Sep 14 2008

Petits Poèmes d’Automne by Stuart Merrill

Published by at 6:32 am under French Literature

Every autumn I reread one of my favorite volumes of poetry, Stuart Merrill’s Petits Poèmes d’Automne (1895). This short volume has been available in PDF at Gallica for several years now, but it has not been available as an online text. But now, in celebration of the current season, I have transcribed it into text and sent it to Project Gutenberg, where it is available here.

Merrill was an American who spent many years in France and wrote in French. He was influenced by the Symbolist movement and was a friend of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine (whose stimulus on his work is evident). Merrill’s poetry was praised on both sides of the Atlantic and was widely read in its day, but today he is mostly forgotten. Which is a pity, since he had an unusual gift for French rhythms, and his insights into dream and memory can be fascinating.

The Petits Poèmes give us a world filled with a strange and shadowy beauty, where the hurly burly of the modern simply does not exist. Merrill seems to inhabit some kind of medieval or Catholic universe, but even this world is portrayed as indistinct and blurred. Its once mighty deeds of glory and legend have become meaningless. Nevertheless, this a world filled with strange wonders, where you can find enchantment at every step. Merrill is especially skillful in describing remote and forgotten landscapes, where you seem to float along empty pathways, and where the only light is that of twilight or the silver glow of the moon. His faded gardens are filled only those kind of flowers which bring oblivion or quickly fade away: water lilies, poppies, roses. And the only creature he ever seems to notice is the chimera, that fantastic creature which can carry you out of this world.

All of this is conventionally melancholic, of course, but to my mind hardly depressing. Merrill seemed to have possessed the kind of “white melancholy”, which doesn’t lead into depression, but to an elusive aesthetic appreciation. There is beauty everywhere in these short poems, both in the rich sounds of the verse and in their evocative images. Merrill was a man who possessed a rich interior life, which he brilliantly communicates. This is a perfect volume of verse for an enchanted September twilight, when the trees are softly whispering and the stars are coming alive in the sky.

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