Marceline Desbordes-Valmore Essay - Critical Essays

Desbordes-Valmore, Marceline


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.

Principal Works

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) 1868

Oeuvres poétiques. 3 vols. (poetry) 1886-1887

Correspondance intime de Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. 2 vols. (letters) 1896

Les petits flamands (poetry) 1908

Les Chefs-d'oeuvre lyriques de Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (poetry) 1909

Poésies choises (poetry) 1935

Les Oeuvres poétiques de Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. 2 vols. (poetry) 1973


Michael Danahy (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 8724 words.)

Michael Danahy (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 5600 words.)

Laurence M. Porter (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 3920 words.)

Simone D. Ferguson (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 3080 words.)

Edward K. Kaplan (essay date 1997)

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),...

(The entire section is 5477 words.)

Anne E. McCall (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 4803 words.)

Aimée Boutin (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 5955 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 244 words.)