Chateaubriand's memoirs, XII, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XII - Chapter 4
DIGRESSIONS: Lord Byron



London, April to September 1822.

There are striking resemblances to The Minstrel in Lord Byron’s verse: at the time of my English exile, Lord Byron was not yet at HarrowSchool, in its village ten miles from London. He was a child, I was young and as unknown as he was: he had been raised among the Scottish heather, near the sea, as I was on the moors of Brittany, near the sea; he loved the Bible and Ossian, as I loved them; he sang the memories of childhood at Newstead Abbey as I sang them at the Château of Combourg.

When I rov’d a young Highlander o’er the dark heath,
And climb’d thy steep summit, oh Morven of snow!
To gaze on the torrent that thunder’d beneath,
Or the mist of the tempest that gather’d below…’

In my journeys around London, when I was so destitute, I passed through Harrow village a score of times, without realising what a genius it was destined to contain. I sat in the cemetery, at the foot of the elm on which, in 1807, Lord Byron wrote these lines, at the moment when I returned from Palestine:

‘Spot of my youth! whose hoary branches sigh,
Swept by the breeze that fans thy cloudless sky; …
Where now alone I muse, who oft have trod,
With those I loved, thy soft and verdant sod…
When fate shall chill, at length, this fevered breast,
And calm its cares and passions into rest…
(Where)…here it lingered, here my heart might lie;
Here might I sleep, where all my hopes arose,
Blest by the tongues that charmed my youthful ear,
Mourned by the few my soul acknowledged here;
Deplored by those in early days allied,
And unremembered by the world beside.’

And I salute the ancient elm, at whose foot the young Byron gave himself to the caprices of youth, not long after I had dreamed of René in its shade, that same shade where later the Poet came to dream in turn of Childe Harold! Byron asked of that cemetery, witness of his first childhood games, an unknown grave: a vain prayer that fame denied him. However Byron’s name is no longer what it has been; staying in Venice I heard of him on all sides: after a few years, in that same city where I had found it everywhere, I found it effaced and everywhere unknown. The echoes of the Lido no longer repeat it, and if you ask the Venetians they no longer know of whom you are speaking. Lord Byron is long dead as far as they are concerned; they no longer hear the neighing of his horse: it is the same in London, where his memory has faded. That is what becomes of us.

If I had passed through Harrow without knowing that the young Lord Byron would breathe there, the English passed Combourg without suspecting that a little vagabond, climbing the trees, would leave any trace behind. The traveller Arthur Young, travelling through Combourg, wrote:

‘To Combourg, the country has a savage aspect; husbandry not much further advanced, at least in skill, than among the Hurons, which appears incredible amidst inclosures; the people almost as wild as their country, and their town of Combourg one of the most brutal filthy places that can be seen; mud houses, no windows, and a pavement so broken, as to impede all passengers, but ease none—yet here is a chateau, and inhabited; who is this Mons. de Chateaubriant, the owner, that has nerves strung for a residence amidst such filth and poverty? Below this hideous heap of wretchedness is a fine lake, surrounded by well wooded inclosures.’

This Mons. de Chateaubriant was my brother; the retreat which seemed so hideous to the ill-tempered agriculturalist, was none the less a fair and noble domain, though solemn and sombre. As for me, what if Mr Young had been able to see me there, a feeble ivy plant who began by climbing the foot of those savage towers, he who was only occupied with reviewing our harvest!

Allow me to add to these lines written in England in 1822, the following written in 1834 and 1840: they complete this fragment on Lord Byron; a fragment rounded off in particular by reading what I said about the great poet when passing through Venice.

There would perhaps have been some interest in the future in noting the meeting of two leaders of the new English and French schools, possessing the same fund of ideas, and destiny, though without much similarity in morals: one a peer of England, the other a peer of France, both travellers in the East, quite often not far apart, yet never meeting: only the life of the English poet was involved with less profound events than mine.

Lord Byron visited the ruins of Greece after me: in Childe Harold it is as though he embellishes my descriptions in L’Itinéraire with his own colours. At the start of my pilgrimage, I reproduced the Sire de Joinville’s farewell to his castle; Byron says a similar farewell to his Gothic mansion.

In Les Martyrs, Eudore leaves Messenia to return to Rome: ‘Our voyage was a long one,’ he says ‘…we saw all those promontories marked by temples or tombs…My young companions had never heard tell of the metamorphoses of Jupiter, and they understood nothing of the remains before their eyes; I had already sat, like the prophet, among the ruins of desolate cities, and Babylon told me of Corinth.’

The English poet, as the French prose writer, follows the letter from Sulpicius to Cicero; - so perfect an agreement is singularly glorious for me, since I anticipated the immortal bard on that shore of which we have similar memories, and where we commemorated the same ruins.

I have the honour of also being in tune with Lord Byron in our descriptions of Rome: Les Martyrs and my Lettre sur la campagne romaine have the inestimable advantage, to me, of having prefigured the inspirations of a fine talent.

Lord Byron’s first translators, commentators and admirers were careful not to comment on the fact that several pages from my works may have stayed for a moment in the memory of the creator of Childe Harold; they would have considered that it took something from his genius. Now that the enthusiasm has abated a little, they are less prone to deny me that honour. Our immortal singer, in the last volume of his Chansons, has said: ‘In one of the verses preceding this, I spoke of the lyricists that France owes to Monsieur de Chateaubriand. I have no fears that this verse will be refuted by the new poetic school, which, born beneath the eagle’s wings, has with reason, often boasted of such an origin. The influence of the author of Le Génie du Christianisme has equally made itself felt abroad, and it would perhaps be just to recognise that the bard of Childe Harold is of the family of René.’

In an excellent article on Lord Byron, Monsieur Villemain repeated Monsieur de Béranger’s remark: ‘Several incomparable pages of René,’ he said, ‘have, in truth, fully exploited this poetic character. I do not know if Byron imitated them or recreated them out of his genius.’

What I may chance to say of the affinities of imagination and destiny between the chronicler of René and the poet of Childe Harold plucks not a single hair from the head of the immortal bard. What could my Muse, pedestrian and without a lute, take from the Muse of the Dee, with wings and lyre? Lord Byron will live, regardless of whether as a child of his age like me, he has, like me and like Goethe before us, expressed its passion and tragedy; or whether my journey and the lantern of my French barque revealed a course to the English vessel through uncharted waters.

Moreover, two spirits analogous in nature may very easily conceive of like things, without bearing the reproach of having followed the same path in a servile manner. It is permissible to profit from ideas and images expressed in a foreign language, to enrich one’s own: that has been observed in all ages and all times. I am the first to admit that in early youth, Ossian, Werther, Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaires, and Les Études de la nature, may well have contained ideas similar to mine; but I have hidden nothing, concealed nothing of the pleasure the works I delighted in gave me.

If it were true that René counted for something in the composition of unique characters presented under various names in Childe Harold, the Corsair, Lara, Manfred, and The Giaour; or if, by chance, Lord Byron had nourished my life with his, would he have been so weak as never to mention me? Was I then one of those contemporaries one disowns on achieving power? Could Lord Byron have been totally ignorant of me, he who cites almost all the French authors who were his contemporaries? Had he never heard tell of me, when the English journals, as the French ones, have echoed twenty years after his death with controversy over my work, when the New Times has drawn a parallel between the author of Le Génie du Christianisme and the author of Childe Harold?

There is no mind, however blessed, that fails to possess its sensitivities, its mistrust: one guards the sceptre, one fears to share it, one is irritated by comparison. So, another superior talent omitted my name in her work De la littèrature. Thank goodness that, valuing myself at my true worth, I have never pretended to an empire; since I only believe in religious truth of which freedom is an aspect, I have no more faith in myself than in anything else below. But I have never felt the need to be silent about what I admire; that is why I proclaim my enthusiasm for Madame de Staël and Lord Byron. What is sweeter than admiration? It derives from heavenly love, from tenderness elevated towards worship; one feels oneself penetrated by gratitude for the divinity that extends the roots of our faculties, opens new vistas to the soul, grants us a happiness that is great, and pure, without fear or envy.

In addition, the little quibble I make in these Memoirs, over the greatest poet England has produced since Milton, only proves one thing: the high value I would have attached to being remembered by his muse.

Lord Byron has founded a deplorable school: I presume that he has been as sorry for giving birth to those Childe Harolds, as I am of the Renés who daydream around me.

Lord Byron’s life is the subject of many analyses and slanders: young men have taken his magical words too seriously; women have felt disposed to allow themselves to be seduced, fearfully, by that monster, in order to solace this solitary and unfortunate Satan. Who knows? Perhaps he has not met the woman he sought, a woman beautiful enough, a heart as vast as his own. Byron, according to fantastical opinion, is the ancient serpent, a seducer and a corrupter, since he sees the corruption of the human species; he is a fatal and suffering genius, situated between the mysteries of mind and matter, who sees no point in speaking of the enigma of the universe, who regards life as a dreadful irony without cause, like a perverse evil smile; he is the child of despair, who scorns and renounces, who bearing within himself an incurable wound, revenges himself by leading all whom he meets, through pleasure, to grief. He is a man who has never passed through an age of innocence, who has never had the advantage of being rejected and cursed by God; a man who, emerging as an outcast from nature’s breast, is condemned to nothingness.

Such is the Byron of the fevered imagination: it bears no relation it seems to me to the reality.

As with most men, two different men are united in Lord Byron: the natural man and the social man. The poet, recognising the role which the public wished him to play, accepted it and set himself to curse the world that at first he had merely daydreamed about: that progress is perceptible in the chronological order of his works.

As for his genius, far from having extended what was attributed to him, he has grown much narrower; his poetic thought is no more than a moan, a complaint, an imprecation; in that vein, however, it is admirable: one ought not to ask of his lyricism what it thinks, only what it sings.

As for his wit, he is sarcastic and various, but in a manner that perturbs and with a disastrous influence: the writer has read Voltaire deeply, and he imitates him.

Lord Byron, endowed with all the advantages, has little to complain of concerning his origins; the same accident of birth that made him wretched, and which saddled his superior powers with human infirmity, ought not to have tormented him, since it has not prevented him being loved. The immortal poet knows for himself the truth of Zeno’s maxim: ‘The voice is the flower of beauty.’

One deplorable thing is the speed with which reputations flee these days. After a few years, what say I, after a few months, the craze vanishes; the denigration follows. Lord Byron’s fame is already fading; his genius is better understood among us; the altars to him will burn longer in France than in England. Since Childe Harold excels principally in expressing particularly individualistic feelings, the English, who prefer feelings common to all, will end by lacking awareness of the poet whose cry is so melancholy and profound. Let them take care: if they shatter the image of the man who has given them new life, what will be left them?

While I was writing, in 1822, during my London stay, these sentiments with regard to Lord Byron, he had only two years to live: he died in 1824, at the moment when disenchantment and disgust had begun to assail him. I preceded him into life; he has preceded me into death; he has been called before his time; my number was ahead of his, and yet he has departed first. Childe Harold has been forced to rest; the world could lose me without noticing my disappearance. I have met, in continuing my journey, Madame Guiccioli in Rome, and Lady Byron in Paris. Frailty and virtue were thus apparent to me: the former perhaps is too concerned with realities the latter has too few dreams.