Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

As a young man, Lamartine’s first literary attempts were in the area of the epic and the drama. In 1848, after the Revolution of that year, Lamartine was made head of the provisional government of France. His liberal sympathies were known throughout the nation, and he was immensely popular. Yet it is neither as an epic poet, nor as a dramatist, nor still less as a politician that Lamartine is best known. His lasting fame has depended principally on his POETICAL MEDITATIONS, lyrical elegies about love and nature, life and God.

The French public had no doubts about the originality of the POETICAL MEDITATIONS when they first appeared in 1820. They had a resounding success; added to by Lamartine, they later ran into many editions. It is worth recalling that at this time, with the extension of public education, first by the men of the Revolution, then by Napoleon, it was possible to reach a much wider public than had ever before been the case. This factor needs to be cited in a consideration of the literature of the period. To a public living with the memory of Napoleonic splendor, yet tired of wars; with a great appetite for literature, while scarcely intellectual, Lamartine’s idealistic poetry of spirituality and sensibility appealed greatly.

By his dates, Lamartine may be situated among the French Romantics. In fact, his themes are the eternal themes of poetry, the prerogative of no single school. Moreover, the form of his poetry does not, at first sight, offer any noticeable break with the past. Yet by its lyrical qualities—its musicality and its intimate expression of deep, personal feelings—this verse must situate its creator in the vanguard of the French poets generally held to be Romantic.

The reputation of Lamartine has not remained constant. Toward the end of his life, poor and neglected, he wrote to make money and considered himself a galley slave of writing. One of the reasons for this neglect was the vogue, under Napoleon III, of the Parnassians, to the exclusion of others. In part, the Parnassians may be viewed as reacting against Lamartine, or at least against his example. Poetry, wrote Lamartine, is “the incarnation of that which is most intimate in man’s heart, and most divine in his thought.” This and many similar pronouncements must be held partly responsible for the chaos that marks the attempts at finding a Romantic doctrine in France. The best of Lamartine has been highly esteemed by many critics, granted grudging praise by others. Even that element often considered the greatest attribute of Lamartine’s poetry, its insubstantial, ethereal quality, has been deplored by those who long for high relief, color, precision, solidity.

The most famous of the Meditations is “The Lake.” It was originally entitled “Ode to the Bourget Lake.” This finest of love elegies seems to owe much, directly and indirectly, to Jean Jacques Rousseau. The theme of a return alone to a place filled with memories of love and happiness recalls THE NEW HELOISE by the eighteenth century writer. The direct inspiration for the poem, as for many in the collection, is Mme. Charles, the “Elvire” of the POETICAL MEDITATIONS. Lamartine had met her at Aix-les-Bains and immediately formed a very deep attachment for her. A proposed reunion between them did not take place because of her illness and death. “The Lake” was written before her death in December, 1817, when her illness prevented her from coming to meet the poet.

In this piece the writer has returned alone to the lake. He feels forlorn at the thought that his happiness, which had been of short duration, is already threatened. He cannot help expressing his anguish at the rapid flight of time:

Jealous time, can it be that these mo-ments of intoxicationWhen love pours happiness for us inlong draughts,Fly far from us with the same speedAs days of misfortune?

He wishes his love to be preserved at least as a memory. Aware of the transitory nature of all of man’s life, the poet implores the...

(The entire section is 1745 words.)