Melancholy Surprise: Marcel Proust’s Collected Poems

By Dora ZhangJuly 12, 2013

    Melancholy Surprise: Marcel Proust’s Collected Poems

    The Collected Poems of Marcel Proust by Marcel Proust. Penguin Classics. 384 pages.

    IN THE CENTURY SINCE the publication of Swann’s Way in 1913, “Proust” has become more a common noun than a proper name. Like the biscuit containing an entire childhood that he made famous, the very word “Proust” conjures up something at once unmistakable, singular, and liable to parody: a monumental testament to the memory of forgetting, an elegy for paradises that are always lost, and an ode to time accidentally, miraculously, regained. For all its daunting length and supposed difficulty, In Search of Lost Time has not remained in the rarefied air of college classrooms but has also been absorbed into the culture at large. The novel has been adapted into film, graphic novel, and children’s books, and its author converted into a neuroscientist avant la lettre (in Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist) and a life coach ex post facto (in Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life).

    As for Proust’s own brilliant, eccentric life, its details have by now been thoroughly raked over: the neurotic attachment to his mother; the homosexuality hidden in plain sight; the dizzying success in the glittering salons of belle époque Paris; the lifelong attacks of crippling asthma; the retreat into the infamous cork-lined bedroom where feverish bouts of writing were conducted only by night; and the slow, painful end, amidst the unfurling manuscripts that comprised his interminable life’s work. Given the heights that Proust’s reputation has reached and the humming cottage industry of criticism that surrounds him, perhaps the most remarkable fact of all is that there is anything left to discover. But Harold Augenbraum, editor of the new bilingual edition of Proust’s Collected Poems, observes with justice that it will come as a surprise to even his most avid readers that Proust also wrote poetry.

    The manuscript of In Search of Lost Time is famously complex. Proust wrote the novel in exercise books, but on the edges of the page he would stick loose scraps of paper, sometimes entire separate pages, filled with additions and digressions that could be moved at will (we can only imagine how much Control-X and Control-V would have simplified matters, or at least some Post-Its). These scraps, which came to be called his paperoles, were even stuck on galley proofs, swelling the already-enormous manuscript ever further. A similar situation obtains with regard to Proust’s corpus as a whole: the poems, most of which came to light only after his death, are like paperoles appended to the text that is “Proust.” But, as Augenbraum astutely notes in his Introduction, these poems are pasted more onto his biography than onto his novel. They’re an addition to his vast catalog of letters and notebooks rather than to the Search, interesting more for what they reveal about the writer than what they reveal about his work. Dashed off on envelopes, scribbled in notebooks, or enclosed with letters, they’re mostly tokens of affection or diversions intended to amuse their recipients, more akin to doodles on a sketchpad or notes you pass to a friend in class than definitive expressions of a hard-won aesthetic theory.

    Proust’s poems, unlike his fiction, are private: addressed not to “the Reader” but to a particular reader, some of whom were urged to destroy them after reading. Augenbraum reports that Proust consulted his lawyers about the possibility of securing his letters against publication after death, realizing as his fame grew that his personal life would be subject to public airing. It’s unlikely, then, that he would have expected — or wanted — to be known as a poet at all. The specificity of their context often lends the poems both a peculiar intimacy (we’re overhearing snatches of banter between friends) and a kind of distance (we’re not in on the joke). The extensive notes at the end of the volume go a fair way towards clarifying the latter, identifying names and sketching in events and biographies. The note for one poem often refers to notes for other poems, creating something of a connect-the-dots diagram of figures from Proust’s life. Although often helpful, in trying to keep track of who was whose mistress and which salon they frequented, the reader runs the risk of losing sight of the poems themselves.

    Written between the ages of 17 and , Proust’s poems are mostly occasional pieces, and the occasions are usually quite ordinary. They show a whimsical Proust attuned to the rhythms of the skies (“On Rainy Weather” consists of the couplet, “Perhaps you love, much less than me, these storms. / Could be. The mind will vary in its forms”), and a mundane Proust caught up in daily routines, as in this missive to his servant Nicolas Cottin:

    Since you always keep these notes diverse,
    I am obliged to write in verse,
    If you don’t feel list-
    Less, Nicolas the nationalist,
    In twenty minutes give me,
    A nice, steamy milky coffee.

    At times they’re comical (like “Epitaph for a Dog”: “No one could paint — not Whistler, Michelangelo, or Goya / The horror of a newcomer with its head near his feet”), and at other times ribald:

    They say a Russian, may God preserve his soul
    Managed to rouse a flutter of sensation
    In Ferdinand’s leathery, tanned, and well-worked hole
    By slipping in up to the hilt his brave baton.

    A sly humor helps to balance the inclination toward sentimentality with moments of tartness throughout.

    Based largely on the detective work of Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier that resulted in a 1982 French edition, the new bilingual volume from Penguin presents the poems in English translation for the first time, and also includes several pieces that were missing from the French collection. The list of 20 translators who contributed to the volume is a who’s who of poets, writers, critics, and seasoned translators from French, including Lydia Davis, Richard Howard, Susan Stewart, Meena Alexander, Wayne Koestenbaum, Rosanna Warren, and Cole Swensen, among others. Each was given free rein in rendering Proust into English, and the mix of approaches make this edition a good case study for comparative translation theory. Some have preserved rhyme scheme, others have discarded it; some have used updated colloquial language, others retained more archaic diction; some have hewed closely to the literal meanings of words, others have worked with a freer hand.

    As a poet, Proust was no avant-gardist. The modernity and strangeness of In Search of Lost Time can at times be belied by its veneer of realism, but for the most part in his poetry Proust remains decidedly closer to the 19th than to the 20th century. Comprising sonnets, ballads, acrostics, and burlesques, the large majority of the verses observe regular patterns of meter and rhyme, displaying a preference for more classical forms and a particular allegiance to Romanticism. Especially in the juvenilia, Proust often seems to be trying on poetic personae and styles for size. In fact, pastiche –– the imitation of an author’s style –– was a form of writing he would practice throughout his life. Although we’ve come to associate it with postmodernism, pastiche was a popular form and a common school exercise in fin de siècle France, challenging its practitioner to inhabit another’s voice and temperament (Proust likened it to regulating his internal metronome to another’s rhythm). His forgeries were uncanny in their aim and devastating in their effects. The best known of these is The Lemoine Affair (published in English by Melville House in 2008), a series of stories about a real-life diamond hoax in 1908, retold each time in the style of a different luminary, including Flaubert, Balzac, Sainte-Beuve, and Michelet.

    The poems, too, are filled with pastiches, sometimes explicit and sometimes not. The influence of Baudelaire, Proust’s favorite, is strongly present, especially in the early poems, which affect the stance of a disillusioned poéte maudit:

    So tired of having suffered, more tired of having loved.
    Life, having charmed me with its open spaces,
    Now tightens around me its monotonous glove,
    And my dream, seeing the walls around it rise,
    Curls up in melancholy surprise.

    There are also pastiches of Alfred de Musset, Anna de Noailles (a prolific and prominent poet as well as personal friend), Robert de Montesquiou (the main model for the character of Baron de Charlus), and Stéphane Mallarmé. Although they sparred in print over the “obscurity” of symbolist poetry, Mallarmé, too, dreamed of writing an all-encompassing “Grand Oeuvre” while scribbling occasional verse to amuse his friends. Noticing the similarity between the layout of a postal address and a quatrain led him to compose a series of “postal recreations” featuring the recipient’s name and address, accompanied by a rhyming witticism. Fittingly, it’s these light pieces that Proust pastiches. About his friend August Renoir, Mallarmé wrote:

    At the Villa des Arts, near the Avenue
    De Clichy, paints Monsieur Renoir
    Who gets something other than the blues
    When faced with a bare shoulder.

    And here is Proust, writing about Madeleine Lemaire, a friend and painter whose salon he often frequented:

    Postman, if it’s true that you’re no dodo,
    On the street — yes! They call it Beaunier-Monceau
    I have no doubt that you will find
    Reading Sainte-Beuve
    Or Nietzsche, at 31, the Widow.

    For Proust, practicing pastiche was a training regimen, allowing him to test the range of his stylistic muscles. A few more comments on French poetics in the notes would have helped to contextualize the works within not only a biographical but also a literary history.

    As in his fiction, Proust wears his considerable erudition lightly, but the poems nonetheless make up an intertexual kaleidoscope of sometimes dizzying proportions. In addition to the “Portraits of Painters and Musicians” (on Chopin, Mozart, and Watteau, among others), allusions to Voltaire, Pliny, and Nijinsky appear alongside satires of opera (Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande) and send-ups of philosophy. A verse sent to his history professor at Sciences-Po begins:

    The infinite reasoner says to Kant: Do you hear?
    The imperative ends with a flourish of cornets,
    And Freedom, like an eagle, flees the nest of causality.

    But some of the most charming –– in part because most surprising –– poems are the simplest ones, including two entitled “Dordrecht,” written during a 1902 trip to the Netherlands to see Dutch art, which are accompanied by several hand-drawn sketches. “Your sky always slightly blue/Morning often slightly wet,” one poem begins, going on a few stanzas later, “Still sun and church bells / Dry out quickly for high mass, also brioches / And gleaming steeple.” Incidentally, this image would reappear in Swann’s Way, when, coming out after Mass, the young narrator realizes that the steeple of the Combray church is glazed and golden “like a great blessed brioche.” The second Dordrecht poem (both are translated by Meena Alexander) presents a similarly unadorned vignette of the everyday:

    A baker in the square
         Where nothing stirs but a pigeon
    Reflections in an icy blue canal —
         A great red mould,
    A barge slipping forward, disturbing
         A waterlily, sunlight
    In the baker’s mirror flitting over a red currant tart,
         Scaring the hell out of a feasting fly.

    These lines, which could almost have been lifted from William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, are a complete departure from the labyrinthine sentences  (“the Nile of language,” in Walter Benjamin’s phrase) that have become so associated with Proust. In their unaffected simplicity, the Dordrecht poems feel like a refreshing breath of air amidst some of their author’s more portentous zephyrs.


    Among the thematic overlaps between the poetry and the fiction, a notable one is the preoccupation with love, which, in Proust, is usually missed, failed, or unrequited. The youthful verses adopt the persona of the lover like a boy trying on a suit, all encomiums to fine eyes and declarations of undying devotion. The more poignant ones are ones addressed to specific recipients, principally Reynaldo Hahn, Proust’s onetime lover and lifelong friend. These are tender, chiding, and affectionate, filled with inside jokes and pet names –– “Poney” for Proust; “Buninuls,” “Guncht” and “Buncht,” among others, for Hahn. Full of elaborate puns, idiosyncratic spellings, and delight in wordplay, they are among the most intimate poems in the collection, indicative of the obvious affection, ease, and playfulness in their relationship:

    One day the hermit of Versailles
    Wrote to his Reynaldo:
    I’m without a cent or a stich — sigh, sigh —
    Ah! Don’t believe in a “gift”
    Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!

    More frank but less sure are the early poems on the subject of sexuality, including the one that opens the volume, “Pederasty,” written when Proust was 17 and dedicated to his schoolmate Daniel Halévy. (For his part, Halévy wrote in his journal, “Take Proust. As talented as they come and yet look at how he overdoes it. Weak, young, he screws, he masturbates, maybe he even pederasts! But maybe in his life he’ll show flashes of hidden genius.”) Had he money and nerve (“un gros sac d’argent” and “un peu de nerf”), the speaker declares, he would flee for perennially green meadows “where I’d forever be sleeping with one/ warm child or other: François? Firmin?” The poem, translated by Richard Howard, concludes with a declaration whose boldness also contains the ring of a certain adolescent desperation:

    Arrière le mépris timide des Prud’hommes!
    Pigeons, neigez! Chantez, ormeaux! blondissez, pommes!
    Je veux jusqu’à mourir aspirer son parfum!

    Sous l’or des soleils roux, sous la nacre des lunes
    Je veux…m’évanouir et me croire défunt
    Loin du funèbre glas des Vertus importunes!

    [For what is manly mockery to me?
    Let Sodom’s apples burn, acre by acre,
    I’d savor still the sweat of those sweet limbs!

    Beneath a solar gold, a lunar nacre,
    I’d…languish (an ars moriendi of my own),
    deaf to the knell of dreary Decency!]

    Homosexuality is a major theme of In Search of Lost Time, and Proust’s own sexual orientation was something of an open secret during his lifetime, although he disavowed it publicly. André Gide, who wrote openly about the subject, recounts Proust’s advice to him about plans for a memoir: “You can tell anything, but on condition that you never say 'I.’” Proust never spoke of homosexuality in the first person in his novel — although they turn out to be ubiquitous, the “inverts” in In Search of Lost Time are characters like the debauched Baron de Charlus, not the narrator — but the speaker of these youthful poems, at least, does not hesitate to say “I.”

    A first person speaker also features in the piece that perhaps most anticipates Proust’s mature work, an 1888 prose poem written for the schoolboy journal the Revue Lilas, and translated elegantly by Lydia Davis. The theme will be familiar to readers of Swann’s Way: a nocturnal prelude to sleep. But unlike the nostalgic childhood reminiscence that opens the novel, the prose poem takes a less sanguine tone, suffused with Baudelairean malaise: “The sky is a dark violet marked with gleaming patches. Each thing is black. Here are the lamps, the horror of everyday things. They oppress me.” By the second paragraph, the mood lifts slightly. The claustrophobia of the descending black sky gives way to the speaker’s delight over being the only one awake, and wonder at the world rendered unfamiliar by the cover of night (“an electrically illuminated polar landscape”). The “horror” of everyday things is now transformed: “Everyday things, like nature –– I have sanctified them, since I cannot vanquish them.” The streak of idealism in the Search –– where what is perceived always has more to do with the subject than the object –– is here anticipated in the brash solipsism of youth, reveling in the exercise of its will:

    I have clothed them in my soul and in intimate or splendid images… I am the center of things, and each of them procures me magnificent or melancholy sensations and sentiments in which I delight. I have splendid visions before my eyes. The bed is soft… I fall asleep.

    Later scenes of sleeping and awakening in Proust’s oeuvre will rarely take place so easily or happily. (In an oft-cited anecdote, a publisher who rejected the manuscript of Swann’s Way confessed himself confounded as to why it would take 30 pages to describe a man tossing around in bed before falling asleep.) This prose poem, written when Proust was just 17, bears striking witness to the continuity of his preoccupations.

    It would be useless to pretend that these poems are anything other than the minor works of a major writer. Readers of In Search of Lost Time have continually singled out Proust’s talents as a noticer, one who let nothing escape the beam of his attention. “There has never been anyone else with [his] ability to show us things,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “Proust’s pointing finger is unequaled.” And Virginia Woolf recorded in her diary, “The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain.” From the phenomenology of kissing to the crumbling of the aristocracy, it’s his gimlet-eyed observations, at once lyrical and precise, that make the experience of reading In Search of Lost Time so rich and surprising. The poems offer few such illuminations, although they do reveal at least one thing about their author’s life that escapes his novel. One of the blindspots in the Search is Proust’s dismissal of friendship, which either disguises ulterior motives or distracts from the real work of reflection and creation that can only be carried out in solitude. But these poems attest everywhere to Proust’s obvious care and affection for his friends: not only Reynaldo Hahn and the society figures that would populate his novel, but also Céleste Albaret, his housekeeper, caretaker, confidante, and amanuensis, who recorded their relationship in her own fascinating memoir, Monsieur Proust (1972). The collection concludes with several poems dedicated to this “weekly archangel”:

    Tall and slender, fair and thin,
    Sometimes up, sometimes all in,
    Charming princes and Bedouin,
    With Marcel she’s hard as sin,
    Repays his honey with aspirin.

    At the end of several thousand pages, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time realizes that his squandered life is the raw material for his book. Literature has the capacity to “translate” life, illuminating the experiences we failed to register when we actually lived them. Not that the project of literary autogenesis is anything new, of course. “Reader, I am myself the matter of my book,” another introspective French writer once declared, adding, “it is not reasonable that you should waste your leisure on such a frivolous subject.” Like Montaigne before him, Proust wrote an account of self-fashioning that was also the record of an age. Frivolous though they may be, the Collected Poems gives us another welcome point of entry to the life that he would mine for riches in his art.


    Dora Zhang is completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Princeton University.

    LARB Contributor

    Dora Zhang is completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Princeton University. She specializes in modernist fiction and philosophy, and generalizes in being interested by just about everything.


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