When his volume of Poetical Meditations appeared in 1820, Alphonse de Lamartine brought French poetry into the Romantic mode that had already become an established poetic form in England and Germany. Even in this work, however, Romanticism is slow to emerge. The number of poems in different editions of Poetical Meditations varies between two dozen and three dozen, but only a few poems fully exhibit the Romantic style.
Most of the poems are composed in Alexandrines, the basic verse form of French neoclassicism, and the subjects are often drawn from philosophical meditations of the previous century. Still, much is new. The detailed descriptions of external nature evoke emotions appropriate to the poems in a way the more analytical descriptions of, for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, 1783) do not. The autobiographical elements are also distinctly Romantic.
An analysis of the first ten poems included in the first edition of Poetical Meditations will define Lamartine’s style, clearly Romantic but with debts to previous literary traditions. The opening poem, “L’Isolement,” finds Lamartine, its first-person narrator, alone on a mountain from which he can contemplate the panorama of the landscape before him. Rousseau had exploited just such a panorama in his Émile: Ou, De l’éducation (1762; Émile: Or, Education, 1911), in which his Savoyard vicar used the view of nature to persuade his young pupil of the existence of God. For Lamartine, the purpose of nature is evocative rather than pedagogical.
The first quatrain of “L’Isolement” sets a mood of quiet melancholy: Lamartine sits sadly under an old oak tree at sunset. The references to age and the end of the day imply a basis for his emotion. The landscape, rather than Lamartine, performs the action of the poem while he remains a spectator of this “changing tableau unrolling at my feet.” The active waters of the river draw his eyes to the calm lake and finally to the rising evening star. The sequence of objects, progressing ever farther from the narrator, suggests vast contemplation.
The description of nature retains neoclassical elements. Lamartine calls the rising Moon “the misty chariot of the queen of shadows,” a periphrasis of the very sort William Wordsworth had hoped to avoid when he advocated that Romantic poetry use “the real language of men.” However, the contrast of the “somber woods” with the moon “whitening” the horizon reflects the dark/light color scheme to which the early Romantics were drawn.
The “gothic steeple” of a nearby church provides an additional Romantic motif, but then, switching to an impersonal invocation of “the traveler” who might observe this scene, Lamartine rejects the tableau because, in his mood of despair, it has no appeal to him. Finally, he turns toward death as his only hope. For the sun of the earthly landscape he will substitute the “true sun” of an idealized afterlife.
In the final quatrains, both neoclassical and Romantic images return. Lamartine hopes to be carried away on the “chariot of Dawn,” a traditional personification. However, he then imagines the similar rising motion of an autumn leaf blown on the evening wind. Emotionally he cries out, “I am like the withered leaf” and appeals to the “stormy wind” to carry him away. The poet’s identification of himself with the leaf and attribution of his own emotional agitation to the wind reflects the Romantic pathetic fallacy through which nature was united with human feelings.
In his second poem, “L’Homme,” dedicated to Lord Byron, Lamartine extols the poetic vision of his Romantic predecessor. While Byron was only two years older than Lamartine, he had already published Childe Harold (1812) and had impressed Lamartine with the “savage harmony” of his verse. Lamartine’s characterization of Byron in the opening section of “L’Homme” uses many Romantic devices. He compares the sound of Byron’s poetry with lightning and wind “mixed by the storm with the voice of waterfalls,” combining many of the sublime...
(The entire section is 1740 words.)