« AnteriorContinuar »
into the garden, Maud," and the rest of Mr Tennyson's roses, and swallows, and brooklets, and not such a stormy trumpet-note of battle as his March of the Six Hundred, which people among us sing and set to music.
On the contrary, Beranger, before everything else chansonnier and poetlaureate of the people, takes up every event of the life he lives. In the sparkling regularity of his native tongue he finds material the happiest and most handy; it is the genius of his language no less than of himself which gems those brilliant little periods. He sends the ouvrier to his work, singing something which he would have been thinking, only less delicately and gaily, had the mastersinger failed to provide this expression for him. He throws into delightful verse the village grandmother's recollections, yet leaves them precisely as she will tell them by the cottage fireside in Champagne or Normandy. The sempstress in her solitary little room, the tailor at his board, the host of artisans of higher class, workmen with clever heads and delicate fingers, who make pretty things for all the world, and have in their own manners and life a species of refinement in consonance with their work-every individual of them takes up the refrain of Beranger with a familiar delight. They are all thinking more or less with the lively and superficial intellectual activity common to their country; and in those sparkling lines, which of themselves are a pleasure to their quick ears with the sharp and brilliant logic which delights and suits their mental faculties with all the enthusiasm of their own effervescing power, and the glitter of satirical wit which they can best appreciate, their poet makes his comment upon life and politics as they themselves would have made it, and furnishes them with an inexhaustible fountain of expression for their thoughts. They are not a reserved and silent people as we are; they must speak or die, all those throngs of vivacious and restless Frenchmen. So the genius of the
poet and the nation combine in a benevolent overflow of music, various, diversified, brilliant, yet full of a consistent and personal unity; and one no longer wonders, in Paris, where every one was more or less indebted to him, where all sang his songs, and thought his thoughts, and where everybody delights in getting up impromptu ovations and dramatic scenes, that Beranger had sometimes to seek the protection of the authorities, and to fly with precipitation from the popular embrace.
It is but a few months since this old man ended his long, honest, kindly, and sensible life. He had a public funeral, a long procession of mourners, and an unlimited shower of immortelles upon his pall and grave. He has had, besides, his share of those literary funeral garlands, which are pretty much of the same character as the immortelles; but he has fortunately prevented any one from operating upon his life, by leaving behind him. this brief and simple autobiography,* which, without any great pretensions to eloquence, presents to us not only an admirable portrait of the great popular poet of France, but an extremely clear and simple picture of the manners of his rank and time.
Beranger was born in 1780, in the house of a Parisian tailor, his mother's father. She was a modiste," pretty, sprightly, and of a beautiful figure.' His father, at the time of his marriage, was book-keeper to a grocer in the street where the tailor's house was, the Rue Montorgueil, "one of the dirtiest and most turbulent streets of Paris." The elder Beranger pleased himself by prefixing the aristocratic De to his name, and made considerable pretensions to nobility of birth - pretensions which his son seems to have taken some pleasure in renouncing for himself: but whether noble or not, his fortunes were sufficiently humble. He was the son of an innkeeper in the little country town of Peronne-who, notwithstanding his position, held the same pretensions--and had been clerk to a notary in the country before he came to Paris, to keep the books of
Ma Biographie, by BERANGER. Perrotin, Paris. English copyright translation : Hurst & Blackett, London.
the épicier. Not many gifts of fortune, consequently, surrounded the cradle of Beranger. The newly-married couple had been but a few months together when they separated, tired of each other-the wife to return to her occupation and her father's house, the husband to seek his fortune in the country; and it was in the house of the Père Champy, his tailor grandfather, that Beranger was born. The sketch of this household, and of these nearest relatives of the poet, is extremely French and characteristic. The father, who has nothing save his wits for a patrimony, disappears into the provinces to live upon that inalienable fortune. The mother, who seems always totally without any feeling of responsibility for her child, leaves her father's house presently, to adopt for herself that extraordinary kind of female bachelorship (for no more feminine word seems to express it) common to the workwomen of Paris. The boy is sent to a village in the country to be nursed, and afterwards returns to his grand-parents, who, "though they had not regarded their own children with much affection," did their utmost to spoil their grandchild. These two old French tradespeople have a great taste for literature. "I remember my grandmother carefully perusing the romances of Prévot and the works of Voltaire," says Beranger, "and my grandfather commenting aloud on the work of Raynal, which at that time enjoyed great popularity. I may since have doubted whether my kind grandmother understood much of what she read, passionately addicted as she was to her books. She was constantly quoting M. de Voltaire, which, however, did not lead her to neglect what she considered her religious duty to me, and on the occurrence of the sacred ceremonies of the Fête Dieu I was made to join in the celebration of the holy sacrament."
In the midst of this household-and where but in France could it be possible to find a family of working people, where the grandmother delighted herself with the works of a profane philosophy ?-the little Beranger remained till he was nine years old. He was a delicate child, and had no inclination for school.
seems, indeed, just such a little boy as one would set down as a little dunce, of whom nothing ever could come, except some mechanical nicety of labour. He sat in a corner cutting paper figures, and making "little baskets of cherry-stones, skilfully hollowed out, and delicately carved ; tiny masterpieces of art, which kept me employed whole days, and excited the admiration of all my relations.' He was great in making excuses and inventing pretexts for staying at home from school. He managed, by some odd method of his own, to jump at the art of reading, so far as to comprehend the meaning of what he read, though" incapable," as he says, "of connecting and pronouncing even two syllables aloud" and the only break in this lonely childhood was an occasional visit to his mother, who lived near the Temple, and who sometimes took him to the theatres on the Boulevard, to balls, or on pleasure excursions to the country. All this might be told of a Parisian bourgeois household to-day, but for the strange gleams of terror which break once or twice across the scene. The times in which Beranger's grandmother read Voltaire, were those in which the old world nodded to its fall, and the fires of the coming volcano smouldered; and it is strange to read, in a briefer intimation than that which he makes about the cherry-stones, how the child from the roof of his school saw the capture of the Bastille, and how his memory burned all his life with a recollection of another scene more dreadful and ominous. When crossing the street upon a holiday, the boy found himself in the midst of a crowd of men and women, who carried on the points of long pikes the heads of the gardes du corps, who had been massacred at Versailles. "This spectacle inspired me with such horror," he says, "that when I now think of it, I seem to behold, in imagination, one of those blood-stained heads that passed quite close to me." It would have been little wonder had it haunted him night and day; and nothing can well be more strange than to turn from our usual pictures of the time of the French Revolution, with all its ferocious and diabolical excitement, and find how the little households
revolve all the same in their quiet little orbits without disturbance, how the grisette still goes to the ball, and the child to school, and the grandmamma still reads Voltaire.
In the mean time, however, the poet has so much of his personal history to tell, that he passes very lightly over the grievous public events of his childhood. No one need fear to find here the oft-repeated story of the Revolution. He thanks Heaven that he was removed from Paris during the Terror, and passes on, accordingly, with little further reference to this horrible era. For the elder Beranger turns up once more, again a notary in the country, but not rich enough to educate his son. The old grandfather retires from business, and is no longer able to keep the boy, and he is sent to the hereditary auberge in Peronne, his parents caring nothing for him, to see whether his aunt, his father's sister, will receive the poor little outcast. At the door of the little inn, unexpected and unwelcome, the child drops suddenly, a little waif of fortune, but falls into motherly hands, and is henceforward safe for the days of his childhood. Here is another picture of a humble Frenchwoman, the innkeeper of a little country town, in the end of last century. Either Beranger saw those friends of his through rose-coloured glasses, or nature had been bountiful to those nurses of the coming poct.
"Endowed by nature with a superior mind, she had supplied the defects of her education by serious and select reading. Inspired with enthusiasm for all that was great, even in the last years of her life, she continued to dwell with interest on the announcement of new discoveries, the progress of industry, and even the embellishment of the city. As she was capable of the most sanguine exaltation of temperament, the Revolution had influence enough to make her as ardent a republican as was consistent with her humane disposition; and she was always able to associate with her patriotism as a Frenchwoman those religious sentiments for which a feeling soul is often more indebted to its own inherent nature than to early education." It was to this woman, who still
united Voltaire to Telemachus and Racine in her little library, that Beranger owed all that he knew of. the care of a mother; and a picture more pleasant and more true to nature could scarcely be than that presented to us in these incidental glimpses of the life of this kind widow and her boy. She was religious, so she sent him to church, and even had him employed as a kind of acolyte in the ministrations of the mass, while yet churches and masses were in that age of the Revolution. She took him with her to the prison, where some of her friends were confined, making a little moral application of the circumstance, as such good women use. She sat with him in the evening at the door of her house, listening with indignant alarm to the thunder of the cannon when the English and Austrians besieged Valenciennes-while ever stronger and stronger in their reaction upon each other grew the patriotism of the solitary woman and the child. They listened together with triumph to the proclamation of their Republic's victories; and the boy's heart beat so violently at the announcement of one of them, that he had to throw himself down on the grass to recover his breath. In this friendship and conjunction the "auldfarrant" child gave as well as received. The good woman frequently asked advice of her pupil, and sometimes, to her cost, did not take it, as in her second marriage, to which her wise little nephew was not favourable. She who was sincerely religious" was in the habit of sprinkling the house with holy water on the approach of a storm, to defend it from the thunder. Notwithstanding this precaution, her boy was struck by lightning at the door of her house, as the fairy, according to his own showing, had predicted. They thought him dead, and his aunt was in despair; but when, after great exertions, he was restored to consciousness, the young critic turned upon her with his quick-witted childish intelligence, "Well, then, what was the use of your holy water?" Altogether a pleasanter representation of the strange, beautiful, amusing friendship which often exists
At Peronne also there was a school, which makes another amusing illustration of the temper of the times a school established by a provincial magistrate and disciple of Rousseau, according to one of the educational theories so abundant at the time, and intended to turn out citizens made according to the most perfect rules, and ready to take their place at once in the political economy of the State. "The school was supposed to form a little community; the pupils elected from among themselves judges, members of districts, a mayor, municipal officers, a justice of peace. The system included also an armed force, composed of the whole body of the pupils, who were divided into chasseurs, grenadiers, and artillery, and who also elected their own officers. In our promenades we carried our lances and sabres, and were attended by our ammunition-waggon and a small piece of cannon, which was dragged after us, and in the manœuvring of which we were instructed." These unfortunate little men, of course, did not stop there; being like the grown-up people so far, they proceeded to the still more delightful privilege which remained. "We had also a club, the meetings of which attracted a number of the people of Peronne of all ages. The interests of the Republic had far greater attractions for us than lessons in language; and as every member of my family sang, it was there doubtless that the gift of song was awakened in me. I might also have acquired the power of public speaking, for I was invariably appointed the president of our club, and the duty was imposed on me of pronouncing addresses to the members of Convention who came to Peronne. Besides, in all the national ceremonies we had our appointed place. On such occasions I usually delivered an oration of my own composition; and I may add, that in times of more than ordinary importance I was appointed to draw up addresses to the Convention and to Robespierre."
Being then somewhere under twelve years old! These poor little souls, in their little coats, dressed after the fashion of the Directory, sending addresses and delivering orations like the bigger schoolboys who played with life and deathhow strange, how odd, how laughable, and how melancholy is the scene!
After this period of home life it became necessary to find a trade for the little patriot. After one or two unsuccessful efforts he at last settled into a printing-office, a not uncongenial occupation, though the neophyte retained an obstinate aversion to spelling. At this time, and even before this time, the future poet had begun to make verses, which he regulated by "drawing two pencil lines from the top to the bottom of his paper," and making all the lines of the same length. Let all young
versers take courage! but observe no less the careful conscientiousness of this little hero, who could not spell. However, he was not very long permitted to remain at this occupation, with which he himself seems to have been perfectly satisfied. De Beranger, père, appears again on the stage. He has been a conspirator, a prisoner, and in peril of his head, during this tranquil period of his son's existence, and, fresh from his sufferings as a Royalist, finds with horror what a revolutionary they have made of his child. This reckless, gay, goodhumoured scapegrace of a father has great ideas for the boy. He means him to be a page of Louis XVIII., when that personage comes into existence, having no conception in his own easy mind what a pertinacious little republican he has to deal with; and finally carries him off to Paris to assist himself (in the mean time, pending the return of the legitimate sovereign) in "the operations of the Bourse." It was the time of depreciated assignats and high rates of interest, all commercial matters being thrown into utter confusion by the hurry of events. The young poet developed almost immediately a great gift of mental calculation, was the most useful of coadjutors, and is half ashamed to confess that this new kind of business amused him very much at first. A
little further insight, however, into the concern disgusts him, especially as he is in the midst not only of reckless speculators, but of men who live in a perpetual ferment of conspiracy against his beloved Republic, I, poor little patriot, was obliged to carry gold to the conspirators," he says; but he consoles himself with the thought that they used it for their own wants rather than for the purposes of their plot. In the mean time he amused himself by making epigrams upon these schemers, over which even his father chuckled in secret. At this period a most whimsical incident occurs for the confirmation of the young republican in his former opinions. He is directed to an old chevalier of the party to be converted to Legitimism, when it suddenly turns out, to the amazement of the pupil, that the legitimacy which his ancient instructor believes in, is that, not of Louis XVIII., but of a certain M. Vernon, a descendant of the Man with the Iron Mask, who turns out to have been the eldest son of Louis XIII., and, consequently, the true elder branch, to the confusion of the Grand Monarque and his successors! This odd romance of course made an end of any chance of conversion which might have remained to the witty young financier, who did not laugh, he says, because the mystery interested his lively imagination; however, it proved an infallible answer ever after to the arguments of M. Beranger, père.
The wise boy did his best, but ineffectually, during this busy time, to moderate his father's speculations, and withdraw him from politics; failing that, when the imprudent conspirator got himself imprisoned, the lad, smothering his personal dislikes, took the entire business in hand at seventeen, and managed it with the greatest success, until the elder and less sensible partner was released. This French Micawber was charmed with the success of his son. As it was no longer likely that he could be a royal page, he should be the first banker in France; and M. de Beranger set himself to ruin the business by way of a beginning. The downfall followed almost imme
diately, to the intense vexation of the honourable lad, who felt his own credit involved, though he had no longer any share in the management. Some of the capitalists, who had trusted to his evident conscientiousness, young though he was, reproached him; others offered him the means of embarking again in business; in the mean time the boy, in his rigid honesty, lodged in a garret without fire, where the snow and rain came in at the roof, steadily refusing all inducements to return to his commercial occupation, bitterly regretting that he had been taken from the trade which even now he would have been glad to return to, and as his only refuge in his youthful troubles, arranging for himself the system of poetry from which he never afterwards departed. Up to this time, he says, he had made bad verses. Now, under the pressure of care, poverty, and humiliation, he escaped into the harder work of his real craft, and began to study the nature and genius of the language of which he soon became so great a master. When he was not in his garret, he was taking long walks in the neighbourhood of Paris, carefully avoiding the streets in which he might meet "the victims or the witnesses of our disaster," and punishing himself with the intense youthful chagrin of a high-spirited and independent boy for the ruin which he had done his best to avert while it was possible, and for which he was not in any way to blame.
The elder Beranger, however, was a Jack-in-a-box whom nothing could long keep down. He appears again presently, intrusting to his son the management of a reading-room, and plunging once more into all kinds of conspiracies. During this time the Revolution has been working itself out into a feebleness which prostrates all the powers of the country—the timid are in despair, the bourgeois wish for the triumph of the Coalition army, and such a good republican as young Beranger is overwhelmed with distress and shame. Order, finance, credit, the reputation of the country, and the safety of the people, are all at stake; and even victories abroad do not make up for the drift