Les Complaintes, 1885
L’Imitation de Notre-Dame la lune, 1886
Des fleurs de bonne volonté, 1888
Les Derniers Vers de Jules Laforgue, 1890
Poésies complètes, 1894, 1970
Œuvres complètes de Jules Laforgue, 1902-1903 (4 volumes; includes Le Sanglot de la terre), 1922-1930 (6 volumes)
Stéphane Vassiliew, 1946
Moralités légendaires, 1887 (Six Moral Tales from Jules Laforgue, 1928)
Le Concile féerique, pb. 1886
Pierrot fumiste, pb. 1892
Lettres à un ami, 1880-86, 1941
If a poet can be judged, in part, by the breadth and depth of his influence, Jules Laforgue (lah-fawrg) occupies a lofty niche: He inspired musical composers (Arnold Schoenberg, Arthur Honegger, and Darius Milhaud) and stimulated a legion of writers, both in France (in particular, Alain-Fournier and Jules Supervielle) and in English-speaking countries (James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Allen Tate, and Hart Crane).
Laforgue once described himself as “a good Breton, born below the tropics.” His mother was Breton, his father a Gascon transplanted to Uruguay, where he founded a school. Jules was born in Montevideo in 1860, the second of eleven children. When the school failed in 1866, Jules was brought to Tarbes, his father’s native village, located in the Pyrénées. In 1876 the family moved to Paris; there Jules finished his education and secured a position for two years as secretary to the art historian Charles Ephrussi. During this period his exposure to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and to Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious prompted him to momentarily adopt an attitude of ascetic detachment and to consider the unconscious as a kind of divine fount of creative activity. Allusions to these philosophical concerns appear in his first collection of poems, Le Sanglot de la terre, published posthumously.
In 1881, he obtained, thanks to the efforts of Ephrussi and Paul Bourget, a position as reader to the Empress Augusta. The five years spent in Germany were both tedious and fruitful for Laforgue; he felt himself exiled, but he had the time to write the bulk of his works. The first volume of poetry published in his lifetime, Les Complaintes, appeared in print in 1885. Placed next to his first work, these poems reveal an artistic maturation and a highly personal style characterized by a trenchant wit, a mastery of irony, a flair for dramatization of experience, and a felicitous use of colloquialisms couched in a form derived from folk songs. L’Imitation de notre-dame la lune is notable for its singularly engaging portraits of marmoreal and worldly wise clowns who provide Laforgue with a poetic mask behind which he mocks the banality and futility of life and, at the same time, preaches acceptance rather than revolt against humankind’s lot.
In 1886, Laforgue left his post in Germany, and the following year he married Leah Lee, who had given him English lessons at the court. Plagued by financial worries and illness, Laforgue settled in Paris for a brief time before tuberculosis cut short his life at twenty-seven years. Leah Laforgue died of the same ailment only one year later.
Appreciated by his successors as an innovator, Laforgue was one of the first to experiment extensively and successfully with free verse. His prose writings have been examined more meticulously since the mid-twentieth century, with the result that his reputation has been greatly enhanced. As a literary critic, he was capable of penetrating insights, especially in regard to Charles Baudelaire, whose work was an important influence during his formative years. In addition, the stories in Six Moral Tales from Jules LaForgue demonstrate that his gift for inventing audacious techniques was not restricted to poetry; stream-of-consciousness composition, for example, is found in this prose work.