Communing with Lamartine — French Romantic who speaks for today

Pierre Ferrand

Author’s note: I remember being thrilled by these verses in the 1930s, when my father was in the forefront of the fight against Nazism in Germany.


uring my trip to France last summer, I spent six days in Macon, north of Lyons. This little town is close to the ruins of Cluny, which was the medieval headquarters of the book-loving Benedictines and the grandest of medieval abbeys. Similarly close are prehistoric sites of our more illiterate forebears of 200 to 500 centuries ago.

My wife, Binnie, wanted to commune with the ecumenical religious community of Taize, also nearby, and spent several days with them; I intended to commune instead with Macon’s most famous native son, Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-l869).

The aristocratic Lamartine is known in France as the earliest of its four great romantic poets, who also include Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, and Alfred de Musset. As a young man, he had a number of love affairs he described with a notorious lack of realism and some disregard for facts in several prose romances, particularly Graziella and Raphael, both first published 1849 and still in print. He was also an officer of the royal guards, a minor French diplomat in Italy, a traveler to the Middle East, who wrote a Voyage To The Orient ,(1835), and a writer on politics, history and literature, who was considered an eloquent orator. I had just reread his complete poems, as published in the 2,000-page Pleiade edition, and I was interested in learning more about his political career.

I had never read his History of the Girondists, (1847), a runaway international best-seller, which retold, in his fashion, the fate of the (relatively) moderate Republican party during the first French Revolution, and which, according to some historians, sparked the Revolution of 1848, of which Lamartine was briefly the foreign minister and de facto head. This book seems not to have been reprinted in the past 100 years. I was interested in getting hold of it.

I asked about locating the book at the Tourist Office, in the town’s major bookstores, and then in the Lamartine Museum, which is on the second floor of a particularly handsome early 18th Century mansion. None of these had heard of the book.

The town has a Quai Lamartine, a Place Lamartine, a Rue Lamartine, a Lamartine Monument, and numerous businesses named after Lamartine. I was warned against Restaurant Lamartine. At the Lamartine Museum exhibit, quite good iconographically, though it did not display the History of the Girondists, I was told by its amiable guardian that it was one of the least visited sites of the town (I was its only visitor that day). He was kind enough to make a phone call for me to the municipal library and found out that all their books and papers on Lamartine had been loaned out to nearby Bourg-en-Bresse, famous for its superlative chickens, since the Macon library was being remodeled.

The only resource for locating the book in Macon, I was told by all my informants, was the rare book store on the Plaza of the St. Pierre Cathedral. I hurried down to that sole center of bibliophilic culture in town, and I found that its very competent owner did have several book shelves crammed with volumes by and about Lamartine, and an excellent selection of hard-to-find books dealing with aspects of French literature and culture. He also had issued a bibliography of another native son of Macon, Henry Guillaumin, an outstanding (though opinionated) scholar who had edited various Lamartine texts and published numerous essays about him as well as iconoclastic studies about many other figures, from Jesus to Joan of Arc, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alfred de Vigny, Victor Hugo, Alfred Dreyfus, and Emile Zola, often infuriating, but mostly well worth reading.

He indeed had two different copies of the History of the Girondists, one in eight handsome volumes, and another one in two outsize in-quartos he was prepared to sell to me for the equivalent of about $60 — since they were not in mint condition. The price was indeed reasonable, though I generally do not pay that much for a single book, but the idea of lugging these heavy volumes home to the U.S. scared me. I since found that, as I suspected, the Newberry Library has an early edition of the book, together with other volumes of related interest, and that it also can be obtained through the Internet.

Lamartine is still worth studying. He is uneven as a poet, but his slim collection of verse, the Meditations Poetiques of 1820, was the first volume of significant romantic poetry in French and includes some of its gems. His Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses (1830), are mostly cosmic hymns of praise of almost unrelenting pantheistic religiosity and innumerable exclamation points, but some of them are of great beauty. He also wrote some memorable verses expressing his doubts about organized religion. His poem about the death of his young daughter Julia remains moving. His novel in verse, Jocelyn (1836), is not without interest, His 12,000-verse epic, La Chute d’un Ange (An Angel’s Fall, 1838), contains a remarkable vision of an evil prehistoric tyranny whose fiendish horrors have few parallels in literature. The two short prose romances mentioned earlier — like most of his love poetry, express an ethereal and idealistic conception of love, but are rather charming.

His political poetry includes some notable pieces I already admired as a child in France, including a response to an aggressively chauvinistic German song of the early 1840s, which claimed the Rhine (which is partly French and also Dutch and Swiss) for Germany alone. He called it “The Marseillaise of Peace.” He wrote that it is the act of barbarians to use rivers and nationalism to divide people. Heaven has no frontiers.

Like many other great 19th Century Frenchmen, he was a cosmopolitan, and a pacifist, whose ideas prefigure the European Union, still in the process of formation today. He also eloquently spoke against slavery and the death penalty and wrote a play about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the black Haitian hero. He believed in social justice and in non-violent means to attain it. He had, in a number of ways, a clear vision of a desirable future, and was therefore considered to be an impractical idealist by many. He was simply in advance of his time, and in part, of our time too.

Bibliographical Note: As is frequently the case for French writers, the most convenient (though not cheapest) edition of Lamartine’s poetry in French is that of the Editions de la Pleiade. It does not include Lamartine’s own comments on many of his poems, which are frequently inaccurate on points of fact, but does reproduce his verse plays, including Toussaint L’ouverture, the only one ever performed (in 1850), and which has been republished in English.

The bibliography of Lamartine’s prose, which is not totally negligible, is complex. Particularly during the last 20 years of his life, Lamartine was in financial difficulties and worked “like a galley slave” in his efforts to pay down his debts. He wrote a considerable volume of autobiographical pieces as well as many historical works, including memoirs of his political career and the history of the 1848 revolution, several biographies and much literary criticism, and tried to sell several editions of his many-volumed “complete works.” Except for his poems and some of his autobiographical romances, little of this abundant production has been republished since his death. The same applies to his political essays, speeches and his Histoire des Girondins written earlier, though sections of his Voyage en Orient and a few of his speeches have been occasionally republished. His most famous address is a courageous speech made when confronting a hostile mob, in 1848, “Against the Red Flag” (and in favor of the Tricolor). A critical anthology of some of his prose is long overdue, to my mind.

There is an excellent (though incomplete) iconography of Lamartine, edited and prefaced by Henry Guillaumin, (Lamartine: Documents Iconographiques, Geneve, Pierre Cailler, 1958). I acquired it, part of a “special edition” of 120 copies, from M. Norbert Darreau, the proprietor of the Macon bookstore mentioned above.

Some lines from Lamartine:

And so, however driven towards new shores,
Drifting irretrievably into everlasting night,
Can we never drop anchor for a single day
On the shores of eternity?

* * *

God is but a word dreamt up to explain the world.

* * *

The ideal is but the truth glimpsed from afar.

* * *

Limited in his powers, infinite in his wishes,
Man is a fallen god who remembers heaven.

* * *

Shame on him who will sing while Rome is burning,
While the flaming river of fire rush on
From the temples and the places up to the Pantheon
(For he must have Nero’s own soul, lyre and eye)!
Shame on him who can sing when every woman
Fears for the life of her sons
When every citizen wonders whether the flames
Will devour his own home!
It is time to fight with the weapons which remain,
It is time to climb up to the bloodied podium
And to defend at least with one’s voice and presence
Rome, the gods, and liberty!

Alphonse de Lamartine

Alphonse de Lamartine

Title page of Lamartine’s Oeuvres (1848), from the Newberry Library, through whose courtesy it is used.

Return to Caxtonian table of contents

Return to the Caxton Club home page