Ahhhhhh, February. The month of romance, love, hearts, wine, chocolate and…poetry. Well there is also blizzards, cold, wet and rodents that think they can predict the future but we’ll just leave that alone.
It is only fitting that our profile this month should be the French poet and essayist, René François Armand (Sully) Prudhomme, .
René François Armand Sully-Prudhomme was born in Paris in 1839. On the heels of the miserable period depicted in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, life in Paris was a difficult at best. As the son of a shopkeeper who died when Sully was just two years old, life was a challenge.
As a child, Sully enjoyed classic literature and mathematics and at one point flirted with entering the Dominican Order. Upon graduating from Lycee Bonaparte, Sully-Prudomme studied the sciences in order to enter engineering, This plan was foiled due to a nasty, debilitating eye condition which made this career choice impossible. Following a stint as a factory correspondence, he then began the study of Law and worked in the office of a solicitor.
For one that wrote of feelings and emotions, Sully-Prudhomme was not to be so lucky in love, Having experienced one failed romance, he remained a bachelor for life.
Sully-Prudhomme dedicated his life to his writing. He became one of the Parnassian movement which was recognized for the display of “considerable breadth of subject matter and style, characterized by the concern for craftsmanship, objectivity, and lasting beauty”. It would appear that Sully-Prudhomme fell short in this arena as once having been encouraged by Leconte de Lisle, a leading Parnassian poet, noted that his protégée was not faithful to the ideals of classical poetry, but preferred to depict his own inner feelings. Quelle horreur!
Finally through a stroke of good luck, Sully-Prudhomme inherited a small fortune and as a result was able to completely devote his time to writing. At 26 years old he published his first book,, Stances et Poèmes. which contained his best-known piece, ‘The Broken Vase’. From that point, Sully-Prudhomme became prolific in his writing until the late 1860’s.
The next chapter of his life found Sully-Prudhomme enlisting into the militia fighting to defend Paris during the Franco Prussian War. His experience in the war led to his penning, Impressions de la Guerre in 1870. It was also in this same year his mother, uncle, and aunt died, and the poet himself suffered a stroke which nearly paralyzed his lower body, a condition with which he would struggle in horrific pain for the rest of his life. Annus horribilis!
In 1901, much to the dismay of many who felt the honour should have been given to Leo Tolstoy, Sully-Prudhomme was awarded the first Nobel prize for literature. The prize was awarded “in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect”.
At the time he was honoured with the Nobel prize, Sully-Prudhomme had produced very little new work and had become somewhat forgotten as a poet and essayist. It seems he led a very complex, challenging, sometimes charmed life which was reflected in his writing. While he began his journey as a writer in the rather anti-romantic manner of the Parnassian Movement, clearly his heart belonged to the romantic and gentler style of poetry. Jean-Albert Béde in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, 1980) stated it best when he wrote
“No self-appointed messiah like Victor Hugo but no nihilist like Leconte de Lisle, he lifted poetry from some of the gloom into which positivistic pessimism had plunged it for a generation and taught his belief that the road to happiness lies through pain, self-sacrifice, and brotherly love.”
During the last years of his life he was seriously disabled by pain and the paralysis that he had fought on and off for over thirty years. Sully-Prudhomme died at his villa in Châtenay-Malabry, near Paris, on September 7, 1907.
Pour a glass of Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-pap 2012, nibble a fine French Chocolate truffle and enjoy the romance:
Le Vase Brisé (The Broken Vase)
by Sully Prudhomme
The vase where this verbena’s dying
Was cracked by a lady’s fan’s soft blow.
It must have been the merest grazing:
We heard no sound. The fissure grew.
The little wound spread while we slept,
Pried deep in the crystal, bit by bit.
A long, slow marching line, it crept
From spreading base to curving lip.
The water oozed out drop by drop,
Bled from the line we’d not seen etched.
The flowers drained out all their sap.
The vase is broken: do not touch.
The quick, sleek hand of one we love
Can tap us with a fan’s soft blow,
And we will break, as surely riven
As that cracked vase. And no one knows.
The world sees just the hard, curved surface
Of a vase a lady’s fan once grazed,
That slowly drips and bleeds with sadness.
Do not touch the broken vase.
Article written by Julia McLaren, The Lord Durham Report editor
© text Lord Durham Rare Books, all rights reserved.