Poetry is the earliest French literature. The anonymous Song of Roland is regarded by some as the national epic of France, and during the Middle Ages, the chanson de geste became an identifiable literary genre. These “songs of exploits” often took their subjects from the reign of Charlemagne (742-814) and the legend of King Arthur, developed well beyond its origins by Chrétien de Troyes.
As well as narrative poetry, lyric poetry began to evolve, as “troubadours” and “trouvères” peddled their work from place to place. La Pléiade was a group of 16th century poets whose principal members were Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay and Jean-Antoine de Baïf.
French classical drama was conventionally written in rhyming couplets. The most notable exponents were Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. Jean de La Fontaine’s fables are among the most quoted works of French literature.
Important French poets
Important French poets of the 19th century :
Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) is generally recognised as the greatest figure in French Romanticism in the 19th century.
Gérard de Nerval (1808 – 1855)
Théophile Gautier (1811 – 1872)
Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) The originator of the Symbolist movement in France. His Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard was one of the first to use typography in poetry to create different trains of thought existing simultaneously.
Frederic Mistral (1830-1914) Provençal language poet and Nobel Prize in Literature laureate in 1904. He created the Félibrige movement on May 21 1854, with Théodore Aubanel, Jean Brunet, Anselme Mathieu, Paul Piera, his teacher Joseph Roumanille, and Alphonse Tavan. He was noted for his promotion of Provençal literature and founded the annual journal Armana Prouvençau. Also founder of a museum of ethnography in Arles.
Theodore Aubanel (1829-1882) Born into a publishing family (the museum for the publishing house still exists), he is the author of three collections of poetry written in the troubadour tradition, as well as three plays.
Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) was one of the precursors of the Surrealist movement. He wrote many remarkable works, among The Sonnet of the Vowels in which each vowel is assigned a colour.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) With Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, the founder of the Decadents. He also founded the journal Le Salut Public, translated Edgar Allan Poe, and was prosecuted along with the publisher and printer for blasphemy associated with Les fleurs du mal. He held salons to encourage such painters as Delacroix. Among other poetic forms, he used the pantoum.
Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) Regarded in his day as the premier poet in France, he published, in addition to his poems, Les poètes maudits, biographies of poets. See Poète maudit.
Paul Valéry (1871-1945) Author not only of poetry, but the Introduction de la méthode de Léonard da Vinci (1894), and Cahiers. Inspired by da Vinci, he kept a series of notebooks in order to maximise his intellect, and held a law degree from the University of Montpellier. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1925.
In the 20th century, Paul Éluard was a leading exponent of Surrealism. Guillaume Apollinaire’s (1880 – 1918) first collection of poetry was L’enchanteur pourrissant (1909), but it was Alcools (1913) which established his reputation. These poems, influenced in part by the symbolists, juxtapose the old and the new, using traditional forms and modern imagery. Jacques Prévert’s works move between Surrealism and the popular songs of Parisian café culture.
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