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Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914)


French poet and Provençal patriot, who shared with the Spanish dramatist José Echegaray the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904. Frédéric Mistral received the prize for his contributions in literature and philology. Calling himself 'humble écolier du grand Homère', a humble student of Homer – Mistral composed passionate odes to sun, to his native Provençe, and its people. His work had much in common with the mediaeval troubadour poetry, but the literary language of the troubadours should not be confused with Modern Provençal.

"Thus my yearliest childhood was spent on the farm in the company of plowmen, harvesters, and shepherds. And sometimes, when some bourgeois happened by the farm, one of those who affected to speak only French, I was abashed and even humiliated to see my parents suddenly became respectful toward him, as if he was superior to them." (in The Memoirs of Fréderick Mistral, 1906, tr. George Wickes)

Frédéric Mistral was born in Maillaine, a village in the Rhone Valley of southern France. The family had lived on their own land from one generation to the next. Mistral's father, a prosperous farmer and a former soldier in the French Revolution, was left widower by his first wife. At the age of fifty-five he married Estève Poulinet, the daughter of the mayor; Frédéric was their only son, born on the 8th of September 1830. "Although our neighbors scorn us as "frog-eaters," the people of Maillane have always believed that there is no prettier village under the cope of heaven," Mistral wrote in his book of memoirs.

In his early years Mistral developed a passionate attachment to the language of his region, Provençal, known also as langue d'oc, in contrast to langue d'oïl of the north. He was educated at the College Royal of Avignon, where he read Homer and Virgil. While still at school he started to write verse in Provençal, his mother tongue. Already at that time, Mistral's great ambition was to become a poet, but his father wanted him to finish his studies. Deeply affected by the Revolution of 1848, he published a song in French that was published in the little newspapers of Arles and Avignon: "Awake, you children of Gironde, / Stir and quicken in your cold tombs; / Freedom will rejuvenate the world—/ Eternal war against kings!" After receiving his law degree in 1851 from the University of Aix-en-Provence, Mistral started his literary career.

Mistral wrote his early works in France. His poems attracted attention 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 in the castle of Font-Ségugne, near Châteauneuf-de-Gadagne, with a group of Avignon poets an association, the Félibrige, for the maintenance of language and customs of Provençe. The group started to publish an annual journal, L'Armana Prouvençau. His motto to the Association of Provençal Poets was: "Lou soulèu me fai canta" (The sun makes me sing). The founding members called themselves Félibres, "nobody knows to this day exactly why." The ('Preface to the English Edition' by Harriet Waters Preston, in Mireio. A Provencal Poem, 1890, p. 9) The Provençal word means pupil or follower. According to Mistral, he had read it in a prayer to the Virgin Mary, which spoke of "the seven Félibres of the law." (The Literature of Provence: An Introduction by Daniel Vitaglione, 2000, p. 22)

Mistral was the most celebrated "félibre;" other founding members of the association included Joseph Roumanille, a poet and publisher, Jean Brunet, a poet and committed socialist,  Théodore Aubanel, a poet from a family of successful printers, a good friend of Alphonse Daudet, Paul Giéra, a notary public by trade who also wrote poetry, Anselme Mathieu, from a family of vineyard owners, who published poems under the pseudonym of Félibre di Poutoun, and Alphonse Tavan, a poet.

Mistral's pastoral epic Mirèio (1859) was a major contribution to this rising Provençal cultural and literary movement. The work, which was first issued by a bookseller at Avignon, greatly helped to raise awareness among the general audience. Mistal had shown the manuscript to the poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), whose enthusiasms paved way for its success. Michel Carré based his libretto for Charles Gounod's opera, Mireille (1865), on the poem. The first English translation of  Mirèio was published in May 1867.  

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. While in Avignon, he befriended Stéphane Mallarmé, who taught English there, and despite their differences started to correspond with him. Mallarmé tried to get his increasingly parochial colleague to join him in founding an international society of poets which would have included both the Félibrige and the Spanish poets. To his surprise, Mistral's response was unenthusiastic: "The Provençal poets," Mistral said, "are the natural friends of poets of Paris, England, Spain and Germany, indeed all those poets who've  been willing to come to Avignon and shake hands with us. For that to happen there's no need of written or sworn obligations: sympathy is the best of constitutions." (Mallarmé: The Poet and His Circle by Rosemary Lloyd, 1999, p. 105) An admirer-with-reservations of "Mistral''s work, Mallarmé said once to the physician and symbolist poet Henri Cazalis: "Recently I read a poem by Mistral which I hadn't read earlier but which struck me as really weak." (Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarmé, edited and translated by Rosemary Lloyd, 1988, p. 76)

Mistral lived in Maillane 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 Felibrige (The Treasury of Félibres). This work, in which Mistral attempted to create a new literary standard for the language, was issued between 1880 and 1886. The dictionary 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.

"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)

Mistral's third poem was about the last days of the popes in Avignon, Nerto – the work received the Prix Vitet. His admires compared him to Ariosto and organized banquets and festives in his honor in Paris. According to a story, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull with several other Indians visited him when they were touring Europe. Aside from journeys to Paris, and a trip to Switzerland and another to Italy, Mistral rarely left his beloved region. La Réino Jano, Mistral's only drama, 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: memòri e raconte (1906) and Lis óulivado (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.

For further reading: Histoire du Félibrige, 1854-1896 by G. Jourdanne (1897); Le sagesse de Mistral by C. Maurras (1931); Mistral by R. Lyle (1953); Mistral, Mage de l'Occident by M. Decremps (1954); Mistral ou l'Illusion by R. Lafont (1954); Introduction to Mistral by R. Aldington (1956); The Lion of Arles by T. Edwards (1964); Grandeur de Mistral essai de critique littéraire by L. Bayle (1964); Lamartine et Mistral by B. Galvada (1970); Modern Provecal Phologoly and Morphology, Studies in the Language of Frederic Mistral by Harry E. Ford (1975); The Memoirs of Frederic Mistral by F.M. et al. (1986); Mistral: poète de l'amour by Mitu Grosu (1995); The Literature of Provence: An Introduction by Daniel Vitaglione (2000); Frédéric Mistral: l'enfant, la mort et les rêves by Jean-Yves Casanova (2004); L'alchimie spirituelle dans l'œuvre de Frédéric Mistal by Jean-Paul Marsal (2015); Frédéric Mistral, l'ombre et l'écho: aspects de l'œuvre littéraire mistralienne by Jean-Yves Casanova (2016) . NoteAlphonse Daudet met Mistral in 1860 and depicted in Lettres de mon moulin (1869) his visit at Mistral's home in Maillane.  In Finnish: Saima Harmaja on kääntänyt Mirèiosta muutaman katkelman teokseen Ranskan kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja, toim. Anna-Maria Tallgren (1934): "Kai tähtösen mä löydän, jolla rakastaa / vapaasti kaksi lasta saisi. / Mi so? - Kuin urut humajaisi -" / Ja niinkuin uneen uinahtaisi / pään käänsi syvään huoaten hän pois ja maa jäi taa.

Selected works:

  • Mirèio, 1859
    - Mirelle: A Pastoral Epic of Provence (translated by Hugh Crichton, 1868) / Mirèio: A Provençal Poem (translated by Harriet W. Preston, 1872)
  • Calendau, Pouèmo nouvèu, 1867
  • Lis Isclo d’or, 1875
  • Lou Trésor dou Félibrige ou Dictionnaire de provençal-français, 1878 (2 vols.)
  • La raço latino, 1879
  • Nerto, 1984 (Nerte)
  • Œuvres de Frédéric Mistral, 1886-1921 (6 vols.)
  • La Rèino Jano, 1890 (La Reine Jeanne; play) [Queen Jano]
  • Les Secrets des Bêtes, 1896
  • Lou Pouèmo dóu Rose, 1897 (Le Poème du Rhône)
    - Anglore: The Song of The Rhône (translated by Maro Beath Jones, 1939)
  • Moun espelido, Memòri e Raconte, 1906
    - Memoirs of Mistral (translated by Constance Elisabeth Maud, 1907; George Wickes, 1986)
  • Discours e dicho, 1906
  • La Genèsi, traducho en prouvençau, 1910
  • Lis óulivado, 1912 (Les Olivades) [The Olive Gathering]
  • Proso d’Armana, 1926-29 (3 vols.)
  • Œuvres poétiques complètes, 1966 (2 vols., ed.  Pierre Rollet)
  • Correspondance de Frédéric Mistral avec Paul Meyer et Gaston Paris, 1978 (ed. Jean Boutière)
  • Histoire d'une amitié: correspondance inédite entre Alphonse Daudet et Frédéric Mistral / Alphonse Daudet, 1860-1897, 1979 (ed. Jacques-Henry Bornecque)
  • Correspondance, Frédéric Mistral, Pierre Devoluy (1895-1913), 1984 (2 vols., ed.  Charles Rostaing)
  • Ecrits politiques, 1989 (eds. René Jouveau and Pierrette Berengier)
  • Correspondance de Frédéric Mistral et E., F. et M. Jouveau: 1877-1913, 1993 (ed.  Marie-Thérèse Jouveau)
  • An English Version, The Original Crowned By The French Academy, Of Frederic Mistral's Mireio, From The Original Provencal (1867), 2010
  • Memòrias e Racòntes: Mon espelida, 2020

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