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  • Une intention de salut. Essais sur la poésie française moderne by John Naughton
  • Edward K. Kaplan
John Naughton , Une intention de salut. Essais sur la poésie française moderne. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2012. 235 pp.

This is a work of genuine academic piety. John Naughton, who launched his career as interpreter of modern French poetry with a book on Yves Bonnefoy (1984), develops in his title and final chapter a moving and substantial analysis of Bonnefoy as the exemplar of a new (atheistic or agnostic) modern faith in five major poets—and he accomplishes this essentially ethical intent with meticulous textual analyses. Naughton is a sensitive, trustworthy guide. After an avant-propos explaining his own flexible relationship with traditional faith-based motivation, he provides a wide-ranging "Introduction: La poésie moderne et la tradition chrétienne" (13-43), which anticipates his approaches to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Claudel, Louis-René des Forêts, and Yves Bonnefoy. Each chapter is self-contained and some repetition of crucial quotations strengthens the book's pedagogical unity.

Following Yves Bonnefoy's assertion that "Nous autres venons après les dieux" (41), Naughton explores how each poet adapts the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. He begins by tracing the French sanctification of the poet from Hugo through Bonnefoy and insists that "Claudel est le seul à avoir vécu la foi sans équivoque" (41). The following five chapters plunge into those ambiguities.

Naughton makes a convincing case for Baudelaire's essentially religious, though anti-bourgeois, orientation. "Le problème Baudelaire" (43-87)—with its trendy medieval genitive following Sainte-Beuve (see La Folie Baudelaire by Roberto Calasso; John E. Jackson, La Mort Baudelaire)—warns against identifying author and poetic persona. Referring to approaches of Bonnefoy, Pierre Emmanuel, Pierre Jean Jouve, Leo Bersani, Charles Mauron, Steve Murphy, and others, Naughton stresses the dialectic of reality and escapism, "Une extase faite de volupté et de connaissance" (72, Baudelaire's italics). Baudelaire's own analysis of ecstasy (70-74) was provoked in part by Wagner's overture to Lohengrin as well as the drug experience. The poet's compassion provides a transition to "L'expérience de la charité chez Rimbaud" (83-105), itself a transition chapter that provides analyses of Une saison en enfer and Rimbaud's relationship with his mother, with Verlaine, and the influence of his absent father. The chapter concludes by citing Rimbaud's appeal to American readers such as Henry Miller and Jim Morrison of The Doors. Rimbaud in Africa also receives insightful treatment.

The next two chapters—"La Foi selon Paul Claudel" (107-146) and "Louis-René des Forêts, Agonistès," (147-183)—illuminates the contrast [End Page 174] between Claudel's militant Catholicism and the profound secularism of Des Forêts, whom Naughton knew personally, and to whom he devoted an important monograph (1993).

Naughton's analysis of Claudel's theatre is sympathetic and attempts to rescue that powerful personality from disdain by literary historians—but not without a bold moral judgment:

certes, il semble que Paul Claudel ait eu besoin de la forteresse que l'Église lui a fournie. La rigidité de ses doctrines, la cohérence de son enseignement, la beauté de ses rites, la régularité de ses pratiques, répondaient à une nécessité chez lui et le défendait de forces obscures mais réelles: le doute, la passion, le chaos, la folie. Son orgueil, ses impatiences, sa soif de certitudes sont autant de fortifications contre l'ennemi, contre la peur.


Naughton's interpretation of Des Forêts, I suggest, benefits significantly from friendship (as with Yves Bonnefoy), but it derives its authority from scrupulous textual analyses. Naughton presumes negativity and places it within a post-modern context: "celui-ci a toujours été leurré par le silence et attiré par le néant, ce qui dans les deux cas, suppose une rupture dans le rapport à autrui" (147). Naughton stresses the autobiographical dimension of later works in which the figure of the child is central, as it is in Bonnefoy. According to Naughton, this often grim vision displays "une résolution morale et un engagement inébranlable envers...


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