1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lamartine, Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de
LAMARTINE, ALPHONSE MARIE LOUIS DE PRAT DE (1790-1869), French poet, historian and statesman, was born at Mâcon on the 21st of October 1790. The order of his surnames is a controversial matter, and they are sometimes reversed. 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. Lamartine's early education was received from his mother. He was sent to school at Lyons in 1805, but not being happy there was transferred to the care of the Pères 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 he set out for Italy, where he seems to have sojourned nearly two years. His family having been steady royalists, he entered the Gardes du corps at the return of the Bourbons, 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. In 1818-1819 he revisited Switzerland, Savoy and Italy, the death of his beloved affording him new subjects for verse. After some difficulties he had his first book, the Méditations, poétiques el religieuses, published (1820). It was exceedingly popular, and helped him to make a position. He had left the army for some time; he now entered the diplomatic service and was appointed secretary to the embassy at Naples. On his way to his post he married, in 1823, at Geneva a young English lady, Marianne Birch, who had both money and beauty, and in the same year his Nouvelles méditations poétiques appeared.
In 1824 he was transferred to Florence, where he remained five years. His Last Canto of Childe Harold appeared in 1825, and he had to fight a duel (in which he was wounded) with an Italian officer, Colonel Pepe, in consequence of a phrase in it. Charles X., on whose coronation he wrote a poem, gave him the order of the Legion of Honour. The Harmonies poétiques et religieuses appeared in 1829, when he had left Florence. Having refused an appointment in Paris under the Polignac ministry, he went on a special mission to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. In the same 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 at that crisis take any active part in politics, refusing, however, to continue his diplomatic services under the new government. 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 Beirut, 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 (Voyage en Orient) appeared in 1835, his Chute d'un ange and Jocelyn in 1837, 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 was one of the first to declare for a provisional government, and became a member of it, 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, from being 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 inexperience in the routine work of government, the utterly unpractical nature of his colleagues, and the turbulence of the Parisian mob, proved fatal to his chances. He gave some proofs of statesmanlike ability, 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-Rollin 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 fell off from him. The quelling of the insurrection of the 15th of 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. Moreover, his chance of renewed 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 (1849) a series of Confidences, and somewhat later a kind of autobiography, entitled Raphael. He wrote 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 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 over seventy; his powers had deserted him, and even if they had not the public taste had entirely changed. His efforts had not succeeded in placing him in a position of 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 Edgar Quinet and Victor Hugo) came to his assistance, a vote of £20,000 being proposed in April of that year for his benefit by Émile Ollivier. This was 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 he was reproached for accepting it by the extreme republicans and irreconcilables. He did not enjoy it long, dying on the 28th of February 1869.
As a statesman Lamartine was placed during his brief tenure of office in a position from which it would have been almost impossible for any man, who was not prepared and able to play the dictator, to emerge with credit. At no time in history were unpractical crotchets so rife in the heads of men as in 1848. But Lamartine could hardly have guided the ship of state safely even in much calmer weather. 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 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 Girondins.
More must be said of his literary position. Lamartine had the advantage 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. Madame de Staël 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 Bonald and Joseph de Maistre, of the nature worship of Rousseau and Bernardin de Saint Pierre, of the sentimentalism of Madame de Staël, of the medievalism and the romance of Chateaubriand and Scott, of the maladie du siècle 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 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 conventional but refined and delicate, the imagery well chosen and gracefully expressed. There is an unquestionable want of vigour, but to readers of that day the want of vigour was entirely compensated by the presence of freshness and grace. Lamartine's chief misfortune in poetry was not only that his note was a somewhat weak one, but that he could strike but one. The four volumes of the Méditations, the Harmonies and the Recueillements, which contained 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 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. 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, and in which some have also seen that of Alfred de Vigny, 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 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 Saint-Point, Graziella, &c.), he is graceful as well as sentimental. In his histories the effect is worse. It has been hinted that Lamartine's personal narratives are doubtfully trustworthy; with regard to his Eastern travels some of the episodes were stigmatized as mere inventions. In his histories proper the special motive for embellishment disappears, but the habit of inaccuracy remains. As an historian he 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 declined with singular rapidity in France. As a poet 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. His power of initiative in poetry was very small, and the range of poetic ground which he could cover strictly limited. He could only carry the picturesque sentimentalism of Rousseau, Bernardin de Saint Pierre and Chateaubriand a little farther, 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 Romantic movement, and he never got any farther. When Matthew Arnold questioned his importance in conversation with Sainte-Beuve, the answer was, “He is important to us,” and it was a true answer; but the limitation is obvious. In more recent years, however, efforts have been made by Brunetière and others to remove it. The usual revolution of critical as of other taste, the oblivion of personal and political unpopularity, and above all the reaction against Hugo and the extreme Romantics, have been the main agents in this. Lamartine has been extolled as a pattern of combined passion and restraint, as a model of nobility of sentiment, and as a harmonizer of pure French classicism in taste and expression with much, if not all, the better part of Romanticism itself. These oscillations of opinion are frequent, if not universal, and it is only after more than one or two swings that the pendulum remains at the perpendicular. The above remarks are an attempt to correct extravagance in either direction. But it is difficult to believe that Lamartine can ever permanently take rank among the first order of poets.
The edition mentioned is the most complete one of Lamartine, but there are many issues of his separate works. After his death some poems and Mémoires inedits of his youth were published, and also two volumes of correspondence, while in 1893 Mlle V. de Lamartine added a volume of Lettres to him. The change of views above referred to may be studied in the detached articles of MM. Brunetière, Faguet, Lemaitre, &c., and in the more substantive work of Ch. de Pomairols, Lamartine (1889); E. Deschanel, Lamartine (1893); E. Zyrowski, Lamartine (1896); and perhaps best of all in the Preface to Emile Legouis’ Clarendon Press edition of Jocelyn (1906), where a vigorous effort is made to combat the idea of Lamartine's sentimentality and femininity as a poet.