Saturday, November 03, 2007

Charles Cros

Charles Cros (1842-1888) was a French poet, scientist and inventor. According to William Rees, in French Poetry 1820-1950 (Penguin 1990), Cros was "a pioneering researcher in electricity, colour photography, acoustics and telegraphy, and even envisaged interplanetary communication."

In the 1870s, he conceived of a device that would mechanically record sound by tracing oscillations on a cylinder with a screw. He called his invention the Paleophone and submitted it to the Academy of Sciences in Paris, who scoffed at him. A year later, the better- funded Thomas Edison demonstrated a working model of the device, which came to be known as the phonograph. In the end, Cros had the last laugh at the French scientists who snubbed him: The French equivalent of our own National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (responsible for the Grammy Awards) is called L'Académie Charles Cros, and their annual award is named Le Prix Charles Cros.

But Cros' inventions and scientific pursuits were only one part of his life. He spent much of his time with artists and poets such as Manet and Verlaine, drinking absinthe and living the Bohemian life in Paris. When Rimbaud first broke off his volatile relationship with Verlaine, Cros let the young poet stay in his small laboratory. According to Howard Sutton, in "Charles Cros, the Outsider," (The French Review, 1966), "Rimbaud repaid his generosity by wantonly breaking pieces of equipment and destroying a copy of L'Artiste that contained several of Cros' poems."

Cros was a regular at Le Chat Noir, the famous cabaret in Montmarte whose clientele included Debussy, Satie, Strindberg and others. Cros played a key role in Les Hydropathes, an important Parisian literary group at the end of the 19th century. This famous club littéraire met at Le Chat Noir to celebrate literature and - yes, drink a bit. Other members included Sarah Bernhardt, Jules Laforgue, and Guy de Maupassant. Les Hydropathes published a journal of the same name, which included poetry by its members, along with humorous pieces, artwork, etc.

Cros' creative work was overshadowed in his own day by that of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarmé. Because of his reputation as a humorous poet and a writer of nonsense verse, he wasn't taken seriously by many critics.

It wasn't until the 1920s that Cros' poetry started to receive greater recognition, thanks in large part to André Breton and the Surrealists. The very qualities of humor and nonsense that earlier critics had dismissed were viewed by Breton and others as crucial to their own work. He was hailed as a precursor to Surrealism and revered by modern French poets such as Aragon, Eluard and René Char. By the 1950s, his complete works began to appear in various editions, and his reputation in France now seems solid.

Unfortunately, Cros' work remains almost completely unknown in the United States. After a fair amount of research, I could only locate a handful of translations in various anthologies and across the internet. American poet Kenneth Rexroth translated eight poems by Cros in One Hundred Poems from the French (Pym-Randall, Cambridge 1972), which, sadly, seems to be out of print. And William Rees includes five other Cros poems in the Penguin anthology. Beyond that, there's very little available.

Hopefully, someone will begin translating more of his work from the French, enough to at least put together a Selected Poems. Cros' work deserves that much. He's an interesting transition figure between Baudelaire and the Surrealists, and his work ranges from lush poems on erotic love (and its aftermath) to the more abstract nonsense pieces.

As Rees said of him:

"Cros has been acknowledged more recently as a significant poet, whose rather fin-de-siècle blend of emotion and self-mocking, suspicious irony prefigures Corbière and especially Laforgue, who recognized the influence. Passionate and analytical, self-dramatizing and sardonic, this philologist has a taste for crisp, laconic, unpretentious lines of verse where lyricism interacts with wit. He experiments with a wide range of metres and stanza forms, and is adept at coining original and delightful combinations of noun and adjective, often drawing together the naive and refined. His sound associations and rhythmic control show a dynamic mastery of his feelings, leaving us often with a mixed sense of exhilaration and anti-climax."
More importantly, Cros writes about absinthe. Maybe that will make him cool enough to young American poets to spark some interest in his work, now that absinthe is legal again in the United States and becoming trendy, enough for Stepehen Colbert to cover it in his WORD this week: absinthetinence. I wish Liam and I had known about Cros in our absinthe phase back in Spain! We would've easily crowned Cros the poet laureate of La Fée Verte.

Sadly, Cros died at age 45, most likely from all the absinthe and other alcohol he had consumed. But hey, "Those whom the gods love die young" and all that, right?

Anyway, Charles Cros . . . a fascinating poet, inventor and scientist.

Since it's hard finding his work in English, here are three translations - two by Rees and one by Rexroth. The French originals are included.

UPDATE: The Rexroth translation is also available at the BUREAU OF PUBLIC SECRETS website, which has another poem by Cros, "The Future," as well as Rexroth translations of Artaud, Desnos, Prévert, Queaneau, Reverdy and other Frecnh poets. The Bureau also has an extensive archive of Rexroth critical essays, some of his poetry, translations, and other writings. It's an impressive collection. And that's only one part of the overall website, which has many other fascinating artifacts. Definitely worth investigating.


A Henri Mercier.

Avec les fleurs, avec les femmes,
Avec l’absinthe, avec le feu,
On peut se divertir un peu,
Jouer son rôle en quelque drame.

L’absinthe bue un soir d’hiver
Éclaire en vert l’âme enfumée,
Et les fleurs, sur la bien-aimée
Embaument devant le feu clair.

Puis les baisers perdent leurs charmes,
Ayant duré quelques saisons.
Les réciproques trahisons
Font qu’on se quitte un jour, sans larmes.

On brûle lettres et bouquets
Et le feu se met à l’alcôve.
Et, si la triste vie est sauve,
Restent l’absinthe et ses hoquets.

Les portraits sont mangés des flammes:
Les doigts crispés sont tremblotants...
On meurt d’avoir dormi longtemps
Avec les fleurs, avec les femmes.

MORROW (trans. by Rees)

With flowers, with women,
With absinthe, with fire,
One can have a little entertainment,
Play one's role in some drama.

Absinthe drunk on a winter evening
Enlightens in green the smoky soul,
And flowers on the loved one
Give off fragrance before the shining fire.

Then kisses lose their charms,
Having lasted a few seasons.
Mutual betrayals
One day bring separation, without tears.


J'ai trois fenêtres à ma chambre:
L'amour, la mer, la mort,
Sang vif, vert calme, violet.

O femme, doux et lourd trésor!

Froids vitraux, cloches, odeurs d'ambre.
La mer, la mort, l'amour,
Ne sentir que ce qui me plaît ...

Femme, plus claire que le jour!

Par ce soir doré de septembre,
La mort, l'amour, la mer,
Me noyer dans l'oubli complet.

Femme! femme! cercueil de chair!

HIEROGLYPH (trans. by Rees)

I have three windows in my room:
Love, sea, death,
Living blood, calm green, violet.

O woman, sweet and heavy treasure!

Cold stained glass, bells, scents of amber.
Sea, death, love,
To feel only what gives me pleasure ...

Woman, brighter than daylight!

On this gilded September evening,
Death, love, sea,
To drown myself in entire oblivion.

Woman! woman! coffin of flesh!


Il était un grand mur blanc - nu, nu, nu,
Contre le mur une échelle - haute, haute, haute,
Et, par terre, un hareng saur - sec, sec, sec.

Il vient, tenant dans ses mains - sales, sales, sales,
Un marteau lourd, un grand clou - pointu, pointu, pointu,
Un peloton de ficelle - gros, gros, gros.

Alors il monte à l’échelle - haute, haute, haute,
Et plante le clou pointu - toc, toc, toc,
Tout en haut du grand mur blanc - nu, nu, nu.

Il laisse aller le marteau - qui tombe, qui tombe, qui tombe,
Attache au clou la ficelle - longue, longue, longue,
Et, au bout, le hareng saur - sec, sec, sec.

Il redescend de l’échelle - haute, haute, haute,
L’emporte avec le marteau - lourd, lourd, lourd,
Et puis, il s’en va ailleurs, - loin, loin, loin.

Et, depuis, le hareng saur - sec, sec, sec,
Au bout de cette ficelle - longue, longue, longue,
Très lentement se balance - toujours, toujours, toujours.

J’ai composé cette histoire, - simple, simple, simple,
Pour mettre en fureur les gens - graves, graves, graves,
Et amuser les enfants - petits, petits, petits.

UPDATE 2: Never underestimate the power of YouTube. I found this delightful animated version of "LE HARENG SAUR" [THE SMOKED HERRING]. Watch and listen as you read the poem. . . .

THE SMOKED HERRING (trans. by Rexroth)

Once upon a time there was a big white wall — bare, bare, bare,
Against the wall there stood a ladder — high, high, high,
And on the ground a smoked herring — dry, dry, dry,

He comes, holding in his hands — dirty, dirty, dirty,
A heavy hammer and a big nail — sharp, sharp, sharp,
A ball of string — big, big, big,

Then he climbs the ladder — high, high, high,
And drives the sharp nail — tock, tock, tock,
Way up on the big white wall — bare, bare, bare,

He drops the hammer — down, down, down,
To the nail he fastens a string — long, long, long,
And, at the end, the smoked herring — dry, dry, dry,

He comes down the ladder — high, high, high,
He picks up the hammer — heavy, heavy, heavy,
And goes off somewhere — far, far, far,

And ever afterwards the smoked herring — dry, dry, dry,
At the end of that string — long, long, long,
Very slowly sways — forever and ever and ever.

I made up this story — silly, silly, silly,
To infuriate the squares — solemn, solemn, solemn,
And to amuse the children — little, little, little.


crystal said...

Absinthe is legal now? It seems worth drinking if only for the color. I had never heard of Cross - so thanks - but of course I knew of that milieu from the inf0-source for all French decadent history ... Highlander. Yep, Duncan MacLeod hung around with those guys back in the day, and the wormwood didn't rot his brain because he's an immortal :-)

cowboyangel said...


I'm sure Highlander is just as good a source of information as many others. And more exciting to watch. I'd like to see the episode where he's hanging out in Paris.

Maybe he's immortal because of the absinthe. Magical powers and all that. You feel immortal sometimes after enough of it. Although Oscar Wilde said that after three glasses of absinthe, he felt like he had tulips growing out of his head. Maybe it's the 4th glass that does it.

Hey, are you okay, btw? I notice you don't have any new posts since last week! I know I get behind and let my blog gather dust at times, but I've never seen you go so long without posting. Everything okay?

crystal said...

Duncan MacLeod spent a lot of time in Paris, both in the past, and in the present, where he lived on a houseboat on the river near Notre Dame :-)

Actually I did have the normal amount of posts, but I was in a really bad mood today and deleted abput a week's worth of them. When I'm depressed, I prune the blog. Thanks for asking.

Anonymous said...

More of Rexroth's translations from Cros and other French poets are online at

cowboyangel said...

Thanks, anonymous. I've added an update with links to the Rexroth translations and to the Bureau in general. It's an impressive website. I've been to it before. Excellent job of archiving interesting work.

cowboyangel said...


Sorry to hear you've been depressed. It's too bad you got rid of the horror films post, though! That was good - and I didn't jot down those titles yet. Can you tell me again the movies you listed. I only remember Aliens.

crystal said...

Also Loed of Illusions, The Prophecy, Frailty, Night of the Demon, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).

crystal said...

PS - thanks for the comment on my post about the James Martin book. I decided to delete that post, but I didn't want you to think it was because of your comment. I'm just still in that bad mood and nothing seems right about blogging.

cowboyangel said...

Crystal, Take a deep breath. Do a little stretching. Walk outside and enjoy nature for a moment. Talk to Kermit. And stop deleting your posts! The movie post was very good. The Martin post was very good. You're a blogging monster, devouring everything before you. :-) Really - the Martin one in particular was very interesting.

Liam said...

That youtube video is the coolest thing in the universe.

cowboyangel said...


Hey, you're alive! Are you back from Prague?

You're married now. I think I was there.

You have my flask. That's the most important thing.


las huellas en la playa siempre las borra el cuestion es...y las huellas en las personas...esas, ¿quien las borrara?