Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine (1790-1869) was one of the first French romantic poets. A diplomat as well, he led the provisional government of the Second Republic in 1848.
Alphonse de Lamartine was born on Oct. 21, 1790, in Mâcon. His family was of the landed, pious, provincial aristocracy, who remained loyal to the monarchy during the Revolution. He had five younger sisters who later married but became dependent on his support. He spent his childhood in the country at Milly, where the Abbé Dumont was his tutor. Both Milly and the abbé would be idealized in his poetry. Eventually he was sent to Lyons to study, but he rebelled, and escaped at the age of 11. He was then sent to a Jesuit school for a traditional, pious education, which he completed in 1808. He was a good student, described as a tall young man with an intense, proud expression.
During the next few years Lamartine led a leisurely life first at Milly, then in Italy, and eventually in Paris. He immersed himself in the works of the 18th-century philosophers, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Madame de Staël—all of which had been unavailable in his school. He also started to write verse and plays and even thought of writing an epic poem. During a trip to Italy in 1812 he became infatuated with a Neapolitan woman who was to become Graziella in his Confidences (1849). During the brief reign of Louis XVIII, Lamartine joined the army.
Career as Poet
In 1816 during a trip to Aix-les-Bains, where he had gone for treatment of a nervous ailment, Lamartine fell deeply in love with Julie Charles. They were to meet again at Lake Bourget a year later, but her respiratory disease was more serious than his illness, and she was unable to leave Paris, where she died a few months later.
Profoundly moved by this relationship, Lamartine wrote some of his best lyrical poetry and in 1820 published a collection of 24 poems entitled Méditations. The anthology was an immediate success. This collection is generally considered the first romantic poetic work in French. Though not strikingly innovative in form or technique, the poems develop an intense personal lyricism which animates the abstract language and the sometimes outworn images.
Le Lac (The Lake) is the poem for which Lamartine is most remembered; it evokes the passage of time and the poet's consolation in the feeling that nature, at least, harbors intact the memory of his lost love. Other poems, such as Isolement (Isolation), treat the lonely anguish of a sensitive man indifferent to life since love and meaning have been taken from him. In still other poems the poet asserts new faith born of resignation. Lamartine had no intention of creating a literary revolution with these poems, most of which retain much of the cadence and imagery of neoclassic verse. But the personalism of the themes and his direct lyricism were new to French verse.
The success, financial as well as literary, of the Méditations and an appointment to the embassy at Naples allowed Lamartine to marry Mary-Ann Birch, an English-woman, in June 1820. For the next 10 years the young diplomat pursued his career in Naples and Florence with some time in Paris. A son was born but died in infancy, and in 1822 a daughter, Julia, was born. He continued to publish various poems: a second collection of Méditationsin 1823; Le Dernier chant du pélerinage d'Harold (The Last Canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage), in homage to Byron, in 1825; and Harmonies poétiques et religieuses in 1830. Still the idea of creating a great epic haunted him. In 1832 he undertook a trip to the Holy Land with his wife and daughter. Julia died tragically during the course of the trip, and the despair caused by her death found expression in Géthsémani (1834).
Career as Statesman
While still traveling, Lamartine was elected deputy from his region in 1833 but without partisan party ties. In the next 15 years he evolved slowly from the conservative, monarchist sympathies of his aristocratic background toward an increasingly vocal republicanism. His liberalism was founded on a belief in property as a cornerstone of stability and legitimacy. His Ode sur les révolutionspresents an image of the unceasing movement and progress of an ever-changing society and illustrates the role of the poet as interpreter and guide for history and society.
During this period also, Lamartine published two long poems meant to be fragments of a larger epic. The overall epic was to recount the myth of an angel, Cédron, who, having loved a mortal, was condemned to live on earth during the whole of human history, reincarnated in a new identity with each successive age. His slow acceptance of suffering would lead to his ultimate redemption. Jocelyn, published with great success in 1836, consists of 10,000 verses centering on a village priest who is an idealization of the Abbé Dumont. The priest is more a Voltairean rationalist than an orthodox Catholic; his innate goodness and sacrifice help him fulfill his spiritual destiny. There are many faults both thematically and technically in the long poem, but some of the tableaux, such as the ideal peasant types in "The Tillers," have a continued appeal.
La Chute d'un ange (The Fall of an Angel), published in 1839, was meant to precede Jocelyn but was a failure with the public. A long poem divided into 15 visions, it presents the beginning of the epic myth immediately before the Flood, as Cédron commits suicide, throwing himself on the family funeral pyre. The images of Lucifer and of Prometheus—superior beings who revolt against suffering— haunted many 19th-century artists.
After publishing another anthology, Recueillements (Contemplations) in 1839, Lamartine ceased to publish to avoid compromising his image as a politician. His political influence grew steadily as he opposed Louis Philippe. When the opposition forces revolted in 1848, Lamartine became leader of the provisional government. Though he could have kept power personally, he proclaimed the Second Republic and set up an executive commission of several members. It was then that he began to lose the support of his own constituents, but he personally contained popular unrest until the bloody days of June and July. In December he lost the presidency to Napoleon III, and though he continued to be deputy until the Second Empire succeeded the republic in 1851, his political career had ended.
The last 20 years of Lamartine's life present a pathetic story of decline and humiliation. Over the years he had accumulated enormous debts, and he was now forced to write for money. In 1849 he incorporated his memories in Confidences. Social novels for popular consumption, historical compilations, and biographies followed. In 1856 he started a monthly review called Cours familier de littérature (Informal Course on Literature), which occasionally included poems worthy of his earlier efforts. Financial efforts largely failed, though, and in 1860 he was forced to accept money from the government he despised. His wife and his niece Valentine de Cessiat were his only consolation. His wife died in 1863 after a long and painful illness. In 1867 Lamartine suffered an attack that left him semiconscious until his death in Paris on Feb. 28, 1869.
Further Reading on Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine
There is no English edition of Lamartine's poetry. For his life see Henry Remsen Whitehouse, The Life of Lamartine (2 vols., 1918), and Mark Gambier-Parry, Studies of Childhood and Youth (1925). Recommended for background is Robert T. Denommé, Nineteenth Century French Romantic Poets (1969), which has an especially interesting chapter on Lamartine.
Additional Biography Sources
Fortescue, William, Alphonse de Lamartine: a political biography, London: Croom Helm; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.