Sully Prudhomme, the French essayist and poet in 1901, had the honour of winning the first Nobel Prize for Literature.
Born René François Armand Prudhomme on the 16th March 1839 in Paris, little is recorded about his upbringing but it is known that he was originally studying engineering but he changed streams and studied philosophy instead. When he later took an interest in the Parnassus school of poetry, it was his intention to write in a scientific way to reflect modern times.
Prudhomme’s studies at Lycée Bonaparte had been interrupted by an eye problem but this did not stop him from taking up employment in the industrial Le Creusot region. A spell in a steel foundry was then followed by another change of direction, this time choosing to study law in the office of a notary. He really wanted to write though, and he had been encouraged by the reaction to his poetry by members of a society and he, thus, set out to make his way in literature.
Reportedly his most famous poem –
appeared in his first work of poetry published in 1865. When war broke out in the late 19th century, Prudhomme wrote about the conflict in
Unfortunately his involvement in the war saw his health damaged permanently.
Although he stuck to the principles of the Parnassus school of poetry, much of his work demonstrated a sometimes sentimental, and certainly personal, style with a heavy leaning towards his interests in philosophy and all things scientific. He translated the ancient Roman text of Lucretius who, in the first century, had written The Nature of Things.
Prudhomme tried to instil his philosophical ideas into two works of poetry called Le Bonheur and La Justice but critics have suggested that he fell some way short on both the quality of the poetry and their philosophical merits. Perhaps recognising his shortcomings, he turned to essay writing and produced a number on both philosophy and aesthetics. Important amongst these were
He also contributed a piece on free will, which was published in 1906.
Here is an example of his poetry. Translated into English it is a short but wistful piece about the fleeting pleasures that are all too brief. It is called In This World:
His literary efforts won him a number of awards. Prominent amongst them was the first Nobel Prize for Literature which came with the following words. It was given
In 1881 he was elected to the Académie française and he received another distinction in 1895: Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
He suffered with ill health for over half his life and he ended up living at Châtenay-Malabry as a recluse. He suffered a number of paralysis attacks although he endeavoured to carry on writing. Death, when it came, was sudden.
Sully Prudhomme died on the 6th September 1907, aged 68.