Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction by Alcée Fortier (1856–1914)

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 Alcée Fortier (1856–1914)

By Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869)

THE EIGHTEENTH century in France was not fruitful in poets; for in order to be a poet it is not sufficient to write elegant, witty, and correct verses. There must be real inspiration in a great poem; and that indispensable quality was lacking in the works of Voltaire, of J. B. Rousseau, of Gilbert, and of their contemporaries. There was only one true poet in France in that century,—André Chénier, who fell a victim to the Revolution on July 25th, 1794, two days before the 9th Thermidor, which put an end to Robespierre’s life and to the Reign of Terror. Chénier’s brief works are charming; they were inspired by the poets of Greece, and are graceful and tender. They were little known at the time of the author’s death, however, and a complete edition was published only in 1819, one year before the world was delighted with the ‘Méditations’ of Lamartine. The latter poet, however, owes nothing to Chénier, who is essentially a classic animated with true lyric passion.

If we wish to find precursors to Lamartine, we must go back to prose writers: to J. J. Rousseau, whose works are so full of human passion and at the same time of love of nature; to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, whose ‘Paul and Virginia’ is so simple and charming; to Madame de Staël, who made known to the French the great German bards, Goethe and Schiller; finally to Chateaubriand, whose ‘Atala,’ ‘René,’ and ‘Martyrs’ are more poetic than all the verses written in the eighteenth century except those of André Chénier. The great writers just mentioned had prepared the way for a new Renaissance in the beginning of the nineteenth century; and Lamartine was fortunate in striking a new chord with which vibrated in unison the hearts of all who read the tender, melancholy, and harmonious words of the ‘Méditations.’

It was the first time in French literature that poetry was so subjective. The works of Rousseau, of Madame de Staël, of Chateaubriand, were permeated with the personality of the authors; but such had not been the case with André Chénier and with the poets of the seventeenth century. Lamartine’s ‘Méditations’ resembled nothing which had yet been published in France, and for that reason the manuscript was rejected by the great publishing firm of Firmin Didot. The poet expressed his own feelings in such melodious language, and those feelings were so natural and human, that all the readers of the ‘Méditations’ took a personal interest in sentiments which were their own as well as those of the poet. A critic has said of Lamartine, “He was not a poet, but poetry itself.” This is eminently true; for there had not been in the French language for nearly two centuries such touching, such musical lines as those of the ‘Méditations.’ Racine’s verses alone could be compared with them. It was in 1820 that the ‘Méditations’ were published; after their rejection by Didot the author read ‘Le Lac’ in the parlor of Madame de Saint-Aulaire, and created a deep impression. The volume of ‘Méditations’ soon found a publisher, and he became speedily famous.

Alphonse de Prat de Lamartine was born on October 21st, 1790, at Mâcon, on the Saône. The country watered by this river is picturesque and fertile, and the Saône itself is a pretty stream which meets the Rhône at Lyon, and is merged into the impetuous river claimed as their own by the men of Provence. In his ‘Confidences’ and his ‘Raphael’ Lamartine gives us his autobiography; somewhat idealized, perhaps, but correct in the main. He speaks with veneration of his father, who lived long enough to see his son become an illustrious man; but he has a perfect devotion for his mother, who was beautiful, noble, and pious, and who communicated to him that sensibility, that generosity, which have inspired his poetical works. His father, however, was an austere soldier, and transmitted to his son that courage which enabled him later to quell the surging masses by his manly eloquence.

Lamartine’s early years were free and happy; he spent some time at a Jesuit college, but when he returned home it seemed to him that in the poetry of Creation, “he read Greek and Latin verses translated by God himself into grand and living images.” His favorite authors were Tasso, Dante, Petrarch, Milton, Shakespeare, Chateaubriand, and above all “Ossian,” the mythical Homer of the Gaels, whose alleged poem was so popular in the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Lamartine relates to us in his ‘Confidences’ his innocent love for Lucy, when both he and the young girl were sixteen years old. Then comes that most charming episode of the poet’s life, his voyage to Italy and his love for Graziella, the Neapolitan fisherman’s daughter. The simple girl gives her heart to the young stranger: but the latter is obliged to return to France, and a few months later he receives a letter and a small package; it is the last farewell of the dying girl, and her beautiful black locks sent as a memento. M. Edmond Biré, who is a true iconoclast, wishes to prove that Graziella was not a fisherman’s daughter; that she was a shoemaker’s daughter, and never sailed with the poet on the blue waters of the Mediterranean. What care we for the truth of Lamartine’s story? The creatures of the poet’s imagination are more real than any living man and woman; and on the way from Naples to Pompeii, one looks with eager eyes at the fair island of Procida, where Lamartine met Graziella and began his delightful idyl.

It is in ‘Raphael’ that we must look for other episodes in Lamartine’s life. We see the poet at Aix, in Savoy; he saves the life of Julie, and relates this incident in his admirable ‘Le Lac.’ He loves Julie, and goes with her to the Charmettes, where had lived Rousseau and Madame de Warens; and he pays a just tribute to the woman who gave hospitality and glory to Rousseau, while the author of the ‘Confessions’ has degraded her and “has bequeathed shame to her.”

As the ‘Méditations’ had made Lamartine immediately famous, he married a beautiful and wealthy Englishwoman, Miss Marianne Birch, and became secretary of the French embassy at Florence. He was later appointed minister to Greece; but the Revolution of July 1830 interrupted his diplomatic career, and he undertook in 1832 a voyage to the Orient, which he has related in one of his best-written books. He traveled with princely magnificence, in company with his wife and Julia his only child,—whom he lost in the East. The ‘Voyage en Orient’ is a beautiful work, and may be read with interest even after Chateaubriand’s ‘Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem.’ Lamartine’s prose is almost as harmonious as his verses; and the only defect of the book is that the author has colored somewhat, with the glamour of his imagination, the description of the places which he visited.

When the ‘Voyage en Orient’ was published, Lamartine was already a member of the French Academy, and had written the ‘Méditations’ (1820), the ‘Nouvelles Méditations’ (1823), and the ‘Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses’ (1830). The first-named poems are sad and religious, but are also essentially tender; a hymn to love and the well-beloved. On reading them one feels no despondency: it is a melodious voice which speaks to us of love, of death, and of God, and reconciles us to the idea of death by the idea of God. In the ‘Harmonies’ we see that it is indeed the religious idea that animates the book; but it is an idea loftier and less tender sometimes than that of the ‘Méditations.’ The ‘Harmonies’ may be called a religious epic; it is in some parts the glorification of Jehovah through the marvels of Creation. Ask the oak-tree how it was born: An eagle has caught the acorn fallen from the tree, and has carried it to its nest. Soon the nest rolls along swept away by a tempest, and the acorn falls into a furrow. It is watered by the showers of spring, the seed opens, and the gigantic oak spreads its knotty and powerful boughs over the peaceful flocks in the fields. The worlds which surround us are also the work of Jehovah; and the poet, in contemplating the Infinite, is touched with sadness. He asks himself what is life, what is death? and he says that one must regret, on leaving this world, only one thing,—love and the woman loved.

In ‘Jocelyn’ (1836), however, love is conquered by duty. Jocelyn has entered a seminary in order that his sister may have a larger dowry and marry the man she loves. He is on the point of becoming a priest, when he is cast into a grotto on the top of the Alps by the storm of the Revolution. He receives into his wild abode Laurence, whom he believes to be a boy: he loves her after he has learnt who she is, and she also loves him: but he abandons the charming child to answer the call of an old priest, his benefactor. He takes the oath which binds him to God’s altar, and Laurence is lost to him. He is at first in despair; but his soul is quieted, and he leads until old age the saintly life of a devoted priest. These few words do not give an adequate idea of ‘Jocelyn,’ in the opinion of many critics the most beautiful poem in the French language. If ever the author of the ‘Méditations’ and the ‘Harmonies’ were to be forgotten, the humble Jocelyn would recall to men the name of him who composed such noble verses.

In the mind of the poet, ‘Jocelyn’ was an episode of the great epic in which he intended to show in what way the human soul reaches perfection. ‘La Chute d’un Ange’ (1838) is the second episode of the poem; but in spite of beautiful verses, we no longer recognize in this work the tender lover of Elvire, of the ‘Méditations.’ ‘La Chute d’un Ange’ presents to us some horrible scenes, and the story is supernatural and uninteresting. However, if Lamartine had completed his epic, he doubtless would have shown us in another episode not the fallen angel, but man elevated by his courage and by his piety, and rising to heaven in the form of an angel. He succeeded better in the ‘Last Song of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,’ and in the ‘Recueillements Poétiques’ (1839), where we see the last beam of that poetic sun which had guided so many thousand souls in their route toward the supreme ends,—love and religion.

After the ‘Recueillements’ Lamartine became a historian, a man of action; and he pleaded in his ‘History of the Girondists’ the cause of the Revolution. His is a most eloquent plea, and his work was received with enthusiasm; although as a history it is not sufficiently based on documents, and is not reliable. The style of the book is entrancing and passionate, and it will live as a work of art, as a masterpiece of vigorous and poetic prose.

The ‘History of the Girondists’ appeared not long before the Revolution of 1848; and the men of 1789 and 1793 as depicted by Lamartine exerted a great influence on the men of 1848, who established the second French republic. Such is the magic of Lamartine’s style that we excuse the faults of the great Revolution, and exclaim with him:—“That history is glorious and sad, like the day after a victory and like the eve of another combat. But if that history is full of mourning, it is above all full of faith. It resembles the antique drama; where, while the narrator relates the events, the chorus of the people sings of the victory, weeps for the victims, and addresses a hymn of consolation and hope to God.” Let us hope, although the other combat predicted by the poet failed in 1848, that it was a success in 1870, when was established the third republic, which has rendered France again prosperous and powerful.

Lamartine played a very important part in the Revolution of 1848, and during the provisional government he became Minister of Foreign Affairs. During a riot in Paris he opposed the red flag of anarchy and sedition; and speaking to the people from the Hôtel de Ville, he said:—“I shall repulse unto death this flag of blood…. The red flag has only been dragged around the Champ de Mars in the blood of the people in ’91; the tricolored flag has gone around the world with the name, the glory, and the liberty of the Fatherland!” For a short time Lamartine was the most popular man in France; he saved the country from anarchy in May 1848, and was a candidate for the presidency of the republic. He obtained very few votes, and disappeared almost completely from the political arena. France rejected the great poet, the orator and statesman; and elected as President, Louis Napoleon, who was soon to throttle the republic and to become Napoleon III. Lamartine would not have thrown France into the disaster of Sedan.

His political career being practically ended, Lamartine became again a writer. His ‘History of the Revolution of 1848’ is rather partial; but he gives in his ‘History of the Restoration’ an interesting account of the literary salons of the time. During the empire the poet, who had always been prodigal, fell into poverty, and wrote for a living a great many works which have not added to his glory. We may mention, however, ‘Généviève,’ the ‘Tailleur de Pierre de Saint-Point,’ and his familiar course of literature, where are to be seen some traces of the exquisite grace of his earlier works. ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture,’ a drama, has little merit; and Lamartine will remain for posterity the author of the ‘Méditations,’ of the ‘Harmonies,’ of ‘Jocelyn.’ He died in Paris on March 1st, 1869. His works are not as popular now as in his lifetime; but he certainly deserves to be ranked among the first of French poets, with Hugo, Musset, and Vigny, and his sweet though not faultless verses will ever be the delight of mankind.