He graduated in 1883, and to please his family studied law, and passed an examination for the Diplomatic Service. But that was the end of all thought of, or endeavour about, any carrer other than letters. During this time he had been writing, and his first verses appeared in a little review, Lutèce, under the pen-name of Hugues Vignix, so turning his admiration for Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny into a sort of monogram.
Another young man made his literary début in Lutèce with Henri de Régnier. This was Francis Vielé-Griffin. There was a fencing gallery next door to the office of Lutèce, where the young contributors used to disport themselves. An amusing joke of the period had it that they learnt to fight in order to kill their predecessors. For, as we saw in the last essay, these young writers were firmly against the established order, and the established order took it out by not acknowledging their existence.
Régnier, like Samain, had a desire to meet great men, to wear himself smooth by contact with mature minds. Timidly, but firmly, he hazarded a call upon Sully-Prudhomme. He was courteously received, and continued in pleasant relations with the elder poet until Régnier’s adherence to vers libre separated them.
It was a very quiet, retired life that Régnier led at this time. Reading, studying, learning how. He was thoroughly serious in his work, in his art. He read much Victor Hugo, a master soon to be deserted by his generation. He also read Baudelaire, Vigny, Mallarmé, and the sonnets of José-Maria de Heredia, not yet published, but appearing from time to time in journals and reviews. Another side of his character drew him to memoirs, novels, books which depicted and analyzed life. He has explained himself as he was then, by saying, « I was in some sort double, Symboliste and Réaliste, loving symbols and anecdotes at the same time, a poem of Mallarmé’s or an idea of Chamfort’s. » De Régnier has remained Symboliste and Réaliste, neither side of his character has entirely dominated the other, but time has strengthened the realism until it makes a strong and correct base on which the light form of Symbolisme can safely stand.
In spite of his realistic leanings, Henri de Régnier was principally Symboliste and poet, in these youthful days. If he did not begin writing extraordinarily young, he certainly began publishing in the very green leaf. He left college as we have seen, in 1883, at the age of nineteen, and his first book, Les Lendemains, was published in 1885, when he was twenty-one, and in 1886, a second collection of poems, Apaisement, came out.
There is nothing very remarkable in these early poems ; they show good masters, careful study, and a pleasant imagination. Considering the extreme youth of their author, they gave excellent promise. The theory that a man should serve his apprenticeship in silence, and not give his early work to the public, is a disputable one. The Paris of Régnier’s youth was full of young men of remarkable talent ; it was full of little reviews publishing the work of these young men. If their circulation was small, at least it was select. It consisted of all the other revolutionary poets, young and old. Printing, publishing, a young man made friends and opened doors. Had Régnier kept his early work shut up between the covers of his portfolio, he might have leapt from his obscurity a few years later armed cap-à-pie like Minerva from the head of Jove, but his future would have been harder to make. Coteries would have been formed without him, places he might have had would have been given to others, bands or early friendships would have kept him outside as a late comer. No, we must admit that Régnier did well to publish these two little volumes and the two which succeeded them ; Sites, in 1887, and Épisodes, in 1888. But why his publishers keep them in print is more difficult of comprehension. Yet these poems suggest the Régnier of later years. Take this for instance :
J’ai rêvé que ces vers seraient comme des fleurs
Que fait tourner la main des maîtres ciseleurs
Autour des vases d’or aux savantes ampleurs.
[I dreamt that these verses should be like those flowers which the hands of master carvers twine about golden vases of cunning dimensions.]
It was a bad prophecy. His poems are like the flowers of master carvers. And the words, « gold vases, » are almost the keynote of his work. Remy de Gourmont, in the first Livre des Masques, mentions his fondness for the words or and mort. And whether we take vases d’or as sound or as sense, it might almost stand as a device in front of any volume of his poems.
The point of view of his group, and his particular place in it, has been excellently rendered by M. Jean de Gourmont, one of De Régnier’s biographers. Speaking of the Symboliste group, he says, « all the poets of this group, shut up within their particular symbols, described… the interior of their prison. M. de Régnier’s prison is a place with onyx columns ; he walks up and down the lenght of galleries wainscoted with gold. Large windows open upon nature and life ; he learns out and looks at the spectacle. »
That palace with onyx columns we shall see again, and again, and again. If is one of the truest things ever said about Henri de Régnier.
At this time, Stéphane Mallarmé was becoming every moment more certainly the acknowledged master of these younger writers, soon to be known as Symbolistes. He held a sort of salon on Tuesdays, and received his disciples and admirers. He sat in a « rocking-chair », under his own portrait by Manet, and talked. (I believe a rocking-chair to be a purely American invention, and it must be a matter of national pride for us to feel that we have not only given the French poets Poe and Walt Whitman, whom they understood and admired before we did, but that we have given one of them at least a « rocking-chair ».) Sitting in comfortable and rhythmic ease – rocking, in fact – and smoking a little, cheap, red clay pipe, Mallarmé would hold forth ; and on all the poets who heard him, these Tuesdays stamped an indelible mark.
The Tuesdays were in full swing when Régnier began to publish in the little reviews. Soon his work attracted the attention of some of the men who frequented them, and soon Régnier, too, was among the constant visitors to the rue de Rome. For many years he went there practically every week. There is a story that one day, full of emotion, he turned to the Master and said, « I am beginning my tenth year. » M. Stuart Merill informs us that at these meetings Régnier acted as a sort of leader of the chorus ; that he always occupied the same place, on a sofa at Mallarmé’s right, and whenever the great poet’s monologue languished a little, he would put in the happy word which started it going again.
There is no doubt that these long conversations count for much in the education of an artist. Perhaps that is one reason the French succeed so marvellously in Art ; they talk so well.
Amy Lowell, Six French Poets – Studies in contemporary literature, , New York, The Macmillan Company, 1920, p. 155-160.
[Que tous les enfants de Notre Sainte Mère l’Église se réjouissent ! La veille de ce solstice d’été 2020, Son Éminence le Cardinal Angelo Becciu, Préfet de la Congregatio de causis sanctorum au Vatican, a annoncé la béatification de notre Serviteur de Dieu, plein de mansuétude : Monsieur V. G. Les larmes de joie ruissellent sur nos visages devant la face rayonnante du Bienheureux qui, seul entre tous, ouvre les bouteilles de vin par simple imposition des mains ! On parle déjà de l’érection d’une chapelle sur le Chemin des Grillons. Il s’agit d’une nouvelle révolution de ce si singulier pontificat qui, après avoir vu l’élection d’un Père Jésuite à la tête de l’Église, consacre à présent, fait unique, un Bienheureux bel et bien vivant ! Le Bienheureux V. G. pourrait-il être alors canonisé ? Vous pourrez bientôt retrouver toutes les aventures de notre Bienheureux V. G. dans le désormais célèbre bulletin Les Findesiéclistes.]