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René Sully-Prudhomme (1839-1907) - original name RENÉ FRANCOIS ARMAND PRUDHOMME

 

French poet, who won the first Nobel Prize for Literature in 1901. The decision  stirred controversy at the time – Sully-Prudhomme had not published much poetry after 1888. Today Sully-Prudhomme is also relatively little read either in France or abroad. His early works were lyrical and expressed melancholic view of the world – in later volumes he favored the calm, impersonal techniques of the Parnassians, who reacted against the excessive emotion and subjectivity of Romaticism.

C. D. af Wirsén, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, stated in his Nobel presentation, that "Sully Prudhomme's work reveals an inquiring and observing mind which finds no rest in what passes and which, as it seems impossible to him to know more, finds evidence of man's supernatural destiny in the moral realm, in the voice of conscience, and in the lofty and undeniable prescriptions of duty."

René François Armand Sully-Prudhomme was born in Paris. His parents had been engaged for ten years, and after gaining financial security they married. At the age of two Sully-Prudhomme lost his father, a shopkeeper, and he grew up in his uncle's house, where mother moved. His father was called 'Sully' and the poet joined it with his surname Prudhomme. At school he was interested in classic literature and mathematics. He also thought seriously of entering the Dominican order, but his fervor did not last long. The sonnets entitled 'Doubt' reflected his familiarity with the work of David F. Strauss and other religious critics.

After graduating from the Lycée Bonaparte, Sully-Prudhomme took his bachelor's degree in the sciences in 1857, but severe eye disorder caused him to abandon his plans to study engineering. In 1858 he passed his examination as bachelor of letters. For a period he was employed as a factory correspondence at the industrial firm of Schneider-Creuzot. Having returned to Paris, Sully-Prudhomme began studiying law, without much enthusiasm,  and worked in a solicitor's office.

While recovering from an unhappy love affair – he remained a lifelong bachelor – Sully-Prudhomme read philosophy and wrote poetry. He joined the Conférence La Bruyère, a student society, and read there his poems. His efforts were encouraged by Leconte de Lisle, a leading Parnassian poet, who noted that his protégée was not faithful to the ideals of classical poetry, but preferred to depict his own inner feelings.

Being made temporarily independent by inheriting a small fortune, Sully-Prudhomme devoted himself to writing. At the age of 26, he published his first book, Stances et Poèmes. It contained his best-known piece, 'The Broken Vase'. "Le vase où meurt cette vervaine / D'un coup d'éventail fut fêlé; / Le coup dut l'effleurer à peine, / Aucun bruit ne l'a révélé. " The collection of sorrowful poems was praised by the literary critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beauve. In 1866 Sully-Prudhomme became one of the contributors to the anthology Le Parnasse Contemporain, and produced then Les Écuries d'Augias (1866), Croquis Italiens (1866-68), and Les Solitudes (1869).

Sully-Prudhomme wanted to restore the classical standards of elegance in verse. In his striving for direct and simple expression, the work of Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (99-55 B.C.) influenced him deeply. Sully-Prudhomme published a translation of the first volume of Lucretius's On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), together with the accompanying preface. Lucretius had advocated in the didactic poem Epicurean doctrines, stating that "one should guide his life by true principles, man's greatest wealth is to live on little with contended mind; for a little is never lacking." Later Sully-Prudhomme expressing his philosophical thoughts through poetry and under the form of dialogue, as in La Justice (1878).

When the Franco-Prussian War began, Sully-Prudhomme enlisted in the militia, which defended Paris during the siege. As a response to the national crisis, whe wrote  Impressions de la Guerre, which came out in 1870. In the same year his mother, uncle, and aunt died, and the poet had a stroke, which nearly paralyzed his lower body, a condition with which he would struggle for the rest of his life. His works from that decade include Les Vaines  Tendresses (1875) and 'Le Zénith'. The latter, published in the Revue des deux mondes, dealt with the fatal ascent of three balloonists. In spite of melancholic undertones of his poems and Epicurean wiew of the world, he was considered the poet of life, "of joy, of beauty, of energy, and of novelty."

"No self-appointed messiah like Victor Hugo but no nihilist like Leconte de Lisle, he lifted poetry from some of the gloom into which positivistic pessimism had plunged it for a generation and taught his belief that the road to happiness lies through pain, self-sacrifice, and brotherly love." (Jean-Albert Béde in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, 1980)

Sully-Prudhomme's major works include the 4 000 line epic Le Bonheur (1888), an ambitious attempt to create a scientific-philosophic poem. For the rest of his career he devoted to the philosophy of poetry. Testament Poétique (1901) voiced out his objections both to free verse and the work of the symbolists. La Vraie Religion Selon Pascal (True Religion According to Pascal) from 1905 was about Blaise Pascal's Christian views. Other essays from this year include 'The History of the Social State,' 'The Credit of Science' and 'On National and International Lines'. In his final work, Psychologie du Libre Arbitre (1906, Psychology of Free Will) and in the posthumously published Journal Intime (1922) Sully-Prudhomme contemplated the concept of free will, and concluded that the course of the universe is not determined.

"Along the quay the great ships,
Listing silently with the surge,
Pay no heed to the cradles
Rocked by women's hands.

But the day of parting will come,
For it is decreed that women shall weep,
And that men with questing spirits
Shall seek enticing horizons."
(from 'The Cradles')

In 1881 Sully-Prudhomme was elected to the French Academy. He wrote comparetively little poetry, focusing on theoretical and metaphysical works. From the beginning, he was a staunch supporter of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, who was falsely accused and convicted for espionage. During the last years of his life he was seriously disabled by paralysis. Sully-Prudhomme died at his villa in Châtenay-Malabry, near Paris, on September 7, 1907.

Sully-Prudhomme was awarded the first Nobel Prize for Literature in 1901. August Strindberg, along with many other writers and artists, protested the decision and argued that the award should have gone to Leo Tolstoy. The moneySully-Prudhomme donated to the French writers' association to help aspiring poets with the publication of their first book. Gabriel Fauré set three of his poems to music. Two of them, 'Au bord de l'eau' (At the Water's Edge), which was collected in Les Vaines tendresses, and 'Les Berceaux' (The Cradles), which appeared in Stances et poèmes under the title 'Le Long du quai les grands vaisseaux,' are considered masterpieces. 'Le Vase brisé' was set to music by César Franck.

For further reading: Studies in Literature by E. Dowden (1892); Entretiens avec Sully-Prudhomme by E. Champion (1900); La Philosophie de M. Sully-Prudhomme by C. Hémon (1907); Sully-Prudhomme by E. Zyromsky (1907); Parisian Portraits by F. Grierson (1913); On Life and Letters by A. France (1922); Punch and Judy and Other Essays by M. Baring (1924); Sully Prudhomme, poète sentimental et poète philosophe by Edmond Estève (1925); Sully Prudhomme et sa pensée by Pierre Flottes (1930); Nobel Prize Winners, ed. by T. Wasson (1987) - Poets associated with the Parnassians: Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville, François Coppée, Sully Prudhomme, and Paul Verlaine.  Suomeksi kirjailijalta on käännetty runoja mm. teokseen Ranskan kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja, toim. Anna-Maria Tallgren, 1934. Otto Manninen on suomentanut runon 'Särkynyt maljakko'.

Selected works:

  • Stances et Poèmes, 1865 (contains Le vase brisé, The Broken Vase)
  • Les Épreuves, 1866
  • Les Écuries d'Augias, 1866
  • Croquis Italiens, 1866-68 [Italian Notebook]
  • Les Solitudes, 1869
  • Impressions de la Guerre, 1870 [Impressions of War]
  • Les Destins, 1872 [Destinies]
  • La Révolte Des Fleurs, 1874 [Revolt of Flowers]
  • La France, 1874
  • Le Zénith, 1875 (first published in Revue des deux mondes)
  • Les Vaines Tendresses, 1875 [Vain Endearments]
  • Poésies de Sully Prudhomme, 1877
  • La Jutice, 1878
  • Poésies de Sully Prudhomme, 1872-1878, 1879
  • Le Prisme, 1886
  • The Problems of Good, Freedom and Immortality, 1891
  • Réflexions Sur L'art Des Vers, 1892
  • Le Bonheur, 1888 [Happiness]
  • Œuvres, 1888-1908 (8 vols.)
  • Œuvres de Sully Prudhomme, 1900-1901 (6 vols.)
  • Testament Poétique, 1901 [Poetic Testament]
  • Le Probleme Des Causes Finales, 1903 (with Charles Richet)
  • La Vraie Religion Selon Pascal, 1905
  • Psychologie du Libre Arbitre, 1906 (first published in the Revue de métaphysique et de morale)
  • Les Épaves, 1908 [Flotsam]
  • Journal Intime - Lettres - Pensees, 1922
  • Solitudes: poésies, 1978


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