1902 Encyclopedia > Alphonse de Lamartine

Alphonse de Lamartine
(Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine)
French poet, historian and statesman

ALPHONSE MARIE LOUIS DE PRAT DE LAMARTINE, (1790-1869), poet, historian, and statesman, was born at Mâcon on the 21st of October 1790, and died at Passy on the 1st of March 1869. The family of Lamartine was good, and the title of Prat was taken from an estate in Franche Comté. His father was imprisoned during the Terror, and only released owing to the events of the 9th Thermidor. Subsequently the family returned to the country. Lamartine's early education was received front his mother. He was sent to school at Lyons in 1805, but not being happy there was transferred to the care of the Peres de la Foi at Belley, where he remained until 1809. For some time afterwards he lived at home, reading romantic and poetical literature, but in 1811, being then twenty years old, he set out on his travels for Italy, where he seems to have sojourned for nearly two years. His family having been steady royalists, he entered the Gardes du corps at the return of the Eourbons, and during the Hundred Days he sought refuge first in Switzerland and then at Aix en Savoie, where he fell in love, with abundant results of the poetical kind. After Waterloo he returned to Paris, and mixed a good deal in society. In 1818-19 he revisited Switzerland, Savoy, and Italy, the death of his beloved affording him new subjects for verse. He had now got together a considerable body of poetry, and after some difficulties he got his first book, the Meditations, published (1820). It was exceedingly popular, and helped him to make a position. He had left the army for some time, and he now entered the diplomatic service and was appointed secretary to the embassy at Naples. On his way to his post he married at Geneva a young English lady, Marianne Birch, who had both money and beauty (1823), and in the same year his Nouvelles Meditations appeared. In 1824 he was transferred from Naples to Florence, where he remained for five years. His Last Canto of Childe Harold appeared in 1825, and he had to fight a duel with an Italian officer, Colonel Pepe, in consequence of a phrase in it. The Harmonies Poliliques et Religieuses appeared in 1829, when he had left Florence. Having refused an appointment at Paris under the Polignac ministry (destined to be fatal to legitimism), he went on a special mission to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who was not yet king of the Belgians, but was talked of as king of Greece. The next year he was elected to the Academy. Lamartine was in Switzerland, not in Paris, at the time of the Revolution of July, and, though he put forth a pamphlet on Rational Policy, he did not take any active part in politics. In 1832 he set out with his wife and daughter for Palestine, having been unsuccessful in his candidature for a seat in the chamber. His daughter Julia died at Beyrout, and before long he received the news of his election by a constituency (Bergues) in the department of the Nord. He returned through Turkey and Germany, and made his first speech shortly after the beginning of 1834. Thereafter he spoke constantly, and acquired considerable reputation as an orator,—bringing out, moreover, many books in prose and verse. His Eastern travels (Souvenirs d'Orient) appeared in 1835, his Jocelyn in 1836, his Chute d'un Ange in 1838, and his Recueillements, the last remarkable volume of his poetry, in 1839. As the reign of Louis Philippe went on, Lamartine, who had previously been a liberal royalist, something after the fashion of Chateaubriand, became more and more democratic in his opinions. He set about his greatest prose work, the Histoire des Girondins, which at first appeared periodically, and was published as a whole in 1847. Like many other French histories, it was a pamphlet as well as a chronicle, and the subjects of Lamartine's pen became his models in politics. At the revolution of February Lamartine at once became one of the most important personages in France. He was one of the first to declare for a provisional government, and became a member of it himself, with the post of minister for foreign affairs. He was elected for the new constituent assembly in ten different departments, and was chosen one of the five members of the Executive Committee. For a few months indeed Lamartine, who for nearly sixty years had been a distinguished man of letters, an official of inferior rank in diplomacy, and an eloquent but unpractical speaker in parliament, became one of the foremost men in Europe. His own inexperience in the routine work of government, the utterly unpractical nature of his colleagues and of the constitution which they endeavoured to carry out, and the turbulence of the Parisian mob proved fatal to his chances. During his brief tenure of office Lamartine gave some proofs of statesmanlike ability, notably in his reply to the deputation of United Irishmen who visited him in the hope that the new French democracy would take up the old hatred of the republic against England; and his eloquence was repeatedly called into requisition to pacify the Parisians. But no one can permanently carry on the government of a great country by speeches from the balcony of a house in the capital, and Lamartine found himself in a dilemma. So long as he held aloof from Ledru-Bollin and the more radical of his colleagues, the disunion resulting weakened the Government; as soon as he effected an approximation to them, the middle classes, who more in France than any where else were and are the arbiters of Governments, fell off from him. The quelling of the insurrection of the 15th May was his last successful act. A month later the renewal of active disturbances brought on the fighting of June, and Lamartine's influence was extinguished in favour of Cavaignac. There is hardly another instance on record of so sudden an elevation and so rapid a fall. Before February in 1848 Lamartine was, as has been said, a private person of talent and reputation ; after June in the same year he was once more the same, except that his chance of political pre-eminence was gone. He had been tried and found wanting, having neither the virtues nor the vices of his situation. In January 1849, though he was nominated for the presidency, only a few thousand votes were given to him, and three months later he was not even elected to the legislative assembly.

The remaining story of Lamartine's life is somewhat melancholy. He had never been a rich man, nor had he been a saving one, and during his period of popularity and office he had incurred great expenses. He now set to work to repair his fortune by unremitting literary labour. He brought out in the Presse a series of Confidences, and somewhat later a kind of autobiography, entitled Raphael, which treated his own experiences in romantic fashion.

He began and finished several historical works of more or less importance, the History of the Revolution of 1848, The History of the Restoration, The History of Turkey, The History of Russia, besides a very large number of small biographical and miscellaneous works. In 1858 a subscription was opened for his benefit. Two years afterwards, following the example of Chateaubriand, he supervised an elaborate edition of his own works in forty-one volumes. This occupied five years, and while he was engaged on it his wife died (1863). He was now a man of more than seventy years old; his powers had deserted him, and even if they had not the public taste had entirely changed, and was no longer disposed to welcome or enjoy his sentimental fashion of handling prose and poetry. His efforts had not succeeded in placing him in a position of comfort and independence; and at last, in 1867, the Government of the empire (from which he had perforce stood aloof, though he never considered it necessary to adopt the active protesting attitude of Quinet and Victor Hugo) came forward to his assistance, a vote of twenty thousand pounds being proposed in April of that year for his benefit by M. Emile Ollivier. In no other country than France would this have been anything but creditable to both parties, for Lamartine, both as a distinguished man of letters and as a past servant of the state, had every claim to the bounty of his country. But the bitter party feeling which animated the later years of the reign of Napoleon III. made the grant something of a party matter, and Lamartine was reproached for accepting it by the extreme republicans and irreconcilables. He did not enjoy it long, dying, as has been said, on the 1st of March 1869, two years before the collapse of the empire.

As a statesman Lamartine was placed during his brief tenure of office in a position from which it would have been almost impos-sible for any man who was not prepared and able to play the dictator to emerge with credit. At no time in history, not even in the great revolution of sixty years earlier, were unpractical crotchets so rife in the heads of men as in 1848, and at no time was there such an absence of what may be called backbone in a nation as then in France. But Lamartine could hardly have guided the ship of state safely even in much calmer weather. Personally he was amiable and even estimable, the chief fault of his character being vanity and an incurable tendency towards theatrical effect, which makes his travels, memoirs, and other personal records as well as his historical works radically untrustworthy. Nor does it appear that he had any settled political ideas. He was first an ardent legiti-mist, then a liberal royalist, then a constitutionalist of an indefinite type, then a republican ; and it does not appear that any of these phases was the result of reasoned conviction, but rather of a vague kind of sentiment and of the contagion of popular and prevalent ideas. In regard to money he was entirely disinterested, never obtaining or seeking any lucrative office. That he was quite so disinterested in the matter of personal vanity and ambition cannot perhaps be safely affirmed. He did good by moderating the revolutionary and destructive ardour of the Parisian populace in 1848 ; but he had been perhaps more responsible than any other single person for bringing about the events of that year by the vague and frothy republican declamation of his Histoire des Giron-dins. Altogether little more can be said of his political career than that he was the most striking if not the most successful instance of the French system, which has prevailed since the downfall of the first empire, of making literary success a direct road to political eminence.

More must be said of his literary position. Lamartine had the ad-vantage of coming at a time when the literary field, at least in the departments of belles lettres, was almost empty. The feeble school of descriptive writers, epic poets of the extreme decadence, fabulists, and miscellaneous verse-makers which the empire had nourished could satisfy no one, though its members still continued with unceasing fidelity to copy themselves and their models. Madame de Stael was dead; Chateaubriand, though alive, was something of a classic, and had not effected a full revolution. Lamartine did not himself go the complete length of the romantic revival, but he went far in that direction. He availed himself of the reviving interest in legitimism and Catholicism which was represented by Ronald and Joseph de Maistre, of the nature worship of Bousseanand Bernardin de St Pierre, of the sentimentalism of Madame de Stael, of the medievalism and the romance of Chateaubriand and Scott, of the maladie du sieele of Chateaubriand and Byron. Perhaps if his matter be very closely analysed it will be found that he added hardly anything of his own. But if the parts of the mixture were like other things the mixture itself was not. It seemed indeed to the immediate generation so original that tradition has it that the Méditations were refused by a publisher because they were in none of the accepted styles. They appeared, as has been said, in 1820, that is to say, when Lamartine was nearly thirty years old. The best of them and the best thing that Lamartine ever did is the famous Lac, describing his return to the little mountain tarn of Le Bourget after the death of his mistress, with whom he had visited it in other days. The verse is exquisitely harmonious, the sentiments conven-tional but refined and delicate, the imagery well chosen and grace-fully expressed. There is indeed an unquestionable want of vigour, but to readers of that day the want of vigour was entirely compen-sated by the presence of freshness and grace. Lamartine's chief misfortune in poetry was that not only was his note a somewhat weak one, but that he could strike but one. The four volumes of the Méditations, the Harmonies, and the Recueillements, which con-tained the prime of his verse, are perhaps the most monotonous reading to be found anywhere in work of equal bulk by a poet of equal talent. They contain nothing but meditative lyrical pieces, almost any one of which is typical of the whole, though there is of course considerable variation of merit. The two narrative poems which succeeded the early lyrics, Jocelyn and the Chute d'un Ange, were, according to Lamartine's original plan, parts of a vast " Epic of the Ages," some further fragments of which survive, especially one of not a little merit which was published four years after the author's death in company with some youthful attempts at the classical tragedy and a few miscellanea. Jocelyn had at one time more popularity in England than most French verse. La Chute d'un Ange, in which the Byronic influence is more obvious than in any other of Lamartine's works, is more ambitious in theme and less regulated by scrupulous conditions of delicacy in handling than most of its author's poetry. It does, however, little more than prove that such audacities were not for him.

As a prose writer Lamartine was, as may be seen from what has been said (and many of his works have not been mentioned), very fertile. His characteristics in his prose fiction and descriptive work are not very different from those of his poetry. He is always and everywhere sentimental, though very frequently, as in his shorter prose tales (The Stone Mason of St Point, Graziella, &e. ), he is grace-ful as well as sentimental. In his histories, the style being one for which he was radically unfitted, the effect is worse. It has been hinted that Lamartine's personal narratives are doubtfully trust-worthy; indeed with regard to his Eastern travels some of the episodes were stigmatized as mere inventions by persons who had every reason to be well informed and none to bear false witness. In his histories proper the special motive for embellishment—falsification would be too rough a word—for the most part disappears, but the habit of inaccuracy remains. Lamartine as an historian belongs exclusively to the rhetorical school as distinguished from the philosophical on the one hand and the documentary on the other.

It is not surprising when these characteristics of Lamartine's work are appreciated to find that his fame has declined with singular rapidity in France. As a poet indeed he had lost his reputation many years before he died. He was entirely eclipsed by the brilliant and vigorous school who succeeded him with Victor Hugo at their head. It is possible that the Chute d'un Ange was an effort to compete with them on their own ground ; if so, it was an entire failure. Lamartine's power of initiative in poetry was very small, and the range of poetic ground which he could cover strictly limited. He did not attempt the great task of the day, the freeing of the Alexandrine from the restraints imposed upon it, and the devis-ing or reviving of new lyric metres to refresh and invigorate French poetic style. He could only carry the picturesque sentimentalism of Eousseau, Bernardin de St Pierre, and Chateaubriand a little further, and clothe it in language and verse a little less antiquated than that of Chênedollé and Millevoye. He has been said to be a French Cowper, and the parallel holds good in respect of versification and of his relative position to the more daringly innovating school that followed, though not in respect of individual peculiarities. Lamartine in short occupied a kind of half-way house between the 18th century and the Bomantic movement, and he never got any further. When a living English critic questioned his importance in conversation with Sainte-Beuve, the answer was, " He is important to us," and it was a true answer ; but his importance is now chiefly historical, even to Frenchmen.

The already mentioned edition is the most complete one of Lamartine, but there are many issues of his separate works. Since his death, besides the poems already mentioned, some Mémoires Inédits of his youth have been published, and also two volumes of correspondence. (G. SA.)

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