Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle (1818–1894)

LECONTE DE LISLE, according to the judgment of his fellow-poets, will live in French literature for the classic perfection of his verse. Yet he has never been popular, although he longed to touch men’s hearts. His distinction is the rare imaginative pleasure he offers those who can enjoy abstract beauty.

Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle was born in 1818 on the Island of Bourbon, where the luxuriance of the tropics fostered his passion for natural beauty. His education finished, his father wished him to become a planter like himself; but the son longed to see the world. He went to France; studied law at Rennes; traveled for some time; and when nearly thirty, settled at Paris. He was an ardent classicist. To his knowledge of antique art and literature he had added his personal impressions of many lands, many peoples, and many religions. Now he became intimately acquainted with agitated, worldly Paris; and she repelled him.

His circumstances aided to depress him. His parents had never understood his impractical aspirations; and possibly the determined self-repression evident in his poems results in part from his lack of home sympathy. Soon after his arrival in Paris, he earnestly supported an insurrection of slaves in his island home. This rash generosity provoked his father to stop his allowance; and he was obliged to teach for his living.

The remainder of his life was outwardly uneventful,—its chief events the distinctions which gradually came to him. Created an officer of the Legion of Honor, in 1886 he was chosen to the French Academy as the successor of Victor Hugo. Nine years earlier, when defeated, he had proudly declared that the vote received from Hugo meant as much to him as election. From 1873 until his death in 1894 he was assistant librarian at the Library of the Luxembourg; and there, in the fine old Palace set in the ancient garden, he drew congenial friends about him and spoke with the authority of a master to young disciples in poetry.

He first became known for skillful translations of Homer, Theocritus, Horace, and Sophocles, for which he was not well paid. But the reputation they brought him induced Napoleon III. to offer him a handsome pension if he would dedicate his work to the Prince Imperial. This de Lisle refused to do; and he was then granted a pension of three hundred francs a month, which he drew until the fall of the Empire. With a brilliant group of young poets, who, surfeited with the exaggerated romanticism which had had its day, were seeking finer, more artistic forms of expression, he published ‘Le Parnasse Contemporain’ (Modern Parnassus), several volumes of verse, which gained its authors the title of Parnassians, and constituted theirs a distinct school of poetry. Its primary tenet was the impersonality of art. The Parnassians maintained that Rousseau-like confessions of joys and sins and sufferings—egotistic demands for sympathy—should not be thrust upon the public. They agreed that the emotional element in poetry did not mean individual vagaries, but universal human experience expressed with all possible beauty and delicacy of form, and with convincing truth. This creed was abused; but unquestionably ‘Le Parnasse Contemporain’ refined public taste and inspired poets with more definite ideals.

Among the first to note de Lisle’s merit was Sainte-Beuve, who gave a reception in his honor, and introduced him to the poet Laprade; from whom, as from Gautier, he learned a lesson of vivid description, and of the exquisite precision which, as Brunetière says, makes his verse as imperishable as marble.

He was too painstaking a craftsman to compose rapidly; and even after they were written, the ‘Poèmes Antiques’ awaited a publisher for several years. From its appearance in 1852, this volume received distinguished treatment from critics and fellow-poets. In it, as in ‘Poèmes et Poésies’ (1854), ‘Poèmes Barbares’ (1862),—to which the Academy awarded the Jean Regnard prize of ten thousand francs,—and ‘Poèmes Tragiques’ (1884), de Lisle sought his theme in the remote; for he had a bitterly disillusioned spirit, and knew the solitary suffering of a nature unfitted for modern society. It was because he was tortured by self-consciousness that this “first of the Impassives” longed to forget himself, and make his poems an impersonal reflection of universal life. Hence the relief with which his imagination escapes to the mere physical sensation of brute creation. Hence the glowing power with which he draws the dying lion, the sleeping condor, and the stealthy beasts of the jungle.

Because he could not bear the imperfection of his actual environment, he searched in Greece and India, in the far north and in southern seas, among primitive savages as in ancient art, for a nourishing dream of beauty. He loved the simple, positive beauty of color and form in the outward world. He is the poet of nature; not Nature personified, but rather a great resistless energy which was one day to absorb him. Beauty was his only religion; for his modern science forbade him faith, while making him crave truth at all costs. He was savant as well as poet, whose researches led him, in spite of his own wishes, to regard all religions as transitory stages in human development. Like Renan, he had sympathy for the underlying ideal of each; and his imagination helped him to temporary self-forgetfulness in each, although he could find nothing final.