Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIV, 12

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XXIV, 11 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIV, 13


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXIV, chapter 12
Funeral rites.



Bonaparte had first asked to be buried in the Cathedral at Ajaccio, then, by a codicil to his will dated the 16th of April 1821, he bequeathed his bones to France: Heaven had served him better; his real mausoleum is the rock on which he expired: turn again to my account of the Duc d’Enghien’s death. Napoleon, foreseeing the opposition of the British Government to his last wishes, eventually chose a burial place on St Helena.

In the narrow valley known as Sane or Geranium Valley, and now the Valley of the Tomb, there is a spring; Napoleon’s Chinese servants, as faithful as Camoën’s Javanese, used to fill their pitchers there: two weeping willows hung over the fount; green grass studded with champa grows all around, ‘Champa,’ say the Sanskrit poems, ‘for all its splendour and perfume, is not a sought after flower, because it grows on graves.’ In the declivities of the deforested slopes, there is a sparse growth of bitter lemon trees, nut-bearing coconut palms, larches and a catchfly from which the sap is gathered that sticks to the beards of goats.

Napoleon liked the willows by the spring; he asked peace of the SaneValley, as the exiled Dante sought peace at the monastery of Corvo. In gratitude for the transient repose which he enjoyed there in the last days of his life, he chose this valley to shelter his eternal rest. Speaking of its spring he said: ‘If God allowed me to recover, I would raise a monument at the place where it rises.’ That monument was his tomb. In Plutarch’s day, at a spot on the banks of the Strymon dedicated to the nymphs, one could still see a stone seat on which Alexander sat.

Napoleon, booted and spurred, dressed in the uniform of a Colonel of the Guard, decorated with the Legion of Honour, was laid out on his little iron bedstead; on the face which had never shown surprise, the soul, in departing, had left a sublime stupor. The planers and joiners soldered and nailed Bonaparte into a fourfold coffin of mahogany, lead, mahogany once more, and tin; it was as if they feared he could never be sufficiently contained. The cloak which the former conqueror had worn at the vast funeral rite of Marengo served as a pall for the coffin.

The obsequies were held on the 28th of May. The weather was fine; four horses, led by grooms on foot, drew the hearse; twenty four unarmed English grenadiers escorted it; Napoleon’s horse followed. The island’s garrison lined the slopes along the road. Three squadrons of dragoons preceded the cortege; the 20th Infantry Regiment, the Marines, the St Helena Volunteers, and the Royal Artillery with fifteen guns, brought up the rear. Groups of musicians, stationed at intervals on the rocks, exchanged mournful airs. At a narrow defile, the hearse halted; the twenty-four unarmed grenadiers lifted the body and had the honour of carrying it on their shoulders to the grave. Three artillery salvoes saluted Napoleon’s remains as he was lowered into the earth: all the noise he had made on that earth could not penetrate six feet beneath it.

A stone, which was to have been used in the building of the exile’s new house, was lowered onto his coffin, like a trap-door on his last prison.

The verses from Psalm 87 of the Vulgate were read: ‘I am poor, and in labours from my youth: and, being exalted, have been humbled and troubled. Thy wrath hath come upon me…’ The flag-ship fired its gun at one minute intervals. This warlike rhythm, lost in the immensity of the Ocean, sounded a response to the Requiescat in Pace. The Emperor, interred by the victors of Waterloo, had heard the last cannon-shot of that battle; he did not hear the last detonation with which England troubled and honoured his sleep at St Helena. All withdrew, holding willow branches in their hands, as if returning from the Feast of Palms.

When Napoleon left France it was said that he ought to be buried beneath the wreck of his final battle; Lord Byron in the satirical Ode cited already writes:

‘To die a prince or live a slave
Thy choice is most ignobly brave.’

That was to badly misjudge the power of hope in an irreversible soul which retained everything and from which nothing could be returned; Lord Byron thought that the dictator to kings had abdicated his fame with his sword, and was going to die forgotten. The poet ought to have known that Napoleon’s destiny was a muse, like all noble destinies. That muse was able to change an abortive outcome into a tragedy which renewed its hero. Napoleon’s solitary exile and tomb have clothed his illustrious memory with a different kind of magic. Alexander did not die beneath the gaze of Greece; he disappeared in remote Babylon. Bonaparte did not die beneath the gaze of France; he vanished below the sumptuous horizons of the torrid zones. He remained like a hermit or a pariah in a valley, at the end of a deserted pathway. The magnitude of the silence which weighed upon him equalled the immensity of sound that had accompanied him. The nations were absent, their throngs withdrew; the tropical bird, harnessed, as Buffon says, to the sun’s chariot, plunges from the source of light; where does it alight today? It alights on remains whose weight tilted the globe.