Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXV, 14

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XXXV, 13 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXV, 15

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXV, chapter 14
The Saint-Gothard

Having emerged from Devil’s Bridge and the Urnerloch tunnel, you reach the meadows of Ursern, backed by slopes like the stony terraces of an arena. The Reuss runs peacefully through the midst of the greenery; the contrast is striking: in this tranquillity, society existed beyond and before revolution; men and empires slumbered two steps from the abyss into which they would fall.

At the village of L’Hospital the second ascent begins, which reaches the summit of the Saint-Gothard, filled with granite masses. These rolling masses, swollen, split, festooned to their summit with garlands of snow, resemble waves, foaming and frozen in an ocean of rock, on which man has left the undulations of his track.

‘At Mount Adula’s feet, in a thousand reeds, below,
The calm Rhine, proud of the progress of his flow,
Supported by a hand on his tilted urn, sleeps
To the soothing sound of his swelling deeps.’

Very fine lines though inspired by the Versailles’ rivers of marble. The Rhine does not emerge from a bed of reeds: he rises from a frosted bed, his urn or rather urns are of ice; his origin is cognate with that of those Northern races whose adoptive river and warrior’s baldric he became. The Rhine, born from the Saint-Gothard in the Grisons, flows to the waters of the seas of Holland, Norway and England; the Rhone, also a child of Saint-Gothard, carries its tribute to Neptune to Spain, Italy and Greece: sterile snows form reservoirs for the fecundity of the ancient and the modern world.

Two lakes, on the Saint-Gothard plateau, give birth, one to the Ticino the other to the Reuss. The source of the Reuss is lower than the source of the Ticino, so that by digging a canal a few hundred feet long, you could divert the Ticino into the Reuss. If you repeated the same exercise with the principal tributaries of these waters, you would produce strange metamorphoses in the countries at the foot of the Alps. A mountain dweller can delight in damming a river, of enriching or impoverishing a country; here is something to diminish the pride of the powerful.

What a wonderful thing to see the Reuss and the Ticino exchange an eternal adieu and go their separate ways down the twin slopes of Saint-Gothard: their cradles touch; their fates are different: they go to find other lands and other suns; but their mothers, always linked, endlessly nourish their separate children from the heights of solitude.

On Saint-Gothard, there was once, a hospice run by Capuchins; there is nothing to see now but ruins: the only trace of religion is a worm-eaten wooden cross with its figure of Christ: God remains when man departs.

On the Saint-Gothard plateau, a wilderness in the sky, one world ends and another begins: German names give way to Italian ones. I am leaving behind my companion, the Reuss, which lead me onwards, as I re-ascended it from LakeLucerne, in order to descend to Lake Lugano with my new guide the Ticino.

The Saint-Gothard is a vertical cut on the Italian side; the road which plunges into the Tremola Valley does honour to the engineer obliged to design it in the narrowest of gorges. Seen from above, the road resembles a ribbon folded and refolded upon itself; seen from below, the walls which support the causeway look like the outworks of a fortress, or imitate those dykes raised one on top of another against invasion by the waves. Sometimes too, one would liken the double line of boundary stones planted at regular intervals on both sides of the road, to a column of soldiers descending the Alps to invade unfortunate Italy once more.

Saturday, the 18th of August 1832. Lugano.

I passed through Airolo, Bellinzona and the Leventina Valley: I did not see the countryside, I only heard the torrents. In the sky, the stars rose among the domes and spires of mountains. The moon was not yet above the horizon but her light ran before her, like those glories with which the fourteenth century painters encircled the Virgin’s head; at last she appeared, eaten into, reduced to a quarter of her disc, over the jagged summit of Furca; the points of her crescent resembled wings; one might have thought her a white dove fleeing her rocky nest: by her light, weakened and rendered more mysterious, the concave luminary revealed Lake Maggiore at the end of the Levantina Valley. I had seen the lake twice before, once when travelling to the Congress of Verona, and again when starting my Rome Embassy. Then I contemplated it in the sun, from the path of prosperity; now, I saw it at night, from the opposite shore, and the path of adversity. Between my journeys, separated by only a few years, lay no less than a fourteen-century old monarchy.

It is not that I could care less about political revolution; in giving me my freedom, they return me to my true self. I have enough sap in me still to recreate the first fruit of my dreams, enough fire to renew my relationship with the imaginary creature of my desires. The age and the world I have traversed have been no more than a double solitude to me, in which I have retained inwardly the self that heaven created. Why should I bewail the flight of days, when I have lived as much in an hour as those who have spent years trying to live?