Alphonse de LAMARTINE 1790-1869
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)
Of aristocratic descent, and educated at the college of the "Fathers of the Faith" (Pères de la Foi), Du Prat - such was the name of his family - imbibed in his youth principles very different from those of his great literary contemporary Michelet. Happily nature seems to have his mother with a rare refinement and humaneness of feeling; and from her example and instruction he derived, apparently, the germs of those loftier ideas which, in maturer age, characterise a great part of his writings. While the first Napoleon was still emperor, he entered the army, from which he soon retired to employ his leisure in the more congenial amusement of travel.
In 1820 he first cam before the world as the author of Meditations Poétiques, of which, within four years, 45,000 copies were sold, and the new poet was eagerly welcomed by the party of Reaction, who thought to find in him a future successor to the brilliant author of Génie du Christianisme, the literary hope of their party, and the champion of the Church and royalty - the political counterbalance to Béranger, the poet of the Revolution - for Hugo had not yet raised the standard of revolt. yet this remarkable volume with the greatest difficulty found its way into print. "A young man, [writes one of his biographers] his health scarcely re-established from a cruel malady, his face pale with suffering and covered with a veil of sadness, through which could be read the recent loss of an adored being, went about from publisher to publisher, carrying a small packet of verses dyed with tears. Everywhere the poetry and the poet were politely bowed out. At length a bookseller, better advised, or seduced by the infinite grace of the young poet, decided to accept the manuscript so often rejected." It was published without a name and without recommendation. The melancholy beauty of the style, and the melody of the rhythm, could not fail to attract sympathy from readers of taste and feeling, even from those opposed to his political prejudices - "A rhythm of a celestial melody, verse supple, cadenced, and sonorous, which softly vibrates as an Æolian harp sighing in the evening breeze."
Its political, rather than its poetical, recommendations, we may presume, gained for the writer from the Government of Louis XVIII, a diplomatic post at Florence, which he held until the dynastic revolution of 1830. For some short time he acted as secretary to the French Embassy in London, and during his stay in England he made the acquaintance of a rich Englishwoman, whom he afterwards married at Florence. A legacy of valuable property from an uncle, upon the condition of his assuming the name of Lamartine , still further enriched him.
In 1829 appeared the collection of Harmonies Poétiques et Réligieuses, in which, as in all his poetry up to this time, one of the most characteristic features in his devotion to Legitimacy and the Church. The renversement of 1830 considerably modified his political and ecclesiastical ideas. "I wish," he declared at this turning-point in his career, "to enter the ranks of the people; to think, speak, act, and struggle with them." One of the first proofs of his advanced opinions was his pamphlet advocating abolition of "capital" punishment. He failed to obtain a seat in the Chambre des Députés of Louis Phillipe, whether in consequence of this advocacy or by reason of his antecedent politics. His enforced leisure he employed in travelling, and in 1832, with his English wife and their young daughter Juliette (whose death at Beyrout caused him inconsolable grief), he set sail for the East in a vessel equipped and armed at his own expense. A narrative of these travels he published in his Voyage en Orient (1835). In the following year appeared his Jocelyn, a poem of charming tenderness and eloquence,and, in 1838, La Chute d'un Ange ("The Fall of an Angel"), in which he, for the first time, gives expression to his feeling of revolt from the barbarisms of the Slaughter-House. In this strikingly original poem, one of the most remarkable of its kind in any language, Lamartine discovers to us that no longer views human institutions, the customs of society, and the consecrated usages of nations through the rose-coloured medium of traditional prejudice. It is penetrated with a deep consciousness of the injustice and falseness of a large proportion of those things which are tolerated, and even approved, under the sanction of religious or social law, and with ardent indignation against cruelty and selfishness. In the frightful representation of the practices of the early tyrants of the world saved from the "universal deluge," he allows us to see his own feeling. One more humane race thus addresses his charming heroine Daidha :-
[poetry quoted in French]
From the pages of the "Primitive Book," which he imagines to have been originally delivered to men, their hermit-host reads to Daidha and her celestial, but incarnate, lover the true divine revelation, which is thus sublimely prefaced :-
[poetry quoted in French]
In pronouncing the following code of morality, the voice of conscience and of reason coincides with the divine voice in our hearts :-
[poetry quoted in French]
Not only is the human animal sternly forbidden to imbrue his hands in the blood of his innocent earth-mates : it is also enjoined upon him t respect and cultivate their undeveloped intelligence and reason :-
[poetry quoted in French]
From such more rational estimate should follow, necessarily, just treatment :-
[poetry quoted in French]
Consistently with, and consequently from, such just human relations with the lower species are the admonitions to break down the walls of partition between the various human races, and to the proper cultivation of the Earth, the common mother of all :-
[poetry quoted in French]
It is hardly necessary to record that The Fall of an Angel was far from receiving, from the world of fashion, the applause of his earlier and more conventional productions.
Lamartine was still in the East (we refer to an earlier period), when news of his election to the Chambre des Députés by a Legitimist constituency brought him back to Paris. Among the prominent political leaders of the day he figured "as a progressive Conservative, strongly blending reverence for the antique with a kind of philosophical democracy. He spoke frequently on social and philanthropic questions." In 1838 he became deputy for macon, his native town. During the Orleanist régime he refused to hold office, professing aversion for the "vulgar utility" of the government of Guizot and the Bourgeois King, and in 1845 he joined the Liberal opposition. His Histoire des Girondins (1847) probably contributed to the expulsion of the Orleanist dynasty in the next year.
In the scenes of the Revolution of February, 1848, he occupied a prominent position as mediator between the two opposite parties; and the retention of the tricolour, in place of the Red flag, is attributed to his intervention. Elected a member of the Provisional Government, Lamartine served as Foreign Minister of the Republic. In this capacity he published his well-known Manifesto à l'Europe. But, in spite of the fact that ten departments had elected him as representative in the Assemblé Constituante and that he was also made one of the five members of the Executive Commission, his popularity was short-lived. With all his, apparently, sincere sympathy with the causes of the Oppressed, traditionary associations and strong family attachments (sufficiently manifest in his Mémoirs) impeded him in his political course; and his compromising attitude provoked the distrust of more advanced political reformers. In competition with Louis Napoléon and Cavaignae, he was nominated for the presidency; but received the support of few votes. From this period he withdrew into private life and devoted himself entirely to literature. His Histoire de la Révolution (1849), Historie de la restauration, Histoire de la Russie, Histoire de la Turquie, Raphael (a narrative of his childhood and youth) and Confidences (1849-1851), a further autobiography - one of the most interesting of all his prose productions - and various other writings, most of them appearing, in the first instance, in the periodicals of the day, attested the activity and versatility of his genius. He also for some time conducted a journal - Conseiller du Peuple. In 1860 he collected his entire writings into forty-one volumes. Of them his Histoire des Girondins is, probably the most widely known. But, next to The Fall of an Angel, it is his own Memoirs which will always have most interest and instruction for those who know how to appreciate true refinement of soul, and, making due deductions from political or traditionary prejudice, can discern essential worth of mind. In Les Confidences he allows us to see the natural sensibility and superiority of his disposition in his deep repugnance to the orthodox table - none the less real because he seems, unhappily, to have deemed himself forced to comply with the universal or, rather, fashionable barbarism. Writing of his early education he tells us :-
"Physically, it was derived (découlait) in a large measure from Pythagoras and from Emile. Thus, it was based upon the greatest simplicity of dress and the most rigorous frugality with regard to food. My mother was convinced, as I myself am, that killing animals for the sake of nourishment from their flesh and blood, is one of the infirmities of our human condition ; that it is one of those curses imposed upon man either by his fall, or by the obduracy of his own perversity. She believed, as I do still, that the habit of hardening the heart towards the most gentle animals, our companions, our helpmates, our brothers in toil and even in affection, on this earth ; that the slaughtering, the appetite for blood, the sight of quivering flesh, are the very things to have the effect (sont faits pour) to brutalize and harden the instincts of the heart. She believed, as I do still, that such nourishment, although, apparently, much more succulent and more active (énergique), contains within itself irritating and putrid principles which embitter the food and shorten the days of man.
"To support of these ideas, she would instance the numberless refined and pious people of India who abstain from everything that has had life, and the hardy, robust pastoral race, and even of the labouring population of our fields, who work the hardest, live the longest and most simply, and who do not eat meat ten times in their lives. She never allowed me to eat it until I was thrown into the rough-and-tumble (pêle-mêle) life of the public schools. To wean me from the liking for it she used no arguments, but availed herself of that instinct in us, which reasons better than logic. I had a lamb which a peasant of Milly had given me, and which I trained to follow me everywhere, like the most attached and faithful dog. We loved each other with that first love (première passion) which children and young animals naturally have for each other. One day the cook said to my mother in my presence "Madam, the lamb is fat, and the butcher bas come for it; must I give it to him?" I screamed and threw myself on the lamb, asking what the butcher would do with it, and what was a butcher. The cook replied that he was a man who gained his living by killing lambs, sheep, calves, and cows. I could not believe it. I besought my mother and readily obtained mercy for my favourite. A few days afterwards my mother took me with her to the town, and led me, as by chance, through the shambles. There I saw some men, with bare and bloodstained arms felling a bullock. Others were killing calves and sheep and cutting of their still palpitating limbs. Streams of blood smoked here and there along the pavement. I was seized with a profound pity, mingled with horror, and asked to be taken away. The idea of these horrible and repulsive scenes, the necessary preliminaries of the dishes I saw served at table, made me hold animal food in disgust, and butchers in horror.
"Although the necessity of conforming to the customs of society has since made me eat what others eat, I shall preserve a rational (raisonnée) dislike to flesh dishes, and I always found it difficult not to consider the trade of the butcher almost on a par with that of the executioner. I lived then, till I was twelve on bread, milk-products, vegetables, and fruit. My health was not less robust, nor my growth the less rapid, and perhaps it is to that regimen that I owed the beauty of feature, the exquisite sensibility, the serene sweetness of character and temper I preserved till that date. (2)
Some years before the publication of his Fall of an Angel, Lamartine, from the height of the National Tribune, had given significant expression to the feeling of all the more thoughtful minds, vague though it was, of the urgent need of some new and better principle to inspire and govern human actions than any hitherto tried :-
"I see [he exclaimed] men who, alarmed by the repeated shocks of our political commotions, await from providence a social revolution, and look around them for some man, a philosopher, to arise - a doctrine which shall come to take violent possession of the government of minds (une doctrine qui vienne s'emparer violemment du gouvernement des esprits), and reinvigorate the staggered (ébranlé) world. They hope, they invoke, they look for this power, which shall impose itself by inherent right (de son plein droit) as the Arbitrator and Supreme Ruler of the Future."
But a few years earlier, in the same place, a still more positive protest - not the less noteworthy because futile - was heard upon the occasion of a discussion as to the introduction into France of foreign "Cattle," when one of the Deputies, Alexandre de Laborde, maintained that flesh-meat is but an object of luxury; and was supported, at least, by one or two other thoughtful deputies who had the courage of their better convictions. It deserves to be noted that while the Left seemed not unfavourable to the humaner feeling, the Centre apathetic, and the Right derisively antagonistic, the minister of the King (Charles X.) threw all the weight of his position into the materialistic side of the scales. Thus this feeble and last public attempt in France to stop the torrent of Materialism proved abortive. (3)