- An Anonymous SheafThirty-Seven Post-Symbolist Poems
On a visit to Paris in the early 1990s, I was introduced to an antiquarian bookseller who invited me to inspect a sheaf of French poems in manuscript, written in ink on yellowed papers of various sizes and qualities, and in various conditions, but mostly clean and legible. Only one page of the more than seventy was dated, presumably in the author’s hand: “4 janvier 1900.” I met the bookseller through mutual friends, so on our meeting he already knew of my interest in Symbolist poetry and especially that of Stéphane Mallarmé, on whom, some years before, I had published a monograph. I told him of my interest in Jules Laforgue, which he said he had presumed, given my work on T. S. Eliot, about which he appeared to know something. He also had seen the inaugural and second issues of Common Knowledge and wanted to talk about Henry J.-M. Levet, five of whose poems we had published, in the fall 1992 issue, in what the bookseller thought, and I agreed, were splendid English translations by Kirby Olson. The translations had been prefaced by an essay, “Henry J.-M. Levet and the International Legacy of Symbolism,” by Vyacheslav Ivanov, son of the Soviet writer Vsevolod Ivanov and named—so, at all events, I assumed—for the great Russian Symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov.1 [End Page 143]
Levet is one of those known, unknown figures that crop up periodically as the freshly rediscovered favorite of some later poet or critic. The main reason for Levet’s obscurity is the dearth of poetry that he published or, rather, that his admirers, the poets Valery Larbaud and Léon-Paul Fargue, edited, fifteen years after Levet’s death, for publication by Adrienne Monnier’s Maison des Amis des Livres. Levet’s Poèmes appeared in 1921, the year before Ulysses was published in book form (which I mention because Larbaud went on to supervise the French translation of Joyce’s novel, again for Monnier’s press). It was tuberculosis that set a limit to Levet’s productivity as a writer (he died in 1906 at age thirty-three), along with, presumably, the demands of his occupation as a diplomat serving in South Asia and then South America. Olson summarizes what little else is known of the case: “Levet wrote a novel called The Benares Express, but it was withheld from publication by his parents, and is now presumably lost. Other than that novel, what is all the more astonishing about Levet’s influence is that, aside from a few garbled pages of juvenilia along symbolist lines, Levet’s mature work amounts to 11 pages.”2
The bookseller wondered if the sheaf of pages that he showed me might be the work of Levet. Certainly, he said, their author must be a poet of, more or less, Levet’s time and description: of Jewish background, hence free to make light of Catholic and pagan iconography; conscious of writing in the shadow of Mallarmé, hence less exacting formally, less abstract and severe, but also in the shade of Rimbaud and consequently less seamy, almost respectable—and more, it seemed to my new acquaintance, coy, more likely to strike a pose, even “une pose fâcheuse,” in order to try out affects and observe effects. The allusions, the settings, he thought, were characteristic of a diplomat, one serving the Third Republic in India. I asked if there was evidence of time spent in Argentina or the Philippines, where Levet had served as well; my interlocutor thought not. I was leaving shortly for the United States, but he was pleased to lend me copies of the poems, which I read on the flight home. By the time we touched down, I had translated a few of the shorter ones and was surprised by how cooperative they were with the process. In preparing, years before, to work with Mallarmé’s poetry, I had translated into English, for my own reference, every poem about which I intended to write and had found the experience as difficult and unrewarding as, I assume...