Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Lamartine Sur Le Lac: The Intoxification Of Skating

Engraving from the series Le Supreme Bon Ton, No. 9, Martinet, Paris, circa 1810-1815


Time and time again throughout history, the lines between literature and skating have blurred. Skaters like Toller Cranston have written brilliant poetry; poets like William Wordsworth have taken to the ice to carve their initials on frozen lakes. From Addison and Thomson to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and countless others, writers have invariably tried to capture the elusive magic of skating's essence in words for centuries.

In his 1959 book "Ice-Skating: A History", Nigel Brown expounded upon what inspired such an unusually high number of poets to write about the joys of skating: "Sliding swiftly over a frozen surface gave excitement. Man, with the minimum of effort, could attain the speed of a galloping horse; this was both a thrill, and a feat that gripped the imagination in a period before speed became a part of everyday life. Velocity in itself fascinated in particular the masses who limited their skating to careening over the ice in record time. But the charm of skating was in its poetic appeal, for it possessed something of the unreal in its motion. It opened up a field of delightful sensation, heretofore unobtainable. Skating gave a feeling of flying through space, like a bird resting on the wing before the wind. Gliding swiftly over the frozen surface and turning effortlessly here and there produced a sensuous feeling of abandon that seemed to have no object, no finality, yet was real, and as such attracted the poets."

One such writer who was cuckoo for counters was famous French politician and romantic poet Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine. Although most revered for his autobiographical poem "Le Lac" and romantic poem "Héloïse et Abélard", the poet struggled financially later in his life and consequently, if he wrote something - anything - it got published and sold to presumably keep him in berets and baguettes. The 1849 book "Les confidences par A. De Lamartine", edited by Perrotin of Paris, was one such 'fundraising' effort. It included correspondence and memoirs of the French poet. 

In one letter, Lamartine raved about his passion for skating: "Between Bussières and Milly, there is a fast hill whose slope, rolled by a stone path, rushes over the valley of the presbytery. This trail in winter was a thick bed of snow or ice glaze on which we allow ourselves to roll or slide [like] the shepherds of the Alps... Meadows or streams were often overwhelmed ice lakes interrupted only by the black trunks of the willows. We found a way to have skates and [for them] to serve us. This is where I took a real passion for this exercise of the north. I became an expert later." Shaking my head at Google Translate and realizing my high school French is rustier than I thought, I turned to a better translation of the latter part of this letter from "L'art du patinage", George E. Vail's 1886 Parisian book: "To be carried with the speed of the arrow, and with the gracious swoops of the bird in the air, on a surface that is smooth, brilliant, resonant and treacherous; to print with a simple curve of the body, and, in this manner to describe, guided only by the rudder of the will, all the curves, all the inflections of the boat of the sea, or of the eagle hovering in the blue sky, it was for me, such an intoxication of the senses, and a voluptuous exhilaration of the mind that I can no longer reflect on it without emotion. Even horses, which I love very much, do not give the rider the delirious melancholy that the great frozen lakes give to skaters."

In her must read book "Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity and the Limits of Sport", Mary Louise Adams reflects upon this same passage and makes an excellent point comparing the artistic skating style of the French of the time (which developed from Jean Garcin's "Le Vrai Patineur") and the stiff English Style, both of which we've explored before in past blogs. Adams notes that "Lamartine's rapturous prose captures the physical and expressive possibilities the French found in skating. English textbook writers would have found it somewhat distasteful. While English writers also mentioned the physical pleasures of skating, they certainly did not dwell on them, and they never talked explicitly about skating as a means of expressing ideas or notions." 

Ironically, the same impassioned, artistic regard that Lamartine showed toward skating back in the nineteenth century is one that has remained central in French skating to this day. As we all know, 'patinage artistique' translates to 'artistic' skating, not figure skating. If you take the work of such visionary French skaters as Jacqueline du Bief, Sandra Garde and The Duchesnay's as examples, it is obvious that Lamartine's impressions of the art have remained alive, well and vibrant long since he passed on in February of 1869.

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