|Absinthe Books V - Poésie française
The three great French poets of the era, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, were all
prodigious absinthe drinkers, although direct references to the drink in their poems are surprisingly rare.
The popular master of light verse, Raoul Ponchon, however dedicated several poems to La Fee Verte.
By far the most prolific of all absinthe-influenced poets was Raoul
Ponchon (1848 - 1937). Originally a bank employee, he quit his job
after his father's death in 1871, and set himself up at the age of 23
in a garret with the words "Painter and Lyrical Poet" written on the
door. He would take his breakfast in the Café de Cluny, then return
at 5pm for L'Heure Verte. The rest of the day he spent holding court
at various other cafés. Ponchon was astonishingly prolific, writing
150 000 verses, of which over 7000 were about food and drink,
including many dealing specifically with absinthe. His poems were
accessible, often earthy, and sprinkled with the street argot of the
day. Their publication in such popular journals as Le Courier
Francais, to which he contributed for 21 years, made him the
This fragile issue of "Les Hommes d'Aujourd'hui" has a caricature
of Ponchon hovering over a glass of absinthe by Frédéric Auguste
Cazals (1865-1941), printed in black and hand-colored au pochoir.
The three page tribute to Ponchon inside, which quotes his poem
"Five o'clock Absinthe" in full, is written by his friend Paul Verlaine.
Car Raoul Ponchon est un poète très original, un écrivain
absolument soi, descendant, c'est clair, d'une tradition, ainsi que
tous, du reste, mais d'une tradition «de la première» française en
diable, avec tout le diable au corps et tout l'esprit du diable, d'un
bon diable tendre aux pauvres diable et diablement spirituel,
coloré, musical, joli comme tout, fin comme l'ambre, léger, tel Ariel,
et amusant, tel Puck, bon rimeur (j'ai mes idées sur la Rime et
quand je dis «bon rimeur» je m'entends à merveille et c'est de ma
part le suprême éloge), excellent versificateur aussi (je m'entends
encore), un écrivain, enfin, tout saveur, un poète tout sympathie !
Ponchon was a friend and supporter of both Verlaine and Rimbaud;
he was one of only about half a dozen men who owned a copy of
Rimbaud's first book during Rimbaud's lifetime.
An evocative full page lithograph by Pierre Morel
illustrates Raoul Ponchon's "Sonnet de l'Absinthe",
in this 1886 issue of Le Courier Francais.
This first printing of the poem has the variant first
line Absinthe, ô ma liqueur alerte, which Ponchon
later changed to : Absinthe, je t'adore, certes!
Ponchon's work appeared regularly in Le Courier
Francais from 1886 to 1907.
Click on the images to see enlarged versions.
The remarkable French humorist Aphonse Allais was born in
Honfleur in 1854. He started training as a pharmacist in Paris
but, seduced by the Bohemian lifestyle, became a writer and café
habitué. At l'heure verte, Allais would sit before his absinthe and
recount humorous stories to his friends. When he was happy
that he had honed the tale to perfection, he would go to the back
of the café alone and write it out for one of the many journals to
which he contributed.
One of his pieces, published in Le Chat Noir in 1885, was
perhaps the first use of ‘stream of consciousness’ in literature.
Called Absinthes, it is the thought processes of a struggling
writer sitting on a terrasse talking about his rejections: 'very good,
your article... subject interesting... well written but... not in our
style'. He watches the sugar from his absinthe melt, then, after
the first absinthe, he notes that the boulevards are coming alive
and the women seem prettier than they were an hour earlier. He
sees the street sellers, has another absinthe, yearns for the
women, ponders the people around him, and considers there is
a book to be written there, ‘unique, unforgettable…a book that
everyone would have to buy…everyone!’ Inspired by the thought,
he calls for another absinthe, this time a large one without water.
The piece ends there, with the reader knowing that of course this
unfortunate dreamer is never in fact going to write a great novel
or win the girl of his desires. As Allais said, 'life is not funny'.
A remarkable find: the manuscript draft of an apparently
unpublished 16 line poem "Adversus Absynthium" by Antoni
Deschamps, written at Fontainebleau in August 1847 and
dedicated to Alfred Tattet.
It is the earliest known literary work inspired by absinthe.
Absynthe, monstre né jadis pour notre perte
De l'Afrique à Paris, traînant ta robe verte
Antoni Deschamps was born in Paris on the 12th of March 1800
and died at Passy on the 29th of October 1869. Like his elder
brother, the better known Emile Deschamps (1791 - 1871), he
was an ardent romanticist, but his production was limited by a
nervous disorder, which left its mark on his largely melancholy
work. He translated the Divina Commedia in 1829, and his
poems, Dernires Paroles and Resignation, were republished
with his brothers in 1841.
A provisional transcription of the poem, courtesy of
à Alfred Tattet
Adversus Absynthium (A l'encontre de l'absinthe)
Absynthe, monstre né jadis pour notre perte
De l’Afrique à Paris traînant ta robe verte
Comment donc as-tu pu sous le soleil oser
Souiller ses lèvres d’or de ton âcre baiser
Vile prostituée en tes temples assise
Tu te vends à l’esprit ainsi qu'à la sottise
Et ne fais nul souci aux adieux, laurier
Qui couvre le Poëte ainsi que le guerrier
Hélas ! n’avait-il pas assez de l’amertume
A laquelle en vivant tout grand cœur s’accoutume
Aussi que l’eau du ciel ......
Qu’il ne reste plus rien de ton amer poison
O monstre sois maudit, je te jette à la face
Les imprécations de Tibulle et d’Horace
Et contre toi j’évoque en mon sein irrité
La langue que parlait la belle antiquité.
Fontainebleau, août 1847
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The transcription at right is incomplete, as the old
French script is extremely hard to decipher. Any
suggestions or improvements would be very