- Théodore de Banville: Constructing Poetic Value in Nineteenth-Century France by David Evans
Despite the admiration of a number of influential poets — especially Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire, but also Baudelaire and Verlaine — Banville has been neglected until recently. David Evans has written an engaging, richly documented study of the poet that will no doubt arouse interest in his work and provoke discussion. He takes as his starting point lines from the Preface to the Stalactites: ‘C’est le métier qui enseigne à mépriser le métier […] lorsqu’il faut exprimer en poésie un certain ordre de sensations et de sentiments qu’on pourrait appeler musicaux’ (p. 97). He seeks to counter the widely held view that Banville, because he is the author of the Petit Traité de poésie française, is ‘the poet of purely mechanical processes’ (p. 275). Evans begins by rereading this work in an original way. He claims that it does not, as has been assumed, present a set of rules that should be obeyed by the ambitious poet. It is, rather, a parody of a prescriptive treatise by Louis Quicherat, published in 1850. Most readers have been blind to the ‘mischievous humour’ (p. 41) in the text, due to the clever use of hyperbole and irony. Banville believes that the genuine poet ‘fait les règles et ne les subit pas’ (p. 67). He should disregard traditional metrical conventions, trust his ‘oreille délicate’ (p. 38) and accept the tension between tradition and innovation, which enables words to create rhythm and produce an ideal music. Banville has an exalted notion of the rhythm of verse; it should echo ‘le Chant des Étoiles’ (p. 129). Of this ‘unheard’ music, which Banville hopes that his verse will capture, Evans wryly asks: ‘Does a poet write in verse because it represents an authentic order greater than itself, or simply because the poet has read so much verse in the first place?’ (p. 49). Nonetheless he believes that ‘the real musical quality of Banville’s poetry [lies] in a resistance to closure akin to that of instrumental music’ (p. 249). Among the unexpected and interesting documents that are summarized in the book are the entries from the New Grove Dictionary of Music on the ‘Caprice or Capriccio’ (as Banville speaks of the ‘pur caprice’ (p. 116) of the poem) and on ‘Variations’ (Evans gives a detailed commentary (pp. 141–52) on the late virtuoso piece ‘Variations’, which is based on an imagined violin performance of the tune ‘Au clair de la lune’). In the years after the Franco-Prussian war, Evans discerns a patriotic motive in Banville’s focus on collections of poèmes traditionnels à forme fixe, such as the ballade and the rondel, which were to attract composers. These poems depend, for Evans, on ‘la cheville glorifiée’ (p. 202). In his treatment of the use of chevilles in French verse, he reproduces unexpectedly an illuminating extract from the Grand Dictionnaire universel on the subject. In this wide-ranging study, Evans gives a detailed analysis of many specimens of Banville’s verse to show the ‘elusive musicality’ (p. 119) of poems which can be the ‘rappel quotidien d’une joie fugitive’ (p. 110) or a ‘plainte étouffée’ (p. 74).