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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Henri de Régnier (1864–1936)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Pierre Dareutiere de Bâcourt (1869–1924)
 
HENRI DE RÉGNIER was born at Honfleur in Normandy. His father (who had been a playmate of Gustave Flaubert) belonged to a family of the lesser nobility of the province of Picardy of which all the men were officers in the King’s army, brigadiers, Chevaliers of Saint-Louis; through his mother he descended from the du Bard of Burgundy with whom ability for letters seems to have been hereditary. His early childhood passed happy and carefree in the picturesque little city on the banks of the Seine, famous for its queer mediæval houses and its charming but diminutive Norman Museum. In 1871 Mr. de Régnier, the father, who was an Inspector of Customs, was promoted Receiver and sent to Paris. Three years later his son entered the Collège Stanislas. At fifteen he wrote his first poem. Larroumet, his professor, a poor littérateur who became later on a shrewd politician, declared it was simply “grotesque.” The young man was a rather indifferent student but an omnivorous reader, quite eclectic in his tastes, enjoying with the same relish Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Flaubert and … the tragedies of the eighteenth century, not only Voltaire’s plays but even those of Prosper Crébillon—a perversion shared with Leconte de Lisle. After his graduation in 1883 he studied law and passed the examination for the diplomatic service, but this was all he could do to please his family; the call of the Muses was too insistent and he soon gave up all attempt at any career but that of a man of letters. Shortly after he began to publish his first verse in a little review called ‘Lutèce,’ under the pen name of Hugues Vignix, a kind of monogram of Hugo and Vigny.  1
  Stéphane Mallarmé at that time was famous in a mysterious sort of way. Ignored by the public at large, idolized by a small coterie of young artists of the pen, he was to his admirers a master, a demi-god, and a seer. De Régnier, introduced to him, became one of the most faithful habitués of the Tuesdays of the “rue de Rome,” where he met the élite of the new “symboliste” school. His intercourse with Mallarmé, Verlaine, Viélé-Griffin, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Stuart Merrill, Jean Moréas, and Gustave Kahn had the greatest influence, at least at the beginning of his career, on his artistic development. So it is not surprising to find “mallarmean” inspiration in his first book, ‘Les Lendemains’ (1885), which is a promise of much higher achievements. In ‘Apaisement’ (1886) the author shows a greater mastery of metre. But with ‘Sites’ (1889) he wins the recognition of the public, and ‘Episodes’ (1888) establishes once for all his claim to the noble title of poet.  2
  These four pamphlets, reprinted in 1899 as ‘Premiers Poèmes,’ form a logical sequence: ‘Les Lendemains,’ first contact with life, painful realization of the difference between dream and reality; ‘Apaisement,’ acceptance of the conditions of our world; hereafter the dream will reign on the inner life of the poet, who in ‘Sites’ builds the palaces, depicts the landscapes where the ‘Episodes’ of this inner life will unfold themselves.  3
  About 1888 Henry de Régnier made the acquaintance of José Maria de Heredia, the author of ‘Les Trophées,’ curator of the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal; there he came in contact not only with all the literary celebrities of the time, but also with the gifted daughters of his host. Marie had already composed poems which were to be published anonymously in La Revue des Deux Mondes in 1894. Common love for poetry was a scarcely needed tie between these two artistic young souls. In 1896 Henry de Régnier married Mlle. de Heredia; later on under the pen name of Gérard d’Houville she published some remarkable novels, including ‘L’Inconstante’ and ‘Esclave,’ and some excellent verse. Let us mention incidentally that her two sisters married also men of letters, Maurice Maindron and Pierre Louys. Henry de Régnier was at that time a tall and slender young man with long and elegant hands, an eye-glass in the left eye, a drooping mustache, but a powerful chin. His general appearance was one of distant, aristocratic, and rather languid distinction. Guarded in his words as well as in his gestures, he listened more than he talked, with an observant air rather suggestive of the diplomat than of the man of letters; but this outward frigidness was but the mask of an oversensitive soul.  4
  Between 1887 and 1890 appeared in succession the various pieces of ‘Poèmes Anciens et Romanesques.’ In full possession of the technic of his art and with an equal mastery of the alexandrine and of free verse, de Régnier enters upon a period of remarkable production, each new work of which is a seemingly impossible step towards higher perfection. ‘Rustic and Divine Games’ (1897) and ‘Medals of Clay’ (1900) pervaded with the clear beauty of Greece; ‘The City of the Waters,’ in which the pomp of the Versailles of old and the solitude of the Versailles of to-day are sung with sumptuous melancholy; ‘The Winged Sandal’ (1903–5) and ‘The Mirror of the Hours,’ whose calm majesty and faultless versification reach to the highest summits of poetry, form an ensemble which permits us to affirm without fear of contradiction that Henry de Régnier is not only the greatest of the “symboliste” poets but one of the greatest France has known.  5
  This was not enough for such a tireless worker, for, besides his poems, he has published up to date five volumes of short stories, four of essays and criticism, and eleven novels.  6
  The short stories appeared for the most part in reviews such as ‘Les Écrits pour l’Art,’ ‘Les Entretiens Politiques et Littéraires,’ ‘La Revue de Paris,’ before being collected in book form under the various titles of ‘La Canne de Jaspe’ (1897), ‘Les Amants singuliers’ (1901), ‘Trois Contes à soi-même’ (1907), ‘Couleur du Temps’ (1908), and ‘Le Plateau de Laque’ (1903). In all can be found the same elegance of style, poetic imagination, mysterious fancy, vivid evocation of the past; some are masterpieces of that particular form of literature, ranking with the best Maupassant has ever written.  7
  ‘Figures et Caractères’ (1901) is not merely a criticism but rather a method for the proper understanding of Michelet, Vigny, Hugo, Mallarmé. ‘Sujets et Paysages’ and ‘Esquisses Vénitiennes’ (1906) tell of the many journeys the author has taken to the cities of dreams, Bruges, Arles, Aigues-Mortes, Constantinople the city of the fountains, Venice, Damascus the city of fruits, New Orleans, and others. ‘Portraits et Souvenirs’ (1913) contains extremely clever studies of contemporary personalities.  8
  We lack the space to give even a sketchy outline of de Régnier’s many novels. They are fully equal to his verse. In a general way they might be divided into two classes, those which have for their setting the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as ‘La Double Maîtresse’ (1899), ‘Le Bon Plaisir’ (1902), ‘Les Rencontres de Monsieur de Bréot’ (1911), and those of the present time, such as ‘Le Mariage de Minuit,’ ‘Les Vacances d’un jeune Homme sage’ (1903), and ‘La Peur de l’Amour’ (1907), the last being ‘Romaine Mirmault’ (1914). ‘Le Passé Vivant’ (1905) spans the division and has a foot in either territory.  9
  M. de Régnier received the cross of the Legion of Honor in 1897. In 1899 the Académie Française awarded to him the “Prix Vitet” and in 1911 admitted him among its members in the place of Vicomte Melchior de Vogüé. He had been unsuccessful in a previous attempt, when Jean Richepin won the election.  10
  Some time in 1900 M. de Régnier came to the United States on a lecture tour; he obtained at best a success of curiosity, but brought back some pretty memories delightfully expressed later on.  11
  As de Régnier achieved the rare distinction of writing in prose and in verse with the same skill, his work must be considered from two different angles. As a poet he is before all a poet’s poet; his craftsmanship could not be appreciated by the public at large, which at first ignored him, then laughed at him, and admired him only when the unstinted praise of the littérateurs had proved that it was the proper thing to do. But nothing could deter him, for he loved his profession as the early artists loved theirs. For him writing was not a means of expression, it was an end. He was, however, too profoundly intelligent not to feel that the brilliant fabric of his verse needed some solid background of thought, so by mere instinct, he never went as far as some of his rivals who were content in producing harmonious but meaningless combinations of words.  12
  His poetical work has been divided into periods; in the first his individuality is not complete; in the second we detect the first manner that can be called his own, a remarkably clever use of free verse, as in ‘Jeux Rustiques et Divins’; in the third, the note is graver, and he returns to the alexandrine as in ‘La Sandale Ailée’ and ‘Le Miroir des Heures.’  13
  Such a division is purely artificial. Truly, we notice in his very first attempts the influence of Victor Hugo, then that of Mallarmé and Verlaine; later on, more even metre and more elaborate combinations of sounds may suggest Heredia; but nowhere can we find a trace of imitation. De Régnier is tuning his instrument, trying his chords, but he remains himself.  14
  Some surprise has been expressed at his reversion to the classical forms. It was inevitable, for by heredity, nature, training, and taste he is a classic. Still, from his association with the “vers-libristes” he gained a freedom, a flexibility in the handling of his rhymes and rhythms which make of his lawless alexandrine an instrument of expression of the very highest order, in many ways superior or at least more supple than its classical ancestor.  15
  As to the general trend of his poems, we can but repeat what Amy Lowell has said in ‘Six French Poets’:
          “Henry de Régnier is the poet of sadness, of gentle melancholy. He is also the poet of the nude. He almost attains the chaste and cool treatment of Greek statues. Probably it is this similarity of point of view which makes him so often choose mythological subjects. His attitude is not Greek in the historical and pedantic meaning of that term, it is rather the attitude of certain of our English poets in treating classical subjects. Beaumont and Fletcher in ‘The Faithful Shepherdess’ for instance, or Keats in ‘Endymion’ or ‘The Grecian Urn.’”
  16
  Henry de Régnier’s short stories might be considered as a transition between his poems and his novels. Not that poetic or rhythmic prose is to be found in them; the author knows his craft too well not to understand that different technics and qualities belong to different literary forms.  17
  He always takes great care that the style matches the subject. This is noticeable in his novels. In the modern ones, the language is terse, the sentences short, the descriptions bare of details. He shows an objective psychological skill in the concise presentation of subtle traits which could hardly be expected in a poet.  18
  The so-called historical novels are perhaps still more remarkable. They are absolutely free from that pedantic show of knowledge which frequently mars books of this kind. References to dates, portraits of sovereigns or famous men, obvious peculiarities of words, artificial “couleur locale” are carefully avoided. We feel that we are in the seventeenth or the eighteenth century because the characters think, speak, act as we know people of that period would have done. The style itself is of the time; the periods, full of subordinate and incidental clauses, unroll themselves with an easy majesty, the secret of which was thought to have been lost ages ago. The atmosphere is so true that we are inclined to close the volume and look at the title-page to ascertain its date of publication.  19
  Henry de Régnier has sometimes been reproached for a certain Rabelaisian coarseness which surprises us in such a refined poet. He is thoroughly Gallic, and never hesitates to use the proper word even when that word happens to be improper. There is indeed no deliberate immorality in this—only a child’s innocence of morals with a touch of delightful impertinence. But, to cite again Amy Lowell, “it is undoubtedly true that this fastidious gentleman enjoys a very loud laugh at times.”  20
  What is de Régnier’s outlook on life? Like many other modern authors, he has discarded the old creed. His temperament, firmly controlled by its own fine judgment and its own intuitive sense of measure, does not feel the need of the external restraint of social conventions which to ordinary people mean religion. He is inclined towards a pantheistic conception of the universe, or rather, as Mr. Havelock Ellis has very well said, a naturalistic pantheism of which we find some trace in Maurice de Guérin, with whom he has on one side some affinity.  21
  But to seek in his work a solution of the problems which now perplex our modern world would be a waste of time; Henry de Régnier is a dreamer, a poet, an artist, his aim was simply to create beauty for the consolation of his fellow men,
  “Car la forme, l’odeur et la beauté des choses
Sont le seul souvenir dont on ne souffre pas.”
  22
 
 
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