COCTEAU USED the word “poetry” to designate all of his work: poetry of the novel, poetry of the theatre, poetry of criticism, of graphic art, of the cinema. And there are finally the several volumes for which the word poetry will have to stand alone. This part of his work is the least well known. It is neglected always for the other forms in which the poetic elements are important. Lines from the poems often reappear transformed in other works where they are given a more dramatic, more hallucinatory form. In Plain-Chant, for example, of 1923, death is described as not killing but having her assassins:
Car ce n’est pas la mort elle-même qui tue.
Elle a ses assassins.
Twenty-seven years later, in the film Orphée, the thunderous swiftly-erupting motocyclists slay Cégeste, on the order of Death.
The earliest publication of Cocteau was a volume of verse: La Lampe d’Aladin, of 1909, and one of his last publications was poetry: Paraprosodies, of 1958. A span of fifty years, during which twenty-one separate books of poems were published, as well as several volumes of selected poems. From the edition of his complete works, Cocteau eliminated the first three volumes of his poetry: La Lampe d’Aladin, Le Prince frivole (1910), and La Danse de Sophocle (1912). The first collection he wished to keep was war poems written between 1916 and 1919, Le Cap de bonne espérance, published in 1919, and dedicated to Roland Garros, prisonnier en Allemagne. The typography of this long poem suggests the acrobatic flights of the aviator Garros. The symbolism of these flights is the attempt on the part of the poet to escape beyond what is visible, to reach a world above the sensible.
Published in 1920, Discours du grand sommeil, is a long poem written between 1916 and 1918. Those critics who had accused Cocteau of an attitude of indifference to the horror of war in his novel Thomas l’imposteur, could read in this long poem a work on the suffering of the poet in his meditation on death and friendship and the dismay of mankind at the time of war. The theme of the angel is first introduced, with some development, in Discours. The angel is a being who awakens within the poet and speaks to him imperiously. In this early version of the theme, the angel could easily be poetry itself.
A transitional work, Vocabulaire, of 1922, is a collection of short poems written prior to the meeting with Radiguet and the experimentation with a new style of greater simplicity and concentration. In Vocabulaire, the effort to create a new kind of poetry, an anti-poetry, is too visible. The exercises of these poems were useful in teaching Cocteau ways of reaching a poetic form in which the poem would be severed from the poet, and autonomous in its own purity.
Plain-Chant, of 1923, is the first important poetic work of Cocteau, the reward of a great deal of experimentation, the attainment to a kind of wisdom which is his own, a selfrealization when he is able to speak convincingly of his angel and his muses. The form of the poem is more classical, the prosody more regular. The themes of sleep and death are more deeply explored. In Plain-Chant they move into full focus as permanent themes in Cocteau’s writing.
Concerning the genesis of his important poem, L’Ange Heurtebise, of 1925, Cocteau has written in Journal d’un inconnu a detailed circumstantial account. The work came about as the ending of a semi-mystical experience, related without much doubt to the death of Radiguet, and was composed in an almost automatic way, by chance, as if the poet were copying down a dictated poem. By comparison with Plain-Chant, with which it has affiliations, it is an abstract work, so denuded of a recognizable subject matter that it defies any usual exegesis. The poet speaks of a struggle with a mysterious power within him, which, whenever defeated, returns inexorably to begin again its regime. The poem is words and sounds generated by this force.
Behind many of the poems in Cocteau’s next volume, Opéra, written between 1925-27, and published in 1927, is the narration of Radiguet’s death, the poet’s addiction to opium, and the cure he underwent in a sanitarium. The spiritual experience of L’Ange Heurtebise, in its absence of images, is not recaptured in Opéra, but the two books are closely related. The poems of Opéra attempt to express more directly the spectacle that is transpiring within the poet. In a way, these poems are preliminary sketches which will be used in assembling the more complete, the more graphic pictures of Le Sang d’un poète. The expression of inner grief gives way to the effects of opium which dissipate it, and this state of euphoria is in turn vanquished by the return of grief and the association of images which bring it back. Even in his use of puns, and in his role of poet-actor, Cocteau is the explorer of himself in Opéra, the investigator of his subconscious, the poet who in one line summarizes the harassing paradox of the man who in his social life has to lie (je suis un mensonge) and who, as the man, in his discoveries of the poems, speaks the truth (qui dit toujours la vérité).
Je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la vérité. The falseness of appearance is always contradicted by the inner truth.
After several years during which Cocteau’s activities were centered on the theatre, he returned to the writing of poetry, to the composing of Léone, of 1945. In this long poem, in which the world of sleep predominates, the female figure of Leone moves about in close relationship with the poet. She is a character resembling characters created by Cocteau in other works, and at the same time a new character playing the poet’s most intimate drama. At the end of the poem, Leone is called the muse, but the mystery of her identity is preserved.
Written at almost the same time as Léone, La Crucifixion (1946) is the harshest, the most dissonant, and the most difficult of Cocteau’s poems. To the suffering of the soul is added the suffering of the flesh. All lyrical quality has been suppressed, and only a cry is audible from the beginning to the end. The poet with his pain is alone.
Ten years later, in Clair-obscur (1956), Cocteau published a long collection of characteristic poems. Themes and forms long associated with him are here developed. The critics pointed out the facility of the poems, without remembering that Cocteau’s art has always seemed facile, that it is often a mask for the writer’s labor. They also judged harshly the repetition of certain themes without remembering that each book of Cocteau is a reaffirmation of such themes as sleep and death where friendship takes refuge.
In describing his book of 1957: Paraprosodies précédées de sept dialogues, Cocteau used the term “automatic,” as he had earlier with L’Ange Heurtebise. But this designates the strict mathematics of syllabification and rhythm, of rhyme and alliteration, rather than the “automatic writing” of surrealism. This exterior rigor is that of a machine, which will allow the spirit its full freedom. It is an exercise in asceticism which will permit the poet to explore the night out of which the poem comes, a problem which preoccupied Cocteau during a large part of his career. This “‘night” would seem to be, for the poet, much more than the subconscious, as defined by Freud. Poetic form is a door opening out on to a landscape. But the reader has to push open the door. The landscape is always the unknown, even to the poet.
Soon after the turn of the century, at a time when Jean Cocteau was still a child, the art of poetry in France underwent an important change. With the poems of Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, and Max Jacob, the art rejected its classical canons of logic and strict prosody. Inspired especially by the examples of Rimbaud and Laforgue, the new poets, whom Cocteau was to know and emulate, initiated a double quest: a search, carried on simultaneously, for their own identification. This search led them into the new domains of adventure, of the subconscious, and of madness. Cocteau’s position as a poet is closely related to the achievements of Apollinaire and Jacob, and later with the work of such a poet as Robert Desnos. Cocteau also opened up new territories of experienee, new experimentations in which the search for poetry and the exploration of the poet’s subconscious coincided.
The break with the parnassian ideal, with the rigor of traditional prosody, was consummated about 1912, at the time when Alcools of Apollinaire was about to be published, and when Blaise Cendrars returned from his trip to New York, with his poem Pâques à New York. These works testify to the noisy upheavals of poetry in the years just preceding the First World War. And Cocteau published his first poetry at exactly this time. He too helped to break down the barrages which had held poetry in. The new poetry resembled an overflow, an escape in all directions to new lands.
Poetry within itself constructs another mystery remaining beside the human mystery it tries to comprehend. It does not attempt to explain the human mystery as prose does, because it is not discursive in its highest form. It finds its form by a series of short-cuts and detours, and leads finally to a landscape that is new and isolated. The poems of Cocteau have no relationship with other landscapes, with the work of other poets. They are recognizable as being Cocteau’s. In writing them he consulted only himself, he encountered only himself. Their verbal mechanism is his own invention. This process is the way by which one poet is totally distinguishable from all others. Any stanza from Mémoire of Rimbaud could not possibly be confused with any other poet. Any four lines from L’Après-midi d’un faune could not be ascribed to any poet except Mallarmé. In the same way, the swiftness of tempo, the bareness, the serious wit, the arch simplicity of Cocteau’s writing are signatures in his most successful poems which no one else could claim. The poem is, finally, the means by which the poet transcends the common mediocrity of life. It is the reduction and the justification of what is daily and destined to disappear. It abolishes the law of mortality, of everything destined to disappear, in its discovery of the laws of poetry. The muse exerted a very real tyranny over Cocteau. She is no invisible symbolic figure for him. She is the protagonist.
A city poet, as opposed to a nature poet, Cocteau is even more a poet of apartment and rooms, of those places where solitude encourages ghosts and abstract monologues with a night world. The stage and the poem are both for Cocteau the site of demonstrations calculated to startle spectator and reader. Familiar objects utilized by him take on surprising proportions and meanings. The poems are presentations, miniature scenes where enigmas and strange conjunctions work miracles in words. Everything is used and applied: friendship, opium, a conversion; each theme is expounded until it becomes a reality. Cocteau finds for whatever transpires within his mind a story and the story converts the mental picture or the abstract idea into a poem. It is always close to the miraculous, to the surreal. The critic Jean Cassou once called Cocteau “our Nostradamus,” in his apparent role of astrologer and alchemist.
The effects produced by some of the paintings of Giorgio di Chirico are not unlike those produced by the most successful poems of Cocteau. When Chirico assembles on the same canvas a Greek temple and a mirror wardrobe, he forces us into some alienation of habit. The supernatural story of the Annunciation is changed into a simple village tale when Cocteau relates it in just twelve lines, and the Virgin is the lass who hides her face in shame and shock at the news of the angel.
GABRIEL AU VILLAGE
Vous êtes grosse, dit l’ange,
Vous aurez un fils sans mari
Pardonnez si je vous dérange
Cette façon d’annoncer
Les choses par la fenêtre,
Etonne un peu la fiancée
Qui son amour voudrait connaître.
L’ange s’en va, comme fonte
Des neiges, vers l’inhumain.
La petite a un peu honte
Et se cache dans ses mains.
Many traditions of French art are in this typical poem of Cocteau: the swift elegance and lightness of tone of Voltaire, its ellipsis and delicate poignancy which could be found fifty years earlier in the poèmes de circonstance of Mallarmé. It is as detached from the poet, as a drawing is detached from Picasso. It is fragile in its minimum of subject matter, but it is able to stand by itself. Behind the real scene in Gabriel au village, depicted with familiarity, one can barely make out a sketch of the unknown, of the supernatural. The analogy is not forced, but it is there. Life and death are both present in the brief poems as well as in the major works.
However disguised it may be, the pathos in the poems diminishes their effect of “precious” poems. It is often pathos made acceptable by wit, whereby a very tenuous relationship is established between ideas that usually have little in common one with the other. The common theme, at times visible and at other times invisible, in the poems of Cocteau, is the human mystery. But the poems are units by themselves, each one of which has its own logic. Each is a shortened translation of a continuous melody, of a continuous thought. What the poet proves over and over again is not the profundity of the human mystery but the deftness of the artisan who knows how to reduce and justify his inner life. Whatever signal he receives from the cosmos and from the cosmos of his heart, he transmits with words and rhythms that never inflate nor betray the original message.
In Le Cap de bonne espérance, the constant use of the airplane testifies not only to the pilot’s escape from the world, but to the role of poetry by means of which the poet moves very far away and high up. It is a bodily release. The physical sensation of rhythm and rhyme is a way of breaking off from the familiar ties with the world. The art of aviation is a facile symbol for the twentieth-century dandy, for the young man who has to separate himself swiftly and totally from the world of accepted values and stifling agreements and commitments, in order to project himself into the rarefied atmosphere of superiority and of solitude. The movement of the dandy is always upward and away. His goal is that inner perfection, that estrangement from the commonplace, of which clothes and speech and manners are merely symbols. Cocteau’s first self-justification was his flight in the airplane of Roland Garros to that sphere where, stripped of all the accoutrements that had grown useless, he could start afresh on what was to be the second phase of his life.
Le Discours du grand sommeil is the fall back to earth, to the murkiest, muddiest, most terrestrial part of the earth: the trenches of World War I. It was a plunge downward, and a contact with the grim presence of physical death. After the soaring speed of the airplane, came the immobilization of death, the inert sleep of Icarus! The poem is described by Cocteau as “translated from that dead language, of that dead country, where my friends are dead.” The poet gives over to the currents in which he is caught, to the inevitable.
The angel speaks in Discours du grand sommeil and demands that the poet who carries him appear as if he had no knowledge of this. Sleep is heroic because it occurs in the midst of a war. Everything is antithesis, everything is a force struggling against another force: the past and the present; the prince who is a soldier; the demolisher who wants to rebuild. Words and their opposites are more vigilantly controlled by Cocteau at this time in French poetry, when Dada was turning into surrealism and poets were joining words that had no relationship one with the other.
In the volume Poésies of 1920, the poems are less bare, less elliptical. If the poetic form is more traditional, there is little trace of poetic influence. Cocteau’s poems are the result of his direct contacts with life, of his own experiences.
Ode à Pablo Picasso is a course on the new aesthetics, in the form of a poem. The new artist performs in full view of the public. He has nothing up his sleeves, nothing in his pockets:
Rien dans les manches Rien dans les poches
Cocteau ends the poem swiftly by asking for a hat from the audience to be used by the Harlequin of Port-Royal.
voudrait-il prêter son chapeau
à l’arlequin de Port-Royal.
In his essay on Picasso (Le Rappel à l’ordre), Cocteau designates the painter as the Harlequin of Port-Royal, and thus joins the pantomime theme in the paintings with the Jansenist severity of the painter’s style.
Throughout Poésies Cocteau experiments with his art and trains himself. His temperament, volatile and frenzied, is matched by his intelligence, which comprehends every aspect of his human drama. The combination of this temperament and this intelligence is the poetic work which grows more supple and more substantial as the volumes follow one another. Cyclists, dancers, angels are athletic names for the poet. They are his trainers who keep him in form, who teach him how to develop his muscles and who teach him also ways to avoid showing his muscular strength.
The final poem of the book is Mouchoir, the sign of farewell, and is literally that: a farewell to those who had been with him on that part of the voyage: He sends them back to the ship, where poetry is, as he faces alone something new, something unknown. He greets a new city:
Bonjour, mon métropolitain!
and drowns out a nostalgia for earlier cities:
J’étouffe un vieux regret de mes villes d’avant.
Art is constant renovation. The artist has to operate on himself and remove all useless organs. He has to move ahead into the future work, even if he has no ship, no vehicle with which he can easily reach the next goal:
Mais puis-je partir sans rames, sans essence . . .
With Vocabulaire, Cocteau’s private mythology is fully established, the words with which he had defined his vocation, and by means of which he carries on a severe commerce with the muses. Comparisons and symbols are methods by which to express the most intimate sentiments of the poet, and which are eternal sentiments. Birds and angels are the figures moving through these verses, delegated to justify the poet’s adventure. At times they accompany him and at times they merge with him in a fantasy-identification. The image of snow turning into marble, or ink turning into poems, or bees secreting honey in their hives is the persistent theme of metamorphosis: the central function of the poet. “Central” because it is the process by which life turns into death, and the process by which death, in its pemianent form, redeems life. The entire work of Cocteau is permeated with this experienee. In order to translate it, in order to make it felt by his readers, he devises image after image to testify to this change that obsesses his mind. He would seem to be saying, first to himself, because he is the one obsessed, and then to everyone else who will listen, that if this process can be accepted, the enigma of existence itself, of love and aspiration, of victory and defeat, will be solved.
The metamorphosis is always startling and gigantic: as from a live swan twisting its neck and changing into a statue of salt:
Tords-toi le cou noble statue
De sel, halte! retourne-toi
Each stanza of this poem, Mort d’un cygne, contains a juxtaposition of opposites, a movement of gigantic change which is either illusion or disillusion. A white cloud, for example, is called Gilles (the famous clown of the eighteenth century painted by Watteau) opening his satin arms. But the poet wonders if it might be Gilles de Rais (the murderer who will redden the morning sky):
Nuage blanc êtes-vous Gilles,
Ecartant ses bras de satin,
Ou Gilles de Rais, plus habile
A rougir le ciel du matin?
The poem A force de plaisirs is characteristic of the most successful in Vocabulaire, where the key words are quite specifically the obsessions of Cocteau: bees, as the timeconsuming-activities of the poet’s life, and their empty hive resembling a house of crime:
Que fites-vous de mal, abeilles de ma vie?
Votre ruche déserte étant maison de crime
For predestined hands, snow can quickly turn into marble. Such an image is Cocteau’s signature in such works as Le Sang d’un poète and Les Enfants terribles, and in the poem it announces a road taken in reverse direction: the marble statue turns to salt and the salt turns to living flesh on the beach where Sunday bathers are visible:
La neige est vite marbre aux mains prédestinées;
Du marbre au Sel Vénus connaît la route blanche,
Et du sel à la chair enfin la voilà née
Sur la plage où chacun se baigne le Dimanche.
Plain-Chant, of 1923, is a long poem on the combined themes of sleep, love, and death, one of the most serious poems that Cocteau ever wrote, one of the most unified in tone and texture. It is the long aria-like poem, as central in the work of Cocteau as Le Voyage in Baudelaire, Le Bateau ivre in Rimbaud, La Chanson du mal-aimé in Apollinaire. The surface of the poem, its outer form, is extraordinarily smooth, for the tumultuous, deeply felt experiences it covers. The classical qualities of the form have permitted the poet to give himself over to the powers that have tormented him, and he does more in Plain-Chant in the way of personal confession than in any other single piece of writing. The powers of the dark, of sleep and of watching the sleeper, allow him to inhabit simultaneously the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Sleep is the embalmer and the dream of the sleeper is an Egypt: the poet lives the terror of such false serenity:
Rien ne m’effraye plus que la fausse accalmie
D’un visage qui dort;
Ton rêve est une Egypte et toi c’est la momie
Avec ton masque d’or.
The poet and his other self (mon ange) are close to the sea. It is the setting of Plain-Chant: an element as vast as the element of sleep. The drama of sleep and death is the same, because the poet cannot follow the beloved within that element.
Le sommeil et la mer sont tes vrais éléments …
Hélas! tu le sais trop, je ne peux pas t’y suivre …
The distress in Cocteau’s life over the death of Raymond Radiguet induced him to seek escape in the experience of opium. The period spent in Villefranche marks a turning point in his work as a poet, which is the subject of Opéra and of the poem L’Ange Heurtebise, published in 1925 with a photograph of Man Ray. It is a difficult text because the poet is describing transcendental experiences by means of very concrete objects, by a vocabulary that deflates any attempt at lyricism. The rhythm is broken as all illusions are broken.
The poet calls upon Angel Heurtebise to come down again to help him in his solitude. Each month this angel is killed, shot down by the angels of God.
Ange ou feu? Trop tard. En joue
Il tombe fusillé par les soldats de Dieu
In stanza twelve the familiar words are recited, are conjugated: death, angel, Heurtebise, the ace card, the pack of cards, the swan, and the new name is announced, the new angel Cégeste, who is to replace Heurtebise:
La mort de l’ange Heurtebise
Fut la mort de l’ange, la mort
Heurtebise fut une mort d’ange,
Une mort d’ange Heurtebise,
Un mystère du change, un as
Qui manque au jeu, un crime
Que le pampre enlace, un cep
De lune, un chant de cygne qui mord,
Un autre ange le remplace dont je
Ne savais pas le nom hier;
En dernière heure: Cégeste.
The earlier definition of “angelism” which appears in Secret professionnel, finds its application in L’Ange Heurtebise. The poet has to reach an angelic disinterestedness which some may call egoism. Whatever attracts him violently in the way of earthly pleasure will be scorned and left behind. The angel-poet, ange Heurtebise, is beyond morality, detached from the suffering and the consequences of morality when he is a poet. Arthur Rimbaud remained steadfastly, for Cocteau, the example of angel on earth because of his capacity to embrace the violence of pleasure and to leave it with the swiftness of a winged creature who actually inhabits a realm above the earth.
Opéra, the volume of 1927, to which was added L’Ange Heurtebise, opens with poems as serene as those in Plain-Chant, and continues with pieces where allusions to angelism and opium predominate. The major poems in the collection, such as Prière mutilée, are struggles between the poet and his angel to reach some state of peace in self-knowledge. He is living close to “the system of heaven,” almost within its confines, so close that he can feel divine presences moving about actively. Angels appear from their embassy. As they climb hills, they raise their robes. The mirrors into which the poet looks are suddenly too small because they are filled with the elegance of the angels. This fourth stanza testifies to the action of the entire poem. Supernatural forces are amassed to invade the poet:
Les anges relevant leurs jupes ralenties
Escaladaient les collines, les palissades;
Et l’incroyable élégance de cette ambassade
Remplissait les miroirs devenus trop petits.
Each of the poems disperses all the others. Cocteau never stops for long. The struggle with the angel and the opium dream (cf. Prairie légère) are momentary halts. Poetry has to be progress and conquest.
Jean Cocteau belongs to that tradition of French poets who renew themselves from book to book, who move, not from style to style, but to varieties of their style which correspond to moments in their lives, to experiences which move and form them. It is the tradition of Ronsard and Hugo; it is especially the tradition of Verlaine. Each volume of these poets is a halt, a form perfected in accord with one moment in their life story. The other tradition, which today enjoys greater favor, is the tradition of the one book, of the poet who at the beginning of his career, found himself so totally expressed that his art stopped there: Villon, of the two Testaments, Baudelaire of Les Fleurs du Mal, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, poets of one book each, and Saint-John Perse in the twentieth century. There are resemblances between Plain-Chant and Leone, between L’Ange Heurtebise and La Crucifixion, but each book is a distinct halt, a distinct moment wherein some profound experience was threatened by sleep or death. It is a long cataclysmic work of images and propositions, of themes that are almost always conceived of as being threats.
La Crucifixion (1946) is one of the most plastic poems of Cocteau, where physical pain is depicted in drawn figures. The twenty-five stanzas are abrupt and bare and irregular. Nouns often exist without verbs in order to accentuate their pain and the traps of pain. In the eighth stanza, the crucifixion is seen as an infernal machine of exact calculation. The stage hands are in the wings with their ladders. For all eternity this machine has been controlling in outer space the candelabrum of the stars.
La machine infernale était mue
par des calculs
ignorés des machinistes
d’une coulisse d’échelles
interdites aux ramoneurs
sous peine de mort. De toute
éternité mue au coeur
même du drame la machine
d’une précision écoeurante
réglait en outre
le candélabre des astres
Leone (1942-44), a poem published one year before La Crucifixion, transpires within the world of sleep and within the confines of dreams. Without leaving his bed, the poet follows Leone, a supernatural creature closely resembling Death in Orphée. She leads him through Paris, a sleeping city, and through unnamed places where legendary lovers— Tristan and Isolde, for example—are consumed with love for all time. She comes to spaces where stars are in combat with one another. The poet cannot disobey this muse-like figure of Leone. She is a female Heurtebise as she leads the poet beside characters he had once created, and as she gradually grows into the leading character of the poet’s personal drama.
In stanza thirty-three the same question asked in Orphée is repeated: Who is Leone and whose orders is she obeying? When the poet awakens, does Leone walk in some other sleep?
Peut-être qu’enjambant le choc de mon réveil
Léone marchera dans un autre sommeil.
De sommeil en sommeil elle ira sans démordre
Jusqu’à celui dont elle exécute les ordres.
Typical of the variety of places visited by the poet is stanza seventy-five, where he sees the moonlight on the parapets of Elsinore and where his ghost is Hamlet, and Léone is the king:
Elseneur! Lieu de lune et de chemins de ronde
On y voyait le roi pénétrer l’autre monde,
Mon ombre était Hamlet et Léone le roi.
Published in 1952, Le Chiffre Sept is a long poem, less narrative and less descriptive than Léone, in which Cocteau reveals a dual form of suffering. First, that suffering of the artist imposed by the Muses who are cruel and demanding. In some of his earliest prose writing, Cocteau had referred to the Muses in this way, but with more wit and lightness than in Le Chiffre Sept. And second, the suffering imposed upon him by a world of selfishness and blindness, by a world that seems determined to destroy him. This theme had been briefly projected in Orphée, in both the play and the film, but in the new poem, the world is seen as absurdly centered on self-destruction. There is more bitterness, more pessimism in Le Chiffre Sept than in other poetic works of Cocteau. The lyric quality is more vibrant, more full. Waiting rooms and law courts are spoken of as being decorated with geraniums whose red is the poet’s blood:
Salle des pas perdus, portes de la justice,
Chambres où l’accusé se change en innocent,
Embellissez vos cours (vous me rendrez service)
De ces géraniums qui décorent mon sang.
The poem was written at the instigation of the publisher-poet Pierre Seghers, and it is in many ways Cocteau’s meditation on his life. The theme of chance, announced in the title, is the invisible, intangible poem that directs the poet’s exisfence, that is disguised in the words of the writer, in all the familiar objects the poet has appropriated through the years, such as those mirrors that do not want to be passed through.
Miroirs qui détestez qu’on vous passe au travers.
The stringent quality and the bitterness of Le Chiffre Sept are absent from the collection Clair-obscur. The ninety-two stanzas of this poem record an attitude of balance and serenity where the poet moves easily between the two worlds of light and shadow. An epigraph of Jean-Philippe Rameau admirably summarizes the aesthetics of Jean Cocteau, of which Clair-obscur is a good example: II est difficile d’avoir l’air facile. The facile appearance of gracefulness, in a poem of Cocteau, or in a drawing of Matisse, camouflages the difficulty of labor that preceded the work. The final economy of the work is the result of great lavishness of effort. The swiftness and wit of final effects come after prolonged intensity.
To the critic André Fraigneau, who wrote the very sympathetic study, Cocteau par lui-même (1957), the poet confided that Clair-obscur was written between two periods of serious illness which undoubtedly had some effect on the work. To a large degree, however, suffering and discouragement have been suppressed in the poem. Cocteau’s mastery of the means is in itself a sublimation. Jean Cocteau is as fully in Clair-obscur, of 1954, as he is in Plain-Chant of 1922. After an interval of thirty years, the same spirit of youthfulness permitted him to create that kind of art whose appearance is facility.
In the second part of Clair-obscur, Cocteau pays homage to several Spanish artists: Greco, Velasquez, Goya, the poet Gongora, the toreador Manolete. And then his homage is paid to many different writers: Kafka, Pushkin, Jarry, Rilke, Mallarmé. The poems are brief but they indicate something of the complexity of the subjects. Each poem is a portrait or an attempt to describe the inspiration of the artist.
Cocteau’s preoccupation with the meaning of poetry, with the reasons for writing poetry, was constant throughout his life and he often expressed his thoughts on such problems in aesthetics when invited to speak publicly, as in Oxford in 1956 on receiving an honorary doctor’s degree. Poetry is a labyrinth and the poet is held by two conflicting sentiments: by a fear of confronting the monster in the labyrinth and by a devouring curiosity to see him. Cocteau has also called poetry a terrifying solitude, a curse that comes at birth, a spiritual sickness. It is, especially, the reverse of what most people consider poetic: it is a secret weapon. Whatever thought a poem contains, it is derived from the words themselves. It is not the mere embellishment of ideas.
In order to illustrate poetry’s particular power of communication, Cocteau referred to a custom among simple peasants in the Antillas. If a woman in the country wanted to communicate with her husband or son in the town, she would say her message to a tree, and the husband or son would bring to her whatever she requested. When one of the women was asked why she used a tree, she replied: “Because I am poor. If I were rich, I would have a telephone.”
The secret language, characteristic of each poet, accounts for the solitude that surrounds a poem. It accounts for the scandal and the exhibitionism that appear so often traits of poetry. The sentence that Cocteau wrote for Le Potomak in 1915 states an important part of his aesthetics: “You should cultivate whatever the public reproaches you for, because it is you.” (Ce que le public te reproche, cultive-le, c’est toi.) In such a sentence, Cocteau implies that poets are often honored by their failures, and dishonored by their successes. Bad luck (Baudelaire called it le guignon) may turn out to be a consecration, and good luck may be the devil in disguise bent upon ruining the poet under the pretext of paying him homage.
Each poem, each book of poems of Cocteau, is a fresh start. It is also a continuity in creative work. He is the opposite of the traditional lyric poet who sings of ecstasy, of the imprecision of feelings, of the occult in its manifestations. Poetry is exactness, because it answers a need. The line is brief, bare, limpid. Labor is involved in bringing about the passage from a man’s secrets to the light of the work. The poet is archeologist far more than he is a prestidigitator. And the poet’s vocation is one of strict morality, of solitude, of humility, of obstinate self-discipline. No matter what is the final tone of a poem, each poem is serious and the poet writing it is engaged in a risk at each moment. He is bringing to light a reality which is adjacent to the habitually real.
The poet’s ego, who is finally responsible for the poem, is a mysterious being concealed from the world because he lives in a kind of darkness and is not very well known by the other self of the poet, the familiar self. Cocteau always looked upon the poet’s ego as operating alone, in a separate world, as distant from daily occupations as the world of sleep is distant from the world of a man’s consciousness. Cocteau has explained that at the end of a serious illness, he wrote the poem Le Requiem, under the direction of the inner self. Willfully and unwillfully he always refrained from writing the brilliant kind of verse, the easily flowing verse. He called Le Requiem a river of blood that changed to ink and that now flows into that mysterious sea called the public.
In one of the final interviews, in 1962, Cocteau reca pi tulated a sentence he had often expressed: there is no greater solitude than a poem (il n’y a pas de plus grande solitude qu’un poème) and added, “especially a poem written in French.” When asked to explain this thought, he said that France is a great creative country, but not an attentive country. Frenchmen are like those florists who hate flowers. More than any other type of writer, the poet is disliked. Cocteau refers to masterpieces that remained invisible as long as their creators lived.
On the publication of Le Requiem, one of the most familiar attacks was again levelled against Cocteau, that of writing in every genre possible, that of dispersing himself and diluting his talent. Cocteau’s persistent answer to this charge has been the power of poetry to take all forms, to borrow all vehicles. He does not separate his poems from his films and plays, from his essays and novels and drawings. The paintings in the chapel of Villefranche are part of his poetry, as well as the seven stained-glass windows in Metz, and the sets and costumes for Pelléas et Mélisande. When he worked with his hands, he rested from writing; and when he wrote, he rested from painting.
Poetry was indispensable for Cocteau, but he never said indispensable for what. It is an art with words, as old as mankind, and yet the object created by the words remains invisible. Cocteau has called it by all possible names: a royal ghost walking about in his life and a secret illness. He was a poet, but no more concerned with poetry than a plant is concerned with horticulture. Nature and its prodigality with seeds is comparable to the poet and his prodigality of verses written and unwritten. But the earth economizes and nurtures only one seed out of countless seeds, so that the species will be preserved. When one poem is successful and separated from all others, it is bare and unknown, and will be visited by shepherds and magi.