Eminescu and the timelessness of lyrical discourse
by Romul Munteanu
It has long been agreed that with Caragiale’s plays, Creanga’s tales and Eminescu’s poetry Romanian literature was for the first time admitted into the wide circuit of the world’s cultural values. Three types of literary discourse, belonging to different genres and trends, thus became synchronic, in one way or other, with the prevailing writing modes of the time.
It is true that at the time when Eminescu was blazing the trail along which Romanian poetry was to advance towards universality, Romanticism had already become dated in the cultural areas in which it had come to life, Romantic literary discourse being relentlessly challenged by other types of poetic expression. However, one cannot overlook the fact that the course of Romantic poetry – from Byron, Shelley and Novalis to Hugo, Heine, Lenau, Charles Cros and Eminescu – had never been linear. Outer rhetoric, often exceedingly employed by Byron or Hugo, underwent an almost imperceptible and complex inner process. The grand epic scenario, so blatantly used by Byron, Shelley and Hugo, thinned out sensibly with Novalis, Heine and Lenau, so that lyrical discourse acquired the purity of an eternal poetic enunciation that transgresses the obsolete moulds of a given literary trend.
Within this context, Eminescu’s poetry is defined as a specific expression of the mode of creation typical of the last great European romantic. It is true, of course, that, with Eminescu; European Romanticism entered its final phase in SouthEast Europe as well. What is significant is that Eminescu’s poetry displays nothing of the artistic stock-in-trade of an epigonic art.
Whenever the observation is made that Eminescu’s poetry is contemporary to that of Charles Cros, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarme or Leconte de Lisle, poets who laid out the very diverse patterns of modernist poetry, one cannot help feeling that the notion of Eminescu’s belated Romanticism places him at the periphery of renovating movements in poetry. Or, such was the course taken by the evolution of Eminescu’s poetry that his work, without betraying the general characteristics of Romanticism, has the purity of line, the inner musicality, the capability of conveying a coherent vision of the world that one finds in the works of some of his contemporaries considered to be renovators of the first rank. Eminescu does not undermine Romantic art through parody, like Lautreamont. He revigorates Romantic lyrical discourse, conferring it eternal valences; this is why he cannot be deemed obsolete, no matter which of his contemporaries he is compared to.
Whether read in the original or in a Romanian translation, Eminescu’s contemporaries in the category that heralds modernism share the same stylistic matrix that prefigures the transition from Romanticism to Symbolism.
Thus, a fragment of Rimbaud’s Poor Folk in Church reads as follows:
Parques entre des bancs de chene aux coins d’eglise
Qu’attiedit puament leur souffle, tous leurs yeux
Vers le choeur ruisselant d’orrie et la maitrise
Aux vingt gueules gueulant les cantiques pieux.
The same type of poetic enunciation that Eminescu used in Emperor and Proletarian:
Squatting on wooden benches, within a tavern bare
Where daylight’s rays but dimly through dirty windows show,
Before a long, stained table, their faces drawn with care
Wearied out by wandering and doubting’s black despair,
These are the wretched sons of poverty and woe.
Analogies of this kind are by no means limited to texts in which similar basic information is used.
Does daydreaming as cultivated by Mallarme seem so different from the Romantic reverie found in Eminescu?
O reveuse, pur que je plonge
Au pur delice sans chemin
Sache par un subtil mensonge,
Garder mon aile dans sa main.
Une fraicheur de crepuscule
Te vient a chaque battement
Dontle coup prisonnier recule
Eminescu’s invitation to love and daydreaming is defined in a similar sentimental manner:
Come, dear, set your world apart,
And on me yourself bestow;
Even should I take my heart,
No one in the world would know.
Come, let us awandering leave
Down steps winding sylvan ways
And amidst the twilight eye
Listen to what the forest says.
(Leave Your World)
That Eminescu’s poetry does not rely on a single type of literary enunciation is evident from the fact that his luxuriant lyricism does not seem exaggerated even when compared to the much sober line, with subdued sound effects, cultivated by Heredia. The comparison of one stanza of Khem’s Vision and one stanza of Eminescu’s Memento Mori appears to be quite revealing:
Midi. L’air brule et dans la terrible lumiere
Le vieux fleuve alangui roule des flots de plomb;
De zenith aveuglant le jour tombe d’aplomb
Et l’implacable Phre couvre l’Egypte entiere.
Eminescu’s poem contains more elements that sustain the fairy-tale atmosphere and his tonality is rather somber, while the solar vision predominates in the French poet’s work:
Over the field of conquest of the Moor, the blonde Nile rolls…
Above, the sky of Egypt spreads out in golden flames.
Flowering reeds reach for the sun, flat yellow banks
Come to life, and strange blossoms shake like jewels
Threaded in the air – some fresh and white like snowflakes,
Others red and bruised, others still and blue as weeping eyes.
(Translated by Roy MacGregor Hastie)
The few fragments we have quoted from the work of poets who differ greatly from one another are meant to suggest that in the structure of the lyrical discourse inspired by the great themes used by the poetry of all times there are nuclei that confer poetry a universal character and a human interest that great writers have always striven to convey.
At the same time, by comparing these stanzas we intended to prove even more convincingly that at the time when Rimbaud asked the poets to be modern, Eminescu was meeting that demand through the characteristics of his art. The novelty of Eminescu’s poetic discourse, the particularities of his universe do not stand out clearly enough when we refer him to Byron or Hugo or when we compare him, as is often the case, to Heine or Lenau. The modernity of Eminescu’s poetry is revealed in all its amplitude through the following crucial test: when he is compared to those of his contemporaries who heralded the great revolution in poetry, rather than to the poets who sang the last accords of a poetry movement that was quietly leaving the forefront of the literary stage.
Of course, it would be a fallacy to uphold the idea that the devices belonging to the old Romantic arsenal of the early representatives of the movement are entirely absent from Eminescu’s work. But the poet’s exceptional talent, combined with his unfailing good taste, attenuates them and what seems to us to be the timeless lyrical discourse achieved by the Romanian poet is structured in such a way as to enable us to say of Eminescu what is said of other great writers of the world: that he is a writer for all times.
At the time when Eminescu was beginning to find his literary identity, some writers of local importance, such as Grigore Alexandrescu, Dimitrie Bolintineanu, Cezar Bolliac or Andrei Muresanu, had long ago consumed their experiments in the field of Romanian Romantic poetry. Brooding over the past, by contemplating the effects of time on the ruins of by-gone glory, fleeing to an exotic, poetic Orient, entering an uncanny dialogue with the shadows of the dead, shedding the shallow tears of unrequited love – all these Romantic poses had become literary cliches that minor poets had thoroughly discredited through overuse.
Eminescu knew how to shun such trite conventions from the very beginning. Nevertheless, he remained indebted to others, which makes his initial poetic undertaking rather eclectic and undefinable. The cantable line, imitating folk poetry (De-ai fi, draga, zefir dulce /Care duce – Be you, dear, sweet zephyr way/ Taking everything away …) is associated with baroque imagery, meant to suggest fleetingness, and with the sentimental conventionalism of a classic pastoral:
Just like Eol flying through waves shrieking
The quick-darting horse
Is neighing, and his wing is breaking
The darkness’s thrill.
(A Horse Ride at Dawn)
Eminescu’s first lyrical contributions became part of the Romantic heritage of Romanian poetry through the poet’s recourse to mythology and history, folklore and eroticism, nature filtered through a specifically romantic mood.
Thus, the poet makes his entrance in the world under the spell of youth’s dreaming (visarilor juniei). He is searching for a sweet repose (dulce linistire), found above all in happy dreams (visuri fericite). To Eminescu, the world was, from the start, a tremendous, mysterious spectacle. It seemed to him a cipher, as he was to say in one of his posthumous works. Until the world’s core (inima lumilor), the world’s machinery (masina lumii), the world of thought (lumea gândirii) or the world’s book (cartea lumei) accomodates the poet’s mind, thirsty for knowledge, the dominant mode through which reality is perceived is daydreaming. Eminescu is, undoubtedly, a poet of the visual. But between him and the stone world (lumea de piatra) there rise sundry obstacles that blur the mirrors of the world (oglinzile lumei). When no obstacles are interposed between the poet and the world’s dome (bolta lumei) to act as mountains of darkness (munti de neguri), silver haze (neguri de argint), eyelids of cloud (gene de nor), Eminescu becomes the poet of pitiless scrutiny. When he sees the dream coming apart, reality appears hideous to him and the need to throw a veil over the referential elements is satisfied with the assistance of poetry:
I saw your face corruption show, by lust’s hot hunger drawn and pale,
I saw your lips deprived and bruised by passion’s blinding violence,
And over your white shoulders bare I threw the poet’s mistry veil
And on your pallid cheeks I set a girlish glow of innocence.
(Venus and Madonna)
Eminescu’s poetry will permanently fulfil this two-fold function, of exploiting a given reality and/or of violently lifting the masks covering a deep unknown (adânc necunoscut), a mad life (viata nebuna) or the chaos of oblivion (haosul uitarii). As long as the imaginary world (lumea închipuirii) is not menaced by frozen terror (spaima înghetata), by the groaning hurricane (gemândul uragan), Eminescu’s dream preserves its enticing colours, its pastel nuances.
Such collocations as dreams of bitterness (vise de-amar), dream of secret cravings (vis de tainic dor), we shall have a happy dream (vom visa un vis ferice), like dream wrapping a child (ca visul pe-un copil) etc. are tellingly recurrent in Eminescu’s poetry. But when the hypostasis of the poet’s having his soul in ruins (sufletu-n ruina) or his deserted head whirling with storms (capu-mi pustiu cu furtune) occurs, when the world is once again defined through symbolic words reminding of wastelands (deserturi) or deserts (pustiuri), the perceiver of the world as a complex dream will find out that he is bumping against a dull dream (vis searbad), that his soul is threatened by rebellious dreams (vise rebele) and that his dreams resemble a bird dipping its wing in biterness (muindu-si aripa-n amar).
The moment when the relationship between the poet’s conscience and the world as illusion deteriorates, Eminescu begins to provide a tragic existential support to his creation. This shift in his world outlook is already visible in some poems of 1868, such as A Marble Creature’s Love. Its most peremptory formulation is to be found in Mortua est (1871). The intense derangement of the senses that leads to poetry, envisaged by Rimbaud in one of the pages meant to change the course of the craft of poetry, takes with Eminescu the form of tragic hopelessness. It becomes evident that the poet of the tragic human condition withdraws into the existential void:
To exist! O, what nonsense, what foolish conceit;
Our eyes but deceive us, our ears but cheat,
What this age discovers, the next will deny,
For better just nothing than naught but a lie.
Thus, Eminescu becomes the poet of liminal situations. Life, death, love, history, the spectacle of civilizations replacing one another, the political or social event, everything is converted into a signified of the human condition seen against the backdrop of a tragic end.
The poet who had sensed the serene world (lumea senina), now discovers its antithesis, on an inner plane: my own dark world (lumea-mi neagra). In other instances, the extension of sense leads to an imagery imbued with a powerful negative lyrical pessimism of the type the world is a pithy coffin (o racla mare-i lumea) or in a world of corpses (intr-o lume de cadavre).
The change in the manner of perception determines a corresponding altering of the emotional responses to the world. Parting with the mournful doina song (doina întristata), sorrowful noise (tristul zgomot), gloomy music (muzica trista), sad melody (cântec trist), Eminescu begins to use a language dominated by sweet woe (dulce jale), sea of grief (marea-i de mâhnire), their infinite sadness (durerea lor nemarginita). The intensity of this anxious mode of living determines the appearance of paradoxical associations of feelings, such as sad joy (bucurie trista), endearing pains (duioase dureri), the sweet suffering of passion (dulcea patimei durere), sweet and charming sorrow (dulce ii fermecatoare jale). Eminescu blows this Weltschmertz, first encountered in the German Sturmers to gigantic proportions: their infinite sadness (durerea lor infinita) or my fierce suffering (cumplita mea durere). At the same time, it acquires a resonance that points, through the most diverse types of enunciation, to the profoundest zone of consciousness, or, simply, to the very notion of depth. Everything is possible in that great chaos, conceived by the poet in an astounding variety of ways. In this context, the variables of the depth enter greatly differing symbolic alliances, such as: they are like the deep sea (sunt ca marea adânca), profound pain (adânca durere), thoughts’ depth (adâncul gândurilor), deep suffering (suferinte adânci), depth is gulping him down (adâncul cuprinzându-l), that deep death (moartea cea adânca), the bottomless unknown (adânc necunoscut), etc.
Space and time both acquire deep emotional colouring in Eminescu’s poetry. At any rate, the universe pictured by him is one of the weirdest. When the poet is overwhelmed by the sense of existential void, when he feels he is a dead soul (suflet mort), then he experiences the terror of empty space and an anxiety caused by the fact that he lives in a chaotic wasteland. Empty space always fosters anxiety, due to the feeling of unsafeness it generates. From the wasteland’s and the night’s greatness (a pustiei si a noptii maretie), or reviving in the deserts rows of lying dreams to you (sa învie în deserturi sir de visuri ce te mint) to sand over the wasteland (nisipul din pustiuri), large Bedouin families wildly roam about the wasteland (prin desert strabat salbatic mari familii beduine), for the wilderness to hear a lion is roaring his running rage (un leu pustiei rage turbarea lui nebuna) we decipher a new network of obsessive imagery alluding to emptiness, the generator of a feeling of insecurity. To this psychological, anxiety-creating space is circumscribed the traumatic state of the poet himself, who feels that his head is a stormy wilderness (pustiu cu furtune), sees deserted churches (biserici pustie) and finally discovers that he has been cast in the chaos of oblivion (chaosul uitarii), as an empty crazy mind (o minte pustie, nebuna) worms its way into his consciousness. Lonely, fearful, indifferent, alienated in such an empty space, at times the equivalent of the existential void, the poet construes the image of cosmochaos, viewed from several angles. There are a microchaos and a macrochaos in Eminescu’s universe. They can be totally empty or filled with something, and there may also be an inner and an outer space. In this new network of imagery there is a worldly chaos (chaos lumesc) and there are dream’s eyes (ochi de visuri), where a chaos is to be found (e un chaos). But macrochaos is much more varied. It encompasses chaos valleys (ale chaosului vai), the clouds’ chaos (al norilor chaos), magnificent thoughts, like suns in the chaos (gânduri mari, ca sori in chaos), as well as chaos limits (ale chaosului margini). To which is added the sound effect of infinite space, because there exists in the chaos a music of the spheres (prin chaos o muzica de sfere).
Opposed to chaos, to the desert, etc, nature is seen as the secure, protecting area. The lovers’ havens, as well as the dens of thinkers whose meditations extend beyond earthly chaos (chaosul lumesc) are always situated in a forest, a grove, on a lake or in a rowboat gliding solitarily over the water. Appeals such as let us walk into the woods (hai in codru, vino-n codru) are relevant. The ideal imaginary space built by Eminescu presupposes a felicitous union of the protecting vegetation of the forest and of the water spring:
Come to the forest spring where wavelets
Trembling o’er the pebbles glide
And the dropping willow branches
Its secluded threshold hide.
In this sheltering space provided by the forest pool, deep blue (lacul codrilor, albastru), and the writer imagines the sacred ceremonial of love. In a small space, a boat stands for the perfect romantic retreat:
And hand in hand we leap aboard,
Charmed by the water’s tiny childe;
The rudder strings slip from my grasp,
The oars into the water slide.
(The Forest Pool)
However, let it not be forgotten that Eminescu is the kind of poet who avails himself of every opportunity to philosophize over human condition. Therefore, the spatialization of time, its fragmentation into instants, the references to the origin, the zooming on to the frozen present or the brooding over the future do nothing but underline ever more insistently the hypostasis of man as a blueprint of death, as Heidegger was to conceive of him much later.
In Eminescu’s poetry, an historical-biological time keeps flowing relentlessly toward a tragic epilogue, represented by death, extinction, by the Appolinian reintegration in an ancient original matrix:
You’ll search for sheer nothing some feelings in your heart,
‘cause all of them are past;
That time worm is eating our inner core.
(For Sheer Nothing)
This way, existence appears as an endless repetition: What is the future? It’s the past reversed. (Ce este viitorul? Trecutul cel întors.) Some other time we come across the same enunciation, when time’s duration depends on its emotional resonance:
Future is also that past I see its reversed cover.
The same passion row was spun over and over.
(O, Let Life’s Candle Be Extinguished)
If calendar time is a permanent repetition, then the poet’s ratiocination leads to the conclusion that it has only one dimension – the present - in which are concentrated all the phenomena that seem to be having an evolution:
Life’s land is only the present
Just in the very instant our mere life is caught
We are. That’s all. So past
And future are only thought.
(Life’s Land is Only the Present)
One can hardly overlook the fact that in such cases excessive conceptualization diminishes the poetic worth of the text.
The progress of existence with all its emotional implications is not confined with Eminescu to a single temporal dimension. There is in his work a time of the origin, a fabulous time, which is empty time: In the beginning, when there was no being or non-being, / When everything was empty for life or slightest willing …(La-nceput pe când fiinta nu era nici nefiinta/ Pe când totul era lipsa de viata si vointa…)
Laid on this stratum formed by the undefinable time of the origins is biological time, whose cycles lead to a superpositioning of becoming and eternity, composed of reiterable sequences:
With life’s tomorrow time you grasp
Its yesterday you fling away,
And still, in spite of all, remains
Its long eternity, today.
(With Life’s Tomorrow Time You Grasp)
Change, punctuated by constant phenomena, calls for another specific network of images of the type other waves (alte valuri), the same river ford (acelasi vad), another autumn, the same leaves (alta toamna, aceleasi frunze), the same they are, although forever changing (aceleasi sunt, desi mereu se schimba), the same is dust and depth the same (acelasi praf, aceeasi adâncime), the same teacher (acelasi dascal), the same opinions (aceleasi pareri), the same stars (aceleasi stele) etc.
With such spatial and temporal dimensions, death is a chaos, a sea of stars (moartea e un caos, o mare de stele) and life appears like a dome of dissenting dreams (o bolta de vise rebele), opposed to death, which represents a century of blossoming suns (un secol cu sori înflorit).
The lyrical register of Eminescu’s poetic discourse displays, for the most part, a grave tonality, rendered through a lofty style. The insertions of polemical passages, of scathing irony or of jovial humor, seem incompatible with his tragic, reflexive lyricism, suitable for meditating on human condition. When the polemic is directed against daily trivia, the lyrical enunciation becomes a pamphlet with a different target:
You, reek-Armenian, you flunky two-faced one,
Remind yourself what you had in your knapsack
When counting pebbles in your markets gone.
The seraphic image of the beloved also turns, in these circumstances, into a delapidated object situated in a decaying world:
Isn’t she graceful, that maid walking?
Isn’t she carving stars in sand with her tiny claws?
Like a chaste hen, a too kind hen cackling
She’s on a quest for barley ears and wheaten bread crusts.
In our opinion, humor and romantic irony are not Eminescu’s forte. On the contrary, every time he resorts to them there is a risk that he might slip into anti-poetry.
Nevertheless, a poet owns several faces, just like time seen in its perpetual change. As we have no right to speak in the name of eternity, other than by approximating things from the perspective of the present, we can say that the lyrical discourse that speaks to our conscience belongs to a poet of great purity of expression and also to a thinker who transcends time through his responsible brooding on human condition.
The Eminescian subtext contains, in fact, several types of literary expression. Eminescu’s poetry ranges from pure lyricism or the combination of several lyrical voices to the ample epic scenario unfolded against a lyrical background.
Lacking ornament at times, to the extent that the expression becomes almost bare, but possessed of a great semantic radiance, luxuriant and overwhelming through the high emotional charge of its poetic nuclei, Eminescu’s lyrical discourse appears to us today enduring and eloquent, due to the poet’s capacity to quintessentialize, to the subdued manner in which he uses the rhetoric of Romanticism, so grandiloquent with the poets belonging to the early stage of that trend.
Viewed from this angle, Eminescu’s subtext comprises Parnassian elements, it heralds the inner musicality of symbolist poetry, it foretells the wildly rebellious spirit of Whitman’s work, it allows one to catch a glimpse of the type of art the New Romantics were to favour later.
Essentialized, interiorized, Eminescu’s Romantic rhetoric reveals a lyrical voice the rightful place of which is alongside Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarme or Leconte de Lisle.
To us, then, Eminescu is not a belated Romantic poet, but a writer who created for eternity, in perfect synchrony with the great literature of his time, a writer for all ages.
(Translated by Virgil Stanciu)