Chateaubriand's memoirs, XII, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XII - Chapter 3
DIGRESSIONS: The new poetry – Beattie



London, April to September 1822.

At the same instant that the novel entered a Romantic state, poetry was subject to a like transformation. Cowper abandoned the French school in order to revive the national school; Burns, in Scotland, commenced the same revolution. After them came the restorers of the ballad form. Several of these poets of 1792 to 1800 belonged to the Lake School (the name has lasted), since these Romantics lived by the lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, and sometimes wrote of them.

Thomas Moore, Campbell, Rogers, Crabbe, Wordsworth, Southey, Hunt, Knowles, Lord Holland, Canning, Croker, still live to honour English letters; but one must be born English to wholly appreciate the merits of an intimate style of composition particularly to the taste of men of that country.

Nothing, in a living literature, is judged competent except works written in the native language. It is in vain to think you possess a foreign idiom in all its depth, you failed to imbibe it with your nurses’ milk, those first words that she taught you at her breast, on your tongue; certain notes belong to their homeland. Among our forms of literature, English and German own to the strangest ideas: they delight in what we scorn, they scorn what we take delight in; they pay no attention to Racine, La Fontaine, nor Molière in his entirety. It makes one laugh to learn what they make of our great writers in London, Vienna, Berlin, St Petersburg, Munich, Leipzig, Göttingen, Cologne, to learn what they read there avidly, and what they do not read.

When an author’s chief merit is his verbal style, a stranger will never fully comprehend his merit. The more intimate, individual, national a talent, the more its mysteries escape the mind that is not, so to speak, a compatriot of that talent. We admire the Greek and Romans by hearsay; our admiration comes to us by tradition, and the Greeks and Romans are not here to mock our Barbarian pronunciation. Who of us has any idea of the harmony of Demosthenes’ prose, or Cicero’s, of the cadence of Alcaeus’ verse or Horace’s, such as they were received by a Greek or Latin ear? It is said that true beauty is of all time, and every country: yes, beauties of feeling and thought; not the beauties of style. Style is not, like thought, cosmopolitan: it has a native soil, a sky, a sun of its own.

Burns, Mason, Cowper died during my exile in London, before and in 1800; they ended the century; I began one. Erasmus Darwin and Beattie died a couple of years after my return from exile.

Beattie had announced a new era of the lyre. The Minstrel, or the Progress of Genius, depicts the first effects of the Muse on a young bard, still ignorant of whose breath torments him. Now the future poet goes and sits by the sea-shore during a storm; now he leaves the village fair to listen, apart, to the sound of distant music.

Beattie has covered the entire series of daydreams and melancholy ideas of which a hundred other poets thought themselves discoverers. Beattie intended to continue his poem; in fact he wrote the second canto of it: Edwin hears a solemn voice lifted one evening from a valley’s depths; it is that of a solitary who, having come to know the world’s illusions, has buried himself in this retreat in order to win back his soul and sing the wonders of the Creator. This hermit instructs the young minstrel and reveals the secret of his genius to him. The idea was a happy one; the execution did not quite match the happiness of the idea. Beattie was destined to weep; the death of his son broke the father’s heart; like Ossian after the loss of his son Oscar, he hung his harp from the branches of an oak-tree. Perhaps Beattie’s son was that young minstrel that a father sang of and whom he no longer saw walking the mountain-side.