Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

aka The Herripedia




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In which the current and historical natures of Hareng Saur are considered alongside the proto-surreal works it inspired (Cros, Huysmans, Ensor)


Le Hareng Saur, French/Belgian smoked herring, played an inspirational role in the development of the surreal in Franco-Belgian poetry and art.

In Seafood (2001) Rick Stein describes it as the French equivalent of kippers, gutted and salted aboard the boat then smoked at a factory close to the landing point. This may be what it has come to mean, but it does not entirely square with the smoked fish of Charles Cros, JK Huysmans and James Ensor.

Hareng saur has been translated as bloater, although unlike Stein’s fish, these are ungutted. ‘Bloat’ and ‘bloater’, in relation to herring, precede the 1835 invention of the succulent East Anglian delicacy by at least 300 years. The original bloater was a variant of red herring and, with this meaning, the term is still used in the Caribbean.

Contemporary definitions aside, in late C19th proto-surreal art and literature I think we are talking about some kind of red herring.

Charles Cros (1842 – 1888) kicked things off with Le Hareng Saur in 1872. As well as being a poet who published work with Mallarmé and Verlaine in the early 1870s, Cros was a pioneer of colour photography and sound reproduction.

In his poem he is specific about the fish’s dryness and durability, qualities belonging neither to the kipper nor the modern bloater. He may well have enjoyed the thought of red herring’s separate meaning in English – the false trail fits beautifully with the poem’s narrative.

Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848 – 1907) moved from naturalism, through decadence to Catholicism and is most famous for A Rebours (Against Nature, 1884) and Là-Bas (Down There, 1891). He responded to Cros in 1874 with a prose poem. The intensity of the colours he discovers in the fish also suggest the highly smoked red herring.

The Belgian artist James Ensor (1860 – 1949) may or may not have been responding to the two French poems. His contribution came 17 years later, but with a father born to English parents, he is also likely to have been aware of the dual meaning.

The fish his protagonists are biting into in Squelettes se disputant un hareng-saur (Skeletons fighting over a red herring, 1891) looks as dry and stiff as a red herring. An influence on both the Expressionists and the Surrealists, Ensor’s most famous work is Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888), but he did other skeleton paintings in 1891, including Squelettes se disputant un pendu (Skeletons fighting over a hanged man).

Many thanks to Isis Olivier for her help with the translations.

Charles Cros

Le Hareng Saur

for Guy

Once there was high white wall – bare, bare, bare,
Against the wall a ladder – tall, tall, tall,
And, on the ground, a red herring – dry, dry, dry.

Here he comes and in his hands – dirty, dirty, dirty,
A heavy hammer, a large nail – sharp, sharp, sharp,
A ball of string – big, big, big.

So he climbs the ladder – tall, tall, tall,
And bangs in the sharp nail – tap, tap, tap,
Right at the top of the high white wall – bare, bare, bare.

He drops the hammer – which falls, which falls, which falls
To the nail ties the string – long, long, long,
And, at the end, the red herring – dry, dry, dry.

He climbs down the ladder – tall, tall, tall,
Carries it off with the hammer – heavy, heavy, heavy,
And then, he goes away – far, far, far.

And, since then, the red herring – dry, dry, dry,
At the end of that string – long, long, long,
Swings slowly – always, always, always.

I made this story up – simple, simple, simple,
To annoy people – serious, serious, serious,
And entertain the children – little, little, little.

Il était un grand mur blanc – nu, nu, nu,
Contre le mur une échelle – haute, haute, haute,
Et, par terre, un hareng saur – sec, sec, sec.

Il vient, tenant dans ses mains – sales, sales, sales,
Un marteau lourd, un grand clou – pointu, pointu, pointu,
Un peloton de ficelle – gros, gros, gros.

Alors il monte à l’échelle – haute, haute, haute,
Et plante le clou pointu – toc, toc, toc,
Tout en haut du grand mur blanc – nu, nu, nu.

Il laisse aller le marteau – qui tombe, qui tombe, qui tombe,
Attache au clou la ficelle – longue, longue, longue,
Et, au bout, le hareng saur – sec, sec, sec.

Il redescend de l’échelle – haute, haute, haute,
L’emporte avec le marteau – lourd, lourd, lourd,
Et puis, il s’en va ailleurs – loin, loin, loin.

Et, depuis, le hareng saur – sec, sec, sec,
Au bout de cette ficelle – longue, longue, longue,
Très lentement se balance – toujours, toujours, toujours.

J’ai composé cette histoire – simple, simple, simple,
Pour mettre en fureur les gens – graves, graves, graves,
Et amuser les enfants – petits, petits, petits.

JK Huysmans

JK Huysmans by Jean-Louis Forain c1878

Le Hareng Saur

Your gown, O Herring, it is the palette of setting suns, the sheen of old copper, the burnished gold of Cordovan leather, the sandalwood and saffron shades of autumn!

Your head, o herring, blazes like a golden helmet, and your eyes are like black nails driven into rings of copper!

All the sad and dreary colours, all the shining, joyful colours, by turn they dull and they illuminate your gown of scales.

Beside the bitumens, the Judean soil, the Cassel earth, burnt umbers and Scheele’s greens, the Van Dyck browns and Florentine bronzes, the tints of rust and dead leaves bring out the radiance of the green-tinged golds, the yellow ambers, stonecrops, brown ochres, chromes and iron oxides!

O shimmering and smokey, when I behold your coat of mail, I see the works of Rembrandt, I can picture his superb heads, his sunlit flesh, his jewels flickering on black velvet, I can picture his shafts of light in the dark, his trails of golden dust in the shadows, his bursts of sunlight beneath the vaulted blacks!

Ta robe, ô hareng, c’est la palette des soleils couchants, la patine du vieux cuivre, le ton d’or bruni des cuirs de Cordoue, les teintes de santal et de safran des feuillages d’automne!

Ta tête, ô hareng, flamboie comme un casque d’or, et l’on dirait de tes yeux des clous noirs plantés dans des cercles de cuivre!

Toutes les nuances tristes et mornes, toutes les nuances rayonnantes et gaies amortissent et illuminent tour à tour ta robe d’écailles.

A côté des bitumes, des terres de Judée et de Cassel, des ombres brûlées et des verts de Scheele, des bruns Van Dyck et des bronzes florentins, des teintes de rouille et de feuille morte, resplendissent, de tout leur éclat, les ors verdis, les ambres jaunes, les orpins, les ocres de rhu, les chromes, les oranges de mars!

Ô miroitant et terne enfumé, quand je contemple ta cotte de mailles, je pense aux tableaux de Rembrandt, je revois ses têtes superbes, ses chairs ensoleillées, ses scintillements de bijoux sur le velours noir; je revois ses jets de lumière dans la nuit, ses traînées de poudre d’or dans l’ombre, ses éclosions de soleils sous les noirs arceaux!

James Ensor

James Ensor

Squelettes se disputant un hareng-saur Skeletons fighting over a red herring (1891)




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