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Reviewed by:
  • Edgar Quinet, poète et théoricien de la poésie par Sophie Guermès
  • Barbara Wright
Edgar Quinet, poète et théoricien de la poésie. Sous la direction de Sophie Guermès. (Romantismes et modernités, 156.) Paris: Honoré Champion, 2015. 343 pp.

Dedicated to Simone Bernard-Griffiths, the doyenne of Quinet studies, this excellent volume fills a major gap by providing a composite view of Edgar Quinet as a poet and a theoretician of poetry. Emerging from the first two years of the ITEM-CNRS seminars on ‘Poésie et religion, génétique des textes poétiques’, it tracks the works that, in the first edition of Quinet’s Œuvres complètes, were described as his ‘ouvrages d’imagination’: the trilogy (Ahasvérus (1833), Napoléon (1836), Prométhée (1838)) and Les Esclaves (1853)—together with Merlin l’enchanteur (1860). The first and the last of these were written in prose and the three middle titles in verse, each accompanied by a preface in which it is clear that Quinet theorized his work, even as he created it. The prefaces to the trilogy are reproduced in this volume, as well as four of the most celebrated reviews of Quinet’s work: those by Charles Magnin, Félix Ravaisson, Alexandre Vinet, and Saint-René Taillandier. Quinet, as is well known, sought single-handedly to bring about a revival of epic poetry, which had fallen into decline in France after the twelfth century. If history in the post-Revolutionary period had become ‘heroic’, a parallel development needed to take place in the realm of poetry. It is in this context that he reconfigured the legend of the Wandering Jew, in the ‘eternal’ life of Ahasvérus, casting the past in the framework of universal humanity, playing on cyclical, repetitive figures echoing each other and resonating in perpetuity. Similarly, he sought to highlight the poetry of the present, in transforming Napoléon, the heroic individual, to a supra-temporal legendary myth. The poetry of the future is anticipated in Prométhée, where the hero’s incarceration, as he is chained to a rock in the Caucasus, is made to prefigure the crucifixion of Christ, rising democracy being directly linked to the teachings of Christ—as opposed to those of the Church, which Quinet considered to be sclerotic. After the upheaval of the 1848 Revolution and Louis Napoléon’s 1851 coup d’état, which led to Quinet’s exile, he returned to verse drama in Les Esclaves, with Spartacus taking up the defence of all those who had been silenced into ‘slavery’. After a still longer break, Quinet produced the poetically conceived and deeply ironic prose drama, Merlin l’enchanteur. While there was a direct correlation between Quinet’s poetry and those periods of his life when he was most seized of a new vision of humanity, the intervening essays, such as Du génie des religions (1842), show the abiding importance of poetry throughout his work. The influence of the Italian poets, in the early [End Page 606] years, is clearly brought out by Clélia Anfray; the importance of architecture, especially in the Spanish context, by Encarnacíon Medina Arjona; and the historical backcloth, by Gérard Gengembre. Outstanding among these essays, however, are the forward-looking Introduction by the editor, Sophie Guermès, and her perceptive essays on Ahasvérus and Prométhée, together with those by Simone Bernard-Griffiths on Napoléon and Merlin l’enchanteur. The only flaw in an otherwise exemplary bibliography is the omission of Georgette Vabre Pradal’s La Dimension historique de l’homme: ou, le mythe du juif errant dans la pensée d’Edgar Quinet (Paris: Nizet, 1961).

Barbara Wright
Trinity College, Dublin


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