Chateaubriand's memoirs, I, 6

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Chapter 6
A note from Monsieur Pasquier – Dieppe – A change in my education – Spring in Brittany – AncientForest – Pelagian Fields – Moonset over the sea

Dieppe, September 1812.

On the 4th September 1812, I received a note from Monsieur Pasquier the Prefect of Police.

Office of the Prefect.

‘Monsieur the Prefect of Police requests Monsieur de Chateaubriand to have the courtesy to visit his office, either today at four in the afternoon, or tomorrow at nine in the morning.’

It was an order for me to leave Paris, that Monsieur the Prefect of Police wished to make known to me. I travelled here to Dieppe, which was first called Bertheville, and was later, now more than four hundred years ago, named Dieppe, from the English word deep (being a safe anchorage). In 1787 I was part of the garrison here with the second battalion of my regiment: to inhabit this town, with its houses of brick, and its shops selling ivory carvings, this town of straight well-lit streets, was to find refuge here along with my youth. When I went for a walk I came across the ruins of the chateau d’Arques, reduced to a host of fragments. One must not forget that Dieppe was Duquesne’s birthplace. When I stayed at home, I had the sea to look at; from the table where I sat, I contemplated that sea which had seen my birth, and that washes the shores of Great Britain where I suffered such a lengthy exile: my gaze passed over the waves that bore me to America, cast me ashore once more in Europe, and again carried me to the shores of Africa and Asia. Here’s to you, Oh Sea, my cradle and my image! I wish to tell you the rest of my story: if I tell a lie, your waves, mingled with my days, will testify to my deceit amongst those men who will live after me.

My mother had never ceased wishing that I be given a classical education. The sailor’s life for which I was destined ‘would not be to my taste’, she said; it seemed wise to her, at any event, to equip me for a different career. Her piety led her to hope that I would decide upon the Church. She therefore proposed to send me to a college where I could learn mathematics, drawing, fencing and English; she did not mention Greek and Latin, for fear of alarming my father; but she counted on them being taught to me, in secret at first, then openly when I had made progress in them. My father agreed to the proposition: it was agreed that I would enter the College of Dol. That town was preferred, because it lay on the route from Saint-Malo to Combourg.

During the intensely cold winter that preceded my scholastic internment, fire consumed the hotel where we were living: I was saved by my elder sister who carried me through the flames. Monsieur de Chateaubriand, having retired to his chateau, called his wife to his side: it was required to join him in the spring.

Spring, in Brittany, is milder than in the neighbourhood of Paris, and begins three weeks earlier. The five birds that herald it, the swallow, the oriole, the cuckoo, quail and nightingale, arrive with the breezes that gather in the bays of the Armorican peninsula. The earth is covered with oxeye daisies, pansies, daffodils, narcissi, hyacinths, buttercups, anemones, like the waste ground that surrounds San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, in Rome. The clearings sprinkle themselves with tall, elegant ferns; the stretches of gorse and broom glow with blossom that one takes for golden butterflies. The hedges, their length full of strawberry and raspberry runners, and violets, are decorated with hawthorn, honeysuckle, and brambles with curved brown strands that will bear flowers and magnificent fruit. Everywhere seethes with bees and birds; the swarms and the nests bring children to a halt at every step. In sheltered spots myrtle and oleander interlace over open ground, as in Greece; figs ripen as they do in Provence; and each apple tree, with its carmine flowers, resembles the large bouquet of some village sweetheart.

In the twelfth century, the cantons of Fougères, Rennes, Bécherel, Dinan, Saint-Malo and Dol, were part of the forest of Broceliande; it served as a field of battle for the Franks and the peoples of the Dommonée. Wace says that one could see wild men there, the fountain of Berenton and a gold basin. A historical document from the fifteenth century, les Usements et coutumes de la fôret de Brécilien, confirms the roman de Rou: it is, the Usements declares, of vast and spacious extent; ‘there are four castles, a very large number of beautiful pools, fine hunting grounds where only beasts of the chase live, never a blow-fly, two hundred plantations of tall trees, and as many fountains including the fountain of Belenton, near to which the Knight Pontus fought.’

Today the countryside retains traces of its origins: interspersed with wooded gullies, from a distance it has the look of a forest and recalls England: it was the haunt of fairies, and you will see that I indeed encountered my sylph there. Narrow valleys are watered by little un-navigable rivers. These vales are separated by moors, and by clumps of tall docked holly trees. On their slopes lie a succession of beacons; lookouts; dolmens; Roman remains; ruins of medieval castles; Renaissance steeples: the sea borders all. Pliny said of Brittany: ‘A Peninsula, gazing at the Ocean.’

Between the sea and the land pelagian fields extend, imprecise boundaries of the two elements: skylarks from the heath fly there with skylarks from the dunes; the plough and the sailing boat are a stone’s throw apart, as they furrow the earth and the water. The seafarer and the shepherd borrow each other’s terms: the sailor says that the waves flock together, the shepherd speaks of squadrons of sheep. The many-coloured sands, the varied heaps of shells, the kelp, the ribbons of silver foam, outline the edges of the gold or green wheat fields. I no longer remember in what Mediterranean island I saw a bas relief depicting the Nereids attaching fringes to the hem of Ceres’ robe.

But what ought to be admired in Brittany is the moon rising over the land and setting over the sea.

Established by God as the controller of the deep, the moon has her clouds, her mists, her rays, her accompanying shadows, like the sun: but like him she does not depart alone; a procession of stars follows her. As she descends from the sky above my native shore she increases its silence which she communicates to the sea; soon she sinks towards the horizon, the intersection, shows no more than half of her waning face, yields, and vanishes in the soft intumescence of the waves. The stars about their queen, before following in her wake, seem to halt, suspended on the crest of the swell. The moon is no sooner at rest, than a rising breath from afar shatters the images of the constellations, as one extinguishes the torches after a solemn ceremony.