Sully Prudhomme

Orfeas Katsoulis | Sep 18, 2022

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Sully Prudhomme, owner René François Armand Prudhomme (born March 16, 1839 in Paris, died September 6, 1907 in Châtenay-Malabry) is a French poet, initially a representative of Parnassianism; creator of philosophical poems. The first-ever winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (1901). The Nobel Committee's justification stated that he received it for "outstanding poetic achievement, especially for idealism, artistic excellence and an unusual combination of spirituality and intellect."

René Armand François Prudhomme, known by his pseudonym Sully Prudhomme (former spelling Sully-Prudhomme), was born as the second child into an indigent bourgeois family. His father, a clerk in a trading company, delayed for financial reasons for a long time before marrying Jeanne Clotilde Caillat, a modest and deeply religious girl from Lyon. They married after a ten-year engagement in 1835, but her father died of meningitis when René was two years old. Clotilde, virtually destitute, went to live with her son in the home of her brother and sister. The three of them did their best to ensure that the family's difficult circumstances did not weigh on the boy's upbringing and education.

Prudhomme began his education at the prestigious Bonaparte High School. At the time, he was mainly interested in mathematics and classical philology. After a double baccalaureate exam, in natural sciences and literature, he took a job as a biuralist in the Burgundy town of Le Creusot, at the Schneider brothers' metal works. He intended to become an engineer, but had to abandon his studies at the polytechnic because he suffered from a chronic eye disease. During this time, he experienced a daze with the ritualism of Catholicism and even wanted to join the Dominican order. However, he soon became fascinated with philosophy, especially the concepts of Immanuel Kant. He remained faithful to his new passion throughout his life.

To earn a living, he hired himself out to a notary's office and then began studying at the Paris law faculty, where he came into contact with a group of young humanists affiliated with the La Bruyère Discussion Club (Conférence La Bruyère). The club's detailed bylaws in point one proclaimed that during meetings the most varied questions of literature, history, art and philosophy should be "explored and considered." It was there that Prudhomme first had the opportunity to present his poetic juvenilia and translations of Tibullus' elegies to the public. At the time, the Polish January Uprising, which the young poet commemorated with two pathetic poems, was violently debated in the student community. The first, Le gué (The passage of the ford), extolled the fearsome courage of the old commander of the blacksmiths, while the second, Choeur polonais (Polish choir), called for a national liberation struggle even at the cost of death. Sully Prudhomme first published his poem in 1863, in the Revue Nationale et Étrangère. The piece, L'art (Art), foreshadowed everything that would become most significant in his oeuvre. In classic Wesification form, the poet encapsulated his reverence for antiquity, his adoration of philosophy (in this case, Hegel) and his admiration for nature.

Prudhomme always mentioned his unhappy love from his youth, most likely to his cousin, in an extremely discreet manner. All that is known is that after the emotional disappointment he decided to remain a bachelor for the rest of his life and never changed his mind.

Prudhomme published his first book in 1865. It was a two-part volume Stances et poèmes (the Stances - Stance section is divided into: La vie intérieure - The inner life, Jeunes filles - Girls, Femmes - Women, Mélanges - Varieties). It was then that he first signed himself as Sully to pay tribute to his prematurely deceased father, who was called that way. The poems received an enthusiastic reception. A favorable review was written by Sainte-Beuve, the most influential critic of the time. The collection featured themes present throughout the poet's oeuvre: unhappy love, the fragility of feelings, transience (Les berceaux - Cradles, Les yeux - Eyes, Séparation - Separation). References to the world of ancient culture were also prominent (Printemps oublié - Forgotten Spring, Naissance de Vénus - Birth of Venus, Hermaphrodite - Hermaphrodite). Particularly popular was The Broken Vase (Le vase brisé), which was recited at all poetry evenings. It became so fashionable that in time the author himself began to speak of it with evident impatience. This striking poem, comparing a wronged heart to a vase destroyed by the blow of a fan, is one of his few works that has not fallen into oblivion and is sometimes quoted in contemporary anthologies.

From the beginning, the poet was associated with the Parnassian movement, headed by Leconte de Lisle. The theoretical assumptions of this grouping (including the idea of art for art's sake, the cult of pure beauty, restraint of emotion, objectivity of description and formal mastery) only partially matched Sully Prudhomme's texts. He was close to classical models, and also cared about the elegance of rhyme and versification. Nevertheless, the emphatic, sometimes even sentimental emotionality of his style conflicted with the precepts of unemotionality and rational detachment. Nevertheless, in the first part of the anthology Le Parnasse contemporain (The Modern Parnassus), published in 1866 in eighteen volumes, Prudhomme's poems were included alongside works by Leconte de Lisle, Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, Auguste de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé. The poet himself made it clear that he was close to Leconte de Lisle, but not to the ideas of his movement, and preferred not to be called a Parnassian. On the other hand, he did not hide his admiration for the elegant and imbued with sensuality works of Alfred de Musset.

In 1866, he traveled to Italy with his friend, the poet Georges Lafenestre. He visited Rome, Turin and Parma, among other places, learning about masterpieces of ancient and Renaissance art. The fruit of this trip was a poetic travelogue Croquis italiens (1868), composed of 15 poems.

Respect for tradition was particularly evident in another lauded volume, Les épreuves (1866), this time composed exclusively of sonnets. Formal requirements here, too, in no way restricted the expressive emotions. The poet's uninhibited lyricism and melancholy disposition, describing various disappointments, fleeting moods and unrequited feelings (Déclin d'amour - Twilight of Love, Passion malheureuse - Unhappy Passion, La reine du bal - The Queen of the Ball), continued to come to the fore in his subsequent poems as well, especially in the volume Les solitudes (1869). But his works also increasingly included philosophical divergences and ontological reflections (Prière au printemps - Prayer to Spring, La pensée - Thought, Dernière solitude - The Last Solitude).

Proof of his continuing admiration for the culture of antiquity was the publication of a highly acclaimed verse translation of the first book of Lucretius' De rerum natura, which Prudhomme preceded with an extensive introduction (1869). The evolution of the poet's interests was also most likely influenced by his growing health problems and the mental shock he experienced in early 1870, when his mother died within a month, as well as the aunt and uncle with whom he was raised.

Another painful experience, as well as a source of inspiration, was the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (1870), in which he participated after volunteering to join the 13th Battalion of the Mobile Guards. Fatal conditions during the siege of Paris strained the poet's already frail strength, which ended in an extensive stroke and almost complete paralysis of the legs. He dedicated the patriotic Impressions de la guerre (1872) and some poems from the volume Le prisme (1886) to the realities of war. Les destins (1872), on the other hand, foreshadowed his later poetic philosophical musings. Sully Prudhomme portrayed in this poem a Manichean duel between the genius of good and the genius of evil summed up by the statement: "Nothing is good or evil. Everything is rational." He clearly emphasized that good and evil cannot exist separately, as they condition each other, and the disappearance of one will entail the annihilation of the other. The poem was intended to be characterized by irresistible logic and absolute objectivity, but critics found the anthropomorphization used rather naive, and the whole thing turned into a dry discourse.

Personal confessions, a note of privacy and a lyrical record of states of mind appeared for the last time in the collection Les vaines tendresses (1875). Uniquely in the work of this poet, doubt sometimes turns to despair bordering on nihilism, and many works are maintained in a tone of overwhelming, Schopenhauerian pessimism (Ce qui dure - That which lasts, Les infidèles - The unfaithful, Trop tard - Too late).

Sully Prudhomme noted in his diary: "Am I a poet? Or perhaps a philosopher? I thank God that he has spared me a disability, making me only one or only the other. Thanks to philosophy I can delve into bottomless abysses, thanks to poetry in the abysses I feel the horror of infinity and the delight of living nature." His interests also included the latest discoveries in physics and natural science. In his poem Le Zénith (1876), considered a masterpiece by some critics, he paid tribute to the courage of three balloonists who, on April 15, 1875, at an altitude of more than eight thousand meters, intended to conduct cloud observation. The flight ended tragically: when the balloon returned to earth, two of the daredevils were already dead. For Prudhomme, this event became a pretext for pondering the unstoppable development of civilization, and the conclusions of the piece alluded to the positivist ideas of Auguste Comte.

The summation of philosophical considerations was to be the extensive didactic poems La justice (1878) on moral and social issues and Le bonheur (1888) on the search for love, knowledge and fulfillment. Both were considered long-winded, overloaded with periphrases and rather superficial. La justice is a poem in ten songs with a prologue and epilogue. Its protagonist wonders whether the ultimate oracle in matters of justice can be the human heart, and concludes that "justice is love led by enlightenment." Le bonheur, on the other hand, is a tale of lovers who, on a winged dragon, travel through the lands of beauty and delight. This voyage became a pretext for presenting a variety of concepts about "the cause and meaning of the world," from Plato and Socrates, to Bacon and Descartes, to Voltaire and Hegel.

After these achievements, Sully Prudhomme abandoned writing poetry. The only exception was the occasional poem La nymphe des bois de Versailles (The Nymph of Versailles Forest, 1896), which Sarah Bernhardt recited in the presence of Alexandra Fyodorovna, the last Tsarina of Russia. He continued to create a lot, but he was only interested in analyzing detailed issues related to philosophy, sociology and aesthetics. His articles and essays dealt with, among other things, the means of expression in the fine arts, the principles of versification, the psychology of free will, Aristotle's concept of intentional causation and the alleged origins of life on earth. He also joined in current discussions, such as protesting the construction of the Eiffel Tower. He was also one of the first defenders of Alfred Dreyfus. He often supported young writers with his authority, writing prefaces to their works. Among those honored in this way were Auguste Dorchain (La jeunesse pensive - The pensive youth), Maurice Couyba (Nouvelles chansons - New songs) and Lya Berger (Réalités et rêves - Realities and dreams). In his voluminous Testament poétique (1901), he declared allegiance to classical poetry, while cutting himself off from all manifestations of symbolism and decadence. He crowned his series of articles on Pascal in 1905 with the treatise La vraie religion selon Pascal. He was fascinated by the philosopher all his life. As early as 1862 he noted: "I admire you, Pascal, you are mine! I penetrate you, as if I thought with your thoughts. This magnanimous sadness of yours, deep as a night full of distant flares! Be my master! Take me in!"

Sully Prudhomme was elected to the French Academy in 1881, and in 1895 was awarded the Legion of Honor as a Grand Officer. He was considered one of the official poets of the Third Republic. He was also immortalized in a large group portrait by Paul Chabas U Alphonse Lemerre, in Ville d'Avray, first presented at the Salon in 1895. The painting was created by Alphonse Lemerre, the publisher of all Sully Prudhomme's works, and in addition to the poet himself, it features Leconte de Lisle, Léon Dierx, Alphonse Daudet, Jules Breton, José-María de Heredia, Georges Lafenestre, François Coppée and Marcel Prévost, among others.

On December 10, 1901, it was reported that Sully Prudhomme had become the first-ever winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Committee's decision aroused general consternation and provoked much criticism, as it was rather expected that this honor would go to Leo Tolstoy. A group of outraged Swedish writers and critics (including Selma Lagerlöf and August Strindberg) sent an open letter of apology to the Russian author, categorically dissociating themselves from the Committee's decision. The ailing poet could not accept the award in person. The French minister accepted it on his behalf. Prudhomme used most of the amount he received to fund a prize for budding poets, awarded annually by the Society of French Writers. In 1902, together with José-María de Heredia and Léon Dierx, he founded the Society of French Poets.

Sully Prudhomme spent the last years of his life in his villa in Châtenay-Malabry, battling progressive paresis and suppressing increasingly severe attacks of pain with morphine. He died on September 6, 1907. He was buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery. He appointed his cousin, painter and poster artist Henry Gerbault, as his heir. After the poet's death, a volume Épaves (1908), consisting of five parts, was published, which once again featured all the main themes of his work: fascination with ancient culture (La Vénus de Milo - The Venus de Milo, La jacinthe - Hyacinth, À la Grèce - To Greece), adoration of science and philosophy (Descartes, Science et charité - Science and Mercy, Après la lecture de Kant - After reading Kant) and melancholy of transience (Amour d'enfance - Childish love, Sereine vengeance - Serene vengeance, Deuil de cœur - Mourning heart). Also in this volume were sonnets whose protagonists were the admired artists Alfred de Vigny, Théodore de Banville and André Chénier. Also published posthumously was the Journal intime (Intimate Journal), kept between 1862 and 1869.

Sully Prudhomme's fame passed quickly. During the Symbolist period, he was considered an inept poet. In modern literary compendia, he is often merely mentioned, and some anthologists have annotated his work with ironic comments. Nevertheless, critics also tend to emphasize the psychological truth of his works and his typical formal precision. Marcel Pagnol, in his play César (César, 1936), included in La trilogie marseillaise (The Marseille Trilogy), quoted a passage from the poem Le dernier adieu (The Last Farewell), prefacing the quote with a statement from one of the characters: "He is a great writer, a great poet, who is temporarily considered a fool." Eugène Ionesco, too, mentioned the poet's name and the last line of The Broken Vase in a series of absurd puns ending The Bald Singer. Sully Prudhomme's collected poems were published in 6 volumes (1877-1908), prose works in 3 volumes (1898-1908). The first stamp with his likeness was issued in France in 2007.

Sully Prudhomme's melodious poetry, especially from his early period, has inspired many composers. Among others, music was written for his poems:

Collections of poems and poems

A selection of Sully Prudhomme's works has not been published in Poland. His poems were translated by, among others: Jadwiga Dackiewicz, Seweryna Duchińska, Gabriel Karski, Maria Konopnicka, Antoni Lange, Bronisława Ostrowska, Zenon Przesmycki and Maria Szembekowa. Some texts were included in anthologies and monographs:


  1. Sully Prudhomme
  2. Sully Prudhomme
  3. a b Gayle A. Levy, Sully Prudhomme, [w:] Dictionary of Literary Biography, red. Clark Bruccoli, Cengage Gale, Detroit 2007, t. 332, s. 412.
  4. Pierre Flottes, Sully-Prudhomme et sa pensée, Librairie Académique, Paris 1930, s. 11.
  5. Czech National Authority Database
  6. « Centenaire de Sully-Prudhomme », article de Lucien Taupenot paru dans la revue « Images de Saône-et-Loire » n° 152 de décembre 2007, pages 22 et 23.
  7. « Sully-Prudhomme au Creusot (1858-1859) », article de Lucien Taupenot paru dans la revue « Images de Saône-et-Loire » n° 108 de décembre 1996, page 2.
  8. Edmond de Goncourt, Journal : mémoires de la vie littéraire. Tome 3 : 1887-1896, R. Laffont (coll. Bouquins), 1989, 1466 p., p. 637

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