Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IX - Chapter 2
Paris – Old and new knowledge – Abbé Barthélemy – Saint-Ange – The Theatre

London, April to September 1822.

I was married at the end of March 1792, and on the 20th April, the Legislative Assembly declared war on Francis II of Germany, who had just succeeded his father Leopold; on the 10th of the same month, Benedict Labre had been beatified in Rome: there you have two worlds. The war precipitated the exit of the remaining nobility from France. On the one hand, persecution intensified; on the other, no Royalist was allowed to remain at home without being thought a coward: it was time for me to head for the camp I had come so far to seek. My uncle Bedée and his family embarked for Jersey, and I left for Paris with my wife and my sisters, Lucile and Julie.

We had taken an apartment, in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, in the cul-de-sac Férou, at the Petit Hôtel de Villette. I hastened to seek out my former friends. I visited again the men of letters whom I had known. Amongst the new faces, I found those of the wise Abbé Barthélemy and the poet Saint-Ange. The Abbé has fashioned his gynaeceums in Athens too much in the style of the salons of Chanteloup. The translator of Ovid was a man not lacking in talent; talent is a gift, a specific capability; it may be combined with the other mental faculties, or it may be separate. Saint-Ange provides the proof; he makes great efforts not to be foolish, but can’t prevent himself. A man whose pen I admired and continue to admire, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, lacks spirit, and unfortunately his character was on a level with his spirit. How many descriptions are ruined in the Etudes de la nature through limited intelligence, and the lack of elevation of the writer’s soul!

Rulhière had died suddenly in 1791, before my departure for America. I have since seen his little house at Saint-Denis, with its fountain and pretty statue of Love, at the foot of which one reads these lines:

D’Egmont and Love visited this shore:
An image of her beauty,
Combing its hair, in the swift wave, I saw:
D’Egmont is gone; here remains Love only.’

When I left France, the Paris theatres were still echoing to Le Réveil d’Épiménide and to these couplets:

‘I love the warlike virtue
Of our brave defenders,
Yet I hate the fury, too,
Of bloodthirsty soldiers.
In Europe, let us be free
Formidable, as ever,
Yet, with generosity,
Defending France forever.’

On my return, there was no longer any question of Le Réveil d’Épiménide; and if the couplets had been sung it would have done the author a bad turn. Charles X had prevailed. The vogue the piece enjoyed was principally due to circumstance; the alarm bell, a people armed with knives, the hatred displayed for king and priests, offered a repetition in camera of the tragedy which was being played out in public. Talma, on his debut, continued his success.

While tragedy reddened the streets, pastoral flourished in the theatre; it was not only a matter of innocent shepherds and virginal shepherdesses: fields, streams, meadows, sheep, doves, an age of gold under thatch, were revived to the plaints of the reed-pipe before cooing Tircis, and the simple tricoteuse, arrived, with her knitting, from the spectacle of the guillotine. If Sanson had had time, he might have played the role of Colin, and Mademoiselle Théroigne de Méricourt, that of Babet. The members of the National Convention pretended that they were the most benign of men: good fathers, good sons, good husbands, they took their little children for walks; they provided them with nursemaids; they shed tender tears at their simple games; they took those little lambs gently in their arms, in order to show them the horsie harnessed to the cart that carried the victims to torture. They sang of nature, peace, pity, charity, ingenuousness, and domestic virtue; those cheerful philanthropists severed the necks of their neighbours with extreme sensitivity, for the greater happiness of the human species.