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Pavane pour une infante défunte, Jean Paul Lemieux (1924) NGC

Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau (1912 -1943)

Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau (June 13, 1912 – October 24, 1943) is a revered French-Canadien poet, a place he shares with Émile Nelligan (December 24, 1879 – November 18, 1941).  He is also an older cousin to acclaimed poet and novelist Anne Hébert (1916-2000).  Both are descendants of historian François-Xavier Garneau (1809-1866) and Hector’s father, Alfred Garneau (1836-1904), was also a writer.

Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau was found dead, apparently of a heart attack, while canoeing alone near the family manoir at Sainte-Catherine-de-Fossambault.  Garneau suffered from a rheumatic heart condition that had forced him to interrupt his studies.  At the age of 31, he was too young to die, but he left for posterity a large number of poems as well as a Journal he did not intend to publish.  Yet the Journal is in print and it constitutes an exceptionally revealing document.

Two Comments

In this blog I will make only two comments.  First, I would like to point out that, in Garneau’s writings, we have an example of a widely spread feeling, among French-speaking Canadian authors.  For these writers, happiness is unattainable.  Happiness is in fact dangerous.  Moreover, I would also like to draw attention to the pictorial quality of the poems of Saint-Denys Garneau who had studied painting under the tutelage of Jean Paul Lemieux.

happiness is Dangerous

You may remember that in my blog on Maria Chapdelaine (1914) a regionalistic novel, I wrote that Maria could not be expected to marry François Paradis, the man she loves, as this would have brought her happiness, which is deemed a forbidden destination.  This very sentiment is echoed in Saint-Denys Garneau’s posthumously published Journal, prefaced by Gilles Marcotte and including comments by Robert Élie, a friend of Saint-Denys Garneau, and Roger Le Moyne.

The Journal (1954)

Both Saint-Denys Garneau’s Journal and Poésies complètes have been translated into English by John Glassco.[i] I do not own a copy of John Glassco‘s translation of Garneau’s Journal and must therefore play translator.  In his Journal, Saint-Denys Garneau wrote:

Que le bonheur est dangereux, et toute puissance, et toute ivresse ! Il faut par une longue discipline de soumission et d’amour avoir été rendu maître de soi pour résister au danger du bonheur.

“How dangerous are happiness, and all power, and all pleasure!  In order to resist the danger of happiness, one must have become master of oneself by practicing at long length submissiveness and love.” Journal, February 12, 1935.  (p. 54)

The Poésies complètes (1949)

Regards et jeux dans l’espace is a collection of poems published in 1937 by the author himself.  However, Saint-Denys Garneau’s Poésies complètes (1949) contains a second collection of poems entitled Solitudes The Complete Poems of Saint-Denys Garneau reveal similar if not more pessimistic sentiments than the Journal.

Regards et jeux dans l’espace[iii]

« Accompagnement » (p. 101)

In « Accompagnement », Saint-Denys Garneau writes that he is walking beside a joy, which suggests that there can be no convergence of the poet and joy.

Je marche à côté d’une joie
D’une joie qui n’est pas à moi
D’une joie à moi que je ne puis prendre [literally: to take]
(I walk beside a joy
A joy that is not mine
A joy of mine that is not mine to enjoy) (Glassco, p. 75)

« Un mort demande à boire » (p. 63)

In the same collection, Garneau also writes that  “A dead man calls for a drink”  (Glassco, p. 45).  A man cannot be both dead and alive, except, of course, in French-Canadian or Québécois Literature.  So Saint-Denys Garneau paints un mort-vivant, a dead man alive, as if he inhabited a middle-earth or purgatory.  « Un mort demande à boire » is one of two landscapes: Deux paysages.  Saint-Denys Garneau organizes his poems into groups.


« Après les plus vieux vertiges » (p. 139) 

Embedded in a group of six poems collectively entitled La Parole de la Chair (The Word of the Flesh), Saint-Denys Garneau expresses his inability to engage in sexual intercourse (“After the oldest of the vertigoes,” [Glassco, p. 107]).  It brings death, not la petite mort (an orgasm), nor death as in the cycle of birth and rebirth, i.e. l’amour, la mort, but death: Ton lit certain comme la tombe (“Your bed as certain as the tomb,” [Glassco, p. 107]).

La Pointe de l’Islet, 1964
Jean Paul Lemieux, R.C.A. (1904-1990)
La Galerie Walter Klinckhoff (with permission)

Ut pictura poesis

After reading Sub Rosa’s Ut pictura poesis[iv], I thought of Saint-Denys Garneau who viewed poetry as pictorial.  As I have already written, Saint-Denys Garneau was a trained artist, a student and friend of Jean Paul Lemieux and Paul-Émile Borduas.  For instance, as noted above, he uses the word paysage, or landscape, to denote poems.  Moreover, in Regards et jeux dans l’espace, the poet looks at (regards) and plays with (jeux) space (l’espace).  He is therefore giving shape to space: As is painting, so is poetry.  Sub Rosa’s literal translation sits well with me.  All poetry is pictorial and good portraits are more than a record of physical features.

« Le Jeu » (p. 35)

In « Le Jeu » (The Game), one of five poems constituting Les Jeux, Garneau writes:

Ne me dérangez pas je suis profondément occupé
Un enfant est en train de bâtir un village
C’est une ville, un comté
Et qui sait
Tantôt l’univers
(Don’t bother me I’m terribly busy
A child is busy building a village
It’s a town, a county
And who knows
By and by the universe) (Glassco, p. 21)

Musicologists have investigated the relationship between music and poetry.  For instance, there is a great deal of musicality in the poetry of Verlaine, musicality achieved by traditional devices: the number of pieds, or syllables, in a line of poetry; alliteration: the repetition of similar consonants (b, c, d, f, etc.) and assonance, the repetition of the same vowel  (a, e, i, o, u).

In French poetry, a comparison with pictures is not a frequent conscious occurrence, but Rimbaud wrote « Voyelles », a poem in which letters are given a colour and Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918 [Spanish flu]) gives a shape to some of his poems.[v]  And let us not forget synesthesia, all senses compelled.

Breakfast, 1965     
Jean Paul Lemieux, R.C.A. (1904-1990)
La Galerie Walter Klinckhoff (with permission)


[i] John Glassco started to translate Garneau’s Journal in 1958, perhaps a little earlier.  Glassco’s translation of the Journal was published in 1962 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart), but he did not publish his outstanding translation of the Complete Poems of Saint-Denys Garneau until 1975 (Ottawa: Oberon Press).

[ii] Saint-Denys Garneau, Journal (Montreal: Beauchemin, 1963 [1954]), p. 54.

[iii] Saint-Denys Garneau, Introduction de Robert Élie, Poésies complètes, Regards et Jeux dans l’espace et Les Solitudes (Montréal: Fides, 1970[1949]).

[iv] Sub Rosa, Ut pictura poesis, (WordPress, June 7, 2012)http://theme.wordpress.com/credits/omstreifer.wordpress.com/

[v] See the Wikipedia entry on Guillaume Apollinaire.

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Micheline Walker©
June 9, 2012