A Book of Answers XV: Lamartine And The Lac De Bourget


As the reply points out, every schoolboy used to have to learn Lamartine’s “Le Lac”, and I among their number. I can still recite it, at need, and I still enjoy its music and its romantic élan. What prompted the answer was not a criticism of the poem but an impatience with the scholarly industry which has tended to bury the poem under a largely irrelevant commentary. The poem needs no help from scholars to be understood perfectly. No biographical details will help us to appreciate it more, no exploration of its literary background will give us an enriched feeling for its style and language. In fact the opposite is the case, for such information only muddies the crystal source; it turns a pure lyric experience into a complex literary document, which may have some interest for the poet’s biographer but is totally irrelevant to the poem itself.

On 6 October 1816 Lamartine arrived in the watering place of Aix-les-Bains nursing that almost ritual French complaint, a maladie de foie, which he was rather afraid might prove fatal. As the disease is almost completely imaginary, especially in France, he was safe enough and indeed in good gloomy fettle to enjoy himself thoroughly. In his rather down at heels hotel he met a woman, Julie Bouchard des Hérettes, six years older than himself—he was twenty-six—who was, like himself, taking the waters in the cause of health. But she really had something to worry about, for she was in fact in an advanced stage of consumption. They fell violently in love; they went to bed; they spent an idyllic three weeks ranging the lake and walking in the mountains, and they came to their senses rather rapidly. By December Lamartine was writing: “Nous avons été amants et nous ne sommes plus que des amis exaltés, un fils et une mère.” Julie had to return to her husband in Paris, the learned and famous Dr Charles, member of the Académie des Sciences and thirty-eight years older than she was. But if the affair had cooled off, or, as they put it, become more spiritual, they still arranged to meet the following year, and Lamartine duly arrived on 20 or 21 August 1817 with a red notebook full of poetical goodies for Julie and paced the shore waiting for her arrival. Alas, Julie was taken ill on the way: it was her last illness, and she died a few months later. It was while waiting for her that the magnificent “Ode au Lac de Bourget”, later simply called “Le Lac”, was composed. It rapidly became the best known of all Lamartine’s poems and as one might have expected became the object of considerable commentary and scholarly research.

Some of this research can easily be ignored. The long procession of Lamartine’s love affairs in the ten years before he met his wife Marianne Eliza Birch, is irrelevant, and so is the fact that the famous night excursion on the lake is probably an invention. October is no time for a consumptive to be out on a cold and misty lake at night. Lamartine in fact only mentions day excursions. But a poem like “Le Lac”, while it may have its roots in actual events, is under no obligation to stick to facts. It is a work of imagination, not a page from a diary. But the commentators have gone further, to suggest that most of the mise en scene is borrowed from literary sources—that the poem is in some sense factitious and contrived—Julie sits on a rock by the lake-shore not because that is what happened in October 1816 but because that is what the heroes in the then popular poems of Macpherson’s Ossian did. She apostrophizes time because a heroine of Chateaubriand does the same for her native land, while drifting with her lover on the water, and the whole episode is, in fact, partly borrowed from Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse.

The Lake of Bourget, being a simple and unacademic nature spirit, takes up these questions in disgust. But I have backed her up because present-day criticism seems to me to have gone a long way towards suffocating poetry in unnecessary research.

M. De Lamartine To The Lac De Bourget

Ainsi, toujours poussés vers de nouveaux rivages,
Dans la nuit éternelle emportés sans retour,
Ne pourrons-nous jamais sur l’océan des âges
Jeter l’ancre un seul jour?

O lac! l’anée à peine a fini sa carrière,
Et près des flots chéris qu’elle devait revoir,
Regardel je viens seul m’asseoir sur cette pierre
Où tu la vis s’asseoir!

Tu mugissais ainsi sous ces roches profondes;
Ainsi tu te brisais sur leurs flancs déchirés;
Ainsi le vent jetait l’écume de tes ondes
Sur ses pieds adorés.

Un soir, t’en souvient-il? nous voguions en silence;
On n’entendait au loin, sur l’onde et sous les cieux,
Que le bruit des rameurs qui frappaient en cadence
Tes flots harmonieux.

Tout à coup des accents inconnus à la terre
Du rivage charmé frappèrent les échos;
Le flot fut attentif, et la voix qui m’est chère
Laissa tomber ces mots:

“O temps, suspends ton vol! et vous, heures propices,
Suspendez votre cours!
Laissez-nous savourer les rapides délices
Des plus beaux de nos jours!

“Assez de malheureux ici-bas vous implorent:
Coulez, coulez pour eux;
Prenez avec leurs jours les soins qui les dévorent;
Oubliez les heureux.

“Mais je demande en vain quelques moments encore,
Le temps m’échappe et fuit;
Je dis à cette nuit: “Sois plus lente”; et l’aurore
Va dissiper la nuit.

“Aimons donc, aimons donc! de l’heure fugitive,
Hâtons-nous, jouissons!
L’homme n’a point de port, le temps n’a point de rive;
ll coule, et nous passons!”

Éternité, néant, passé, sombres abîmes,
Que faites-vous des jours que vous engloutissez?
Parlez: nous rendrez-vous ces extases sublimes
Que vous nous ravissez?

O lac! rochers muets! grottes! forêt obscure!
Vous que le temps épargne ou qu’il peut rajeunir,
Gardez de cette nuit, gardez, belle nature,
Au moins le souvenir!

Qu’il soit dans ton repos, qu’il soit dans tes orages,
Beau lac, et dans l’aspect de tes riants coteaux,
Et dans ces noirs sapins, et dans ces rocs sauvages
Qui pendent sur tes eaux!

Qu’il soit dans le zéphyr qui frémit et qui passe,
Dans les bruits de tes bords par tes bords répétés,
Dans l’astre au front d’argent qui blanchit ta surface
De ses molles clartés!

Que le vent qui gémit, le roseau qui soupire,
Que les parfums légers de ton air embaumé,
Que tout ce qu’on entend, l’on voit ou l’on respire,
Tout dise: “lls ont aimé!”
(Premières Méditations)

Thus, always driven on towards new shores, carried on without
return in the everlasting night, can we not, on the ocean of the
centuries, cast anchor for a single day?

O Lake! the year has scarcely run its course, and beside the dear
waves she should have been seeing once more, look! I come
alone to seat myself upon this stone, where you have seen her sit.

Like this you roared beneath these lofty rocks; like this you broke
against their riven sides; like this the wind was hurling the foam
of your waves upon her adorable feet.

One evening, is it remembered? we were drifting silently; there was
nothing to be heard in the distance upon the water and beneath
the skies, but the sound of the rowers, striking in rhythm your
harmonious waves.

Suddenly accents unknown upon the earth struck echoes from the
enchanted shore; the wave hung listening, and the voice I love
let fall these words:

“O time, arrest thy flight; and you, you happy hours, suspend your
course; let us taste and enjoy the fugitive delights of the fairest
of our days!

“Enough of unhappy wretches implore you here below to shorten
their misery; flow on, flow on for them. Remove with their days
the cares that eat them up, forget the happy ones.

“But in vain do I plead for a few moments more; Time eludes me
and flies on. I say to this night: ‘go slowlier’; and the dawn
comes to disperse the night.

“Then let us love, let us then love! Let us hasten, let us enjoy the
flying hour. Man has no port of call and time itself no shore; it
flows: we pass away.”

Eternity, nothingness, the past, you sombre depths, what do you do
with the days you swallow up? Speak: will you ever return to us
those high ecstasies which you snatch away from us.

O Lake! dumb stones! caves! darkling woods! You whom time
spares or whom he can renew, Preserve this night, beautiful
Nature, keep at least its memory!

Let it remain in your tranquil, in your stormy hours, fair lake, and in
the aspect of your smiling shores, and in these dark pines and in
these savage rocks which brood above your waters!

Let it be in the breeze which ruffles and is still, in the sounds which
your banks repeat from one to the other, in the star whose silver
visage whitens your surface with its soft radiance!

Let the wind which wails, the reeds which sigh, the light odours of
your balmy air, let everything seen or heard or breathed in, all
say: “They have loved!”

The Lac De Bourget To M. De Lamartine

Sad poet, still you haunt my sounding shore;
Still the large rhythms of your immortal grief
Draw music from my waves, the cadenced oar,
Life, and a love so brief.

Once more adrift in the memorial gloom
On my delicious solitudes you glide;
Despair and rapture from beyond the tomb
Bring Julie to your side.

Once more she speaks: that invocation, known
To every schoolboy, echoes from the shore;
Then fades—for you and she are not alone
And never may be more.

The poem, like your over-crowded boat
Swarms with the busy middle-men of verse;
Sinks under variant, marginalia, note
Or gossip, which is worse.

One, with impertinent detail cites the vast
Catalogue of your Conquests: his research
Runs from your child-love Marie to your last
Maria Eliza Birch.

“What”, he enquires with a malicious grin,
If time at your request had stayed his course?
Which of your loves, now, would you choose to win
Which, with regret, divorce?”

Another—he has checked the dates—points out
The whole night-piece must be apocryphal;
Your promenade en barque was made, no doubt,
By day, if made at all.

What could induce two invalids to take,
In chill night-mists, beneath October skies,
His liver and her lungs upon the lake?
That would have been unwise!

Still keener on the scent, a third gives tongue:
“The whole thing is pastiche, as I shall show:
Echoes of Ossian, hints from Edward Young,
Scenes from Jean Jacques Rousseau;

“The scenery borrowed, like the sentiment;
The rock your Julie sat on in the storm,
A Scottish hero’s massive fundament
Ere this had kept it warm.

“And that apostrophe, so justly famed,
Her exquisite: ‘suspends ton vol, O temps …!’
Jean Jacques’s Julie, not your own declaimed
(Filched from Chateaubriand).”

Unhappy poet, where’s your poem now,
In this Sargasso Sea of notes marooned,
Irrelevant rubbish trailing from the prow,
Its mast with trash festooned?

Take courage, poet! there is a gathering tide
Shall clear your craft; there is a hurricane
Shall hurl the accumulated mess aside
And sweep you to the main

And, by a last and noble irony,
The hour your ode implored in vain to stay,
Fixed, final in its deathless music, see:
It lives with us today!

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