Mirèio de Provence

Marco Montagnin

Mirella is a lost name from forgotten ancient times

«In recognition of the fresh originality and true inspiration of his poetic production, which faithfully reflects the natural scenery and native spirit of his people, and, in addition, his significant work as a Provençal philologist».

     Frédéric Joseph Etienne Mistral was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904.

1904 was the only year in which two writers were awarded the prize.

     Mistral was born in Provence during 1830 into a wealthy peasant family. Throughout his childhood, he wondered why certain people spoke a language different from his own, and what was explained to him was that these people were ‘lords’. Mistral, therefore, affirmed that he did not want to become a ‘lord’. This foreign language was French, and Mistral’s language was Provençal.

     After graduating in law, he soon became one of the leading exponents of Provençal poetry, the first literary language of a civilised Europe. Two were the major movements in the ‘Provençal Renaissance’ at the time: the Marseille group, which tended towards popular, clownish and revolutionary poetry, and the Avignon group – to which Mistral belonged– which aspired to a cultured, refined and moralising poetry.

In cultural conventions in which these two groups met, they concluded that Provençal was a language suitable for writing about any kind of subject – and not a popular language of lesser value than French. However, the real problems of the language – metrics, rhyme, vocabulary and spelling – were left out of these meetings. The Avignon group tended toward a purification of the Provençal lexicon from Gallophone words and a recovery of obsolete words. Thus, with the substantial failure of the two congresses, the Avignon group met in 1854 and gave itself a name: Felibrige. This name, which was proposed by Mistral, derives from a popular Provençal song in which reference is made to the famous dispute that took place in the temple between Jesus of Nazareth and the scribes of the law, or felibri, in Provençal – “emé li sèt félibre de la loi“, ‘between the seven doctors of the law’.

This is the definition of the movement given in the first statute:

Felibrism is founded to preserve the colour of Provence, its freedom of life, its national honour, its fine degree of intelligence because, as it is, we like Provence… Felibrism is gay, friendly, fraternal, full of simplicity and frankness; it has beauty for its wine, goodness for its bread, truth for its path, the sun for joy, it draws its knowledge from love and places all its hope in God. And he continued, establishing on the basis of the fateful Provençal seven, and many other sections: two of “gay science”, one of history and linguistics, one of music, one of painting, one of science and one of friends of felibrism; the number of felibres was fixed at fifty.

     After finishing his studies and returning home, Mistral decided to devote himself to writing. His father, who seemed to recognise it as a ‘sacred rite’, so much so that he never disturbed his son’s writing and left him free to pursue his own path. It was in his father’s house, the judge’s farm, where Mistral began to write the poem of his youth, the poem that made him great, the poem by which he is always remembered, his masterpiece: Mirèio (Mirella).

The poem, divided into twelve cantos, has a troubadour metre; a stanza is composed as follows: two octosyllabic couplets are followed by a trochee alexandrine, which is followed by three more octosyllabic couplets with the same rhyme, and another trochee alexandrine which is harmonised with the first.

Mirella is a lost name from forgotten ancient times, with the exception of being found in a few popular reminiscences of certain idioms. Mistral himself writes:

Mirella, this fortunate name, which already has all its poetry in it, was inevitably to be that of my heroine; in fact, I had heard it repeatedly, from the cradle in my house, and there only. When poor Nanon, my maternal grandmother, wanted to show some kindness to one of her daughters:

– “That’s Mirella,” she would say, “that’s my beautiful Mirella, my sweetheart!

And my mother, joking when referring to some little girl would sometimes say:

– “Here she is, look! It’s Mirella, my love!” 

     The poem has as its characters the poet’s childhood surroundings: those of La Crau plain and its inhabitants. It is about a dull agricultural, Christian, Provence; it is about its traditions and superstitions, of nature and love, and, in the background, Mirella’s story – which the author uses to describe the land he loves. In doing so, Mirella becomes both the main character of the work – in that her life identifies with Provence itself – and the main character of the story.

The simple plot is used to avoid distracting readers from the poet’s true intentions: it is about Mirella, a wealthy young farm girl who falls in love with the son of a labourer. Falling in love is described according to courtly tradition and nature becomes both metaphor and artifice. Love is reciprocated, but her parents prevent their union. Therefore, Mirella runs away to reach the Sanctuary of Sante Marie, but crossing La Crau leads to her death right in front of the gates of the sanctuary. This, however, does not occur before saying goodbye for the last time to her parents and her beloved, who had rushed to her after the agonising news. Death is the sublimation of love, love that is the force that drags and sweeps everything away, and Mirella’s death is comparable to that of Orlando in La Chanson: it is a serene Christian acceptance of sacrifice. Mistral becomes the poet of farmers, just as Hesiod had been before him; and it is precisely from classical culture that the author draws his inspiration: Homer and Virgil in their great poems and again Virgil, the first Virgil of the Georgics.

I SING the love of a Provençal maid;
How through the wheat-fields of La Crau she strayed,
Following the fate that drew her to the sea.
Unknown beyond remote La Crau was she;
And I, who tell the rustic tale of her,
Would fain be Homer’s humble follower.”[1]

 This is how the symphonic poem opens, taking readers on a voyage through the land of Provence, a land of farming traditions and nature that is harsh and lush, fertile and dry.

The author uses classically inspired scenes to tell the story of Provence and its inhabitants: Aeneas’ descent into Avernus is echoed in the descent of the two lovers into the Baus cave; the ballads of old Ambrose are taken from the songs of Iopa; and the funeral games for Anchises are taken from the running races in Nîmes.

“The bottom gained, they found a grotto cold
And vast; midway whereof a beldam old,
The witch Taven, sat silent, crouching lowly
As lost in thought and utter melancholy,
Holding a sprig of brome, and muttering,
“Some call thee devil’s wheat, poor little thing,

“Yet art thou one of God’s own signs for good!”
Therewith Mirèio, trembling where she stood,
Was fain to tell why they had sought her thus.
“I knew it!” cried the witch, impervious,
The brome addressing still, with bended head.
“Thou poor field-flower! The trampling flock,” she said,”[2]

 Vincent (the beloved), wounded in a duel by one of Mirella’s admirers, is brought to a sorceress for treatment while dying. In this cave, medieval elements – fairies and goblins – are recounted according to Provençal tradition.

     Mistral wrote other poems that narrate his country in different ways, shaping it with words; reading all of them one grasps the soul of Provence in all its aspects. However, he is mainly remembered for Mirella, a Georgic, complete poem. A poem that proclaimed him as the greatest Provençal poet until the end of Troubadour tradition. It was in his beloved land, where he lived all his life, that he died.

[1] Frédéric Mistral, Mirèio, A Provençal Poem, T. Fisher Unwin, London 1890, p.21

[2] Ivi, p.130

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