“Ah! Mistral,” he cried, with Gallic enthusiasm, using the words I have borrowed from his lips, “Mistral is the King of Provence!”
Marseilles had not always been so enthusiastic over Mistral and his fellows. And Mistral, in his memoirs, gives an amusing account of a philological battle fought over the letter “s” in a room behind one of the Marseilles bookshops between “the amateurs of trivialities, the rhymers of the white beard, the jealous, the grumblers,” and the young innovators of the “felibrige.”
But that was over fifty years ago, and the battle of those young enthusiasts has long since been won. What that battle was and what an extraordinary victory came of it must needs be told for the significance of Mistral in Provence to be properly understood.
The story is one of the most romantic in the history of literature. Briefly, it is this:
The Provencal language, the “langue d’oc,” was, of course, once the courtly and lettered language of Europe, the language of the great troubadours, and through them the vehicle of the culture and refinement of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. From it may be said to have sprung the beginnings of Italian literature.
But, owing to various historical vicissitudes, the language of Northern France, the “langue d’oil,” gradually took its place, and when Mistral was born, in 1830, Provencal had long been regarded as little more than a patois.
Now it was the young Mistral’s dream, as a school-boy in the old convent school of Saint Michael de Frigolet, at Avignon, to restore his native tongue to its former high estate, to make it once more a literary language, and it chanced that one of his masters, Joseph Roumanille, was secretly cherishing the same dream.
The master, looking over his pupil’s shoulder one day, found that, instead of working at his prescribed task, he was busily engaged in translating the Penitential Psalms into Provencal. Instead of punishing him, the master gratefully hailed a kindred spirit, and presently confided Provencal verses of his own making. From that moment, though there was a dozen years’ difference between their ages, Mistral and Roumanille began a friendship which was to last till Roumanille’s death, a friendship of half a century.
Soon their dream attracted other recruits, and presently seven friends, whose names are all famous now, and most of whom have statues in Arles or in Avignon—Roumanille, Mistral, Aubanel, Mathieu, Giera, Brunet, and Tavan—after the manner of Ronsard’s “Pleiade,” and Rossetti’s “P.R.B.”—formed themselves into a brotherhood to carry on the great work of regeneration.