New Voices In French Poetry
( Originally Published 1916 )
The Unanimistes stand far outside the French Academy. But if you happen by chance on a winter afternoon into one of those scrubby halls near the Odéon, where queer bohemians gather for the discussion of new literary movements, you may find yourself strangely moved by the recitation of a poem by Vildrac or Romains. The rhythms are new; plebeian, too, like the hall; the images and ideas have a democratic tang. These poets seem to have disposed of traditional literary culture as easily as the Cubists have disposed of traditional painting, and they are, you soon discover, preaching conversion — conversion from nineteenth-century individualism to twentieth-century unification. Romains, Vildrac, Arcos, Duhamel, have together invented, or adapted from greater predecessors, a new rôle for the poet. He is no longer to be an exclusive, exalted, egotistic creature, whose lyrical raptures set him apart from the rest of the world: he is to be a man. His poetry is not to be a special language for esthetes, but a religion of life, a means of initiating the average mortal into the secret beauties of his everyday existence.
This creed sounds more familiarly in American than in European ears. Walt Whitman is, in-deed, one of the poetical ancestors of Unanimisme. The other ancestor is the great Belgian Verhaeren, whose sonorous new rhythms and humanitarian doctrines were a strong influence in revolutionary French poetic circles when these young Unanimistes formed their coterie about 1908. But after all, even Romains' schematic "La Vie Unanime" which is accused by his enemies of deriving directly from the new theories of group-psychology developed by philosophers like Le Bon, Tarde, Durkheim, may be considered less a deliberate construction than the result of spontaneous combustion between the poet's sensibility and his age. The age — the first ten years of the new century — was one of generous social dreams. The Dreyfus Affair had been in some sort a re-birth for the more radical element of the nation, and internationalism, syndicalism, cooperation, and other forms of solidarité sociale were in the air. Unanimisme, the poets claim, is not a dogma but a faith; a faith, Duhamel puts it, "capable of transforming the economic order and the relations of a people."
Vildrac, whom I happen to know the best of the four Unanimistes, is, in terms of bread-and-butter, a Post-impressionist picture-dealer. His brown-shuttered shop is just off the quais on the rue de Seine. The shutters stick in my mind, because the first time I went there they were tight-closed for the night, and my companion, another French poet, had to pound with his cane to call the attention of the owner. When Vildrac opened the door upon a stranger, he looked fluttered as some shy, wild, brown bird caught in a snare. But he made haste to lead us into the rear gallery where his wife was surveying, with just pride, the work of her hands. Mme. Vildrac was obviously the perfect wife for a poor poet turned marchand de tableaux: fair, plump, practical, with a dash of the quality that keeps the pot boiling in her theory of life, and a flowered blouse no Futurist could resist. At this moment she had just finished, with-out a workman, the transformation of a grimy little shop, where centuries of dust were stored, into a modern art gallery. Modern, indeed. I stood aghast before a picture of a café concert singer with a horrible, screaming, red mouth.
"Detestable, is n't it ?" said Vildrac; "but is n't it faithful to our age, symbolic of present-day Paris?" Symbolize, synthesize: these words are popular with Unanimistes as they are with Cubists, and Romains in particular has called up images as massive and novel to poetry — summoned, I think, by the same sort of intellectualizing, analytical turn of mind — as those on the canvases of Gleizes and Metzinger.
It seems scarcely accidental that Gleizes, one of the leaders of the Cubist school, should have been one of the earlier "Abbaye" group from which Unanimisme has evolved.
"Je rêve l'abbaye — ah, sans abbé ! —
wrote Vildrac in his early volume. Poets' dreams sometimes come true, at least for a while. Vildrac and Arcos, on a Sunday ramble in the environs of Paris in 1906, came upon an old house in a luxuriant, deserted park; and here a group of young men burning with artistic and social dreams ---
"Artistes, artisans, buveurs de lune" —
that is to say, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, and engravers, — forthwith resolved to build an ideal community. To repair their ram-shackle domicile and set their garden in order was their first care. A printing-press was then in-stalled, and the community planned to make a livelihood by publishing books. Manual work in the press and garden in the morning; recreation in the afternoon; exhibitions, recitations, recitals for the visitors who flocked on Sunday: this was the programme. But eighteen months of dire poverty were all this French Brook Farm knew.
For the true buveurs de lune like Vildrac such adventures never cease to trail clouds of glory. One is conscious with him that he has had a trans-figuring experience; he remembers only the best hours of talk by the fire and work in common.
"Vivre en amour, vivre en ferveur,
this to him is a reality. What Mme. Vildrac, who had in her youth and inexperience to make the wheels go round, remembers of that bitter winter — but I must not tell. "Je n'en parle jamais," she says, "a mon mari."
I recall with especial pleasure, among many pleasant Unanimistic gatherings, an afternoon spent in Duhamel's study: a long afternoon when these poets who are practical men ex-pounded their unliterary views. There was Vildrac, the picture-dealer; Romains, the professor of philosophy, who might be the son of some substantial farmer in a country of good wines — solid, stolid, apple-cheeked, bearded and black; there was finally Duhamel, the experimental biologist, who looks every inch an intellectual scientist, with his round, brown beard and his detached, near-sighted eyes behind their glasses. And let me not fail to name a flower-like lady with veiled, brown eyes and lovely, melting ways, who gave us coffee and fetched volumes from the bookcase. On these walls, too, there hung Post-impressionist pictures above the well-filled book-shelves. M. Duhamel is poetic critic for the Mercure de France, the author of several volumes of criticism and one — written in collaboration with Vildrac — of poetic technique. His poetry is strongly marked with Whitman's influence, but his democracy is a little artificial. I see him sitting in the center of his life, as he sits among his books, criticizing, analyzing, appraising it, instead of letting himself be carried by the human current as Vildrac is. He confesses somewhere that he does not really like the crowd. But he cites at the beginning of his "Propos Critiques" the following phrase of Charles Louis-Philippe: "The time for gentleness and dillettantism is past; now we must have barbarians." Yes, these harmless poets with their soft brown beards call themselves "barbarians" as the early Post-impressionists called themselves "fauves" — wild beasts. They wish to emphasize their desire to get rid of formulae. As Verlaine, whom they worship, puts it: —
"L'art, mes enfants, c'est d'être absolument soi-même;
"There are too many writers in France," I remember Vildrac saying, "who, look upon life as an unfortunate obstacle to a literary career. They want to hear no sound but the scratch of their own pens. When a man has nothing to do but write, he is likely to end in the Academy — fâcheux destin! There they sit, these littérateurs, in their separate corners of Paris with their separate little pieces of paper imitating other littérateurs, listening for old accents, instead of going out into the world and then translating the impact of their souls with the elements." Vildrac, who is poor and sensitive and not a money-maker, has often found this impact rude, but he does not flinch from it. If he has no intention of prostituting his talent, neither will he starve in a garret. For him the great reality is living, not one's reaction on living. For him the artist is only valuable in so far as he can share his personal experience, prove to the man in the street that in him, too, hides a poet, "a poet who has other things to do than write verses."
We had, I remember, much talk of the ad-vantages and disadvantages of literary groups. Wonder was expressed that in the land of the "great Walt," where every one held hands in brotherhood, there were so few. (It was before the days of the "Imagists," the "Masses," and the "New Republic.") Were there not many mute, inglorious Miltons, asked Romains? In France, as he said, the solitary genius scarcely exists; he is always surrounded by a body of admiring friends whose praise gives him the courage of his originality; he has always the chance to get published in a small review, and gradually, if he has the vitality, to rise to the top — that " top" being for the Unanimistes not the official but the vers-libre top, the place where Verhaeren and Paul Fort stand. I use the term Unanimisle" in describing this particular cénacle; yet Duhamel was very emphatic that he and his friends were only a group to this extent: men of the same age and race who cherished the same hopes. Their poetry and the philosophy behind it were formative, positive, human; they stressed the things men had in common outside of class or nation or creed. But there the likeness ceased. There was only one real Unanimiste: "C'est Romains."
What, then, is Unanimisme proper? Really a new sort of polytheism whose point of departure is that human entities gathered into a group do not add up into so many separate individuals, but fuse into a new substance, which Romains chooses to call "god." Its most primitive manifestation, the vehicle of the race, is the god of the group of two. Then comes the god of the family; then the somnolent god-village; then the mighty god-town; then the god-crowd, a blind, implacable monster, whose force is incalculable. All the important movements of the day Romains believes are "breathed forth, exhaled from multitudes." It is those who have felt at one with these formless masses, these great and monstrous forces, at a strike meeting, in a street demonstration, who will get a thrill from Romains's poems. Though commonplace, intentionally so, in rhythm and vocabulary, they make a sort of epic of mod-em life.
I have said that Romains is the only Unanimiste, but Arcos is usually classed as such, just as Vildrac and Duhamel are put together as "Whitmanistes." Not the god-crowd, but the birth of the god in man is Arcos's theme in " Ce qui naît." He is a "cosmic" poet, who renders the Bergsonian philosophy, especially the theory of flux and real duration, in revolutionary verse. But this sort of thing is difficult reading. Whenever I tried "Ce qui naît," even in Paris, I found my-self putting on my hat and starting for the picture-shop in the rue de Seine, where I could be sure of an illuminating conversation with the truest poet of the four — Vildrac.
A poet whose personality remained so elusive, so delicate, so considerate of all one's own reticences, that even at this distance one does not dare try to give it weight and substance. I see him always standing somewhat hesitatingly in the middle of the back gallery, or, better, in the little salon of his apartment, where Madame sewed at the table, and a quiet little boy and girl lifted round eyes from their lessons; standing, two hours on end, talking of Paul Fort, of Verhaeren, of Verlaine, of Whitman, of Wordsworth, and the other poets who bind the nations together. He had just discovered Wordsworth and consulted me about the difficult passages. That there would be instinctive understanding between the author of "Poor Susan" and "We are Seven" — the Wordsworth of the poor, the humble, and the commonplace — and the author of "Les deux buveurs," "Une Auberge," "Paysage," is obvious to anybody who knows the "Livre d'Amour" and " Découvertes." If anything remains of Unanimisme ten years hence, it will, I believe, be this small volume of Vildrac's poems, the New Testament of the new faith. Here genuine poetic sensibility reveals in one sharp touch of significant truth something that philosophy can only baldly state or dully reiterate. Life, as Duhamel says, has told Vildrac some secrets: the secrets are not themselves new, they are as old as Christianity; but he listens and looks naively. His "Book of Love" is poignant because he dares re-peat the confidence as simply as he receives it, without any moralizing or dogmatizing.
He tells us in "Commentaire" how the poet feels who, bent over his desk with pen and paper, tries to set down again the egotistic echoes of the voice that is within him -- and suddenly finds that voice stifled and his mind a stagnant pool. He is tired of heroism wrought by strokes of his pen, tired of lying to his work and having his work lie to his life.
"Et je voudrais bien sortir de chez moi
When he gets out into the world, what does he find? Two old men drinking in a tavern, two quarrelsome old men who for one moment are happy in a glass of comradeship; a miserable inn at the crossroads where a child reveals the meaning of pitying love to a wanderer; a poor woman wheeling her baby along the road in the spring; a piece of land near a factory covered with the ugly refuse of industrialism, where a little green grass is growing.
"Mais si l'on avait assez d'amour" —
we must have enough love and imagination to realize what these trivial meetings, these mean and squalid sights reveal. Wherever the poet does perceive what life, in its depth, has to say, he is exalted by his identification with a larger world: —
"Il y avait moi, parmi tout cela,
The last poem in the book, "Le Conquérant," is a vision of the marvellous new joy that comes from brotherhood. The conqueror walks through the world, by his transfigured presence converting the population and spreading his great news; "and the time came in the country when there was nothing to fill the pages of history but songs in unison, dances in common, combats and victory.
"Poets to come! Orators, singers, musicians to come!
These lines of Whitman's come near to expressing the Unanimiste's feeling about himself. " Greater than before known? " — he would hardly make this claim, yet it may be well for me, who am his advocate, to open the thick history of contemporary French literature that lies on my table. As I glance through the index I find that this poetic alliance is only one among innumerable others, each of which has its reviews, its followers, and its prophets: Paroxysme; Imppulsionnisme; Naturisme; Synthétisme; Intégralisme; Visionnarisme; Futurisme; Primitivisme; Sincèrisme; Intensisme; Floralisme; Simultanéisme; Dynamisme; Imperialisme — these are a few of the classifications. I do not myself believe that Paroxysme, for instance, ranks with Unanimisme. But neither do I wish to proclaim the Unanimistes as great poets. Their voices are minor in the chorus led by Verhaeren; minor, but, it seems to me, significant.
It is possible, as my traditionalist friends object, that even the sensitive and human Vildrac is a faux naïf; that Romains is the slave of a system; that Duhamel has the "accent of the faubourg." Perhaps these men, in their desire to throw off the past, have forgotten too much, or never learned enough of the great French tradition. Perhaps their theories of versification are unimportant. The reason I care for Unanimisme is that it somehow expresses, in a new way, the first thing France taught me in the early years of this century: a humanitarian hope.