Francis Ponge was born on March 27, 1899, in the city of Montpellier, in the south of France. His father was a bank manager, and his Protestant parents provided him with a secure and loving middle-class upbringing. His childhood in this Mediterranean environment often brought him in contact with the remains of Roman architecture and monuments with their Latin inscriptions; his early awareness of France’s cultural and linguistic links with classical civilization is everywhere evident in his poetry.
In 1909, the Ponge family moved to Normandy, where Ponge attended secondary school. He studied Greek and Latin and grew to love their precision; this classical training taught him to appreciate the historical depth of the French language. His study of the natural sciences familiarized him with the scientific method and developed in him the habit of careful observation and the minute recording of details which characterize his poetry. He also excelled in philosophy, taking top honors for his baccalauréate essay, titled “L’Art de penser par soi-même” (the art of thinking for oneself).
In 1916, Ponge entered a lycée in Paris to prepare himself for university study. In 1917, he began reading philosophy at the Sorbonne and law at the École de Droit. His tastes in philosophy led him to study Arthur Schopenhauer, John Locke, and Benedict de Spinoza, rather than currently popular figures, such as the vitalist Henri Bergson. In 1918, and again in the following year, his hopes for admission to the École Normale Supérieure were blocked by a traumatic inability to speak during crucial oral examinations. This unhappy failure may have been symptomatic of some greater emotional disturbance during that period of his life, or, as some critics have suggested, it may have been caused by a fear of being unable to express himself orally in a precise manner. In any case, there appears to be a connection between these events and the development of Ponge’s restrained, meticulous poetic style.
Ponge’s awareness of social and political problems was heightened by the chaotic events of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Ponge was becoming thoroughly disgusted with what he perceived to be the weakness and corruption of a society lacking strong moral principles. In April, 1918, he joined the army. The indignities he suffered as a common soldier serving in an army that rewarded mediocre performance and crushed the individual’s spirit only compounded his negative feelings about the deficiencies of French society.
Demobilized in 1919, Ponge spent the next three or four years on the edges of Left Bank literary circles. During this time, he published some poems and made a few important contacts with critics and editors. He judged the Parisian literary world to be generally snobbish and affected, however, and refused to play the role of attentive young disciple which might have gained for him greater exposure. Preferring to work alone, he began to search for his own aesthetic voice that would express the spirit of revolt he felt against social and literary decadence.
Whether because of his Protestant upbringing, his parental influence, his education, or certain other factors, even at a young age Ponge had exhibited a marked strength of character and independence, high ideals, and...
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