Louis-Honoré Fréchette

Louis-Honoré Fréchette (1839-1908) was the best representative of the 19th-century patriotic manner in French-Canadian poetry. He was a less successful playwright and short-story writer.

Louis-Honoré Fréchette was born in Levis, Quebec, on Nov. 16, 1839. His turbulent vigor and lack of respect for conformists showed early in his interrupted schooling. So did his interest in writing poetry, and he soon frequented the bookshop of Octave Crémazie in Quebec. Fréchette went on to study law at Laval University and published his first collection of verse, Mes Loisirs (My Hours of Leisure), in 1863. Unable to make a business success of his journalism and law practice, he emigrated to Chicago in 1866.

The 5-year exile was fruitful. Fréchette responded both to the American dream of progress and to regret for his native land. He lost no time in starting La Voix d'un exilé (The Voice of an Exile; a collection eventually published in Chicago in 1868) and in founding French-language newspapers for the French Canadians in Chicago. He also wrote a play. The second newspaper lasted long enough to send him back to Canada as its correspondent in 1871. Here he began a political career, eventually gaining election to the federal Parliament (1874-1878). After the Liberal defeat of 1878, Fréchette returned to journalism and poetry, though standing for election again in 1882 (unsuccessfully). This was the period of his best work.

Fréchette's short stories and popular tales are entertaining, but his reputation rests mainly on his poetry. Fréchette was the best Canadian imitator of the French romantics and the most uncomplicated liberal patriot. Les Oiseaux de neige (Snowbirds) and Les Fleurs boréales (1879; Flowers of the North) celebrate Canadian nature in grandiose but harmonious verse. La Légende d'un peuple (1887; The Story of a People), although too servile an imitation of Hugo's Légende des siècles, attains some fine epic moments. Fréchette's success as a poet is due to the bold simplicity of his imagination. His regular but supple verse, rich rhymes, and fertile though too often conventional imagery make his symbols moving and memorable, though never profound or subtle. At his worst, Fréchette can be superficial, moralizing, and pompous, but the overall achievement of his best works completed the work of the Patriotic school, which was to add a sense of pride and dignity to the awareness of being a French Canadian.

Fréchette acquired renown and dignities in his lifetime. He was awarded the Prix Montyon of the Académie Française, and he held office as president of the Royal Society of Canada and of the École Littéraire de Montréal. Such honors earned him the nickname "Le Lauréat," sometimes used pejoratively. His success was late in relation to the Patriotic school, of which he was the youngest member. During his later years he was attacked for his many plagiarisms and was surpassed by the new fashion in poetry. He died in Montreal on May 31, 1908, with a definitive edition of his works still incomplete.

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Further Reading on Louis-Honoré Fréchette

There is a short but rich study of Fréchette by David M. Hayne in Robert L. McDougall, ed., Canada's Past and Present: A Dialogue (1965).