In my view, Marcel Proust was far and away the greatest literary prose stylist of all time writing in the French language. But could he also write poetry? With his absolute mastery of language, sentence structure, imagery and ideas, you would think so. Yet there is very little poetic output that I am aware of from Proust. Here is one example, a poem inspired by the music of Frederic Chopin.
Chopin, mer de soupirs, de larmes, de sanglots
Q’un vol de papillons sans se poser traverse
Jouant sur la tristesse ou dansant sur les flots.
Reve, aime, souffre, crie, apaise, charme ou berce,
Toujours tu fais courir entre chaque douleur
L’oubli vertigineux et doux de ton caprice
Comme les papillons volent de fleur en fleur;
De ton chagrin alors ta joie est la complice:
L’ardeur du tourbillon accroit la soif des pleurs.
De la lune et des eaux pale et doux camarade,
Prince du desespoir ou grand seigneur trahi,
Tu t’exaltes encore, plus beau d’etre pali,
Du soleil inondant ta chambre de malade
Qui pleure a lui sourire et souffre de le voir…
Sourire du regret et larmes de l’Espoir!
At first glance, this looks like it might be a sonnet, but then, count the lines, and there are 15. So not an unfinished sonnet, like the piece by Saint-Amant posted here on March 6th, but perhaps a sonnet which has overflowed, burst its banks, exuberantly gone the extra mile?
Right off the bat in the first two lines, we see Proust’s trademark accumulation of images, each one adding another layer of meaning to the last – Chopins music is a sea of sighs, tears, sobs, crossed by butterflies playing sadly or dancing over the waves. The fourth line ups his game even more, with seven verbs in one line to describe the impact the music can have on the listener – it is as if Keith Richards’ guitar style were transposed to the written word with interlocking matrices of sound and meaning building up to a heady, lush effect.
The poem goes on to explore the tensions between extremes of emotional and sensual reaction to the music of Chopin, – pain, sorrow, suffering, joy, ecstasy, despair – each reaction pushed to its limits. There is something of the sixteenth century in the final two lines which bring together opposite ideas – tears, smiles, regret, hope and reconciles them in the range of effects the music could have. Quevedo, Gongora or Shakespeare would recognise this technique, and I think applaud.
Bravo, M. Proust…
The Poetry Dude