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If we now endeavour to recal some traits of that mighty and melancholy genius, if we descend step by step through his works, it is not so much to perform the duty of critic, as to pay a last homage to him who was for so long a period the most brilliant expression of literary France; the last gentleman, perhaps—the greatest christian to a certainty.
Chateaubriand belongs to that family of colossal thinkers, before whom one pauses twice before one undertakes to go round them. Their collective works excite a respect which their character and the warm esteem that we have vowed to them would scarcely command. It is ever since the Consulate that the glory of the author of the Génie du Christianisme has endured ; and, in France, if the success of an hour is rarely right, the success of half a century is never wrong. He who has been the great man for fifty years, is sure of being so for ever.
What strikes us most in Chateaubriand's work is Chateaubriand. The history of a thought is sometimes as full of instruction as the thought itself. The author is the first of his books—or, at least, that which furnishes the key to all the others. Now tell us where is a finer history than that of this poet, of this soldier, of this traveller, of this minister, of this ambassador, of this peer of France. Not a shore but he has visited, not a glory but he has tasted, not a misery but he has suffered.
I am aware that in this history he will relate himself, that he has made of it a book, in which, with scaffold or flourish of trumpets at their head, the prodigious events wherein he was mixed up, will pass before us. I am aware that this book, profound as the Confessions, epic and forceful as a “ Bulletin of the Grand Army,” full of kindly feeling as the “Sentimental Journey," will tell all, and conceal nothing. But, frankly as Chateaubriand relates his own history, there is one thing from which he recoils, that is, self-praise. One cannot pass along the street and look at one's self from the window.
We disguise not from ourselves the temerity and the importance of the lines which we are about to offer. From the brilliant place which Chateaubriand occupies in the age, he would deserve perhaps that a more eminent pen
than ours should record his glory and his genius. We belong not to the generation which saw him live—we belong to that which saw him die—but we shall belong more especially to that which shall see him survive himself. Where then would be the harm of occasionally asking youth its opinion of the men and things of the time? It is worth while to consider what is thought of the present generation by those who are to form the future one.
One morning last July, two black vehicles mournfully reached the shore of Brittany. In one of them was the body of a great thinker. In the other were a clergyman, a testamentary executor, and François, the valet de chambre. In this manner, these two carriages arrived at a small town near Avranches. While they were standing in the road, waiting for horses, a lady of a certain age, holding a modest bouquet wrapped in paper, timidly approached. She laid her present on the seat within, saying, in a low voice, “ That is for M. de Chateaubriand; 'tis all I have been able to procure.”
We will do like the old lady. Here is our bouquet.
Chateaubriand entered life by the great door of the forests. A native of that gloomy Bretagne, which produces only human oaks or home-sick conscripts, he ever retained the two-fold character of force and melancholy. The fairies with golden harps, who keep watch beneath those antique canopies, dropped upon his cradle the sacred vervain, to bind upon his brow. He was brought up in a black castle, where he heard the singing of the sea—the sea, his first and his latest passion.
But his youth was sad as a poem of Ossian's. Fling not your children into woods. Nature, and nature alone, is a dangerous mistress, who will make savages of them unless she makes them poets ; monsters, unless she makes them
geniuses. It is better to be jostled at first by society than to get hurt by running against the trunks of trees. The evil which comes from man is more easily cured than that which proceeds from God.
Then, like Henry Heine's drummer Legrand, Chateaubriand had “tears which he could not shed.” In the Castle of Combourg, family endearments and the fire-side laugh were unknown: never did he feel two arms encircling his neck. His mother pushed him out to the church ; his father pushed him to nothing. Hesitating and forlorn, he contented himself with making bad verses, when, from the recesses of his youth, wild as that of Rousseau, arose that mysterious love, which at a later period produced us a master-piece of touching sorrow.
O yes ! it is in the first love of poets that we must seek the secret of their lives, Energy or weakness, their tenderness or their cruelty, their humiliation or their glory-only think that all this lurks in embryo in the heart of the first female that they meet with! It is Manon telling us of the extravagances and the silly tears of the Abbé Prevost; it is Pimpette, whose kisses drew bursts of laughter from Voltaire ; forsaken Frederica relating her story to Göthe's Faust; and the pale smile of Lucile Chateaubriand adding a page to Réné.
That history to which there is nothing similar, full of gloomy daring; that grand tragedy in five or six leaves, where drops of blood mingled no doubt with the ink wherewith they were written ; that little fatalist romance contains Chateaubriand quite entire. To others are left the love composed of smiles and adventures, the sonnet sighed forth at the feet of a woman with pearls at her wrist, in a perfumed boudoir. In Bretagne, on the margin of the sea, beneath trees uttering everlasting wailings, things follow a different course. Love, the vice (étau) of the heart, is composed of a more fatal
It is rarely that one is cured of it: Chateaubriand
Poor Breton gentleman, child of unpropitious solitudes, one day, in calling to mind thy desolate youth, thou wast destined to make this involuntary avowal : “We are persuaded that great writers have introduced their own history into their works. To paint the heart well, we must draw from our own, and attribute the picture to another, and the better part of genius is composed of recollections."
Her name was Lucile. . That name he never pronounced, he never wrote. She was a young girl, or rather the shadow of a young girl, scarcely gliding over the ground, and ready to dissolve into waving vapour, like those figures which painters vaguely show in the distance of enchanted forests. From I know not what motive explained by medical science, the undulations of her neck, long and flexible as that of a swan, were compressed by a steel necklace. This strange girl was consumed by a nervous sensibility, developed to excess, and to see her, frail, graceful, and pale, you would take her for one of those virgins born of a tear, who are to be met with in certain mystic poems. Both of them—the brother and the sisterfrequently walked out on the heath, nr, seated on the steps of the pond, suffered starry night to descend upon them, with its confused noises and its strong perfumes, which imperceptibly win the heart, and finally overwhelm it.
Why would he have put an end to his life? One day, having the gun upon his arm, he descended the steps of the castle more slowly than usual, and directed his course towards the woods. On reaching the end of the great avenue, he turned about to look over the trees at a turret, and disappeared.
So Réné, too, had meditated suicide but between the grave and him there arose a voice : Ungrateful creature, wouldst thou make away with thyself, and thy sister lives! Thou suspectest her heart. No explanation-no excuse-I know all. I have comprehended all, as if I had been with thee. Is it possible to deceive me—me who have witnessed the origin of thy first sentiments ! Behold thy unhappy disposition, thy disgusts, thy injustices! Promise, while I press thee to my heart, promise that it is the last time thou wilt give way to thy follies, swear never to make any attempt
upon thy life!
Chateaubriand kept the oath of Réné. Some hours afterwards, apparently calm, he returned to the Castle of Combourg. What had passed in his soul God alone knows. All strong-minded men reckon such a day at their entrance into life-a day on which they ask themselves if it is necessary to go any further, and if it would not be better to destroy thought than to suffer it to destroy them—whether an innocent death is not preferable to a guilty life, and which is the least distressing of the two—the young suicide of Chatterton, or the old suicide of Jean Jacques ? Those who get over this trial are the ambitious man and the Christian. On the point of drowning himself, the one gazed on the water with a smile, and turned back—this was Napoleon—the other averted his fowling-piece with a tear-that is Chateaubriand.
I have said that there was an intention of making him a priest. At the college to which he was sent with this view, a chamber was allotted to him with the bed of Parny, that little gentleman, whose Guerre des Dieux is to this day the delight of felons. In that chamber, and on that pillow, redolent of libertine rhymes, Chateaubriand strove in vain to become a priest. He could not find a frock to fit him. In spite of himself, he was obliged “to compress his life in order to bring it to the level of society ;” and as, at that time, it was absolutely necessary to be something till one could become somebody, he donned the first uniform that fell into his hands.
And much better do I like to see Chateaubriand enter the world with a sword than in a frock. Proceeding from a soldier and a gentleman, the religious restoration which he is destined to found some day, will be on that account the more important and the more solid. There is crusader's blood in his veins ; it is Tancred returning to plant the cross for the second time on the sepulchre of the Son of God.
Figure to yourself a tall young man, very slender, rather highshouldered, “as are all the great military races,” according to one of his expressions. His manner is uneasy, almost timid. He has an habitual stoop of the head, but it is a head chiselled with breadth like most Breton heads, thick hair, thick eyebrows, eye instinct with thought. If it is particularly by the fore