Marco Montagnin

«In special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect»

René François Armand Prudhomme – nom de plume Sully Prudhomme – was awarded the first Nobel Prize for Literature in 1901.

But how and why was this prestigious literary award established?

Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) was a Swedish chemist, engineer and inventor who was famous for patenting dynamite. In 1888, his brother died in an explosion, and thinking that the accident had involved the inventor himself, several newspapers announced his demise calling him a merchant of death. Dissatisfied with the image that people would have of him, Nobel decided to donate almost all of his fortune to establish a cultural prize to recognise those men and women who had most distinguished themselves for their cultural services to humanity.


«In special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect»

After his first will, which was later broken, literature was initially not included in the project. At a later stage Nobel drew up a second one specifying: in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.

It was only five years after the death of today’s illustrious philanthropist that the Swedish Academy managed to create a first set of rules for awarding the prize.

It was France that best presented its candidates, in particular the Académie Française.

On 10th December 1901, the official awarding day of the Nobel Prize, a newspaper of the time wrote:  

So neither Tolstoy, nor Ibsen, nor Björnson, nor Mommsen, nor Björnson, nor Mommsen, nor Swinburne, nor Zola, nor Anatole France, nor Carducci, nor Mistral, nor Hauptmann, not even Echegaray; but Sully Prudhomme was chosen.

The prize brought honour to France and an unexpected amount of money to the writer, who used part of it to pay for the publication of young authors’ works.

The prize money caused an uproar among the ardent intellectuals of the time and literary circles, which was expressed in a letter to Tolstoy:

We feel ourselves very much called upon to let you know that, as a consequence of its current membership, we consider the institution which has control over said Prize reflects neither the view of the artists nor of public opinion. It must not be other countries’ impression that art which comes from free-thinkers and freely creative persons, even among our remotely residing citizens, is not appreciated as of the finest quality and of a status greater than all others.


The great Russian writer welcomed the recognition from the artists and intellectuals of the time but replied that such a sum of money would embarrass him and could only do harm.

The prize was therefore awarded to Prudhomme who, due to health problems, was unable to attend the ceremony.

     Prudhomme was born in Paris in 1839. During his school years he received an education in science, which manifested itself in his writing, his interest in scientific progress and particularly in the writing of a treatise on geometry.

After a brief interlude of intense Catholicism, his tendency to investigate led him to embrace philosophy.

Am I a poet? Am I a philosopher? I thank God for not cutting me down to being either one or the other. Philosophy allows me to dive to dizzying depths and poetry lets me feel the horror of being infinite and the amazement of living nature.


And furthermore

A man who is born a poet and a philosopher at the same time is truly unhappy; his sweetest fantasies turn into painful meditations; he considers the two faces of all things and thus weeps over the void of what he admires. Whoever is only a philosopher is also to be pitied, because they often do so at the expense of the heart, source of our joys. But lucky the poet if illusion is not the worst of miseries.


      Prudhomme was then enrolled in L’École de Droit, and found solace in a discussion group on literature, art and philosophy.

He later joined the Parnasse movement, which rejected the poetic aspiration arising from truth and everyday reality and was in stark contrast with Romanticism.

Despite his adherence to the movement and the fact that some of its founders recognised Prudhomme as one of their own, he did not blindly follow the movements dogmas.

I accept being a Parnassian without knowing it; but I am obliged to be consciously whatever has a common name and to profess a faith that has a definite dogma, that is something that shocks me.

In 1865 his first literary work Stances et Poèmes was published.

Thanks to his critical success, he was able to abandon his law studies and dedicate himself to writing only.

Most of the compositions of his work is divided into stanzas, and the rest in poems; the stanzas are in turn divided into four groups: La vie intérieure, Jeunes Filles, Femmes e Mélanges.

La vie intérieure is indeed life of the soul, that same life which only a careful inspection can determine.
A life, his life, made up of a dualism between reason and heart, constantly at war with each other but perfectly balanced.

As stated in the poem Intus.

Deux voix s’élèvent tour à tour /Des profondeurs troubles de l’âme : /La raison blasphème, et l’amour /Rêve un dieu juste et le proclame. // Panthéiste, athée ou chrétien, / Tu connais leurs luttes obscures ; / C’est mon martyre, et c’est le tien, / De vivre avec ces deux murmures. // L’intelligence dit au coeur : / « Le monde n’a pas un bon père. / Vois, le mal est partout vainqueur. » / Le coeur dit : « Je crois et j’espère. / / « Espère, ô ma soeur, crois un peu : / C’est à force d’aimer qu’on trouve ; / Je suis immortel, je sens Dieu. »/ – L’intelligence lui dit : « Prouve ! » [1]


Jeunes Filles, youth is embodied in a young girl, memories of time lost, of first love.

Qui peut dire : Mes yeux ont oublié l’aurore ?/ Qui peut dire : C’est fait de mon premier amour ?/ Quel vieillard le dira si son cœur bat encore,/ S’il entend, s’il respire et voit encor le jour ?// Est-ce qu’au fond des yeux ne reste pas l’empreinte/ Des premiers traits chéris qui les ont fait pleurer ?/ Est-ce qu’au fond du cœur n’ont pas dû demeurer/ La marque et la chaleur de la première étreinte ?// Quand aux feux du soleil a succédé la nuit,/ Toujours au même endroit du vaste et sombre voile/ Une invisible main fixe la même étoile/ Qui se lève sur nous silencieuse et luit…/ / Telles, je sens au cœur, quand tous les bruits du monde / Me laissent triste et seul après m’avoir lassé, / La présence éternelle et la douceur profonde / De mon premier amour que j’avais cru passé.[2]


     In ‘Qui peut dire’ first love is relived in this poem, that first love which had shattered Prudhomme’s dream of marriage, which robbed him of the thought of possibly achieving happiness and led him to consider any form of female affection always inferior to the nuptial thalamus. That first never forgotten love.


Femmes is the maturation of love, of passion; the author portrays various female figures, from childish to carnal love, and then touches various mythological characters.

In L’Abime it is the heart that speaks, whereas the mind, confined in a corner, has no power over this amorous passion.

L’heure où tu possèdes le mieux/ Mon être tout entier, c’est l’heure/ Où, faible et ravi, je demeure/ Sous la puissance de tes yeux.// Je me mets à genoux, j’appuie/ Sur ton cœur mon front agité,/ Et ton regard comme une pluie/ Me verse la sérénité. / / Car je devine sa présence,/ Je le sens sur moi promené/ Comme une subtile influence,/ Et j’en suis comme environné…// Te dirai-je quel est mon rêve ?/ Je ne sais, l’univers a fui…/ Quand tu m’appelles, je me lève/ Égaré, muet, ébloui…// Et bien longtemps, l’âme chagrine,/ Je regrette, ennemi du jour,/ La douce nuit de ta poitrine / Où je m’abîmais dans l’amour.[3]


Mélanges separates the stanzas from the poems, collecting verses on different subjects. Many of them are about nature – about the sea, the stars – recalling his beloved Lucretius, who he had translated years earlier during his time of leisure. Others deal with social themes, themes that he would later take up in a more philosophical form of poetry.

Ton sourire infini m’est cher/ Comme le divin pli des ondes,/ Et je te crains quand tu me grondes,/ Comme la mer.// L’azur de tes grands yeux m’est cher :/ C’est un lointain que je regarde/ Sans cesse et sans y prendre garde,/ Un ciel de mer.// Ton courage léger m’est cher : / C’est un souffle vif où ma vie / S’emplit d’aise et se fortifie, / L’air de la mer. / / Enfin ton être entier m’est cher, / Toujours nouveau, toujours le même ; / O ma Néréide, je t’aime / Comme la mer ![4]

The Poems conclude Prudhomme’s work and are compositions that are less spontaneous and more artificial, but with historical, philosophical and literary references.

The author ends his opera with a poem in which he expresses the difficulties of being a poet: I dream of struggling with rebellious words, never emerging victoriously. The dream he speaks of is the immortality of his works from his flesh and bone.

This dream was finally accomplished, after his death (1907), his works are remembered, and his books are read; his name is placed, alongside with those of a few others, in the pantheon of Nobel Prize winners.

Je me croyais poète et j’ai pu me méprendre,/ D’autres ont fait la lyre et je subis leur loi ;/ Mais si mon âme est juste, impétueuse et tendre,/ Qui le sait mieux que moi ?// Oui, je suis mal servi par des cordes nouvelles/ Qui ne vibrent jamais au rhythme de mon cœur ;/ Mon rêve de sa lutte avec les mots rebelles/ Ne sort jamais vainqueur !// Mais quoi ! le statuaire, au moment où l’argile/ Refuse au sentiment le contour désiré,/ Parce qu’il trouve alors une fange indocile/ Est-il moins inspiré ?[…] La gloire ! oh ! surnager sur cette immense houle / Qui, dans son flux hautain noyant les noms obscurs, / Des brumes du passé se précipite et roule / Aux horizons futurs ! / / Voir mon œuvre flotter sur cette mer humaine, / D’un bout du monde à l’autre et par delà ma mort, / Comme un fier pavillon que la vague ramène / Seul, mais vainqueur, au port ! / / Ce rêve ambitieux remplira ma jeunesse, / Mais, si l’air ne s’est point de ma vie animé, / Que dans un autre cœur mon poème renaisse, / Qu’il vibre et soit aimé ! [5]

[1] Not having found any English translations to the poems of this article, La Livella magazine’s translator came up with paraphrased translations which follow throughout the footnotes of this article:
Two voices rise one after the other / From the depths of the troubled soul: / Blaspheme reasons, and love / Dreams of a just god who proclaims it. // Pantheist, Atheist or Christian, / You know their dark struggles; / It is my martyrdom, and yours, / Living with these two whisperings. // The mind says to the heart: / The world has no good creator. / Behold, evil is victoriously everywhere. “The heart says: “I believe and I hope. / Hope, oh my sister, believe me for once: / It is by means of love that one discovers; / I am immortal, I feel God. “/ – The mind answers back: “Prove it!”

[2] Paraphrased: Who can say: Have my eyes forgotten about the dawn? / Who can say: Is it made of my first love? / What elderly man would ask so if his heart is still beating, / If he hears, breathes and sees daylight? // Doesn’t its trace remain in the depths of one’s eyes? /The first cherished features that made them cry… /  Didn’t the memory and warmth of our first embrace / remain in the bottom of my heart?// When the Sun’s flames succeed the night,/ Always in the same place of the vast and dark veil/ An invisible hand fixes the same star/ Which rises over us silently and shines…/ This is what I feel in my heart, when all the noises of the world / Leave me sad and alone after having worn me, / The eternal presence and the deep sweetness / Of my first love that I thought had passed.

[3] Paraphrased: The hour when you have it best / My whole being is that hour / When, feeble and elated, I remain / Under the power of your eyes.// I kneel down, I lean/ My trembling forehead on your heart, / And your gaze like rain/ Pours serenity over me. // For I sense its presence, / I feel it hanging over me like a subtle influence, / And I am somehow surrounded by it…// Shall I tell you what my dream is? / How can I, the universe has vanished…/ When you call me, I stand up / Adrift, dumb, dazzled…/ And for a long time, my soul grieves, / I regret the day enemy of,/ The sweet night on your chest / Where I used to sink into love.

[4] Paraphrased: Your infinite smile is dear to me / Like the divine folding of the waves,/ And I fear you when you reprimand me,/ Like the ocean.// The blueness of your big eyes is dear to me:/ It is a faraway place that I look at/ Constantly and without noticing it,/ A seascape. // Your faint courage is dear to me: / It is a lively breath that fills and strengthens my life, / The air of the sea. // Lastly, your whole being is dear to me, / Always new, always the same; / Oh my Néréide, I love you, / Like I do the sea!

[5] Paraphrased: I thought I was a poet and I could have been mistaken, / Others have made lyrics and I am subjected to their rules ;/ Yet my soul is just, impetuous and tender, / Who knows it better than I? // Yes, I am ill-served by new chords/ Which never resonate to the rhythm of my heart ;/ I dream of struggling with rebellious words/ Never emerging victoriously!// So what! the statuary, at the moment when the clay/ Refuses to give the desired outline,/ Because it eventually finds an unruly mire/ Is it less inspired?[…] Glory! oh! to be floating on this immense swell / Which, in its haughty flow drowns obscure names, / Mists of the past rush and roll / To future horizons! / To see my work floating on this human sea, / From one end of the world to the other and beyond my death, / Like a proud flag that the wave draws back / Alone, but victorious, to the port! / This ambitious dream will fill my youth, / But, if the air has not filled my lively life, / May my poem be reborn in another heart, / May it resound and be loved.

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