What do these two people have to do with each other?
Short answer: Nothing.
A slightly longer answer: Very little. Up until now.
Early in the 17th century, François de Malherbe laid down the laws of classical French prosody, which remained in force in French verse till the end of the 19th century. He provided laws for poetic content as well: poetry should be governed by reason; it should not be difficult to understand; it should not even be (terribly) surprising. For Malherbe and his followers, genius, while generally desirable in a poet, was not a carte blanche for obscurity or idiosyncrasy.
The poetry of the 20th-century Americo-Englishman T.S. Eliot is seemingly the opposite of the above. It is written in free (or at least free-ish) verse, in which line length and rhythm follow no other rule than the poet’s whim (or…inner light). Furthermore, it is so difficult that it cannot be understood without a gloss.
So why this project of translating Eliot, not simply into French, but into classical French verse? Other than the sheer absurdity of it?
Undoubtedly, the absurdity is my main reason. But there is also the following.
Points of Contact between Eliot and (French) Classicism
- Though Eliot’s own verse is “free,” it frequently contains an echo of traditional, more regular verse forms. The whole of older English (and some other) poetry is in the wings, around the corner, or perfuming the atmosphere as one reads Eliot.
- Eliot said of himself: “I am…a classicist in literature…”1 He shares with the 17th-century French writer a wish to exclude the self (the untransformed, romantic, let-it-all-hang-out-I-gotta-be-me kind of self) from the poetic product. According to no less an authority on French literature than André Gide, such a desire is of the essence of (French) classicism.
How Far Can One Go?
- Eliot’s poetry is difficult, partly because of omissions (ellipses) and jump-cuts (so to call them), partly because of the use of images that are clearly significant, but not clear in any other way. What happens to it if you try pushing it in the direction of greater completion and clarity, such as is required by French classicism?
- It is normal to assume that once a period is over with, itself and its forms are done, done, done. Let the dead bury the dead; don’t put new wine into old vessels; out with the old, in with the new, etc., etc. New thoughts, experiences, and attitudes must have new words and new forms. But…why do we assume that? Why not, as an experiment, try pushing the boundaries of French classical style, to see what (else) it might be capable of; to see if it really is as foreign to a modern outlook as people assume it is?
T.S. Eliot Translations So Far
- And a disciple of Charles Maurras in politics, more’s the pity.