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Alphonse de Lamartine
Poet, b. at Macon Saône-et-Loire, France, 21 Oct., 1790; d. at Paris, l March, 1869. Born of a noble and Christian family, Lamartine at an early age read selected passages from the Bible, later from Fénelon, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Chateaubriand, Mme de Staël, Racine, Voltaire, Parny, and among foreign poets, Tasso, Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Ossian, especially the last, who was then very popular. About the age of twenty he met at the house of one of his relatives at Naples a little cigarette girl called Graziella, who captured his heart or his imagination, and of whom he sang in his works. Two years later, in 1814, when he was a member of the life-guards, he made the acquaintance of a delicate young woman, the wife of a physician named Charles, who died shortly afterwards. This ideal passion and the grief which followed so soon upon its blossoming revealed him to himself. Hitherto he had been an imitator; henceforth he would accept no guide save his own inspiration. Madame Charles is the Julie of his "Raphael", and the Elvire of his poems. He made his entrance into the field of poetry by a masterpiece, "Les Méditations Poétiques" (1820), and awoke to find himself famous; he may be said to have taken glory by storm. His other poetical works are "Les Secondes Méditations" (1823); "Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses" (1830); "Jocelyn" (1836); and "La Chute d'un Ange" (1838); two fragments of a great epic which he dreamed of dedicating to humanity, and lastly the "Recueillements Poétiques" (1839), in which he returned to lyricism, but without equaling his early works. He had already made himself known in prose. In 1835 he published the "Voyage en Orient", a brilliant and bold account of the journey he had just made, in royal luxury, to the countries of the Orient, and in the course of which he had lost his only daughter, Thenceforth he confined himself to prose. He published volumes on the most varied subjects (history, criticism, personal confidences, literary conversations) especially during the Empire, when, having retired to private life and having become the prey of his creditors, he condemned himself to what he calls "literary hard-labor in order to exist and pay his debts". The most famous of these prose works was the "Histoire des Girondins" (1847). Lamartine had long been taking part in politics, and had been elected a member of Parliament in 1833. He displayed astonishing ability as an extempore speaker, his brilliancy and grace being joined to fluency and action, and he waged a formidable opposition against the government of Louis-Philippe. The "Histoire des Girondins" was an episode in this: it was written with the desire to glorify the principles and the men of the French Revolution, without, however, approving their crimes. Immediately becoming popular the author shared in the provincial government at the downfall of the monarchy (1848). But his popularity was ephemeral and the Coup d'etat of 2 December, 1851, caused his return to literature for the remainder of his life. He died quietly, almost forgotten.
In him France lost a great poet; Lamartine may be reproached with not paying sufficient attention to the poetic vocation for which he affected an aristocratic disdain. Hence his lack of revision and faultiness of plot, whenever his plot requires detailed thinking out, as in his longer compositions; hence also his carelessness in rhyme and sometimes even in syntax. Even when he writes, Lamartine is an improviser who abandons himself to nature. But on the other hand he displays great simplicity, imagination, ease, fullness, and melody.
When the "Meditations" first appeared they revealed to France an entirely new kind of poetry, one which, according to the phrase of the author, "cessait d'etre un jeu stérile de l'esprit pour renaître fille de l'enthousiasme et de l'inspiration". In fact, despite the softness of the sentiments to which he abandoned his heart, he was a writer of rare elevation. No poet has sung of God with more Christian love than he in his earliest works; though in later life he became a mere spiritualist, he returned in his old age to the religion of his youth, and died the death of a Christian. But at every period he loved to see the Creator through the transparent veil of the creature and to sing to Him hymns of adoration.
DE MAZADE, Lamartine, sa vie politique et litteraire (Paris, 1870); OLLIVIER, Lamartine (1874); DE POMAIROLS, Lamartine (Paris, 1889); CHAMBORANT DE PERISSAT, Lamartine Inconnu, 1892; DESCHANEL, Lamartine (Paris, 1893).