Aimé Foinpré (1841-1880) died a hundred and thirty years ago today (17 December), killed as he leapt from a second story window in Paris’ seventh arrondissement to escape the wrath of a jealous husband; he was dead even before the raven-tressed cause of contention had hastily gathered up her clothes and fled from the room. It was a fittingly dashing and disreputable end for a man whose immense talent was exceeded only by his charm and lunatic recklessness.
He is all but forgotten today, but in his time he exercised a subtle but substantial influence in French letters, and may indirectly have made a mark upon English-language literature as well. He was first and foremost a gifted classicist, and one whose special interest in late antiquity led him in the last fifteen years of his life to an ever deepening fascination with Byzantine civilization. A distinguished graduate of the École Normale Supérieure, his reputation for frivolity and a tendency towards indiscretion had nevertheless denied him a university position; but somehow he was able to secure a position at a good lycée in a Parisian commune.
He was also a poet, though his one volume of verse, published in 1878, appeared in a limited private edition of only two hundred copies and was never reprinted thereafter. The little book made the rounds in literary circles, however, and for a short period was celebrated by some of the finest writers of the age. Verlaine—not yet lost in a haze of absinthe and opiates—was deeply impressed. Anatole France was reportedly “alarmed” by the disorienting attractiveness of many of the poems. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (whose judgments in such matters could admittedly be a bit capricious) compared the young classicist flatteringly to Baudelaire.
A promising debut but, alas, an abortive one. Had Foinpré devoted more of his energies to producing poetry and less to seducing beautiful women (at which he was quite prolifically accomplished) or to provoking fights with other men (over beautiful women) or to separating himself from beautiful women with calamitous theatricality (on account of other beautiful women), he might have accomplished a great deal more. Certainly had he not died so prematurely his literary posterity would not have fallen hostage to his deranged older sister, who as his sole living relative inherited his meager literary estate along with his library. Unable to understand that the writing of poetry has rarely been a path to fame and fortune, she would accept none of the terms publishers were willing to offer her to reprint her brother’s verse, and she stoutly refused to yield on the point till she died in 1929. By then, her brother was remembered by almost no one.
So he lived on only as a suppressed memory in fin de siècle French literature, though something of his sensibility continued to echo on at least into the late writings of Valéry. Moreover, there is some evidence that his poetry was stumbled upon by the young Robert Byron, who found in it further encouragement for his own adoration of all things Byzantine; if so, Foinpré might be accounted a distant influence on Yeats. But we should not grasp at straws, I suppose. As it turned out, his life was full of promise, but only promise.
At least, that has been so until now. At last, a sort of rediscovery of Foinpré is underway. A new critical edition of his poems—including six never before published—is being prepared in France, and I have been translating the poems for the American edition, scheduled to appear about two years hence. So, with my publisher’s permission, I thought I might offer a few of those translations, just as a diversion (whether I am permitted to reproduce the new critical texts of the French edition, however, I do not know).
The first is an early piece, written when he was in his mid-twenties. Already, however, the Byzantine theme had become a central motif.
The Old Man Goes to Constantinople to Die
Upon the vision of those seas he cast
Himself when, full of days, he sought repose
Beyond dominions of the bitter past,
In habitations of the deathless rose.
Full eighty years and more his bent back knew;
His heart from grief had grown as cold as stone;
His eyes were pale, the adamantine blue
Of winter clouds, of ice and wind-stripped bone.
Those bleak November skies soon lost their drear
Albescence, and the seas their turbid gray,
As warmer winds outraced the changing year
And bore him on into an endless day.
He came to realms of porphyry and gold,
Of trees whose fruit were jewels, of sacred song,
Where harbor waters never knew the cold
At autumn’s end, when northern nights grow long.
And so he there, in Wisdom’s silver heart,
Below the ring of fire, fell down and prayed,
And saw the dome and Great Church break apart
And yield before the world that they portrayed.
Angelic flames now lit the heavens’ vault;
He grew as still and changeless as the gold;
The lambent icons in his soul had wrought
New visions and new glories to be told.
The second is a sonnet, written it seems to express his frustration over his unsuccessful pursuit of one Renée Gautier, a lovely young woman who was apparently a considerable scholar in her own right, with a large knowledge of antique philosophy and religion, whose interest in Foinpré—much to the latter’s consternation—never went beyond conversation.
“The world is one, dear heart,” she said, “and shines
Upon the burning mirror of the soul
Because the bright horizon of the whole
Gathers to its vanishing point the lines
Of sky and earth; so all things become signs,
While still the mind turns to its silent pole,
And once again is born the mystic foal
In time’s wild grove, among the clustered vines.”
“My love,” said I, “perhaps, just as you say,
In mind the world and self are ever wed,
Each soul’s a glass where fire and ocean play,
And cold stars gleam… But come with me to bed:
For we are mortal flesh at close of day…”
She smiled at me, and sadly shook her head.
I may have done Foinpré something of an injustice to this point, however, by emphasizing only his satyriatic side. In fact, he was a man of absorbing contradictions. Like Baudelaire, he was a dazzling combination of the devout and the profane. He was, in his odd way, a believing Catholic, and each of his amorous adventures tended to be followed by a brief penitential season, which always involved many candles and many new resolutions, but which never had much effect on his private conduct.
Still, religious themes absolutely saturate his verse, and his two longest poetic works are a pair of quasi-theological, slightly gnostic, deeply Alexandrian cycles of interrelated poems. One is about various icons he saw on a journey through Italy and Greece in the summer of 1869, and the other is a series of brief monologues attributed to various saints and—at the conclusion—to the devil and Christ. I have chosen one piece from each. From the former:
The Fall of Lucifer
No darkness falls across this golden noon,
And here no cloud or shadow mounts the wind;
Softly falls the dragon, through a ruined sky,
The region of the sullen southern stars.
A meteor, a silver strand of lightning
Upon the hazel dusk, he fell and fell,
Gold his hair and gold his eyes, such bright beauty
In sheer descent upon the torpid breeze…
When, still delighting, sang the angels, sang
The stars…. The son of morning, fallen where
None can find him, who in the evening of
That age slipped down along the seam of night….
Gone now, all glory, all that lovely bright
Magnificence: become the ember’s glow,
The aftermath, the deep reproach of those
Cold, bleak, disconsolate, and empty heavens;
And now, amid a race who crave a God’s
Miraculous sadness, terrible mirth,
The tawdry splendor of his glory’s waste
Must wear another aspect than its own,
And he must walk the dismal floor of earth,
And range the fallow reaches of the sea,
And rule the turbulent and lifeless winds,
And hide in secret chambers in their hearts.
And from the latter a vaguely docetic lyric:
II: John on Patmos
My tongue was as a golden bird
Tangled in an emerald net,
My eyes were diamonds, my ears heard
His voice in silver echoes; yet
I knew no way to join the dance
Until the dancer took my hand,
And led me in a floating trance
When I could scarcely rise to stand.
Or so, when visions seized my soul,
It seemed; or when his gentle form
Amid the garden shadows, cold
And still (as when he calmed the storm
Upon the waters), fixed in prayer,
Became as pure and strange as light
Departing from the evening air
Before the melting blue of night.
I am as gold or emerald,
As twilit gems or moonlit silver,
Beyond all grief, transformed, and held
Within a cage of stars, and never
To leave this island washed by dreams;
I can recall as none else can
The otherness in him: he seemed
A shape more beautiful than man.
Anyway, I offer them here for what they are worth. Every translation is also a betrayal, of course, so none of the defects of these verses as I have presented them here should redound to the discredit of the originals. I feel no contrition over my failings as a translator, however, because—to tell the truth—I just made all of this up this past weekend.
Forgive me. I lost the text of the column I wrote for today’s On The Square to technical difficulties just before I could send it in. At Christmastime, however, an amusement in which I engage for private entertainments is the composition of little literary pastiches, written in an “assigned” style, accompanied by short fictional vignettes for context. It is an idea we got from a number of Victorian writers. This year, the set subject was “Pretty English translation of poems by a forgotten French Symbolist poet,” which leaves considerable scope for a certain sort of honey-glazed conventional versifying (“five-finger exercises,” so to speak). I had the piece on hand when disaster struck.
I suppose I should not have made the man a seducer, given that Christmas is a Church feast, and I suppose I shall remove that—or mute it—before the day arrives; but it seemed the properly French thing to do. The poet’s name, incidentally, is an elaborate joke (fifty cents if you can figure it out). Anyway, usually all of this self-indulgent nonsense would be kept safely behind closed doors. But it occurred to me that it might make a rather amiably ridiculous gift, in keeping with the season. So, understanding the circumstances, take it as you will and have a merry and very blessed Christmas.
David B. Hart is a contributing writer of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.