Human concerns – Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914)

See on this site – French poet and Provençal patriot, who shared with the Spanish dramatist José Echegaray the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904. Mistral received the prize for his contributions in literature and philology. Mistral called himself ‘humble écolier du grand Homère’, a humble student of Homer – his passionate odes to sun, to his native Provençe, and its people, had much in common with the mediaeval troubadour poetry. The literary language of the troubadours was known first as the ‘Language d’Oc’ and it should not be confused with Modern Provençal.

“The rhythm of this poem has beauty and harmony, and its artistic composition succeeds on all counts. The source from which Mistral has drawn is not psychology; it is nature. Man himself is treated purely as a child of nature. Let other poets sound the depths of the human soul!” (C. D. af Wirsén, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, in his Nobel Prize presentation 1904).

Frédéric Mistral was born in Maillaine, a village in the Rhone Valley of southern France, as the only son of a prosperous farmer. In his early years Mistral developed a passionate attachment to the language of his region, Provençal dialect.

He was educated at the College Royal of Avignon, where he read Homer and Virgil. While still at school he started to write poems in Provençal, his mother tongue. Mistral wanted to become a poet, but his father wanted him to finish his studies. After receiving his law degree in 1851 from the University of Aix-en-Provence, Mistral started his career as a writer. He published his first poems next year.

Mistral wrote his early works in France. His poems attracted attention first time when they were published in Li Provençalo (1852), an anthology edited by his former teacher Joseph Roumanille (1818-1891). On May 21, in 1854 he founded with Roumanille, Jean Brunet, Paul Piera, Anselme Mathieu, Alphonse Tavan and Théodore Aubanel an association, félibres, for the maintenance of language and customs of Provençe. The group started to publish an annual journal, Armana Prouvençau. His motto to the Association of Provençal Poets was: “Lou soulèu me fai canta” (The sun makes me sing).

In 1859 appeared Mistral’s pastoral epic MIRÈIO, a major contribution to the Provençal literary movement. The work greatly helped to arise awareness of genuine Provençal language. Mistal had shown the manuscript to the poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), whose enthusiasms paved way for its success. Later the composer Charles Gounod used the poem for his opera Mireille (1864). The central characters in this long poem in 12 cantos are young lovers, Mirèio, a girl from an old and prosperous peasant family, and Vincèn, a young boy without any property. Mirèio’s parents do not approve their marriage, and rival suitors are making Vincèn’s life miserable. Finally Mirèio escapes to search help from Provençal patron saints. She gets a sunstroke while crossing a barren country (la Crau). Just before her death, she sees in the chapel of the pilgrimage site a heavenly boat with the saints coming to take her with them.

After his breakthrough as a poet, Mistral returned from Paris to Maillane. He lived there until his death, first with his mother, then with his wife, Mile Marie Rivière, whom he married in 1876. Mistral devoted 20 years’ work to the scholarly dictionary of Provençial, entitled LOU TRESOR DÓU FÉLIBRIGE (The Treasury of Félibres). It was issued between 1880 and 1886. The work contains all the dialects of the language and a wealth of Provençal folklore, traditions, and beliefs. There is also a translation of Genesis into Provençal prose.

In the 1880s appeared Mistral’s narrative poem about the last days of the popes in Avignon, NERTO. Mistral’s only drama, LA RÉINO JANO, was published in 1890. His last great epic was LOU POUÈMO DOU ROSE (1897). It depicted the life of the Rhône boatmen before the advent of the steamship. Among Mistral’s other works are his memoirs MOUN ESPELIDO (1906) and LES OLIVADOU (1912), a collection of short lyric poems. Mistral died at Maillane on March 24, 1914. Posthumously appeared three volumes of PROSE D’ALMANACH (1926-30). It’s French translation opposite the Provençal text was made by Mistral; usually the French translations accompanying his original works were by the author himself. The proceeds of the Nobel prize Mistral used to develop his museum of ethnography which he had founded in Arles. (Read more here).

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