Marceline Desbordes-Valmore 1786-1859
French poet, short story writer, novelist, and children's writer.
Marceline Desbordes-Valmore is numbered among the finest French Romantic poets. While occasionally maligned or marginalized as a minor poet because of her interest in “feminine” themes—motherhood, family relationships, and female autonomy—she is perceived as an influential figure in French letters whose work continues to elicit critical esteem. Stylistically, Desbordes-Valmore's poetry often evokes the natural beauty of her native Douai, a provincial town in northern France. Her verse likewise features natural imagery as it describes passionate and loving relationships, and the hardships and joys of life among women and children. Her most well-known collections of poetry include Les Pleurs (1833), Pauvres fleurs (1839), and the posthumously published Poésies inédites (1860), a work generally regarded as her greatest.
Desbordes-Valmore was born into a working class family, the youngest of six children to survive to adulthood. Her father, Joseph Desbordes, was a painter who produced heralds and crests for aristocratic families, a business that ceased to exist following the French Revolution. Leaving her destitute husband in 1797, Desbordes-Valmore's mother Catherine took Marceline on her travels through France. The two then departed for the Caribbean in 1801 where they hoped to find financial security with a well-to-do cousin in the French colony of Guadeloupe. However, shortly before they arrived on the island the cousin was killed in a slave revolt and his estate lost. Soon after, Desbordes-Valmore's mother died in an epidemic of yellow fever, leaving her daughter orphaned and alone at age fifteen. In 1802 Desbordes-Valmore succeeded in returning to France and embarked upon a career as an actress and singer in Douai, Rouen, and Paris. She published her first poem, “Le Billet,” in 1807, while she was living in Brussels and performing at the Théâtre de la Monnaie. In the ensuing years, Desbordes-Valmore continued to write and pursue her stage career. She bore two children out of wedlock—the first likely fathered by the celebrated journalist Henri de Latouche—but both died before reaching the age of six. In 1817 she married Prosper Valmore, a fellow actor, and with him raised three children, only one of whom outlived her. She published her first collection of verse, Elégies, Marie, et Romances, in 1819 and four years later ceased working in the theater to pursue writing full-time. She began selling poems and stories for children, but was limited by the inconsistency of her publishers. The following decade was characterized by financial insecurity, infidelity, and frequent moves as Desbordes-Valmore followed her husband's peripatetic acting career, which took the family throughout France and Italy. By the 1830s, however, the poet had begun to enjoy public regard and success, due in large part to the efforts of her friend and supporter, the esteemed writer Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. Desbordes-Valmore produced her most enduring works in the subsequent period, including her finest volumes of mature verse. By the late 1850s she was suffering from cancer, and was confined to her home in Paris. She produced no original literary works in the last two years of her life, but was engaged in editing the poems of her final collection, Poésies inédites, until her death in 1859.
Desbordes-Valmore's earliest volumes of poetry, Elégies, Marie, et Romances and Les veillées des Antilles (1821), feature romantic lyrics, such as those addressed to a mysterious male figure, Oliver, whom critics suggest is based at least in part upon her sometime lover Latouche. A considerable extension in the form, theme, and subject matter of her writing are apparent in Desbordes-Valmore's major collections of poetry: Poésies complétes de Madame Desbordes-Valmore (1830), Les Pleurs, Pauvres fleurs, Bouquets et prières (1843), and the posthumous Poésies inédites, which contains a few reprinted and revised pieces, as well as nearly one hundred original poems. Among her mature verse are numerous poems on motherhood and the bond between mother and child, the imaginative and social life of children, female autonomy, loneliness and despair, and brutality against the innocent. Many of her works additionally display her immense interest in the natural world—including the idealized, bucolic beauty of the landscape surrounding her native Douai—and sensual or erotic themes, often evoked with images of nature, flora, and fauna. Several of Desbordes-Valmore's thoughts on the subject of gender and poetry are featured in the verse “A. M. Alphonse de Lamartine” published in her Pauvres fleurs. In it she contrasts, perhaps ironically, the power of poetry written by men with the essential delicacy and fragility of that composed by women. Indicative of her verses on childhood themes, “L'impossible” looks nostalgically toward the age of youthful innocence. Desbordes-Valmore's most notable novel, the two-volume L'Atelier d'un peinture. Scènes de la vie privée (1833), is a largely autobiographical work. Among her works for children are several collections of nursery rhymes, bedtime stories, and miscellaneous poetry in Contes en vers pour les enfants, Contes en prose, Livre de mères et des enfants—all of which were collected and published in 1840—and Jeunes têtes et jeunes coeurs (1855).
Desbordes-Valmore earned the highest regard of many of her fellow poets in France, including Paul Verlaine who included her as the only woman among his Poètes maudits, or “accursed poets,” a group comprised of such figures as Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and Alfred de Vigny. Criticism of Desbordes-Valmore's work during her lifetime was in large part dominated by Sainte-Beuve, who initiated a well-intentioned if somewhat condescending trend of interpreting her poetic work in terms of strictly feminine issues, and characterizing her writing primarily as passionate, charming, emotional, and autobiographical. Baudelaire continued the process by emphasizing the spontaneous, natural, and primitive qualities of her poetry. Such critical estimations were the norm well into the twentieth-century, when modern critics began the process of reevaluating Desbordes-Valmore's work in terms of its political, social, and stylistic importance. Contemporary feminist critics, while acknowledging the poet's ostensible reinforcement of entrenched gender stereotypes, have seen in her poetry a significant subversive element that runs counter to earlier views. Modern critics have additionally acknowledged Desbordes-Valmore's considerable influence on symbolist poetics and versification, notably so in the cases of Verlaine, André Breton, and Arthur Rimbaud. Likewise, many recent studies of her writing have unearthed profound and frequently neglected lyrical, technical, and thematic elements, particularly in the poems of her Poésies inédites.
Elégies, Marie, et Romances (poetry) 1819
Poésies de Mme. Desbordes-Valmore (poetry) 1820
Les veillées des Antilles (poetry and prose) 1821
Elégies et Poésies nouvelles (poetry) 1825
A mes jeunes amis (poetry) 1830
Poésies complétes de Madame Desbordes-Valmore. 3 vols. (poetry) 1830
L'Atelier d'un peinture. Scènes de la vie privée. 2 vols. (novel) 1833
Les Pleurs (poetry) 1833
Une Raillerie de l'amour (novel) 1833
Le Salon de Lady Betty (novel) 1836
Pauvres fleurs (poetry) 1839
Violette (novel) 1839
Contes en prose (children's literature) 1840
Contes en vers pour les enfants (children's literature) 1840
Le Livre de mères et des enfants; contes en vers et en prose (children's literature) 1840
Bouquets et prières (poetry) 1843
Huit femmes. 2 vols. (prose) 1845
Les Anges de la famille (poetry) 1849
Jeunes têtes et jeunes coeurs; contes pour les enfants (children's literature) 1855
Poésies inédites (poetry) 1860
Poésies de l'enfance (poetry)...
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SOURCE: “Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and the Engendered Canon,” in Yale French Studies, Vol. 75, 1988, pp. 129-47.
[In the following essay, Danahy explores Desbordes-Valmore's relationship as a woman writer to the highly gendered poetic canon.]
Les femmes, je le sais, ne doivent pas ecrire; J'écris pourtant
—Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (Une Lettre de femme)
Freud thought that all men unconsciously wished to beget themselves, to be their own fathers in place of their phallic fathers and so “rescue” their mothers from erotic degradation. It may not be true of all men, but it seems to be definitive of poets as poets. The poet, if he could, would be his own precursor, and so rescue the Muse from her own degradation.
—Harold Bloom, Yeats
Among the politicized forces circumscribing women's place in the literary tradition are paradigms of genre which create what I will call the “en-gendered” canon. Not only is the canon brought into being as a body of writings structured by genre, but, in a dual process, it is simultaneously patterned along sexual lines, with each genre explicitly assigned a sexual paradigm. Poetry was made male, while the novel, as the genre of otherness, was made female.1
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SOURCE: “Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859),” in French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, edited by Eva Martin Sartori and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 121-33.
[In the following essay, Danahy offers a summary of Desbordes-Valmore's life and work.]
Marceline Desbordes was born on June 20, 1786, the fifth of six children in a working-class family. Her father was an artisan whose livelihood came from painting family crests, shields, and coats of arms for members of the aristocracy. When this trade became obsolete as a result of the French Revolution, Desbordes-Valmore's father went bankrupt and never recovered from the blow. During the same period, Desbordes-Valmore's mother took a lover, with whom she fled in 1797, leaving behind all but the youngest surviving girl, Marceline, then eleven years old. Family ties, parent-child relations, and the meaning of motherhood, as well as the woes of the dejected and downtrodden, would deeply preoccupy the writer ever after.
Both of Desbordes-Valmore's parents had grown up in Douai, which remains to this day a relatively small and quiet provincial town in the north of France. Prior to the Revolution, it had been the capital of French Flanders, the administrative seat of its Parliament, and the location of a distinguished Catholic university. The brief decade of early...
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SOURCE: “Poetess or Strong Poet? Gender Stereotypes and the Elegies of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore,” in French Forum, Vol. 18, No. 2, May, 1993, pp. 185-94.
[In the following essay, Porter argues that Desbordes-Valmore's elegies in many cases transcend the gender stereotypes usually associated with female poets of the nineteenth century.]
Naïve, emotional, formally incoherent, limited to personal concerns, and weakened by a dependent attitude: such is the phallocratic stereotype of literature by women. Sophisticated, rational, wide-ranging, formally disciplined, and of broad social significance: such are supposed to be the attributes of “masterpieces” by men.1 Easy to refute, and scarcely worthy of consideration when it comes to women's writing that transcends gender (such as we find in works by Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, Madame de Staël [in her essays], Marguerite Yourcenar, and others from all periods of French literature), such stereotypes acquire an insidious, subtle power when it is a question of an “écriture féminine” where bearing and raising children and nurturing a family are given a prominent place. With the possible exception of Colette, no French woman writer has suffered more from the stigmatizing label of “féminité” than has the Romantic elegist Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859).2
To convince ourselves of this...
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SOURCE: “Woman as Creator: Marceline Desbordes-Valmore's Transformation of the Lyric,” in Nineteenth Century French Studies, Vol. 21, Nos. 1-2, Fall-Winter, 1993, pp. 57-65.
[In the following essay, Ferguson evaluates Desbordes-Valmore's poetic vision of mothers and children.]
Birth and motherhood have never been universal themes in lyric poetry. For centuries death and sexual love have fired the poet's imagination. Yet, is not birth as powerful an experience as death? And is not the bond between mother and child as profound, as tied to the soul and the flesh, as the love between man and woman? Why have poets been silent about these depths of human experience? Is it because “women have never expressed themselves?”1 Or because the few women who have dared to express themselves in our phallocratic society have adopted the existing themes, have written within the male tradition, have written as men, or as men expected them to write, within the confines of a language which reflects male values? Seldom has a woman poet also been a mother and when she has been a mother, until recently—until Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Alicia Ostriker—she has been lured into believing that her experiences as a mother were not proper subjects for poetry.
Yet, some women have broken their silence. In nineteenth century France, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, a poet admired by the major...
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SOURCE: “The Voices of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore: Deference, Self-Assertion, Accountability,” in French Forum, Vol. 22, No. 3, September, 1997, pp. 261-77.
[In the following essay, Kaplan examines gender-related and political themes in Desbordes-Valmore's poetry.]
A focus on the “feminine” versus the “feminist” aspects of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore's poetry introduces the wide range of poetic and political attitudes in French Romanticism. Critical assessments of her works from Sainte-Beuve, through Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine (who canonized her among his Poètes maudits) tend to view her primarily as a woman (as Eliane Jasenas has shown), a female of the species with conventional attributes: sentimentality, naïveté, sheer passion, motherhood, simple faith, and a life resigned to suffering.1 In other words, the stereotypes usurp the biography as much as the putative life usurps the texts.
Desbordes-Valmore defined herself with an uncommon variety of female personae: in addition to “mothering”—family responsibilities and socially legitimated love—she commands ardor with a certain type of sexual freedom, a woman's right to experience pleasure and to write about it. Her submissive religious poetry, if examined closely, includes politically militant decisions. In fact, her stated views of prevailing gender standards demonstrate complexities...
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SOURCE: “Monuments of the Maternal: Reflections on the Desbordes-Valmore Correspondence,” in L'espirit createur, Vol. 39, No. 2, Summer, 1999, pp. 41-51.
[In the following essay, McCall describes the gender dynamics of female epistolary writing illustrated by Desbordes-Valmore's Correspondance intime.]
Collective remembrance promotes unity through the recognition of a common memory that the public is invited to claim as its own. For this reason, cultural historians have paid significant attention to the creation of a secular national identity in France through commemorative events.1 If it is true that France's heroes were and perhaps still are its writers,2 it is also clear that much remains to be said of the ways in which Third Republic France generated literary heroes and the grounds upon which these figures were shaped to define a cultural pre-eminence. The erection of statues constituted an important element in this process, for it allowed the nation to bring its many “gods” to life and consume them in a form of lay communion. Subscription campaigns, updates in the press on negotiations with artists, and the securing of high-ranking participants for inaugural ceremonies idealized honorees and fostered their appropriation by the public. Judging from the disagreement voiced over certain commemorations, the stakes of figurative public representation were particularly high...
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SOURCE: “Desbordes-Valmore, Lamartine, and Poetic Motherhood,” in French Forum, Vol. 24, No. 3, September, 1999, pp. 315-30.
[In the following essay, Boutin compares late nineteenth-century essentialist interpretations of Desbordes-Valmore's poetry and that of Alphonse de Lamartine.]
Desbordes-Valmore and Lamartine, born respectively in 1786 and 1790, were old enough to be the grandparents of later nineteenth-century readers such as Baudelaire and Flaubert, who were born just one year after the publication of Méditations poétiques. These readers identify Lamartine and Desbordes-Valmore's poetry with childhood, a time when they read or heard their mothers read these poems. Not only did the two precursors influence the thematic and metrical choices of their heirs—an influence widely recognized by critics—but they also shaped the later generation's conception of a gendered poetic voice.1
The generational gap—in which Desbordes-Valmore and Lamartine act as parental figures to younger poets—produces a mode of textual influence that revolves around imitation and rejection of the ancestral poet's voice. This phenomenon is not unlike the “anxiety of influence” described by Harold Bloom, but with a notable difference. Bloom proposes a theory of poetry based on paternal transmission, in which the poet anxiously measures himself against his illustrious father...
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Greenberg, Wendy. “An Aspect of Desbordes-Valmore's Life in Her Poetry.” In Nineteenth Century French Studies 17, Nos. 3-4 (Spring-Summer 1989): 299-306.
Considers autobiographical themes related to partings, travel, and mother-daughter relationships in Desbordes-Valmore's poetry.
———. “Marceline Desbordes-Valmore Versus Louise Ackermann: Is There a Gender-Specific Language?” In Uncanonical Women: Feminine Voice in French Poetry (1830-1871), pp. 103-29. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.
Assesses the dynamics of “gender-specific language,” using Desbordes-Valmore's poetry as an example of a uniquely feminine discourse within the patriarchal literary tradition.
Haxell, Nichola Anne. “Childbirth and the Mine: A Reading of the Gaea-Myth in Zola's Germinal and the Poetry of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore.” In Neophilologus 73, No. 4 (October 1989): 522-31.
Analyzes the symbolic juxtaposition of mining, childbirth, and elements of Greek mythology in Émile Zola's novel Germinal and Desbordes-Valmore's verse.
Johnson, Barbara. “Gender and Poetry: Charles Baudelaire and Marceline Desbordes-Valmore.” In Understanding French Poetry: Essays for a New Millennium, pp. 209-35. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994.
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