Alphonse de Lamartine’s poetry developed, as did everything in his life, by degrees, with no marked departures from the past. Rarely have life and art been so closely intertwined. All his passions became the stuff of his art, to be woven into complex patterns of alliteration and assonance. Perhaps he created only a handful of enduring works, but few poets can claim to have done more.
Lamartine’s ability to accept and assimilate change as a Christian, a politician, and a poet demonstrates, more than any of his other qualities, his Romantic Weltanschauung. He did not merely accept nineteenth century historicism; he lived it. Change is the dominant theme of his poetry.
The Poetical Meditations
It is no surprise, then, that Lamartine’s first collection of poems had a profound effect on the evolution of French poetry. Indeed, The Poetical Meditations demonstrates the same gradual development that characterized Lamartine the statesman. The work at the time seemed a radical departure from the neoclassical sensibility that continued to dominate French poetry under the Directorate, the Empire, and the early Restoration—indeed, it seemed so radical a departure that it was refused by the publisher to whom Lamartine first submitted it in 1817. What was acceptable in the prose of Vicomte François-René de Chateaubriand was, until 1820, not palatable in the more formalized realm of poetry. Lamartine took the first, appropriately cautious, step.
The most famous and enduring work of this collection is “Le Lac” (“The Lake”); this lyric is also Lamartine’s most frequently anthologized poem. The essential theme of the poem, mutability in the light of the permanence of nature, is introduced in the first stanza. Here, the natural world is treated metaphorically—“eternal night,” “time’s sea”—to suggest the uncertainty of human fate in the eternal flux. In short, the first stanza maintains a tradition that is at least as old as the first century Greek critic Longinus. Beginning with the second stanza, however, a new, albeit tentative, tone is struck. Natural objects, ceasing to be metaphors, have an existence all their own and are conveyed to the reader with a directness that had not been heard in French poetry for a long time. Although nature in Lamartine certainly lacks the concrete immediacy which it had already found in the poetry of William Wordsworth or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the lake, addressed as it is by the persona, is a natural object and not an imaginary shepherdess or an actual patron of the poet; thus, a new directness is gained. Stanzas 2 and 3 picture a time when the persona sat by an alpine lake with his beloved—a figure not individualized in the poem but based on Julie Charles.
The fourth stanza deals with a third Wordsworthian “spot in time”: The persona recalls a night when Julie and he were rowing on the lake. This complex layering of three events is characteristic of Lamartine’s obsession with time. Stanza 5 introduces the motif of a nature sympathetically resonant with human relations. The persona’s beloved begins to speak, causing the shore to be spellbound and drawing the attention of the waves. The beloved’s reply in stanzas 6 through 9 is still in the eighteenth century tradition; personified time is now addressed far more conventionally than in the persona’s earlier address to the lake. Stanza 9 is a twofold culmination of the beloved’s address. First, it gives clear expression to the carpe diem theme to which it has all been leading: “So let us love, so let us love! let us hasten, let us enjoy the fleeting hour” (“Aimons donc, aimons donc! de l’heure fugitive,/ Hâtonsnous, jouissons!”). Second, the stanza returns to the opening image of the lyric, time as an expanse of water without a harbor: “Man has no harbor, time has no shore:/ It flows and we pass on.”
In stanza 10, “jealous time” is addressed by the persona, who asks how time can take away the same “moments of intoxication” that it gives. In the last four stanzas, the persona addresses the “lake! mute rocks, grottos! dark forest!” asking them to keep alive the memory of the young couple’s night on the lake. With measured rhythms, the poet appeals to all the different sounds of nature, “everything that is heard, seen, or breathed,/ Let all say: ‘They loved!’” This musical voice of nature is a poetic credo that Lamartine repeats often in his poetry; the limpid rhythm and assonance that embody this natural music account for the great popularity of the poem.
A quick glance at another poem in the collection, “Le Vallon” (“The Valley”), indicates the unity of The Poetical Meditations. The theme and many of the motifs of “The Lake” are also found in “The Valley.” Here, the persona again laments the brevity of life’s pleasures, but the added motif of the anonymity of death sounds a new note. The waves and murmuring of the lake are replaced by those of two hidden streams, which meet to form one. The streams flow from their respective sources only to lose their individual identities by merging with each other. These natural images become metaphors for the persona’s lost youth: “The source of my days like the streams has flowed away,/ It has passed without a sound, without a name, and without any hope of return.”
In “The Valley,” the poet employs one of his favorite metaphors: the capacity of sounds in nature to lull the senses and to heal...
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