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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Sully Prudhomme (René François Armand Prudhomme) (1839–1907)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Firmin Roz (1866–1957)
SULLY PRUDHOMME, born in Paris, May 16th, 1839, is the poet who best represents the last third of the nineneenth century. But he represents it as a poet; that is, in beauty and in nobleness, in its most intimate aspirations, in its purest sorrows, in its most beautiful impulses.  1
  The spirit so freely poured out in romantic lyricism seemed, after an enchanted rest in the picturesque poetry of Théophile Gautier and the fancy of Théodore de Banville, to reawaken and come to itself again. After the period during which it found the fullest expression, and that during which it had seemed to forget its own existence, behold it meditating in the midst of tumult, and seeking illumination to guide its way henceforth more prudently. Leconte de Lisle examines the history of the beliefs of humanity, and sets forth the different forms of the Divine dream and of the conception of life, in the ‘Poèmes Antiques’ (1853) and the ‘Poèmes Barbares’ (1859); which made him, in the absence of Victor Hugo, then in exile, the acknowledged master of French poetry. Around him are grouped the poets who were soon to take the name of “Parnassians,” after the publication of their verses by the publisher Lemerre in the collection ‘Parnasse Contemporain’ (1866). Sully Prudhomme, younger by twenty years, came by another way. A very tender sensibility was united in him to very serious reflection. His education had favored these natural tendencies. Reared by a mother in mourning, who was never consoled for the death of an adored husband,—for whom she had waited ten years, and whom she lost after four years of marriage,—the child had been placed in school very young, and had already suffered from “the first loneliness.” Later, preparation for the École Polytechnique had developed in him a taste for the sciences, and had revealed to him the secrets of their exact methods. A malady of the eyes obliged him to abandon his studies just as they were about to be crowned with success. But his mind retained their impress. The deepest feeling and the most scrupulous thinking henceforth shared his inspiration; or to express it better, mingled in and imbued an original poetry which is both analytic and living, scholarly and emotional. Now sentiment dominates, illuminated by a ray of careful thought (see ‘L’Agonie,’ which we cite); now it is the idea developed, but colored, warmed, penetrated, by feeling. Such are the delightful collections of the first fifteen years: ‘Stances et Poèmes’ (1865), ‘Les Épreuves’ (The Tests: 1866), ‘Les Solitudes’ (1869), ‘Les Vrais Tendresses’ (The True Affections: 1875).  2
  But the philosophical thinking of Sully Prudhomme did not find satisfaction in the close analyses or penetrating intuitions which these poems translated. The conflict of reason and the heart, which is the drama of our time, tortured the poet. He resolved to consecrate to it his dearest vigils. From this noble effort two grand philosophical poems resulted: ‘La Justice’ and ‘Le Bonheur’ (1888). Doubtless philosophic poetry already existed in our literature: ‘Jocelyn’ and the ‘Chute d’un Ange,’ some parts of the ‘Contemplation,’ ‘Eloa,’ ‘Moïse,’ and ‘Les Destinées,’ are masterpieces. But Sully Prudhomme has done something different. For imaginative dreams of philosophy he has substituted methodical investigation; slow, prudent, but always anxious, and hence worthy of poetry. And his ambition has been precisely to reconcile poetry with scientific research. In order to adapt himself to the difficulties of this task,—“to demand from the strongest and most exact of poets the secret of subjecting the verse to the idea,”—he began by translating verse by verse, with rigorous exactness and without altering its strong beauty, the first book of Lucretius. Then he began upon his great poem, ‘La Justice.’ This poem, very symmetrical in composition, comprises eleven “vigils,” preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue. After seeking justice in the universe without finding it, the poet discovers it at last in the heart of man, which is its inviolable and sacred temple. The first six vigils form the first part of the volume ‘Silence au Cœur’ (Heart, Be Silent); the last five are grouped in a second part entitled ‘Appel au Cœur’ (Appeal to the Heart). Each vigil is a dialogue between “The Seeker,” who pitilessly analyzes every idea or every fact in a sonnet, and “A Voice,” which consoles and reassures him by revealing the divine aspect of all things.  3
  ‘Le Bonheur’ (Happiness) is a symbolic epic. Faustus and Stella, set free from earth, seek the happiness which they had vainly pursued here below. Neither emotional “Intoxication” nor “Thought” can realize this ideal so imperiously claimed by all hearts. The third part, ‘Le Suprême Essor’ (The Supreme Flight), shows us that sacrifice alone can elevate us to a true felicity.  4
  Doubtless there are laborious verses in these two long-winded works, in which Sully Prudhomme has attempted the difficult reconciliation of pure thought with poetry. But there are incomparable beauties, truly new. Never has philosophic poetry been more rigorous, while retaining more of beauty; never has the fusion been so close between the thought, the sentiment, and the image.  5
  Sully Prudhomme has published in prose a remarkable study in æsthetics, ‘L’Expression dans les Beaux-Arts’ (Expression in the Fine Arts: 1884); ‘Réflexions sur l’Art des Vers’ (Reflections on the Art of Versification: 1892); and a philosophical volume (1895) on the nature, the limitations, and the extent of our learning, ‘Que Sais-je?’ (What Do I Know?); and ‘La vraie Religion selon Pascal’ (1905). His translation of the first book of Lucretius contains a long preface “Upon the state and the future of philosophy.” He was awarded the Nobel prize in 1901, and died in 1907.  6

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