Chateaubriand's memoirs, XI, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XI - Chapter 3
Fontanes – Cléry



London, April to September 1822.

From time to time, the Revolution brought us émigrés of a new kind with fresh opinions; various layers of exiles formed: as the earth contains beds of sand or clay, deposited by the waves of the flood. One of these waves brought me a man whose demise I still deplore today, a man who was my guide in literature and whose friendship has been one of the honours and consolations of my life.

In Book IV of these Memoirs you have seen that I met Monsieur de Fontanes in 1789: it was last year, in Berlin, that I learnt the news of his death. He was born at Niort, of a noble and Protestant family: his father had the misfortune to kill his brother-in-law in a duel. The young Fontanes, raised by a very worthy brother, came to Paris. He saw Voltaire die, and that great representative of the eighteenth century inspired his first lines: his poetic attempts were noticed by Laharpe. He undertook several works for the theatre, and befriended a charming actress, Mademoiselle Desgarcins. Lodged near the Odéon, wandering around the Chartreuse, he celebrated solitude there. He had met a friend destined to become mine also, Monsieur Joubert. The Revolution arrived: the poet became involved with one of those static parties that vanishes: torn apart by the party of progress which drags it forward, and the retrograde party which holds it back. The monarchists connected Monsieur de Fontanes with the editorship of the Modérateur. When times grew worse, he took refuge at Lyon, and married there. His wife gave birth to a son: during the siege of the town which the Revolutionaries had named a Commune affranchie (liberated), as Louis XI, while banishing its citizens, had called Arras a Ville franchise, Madame de Fontanes was obliged to move her infant’s cradle to protect it from the shelling. Returning to Paris after the 9th Thermidor, Monsieur de Fontanes founded the Mémorial, with Monsieur de Laharpe and the Abbé de Vauxelles. Proscribed on the 18th Fructidor, England became his port of refuge.

Monsieur de Fontanes has been, with Chénier, the last writer of the elder branch of the Classical school: his prose and his verse are akin and belong to the same order of merit. His thoughts and imagery possess a forgotten melancholy from the age of Louis XIV, which only recognises the austere and sacred sadness of religious eloquence. That melancholy is found amongst all the works of the bard of Jour des Morts, like the imprint of the age in which he lived; it fixes the date of his appearance; it shows that he was born after Rousseau, in his taste adhering to Fénelon. If one were to reduce the writings of Monsieur de Fontanes to two quite thin volumes, one of prose, the other of verse, they would form the most elegant of funeral monuments that one could raise over the tomb of the Classical school. (It is to be raised through the filial piety of Madame Christine de Fontanes; Monsieur de Saint-Beuve has adorned the pediment of the monument with his ingenious words. Note: Paris, 1839)

Among the papers my friend left behind, may be found several cantos of a poem on Grece sauvée, books of odes, and diverse poems, etc. He published nothing more himself: since that critic, so subtle, enlightened, and impartial, when political opinion did not blind him, had a terrible fear of criticism. He had been royally unjust towards Madame de Staël. In an article on the Forêt de Navarre, Garat, full of envy, thought to cut short his poetic career at its inception. Fontanes, on his appearance, killed off the affected school of Dorat, but was unable to re-establish the Classical school which ultimately touched on the language of Racine.

Among the posthumous odes of Monsieur de Fontanes, there is one on the Anniversary of his Birth: it has all the charm of Jour des Morts, with a deeper and more personal sentiment. I only remember these two verses:

‘Age is already here with its sufferings:
Brief hopes? Are they all the future brings?
What does the past grant? Errors, and regret.
Such is man’s destiny; he learns with age:
But what use is the sage,
Now so little time is left?
Past, present, future, they all grieve me:
Life in its decline for me lacks glory;
In the mirror of time, its charms are gone.
Pleasure! Go seek love and youthfulness;
Leave me to sadness,
And do not condemn!’

If anything in the world was bound to be antipathetic to Monsieur de Fontanes, it was my literary style. A revolution in French literature began with me, and the so-called Romantic school: however, my friend, instead of being revolted by my barbarity, conceived a passion for it. I saw immense amazement on his face when I read bits of Les Natchez, Atala and René to him; he could not analyse these works according to normal critical rules, rather he realised that he was entering a new world; he saw nature afresh; he understood a language which he could not speak. I received excellent advice from him; I owe to him whatever is correct in my style; he taught me to respect the sounds; he prevented me from falling into over-extravagant invention and the harshness of execution of my disciples.

It was a great joy to meet him again in London, feted by the emigration; they demanded cantos of Grèce sauvée from him; they crowded round to hear. He lodged near me; we were never apart. We assisted together at a scene worthy of those unfortunate times: Cléry having recently disembarked, we read the manuscript of his Memoirs. Imagine the emotion of an audience of exiles, listening to the valet de chambre of Louis XVI, recounting, as an eye witness, the suffering and death of the prisoner of the Temple! The Directory, fearing Cléry’s memoirs, published an edition of them with interpolations, which had the author speaking like a lackey and Louis XVI like a street-porter: among the base tricks of the Revolutionaries, this was one of the nastiest.

A PEASANT FROM THE VENDÉE

Monsieur du Theil, Monsieur the Comte d’Artois’ chargé d’affaires in London, was quick to seek out Fontanes: he in turn begged me to introduce him to the Princes’ agent. We discovered him surrounded by all the defenders of the throne and altar who walked the pavements of Piccadilly, by a host of spies and knights of industry who had escaped from Paris under various names and disguises, and by a swarm of adventurers, Belgian, German, Irish, vendors of counter-revolution. In a corner of this crowd was a man of thirty to thirty-two whom no one noticed, and who only paid attention himself to an engraving of the death of General Wolfe. Struck by his appearance, I enquired about his person: one of my neighbours replied: ‘He’s no one; a peasant from the Vendée, a messenger with a letter from his leaders.’

This man, who was no one, had seen Cathelineau die, the first general of the Vendée and a peasant like himself; Bonchamp, in whom Bayard lived again; Lescure, armed with a hair-shirt, no proof against a bullet; General d’Elbée, executed by firing squad while seated in an armchair, his wounds preventing him from meeting death while standing; and La Rochejaquelein, whose death the patriots ordered verified, so as to reassure the Convention in the midst of its victories. This man, who was no one, had been involved in the capture and re-capture of towns, villages, and redoubts, in seven hundred individual actions and seventeen formal battles; he had fought against an army of three hundred thousand regulars, and six to seven hundred thousand conscripts and National Guards; he had helped to capture a hundred canon, and fifty thousand rifles; he had passed through the columns from hell, companies of incendiaries commanded by Conventionnels; he found himself in the midst of an ocean of fire, which, on three occasions, rolled its waves towards the woods of the Vendée; at last, he had seen three hundred thousand Hercules of the plough perish, companions in labour, and seen a thousand square miles of fertile country change to a desert of ashes.

The two Frances met on this ground levelled for them. Every drop of blood, every memory of the France of the Crusades that still remained, combated whatever of fresh blood, and hope existed in Revolutionary France. The victor acknowledged the greatness of the vanquished. Turreau, the Republican general, declared that: ‘the Vendeans will be placed by history in the front rank of military nations.’ Another general wrote to Merlin de Thionville: ‘Troops who have beaten such Frenchmen can well take pride in fighting all the other nations.’ The legions of Probus, in their song, say as much of their forefathers. Bonaparte called the battles of the Vendée ‘the battles of giants.’

In the waiting room crowd, I was the only person to treat with admiration and respect this representative of the ancient Jacques, who, in throwing off the yoke of their lords completely, under Charles V, repulsed the foreign invader: I seemed to be looking at a son of those communes of the age of Charles VII, who with the minor provincial nobility, re-conquered the soil of France, foot by foot, furrow by furrow. He had the indifferent air of a savage; his look was grey and inflexible like a rod of iron; his lower lip quivered over gritted teeth; his hair hung from his head in serpent locks, seemingly lifeless, but ready to spring upwards again; his arms, hanging by his sides, gave a nervous twitch to enormous wrists marked by sabre cuts; he might have been taken for a sawyer of longstanding. His physiognomy expressed a working man’s rustic nature, placed, by the powers that be, at the service of ideas and interests contrary to that nature; the inborn fidelity of the vassal, the simple faith of the Christian, mingled there with a rough plebeian independence accustomed to value itself and do itself justice. The feeling for liberty seemed in him to be no more than the strength of his hand and the intrepidity of his heart. He spoke no more than a lion does; he scratched himself like a lion, yawned like a lion, turned to one side like a bored lion, dreaming, it would seem, of blood and the wild: his knowledge was like that of the dead.

What men, everywhere, the French were then: what a race we are today! But the Republicans had their leadership with them, amongst them, while the Royalist leadership was outside France. The Vendéans deputed for the exiles; the giants sent a request for leadership to the pygmies. The rustic messenger I gazed at had seized the Revolution by the throat, and cried out: ‘Come; follow me; it will do you no harm; it can’t move; I’m holding it.’ No one wanted to follow: then Jacques Bonhomme released the Revolution once more, and Charette broke his sword.

MY WALKS WITH FONTANES

While I was indulging in these reflections on the ploughman, like those of another sort I had indulged in at the sight of Mirabeau and Danton, Fontanes obtained a private audience with the person he called amusingly the Controller General of Finances: he emerged highly satisfied, since Monsieur du Theil had promised to support the publication of my works, and Fontanes thought only of me. It was impossible to find a better man: reticent regarding what concerned himself he was all courage for a friend; he showed it, at the time of my resignation following the death of the Duke d’Enghien. In conversation he bristled with ridiculous literary passions. In politics, he talked nonsense; the crimes of the Convention had induced in him a horror of liberty. He detested the newspapers, philosophizing, ideology, and he communicated that dislike to Bonaparte, when he drew near the master of Europe.

We went on walks in the countryside; we would stop beneath one of those large spreading elms in the meadows. Leaning against the trunk of the elm, my friend would tell me about his former travels in England before the Revolution, and recite the lines he had once addressed to two young ladies, who had become old in the shadow of the towers of Westminster; those towers which he had found standing as he had left them, while at their base were buried the hours and illusions of his youth.

We often dined in some solitary tavern in Chelsea, beside the Thames, and talked of Milton and Shakespeare: they had seen what we were seeing; had sat like us by the river, for us a foreign river, for them that of their homeland. At night we returned to London, in the fading light of the stars, which submerged one after another in the City fog. We reached our lodgings, guided by the flickering lamps which barely marked a route for us through the smoke from coal fires reddened around each street light: so passes the life of a poet.

We saw London in detail: an experienced exile, I served as cicerone to the conscripted exiles that the Revolution produced, young and old: there was no legal age to qualify for unhappiness. In the middle of one of these excursions, we were surprised by a thunderstorm, and were forced to take refuge in the alleyway of an insignificant mansion whose door was by chance open. There we met the Duke de Bourbon: I saw for the first time, at this Chantilly, a prince who was not yet the last of the Condés.

The Duke de Bourbon, Fontanes and I, all equally proscribed, sought shelter, on foreign soil, under a poor man’s roof, from the same storm! Fata viam invenient: Fate finds a way.

Fontanes was recalled to France. He embraced me, vowing that we would soon be reunited. Arriving in Germany, he wrote me the following letter:

28th of July 1798.
‘If you have felt regret at my departure from London, I swear to you that mine has been no less real. You are the second person in whom, in the course of my life, I have found a heart and imagination like my own. I will never forget the consolations you have introduced me to, in exile and in a foreign land. My dearest and most constant thought, since I left you, concerns Les Natchez. What you read me of it, especially in those last days, is admirable, and has not vanished from my memory. But the charm of the poetic ideas you left me with disappeared in an instant on my arrival in Germany. The most terrible news from France has followed that which I showed you on leaving. I spent five or six days in the cruellest perplexity. I even feared my family might be persecuted. My terrors are much abated today. Even the misfortunes have been quite light; they threaten more than they perpetrate, and it is not against people of my age that the executioners bear a grudge. The last mail brought me assurances of peace and goodwill. I can continue my journey, and will be travelling at the beginning of next month. I will be staying close to the forest of Saint-Germain, with my family, my Gréce, and my books, how can I not add Les Natchez too! The unexpected storm that has just taken place in Paris was caused, I am certain, by the blunders of the leaders and agents you know of. I have had obvious proof of it in my hands. Because of my certainty, I am writing to Great Pulteney Street (where Monsieur du Theil is staying), with all possible politeness, but also with all the care that prudence demands. I wish to avoid all correspondence next month, and I am leaving it totally in doubt as to whom I will take with me, and the location I select. As to other things, I still speak of you in accents of friendship, and wish with all my heart that the hopes of my being useful to you, that you may have vested in me, nourish the warm feelings shown me in that regard, and which are so much due to your person and great talent. Work, work, my dear friend, and become illustrious. You can achieve it: the future is yours. I hope that the promise so often repeated by the Controller General of Finances is at least fulfilled in part. That consideration consoles me, since I cannot endure the thought that a fine work might be lost for lack of support. Write to me; let our hearts commune, let our muses always be friends. Never doubt that, as long as I can travel our country freely, I shall be preparing a beehive and a flowery glade for you there, next to mine. My friendship is unalterable. I will be lonely in so much as I am not with you. Tell me about your labours. I wish you the joy of completing them: I have finished half of a new canto on the banks of the Elbe, and I am happier with it than with all the rest.
Adieu, I embrace you tenderly, and am your friend,
Fontanes.’

Fontanes tells me he is composing verse while changing his place of exile. One can never rob a poet of all he has; he carries his lyre with him. Leave the swan its wings; each night unknown waves will repeat melodious cries that would be better heard on the Eurotas.

The future is yours: did Fontanes speak true? Ought I to congratulate myself on his prediction? Alas! The future he announced is already past: shall I possess another?

That first affectionate letter from the foremost friend I encountered in my life, and who after that date marched in step with me for twenty-three years, warns me painfully of my increasing isolation. Fontanes is no more; a profound grief, the tragic death of a son, sent him to the grave before his time. Almost all the people I have spoken of in these Memoirs have vanished; it is a Register of Deaths that I hold. A few more years, and I, condemned to catalogue the dead, will leave no one behind to inscribe my name in the book of absentees.

But if I must remain alone, if no other being who loves me remains to conduct me to my last refuge, I need a guide less than others: I am making my enquiries about the road, I have studied the places I must pass through, I have sought to know what happens at the last. Often, at the edge of a grave into which the coffin is lowered by means of ropes, I have heard the ropes groan; then I have heard the sound of the first spade-full of earth fall on the coffin: at each new spade-full the hollow noise diminished; the earth in filling up the hole, made the eternal silence above the surface of the coffin deepen, little by little.

Fontanes! You wrote to me: Let our muses always be friends; you did not write in vain.