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A Futurist before Futurism: Émile Verhaeren and the Technological Epic

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Until now largely unexplored, the many correspondences between Verhaeren's œuvre and Futurist literature raise important questions regarding the origins and identity of Futurism. The invention of a new mimetic language free of syntax and metric constraints is often recognized as one of the most distinctive features of Futurism. This is partly justified by the prominence given to literary techniques in the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature as well as by a number of futurist poems which apply these techniques. However, like the case of the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren shows, the Futurists did not consider these aesthetic features as paramount and had no hesitations in branding as 'Futurist' the fairly traditional free verses produced by Verhaeren. In this chapter I shall examine the reasons behind this apparent contradiction through an historical and comparative analysis. After considering the place of Verhaeren's œuvre within the history of Futurism, I shall then highlight the numerous correspondences between his oeuvre and futurist thought and sensibility. In the light of my findings, I shall suggest that the Futurists' perception of the movement's identity was in reality much far-ranging than is conventionally accepted. I shall therefore argue for a critical re-engagement with the concept of 'Futurism', using an inclusive approach that would enable us to cover under one umbrella both Verhaeren's Futurism – which I shall call 'epiphanic' – and Marinetti's Futurism – which I shall call 'programmatic'. Such approach will ultimately allow us to make sense of the particular paradox of a Futurist literature that had made its breakthrough before Futurism was founded.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2009

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