Alphonse de Lamartine’s life can be schematized as a pattern that shifts among four points: political commitments, a sentimental intermixture of women and natural scenery, a personalized and heretical form of Catholicism, and a semiautobiographical approach to poetry. Each, either through circumstance or through the poet’s whims, was allowed periodically to reach an ascendancy over the others and to dominate his time and energy. To give emphasis to one over the other is to understand none of them; all must be considered in due course. If one is to understand Lamartine’s heavily autobiographical poetry, one must consider his politics, his religion, and his love of women and nature.
Given his family and the events of his early years, it is no surprise that the adult Lamartine was to demonstrate an active interest in politics—although the leftward direction of that interest could hardly have been predicted. On October 21, 1790, in the opening years of the French Revolution, Lamartine was born into a gentry family that was staunchly Royalist. His father was imprisoned for a long while during the Terror but was not executed. Lamartine’s mother, a deeply religious woman who combined the ideas of Rousseau with Catholicism, gave Lamartine his early religious training and had a deep influence on him. At the Jesuit college at Belley, Lamartine again was exposed to liberal Catholic attitudes as well as to a broad range of world literature. It is a tribute to Lamartine’s capacity for development that throughout his life he carried this liberalism in religion, as well as in politics, to points just short of radicalism, so much so that by old age he had evolved far beyond the paradigms of his youth.
An early and deep interest in nature and in love was to initiate Lamartine’s metamorphosis. In 1811 and 1812, he visited Italy, which, as in the case of yJohann Wolfgang von Goetheseveral decades before, proved a great impetus to Lamartine’s development as a poet. An affair with an Italian cigar maker of loose morals named Antoniella (the probable model for Graziella) had the effect...
(The entire section is 860 words.)