Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXVI, 1

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XXV, 13 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXVI, 2

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXVI, chapter 1
My life in 1821 – The Berlin Embassy – Arrival in Berlin – Monsieur Ancillon – The Royal Family – Celebrations for Grand-Duke Nicholas’ marriage – Berlin

I departed France, leaving my friends in possession of posts which I had purchased for them at the price of my own absence: I was a lesser Lycurgus. What was fine about it was that the first trial of my own political strength that I had attempted had set me at liberty; I was about to enjoy that freedom abroad in a position of power. At the heart of this new situation for me, I saw romance, of a kind, confused with the reality: was there nothing in court life? Were there not solitudes of another kind? There were perhaps Elysian Fields with their shades.

I left Paris on the 1st of January 1821: the Seine was frozen, and for the first time I travelled the roads with the comforts money could buy. Gradually I recovered my contempt for wealth; I began by feeling that it was a fine thing to ride in a comfortable carriage, to receive good service, not to have to bother with anything, to be preceded by a giant chasseur from Warsaw, always half-starved, who, in the absence of the Tsar, would have devoured Poland all by himself. But I quickly accustomed myself to my good fortune; I had a presentiment that it would not last long, and I would soon be back on my own two feet when it suited. By the time I arrived at my destination, nothing remained of my journey but my original inclination for the journey itself; an inclination for freedom – the satisfaction of having loosed my ties to society.

You will read, when I return from Prague in 1833, what I have to say of my old memories of the Rhine: I was obliged, because of the ice, to ascend its banks, and cross above Mainz. I barely concerned myself with Maguntia, its archbishop, its three or four sieges, and the printing press by mean of which however I held sway. Frankfurt, a Jewish city, only detained me for one of its business transactions: a currency conversion.

The journey was a melancholy one: the highroad was snow-covered and frost wreathed the branches of the pine trees. Jena appeared in the distance with the larvae of its twin battles. I passed through Erfurt and Weimar: the Emperor was no longer at Erfurt; Goethe, whom I so much admired, and whom I now admire a great deal less, lived in Weimar. The singer of Matter lived, and its ancient dust yet clung about his genius. I might have known Goethe, and I never met him; he leaves a gap in the procession of famous people who have passed before my eyes.

The tomb of Luther at Wittenberg did not detain me: Protestantism is not a religion but an illogical heresy; politically, an abortive revolution. Having eaten a little rye bread, while crossing the Elbe, that must have been kneaded in a cloud of tobacco smoke, I could have done with a drink from Luther’s great glass, conserved as a relic. Passing through Potsdam and crossing the Spree, a river of ink on which barges, guarded by white dogs, ride, I arrived in Berlin. There, as I have said, lived the false Julian in his false Athens. I looked in vain for the sun of Mount Hymettus. I wrote Book IV of these Memoirs in Berlin: there you have seen my description of that city, my trip to Potsdam, my thoughts on Frederick the Great, his horse, his greyhounds, and Voltaire.

Staying at an inn for the night of the 11th of January, I then went off to reside on Unter den Linden, in a house vacated by Monsieur the Marquis de Bonnay, which belonged to Madame the Duchess de Dino; I was received by Messieurs de Caux, de Flavigny and de Cussy, secretaries to the legation.

On the 17th of January, I had the honour of presenting Monsieur le Marquis de Bonnay’s letter of re-accreditation, and my letter of accreditation, to the King, who lodged in a simple house, its only distinction being two sentries at the door: anyone might enter; anyone might speak to him if he was at home. This simple style adopted by the German Princes contributed to rendering the names and prerogatives of the great less apparent to inferior mortals. Frederick-William went out each day, at the same hour, in an uncovered carriage which he drove himself, helmet on his head, a greyish cloak on his back, to smoke a cigar in the park. I often met him and we would continue our walks side by side. When he returned to Berlin, the sentry at the Brandenburg Gate announced him at the top of his voice; the guard presented arms and marched off; the King passed through, and all was done.

On the same day I paid court to the Royal Prince and his brothers, young and very light-hearted military men. I saw the Grand-Duke Nicholas and the Grand-Duchess, not long married, and still in the midst of celebrations. I also met the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland, Prince William, the King’s brother, and Prince Augustus of Prussia, long our prisoner: he had wanted to marry Madame Récamier; he owned the fine portrait of her that Gérard had painted and which he had exchanged with the prince for the picture of Corinna.

I was urged to seek out Monsieur Ancillon. We knew one another through our writings. I had met him in Paris with his pupil the Crown Prince; in the interim he had been charged with the Foreign Affairs portfolio in Berlin during Count von Bernstorff’s absence. His life was very sad: his wife had lost her sight: all the doors of his house were left open; the poor blind lady roamed from room to room among her flowers, and perched here and there like a nightingale in a cage: she sang beautifully but soon died.

Monsieur Ancillon, like many of Prussia’s illustrious men, was of French origin: a Protestant Minister, his opinions were at first extremely liberal; little by little they hardened. When I met him again in Rome in 1828, he had become a moderate Royalist once more, and reverted to monarchical absolutism. With a fierce delight in generous feeling, he had a fear and hatred of revolutionaries; it was that hatred that pushed him towards despotism, in order to seek shelter there. Do those who still celebrate 1793, and admire the crimes committed then, never comprehend how the horror with which those crimes gripped people presents an obstacle to the establishment of liberty?

There was a reception at court, and there commenced the honours shown me of which I was so little worthy. Jean Bart wore a suit of cloth of gold lined with silvered cloth, on his visit to Versailles, which made him feel very uncomfortable. The Grand-Duchess, now the Empress of Russia, and the Duchess of Cumberland took my arm in a Polish march: my romance with society began. The air of that polonaise was a kind of pot-pourri composed of several little pieces among which, to my great satisfaction, I recognised the song about King Dagobert: it encouraged me, and came to the rescue of my timidity. These receptions were repeated; one of them in particular took place in the King’s great palace. Not wishing to give an account of it myself, I reproduce here the one submitted to the Berlin Morgenblatt by the Baroness von Hohenhausen:

‘Berlin, the 22nd of March 1821.
Morgenblatt (The Morning Paper), no. 70.

One of the notable people who attended this reception was the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, the French Ambassador, and, however splendid the spectacle unfolding before their eyes, Berlin’s lovely ladies still spared a glance for the author of Atala, that fine and melancholy story in which the most ardent love succumbs in its struggle with religion. The death of Atala and Chactas’ moment of happiness, during a storm in the ancient forests of America, painted in Milton’s tones, remain forever engraved on the memories of all its readers. Monsieur de Chateaubriand wrote Atala in his youth, during which he was painfully afflicted by exile from his homeland: from that derives the profound melancholy and burning passion which fill the entire work. At present, this consummate Statesman has dedicated his pen wholly to politics. His most recent work, The Life and Death of the Duc de Berry, is written completely in the style of the panegyrists of Louis XIV.

Monsieur de Chateaubriand is of quite a modest and yet slender stature. His oval face bears an expression of piety and melancholy. He has dark hair and eyes: the latter shine with the light of his spirit which reveals itself in his features.’

But I have white hair; moreover I am more than a century old, I am dead: so forgive Madame the Baroness von Hohenhausen for having sketched me in my prime, though she already grants me my years. The portrait is, moreover, very kind; but I owe it to truth to say that it is no good likeness.