English, Alan. Verlaine poete de l'indecidable. Etude de la versification verlainienne.
Verlaine poete de l'imtecidable is divided into three parts. The "Premiere partie" brings into play Benoit de Cornulier's distinction between an exometric conception of poetic lines (the line is, or is not, "equal" to neighboring lines) and an endometric conception (cf Jean Mazaleyrat) that the line is "metric" in its own right (Cornulier, Theorie du vers, 38, n. l; cited by English, p. 13). English briefly evokes a number of metrical concepts that he will take up in his second, more detailed section: the "cesure," nonsymmetricality between rhythmic and metrical line structuring, and, on the broader level of poetic style, the tension between the "sur-mesure" (classical alexandrine--6-6) and the "anti-mesure," Verlaine's decasyllabes structured 5-5
In chapter 2, English surveys the idea of ambivalent or "undecidable" structuring of the poetic line. He proceeds from a discussion of Cornulier's distinction between "ambivalence rythmique" (simultaneous perception of a line) and "ambiguite rhythmique" (mutually exclusive sequential perceptions; p. 30). From purely metrical considerations, English moves to the idea of "undecidability" as developed by Jacques Derrida (De la grammatologie, La dissemination, and Positions, all appearing in 1972). English notes logician Kurt Godel, mathematician Norbert Verdier and physicist Werner Karl Heisenberg as predecessors in the development of concepts of "l'indecidable." Derrida sees the Pharmacist ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) as the sorcerer/poisoner/scapegoat who leads the attack on logocentrism. English brings these ideas to bear on Verlaine's subversive metrical practice. At the conclusion of his introduction, English suggests that "l'oeuvre verlainienne decoit l'attente prosodique du lecteur" (52), that is, reader expectations based on prior metrical experience.
The second part of the study ("Les Metres") is a detailed examination of Verlaine's verse, metre by metre. Five chapters are devoted, in order, to "Les Decasyllabes," "Les Dodecasyllabes," "Les Octosyllabes," and "Les Metres impairs" (lines of 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13 syllables), with a concluding chapter on Verlaine's "vers libres." English does not mention two poems in lines of 14 syllables noted by Claude Cuenot (Le Style de Paul Verlaine, II, 372-373): "Le sonnet de l'homme au sable" Parallelement, and "Immediatement apres le salut somptueux," Bonheur, XXXI).
English traces Verlaine's evolution from primarily classical use of metres to lines of ambiguous, mixed or undecidable metres. Verlaine never completely rejects classical versification, but subverts it: "... on verra que le vers est assiege essentiellement et en priorite de l'interieur" (25). The impairs (lines of uneven number of syllables), tend to be globally subversive: "le 'im' de impair marque le refoulement et la non-codification des vers impairs de la tradition poetique francaise. Il figure non seulement le rejet partiel du 'pair,'" mais egalement celui du 'Pere' (lisons Hugo) et la remise en cause de la Loi, a savoir celle de la contradiction" (193).
Part Iii offers three chapters. The first (ch. 8) considers briefly levels of metrical structuring beyond the poetic line: the strophe, the poeme, the recueil, the oeuvre, and the tradition prosodique within which the poet works. He considers first examples of dissymmetry between metrical and syntactic structuring in which a small syntactic group spills from one line to the next (a form of enjambement) and of stychomythie (a series of short speeches constituting a line or series of verse lines in drama; 198-200). A deliberate limitation of English's study is that it is based largely on the metrical and rhythmic structuration of the poetic line. The chapter barely touches on the complexity of expanding considerations to the structuration of strophic units and entire poems.
In chapter 9, English offers commentaries on a series of poems: "L'art poetique," "Mon reve familier," "L'echelonnement des haies ...," "Crimen amoris" "A Clymene," "A Fernand Langlois," and three shorter poems--"La cathedrale est majestueuse" (Bonheur, XXIII), "Pour E ..." (Poemes divers), and "Dernier espoir" (Le Livre posthume).
In the commentary on "A Fernand Langlois" two words are inverted in line 5 (the first line of the second quatrain), producing a false analysis of the metre. Line 5 reads: "Et vous avez ouvert doucement ma serrure...." English gives this line as "Et vous avez doucement ouvert ..." (275). The corrected line scans as a classical alexandrine (6-6), "Et vous a-vez ou-vert / dou-ce-ment ma ser-rure." All lines in the first two quatrains scan classically as 6-6. Only in the third quatrain does Verlaine begin to complicate the rhythmic and metrical structuring. Because of space restrictions, I will reserve my disagreement with English's discursive analysis of this poem for another occasion.
What is "undecidable" in Verlaine's poetry? Most importantly, the rhythmic segments of the poetic line. Here are two examples from the chapter on "Les Dodecasyllabes." In Epigrammes, we find "Le taureau, seul, vit, mais comme il vit! Que lui font" (XIV, IV, 1. 4). The most likely stresses would be on syllables 5, "vit," and 12, "font." A stress on syllable 6, "mais," is unlikely, but not unthinkable. From Elegies, English cites the following line with various possible rhythmic stresses: "Soyons, s'il te plait, toi, coquette, moi, bien mis," (VIII). A stress on syllable 6 is possible, even likely, but this does not keep the syntactically fractured line from displaying a staccato rhythm of 2-3-1-2-2-2 (examples cited by English, 103).
The study is complemented by four helpful appendices. There are three separate tables (of decasyllabes, alexandrins, and octosyllabes) listing the poems where a specific line is found and notes whether that line is the unique metre, the "metre de base" or a rare occurence. The fourth appendix lists poems where there is direct reference to "reve" and its derivatives.
The bibliography is extensive and useful, although much material on Verlaine has been appearing before and since the centenary of Verlaine's death (1896). Although the publication of Verlaine poete de l'indecidable is given as 2005, none of the highly relevant editions or studies published after the first issue of Revue Verlaine through 2000 are noted. Jean-Michel Gouvard and Steve Murphy organized the Colloque de Cerisy in July 1996 and published the papers in Verlaine a la loupe (Paris: Champion, 2000).
Both Cornulier and Bobillot were headed in a generally similar direction and English has worked to an extent in the light of their findings. They recognized the metrical uncertainty of many of Verlaine's poetic lines in articles of the first issue of the Revue Verlaine. Bobillot says we can hardly leave the "domaine ... de l'indecidable" ("Entre metre et non-metre: le 'decasyllabe chez Verlaine," , 190). Since English cites this article in his bibliography, it is curious that he does not at least give credit to Bobillot along with Derrida for explicitly analyzing the "indecidable" in Verlaine's poetry..
It is virtually inevitable that oversights and typographical errors will creep into a book after submission and correction of the manuscript. I will mention only a handful of glitches that go beyond the innocent typo. The pages cited for "Appendice IV" are 314-321, not "p. 324-31" (xi). Referring to a quote from Mazaleyrat, English says that "les incertitudes nees de l'emploi d'enjambements particulierement forts ... expliquent eventuellement l'attrait irresistible que renferme le procure pour Verlaine" (72; italics mine). Try as I will, I cannot make sense of the clause in italics. English and his proofreaders have missed a glaring syntactical anglicism: "ce dernier [heptasyllabe] qui semble avoir besoin de plus d'un accent rythmique sans etant suffisamment long ..." (166; italics mine--"etant" should of course be "etre").
A bit more serious is English's statement that Verlaine does not always follow the convention of "alternance des rimes" (176). He cites the first six lines of "Le charme du Vendredi saint" (a posthumously published piece, in the "Vers non publies en volume"), an inverse sonnet in which the sextet is followed by the quatrains. In addition to the reverse order of the "groupes rimiques" Verlaine rhymes the singular "diable" with the plural "irremediables" and he switches the order of rhymes in the two quatrains, but he adheres strictly to the altenance of rhyme genre: MMM FFF MFMF MFMF.
Alan English credibly defends his thesis of the increasing "indecidability" of meter in Verlaine's later poetry in a well-organized and seriously researched study. Readers and students of Verlaine will want to take this reading into account along with the increasing number of serious and detailed studies that have been appearing since 1993.
Carrol F. Coates, Binghamton University-SUNY
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|Author:||Coates, Carrol F.|
|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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