1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mistral, Frédéric

MISTRAL, FRÉDÉRIC (1830-), Provençal poet, was born at Maillane (Bouches-du-Rhône) on the 8th of September 1830. In the autobiographical sketch prefixed to the Isclo d'or (1876) he tells us, with great simplicity and charm, all that is worth knowing of his early life. His father was a prosperous farmer, and his mother a simple and religious woman of the people, who first taught him to love all the songs and legends of the country. In these early days on the farm he received those first impressions which were destined to constitute one of the chief beauties of Mirèio. In his ninth year Mistral was sent to a small school at Avignon, where he was very wretched at first, regretting the free outdoor life of the country. Gradually, however, his studies attracted him, above all the poetry of Homer and Virgil; and he translated the latter's first eclogue, showing his efforts to a young schoolfellow, A. Mathieu, who was destined to play a part in the foundation of the Félibrige. When Roumanille (see Provençal Literature) became an usher at Mistral's school, the two, fired by the same love of poetry and of their native Provence, soon became close friends. “Voilà l'aube que mon âme attendait pour s'éveiller à la lumière,” he exclaimed, on reading Roumanille's first dialect poems; and he goes on to say: “Embrasés tous les deux du désir de relever le parler de nos mères, nous étudiames ensemble les vieux livres Provençaux, et nous nous proposâmes de restaurer la langue selon ses traditions et caractères nationaux.” On leaving school (1847) he returned to Maillane, where he sketched a pastoral poem in four cantos (Li Meissoun). With all his love for the country, he soon realized that life on a farm did not satisfy his ambition. So he went to study law at Aix, where he contributed his first published poems to Roumanille's Li Prouvençalo (1852). He had become licencié en droit the year before, but now decided on a literary career. The Félibrige was founded in 1854, and five years later appeared Mirèio, the masterpiece not only of Mistral, but so far of the entire school. The tale itself was nothing—the old story of a rich girl and her poor lover, kept apart by the girl's parents. Mireille, in despair, wanders along a wide tract of country to the church of the Trois-Maries, in the hope that these may aid her. But the effort was too great: she sinks exhausted, and dies in the presence of her stricken parents and her frenzied lover. Into this simple web Mistral has woven descriptions of Provençal life, scenery, character, customs and legends that raise the poem to the dignity of a rustic epic, unique in literature. Nothing is forced: every detail is filled into the framework of the whole with a cunning which the poet was never again to attain. There is no deep psychology in the characters, but then the people depicted are simple rustic folk, who wear their hearts on their sleeve. Calendau (1867), the story of a princess held in bondage by a ruthless brigand, and eventually rescued by a youthful hero, is a comparative failure, The description of scenery is again masterly; but the old lore, which had charmed all readers in Mirèio, here becomes forced, not inevitable. The characters are mere symbols—indeed the whole poem is obviously an allegory, the princess standing for Provence, the brigand for France, and the young lover for the Félibrige. Mistral lavished enormous labour on this work, which probably accounts for its lack of spontaneity, as also for the love he bears it. In 1876 (the same year in which he married Mlle Marie Rivière, of Dijon) was published the volume Lis Isclo d'Or—a collection of the shorter poems Mistral had composed from the year 1848 onwards. Here he is again at his very best. Old legends, sirventes (mostly, as in medieval times, poems with a tendency), and lyrics—all are admirable. Even the pièces d'occasion may be reckoned with the best of their kind. Two pieces, the Coupe and the Princesse, aroused violent controversy on their first appearance. They reproduce, in effect, the theme of Calendau, and Mistral was accused of trying to sow discord between the north and south of France. Needless to say he was altogether innocent of such a design. Nerto (1884) is a charming tale of Avignon in the olden days, in which a girl's purity triumphs over her lover's base designs and leads him to nobler thoughts. There is little individuality in the characters, which should rather be regarded as types; and we feel no terror or pity at the tragic close. But we are carried along by Mistral's art and by the brilliancy of his episodes; and he achieved the object he had in view: a pretty tale imbued with the proper touch of local colour and with the true spirit of romance. The play La Rèino Jano (1890) is a complete failure, if judged from the dramatic standpoint: it is rather a brilliant panorama, a series of stage pictures, and the characters neither live nor arouse our sympathy. In the great epic on the Rhone (Lou Pouèmo dóu Rouse, 1897) the poet depicts the former barge-life of that river, and intertwines his narrative with the legends clustering round its banks, and with a graceful love episode. For the first time he employs blank verse, and uses it with great mastery, but again the ancient lore is overdone. A splendid piece of work is Lou Tresor dóu Félibrige (1886). In these two volumes Mistral has deposited with loving care every word and phrase, every proverb, every scrap of legend, that he had gathered during his many years’ journeying in the south of France. In 1904 he was awarded one of the Nobel prizes for literature.

An excellent literary appreciation of the poet is that by Gaston Paris, “Frédéric Mistral” (originally in the Revue de Paris (Oct. and Nov. 1894); then in Penseurs et Poètes (Paris, 1896). More elaborate accounts are Welter, Frédéric Mistral (Marburg, 1899); and Downer, Frédéric Mistral (New York, 1901), with a full bibliography.

 (H. O.)