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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Jocelyn submits to become a priest


He

was a noble dreamer in practical affairs, and just ideas formed a portion of his dreams. Nature had made him an irreclaimable optimist; all that is base and ugly in life passed out of view as he soared above earth in his luminous ether. Sadness and doubt indeed he knew, but his sadness had a charm of its own, and there were consolations in maternal nature, in love, in religious faith and adoration. His power of vision was not intense or keen; his descriptions are commonly vague or pale; but no one could mirror more faithfully a state of feeling divested of all material circumstance. The pure and ample harmonies of his verse do not attack the ear, but they penetrate to the soul. All the great lyric themes--God, nature, death, glory, melancholy, solitude, regret, desire, hope, love--he interpreted on his instrument with a musician's inspiration. Unhappily he lacked the steadfast force of will, the inexhaustible patience, which go to make a complete artist; he improvised admirably; he refused to labour as a master of technique; hence his diffuseness, his negligences; hence the decline of his powers after the first spontaneous inspiration was exhausted.

Lamartine may have equalled but he never surpassed the best poems of his earliest volume. But the elegiac singer aspired to be a philosophic poet, and, infusing his ideas into sentiment and narrative, became the author of _Jocelyn_ and _La Chute d'un Ange_. Recalling and idealising an episode in the

life of his friend the Abbe Dumont, he tells how Jocelyn, a child of humble parents--not yet a priest--takes shelter among the mountains from the Revolutionary terror; how a proscribed youth, Laurence, becomes his companion; how Laurence is found to be a girl; how friendship passes into love; how, in order that he may receive the condemned bishop's last confession, Jocelyn submits to become a priest; how the lovers part; how Laurence wanders into piteous ways of passion; how Jocelyn attends her in her dying hours, and lays her body among the hills and streams of their early love. It is Jocelyn who chronicles events and feelings in his journal of joy and of sorrow. Lamartine acknowledges that he had before him as a model the idyl dear to him in childhood--Bernardin's _Paul et Virginie_.

The poem is complete in itself, but it was designed as a fragment of that vast modern epopee, with humanity for the hero, of which _La Chute d'un Ange_ was another fragment. The later poem, vast in dimensions, fantastic in subject, negligent in style, is a work of Lamartine's poetic decline. We are among the mountains of Lebanon, where dwell the descendants of Cain. The angel, enamoured of the maiden Daidha, becomes human. Through gigantic and incoherent inventions looms the idea of humanity which degrades itself by subjugation to the senses, as in _Jocelyn_ we had seen the type of humanity which ascends by virtue of aspirations of the soul. It was a poor jest to say that the title of his poem _La Chute d'un Ange_ described its author. Lamartine had failed; he could not handle so vast a subject with plastic power; but in earlier years he had accomplished enough to justify us in disregarding a late failure--he had brought back the soul to poetry.

III

Among the romantic poets who made themselves known between 1820 and 1830, ALFRED DE VIGNY is distinguished by the special character of his genius, and by the fact that nothing in his poetry is derived from


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