Laforgue’s Translations and the “Wordly” Estate of Whitman

Carla Sofia Ferreira - Walt Whitman Laforgue

I, too, am not a bit tamed . . . I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawps over the roofs of the world.
Walt Whitman, 1855 Leaves of Grass

1848 – New Orleans: this may have been when and where Walt Whitman’s career-long love affair with French was sparked; it was then and there that he began “to sprinkle his pages with French terms [. . .]”1 However, as Whitman admitted to companion Horace Traubel when discussing the first French translations of his poetry by imagist Jules Laforgue, he had “absolutely no conversancy with the language.”2 Whitman struggled to see himself translated: “You ought to see the Laforgue poems—I want to hunt them up for you—I have them here. I try to look at my face in a French glass but somehow it don’t work very well.” Whitman’s fearing that the French translations would render a distorted image of himself might seem odd coming from someone who, by all accounts including his own, was such an ostensible Francophile.

Walt Whitman, 1854Walt Whitman, 1854.
Photo likely by Gabriel Harrison.However, Whitman’s perception of French literature and culture was divided between admiration and distaste. In December 1888, while speaking of “American ballade rondeau writers,” Whitman says “ours are not the real fellows [. . .] : they are the six time diluted imitators of the French: the French excel in all that: in grace, beauty, sparkle—witty sayings, bright rhymes—persiflage, they call it.”2 Whereas Whitman appears to use the word “persiflage” to indicate technical skill in “witty sayings, bright rhymes,” it actually means “mockery.” Ironically enough, “persiflage” could describe Laforgue’s style in his highly ironic and often darkly comic poems. Whitman would have been unaware of this, as he appears to have never read Laforgue’s own poetry, but coincidentally—or perhaps because it was in keeping with Whitman’s ideas surrounding French writing—he describes Laforgue’s translations similarly to the “persiflage” that the French endow with “grace, beauty, sparkle”: “I have seen Laforgue’s work: I am told it is brilliant—sparkles.”2 Whitman found this “sparkle” in French writing at times brilliant and at others, superficial.

French writers often dazzled Whitman to the point that he considered certain skills unique to their Frenchness, as seen when he discusses a play he saw in Philadelphia:

The plot of the play was about a perfumed glove—so trivial, almost silly—yet was a successful study throughout: delicate—very delicate: French, in fact: no one but the French can hit high water mark in such things: the play must have had a French inspiration—purely French.2

Whitman bestows generous praise on French delicacy here, but elsewhere greets it with suspicion. In defending Victor Hugo against criticism for having a “lack of decorum,” Whitman admits “there are some signs of flare, peculiar Frenchiness, in Legende des Siecles, but after that a real sublimity of power.”2 Throughout his conversations with Traubel, an important distinction appears between what Whitman sees as “Frenchness” and what he disparagingly calls “Frenchiness.”

Understanding what Whitman sees as “Frenchness” could explain why French peppers so much of his poetry. When discussing Matthew Arnold’s “charge of lubricity against French literature,” Whitman cheekily replies,

Does he use lubricity in the sense of oiliness? [. . .] of making things move smoothly?—of furthering grace of motion? I should say, in these of all things the French writers excel: there are no others within range of them.2

Whitman’s perception of the French as uniquely talented writers intersects with his positioning of French culture as the opposite of Puritanism. As shown in several remarks, he idealizes France as anti-Puritan: “I never had the common Puritan ideas about France: I have long considered the French in some ways the top of the heap,” adding months later, “I am aware of what our puritans thinks of the French: it counts very little with me [. . .] the main difference between us and the French in sex directions is in their frankness as opposed to our hypocrisy.”2 For Whitman, to be French was to be anti-Puritan and this to him meant a democratic culture. “Frenchness” was more than “sparkle”—it was revolutionary fervor.

Thus, Whitman pairs the 1776 American Declaration of Independence with the 1789 Storming of the Bastille as “acts [. . .] of the same stock.”2 “Stock” in connoting “breed” or “type” reveals how Whitman views democracy as a common heritage to France and America. Whitman’s dabbling in French cannot be written off as voguish dilettantism, but rather was part of a larger project to use a common language of democracy, or as Whitman writes in the opening poem of his 1867 Leaves, “I speak the word / of the modern, the word EN-MASSE.”4 For Whitman, to speak “the word / of the modern” was to speak in French so long as it was being used to reflect the interests of the “EN-MASSE.” Whitman prefaced a French vocabulary list in writing that his recommended words “all have been more or less used in affected writing, but not more than one or two, if any, have yet been admitted to the homes of the common people.”1 The “common people” were Whitman’s “EN-MASSE,” “Frenchness” as modern democracy whereas “Frenchiness” was the aristocratic mark of “affected writing.”

Walt Whitman portrait, Leaves of Grass frontispieceWalt Whitman, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass. Steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype, 1854, by Gabriel Harrison.However, as Whitman’s praise for the play about the perfumed glove shows— simultaneously “so trivial, almost silly” and “yet [. . .] a successful study throughout”—the line between “Frenchness” and “Frenchiness” was never fully distinct. Hence, Whitman’s anxiety over how he would be presented in a French glass: would it be the democratic Whitman as shown by the frontispiece on Leaves of Grass? Or would it be Whitman the dandy, as he himself once was at age twenty-two when he would walk “up and down Broadway, sporting, as one contemporary noticed, a dandy’s attire of frock coat, high hat, boutonniere, and ‘dark beautifully polished cane’”?5 While Whitman himself may have once been infatuated with the persona of a dandy, by the time he wrote and self-published Leaves in 1855, he wanted to be seen as a democrat, a common man of the “EN-MASSE.”

In his account of the well-known 1854 daguerreotype of himself, Whitman describes Gabriel Harrison spotting him on the street and spontaneously deciding that he had to take his picture.5 Samuel Hollyer, who engraved the daguerreotype so it could be printed onto Leaves, reveals a more complicated process: creating the engraving involved “several sittings from Walt Whitman as it was taken from a daguerrotype [sic] and was difficult to work from.”6 Whitman saw what he felt was his proper reflection in the image he chose to have printed in Leaves. Unable to manipulate the French language as he could his engraved image, Whitman could not know if his French reflection was that of democrat or dandy.

In May 1888, while discussing the translation plans of French Symbolist and Laforgue’s contemporary, Francis Vielé-Griffin, Whitman says, “Let them make it—I encourage it: let results take care of themselves: but I do not think the French will take hold of me—that I come within their orbit.”2 Whitman’s doubts over whether he could “come within [French] orbit” can now be seen with irony, since his 1871 poem “O Star of France!” effectively launched Whitman into that orbit of French literature and culture.

Whitman published “Star” in a New York literary magazine aptly titled The Galaxy. The poem, like Whitman’s relationship with France, is complex and divided. It acknowledges France’s recent military defeat, but presents the country returning to victory through its democracy. Despite his doubts, “O Star of France!” shows that in triumphing democracy, Whitman “speak[s] the password primeval.”3 Laforgue seemed ready to decode Whitman’s password, though his English somewhat mirrored Whitman’s faulty French. Most of Laforgue’s training in English happened the winter immediately preceding the translations, while taking lessons with Englishwoman Leah Lee, whom he would later marry. Scarce information survives documenting the translation process and even how Laforgue first discovered Whitman remains contested. What remains largely uncontested, however, is Laforgue’s admiration for Whitman, as evidenced in his choice to subtitle each set of his Les Brins d’herbe as “traduit de l’étonnant poète américain Walt Whitman,” or “translated from the astonishing American poet Walt Whitman.”7

According to Betsy Erkkila’s account, Laforgue discovered Whitman while working as a reader for the Empress of Germany in Berlin from November 1881 to September 1886.8 If this account is true, then Laforgue’s introduction to Whitman was a scathingly negative review by Thérèse Bentzon. Émile Blémont was one of the first French critics to write of Whitman in a June 1872 article for Rénaissance artistique et littéraire, referring to him as “le grand poète de la démocratie américaine,” or “the great poet of American democracy,” and he later wrote high praise of Whitman in two July 1872 articles. However, Blémont’s articles were overshadowed by Bentzon’s article published that same month, “Un Poète Américain: Walt Whitman,” mockingly subtitled “Muscle and pluck for ever!” which received more attention as it was published in the better-known Revue des deux mondes.9

Bentzon seems to draw upon Whitman’s own claim of untranslatability, asserting that “there is no point of indecency that makes [Whitman] recoil; the French language will refuse the translation of certain erotic parts [of Whitman’s poetry.]”10 In Leaves, Whitman writes he is “untranslatable,” his “barbaric yawp” or “untamed” speech a response to a “spotted hawk” he imagines “complain[ing] of my gab and loitering.”10 Bentzon censures this “animal” nature of Whitman’s persona, critiquing the “monstruosités” of his work.

The term “monstre” carries mythological and animalistic connotations. The 1835 sixth edition Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française defines “monstre” as “an animal formed against nature;” the definition of “monstrueux” includes “what is against the laws of nature,” specifying that this can apply to “moral things.” The seventh edition in 1878 deletes nothing from the 1835 “monstre” but adds other definitions such as: “certain imaginary beings that appear in the fables of the ancients,” offering “The Centaurs, the Chimera, the Minotaur, the Cyclops” as examples and “figuratively a cruel and denatured person.”10 Whitman appeared half-monster, half-myth to Bentzon because his poetry broke all the laws she held as natural to poetry.

Her closing remarks in the 1872 article function as a moral indictment of Whitman’s poetry. After admitting “(he will be, alas! the father of a long generation of poets),” she then issues a series of injunctions to would-be “imitateurs” of Whitman:

—may they detach themselves from inspirations so stupid that their work feels like reading the writing of someone taking hashish or one of those drinkers of whisky mixed with powder, as there exist, I assure you, in some savage corners of their country;—may they respect the modesty of women, since they claim to place them in higher standing than they have ever been placed before [. . . .]10

Bentzon’s rambling catalogue and use of anaphora mock Whitman’s own style as she indicts his poetry. Her battle is one invested in the moral influence of art, afraid that poetry like Whitman’s could inspire decadence ranging from substance abuse to permissive sexuality. Bentzon also is certain that Whitman’s literary descendants will be American, since “no European writer, of prose or poetry, has fallen into the excess of [Whitman’s] energetic bad taste,” claiming that “even Mr. Victor Hugo in his least excusable audacities, and Mr. Baudelaire in his most venomous compositions do not approach [Whitman] by far.”10

Jules Laforge, 1884Jules Laforgue, 1884Laforgue, however, was more than willing to approach him or, to use Whitman’s terms, to “take hold of” him. When Bentzon wrote another article on American poets, in May 1886 for Revue des deux Mondes, in which she was less condemnatory but still reproachful of Whitman, she may have set Laforgue’s translations in motion.11 One of these was “O Étoile de France,” which Laforgue considered “un des plus Whitman du volume,” or “one of the most Whitman-like of the volume.”12 Laforgue is generally faithful throughout his translations, but various word choices are noteworthy, such as translating “mastless hulk” as “carcasse démâtée” in the first stanza.7 Whereas “démâtée” roughly translates to “mastless,” “carcasse” can signify “a frame,” but primarily would refer to a “carcass” so that already this first stanza aligns France with the martyred body that will appear in the third stanza. “Orb not of France alone” becomes “Astre, non de la seule France” so that the singularity of the “seule France” or “sole France” is highlighted. A more accurate translation of Whitman’s original words would be “Astre non seulement de France,” but Laforgue translates “France alone” directly into “la seule France,” changing the focus from the star not belonging solely to France to the singularity of France. Notably, the words “dim” and “pale” do not get translated at all: it begins with “Étoile sinistrement frappée,” meaning “Star sinisterly smitten,” instead of “Dim, smitten star,” and “symbole de mon âme” translates as “symbol of my soul” without reference to “paleness” as in the original.

Laforgue, however, attempts to stay faithful to even the harshest depictions of France with the original lines from the third stanza, “Strange, passionate, mocking, frivolous land,” translated straightforwardly as “Étrange, passioné, railleur, frivole pays!” Whitman’s depiction of France in such terms reveals again the thin divide between democracy and dandyism, Frenchness and Frenchiness. France is at once the “symbol of [Whitman’s] soul” and a “frivolous land.” Something else occurs here when Whitman describes France as “passionate.” In the drafts of “Star,” he originally describes the “Star” as “trembling,” changing it to “smitten” for the final version. This, along with Whitman’s placement of “Star panting o’er a land of death—heroic land!” immediately before France as “passionate,” infuses the poem with romantic undertones.

Thus, we see Whitman, despite his apprehension, infatuated with the France of his idealization. Unsurprisingly, there were rumors that his use of French was inspired by having “been in love [. . .] with a woman who spoke it.”1 When he speaks of doubting whether the French will “take hold of [him],” this comes across as nearly a romantic slight, a refusal of Whitman’s embrace towards France. After being drawn to Whitman by Bentzon’s explicit cautioning that his “erotic parts” could not be translated, Laforgue’s “taking hold” of him becomes charged with an eroticism similar to Whitman’s account of the daguerreotyper who (according to Whitman, of course) needed to take Whitman “right up stairs with [him] this minute.”

However, Whitman appears ignorant of Laforgue’s embrace. Despite having received news of Laforgue’s death from Vielé-Griffin in May 1888, by March 1889, he seems to have forgotten. When Traubel asks Whitman what happened to the plans for the Leaves translation by Laforgue, he responds as if Laforgue had abandoned the project:

When I think of all the schemes—some of them mine, some of them from others—designed to establish for Leaves of Grass some plausible wordly [sic] estate, I am struck with amazement—almost consternation. George [Whitman’s brother] once said to me: ‘Walt, hasn’t the world made it plain to you that it’d rather not have your Business Relationships? Why, then, don’t you call the game off?’

Laforgue’s translations did in fact set up a “wordly estate” for Whitman within French letters. Not only did Laforgue finish many translations, but he also worked tirelessly to publish them even while suffering from tuberculosis, an illness that would eventually kill him at only 27 years old. And although Whitman would never become aware of it, the translations had a deep effect on Laforgue’s writing.

In August 1886, Laforgue wrote to editor Gustave Kahn, “I forget to rhyme, I forget the number of syllables, I forget the distribution of stanzas . . .”12 That this letter followed his translations is, I argue, not mere coincidence. Critic Percy Mansell Jones claims that “had not fragments of Whitman’s poetry been translated about the time when the first vers libres were being written, probably no attempt would have been made to forge a link connecting the two phenomena.”13 This opinion among literary critics is not uncommon; Jones is one of many critics who ignored/ignore the demonstrable effects of Whitman’s influence on Laforgue’s vers libre, not just in his choice to switch almost entirely into free verse, but in the content and style of his poems. I encourage those who believe the Whitman translations had no substantial effect on Laforgue’s writing to read the following excerpt from “Albums,” originally written as part of Laforgue’s book Fleurs before he abandoned the project altogether to write exclusively in free verse for what would be posthumously titled Derniers vers:

They told me about life in the Far-West and the Prairies
And my blood stirred: “Voilà that’s my homeland! . . .”
De-classed from the old world, without religion or law,
Desperado! there, there, I will be king! . . .
Oh! there, I’ll scalp my European brain!
Stamping the earth, re-becoming a virgin antelope,
Without literature, a huntsman, citizen
By chance and whistling Californian slang!17

I challenge any literary critic to read the above lines and to tell me with a straight face that a French Symbolist poet writing such lines, after a career of only writing in formal verse, wrote this with no substantial influence from translating Whitman. And yet, such an absurd contention continues to be the status quo of much of academia’s understanding of Whitman’s influence on French Symbolism at large. However, if we agree with T. S. Eliot’s assessment of Laforgue as the “most important technical innovator after Baudelaire” in French poetry, then I think we risk creating an inaccurate history of vers libre, in French and in English, should we choose to exclude Whitman’s free verse as one of its catalysts.14

Laforgue’s Derniers vers, published posthumously in 1890, was the first volume of poems in French to be composed entirely in vers libre, causing “some literary critics” to “have credited [Laforgue] with the invention of vers libre [. . .]”15 Clive Scott notes that the first vers libre in French appeared with Arthur Rimbaud’s “Marine” and “Mouvement,” both of which appeared in La Vogue the same summer as the Whitman translations, but asserts that Laforgue and Kahn “were the first to write and publish free verse consistently and with a developed awareness of what they were trying to do [. . .]”16 Scott adds, “Laforgue seemed to me to be the first to write free verse with a sense of purpose, the first to opt for it unequivocally, to commit his poetic future to it wholeheartedly.” In looking at the kind of role Whitman could have played in this development, Scott writes that Laforgue “saw very precisely what Whitman was about prosodically and found ways of transferring that into [his] own renderings,” only to later write that the free verse of Laforgue and other Symbolists bears “no detailed technical resemblance to Leaves of Grass.” Such contradictions are the norm regarding Whitman’s influence on Laforgue. I contend that if we look at Laforgue as a verslibriste, surely we must also see him as a translator of Whitman.

As for Whitman, I think of him now on the 200th anniversary of his birth and I wonder, as many poets have before, what he would think of us, his élèves, reading his poems after all these years. I wonder, after his decades of struggling to find always Frenchness and never Frenchiness, what he might think of the “wordly estate” he has left behind, transatlantic, democratic, multilingual, and as it ever was, full of delightful contradictions.


1. Walt Whitman. New York Dissected: a sheaf of recently discovered newspaper articles by the author of Leaves of Grass. “America’s Greatest Inheritance.” Ed. Emory Holloway and Ralph Adimari. (51-65). New York: Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Inc., 1936.

2. Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1-9. The Walt Whitman Archive.
<http: //>.

3. Walt Whitman. 1855 Leaves of Grass. The Walt Whitman Archive.

4. Walt Whitman. 1867 Leaves of Grass. The Walt Whitman Archive.

5. Laure Katsaros. New York – Paris: Whitman, Baudelaire, and the hybrid city. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Michigan University Press, 2012.

6. “July 1854 Daguerreotype.” “Pictures and Sound.” The Walt Whitman Archive. (n.d.) <>.

7. Jules Laforgue. Les Brins d’herbe: traduit de l’étonnant poète américain Walt Whitman. La Vogue. 28 June-5 July 1886. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints. (1971): 325-327.

8. Betsy Erkkila. Whitman Among the French. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

9. P. Mansell Jones. “Whitman in France.” 10:1. (January 1915): 1-27. The Modern Language Review. JSTOR.

10. My translation.

11. David Arkell makes this argument in Looking for Laforgue: An Informal Biography.

12. Jules Laforgue. Lettres à un Ami. Ed. G. Jean-Aubry. New York: AMS Press, 1981.

13. P. Mansell Jones. The Background of Modern French Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

14. T. S. Eliot. “Introduction.” Selected Poems. Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1948. 7-21.

15. Joseph Maddrey. The Making of T. S. Eliot: A Study of the Literary Influences. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2009.

16. Clive Scott. Vers Libre. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

17. Jules Laforgue. “Albums.” La Revue Indépendante. 7:18. (18 April 1888): 21-22.

About Carla Sofia Ferreira

Carla Sofia Ferreira is a teacher and poet from Newark, New Jersey. The daughter of Portuguese immigrants, she teaches English to first generation immigrants in the Bay Area. Her poems and reviews live in Cotton Xenomorph; Glass; Reclaim: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry; and The Lascaux Review among other rad places. Her chapbook, Ironbound Fados, is out with Ghost City Press in May 2019 the day before Walt Whitman’s birthday. Find her on twitter @csferreira08.

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