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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

A Memory Of Frederic Mistral

Title:     A Memory Of Frederic Mistral
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

There are many signs that poetry is coming into its own again--even here in America, which, while actually one of the most romantic and sentimental of countries, fondly imagines itself the most prosaic.

Kipling, to name but one instance, has, by his clarion-tongued quickening of the British Empire, shown so convincingly what dynamic force still belongs to the right kind of singing, and the poet in general seems to be winning back some of that serious respect from his fellow-citizens which, under a misapprehension of his effeminacy and general uselessness, he had lost awhile. The poet is not so much a joke to the multitude as he was a few years ago, and the term "minor poet" seems to have fallen into desuetude.

Still for all this, I doubt if it is in the Anglo-Saxon blood, nowadays at all events, to make a national hero of a poet, one might say a veritable king, such as Frederic Mistral is today in Provence. In our time, Bjoernson in Norway was perhaps the only parallel figure, and he held his position as actual "father of his people" for very much the same reasons. At once a commanding and lovable personality, he and his work were absolutely identified with his country and his countrymen. He was simply Norway incarnate.

So, today in Provence, it is with Frederic Mistral. He is not only a poet of Provence. He is Provence incarnate, and, apart from the noble quality of his work, his position as the foremost representative of his compatriots is romantically unique. No other country today, pointing to its greatest man, would point out--a poet; whereas Mistral, were he not as unspoiled as he is laurelled, might, with literal truth, say:

"Provence--c'est moi!"

We had hardly set foot in Provence this last spring, my wife and I, before we realized, with grateful wonder, that we had come to a country that has a poet for a king.

On arriving at Marseilles almost the first word we heard was "Mistral"--not the bitter wind of the same name, but the name of the honey-tongued "Master." Our innkeeper--O the delightful innkeepers of France!--on our consulting him as to our project of a walking trip through the Midi--as Frenchmen usually speak of Provence--said, for his first aid to the traveller: "Then, of course, you will see our great poet, Mistral." And he promptly produced a copy of _Mireio_, which he begged me to use till I had bought a copy for myself.

"Ah! Mistral," he cried, with Gallic enthusiasm, using the words I have borrowed from his lips, "Mistral is the King of Provence!"

Marseilles had not always been so enthusiastic over Mistral and his fellows. And Mistral, in his memoirs, gives an amusing account of a philological battle fought over the letter "s" in a room behind one of the Marseilles bookshops between "the amateurs of trivialities, the rhymers of the white beard, the jealous, the grumblers," and the young innovators of the "felibrige."

But that was over fifty years ago, and the battle of those young enthusiasts has long since been won. What that battle was and what an extraordinary victory came of it must needs be told for the significance of Mistral in Provence to be properly understood.

The story is one of the most romantic in the history of literature. Briefly, it is this:

The Provencal language, the "langue d'oc," was, of course, once the courtly and lettered language of Europe, the language of the great troubadours, and through them the vehicle of the culture and refinement of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. From it may be said to have sprung the beginnings of Italian literature.

But, owing to various historical vicissitudes, the language of Northern France, the "langue d'oil," gradually took its place, and when Mistral was born, in 1830, Provencal had long been regarded as little more than a _patois_.

Now it was the young Mistral's dream, as a school-boy in the old convent school of Saint Michael de Frigolet, at Avignon, to restore his native tongue to its former high estate, to make it once more a literary language, and it chanced that one of his masters, Joseph Roumanille, was secretly cherishing the same dream.

The master, looking over his pupil's shoulder one day, found that, instead of working at his prescribed task, he was busily engaged in translating the Penitential Psalms into Provencal. Instead of punishing him, the master gratefully hailed a kindred spirit, and presently confided Provencal verses of his own making. From that moment, though there was a dozen years' difference between their ages, Mistral and Roumanille began a friendship which was to last till Roumanille's death, a friendship of half a century.

Soon their dream attracted other recruits, and presently seven friends, whose names are all famous now, and most of whom have statues in Arles or in Avignon--Roumanille, Mistral, Aubanel, Mathieu, Giera, Brunet, and Tavan--after the manner of Ronsard's "Pleiade," and Rossetti's "P.R.B."--formed themselves into a brotherhood to carry on the great work of regeneration.

They needed a name to call themselves by. They had all met together to talk things over in the old castle of Font-Segugne, or, as Mistral more picturesquely puts it: "It was written in heaven that one blossoming Sunday, the twenty-first of May, 1854, in the full springtide of life and of the year, seven poets should come to meet together in the castle of Font-Segugne." Several suggestions were made for a name for this brotherhood, but presently Mistral announced that in an old folk-story he had collected at his birthplace, Maillane, he believed that he had found the word they were in search of. In this folk-story the boy Christ is represented as discoursing in the temple with "the seven felibres of the Law."

"Why, that is us!" exclaimed the enthusiastic young men as Mistral finished, and there on the spot "felibre" was adopted as the password of their order, Mistral coining the word "felibrige" to represent the work they aimed to do, and also their association. The name stuck, and has now for many years been the banner-word for the vigorous school of Provencal literature and the allied arts of painting and sculpture which has responded with such eager vitality to Mistral's rallying cry.

But, excellent as are the other poets which the school has produced--and one need only glance through a recent _Anthologie du Felibrige_ to realize what a wealth of true poetry the word "felibrige" now stands for--there can be no question that its greatest asset still remains Mistral's own work, as it was his first great poem, _Mireio_, which first drew the eyes of literary Paris, more than inclined to be contemptuous, to the Provencal renaissance.

Adolphe Dumas had been sent to Provence in the year 1856 by the Minister of Public Instruction to collect the folk-songs of the people, and calling on Mistral (then twenty-six), living quietly with his widowed mother at Maillane, he had found him at work on _Mireio_. Mistral read some passages to him, with the result that the generous Dumas returned to Paris excitedly to proclaim the advent of a new poet. Presently, Mistral accepted his invitation to visit Paris, was introduced to the great Lamartine--who has left some charming pages descriptive of his visit,--read some of _Mireio_ to him, and was hailed by him as "the Homer of Provence."

The press, however, had its little fling at the new-comer. "The Mistral it appears," said one pitiful punster, "has been incarnated in a poem. We shall soon see whether it is anything else but wind." Such has been the invariable welcome of great men in a small world.

But Mistral had no taste for Paris, either as a lion or a butt, and, after a few days' stay, we find him once more quietly at home at Maillane. Yet he had brought back with him one precious trophy--the praise of Lamartine; and when, in the course of a year or two (1859), _Mireio_ came to be published at Avignon, it bore, as it still bears, this heart-felt dedication to Lamartine:

"To thee I dedicate _Mireio_; it is my heart and my soul; it is the flower of my years; it is a bunch of grapes from Crau with all its leaves--a rustic's offering."

With the publication of _Mireio_ Mistral instantly "arrived," instantly found himself on that throne which, as year has followed year, has become more securely his own. Since then he has written much noble poetry, all embodying and vitalizing the legendary lore of his native land, a land richer in momentous history, perhaps, than any other section of Europe. But in addition to his poetry he has, single-handed, carried through the tremendous scholarly task of compiling a dictionary of the Provencal language--a _Thesaurus of the Felibrige_, for which work the Institute awarded him a prize of ten thousand francs.

In 1904, he was awarded the Nobel prize of 100,000 francs, but such is his devotion to his fellow-countrymen that he did not keep that prize for himself, but used it to found the Musee Arlesien at Arles, a museum designed as a treasure house of anything and everything pertaining to the history and life of Provence--antiquities, furniture, costumes, paintings, and so forth.

It was in Arles in 1909, the fiftieth birthday of _Mireio_, that Mistral, then seventy-nine years old, may be said to have reached the summit of his romantic fame. A great festival was held in his honour, in which the most distinguished men of France took part. A dramatized version of his _Mireio_ was played in the old Roman amphitheatre, and a striking statue of him was unveiled in the antique public square, the Place du Forum, with the shade of Constantine looking on, one might feel, from his mouldering palace hard by.

In Arles Mistral is a well-known, beloved figure, for it is his custom, every Saturday, to come there from Maillane, to cast his eye over the progress of his museum, the pet scheme of his old age. One wonders how it must seem to pass that figure of himself, pedestaled high in the old square. To few men is it given to pass by their own statues in the street. Sang a very different poet--

They grind us to the dust with poverty,
And build us statues when we come to die.

But poor Villon had the misfortune to be a poet of the "langue d'oil," and the Montfaucon gibbet was the only monument of which he stood in daily expectation. Could the lines of two poets offer a greater contrast? Blessed indeed is he who serves the rural gods, Pan and Old Sylvanus and the sister nymphs--as Virgil sang; and Virgilian indeed has been the golden calm, and sunlit fortunes, as Virgilian, rather than Homeric, is the gracious art, of the poet whom his first Parisian admirer, Adolphe Dumas, called "the Homer of Provence"--as Virgilian, too, seemed the landscape through which at length, one April afternoon, we found ourselves on pilgrimage to the home of him whose name had been on the lips of every innkeeper, shopkeeper, and peasant, all the way from Marseilles to Tarascon.

Yes! the same golden peace that lies like a charm across every page of his greatest poem lay across that sun-steeped, fertile plain, with its walls of cypress trees, its lines of poplars, its delicate, tapestry-like designs of almond trees in blossom, on a sombre background of formal olive orchards, its green meadows, lit up with singing water-courses, or gleaming irrigation canals, starred here and there with the awakening kingcup, or sweet with the returning violet--here and there a farmhouse ("mas," as they call them in Provence) snugly sheltered from the mistral by their screens of foliage--and far aloft in the distance, floating like a silver dream, the snow-white shoulder of Mont Ventoux--the Fuji Yama of Provence.

At last the old, time-worn village came in sight--it lies about ten miles north-east of Tartarin's Tarascon--and we entered it, as was proper, with the "Master's" words on our lips: "Maillane is beautiful, well-pleasing is Maillane; and it grows more and more beautiful every day. Maillane is the honour of the countryside, and takes its name from the month of May.

"Who would be in Paris or in Rome? Poor conscripts! There is nothing to charm one there; but Maillane has its equal nowhere--and one would rather eat an apple in Maillane than a partridge in Paris."

It was Sunday afternoon, and the streets were full of young people in their Sunday finery, the girls wearing the pretty Arlesien caps. At first sight of us, with our knapsacks, they were prepared to be amused, and saucy lads called out things in mock English; but when it was understood that we were seeking the house of the "Master" we inspired immediate respect, and a dozen eager volunteers put themselves at our service and accompanied us in a body to where, at the eastern edge of the village, there stands an unpretentious square stone house of no great antiquity, surrounded by a garden and half hidden with trees.

We stood silently looking at the house for a few minutes, trying to realize that there a great poet had gone on living and working, in single-minded devotion to his art and his people, for full fifty years--there in that green, out-of-the-way corner of the world. The idea of a life so rooted in contentment, so continuously happy in the lifelong prosecution of a task set to itself in boyhood, and so independent of change, is one not readily grasped by the hurrying American mind.

Then we pushed open the iron gate and passed into the garden. A paved walk led up to the front door, but that had an unused look, and, gaining no response there, we walked through a shrubbery around the side of the house, and as we turned the corner came on what was evidently the real entrance, facing a sunny slope of garden where hyacinths and violets told of the coming of spring. Here we were greeted by some half a dozen friendly dogs, whose demonstrations brought to the door a neat little, keen-eyed peasant woman, with an expression in her face that suggested that she was the real watch dog, on behalf of her master, standing between him and an intrusive world. As a matter of fact, as we afterward learned, that is one of her many self-imposed offices, for, having been in the Mistral household for many years, she has long since been as much a family friend as a servant, and generally looks after the Master and Mme. Mistral as if they were her children, nursing and "bossing" them by turns. "Elise"--I think her name is--is a "character" almost as well known in Provence as the Master himself.

So she looked sharply at us, while I produced a letter to M. Mistral which had been given me by a humble associate of the "felibres," a delightful _chansonnier_ we had met at Les Baux. With this she went indoors, presently to return with a face of still cautious welcome, and invited us in to a little square hall hung with photographs of various distinguished friends of the poet and two bronze medallions of himself, one representing him with his favourite dog.

Then a door to the right opened, revealing a typical scholar's study, lined with books from ceiling to floor, books and papers on tables and chairs, and framed photographs again on the free wall space. The spring sunshine poured in through long windows, and in this characteristic setting stood a tall old man, astonishingly erect, his distinguished head, with its sparse white locks, its keen eyes, and strong yet delicate aquiline features, pointed white beard and mustache, suggesting pictures of some military grand seigneur of old time. His carriage had the same blending of soldier and nobleman, and the stately kindliness with which he bade us welcome belonged, alas! to another day.

At his side stood a tall, handsome lady, with remarkable, dark, kind eyes, evidently many years his junior. This was Mme. Mistral, in her day one of those "queens of beauty" whom the "felibres" elect every seven years at their floral fetes. Mme. Mistral was no less gracious to us than her husband, and joined in the talk that followed with much animation and charm.

We had a little feared that M. Mistral, as he declines to write in anything but Provencal, might carry his artistic creed into his conversation too. To our relief, however, he spoke in the most polished French--for you may know French very well, but be quite unable to understand Provencal, either printed or spoken. This had sometimes made our journeying difficult, as we inquired our way of peasants along the road.

It was natural to talk first to Mistral of literature. We inquired whether he read much English. He shook his head, smiling. No! outside of one or two of the great classics, Shakespeare and Milton, for example, he had read little. Yes! he had read one American author--Fenimore Cooper. _Le Feu-Follet_ had been a favourite book of his boyhood. This we identified as _The Fire-Fly_.

He seemed to wish to talk about America rather than literature, and seemed immensely interested in the fact that we were Americans, and he raised his eyes, with an expression of French wonderment, at the fact of our walking our way through the country--as also at the length of the journey from America. Evidently it seemed to him a tremendous undertaking.

"You Americans," he said, "are a wonderful people. You think nothing of going around the world."

We were surprised to find that he took the keenest interest in American politics.

"It must be a terribly difficult country to govern," he said. And then he asked us eagerly for news of our "extraordinary President." We suggested Mr. Wilson.

"Oh, no! no!" he explained. "The extraordinary man who was President before him."

"Colonel Roosevelt?"

Yes, that was the man--a most remarkable man that! So Colonel Roosevelt may be interested to hear that the poet-king of Provence is an enthusiastic Bull Mooser.

Of course, we talked too of the "felibrige," and it was beautiful to see how M. Mistral's face softened at the mention of his friend Joseph Roumanille, and with what generosity he attributed the origin of the great movement to his dead friend.

"But you must by all means call on Mme. Roumanille," said he, "when you go to Avignon, and say that I sent you"--for Roumanille's widow still lives, one of the most honoured muses of the "felibrige."

When it was time for us to go on our way, nothing would satisfy M. and Mme. Mistral but that we drink a glass of a cordial which is made by "Elise" from Mistral's own recipe; and as we raised the tiny glasses of the innocent liqueur in our hands, Mistral drank "A l'Amerique!"

Then, taking a great slouch hat from a rack in the hall, and looking as though it was his statue from Aries accompanying us, the stately old man led us out into the road, and pointed us the way to Avignon.

On the 30th of this coming September that great old man--the memory of whose noble presence and beautiful courtesy will remain with us forever--will be eighty-three.

February, 1913.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Memory Of Frederic Mistral