Chateaubriand's memoirs, XII, 1

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XI, 6 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XII, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XII - Chapter 1
DIGRESSIONS: English Literature – The withering away of the old schools – Historians – Poets – Publicists - Shakespeare

London, April to September 1822. (Revised February 1845)

My studies related to Le Génie du Christianisme led me gradually (as I have said) to a deeper study of English literature. When, after 1792, I sought refuge in England, I was forced to revise most of the judgements I had garnered from the critics. With regard to historians, Hume was renowned as a Tory and a backward-looking writer: he was accused, like Gibbon, of having overloaded the English language with Gallicisms; his heir, Smollett, was preferred. A philosopher during his life, who became a Christian before his death, Gibbon was remembered, in that way, as moved and converted by man’s poverty. One still spoke of Robertson because of his terseness.

As regards the poets, Elegant Extracts introduced the exile to selections from Dryden: one did not excuse Pope’s rhymes, though one visited his house at Twickenham and cut a twig from the weeping willow planted by him, withering like his fame.

Blair was considered a critic tedious after the French manner: he was placed well below Johnson. As for the old Spectator, it was consigned to the attic.

English political works held little interest for us. Treatises on economics were less limited; calculations concerning the wealth of nations, the employment of capital, and the balance of trade, applied in part to European countries.

Burke took on a national political identity: in declaring himself opposed to the French Revolution, he drew his country into that long train of hostilities which ended on the field of Waterloo.

However, the great figures remained. One encountered Milton and Shakespeare in particular. Did Montmorency, Biron, Sully, successively French ambassadors to Elizabeth I and James I, never hear tell of a strolling player, an actor in his own comedies and those of others? Did they ever pronounce the name, so barbarous in French, of Shakespeare? Did they suspect that there a glory existed before which their honours, their pomp, their rank, would be nullified? Well! The actor charged with the role of the ghost in Hamlet, was the great phantom, the shadow of the Middle Ages who rose above the world, like the star of night, at the moment in which those ages descended among the dead: vast centuries which Dante opened and Shakespeare closed.

In the Memorials of Whitelocke, a contemporary of the bard of Paradise Lost, one reads of: ‘A certain blind person, named Milton, Latin Secretary to the Parliament.’ Molière, the ham, played Pourceaugnac, while Shakespeare, the buffoon, grimaced as Falstaff.

Those veiled travellers, who appear from time to time to sit at our table, are treated by us as ordinary guests; we ignore their true nature until they day they vanish. Leaving earth, they are transfigured, and say to us like the heavenly messenger to Tobit: ‘I am one of the seven who appear before the Lord.’ But if they are misjudged by men in their travels, these divinities are not misjudged by each other. ‘What needs my Shakespeare,’ wrote Milton, ‘for his honour’d bones, the labour of an age in piled stones?’ Michelangelo envying the destiny and genius of Dante; cried:

‘Fuss’io pur lui! …
Per l’aspro esilio suo, co’ la virtute,
Dare’ del mondo il più felice stato.’

‘To be such as him! For his bitter exile and his virtue, I would give the world’s greatest joys!’

Tasso celebrated Camoëns who was still almost unknown, and served to make him famous. Is there anything more admirable than this society of illustrious equals revealing themselves to each other by means of signs, greeting each other, and speaking together in a language belonging only to themselves?

Was Shakespeare lame like Lord Byron, Walter Scott and the Prayers, daughters of Jupiter? If indeed he was, the Stratford Boy, far from being ashamed of his infirmity, like Childe Harold, did not fear speaking of it to one of his mistresses:

‘…lame by fortune’s dearest spite.’

Shakespeare should have had many loves, if one reckoned one per sonnet. The creator of Desdemona and Juliet grew old without ceasing to be in love. Was the unknown woman addressed in delightful verse proud and happy to be the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets? One may doubt it: fame is for an old man what diamonds are for an old woman; they adorn but cannot improve.

‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’, says the English tragedian to his mistress, ‘…if you read this line, remember not the hand that writ it; for I love you so, that I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot, if thinking on me then should make you woe. Oh, if, I say, you look upon this verse, when I perhaps compounded am with clay, do not so much as my poor name rehearse, but let your love even with my life decay…’

Shakespeare loved, but he thought no more of love than other things: a woman for him was a flower, a bird, a breeze, something delightful that passes. Through heedlessness or ignorance of his future destiny, through his birth, which found him far from rank, beyond conditions which he could not affect, he seems at first to have taken life for a thoughtless, unoccupied hour, as a swift, sweet moment of leisure.

Shakespeare, in his youth, met aged monks turned out of their cloisters, who had met with Henry VIII’s reforms, his dissolution of the monasteries, his fools, wives, mistresses, executioners. When the poet left this life, Charles I was sixteen years old.

So, with one hand Shakespeare might have touched the white hairs, which the sword of the last Tudor but one threatened, with the other the dark haired poll of the second Stuart, removed by the axe of the Parliamentarians. Pressing on those tragic brows, high Tragedy thrust them into the grave; he filled the intervening years of his life with ghosts, blind kings, ambitious men punished, and unfortunate women, in order to link, by his parallel fictions, the reality of the past to the reality of the future.

Shakespeare is among the five or six writers who possessed all that was needed to nourish thought; these mother-geniuses seem to have given birth to and suckled all the rest. Homer created Classical antiquity: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Horace, Virgil are his sons. Dante engendered modern Italy, from Petrarch to Tasso. Rabelais created French literature; Montaigne, La Fontaine, Molière were his descendants. England is all Shakespeare, and even in modern times he has given his language to Byron, his dialogue to Walter Scott.

Frequently one renounces these great masters; one rebels against them; one tallies their faults; one accuses them of being boring, over-long, idiosyncratic, in bad taste, while stealing and dressing oneself in their feathers; but one struggles in vain under their yoke. All is painted in their colours; everywhere is imprinted with their steps; they invented words and names which went to swell the common vocabulary of nations; their expressions became proverbs, their fictional characters changed into real characters which possess heirs and a lineage. They opened up horizons from which rays of light pour; they sowed ideas, seeds of a thousand others; they furnished images, subjects, styles to all the arts: their works are the mines or the wombs of the human spirit.

Such geniuses occupy the first rank; their immensity, variety, fecundity, originality, made them known above all for their rules, examples, forms, types of diverse intelligence, as if there were four or five human races, derived from a single stem of which the rest are merely the branches. Let us be wary of criticising the disorder into which these powerful beings sometimes fell; let us not imitate the cursed Ham; let us not laugh if we encounter, naked and asleep, in the shadow of the grounded Ark in the mountains of Armenia, the one and only navigator of the flood. Let us respect the diluvian sea-captain who recommenced the creation when the waterfalls from the sky had ceased: pious children, blessed by our father, let us cover him discreetly with our cloak.

Shakespeare, in his lifetime, never thought he would live on after his life was done: what does my hymn of admiration matter to him today? In admitting all these suppositions, in reasoning about the truths or errors with which the human spirit is penetrated or filled, what does fame mean to Shakespeare, the noise of which cannot rise to his level? A Christian? In the midst of eternal joys, does he trouble himself about the nothingness of earth? A Deist? Free of the shades of matter, lost among the splendours of God, does he cast a glance towards the grain of sand where he passed his life? An Atheist? He lies in a sleep without breath or re-awakening, called death. Nothing is vainer, then, than glory beyond the tomb, unless it has given life to friendship, been an aid to virtue, a helper in adversity, and allowed us to enjoy the heaven of an idea, consoling, generous, and liberating, left behind by us on earth.