Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 6

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 6
Madame Tastu



There are people who, interposed between you and the past, prevent your memories surfacing; there are others who immediately remind you of what you once were. Madame Tastu produced this latter impression. Her mode of speech is natural; she has abandoned Gallic patois to those who seek to appear younger by hiding in our ancestor’s costume. Favorinus told a Roman who affected the Latin of the Twelve Tables: ‘Are you trying to communicate with Evander’s mother?’

Since I have touched on antiquity, I will say a few words of the women of those days while descending the scale towards our own day. Greek women were sometimes celebrated philosophers; more frequently they followed another divinity: Sappho remains the immortal sibyl of Gnidus; no more is known of Corinne after her conquest of Pindar; Aspasia taught Socrates about Venus:

‘Socrates, accept my teaching. Fill yourself with poetic inspiration: with its powerful charms you will learn to bind what you love; you shall enchain with the music of the lyre, bearing to the heart through the ear the living form of passion.’

The Muse’s sigh, passing over the women of Rome without leading them to create, animated Clovis’ nation, as yet in its cradle. The langue d’Oïl had its Marie de France; the langue d’Oc its Dame de Die, who, in her castle of Vaucluse, sang of her cruel lover.

‘I would know, my fine and handsome lover, why you treat me so cruelly, and so savagely: per que m’etz vos tan fers, ni tan salvatage.’

The Middle Ages transmitted such songs to the Renaissance. Louise Labé wrote:

‘Oh! Would I were snatched away into the lovely breast
Of him for whom I go languishing!’

Clémence de Bourges, nicknamed the Eastern Pearl, who was buried with her face uncovered and her head crowned with flowers because of her beauty, the two Marguerites and Mary Stuart, all three of them queens, expressed simple frailties in simple language.

I had an aunt about the time of our Parnassian era, Madame Claude de Chateaubriand; but I am more embarrassed by Madame Claude than by Mademoiselle de Boisteilleul. Madame Claude, disguised under the name of The Lover, addresses seventy sonnets to a mistress. Reader, pardon my aunt Claude’s twenty-two years: parcendum teneris: be indulgent to youth. If my aunt Boisteilleul was more discrete, well, she was seventy-seven when she sang, and the traitor Trémigon appeared to her aged thoughts as a warbler as much he did a Sparrow-hawk. Be that as it may, here are a few lines of Madame Claude’s, which truly set her among the ancient poetesses:

SONNET LXVI
Oh, in love how strangely am I treated,
Since I dare not show my love’s truth plain,
Nor of my hardships dare to you complain,
Nor demand of you what I wish so deeply!
The eye then must serve me as a tongue,
Thus to ensure that I proclaim my song.
Hear, if you can, what I say with the eye.
Sweet invention, could you but find a way
To hear with the eyes what the eyes do say
The word that I am not bold enough to cry!

As the language became fixed, freedom of feeling and thought became restricted. There is barely a memory of that Madame Deshoulières, of Louis XIV’s day, over-praised and over-neglected. The elegy was maintained as a form through female sorrow, during Louis XV’s reign and into that of Louis XVI, when the grand elegies of the people commenced: the old school ended with Madame de Bourdic, now little known, yet who left us a noteworthy Ode to Silence.

The new school has cast its thought in another mould: Madame Tastu walks amidst the choir of modern women poets, in prose or verse, Allart, Waldor, Desbordes-Valmore, Ségalas, Revoil, Mercoeur etc: Castalidum turba: the Castalian throng. Must it not be regretted that they have failed, as regards the example given by the Aonides, to celebrate that passion which, according to antiquity, brightened Cocytus’ brow, and made him smile at Orpheus’ sighs? At Madame Tastu’s gatherings, love only speaks in hymns borrowed from foreign tongues. That reminds me of what is recounted of Madame Malibran: when she wanted to know the name of a bird she had forgotten she imitated its song. From the verse of several Maeonides, there breathe the regrets of women who, feeling time steal upon them, wish to hang their harp up as an offering: one would wish to rid them of the former and keep the latter in their hands! An indefinable complaint issues from our lives: the years are a long sad lament with one refrain.