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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 Frédéric Mistral (1830–1914)

FRÉDÉRIC MISTRAL, the Provençal poet, will take rank among the few highly original singers of the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Long after the fanciful philology and bardic affectations of his school are forgotten, and his own elaborate dictionary of the Provençal tongue has taken its place among other massive monuments of abortive human industry, Mistral’s three very remarkable narrative poems, ‘Mirèio,’ ‘Calendau,’ and ‘Nerto,’ will continue to charm by the music of their verse, the depth of their human interest, their dramatic energy, and the truth and splendor of their local color.

Frédéric Mistral was born on the 8th of September, 1830, at Maillane in the Bouches-du-Rhône; in one of those rich and quiet farmsteads, buried amid well-tilled fields and approached by deeply shaded avenues, whose verdure diversifies the silvery sameness of the Provençal landscape. From whatever stormy and untamable ancestor Mistral inherited the name of that furious winter wind of the Midi, which dispels, when it arises, all the languors of the Mediterranean shore, and lashes the soft sea of those parts into flying foam, the spirit of that free and renovating gale was certainly in him. His father, a wealthy freehold farmer, sent him to school at Avignon, and to college at Montpellier, and meant to make a lawyer of him. But the youth rebelled; and intimated instead that he had a mission to renew the glories of ancient Provençal song. His teacher at Avignon was Joseph Roumanille, who had already written verses in the dialect of the Bouches-du-Rhône; and who was able to inspire a class of singularly apt and brilliant pupils, of whom Frédéric Mistral and Théodore Aubanel were the stars, with a boundless faith in its poetic possibilities and ardor for its admission—they called it restoration—to literary honor. Earlier still, by a score of years, Jacques Jasmin at Agen had made a highly successful experiment with a kindred patois; but up to his day, no Frenchman for generations had dreamed of writing in anything but classic French. Some time in the early fifties, however, Master Roumanille set up a publishing house at Avignon; and he and his disciples formed themselves into a society which they called the Félibrige, whose members, the Félibres, agreed not merely to compose in the rustic dialect which they were born to speak, but gravely to combine for the purpose of formulating its etymology and grammar, and establishing, beyond cavil, its claim to a high literary descent.

Like William Barnes, the Dorsetshire poet, who considered the language of Shakespeare only a late and rather weak offshoot from the primitive speech of Dorset, the Félibres claimed for their dialect the full honors of a language. They held it to be essentially the same as that of the mediæval Troubadours, many of whose Courts of Love and Contests of Song had flourished within their territory; and they also maintained that the early Provençal sprang directly from the language of Rome, and was itself the parent of Italian, French, and Spanish, as well as of all the other living forms of Latin speech. Needless to say that these linguistic pretensions were never made good; but this matters little beside the fact that works of great freshness and distinction were actually produced under the impulse of the so-called Provençal revival.

Among these works Mistral’s were easily first; and his masterpiece, ‘Mirèio,’ was originally printed at Avignon in 1858, in Provençal only, and under the auspices of Roumanille. A year later it was brought out in Paris with a very striking parallel French version of the poet’s own, which, by rendering it easily intelligible to the ordinary reader, invited general criticism, while incidentally it revealed the almost unparalleled wealth of the writer’s vocabulary in both forms of speech.

‘Mirèio,’ then, was a pastoral poem of the present time, all suffused with the hot sunshine of Southern France; as full as the Georgics themselves of rustic lore and homely agricultural detail, but embodying also, in twelve leisurely books, the tale of two very young lovers, their innocent passion, thrilling adventures, and hapless end. The story was told with a kind of sweet garrulity, and an affluence of unworn imagery, that simply took the world by storm. The elaborate measure adopted by Mistral (apparently he did not, as was at first claimed, invent it) was managed with consummate grace, and gave a high idea of the musical capacities of the Provençal speech, and its curious richness, especially in feminine rhymes. It is well understood now that Mistral and his colleagues fashioned their new instrument more or less to suit themselves: improvising grammatical forms at need, and manipulating and modifying terminal syllables with glorious license. But the Troubadours of the twelfth century had done just the same; and these were the alleged heirs both of their inspiration and their methods.

In 1867, after an interval of nine years, ‘Mirèio’ was followed by ‘Calendau,’ another poem of epic proportions; which naturally created less astonishment than its predecessor, but really fell very little short of it in vigor of conception, variety of action, and beauty of imagery. The heroine of the new romance was a dispossessed Princess of Baux, in whose veins ran the blood of more than one queen of love; while her suitor was a man of humble birth, whom she inspired by reciting legends of chivalry, and compelled to win her hand by a series of extraordinary tests and adventures.

In 1875 Mistral published a collection of fugitive pieces under the title of ‘Lis Isclo d’Oro,’ or the Golden Isles. In 1883 appeared his third long poem, ‘Nerto,’ a tale of the last days of the Popes at Avignon. The florid stanza of the two previous compositions was abandoned in ‘Nerto’ for a simply rhymed octosyllabic metre, like that employed for narrative by Chaucer, Byron, and William Morris; and the whole tone and movement of the story were more tame and conventional than those of the earlier ones. Here too we have for the first time a didactic purpose plainly avowed by the author: the singular but perfectly serious one of illustrating the personal existence and persistent activity among mankind of that formidable Being whose name (O Lucifer, son of the morning!) is oddly abbreviated by the Provençaux into Cifèr.

In 1897 appeared ‘Le Poème du Rhône’ (The Poem of the Rhône), eagerly expected during many years of slow completion. It proved to be in twelve cantos; a highly romantic description and indeed poetic romance of the great river and of sundry of its towns, based on a narrative half mundane and half mysterious, that deals with the humble life of the Rhodane boatmen prior to the advent of the first steamboat that ruined the romance and industry of their boating craft. A superb episode in the fourth canto presents Napoleon in his famous flight;—though it is but one passage among many that won special praise. The whole work possesses a movement and dramatic charm worthy of the poet.

Mistral writes always from the point of view of a devout Catholic believer, whom no mysteries, whether of holy miracle or Satanic witchcraft, can avail to stagger. Both in ‘Mirèio’ and in ‘Nerto’ we find, by way of episode, specimens of the légende pieuse in very beautiful modern renderings. But the plentiful lack of humor which he shares with most of the associated Félibres—wherein they are, one and all, so inferior to Jasmin—causes him to mingle the supernatural and the matter-of-fact sometimes in a manner which is almost grotesque. It is his one great fault as an artist.

Mistral toiled heroically for over ten years at a comprehensive lexicon of ancient and modern Provençal, which appeared in two large quarto volumes in 1886. France has awarded him all those nominal distinctions—Academy crowns and prizes, badges of the Legion—which she delights to bestow upon her gifted sons; but he clung always, in his own person, to the old-fashioned rustic ways which acquire so strong a fascination under his picturesque pen. He lived very simply, on the farm or mas in the neighborhood of Saint Rémy where he was born, and practiced a free but homely hospitality. He married, rather late in life, an exceedingly beautiful bourgeoise of the renowned Arlesian type; and he himself was, from youth to old age, one of the handsomest men of his generation.