Out of Line: The Life and Work of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
arceline Desbordes-Valmore was the only female writer Paul Verlaine included in his 1884 book, Les Poètes Maudits, where he accorded her more space than anyone else, even his former lover Rimbaud, and concluded, with undoubted admiration albeit in a somewhat misogynistic and dismissive tone:
by Anna M. Evans, Poet & Independent Scholar
Marceline Desbordes-Valmore is, quite simply—along with George Sand, so different, long-lasting, not without charming self-indulgencies, of serious common sense, of pride, and one might as well add attractive to men—the only woman of genius and talent from this century and from all the centuries in the company perhaps of Sappho, and of Saint Therese.
Over 100 years later, however, whereas it feels like a new translation of Rimbaud's Une saison en enfer or Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal comes out every five years or so, much of Desbordes-Valmore's vast oeuvre is simply unavailable in English translation, never mind in decent verse translation. Nonetheless, despite a historical lack of attention from English-speaking critics, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore's work has never ceased to be popular in her homeland, and it is to be hoped that this essay, along with the translations it has occasioned, may go some way toward bringing her the attention she deserves from the rest of the world.
Marceline was born in 1786 in the Northern French town of Douai, the last of eight children (only four of whom survived). Her father, Felix Desbordes, was a heraldic painter, who consequently lost his livelihood during the French revolution (1789-1799). Nevertheless Marceline considered her early childhood years idyllic, as illustrated by such poems as "La fontaine" and "Le berceau de Hélène":
I never did cry in your long-ago glade
when youthful Hope danced with her footsteps in mine:
she came from the sky, which to children is kind,
and I couldn't start crying while she and I swayed.
She had lent me her prism, which I feared to break.
I looked at the world through its spectrum of light.
How beautiful life was! and in its swift flight
my young Hope left bouquets of flowers in her wake.
The idyll ended abruptly when Marceline was ten, and her parents separated, Marceline leaving with her mother Catherine. Even at that young age Marceline was beautiful, with golden hair, an expressive face and a passable singing voice, so a year later Catherine determined to raise funds by putting her daughter on the stage, first at Lille, and later at Rochefort and Bordeaux.
In November 1801, Marceline and her mother embarked on a ship to Guadeloupe, supposedly to seek financial aid from a cousin of Catherine's who had married a wealthy plantation owner. In May 1802 the women finally arrived in Guadeloupe, only to find the cousin a widow, and the plantation in mutinous ruins. Catherine died of yellow fever exacerbated by disappointment and remorse, obliging the sixteen-year-old Marceline to return to France alone, a feat from which not even the Governor of the island could dissuade her, as she described in an early memoir:
I still recall his dejected face as he went out, abandoning me to my destiny, which he believed would prove fatal: it was the first time that I decided something for myself, and I present it to God, having no other master but Him. [Qtd. in Descaves, 44]
Marceline rejoined the Lille troupe and went back on the stage, supporting her family by sending them money when she could. Because of her stage career, Marceline became romantically involved with several men and gave birth to two children outside of marriage: in 1806 a daughter, believed to be the child of Louis Lacour, who died at three weeks; and in 1810, a son, Marie-Eugène, more reliably assumed to be the son of Eugène Debonne, with whom Marceline lived for four years, who died at the age of five. Other men whose names have been linked with Marceline's include Hilarion Audibert and Henri de Latouche.
Like many female poets both before and since who have lived unconventional lives, it often seems as though more attention is directed upon Marceline's private life than upon her work. Lucien Descaves, in his 1910 biography, writes with salubrious fastidiousness:
Here I really wanted to leave a page blank. If I knew it, I would write here the name of the man who was Marceline's lover. It is preferable, I think, to write one name, rather than to rub out four or five, the four or five between which, more or less, today's scavengers hesitate. 
Regardless, Marceline's uneven romantic life and the losses of her babies would seem to be the impetus that caused her to begin writing poetry, and indeed Eugène Michel has argued that the first edition of her first collection, Elégies et Romances, which was published in 1818, relates the story of a single unhappy love affair, whose course can be traced through poems like "L'inquiétude", "L'adieu du soir" and "La sincère." However, subsequent editions from 1820 onward re-ordered the poems, obscuring any narrative thread.
More importantly, the collection was well received and ultimately opened doors for Marceline in the literary world so that she was able to give up the theater and write full-time. Further collections of poetry followed, along with novels and poems for children.
In 1817, Marceline married a younger actor, Francois-Prosper Lanchantin, whose stage name was Valmore. A daughter, who died at three weeks, was born ten months later, their son Hippolyte in 1820, and their daughter Ondine, who died in her early thirties, in 1821. Their last child, Ines, was born in 1825 and died aged twenty-one. This litany of loss is apparent in later poems such as "Les sanglots" and "Renoncement":
O Savior, be gentle to other mothers at least,
out of love for your own and pity for us.
Baptize their children with our bitter tears
and lift my fallen ones onto your knees.
The couple were never wealthy and Valmore continued to act in traveling companies, even dragging the family to Italy for a season, until well into his fifties. At last the Valmores retired to Paris, living modestly until Marceline died of cancer in 1859.
Verlaine praises Marceline for using "to great effect uncommon rhythms such as eleven syllable lines, among others"—a practice he was later to adopt and promote, and indeed for which he was credited. To understand the significance of this it is necessary to examine briefly the prevalence and influence of the twelve-syllable Alexandrine line, which William Rees calls, in his introduction to the Penguin Book of French Poetry 1820-1950:
an ideal expression of intellectual balance, symmetry and wholeness, of thesis, antithesis and implied synthesis. In the hands of Racine…it is the perfect form for the expression of tragic dilemma. Established in his time as the prescriptive model, it became in the eighteenth century…a hollow shell, which the Romantics were to crack, if not break, in the post-Napoleonic period. [xxix]
The Alexandrine was traditionally end-stopped and demonstrated a strong central caesura—in other words the sixth syllable rarely arose in the middle of a word, and preferably preceded punctuation, as in this example from Racine:
Ou suis-je? | qu'ai-je fait? || que dois-je | faire encore?
Quel transport | me saisit? || quel chagrin | me devore? [Qtd. in Snell]
Note how either side of the caesura, the phrases seem to split again into two groupings, each of three syllables.
As Rees goes on to say, "The haunting, lyrical Impair line of 5, 7, 9 or 11 units, [is] extolled and demonstrated beautifully by Verlaine above all." But Verlaine learned from Marceline how this eleven syllable line arises, for example, when a two-syllable grouping is substituted for a three-syllable, as in the first grouping of the line given below:
Ne peuvent | me sauver | de la long|ueur du temps.
Nor does a simple syllable count really describe Marceline's "uncommon rhythms" sufficiently. What she appears to be doing in poems like "L'inquiétude" is generating three syllable groupings where typically the first two syllables are shorter and the third more drawn out—I hesitate to use the word anapest to describe the meter of a language where stress is known not to be the significant determinant. I have, however, taken the liberty of translating such poems into anapestic tetrameter:
Qu'est-ce donc qui me trouble, et qu'est-ce que j'attends?
Je suis triste à la ville, et m'ennuie au village;
Les plaisirs de mon âge
Ne peuvent me sauver de la longueur du temps.
Autrefois l'amitié, les charmes de l'étude
Remplissaient sans effort mes paisibles loisirs.
Oh! quel est donc l'objet de mes vagues désirs?
Je l'ignore, et le cherche avec inquiétude.
Si pour moi le bonheur n'était pas la gaîté,
Je ne le trouve plus dans ma mélancolie;
Mais, si je crains les pleurs autant que la folie,
Où trouver la félicité?
Et vous qui me rendiez heureuse,
Avez-vous résolu de me fuir sans retour?
Répondez, ma raison; incertaine et trompeuse,
M'abandonnerez-vous au pouvoir de l'Amour?…
Hélas! voilà le nom que je tremblais d'entendre.
Mais l'effroi qu'il inspire est un effroi si doux!
Raison, vous n'avez plus de secret à m'apprendre,
Et ce nom, je le sens, m'en a dit plus que vous.
What's this that upsets me? For what do I wait?
in the town, too much grief; out of it, too much leisure.
What passes for modern pleasure
Can't save me from how every hour seems to grate.
Once there was friendship, the charms of a book
filled without effort each peaceful spare hour.
Oh what is the object of this vague desire?
I ignore it, but worry then makes me go look.
If my happiness wasn't with gaiety bound,
then nor am I finding it resting with sadness,
but if I fear weeping the same way as madness,
then where is enjoyment found?
And you who might give me the thing that I'm needing,
have you truly decided to leave me forever?
Speak to me, Reason, uncertain, misleading,
will you now let the power of love take me over?
Alas, there's the name that I tremble to hear!
But the fear it inspires feels so gentle and true.
Reason, you have no more secrets to share,
and I think this name's told me more of them than you!
Note how the rhyme scheme of this poem resembles that of a Petrarchan sonnet, with the first stanza rhyming abba, and the second cddceffe. At this point, the additional sonnet effect of the turn or volta appears, as Marceline moves from questioning the source of her anxiety to recognizing it as a lover of whom the speaker is uncertain, and the rhyme scheme also changes, becoming ghghijij.
Marceline inserts two shorter lines into this verse written predominantly in Alexandrines, both at key points in the poetic structure. The first, of six syllables, occurs in the third line, breaking the rhythm early so as to intimate the anxiety of the speaker, while the second, of eight syllables, brings the reader up short right before the turn.
Much has been made of the fact that Marceline Desbordes-Valmore was largely unschooled and self-taught. She also came to poetry by way of music—first as a singer and later as a guitar player—and this subconscious musicality, combined with her freedom from academically proscribed strictures, permitted her to break the alexandrine with impunity and to play with the rhyme schemes of received forms.
Marceline also experimented to great effect with shorter lines as seen in poems like "La sincère," "Qu'en avez vous fait?" and "à Délie (IV)." Even allowing for the overuse of sentimental tropes common to the era—"coeur" appears 24 times in the poems I translated, most probably rhyming with "fleur" on 20 of those occasions—such poems have a gritty, contemporary feel.
Qu'en avez-vous fait ?
Vous aviez mon cœur,
Moi, j'avais le vôtre:
Un cœur pour un cœur;
Bonheur pour bonheur!
Le vôtre est rendu,
Je n'en ai plus d'autre,
Le vôtre est rendu,
Le mien est perdu!
La feuille et la fleur
Et le fruit lui-même,
La feuille et la fleur,
L'encens, la couleur:
Qu'en avez-vous fait,
Mon maître suprême?
Qu'en avez-vous fait,
De ce doux bienfait?
Comme un pauvre enfant
Quitté par sa mère,
Comme un pauvre enfant
Que rien ne défend,
Vous me laissez là,
Dans ma vie amère;
Vous me laissez là,
Et Dieu voit cela!
Savez-vous qu'un jour
L'homme est seul au monde?
Savez-vous qu'un jour
Il revoit l'amour?
Sans qu'on vous réponde;
Et vous songerez!…
Vous viendrez rêvant
Sonner à ma porte;
Ami comme avant,
Vous viendrez rêvant.
Et l'on vous dira :
" Personne !…elle est morte. "
On vous le dira;
Mais qui vous plaindra?
What Did You Do With It?
You had my heart,
made yours my gift.
You had my heart;
luck was our part.
Yours is returned,
I have none left,
Yours is returned,
mine can't be found.
The leaf and the flower
and even the gourd,
the leaf and the flower,
the scent and the color:
What did you do with it,
master and lord?
what did you do with it?
With this sweet benefit?
Like a poor babe
left by her mother,
like a poor babe
no-one can save,
you abandoned me
in bitter weather;
you abandoned me;
this is what God can see.
One day, don't you know
Man walks the world alone?
One day, don't you know
you'll miss our love so.
You'll come a-calling,
but hear from no-one
You'll come a-calling
and you will dream!
Dreaming you'll drift
to rattle my gate.
As if there were no rift,
dreaming you'll drift.
And they will say to you:
Oh, you seek the late…?
This they will say to you,
but who will pray for you?
The subject of an abandoned woman addressing her former lover, and assuring him that he will live to regret his actions, is of course a familiar theme, and one that would have resonated both with the poet and her audience. However Marceline brings her own flair to the topic by introducing a cross stanza rhyme scheme which repeats the first line as the third—each pair of stanzas rhymes AbAa CbCc, and keeps the Impair line length close to five syllables.
As Deborah Jensen says, "flowers and bouquets are perhaps Desbordes-Valmore's favorite poetic image, endlessly invoked to describe love's pleasures as well as the perils of giving or keeping love." Still, to dismiss any of Marceline's poems purely on those grounds is to denigrate both her technical excellence—demonstrated here by those Impair lines, the haunting repetition and her innovative interlocking rhyme scheme—and the fierce confessional simplicity of her voice that seems at once both timeless and out of time.
Finally, it is important to underline that, while romantic love was a key theme of Marceline's work throughout her writing life, it was far from the only one. Verlaine praises her occasional poem on the death of Madame de Girardin, and takes care to address other aspects of her: "the mother, the daughter, the young daughter, and the troubled but deeply devout Christian." It is to this last aspect I wish to direct some final scrutiny.
The deaths of Marceline's children—two in infancy and two pre-deceasing her as adults—undoubtedly affected her spiritual relationship with God, as did, perhaps, her unconventional romantic life. However, she continued to write poems in praise of God and in acceptance of his will. Some, such as "Les Sanglots," express the conventional belief that she would be reunited with her mother and her babies in heaven:
But before we leave our mortal struggles for dust,
we'll call some souls to come along with us.
At the foot of the burial field I've strewn with flowers,
we'll frolic in the scents born from my tears,
and we shall have the fire, the means, and the voice,
to cry to these sad ones, "Are you coming with us?"
"Are you coming to the summer full of flowers,
where we'll be free to love without death or tears?"
"Come! Come see the Lord. We are his doves.
Throw off your shrouds, for Heaven has no graves."
"The Tomb is broken by this endless love.
My mother's endless care awaits above."
Others, such as "La couronne effeuillé," illustrate Marceline's belief in a merciful deity who would forgive her sins and welcome her with compassion.
J'irai, j'irai porter ma couronne effeuillée
Au jardin de mon père où revit toute fleur ;
J'y répandrai longtemps mon âme agenouillée :
Mon père a des secrets pour vaincre la douleur.
J'irai, j'irai lui dire au moins avec mes larmes :
" Regardez, j'ai souffert... " Il me regardera,
Et sous mes jours changés, sous mes pâleurs sans charmes,
Parce qu'il est mon père, il me reconnaîtra.
Il dira: " C'est donc vous, chère âme désolée ;
La terre manque-t-elle à vos pas égarés ?
Chère âme, je suis Dieu : ne soyez plus troublée ;
Voici votre maison, voici mon cœur, entrez ! "
ô clémence! ô douceur! ô saint refuge ! ô Père !
Votre enfant qui pleurait, vous l'avez entendu !
Je vous obtiens déjà, puisque je vous espère
Et que vous possédez tout ce que j'ai perdu.
Vous ne rejetez pas la fleur qui n'est plus belle ;
Ce crime de la terre au ciel est pardonné.
Vous ne maudirez pas votre enfant infidèle,
Non d'avoir rien vendu, mais d'avoir tout donné.
The Withered Wreath
I'll go, I'll go, and bring my withered wreath
to my father's garden, which revives all flowers.
There, on my knees, I'll purge my soul for hours.
My father has secrets that triumph over grief.
I'll go, I'll go, and say, at least with tears,
"See, I have suffered…" He will stare at me,
and despite my faded looks, changed by the years,
because he is my father, he'll know it's me.
He'll say, "At last! Dear saddened soul, you're here!
Beneath your straying steps, does earth give way?
Don't be so desolate. I'm God, my dear—
Here is my heart, your home, come in and stay."
O mercy! O sweetness! holy refuge! father!
You have heard your weeping child's lament.
Because of my hope, you're mine to rediscover,
also, because you have all I've misspent.
You don't reject this flower in its decay—
such earthly crime's no sin in paradise.
Your child of little faith won't be chastised,
not for selling nothing, but for giving all away.
Once again, note in this poem that the twelve syllable alexandrine line is the exception rather than the norm, with lines varying from as few as ten syllables, such as " La terre manque-t-elle à vos pas égarés ?" to as many as thirteen—" J'y répandrai longtemps mon âme agenouillée:"
The subtle irregularities this effect introduces lend the French version an undercurrent of emotional brokenness, like an appeal choked out in a sob, which is, of course, highly in keeping with the subject matter.
Meanwhile the repeated insistence of "I'll go, I'll go…" highlights the speaker's Saint Augustinian dilemma. The narrator fully intends to seek out God's forgiveness, but not yet, because the trappings of her earthly life have made it impossible.
However, while it is always tempting to conflate the narrator with the poet, ultimately it would be as much of a mistake to do so with respect to Marceline's religious poems as it is to do so with her romantic ones.
Marceline Desbordes-Valmore was a true original. Of course she used her life as material—show me a poet who does not! But her importance to French poetry in terms of breaking the Alexandrine, and her influence on Verlaine (who was of course himself a primary influence on Rimbaud) along with the sheer music of her lines, should have earned her a much higher ranking in the Western canon before today. As Christine Planté says: "No revelation, no biographical anecdote can offer the last word on her: because, as a work of language, it is unending" [Qtd. in Jenson].
Desbordes-Valmore, Marceline. Trans. Anna M. Evans. Selected Poems of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. Barefoot Muse Press. 2014.
Descaves, Lucien. La vie douloureuse de Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. Paris. 1910
Jensen, Deborah. Trauma and Its Representations: The Social Life of Mimesis in Post-revolutionary France. JHU Press. 2001
Michel, Eugène. "Elégies de Desbordes-Valmore." Revue Lieux d'Etre, n°50, Eté 2010, pp. 134 à 136
Rees, William. "Technicalities." The Penguin Book of French Poetry 1820-1950. Penguin: London. 1992.
Verlaine, Paul. Les Poetes Maudites. (Read full translation.)
Snell, Melissa. "Alexandrine Verse." About.com