In 1887, a new review was started under René Ghil, called Les Écrits pour l’Art. Mallarmé and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam were its Great Masters. Beside them, were Émile Verhaeren, Stuart Merill, Vielé-Griffin, and Henri de Régnier.
It was sometime about 1888, that Régnier made the acquaintance of José-Maria de Heredia, whose receptions at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal were crowded with all the literary celebrities of the day. Régnier met Leconte de Lisle there and Maupassant – a Maupassant already sinking, and a prey to auditory hallucinations.
Heredia had three daughters, all fond of poetry, and perfectly au courant with the literary work of the day. His second daughter, Marie, even wrote verses herself, and now as « Gérard d’Houville » is known as a poet of much talent. Henri de Régnier was introduced to Mlle Marie de Heredia at one of the gatherings at her father’s house. Mutual interests naturally brought them together, and in 1896 [sic] they were married. I mention this now, because it seems to follow naturally after Régnier’s meeting with Heredia, and there is nothing to cause us to remember it at the proper time. Régnier is evidently very reticent about his private life. He has the aristocrat’s natural love of privacy. Jean de Gourmont says in his little monograph, « Of M. de régnier’s life I only know some episodes, some facts, which he has discreetly revealed to me. » We must not forget that Régnier is still living, and that he is doing so in a country where privacy is both honoured and respected.
A younger brother of the Mercure de France, Les Entretiens Politiques et Littéraires, with Vielé-Griffin as editor, was started somewhere about 1890. Régnier became one of its most enthusiastic contributors. Most of the stories, later collected under the title, La Canne de Jaspe, appeared in it, and various essays and criticisms which are now to be found in the volume, Figures et Caractères, Régnier also contributed to a number of other reviews, among them La Wallonie, of which he, Albert Mockel, and Pierre-M. Olin were the editors.
Up to this time, Régnier’s life may have been said to be in the experimenting stage. He was laboriously shaping himself into a writer, as it were, working with that indefatigable assiduity which has always characterized him. From 1890, with the publication of Poèmes Anciens et Romanesques, his life enters upon another period of constantly increasing accomplishment. In Poèmes Anciens et Romanesques, Régnier steps out of the shell of which his four previous volumes were only chippings, and is hatched a full-grown poet. He attempts other metres than the alexandrine, he even essays the uneven vers libre, built not upon metre but upon cadence, which is to be his most characteristic form, and in which he surpasses every other French writer. Vielé-Griffin and Stuart Merill were Americans, Verhaeren was a Belgian, and one of the retorts flung at the vers libristes used to be, that the reason they could find this form agreeable was that they were foreigners and therefore had not the peculiar sensitiveness of the native ear. And behold, here was a Frenchman even among Frenchmen, who not only understood and liked it, but wrote it better, more delicately, more audaciously, than any one else. Not even Verhaeren could more variously manipulate it, more certainly guide it.
But it is not in the Poèmes Anciens et Romanesques that I first wish my readers to encounter Régnier’s vers libre. I shall keep that for a later volume, where it is in its magnificent maturity.
Henri de Régnier is « a melancholy and sumptuous poet », as Remy de Gourmont has said. In the first Livre des Masques appears the following description : « This man (Régnier) lives in an old Italian palace, where emblems and figures are written on the walls. He dreams, passing from room to room ; toward evening he descends the marble staircase and wanders about the gardens, which are paved like courts, to dream among the basins and fountains, while the black swans seek their nests, and a peacock, solitary as a king, seems to drink superbly of the dying pride of a golden twilight. »
you notice that this is really the palace with the onyx pillars again ! It is strange how the same idea seems to occur to every one about Régnier. Perhaps it is because he, himself, has described so many beautiful old houses, so many formal gardens à la Française.
Henri de Régnier is the poet of sadness, of gentle melancholy, particularly in his early books. He is also the poet of the nude. He almost attains the chaste and cool treatment of Greek statues. Probably it is this similarity of point of view which makes him so often choose mythological subjects. But I am far from suggesting that his attitude is really Greek, in the historical and pedantic meaning of that term, but neither is it the sort of Angelica Kauffmann pastiche of Samain’s Aux Flancs du Vase. Rather it is the attitude of certain of our English poets in treating classical subjects. Beaumont and Fletcher in « The Faithful Shepherdess », for instance, or Keats in « Endymion » and « The Grecian Urn ».
This little poem will illustrate what I mean :
L’eau des sources où choit, le soir,
La mort unanime des roses
Était heureuse de nous voir
Peigner nos chevelures fauves…
Un peu de cette eau nos miroirs !
Les Fontaines étaient sonores
En les bois de Lune et de Nuit ;
Cristal où se mire et s’isole
Quelque astre qui du ciel a fui…
L’onde est tarie en nos amphores !
Les escaliers courbaient leurs rampes…
Oh, les pieds froids sur les pavés !…
Les portes et les hautes chambres
Pour le sommeil nu des Psychés…
L’huile est figée au fond des lampes !
That is from a poem entitled « The Vigil of the Sands. » Here is the first section of another poem called Le Fol Automne :
LE FOL AUTOMNE
Le fol automne épuise aux guirlandes ses roses
Pâles comme des lèvres et des sourires,
Et le mal est d’avoir vécu parmi les roses,
Les masques, les glorioles, les délires !
Les Ægypans rieurs buvaient aux outres neuves
Le vieux vin où survit l’ardeur des Étés !
Les vignes égrenant les grappes dans les fleuves
Gonflaient l’ambre clair de leurs maturités.
Les roses ont fleuri les coupes et les thyrses
Et le pan des robes puériles ; l’âme
Des fontaines pleurait dans l’ombre, autour des thyrses
Les pampres semblaient un sang de torche en flamme.
L’automne fol s’épuise en suprêmes guirlandes,
Les Satyres roux rôdent par les bois,
Et l’on suspend les masques vides par guirlandes
Où le vent rit aux trous des bouches sans voix !
There are many poems in this book which I should like to put in, but there are more important ones waiting in other books. The names of the sections into which the volume is divided will show its trend. Two of them I have already given you. The others are : « Greeting to the Stranger », « Motifs » (this is taken form the leit-motifs of Wagner, whose influence was then at its strongest), « Of Legend and Melancholy », « Scenes at Twilight », and « The Dream of the Forest ».
Amy Lowell, Six French Poets – Studies in contemporary literature, , New York, The Macmillan Company, 1920, p. 160-166.