French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Glance At The Eighteenth Century
Madame De Stael
Classicism And Romanticism
Read More Articles About: French Literature Of The 19th Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Lamartine, compared with Béranger, fills a nobler space in a loftier realm. Whatever Béranger lacked to make his songs undeniably true poems depth, dignity, sublimity Lamartine possessed. His grandeur of soul lifted him beyond the reach of his early comrades. In that age of sentiment even the affectation of it gave some writers reputation. But with Lamartine all was genuine. It was the free spirit rather than his highly finished verses that gave him lasting fame. Alphonse Marie Louis Prat de Lamartine was born at Mâcon in Southern France in 1790. From his infancy, he revelled in the beautiful, as his expanding mind perceived it in his mother's readings, in the dawn of love with sorrow in its train and in Italian travel. He entered the life-guards of Louis XVIII in 1814, but retired to Switzerland during the Hundred Days. In 182o he published his "Méditations Poétiques," the masterpiece of which is the elegy "Le Lac" (The Lake), expressing the contrast between the instability of human affairs and the perseverance of nature. The appearance of this book has been likened to that of a new planet in the firmament, brilliant and abiding. Here was a singer who, discarding artifice, struck the new, true note. His beloved one had passed away, but the love survived. In these meditations on the mysteries of life, love, and death Lamartine gave play to the elemental emotions common to all men. The book gave a new trend to poetry.
After serving as chargé d'affaires at Florence, Lamartine returned to Paris and in 1830, published a new volume, "Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses" (Poetical and Religious Harmonies), declaring his devotion to the church and throne. After the Revolution of that year he gave up his official position. With his wife, an English woman, and his daughter, he made a tour in the East, and returning published, in 1833, what is called in the English version "A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land." He had mean-time been elected to the Chamber of Deputies, and in the course of a few years passed from conservative to republican principles. In 1836 "Jocelyn" was published, an ambitious attempt at poetizing an incident of the Revolution. Jocelyn, a peasant child, had taken refuge in the mountains from the perils of the time, and there found a companion, who, after their friendship is established, is discovered to be a girl. "Jocelyn" is an essentially noble poem, soaring to the heights, exquisite in description, and chaste in conception, but its length and monotony of melancholy prevent it from reaching the standard of its predecessors. Lamartine's last great poem, "La Chute d'un Ange" (The Fall of an Angel), was still more a failure. It is an unwieldly composition, too flighty for a treatise on human ideals, too sentimental for an epic like "Paradise Lost."
Lamartine had now evidently exhausted his stock of poetic inspiration. He may then have deliberately given to statecraft a genius better fitted for poetry, as Milton had done in the middle of his career, or his ambition may have , spurred him to attempt other conquests in the arena of public life. If eloquence and other oratorical gifts had sufficed to sustain a great statesman's reputation, Lamartine might have had that fame. But there seems to have been a glittering insincerity in the poet, and the same quality made him in his political career a skilful time-server. His eloquent "History of the Girondists" (1847), in which he first avowed democratic principles, had an important political influence in bringing about a new Revolution. For a few glorious months in 1848 Lamartine seemed the master of his country's destinies, and then fell to an in-glorious obscurity. He labored diligently with the pen, pouring out a vast quantity of his historical, biographical and autobiographical works, which are useful but not inspiring. His last purely literary work was the pretty romance of "Graziella" (1852). He lingered under the imperialism which he had anathematized and even became a pensioner of Napoleon III before he died in 1869.
The immortal part of a man's work must be viewed in the light of the times and conditions in which it was done. Lamartine came when poetry was limping, unbound its wings and set it free to soar. For this his fame may rightly be judged to transcend that of greater poets who followed where he had led. His after decline may perhaps be traced to the enervating affectation of sentiment which brought to light the defects of its noble quality. Chateaubriand and Lamartine are conspicuous examples of true genius crippled and finally smothered with insincerity of thought and over-refinement of diction.
The lasting popularity of the affecting story of "Picciola; or, the Prison Flower" (1825) entitles its author to mention. Xavier Boniface Saintine (1790-1845) left nothing of merit besides this brief story.