French poet Sully Prudhomme (1839-1907) was the first recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1901. Combining the formal precision of the Parnassian poets with subjects reflecting his keen interest in philosophy and his early training in the sciences, Sully Prudhomme forged a career that drew wide praise during his lifetime. According to C. D. af Wirsén of the Swedish Academy, writing on the occasion of the Nobel Award, "Sully Prudhomme is one of the major poets of our time, and some of his poems are pearls of imperishable value. . . . [His] work reveals an inquiring and observing mind which finds no rest in what passes and which, as it seems impossible to him to know more, finds evidence of man's supernatural destiny in the moral realm, in the voice of conscience, and in the lofty and undeniable prescriptions of duty."
Sully Prudhomme, the pseudonym of René François Armand Prudhomme, was born into a middle-class Parisian family, the son of a successful merchant who died when the boy was two years old. Thereafter a member of his uncle's household, Sully Prudhomme attended the Lycée Bonaparte, where his curriculum focused on classics and science, and he subsequently enrolled in a polytechnic university to prepare for an engineering career. However, a persistent eye ailment ended these aspirations, and he worked for a time in the office of an iron foundry in Creuzot. In 1860 Sully Prudhomme began studying law. He worked as a clerk in a solicitor's office in Paris and in his free time studied philosophy. He began writing poetry during this period, reportedly in an attempt to recover from a failed romance. Sully Prudhomme shared these early poems with fellow members of the Conférence la Bruyère, a student society. He began to publish his works and, prompted by the favorable reception his early poems received, resolved to forgo legal training and devote himself full time to literature. With the publication of his poetry in the anthology Le parnasse contemporain, Sully Prudhomme became associated with the Parnassians, a group of contemporary French writers, including Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894), who advocated formal precision, objectivity, and restraint in poetry as an antidote to the excesses of Romanticism. In 1865 Sully Prudhomme's first volume of poetry, Stances et poèmes (Stanzas and Poems), was published to favorable reviews, and with the endorsement of the influential critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869), Sully Prudhomme's literary reputation was established.
Early Confessional Lyrics
Stances et poèmes contained Sully Prudhomme's most popular early work, "La vase brisé" (Broken Vase) which compares a shattered flower vase to the heartbreak of romantic love. The verse observes how a slight "blow from a fan" may cause a penetrating crack to a crystal vase and compares this with a wound to the lover's heart, the vessel in which the "flower" of its love resides. A contemporary critic writing in the Spectator described the poem as "finished and tender" and called it "an example of slight fancy, expressing pain from which many have suffered." "La vase brisé," which became Sully Prudhomme's best known, and a group of poems titled "Jeunes filles" (Young Girls), are seen to stem from his disappointment over a failed romance and contain the lines: "Never to see or hear her, / never to name her aloud, / but with a love that grows ever more tender, / always to love her. Always!" According to critic E. Preston Dargan in Studies in Honor of A. Marshall Elliott, these early works express "poignantly the whole gamut of disappointed passion from direct jealousy and baffled desire, through the mournfulness of memories, down to the more discreet though scarcely less moving hint of the happiness that might have been."
Sully Prudhomme experienced a successful and productive period during the late 1860s, when he published a number of well-received works on personal subjects. A melancholic tone reflected in themes of loneliness and sorrow pervade the sonnets in Les épreuves (The Test), published in 1865, and the elegies in Les solitudes (Solitudes) from 1869. Sully Prudhomme's knowledge of scientific and philosophic subjects is apparent in the works collected in Les épreuves, which are organized under the headings "Doubt," "Love," "Dream," and "Action." French novelist Anatole France described Les épreuves in 1914 as "a collection of sonnets of a beauty at once intellectual and concrete. Several of [the poems] express the profoundest thought in the most fragrant language." Other works in the volume seek to reconcile art and science and to define the role of the artist in modern society. During this period Sully Prudhomme also published Croquis Italiens (Italian Notebook).
Sully Prudhomme served in France's national militia, the garde mobile, during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and recorded his experiences in Impressions de la guerre (Impressions of War), pubished in 1870. During this time he suffered a paralyzing seizure that left him with limited use of his lower body, and he also mourned the deaths of his mother and two other close relatives. The sorrows of this period noticeably influenced his works, which turned away from the simple, personal subjects of his early career to broader questions of philosophy. Commenting in 1925 in The Nobel Prize Winners in Literature, Annie Russell Marble noted that "In the poetry of Sully-Prudhomme are found, almost always, two elements sometimes in conflict, wistful tenderness and serious, challenging reflection." He undertook a verse consideration of the future of France in 1874's La France. and in 1876 produced Le zénith, a poetic representation of a balloon accident in which three researchers were killed. This period also saw publication of his Lucrèce: de la nature des choses, 1er livre, a translation of the first volume of De rerum natura by Roman poet Lucretius.
Epic Poems Explored Philosophical Themes
During the middle period of his career Sully Prudhomme employed longer poetic forms to discuss important philosophical and scientific concepts that would reconcile art and life. In La justice, published in 1878, he away from a religious basis for morality, and sought morality in nature, discovering it manifested in the evolution of the human conscience. Presented as a dialog between "The Seeker" and "A Voice," the work serves as an argument against despair in a world without God. The first part of La justice outlines war, suffering, and the destruction that has been wrought by nature and by humanity throughout history. The second part of the poem counters this with the intelligence and yearning for a greater good that continues to develop in human consciousness. He concludes that "La Justice est l'amour guidé par la lumiére" (Justice is love guided by enlightenment). According to Marble, Sully Prudhomme's conclusion indicates that while "Justice cannot be located in the Universe; it may be found in the heart of man, 'which is its inviolable and sacred temple.' "
The second of Sully Prudhomme's major epic works, the 1888 volume Le bonheur (Happiness), relates the history of earthly lovers Faustus and Stella who were separated on earth but are reunited after death in Paradise. A work in two parts, Le bonheur depicts the initial joy experienced by the pair, which is ultimately broken by echoes of earthly suffering. In the second part of the poem the couple sacrifices the delights of afterlife to return to earth to ease human suffering, but they find that humanity has long been extinct. As the work concludes, Faustus and Stella are identified as a potential new Adam and Eve, establishing a more enlightened human race. Praising the poem in his Contemporary French Literature for its "vibrating inspiration," critic René Lalou concluded that "Le bonheur contains the pages in which Sully Prudhomme has best realized his ambition for a meditative fraternal poetry." Anatole France called it "one of the most audacious and agreeable of philosophic poems."
Later Prose Works
In 1881 Sully Prudhomme was elected to the Académie Française, a learned society consisting of 40 members that serves as the official authority on French grammar, usage, and vocabulary. He published little poetry after the 1880s, turning instead to theoretical works. Among these are the 1896 scientific inquiry Que sais-je? (What Do I Know?) and 1900's Testament poétique, in which he criticized free verse and rejected the innovations of the Symbolist poets, who emphasized the musical, self-expressive nature of poetry and abandoned classical forms. In the philosophical treatise La psychologie de libre arbitre, Sully Prudhomme argued in favor of free will. His final work, 1905's La vraie religion selon Pascal, offered consideration of the religious views of French scientist Blaise Pascal. A five-volume collection of Sully Prudhomme's poetry was published by the Parisian firm A. Lemerre in 1900-01.
Sully Prudhomme suffered from a long, paralyzing illness and died at his home in Châtenay-Malabry in September of 1907. A final volume of poetry, Epaves (Flotsam), was posthumously published in 1908. The journals in which he outlined his ideas concerning psychology, music, metaphysics, and aesthetics, were published as Journal intime in 1922.
Sully Prudhomme was highly praised during his lifetime, his works reflecting a broadening appreciation of classical forms and a growing belief in the ability of science to replace religion. In the Spectator a contemporary reviewer asserted that "M. Sully Prudhomme, in his prose work on Expression in the Fine Arts, and in his elaborate preface to the translation of the first book of De natura rerum, has written what are probably the most brilliant essays of philosophic thought which modern France has produced." However, the poet's work has been little discussed since the 1920s, when modernism supplanted the older forms in literature and the arts. Nevertheless, his Solitudes was reprinted in 1978.
Assessing the career of Sully Prudhomme in 1900, Maurice Baring noted in Punch and Judy, and Other Essays that "What strikes the reader first and foremost in Sully-Prudhomme's poetry is that he is a thinker, and moreover, a poet who thinks, and not a thinker who turns to rhyme for recreation. What is most strikingly original in his work is to be found in his philosophic and scientific poetry. . . . [He] succeeded in creating a form of poetry which seemed to be new, and which was not without a certain grandeur." Baring concluded, "Both on account of the charm of his pure and perfect phrasing and by the consummate art and the dignity which informed all his work, Sully-Prudhomme deserved the rank which he held amongst the foremost French poets of the nineteenth century."
Baring, Maurice, Punch and Judy, and Other Essays, Doubleday, Page & Co., 1924.
Dargan, E. Preston, and others, Studies in Honor of A. Marshall Elliott, Volume 1, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1911.
Dowden, Edward, Studies in Literature: 1789-1877, fifth edition, Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1889.
France, Anatole, On Life & Letters, Second Series, translated by A. W. Evans, Bodley Head, 1914.
Lalou, René, Contemporary French Literature, translated by William Aspenwall Bradley, Alfred A. Knopf, 1924.
Marble, Annie Russell, The Noble Prize Winners in Literature, D. Appleton and Co., 1925.
Spectator, July 2, 1892.
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