Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIV, 9

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XXXIV, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIV, 10


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXIV, chapter 9
My journal continued – Messieurs Carrel and Béranger



At Pâquis, near Geneva, the 26th of September 1831.

My Études Historiques led to a relationship with Monsieur Carrel, as it likewise brought about my meeting Messieur Thiers and Mignet. I had reproduced, in the preface to my Études, a fairly lengthy passage from Monsieur Carrell’s Catalonian War, this paragraph in particular: ‘Events, in their continual and fatal transformations, do not drag all minds along with them; they do not influence every character with equal facility; they do not even take account of all interests; that is what we must understand, and we must forgive something in those protests that are made in support of the past. When an age is over, the mould is broken, and it suffices Providence that it cannot be re-made; but there is sometimes a beauty to be beheld in the ruins left behind on earth.’

After these fine words, I added this summary myself: ‘The man who could write these words has something in sympathy with those who have faith in Providence, who respect past religion, and who have also gazed at ruins.’

Monsieur Carrel thanked me. He was at that time the genius and spirit of the National, on which he laboured with Messieurs Thiers and Mignet. Monsieur Carrel belonged to a pious royalist family of Rouen; the Legitimacy, short-sighted and rarely capable of distinguishing worth, misjudged Monsieur Carrell. Proud and aware of his own value, he took refuge in generous opinions, in which one finds a compensation for the sacrifices one imposes on oneself: what happens to all characters fit for great things, happened to him. When unforeseen circumstances oblige them to restrict themselves to a narrow circle, they consume their super-abundant talents in efforts which surpass the opinions and events of their day. Before revolutions, superior men die unknown: their public has not yet arrived; after revolutions, superior men die abandoned: their public has slipped away.

Monsieur Carrel was unfortunate; nothing was more practical than his ideas, nothing more romantic than his life. A Republican volunteer in Spain in 1823, captured on the battlefield, condemned to death by the French authorities, escaping from a thousand perils, love became enmeshed with the problems of his private existence. It required him to defend the passion which sustained his life, and that man of feeling, always ready to throw himself on the point of a sword in broad daylight, went to find the portal and shadows of night, he walks those silent fields with a beloved woman, at first light, when they beat the reveille to summon an attack on the enemy.

I leave Monsieur Carrel behind to say a few words about our celebrated song-writer. You will find my account is too brief, Reader, but I crave your indulgence: his name and his songs must be engraved in your memory.

Monsieur de Béranger is not obliged to hide his love, as Monsieur Carrell was. Having sung of liberty and the people’s virtues while braving the prisons of kings, he set his love down in a couplet, and, behold, the immortal Lisette.

Near the Barrière des Martyrs, below Montmartre, you will find the Rue de la Tour-d’Auvergne. In that street, half-built, half-paved, in a little house hidden behind a tiny garden and suited to the size of present-day incomes, you will find the famous song-writer. A bald head, a somewhat rustic air, though neat and pleasant, proclaims the poet. I rest my eyes with delight on that plebeian figure, having seen so many visages of kings; I compare those vastly different types: on the royal brow one sees something of an elevated nature, but wrinkled, powerless, worn; on the democratic face common physical traits appear, but one acknowledges a lofty intellectual character: the royal brow has lost its crown; the commoner’s brow awaits one.

One day I begged Béranger (he will forgive me for associating myself with his fame), to show me one of his unknown works: ‘Did you know,’ he said, ‘I began as one of your disciples? I was mad about Le Génie du Christianisme and I wrote Christian idylls; they were scenes with country priests, pictures of religion in villages at harvest-time.’

Monsieur Augustin Thierry told me that the Battle of the Franks in Les Martyrs had given him the idea of a new way of writing history: nothing has flattered me more than to discover the influence of my works on the careers of the historian Thierry and the poet Béranger.

Our song-writer has the varied qualities that Voltaire demanded of song: ‘In order to succeed with these little efforts,’ declared the author of so much graceful poetry, ‘there must be subtlety and sentiment in the soul, harmony in the spirit, nothing too high, or low, and knowledge of how to be brief.’

Béranger has several Muses, all charming, and though those Muses are women, he loves them all. When he is betrayed, he makes no attempt at elegy: and yet there is feeling of pious sadness at the heart of his gaiety: it is a serious face that smiles; it is philosophy praying.

My friendship for Béranger earned me much astonishment on the part of what was called my party; an old Knight of Saint Louis, who is unknown to me, wrote from the recesses of his turret: ‘Rejoice, Monsieur, in being praised by one who has insulted your King and your God.’ Very good, my fine gentleman! You are a poet too.