Historical Notes: Not a sexist but a feminist avant la lettre

IS IT true that poets die young? Jules Laforgue was one of those artists of huge promise such as Chatterton, Arrlaga, Keats and Wilfred Owen who were tragically cut down before reaching the age of 30. Had he foreseen his life, none of it would have surprised him, for his favourite philosophers were the gloomy Schopenhauer and von Hartmann, and he took the universe to be an irony practised against its own inhabitants.

He was born in 1860 at Montevideo, but was brought up in a boarding school in the south of France, on the other side of the ocean from his parents. Laforgue was thus effectively "orphaned" at the age of eight.

From 1881 to 1886, he experienced some good fortune, as the official French Reader to Augusta, Empress of Germany. Early in 1886 he began to have English lessons from the young Leah Lee. Jules used to say, "There are three sexes . . . men, women and Englishwomen," and he meant it as a compliment to Englishwomen. He left Germany late in 1886, and married Leah in London on New Year's Eve, in freezing weather. At some point, he had caught tuberculosis. Poverty-stricken and exhausted, he died in Paris in 1887, having barely reached his 27th birthday. Leah did not survive him long. She died, also of TB, nine months later.

None the less, in his relatively short life Laforgue had already done enough to create something of a revolution in poetry. He is one of the founders of modernism, and was a major influence on British and American poetry. Eliot, Pound, Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens all admired him. But his fellow-countrymen are more standoffish. Is this because of his squeamish "Will I? Won't she?" attitude to sex; or his blackly ironic world-view; or his facetiousness; or even his taste for gaudy and strident clashes of emotion? Is it because the French have always claimed to understand "l'amour"? The French attitude is partly cynical, partly idealist-romantic. Laforgue's cynicism and idealism about love are equally intense, but he melts with compassion rather than burning with passion.

It is true that poems such as "Our Little Companion" ("I'm Woman everyone knows me") sound, in modern terms, overtly sexist. But we must put Laforgue into the context of his society. He was the victim of the locked-down morals of his time, as were the young women he tried to court and not to court in his own special way. But he was in fact a feminist avant la lettre. He declared quite explicitly that it was time for women to become "our brothers, our bosom friends, with no ulterior motive of exploitation".

There is no stronger personality in any poetry, and certainly the early T.S. Eliot adopted his manner wholesale, so that many an Eliot poem seems almost like an English translation of Laforgue. No poet has handled irony with more panache. He is continually sending up the most solemn things, such as love, the universe, the French language, and above all himself.

For Laforgue, poetry was the record of life, lived through changing moments. You have to run to keep up with his moods, as he shifts from mock grandiose to colloquial, from sarcasm to despair, from pity to a shrug. Experience, for him, is as various as a set of Impressionist paintings taken of the same scene. And he was intensely fond of the Impressionists' oeuvre.

Graham Dunstan Martin is the translator of Jules Laforgue's `Selected Poems' (Penguin Classics, pounds 9.99)