Chasing Chimeras with Stuart Merrill

I always look forward to the first cool breezes of autumn. This is the one time of the year when I want to spend as much time as I can just experiencing the world around me. When you are able to go into the moment as intensely as you possibly can, when you strain to feel every sensation, hear every sound, breathe in every scent, you can lose yourself in the glory of the world around you. This is so much easier to accomplish in the fall, when the air is fresh and invigorating, and when the natural world seems to be transforming every hour on the hour.

Every autumn I also take time to reread Stuart Merrill‘s 1895 volume Petits poèmes d’automne (online at Gallica). I stumbled across this forgotten book several years ago and have been entranced with it ever since, especially when summer’s energies start to wind down and the shadows lengthen. Merrill was an American who spent most of his life abroad and wrote in French. While his poetry sometimes seems both repetitive and derivative, it is also full of the most entrancing fin-de-siècle reveries. The book was apparently a great success when published but has since been mostly forgotten, as has its author.

All of which is a pity since Merrill was full of the most exquisite sensibilities. He was blessed with a superb gift for perception, a talent for melodious phrases, and a temperament filled with placid melancholy. Baudelaire tells us that he cannot conceive of beauty in which there is no melancholy, and Merrill’s poems are filled with this most mellow emotion. But this is not the sort of melancholy where you start feeling depressed—you find yourself in an evocative dream world filled with visions of the past, misty moonlight, faded gardens, and the sound of the sea, all of which are perfectly suited to a gentle autumnal mood.

I take time every autumn to memorize one of the poems. It gives me a good opportunity to practice my French, such as it is. I can read the language pretty well but have never had much chance to speak it. Memorizing a French poem every now and then is one of the better ways to learn the language, and far more enjoyable that trying to memorize un billet de première aller en retour pour Paris, s’il vous plaît—or
something similarly dismal. Better to hang out with Stuart Merrill and
his chimeras:

ÂME D’AUTOMNE

Au bord de la lointaine grève
Où nous conduisit la Chimère,
Puisez dans la coupe du rêve,
O mes frères, cette onde amère.

En l’azur du soir les sirènes
Nous chanteront, surnaturelles,
L’histoire des rois et des reine
Qui moururent d’amour pour elles,

Oubliez le casque et l’épée
Dont la cime et la lame en flamme
Tonnèrent dans maintes épopée.
Vainement, pour l’Or et la Femme.

C’est ici le pays du rêve;
Abreuvez-vous de ronde amère,
O frères, au bord de la grève
Où nous conduisit la Chimère.

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