On the Fugitive and French and Russian Poetry

Fugitive Cov 2

When we hear or read the word ‘fugitive’ today, we perhaps tend to think of someone fleeing from something: most often in a legal frame, from justice; but also potentially from persecution, or simply from the uncomfortable circumstances of their lives. Supporting the first relation is the FBI’s list of the ‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’. This was conceived by J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the FBI, and William Kinsey Hutchinson, then Editor-in-Chief of the International News Service, in late 1949 as a means of publicising the search for noted criminals; and the list was established on 14 March, 1950. Fugitives are typically removed from the list only upon capture, death, or should the charges against them be dropped. 504 fugitives have been listed since its inception.

In film, we find I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, released in 1932 starring Paul Muni; and from 1993 The Fugitive, directed by Andrew Davis, starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, and based on the cult television series which ran for four seasons in the middle of the 1960s, itself drawing from the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, and whose falsely-accused physician and one-armed killer have influenced works on the screen from The Shawshank Redemption to Twin Peaks and Curb Your Enthusiasm. More obliquely, The Fugitive is also the title of a 1947 film directed by John Ford, and starring Henry Fonda. Based on Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, Fonda plays a fugitive Catholic priest in a country where the religion is outlawed. While the film remains one of Ford’s least-known works, and has been criticised for its sentimentality, it has equally been praised for the art of its cinematography. Ford himself stated, ‘I just enjoy looking at it […] To me, it was perfect’.

Within the realm of literature, ‘fugitive’ usually refers to the group of American poets and academics who gathered round Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, in the early 1920s. The group – which included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Merrill Moore, Donald Davidson, and briefly Laura Riding Jackson – published the literary magazine The Fugitive between 1922 and 1925. Focusing upon poetic form, carefully crafting poems in accordance with precise, and often traditional, modes of rhyme and metre, it was out of this school that the tenets of New Criticism emerged: calling for the close reading of literary texts as self-contained aesthetic wholes, eschewing the critical focus of many Northern American universities which instead dwelt on the external contexts of cultural history, author biography and authorial intent, and political and ethical application. John Crowe Ransom’s The New Criticism, published in 1941, would properly define the movement.

In the same sort of manner, the Fugitives upheld the traditions of the agrarian South in opposition to the rapid progress of urban industrialisation. At the end of the decade, some of the group’s members would segue into a second, more explicitly politicised literary collective called the Agrarians. As for the name ‘The Fugitives’, according to Allen Tate, ‘a Fugitive was quite simply a Poet: the Wanderer, or even the Wander Jew, the Outcast, the man who carries the secret wisdom around the world’. Fugitives: An Anthology of Verse was published in 1928.

Yet a decidedly different application of the term ‘fugitive’ in relation to literature concerns the poetry of eighteenth century France. In Fabienne Moore’s Prose Poems of the French Enlightenment: Delimiting Genre, published in 2009, Moore lists an assortment of French literary works from across the 1700s which utilised the word in their title: from Voltaire’s Recueil de pièces fugitives en prose et en vers (Collection of fugitive pieces in prose and verse), published in 1740; to Fanny de Beauharnais and Claude Joseph Dorat, who in 1776 published separately two works with an identical heading, Mélanges de poésies fugitives et de prose sans conséquence (Compilation of fugitive poetry and prose without consequence); to Madame Dufresne, whose prose poem Idylles et pieces fugitives (Idylls and fugitive pieces) appeared in 1781. Moore writes:

‘The compilation of verse and prose in one volume was not a new phenomenon, but the characterization of poetry as “fugitive” and prose as “without consequence” exemplified the eighteenth-century vogue for short, unpretentious, circumstantial verse and prose pieces at the outer margins of the system of genres, in defiance of high poetry and eloquent prose.’

So French ‘fugitive’ poetry has a clear meaning, developing from the use of the word as an adjective to indicate something flighty in a less literal sense: suggesting that which is fleeting, transitory, and elusive. Moore notes however that, carried to excess, ‘fugitive poetry’ could lose its fluent ephemeral lightness and devolve into mere frivolity:

‘The period 1700–1750 witnessed a poetry in crisis […] On the one hand, the exactitude and accuracy of meter led to, paradoxically, convoluted expression: ideas got lost or diluted by strict formal constraints. On the other hand, poetry had become a game, a social skill to shine in public rather than an inspired expression of beauty and enthusiasm. Fugitive, circumstantial, it favored and rewarded wit and lightness, serving the passion of the times for play and games. Perhaps more prevalent and intensive than ever before, poetic activity yielded a flurry of generic mélanges and much inconsequential verses—witness the wares of countless almanacs.’

Nicole Masson has written at length on the topic of ‘fugitive poetry’ in eighteenth century France, in La Poésie fugitive au XVIIIe siècle, published in 2002. His research centres on poets including Voltaire; François-Antoine Devaux, known to his friends as ‘Panpan’, and sponsored by the novelist and playwright Françoise de Graffigny, with whom he began an enduring correspondence and whose papers he inherited upon her death; Madame Bourette, who wrote two volumes of poetry under the title of ‘Lemonade Muse’; Claude-Henri de Fusée, abbé de Voisenon, like Devaux a close friend of Voltaire, and who despite his priestly vocation wrote frequently licentious verse; Sébastien Jorry; Gabriel-Charles de Lattaignant; and Louis de Laus de Boissy. These poets were extending a tradition of poésie légère, or light verse, which had over the previous century incorporated the likes of Guillaume Amfrye de Chaulieu and the Irish-born Antoine Hamilton. 

In D. S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature, published between 1926 and 1927, Mirsky suggests the influence of this French fugitive poetry on the ‘Golden Age’ of Russian literature. With Vasily Zhukovsky at its head and Alexander Pushkin flourishing as its preeminent figure, this Golden Age began with the first publications of a young generation of poets across the late 1800s and early 1810s: Mirsky places its birth precisely in 1808, with the appearance of the ‘independent and original accent in the first mature work of Zhukovsky’. The Golden Age reached its height in the 1820s before fading in the following decade: the suppression of the Decembrist Revolt at the end of 1825 decisively shifted the outlook for its artists, a number of whom were involved with the rebels; then Anton Delvig died in 1831, Pushkin in 1837, and others moved abroad as the novel began to usurp poetry’s place in Russian letters.

Depicting these poets as successors to Nikolay Karamzin, who in the preceding decades had brought a French style and a heightened sensitivity to the practice of Russian literature; and referring to the ‘Arzamas’ literary society which they formed, and which included Vasily Pushkin, Alexander’s uncle, Mirsky writes:

‘The younger Karamzinians and Arzamasians cultivated with greatest zest what the French eighteenth century called “fugitive” poetry. Even Zhukovsky’s high seriousness stooped to such light verse, and Batyushkov made his literary reputation with the epistle My Penates, which was considered the masterpiece of the kind. Pushkin’s work before his exile to the south of Russia consists almost entirely of fugitive poems.

Two masters of fugitive poetry in the first decade of the Golden Age were Davydov and Vyazemsky. Though lesser poets than Zhukovsky and Batyushkov, these two men are even more characteristic of their generation and more typical of their school. Both are high-spirited, healthy, virile, unromantic, and – ultimately – shallowish. Both were great wits and fond of fun, in life as well as in literature.’

Alexander Pushkin had high praise for Denis Davydov’s originality, while Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky was one of Pushkin’s closest friends. Their correspondence alone is considered a high-water mark of Russian. Pushkin used a line from Vyazemsky, translated by Vladimir Nabokov as ‘To live it hurries and to feel it hastes’, as the epigraph to the first chapter of Eugene Onegin. Mirsky states of Vyazemsky:

‘Though he was the journalistic leader of Russian romanticism, there can be nothing less romantic than his early poetry: it consists either of very elegant, polished, and cold exercises on the set commonplaces of poetry, or of brilliant essays in word play, where pun begets pun, and conceit begets conceit, heaping up a mountain of verbal wit. His later poetry is more significant. It never became strictly personal, like Zhukovsky’s or Pushkin’s. It remained universal and typical – essentially classical.’

Of the French poets associated with the fugitive school who were of particular importance to Russian writers, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset’s ‘La Chartreuse’ was a model for Konstantin Batyushkov’s ‘Moi Penaty’ (‘My Penates’); and both Batyushkov and Pushkin thoroughly embraced the varied works of Évariste de Parny. Indeed, Parny had written a collection of ten Poésies fugitives which he published with his Chansons madécasses in 1787; and in 1803 he delivered an address to the French Academy on the influence of fugitive poetry on the French language. Later, in a different atmosphere, Fyodor Dostoevsky referenced Alexis Piron in The Brothers Karamazov, when Father Zosima’s wit is compared to that of the French poet and epigrammatist.

Elsewhere – and only loosely connecting to the fugitive poetry of France, and to its encouragement upon the Golden Age Russian poets – there stands Mikhail Lermontov’s poem ‘The Fugitive’. Lermontov apparently composed the poem in 1838, but it was not published until 1846. It expresses Lermontov’s empathy for the people of the Caucasus, an area Lermontov had visited often from his youth, and to which he had been exiled to serve in the midst of the ongoing Caucasian War. The poem bears some similarities with Pushkin’s unfinished poem ‘Tazit’, published in Sovremennik at the end of 1837. Considered the last poem of Lermontov’s Caucasian cycle, Mirsky writes that it saw him treating a romantic theme ‘with a concise clarity worthy of Pushkin and with a martial go that was his alone’.

The sixth volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) was titled Albertine disparue (Albertine Gone) when it was first published, posthumously, in 1925. This was to avoid confusion with Rabindranath Tagore‘s poem La Fugitive of 1921; but when a revised and supposedly authoritative edition of Proust’s sixth volume was published in 1957, Albertine disparue was replaced with the title La Fugitive. However, a newly authoritative edition – based in part on an unmarked typescript acquired in 1962 by the Bibliothèque Nationale; and in part on a corrected typescript uncovered in 1986 upon the death of Proust’s niece, Suzy Mante-Proust, which contained an important revision to the text and the deletion of around 150 pages – appeared in 1987 again under the title Albertine disparue. This edition remains contested, because some of Proust’s late revisions to the volume pose problems for the rest of his novel; thus today various editions exist under both titles Albertine disparue and La Fugitive.

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‘Chanson XII’, by Évariste de Parny

Nahandove, O beautiful Nahandove! The bird of night has begun its eerie calling, the full moon pours down on my head, and the earliest dew moistens my hair. This is the hour; who can be detaining you, Nahandove, O beautiful Nahandove?

Our bed of leaves is ready; I have strewn it with flowers and spiceodored herbs; it befits your charms, Nahandove, O beautiful Nahandove!

She comes. I recognized the rapid breathing of one who comes hurrying; I hear the rustling of the cloth wrapped around her loins; it is she! It is Nahandove, the beautiful Nahandove!

Oh, take breath, my young love, rest on my lap. How bewitching your gaze, how live and deliciously your breast stirs under the hand that presses it! You smile now, Nahandove, O beautiful Nahandove!

Your kisses quiver their way to my heart; your caresses bring fire to my every sense: enough! Or I shall die! Can one truly die of voluptuous pleasure, Nahandove, O beautiful Nahandove?

Our pleasure passes in a flash. Now your sweet panting grows gentler, your brimming eyes close, your head droops in weariness, and our rapture gives way to languor; yet never have you been so beautiful, Nahandove, O beautiful Nahandove!

You leave me, and I shall languish alone in longing and desire, languish thus until nightfall. You will come back at nightfall, Nahandove, O beautiful Nahandove!

(Translated by R. Wolf)


‘Les regrets (Tableau IX)’, by Évariste de Parny (in French)

Justine est seule et gémissante,

Et mes yeux avec intérêt

La suivent dans ce lieu secret

Où sa chute fut si touchante.

D’abord son tranquille chagrin

Garde un morne et profond silence:

Mais des pleurs s’échappent enfin,

Et coulent avec abondance

De son visage sur son sein;

Et ce sein formé par les Grâces,

Dont le voluptueux satin

Du baiser conserve les traces,

Palpite encore pour Valsin.

Dans sa douleur elle contemple

Ce réduit ignoré du jour,

Cette alcôve, qui fut un temple,

Et redit : Voilà donc l’Amour!


‘Wisdom’, by Denis Davydov

While honouring the grape’s ruby nectar,

All sportingly, laughingly gay;

We determined — I, Silvia, and Hector,

To drive old dame Wisdom away.


“O my children, take care,” said the beldame,

“Attend to these counsels of mine:

Get not tipsy! for danger is seldom

Remote from the goblet of wine.”


“With thee in his company, no man

Can err,” said our wag with a wink;

“But come, thou good-natured old woman,

There’s a drop in the goblet — and drink!”


She frowned — but her scruples soon twisting,

Consented: — and smilingly said:

“So polite — there’s indeed no resisting,

For Wisdom was never ill-bred.”


She drank but continued her teaching:

“Let the wise from indulgence refrain;”

And never gave over her preaching,

But to say, “Fill the goblet again.”


And she drank, and she totter’d, but still she

Was talking and shaking her head:

Muttered “temperance” – “prudence” –

until she Was carried by Love to bed.

(Translated by J. Bowring)


‘My Spirit’, by Konstantin Batyushkov

O memory of the heart! You are stronger

than the sad memories of reason.

And often from a far-off country,

you bewitch me with your sweetness.

I remember the loved voice sounding.

I remember the eyes of azure.

I remember the careless

curling strands of golden hair.

My shepherdess, without a rival,

I remember her simplicity of dress,

the unforgotten, the dear image

that stays beside me everywhere.

My guardian spirit – granted me by love

to bring me solace in separation:

do I sleep? Bending over my pillow,

it will ease my saddened rest.

(Translated by A. S. Kline)


From the prologue to Ruslan and Lyudmila, by Alexander Pushkin

There’s a green oak by the bay,

on the oak a chain of gold:

a learned cat, night and day,

walks round on that chain of old:

to the right – it spins a song,

to the left –  a tale of wrong.


Marvels there: the wood-sprite rides,

in the leaves a mermaid hides:

on deep paths of mystery

unknown creatures leave their spoor:

huts on hen’s legs you can see,

with no window and no door.

Wood and valley vision-brimming:

there at dawn the waves come washing

over sands and silent shore,

and thirty noble knights appear

one by one, from waters clear,

attended there by their tutor:

a king’s son passing by

takes a fierce king prisoner:

a wizard carries through the sky

a knight, past all the people there,

over forests, seas they fly:

a princess in a prison pines,

whom a brown wolf serves with pride:

A mortar, Baba Yaga inside,

takes that old witch for a ride.

King Kaschey grows ill with gold.

It’s Russia! – Russian scents unfold!


And I was there and I drank mead,

I saw the green oak by the sea,

I sat there while the learned cat

told its stories – here’s one that

I remember, and I’ll unfurl,

a story now for all the world…

(Translated by A. S. Kline)


‘Мои желания’, by Pyotr Vyazemsky (in Russian)

Пусть всё идет своим порядком
Иль беспорядком — всё равно!
На свете — в этом зданье шатком —
Жить смирно — значит жить умно.
Устройся ты как можно тише,
Чтоб зависти не разбудить;
Без нужды не взбирайся выше,
Чтоб после шеи не сломить.

Пусть будут во владенье скромном
Цветник, при ручейке древа,
Алтарь любви в приделе тёмном,
Для дружбы стул, а много — два;
За трапезой хлеб-соль простая,
С приправой ласк младой жены;
В подвале — гость с холмов Токая,
Душистый вестник старины.

Две-три картины не на славу;
Приют мечтанью — камелёк
И, про домашнюю забаву,
Непозолоченный гудок;
Книг дюжина — хоть не в сафьяне.
Не рук, рассудка торжество,
И деньга лишняя в кармане
Про нищету и сиротство.

Вот всё, чего бы в скромну хату
От неба я просить дерзал;
Тогда б к хранителю-Пенату
С такой молитвою предстал:
«Я не прощу о благе новом;
Моё мне только сохрани,
И от злословца будь покровом,
И от глупца оборони».


From The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, by Alexander Pushkin

Mute sat Giray, with downcast eye,

As though some spell in sorrow bound him,

His slavish courtiers thronging nigh,

In sad expectance stood around him.

The lips of all had silence sealed,

Whilst, bent on him, each look observant,

Saw grief’s deep trace and passion fervent

Upon his gloomy brow revealed.

But the proud Khan his dark eye raising,

And on the courtiers fiercely gazing,

Gave signal to them to begone!

The chief, unwitnessed and alone,

Now yields him to his bosom’s smart,

Deeper upon his brow severe

Is traced the anguish of his heart;

As full fraught clouds on mirrors clear

Reflected terrible appear!


What fills that haughty soul with pain?

What thoughts such madd’ning tumults cause?

With Russia plots he war again?

Would he to Poland dictate laws?

Say, is the sword of vengeance glancing?

Does bold revolt claim nature’s right?

Do realms oppressed alarm excite?

Or sabres of fierce foes advancing?

Ah no! no more his proud steed prancing

Beneath him guides the Khan to war,-

Such thoughts his mind has banished far.

Has treason scaled the harem’s wall,

Whose height might treason’s self appal,

And slavery’s daughter fled his power,

To yield her to the daring Giaour?


No! pining in his harem sadly,

No wife of his would act so madly;

To wish or think they scarcely dare;

By wretches, cold and heartless, guarded,

Hope from each breast so long discarded;

Treason could never enter there.

Their beauties unto none revealed,

They bloom within the harem’s towers,

As in a hot-house bloom the flowers

Which erst perfumed Arabia’s field.

To them the days in sameness dreary,

And months and years pass slow away,

In solitude, of life grown weary,

Well pleased they see their charms decay.

Each day, alas! the past resembling,

Time loiters through their halls and bowers;

In idleness, and fear, and trembling,

The captives pass their joyless hours.

The youngest seek, indeed, reprieve

Their hearts in striving to deceive

Into oblivion of distress,

By vain amusements, gorgeous dress,

Or by the noise of living streams,

In soft translucency meand’ring,

To lose their thoughts in fancy’s dreams,

Through shady groves together wand’ring.

But the vile eunuch too is there,

In his base duty ever zealous,

Escape is hopeless to the fair

From ear so keen and eye so jealous.

He ruled the harem, order reigned

Eternal there; the trusted treasure

He watched with loyalty unfeigned,

His only law his chieftain’s pleasure,

Which as the Koran he maintained.

His soul love’s gentle flame derides,

And like a statue he abides

Hatred, contempt, reproaches, jests,

Nor prayers relax his temper rigid,

Nor timid sighs from tender breasts,

To all alike the wretch is frigid.

He knows how woman’s sighs can melt,

Freeman and bondman he had felt

Her art in days when he was younger;

Her silent tear, her suppliant look,

Which once his heart confiding shook,

Now move not,–he believes no longer!


When, to relieve the noontide heat,

The captives go their limbs to lave,

And in sequestered, cool retreat

Yield all their beauties to the wave,

No stranger eye their charms may greet,

But their strict guard is ever nigh,

Viewing with unimpassioned eye

These beauteous daughters of delight;

He constant, even in gloom of night,

Through the still harem cautious stealing,

Silent, o’er carpet-covered floors,

And gliding through half-opened doors,

From couch to couch his pathway feeling,

With envious and unwearied care

Watching the unsuspecting fair;

And whilst in sleep unguarded lying,

Their slightest movement, breathing, sighing,

He catches with devouring ear.

O! curst that moment inauspicious

Should some loved name in dreams be sighed,

Or youth her unpermitted wishes

To friendship venture to confide.

(Translated by W. D. Lewis)