Alphonse de Lamartine 1790–1869
(Full name Alphonse Marie Louis Prat de Lamartine) French poet, novelist, historian, and essayist.
Lamartine, a pioneer of the French Romantic movement, is considered one of the greatest French poets of the nineteenth century. He is best known for his collection of verse entitled Méditations poétiques (The Poetical Meditations), in which he stressed emotion, mysticism, and nature. Lamartine was also a prominent statesman who wrote a number of historical works, including Histoire des girondins (History of the Girondists). Though popular during his life, Lamartine's histories are largely overlooked today. He is now remembered as a significant figure in the history of French literature whose poetry marked the transition from the restraints of the Neoclassical era to the passion and lyricism of the Romantic period.
Descended from the minor French nobility, Lamartine was born in Mâcon, France. He was raised on his family's country estate in nearby Milly, where he devoted himself to the study of Greek and Roman classics as well as contemporary French works. In 1811 he visited Italy, where he fell in love with a young Neapolitan woman who eventually became the subject of Graziella (Graziella; or, My First Sorrow), an idyll included in his novel Les confidences (Les confidences: Confidential Disclosures); several years later, his passion for Julie Charles, the wife of the famous French physicist Jacques Charles, inspired many of the poems comprising The Poetical Meditations. In 1815 Lamartine served for sev eral months as a personal guard to King Charles X. However, he found the life of a soldier dull and aspired to a diplomatic career. Shortly after the appearance of The Poetical Meditations, which was greeted with tremendous critical and popular acclaim upon its publication in 1820, Lamartine obtained an appointment to a French embassy in Italy, where he spent the next ten years. This proved to be a period of sustained creative activity, for Lamartine's minor diplomatic duties afforded him ample time to write. In addition to several lesserknown works, Lamartine published Nouvelles méditations poétiques, a collection of verse that enhanced his already substantial reputation. Soon after his return to France in 1828, Lamartine was defeated in his bid for a seat in the national parliament. He then toured the Middle East. His recollections of this journey are preserved in Souvenirs, impressions, pensées, et paysages pendant un voyage en Orient, 1832-1833 (A Pilgrimage to the
Holy Land), a collection of travel sketches that was mildly successful. After leaving the Middle East in 1833, Lamartine moved to Paris, where he served as a member of the Chamber of Deputies until 1851. Lamartine's career as a statesman reached its apex in 1848 when LouisPhilippe was ousted in the Revolution and Lamartine became the president of the Second Republic's provisional government. He proved an ineffective leader during this volatile time, and his popularity diminished to such an extent that he was soundly defeated by Napoléon III in the presidential election held later that year. Lamartine retired from politics in 1851 and wrote prolifically until his death in 1869 to support himself and his family.
In two sets of poems in The Poetical Meditations—those inspired by Julie Charles and those addressed to Elvire, his evocation of the universal woman—Lamartine wrote of ideal love and the grief experienced at its loss. In other poems he described his religious beliefs and emotional reaction to nature. Lamartine viewed nature as a manifestation of divine grandeur and believed that its contemplation could inspire religious faith. At this time, Lamartine's religious views were those of an orthodox Catholic: he affirmed the existence of an afterlife and exhorted his readers to accept divine will. The Poetical Meditations includes Lamartine's most famous single work, "Le lac." In this poem, based on a boat ride with Julie Charles, Lamartine treats the ephemeral nature of life and love. Written in highly melodious and emotional verse, "Le lac" epitomizes the lyrical qualities of Lamartine's poetry. Nouvelles méditations poétiques, similar in subject and tone to The Poetical Meditations, includes poems that combine religious topics and idyllic natural settings. Lamartine long envisioned an épopée humanitaire, or universal epic, in which he would express his religious and social views. The work Jocelyn forms the first segment of Les visions, the title of his projected epic. In Jocelyn, Lamartine depicted a young priest's struggle with temptation and ultimate renunciation of forbidden love. While popular for its sensational subject, the work received varied critical estimates. La chute d'un ange, the only other completed segment of the projected epic, describes the earthly trials of a fallen angel in his quest for redemption. During his travels in the Middle East, Lamartine had become interested in Eastern religions, and La chute d'un ange reflects his fascination with reincarnation and pantheism. Although he had been regarded previously as a deeply religious poet, both Jocelyn and La chute d'un ange were banned by the Catholic church, which considered them a refutation of traditional faith in favor of rationalism and deism.
The Poetical Meditations is considered a transitional work that helped pave the way for the French Romantic movement, and critics have pointed out both Neoclassical and Romantic elements. Adopting forms common to eighteenth-century poetry, Lamartine made use of the elegy and ode; reflecting the new spirit of nineteenth-century verse, he used the themes of love and death. The Poetical Meditations differs markedly from the emotionally restrained verse of the Neoclassical era in its sincere tone, lyric effusiveness, emotionality, and religious content. Now regarded as the first document of French Romanticism, The Poetical Meditations firmly established Lamartine's reputation as both a Romantic and Catholic poet. By his death his reputation had waned significantly: his prose works were seldom read, and his verse lost favor with an audience that preferred the more passionate lyrics of the late Romantics. Lamartine's work has received consistent notice in France, but little twentieth-century commentary in English. Modern scholars have focused their attention on the two completed parts of Lamartine's epic, Jocelyn and La chute d'un ange, and many individual poems, particularly "Le lac," have been the subject of close textual analyses. Critics have also demonstrated an increasing interest in Lamartine's role as a social reformer and his importance to the history of French literature. Today, Lamartine is renowned for his emotionally evocative verse that contributed to the development of the French Romantic movement.
Méditations poétiques [The Poetical Meditations of M. Alphonse de Lamartine] 1820
Nouvelles méditations poétiques [New Poetical Meditations] 1823
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses [Poetic and Religious Harmonies] 1830
Jocelyn: Épisode; Journal trouvé chez un curé de village [Jocelyn] 1836
La chute d'un ange [The Fall of an Angel] 1838
Recueillements poétiques 1839
Oeuvres poétiques (poetry and drama) 1873-74
Other Major Works
Souvenirs, impressions, pensées, et paysages pendant un voyage en Orient, 1832-1833; ou, Notes d'un voyageur [A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land] (travel sketches) 1835
Histoire des girondins [History of the Girondists; or, Personal Memoirs of the Patriots of the French Revolution] (history) 1847
Les confidences [Les confidences: Confidential Disclosures] (novel) 1849
*Le conseiller du peuple. 2 vols. (essays) 1849-50
Histoire de la révolution de 1848 [History of the French Revolution of 1848] (history) 1849
Raphaël: Pages de la vingtième année [Raphael; or, Pages of the Book of Life at Twenty] (novel) 1849
*Le civilisateur: Histoire de l'humanité par les grands hommes. 3 vols. [Memoirs of Celebrated Characters] (biographical sketches) 1852-54; also published as Vie des grands hommes (enlarged edition), 1855-56
* Cours familier de littérature: Un entretien par mois. 28 vols. (essays) 1856-59
Oeuvres complètes de Lamartine publiées et inédites. 41 vols. (poetry, histories, biographical sketches, travel sketches, and novels) 1860-66
Les foyers du peuple. 2 vols. (essays) 1866
Correspondance de Lamartine. 6 vols. (letters) 1873-74
*These works were published in monthly installments prior to their publication in book form.
SOURCE: "Lamartine," in Westminster Review, October-January, 1836-37, pp. 501-41.
[In the following excerpt, a contemporary of Lamartine comments on the themes and style of the poet's works. The essay was signed only with the author's initials, D. N.]
The poetry of M. de Lamartine does not properly belong to the department of practical truths. Not but that we may find in his poems traits of real life, such as the epic, dramatic, and philosophic poets present at every page; but these traits are wanting in definiteness, or exaggerated out of all proportion by the habit of idealizing everything, which is the particular turn of mind of M. de Lamartine. The earth, which is...
(The entire section is 7990 words.)
SOURCE: "The Vision of 1821 and Lamartine's Philosophy" and "Unanimism and Lamartine's Metaphysics (1821-1830)," in Lamartine and Romantic Unanimism, Columbia University Press, 1940, pp. 12-29, pp. 30-66.
[In the following excerpt from his study of Lamartine 's belief in the oneness of the universe, George finds evidence of Lamartine 's mystical outlook in his poetic works and aesthetic principles.]
It happened on January 10, 1821, near Naples, while Lamartine was strolling down the streets of his beloved Italy. Head bowed, he was mulling over plans for an immortal work, the great Christian epic that the centuries had so far failed to produce. As he thought about God...
(The entire section is 4048 words.)
SOURCE: "Lamartine Steps Down," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3266, October 1, 1964, pp. 889-90.
[In the following excert from a review of an edition of Lamartine's complete poetry, the critic delivers a harsh assessment of Lamartine's appeal for modern readers, identifying his central weaknesses as "the poverty of imagination, the crippling inability to explore the particular, the readiness to vamp."]
One of the few funny poems that Lamartine wrote is styled simply "Au Comte d'Orsay." Alfred d'Orsay had modelled a statue of his illustrious cousin; he is thanked in verse for his labours, but advised to throw them into the river; otherwise posterity will look on...
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SOURCE: '"Poète véritable'," "Personal Philosophy," and "The Lamartinian Aesthetic," in Lamartine: A Revaluation, University of Hull Press, 1969, pp. 7-15, pp. 16-25, pp. 30-37.
[In this excerpt, Ireson examines the relationship between Lamartine's personal beliefs and his poetry.]
We have in our time a complex image of Lamartine as he emerges judged from many stand-points. His contemporaries have seen him through various lenses. Traditionalists have reproved what might have appeared to be dangerous innovations or lapses. Journalists have fastened on the abundant material of his life in all its forms, domestic, sentimental, political, seignorial. Scholars have...
(The entire section is 4183 words.)
SOURCE: "From the Méditations to the Harmonies," in Lamartine, Twayne Publishers, 1973, pp. 20-40.
[An American educator and critic, Lombard is the author of French Romanticism on the Frontier (1972) and a study of the French polemical writer Joseph de Maistre. In the following excerpt, Lombard provides an overview of Lamartine's poetic works through Harmonies poétiques et religieuses and examines the evolution of his religious thought.]
The Méditations poétiques was published in March, 1820, by Didot. Twenty-four poems made up the collection whose contents justified the title. From the first poem, "L'Isolement" to the last, "La...
(The entire section is 6514 words.)
SOURCE: "People, Prisons, and Palaces," "The Terrestrial Eden," and "Conclusion," in In Search of Eden: Lamartine's Symbols of Despair and Deliverance, Classical Folia Editions, 1976, pp. 15-66, pp. 199-232, pp. 307-10.
[In this excerpt, Araujo examines the significance of Lamartine's religious symbolism in his major poetical works.]
The point of departure in Lamartine's quest for Eden is a shattering sense of man's nothingness. No figure in human history more tragically and more meaningfully symbolizes that nothingness, in his view, than Job, whom he quotes in his Cours familier de littérature (1856-1869). This work of his mature years, presumably designed to...
(The entire section is 6636 words.)
SOURCE: "Conclusion," in Alphonse de Lamartine: A Political Biography, St. Martin's Press, 1983, pp. 281-88.
[An English historian, Fortescue is the author of Revolution and Counter-Revolution in France, 1815-1852 (1988). In the following excerpt, he discusses the relationship between Lamartine 's literary career and his public life.]
[Lamartine] was always one of the most prominent and controversial speakers, while Méditations Poétiques and the Histoire des Girondins were two of the most sensational publications of his generation. He owed his success as a writer to a remarkable facility for literary composition in the Romantic manner. He played...
(The entire section is 955 words.)
SOURCE: "Poetry," in The French Romantics, Vol. 1, edited by D. G. Charlton, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 113-62.
[In this excerpt, Ireson assesses Lamartine's contribution to French Romanticism.]
Two dates effectively mark the period of the Romantic movement in French poetry. These are 1820, which saw the publication of Lamartine's Méditations poétiques, and 1840, which marks a point of termination and a clear divide in the poetry of the nineteenth century. Within these two decades, the values and procedures of French poetry were revolutionised….
Lamartine was the first poet to break through into the new period. The twenty-four...
(The entire section is 4973 words.)
SOURCE: "La chute d'un ange: Heaven and Hell on Earth," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Summer, 1985, pp. 191-99.
[In the following excerpt, the critic explicates La chute d'un ange, focusing on humankind's relationship to God, suffering, and evil as presented in the poem.]
La Chute d'un ange brings us into a world where men have forgotten Heaven. The nomadic tribesmen who figure in the first part of the narration are thus doubly fallen, for they have not only been excluded from Eden, they have no recollection of God and have lost the power to see the signs of His presence which are visible in the universe. The central...
(The entire section is 3783 words.)
SOURCE: "Theme and Syllabic Position: Lamartine's Méditations poétiques, " in A Question of Syllables: Essays in Nineteenth-Century French Verse, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 1-30.
[In the following excerpt, Scott contends that the flexibility of Lamartine 's poetic language enabled him to reveal "two worlds—a world of contingent existence, an uninhabited, purely natural, unregenerate world on the one hand, and, on the other, a world informed and visited by divinity, a world which may equally encompass the natural world. "]
What is the nature of Lamartine's existential struggle? It is primarily, I suppose, a struggle with time, with time's passage....
(The entire section is 4471 words.)