Kurt Schreyer – Verlaine’s Parsifal

Following from Prof Groves Valentine’s post, Kurt Schreyer, Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Missouri, and author of Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft: Remnants of the Mysteries on the London Stage has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post – Parsifal, Strike, & “Le noir roc courroucé”. Join me after the jump to find out more about the enigmatic (and visually striking) Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine.

 

Parsifal, Strike, & “Le noir roc courroucé” 

Kurt Schreyer

I’d like to offer a small supplemental addendum to the fascinating work that Beatrice Groves has done on the connections between the German composer Richard Wagner, the legend of Percival and the Grail Knights, and the Robert Galbraith detective series. It concerns the sonnet “Parsifal” by the wildly popular nineteenth-century French poet Paul Verlaine. Considered one of his best poems, “Parsifal” would later receive new acclaim when T. S. Eliot quoted its famous final line in The Wasteland (1922). With Rowling’s knowledge of French and her love of nineteenth century poetry, Verlaine’s poem may well have a special appeal for her. Along with Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire, Verlaine was a leading Symbolist poet, which may also have attracted her attention. Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century literary movement that emphasized transcendental ideas and experiences over and against the gritty materialism of naturalism and realism. Symbolist poets placed a premium on dreams, imagination, and spirituality for, as the Symbolist Manifesto would later proclaim, human activities and physical objects in the world are merely “veiled reflections of the senses pointing to archetypal meanings through their esoteric connections” (“ce sont là des apparences sensibles destinées à représenter leurs affinités ésotériques avec des Idées primordiale”).[1]  It is a view of art and the human mind that would have much in common with the views of Carl Jung (1875-1961), who wrote a famous essay on “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry.”

Together with several other poems dedicated to Wagner’s memory, including one by Mallarmé, Verlaine’s “Parsifal” was first published in the new Parisian magazine La Révue wagnérienne on 8 January 1886, three years after the death of the German composer. It was preceded by two epigraphs, one from St. Thomas Aquinas and the other from Alfred Tennyson. As these are brief and the poem itself is a sonnet, the printed page (p. 336) may be reproduced in full:

Dedit et tristibus sanguinis poculum.

(Saint Thomas D’Aquin)

                                                                   Sir Percivale

Whom Arthur and his Knighthood call’d the Pure.

(Tennyson)

Parsifal a vaincu les Filles, leur gentil
Babil et la luxure amusante — et sa pente
Vers la Chair de garçon vierge que cela tente
D’aimer les seins légers et ce gentil babil;

Il a vaincu la Femme belle, au cœur subtil,
Étalant ses bras frais et sa gorge excitante;
Il a vaincu l’Enfer et rentre sous sa tente
Avec un lourd trophée à son bras puérile,

Avec la lance qui perça le Flanc suprême!
Il a guéri le roi, le voici roi lui-même,
Et prêtre du très saint Trésor essentiel.

En robe d’or il adore, gloire et symbole,
Le vase pur où respendit le Sang réel.
— Et, ô ces voix d’enfants chantant dans la coupole![2]

My inadequate English translation of Verlaine’s sonnet reads:

Parsifal has conquered the maidens, their pleasing
Chatter and their happy lust – and his desire,
A virgin boy’s, for the flesh, drawing him to
Their little breasts and sweet babble.

He conquered the Beautiful Woman with subtle heart,
Spreading her bare arms, exhibiting her heaving breast.
He conquered Hell itself and returned to his tent bearing
The heavy trophy in his boyish arms,

With the Holy Spear that pierced the Side of God
He healed the king, he himself now king
And priest of the most holy Treasure.

In robe of gold he worships the symbol and the glory,
The holy vessel resplendent with the true sacred Blood.
– And, oh, the voices of those children ringing in the dome!

With its condemnation of luxury and decadent behavior, it’s easy to see how these Wagnerian themes would have appealed, vis-a-vis Verlaine’s poem, to Eliot when he was living and writing in the London of the 1920s. Yet the poem simultaneously luxuriates in sensual imagery. Verlaine had closely studied Wagner’s opera, in which Parsifal must overcome his desires for the flower maidens and above all for the subtle, treacherous, and yet conflicted Kundry, or “wild woman” who is constrained by magic to do the bidding of the evil knight-cum-sorcerer Klingsor.[3] Verlaine’s fourteen-line poem is thus an incredibly succinct crystallization of Wagner’s libretto culminating in the healing of Amfortas, the Fisher King figure. The poem celebrates the conquest of lust and frivolous couplings for truer bonds of love with deeper meaning and significance. It is an expression of liberation, of leaving behind “fool’s gold” for the “true metal” – the Grail. It entails overcoming both boyhood emotions and one-night stands as well as overcoming a particularly cunning, beautiful “wild woman” – “la Femme belle, au cœur subtil.”

Of course, Rowling’s assiduous study of the Percival legend may not have included Verlaine’s poem, yet both its themes and the tumultuous life of its author resonate in a surprising number of ways with the Strike & Ellacott novels. As one biography of the French poet summarizes: “his tempestuous life included wealth, marriage, affairs with Arthur Rimbaud and young boys, poverty, professional recognition, prison, prostitutes, public hospitals, Catholicism, and alcoholism, among other things. His poems often deal with the possibility of redemption through love.”[4] Verlaine also served briefly in the Garde nationale. In his 1897 poem “Le Tombeau” (“The Tomb”), Mallarmé would commemorate the first anniversary of Verlaine’s death by recalling “notre vagabond” as a dark, brooding, and restless rolling stone who could never be stilled (“Le noir roc courroucé que la bise le roule / Ne s’arrêtera”).[5] He might almost have been speaking of Cormoran Strike.

***

[1] Quoted from https://www.ieeff.org/manifestesymbolisme.htm
[2] Source:  https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/verlaine-parsifal
[3] Joyce Bourne, A Dictionary of Opera Characters (Oxford University Press, 2008.
[4] J. K. Holman, Wagner Moments: A Celebration of Favorite Wagner Experiences (Amadeus Press, 2007).
[5] Source: https://www.maramarietta.com/the-arts/poetry/mallarme/

Comments

  1. Really enjoyed this Kurt – thank you! And I really like the Grail as the true gold.

    Like, I suspect, quite a number of anglophones my first introduction to Verlaine was as a teenager listening to Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”:

    Situations have ended sad
    Relationships have all been bad
    Mine have been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud’s.

    Bob Dylan is already connected to The Running Grave as he chose his surname to honour Dylan Thomas, and – I was somewhat taken aback to discover – that he recorded this song in Strike’s birth year 1974! I think this is an example of when coincidences start looking meaningful and it is time to lock up the salt before one goes full Bill Talbot – but it was a pleasing find nonetheless! I do wonder if we’re going to get a full 60s/70s counterculture soundtrack to go with this novel as a soundscape to the commune along with the Dylan Thomas poetry and the I Ching…

  2. Kurt Schreyer says

    Thank you, Beatrice. I had forgotten the Bob Dylan allusion to Verlaine if I ever knew it. That’s a very shrewd guess regarding the soundtrack — sign me up as a subscriber to that theory.

  3. 🙂
    It also makes sense given that after the 1970s focus of TB she said wanted to return to young people and the present in IBH. So keeping things fresh, might mean a focus on the past again in Running Grave?

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