Marceline Desbordes-Valmore Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.