Stances et poèmes, 1865
Les Épreuves, 1866
Croquis italiens, 1866-1868
Les Solitudes, 1869
Impressions de la guerre, 1870
La France, 1870
Les Destins, 1872
La Révolte des fleurs, 1874
Les Vaines Tendresses, 1875
La Justice, 1878
Le Bonheur, 1888
Les Épaves, 1908
Préface à la Traduction du Premier Chant de Lucrèce, 1869
Discours de réception à l’Académie Française, 1882
L’Expression dans les beaux-arts, 1883
Réflexions sur l’art des vers, 1892
Sur l’origine de la vie terrestre, 1893
Que sais-je? Examen de conscience, 1895
Testament poétique, 1897
L’Histoire et l’état social, 1899
Le Problème des causes finales, 1899
Le Crédit de la science, 1902
Sur les liens nationaux et internationaux, 1904
La Vraie Religion selon Pascal, 1905
Psychologie du libre arbitre, 1907
Le Lien social, 1909
Fragments inédits: Notes pour servir à une physiologie de l’adultère, 1910
Lettres à une amie, 1911
Journal intime, 1922
Lucrèce: De la nature des choses, 1869 (of Lucretius’s poem De rerum natura)
Œuvres de Sully Prudhomme, 1908 (7 volumes)
René-François-Armand Prudhomme, later known as Sully Prudhomme (sewl-lee prew-dawm), was born in Paris in 1839, the son of a shopkeeper. When he was two, his father died, and thereafter he lived with his mother and an older sister in Paris and in Châtenay, a village south of Paris. In childhood he acquired the nickname “Sully,” which would become his pseudonym.
Although Châtenay was noted as a center of intellectual activity, in his youth Sully Prudhomme was more interested in mathematics than in literature. However, his hopes for an engineering career were blasted when he developed an eye disease. After clerking briefly in a foundry, in 1860 he went to Paris to study law and began working in a solicitor’s office. Meanwhile, encouraged by friends who were writers, he tried his hand at poetry. In 1863, his poem “L’Art” appeared in La Revue Nationale et Étrangère. By that time, Prudhomme confided in his journal, he wanted only to be a poet. When a bequest made him financially independent, he abandoned the law to devote his full time to writing. In 1865, one of his friends financed the publication of Stances et poèmes, his first collection. Another took the volume to Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, France’s most influential literary critic, whose favorable review established the young poet’s reputation.
Among Sully Prudhomme’s friends in Paris was Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle, the leader of a group of poets who called themselves the “Parnassians,” after Mount Parnassus in Greece, supposedly the home of the Muses. The Parnassians sought to replace Romanticism with poetry marked by classical formality and decorum.
Sully Prudhomme’s lyrics reflected how much this aesthetic theory appealed to him. However, his intellectual interests also included philosophy, metaphysics, science, and technology. At the time he was producing some of his finest lyrics, he also published a metrical translation of De rerum natura (c. 60
The melancholy tone of Sully Prudhomme’s early poetry reflects both his disappointment when the woman he loved married another man and a shattering loss of religious faith. In 1870, three of his closest relatives died in a single month. His army service in the Franco-Prussian War left him in fragile health. Moreover, like most of his generation, he felt deeply his country’s defeat and subsequent humiliation. After 1875, he turned from lyrical to philosophical poetry, then finally to prose.
During his later years, Sully Prudhomme won many honors, including election to the French Academy and appointment as a grand officer of the Legion of Honor. In 1901, he was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Literature. He spent his last fifteen years at his villa in Châtenay. Though he had long been troubled by insomnia, paralysis, and periods of anguish, his life ended peacefully. He died in his garden, his sister beside him, on September 7, 1907.
Though the long, didactic epics that he considered his most significant works were much admired when they were first published, it was his exquisitely crafted lyrics that most impressed the Nobel Prize Committee. Undoubtedly his scientific interests were a factor in his selection. Sadly, one hundred years later, Sully Prudhomme’s works were out of print and his name largely forgotten. The man who was once considered one of the most important writers of his time was now considered merely a minor poet in a movement of slight significance.