March 13th, 1820, the date of the publication of the "Meditations," is the birthday of modern French poetry. We shall try to characterize Lamartine's poetry by taking up successively, the influences which acted upon the author, his particular state of mind, the novelty of his work and his influence upon French literature.
Lamartine was brought up in the country; hence his appreciation of nature. He was surrounded by the warmest family influences; hence his tenderness and also his confident and sunny Christinity. At the age of sixteen, he left his studies and led the life of a country gentleman. His reading consisted of the Bible, Ossian, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Bernardin de Saint Pierre; especially Chateaubriand who gave him his taste for melancholy; finally Plato and Petrarch to whom he owed his contion of love considered as a religion.
Lamartine's imagination was stimulated by his visit to Italy in 1812 when he met Gragiella, and by his visit to Aix where he came into relations with the original of his Elvire. As for his own personal nature, he is essentially an optimist. In this way he was able to give their true poetic value to those sentiments which are the very substance of lyric poetry. Love he considers an eternal sentiment; death the dawn of a glorious immortality. In nature he sees a comforter of man. His religious sentiment is a belief in the existence of the Creator in every created thing.
Lamartine's style is immaterial and leaves to sentiment all of its natural purity. Lamartine is, therefore, for the French the poet, par excellence, and his poetry is the poetry of France par excellence.
The poems of the Vigny published in 1822 were the first models of the picturesque and historicolegendary style of poetry. "Moise" and "Eloa," which are of about the same date, were the first models of the philosophical and mystic style of poetry. But his poetry is impersonal. For this reason it is only in our days that full justice has been given to de Vigny.