Hastings-Rudolf on Valazza (2018)


Valazza, Nicolas. La Poésie délivrée: le livre en question du Parnasse à Mallarmé. Librairie Droz, 2018, pp. 336, ISBN 978-2-600-05894-0

Sarah Hastings-Rudolf, University of California, Berkeley 

If, in the second half of the nineteenth century, publishing fervor and public favor swayed towards the industrialized production of the novel, what then became of poetry? Nicolas Valazza’s richly detailed, interdisciplinary study addresses this question by examining the rift that opened up between the composition and dissemination of poetry during this period. Valazza demonstrates that the dearth of a reading public and the difficulties of concretizing poetic production in the form of single-author books did not by any means bring about poetry’s impoverishment. On the contrary, it triggered the development of strategic, alternative avenues of expression, such as small-scale journal publications, letters, manuscript circulation, limited deluxe editions, collaborative volumes, illegal publications, and experimental book formats. Poetry was truly délivrée in the dual sense of the word.  

This study generally follows a chronological structure, and the initial two chapters set the scene with their analysis of the state of post-Romantic, Parnassian poetry. In the wake of Romanticism’s effervescence, Valazza finds a clear correspondence between the dwindling readerly interest in volumes of poetry and a new conception of the poet figure as maudit, rejected by the masses, and operating in the ivory tower of superior poetic spheres. Pandering to the bourgeois public was considered a compromise and an abdication of the poet’s true vocation, and thus those poets who achieved commercial success became the objects of jealous mockery and disdain. The scission between poet and public was both a blessing and a curse: poets embraced this new calling and yet simultaneously suffered as a result of the struggle to be published and read. Unable (if not unwilling) to disseminate their works in individual volumes, they conceived of collective projects such as Le Parnasse contemporain. Meanwhile, under the surface, illicitly published, licentious poetry flourished in defiance of the Second Republic’s censorship. 

The subsequent chapters hone in on the individual publishing fortunes and concomitant strategies of three major poets: Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Valazza tracks Verlaine’s religio-poetic shift from disdain of any potential readership towards a fervent, never fully realized desire for communion with the reader through poetry. Despite his growing desperation to establish his authorial status via publication, his “quête d’un livre évanescent” was for a long time met with indifferent refusal (157). The success he did achieve was deferred and partial, only attaining formidable, canonical heights posthumously.

In contrast to Verlaine, Valazza sees Rimbaud as more consistently rejecting the lure of commercial publication. Une saison en enfer was the sole book he published during his lifetime and it did not find its readership until twelve years after its initial publication, when its preemptive hermeticism found a raison d’être in the burgeoning Symbolist context. Valazza demonstrates that the anachronistic designation of Rimbaud’s metrical innovations as free verse results from this delay in his rise to renown. His many innovative liberties with meter find a certain parallel in his poetry’s unbound freedom from fixed book form. Indeed, his œuvre “en devenir” resists the rigidity of a definitive edition to this day (190).

Mallarmé’s writings attest to an explicit, vehement rejection of the mass-market publishing industry’s utilitarian circuits of exchange. This rejection expresses itself in his ideal of an unattainable, unpublishable “Livre” and his subversion of the traditional book form in the carefully curated works he did publish. Valazza fruitfully pushes back against the reading of Mallarmé’s work as disembodied in its autonomy, emphasizing rather a performative symbiosis of content, form, and material incarnation. In this sense, Valazza implies that Mallarmé’s “Autre éventail de Mademoiselle Mallarmé,” written innovatively across the folds of a fan, is the apogee of Mallarméan material experimentation and his creation of artists’ books avant la lettre.   

Valazza successfully argues that literary history cannot be thought in isolation from publishing (mis)fortunes and their direct impact on a work’s influence. Poetry is not disembodied, and should therefore not be read as divorced from the materiality that forms an integral part of its semiotic system. The establishment of movements and shifts within the poetic canon must account for that which Valazza describes as an incubation or gestation period, separating composition from material incarnation and public dissemination. He thus conceives of an “avant-garde après coup” (287), born out of the inevitably delayed influence of these poets’ formal and material innovations, such as an increased freedom from both traditional versification and from conventional book formats. 

La Poésie délivrée constitutes a highly significant contribution to multiple disciplines, and is equally enriching for students and scholars of the history of the book, material culture, nineteenth-century French poetry, and literary history more widely. It combines sweeping analyses of poetic development, rigorous historical documentation, and close readings that situate poems firmly in their socio-historical context without reducing literary intricacy. It serves as a crucial reminder that neither authorial intention nor teleologies of canonization can abolish the biases and hasard of the publication process, in response to which poets define their strategies and form their poetics.