My dear Theo,
Just a word to tell you that — partly in response to your letter in which you mentioned pen drawings — I have five weavers for you which I’ve made after my painted studies and are slightly different — and I think livelier — in execution than the pen drawings of mine you’ve seen so far.1
I’m working on them from early till late, for have also started more new watercolours of them as well as the painted studies and the pen drawings.2
I thought about you a lot these last few days, partly on account of a little book that originally came from you and that I borrowed from Lies — the poems of François Coppée.3 I knew only a very few by him, and they’d already struck me at the time. He’s one of the true artists — who put their heart and soul into it4 — evident from more than one painful confession. All the more an artist because he’s touched by so many very different things, and is capable of painting both a 3rd-class waiting room full of emigrants who spend the night there — everything drab and gloomy and melancholy — and yet in another mood draws a little marquise who dances a minuet, as elegant as a little figure by Watteau.5
That absorption in the moment — that being so wholly and utterly carried away and inspired by the surroundings in which one happens to be — what can one do about it? And even if one could resist it if one wanted to, what would be the point, why shouldn’t one give oneself over to that which is in front of one, as this, after all, is the surest way to create something?
I was struck by the last one in the little book, entitled Désir dans le spleen, which I copy to remind you of it.6
Everything lives, everything loves! And I, sad and alone,
Stand like a dead tree against the vernal sky
I can no longer love, I who have lived but thirty years,
And have my mistress lately quit without regrets.
I am like a sick man, his thoughts grown dull
And wearying of his stale, familiar room,
His sole amusement, stupid and mechanical,
To count inside his head his carpet’s flowers.
Sometimes I wish my end were near,
And all these recollections — once so sweet,
I thrust away, as from the portrait of an ancestor
Whose gaze disturbs us, we turn away our eye.
Even of that old love, that drew so many tears,
No trace remains in this, my jaded heart.
O, thou figure in my thoughts, veiled and dim,
Whom I may meet tomorrow, whom I know not yet,
A courtesan, leaning at table ’mid the remnants of a meal,
Or — a woman, sober-minded, eyes downcast and pale.
Appear! — if yet this wretched heart, empty of desire,
Its flame extinct, you can again ignite,
Give me again the infinite within a woman’s glance
And all of nature blooming in a kiss.
Come! — As sailors on a foundering ship
Throw — to win an hour’s respite — a treasure to the deep —
Come! — I promise you all, heart and soul — blood and flesh,
All — for but a moment of faith — or yet of drunken rapture.
and then this:
Divine hope that two together come to form
And two together share,
The hope to love long, love always, love
More dearly every day;
Desire eternal — touching and chimerical,
That lovers sigh —
When — blissful moment — searching each other out,
Their lips exchange a mutual breath.
That vain, illusory desire, that cheating hope,
Whereof we never spoke;
It pains me to see we are afraid of it,
Though it be in our souls.
And when to your questioning I, your sweetheart,
Murmur a soft response,
The word is — evermore —
Without my uttering it,
And though its dear echo sounds within your heart,
Your silence is the same
When on your breast, languorous unto death,
I swear I love you.
What signifies the past — what of time to come?
For what is best of all,
Is to believe that it should never end,
That hour’s illusion.
And when I tell you, ‘Evermore!’ — do naught
That might dispel that dream,
And may your kiss on mine
Press all the longer and more tenderly.
and then this7 —
You whom I saw as like the blasted oak,
I find you now a father, find you spouse;
And yet to that brow that dreamed of death’s release,
A pistol once was held.
All that you cannot have forgotten quite;
You knew how one suffers and despairs;
You carried in your heart the viper vile
Of a great love lost, a great hope — crushed.
Oblivion eluded you — you sought out
Tumults, orgy and its songs — fame and its jibes
And the long roaring of the sea and of the wind.
Who, then, unto your sorrow put a silent stop —
O Lonesome one — ’twas but the rhythmic beat
Marked by the cradle of a little child.8
and then this —
A wound reopened
O, my heart, are you then so craven and so weak?
And would you be like a convict, dragging his ball and chain,
Who, though released, yet hobbles still?
Be silent — well you know the sentence she has passed on you.
I will no longer suffer, and thus I order you:
If I should feel you swell once more and writhe,
May I — with a stifled sob — crush you;
And — no one shall know of it — and — to still my cries,
They’ll see me — for that ghastly minute,
Clench my teeth — just like a soldier during amputation.9
This is certainly poetry, and among the best — I find Désir dans le spleen, in particular so true, paints how, in those very souls who are wearied and those who almost fall, there arises at times that infinite renewal of desire, as if they had no past behind them — I thought of Rembrandt’s Jewish bride10 — and what Thoré says about it.11 Thoré (in his prime) and Theo Gautier12 and so many others — how much has changed since them — and how much duller it’s become. If one wants to preserve something of the fire in one, nowadays one must show it to others as little as possible. But anyway.
Did you get the little consignment I sent last week?13
I have to keep the pen drawings for another week or so because I still need them to finish off other things that I started at the same time. But you’ll get them soon — but do please let me know whether the parcel arrived safely, and whether there were enough stamps on it. Because drawings possibly count as written matter and more has to be paid on them.
Regards — I hope you’ll be able to do something with all of this.
Pa already wrote to you about Ma a few days ago. All remained normal since, and the doctor said today he hadn’t dared hope at the beginning that it would have gone so well.
Coppée is another one like Heine or Musset — I’ll copy out a few more.
The first one14
It’s not that she was so beautiful,
But we were both twenty,
And that day, as I recall
Was a spring morning.
It’s not that she looked so serious,
But here and now I swear
That never have I dared do a more courageous thing
Than when I told her that I loved her.
It’s not that she had a tender heart,
But it was so delightful
To talk to her, to listen to her speak,
My eyes would fill with tears.
It’s not that her soul was hard,
But all the same, she left me (or perhaps, I left her)15
From then my sadness takes its date,
And will continue, everlastingly.16
The lost dog.17
When we go home, at night, through empty city streets,
And see upon the wet, green, greasy mud
Long streaks of gaslight, more of them every day,
Often a stray dog with matted coat, a dreadful, doleful sight,
An old dog from hereabouts, which its master, penniless,
Has thrown out with a kick — perhaps mourning it —
Will stick its stubborn nose into your heels,
And if you should turn back, give you a look,
And what a look — long, fearful, all cajolery,
A mistress’s, a poor man’s touching gaze,
Yet hopeless, with that uncertain air belonging to
A woman scorned and a poor man who feels his shame.
And if you stop, he’ll stop with you, and
Feebly wag his wet and drooping tail,
Timid, knowing his fate lies in your hands.
He seems to say: ‘Come on — take me with you — please?’
We’re moved — and yet we don’t quite dare;
We’re poor ourselves — and rabies is a fearful thing.
And then — unkindly — making as if to raise
Our stick — we tell the dog: ‘Go on, be off with you!’
And — all contrite — he goes to plead his cause elsewhere.
This also applies to art.
Ill-omened meeting! and what times are these,
| what they have done to us
|– decent people
– too well-fed people
(something like that)
That the poorest folk now cast their dogs aside,
And when, distracted from the public show of grief, we must yet
Pity these animals – who turn upon us their imploring gaze.
To a Second lieutenant.18
You carry, my handsome officer,
With perfect grace,
Your sword with hilt of steel,
But I think of our defeat.
This pelisse of finest stuff
Sets off your figure perfectly;
You’re charming; but after all
We lost the battle.
We read your intrepidity
In your black eyes under their slender brows.
Nothing wrong with wearing fancy gloves —
But, they took two provinces from us.
At your age one’s always proud
Of a little bit of braid;
But — do you see — ’twas yesterday
They maimed our motherland.
Lieutenant, I do not know
If of an evening, a finger to your brow,
Holding book and compasses,
You stay up late, beside the lamp.
Are your men your children?
Are you their leader and their father?
I wish to believe that, and would fight off
A doubt that fills me with despair.
Stripes on your sleeve, on your way,
Is it of deliverance you think?
— Young man, give me your hand,
Let’s give a little shout — ‘Vive la France!’
A woman alone.19
I met her in a bourgeois drawing-room –
Her gentle, timorous eyes, her banished angel’s brow,
First drew me to her – and I was told
She’d separated from a brutal spouse.
Still she kept company with those old friends
Whose home had known her as a growing child
And who, despite the talk that makes folk take offence,
Cared not a jot for all their cruel prejudice.
But she knew well enough – sweet and resigned –
That wider circles were all barred to her,
Ever expecting – quiet and calm –
The word that snubs, the greeting that rebuffs.
And so, on evenings when they neither dined nor danced,
She’d come and broider there among them, by the hearth,
And there it was (seeing her so fresh and young)
I was amazed to see she wore a wedding ring.
Stoical, accepting of her curious widowhood
Without a backward thought; naively, too,
To show she kept her faithful vows,
Her hand retained enslavement’s evidence.
Dark-haired and pale she was – twenty-five years old –
Her long, proud hands were veined with blue
And the long lashes fringing her chaste eyes
Cast fluttering veils across her nut-brown gaze.
No gem, no ribbon, not a hint of gaiety,
Never the smallest flower inserted in the chestnut-coloured band,
The little collar – white and demure –
Stood out alone against her dress of mourning silk.
Sewing there, unhurried, with an easy hand,
Confident of shadow’s power to transform,
She kept the darkest corner of the room;
She scarcely spoke, and wished to be forgot.
But when she answered with a casual word or two
The humdrum questions that were put to her,
Painful it was to hear that voice,
Broken by suffering and made for tenderness.
That pure, slow voice, weary from prayer,
Once interrupted by a master’s powerful tones,
And forced, perhaps, to cry aloud from fear and shame
By insults, or an arm upraised.
And when a little child went round the company
Offering its forehead to receive a kiss, how ling’ringly,
With what a keen and melancholy pang
She placed her lips upon the flaxen head.
But straight upon this all too cruel delight
How quick she was to take her needle up again!
And what a sudden blush spread o’er her cheek,
Conscious of regrets made palpable.
For I could see, kindly though we were,
That she was pitied for her miserable choice;
That this community, timid, respectable,
Retained its fear – quite natural, I’d say.
Clearly I observed her humble gaze
Falter if it should meet a sparkling eye,
How she avoided all the younger girls,
And looked none but the old men in the face.
Young man, who could love this unhappy one –
Your paths will surely cross some day –
Don’t look at her, say not a word to her,
Don’t let her love you, that would be unspeakable!
Look, I know the skill, the subtle wiles
Of sophistry as well as you.
I know its piercing eye, its voice that penetrates,
And how the blood will surge through your rebellious veins.
I know that quite defenceless, she succumbs,
I know she beats her breast before the Cross,
That she’d adore you like a god, or like a son;
I know your triumph is assured.
Yes, I’m sure for you she’d sacrifice
Her only treasure – honour, faithful, pure.
And that you’d gladly live and die with her.
That’s fine. But equally, I know ‘twould be the death of her.
Obsessed by these words, widowhood and autumn,
My reverie seeks no other to express
This melancholy, vast and monotonous,
That robs me of all hope and all desire to love.
Ceaselessly it evokes a long, long avenue
Of plane trees, immensely tall, half bare,
In which a woman in deep mourning, veiled,
Moves slowly forward on the pallid grass.
Her long skirts leave behind a wake,
Trailing and rustling in the fallen leaves;
She follows with her gaze the passage of a cloud
Before the wind, driving from the north, already cold.
She thinks of him, now absent, who was wont to say: I love you!
And under the wide low sky from which the light has gone,
Sees that, with the last chrysanthemum, yesterday
The last butterfly has also died.
And so she walks across the faded grass,
Weary of wishing, weary of submitting,
And always in her path, the plane-tree leaves
Fall with a sound as sad as sighs.
— In vain — to chase away these gloomy images
Do I call up my youth, and that splendid summer.
I do not trust the sun, no more believe the roses,
And go about, head lowered, like a haunted man.
My heart’s so full of autumn and of widowhood
That I forever dream, under a pure, clear sky —
Of one in mourning — in a chill landscape,
And the leaves falling at first winter’s wind.