« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »
THE POET OF THE OLD RÉGIME.
FRANÇOIS-AUGUSTE VICOMTE DE CHATEAUBRIAND associated his name with so many places and ideas, that almost every one, at some time or other, is drawn into an imaginative relation with him. The picture which first caught my eye, on entering the Louvre, was one representing an aged monk and a handsome youth about to commit the body of a lovely maiden to a grave, obviously hollowed by themselves, in the verdant depths of a forest. The pious tranquillity of the aged priest, the despairing grief of the young lover, and the exquisite loveliness of the corpse, instantly revealed that unity of effect which leaves an indelible impression On turning to the catalogue, I found the painting entitled “ The Burial of Atala.” With this souvenir of Chateaubriand, encountered within a week of landing in Europe, is linked the memory of the only Breton I ever knew. We stood together on the Campanile at Venice, and, while discussing that curious impulse which assails nervous organizations when looking down from a height, and induces an almost irresistible desire to leap, he calmly observed that it was his intention to gratify the propensity, in a few months, by springing from the precipitous cliff that bounded his family domain in Brittany. Many days of previous intercourse with this suicidal youth had revealed a thoughtful, self-possessed, and highly cultivated mind, that forbade my ascribing his remark to mere eccentricity; and his melancholy view of life and his fine endowments associate him in my recollection with his gifted
countryman, who, at a similar age, “arrested the fowling-piece ,
, with a tear.”
Chateaubriand owed his first literary fame to American subjects; through him our country assumed a poetical interest to European minds — although, it must be confessed, this result is to be ascribed rather to the fancy and enthusiasm than the authenticity of the writer. Lafayette had just returned to France, and
, awakened there a sentiment of glory in behalf of the new republic whose liberties he had assisted to rescue; and, while this feeling was yet prevalent, appeared the vivid descriptions of nature and the forest-life of the distant continent, from the glowing pen of Chateaubriand. The vicissitudes of his career, the tenacity of his opinions and sympathies, his extensive wanderings, and especially the remarkable identity of the man with his country and the age, render his memoirs of unusual interest. They exhibit the history of an eventful era, mirrored, as it were, upon a reflective and ardent soul; they illustrate how the spirit of reform wrestles with the mind of an intelligent conservative; and they afford the most impressive glimpses of nature, literature, revolutions, and society, as they appear to the consciousness of a man of sentiment and philosophy, thoroughly exposed to their agency, and yet capable of tranquil observation. Strongly attached to the ideas of the past, -religious, political, and domestic,-on account of his education and instincts, he was borne along the tide of those vital changes that mark the last century, at once their victim and expositor, — now inspired and now persecuted by the course of events, and yet always preserving intact the noble individuality of his character.
It is this which makes us the willing auditors of his story, and which, in spite of the constant egotism and occasional extravagance of his autobiography, wins our warmest attention and frequent sympathy. The hardihood with which he accepts the conditions of a destiny alternating between the greatest extremes of misfortune and prosperity; the zeal that sustains his pilgrimage in the trackless forests of the West and the arid desert of the East; over seas and mountains, through unknown crowds of his fellow-beings, and in the lonely struggles of bereaved affection, lend a warmth to every page of his narrative; and amid the varying panorama through which he conducts us, not for a moment are we unconscious of the Breton, the royalist, and the poet of the old régime. It is this combination of intense personal identity with the most changeful scenes and fortunes that gives its peculiar charm to the life of Chateaubriand. Other travellers have as well described America and the Holy Land, Napoleon and the Alhambra; we have pictures of the French Revolution more elaborate than his; the trials and the triumphs of the man of letters have been equally well chronicled, and the war of opinion as eloquently reported; but these, and the countless other phases of Chateaubriand's experience, are lighted up in his record by the fire of imagination, outlined, with wonderful distinctness, by strong feeling, and often exquisitely softened by the atmosphere of sentiment. Sketches which impress us with the intensely picturesque effect of Dante are interspersed with speculative gossip that would do credit to old Montaigne, and the author and lover seem to change parts with the adventurer and the statesman, as we find the experiences of each detailed with equal complacency; yet through and around them all the original man is apparent — his melancholy reveries, his poetic ecstasies, his profound sensibility to nature, his love of glory, his devotion to the past, his vast anticipations, his philosophic observation, keen sense of honor, patriotism, and independent yet loving spirit. Nothing can be more manly than bis enterprises, his endurance, and his industry, and nothing more childlike than his account of them. We are often inclined to forget the offensiveness of vanity, as we read, in the fruits of its unconscious revelations; we cannot but perceive that it is the vividness of his own impressions and the importance he attaches to them that render Chateaubriand so effective an author; and intolerable as would be commonplace events thus unfolded, those of universal interest, which chiefly occupy his memoirs, derive from this cause an infinite attraction. Far more real appear the historic scenes reviewed, when thus linked with the thoughts and feelings of such a man, and the whole process of his authorship is ingeniously displayed by so minute a history of his life; indeed, the one is but the exponent of the other; his books are the genuine offspring of his experience,
and his biography not the life of one man, but an episodical history of the times.
The most careful limning in this remarkable picture is that of the early scenes. Like all reminiscences, those of his childhood are the clearest, and the original elements of his character there defined give us the key to much of his subsequent history. Following him from St. Malo through the most exciting and dramatic incidents, and amid every variety of climate and condition, the image of the isolated, thoughtful, and baffled youth rises continually to our fancy, and explains every trait of the man. the turret, the woods, the paternal austerity, the sisters' love, the mother's piety, the suicidal purpose, the ideal attachment, the rude manners, and heart trembling with sensibility, — all this half-Crabbe-like and half-Shakspearian picture of a young provincial noble's existence in Brittany just before the Revolution, haunts the memory of the reader with its sad yet truthful lineaments. It also gives him the clue to Chateaubriand's solemnity of mind and loyalty of purpose. In the solitude and secret conflicts of his boyhood originated the strength of mind, the want of external adaptation, and the poetical habit of his nature. It drew him into intimacy with the outward universe and his own soul, and laid the foundation of the contemplative spirit that accompanied him in a career of almost incessant activity; thus inducing a kind of Hamlet or Jacques like idiosyncrasy, that, when deepened by exile, poverty, and baffled sentiment, gave the element of pathos which distinguishes the most effective of his writings, and is the key-note of his memoirs.
The life of Chateaubriand, thus minutely related, and made alive and dramatic by the fidelity and emotion with which it is portrayed, naturally arranges itself into scenes, each of which illustrates an entire act. Thus, from the chateau-life of his childhood, we follow him to college, and thence to Paris, and stand beside him at the window where his heart sickened as the heads of the first victims of the Revolution were borne along on pikes ; then behold him seated by an Indian camp-fire, within hearing of the Falls of Niagara; a few months elapse, and he is discovered sauntering in Kensington Gardens, meditating a work of genius, or sharing his last crust with a brother exile in a London garret; within a year the teacher of an English country maiden in a disa
a tant parish; shortly afterwards the secretary of Cardinal Fesch, at Rome; then a pilgrim to Jerusalem, animated by the old crusader spirit; previously a soldier in the French army besieging Thironville, or begging, wounded, at a fisherman's hut; again, in retirement at the Vallée aux Loups, planting or writing; now fraternizing with the Parisian littérateurs of a past generation, now braving Napoleon in an inaugural discourse before the French Institute, and now fêting the English nobility as ambassador to the Court of St. James; waging political battles in Paris, assisting at the Congress of Verona, or talking regretfully of the past, in his latter days, at Madame Recamier's soirées. The life of the province, the university, the capital — the voyageur, the soldier, the author, the diplomat, the journalist, the exile, the man of society, the man of state, and the man of sentiment all were known to their full significance in his adventurous career. Stern as were the realities of his lot, a vein of absolute romance is visible throughout; continually an episode occurs which the writer of fiction would seize with avidity and elaborate with effect. Imagine the use to which might be thus adapted such incidents as the night he was an involuntary prisoner in Westminster Abbey, the circumstances of his emigration, and his departure from the army of the princes; his encounter with a French dancing-master among the Iroquois, his mariage de convenance, and his subsequent love-adventure in England; his brilliant début as an author, his shipwreck on returning from America, his vigil at the death-bed of Madame Beaumont, and his walk out of Brussels while listening to the cannons of Waterloo! The breath of every clime, the discipline of all vocations, the fiercest controversies, and the most abstract reveries, associations of the highest kind, and events of the most universal import; fame and obscurity, riches and poverty, devoted friendship and pitiable isolation, contact with the past through keen sympathy and intense imagination, identity with the present through indefatigable activity ; made up the existence of Chateaubriand, which was the successive realization of all that constitutes the life of the mind, of the heart, and of the age itself.
His social experience was quite as varied, interesting, and his