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.