Descriptions of Nature in the Journal of Eugene Delacroix,
a Possible Resource for Writers of Haibun
Eugene Delacroix, the renowned nineteenth century artist of French Romantic painting, is not a name one would normally expect to hear in the same breath as the haibun of Basho, Buson or Issa, but perhaps it might be. Modern writers are forever revisiting older literatures in search of a common linkage with their authors, ideas and times, if only for the mechanics of how something was said, just as the oil painter studies technique and sequencing in the application of glazes.
In the ongoing search for correspondences with older works, occasionally one hits the mark so exactly that it resonates in ways the writer probably did not intend. The Journal of Eugene Delacroix is not haibun at all, and certainly does not include haiku poems, but this is no barrier to appreciating his rare gifts for objective truth, incisive detail and clear turns of thought. Its pages are rich with the sparkling observations of a painter’s sharp eye, yet Delacroix’s is a spirit moved as much by their simple enjoyment as in amassing the future elements of painting from his careful notes. If in pairing him with a form of literature, in which no translations from the Japanese into French then existed so far as this author is aware, seems at first like fitting a left shoe to a right foot, we will see that it will slip on easily with no discomfort at all.
Originating in Paris around 1823 when Delacroix was twenty-five, the Journal was ostensibly begun to help the artist “fix things in memory." All too often he’d found that as he took his many walks, the onrush of ideas he’d had would be thoroughly forgotten by the time he returned home. Inaugurated at a time when Beethoven was still alive, and with the embers of the French Revolution yet to be blown to flame again in 1848, the lucidity one finds throughout Delacroix’s prose is well worth wading through his occasionally harsh invectives or the studied poise of his tongue-in-cheek brand of self-effacement. That the bachelor-artist had his opinions on almost everything is undeniable. But he knows the beauty of an April morning and finds a lean and elegant prose to describe it.
There are long periods in the eighteen thirties and forties where very few if no entries survive, but this was the time when the artist was fully engaged in his largest official commissions and studio paintings. Journal entries begin in earnest again around 1849 and continue periodically throughout the rest of his life until his death in Paris in 1863.
A large part of the Journal would interest artists in particular for its detailed technical discussions of color and contour, brush stroke dynamics and theories of composition. A deep admiration for Rubens, Titian and Delacroix’s older contemporary, Theodore Gericault, are noted again and again as he travels to museums and churches to study and sketch their works afresh. These passages are often interspersed with scathing assessments of artist-colleagues and famous personalities of the day, or the small details of an afternoon spent with close friends such as the writer George Sand and composer Frederic Chopin, both of whom were immortalized in Delacroix’s famous portraits of the couple. But it is those moments when he records his impressions of raw nature which are of keen value. The Journal employs many prose flavors ranging from the casual, the philosophic, the slightly melancholic (a common attribute of the Romantic period) to the touchingly lyrical, with each style selected for the mood of the moment. In the painter’s entry for the twenty-eighth of April 1850, there are striking resemblances in style to Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. Like Basho, the tone is easy-going on the surface but shares the Japanese master’s interweaving thread of aware, a word variously translated as “the slender sadness” or a condition that evokes “a strong emotional response”:
Went for a long walk in the forest this morning. I took the little lane that runs across the Marquis’ land and stopped to look at the inscriptions on the park wall. Every year the weather and the ravages of time obliterate a little more of them, until now they are almost illegible. I cannot help feeling touched every time I pass — and I often go there on purpose — by the complaints and fond affection of that poor lover! He seems so convinced of the eternal nature of his love for his Celestine. Heaven only knows what became of his or of her love, for that matter. But which of us has not known that state of youthful rapture when one never had a moment’s peace and rejoiced in the torments?
I walked on as far as the frog pond and home by the lane along the side of the hill. Went into Candas’ field to help the maid pick dandelions. (pp. 121-122)
The descriptive language Delacroix uses is unadorned yet very personal. One instinctively senses in the ‘almost illegible’ inscriptions the leveling effects of time for an aging artist then in his fifties, who throughout his long career, had fallen both in and out of favor with the buying public. It is the last line in the entry that conveys so plainly his enjoyment of small pleasures and acceptance of life’s brevity, the deeper undercurrent in most great haibun, both modern and classic.
In another passage, Delacroix makes a concise observation into which he injects a large measure of his world and cosmological view. In it there are shades of Kobayashi Issa’s autobiographical haibun work, The Spring of My Life, despite significant differences in tone and structure. One can easily imagine an immaculately dressed Frenchman of small, slight build, his side-locks of long dark hair tipped forward with his longcoat as he stops along a path to observe a line of ants:
...It was there that I saw a procession of ants moving along the path in a way which I challenge any naturalist to explain. The entire tribe seemed to be moving in formation as if they were emigrating, with a few worker ants going along the column in the opposite direction. Where could they have been going? We are all shut up together higgledy-piggledly, animals,men and plants, in this vast box that they call the universe. We claim to be able to read the stars and to make conjectures about the past and the future, which are both beyond the range of our vision, and yet understand nothing of the things in front of our eyes. All these living creatures, permanently separate and incomprehensible to one another. (pp. 122-123)
This kind of prose is remarkable for the century in which it was written. Only an artist blessed in dual modes of expression could have produced it. Delacroix’s feeling that we notice very little of our daily world crops up continually throughout his writing and is as relevant today and as it was then, perhaps even more so. In an entry dated Wednesday, the eighth of May 1850 he writes:
...on my way I passed two or three magnolias, a few of them still in flower. I had no idea what a show they made; the really astonishing profusion of enormous flowers with the leaves only just beginning to show, the delicious scent, the ground strewn with fallen petals; it brought me to a standstill, delighted. In front of the greenhouse there were red rhododendrons and a huge camellia. (pp. 124-125)
All the elements of a classic Japanese haiku (or a well-crafted modern one for that matter) lie imbedded in this cursory account. His sudden surprise and joy at the scene is expressed naturalistically, an unexpected quality for the painter of odalisques and lion fights.
For a man whose youthful turbulence was legendary, the spring of 1850 must have found the middle-aged Delacroix very comfortable and satisfied with his artistic progress and life, for many of his most quietly evocative entries appear at that time, including this one written while visiting the countryside at a family house near Champrosay, France:
There was wonderful moonlight this evening in my little garden. Walked about until very late. I felt as though I could never sufficiently enjoy the gentle light on the willows, the sound of the little fountain and the delicious scent of the plants which seem to give out all their hidden treasures at such times. (p.127)
There is some of the same feeling in Basho’s poem of an all-night stroll:
on the lake, a bright moon ―
having wandered its shores the whole night
now the dawn so soon
This translation is this author's version of Basho's meigetsu ya / ike wo megurite / yomosugara which R.H. Blyth translates as follows:
The autumn moon;
I wandered round the pond
All night long.
(R.H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol III: Summer / Autumn,Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1952, 1982, p. 932)
In both Delacroix and Basho, there’s a strong sense of the momentary nature of all pleasures, of things enjoyed for their own sakes and as quickly left behind.
And there are entries which, if they had been written with fewer words, might otherwise have been senryu with their insight into human character, whose many foibles the artist sees and faithfully records out of the bric-a-brac of an average day:
The man who brings our coal and wood is a bit of a wag and a great chatterbox. When he asked for a tip the other day saying he had a great many children to feed, Jenny (Delacroix’s housekeeper) said: ‘Well why did you have so many?’ and he answered: ‘It was my wife who had them.’ A perfect example of Gallic humour...He said something equally pungent a year ago, but I forget what it was... (p.161)
In the following crystalline description, both artist and writer meld together as he studies the patterns of waves in sand:
...I came upon a trail of water in the dust that looked as though it had been sprinkled from the spout of a funnel. It reminded me of observations which I had made some time ago in other places on the geometric laws governing such phenomena, which are generally supposed to be accidental.
Take, for instance, the furrows in fine sand scooped out by the sea, which you can see on the beach at Dieppe, where I noticed them last year, just as I did in Tangier. In their irregularities, these furrows showed the return of similar forms, but whether by the action of the water or the nature of the sand which received the imprints they seemed to take on a different appearance according to the locality. Thus at Dieppe, where the marks took the form of stretches of water on very fine sand broken up here and there or enclosed by small rocks, they gave a very good representation of the waves of the sea. If one had copied them in the proper colouring they would have given an idea of that movement of the waves which is so difficult to capture. At Tangier, on the other hand, where there is a flat beach, the receding tide left upon the sand the imprint of small furrows, so closely resembling the stripes on a tiger’s skin that they might have been mistaken for the object itself. The trail of water that I found yesterday on the road to Soisy looked exactly like the branches of certain trees after the leaves have fallen, the wide trail formed by the main branch and the little twigs interlaced in all directions were produced by the crisscross splashes.
Later in this same passage, the artist waxes lyrically, though not without seasoning it with a pinch of his usual cynicism:
A delicious walk while they were tidying my rooms. The forest was in its most smiling mood and a thousand different thoughts came into my mind as I wandered about. At every step I disturbed some springtime tryst, and the noise of my feet frightened the poor birds, who flew away, and always in pairs...New leaves are sprouting, new creatures are being born to people this new world. I feel far more awake to science here than in a town. And yet these fools (the scientists) live in their laboratories and imagine them to be the sanctuary of Nature. They have skeletons and dried grasses sent to them instead of going out to see them bathed in dew. Champrosay, Thursday 6 May 1852 (pp. 164-165)
Though he tries at times for the sake of memory to be merely a camera, there is always an honest excitement and rapt interest in his explorations of the seemingly unimportant phenomena that surrounds him, the body of which constitutes the majority of experience in any person’s lifetime. In this he is more akin to the haiku poet than mere diarist, adding toward the end of the above entry that
the world of animals, vegetables and insects is proper food for the student who wants to record the diverse laws that govern all such creatures. (p. 165)
Consider the following entry from May 17, 1850, which may be one, if not the first literary account of an insect battle ever written:
...That was where I saw the fight between the spider and a strange sort of fly. I saw them both coming towards me; the fly, on its back, fighting desperately and striking furious blows, until after a short struggle the spider died under its attacks. When the fly had sucked the body, it proceeded to drag it off with incredible speed and fury, pulling it backwards over blades of grass and other obstacles. I watched this miniature Homeric duel with a good deal of excitement, feeling like Jupiter watching the fight between Hector and Achilles. And moreover, there was a kind of retributive justice in witnessing this victory of a fly over a spider. One has seen the opposite happen so often. The fly was black, and very long, with red marks on its body. (p. 126)
Although the text is often dense, either from the hand of the translator or the syntax of another century, his choices in subject matter combined with his precise descriptive powers prove Delacroix to be a master of objective observation, a key ingredient to framing the prose of a well-written haibun or any literary work. The fact that he has compared the spider-fly battle to Homeric myth would come naturally to an artist living anywhere between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. In so comparing them, he brings to a crossroads the seemingly disparate worlds of humans and insects which are, of course, not separate at all.
This author doesn’t wish to swindle the reader into thinking the Journal is filled to bulging with examples such as those quoted, rather it’s a bit like searching for that one straight board in a pile of curved lumber—it may lie at the top, somewhere in the middle or at the bottom. The Journal covers all aspects of Delacroix’ life: his paintings, appraisals of the works of others, day-to-day progress reports on his large commissions, lists of household expenditures, the precise layout of color pallets, accounts of dinner parties with their ‘boring’ guests, theatre-going, conversations with old friends and so on.
There are countless other passages that could have been quoted here as well, lines such as the artist’s delight in the scents of old furnishings in a farmhouse which seems to have been ancient even in Delacroix’s day, or a wistful rendering of the radiant quality of summer leaves and how to paint those that are bathed in full sunlight as opposed to those retreating into the violet darkness of afternoon shadows. I leave the discovery of these and other treasures to those who might find in The Journal not only a fascinating historical document but also a valuable resource for writers aspiring to a clear rather than unnecessarily dense style of prosody.
Some Final Notes
In espousing a transparent literature free of a heavy dependence on metaphor, allusion, simile, adjectival complexity or intimate autobiography, haibun is distinct from all other literary forms. But this is not to say that haibun by design cannot be lyrical or wax poetically. That would depend on how such flavorings are used, the degree to which they are employed and for what purpose. As to these qualities of transparency or even lyricism in Matsuo Basho or Yosa Buson, we depend on the work of translators when we cannot read their works in the original, and hope in the main that their essences have leaked through enough for us to tell. In the versions of Basho’s haibun I have read in translation, I detect a continuous poetic strain that running through each of his travel sketches yields a lyricism disguised so simply that it often only surfaces, like the bubbling air of underwater plant life, in his included haiku. Whether it is his conscious imbedding of the Japanese aesthetic principles of wabi, sabi, karumi, yugen or aware within the prose or haiku verse, or at bottom, simply the mirror of a great writer reflecting the pathos and joys of a life lived from the mind’s mirror, makes little difference: the end result is a verbal translucency, the hallmark of haibun.
It is precisely these qualities of freedom and lightness, of translucency and thus the enormous creative potential in classic haibun prose that first attracted me to Basho specifically, and then to other practitioners of the form in general. Although not a writer of haibun per se, Delacroix’s prose nevertheless applies these same engaging qualities, and not to forget, the sheer sense of wonder we expect from the best of the haibun genre—I believe Delacroix’s journal entries are closer to the spirit of haibun than many contemporary examples I have read.
Delacroix, Eugene. Journal. Lucy Norton, translator. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1951.
Issa, Kobayashi. The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku. Sam Hamil,translator. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997.
William J. Higginson with Penny Harter. The Haiku Handbook. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1985.