“The Soul’s Country: A Review of Patrice de la Tour du Pin’s Psalms of All My Days (translated by Jennifer Grotz)” by Luke Hankins

January 24, 2014

The name Patrice de la Tour du Pin will be unfamiliar to a great number of English-language readers, and we are indebted to Jennifer Grotz for bringing his work into English for the first time. I first learned about de la Tour du Pin when I encountered some of Grotz’s translations in a periodical. When I read the lines “If my dream is laughable, Lord, / extinguish it, for it consumes me!” I was struck with the force of revelation—not of universal truth or of unknown information, but of access to another’s experience of life, to its singular anguish and ecstasy. What T.S. Eliot said of George Herbert’s work is relevant also to de la Tour du Pin’s:

When I claim a place for Herbert among those poets whose work every lover of English poetry should read and every student of English poetry should study, irrespective of religious belief or unbelief, I am not thinking primarily of the exquisite craftmanship, the extraordinary metrical virtuosity, or the verbal felicities, but of the content of the poems which make up The Temple. These poems form a record of spiritual struggle which should touch the feeling, and enlarge the understanding of those readers also who hold no religious belief and find themselves unmoved by religious emotion.

It is not so much the stylistic or formal accomplishment of the work that makes it so enduring and vital, but rather the content itself—the experience communicated to the reader. Don’t many of us believe, after all, that art in its highest function elicits empathy and incites the nobler instincts that lead us to value the other? De la Tour du Pin’s work offers a fascinating and intense vicarious experience of the spiritual life of a poet who feels called to create a great lifework for his God, but who unrelentingly doubts that very endeavor.

De la Tour du Pin was born in 1911 and published his first poem in the prestigious Nouvelle Revue Française at the age of 20. He studied law at the École de Sciences Politiques in Paris, and served in the military during World War II. He was taken prisoner by the Germans and was released in 1942. The rest of his life was devoted to poetry, thanks to the auspices of his aristocratic family. Over a 30-year period, he worked on a 1,500-page multi-genre work entitled Somme de Poésie, in which his psalms were interspersed. In his late years, he was invited by the Catholic Church, after Vatican II, to assist in the composition of the French Catholic liturgy. In 1974, the year before his death, he published his psalms, revised and selected, in a separate volume, Psaumes de tous mes jours, with a foreword. The bilingual edition under review is a selection from that volume, with the addition of three early lyric poems.

De la Tour du Pin wrote his psalms out of an inner compulsion fierce enough to overcome the poet’s own misgivings about the value and relevance of his work in an increasingly secular society. His mode and ideas were in direct opposition to the dominant Modernist literary culture of his time, and in fact the poems often explicitly address the dilemma of writing against the grain of cultural fashion and expectation. Consider his Psalm 21:

When they hear me sing my stubble fields, my little hills,
they tell me: It’s make-believe!

Spending your life drawing your own soul’s country,
unconcerned with what’s most serious.

Your God is like your lapwings or elms:
scanning the horizon, one finds nothing there.

My God, don’t leave me without a response:
you whom I seek are not nothing.

I know all too well my footing’s unstable,
but where is the man who doesn’t straddle an abyss?

Those who hide this fact labor on artifice,
it’s their network of ideas that is “make-believe.”

I sing without even a thread to cushion my fall,
only the repetition of my breath supports me.

It pauses for a flight of lapwings above the bare fields
and my heart beats so hard it thinks it’s flying.

At the pair of elm trees isolated upon the hill,
there he is, with me on my path.

My quest may be nothing to the experts,
but for me, it’s to approach him by his own creation.

There are many layers in the depths of man,
and my God is the God who made them.

Through my spirit, he works the clay
and everything that rises from it speaks his Name.

Knowing that he would seem foolish to others, de la Tour du Pin nevertheless persisted throughout his life in writing psalms of praise, lament, and spiritual struggle, addressed at times to the reader, at times to a God in whom he knew his audience likely did not believe. Unlike his poetic predecessors, the Old Testament psalmists and the 17th-century Metaphysical poets, who also felt compelled to engage with their spiritual struggles through their writing, de la Tour du Pin also had to come to terms with the fact that he was writing amidst the rise of secularism, particularly in the literary, artistic, and philosophical realms, in 20th-century Europe. What makes these poems powerful even today is the persistence of the poet’s devotion, his continual “quest” to present his “soul’s country,” so that even a reader who does not share his belief might vicariously experience the poet’s religious passion and the vicissitudes of his spiritual experience.

As Grotz notes in her introduction, de la Tour du Pin wrote in his foreword:

My first reaction at seeing [my psalms] reassembled here is a certain uneasiness. It is quite dangerous to speak so much about God, to repeat continually his Name! One exposes oneself so easily to the risk of irritating, annoying, or provoking reflections primarily in terms of psychology or literary history, whereas for the author these terms hardly count in and of themselves and what he wanted was precisely to absorb them into an even more complete synthesis!

These misgivings frequently appear in the poems themselves. Sometimes they take the form of self-scrutiny, an investigation of motives and character, concern about pride, as in Psalm 1:
yes, I loved greatness too much.

I threw myself into the passion of writing;
I savored the disgust of the vulgar.

and Psalm 2:

Must we call it pride, this ambition to make a world,
the spiritual delight in its shaping?

[. . .]
[Y]es, I admit it, I loved myself in poetry.

Was it really just loving myself?
nothing attracts me to myself when I undress.

You alone understand this play that compels me to its end,
you alone can save me from it—or save it.

and in Psalm 6:

Then I came to the dream of writing
the great prayer of our time . . .

This ambition plagues me constantly:
I could never have the right to such a voice.

[ . . .]

If my dream is laughable, Lord,
extinguish it, for it consumes me.

It guides me in what I seek:
could poetry be a kind of grace?

I hold on to this lovely hope
more tenacious at times than my demons.

Other times, de la Tour du Pin doubts the ability of art to accomplish what he dreams, as well as his ability to adequately relate to the divine:

If I exalt you, Lord, it’s with words that perish,
that fall back down on me like leaves in winter.

And:

I waste my efforts translating the ineffable:
my rendering of life will never achieve clarity.

Who would believe in my caverns, in my trees?
Who will take my stones for real?

In this last instance, we see the same trope as in Psalm 21, the spiritual life of the poet as a landscape: lapwings, stubble-fields, caverns, trees. In this recurring figure, the poet is a painter attempting to depict something believable as “real,” but which the viewer finds laughably fantastic and childish—“make-believe.” But the spiritual existence de la Tour du Pin is attempting to portray is so natural, so organic for him that he has no way of keeping it out of his art:

I am the only one who doesn’t find
my secret ambition ridiculous.

I admit it out loud in order to cure myself
but my God, it resurfaces each time I reject it.

It says to the trees: you are not beyond my grasp,
I hold vegetal mystery like you.

To the animals deep in the forest or the sea:
does not man contain all of you within himself?

And to you whom I have never glimpsed above, you angels,
should I keep quiet about you as if you weren’t there?

With my voice I raise up a body made of poetry,
I exhale in my breath everything that populates me.

The poet does not so much inhabit a spiritual land as be inhabited by it. There is a touching sense of powerlessness here in the face of the divine, and one senses the poet’s conflict about the fate chosen for him:

Why did you burden me with such a desire to praise
before you made me an angel,
why invest in someone who must be torn apart?

Ultimately, de la Tour du Pin’s poems are animated by a deep interior experience of connection with the divine. They bring the reader into the landscape where the poet walks, argues with, and finally embraces his God. And perhaps in that country of the soul, the reader—believer or not—will be moved with compassion, with empathy, and with—most significantly of all—recognition:

I will suspect myself, whatever I say;
and alone with you? I will only say there you are.

[. . .]

The two of us! most intimate, most free—
the call and response are the same.

Two of us! the heart and its secret.
Two of us: the throat and the voice to say so.

These psalms of turmoil give the reader a way to feel something perhaps undreamed of, yet fully human for all its foreignness. There is wisdom in the saying that the particular is what makes art universal. And for any who may share the same kind of spiritual struggle as de la Tour du Pin, these psalms will offer assurance that they are not alone, that their experience is not alien to humanity. In either case, the ultimate function of these psalms is that which Joseph Conrad described when he wrote of the artist appealing to “the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men [sic] to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”

—Luke Hankins

Luke HankinsLuke Hankins is the author of a collection of poems, Weak Devotions, and is the editor of Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets (both from Wipf & Stock). He serves as Senior Editor at Asheville Poetry Review and Poetry Editor at The Freeman.

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