Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIV, 11

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XXIV, 10 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIV, 12

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIV, chapter 11
Manzoni – Bonaparte’s illness – Ossian – Napoleon’s daydreams by the sea – Projects of escape – Bonaparte’s last occupation – He lies down and does not rise again – He dictates his will – Napoleon’s religious sentiments – Vignali the Chaplain – Napoleon argues with Antomarchi, his doctor – He receives the last sacraments – He dies.

Italy, woken from its long sleep by Napoleon, turned its eyes towards its illustrious son who wished to reinstate its former glory and with whom it had fallen once more under the yoke. The sons of the Muses, the noblest and most grateful of men, when they are not the basest and most ungrateful, gazed at St Helena. The latest poet of Virgil’s homeland sang of the latest warrior of Caesar’s:

‘Tutto ei provo, la Gloria
Maggior dopo il periglio,
La fuga e la vittoria,
La reggia e il triste esiglio:
Due volte nella polvere,
Due volte sugli altar.
Ei si nomò; due secoli,
L’un contro l’altro armato,
Sommessi a lui si volsero,
Come aspettando il fato:
Ei fè silenzio ed arbitro
S’assise in mezzo a lor.’

‘He experienced all,’ says Manzoni, ‘his glory greater after peril, flight and victory, royalty and sad exile, twice in the dust, twice at the altar.

He spoke his name: two centuries, armed against each other, submitted to him, awaiting their fate: he commanded silence and sat in judgement between them.’

Bonaparte was approaching his end; plagued by an internal pain, poisoned by sorrow, he had endured that pain in the midst of prosperity: it was the only inheritance he had received from his father; the rest came to him out of God’s munificence.

He had already known six years of exile; he needed less time to conquer Europe. He remained almost perpetually indoors, and read Ossian in Cesarotti’s Italian translation. Everything saddened him, beneath a sky under which life seemed short, the sun remaining for three days less in that hemisphere than in ours. When Bonaparte went out, he passed along stony paths bordered by aloes and scented broom. He walked among sparsely-flowering gum-trees bent in one direction by the prevailing winds, or else concealed himself in thick clouds that hugged the ground. He was seen sitting at the foot of Diana’s Peak, Flagstaff, or Ladder Hill, contemplating the sea through the gaps in the mountains. Before him stretched an Ocean which on one side washes the African coast, on the other the shores of America, and which flows like a river without banks to lose itself in the southern seas. No civilised land nearer than the Cape of Storms. Who can say what thoughts went through the mind of that Prometheus, torn apart by death while still living, when, pressing his hand to his aching breast, he looked out over the waves! Christ was carried to a mountain summit from which He viewed the kingdoms of the world; but in Christ’s case the tempter of mankind was told: ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’

Bonaparte, forgetting a thought of his own which I have quoted (‘Not having given myself life I will not deprive myself of it.’), spoke of killing himself; he also forgot his order of the day regarding the suicide of one of his soldiers. He had sufficient confidence in the devotion of his companions in captivity to believe that they would consent to suffocating with him in the fumes from a brazier: a grand illusion. Such are the intoxications born of long supremacy; but regarding Napoleon’s fits of impatience we must consider the degree of suffering he had attained. Monsieur de Las Cases having written to Lucien on a piece of white silk, in contravention of the rules, received the order to leave St Helena: his absence increased the void around the exile.

On the 18th of May 1817, Lord Holland, in the House of Lords, introduced a motion on the subject of the complaints transmitted to England by General Montholon: ‘Posterity will not ask’ he said, ‘whether Napoleon was justly punished for his crimes, but whether England showed the generosity befitting a great nation.’ Lord Bathurst opposed the motion.

Cardinal Fesch sent two priests to his nephew. Princess Borghèse begged the favour of being allowed to join her brother: ‘No,’ said Napoleon, ‘I do not wish her to witness my humiliation, and the insults to which I am subjected.’ That beloved sister of his, germana Jovis (Jove’s sister) did not cross the seas; she died in a region where Napoleon had left his fame behind him.

Projects were conceived for his abduction: a Colonel Latapie, at the head of a band of American adventurers, contemplated a landing on St Helena. Johnston, a bold smuggler, thought of carrying Bonaparte off in a submarine. Some young noblemen entered into these plans; they schemed at breaking the oppressor’s bonds; while they would have left some liberator of the human race to die in chains without a thought. Bonaparte hoped his deliverance might be achieved on the back of the political movements in Europe. If he had lived until 1830, perhaps he would have returned to us; but what would he have done amongst us? He would have seemed obsolete and outdated in the midst of new ideas. Once his tyranny seemed like liberty to our slavery; now his greatness would look like despotism to our pettiness. In the present age everything is decrepit in a day; whoever lives too long dies while they are still alive. Advancing through life, we leave behind three or four representations of ourselves, differing one from another; we see them again through the mists of the past like portraits painted at different ages.

Bonaparte stripped of his power occupied himself exactly like a child: he amused himself by making an ornamental pond in his garden; he added a few fish: the cement used in making the pond contained copper, and the fish died. Bonaparte said: ‘Everything that attaches itself to me is doomed.’

Towards the end of February 1821, Napoleon was obliged to take to his bed and did not rise again. ‘How low I have fallen!’ he murmured, ‘I have overturned a world and cannot lift an eyelid!’ He had no faith in medicine and objected to a consultation between Antomarchi and the Jamestown doctors. However he allowed Dr Arnott to approach his death-bed. From the 16th to the 24th of April he dictated his will; on the 28th, he ordered his heart to be sent to Marie-Louise; he forbade any English surgeon to lay a hand on him after his death. Convinced that he was succumbing to the disease which afflicted his father, he asked for the autopsy report to be sent to the Duke of Reichstadt: the paternal precaution was of no avail; Napoleon II has joined Napoleon I.

At this final hour, the religious feeling, with which Bonaparte had always been imbued, awoke. Thibaudeau in his Memoirs of the Consulate, tells us, with reference to the restoration of religious worship, that the First Consul said to him: ‘Last Sunday, in the midst of Nature’s hush, I was walking in those gardens (at Malmaison); the sound of the bells from Rueil happened to strike my ear and revived all the impressions of my youth; I was moved, so strong is the force of early habit, and I said to myself: “If it is so for me, what effect must like memories not produce on simple and credulous people?” Let your philosophers reply to that!’ .............................................. and raising his hands to heaven: ‘Who is He, who made it all?’

In 1797, by his Proclamation of Macerata, Bonaparte permitted the French priests who had taken refuge in the Papal States to remain there, forbade them to be molested, ordered the monasteries to support them, and allotted them a stipend.

His vagaries in Egypt, his fits of anger against the Church, which he restored, show that a spiritual instinct dominated in the very midst of his errors, since his lapses and his rages are not philosophical at root and bear the imprint of a religious temperament.

When Bonaparte was giving Vignali details of the tapers with which he wished his remains to be surrounded in the chapel, thought that he perceived his instructions were displeasing to Antomarchi, and he explained his conduct to the doctor, saying: ‘You are above these weaknesses: but what would you, I am neither a doctor nor a philosopher; I believe in God; I am of my father’s religion. Not all who wish can be atheists…….How can you not believe in God? After all, everything proclaims his existence, and the greatest geniuses have believed so…You are a doctor… such people deal in nothing but material things: they never believe in anything.’

You Rationalists abandon your admiration for Napoleon; you have nothing in common with that poor man: did he imagine that a comet had come for him, as one once carried off Caesar? Moreover, he believed in God; he was of his father’s religion; he was no philosopher; he was no atheist; he had not, as you have, joined battle with the Eternal One, though he had vanquished a good number of kings; he found that everything proclaimed the existence of the Supreme Being; he declared that the greatest geniuses had believed in His existence, and he wished to believe as his forefathers did. Lastly, terrible to relate, this foremost man of modern times, this man for all the centuries, was a Christian of the nineteenth century! His will begins with this statement:


In the thirds paragraph of Louis XVI’s will, we read:


The Revolution taught us many lessons but is any one of them comparable with this? Napoleon and Louis XVI making the same profession of faith! Do you wish to know the worth of the Cross? Then search the whole world for what best suits virtue in misfortune or the man of genius on his death bed.

On the 3rd of May, Napoleon was given Extreme Unction and received the Blessed Viaticum. The silence of the bedroom was punctuated only by the dying man’s irregular breathing and the steady tick of a pendulum clock: the shadow, before fading on the dial, did a few more rounds; the sun which cast it found difficulty in setting. On the 4th, the storm of Cromwell’s death agony rose: nearly all the trees at Longwood were uprooted. Finally, on the 5th, at eleven minutes to six in the evening, in the midst of wind, rain and the thunder of the waves, Bonaparte rendered up to God the mightiest breath of life that ever animated human clay. The last words on the conqueror’s lips were: ‘Head…army, or Head of the Army.’ His thoughts still wandered amongst battles. When he closed his eyes forever, his sword, which died with him, lay at his left side, and a crucifix rested on his breast: the symbol of peace applied to Napoleon’s heart calmed the throbbing of that heart, as a ray of sunlight quiets the flood.