Noailles, Anna de (1876–1933)
Noailles, Anna de (1876–1933)
Leading French poet of the early 1900s, whose themes ranged from love, nature, and patriotism to death and oblivion. Name variations: Anna-Elisabeth, Comtesse Mathieu de Noailles; Princesse de Brancovan. Pronunciation: noh-I; brã-ko-V. Born Anna-Elisabeth de Brancovan on November 15, 1876, in Paris, France; died on April 30, 1933, in Paris; daughter of the Cretan-Greek Ralouka (Rachel) Musurus and Rumanian Prince Grégoire Bassaraba de Brancovan; educated at home by a succession of mostly German governesses; married Count Mathieu-Fernand-Frédérick-Pascal de Noailles also known as Mathieu de Noailles (a French soldier, born April 13, 1873), in 1897 (separated 1912); children: son, Anne-Jules-Emmanuel-Grégoire (1900–1979).
Published 24 books and scores of individual poems, articles, prefaces, and contributions to collective works over a 32-year period (1901–33); wrote three novels, but the bulk of literary output was poetry; was a member of the Academy of Belgium and recipient of both the Archon Déspérouses Prize and the Grand Prix of Literature of the French Academy; was the first woman awarded the red cravate of a Commander of the Legion of Honor.
Le Coeur innombrable (1901); L'Ombre des jours (1902); La Nouvelle Espérance (1903); Le Visage émerveillé (1904); La Domination (1905); Les Eblouissements (1907); Les Vivants et les Morts (1913); De la rive d'Europe à la rive d'Asie (1913); Les Forces éternelles (1920); Les Innocentes ou la sagesse des femmes (1923); L'Honneur de Souffir(1927); Poèmes d'Enfance (1928); Exactitudes (1930); Le Livre de ma Vie (1932); Derniers Vers (1933).
On Anna de Noailles' 19th birthday, reports Claude Mignot-Ogliastri, her mother admonished the future poet: "If you want to marry, do not publish any verses … and try to wear a corset!" This bit of practical advice was highly indicative of the contemporary matrimonial expectations placed on eligible women of class, and Noailles' late teens had been a whirl of social functions preparatory to the match-making: balls, operas and theater outings were capped by formal coming-out parties, all accompanied by interminable toiletries. Various utterances against the strictures of the corset leave room for doubt as to whether she submitted to the torments of the whalebone but, either by design or coincidence, she did wait a suitable six months after the wedding to publish, soon embarking on a long and successful literary career.
Anna de Noailles was born in 1876 in Paris, in an opulent mansion at 22, Blvd. de La-Tour-Maubourg. Wealth, culture, social standing and a cosmopolitan lifestyle were hallmarks of both her parents' backgrounds. Her father, the Rumanian prince Grégoire Bassaraba de Brancovan, was a scion of the ancient Moldavian dynasty that had given its name to Bessarabia. The Brancovans had reigned over the Danubian principality of Walachia, an uneasy vassaldom of the Ottoman Turks, since 1601. Indeed, one ancestor had been executed in Constantinople for having signed a treaty with Russian tsar Peter I the Great. The gruesome family coat-of-arms—an armed horseman with the head of a Turk impaled on the point of his sword—eloquently illustrated the tense relationship between vassal and overlord. Anna's grandfather, Georges Demetrius Bibesco, was the last reigning hospodar, or Moldavian and Walachian prince. After the liberal revolutions of 1848, when events forced him to abdicate, the Brancovans moved from Bucharest to Paris. In France, Anna's father studied at the prestigious officers' academy of Saint-Cyr, founded by Napoleon I, venerating the severe discipline and deprivation endured at that elite school. Not surprisingly, he was a stern authoritarian, but also appreciated poetry and liked to cite classical verses. Embarking on a distinguished career in the army, like his brother Georges, who attended the General Staff School and was awarded the Grand Office of the Legion of Honor, Brancovan fought in both the Mexican and Franco-Prussian wars. Noailles remembered many an evening spent listening to her father reminisce over the wars, exhilarating politics, and intricate high-stakes diplomacy of France under Napoleon III. Repeated themes such as the shameful loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the hated Bismarck undoubtedly contributed to the development of Anna's ardent patriotism. Yet politically, Brancovan was no monarchist, despite his royal lineage. Noailles' biographer, Mignot-Ogliastri, stressed that, while both sides of her family had close connections with the Ancien Régime as well as the Napoleonic nobility, the Brancovans and Musuruses (on the maternal side) were heart and soul behind the Republic. Anna loved her father dearly, and his death on October 15, 1886, provoked intense grief in the young girl of nine.
Anna's mother Ralouka Musurus was born in Constantinople into a prominent Cretan literary family. Ralouka's brother Paul wrote poetry, including a "perfect sonnet" dedicated to Victor Hugo, as Noailles put it, while her maternal grandfather had translated the Divine Comedy into Greek. The Musuruses' social standing equalled that of the Brancovans, and Ralouka Musurus' father, Musurus Pacha (1807–1891), was a Turkish diplomat who had served the Sublime Porte as ambassador to the Court of St. James, where he was held in great esteem by Queen Victoria . (Noailles reported, perhaps with some exaggeration, that her mother was "raised on the knees of Victoria.") Thus, Anna's mother spent most of her youth in Britain, where she mastered English, while Musurus Pacha attended historic conferences in Paris and London. It was in London that the dashing, eligible Grégoire Brancovan married the talented Ralouka Musurus on May 25, 1874. Noailles described her mother as a perfect beauty, resembling the "gracious Venus' of the museums of Athens." Musically gifted, Ralouka was by all accounts an accomplished pianist, and Anna recalled spending many an evening sitting by the open fireplace, listening to her play music for the family. Noailles was very close to her mother, who inspired her with a deep empathy for the unfortunate in life. When Ralouka died on September 26, 1923, Noailles would be greatly affected, later writing: "I am happy that my mother has written some poems that, perhaps, shall not slip into oblivion."
Noailles had two siblings: an older brother and a younger sister. Constantin was drawn to literature, much like his sister, and later directed La Renaissance Latine, a literary review. Hélène (de Caraman-Chimay) , younger than Anna by one year, was gifted both in letters and in sculpture, and published in her brother's journal; she married the Belgian prince Alexandre de Caraman-Chimay.
Noailles was very attached to her sister, seeing or writing her daily throughout life until Hélène died of pneumonia on March 4, 1929.
Born in a lavish aristocratic villa with ceilings decorated by Auguste Renoir, Anna spent most of her youth in an elegant Parisian townhouse at 34, Avenue Hoche, half-way between the Champs-Élysées and the Parc Monceau, to where the family had moved in 1879. Potted palm trees, two pianos, Gobelin tapestries, staircases covered with thick red carpets, gracefully appointed salons and a gallery of ancestral portraits typified that cultivated aristocratic fin-desiècle residence. An extensive household staff was presided over by a faithful old Bavarian maître d'hôtel, and before her father died, the family had formal luncheons every Sunday, to which the most prominent literary and political figures were invited. Such society dinners might include caviar, oysters, spiced hors d'oeuvres, a long main course and bottles of pink champagne, for Noailles' mother hosted one of the top ten Parisian salons.
Yet little Anna was unhappy in her childhood home, apparently a lonesome child despite the fact that she was admired by all as exceptionally talented. Suffering through the endless social visits of her mother, she recalled how conversations revolved around interminable political and colonial reminiscences. At home, the vista from her window was stifling and bereft of nature, and frequent depressions confined her to bed. She remembered praying to God for a child born of her body alone, "another little Anna who … would console and understand me." Thus, during the bleak Parisian winters she dreamed of the family's country residence at Amphion, on the shores of Lac Léman, near Evian in Savoy.
In the salons, it is always the Countess, she will come, she's coming, there she is, and suddenly servants fall silent, conversations cease, everyone… rises on tiptoes the better to see.
Noailles habitually spent at least four months of the year at Amphion, until 1900, after which her visits became shorter and more sporadic. The estate, purchased by her father from Count Alexander Walewski, a bastard son of Napoleon and Marie Walewska , consisted of a châlet and a "château" designed by Viollet-le-Duc. The family's steam-yacht, the Rumania, lay waiting at a private port on the banks of the lake. Summer carriage rides through the surrounding countryside alternated with yacht outings up and down the lake, to visit the Rothschilds, Talleyrands, and La Rochefoucaulds, while the evenings were filled with light-hearted parties, balls, and masquerades. Noailles asserted that the lovely countryside of Savoy inspired in her the love of nature ("Far from her, I would die"), and the desire to "communicate, intact and still alive, bathed in its dew, adorned with its stars" the world's beauty to all who would hear, that were to figure so prominently among the themes of her poetry. Fire, the light of the sun, and certain plants seem to have possessed a special inspirational quality while Noailles, as she put it, "listened to the voice of the Universe."
Sadly, a privileged adolescence was marred by constant health problems that deprived her of many a joyful activity. Sensitive both physically and emotionally, Noailles suffered from insomnia early on. Visiting Constantinople in 1887, after the death of her father, she came down with an indeterminate fever, and as a young girl on the verge of puberty was stricken with an appendicitis which became chronic, at one point necessitating the use of morphine to alleviate the excruciating pain. Not surprisingly, themes frequently evoked in early poems are of sick and dying children, death, and pity for the unhappy and downtrodden.
Anna's education was typical for her gender and class: while her brother was sent off to secondary school, the two sisters' German governesses—along with the French tutors, music and drawing, gymnastic and riding masters—were instructed to provide a grounding in modern languages and "good" literature, at the same time imparting the artistic accomplishments and social graces desired by prospective suitors. (Noailles was to become a gifted pianist, and during the last decades of her life turned to pastels, her work even being displayed in a Paris exhibition.) Informal history lessons administered by Anna's father served to nourish a pride in both parents' distinguished ancestry, while instilling a deep love for the adoptive homeland. French, the family language, was her mother tongue, but Anna's German became perfect, and her English—learned from an Irish tutor—was good, while Greek and Latin were not considered necessary for a girl's education. Devouring Grimms' and Perrault's fairy tales along with the Arabian Nights as a young girl, she was by her late teens reading broadly in the more serious fare of 17th- and 18th-century literature.
With her family's literary background (uncle Paul made her learn his favorite Parnassian poems by heart), one is not surprised to find Noailles writing her first poems, proudly circulated among friends and acquaintances, during her early teens. While, as a child, her French tutor directed readings in Anatole France, Paul Bourget, and Pierre Loti, she herself cited as her most important influences the works of Alfred de Musset ("the young girls' … first and pure lover"), along with Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine and Victor Hugo. Of the latter, she wrote: "He subjugated me entirely and I was his child." As a young woman, Anna was a voracious and eclectic reader, and the range of her preferred authors ran from Voltaire and Rousseau to Mme de Staël and George Sand , Emile Zola and Frédéric Mistral, whom she met when she was eight.
On August 17, 1897, after a courtship befitting her class, Anna faisait une bonne partie (made a good match) with her marriage to Count Mathieu de Noailles in the village church of Publier near Amphion. The society wedding—previously announced in the Paris dailies Gaulois and Figaro—included a formal contract, civil and church ceremonies, fireworks, and an official ball. The groom's pedigree was as long as his name, for he stemmed from one of the greatest French aristocratic houses, tracing its lineage back to the 12th century, and including statesmen, church prelates, soldiers, and diplomats. The count's grandfather, Duke Paul de Noailles had been an ambassador, historian and academician, and his father Jules wrote books on political economy. Mathieu himself had served in the army from 1891 to 1895, and then entered the reserve. The newlyweds made their first residence in Paris at 109, Avenue Henri-Martin, moving to 40, rue Scheffer, in Passy in August of 1910. Their son, Anne-Jules-Emmanuel-Grégoire, was born on September 18, 1900.
Anna de Noailles made her literary debut in the Revue de Paris, on February 1, 1898, with a collection of poems entitled Litanies. This was soon followed by Bittô (1900) and Exaltation (1900). Hardly a year later, on May 8, 1901, the prestigious Paris publisher Calmann-Lévy issued Le Coeur innombrable, a poetic anthology replete with eloquently sensualist evocations of nature in general, the French countryside in particular. It immediately received great acclaim and was awarded the prestigious Prix Archon Despérouses by the French Academy. L'Ombre des jours, her second extended collection of poems, followed shortly thereafter (1902). Noailles' brilliant literary career had begun.
In 1903, Noailles published her first of a series of three novels, all of which dealt with the psychology of love, and contained numerous autobiographical elements. La Nouvelle Espérance was recommended for, but ultimately not awarded, the first Prix Goncourt. In it, the heroine's mother dies early and young Sabine refuses any food for days on end, an event which recalls Anna's own three-day prostration at her father's death. Sabine's loss of faith at age 15 also echoes the author's severe religious doubts during her adolescence. The Brancovan background, moreover, is revealed when Anna has Sabine become interested in politics and display a profound love of France and its historical glories. The influence of her sentimental German governess, finally, is reflected in the main character's constant search for a true, enduring, and boundless love, clearly another autobiographical reference by Noailles, who affirms that, from early childhood: "I depended entirely on the affection of all beings."
In 1904, Le Visage émerveillé, a fictitious diary of a nun torn between the clandestine love for a young man, for which she feels no sin, and her devotion to the convent, provoked something of a scandal—despite its highly moral end—for its publication coincided with the political movement leading to the separation of church and state. Yet it was defended by Barrès and admired by Marcel Proust. Her last completed novel, La Domination (1905)—the story of a desperate search for love—met with a hostile reception by critics, maybe because, contrary to her first two novels, the protagonist was male. Octave remained unfinished.
After her mixed success with novels, Noailles returned to what she clearly did best, poetry. The following years witnessed the publication of a good dozen anthologies, most of which were very well received by critics and the general public. Les Eblouissements (1907), which included the characteristic nature poem "la Prière devant le Soleil"—termed by Proust "the most beautiful thing written since Antigone"—consolidated her renown. Les Vivants et les morts (1913) was widely acclaimed both in France and Britain, where the Times called her the "greatest poet the 20th century had produced in France and even perhaps in Europe."
The advent of the Great War marked a hiatus for the Noailles family, as it did for a whole European generation: Anna was not to publish again until 1920, and her husband was mobilized in August, as a lieutenant in the 27th Dragoons. He served in the trenches for three years and was promoted to captain in 1917, earning one of the first Croix de Guerre, as well as the Legion of Honor, for gallantry on the battlefield. Though the two spouses had finalized an amicable separation on February 14, 1912, before the Tribunal of the Seine, Anna visited Mathieu repeatedly on the front. Towards the end of the war, he served in Morocco, returning to France in August 1918.
Given the profoundly nationalistic sentiments of France from the wars of Napoleon III, through the Third Republic's colonial expansion, to the bloody showdown with Germany, one is hardly surprised to find numerous poems of Noailles' echoing the spirit of the age, such as "Regard sur la frontière du Rhin" (1912), "Les Soldats de 1914" (1914), and "Commémoration de Verdun: La glorification et l'espérance" (1921). The anthology Les Forces éternelles (1920) was an exaltation of the heroes of 1914–18 and marked Noailles' apotheosis. Indeed, on June 4, 1921, she was elected to the Belgian Royal Academy of Language and Literature, and on July 1, 1921, awarded the French Academy's Grand Prix de Littérature, only three years after it had first been granted a woman. The august Academy itself, however, still kept its doors closed to women at that time. Proposed for the Legion of Honor as early as 1904, she received that distinction in 1931.
Thematically, much of her poetry was impregnated with a Kantian view of the cosmos, an ardently pantheistic love of creation, as evident in frequent images of fusion with nature. Though raised in the Russian Orthodox faith, and a convert to Catholicism upon her marriage, Noailles was in fact a materialist, highly skeptical of any belief in an immortal soul. Other recurring themes included the mysteries of the Orient and the cult of youth; travel, marked by a fascination first with trains, later with the modern technology of motorcar and aeroplane; and a highly sensualist love poetry, which shocked many male readers due to its assertion of female sexuality. After 1913, her work took a profound turn towards the somber, dealing with the search for God and a preoccupation with the mysteries of death and nothingness.
Noailles published her articles, poems, and serializations mainly in the periodicals Revue des Deux Mondes, Revue de Paris, and Revue Hebdomadaire, but also in La Revue Européenne, Revue de France and Minerve Française. In addition to the well-known Calmann-Lévy and Fayard, which produced the bulk of her books, her publishers also included Grasset and Hachette, Fasquelle and the Nouvelle Revue Française.
Politically, Noailles was staunchly republican and imbued with a deep patriotism. When the Dreyfus Affair convulsed France during the 1890s, Noailles (and her husband) vehemently spoke out, in public, in favor of the accused, for in politics as in private life, she had a deep sympathy for the victims of injustice; Proust witnessed Anna breaking out in uncontrollable sobs on hearing of Dreyfus' arrest. La Rochefoucauld reports that when war broke out in 1914, she wrote a friend: "France cannot perish, for the gods defend her." Visiting Strasbourg when hostilities had ceased, she was overjoyed to find the flag of the German Reich replaced by the French tricolor. Yet her patriotism was tempered by a pacifist vein, for in war, she believed Death was the only true victor. After the war, she placed her confidence for the future of Europe in the newly founded League of Nations, in 1925 even accompanying her friend Paul Painlevé, president of the French delegation, to observe that body in session at Geneva.
Regarding the women's movement, Mignot-Ogliastri called her politically "prudent, but realistic," while her views on the division of gender roles in society were rather more conservative. Here her attitude was not untypical for her class and profession. She once told a journalist:
I am not a feminist in the too limited sense many have wanted to give the term, but I wholeheartedly support the demands of women as a natural principle. Think … of the social and educative role elected women could play in Parliament. Who could better comprehend the soul of the small and humble, and take an interest in their fate? Will we not envisage a day when, looking back with surprise, it had been necessary to wait so long for this elementary justice?
She supported the suffrage movement in a letter to the president of the French Senate, and in 1930 was the only woman judge on the jury of the Miss Europe contest. In fact, when women still rarely figured in public occasions, Noailles was asked to inaugurate a memorial to the poet Mistral, delivered the official eulogy for the French transatlantic aviators Coste and Bellonte at the Paris City Hall, and participated in the official breakfast given by Foreign Minister Aristide Briand in honor of Charlie Chaplin.
Physically, Noailles was petite, attaining an adult height of just under five feet. But her fine features, long black hair, and large green eyes—admired by numerous contemporaries—captivated all beholders. She was perfectly aware of her beauty, as of her personal charm, and flaunted both with gusto. Courted by Parisian society, she dominated salon gatherings, enjoying every moment. Numerous eyewitnesses, such as her close friends Jean Cocteau and Colette , have left eloquent descriptions of her rather studied social appearances.
Noailles had a poor constitution all her life. Cocteau—himself an opium addict—reported that she overindulged in sleeping drugs during adulthood. Many disbelieved her lamentations, while friends respected her quiet suffering. Frequent consultations of various specialists, along with numerous voyages to health spas, availed nothing, and the sources are mute on the nature of her debilitating illness. In any case, by 1912 her health began failing to the point that she ceased the perpetual traveling of better times and became bed-ridden part of the day for the rest of her life. Indeed, her health became so delicate that visitors always arrived with apprehension, her devoted maid Sara frequently answering queries with "Madame la Comtesse has not yet risen"; and even habitual guests often waited 45 minutes for Noailles to appear. Many friends associated her later years with the closed, dark sickroom in her fifth-floor Paris apartment, where even at noon the "black hour of sleep, of suffering," reigned, according to Colette.
Anna de Noailles died at home on April 30, 1933, in the presence of her husband, son, and daughter-in-law. The exact cause of death is unknown, but was possibly a cerebral tumor. The government offered her family an official ceremony, held in the Madeleine church on May 5. Her body was interred in the Bibesco-Brancovan family vault in Père-Lachaise cemetery, while her heart was buried separately in a monumental stele in Publier, close to her cherished Amphion. The epitaph reads: "Here sleeps my heart, vast witness of the world."
Berl, Emmanuel. "Elle a scintillé sur mon enfance," in La Comtesse de Noailles: Oui et Non. Edited by Jean Cocteau. Paris: Perrin, 1963.
Cocteau, Jean, ed. La comtesse de Noailles: Oui et Non. Paris: Perrin, 1963.
Colette, Sidonie-Gabrielle. "Discours de réception de Madame Colette, successeur de la Madame de Noailles à L'Académie Royale de Belgique," in La Comtesse de Noailles: Oui et Non. Edited by Jean Cocteau. Paris: Perrin, 1963.
Duchet, Claude, ed. Histoire littéraire de la France, 1873–1913. Paris: Editions Sociales, 1978.
Harvey, Sir Paul, and J.E. Heseltine, eds. Oxford Companion to French Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.
La Rochefoucauld, Edmée de . Anna de Noailles. Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1956.
Mignot-Ogliastri, Claude. Anna de Noailles: une amie de la Princesse de Polignac [Winnaretta Singer ]. Paris: Méridiens Klincksieck, 1987.
——, ed. Jean Cocteau. Anna de Noailles. Correspondance. Paris: Gallimard, 1989.
Noailles, Anna de. Le livre de ma vie. Paris: Mercure de France, 1976.
Perche, Louis. Anna de Noailles. Paris: Pierre Seghers, 1964.
Thieme, Hugo P., ed. Bibliographie de la littérature française, 1800–1930. Vol. II. Paris: E. Droz, 1933.
Correspondence, personal papers, and the manuscript originals of many of Noailles' literary works are in the possession of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
William L. Chew III , Professor of History, Vesalius College, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium
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