-A SEASON IN HELL-
The Alchemy of the Word
My turn now. The story of one of my insanities.
For a long time I boasted that I was master of all possible landscapes–
and I thought the great figures of modern painting and poetry were laughable.
What I liked were: absurd paintings, pictures over doorways, stage sets,
carnival backdrops, billboards, bright-colored prints, old-fashioned
literature, church Latin, erotic books full of misspellings, the kind
of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children’s books,
old operas, silly old songs, the nave rhythms of country rimes. I dreamed
of Crusades, voyages of discovery that nobody had heard of, republics
without histories, religious wars stamped out, revolutions in morals,
movements of races and continents; I used to believe in every kind of
I invented colors for the vowels! A black, E white, I red, O blue, U
green. I made rules for the form and movement of every consonant, and
I boasted of inventing, with rhythms from within me, a kind of poetry
that all the senses, sooner or later, would recognize. And I alone would
be its translator. I began it as an investigation. I turned silences
and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the
whirling world stand still.
Far from flocks, from birds and country girls,
What did I drink within that leafy screen
Surrounded by tender hazelnut trees
In the warm green mist of afternoon?
What could I drink from this young Oise
–Tongueless trees, flowerless grass, dark skies–
Drink from these yellow gourds, far from the hut I loved?
Some golden draught that made me sweat.
I would have made a doubtful sign for an inn.
Later, toward evening, the sky filled with clouds…
Water from the woods runs out on virgin sands,
And heavenly winds cast ice thick on the ponds;
Then I saw gold, and wept, but could not drink.
* * *
At four in the morning, in summertime,
Love’s drowsiness still lasts…
The bushes blow away the odor Of the night’s feast.
Beyond the bright Hesperides,
Within the western workshop of the Sun,
Carpenters scramble– in shirtsleeves–
Work is begun.
And in desolate, moss-grown isles
They raise their precious panels
Where the city
Will paint a hollow sky.
For these charming dabblers in the arts
Who labor for a King in Babylon,
Venus! Leave for a moment
Lovers’ haloed hearts…
O Queen of Shepherds!
Carry the purest eau-de-vie
To these workmen while they rest
And take their bath at noonday, in the sea.
The worn-out ideas of old-fashioned poetry played an important part
in my alchemy of the word.
I got used to elementary hallucination: I could very precisely see a
mosque instead of a factory, a drum corps of angels, horse carts on
the highways of the sky, a drawing room at the bottom of a lake; monsters
and mysteries. A vaudeville’s title filled me with awe. And so I explained
my magical sophistries by turning words into visions! At last, I began
to consider my mind’s disorder a sacred thing. I lay about idle, consumed
by an oppressive fever: I envied the bliss of animals– caterpillars,
who portray the innocence of a second childhood; moles, the slumber
of virginity! My mind turned sour. I said farewell to the world in poems
something like ballads:
Song of the Highest Tower
Let it come, let it come, The season we can love! I have waited so long,
That at length I forget,
And leave unto heaven , My fear and regret; A sick thirst
Darkens my veins. Let it come, let it come, the season we can love!
So the green field, To oblivion falls, Overgrown, flowering,
With incense and weeds. And the cruel noise, Of dirty flies.
Let it come, let it come, the season we can love!
I loved the desert, burnt orchards, tired old shops, warm drinks. I
dragged myself through stinking alleys, and with my eyes closed I offered
myself to the sun, the god of fire. “General: If on your ruined ramparts
one cannon still remains, shell us with clods of dried-up earth. Shatter
the mirrors of expensive shops! And the drawing rooms! Make the city
swallow its dust! Turn gargoyles to rust. Stuff boudoirs with rubies’
fiery powder….” Oh, the little fly! Drunk at the urinal of a country
inn, in love with rotting weeds; a ray of light dissolves him!
I only find within my bones, A taste for eating earth and stones.
When I feed, I feed on air, Rocks and coals and iron ore.
My hunger, turn. Hunger, feed: A field of bran.
Gather as you can the bright, Poison weed.
Eat the rocks a beggar breaks,
The stones of ancient churches’ walls,
Pebbles, children of the flood, Loaves left lying in the mud.
* * *
Beneath the bush a wolf will howl, Spitting bright feathers
From his feast of fowl: Like him, I devour myself.
Waiting to be gathered, Fruits and grasses spend their hours;
The spider spinning in the hedge, Eats only flowers.
Let me sleep! Let me boil, On the altars of Solomon;
Let me soak the rusty soil, And flow into Kendron.
Finally, O reason, O happiness, I cleared from the sky the blue which
is darkness, and I lived as a golden spark of this light, Nature. In
my delight, I made my face look as comic and as wild as I could:
It is recovered.
In the whirling light
Of the sun in the sea.
O my eternal soul,
Hold fast to desire
In spite of the night
And the day on fire.
You must set yourself free
From the striving of Man
And the applause of the World!
You must fly as you can…
No hope, forever; No _orietur._
Science and patience,
The torment is sure.
The fire within you,
Soft silken embers,
Is our whole duty–
But no one remembers.
It is recovered.
In the whirling light
Of the sun in the sea.
I became a fabulous opera. I saw that everyone in the world was doomed
to happiness. Action isn’t life; it’s merely a way of ruining a kind
of strength, a means of destroying nerves. Morality is water on the
brain. It seemed to me that everyone should have had several other lives
as well. This gentleman doesn’t know what he’s doing; he’s an angel.
That family is a litter of puppy dogs. With some men, I often talked
out loud with a moment from one of their other lives– that’s how I
happened to love a pig. Not a single one of the brilliant arguments
of madness– the madness that gets locked up– did I forget; I could
go through them all again, I’ve got the system down by heart. It affected
my health. Terror loomed ahead. I would fall again and again into a
heavy sleep, which lasted several days at a time, and when I woke up,
my sorrowful dreams continued. I was ripe for fatal harvest, and my
weakness led me down dangerous roads to the edge of the world, to the
Cimmerian shore, the haven of whirlwinds and darkness. I had to travel,
to dissipate the enchantments that crowded my brain. On the sea, which
I loved as if it were to wash away my impurity, I watched the compassionate
cross arise. I had been damned by the rainbow. Felicity was my doom,
my gnawing remorse, my worm. My life would forever be too large to devote
to strength and to beauty. Felicity! The deadly sweetness of its sting
would wake me at cockcrow– ad matutinum, at the Christus venit– in
the soberest of cities.
O seasons, O chateaus! Where is the flawless soul?
I learned the magic of Felicity. It enchants us all.
To Felicity, sing life and praise, Whenever Gaul’s cock crows.
Now all desire has gone– It has made my life its own.
That spell has caught heart and soul, And scattered every trial.
O seasons, O chateaus! And, oh, the day it disappears, Will be the day
O seasons, O chateaus! All that is over. Today, I know how to celebrate
Flash of Lightning
Human labor! That explosion lights up my abyss from time to time.
“Nothing is vanity; on toward knowledge!” cries the modern Ecclesiastes,
which is Everyone. And still the bodies of the wicked and the idle fall
upon the hearts of all the rest…. Ah, quick, quick, quick! there,
beyond the night… that future reward, that eternal reward… will
we escape it?
What more can I do? Labor I know, and science is too slow.
That praying gallops and that light roars; I’m well aware of it. It’s
too simple, and the weather’s too hot; you can all do without me. I
have my duty; but I will be proud, as others have been, to set it aside.
My life is worn out. Well, let’s pretend, let’s do nothing; oh, pitiful!
And we will exist, and amuse ourselves, dreaming of monstrous loves
and fantastic worlds, complaining and quarreling with the appearances
of the world, acrobat, beggar, artist, bandit– priest! …on my hospital
bed, the odor of incense came so strongly back to me… guardian of
the holy aromatics, confessor, martyr….
There I recognize my filthy
childhood education. Then what? …turn twenty: I’ll do my twenty years,
if everyone else does.
No! No! Now I rise up against death! Labor seems
too easy for pride like mine: To betray me to the world would be too
slight a punishment. At the last moment I would attack, to the right,
to the left….
Oh! poor dear soul, eternity then might not be lost!