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October 19 , 2009

Raphael: Pages of the Book of Life at Twenty


It is all very well for Lamartine to explain, in his original prologue, that the touching, fascinating and pathetic story of Raphael was the experience of another man. It is well known that these feeling pages are but transcripts of an episode of his own heart-history. That the tale is one of almost feminine sentimentality is due, in some measure, perhaps, to the fact that, during his earliest and most impressionable years, Lamartine was educated by his mother and was greatly influenced by her ardent and poetical character. Who shall say how much depends on one's environment during these tender years of childhood, and how often has it not been proved that "the child is father to the man?" The marvel of it is that a man so exquisitely sensitive, of such extraordinary delicacy of feeling, should have been able, in later years, to stand the storm and stress of political life and the grave responsibilities of statesmanship. Although not written in metrical form, Raphael is really a poem—a prose poem. Never upon canvas of painter were spread more delicate tints, hues, colors, shadings, blendings and suggestions, than in these pages. Not only do we find ourselves, in the descriptions of scenery, near to Nature's heart, but, in the story itself, near to the heart of man. Aix in Savoy was, in Lamartine's time, a fashionable resort for valitudinarians and invalids. Among the patrons of the place was Madame Charles, whose memory Lamartine has immortalized as "Julie" in Raphael and as "Elvire" in the beautiful lines of the Méditations. In drawing the character "Julie," idealism and sentimentalism have full play. The whole story is romantic in the extreme. The influence of Byron is clearly to be seen. The beautiful hills of Savoy, tinged with the melancholy tints of autumn, were a fit setting for the meeting with the fair invalid. Besides physical invalidism, the pair were soul-sick and heart-sick. Such were their points of sympathy, an affinity was the most natural thing in the world. "Ships that pass in the night" were these two creatures, stranded by illness, "out of the world's way, hidden apart." At the feast of pure, unselfish, romantic love that followed, there was always a death's-head present, always the sinking fear, always the mute resignation on one side or the other. Death and love have been a combination that poets have used since the world began. And so, as the early snow whitened the pines on the hilltops of Savoy, this pathetic and ultra-sentimental love-affair between the banished Parisienne and the poet had its beginning. That it could have but one ending the reader knows from the start. But with what breathless interest do we follow this history of love! We seem to be admitted to the confidences of beings of another sphere, to celestial heights of affection. We hear the heart-beats and see the glances of the languid, languorous eyes. The universe itself seems to stand still for these two lovers. Their heads are among the stars, their hearts in heaven. Their love is as pure as a sonnet of Keats, as ineffable as shimmering starlight. Day by day we trace its current, we cannot say growth because it sprang into life full-grown. Although Julie said that "her life was not worth a tear," she caused torrents of tears to flow. From the first, their love seemed centuries old, so entirely was it a part of their being. Day after day their souls were revealed to each other, their hearts became more united. Every pure chord of psychic affection was struck, even almost to the distracting discord of suicide together, that they might never part, and from which they were saved as by a miracle. In such unsullied love, there is an element of worship. It is the sublimation of passion, freed from sensuous dross, a spiritual efflorescence, a white flame of the soul
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