French poet Frédéric Mistral (1830–1914) is recognized as one of his country's foremost nineteenth–century poets. The author of several well–known epics, he is even more revered for his life–long dedication to documenting and preserving the Provençal language of southeastern France, where he was born. He was a founder of the Society of the Felibrige, an organization devoted to Provençal language and culture. He spent 20 years compiling a dictionary of his regional language and founded a Provençal museum in Arles, France in 1904. That same year, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature for his work. Ever–devoted to his mission, he dedicated his earnings from the prize to expanding the museum.
Mistral was born to Delaïde and François Mistral on September 8, 1830, in the Rhône Valley village of Maillane, halfway between Avignon and Arles. François, a well–to–do farmer and landowner, married Delaïde, the daughter of Maillane's mayor, at the age of 53, after the death of his first wife. Mistral's parents spoke the Provençal langue d'oc, a regional language that is distinct from modern–day Provençal, and his mother fostered his interest in local history, folklore, and culture. In his memoirs, Mistral recalled that even as a child he became aware that his native language branded him and his parents as lower–class. "When occasionally a townsman visited our farm, one of those who affected to speak only French, it puzzled me sorely and even disconcerted me to see my parents all at once take on a respectful manner to the stranger, as though they felt him to be their superior," he recalled. "I was perplexed, too, at hearing another tongue."
Mistral began his schooling at the age of eight but, as he recalled in his memoirs, he devoted himself more to games than studies. His parents soon sent him to boarding school at the abbey of Saint–Michel de Frigolet, a two–hour wagon ride from Maillane. When the school closed amidst a scandal, Mistral continued his studies in Avignon, first at a boarding school and then at the Collège Royal de Avignon, where he read the epic poems of Virgil and Homer. At the college, Mistral was surrounded by French speaking students and again became aware of the second–class status his language had been accorded. Soon, however, he met Joseph Roumanille, a new professor who joined the school approximately one year after Mistral's arrival. Roumanille also wrote lyric poetry in Mistral's native langue d'oc. The pair soon struck up a friendship based on their shared heritage. "Up to that time I had read only a few stray scraps in Provençal, and it had always aggravated me to find that our language . . . was usually used only in derision," Mistral recalled in his memoirs. "But here was Roumanille, with this splendid voice of his, expressing, in the tongue of the people, with dignity and simplicity, all the noblest sentiments of the heart."
Mistral and Roumanille soon established the need to document and preserve the Provençal language and culture. Recognizing that others, including the poets Désanat of Trascon and Bellot Chailan, had written in the same language, Mistral remarked in his memoirs, "All these gentlemen were . . . imbued with this erroneous idea that the language of the people, good though they felt it to be, was only suitable for common or droll subjects, and hence they took no pains either to purify or to restore it." A fellow student, Anselm Mathieu, joined their efforts.
Mistral finished his studies at the college in August of 1847 and traveled to Nîmes, where he read for and received his bachelor's degree. In the winter of 1848, revolutionaries overthrew the French government and Mistral turned his attention to their cause, publishing a poem savagely attacking the idea of monarchy in several local newspapers. That same year, he entered law school at the University of Aix–en–Provençe, graduating in 1851. Given the freedom by his father to embark on a career of his choosing, Mistral returned to the family farm and dedicated his time to writing poetry and furthering his cultural preservation efforts. "And then and there—at the time I was one and twenty—with my foot on the threshold of the paternal home, and my eyes looking toward the Alpilles, I formed the resolution, first, to raise and rectify in Provençe the sentiment of race that I saw being annihilated by the false and unnatural education of all the school; secondly, to promote that resurrection by the restoration of the native and historic language of the country, against which the schools waged war to the death; and lastly, to make that language popular by illuminating it with the divine flame of poetry," he wrote in his memoirs.
Founded Society of the Felibrige
In 1852, Roumanille compiled and published an anthology of langue d'oc poets. The volume established Mistral, Mathieu, Roumanille, and Théodore Aubanel as the foremost writers working in this domain. On May 21, 1854, following two unsuccessful prior meetings, this group, along with Alphonse Tavan, Jean Brunet, and Victor Gélu, established the Society of the Felibrige, dedicated to the careful preservation and use of the Provençal language. The group published an annual journal, Armana Prouvençau, and Mistral accepted a project that would occupy the next two decades of his life, the compilation of a dictionary of Provençal language and culture. "How strange it seems to look back on that scene," he recalled in his memoirs. "[L]ike some fairy–tale, and yet it was from that day of light–hearted festivity, of youthful ideals and enthusiasms, that sprang the gigantic task completed in the Treasury of the Félibres, a dictionary of the Provençal tongue, including every variety of derivation and idiom, a work to which I devoted twenty years of my life." In 1855, Mistral's father died and he moved with his mother to a house in the village.
Roumanille published Mistral's first major contribution to the Provençal literary movement, the epic poem "Mirèio," in 1859. The work centers on the love affair between Mirèio, a wealthy landed peasant girl, and Vincèn, whose family holds no property. Mirèio's parents disapprove of their romance, and the young girl seeks guidance from Provençal's patron saints. She falls ill during the course of her journey and, just before her death, receives a visit from the saints she has been seeking. Charles Gounod adapted the poem for his opera, Mireille, in 1864.
Mistral's next major publication was "Calendau," a tale of a heroic fisherman who rescues his country from tyranny. Viewed as a thinly veiled cry for Provençal's political sovereignty, heavy with symbolism and historical concerns, Calendau was not as enthusiastically received as Mistral's first work. By 1870, Mistral had grown disillusioned with the revolutionary movement, and his work from this point on centered less on political concerns. On September 27, 1876, at the age of 46, he married 20–year–old Marie Rivière, at the Cathedral of Saint–Bénigne in Dijon. The couple built a new home across from Mistral's mother.
Published Treasury of the F élibres
By 1880, Mistral had completed his Treasury of the Félibres, and the work was published in several volumes between 1880 and 1886. In addition to documenting various dialects of the Provençal langue d'oc, the Treasury contained local folktales as well as writings on the region's culture and traditions. In 1884, Mistral published "Nerto," an epic poem different in both tone and rhyme scheme from his earlier works. Based on a Provençal fairytale, "Nerto" tells the story of a young girl whose father has sold her soul to the devil. She travels to Avignon to seek the aid of the Pope, allowing Mistral to delve into the historical events of the Great Schism, in which the Christian lands of Europe were divided into the domains of two rival Popes.
Mistral published the drama Le Réino Jano (Queen Joan), in 1890, a five–act tragedy centering on the life of Joanna, Queen of Naples and Countess of Provençe, who is tried and acquitted for the murder of her husband. The following year he launched a Provençal–language newspaper, L'Aioli. In 1897, he published "Lou Pouèmo dóu Rose" (The Poem of the Rhône) a 12–canto work centering on the Rhône River and bemoaning the changes wrought by such inventions as the steamboat as the industrial revolution began to take hold.
Won Nobel Prize
In 1904, Mistral established a Provençal museum in the town of Arles. That same year, his work both as a poet and keeper of Provençal language and customs was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature, which he shared with Jose Echegaray of Spain. "One knows the motto given by Mistral to the Association of Provençal Poets: "Lou soulèu me fai canta" (The sun makes me sing). His poems have, in effect spread the light of the Provençal sun in many countries, even in Northern regions where they have made many hearts rejoice," stated C.D. af Wirsén, in his Nobel Prize presentation speech. "Alfred Nobel demanded idealism from an author to be judged worthy of the Prize he established. Is it not amply found in a poet whose work, like that of Mistral, is distinguished by a healthy and flourishing artistic idealism; in a man who has devoted his entire life to an ideal, the restoration and development of the spiritual interests of his native country, its language and its literature?" Mistral devoted his earnings from the prize to the expansion of his museum in Arles.
In 1907, he published his full Provençal translation of the Biblical chapter Genesis, which had been serially published under various pseudonyms in the Armana beginning in 1878. The last volume of poetry to appear during his lifetime was Lis Oulivado (The Olive Gathering), a collection of lyrics, published in 1912. Mistral died at his home in Maillane on March 25, 1914.
Edwards, Tudor, The Lion of Arles: A Portrait of Mistral and His Circle, Fordham University Press, 1964.
Mistral, Frédéric, Memoirs of Mistral, The Baker and Taylor Co., 1907.
"Frédéric Mistral," Nobel Prize Website,http://nobelprize.org (November 29, 2004).
"The Nobel Prize in Literature 1904," Nobel Prize Website,http://nobelprize.org (November 29, 2004).
Frédéric Mistral (frādārēk´ mēsträl´), 1830–1914, French Provençal poet. With Théodore Aubanel he was one of the seven founders (1854) of the Félibrige, an organization to promote Provençal as a literary language (see Provençal literature). He was the leader of the movement and was recognized as its greatest poet. Besides many short poems he wrote four verse romances, notably Mirèio (1859, tr. 1867). He published a Provençal dictionary (1878–86) and wrote memoirs (tr. 1907). His verse is characterized rather by ease and beauty of language than by power of thought. He shared with Echegaray the 1904 Nobel Prize in Literature.
See his memoirs, tr. by G. Wickes (1986); studies by C. A. Downer (1901), R. Aldington (1960), and T. Edwards (1965).