Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 21

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XXXIX, 20 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XL, 1

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIX, chapter 21
Reverie on the Lido

Venice, the 17th of September 1833.

Only a half-formed unsmiling dawn emerged from the sea. The transformation of shadow to light, with its changing marvels, its voiceless-ness and melody, its stars extinguished one by one in the rose and gold of morning, failed to occurr. A handful of boats hugged the wind along the coast; a large ship vanished on the horizon. A flock of resting seagulls patterned the beach; some wheeled heavily above the broad sea-swell. The tide had left traces of its concentric arcs along the shoreline. The sand, garlanded with sea-weed, was wrinkled by every wave, like a brow over which time has passed. The flowing wave chained white festoons to the deserted shore.

I addressed words of love to the waves, my companions: like young girls holding each other by the hand in a ring, they had surrounded me at birth. I caressed those singers of lullabies to my cradle; I plunged my hands in the sea; I carried its sacred water to my lips, without tasting the bitterness: then I walked the waves’ edge, listening to their doleful cries, sweet and familiar to my ear. I filled my pockets with shells from which the Venetians make necklaces. I often stopped to contemplate the marine immensity with a tender gaze. A mast, a cloud were enough to waken my memories.

I had crossed that sea, long years ago; opposite the Lido a storm gathered. I said to myself in the midst of the storm ‘that I had braved others, but at the time of my Ocean voyage I was young, and that dangers were pleasures to me then.’ I thought myself very old, then, when I sailed for Greece and Syria? What weight of days was I buried under, then?

What was I doing there by the wastes of the Adriatic? The follies of age border on those of the cradle: I wrote my name beside the net of foam, where the last wave had died; successive waves slowly attacked the consolation of a name; only on the sixteenth surge had they finally carried it away, letter by letter, as if with regret: I felt they were erasing my life.

Lord Byron rode beside this solitary sea: what were his thoughts and songs, his despondencies and hopes? Did he raise his voice to confide the inspirations of his genius to the storm? Was it to the murmur of those waves that he composed these lines?

‘…If my fame should be, as my fortunes are,
Of hasty growth and blight, and dull Oblivion bar
My name from out the temple where the dead
Are honoured by the nations, - let it be -’

Byron felt that his fortunes were of hasty growth and blight; in those moments of doubt concerning his fame, since he thought of no other immortality, only nothingness was left to him of his joys. His disgust would have been less bitter, his flight down here less barren, if he had altered course: beyond his exhausted passions, some generous force would have carried him to a new existence. People fail to believe because they halt at the surface of things: tunnel through the earth and you will find the heavens. Here is the boundary stone at whose foot Byron marked out his grave: was it to recall Homer buried on the shore of Ios? God had already measured out a grave for the poet, whom I preceded into the world, elsewhere. I had already visited the American forests when, beneath young Childe Harold’s elm, near London, I dreamed René’s ennui and the tide of his sadness. I followed the traces of Byron’s first footsteps along the pathways at Harrow-on-the-Hill; I met with the prints of his last steps at one of the stations of his pilgrimage: no, I searched for those prints in vain: blown by the storm, the sand has covered the hoof-prints of his horse robbed of its master: ‘Fisherman of Malamocco, have you heard tell of Lord Byron?’ – ‘He rode here almost every day.’ – ‘Do you know where he has gone?’ The fisherman looked at the sea. And the sea remembered the command Christ uttered to it: ‘tace; obmutesce: peace, be still.’ Before Byron, Virgil had crossed the gulf dreaded by that poet of the Tiber: who brought Byron and Virgil back from Athens? On these very shores Venice mourns their loss: the Bucentaur no longer bathes its golden flanks in the shadow of its purple canopy; a few boats hide behind the deserted headlands, as in the first age of the Republic.

One stormy day, between Malta and the Syrtes, preparing to die, I placed this note in an empty bottle: F. A. de Chateaubriand, wrecked on the island of Lampedusa on the 26th of December 1806, while returning from the Holy Land. A fragile glass vessel, a few lines tossed about over the abyss, are all that would have acknowledged my existence. The current would have carried my wandering epitaph to the Lido, as today the tide of the years has cast my wandering life ashore. Dinelli, second in command of my polacre to Alexandria, was a Venetian: he spent the night with me, three or four hours by the glass, leaning against the mast and singing to the gusts of wind,

‘Si tanto mi piace
Si rara Bella,
Io perdere la pace
Quando se destera.
She pleases me so
So rare a Beauty,
No peace do I know
When she awakes.’

Is Dinelli reposing sul’margine d’un rio beside his slumbering mistress? Has she woken? Does my vessel still exist? Has it been sunk? Has it been repaired? Its passenger can do nothing to restore his life! Perhaps that boat whose distant yards I see, is the same that was entrusted with my former fate? Perhaps the dismembered keel of my skiff has furnished the palisades of the Jewish cemetery?

But have I told all, in the Itinerary, about my voyage beginning at Desdemona’s harbour and ending in Chimène’s country? Did I travel to Christ’s tomb in a mood of repentance? One thought alone then filled my soul; I consumed the hours: beneath my impatient sail, my gaze fixed on the evening star, I asked of it a northerly wind to drive me on more swiftly. How my heart beat approaching the shores of Spain! What miseries followed that mystery! The sun lights them yet; the reason I still have reminds me of them.

Venice, when I saw you, a quarter of a century ago, you were ruled by a great man, your oppressor and mine; an island awaited his tomb; an island is yours: you sleep, each of you immortal, on your St Helena. Venice! Our fates have run in parallel! My dreams vanished as your palaces crumbled; the days of my youth have darkened, as have the arabesques with which the summits of your monuments are adorned. But you will perish unaware; I see my own ruins; your voluptuous sky, the elegance of the waves that wash you, find me as foolish as ever I was. I have grown old in vain; I still dream a thousand chimeras. The energy of my nature is penned in my heart; the years instead of calming me, have only succeeded in driving my youthfulness from my external self, in order to lodge it in my breast. What caresses will draw it forth, to prevent it stifling me? What dew will fall on me? What breeze emanating from the flowers will penetrate me with its gentle breath? The wind that sighs above this half-naked head blows from no happy shore!