Edmond Rostand (1868-1918)
Edmond Rostand (1868-1918)
Known both for his memorable dramatic works and for patriotic war poems, Edmond Rostand is one of France's great literary figures. His plays include "La Princesse lointaine" ("The Princess Far Away"), "La Samaritaine" ("The Woman of Samaria"), "Les Romanesques" ("Romantics"), "Chantecler" ("Chanticleer"), "L'aignon" ("The Eaglet"), an immediate success, and the posthumous "La Dernière Nuit de Don Juan" ("The Last Night of Don Juan"). His best known and most appreciated play is "Cyrano de Bergerac", published in 1897, which has been translated into practically every language.
He was born on April 1, 1868 and spent his early childhood at the Thedenat School in Marseilles, an industrial city with colorful crowds, ports, and ships, which easily aroused his imagination. He was an avid reader, and he worshipped Walter Scott and Napoleon. His main diversion was a puppet theater he built at home, for which he built stage props and costumes. He attended the Marseilles Lycée from 1878 to 1884, during which time the Third Republic of France was establishing itself under the Constitution ratified in 1875. He was an outstanding student and showed a deep sensitivity for literary studies. The most memorable event of his lycée years was his consecration as "school poet," thanks to a translation into French verse of Catullus' poem to Lesbia's sparrow. He began publishing his first poems in 1994 in a small Marseilles magazine called Mireille. He spent the next two years at the Collège Stanislas in Paris. He was a great student there and was largely influenced by his professors, especially René Doumic and Boris de Tamenberg, who introduced him to Shakespeare and Musset.
In addition to his professors, Rostand's family influenced him profoundly. Eugène, his father, an eminent economist and member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of Marseilles and of the Institut de France, was also a poet and translator of Catullus. His uncle, Alexis, was well known in the music world for his piano compositions, oratorios, and opera. A taste for music and for rhythmic emotion and color is evident in Rostand's work. The family member who lent the most to Rostand's warm temperament was his paternal grandmother, a beautiful and highly sensitive Spanish woman of Andalusian origin. Rostand inherited his vivacity and his love for le panache from her. From her, Rostand sought, in his own words, "the smile by which one excuses oneself for being sublime."
After his secondary studies, Edmond moved to Paris on the Rue de Bourgogne and began his law studies in order to satisfy his father and professors. After fulfilling his duties, Edmond made attempts at writing drama. The result was an unfinished tragedy in verse, "Yorick", as well as two acts in prose, "Les Petites Manies". Rostand's name became known to the general public, however, only in 1890, with the publication of his collection of poetry, "Les Musardises", which he had begun in 1888. Despite a certain fascination with the daydreams and delightful meanderings of imagination, the critics gave Rostand no encouragement. "Les Musardises" was not successful. He married Rosemonde Gérard the same year of "Les Musardises'" publication, and the work is dedicated to her. She was the daughter of one of Napoleon's marshals. An orphan, she was raised in a convent. She loved literature and composed poetry. She was the ideal companion for a poet, and a constant source of encouragement for him in the face of many failures. Their first child, Maurice, was born in 1891. That same year, Rostand retired to Cambo, in the Pyrenees, after being the recipient of the Legion of Honor. But it was Cyrano de Bergerac, written from April 1896 to January 1897, that marked Rostand's crowning glory. In 1901, he was elected to the French Academy. He was timid in society and a feeling of exile persisted in him. He had also become ill with pulmonary congestion. He felt that what he was experiencing, namely success and triumph, was the cruelest form of human anguish. In the midst of this anguish came such works as "Chanticleer" and the cold tragedy, "The Last Night of Don Juan". His isolation in Cambo inspired him to add a new concept to his poems: nature. In nature he discovered a new world and a symbolic life.
When France entered the first World War in 1914, Rostand, certainly unable to fight, began writing vibrant, patriotic poems, even visiting the trenches in order to see first hand the destruction, blood, and suffering. The horrors of war had a profound impact on his physical and mental health. On December 22, 1918, six weeks after the armistice ending the war, Rostand died.
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