Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869)

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Alphonse de Lamartine, the French writer and politician, member of the Académie Française, author of both intimately and religiously inspired poems, Les Méditations and Les Harmonies, in 1832-1833 undertook a voyage in the Orient lasting eighteen months, the account of which appeared in 1835.

The Souvenirs, impressions, pensées et paysages, pendant un voyage en Orient stand as the jewel of the romantic genre that came in the aftermath of the Voyage en Égypte et en Syrie (1787) and the Ruines (1791) by Volney, the philosopher and orientalist.

These four volumes come somewhere between Chateaubriand’s Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem  (1811) and Nerval’s Voyage en Orient (1851). They stand out from the former, for Lamartine was benevolent towards Islam, while Chateaubriand stood as the spokesman of the Cross against the Crescent, yet do not announce the singularity of the latter. They were a constant success until the early 20th century, as can be seen in their numerous new editions.

The BnF possesses six albums numbered in Lamartine’s hand, like sketchbooks, bearing the label of Giroux, Lamartine’s regular supplier (donated by Valentine de Cessiat de Lamartine in 1897, Voyage en Orient, Notes: 10 juillet 1832-13 septembre 1832). To them can be added a seventh album, which is apart because of its disparate nature, limited to eight leafs entitled: “Athènes et le Parthénon”, bound at the front of a series of other fragments. These albums are the matrix of the first two volumes of 1835, going from the embarkation in Marseille up to the departure from Beirut for Baalbek. The BnF also conserves the manuscript of Fatallah Fayîgh, transcribed in vol. 4 of the Voyage en Orient. This donation was recorded on 24th June 1837. In the column of “Titles of Works”, the following mention appears: “M. the Minister of Public Instruction has been sent an Arabic manuscript acquired in Syria by M. de la Martine, who gave a translation of it in his Voyage en Orient and has presented it to the Library. The French title of this manuscript is: Manuscrit arabe du voyage de Sayghir-Drogman de M. Lascaris = 1833 = à Mr de Lamartine et Tableau des tribus arabes de Syrie, complément du ms.”

Lamartine’s itinerary, initially intended as a search for inspiration for two large epic poems, Jocelyn and La Chute d’un ange, did not follow the rationale of most journeys to the Orient: flight, escape, and the collection of local colour. Lamartine, who had dreamed of discovering the Orient ever since admiring the engraving that depicted it in the Bible de Royaumont, read by his mother, was gripped by metaphysical doubts at the moment of his departure. The spectacle of the rivalry between religions in the Holy Land worsened a crisis that was to lead the poet towards a sort of deism, as can be seen in many passages of his tale, which was placed on the Index of forbidden books by the Vatican in 1836, as well as his verse poetic and philosophical meditation, Le Désert ou l’Immatérialité de Dieu, published in the XIth Interview of Le Cours familier de littérature in November 1856.

In his Voyage en Orient, Lamartine mentioned Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata. Romanticism was strongly attached to huge heroic poems that reinvested the tragic archetypes of Antiquity: Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (1581), which in particular struck Delacroix, or John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) (translated by Chateaubriand during his exile in England), the epic of Lucifer the fallen angel, reminiscences of which can be seen in Les Méditations, La Chute dun ange and Jocelyn. It is in this context that the “Description de Jérusalem” is set, as the introduction of a new translation of Gerusalemme liberata by Philipon de la Madelaine, in 1841: despite being censured by the Vatican, Lamartine remained the describer par excellence of the capital of the three monotheisms.

The motivation for Lamartine’s departure for the Orient was not just metaphysical: after an initial failure to be elected deputy, he questioned the compatibility between the practice of poetry and that of politics: he was in Syria, in despair after the death in Beirut of his only daughter, Julia, that he learned, in 1833, that he had been elected deputy of Bergues: initially a legitimist, he turned to the left in 1837. On his return to Paris, on 4 January 1834, Lamartine made in the Chamber the first of a long series of speeches concerning the Eastern Question (all of Lamartine’s political speeches have been collected in 6 volumes as La France parlementaire, 1864-1865). Initially favourable to the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, he later regretted this attitude, to such an extent that he became one of the most fervent defenders of its remaining united. After losing the Presidential Election in 1848, now ruined and without a future in France, Lamartine requested from the Sultan Abdül-Médjid, via the intermediary of the Grand Vizir Mustapha Reschid Pacha, the concession of a large agricultural property in Asia Minor, Burgaz-Ova, in Tire, near Ephesus. But after failing to find enough stakeholders, Lamartine abandoned his Turkish farm. Fearing that foreign investors would take too great an interest in this part of the Empire, the Porte took back Burghas-Ova on 11th September 1852, against an annual rent of 20,000 francs. The beginning of this adventure can be found in Nouveau Voyage en Orient (1852), large sections of which were written by Lamartine’s friend and neighbour, Chamborant de Périssat, who had accompanied him to Turkey as an agricultural expert, or by his secretary Charles Alexandre. On his return, Lamartine started a monumental Histoire de la Turquie (1854-1855) in 8 volumes, which it mostly a compilation. In a “Post scriptum à la Préface”, Lamartine spent six pages indicating his sources, and “debts”: Joseph von Hammer-Purgstal and Ignace Mouradgea d’Ohsson being notable examples. In L’Abdication du poète, Maurice Barrès recounts this delightful anecdote: “I remember hearing Renan say how, in the Bibliothèque nationale, he had once consulted a work which Lamartine had had copied, for his Histoire de la Turquie, I think. As the library’s copy was incomplete, the copyist had gone no further and thus a large gap can be found in Lamartine’s work. Renan’s indignation allows me to understand the total discredit into which the poor poet fell in the eyes of his contemporaries.” At the end of his life, though having to do menial jobs for money, Lamartine still felt a constant attachment to the Orient as can be seen in the three monographs which, four years before his death, he devoted to Mohammed, Tamburlaine and the Sultan Zizim, united under the title Les Grands Hommes de l’Orient (1865). In his Nouvelles Méditations poétiques, Lamartine confided: “I was born oriental and that is how I shall die.”

One of Lamartine’s travelling companions, Doctor Delaroière, also wrote a narrative, that filled in some of the gaps in the writer’s version, in particular the death of his daughter Julia: Voyage en Orient,  Paris, Debécourt, 1836.


Image caption : Alphonse de Lamartine Né à Mâcon, le 21 octobre 1791 - Membre du Gouvernement Provisoire, et de la Commission Exécutive.

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