, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 47–93 | Cite as

Poetry and the child-self lyric and epic in the autobiographical mode

  • Richard N. Coe


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  1. 1.
    Philippe Lejeune,L'autobiographie en France, (Paris: Armand Colin, 1971), p. 30.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    André Gide,Si le grain ne meurt [1926], reprinted (Paris: Gallimard/ N. R. F., 1955), p. 10. Childhood-autobiographies from all cultures contain similarly categorical declarations:cf. Edmund Gosse: “This book is nothing if it is not a genuine slice of life” (Father and Son[1907], reprinted Penguin Books, 1973, p. 6);cf., as a variant, Alan Marshall: “I have gone beyond the facts to get at the truth” (I Can Jump Puddles, Melbourne, Cheshire, 1955, “Preface”).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The term “poetic [auto]biography” would appear to originate with Thomas Carlyle, in his description of the ideal [auto]biography as one “philosophically-poetically written and philosophically-poetically read” (Sartor Resartus [1831], London, Chapman & Hall, 1896, pp. 58–59). Recently, the term has acquired a new lease of life, beginning in the early 1960s, when Vivian de S. Pinto used the appellation “the new poetic autobiography” to describe a series of contemporary childhood-reminiscences (“Introduction” to Clifford Dyment,The Railway Game, London: Dent, 1962). Since then, however, the significance of the phrase has become progressively more obscure: William C. Spengemann, for instance, in hisForms of Autobiography (Yale U. P., 1980, p. 113), uses it to categoriseany autobiography whose effect will be “not to inform the reader but to transform him.” In the present study, the designation “poetic autobiography” will be far more specific: an autobiography couched in an idiom clearly identifiable as belonging to the domain of poetry rather than to that of prose.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    To avoid the constant repetition of this clumsy phrase; “Autobiographies of childhood”, the genre will also be referred to simply as “theChildhood”.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    For a Checklist of the material on which this study is based, see theProceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society (Literary and Historical Section), Vol. XIX, No. 6, (1984) [in the press].Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Characteristically, Goethe'sDichtung und Wahrheit concludes its narrative in 1775, when the poet, at the age of twenty-five, receives the momentous invitation to reside at the Court of Weimar. Similarly Dante'sVita nuova was probably completed by the time he was twenty-seven, and deals mainly with the period between his ninth and his twenty-third years.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Thomas Traherne, “Felicity”, from theDivine Reflections on the Native Objects of an Infant-Eye [Poems of Felicity, Vol. I, c 1670]. Unfor-tunately, there still exists no really authoritative edition of Traherne's poetry.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See Bernard Berenson,Sketch for a Self-Portrait (London: Constable, 1949), pp. 21–22; Eleanor Farjeon,A Nursery in the Nineties. (London: Gollancz, 1935), p. 259.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Thomas Traherne,Centuries of Meditations [c. 1670], III, 3.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Konstantin Paustovskij,Povest o zhizni (I):Dalyokie gody (Moscow: 1962), I, p. 81.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See the Author's “Stendhal and the Art of Memory”, in J. C. Ireson (Ed.),Currents of Thought in French Literature; Essays in Memory of G. T. Clapton (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965), pp. 145-163.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Joyce Cary,A House of Children [1941], “Foreword” to 1951 edition, (London: Michael Joseph), p. 7.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Wordsworth,The Prelude, Bk. I, lines 275–76. I use the revised text of 1850, rather than the currently more favouredversion originale of 1805, since, for some reason, this brings out better the points which I wish to emphasise.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    In D. B. Wyndham Lewis' unique and invaluable Anthology,The Stuffed Owl (London: Dent, 1930)—a selection of theworst poetry by the greatest English poets—most of the copious Wordsworthian contribution can be attributed to the poet's cataclysmic failure to accomodate high-flown rhetoric to the exigencies of everyday existence. The unusual title itself is extracted from one of Wordsworth's more regrettable lines of blank verse.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    A. de Lamartine,∄uvres Complètes (Paris: chez l'Auteur, 1852), III (“Harmonies Poétiques”, ii), p. 17. Even the title rings false, since Lamar-tine was born, not at Milly, but at Mâcon, and only moved to Milly at the age of seven.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    N. A. Nekrasov,Izbrannoje v dvukh tomakh (Moscow, 1962), I, p. 48.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Probably writtenc. 1876, when Rimbaud was 22. In Rimbaud,∄uvres, ed. Suzanne Bernard (Paris: Garnier, 1960), pp. 255–258. See also notes, pp. 481–485.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Pour fêter une enfance, in Saint-John Perse,∄uvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard/N. R. F.: “La Pléiade”, 1972) p. 25.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Andrei Belij,Kotik Letajev (Chicago: Russian Study Series, No. 57, 1966), p. 43. “Kotik Letajev” is Belij's own name for himself. “Kotik”=“Kitten”=his own pet nickname when he was very small; “Letajev”=a variant on his own true family name, Bugaev, suggesting the “flight” of the poetic imagination.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Kornyej Čukovskij,Ot dvukh do pyati [1953], (reprinted Moscow: Sovietskiy Pisatel', 1960).Cf. E. V. Lucas, wirting on Shelley: “Indeed, is not every child a poet for a little while?”Highways and Byways in Sussex [1904], (reprinted London: Macmillan, 1935), p. 132.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Eugène Ionesco,Découvertes (Genève: Skira, 1969), pp. 35–36.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Paul Chamberland,L'Inavouable (Montréal: Parti-Pris, 1968), pp. 39–40.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Cf. François Mauriac,L'Adieu à l'adolescence: poème (Paris: Stock, 1970). Wisely, Mauriac left this lyric sequence (writtenc. 1910) unpublished for 60 years. Less wisely, in the year of his death, he was unable to resist the temptation to see it in print. In terms of the comparative merits of pre- and post-Rimbaldian poetic idiom for the expression of the more esoteric elements of childhood-experience, it is instructive to compare Mauriac: Je vous donne l'humble trésor de mon passé, Les larmes d'un enfant que chaque heure a blessé [p. 21] with the passage from Chamberland just quoted.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Parallel developments in the techniques of comic verse take place in Russian, but without similar consequences in the domain of autobiographical writing. See below, in the concluding section to this essay.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Raymond Queneau,Chêne et chien [1937], reprinted inChêne et chien, suivi de petite cosmogonie portative, Préface d'Yvon Belaval (Paris: Gallimard/N. R. F., 1969), p. 61.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    It is a curious fact, that whereas virtually all EnglishChildhoods having a background in psycho-analytical theory or practice are Jungian, the French equivalents are Freudian. It is also interesting, that all the poets of childhood who resort to Freudian analysis emerge with the same conclusion: namely, that what they discover about their own past-Selves while committed to the Couch is so strange and so “magically” fascinating, that they cannot bear to waste it on a mere “scientist: [=the Analyst], but must keep it secret, so as to develop it in their own poetryautobiography. See Michel Leiris,L'Age d'homme [1922]; Clara Malraux,Apprendre à vivre [1963], etc.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    D. J. Enright,The Terrible Shears: Scenes from a Twenties Childhood (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973) p. 64.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Silvana Gardner,When Sunday Comes, Queensland U. P., 1982, p. 8.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Flora Groult,Mémoires de moi, Paris (Flammarion) 1975, p. 8.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    John Clive Hall,A House of Voices (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973), p. 10.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Patrice de la Tour du Pin's giganticUne Somme de poésie [1946–63], while it refers repeatedly to the experience of an earlier Self, is none the less so deeply-rooted in the theologico-mystico-symbolic experience of the adult that it is impossible to assimilate even isolated sections of it to the authentic Autobiography-of-Childhood. That the structure ofUne Somme de poésie may have influenced Philip Toynbee'sPantaloon is conceivable.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    John Betjeman,Summoned by Bells (London: Murray, 1960) p. 29.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Philip Toynbee,Pantaloon, or, The Valediction (London: Chatto & Windus, 1961), pp. 179–80.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    34Lejeune,op. cit., p. 30–31.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    The term “Saga” is used in its traditional Norse sense—not in the currently debased meaning imposed by popular television series.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    See esp. pp. 129–132, which constitute a sort of rewriting, in terms of personal experience, ofLe bateau ivre, interspersed with elements fromUne saison en enfer.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Given the dream-sequences, the symbolism, the nightmare-fantasies and the constant changes in narrative perspective inPantaloon, it is extremely difficult to reconstruct a chronologically coherent sequence.Cf., however, p. 216.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Derek Walcott,Another Life (N. Y.: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973), pp. 3, 42 andpassim.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    “For no one had yet written of this landscape that it was possible...” (p. 53)—this is a characteristic reaction of the Poet growing up in one of the remoter parts of the world.Cf. Donald Horne: “Australia was an inadequate country, not written about in good literature”.The Education of Young Donald [1967], (reprinted Penguin Books, 1975), p. 195.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    The term “play” here is being used in a precise philosophical-anthropological sense, as defined by Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois, Georges Bataille and others.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    See Kornyej Chukovskij,Ot dvukh do pyati, passim. It is interesting to compare this with Peter and Iona Opie'sThe Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, which reveals a totally different pattern of language-play.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    See my essay, “First Encounters with the French Language”, in theProceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, Vol. XIX, No. 6, (1984) pp. 27–43.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Michel Leiris,Biffures [vol. I ofLa Règle du jeu] (Paris: Gallimard/N. R. F., 1948), esp. the first two sections: “...reusement!” and “Chansons”.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Kornyej Chukovskij,Telefon [1924].Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    S. Y. Maršak, “Bagazh” [1926], inStikhotvorenija i poemy, (Sovetskiij Pisatel') 1973, pp. 188–190. It is interesting to compare the technique of this poem with that of Jacques Prévert'sInventaire. The 1920s witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of high-quality poetry for children: Maršak, Majakovskij, Čukovskij, A. A. Milne were all publishing within a few months of each other. Neither Surrealism, nor the importance which the then newly-discovered Freud attached to the state of childhood, can wholly account for this phenomenon.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Kornyej Čukovskij,Krokodil [1916].Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    A. S. Puškin,Skazka o Tsare Saltane [1831], lines 15–19, 23–26.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    See Philippe Soupault et al.,Comptines de langue française [1961], (Paris: Seghers, 1970). In particular, see the valuable introduction by Jean Baucomont (pp. 5–51), and the definitions of theformulette given on p. 7.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Louis Aragon, “La Chasse au Snark” (Paris: The Hours Press, 1928).Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Cf. his version of “Doctor Foster went to Gloucester”: Docteur Breton va à Gien par un temps de chien Il est tombé dans un trou on ne sait où InChansons des Buses et des Rois, 1921–1937, reprinted inChansons (Rolle: Eynard, 1949), p. 38.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    S. Y. Maršak,Stikhotvorenija i poemy, pp. 484–485. This edition includes the texts of 30 English Nursery-Rhymes in Russian adaptation. Kornyej Čukovskij likewise had a masterly touch with similar material.Cf. his version of “There was a crooked man”: Жил на свете человек, Скрюченные ножки, И гулял он целый век По скрюченной дорожке. А за скрюченной рекой В скюченном домишке Жили летом и зимой Скрюченные мышки. И стояли у ворот Скрюченные елки, Там гуляли Без заБот Скрюченные волки.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    A. A. Milne,The House at Pooh Corner [1928], (reprinted London: Methuen, 1973), p. 109.Google Scholar

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© Akadémiai Kiadó 1985

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  • Richard N. Coe

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