17 September, 2008

Larmartine the lachrymose

This is the first semester that I'm not taking an English class. That, however, is quite all right, because I'm getting a good dose of literature through my French Literary Tradtions course. Currently we're focusing on the French Romantic period, which subject we kicked off by taking a look at Chateaubriand - the forefather of French romanticism.

The next author we're discussing is Alphonse de Lamartine, famous primarily for his poem "Le Lac" (the Lake). Just as we saw with Chateaubriand, there's a rather extreme emphasis on emotion in Lamartine's writing. Instead of dealing with the identity crisis of a young man with no faith in life however, "Le Lac" centers around the author's grief at the death of his lover, Julie Charles. I definitely have mixed feelings about this one.

The lyricism of the work is stunning:

Temps jaloux, se peut-il que ces moments d’ivresse,
Où l’amour à longs flots nous verse le bonheur,
S’envolent loin de nous de la même vitesse
Que les jours de malheur ?

(Very approximate translation:
Jealous time, can it be that these moments of drunkeness
When love pours down on us in streams,
Will fly from us with the same haste
As days of unhappiness?)

This verse is typical of the poem as a whole. The lines are measured by number of syllables since French is an essentially unstressed language; as you repeat them aloud, they roll from your tongue, too long to let you get caught up in the meter alone, but smooth enough to lull you into a dream-like state similar to the author's own.

The major conceit of the poem is that nature (here, the lake specifically) can in a sense sympathize with the author's desolation. It can at least fulfill the poet's wish when he demands: "Gardez de cette nuit, gardez, belle nature,/ Au moins le souvenir" (Guard this night, guard, beautiful nature, at least the memory). He finishes the work with an appeal to the lake to keep his love alive through the waves, the breezes, the noises, the rocks, and the roses which will all remind him of his beloved.

I can see a great deal of merit in the poem, most specifically the lyricism. But I suppose I'm too inclined to a more logical view of things to be won over by the poem as a whole. It's far too lachrymose for my taste. Not that emotion in art is at all a bad thing - my favorite genre of literature, 19th century Russian, is abundantly emotional; it's just rather difficult to not be put off by orgies of tears and wallowings in lost love that last for verse after verse. It's a pretty piece, but really Lamartine doesn't say much of anything beyond "I'm sad. I'm terribly sad. Time was too short. Nature will have to help me cope. I'm sad. I'm terribly sad." I'm sure it was quite heartbreaking, but it's hardly a fresh theme, and has very little in the way of substance to offer as recompense.

No comments: