Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXVI, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXVI, chapter 3
William Humboldt – Adelbert de Chamisso

The habits of Berlin society suited me: between five and six one went out for the evening; all was over by nine, and I slept right through as if I were not an Ambassador. Sleep consumes existence: that is what is fine about it: ‘Time is long, and life is short’, said Fénelon. William von Humboldt, brother of my illustrious friend Baron Alexander, was in Berlin: I knew him as a Minister in Rome; under suspicion, as far as government was concerned, because of his opinions, he led a retired life; to kill time he studied all the world’s languages and even dialects. He rediscovered peoples, ancient inhabitants of the earth, by means of the geographical denominatives of countries. One of his daughters spoke ancient and modern Greek equally well: if one came upon him on the right day, one could converse at dinner in Sanskrit.

Adelbert de Chamisso was housed in the Botanical Gardens, at some distance from Berlin. I visited him in that solitude where the plants were freezing in the greenhouses. He was tall, of a very handsome figure. I felt an attraction to this traveller, exiled like myself: he had seen those polar seas I had hoped to penetrate. An émigré, as I had been, he had been brought up in Berlin as a page. Adelbert, travelling through Switzerland, stopped for a moment at Coppet. He found himself one of a party on the lake, where he thought he would perish. He wrote that very day: ‘I see clearly that I must seek my salvation on the great waters.’

Monsieur de Chamisso had been nominated by Monsieur de Fontanes as a professor at La Roche-sur-Yon, then as professor of Greek at Strasbourg; he refused the offer with these noble words: ‘The primary condition required, for work in instructing the young, is freedom: though I admire Bonaparte’s genius, it would not suit me.’ He refused likewise the benefits offered him under the Restoration: ‘I have done nothing for the Bourbons’, he said, ‘and I cannot receive a reward for the blood and service of my forefathers. In this age every man must achieve things for himself.’ In Monsieur Chamisso’s family they preserve this note, written in the Temple, by Louis XVI himself: ‘I recommend Monsieur de Chamisso, one of my loyal servants, to my brothers.’ The royal martyr had hidden this note in his shirt so that it would be given to his senior page, Hippolyte Chamisso, Adelbert’s eldest brother.

Perhaps the most moving work of this child of the Muses, concealed beneath foreign arms and adopted by German bards, are these lines which he first penned in German and translated into French verse, about the Château de Boncourt, his paternal hearth:

‘Weighed down by my white hair;
I still dream of my early life;
You pursue me, image so fair,
Renewing beneath Time’s scythe.
From the depths of an emerald sea
Rose that noble château of ours,
I recall its roof high above me,
With its crenellated towers;
Those lions on our coat of arms,
Still show their kindly gaze,
I smile at you, beloved guards;
And hurl myself through the maze.
There’s the sphinx of the fountain,
There’s the fig tree growing green;
There, the vain shadow blossomed
Of a child’s first poetry.
I search for, and I see again
My grandfather’s chapel tomb;
There his weapons hang in array.
On their pillar, in the gloom.
That marble the sunlight gilds,
Those sacred characters too,
No, I cannot see them still,
A veil of mist clouds my view.
My forebears’ trusted domain
Within me alone, you renew!
Proud, nothing of you remains,
the plough has passed over you!...
Be fertile, my cherished land,
I bless you, with heart at rest;
Bless, as he may, the ploughman,
Whose blade furrows your breast.’

Chamisso blesses the farmer who ploughs the furrow of which he himself has been despoiled; his soul must have inhabited the regions where my friend Joubert soared. I regret Combourg, and with less resignation, even though it may not have left my family. Embarking on a vessel provided by Count Romanzov, Monsieur de Chamisso with Captain Kotzebue discovered the straight to the east of the BehringStrait, and gave his name to one of the islands from which Cook glimpsed the coast of America. On Kamchatka, he discovered a portrait of Madame Récamier on porcelain, and his own little tale of Peter Schlemihl, translated into Dutch. Adelbert’s hero, Peter Schlemihl, sold his soul to the devil: I would have preferred to sell him my body.

I remember Chamisso like the faint breeze which lightly swayed the stems of the bushes I passed through as I returned to Berlin.