The Poet in the Literary Marketplace

Geraldine Vogel
Department of French, Spanish, and Italian
University of Manitoba
Box 36
La Broquerie, Manitoba R0A 0W0

The ARTFL database provides material for studying the literary fortunes of the image of the poet in 19th century French literature. The patterns in distributions of allusions to poets and poetry are compared to those of sales of books of poems to gauge the importance of literary allusions to poetry as a reflection of societal trends.


The ARTFL database for the period 1789-1914 is examined, since the French Revolution and the outbreak of World War I are useful boundaries to the historical period which can be called the 19th century for sake of simplicity. Three search strings, poEme.*, poEsie.*, and poEt.* retrieve all forms of the words "poème" (poem), "poésie" (poetry), "poète" (poet), and "poétique" (poetic). Other words like "vers" (line of poetry, but also worm, and towards) are not retrieved because of the problem of polysemy. This approach can be justified in terms of the theory of semantic categories developed by Lakoff (1987) and is similar to the one used by Olsen (1991) to examine gender representation in French literature.

Results produced by the ARTFL search engine are divided into chronological periods using the break-down suggested by Imbs (1971), and are further divided into the following genres on the basis of what is provided by the ARTFL search engine: Novel, Theater, Poetry, Non-Literary Prose. In all cases of period and genre identification, decisions embodied in the structure of the ARTFL database are respected. The raw numbers provided by ARTFL have been divided by the number of words in all the texts in a given period and genre, then multiplied by 10,000 so that relative frequencies can be compared.


Table 1 contains the relative frequencies of the words most likely to evoke poetry in the periods and genres explained above.

PeriodNovelTheaterPoetryNon-Fiction Prose
Table 1: Relative Frequency of Evocations of Poetry in 19th Century French Literature

The high number of allusions to poetry in the theater of the period 1833-41, in poetic texts for the period 1833-1849, and in the novel of 1842-49 corresponds to the Romantic period in France. Indeed, Lamartine, a leading Romantic poet was named provisional President of the Republic in 1848. The decline in the allusions to poets and poetry seems to correspond with the rise of realism in literature, and with the collapse of Romantic ideals of political power after the coup d'état engineered by Napoleon III in 1851.

A second period of increased importance of poetry begins in 1880-92 in the novel and continues to 1914, with similar but less systematic increases in the theater and in poetry itself. This has led certain historians of literature, like Echelard (1994), and Lagarde and Michard (1969) to talk about an increase of prestige and influence of poets and poetry in the final years of the 19th century.


The ARTFL search engine provides a list in descending order of frequency of the texts which produced the allusions to a given term. What is particularly noticeable in these data is the familiarity of the names of the authors of the early 19th century who frequently alluded to poetry: Balzac, Chateaubriand, Hugo, Musset, Vigny. The late 19th century authors who contribute to the second, and smaller, rise in allusions to poetry are much closer in time, but less familiar, even to a specialist in French literature: Bloy, France, Gobineau, Huysmans, Péladan, Rolland. Poetry as a cultural phenomenon seems to have been progressively marginalised from the mid to the late 19th century.

Table 2 shows the number of literary texts published per annum during a part of the period under consideration (Charle 1985).

1840-75 (estimates)24622078544
Table 2: Annual Production of Literary Texts: 1830-1905.

Not only did the late 19th century production of books of poetry never come close to equaling the numbers achieved in the high Romantic period (1830-40), but the proportion of volumes of literary texts devoted to poetry is considerably smaller at the end of the 19th century than at the beginning. This empirical information can be combined with the impression that less important literary personalities stressed the importance of poetry at the end of the period than at the beginning, to produce a general interpretation. It would seem, then, that while poetic vision was an important social force during the Romantic period, those who knew what the society valued, because they produced books for the market, did not consider it important in the years immediately preceding the First World War, in spite of what certain critics were to suggest at a later date.


The ARTFL database provides information which allows one to evaluate the importance of the theme of the poet in French literature. The society in general, not just those who write for publication, is then, as now, the final arbiter of what is important and what is not in a given culture at a particular time. The information provided by the ARTFL search engine about the names of those writers who stressed the importance of poetry can be related to general knowledge to suggest that the late 19th century renaissance of interest in poetry was not an important social force, when compared to the Romantic period. Independent information, in the form of publication data, confirms this judgment.


Charle, Christophe. 1985. "Le Champ de production littéraire" Histoire de l'édition Française. Paris: Promodis. III, pp. 119-35.

Echelard, Michel. 1994. Histoire de la littérature en France au XIXe siècle. Paris: Hatier.

Imbs, Paul. 1971. Dictionnaire des Fréquences. 4 vols. Nancy: C.N.R.S.-T.L.F.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lagarde, André and Laurent Michard. 1969. XXe siècle. Paris: Bordas.

Olsen, Mark. 1991. "Gender Representation and Histoire des Mentalités: Language and Power in the Trésor de la langue française", Histoire et Mesure 6:349-73.