Frédéric Mistral

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Frédéric Mistral (mee-strahl) was born in Maillane, a village between Avignon and Arles in the region of Provence in southern France. His work was deeply influenced by his childhood. Mistral’s father was a prosperous farmer and his mother a countrywoman who spoke the old Provençal language and taught her son the folklore and customs of the region. The memories of his father’s generation stretched back to before the French Revolution of 1789.

While at school in Avignon, Mistral met Joseph Roumanille, a Provençal writer and publisher, who was teaching at Mistral’s school. Roumanille and Mistral became lifelong friends and associates, dedicated to writing in Provençal, the language of the early troubadours of southern France. The region’s traditions of poetry, manners, and folklore were, by the mid-nineteenth century, being superceded by the dominant French culture. Mistral had soaked up this language and culture through his country childhood and had grown up with the old tales and ways.

Mistral studied law at the University of Aix-en-Provence, taking his degree in 1851 at the age of twenty-one. He returned home to Maillane. He was well enough off to live without following a profession, and his dedication to the language and culture of Provence became his lifelong vocation. In 1854, along with six other writers, including Roumanille, Mistral founded the Félibrige, a literary association dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the Provençal language, culture, and literature. This association still exists and is one of Mistral’s greatest contributions to the region.

Mistral’s literary reputation rests on three major works. The first is his long narrative poem, Mirèio, published in 1859 by Roumanille in Avignon. Mirèio is a tragic love story, an expanded folktale. The poem is deeply infused with a sense of place, history, and legend. Details of Provençal life are woven into the narrative. The poem was an immediate success in Provence and in Paris. The composer Charles Gounod adapted it for his opera Mireille (1864), and Mistral later translated the poem into French.

Mistral devoted twenty years of his life to preparing the multivolume work Lou Tresor dóu Félibrige (the treasury of Félibres), which was completed in 1878. Lou Tresor is a dictionary of the Provençal language and an encyclopedia of Provençal folklore and customs. It remains the definitive reference work on Provence.

The Song of the Rhône, published in 1897, was Mistral’s last major narrative poem. Another tragic love story based on folklore themes and characters, this work is a tribute to the vanishing craft and culture of the Rhone bargemen, describing Rhone shipping and landmarks in detail.

In 1904, Mistral won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in recognition of his study of Provençal language and contributions to literature. With his prize money, he founded the Museon Arlaten, a folk museum in Arles, devoted to the culture of Provence. This museum remains as an enduring monument to Mistral.

Memoirs of Mistral was published in 1906. These...

(The entire section is 749 words.)