© 2011 niall. All rights reserved.

je est un autre by lawrence durrell

“Je est un autre.” Rimbaud

He is the man who makes notes,
The observer in the tall black hat
Face hidden in the brim:
He has watched me watching him.

The street-corner in Buda and after
By the post-office a glimpse
Of the disappearing tails of his coat,
Gave the same illumination, spied upon,
The tightness in the throat.

Once too meeting by the Seine
The waters a moving floor of stars,
He had vanished when I reached the door,
But there on the pavement burning
Lay one of his familiar black cigars.

The meeting on the stairway
Where the tide ran clean as a loom:
The betrayal of her, her kisses
He has witnessed them all: often
I hear him laughing in the other room.

He watched me now, working late,
Bringing a poem to life, his eyes
Reflect the malady of De Nerval:
O useless in this old house to question
The mirrors, his impenetrable disguise.

About language. Je est un autre means something like I is someone else. It’s a quotation from the French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

The malady of De Nerval is a reference to the French romantic poet Gérard de Nerval. He had several breakdowns and eventually (apparently) committed suicide. He left an enigmatic note for his aunt: “Do not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white.”

The poem is full of mystery. Who is the man who makes notes? Who is the woman whose betrayal he witnessed?

And why does Lawrence Durrell use these words: the observer, watched me watching him, witnessed them all, watched me now, his eyes reflect, the mirrors?

There are many cool things about this poem. One is that it contains a self-portrait. In the final stanza: He watched me now, working late, bringing a poem to life. The moment of creation, perhaps of this actual poem, is described within the poem. The poet is frozen there for ever in the poem almost like Alfred Hitchcock playing a gentle witty joke by appearing in a cameo rôle in one of his own films.

Lawrence Durrell was a cosmopolitan who lived in several European countries. He is most famous for The Alexandria Quartet. His younger brother Gerald Durrell was a naturalist and the best-selling author of books about his experiences with animals. Theodore Stephanides was a doctor, scientist and poet who knew both Lawrence and Gerald from Corfu and who was an important influence on both of them.

This image from the third stanza of the poem is the one that stays in my mind after the words fade away:

Once too meeting by the Seine
The waters a moving floor of stars,
He had vanished when I reached the door,
But there on the pavement burning
Lay one of his familiar black cigars.


I found this very cool site with a lot of information about Lawrence and Gerald Durrell. Durrelliana, a Scrapbook

“Je est un autre.” Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Georges Izambard, 13 May 1871


photo: shadowed by niall


  1. niall

    Thanks Donna! This is a Christmas haiku I couldn’t resist posting. Well… not exactly. http://mooninthewater.net/sidelines/2011/12/25/christmas-haiku-by-eartha-kitt/ Great post about Vaclav Havel and great photo. Niall

  2. Hi, niall. I like your choice of poem, impressions, and tone throughout, like a stroll, really. Durrell is a poet I hardly know so this was a nice introduction. That third stanza is the one that strikes me as well, with its exotic “Once too meeting by the Seine / The waters a moving floor of stars,” and then, “But there on the pavement burning / Lay one of his familiar black cigars.”. Familiar and strange. The other. Thank you. And congratulations on a terrific idea for a new blog. I’ll be back. ~ Donna

  3. niall

    Gracias, Carina. That’s a very cool poem.

    By the way as well as Europe Lawrence Durrell lived in Egypt – he wrote The Alexandria Quartet – and also Argentina.

    I will put up a good poem by Pablo Neruda one of these days. Meanwhile I stroll along serenely.


  4. Thanks for this poem full of suspense. Here a poem of Pablo, the right poem to inaugurate this blog

    Walking Around
    It so happens I am sick of being a man.
    And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie
    dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
    steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

    The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse
    The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool.
    The only thing I want is to see no more stores, no gardens,
    no more goods, no spectacles, no elevators.

    It so happens that I am sick of my feet and my nails
    and my hair and my shadow.
    It so happens I am sick of being a man.

    Still it would be marvelous
    to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily,
    or kill a nun with a blow on the ear.
    It would be great
    to go through the streets with a green knife
    letting out yells until I died of the cold.

    I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,
    insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
    going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
    taking in and thinking, eating every day.

    I don’t want so much misery.
    I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb,
    alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
    half frozen, dying of grief.

    That’s why Monday, when it sees me coming
    with my convict face, blazes up like gasoline,
    and it howls on its way like a wounded wheel,
    and leaves tracks full of warm blood leading toward the

    And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist
    into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
    into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
    and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.

    There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
    hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
    and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
    there are mirrors
    that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
    there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical

    I stroll along serenely, with my eyes, my shoes,
    my rage, forgetting everything,
    I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic
    and courtyards with washing hanging from the line:
    underwear, towels and shirts from which slow
    dirty tears are falling.
    Pablo Neruda
    Translated by Robert Bly

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