Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Therese of Lisieux and Alphonse De Lamartine: The Spiritual Transformation of Romanticism

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Therese of Lisieux and Alphonse De Lamartine: The Spiritual Transformation of Romanticism

Article excerpt

There has been some controversy since the death of Therese of Lisieux (Therese Martin) regarding the value of her poetry. Some critics have considered it to be somewhat charming but full of the pious sentimental images typical of her day. Sackville-West, for example, declares that "It cannot be claimed for Therese's poems that they have much merit beyond their obvious sincerity ... "(138). Kathryn Harrison, in a more recent study of Therese, is somewhat less critical. She claims that most of the saint's poems are "unremarkable as art, but useful for what insight they provide into her spiritual development" (116). Her thoughts resemble Therese's own judgment of her poetry. In a letter written in February 1897 to Maurice Belliere, Therese states: "Ces pauvres poesies vous reveleront non pasce que je suis, mais ce que je voudrais et devrais etre ... En les composant j'ai regarde plus au fond qu'a la forme ... mon but etait de traduire mes sentiments ..." (Une course de geant: Lettres 390-91; "These poor poems will reveal to you not what I am but what I would like and should be ... When composing them, I have looked more at the substance than at the form ... my purpose was to translate my sentiments ..." [General Correspondence 1059]). And so, how are we to judge Therese's poetical works? Are they as tasteless in content and style as some critics would have us believe or is there more to them?

It would seem that only those able to unlock the spiritual depths hidden in the language and images of Romanticism still evident in late nineteenth-century French literature can uncover the true value of Therese's poetry. Guy Gaucher remarks that if we disregard her poetry we run the risk of missing some hidden spiritual treasures (141). James Wiseman considers her poems "a privileged resource for our understanding of Theresian spirituality" (540), while Hans Urs von Balthasar unhesitatingly states that her images "render her the equal of the two great reformers of Carmel in poetic power" (113).

Though people from every continent and walk of life have discovered the spiritual richness of Histoire d'une ame / Story of a Soul, the autobiography of this young Carmelite cloistered nun who died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of twenty-four, few may be aware that Therese also wrote eight plays and at least sixty-two poems. Those who have ventured to read the critical edition of her poetry might even have found it surprising to learn that five of her poems reflect the tone and style of the early nineteenth-century French romantic poet, Alphonse de Lamartine. (1) How is it possible that the first and perhaps the greatest French romantic poet had an influence on the poetry of an unknown young woman whom Pope Pius X called "the greatest saint of modern times"? (2) Given her sheltered upbringing how would Therese have had access to Lamartine's writings? And, finally, how does Therese adopt in her poems traditional elements of the romantic poetry of her day?

Therese was born in Alencon in 1873 and died in Lisieux in 1897. Belonging to the bourgeoisie, Therese's family was financially comfortable and supported the monarchy and the Catholic Church. With four older sisters and no living brothers, Therese was the family pet. Her childhood was a happy one until the age of four when her mother died. From an outgoing, happy child Therese became extremely sensitive, relaxing only in the surroundings of her extended family. Her parents were devout Catholics who in their youth had given serious consideration to the monastic life. Her spiritual development was strongly influenced by the solid faith and piety of her father and her older sisters who served as mothers for her. Until the age of eight, Therese was home schooled by two of her older sisters who had studied with the Visitandines. She then spent the next five years as a day-boarder at the Benedictine abbey in Lisieux where, according to the standards of the times, she had an excellent education for the Benedictines "were women of cultivated minds" (Keyes 64). …

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