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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Louis Honoré Fréchette (1839–1908)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Maurice Francis Egan (1852–1924)
 
LOUIS HONORÉ FRÉCHETTE, the best known of the French-Canadian poets, was born near the forties, at Lévis, a suburb of Quebec. He was patriotic; his genius was plainly that of New France, while the form of it was of that older France which produced the too exquisite sonnets of Voiture; and what counts greatly with the Canadians, he has received the approbation of the Academy; he was a personage in Paris, where he spent a great deal of time. From ‘Nos Gens de Lettres’ (Our Literary Workers: Montreal, 1873), we learn that the father of M. Fréchette was a man of business, and that he did not encourage his son’s poetic tendencies to the detriment of the practical side of his character.  1
  Lévis has traditions which are part of that stirring French-Canadian history latterly made known to us by Mrs. Catherwood and Gilbert Parker. And the great St. Lawrence spoke to him in
  “All those nameless voices, which are
Beating at the heart.”
  2
  At the age of eight he began to write verses. He was told by his careful father that poets never become rich; but he still continued to make verses. He grew to be a philosopher as well as a poet, and a little later became firmly of Horace’s opinion, that a poet to be happy does not need riches gained by work. His father, who no doubt felt that a philosopher of this cult was not fit for the world, sent him to the Seminary at Quebec. At the Seminary he continued to write verses. The teachers there found merit in the verses. The “nameless voices” still beat at his heart, though the desks of the preparatory college had replaced the elms of the St. Lawrence. But poets are so rare that even when one is caught young, his captors doubt his species. The captors in this case determined to see whether Pegasus could trot as well as gallop. “Transport yourself, little Fréchette,” they said, “to the Council of Clermont and be a troubadour.” What is time to the poet? He became a troubadour: but this was not enough; his preceptors were still in doubt; they locked him in a room and gave him as a subject the arrival of Mgr. de Laval in Canada. An hour passed; the first sufferings of the young poet having abated, he produced his verses. It was evident that Pegasus could acquire any pace. His talent was questioned no more.  3
  As he became older, Fréchette had dreams of becoming a man of action, and began to learn telegraphy at Ogdensburg; but he found the art too long and life too brief. He went back to the seminary and contributed ‘Mes Loisirs’ (My Spare Hours) to the college paper. From the seminary—the Petit Seminaire, of course,—he went to the College of Ste. Anne, to Nicolet, and finally to Laval University, “singing, and picking up such crumbs of knowledge as suited his taste.”  4
  In 1864 M. Fréchette was admitted to practice at the bar of Quebec. He was a poet first and always; but just at this time he was second a journalist, third a politician, and perhaps fourth a barrister. He began to publish a paper, Le Journal de Lévis. It failed: disgusted, he bade farewell to Canada, and began in Chicago the publication of L’Observateur: it died in a day. He poured forth his complaints in ‘Voix d’un Exilé’ (The Voice of an Exile). “Never,” cries M. Darveau in ‘Nos Gens de Lettres’ (Our Literary Workers), “did Juvenal scar the faces of the corrupt Romans as did Fréchette lash the shoulders of our wretched politicians.” His L’Amérique, a journal started in Chicago, had some success, but it temporarily ruined Fréchette, as the Swiss whom he had placed in charge of it suddenly changed its policy, and made it sympathize with Germany in the Franco-Prussian war.  5
  Fréchette’s early prose is fiery and eloquent; his admirers compared it to that of Louis Veuillot and Junius, for the reason, probably, that he used it to denounce those whom he hated politically. Fréchette’s verse has the lyrical ring. And although M. Camille Doucet insisted that the French Academy in crowning his poems honored a Frenchman, it must be remembered that Fréchette is both an American and a British subject; and these things, not likely to disarm Academical conservatism, made the action the more significant of the poet’s value.  6
  There is strong and noble passion in ‘La Voix d’un Exilé’ and in the ‘Ode to the Mississippi.’ His arraignment of the Canadian politicians may be forgotten without loss,—no doubt he has by this time forgiven them,—but the real feeling of the poet, who finds in the Mississippi the brother of his beloved St. Lawrence, is permanent:—

  “Adieu, vallons ombreux, mes campagnes fleuries,
Mes montagnes d’azur et mes blondes prairies,
Mon fleuve harmonieux, mon beau ciel embaumé—
Dans les grandes cités, dans les bois, sur les grêves,
Ton image flottera dans mes rêves,
                O mon Canada, bien aimé.
  
Je n’écouterai plus, dans nos forêts profondes,
Dans nos près verdoyants, et sur nos grandes ondes,
Toutes ces voix sans nom qui font battre le cœur.”

          [Farewell, shaded valleys, my flowery meadows, my azure mountains and my pale prairies, my musical stream, my fair sky! In the great towns, in the wood, along the water-sides, thy scenes will float on in my dreams, O Canada, my beloved!
  I shall hear no more, in our deep forests, in our verdant meads and upon our broad waters, all those nameless voices which make one’s heart throb.]
  7
 
  In 1865 the first book of poems which appealed to the world from French Canada appeared. It was Fréchette’s ‘Mes Loisirs’ (My Spare Hours). Later came ‘Pêle-Mêle’ (Pell-Mell), full of fine cameo-like poems,—but like cameos that are flushed by an inner and vital fire. Longfellow praised ‘Pêle-Mêle’: it shows the influence of Hugo and Lamartine; it has the beauty of de Musset, with more freshness and “bloom” than that poet of a glorious past possessed; but there are more traces of Lamartine in ‘Pêle-Mêle’ than of Hugo.  8
  “Fréchette’s imagination,” says an admiring countryman of his, “is a chisel that attacks the soulless block; and with it he easily forms a column or a flower.” His poems have grown stronger as he has become more mature. There was also a great gain in dramatic force, so that it failed to surprise any of his readers that he should have attempted tragedy with success. He lost some of that quality of daintiness which distinguished ‘Le Matin’ (Morning), ‘La Nuit’ (Night), and ‘Fleurs Fanées’ (Faded Flowers). The ‘Pensées d’Hiver’ (Winter Reflections) had this quality, but ‘La Dernière Iroquoise’ (The Last Iroquois) rose above it, and like much of ‘Les Fleurs Boréales’ (Boreal Flowers) and his latest work, it is powerful in spirit, yet retains the greatest chastity of form.  9
  M. Fréchette translated several of Shakespeare’s plays for the Théâtre Français. After ‘Les Fleurs Boréales’ was crowned by the Academy, there appeared ‘Les Oiseaux de Neige’ (The Snow-Birds), ‘Feuilles Volantes’ (Leaves in the Wind), and ‘La Forêt Vierge’ (The Virgin Forest). The volume which shows the genius of Fréchette at its highest is undoubtedly ‘La Légende d’un Peuple’ (The Legend of a Race), which has an admirable preface by Jules Claretie. Fréchette died on May 21, 1908.  10
 
 
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