Obituary: Professor Wallace Fowlie

Nicholas Johnson
Thursday 05 November 1998 01:02

JIM MORRISON, the singer with the Doors, grateful for Wallace Fowlie's 1966 edition of Rimbaud's Complete Works, sent him a note in 1968: "Just wanted to say thanks for doing the Rimbaud translation. I needed it because I don't read French that easily. I am a rock singer and your book travels around with me." It was a talismanic book for Morrison in his short existence on the circuit.

In a letter of 1996, Fowlie wrote:

I attended one concert of Patti Smith. She showed a large picture of Rimbaud and his brother. A friend of mine threw on to the stage at her feet my translation of R. She picked it up, looked at it, and said, "I know this book by heart." So, the poet goddess truly appreciated the Fowlie translation of the god poet.

In 1964, Fowlie had arrived at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and he went on to become America's most celebrated professor of French. He continued to teach classes until he was 85 and near to blindness, suffering from cancer and diabetes. Writing in 1993 he said: "I feel I should resign in May. I have been teaching 65 years. I began at 19 and now I'm 84."

The popularity of French 20th-century literature has subsided now in England and much poetry is scattered rather than consolidated in translation. Fowlie's early critical studies like The Clown's Grail (1948), Dionysus in Paris (1960) and Climate of Violence (1967) came from divers publishers; that these books and concurrent translation projects assisted the reputations of Mallarme, Saint-John Perse, Cocteau and Baudelaire is taken for granted. But none of these texts remains in print, and the English-speaking world is poorer by their absence.

Born in 1908, of Scottish descent, to an affectionate, literate family in Brookline, Massachusetts, Fowlie retained his New England sensibility. As a child, he was affected by a speech of Claudel's in Boston, but even more so by Mary Garden's singing of Melisande. By 1922 he had resolved to learn French (he went on to become fluent in seven Romance languages) and developed a lifelong passion for linguistics: " `Velleity', `apostasy'. I love rehearsing the words first and then the words in poems."

In his early twenties he embraced the Catholic faith, "joining a supernatural world that represented stability existing within the more familiar world of change and independence and hesitation," he said.

He attended Harvard from 1926 until 1936, when he received his doctorate. In 1932 T.S. Eliot taught him, and he took tea with Eliot each Wednesday afternoon. He was server at the early mass at the Anglican chapel, and Eliot often the only communicant. One day Eliot collapsed, arms outstretched, on turning from the altar, but Fowlie thought it best to wait until the priest concluded mass before assisting Eliot to his feet. He believed Eliot had received a religious experience.

In 1936 Fowlie visited Europe, soldering the alloy of place names he had memorised to the visual and actual Paris. He came to know the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who would become a guiding influence. He dissected Symbolist glossaries and visited Dante's terra in Italy.

Though Fowlie considered himself an exile in New England, he would not remain in Europe. In New York instead, for the Office of War Information, he learned to teach French, to 40 sailors, some of whom felt that the course should be retitled "What We Owe France".

In 1948, in The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, Henry Miller told the story of Auguste, a clown who desired to leave his audiences with a lasting joy. The catalyst was Fowlie's essay "Clowns and Angels", in his Jacob's Night (1947). Fowlie considered "the clown static, representing the immobile renovation of a hero reflecting the strange, unaccountable action of thought". Miller's watercolour The Clown's Mask later hung in Fowlie's North Carolina apartment, and the correspondence between them, as Letters of Henry Miller and Wallace Fowlie, was published in 1975.

His employment was peripatetic, at Bennington, then Chicago, Yale, Colorado, settling at Duke University in 1964. In 1950 he became foreign editor at Poetry, Chicago. There he championed contemporary French writers including Rene Char, Max Jacob or Henri Michaux, via essay and translation.

Reception of Fowlie's work on Rimbaud has long superseded that of Enid Starkie, or Louise Varese. Rimbaud's impact on modern popular culture is partly attributable to Rimbaud: Collected Works, but derives equally from Fowlie's pioneering studies from the Forties onwards.

He found allies in the Sixties; among those influenced by Rimbaud's work were Bob Dylan and the Beatles (Rimbaud appears on the sleeve of Sgt Pepper), as well as Jim Morrison and the Doors. In Help, Ringo Starr can be heard whispering a line from Rimbaud's Illuminations, "Madame X etablit un piano dans les Alpes"; Bob Dylan evokes Rimbaud's childhood farm in "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands".

Fowlie's classes frequently became oversubscribed. Tall, balletic and dynamic, hairless, in crisp suit and echoing heels, he brought his infatuation with acting to the classroom, "forcing his dream of a profession to a subordinate place". He gave unique insight, aural and tactile guidance through each nuance of a text.

In 1970 his appointment at Poetry ended. Next Fowlie turned his gaze upon himself and became a memoirist. In Journal of Rehearsals (1977), Aubade (1983), Sites (1986) and Memoir (1990) he whittled observation to a spiritual reconciliation:

We call it "stream of consciousness" but through the centuries memory, for want of a better term, has been referred to as flowing water . . . The growth of the river, accumulating riches, is the preparation for annihilation, for expansion and then dissolution. It fits perfectly the nature of tragedy, which is life-death. As a child, I watched the mouth of the Kennebec River at the sea, and now I am writing that experience.

By the 1980s he had alighted on his holy trinity of Dante, Proust and Rimbaud (with a frequent nod to Jim Morrison), writing critical studies on the first two. In 1990 he was consultant to Oliver Stone's film The Doors, and was commissioned to write the foreword to The Doors Complete. In his last two decades he became fascinated by the cross-currents he had established between the two poetes maudits. In 1995 his book Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: the rebel as poet was issued in Britain and was widely praised. This book compared the four years each poet's star had fried, and presented ideas Fowlie had been brooding over for 15 years. He said of the book: "Most of the readers knew Morrison, but many have discovered Rimbaud thanks to Morrison. This pleased me. Those two rebels make a fine couple."

Catholicism combined with preparation of classes and his daily discipline in rising to write and watch the dawn was a lifelong structure Fowlie did not veer from. His apartment was spartan, his life matched. "Dawn!" he wrote to me -

And I know the dawn is in me, too, because even the slightest degree of hope is a rising of light that will nurture it and allow it to grow during those early hours when God's world is again visible.

Wallace Fowlie, French scholar: born Brookline, Massachusetts 8 November 1908; Professor of French, Duke University 1964-78 (Emeritus); died Durham, North Carolina 16 August 1998.

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