France and its Poets: Middle Ages to the 19th Century
Author: Christiane Guise

Chapter 1
Alphonse de Lamartine

Alphonse de Lamartine        Le Lac       The Lake (1817)


Lamartine’s most exquisite poem is Le lac. The Bourget Lake exists but what the poet describes is the inner landscapes of his desperate mind. Charmingly, he mingles the themes of love, destiny, immortality, infinity, and unbearable suffering. His cry contained for so long in his distressed soul suddenly rises and bursts almost as a relief. When Lamartine writes Le Lac in August-September 1817, Julie is still alive but the poet is very aware of the fragility of life and the flight of time. Lamartine’s lake symbolises eternal love, as the Geneva Lake immortalises the impossible love of Saint-Preux and Julie in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse.[1]  At first, Lamartine calls this poem Ode au lac du B and says

C’est une de mes poésies qui a eu le plus de retentissement dans l’âme de mes lecteurs, comme elle en avait eu le plus dans la mienne…Niedermeyer[2] a fait de cette ode une touchante traduction en notes. J’ai entendu chanter cette romance, et j’ai vu les larmes qu’elle faisait répandre. Néanmoins, j’ai toujours pensé que la musique et la poésie se nuisaient en associant. Elles sont l’une et l’autre des arts complets : la musique porte en elle son sentiment, de beaux vers portent en eux leur mélodie.[3]

This is one of my poems, which had the greatest effect on my readers’ soul and on mine… Niedermeyer made from this ode a touching translation in notes. I heard this romance and I saw the tears it caused. Nevertheless, I have always thought that music and poetry are detrimental to one another. Both are complete arts: music carries its meaning; beautiful verses carry their melody.


Here, the rimes abab are suffisantes; but Lamartine’s choice of words and excellent use of alexandrins and hexasyllables create a tragic atmosphere; and with its frequent enjambments and alternate long and short verses, the haunting prayer becomes a poignant melody rocked by the sound of the oars penetrating the calm water of the lake.


The Lake

Always driven toward new shores,

Carried away in the eternal Night,

Could we ever on the ocean of Time[4]

One day throw the anchor?


O Lake! The Year is just ending its course,

And near the waves she hoped to see again

Look! I come alone and sit on this rock

Where you saw her sitting!

Like today you roared below these deep rocks;

Like today, you broke upon their worn flanks.

Like today, the wind threw your foamy waves

On her lovely feet. [5]

One evening, you remember; we sailed in silence

And beneath the skies we could only hear

The sound of the rowers striking in cadence

Your harmonious waves.                                                                                

Suddenly, a sound unknown to this Earth[6]

Echoed forth from the enchanted shore;

The waves were attentive and the voice dear to me

Let fall these few words:

"O time! Hold your flight! [7] And you, propitious hours, [8]

Please hold your endless course!

Let us savour the fleeting delights

Of these marvellous days!

"Many unhappy souls implore you down here!

So flow, flow for them.

Take them and their consuming sorrows.

Forget the happy lads.

"But in vain, I beg for few more instants

Time slips away and flees;

I say to the Night: "Please slow down", but dawn

Soon dissipates the Night.

"Let us love, let us love! Let us quickly enjoy[9]

The fleeting hour.

Man has no port, time has no shore;

 It flows, and we just pass!"

When in long draughts, love pours into our heart,

Is it true, jealous time, that those blissful moments

Can fly away as fast

As our days of  sorrow?

What did you say! Even their trace we cannot keep?

They have gone forever? Completely lost?

The Time that gives and wipes them off 

Will never give them back?

Eternity, chaos, past, and dark abysses,

What do you do with the days you swallow?

Speak! Will you give us back the heavenly raptures

That you steal from us?

O Lake! Silent rocks! Caves! Obscure forest! [10]

You that Time spares and revives,

Please beautiful nature, keep from this night,

Its sweetest memory!

Keep it in your silence, keep it in your storms,

Beautiful lake, keep it on the smiling hills,

The black fir-trees, and the wild rocks

Hanging over your waves!

Keep it in the zephyr that shivers and goes by

In the sounds of your shores re-echoed by your shores,

In the silvery moon whitening your waves

With its gleaming radiance!

Let the moaning breeze and the fragile reed,

The subtle perfumes of your scented wind,

All that can hear and see,

Let them say how they loved!

Amazingly, Lamartine’s style does not charm everyone; some accuses him of using too many abstractions, and they even question his sanity. Who would ask a lake to keep the memory of a beautiful night? Who would ask time to stop its course? No one except a Romantique.

[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1960) Quatrième Partie, Lettre XVII, in  Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, pp 503-504.

[2] Louis Neidermeyer (1802-1861) music master and composer who founded the school of religious music bearing his name. 

[3] Armand Trèves, ed. (1933) Les Meilleures Pages de Lamartine, p 38.

[4] Perhaps taken from Léonard’s Saisons (1787) or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

[5] Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, strophe CI of the third chant

[6] Young’s Night III               

[7] This hemistich was probably taken from Antoine-Lé6nard Thomas’s Ode au Temps

[8] and from Night II                               

[9] Horace’s Carpe diem

[10] Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,  last strophes                        



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