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  • Avertissements, préfaces et propos sur la poésie et la littérature
  • Mary Ellen Birkett
Lamartine, Alphonse de . Avertissements, préfaces et propos sur la poésie et la littérature. Textes réunis et présentés par Christian Croisille. Textes de Littérature Moderne et Contemporaine 124. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2009. Pp. 291. ISBN: 978-2-7453-1989-0

Lamartine is a virtuoso of the preface as a personal, reflective, autobiographical as well as theoretical genre. Thanks to Christian Croisille, for the first time nineteen of Lamartine's avertissements, préfaces and propos sur la poésie et la littérature have become accessible in one impeccably edited volume.

Croisille presents this anthology as a whole; he also introduces each text individually, highlighting its main points and providing useful cross-references to Lamartine's other works. Drawing upon the deep and detailed knowledge he has acquired as editor of Lamartine's voluminous correspondence, he unfolds the many-layered publication history of Lamartine's writings with clarity; he corrects lapses of memory on Lamartine's part, especially where dates are concerned; he gives invaluable information about the people and circumstances to which Lamartine refers. The volume's chronological order enables Croisille to assess the place that each text occupies in the evolution of Lamartine's conception of poetry, prefatory writing, or the purposes of literature.

As a young unknown poet, Lamartine appears almost indifferent to the conventions of the preface: the presenter of his ground-breaking poetic anthology Méditations (1820) is not Lamartine himself but rather his friend Eugène Genoude. Subsequently, Lamartine has recourse to his editor Urbain Canel for the preface to Nouvelles Méditations poétiques (1823). Later he invents a fictive editor who, using texts furnished by Lamartine, introduces La Mort de Socrate (1823) and Le Dernier Chant du pèlerinage d'Harold (1825).

Not until 1830 does Lamartine speak about poetry in his own voice, in the Discours de reception à l'Académie française praising his predecessor the Count Daru (translator of Horace) and in the preface to Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, where he articulates a symphonic poetics arising from the fusion of personal anguish and religious faith with the natural world. Lamartine then continues to compose the prefaces to a four-volume collection of his poetry (1834)—a preface titled Les Destinées de la poésie—and to his two epic poems Jocelyn (1836) and La Chute d'un ange (1838). Of [End Page 192] these texts, it is Les Destinées de la poésie that constitutes Lamartine's most substantive theoretical writing on poetry; Croisille insightfully suggests that this preface presents Lamartine's over-arching vision not only of all his own poetics but also of poetry in general, its meaning and its future.

In Recueillements poétiques (1839), Lamartine's last collection of poems, first-person presentation takes a dramatic and long-lasting turn. Aware of the ascendancy that politics have taken in his life, Lamartine uses the preface to bid farewell to poetry: in the guise of an open letter to an intimate friend, Lamartine pens a brilliant prose poem evoking how he became a poet and why he no longer is one. He writes similar, nostalgic prefaces for a new edition of Jocelyn (1840); for Médtiations, Nouvelles Méditations and Harmonies in the Edition des Souscripteurs (1849); and for his autobiographical narratives Les Confidences (1849) and Nouvelles Confidences (1850). Croisille does scholars a great service by publishing these prefaces, which in his estimation represent some of Lamartine's most lyrical prose writings.

By the time Lamartine presents his last prefaced novel, Geneviève (1850), the open letter preface has evolved into a manifesto and program for a new kind of literature, written for and/or by the newly-literate and rapidly-growing working classes. The biography that Croisille includes from Le Civilisateur (1852) and the excerpts he selects from the Cours familier de littérature (1856-1857) circle back to Lamartine's previously expressed ideas about poetry.

Croisille's conclusion is that Lamartine's prefaces and writings on literature form fragments of an "autobiographie éclatée." Viewed in this light...


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