wrote “The Author as Producer,” though in this case we may substitute editor for author. In his renowned essay, Benjamin writes of the author’s “technique” of production rather than “rhetoric.” Benjamin is politically motivated of course, thinking of Brecht’s prodcutions for the theater and the possibility of revolutionary change. Although Foster’s is not a revolutionary effort in today’s watered down politics, it is a collective one, and something of a political statement in the canon wars of, as Charles Bernstein likes to put it, “recovery and repression.” And Foster has engineered a product as sophisticated as Brechtian drama. Foster has made use of six translators, has mentioned seven libraries, and used the help of “mysterious computer technology and the internet to locate whatever needed to be found.” Surely, this is the modern-day equivalent of cooperation and technology that Benjamin had in mind. And the product? It is mind-blowing. The book begins with a convenient list of Merrill’s published books, common enough, but goes on to include an introduction, notes on Merrill’s manuscripts, poems in French, translations in English, poems originally written in English (Merrill published only two), selections from Pastels in Prose, a selection of Merrill’s essays, four translated from French and two originally written in English, and an appendix including a section from Elaine L. Corts’s dissertation on Merrill, and a letter on Merrill written just after his death. Foster guides the reader with thorough footnotes along the way. The book also contains illustrations. This is scholarship at its very best. Surely, Foster has brought to us something extraordinary.

And what is most extraordinary is the poetry. We have read before many essays on the issue of translation, but the essay here, from Corts’s dissertation, is especially helpful, and will awaken even those who have long tired and slumbered after reading prefaces on the problems on translation to dual-text verse volumes, for Merrill is an especially unique — and difficult — author to translate. French poetry is inherently more musical than English, Corts reminds us, and this is especially true of the age of symbolism, indeed, Merrill’s early poems “are quite similar to Verlaine’s.” Merrill’s bilingualism caused him to seek new idioms, new syntaxes, and peculiar inflections and lexical choices which are impossible to reduplicate. Take the archaic “dalmatiques,” whose compactness and aura of the archaic is lost when it becomes “clothed in scarlet, priestly robes”: we go from three syllables and one ancient word to eight syllables and five modern words. Corts is particularly good in pointing out issues such as these. Merrill used the word “automnal” as an adjective, a rarity in French that only a bilingual American could sense which simply cannot carry over in translation (Baudelaire preferred d’automne, using automnal only once in his Fleurs). Sense and syntax are especially complicated; Merrill’s French is light years more sophisticated than, say, Baudelaire’s. Corts chooses to translate “De rares passants rasants les murs que brodait une ombre mince et violette saluaient la dépouille selon la douce coutume de France” as “As they salute you, according to the gentle traditions of France, a few passersby slice the walls into razor sharp edges which weave delicate violet shadows.” But before she does show she must make, among other choices: word order, what “que” refers to, and why “brodait” is singular and “salusient” plural. These are not easy choices, and as Corts makes clear, more is lost in translating Merrill than in any given poet. Yet the translations Foster has commissioned here do allow the English reader a glimpse at this fantastic poet.

“Poetry,” writes Merrill in his “Credo,” is “simultaneously Word and Music,” definitively stating the poetics of the age Kermode so brilliantly studied in The Romantic Image. And word and music come out in the translations done especially for this volume by Catherine Perry and Henry Weinfield. Take “Hantise,” “Obsession,” an early poem from Les Gammes:

            Par les vastes forêts, a l’heure vespérale,
            Les ruisseauz endormeurs modulent leurs sanglots;
âme s’alanguit d’une horreur sépulcrale
            A l’heure vésperale où murmurent les flots.

The English translators, while not reduplicating the abab rhyme scheme, do keep a musicality of their own:

            Through vast forests in the vesperal hour
            The sleeping rivers modulate their sorrow;
            My soul languishes in sepulchral horror
            In the vesperal hour when the waves make murmur.

The “hour/sorrow/horror/murmur” sequence is close enough to mainting a musical structure. Words such as “languishes” and “sepulchral” capture the spirit of Merrill’s French. How does this compare to Verlaine? Here is an aaaa Verlaine quatrain, translated by C.F. MacIntyre, from “Languer”:

            Je suis l’Empire à la fin de la décadence
            Qui regarde passer les grands Barbares blancs
            En composant des acrostiches indolents
            D’un style d’or où la langueur du soleil danse.

            I am the Empire in its decadence
            watching the tall blond Norsemen march, meanwhile
            writing indolently, with a golden style,
            acrostics where the sunlight’s languors dance.

Each stanza concerns the Romantic situation of the artist in isolation in some way confronting a sublime. One can choose either way between Merrill and Verlaine, and one cannot not judge the two poets on one stanza anyhow, but I find Perry and Weinfield’s translation far more accomplished than MacIntyre’s — MacIntyre’s a bit halting, with the rhyme scheme not nearly as mellifluous as that of Merrill’s translators — in capturing the lyrical beauty of the French language.

There is some more of this capturing (though I wanted much more). Foster has made a very interesting decision in arranging this poetry: rather than presenting the English and French as parallel text, he has sectioned off the French and English translations in different areas of the book, arranging the French in their chronological appearance, and then the English, in chronological appearance. No matter. Foster footnotes each French poem as to where its English translation appears, and one sees both Merrill’s French development, easily cross-referenced, and the development of the history of Merrill translations, from the John Hay’s 1917 effort (Foster provides dates for each translation) right up to the magnificent translations done for this volume. So one gets after “Hantise,” the second poem included from Les Gammes, these startling lines from “Pendant Qu’elle Chantait,” on page 36, easily found on page 93:

            Sonore immensité des mers de l’Harmonie,
            Où les r
êves, vaisseaux pris d’un vaste frisson,
            Voguent vers l’inconnu, leur voilure infinie
            Claquant aven angoisse aux bourrasques du Son!

            Sonorous immensity of the seas of Harmony
            Where dreams like ships that shake in the profound,
            Voyage to the unknown, their sails bent to infinity,
            Billowing with anguish in the gusts of Sound.

Perry and Weinfield have ably kept the rhyme scheme, a move often disastrous in lesser translations. The lines occurs in the middle of a meditation on a woman singing, a theme which may seem overly Romantic to us today, but which was de rigeur then, a celebration of eroticism related to the sonority of poetry which animated the glory days of fin-de-siecle France. As Merrill wrote in his “Credo,” “The only Poetry which at this hour prevails, is Symbolic poetry,” and a singing woman was a charged symbol indeed, a sort of redoubled trope of the muse. There are poems from successive volumes such as Les Fastes, from which “Appel,” “Summons,” appears, in which a warrior is exhorted to “Leave woman’s love and her endearments spurn,” and “do battle with an Ogress/In exiled lands.” Corts suggests in her dissertation that Merrill was influenced by Wagner, and such lines do seem Wagnerian indeed. Wagner was as central to late nineteenth century European culture as anyone, and Merrill is simply in step with his times, even though such lines may not please everyone for their content today, Perry and Weinfield approximate their phonic beauty just the same. There are other translators as well. One must mention Corts, who, not quite as good as Perry and Weinfield, is quite good at times, such as in these concluding lines from “La Triste Eglise,” “The Desolate Church,” addressed to the church:

            Until you have become
            The cursed ruin we flee
            In the obscure wind and the clouds,
            Home of the dead and of the night.

Needless to say, the church is the symbol, locus of musicality, devoid of direct intellectual intentionality, yet pretending to transcendental signification. Then there are the older translations, many by Jethro Bithell. Foster suggests that Merrill may have lasted had he been served by better translators. I leave the reader to judge some lines, the opening stanza of “The White Peacock”:

            The white peacock in the blue night crying
            feels that the breeze pale cherry-blossoms spills
            Upon his tail; and, dolorously sighing

The poem is written in terza rima. While these lines are not bad, they are not as good as Perry and Weinfield’s job, though they may not be much worse than MacIntyre’s efforts on the French.

Unlike most of his decadent colleagues, Merrill was politically committed. Yes, “Beauty” was a cardinal virtue for him, but so was social reformation. In this respect, he has much in common with Morris. In “Peace,” the first English translation he writes of “Trembling of purple banners in the fight/Wild nigh of horses in destruction’s path,/Howling of trumpets answering yells of wrath” quelled into “Pink mouths of babes with cooing laughter rife.” “I welcome,” he writes in that new form the prose poem “The Vagabond,” “the banner of gold of that great day of purification when men, leaving blasphemous cities, shall cry loud to the eternal vault of heaven the pride of life, now free at last from tyrants and from Gods!” Then there is the great moving ten strophe poem “To Tommy Atkins” for a soldier killed in war, with lines such as, “The soot of London does not nourish humanity nor does the London fog suffice to quench one’s thirst. One night you crossed Trafalger square, the sergeant recruiters cajoled you as they paraded beneath huge billboards, swinging their clubs between their fingers[...]” Merrill’s commitment, both in writing and in practice — in addition to defending the Haymarket rioters he helped Wilde during his legal travails for homosexuality — was indefatigable.

Merrill has been translated very well indeed for this volume; additionally, one is fortunate to have his own translations, Pastels in Prose, a typical yellow nineties title, and is allowed to examine first-hand what American readers first saw of the new French poetry. Merrill, with his bilingual advantages, is a stunning translator. Take the first lines Foster offers us from Pastels, from de Banville’s “The Ineffable”: “’What murmur the humiliated souls, gazing at one another with horror; ‘we heavy with sins and hatred, and defiled with black stains, we are welcomed, O pity! in the refreshing light of Truth, and in the ravishment which is never to end!” Americans had not received Poe as well as the French, and must have been shocked at “humiliated souls,” “ravishment.” Most translations are transient, serving only their eras. There are the classic exceptions, say Golding’s Ovid, Pope’s Homer — translations which are poetic themselves. Merrill’s belong to this category. More comparison will do. Let us look to the New Directions editions, standard, of Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and compare them with Merrill’s efforts. Here is Louis Varese’s Baudelaire for New Directions, from “Crowds”: “What men call love is a vey small, restricted, feeble thing compared with this ineffable orgy, this divine prostitution of the soul giving itself entire, all its poetry and all its charity, to the unexpected as it comes along, to the stranger as he passes.” And Merrill: “What men call love is very small, very restricted, and very faint compared to that ineffable orgy, to that holy surrender of the soul that gives itself wholly, poetry and charity, to the unexpected that arises, to the unknown that passes.” Merrill’s version is more supple, more succinct, more poetic in its use of devices such as the anaphora of “very.” He captures the spirit of the time while not sounding disagreeable to modern ears. The same is true of his version of Mallarmé. Take the opening of Mallarmé’s prose poem on winter, for whom Mary Ann Caws did the New Directions translation: “The old saxony clock, which is slow, and which strikes thirteen amid its flowers and gods, to whom did it belong? Thinkest that it came from Saxony by the mail coaches of old time?” Here is Merrill: “That timepiece of Saxony, that delays and rings thirteen hours among its flowers and its gods, to whom has it belonged? Methinks that it came from Saxony by the slow stage-coaches, of yore.” Merrill’s is a smoother translation — look at his alliteration. Caws, a fine translator, has given us a Mallarmé for modern ears (and we remember it was Pound who exhorted translators to cease using to Miltonian idiom of his day), but still uses “Thinkest.” Merrill chooses “Methinks.” The choice is a moot point. Each translation turns out equally modern, perhaps Caws’s more so on the strength of her opening, but so much of the poetic richness is lost in her version. That Merrill’s translations carry much aesthetic merit is indubitable. A minor point is typography, and this relates to Foster’s production. Foster’s text simply looks better on the page than the New Directions versions. Perhaps this should not matter, but such luminaries on this issue, such as Steve McCaffrey, have argued that it does. Think of how ubiquitous the prose poem is today. Merrill’s Pastels provided Americans their first look at the form, with the exception of Poe’s Eureka, which no one had seen. Merrill’s translations, illuminating the radical poetics of the period, and including many poets lesser known than, but equally wonderful as, Mallarmé and Baudelaire, are not to be missed, for historical and aesthetic reasons.

Also included in this volume are a selection of Merrill’s prose, which also reveal the exuberant romanticism of the period. Yes, expect to run into the words “bourgeois,” “philistine,” and “bohemian” often. Merrill exalts the Parisian artistic scene in the English language “Artistic Taverns of Paris,” which must have seemed quite exotic to its New York readers. The book also comprises essays on individual authors. Perhaps Merrill writing on these author’s deaths will serve to display the unbridled romanticism of the decade. On Nerval’s dead head: “it was found to be completely encircled by a ghastly garland of dried maggots.” On the dead Verlaine: “A beatific smile still haunted his lips.” He is not the least reserved on the living either: Whitman’s is “The voice of a prophet, who moved in advance of his race and beyond his own time.” Merrill’s essays delineate an author who was pivotal to the avant-garde of his era.

The Nineties tried that unrestrained game, but did it really fail? T.E. Hulme may have ranted against the symbolists, but Pound turned to de Goncourt and Swinbourne before swerving away from them into imagism, as Harold Bloom would put it, and Eliot had Laforgue. Eliot also had Merrill, as Foster points out. In Inventions of the March Hare we find five references to Merrill; Eliot, of all people, had his early development in part determined by Merrill. What is ironic is that Eliot is among those cruel canonizers who didn’t bother having Merrill remembered. Was Merrill’s “Sensibility” too “Dissociated?!” The image, though not in the vague transcendental form practiced by the ‘nineties symbolists, remains with us today — Pound could not have achieved anything without the ‘nineties, and Merrill was an essential component to the ‘Nineties puzzle. Although the spirit of “aesthetic revolt,” which came of age during the era of decadence, may no longer be with us, as many commentators on the postmodern scene suggest, it is essential to understanding twentieth century culture; anyone who signed a petition in America during the 1990’s to keep alive NEA funding was carrying a torch that was carried in France during the 1890’s. Why should anyone read Merrill, besides the fact that his poetry is beautiful? Given, it is not the poetry of today. But modernism, as Marjorie Perloff has put it, is “our primal scene” and the ‘nineties were modernism’s primal scene. Essential historical interests are at stake. One leaves this volume bewildered that Merrill has been forgotten. And one leaves this volume grateful for having been introduced to this wonderful writer. But much of Merrill’s poetic opus remains untranslated, and one wonders if there will be more of him to come.

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