The poetry of Leconte De Lisle

The poetry of Leconte De Lisle

The poetry of Leconte De Lisle

The seeds of inspiration for the verdant setting of my novel Burning Embers were sown way back at school when I was introduced to the flamboyant poetry of Charles-Marie Leconte De Lisle, better known as simply Leconte De Lisle, who was the leader of the group of French poets called the Parnassians. In this blog entry, I will give you some background on Leconte De Lisle and Les Parnassiens; and then I will post for you a translation of his wonderfully visual poem ‘La forêt vierge’ (‘The Virgin Forest’).

Leconte De Lisle (1818–1894) was born in La Reunion, a beautiful French island in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. He settled in Paris, where he fell in love with the poetry of Victor Hugo, and he decided to dedicate his life to poems rich in imagery, much of it inspired by his homeland – the verdant jungle and the animals within, the magnificent sunset, the beauty of the moon reflected on the ocean. Leconte De Lisle published several volumes of verse during his lifetime, and his work continued to be published posthumously.

The mid/late 19th century Parnassian literary movement, of which Leconte De Lisle was leader, was a reaction to romanticism – to what they saw as over-sentimental and undisciplined verse – and was characterised by writing about classical and exotic subjects with attention to form but in a highly descriptive and more impassive manner than the Romantics. The movement was named for three volumes of verse, including those by Leconte De Lisle, published as Le Parnasse contemporain, whose title was inspired by the home of the Muses in Greek mythology: Mount Parnassus.

The following poem is one of my favourites: powerful and quite modern in concept. It was translated for me by a friend, John Harding, and I have included the French verse at the end because in reading aloud the original you can really appreciate the beauty of the words.

The Virgin Forest

Since the far-off day when its seed sprang into life,
This endless forest, with its rolling greenery,                                
Has been mightily thrusting itself deep in the blue horizons          
Like a dark sea swollen by some immense sigh.

On the heaving ground Man had not been born                            
But it, a thousand centuries old, was already filling
With its shade, restfulness and wrath,
A broad span of the still-denuded globe.

Through the dizzy stream of passing hours,
From the bosom of the great waters, under the beaming heavens,
It has seen, in their turn, continents gush forth
And others sink down afar off, just like dreams.

Blazing summers have shone on it,
The winds’ maddened attacks have shaken it,
And tongues of lightning have twisted round its trunks;
But all in vain: the untamable forest has always burst out anew in green.

It rolls on, carrying off its gorges, its caves,
Its mossy blocks and fringed and misty lakes
Where, on dismal nights, the caymans whimper
Amidst the miry reeds where their lustreless eyes glint;

Its portly gorillas crying in booming voice,
Its elephants, with skin cracked like old bark,
Which, as they crush the felled brushwood with their strength,
Are overcome by the wordless horror of the woods;

Its buffaloes with their flat foreheads, quick-tempered and shifty,
Ensconced in the thick mud of the great wallows,
And its musing lions with their flowing russet manes
Lashing aside the shrill swarm of flies;

Its monstrous rivers, overflowing and wandering,
Dropped from the distant peaks, nameless and unbanked,
That abruptly shed their wild foam
Through cleft after cleft in irresistible leaps.

And from the gullies, rocks, mire and sand,
From the trees, bushes, grass, constantly
There persists and grows the immemorial roar
That its imperishable bosom has always breathed.

The centuries have flowed by, nothing has expired,
Nothing has ever meddled with its undying strength;
To bring an end, the earth, tottering underneath,
Would needs crumble like a broken vessel.
O forest!  This aged globe has many of its years yet to live;
Do not expect its end, and fear everything from tomorrow,
O mother of lions, your death is on the way,
And the axe is ready to strike sideways the pride which intoxicates you.

On this burning expanse where your rough outcrops,
Curving the heavy canopy of their first greenness,
Make great patches of darkness, surrounded in light,
Where your thoughtful elephants stand and ponder;

Like an invasion of journeying ants
Which are crushed and burnt but still march on,
The flood-tides will bring you the king of the latter days,              
The destroyer of woodlands, pale-faced Man.

He will have fretted away so much, drained to the last
The world, where his unsatiated race was breeding,
Whose full breast, brimming with life,
He will clutch in his thirst and hunger.

He will uproot your stately baobabs,
He will dig the beds of his tamed rivers;
And your stoutest children will flee in terror
Before this small worm, frailer than your herbs.                          

Outdoing the thunder which strays across your thick woodlands,
His torch will set fire to hillside, dale and plain;
You will fade away before the gust of his breath;
His workmanship will be built upon your hallowed wreckage.

No more resounding clamour against the sides of the clefts;          
Laughter, base sounds and cries of despair.
Between ghastly walls a swarming blackness;                              
No more leafy vaults in the awesome depths.

But you may sleep, avenged and without regret,
In the deepest night down to which everything must return:
Tears and blood will sprinkle your ashes,
And you will spring back out of ours, O forest!

La forêt vierge

Depuis le jour antique où germa sa semence, 
Cette forêt sans fin, aux feuillages houleux, 
S’enfonce puissamment dans les horizons bleus 
Comme une sombre mer qu’enfle un soupir immense.

Sur le sol convulsif l’homme n’était pas né 
Qu’elle emplissait déjà, mille fois séculaire, 
De son ombre, de son repos, de sa colère, 
Un large pan du globe encore décharné.

Dans le vertigineux courant des heures brèves,
Du sein des grandes eaux, sous les cieux rayonnants, 
Elle a vu tour à tour jaillir des continents 
Et d’autres s’engloutir au loin, tels que des rêves.

Les étés flamboyants sur elle ont resplendi,
Les assauts furieux des vents l’ont secouée,
Et la foudre à ses troncs en lambeaux s’est nouée;
Mais en vain : l’indomptable a toujours reverdi.

Elle roule, emportant ses gorges, ses cavernes,
Ses blocs moussus, ses lacs hérissés et fumants
Où, par les mornes nuits, geignent les caïmans
Dans les roseaux bourbeux où luisent leurs yeux ternes;

Ses gorilles ventrus hurlant à pleine voix, 
Ses éléphants gercés comme une vieille écorce, 
Qui, rompant les halliers effondrés de leur force, 
S’enivrent de l’horreur ineffable des bois;

Ses buffles au front plat, irritables et louches,
Enfouis dans la vase épaisse des grands trous,
Et ses lions rêveurs traînant leurs cheveux roux
Et balayant du fouet l’essaim strident des mouches;

Ses fleuves monstrueux, débordants, vagabonds,
Tombés des pics lointains, sans noms et sans rivages,
Qui versent brusquement leurs écumes sauvages
De gouffre en gouffre avec d’irrésistibles bonds.

Et des ravins, des rocs, de la fange, du sable,
Des arbres, des buissons, de l’herbe, incessamment
Se prolonge et s’accroît l’ancien rugissement
Qu’a toujours exhalé son sein impérissable.

Les siècles ont coulé, rien ne s’est épuisé,
Rien n’a jamais rompu sa vigueur immortelle;
Il faudrait, pour finir, que, trébuchant sous elle,
Le terre s’écroulât comme un vase brisé.

Ô forêt ! Ce vieux globe a bien des ans à vivre;
N’en attends point le terme et crains tout de demain,
Ô mère des lions, ta mort est en chemin,
Et la hache est au flanc de l’orgueil qui t’enivre.

Sur cette plage ardente où tes rudes massifs,
Courbant le dôme lourd de leur verdeur première,
Font de grands morceaux d’ombre entourés de lumière
Où méditent debout tes éléphants pensifs;

Comme une irruption de fourmis en voyage
Qu’on écrase et qu’on brûle et qui marchent toujours,
Les flots t’apporteront le roi des derniers jours,
Le destructeur des bois, l’homme au pâle visage.

Il aura tant rongé, tari jusqu’à la fin
Le monde où pullulait sa race inassouvie,
Qu’à ta pleine mamelle où regorge la vie
Il se cramponnera dans sa soif et sa faim.

Il déracinera tes baobabs superbes,
Il creusera le lit de tes fleuves domptés;
Et tes plus forts enfants fuiront épouvantés
Devant ce vermisseau plus frêle que tes herbes.

Mieux que la foudre errant à travers tes fourrés,
Sa torche embrasera coteau, vallon et plaine;
Tu t’évanouiras au vent de son haleine; 
Son oeuvre grandira sur tes débris sacrés.

Plus de fracas sonore aux parois des abîmes;
Des rires, des bruits vils, des cris de désespoir. 
Entre des murs hideux un fourmillement noir;
Plus d’arceaux de feuillage aux profondeurs sublimes.

Mais tu pourras dormir, vengée et sans regret,
Dans la profonde nuit où tout doit redescendre:
Les larmes et le sang arroseront ta cendre, 
Et tu rejailliras de la nôtre, ô forêt!

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