Frederic Mistral: Champion of Provence

The City of Arles in France is sometimes call the City of Van Gogh, but it is not the Dutch artist whose statue stands in the city square: it is the Provençal poet and patriot, Frédéric Mistral. Vincent Van Gogh did paint some magnificent works in Arles, but a look at the life of Provençal poet, Frédéric Mistral reveals so much more of the culture and history of the region. The poet’s autobiography superbly captures the spirit of Provence. Within its pages, you will find Roland and the Saracens, the legendary dragon, Tarasque and much more. Mistral dedicated his life to the preservation of a rich history, customs and language, with the loving detail of a true son of Provence. He revived in his countrymen a pride that was being trampled on in other regions of France and that is why he is still revered in his homeland until this day.

Frederic Mistral statue in Arles, France

During his stay in Arles, Van Gogh mentions Mistral in two letters to his brother, Théo. In one Van Gogh says if Mistral (and his Félibrige society) would stop ignoring him, he would like them to come by to see him. In another, he mentions Mistral’s poem, Mirèio, being set to music by composer, Charles-François Gounod. Mistral, for his part, never mentions Van Gogh in his autobiography. While that may sound like a snub at first blush, Frédéric Mistral had 20+ years on Van Gogh, and he was always immersed in his own all-consuming passion.

Mistral was born in 1830 in the village of Millaine near Arles. Legend has it that as a young man Mistral wrote his first poems in French and showed them to his mother, who only knew Provençal. When she could not read them, she burst into tears and her son thereafter wrote his poetry only in his mother tongue. Although he studied the law in Aix-en-Provence, Frédéric was a creative poet at heart. One of his teachers, Joseph Roumanille, spotted his genius and became at first his mentor, and later his collaborator in founding the literary and cultural society called the Félibrige. The society was dedicated to defending and promoting Provençal. Mistral was the champion of what he called the “first literary language of civilized Europe” and the language of the troubadours.

Frédéric Mistral begins recounting his life with the meeting of his parents, who met in a field when his mother came to glean wheat, reminiscent of the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz. Mistral’s vivid descriptions of his youth are written with infectious joy and a deep affection for his home and parents. He relates how his mother nourished his mind and soul with the fables of his homeland. Mistral’s zest for life follows him into adulthood and never wanes. In just about everything written about the man, anyone who ever met him was struck by his good looks, high spirits and they always mention his sincerity and true humility.

Mistral’s reputation as a poet was cemented when in 1859, he published his epic poem Mirèio (Mireille in French), a tale of thwarted love. When Gounod based his 1864 opera, Mireille, on the poem, he actually went to visit the poet at his home. Mistral later set out on a major endeavor to clean up and establish rules for the langue d’oc in order to aid in its preservation. The langue d’oc, or Occitan, is a larger group of languages which includes Provençal. Mistral wrote Lou Tresor dóu Félibrige (1878-1886), a comprehensive bilingual dictionary from Occitan to French, in 2 volumes. In 1900, when Mistral was 70 years old, there were as many as ten millions speakers of Provençal . Mistral passed away in 1914. By 1920, the number had dwindled quite a bit due to a law making French mandatory in schools, but the opera, Mireille, has been performed as recently as September 2009 in Paris with Albanian soprano, Inva Mula singing the title role.

In recognition of his poetry and “significant work as a Provençal philologist”, Mistral was one of the winners of the 1904 Nobel Prize for Literature. He used his prize money for further improvement to Museon Arlaten, the museum he established in 1899. It contains an impressive collection of Provençal folk art, furniture, costumes, ceramics, tools and farming implements. The statue of Mistral that stands in the Place du Forum in Arles is not the original by Toulouse sculptor, Theodore Rivière, that was unveiled in a week-end long celebration honoring Mistral in May of 1909. Amid strong protest during World War II, the Vichy Government dismantled the original statue (and many other public statuary) in 1942 because of a severe shortage of metals. The present statue dates from 1948, when it was recast in bronze by the Fonderies Meriodonales in Marseilles from the cast preserved in the Musée d’Arles.

French short-story writer and novelist, Alphonse Daudet was a lifelong friend of Mistral. Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral (née Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga) took the last part of her pen name to honor the Provençal poet. A friend advised her not to follow in Frédéric Mistral’s footsteps by writing in “rural dialect.” It was felt that Mistral was relegated to a lesser place in literary history than he might have occupied had he written in French. Yet when you read Frédéric Mistral’s autobiography, you just know that Mistral lost not a minute’s sleep worrying about his fame or lack of it. The love and honor he received from his fellow countrymen was reward enough for him. A true poet of the soil, he spent every moment of a long, fulfilling and happy life exactly as he wanted to and that is what success is really all about.

Memoirs of Mistral, Eng. trans. by Constance Elizabeth Maud, Alma Strettell (1907)
Mes origines: mémoires et récits, Fr. trans. from Provençal by Frédéric Mistral (1906)

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