AKA René François Armand Prudhomme
Birthplace: Paris, France
Location of death: Châtenay, France
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Cimetière du Père Lachaise, Paris, France
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Parnassian poet
French poet, born in Paris on the 16th of March 1839. He was educated at the Lycée Bonaparte, where after a time he took his degree as Bachelier ès Sciences. An attack of ophthalmia then interrupted his studies and necessitated an entire change in the course of his career. The scientific habit of mind, however, which he had derived from these years of technical study never left him; and it is in the combination of this scientific bent, with a soul aspiring towards what lies above and beyond science, and a conscience perpetually in agitation, that the striking originality of Sully Prudhomme's character is to be found.
He found employment for a time in the Schneider factory at Creuzot, but he soon abandoned an occupation to which he was eminently unsuited. He subsequently decided to read law, and entered a notary's office at Paris. It was during this period that he composed those early poems which were not long in acquiring celebrity among an ever-widening circle of friends. In 1865 he published his first volume of poems, which had for subtitle Stances et poèmes. This volume was favorably reviewed by Sainte-Beuve, to whose notice it had been brought by Gaston Paris.
It was at this moment that the small circle of which Leconte de Lisle was the center were preparing the Parnasse, to which Sully Prudhomme contributed several pieces. In 1866 Lemerre published a new edition of the Stances et poèmes and a collection of sonnets entitled Les Épreuves (1866). From this time forward Sully Prudhomme devoted his life entirely to poetry. It was in the volume of Les preuves that the note of melancholy which was to dominate through the whole work of his life was first clearly discernible. In 1869 he published a translation of the first book of Lucretius with a preface, and Les Solitudes.
In 1870 a series of domestic bereavements and a serious paralytic illness resulting from the strain and fatigue of the winter of 1870, during which he served in the Garde Mobile, shattered his health. In 1872 he published Les Écuries d'augias, Croquis Italians, Impressions de la guerre (1866-72) and Les Destins, La Révolte des heurs in 1874, in 1875 Les Vaines tendresses, in 1878 La Justice, in 1886 Le Prisme, and in 1888 Le Bonheur. All these poems were collected and republished under the title of Poésies, occupying four volumes of his Oeuvres (6 vols., 1883-1904).
After the publication of Le Bonheur he practically ceased to produce verse, and devoted himself almost entirely to philosophy. He published two volumes of prose criticism L'expression dans les beaux arts (1884) and Réflexions sur l'art des vers (1892). Various monographs by him appeared from time to time in the philosophical reviews, and among them a remarkable series of essays (Revue des deux mondes, Oct. 15th, Nov. 15th, 1890) on Blaise Pascal, and a valuable study on the "Psychologie du libre arbitre" in the Revue de métaphysique et de morale (1906). He was elected to the Academy on the 8th of December 1881. On the 10th of December 1901 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, and devoted most of the money to the foundation of a prize for poetry to be awarded by the Societé de gens de lettres.
He was one of the earliest champions of Alfred Dreyfus. In 1902 he wrote, in collaboration with Charles Richet, Le Problème des causes finales. During his later years he lived at Châtenay in great isolation, a victim of perpetual ill-health, and mainly occupied with his Vraie religion selon Pascal (1905). He had been partially paralyzed for some time when he died suddenly on the 6th of September 1907. He left a volume of unpublished verse and a prose work, Le Lien social, which was a revision of an introduction which he had contributed to Michelet's La Bible de l'humanité.
What strikes the reader of Sully Prudhomme's poetry first and foremost is the fact that he is a thinker; and moreover a poet who thinks, and not a thinker who turns to rhyme for recreation. The most strikingly original portion of his work is to be found in his philosophic and scientific poetry. If he has not the scientific genius of Pascal, he has at least the scientific habit of mind and a delight in mathematic certainties. In attempting to interpret the universe as science reveals it to us he has created a new form of poetry which is not lacking in a certain grandeur. One of his most beautiful poems, "L'Idéal" (Stances et poèmes), is inspired by the thought, which is due to scientific calculations, of stars so remote from our planet that their light has been on its way to us since thousands of centuries and will one day be visible to the eyes of a future generation.
The second chief characteristic of Sully Prudhomme's poetry is the extreme sensibility of soul, the profoundly melancholy note which we find in his love lyrics and his meditations. Sully Prudhbmme is above all things introspective; he penetrates into the hidden corners of his heart; he lays bare the subtle torments of his conscience, the shifting currents of his hopes and fears, belief and disbelief in face of the riddle of the universe to an extent so poignant as to be sometimes almost painful. And to render the fugitive phases and tremulous adventures of his spirit he finds incomparably delicate shades of expression, an exquisite and sensitive diction. We are struck in reading his poems by the nobility of his ideas, by a religious elevation like that of Pascal; for there is in his work something both of Lucretius and of Pascal. Yet he is far from being either an Epicurean or a Jansenist; he is rather a Stoic to whom the deceptions of life have brought pity instead of bitterness.
As an artist Sully Prudhomme is remarkable for the entire absence of oratorical effect; for the extreme simplicity and fastidious precision of his diction. Other poets have been endowed with a more glowing imagination; his poetry is neither exuberant in color nor rich in sonorous harmonies of rhyme. The grace of his verse is a grace of outline and not of color, his melody one of subtle rhythm; his verse is as if carved in ivory, his music like that of a perfect unison of stringed instruments. His imagination is inseparable from his ideas, and this is the reason of the extraordinary perspicuity of his poetic style. He extends poetry to two extreme limits; on the one hand to the borderland of the unreal and the dreamlike, as in a poem such as "Le Rendezvous" (Vaines tendresses), in which he seems to express the inexpressible in precise language; on the other hand, in his scientific poems he encroaches on the province of prose. His poetry is plastic in the creation of forms which fittingly express his fugitive emotions and his elevated ideas. Both by the charm of his pure and perfect phrase, by his consummate art, and the dignity which informs all his work, Sully Prudhomme deserves rank among the foremost of modern poets.
Father: (d. 1841)
Nobel Prize for Literature 1901
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