Sully Prudhomme was once an important figure in French literature and hailed as the successor of Victor Hugo, but he is largely ignored and little read or written about today, in English or in French. He has utterly vanished from the canon. Even at the turn of the century, the choice of Sully Prudhomme for the Nobel caused some debate, as he hadn't published much poetry after 1888.
Sully Prudhomme was born to a middle class Parisian family. His father, a shopkeeper, died when he was two, and he would later append his father's name "Sully" to his surname "Prudhomme". He grew up with his mother in the household of his uncle and he graduated from the Lycée Bonaparte. A serious eye problem prevented him from studying the sciences, so he took a job as a clerk at the Schneider-Creuzot foundry and later studied law and worked in the office of a notary.
Inspired by a love affair gone poorly, he began to write poetry, which was well received by his literary circle of friends in the Conference La Bruyère, an important student society. He began to be published in journals, such as the influential Le parnasse contemporain and was encouraged by the elder poet Leconte de Lisle. His first book of poetry, Stances et poémes, was published in 1865 and very well received, especially "La vase brisé" ("The Broken Vase", where the vase was a symbol of a broken relationship), which would become his best known poem.
From the beginning, Sully Prudhomme was identified with a group of poets called the Parnassians, named after Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses in Greek mythology. The Parnassians were reacting against the excesses of Romanticism and sought to restore classical values like elegance, balance, objectivity, precision, and harmony to poetry. Sully Prudhomme's was noted for these qualities as well, though he did not rigidly adhere to them, as much of his early work deals with personal feelings in an emotional tone that has been influenced by Romanticism.
1870 was not a good year for Sully Prudhomme, and it cause a profound change in his work. His mother, aunt, and uncle all died and he had a stroke which would cause him problems with paralysis the rest of his life. He served in the Garde Mobile during the Franco-Prussian War, which was the basis for his collection Impressions de Guerre of the same year.
All these traumas caused him to become more and more reclusive as time went on. His work moved away from the personal towards wrestling with philosophical and metaphysical themes, at times descending into the didactic. Important works include:
"Les destins" (1872), where a fire in a Spanish church is the centerpiece of an examination of the stuggle between good and evil "Le zénith" (1876), an elegy for three balloonists killed in an ascent which examines mankind's quest for truth La justice (1878), a series of dialogues about the nature of justice Le bonheur (1888), a 4000 line "scientific-philosophic poem" about a Faustian journey through the afterlife in search of knowledge and love.
After 1888, he devoted himself to prose in the areas of literature and philosophy. He became even more of a recluse as his paralysis worsened, which did not prevent his reptuation as a writer from increasing. He was elected to the French Academy in 1881 and won the first Nobel Prize in literature in 1901. He donated the prize money to a French writer's association in order to help budding poets publish their first volumes. He died a lifelong bachelor in his villa in Châtenay-Malabry, near Paris.
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