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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 Harriet Waters Preston (1836–1911)

By Jacques Jasmin (1798–1864)

JACQUES JASMIN, the barber-poet of Gascony, and the legitimate father of modern Provençal song, was born at Agen, in the Department of Lot-et-Garonne, March 6th, 1798. He wrote with charming ease and vivacity in his native Languedocian dialect; which is closely allied to that of the Bouches-du-Rhône, made famous not long afterward by the more formal efforts of Frédéric Mistral and the self-styled Félibres. The humble parents of Jasmin, after a signally unsuccessful effort to prepare him for the priesthood, apprenticed the boy to a barber; and he gayly gave to his first volume of verses, which appeared in 1825, the appropriate name of ‘Papillotos,’ or Curl-Papers. These naïve compositions consisted mainly of such occasional pieces as are always in request from the local poet of a provincial neighborhood: hymns for celebrations, birthday odes, dedications, and elegies: “improvisations obligées,” as Sainte-Beuve impatiently called them, which, while they showed the musical capacities of the Gascon patois, and its great richness in onomatopœic words and phrases, were far from revealing the full range of the singer’s power. “One can only pay a poetical debt by means of an impromptu,” was Jasmin’s own quaint apology, in after years, for the conventionality of his youthful efforts; “but impromptus, though very good money of the heart, are almost always bad money of the head.”

At the age of thirty-two, five years after the adventurous flight of the ‘Papillotos,’ Jasmin told with fascinating simplicity and an inimitable mixture of pathos and fun, in an autobiographical poem entitled ‘Soubenes’ or Souvenirs, the tale of his own early struggles and privations (he came literally of a line of paupers), and his audacious conquest of a position among men of letters. The touching story of ‘The Blind Girl of Castèl-Cuillè,’ admirably translated into English verse by Longfellow, appeared about 1835; ‘Françonette’ in 1840; and subsequently, at intervals of several years, ‘The Twin Brothers,’ ‘Simple Martha,’ and ‘The Son’s Week.’

‘Françonette,’ a romantic and highly wrought narrative in verse, of religious persecution, sorcery, and passion, was held, both in Jasmin’s own frank judgment and that of his ablest critics, to be the Gascon’s masterpiece. It won him warm and wide recognition, not only in France but throughout literary Europe. Writers of the rank of Pontmartin and Charles Nodier, and highest of all Sainte-Beuve, proceeded to make elaborate studies of the poems and their dialect, lauded their originality, and confessed their distinction. Learned societies and foreign potentates caused medals to be struck in honor of the whilom barber’s apprentice. He was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1846; in 1852 his works were crowned by the French Academy, and he received the very exceptional prize of five thousand francs. The head of the parvenu poet was not at all turned by his abrupt recognition in high quarters. Sainte-Beuve had said, with his own exquisite discrimination, that the finest of Jasmin’s qualities as a writer was his intellectual sobriety. He proved that he possessed this rare quality in the moral order as well. It is the trait by which he is most distinguished from the younger school of Provençal poets, with their proposed immortalities;—their somewhat over-solemn and oppressive consciousness of descent from the Troubadours, and a mighty poetic mission to fulfill. Jasmin is never pompous, and hardly ever dithyrambic. He is above everything natural and humane; equally impulsive and spontaneous in his laughter and his tears, and always essentially clean. He wrote slowly and with untiring care; bringing out his principal poems, as we have seen, about five years apart. “I have learned,” he said on one occasion, “that in moments of heat and emotion we are all alike eloquent and laconic—prompt both in speech and action; that is to say, we are unconscious poets. And I have also learned that it is possible for a muse to become all this wittingly, and by dint of patient toil.” No man was ever better pleased by the approval of high authorities than Jasmin; and he was so far reassured about his first metrical experiments by the commendation of Sainte-Beuve, that he issued a new edition of his early lyrics, including a mock-heroic poem called ‘The Charivari,’ which he merrily dedicated to the prince of critics. “Away on your snow-white paper wings!” is the burden of his light-hearted envoi, “for now you know that an angel protects you. He has even dressed you up in fine French robes, and put you in the Deux Mondes!” But he was also quite equal to forming an independent opinion of his own performances; and when some one congratulated him on having revived the traditions of the Troubadours, the irrepressible Gascon shouted in reply, “Troubadours indeed! Why, I am a great deal better poet than any of the Troubadours! Not one of them has written a long poem of sustained interest like my ‘Françonette’!” There is at least no petty vanity here.

Jasmin may almost be said to have introduced the fashion, in modern times, of reading or reciting his own poems in public. He had a powerful and mellow voice, and declaimed with great dramatic effect. He made none of those bold and brilliant experiments in metre which allured the younger Félibres, but clung always to the measures long approved in “legal” French poetry; especially to Alexandrines and iambic tetrameters, and to their association in that sort of irregular ballad measure of which La Fontaine had proved the flexibility in classic French, and its peculiar fitness for poetical narrative. Jasmin lived always in the South, but visited the capital occasionally in his later years, and took the lionizing which he received there as lightly as he had taken the medals and snuff-boxes of royal dilettanti, or the habitual starvation, varied by frequent floggings, of his wayward and squalid infancy. He died at Agen on the 4th of October, 1864, in the sixty-seventh year of his age.

A popular edition of his complete works, in parallel Gascon and French, was issued in Paris in 1860—one year after the first publication there of Mistral’s ‘Miréio.’ The rather coarse wood-cut likeness which serves as a frontispiece to this volume represents a striking and very attractive face: broad, open, and massive in feature, shrewd and yet sweet in expression. It is a peasant’s face in every line, but full of power; and the head is carried high, with all the unconscious fierté of old South-European race.

Full details concerning the first and most interesting period of Jasmin’s remarkable career are to be found in the ‘Souvenirs,’ which begin, as the poet always preferred to begin a story, in a low and quiet key, confidentially and colloquially:—

  • “Now will I keep my promise, and will tell
  • How I was born, and what my youth befell.”