de Montesquiou, translated and presented by Jeffrey Jullich
Aesthete, taste-maker, poet, homosexual, aristocrat scion of one
of France's oldest lineages, Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac (1855-1921)
served as not only the real-life model for Marcel Proust's character
the Baron de Charlus, but for the fictional Des Esseintes, as well,
in Huysman's Against Nature (À Rebours) (biographer
Philippe Jullian speculates that Montesquiou may have been the inspiration
for a third decadent novel: The Picture of Dorian Gray);
his apartments were almost literally described in the lay-out of
Des Esseintes' multi-colored lair, and Montesquiou later in life
rented the remains of Versailles as his home. The Unicorn
Tapestries presently in The Cloisters were originally in his relatives'
possession. A friend of the painter Gustave Moreau, Montesquiou
was instrumental in the dissemination of the late nineteenth-century
vogue of japonoiserie, and the likes of Sarah Bernhardt dressed
and groomed to his specifications. He was known as "Le Chef
des Odeurs Suaves," or "The Commander of Delicate Scents."
James McNeill Whistler's elongated, dark portrait of him hangs in
the East Gallery of the Frick Museum, and it was with Whistler and
his wife Trixie (Beatrix) that Montesquiou carried out a gushing
correspondence filled with poems, including the poem "The Moth":
Whistler's paintings serve as the basis for much of the poem's imagery.
The "Moth" or "Butterfly" in question was Whistler's
pictographic signature, and in response Montesquiou styled himself
Robert de Montesquiou
O moth of night, of mystery, of aurora,
Mysterious Whistler, fallen butterfly
Paled or gilded, from dawn to penumbra,
By coil of Phoebus, oblivion of Phoebe.
I want to prick you beneath this sad vitrine:
Rare entomologistinsect so precious,
Like a point of fire, in the black of Cremorne
Gardens, blue fireworks lingering behind in the skies.
Who is as riveted as you by the scattered spark
Between the evening, blackened wind in greenery . . .
And better reddens the lantern in the gas-lit park
Where a break is long-awaited in the ennui
The gloves outlined by milky whiteness of egg-white,
That flows and glides by the lamps, at the edges,
Has always had its dwelling in your palette;
Their window-mirrors are your peerless brushes.
Here is the fireballhere the jug of roses!
Ciphers detonated, suns spinning round;
All of Ruggieri's art, ripe with amaurosis,
The mocking rocket in vermilion starry sounds.
You are juggling with it as with all high esteem;
Miraculous artist! your bengal is regal;
Your roman candle is a flower without a stem . . .
And what artisan would call himself your equal?
Ruskin did well dealing you the heaviest blow,
Your case against him is just a brighter bouquet
You draw under his nose your sword from Toledo
And your gunpowder fires a lightningbolt: touché!
The spirit shakes in you, your canvas shakes with art
You put it in your book, wear it on your forehead
Where your fairy forelock is a corn husk of stars
Attacking you head-on doesn't do any good.
Upon pains of attaching to his name a wink
Of derision in full force where yours resonates
Offering us to read in fine vinegar ink
The art of making enemies, a gift of your wits.
What is it? that resists your slender walking stick,
Both a diviner's rod and magic fairy wand
That it's pleasing to your nature, stark or slapstick
To transform gall into honey, wave into wine?
Your painting is no less ingenious and artful
For simulating true peacock from whirling sun.
And here's an entire room completely wall-papered
In eyes, eyes spellbinding and delicious,
Graceful . . . Irritated; bristling, panelled,
With a blue of fireworks that lingers in the gaze.
The fabled peacock room, la chambre de paons
That many wish to see but few have admired
Whose endless glances shine with luster, like the sun's
Igniting everywhere an unforeseen sapphire.
But eyes of beauties are still far more mystical . . .
Slender Pompeian girl confined to the hallways,
Here they are pointing from aquarelle to pastel:
Slender Venetian maiden laid out on the altar.
All of Venice flows on in these minuscule strokes
Held like a strand of hair from Venus Astarte,
The master magician of sunsets likes to joke
By unwraveling them in daylight's clarity.
Plays at parading past watercolors' yellow current,
Where sometimes a barque with rigging thin and sure
Seems an insect seized in yellow flow, waters stagnant
But whose nimble paw scratches the azure.
Here the designated ray of European
Japonoiserieor a world, too artificial,
Of beaches, where gleaming red a series is seen
The geishas with their rainbow-colored parasols.
His seascape painted there with baubles that are squeezed
From a tube, side-barring the sky with a clear
Net of ropes; and those misty Tamises
Making this Valparaiso sky still bluer.
His oeuvre, did I saywell, what is there to mention?
This canvas that he lifts in ratio creates
And recedes from the silhouette to the end
Differentiated beyond the art of miscreants.
Therein is the face; he searches and finds it there.
The artist is victor, the drawing is complete;
Painter works in sculpture, whose strength can dare
To extend into the canvas, at last, a heart beat.
Because his touch is drawn from life's true breast;
Not a tree is imprinted except the very rare
And to post what follows our laziness
Is a lifting of ourselves to the metal square!
Our enchanter smiles: You still wander through the room
And it is truly our own space which, over time, cambers
But so it must be, that you inhabit this frame . . .
Where elongates, as the work goes on, the scumble.
And for us reprinted a harmless terror
Just as in tinfoil this William Wilson
Takes on form; or that other sorceror
Zoroaster, who met himself in his garden!
Yes, the eyes in portraits belong to fairies!
And from the bottom of blacks, the voices darting
And compositions, erudite chimeras,
And combinations of morning and evening.
By night, the eyes of eyries, by day those eyes of yes;
Those eyes were never made to see, as in your oeuvre;
Those eyes to whom you say, in the enduring pose
Look at me a moment, so as to look forever!
It is the grey Dame who stretches in the shadow
For whom nothing is at once livelier, more pensive,
Leaving, made from a ray, her ankle-boot in yellow
And just to transport it there grazes my pencil.
It is a child in a hat with teasing papillon
Young bodyguard in green ribbonsthe Lady in goat fur
From Tibet, blue cloak doubling the petticoat;
And in all this pretty show, her unprecedented gesture.
Venus' black spell emitted by the currents
Of her fur-foam take wing toward spindrift
In diamonds around the neck, in blurry brilliants
On her brow, in bracelets rolled up to the cuff.
The Woman at harpsichord whose fortress is occupied
By the good little girl who hears a tinkle in the air.
This model of posture whose skirt divides
Into mousselineso it will have to remember:
That one, stretching her hand behind her ear;
That one in a fur-jacket, with a little cross;
The virgin in the azalea, in pale flowers-like
And of yore Swinbrune strongly admired, I believe.
Miss Corder, in a hat that a feather outlines,
Her profile of fault-finder in airs leaguer benign:
And the man in black habit whose left arm assumes
The delicate weight of feminine cloaks.
Translated by Jeffrey Jullich