Prudhomme, Sully (René-François-Armand Prudhomme) (16 March 1839 – 6 September 1907)

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Sully Prudhomme (René-François-Armand Prudhomme) (16 March 1839 – 6 September 1907)

Gayle A. Levy
University of Missouri—Kansas City

1901 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech




BOOKS: Stances et poèmes (Paris: Achille Fauré, 1865);

Les Epreuves: Amour, doute, revê, action (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1866);

Les Solitudes (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1869)—includes Les Ecuries d’Augias;

Les Destins (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1872);

La Révolte des fleurs (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1874);

La France (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1874);

Les Vaines tendresses (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1875);

La Justice (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1878);

Discours de réception de Sully Prudhomme à l’Académie française (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1882);

L’Expression dans les beaux-arts: Application de la psychology à l’étude de I’artiste et des beaux-arts (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1883);

Le Prisme: Poésies diverses (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1886);

Le Bonheur (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1888);

Réflexions sur l’art des vers (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1892);

La Nymphe des bois de Versailles (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1896);

Que sais-je?: Examen de conscience; Sur l’origine de la vie terrestre (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1896);

A Alfred de Vigny (Paris: E. Pelletan, 1898);

Testament poétique (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1901);

Le Problème des causes finales, by Prudhomme and Charles Richet (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1902);

La Vraie religion selon Pascal: Recherche de l’ordonnance purement logique de ses Pensées relatives à la religion, suivie d’une analyse du Discours sur les passions de l’amour (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1905);

La Psychologie du libre arbitre, suivie de définitions fondamentales, vocabulaire logiquement ordonné des idées les plus générales et des idées les plus abstraites (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1907);

Le Lien social (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1909);

Lettres à une amie: 1865–1881, 2 volumes (Paris: Le Livre contemporain, 1911);

Patrie et humanité (Essai de solution collective) (Paris: Edition de “La Revue,” 1913);

Jeunes filles et femmes (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1920);

Journal intime: Lettres-Pensées, edited by Camille Hémon (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1922).

Collections: (Euvres de Sully Prudhomme, 6 volumes (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1877–1908)—comprises volume 1, Poésies 1865–1866: Stances et poémes; volume 2, Poésies 1866–1872: Les Epreuves; Les Ecuries d’Augias; Croquis italiens; Les Solitudes; Impressions de la guerre; volume 3, Poésies 1872–1878: Les Vaines tendresses; La France; La Révolte des fileurs; Poésies diverses; Les Destins; Le Zénith; volume 4, Poésies 1878–1879: De la nature des choses 1 er livre: La Justice; volume 5, Poésies 1879–1888: Le Prisme;Le Bonheur; and volume 6, Poésies: Epaves; Discours de réception a l’Académie française;

Œuvres de Sully Prudhomme: Prose, 3 volumes (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1898–1908)—comprises volume 1, L’Expression dans les beaux-arts: Application de la psychology à l’etude de l’artiste et des beaux-arts; volume 2, Testament poétique; Trois études sociologiques; and volume 3, Que sais-je?: Examen de conscience; Sur l’origine de la vie terrestre; Le Problème des causes finales;

Choix de Poésies, edited by Maxime Formont (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1928).

TRANSLATION: Lucretius, Lucréce: De la nature des choses, premier livre (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1869).

On 10 December 1901, the five jury members for the first Nobel Prize in Literature came together to proclaim the inaugural winner: the sixty-two-year-old French poet and member of the Académie Française, Sully Prudhomme. Carl David af Wirsén, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, announced the award. The citation indicated that the prize was given “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,” and in his presentation speech Wirsén pointed out that Sully Prudhomme seeks “evidence of man’s supernatural destiny in the moral realm, in the voice of conscience, and in the lofty and undeniable prescriptions of duty.”

The selection of Sully Prudhomme as the first winner of the literature prize was not met with great enthusiasm by the press. As Gunnar Ahlstrom records, a commentator for a popular Swedish daily wrote:

So the choice has fallen neither on Tolstoy, nor Ibsen, nor Björnson, nor Mommsen, nor Swinburne, nor Zola, nor Anatole France, nor Carducci, nor Mistral, nor Hauptmann, nor even Echegaray—it has fallen on Sully-Prudhomme [sic]. It is some satisfaction, however, to find that Francois Coppée is not the winner; in view of his innocuous sentimentality, he might well have been considered the best of all the present Swedish Academy.

The members of the Nobel jury were guided by the vague words written into the will of Alfred Nobel. The inventor stated that his prize “should go to the person who shall have produced in the field of Literature the most distinguished work of an idealistic tendency.” Wirsén believed that “idealistic tendency” meant of moral or good nature; however, as Burton Feldman reports, the mathematician Gosta Mittag-Leffler, who was a friend of Nobel’s, attested that “the inventor intended ‘idealism’ to mean a skeptical, even satirical attitude to religion, royalty, marriage, and the social order in general.”

It was probably logical in some sense that the first Nobel literary laureate would hold a seat in the Académie Française (founded in 1635), the model for the Royal Swedish Academy, established in 1786 under the rule of Gustaf III. By naming Sully Prudhomme, who had been elected to the august French literary and scientific academy in 1881, the Swedish Academy essentially rendered great homage to its Gallic forerunner. Sully Prudhomme’s reputation, however, has not survived the more than one hundred years since he was awarded the crowning glory in his literary career. His legacy as a poet is not bad; it simply does not exist. Most French high-school students would recognize his name and might have read his most well-known poem, “Le Vase brisé” (1865, The Broken Vase), but it is safe to say that almost no one outside of France recognizes the name Sully Prudhomme. However, he is not the only case of a forgotten Nobel laureate; many erudite people are undoubtedly unfamiliar with the names of more than a few winners, such as Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905), Rudolf Eucken (1908), or Carl Spitteler (1919). Sully Prudhomme’s poetry, although not formally avant-garde like Stéphane Mallarmé’s work, nor strikingly rebellious like Arthur Rimbaud’s verse, is a harbinger of modernity and modern times. His poetry tells of a world that is changing, of the importance of science and philosophy, of discovery and innovation. Yet, Sully Prudhomme strove to make clear that even in this positivist, mechanized society where the gods of science and money reign strong, that poetry ennobles, instructs, and reminds people that beauty and conscience continue to exist.

René-François-Armand Prudhomme was born on 16 March 1839 at 43 rue du faubourg Poissonniere in Paris, the second child of an older bourgeois couple who had been engaged for ten years before marrying. Young René’s father, René-François Prudhomme, was a businessman who died of meningitis at the age of forty-four, when his son was only two years old. The elder Prudhomme was nicknamed Sully, and the future Nobel laureate later explained how he acquired his father’s nickname:

Mon pére reçut ce nom de son entourage, étant enfant, je ne sais pourquoi: le hasard l’aura amené sur les lévres de quelqu’un de ses proches qui l’aura trouvé joli: quoi qu’il en soit, ma mére comme toute la famille et les amis, le donnait à mon pére, et quand il fut mort, elle me léa donné pour avoir toujours à le prononcer.

(I don’t know why but as a child my father got this name from his friends; one of his friends must have uttered it by chance and was pleased by it. In any case, my mother, like all of his family and friends, used it. And when he died, she used it with me so that she would always have to say it.)

Thus, the future poet spent his life as Sully Prudhomme. He always went by it as a full surname; although some scholars hyphenate it, he himself did not.

Soon after the death of his father, his mother’s unmarried sister and brother came to live with the widow, her young son, and daughter. His mother, Jeanne-Clotilde Prudhomme (née Caillat), quickly allowed all decisions to be made by her older siblings, and Sully Prudhomme was sent off to boarding school at the age of eight. Although he also began to write some juvenile verse, young Sully Prudhomme liked science, and at fourteen he chose to make that his specialty. He finished high school at the prestigious Lycée Bonaparte in Paris with a science baccalaureate, intending to enroll at the military preparatory school Ecole Polytechnique; but he suffered from ophthalmia, a serious eye inflammation, and was barred from attending the prestigious college. Sully Prudhomme’s family then sent him to live with his maternal cousins in Lyon, where he prepared for and passed his literature baccalaureate.

Perhaps because of his early experience with death, perhaps because of his isolation from his family, or perhaps as a result of his interest in romantic poetry, young Sully Prudhomme was melancholic, dreamy, and introspective. Moreover, he did not enjoy his childhood. In a 1902 interview he defined a child as “Un être dont on contrarie tous les desirs” (A being whose désires are all denied). While in Lyon he discovered religion and even imagined that he would join a monastery. This prospect greatly frightened his family, who were also worried about his continued pursuit of writing poetry; they arranged for his return to the Paris region and secured him a clerical position at the famed Schneider Ironworks in Le Creusot. This job lasted only eighteen months as Sully Prudhomme turned out to be a bad businessman, according to Pierre Fons. However, as Edmond Estéve notes, the author’s experiences at the factory furnished him with an appreciation of the power of genius, human labor, and all things scientific.

In 1860 Sully Prudhomme thus found himself back in Paris, where he began studying law and worked as a clerk in a notary’s office. He had little money and slept on the living-room couch in his family’s apartment. During the day he worked and faked studying, while at night he wrote poetry and read everything he could in philosophy, science, and poetry: Immanuel Kant, Baruch Spinoza, Blaise Pascal, Auguste Comte, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Victor Hugo. These nocturnal pursuits were his real education, as was his acceptance into a small group of law students, Conference La Bruyére, a club devoted to the discussion of literature, philosophy, and art. At the weekly meetings, where the art lovers read their own poems and discussed classic writers, Sully Prudhomme met José-Mariia de Heredia, who twenty years later was a fellow member of the Académie Française. These two men, along with others, spent Saturday evenings at a salon at the home of Leconte de Lisle, their elder by a generation and the leader of the Parnasse movement.

In 1863 Sully Prudhomme published his first poem in La Revue Nationale et Etrangère (edited by, among others, Charles Baudelaire, Hippolyte Taine, and Théo-phile Gautier) in 1863. This poem, titled “L’Art” and reworked for publication in his first book of poetry, serves as a fitting introduction to Sully Prudhomme’s aesthetic concerns. Formally it is quite traditional, an alexandrine poem with a rhyme scheme of embraced and mainly sufficient rhymes. Although in principle it is about art, it is actually an homage to philosophy, especially to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who occupies “mon temple étoilé, la coupole profonde” (my star-filled temple, the profound cupola). The poem thus moves from philosophy to language—“Ainsi que la Babel, effrayante spirale / qui d’assise en assise a conquis l’horizon” (Like Babel, the frightening spiral / which tier by tier conquered the horizon)—and ends with the beauty of nature as the Tower of Babel “S’épanouit enfin dans la beauté du jour!” (Finally blossoms in the beauty of the day!). Much of Sully Prudhomme’s poetry explores philosophy, language, and nature, and often all three of these elements are interwoven in the same poem.

The next year the young poet published “Choeur polonaise” (Polish Chorus) in the same review, and in 1865 Achille Fauré published Sully Prudhomme’s first book of poems, Stances et poémes (Stanzas and Poems). This book was reviewed positively by the well-known critic and poet Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve and other readers, and it convinced his family that Sully Prudhomme would be successful as a poet. Sully Prudhomme’s best-known poem is included in this first collection. “Le Vase brisé” has been frequently anthologized and remains the one poem by the Nobel laureate still familiar to a general French public. This sweet poem on an insignificant subject became a bugbear for Sully Prudhomme, as Estéve notes with some humor:

Combien de maîtresses de maison lui demandéren-telles, à titre de faveur insigne, de dire à leurs invités le Vase brisé? Elles ne se doutaient pas que si l’homme dumonde s’exécutait, après les résistances d’usage, le poéte grondait en dedans à la pensée de débiter une fois de plus cet éternel “pot cassé” qu’il avait fini par prendre en horreur. “Qu’il se brise sur leur nez, ce vase!” s’écriait-il dans un accés de fureur.

(How many hostesses have asked him, as a little favor, to recite “The Broken Vase”? They didn’t suspect that while the gentleman performed, after a polite hesitation, the poet groaned inside at the thought of once again trotting out this eternal “busted pot,” which he finally grew to despise. “I wish it would break in their face, this vase!” he cried in anger.)

In 1866 Sully Prudhomme took part in a literary event of lasting importance: he contributed several poems to the publisher Alphonse Lemerre’s three-volume anthology of young Parnassian poets, Le Parnasse contemporain: Recueil de vers nouveaux (1866, 1871, 1876; Contemporary Parnassus: Collection of New Verse). This publication was the unveiling of a new poetic movement, a reaction to Romanticism, wherein poetry is stripped of the earlier movement’s excessive emotionality and returned to its pedestal, to the Parnassian heights of formally traditional verse; politics are not discussed, and everything is at the service of art. Parnasse poets, among them Sully Prudhomme, were greatly inspired by science and philosophy, in part driven by their desire to maintain poetic impassivity and indifference. As Barbara Johnson notes, form, specifically rhyme, is the most important element in Parnasse verse. “Je reconnais en moi une exactitude machinale, résultat de la vie de collége” (I recognize in myself a machine-like exactitude, the result of school life), wrote Sully Prudhomme in 1864 in his Journal intime (1922, Diary); “j’en ai gardé aussi un profond respect pour le réglement en toutes choses; ainsi rien ne m’est plus indifférent que le monde et pourtant je suis ses loi et ses usages avec une docilité passive” (I have also retained a profound respect for all regulations. Thus nothing leaves me more indifferent than the world; however, I follow its laws and customs with docile passivity). Sully Prudhomme also followed the rules in his poetry, and like his colleagues and mentors within the Parnassian school, he demanded that art exist for its own sake and that it embody eternal beauty through formal consistency.

Soon after the publication of Stances et poémes, Lemerre (who published all of the writer’s poetry) released Sully Prudhomme’s second collection of poems, Les Epreuves (1866, Trials), composed entirely of sonnets and considered to include some of the poet’s greatest pieces. Sully Prudhomme continued to write a great deal of poetry and published Les Solitudes (1869, Solitudes) and Les Destins (1872, Destinies) in relatively quick succession. Professionally, the poet’s life was going well, but personally, it was not. In 1870 his mother, aunt, and uncle all died within several days of each other, which left him only his sister. Furthermore, Sully Prudhomme never married and apparently never engaged in romantic liaisons. Although he wrote many early poems about love and young women, it seems that his heart was broken by a cousin he had imagined marrying. She wed another man, while Sully Prudhomme remained a bachelor. In the poem “Les Adieux” (Farewells) from Stances et poémes he writes, “Quelle solitude est la nôtre! / Ou dans les bras de l’homme, ou dans les bras de Dieu, / Nos compagnes, hélas! tombent l’une aprés l’autre. / Adieu!” (What solitude is ours! / Into the arms of men, or into the arms of God, / Our playmates, alas, fall one after the other. / Adieu!).

The Franco-Prussian War began in 1870, and Sully Prudhomme was enthusiastic about demonstrating his patriotism. He enlisted in the Garde Nationale shortly after the deaths in his family, but the harshness of military life combined with his perennially delicate health meant that he quickly became gravely ill. The entire lower half of his body was paralyzed, and he was close to death. He returned to Paris to convalesce and wrote about his experiences in a section called “Impressions de la guerre” (Impressions of War) in his Œuvres de Sully Prudhomme (1877–1908, Complete Works of Sully Prudhomme). The first poem, “Fleurs de sang” (Blood Flowers), is a powerful reminder that nature does not pay heed to what human beings do:

Pendant que nous faisions la guerre,
Le soleil a fait le printemps:
Des fleurs s’élèvent où naguère
S’entre-tuaient les combattants.

Malgré les morts qu’elles recouvrent,
Malgré cet effroyable engrais,
Voici leurs calices qui s’ouvrent,
Comme Fan dernier, purs et frais.

(While we waged war,
The sun made the spring:
Flowers bloom where before
Combatants fought.

Despite the death that they cover up
Despite this terrible fertilizer
Here their calyxes open up,
Like last year, pure and fresh.)

Following the Franco-Prussian War and the violent street fighting of the Paris Commune in 1871, Sully Prudhomme fell into a serious depression. But the cause was not only the war; his work ceased to inspire him. In 1871 the poet wrote (in Lettres à une amie: 1864–1881 [1911, Letters to a Friend: 1864–1881]):

Je perds le goût de la poésie. Je la trouve de plus en plus puérile, comparé aux austères travaux de la science; les plus grands génies littéraires me semblent des enfants auprès du génie scientifique, qui, au lieu d’imiter et de défigurer la nature sous prétexte de la transfigurer par l’idéal et l’humain, l’étreint corps à corps, telle qu’elle est, et lui ouvre, doigt par doigt, ses mains fermées pour en arracher des lambeaux de vérité.

(I’m losing my taste for poetry. I find it more and more puerile compared with serious scientific work; the greatest literary geniuses seem like children next to the scientific genius. Instead of imitating and disfiguring nature under the pretext of transfiguring it by idealization and the touch of the human hand, scientific genius holds on to nature tightly, just like she is, and opens her closed hands, finger by finger, in order to extract the scraps of truth.)

The second half of the nineteenth century was a science boom. The great nineteenth-century French novelists—Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola—inscribed the different scientific discoveries and beliefs of their day into their writings. They believed that all knowledge was equal, that the various epistemological systems (whether they be mathematical, biological, literary, or philosophical) differ simply in the forms their inquiries take. In the end, however, they all share the same goal: to understand how the universe works. Sully Prudhomme fell into this same category. Through poetry he tried to come to terms with the human condition. He was especially drawn to Charles Darwin’s work on evolution and Comte’s writings on positivism. His frustration with poetry, however, occurred at the same time that his renown had spread across Europe and finally led him to write his masterpiece, “Le Zénith” (The Zenith), first published in the third volume of Le Parnasse contemporain in 1876. This poem encapsulates Sully Prudhomme’s poetic aspirations and serves as a useful point of entry into his lyric ideology. Although it was universally praised, it has not been translated and is difficult to find.

“Le Zénith” is the first of Sully Prudhomme’s long poems (three hundred lines, divided into five sections) and was inspired by the ill-fated flight of a hot-air balloon on 15 April 1875. Two scientists, Théodore Sivel and Joseph Crocé-Spinelli, and the experienced aeronaut Gaston Tissandier took off from La Villette outside of Paris in their balloon, Le Zénith, primarily to conduct atmospheric experiments. They had cobbled together a device to use when they felt faint—a breathing tube connected to a balloon filled with oxygen. As they attempted to reach 30,000 feet, they became too lightheaded to use the tube and blacked out; only Tissandier woke up enough to land the craft after both scientists had died from lack of oxygen. The scientists were buried with all the pomp accorded true martyrs, and Tissandier published the narrative of his adventure in La Revue Scientifique (The Scientific Review) and La Mature (Nature), which Sully Prudhomme read with great interest.

The poem begins with a tribute to science, the new religion, and a hidden forewarning of how this story will end:

Saturne, Jupiter, Vénus, n’ont plus de prêtres.
L’homme a donné les noms de tous ses anciens maîtres
A des astres qu’il pèse et qu’il a découverts,
Et des dieux le dernier dont le cuke demeure,
A son tour menacé, tremble que tout à l’heure
Son nom ne serve plus qu’à nommer l’univers.

(Saturn, Jupiter, Venus no longer have priests.
Man has given the names of his old masters
To stars that he weighs and discovered,
And the last god whose cult remains,
Now menaced, trembles that soon
His name will only be used to name the universe.)

Not only have the Greek gods faded, their names used only to identify newly discovered astral bodies, but even the Judeo-Christian God fears that the same fate awaits him, albeit his name would designate the entire universe. But he would no longer hold sway as the one who created the universe or be recognized as the being who gave existence to all life through the power to name. Instead, man has taken over that role. Man now discovers the new worlds and uses his former gods’ names to refer to them. The intimation of the tragedy to come can only be understood when the poem is read out loud, in French. Orally, the beginning of the third line, “A des astres” sounds like “désastre” (disaster) in French.

The first section of the poem refers to contemporary, nineteenth-century beliefs concerning Earth sciences and gives the reader a glimpse into the philosophical qualities of Sully Prudhomme’s poetry:

Que l’homme, fier néant, n’est qu’un des parasites
D’une sphère oubliée entre les plus petites,
Parasite à son tour des crins d’or du soleil.

(That man, proud nothingness, is only one of the parasites
Of one sphere, forgotten amongst the smallest,
In its own turn a parasite of the sun’s golden mane.)

The juxtaposition of atoms and parasites alongside golden manes and the heavens, of humankind’s existential angst adjoining the hopefulness and curiosity propelling the sometimes tragic quest for knowledge—such elements are the essence of Sully Prudhomme’s poetry.

The last two sections of this work pay homage to the two martyred heroes. They will never be forgotten, but in part they will be remembered thanks to poetry. Sully Prudhomme reminds the reader that although he lived in a time that privileged science over art, art is still necessary and can indeed help people to understand and appreciate their relentless pursuit of truth.

“Le Zénith” is a masterful example of the ways in which Sully Prudhomme surprises the reader by intertwining modernity, primarily through his use of science, with traditional poetic structures and tropes. From the beginning of his career through the last of his poetry Sully Prudhomme was inspired by scientific thought. “Le Rendez-Vous” (The Meeting), from the early Les Epreuves, speaks of an astronomer who studies the orbits of planets and stars:

Les mondes fuient pareils à des graines vannées;
L’épais fourmillement des nébuleuses luit;
Mais, attentif à l’astre échevelé qu’il suit,
Ill le somme, et lui dit: “Reviens dans mille années.”

(Worlds escape just like winnowed seeds;
The thick swarm of nebulae glow;
But, alert to the wild star he follows
He summons it and says, “Return in a thousand years.”)

In the mid nineteenth century Lord Rosse in Ireland, Christian Doppler in Austria, and William Huggins in London were studying nebulae and trying to ascertain how far away they were from Earth in light years and how quickly they were moving through space. Sully Prudhomme would have read about these discoveries and the heated discussions surrounding them in the science journals he received. His gift was his ability to link science and poetry.

After the publication of “Le Zénith,” Sully Prudhomme was awarded the Vitet Prize by the Académie Française in 1877. He continued to write poetry for the next ten years, but after 1888, aside from one poem, La Nymphe des bois de Versailles (1896, The Nymph of the Versailles Woods), performed by Sarah Bernhardt for the Russian czarina Alexandra in October 1896, he wrote only prose, primarily aesthetic and philosophical texts. However, Sully Prudhomme’s fame during his lifetime and the accolades bestowed upon him were in celebration of his poetry. His essays and monographs—including L’Expression dans les beaux-arts (1883, Expression in the Arts), Réflexions sur l’art des vers (1892, Reflections on the Art of Verse), Que sais-je? (1896, What Do I Know?), Testament poétique (1901, Poetic Testament), Le Problème des causes finales (1902, The Problem of Final Causes), La Vraie religion selon Pascal (1905, Pascal on True Religion), La Psychologie du libre arbitre (1907, The Psychology of Free Will), and Le Lien social (1909, The Social Link)—were never considered especially innovative. In 1881 he was elected to the Académie Française, where he attended meetings alongside forty other immortels, among them Taine, Alexandre Dumas fils, Hugo, Louis Pasteur, and Ernest Renan.

Sully Prudhomme’s final collections of poetry were quite varied in style and quality. Le Prisme: Poésies diverses (1886, The Prism: Diverse Poems) is made up mainly of sonnets and other short poems, the majority dedicated to individuals. The famed critic Rémy de Gourmont criticized the poems as being simply “pièces de circonstance” (occasional verse), and the great number of dedications seems to validate his opinion. But Sully Prudhomme’s 1878 work, La Justice (Justice), a bold poem made up of a prologue and eleven sections called “Veilles” (Watches), each composed of roughly three hundred lines and prefaced by the argument to be debated, continues in the vein for which he should be remembered. It is a dialogue between Le Chercheur (The Seeker), who represents science, and La Voix (The Voice), who stands for the heart. Le Chercheur attempts to define justice as a combination of reason and heart, science and art. In the introduction, Sully Prudhomme writes:

Je voudrais montrer que la justice ne peut sortir ni de la science seule qui suspecte les intuitions du cœeur, ni de l’ignorance généreuse qui s’y fie exclusivement; mais que l’application de la justice requiert la plus délicate sympathie pour l’homme, éclairée par la plus profonde connaissance de sa nature; qu’elle est, par conséquent, le terme idéal de la science étroitement unie à l’amour.

(I hope to show that justice can result neither from science alone, which distrusts the heart’s intuitions, nor from the generous ignorance that trusts it completely. Instead the application of justice requires the most delicate sympathy for man, enlightened by the deepest understanding of his nature, and is, as a result, the ideal word for science firmly united with love.)

The eleven sections of the work cover every aspect of justice. First, the poet and Nature discuss justice from purely scientific and rational perspectives. Readers learn about the injustices between the species, with reference to Darwin’s natural selection: “Tout vivant n’a qu’un but: persévérer à vivre; / … Esclave de ce but qu’il n’eut point à choisir, / Il voue entiérement sa force à le poursuivre” (Every living being has only one aim: to keep on living; / … A slave to this aim that he did not choose, / He devotes all his force to its pursuit). Other topics include mankind’s natural selfishness and the similarities between these individual examples of injustice and those found in the relations between nations. Finally, the dialoguers exhaust the rational justifications (or lack thereof) for justice and thus turn to moral law, which in turn leads nowhere. In the last three sections, rational and moral law, or science and heart, are combined—and through this blend, justice is found:

C’est de ce rang conquis la conscience innée,
Gardienne d’une espéce et de sa destinée,
Qui me révèle mon devoir!
Elle m’enjoint d’être homme et de respecter l’homme,
Au nom des cieux passés dont la terre est la somme,
Et des cieux futurs, mon espoir!

(It is the inner consciousness of this conquered station,
Guardian of a species and its destiny,
That reveals to me my duty!
It enjoins me to be a man and to respect man,
In the name of those past worlds, of which the earth is the
And of future worlds, my hope!)

The optimism and idealism of the final section are striking. It is subtitled “La Cité” (The City), as urban space and social organization are seen as the greatest of human creations: “O Terre! la Cité, c’est la puissance humaine, / Elite, somme et noeud de tes forces” (O Earth! the City is human power, / The cream, the sum, and the crux of your force). The poet paints a utopian vision of the world to come, a vision of justice in which a combination of science and heartfelt morality lead to a more just society. Once again Sully Prudhomme shows that poetry and science are not mutually exclusive. Here he goes further than in his earlier work. Instead of simply including scientific motifs and vocabulary in his rhetorically pure poems, Sully Prudhomme seeks to create a new moral law, one that combines both science and compassionate morality expressed in verse.

Sully Prudhomme’s final great poetic work was published in 1888. The four-thousand-line poem Le Bonheur (Happiness) attempts to do what La Justice did, but in a different setting and with a different goal. In this last poem, the poet again shows that only by combining positive science and human conscience will true happiness be established. Like its predecessor, this work is structured around a dialogue, this time between Faus-tus and Stella, two lovers who have died and gone to heaven. But something is missing in their edenic home, namely happiness and an understanding of humankind’s destiny. Through their dialogue they attempt to discover a world where they will be happy.

Faustus revisits science in his search for happiness. The encyclopedic collection of scientists presented—including Comte, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Galileo, Archimedes, Benjamin Franklin, and John Dalton, in no apparent order—seems unusual in a poem. Interspersed throughout the poem are chorus-like interjections composed of five or six stanzas, titled “Voix de la terre” (Voices from Earth), which paint a picture of humanity suffering below heaven. But Earth is where Faustus and Stella have come from, the world they know so well, the place where people live with injustice but continue searching for the truth. Sully Prudhomme wrestles with the question of how understanding the world more intimately allows people to live better lives. He foreshadows a subject that became prevalent during the following century: if science is all-powerful and can effectively account for all episte-mology, what is the role of human emotion and art? Once again he answers this question by positing a combination of the two—science and knowledge as expressed through poetry.

Scientific truth and deeply felt art combine in Sully Prudhomme’s vision to come to the rescue of humankind. This idealism imbued with science is what drew the Nobel committee to award him their first literature prize. Sully Prudhomme demonstrated this eternal optimism when he wrote: “la science est une excellente génératrice d’unanimité et par suite éminem-ment propre à réunir les hommes dans un sentiment de confraternité universelle” (science is an excellent generator of unanimity and as a result is perfectly suited to unite men in a universal brotherhood). Yet, he added, “le sens esthétique, c’est-à-dire l’aptitude à goûter l’expression morale des formes, inspire l’amour” (the aesthetic sense, which is to say the ability to appreciate the moral expressions of forms, inspires love). Sully Prudhomme devoted his lyric career to these two forces together. Since Le Bonheur was his final poetic work of any import, it would be pleasant to think of it as Sully Prudhomme’s last lyric masterpiece. In fact, La Justice is considered a much more successful text because the poet’s formal work in the poem—the rhyme, rhythm, and vocabulary he uses—reflect the subject matter and allow the reader a greater appreciation of Sully Prudhomme’s intellectual goals. La Justice also makes clearer why a literary prize established by a scientist would be given to this poet, rather than to any one of several other writers active at the same time.

Although Sully Prudhomme was a favorite of the broad reading public and thus hailed generally when he won the Nobel Prize, the literary community was not unanimously supportive of the Swedish Academy’s decision. In turn-of-the-century France there were several different literary camps, each with its own journals and presses. The two dominant factions were the formally conservative Parnassians, appreciators of Sully Prudhomme’s poetry, and the advocates of more innovative poetry, the postsymbolists, spearheaded by Gourmont and other followers of Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine. When the Swedish Academy announced that Sully Prudhomme had been awarded the Nobel Prize, the Parnassian Revue des poètes lauded the decision. Conversely, as Kenneth Cornell notes, La Mercure de France and other journals that featured mainly symbolist verse were acerbic in their criticism of the decision: “Irony and satiric comment greeted the choice [of Sully Prudhomme] in many of the magazines however. Remy [sic] de Gourmont’s acidulous comments in his ‘Epilogues’ of the Mercure de France and Mithouard’s more overt sarcasms in L’Occident were among the manifestations of hostility.”

At his death on 6 September 1907, six years after receiving the Nobel Prize, Sully Prudhomme had not written any poetry in twenty years. He died beloved by the public, albeit in almost complete isolation and virtually paralyzed in his home in Châtenay-Malabry outside of Paris. Sully Prudhomme had never fully recovered from his war injuries and was not even well enough to claim his Nobel Prize in person; instead, a French minister claimed it in his place. With the money he received from the Nobel committee he established a literary prize (no longer awarded) given to young writers, among them Emile Moussat, Madeleine Delbrêl, and Claude Dervenn.

In 1862 Sully Prudhomme had written in his Journal intime:

Suis-je un poète? Suis-je un philosophe? Je remercie Dieu de ne pas m’avoir mutilé pour faire de moi l’un ou l’autre. La philosophic me permet de plonger à des profondeurs vertigineuses, et la poésie me permet d’y sen-tir l’horreur de l’infini et l’admiration de la vivante nature.

(Am I a poet? Am I a philosopher? I thank God for not having mutilated me in order that I be one or the other. Philosophy allows me to dive to vertiginous depths and poetry allows me to feel the horror of infinity and admiration for living nature.)

This duality contributed to his selection for the Nobel Prize. Sully Prudhomme was not an innovator with respect to literary form; instead, he searched for scientific and philosophical knowledge through his rhetorically traditional poetry. Undoubtedly during his lifetime this structurally pure poetry, which took as its subject matter the scientific innovations of the day, was astonishing. But for the contemporary reader, for whom these nineteenth-century descriptions of evolution and astrophysics seem practically prehistoric, the Nobel Prize committee’s choice of Sully Prudhomme seems bewilderingly innocent. In fact, they chose him precisely because he wrote lyrically about science. What better way to honor the memory of the scientist whose generous bequest made the prize possible? More than one hundred years since his death, the name Alfred Nobel brings to mind creation, not destruction; but in 1901, merely five years after Nobel’s death, the source of the prize money was still fresh in the public’s mind. Bestowing this honor upon Sully Prudhomme brought together science and art in a way that made formal Nobel’s desire to reward those who “have contributed most materially to benefit mankind.”


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Prudhomme, Sully (René-François-Armand Prudhomme) (16 March 1839 – 6 September 1907)

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