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Elusive shores: Lamartine's Meditations and the art of poetry.

A quels bords irai-je porter mes reveries et mes malheurs?

--Lamartine to A. de Virieu, 5 Oct. 1811

When referring to his first Meditations Poetiques (1820), Lamartine often portrayed his lyric voice as a free melody detached from consciousness: "Je veux me laisser aller ou me portera la fantasia" (Dec. 1818 [18-73]). (1) Persona notwithstanding, this paper aims to nuance the traditional view of Lamartine as a purely inspired lyricist through an analysis of specific changes in his concept of poetry as they are reflected in specific poems and prose commentaries. Lamartines so-called inattention to form is actually, to use Maurice Blanchot's words, a "purete" that reflects the will and "methode" of the poet: "La facilite est sa principale rigueur." (176) Others have highlighted the same purposeful restraint when it comes to the poet's language and rhetoric: "Ce n'est donc pas par negligence ou paresse que Lamartine s'est peu corrige,--et il s'est plus corrige qu'on ne l'a cru jadis" (Bruneau 154). (2) More recently, Mary Ellen Birkett has lent a refreshing counterpoint to the view of Lamartine as an instrument played upon, to demonstrate the poet's artful use of "a kaleidoscope of poetic expressions, creating beautiful, everchanging patterns from pieces which are already supplied" (40). (3)

The Meditations invite further study of Lamartine's poetic process. Though the towering Chateaubriand had pointedly omitted poetry from his recent overviews of modern French literature in Le Conservateur, Lamartine asserted the French lyric's relevancy through a slim volume of elegies. Charting a chronological path that aligns the poet's correspondence with developments in several key poems reveals Lamartine to be a highly self-conscious, lucidly experimental poet who tempers feeling with compositional restraint: "N'as-tu pas quelquefois chante pour toi seul dans ta chambre ou dans les bois? C'est le meme sentiment involontaire qui me force a composer; composons donc" (to Virieu, Corr Dec. 1818 [18-73]). (4) Lamartine was aware when publishing the Meditations that he was cultivating a new poetic style, one rooted in a protracted meditation on the art of poetry making. Alain Vaillant has already made a compelling case that the "hard evidence" of versification in Lamartine is more at stake than philosophy, psychology, or abstract discourses on music; but while Vaillant limits himself to "Le Lac" and the hermeneutics of its echoing structure, I propose a fuller reading of the overall volume as the story of Lamartines own developing "ars poetica". The first section of this paper will highlight how the poet, reconnecting with the experiential and expressive self, reinforced poetry through surprisingly non-sentimentalized confrontations with nature as well as through an explicit resistance to the genre of prose. Next, through a chronological reading of select poems that enact his discourse on poetry in his correspondence, I will trace the poet's figurations of water in the Meditations to show how they reflect critical stages in an evolving poetic process. Lamartine's elusive shores will serve as a metaphor for the way he continually reassesses, effaces, and resituates the limits of poetry.

The Poetics of Prosaic Landscapes

In surprising contrast to the pale and nebulous depictions of scenery that appear throughout the Meditations, Lamartine's comments to close correspondents indicate that he found inspiration in ordinary, unadorned but vividly illuminated natural surroundings: "je ne me sens aucune curiosite pour tout ce qui n'est pas du soleil et de la belle et pure nature" (to Virieu, Corr Aug. 1818 [18-44]). Informed by English poetry at a young age, Lamartine, who sought to emulate what he described as Alexander Pope's fused role as a poet, philosopher, and "bon ami," also picked up on Mme de Stael's connection between what she considers the superiority of the English imagination to English poets' propensity for capturing sensory experience: "ils ont l'art d'unir intimement les reflexions philosophiques aux sensations produites par les beautes de la Champagne" (De la litterature II: 220). (5) As Sainte-Beuve would remark in 1829, gaining a sense for the au-dela of Lamartine's poems even requires a concerted effort to clear away the metaphysical distractions of veils and lulling melodies: "Le voile de poesie est si brillant chez M. de Lamartine que l'oeil est tente de s'y arreter, comme l'oreille a l'enchantement de sa melodie, sans trop s'inquieter de penetrer au-dela" (CEuvres 325). Considered by Lamartine to be his most important poems from a tumultuous yet highly productive period (1818-1819), both "L'Homme" and "La Priere" work together to resolve the turbulence of the human condition through the poet's penetrating contemplation of his own place in nature: "Je me renferme a jamais dans ma retraite la plus profonde possible, je ne quitte plus ma montagne, je romps presque toutes mes relations et correspondances" (Corr 8 Oct. 1819 [19-85]). "L'Homme" and "La Priere", in fact, can be read as ironically inversed. The poet sheds the weight of the metaphysical in the latter by insisting on the sensual experience of the surrounding landscape (the color of the sky at dawn, dewdrops, the heat of the noon sun: 57-84), while he contemplates the transcendence of nature in the former: "Et, cedant sans combattre au souffle qui m'inspire, / L'hymne de la raison s'elanca de ma lyre" ("L'Homme" 147-148).6

A turn away from melancholic and resigned exhalations in preromantic literary landscapes, the Meditations thus set out to forge a musical language from their surroundings: "Le circonstanciel joue donc en deux directions opposees," Dominique Rabate remarks on Lamartine; "il est a la fois ce qu'il faut depasser mais concurremment cette singularite absolue que la langue ne devrait pas trahir" (71). While "L'Homme" portrays the flawed and turbulent situation of humanity as that of a fallen angel in a perpetually perturbed state, "La Priere" is more prescriptive and even brazen in the way it describes the possibility of the creation of the lyric voice in a seemingly barren poetic landscape:

   Mais ce temple est sans voix. ou sont les saints concerts?
   La voix de l'univers, c'est mon intelligence.
   Sur les rayons du soir, sur les ailes du vent,
   Elle s'eleve a Dieu comme un parfum vivant;
   Et, donnant un langage a toute creature,
   Prete pour l'adorer mon ame a la nature. (27; 30-34)

Access to poetic language requires a profound experience and understanding of the workings of nature (the flight through landscapes dramatized in Childe Harolds Pilgrimage, for example, would not suffice), where contemplation and the abstract notes of melody first and foremost require a reanimation of the senses: "Ce monde qui te cache est transparent pour moi; / C'est toi que je decouvre au fond de la nature" (64-65). "L'Homme" may present the silent and disorienting situation of the poet, but "La Priere" is the immediately ensuing and grounding antidote that begins with the poet's contemplation of a richly colored, ephemeral sunset. This is nature at its most intimate and highly charged moment, a climax before dissipation: "C'est l'heure ou la nature, un moment recueillie, / Entre la nuit qui tombe et le jour qui s'enfuit, / S'eleve au Createur du jour et de la nuit," (10-12). Yet, Lamartine's nature is not sublime, and not even characteristically "romantic", but close-to-home and unassuming. Of Milly, his family's country estate from where he produced what he considered to be his best poems to date, Lamartine was blunt when it came to the landscape's lack of the traditional elements for poetic inspiration: "Je m'attache a ce vilain Milly que j'ai toujours aime malgre sa laideur" (to Virieu, Corr 3 Oct. 1819 [19-84]). Such a deflated perspective distances the poet not only from Rousseau, who took great pains when choosing the sublime Alpine setting of La Nouvelle Heloise (Confessions ILIX), or from Byron's ambition to capture the entire theater of Eastern and Western landscapes, but especially from Bernardin de SaintPierre and Chateaubriand, who detected divine presence and thus creative potential in specifically exotic and spectacular landscapes such as Mauritius or Niagara Falls. Lamartine's extreme condensation of the world into "sous nos yeux", his stark reduction of the landscape into "soled" and "ombre", and his general call for an "abrutissement" of human interactions with natural surroundings, also reject Mme de Stael's Christian-inspired and soaring enthusiasm: "Si l'on peut apprendre quelque chose, ce n'est que du grand spectacle qui est sous nos yeux . . . Que chacun y cherche son mot pour soi et non pour les autres, voila tout" (Corr Dec. 1819 [19-106]). (7)

The poet's direct confrontation with such a stark and seemingly irresolvable demarcation between nature and poetry ("aux limites de l'art" 143) allows him to expose the root of the poetic process itself, the workings of the imagination in its direct confrontation with nature:

Les hommes sont bien orgueilleux de parler de leur beau ideal, c'est la nature qui est le supreme ideal. Nous ne faisons que la gater, et nous croyons l'embellir. Il y a plus de 'poesie' dans ce petit coin d'un de ses tableaux que dans toutes nos poesies humaines. Cela me desole et me console en meme temps. (Corr 21 May 1819 [19-37]) (8)

Thus, while it may seem that Lamartine adopts a resigned stance when it comes to the efficacy of poetic expression, he in fact points to a process of concentration that would become the hallmark of the modern lyric: "la veritable fecondite d'un poete ne consiste pas dans le nombre de ses vers, mais bien plutot dans l'etendue de leurs effets" (Paul Valery 610). Notably, he explicitly casts his Meditations as a more effective communicator than prose due to their brevity and intense focus on "le sens intime": "Ils [mes vers] m'ont pris la place que je comptais consacrer a des bavardages en prose" (to Virieu, Corr 24 Aug. 1818 [18-48]). The fact that Lamartine wrote a book of poems in 1820 was an assertion in and of itself: challenging modern proses status as the most effective means of discourse, Lamartine's melodic lyric-which first requires a descent from the "auguste cime" of Parnassus--is arranged to strike carefully composed and indelible chords:

   Nos coeurs de la nature entiere
   Doivent concentrer les rayons;
   Ce n'est que d'un luth magnanime
   Que partent les divins accords. ("L'Enthousiasme", mp: 56-57;

Lamartine's poetics, then, conceal an irony: his meditations repel the ascending and melodic enthrallment of enthusiasm in favor of an earth-inspired, deliberately composed harmony. It is this process of composition--which distinctly sacrifices the traditional view of the poet as divinely inspired ("Tu veux que je lui sacrifie / Ce dernier souffle de ma vie!") (9)--that I would now like to address in my reading of the Meditations.

From Gulf to Stream: Harmony out of Melody

All featuring direct encounters with landscapes, the poems discussed here each represent a stage in the poet's approach to lyric expression. While the ambiguous shores of "Le Golfe de Baya" reflect a young poet skeptical of modern poetry's fate, they transform in "Le Lac" into the charged setting of a clearly outlined body of water symbolic of the source of a mature poet. After turning to the disconcerting disconnect between lake and stream in "L'Isolement", I see a subsequent merging of source and expression as the poet contemplates a running stream in "Le Vallon" and reveals the sounds, not of a vague melody, but of the composed harmonies of a full concert. Moving beyond "Le Lac" as the source that defines his poetry allows me to situate "Le Vallon" as the "watershed" moment of the Meditations in the way it transforms the poet's melodic but fragmented voice into a channeled flow.

The starting point of my chronological analysis of the Meditations is the liminal space of the gulf. Inspired by a recent stay in Italy (1811-1812) as well as by the precarious situation of poetry in late Empire France, Lamartine tentatively navigates a new landscape for poetry in "Le Golfe de Baya, pres de Naples" (1812-1813). In a letter to Virieu, the self-described "lazzarone" (idler) describes Naples and its surroundings as the ideal spot for the imagination; however, in the same breath, he suggests that it is not possible to express this experience of the landscape in words: "Les mots me manqueraient pour te decrire cette ville enchantee, ce golfe, ces paysages, ces montagnes uniques sur la terre, cet horizon, ce ciel, ces teintes merveilleuses" (Corr 28 Dec. 1811 [11-47]. Likewise, caught in an expectant moment of silence at a threshold between land and sea, the poet of "Le Golfe" wonders whether a place for lyric poetry exists: "Quels chants sur ces flots retentissent? / Quels chants eclatent sur ces bords?" (26-27). The gulf serves as a metaphor for the tension between classicism and romanticism, a debate that in 1813 had reached a peak of intensity in French literary criticism.10 Though the poem still relies heavily on classical rhetoric (the sun is "plonge dans le sein de Thetis", and the moon a "pale reine des nuits"), modern sensibilities of anxiety, doubt and melancholy undermine these rhetorical flourishes. The varying stanzaic patterns, which reflect the push-and-pull movement of the sea (increasing from the octosyllable to the alexandrine, then decreasing back to the octosyllable), reflect this hesitation formally; if the epic poem and the ghosts of Roman poets are evoked, they ultimately disappear ("plus de trace" 82).

In "Le Golfe de Baya," then, the classical Italianate landscape is a mere backdrop for a new poetic setting that hovers between stillness and movement. The poet navigates a "flot paisible" (1), but the atmosphere is heavy and balmy ("vapeurs embaumees" 21), and a "volage zephyr" (3) suggests the almost imperceptible movements quietly at work. The air laden with the scent of sleepy flowers, the visible landscape becomes blurry with the transient notes of perfume:

   Le sein des fleurs demi-fermees
   S'ouvre, et de vapeurs embaumees
   En ce moment remplit les airs;
   Et du soir la brise legere
   Des plus doux parfums de la terre
   A son tour embaume les mers. (20-25)

This poem is not a story of imitation, but of clinging to ("raisons," 9) indeterminate shores to find a way for reinvention. In the end, "tout s'efface" (84), and the reader is left with only a vague image of a place overwhelmed by the reverberations of both ancient and modern: Racine, Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Mme de Stael, Baour-Lormian, Chenedolle, Parny, and Millevoye also haunt these liminal shores. The echoing effects accentuated in the last stanza add to the poet's sense of disorientation:

   Ainsi tout change, ainsi tout passe;
   Ainsi nous-memes nous passons,
   Helas! sans laisser plus de trace
   Que cette barque ou nous glissons
   Sur cette mer ou tout s'efface. (80-84)

And yet, despite the consuming waves and the vast, open sea, the poet manages to leave his own trace. The end of the poem recuperates the continuing movement of the wake ("sans laisser plus de trace / Que cette barque oU nous glissons"--emphasis mine) that the poet had initiated with his oar at the start of the poem ("Au sein de Fonde fremissante / Je trace un rapide sillon" 14-15--emphasis mine). By echoing and thus privileging the presence of a "trace", Lamartine points the way toward a future direction and the possibility of composed music within his confused surroundings.

As Lanson notes (192), the last lines of "Le Golfe" serve as a seamless point of departure for "Le Lac" in its focus on the passing of time, and, I would add, in the way it points to a new lyric forged through a recuperative gesture. If "Le Golfe" looks back to classical poetry while hinting at a new direction, "Le Lac" generates a new sound out of the depths of memory:

   Ainsi, toujours pousses vers de nouveaux rivages,
   Dans la nuit eternelle emportes sans retour,
   Ne pourrons-nous jamais sur l'ocean des ages
   Jeter l'ancre un seul jour? (1-4)

In "Le Lac", Lamartine thus refers back to his previous poem, creating an echoing effect across the waters--particularly through the repeated use of the word "ainsi"--and thereby sustaining the movement necessary for an authentically modern lyric: "l'important dans la litterature ... c'est l'interet, le mouvement" (Mme de Stael, De l'Allemagne; I: 248). Within the temporal "flot" of the Meditations, the explorer-poet reins in the disorienting movements of the gulf and bestows an immobile, narrowly defined lake of personal memories with lyric potential.

In 1817, "Le Lac" is Lamartines representation, not just of a new conception of poetry, but of an operative aesthetic. His unpublished but important tragedy Saiil, the bulk of which was drafted in the same period as "Le Lac", is significant in this respect. Like "Le Golfe" and "Le Lac", Saiil was first inspired by the poet's encounter with a familiar and humble landscape ("Je me trouve a merveille de l'air des champs; je redeviens un homme a peu pres, et tellement que j'ai enfin concu un Saul dont j'ai meme verseggie une premiere scene"), an inspiration that he then shapes into the productive merger between classical form and modern expression: "Je viens de finir a l'instant un acte entier du Saul; celui-la est du Shakespeare, l'autre sera du Racine, si je peux, et ainsi tour a tour du pathetique au terrible et du terrible au lyrique jusqu'a la fin" (to Virieu, Corr 23 Jan. 1818 [18-5]).11 Lamartine viewed himself not only as picking up the lyre, but as becoming a committed poet intensely preoccupied with presentation and style. While poetic language overcomes the physical aspects of his landscapes, here it even wins out over biblical subject matter:

J'espere que ... tu seras assez content du style, et, tot ou tard, le style est tout: il a, quoi qu'on en dise, la vie ou la mort d'un ouvrage en soi. Je redoutais infiniment de n'avoir a offrir que cet unique interet de style et de poesie dans un sujet si depourvu en apparence de tous les principes d'un autre interet. (30 Apr. 1818 [18-20])

Thus, though it is perhaps best known as the archetypical romantic love poem, "Le Lac" is more an artistic performance than an expression of emotion (Gleize 22).12 Most notably, Lamartine composes the varying syllabic patterns of "Le Golfe" into the fixed stanzaic rhythm of three alexandrines followed by one hexameter. The enclosed figure of the lake becomes a generative, dynamic force that paradoxically depends on the continual erasure of what it creates:

[Lamartine] n'utilise pas seulement jusqu'a l'extreme les dispositions naturelles d'une culture et d'un langage, il impose aussi le sentiment d'une presence poetique dont aucun vers, a lui seul, ne peut etre le miroir fidele mais qui s'accumule dans un flux et reflux de vers imparfaits, dans une foret liquide qu'on peut apercevoir dans son ampleur a condition de ne regarder aucun arbre. (Blanchot 177)

Blanchofs analogy of the "foret liquide," a defined space whose indeterminate properties blur its own confines, corresponds to Lamartine's idea of situating his verse at the very limits of art. Adopting a simple, unadorned vocabulary, he evokes the destabilizing but generative tension between a demystified landscape and its extraordinary potential for sound: "Le monde serait desert qu'il faudrait que je produisisse encore" (to Virieu, Corr Dec. 1818 [18-73]). "Le Lac" serves as a crucial juncture in the Meditations where the poet deploys strikingly new compositional approaches that are meant to appear effortless: "produire de grands effets avec de tres legeres insinuations" (to Virieu, 10 Jun. 1818 [18-30]).

The drama of "Le Lac" lies in its juxtaposition of an apparently tranquil scene with the intense distress that rises to the surface through the individual experience of loss. Can he leave his "trace" on the lake, as well?: "Eh quoi! nen pourrons-nous fixer au moins la trace?" (41) Modern poetry as Mme de Stael had defined it, situated in sublime landscapes of vast oceans and infinite skies, was meant to suggest more than to describe or enunciate (De l'Allemagne I: 207). Yet, the representation of the real, physical landscape is very much at stake in "Le Lac". Noteworthy in this regard is an abundance of substantive nouns in the last four stanzas: "lac" (twice), "rochers", "grottes", "foret", "orages", "coteaux", "sapins", "rocs", "eaux", "zephyr", "bruits", "bords", "astre", "vent", "roseau", "parfums", "air". The poet, always grounded in nature, first represents a visual landscape that is in the process of disappearing in order for a new, more powerful sound to emerge:

   Tu mugissais ainsi sous ces roches profondes,
   Ainsi tu te brisais sur leurs flancs dechires,
   Ainsi le vent jetait l'ecume de tes ondes
   Sur ses pieds adores.
   Tout a coup des accents inconnus a la terre
   Du rivage charme frapperent les echos;
   Le flot fut attentif, et la voix qui m'est chere
   Laissa tomber ces mots: (9-12; 17-21)

"Le Lac" is thus a poem that purges as it lays bare the mediating poetic agency working to wrest personal memory out of an indifferent landscape. The "emergence" of the lyric voice is by no means a given here--"N'allant pas de soi, la poesie va d'abord, essentiellement, surgir comme question" (Gleize 20)--and of all the first Meditations, it is clear that "Le Lac" constitutes the site of the most intense of struggles. Lamartine sets out to destroy and create simultaneously within the "confines" of just sixty-four lines. The uninhibited echo does not immediately project off of the lake, but first requires the determined flow of the poet's verse as he reduces the field of his vision to a "tabula rasa": "Lepanchement verbal lamartinien parcourt le monde sans brutalite ni hate" (Richard, "Vallon et horizon" 63). Lamartines use of the stream of nouns, alluded to above, supports this claim. The poet hollows out his own site of expression: "Avec Lamartine, apres lui, la poesie devient caisse de resonance, susceptible d'elevation, capable de creuser la dimension de l'interiorite" (Loiseleur, mp: 10). Lamartine digs deeper with the relentless repetition of "dans" and "que", and his deliberateness seems to counteract the threat of disappearance by time: "Je dis a cette nuit: 'Sois plus lente'" (31). Due to this "dilatation du temps" (Vaillant 56), the lake (as a site of remembrance) becomes an ever-deepening and resonant receptacle. The resulting sound is not a cacophonous or fading echo, but rather, a song that only increases in volume and clarity: "Dans les bruits de tes bords par tes bords repetes" (58). Thus, as Vaillant concludes, the entire poem is designed to be an echo of itself ("poeme-echo"), referring in the end to what had seemed an oddly detached beginning ("Ainsi"). "Le Lac" is a moment of awareness that doubles back on itself to create a place from where future songs can emerge.

The enactment of this "installation" is nevertheless threatened by stagnancy. In "L'Isolement", written in 1818--that is, 'in the wake' of "Le Lac"--the poet portrays a landscape in which lake (origin) and stream (agency) are disconnected:

   Ici, gronde le fleuve aux vagues ecumantes,
   Il serpente, et s'enfonce en un lointain obscur;
   La, le lac immobile etend ses eaux dormantes,
   ou l'etoile du soir se leve dans l'azur. (5-8)

The disjuncture suggested by these bodies of water renders the poet even more susceptible to obliteration than had the turbulent ocean in "Le Golfe de Baya". Fresh from a reading of Felicite de Lamennais' Essai sur l'indifference en matiere de religion (1817), in which a stagnant lake stands as a metaphor for the century's degeneracy ("sombre cloaque, ou le crime stupidement tranquille s'endort entre les bras de la volupte, aux pieds de l'affreuse idole du neant" xxxiii), Lamartine sets up a sobering scenario in "L'Isolement" that quells the ascending reverberations of "Le Lac" ("Que me font ces vallons, ces palais, ces chaumieres" 25). Here, Lamartine adopts a distinctly flat tone, weighed down by alexandrines and held up by cesuras, that contrasts with the anxious and restless cries emitted in the romantically tinged works of Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Byron and Mme de Stael: "Mais a ces doux tableaux mon ame indifferente / N'eprouve devant eux ni charme ni transports" (17-18). In the first six stanzas of the poem, Lamartine ironically appropriates the "systeme devorant" of indifference that Lamennais decries with an uninflected series of alexandrines describing visual details of the landscape. While on a biographical and sentimental level "L'Isolement" expresses the poet's wish to join his absent lover Julie (who has died since the writing of "Le Lac"), he is also "describing" a poetry that does not have a means to expression. Though the poem evokes the tension between stasis (lake) and movement (stream), it is structured as a fixed diptych caught in a conditional mode: "La je m'enivrerais a la source ou j'aspire" (41--emphasis mine).

Just as the poet in "L'Isolement" loses sight of the landscape's stream ("II serpente, et s'enfonce en un lointain obscur" 6), evanescence and loss would seem to dominate "Le Vallon", written the following year (1819):

   La, deux ruisseaux caches sous des ponts de verdure
   Tracent en serpentant les contours du vallon;
   Ils melent un moment leur onde et leur murmure,
   Et non loin de leur source ils se perdent sans nom. (9-12)

However, the streams' reflections of light defy the horizontality of passing time by directing the eye upwards: "Mais leur onde est limpide, et mon ame troublee / N'aura pas reflechi les clartes d'un beau jour" (15-16). In the following stanza, the scene cuts to the figure of a meditating poet who stands at the water's edge:

   La fraicheur de leurs lits, l'ombre qui les couronne
   M'enchainent tout le jour sur les bords des ruisseaux;
   Comme un enfant berce par un chant monotone,
   Mon ame s'assoupit au murmure des eaux. (17-20)

What explains this odd, doubly recuperated figure of the stream? In this final poem of my analysis, I argue that the poet aims to merge source (the lake) and expression (the stream) to sustain and amplify into a channeled flow the underlying "trace" of a new lyric that first made itself heard in "Le Golfe". Composing the headlong rush of water into a slow, deliberate tempo reflecting the poet's gradual awakening to nature's light and sounds, Lamartine presents the modern lyric as a self-conscious, artfully crafted genre. If time flies in a crepuscular "Lac", the poet succeeds in dramatically slowing its pace within an illuminated "Vallon" by stopping not only to gaze idly at the landscape (in "L'Isolement", his eyes had only skimmed "au hasard" over his surroundings), but to listen to it and eliminate its cacophony. This "restauration" of silence (Loiseleur, L'Harmonie selon Lamartine 146) in turn allows him to transform nature's sounds into music, changing his role from that of a passive lyre to a discriminating listener who harmonizes the workings of the imagination.

In Rousseau's famous fifth promenade in Les Reveries du promeneur solitaire (1784; posthumous), the steady lapping of Lake Bienne translates as a motif, or a free melody that corresponds to Rousseaus ideal construct of music. Yet, while Rousseaus melodic imagination continually fades, Lamartine turns to a model of expression that surmounts vagrancy and instability ("mon ame troublee" 15) through a composed harmony: "Adore ici l'echo qu'adorait Pythagore, / Prete avec lui l'oreille aux celestes concerts" (55-56). With more confidence in his lyric enterprise ("Je fais les plus beaux vers de ma vie," Corr 12 Oct. 1819 [19-88]), Lamartine resolves to bridge a vertiginous gap: even at the brink, this poet will not lose himself to a heedless gush of water. Relying on the solid foundation of Pythagoras, who is known for having established a harmony of the spheres and thus for mapping order onto an ethereal domain, Lamartine concretizes musicality into a tangible and emphatic language: "l'harmonie, jusque-la incantation diffuse dans le texte, revient a son invention comme science et comme doctrine" (Loiseleur, L'Harmonie 147). While Loiseleur's study of harmony responds to an abstract "poeticite" ("D'un point de vue formel autant que conceptuel, l'harmonie lamartinienne vaporise la pensee: la fluidite du vers liquefie le systeme" 293), I argue that Lamartine's more tangible aim in "Le Vallon" is to enunciate a clear, new language that better reflects a grounded "horizon borne qui suffit a mes yeux" (22). Prior to the shift in register in "L'Isolement", Lamartine had transmitted the sentiment of indifference directly through more or less uninterrupted alexandrines. In "Le Vallon", scansion reveals a poet fashioning each syllable in order to pace the turbulent streams and render them intelligible to the listener. Each time he stops at a literal or figurative threshold ("un rempart de verdure", Lethe, the city walls), the flow of the lines is halted by an abundance of commas:

   Repose-toi, mon ame, dans ce dernier asile,
   Ainsi qu'un voyageur qui, le coeur plein d'espoir,
   S'assied, avant d'entrer, aux portes de la ville,
   Et respire un moment l'air embaume du soir. (37-40)

Similarly, the lack of expressive punctuation in "Le Vallon" is not meant to allude to the poet's indifference, but on the contrary, to communicate his complete command of his enterprise as he slows time to a standstill:

   J'aime a fixer mes pas, et, seul dans la nature,
   A n'entendre que l'onde, a ne voir que les deux.

   J'ai trop vu, trop senti, trop aime dans ma vie;
   Je viens chercher vivant le calme du Lethe. (23-26)

Shedding the confused baggage not only of poetry past, but of his own earlier elegies, Lamartine channels the streams of his poetic landscape into a site of purposeful forgetting that does not signal an end, but a new beginning of a full bodily experience in nature that leads to acute self-consciousness. The darkness, faint light, and general uncertainty expressed in Lamartines previous "water poems" now meet a redeeming sun, and nature is comfortingly predictable and "inviting" in its cyclical patterns:

   Mais la nature est la qui t'invite et qui t'aime;
   Plonge-toi dans son sein quelle t'ouvre toujours;
   Quand tout change pour toi, la nature est la meme,
   Et le meme soleil se leve sur tes jours. (49-52)

The poet of "Le Vallon" does not present the unintelligible echo of poetry past or the lamentation of lost youth, but a bold and discernible hymn located in the generative streams at the depths of the valley. The star above meets the stream below--"Avec le doux rayon de l'astre du mystere / Glisse a travers les bois dans l'ombre du vallon" (59-60)--which enacts the interpenetration of the circumscribed and the infinite: "C'est une intimite qui demeure impermeable a la pression exterieure et qui, dans son plus grand abandon a l'agitation cosmique, peut encore se replier sur elle-meme" (Richard 75). After pausing at numerous thresholds, the narrator endows his landscape with a force that floods the feeble echoings of his earlier poems: "Suis le jour dans le ciel, suis l'ombre sur la terre, / Dans les plaines de l'air vole avec l'aquilon" (57-58). Shifting from the echo of "trace" to an insistent "suis", the poet of "Le Vallon" affirms his identity ("[je] suis") as a voice that flows and enunciates rather than merely suggests. The unsettling repetitions of "dans" and "Que" in the last lines of "Le Lac" are replaced by a sustained and calm assonance in "Le Vallon" that stresses lyric poetry's reclaimed fluidity and ascendance. Lamartine's valley thus serves both as a source and as a direct conduit to effective movement and change, presenting an enclosed space in which the poet's gesture of thoughtful stopping or "meditation" enables his voice to go beyond its natural confines: "En effet, l'echo designe ce phenomene acoustique de la repercussion qui permet le son: il est l'autre qui est encore le meme, le dedoublement qui cree et qui maintient le sentiment de l'unite" (Loiseleur, L'Harmonie 147).


The survival of poetry, as Mme de Stael had postulated in De l'Allemagne, depends on its constant evolution and thus the poet's continual sacrifice of what he has left behind. Lamartines concerted move from the gulf, to the lake, and then to the stream is a telling evidence of this progression. Despite our disenchanted postmodernist prejudices, we can read the Meditations as prescient in their paradoxical move to destroy in order to recreate. Lamartines subtly destructive process would embolden his followers to adopt, as their manifesto, a radically iconoclastic stance: "il a eu bien plutot l'intention," Victor Hugo remarks of himself in the "revolutionary" preface to Cromwell (1827), "de defaire que de faire des poetiques" (98). Lamartine also anticipates the Symbolists' sacrifice of the self's voice for the composition of a whole symphony that, "a la limite", signifies absence and silence: "Saint des Saints, mais mental . . . alors y aboutissent, dans quelque eclair supreme, d'oU s'eveille la Figure que Nul n'est, chaque attitude mimique prise par elle a un rythme inclus dans la symphonie, et le delivrant!" (Mallarme, "Richard Wagner, reverie d'un poete francais" 367). If Lamartine did not reach the extreme limit of Mallarme's impassive lake that effectively crystallizes the lyric song,13 his 'water poems' nonetheless show the extent to which the poet struggles to leave turbulent flows behind in order to proffer and sustain a collective harmony:

   Mais toi, lyre melodieuse,
   Surnageant sur les flots amers,
   Des cygnes la troupe envieuse
   Suivra ta troupe harmonieuse
   Sur l'abime roulant des mers. ("Adieux a la poesie" 106-110) (14)

University of Delaware


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Blanchot, Maurice. "Situation de Lamartine". Faux pas. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.175-179. Bruneau, Charles. "Lepoque romantique". Histoire de la langue francaise des origines a nos jours. Vol. 12. Ed. Ferdinand Brunot. Paris: Armand Colin, 1948.

Charlier, Gustave. "De Pope a Lamartine". Aspects de Lamartine. Paris: Albert, 1937. 67-94.

Le Conservateur. Vols. 1-6. Paris: Le Normant fils, 1818-1820.

Gleize, Jean-Marie. "La Mise a lecart: Lamartine". Poesie et figuration. Paris: Seuil, 1983. 19-38.

Hugo, Victor. "Preface". Cromwell. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1968. 61-109.

Lamartine, Alphonse de. Correspondance. Ed. Christian Croisille and Marie-Renee Morin. 2nd series, vols. 1-3 [1809-1823]. Paris: Honore Champion, 2004-2005.

--. Meditations poetiques. 2 vols. 2nd ed. Ed. Gustave Lanson. Paris: Hachette, 1922.

--.Meditations poetiques et Nouvelles meditations poetiques. Ed. Aurelie Loiseleur. Paris: Livre de poche, 2006.

--. Said. Ed. Jean des Cognets. Paris: Hachette, 1918.

Lamennais, Felicite Robert de. "Introduction". Essai sur l'indifference en matiere de la religion. Vol. 1. Paris: Tournachon-Molin et H. Seguin, 1817.

Loiseleur, Aurelie. L'Harmonie selon Lamartine: Utopie d'un lieu commun. Paris: H. Champion, 2005.

Mallarme, Stephane. Poesies. Ed. Bertrand Marchai. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.

--. "Richard Wagner, Reveries d'un poete francais". Ecrits sur l'art. Ed. Michel Draguet. Paris: Flammarion, 1998. 363-368.

"Meditation". Encyclopedie de Diderot et d'Alembert,

Morin, Marie-Renee. "Un poete avise, l'auteur des Meditations". L'Annee 1820, annee des Meditations. Paris: Nizet, 1994.

Rabate, Dominique. "Enonciation poetique, enonciation lyrique". Figures du sujet lyrique. Ed. Dominique Rabate. Paris: puf, 1996. 65-79.

Richard, Jean-Pierre. "Vallon et horizon: thematique de l'ouvert et du dos chez Lamartine". Sainte-Beuve, Lamartine: Colloques, 8 novembre 1968. Paris: Armand Colin, 1970. 62-85.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Les Confessions. Ed. Michel Launay. 2 vols. Paris: GarnierFlammarion, 1968.

Sainte-Beuve, Charles Augustin. Les Consolations. Poesies completes. Paris: Charpentier, 1869.

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(1.) From Correspondance, henceforth abbreviated Corr. The number in brackets corresponds to the enumeration in Christian Croisille's edition (Champion, 2000). The letter cited here is addressed to Aymon de Virieu, Lamartine's closest friend and steadfast critic.

(2.) Gustave Lanson's edition of the Meditations (1915) is the best resource for noting Lamartine's reworking of drafts of his poems.

(3.) Francois Vanoosthuyse (2009) perhaps gives a more accurate "portrait of the artist" by distancing Lamartine from the casual connotations of "playing" and highlighting instead his determined "negociation tres fine" of persistent linguistic constraints (39).

(4.) "Tu me disais," Virieu had remarked earlier in the same year, "que tu t'accoutumais a ne pas te permettre les vers faibles, meme dans le moment de la composition; je pense que tu as raison" (28 Jan. 1818 [18-6]).

(5.) As Gustave Charlier has shown in Aspects de Lamartine, the influence of English poetry on Lamartine is significant: "Je crois vraiment la poesie anglaise superieure a la francaise et a l'italienne," he remarked to Virieu in 1809, and of Pope in particular added, "Je le prefere de beaucoup a Boileau pour la poesie" (Corr 3 Mar. [09-4]).

(6.) All references to Lamartines poems, prefaces or essays are from Aurelie Loiseleur's edition of the Meditations poetiques (2006), henceforth abbreviated mp.

(7.) Here it would seem that William Wordsworths Lyrical Ballads (1800) would be an obvious source of inspiration, yet there is no evidence that Lamartine had even heard of his English counterpart. However, a series of letters from Lamartines close friend Louis de Vignet certainly played a role in tempering the young poet's tendencies towards loftiness, as they repeatedly implored him to turn instead to a concrete and "animal" world: "Tes Meditations etincellent de verve, de sentiment et de poesie. Mais pourquoi vivre toujours dans le vague, toujours regrettant ce que tu n'as pas, desirant toujours ce que tu ne peux avoir? ... Ainsi donc, au nom de Dieu, ne medite plus; essaye pour quelque temps de te reduire a la vie animale, aux simples sensations d'un lazzarone" (Corr 1 May 1819 [19-32]). Vignet's seemingly glib instruction to Lamartine to "ne medite plus" in fact reflected the pragmatic cautioning in the Encyclopedie that "Nous ne sommes pas faits pour mediter seulement, mais il faut que la meditation nous dispose a agir, ou c'est un exercice meprisable" ("Meditation").

(8.) This letter was addressed to Eleonore de Canoge, a rather close friend and frequent correspondent whom Lamartine met at Aix-les-Bains in 1817, when he wrote "Le Lac".

(9.) "L'Enthousiasme" (88-89).

(10.) Mme de Necker de Saussure's translation of Wilhelm Schlegel's Cours litteraire dramatique appeared in 1813, as well as Sismondi's De la Litterature du Midi de l'Europe. Mme de Stael's De l'Allemagne, having been banned in France by Napoleon, finally appeared in 1813.

(11.) Marie-Renee Morin in "Un poete avise, l'auteur des Meditations", as well as Jean des Cognets in his critical edition of Said (1918), demonstrate the tragedy's important influence on the development of the first Meditations.

(12.) "Le Lac" laments the absence of Julie Charles, with whom Lamartine had a brief but life-changing liaison in 1816 at Lake Bourget. Unlike "Le Golfe", which was written after his stay in Italy, "Le Lac" is more immediate since it was written on the spot a year later as Lamartine waited in vain for Julies return.

(13.) "Ce lac dur oublie que hante sous le givre / Le transparent glacier des vols qui n'ont pas fui!" ("Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui" 3-4).

(14.) Nouvelles meditations poetiques (1823).
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Date:Mar 22, 2014
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