- Elusive ShoresLamartine’s Méditations and the Art of Poetry
À quels bords irai-je porter mes rêveries et mes malheurs?—Lamartine to A. de Virieu, 5 Oct. 1811
When referring to his first Meditations Poétiques (1820), Lamartine often portrayed his lyric voice as a free melody detached from consciousness: “Je veux me laisser aller où me portera la fantasia” (Dec. 1818 [18–73]).1 Persona notwithstanding, this paper aims to nuance the traditional view of Lamartine as a purely inspired lyricist through an analysis of specific changes in his concept of poetry as they are reflected in specific poems and prose commentaries. Lamartine’s so-called inattention to form is actually, to use Maurice Blanchot’s words, a “pureté” that reflects the will and “méthode” of the poet: “La facilité est sa principale rigueur.” (176) Others have highlighted the same purposeful restraint when it comes to the poet’s language and rhetoric: “Ce n’est donc pas par négligence ou paresse que Lamartine s’est peu corrigé,—et il s’est plus corrigé qu’on ne l’a cru jadis” (Bruneau 154).2 More recently, Mary Ellen Birkett has lent a refreshing counterpoint to the view of Lamartine as an instrument played upon, to demonstrate the poet’s artful use of “a kaleidoscope of poetic expressions, creating beautiful, everchanging patterns from pieces which are already supplied” (40).3
The Méditations invite further study of Lamartine’s poetic process. Though the towering Chateaubriand had pointedly omitted poetry from his recent overviews of modern French literature in Le Conservateur, Lamartine asserted the French lyric’s relevancy through a slim volume of elegies. Charting a chronological path that aligns the poet’s correspondence with developments in several key poems reveals Lamartine to be a highly self-conscious, lucidly experimental poet who tempers feeling with compositional restraint: “N’as-tu pas quelquefois chanté pour toi seul dans [End Page 49] ta chambre ou dans les bois? C’est le même sentiment involontaire qui me force à composer; composons donc” (to Virieu, Corr Dec. 1818 [18–73]).4 Lamartine was aware when publishing the Méditations that he was cultivating a new poetic style, one rooted in a protracted meditation on the art of poetry making. Alain Vaillant has already made a compelling case that the “hard evidence” of versification in Lamartine is more at stake than philosophy, psychology, or abstract discourses on music; but while Vaillant limits himself to “Le Lac” and the hermeneutics of its echoing structure, I propose a fuller reading of the overall volume as the story of Lamartine’s own developing “ars poetica”. The first section of this paper will highlight how the poet, reconnecting with the experiential and expressive self, reinforced poetry through surprisingly non-sentimentalized confrontations with nature as well as through an explicit resistance to the genre of prose. Next, through a chronological reading of select poems that enact his discourse on poetry in his correspondence, I will trace the poet’s figurations of water in the Méditations to show how they reflect critical stages in an evolving poetic process. Lamartine’s elusive shores will serve as a metaphor for the way he continually reassesses, effaces, and resituates the limits of poetry.
The Poetics of Prosaic Landscapes
In surprising contrast to the pale and nebulous depictions of scenery that appear throughout the Méditations, Lamartine’s comments to close correspondents indicate that he found inspiration in ordinary, unadorned but vividly illuminated natural surroundings: “je ne me sens aucune curiosité pour tout ce qui n’est pas du soleil et de la belle et pure nature” (to Virieu, Corr Aug. 1818 [18–44]). Informed by English poetry at a young age, Lamartine, who sought to emulate what he described as Alexander Pope’s fused role as a poet, philosopher, and “bon ami,” also picked up on Mme de Staël’s connection between what she considers the superiority of the English imagination to English poets’ propensity for capturing sensory experience: “ils ont l’art d’unir intimement les réflexions philosophiques aux sensations produites par les beautés de la Champagne” (De la littérature II: 220).5 As...