Théodore Faullain De Banville (1823-1891), French poet and miscellaneous writer, was born at Moulins in the Bourbonnais, on the 14th of March 1823. He was the son of a captain in the French navy. His boyhood, by his own account, was cheerlessly passed at a lycée in Paris; he was not harshly treated, but took no part in the amusements of his companions. On leaving school with but slender means of support, he devoted himself to letters, and in 1842 published his first volume of verse (Les Cariatides), which was followed by Les Stalactites in 1846. The poems encountered some adverse criticism, but secured for their author the approbation and friendship of Alfred de Vigny and Jules Janin. Henceforward Banville's life was steadily devoted to literary production and criticism. He printed other volumes of verse, among which the Odes funambulesques (Alençon, 1857) received unstinted praise from Victor Hugo, to whom they were dedicated. Later, several of his comedies in verse were produced at the Théâtre Français and on other stages; and from 1853 onwards a stream of prose flowed from his industrious pen, including studies of Parisian manners, sketches of well-known persons (Camées parisiennes, etc.), and a series of tales (Contes bourgeois, Contes héroïques, etc.), most of which were republished in his collected works (1875-1878). He also wrote freely for reviews, and acted as dramatic critic for more than one newspaper.
Throughout a life spent mainly in Paris, Banville's genial character and cultivated mind won him the friendship of the chief men of letters of his time. He was also intimate with Frédérick-Lemaître and other famous actors. In 1858 he was decorated with the legion of honour, and was promoted to be an officer of the order in 1886. He died in Paris on the 15th of March 1891, having just completed his sixty-eighth year. Banville's claim to remembrance rests mainly on his poetry. His plays are written with distinction and refinement, but are deficient in dramatic power; his stories, though marked by fertility of invention, are as a rule conventional and unreal. Most of his prose, indeed, in substance if not in manner, is that of a journalist. His lyrics, however, rank high. A careful and loving student of the finest models, he did even more than his greater and somewhat older comrades, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset and Théophile Gautier, to free French poetry from the fetters of metre and mannerism in which it had limped from the days of Malherbe. In the Odes funambulesques and elsewhere he revived with perfect grace and understanding the rondeau and the villanelle, and like Victor Hugo in Les Orientales, wrote pantoums (pantuns) after the Malay fashion.
He published in 1872 a Petit traité de versification française in exposition of his metrical methods. He was a master of delicate satire, and used with much effect the difficult humour of sheer bathos, happily adapted by him from some of the early folk-songs. He has somewhat rashly been compared to Heine, whom he profoundly admired; but if he lacked the supreme touch of genius, he remains a delightful writer, who exercised a wise and sound influence upon the art of his generation.
Among his other works may be mentioned the poems, Idylles prussiennes (1871), and Trente-six ballades joyeuses (1875); the prose tales, Les Saltimbanques (1853); Esquisses parisiennes (1859) and Contes féeriques; and the plays, Le Feuilleton d'Aristophane (1852), Gringoire (1866), and Deidamia (1876).
See also J. Lemaître, Les Contemporains (first series, 1885); Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du lundi, vol. xiv.; Maurice Spronck, Les Artistes littéraires (1889).