Page images

wondrousness to posterity. For this purpose he offered a prize of ten thousand francs each ten years for any works of unusual merit. We do not hear that this teetotal-medal-prize-essay system was productive of any great success. Happily for the world, his power did not survive long enough to give it any extensive trial.

There were paid littérateurs, who were given posts in the Prefecture, and allowed a pension of one or two thousand crowns out of the public treasury to write prose or verse, or anything required by the gentle Duke d'Otrante, or by any other vile Janizary of the Imperial government, into whose society, of course in court costume, they were admitted upon something of the footing of superior domestics, on condition that after dinner they produced half a tragedy or some verses, a song, or a birthday or other anniversary ode, for the lady of the house, after the fashion of the poets of Louis the Fourteenth.

Such was the condition of authorship under Napoleon the Great.

Soon after Chateaubriand's arrival in France 'Atala' appeared. Portions had previously been read in various literary circles, and the public had been prepared for something remarkable by landatory paragraphs in the journals. Everything was favourable to a success, and a prodigious success was achieved. The book was in every hand; the story was acted at the theatres, exhibited by puppets and by little waxen figures upon the quays, and even the walls of every wayside inn were decorated with common red, green and blue pictures of the Indian girl, her lover, and père Aubrey. Enthusiastically praised by the multitude, it was attacked, ridiculed and caricatured with an equal ardour by the Voltaireans, who saw in its success the certain revival of Christianity.

Chateaubriand tells us that a romance founded upon the ideal of savage life was an idea conceived in very early youth. This idea was undoubtedly born out of the study of Rousseau, and the influence of that writer is vividly apparent in ‘Atala,' although not in a greater degree than such as remarkable works will ever produce upon immature genius. But it is rather in the surroundings of his youth that we must seek the germ of 'Atala' as well as of René. It entered his soul while he wandered amongst the surf-beaten rocks of St. Malo, listening to the roar of the wild Atlantic; it ripened into the mystic shadow of the Sylphide in the woods of Dol, was nourished in the dull mediæval life and in the gloomy haunted turrets of Combourg, and was born a REALITY amidst the gigantic forests of America, beneath gorgeous sunsets and resplendent moonlights ; its cradle was the dead leaves of a thousand years, its nurse Solitude, its lullaby the moan of the wind-swept trees, and the roar of the cataracts made musical by distance and the night.

All Europe was at this period passing through the stages of a great intellectual revolution. The cold polished glitter of the semi-classical eighteenth century, which frosted all genius, was everywhere disappearing before the wild romantic schools arising in Germany and England, and Schiller, Goethe, Anne Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, and later on, Byron, Shelley, and the Lake poets, were exercising a prodigious effect upon the literature of France. The Voltaireans, with Chénier at their head, fought hard against the invasion of the new ideas. These Radicals, political and social, were Conservatives in literature ; and, while sweeping away the ancient régime and all its belongings, would fain have compelled all writers to model themselves upon its literary traditions. Out of so mighty a movement as the French Revolution, there could not fail to arise a new birth of intellect. The Diderot-d'Alembert-Voltaire school had accomplished its mission, exhausted its purposes, all its theories, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Atheism, had been reduced to practice, given unlimited trial. Thus, the goal being reached, the guide was of no further service, and became a thing of the past.

The foundation stone of the new school had been already laid in 'La Nouvelle Héloïse.' From that famous book to Notre Dame' the links, though numerous, are unbroken. In the writers immediately following Rousseau, however-De Staël and Chateaubriand—we have the exaggerated sentiment and shadowy characters of the master ; in Hugo and his followers we have instead, absence of sentiment, and gigantic exaggeration of character, to which all else is subservient.

Of all the monstrous dreams of the Revolutionists, no one was so monstrously irrational as that of converting a nation to pure Atheism. The belief and worship of a Soul of the Universe are inextricably interwoven with the daily life of all communities, civilised or uncivilised. That portion even of the Terrorists who denied the existence of a God was exceedingly small; the masses confounded religion with priestcraft, and gloried in the destruction of both ; but when the delirium of the Terror was past, and men began to move in something like the old grooves, that first necessity of humanity--A BELIEF, began to make itself felt in the dreary hopeless world of scepticism. Each feared to speak of this to his fellow, lest it should be answered with sarcasm and derision, but all, to speak cumulatively, waited eagerly for the dawn that should once more dispel the eternal darkness of the tomb. In 1801 appeared • Atala, a Christian Romance. On the 15th of September, 1801, Napoleon issued the Concordat, and re-established the right of public worship and the Christian religion. In 1803 Chateaubriand published his "Génie du Christianisme,' the object of which was to extol, to prove, and to point out the beauties of the Christian faith, these sublime purposes being clad in the garb of

In England, the book would have been dissected, pronounced shallow, and morally and religiously its influence would have been nil. To the France of that day it supplied a universal want.


It was not that this work, as some writers assert, actually produced the revival of Christianity; it had begun long since in the heart of the nation; but it was the interpretation of that heart, the utterance of its thoughts and longings; it aroused the sluggish, encouraged the timid, furnished arguments to the doubting, and won over thousands of disbelievers by the picturesque beauty of its language and narrative, the dazzling brilliance of which, aided by their own enthusiasm, blinded men's eyes to its faults. But to Chateaubriand undoubtedly belongs the honour of being the first actively Christian writer that arose in France after the Voltairean age. I say actively, in contradistinction to such as Madame de Staël, whose Christianity was unobtrusive and almost passive, whereas her great contemporary wrote avowedly to proselytise.

Read at this distance of time, especially by an Englishman, a very different judgment must be pronounced upon it to the generally received one of seventy years ago.

With all its beauties, and they are many, the work is superficial, abounding in false glitter, false reasoning, weak arguments, and exaggerated sentiment; it is brilliantly rhetorical, but lacks the vigorous logic of profound conviction. That there was no profound conviction in the writer's mind is proved by the influence under which it was composed. The posthumous reproaches of a dead mother, suddenly, without meditation, study, or any other influence, converted him from a philosophical sceptic to an enthusiastic Christian. Such sudden conversions are unreal. It must be admitted that from childhood he was devotionally inclined, but never beyond that sentimentalism which is so generally mistaken for religion. Throughout the work he continually sacrifices truth to a paradox, to a conceit, or to a prettiness. As an example, he asserts that descriptive poetry had positively no existence in heathen literature, and that Christianity is more favourable to the perfection of art than Mythology. That such an assertion is not only utterly false, but, especially in the latter instance, the very opposite of truth, must be apparent to the most unreflective reader who can recall memories of Theocritus, of Homer, of the Greek dramatists, of Virgil, and above all, of that sculpture, the very fragments of which are so marvellous.

A remarkable comparison between the mediæval and the modern spirit of religion is suggested by comparing this work with the *Divina Comedia' of Dante. Each reflected the particular religious view of the age in which it was composed ; the last, monkish materialism, the literal acceptance of the Biblical text that man is the image of God corporeally, a conception no more exalted than that of Homer's Zeus; the devil another corporeal spirit, cloven-footed and hideous of aspect; Hell a pit of fire filled with scorpions and grotesque fiends; Heaven a sublimated Earth, whose pleasures and delights were founded upon our highest conception of earthly bliss illimitably intensified, but all purely material. As during succeeding ages the human mind developed from the childhood of the new birth of the modern world to the more refined and subtle spirit of manhood, such ideas revolted it by their grossness and by their inferiority to its own conceptions of the Divine and the Immortal; hence one of the chief causes of the intellectual scepticism of the eighteenth century, that interregnum between the old and the modern spirit of religion. Scepticism, however, like other intellectual developments, fell into excesses, decayed, and was left behind in the progress of the human mind; its cold aridity was no longer suitable to the race who had passed through the fiery ordeal of the Revolution. But to return to the old faith was no more possible than for a man to go back into childhood. So out of that old faith was eliminated a more ethereal and spiritual belief, which immaterialised all its forms, and poetised them. Unfortunately such subtleties become in time vague bodiless mysticism ; such is the tendency of the present age, which is rapidly approaching scepticism by the opposite process of over-refining, as its ancestors did by overmaterialising. With the writings of Chateaubriand may be said to commence the Pantheistic tendency of modern thought towards the worship of an Omnipresent Soul of Nature, towards the recognition of the supposed subtle links which bind the animate and inanimate world in one harmonious whole. Solitary notes had been sounded in the letters of Madame de Sévigné, still more loudly in the romances of Rousseau, but they had fallen upon unprepared ears and died echoless.

A comparison between the descriptive poetry of, say Thomson, than whom no better representative of the old school can be found, and that of the nineteenth century, will illustrate this position. Thomson faithfully reproduces the objects and aspects of nature, as a painter does upon canvas, and in them he constantly finds parallels to human objects and aspects, but they are parallel lines, which may go on for eternity without touching one another. To him Nature is surpassingly lovely, but soulless. To the nineteenth century poet, beneath her outward form, there is a subtle essence; man, earth, and the mighty waters are parts of one harmonious whole, bound together by common sympathies and pervaded by a common soul. Our writers are not so much indoctrinated as suffused with this mysticism, sometimes almost unconsciously. Intellectually, as well as physically, the world revolves in a circle; and these tendencies are but the revival of the Pantheism of Greek poetry, with its nymphs, hamadryads, and naiads, disembodied and spiritualised.

Juvenal in London.

Juv.: SATIRE III.-(continued).
I CANNOT linger here, where wealth alone
Asserts, assumes all merit as its own.
Where willing lackeys, though the case is clear,
Condemn the poor man, but condone the peer.
What! dare convict my lord of any fault ?
Belgravia shudders at the rude assault.
What! dare to put a noble in the dock ?
Could those who own a peerage stand the shock
What! let a scandal on his fame be seen ?
Nay, rather find his lordship any screen.
Did not the people's William once record
That every true-born Briton loves a lord ?
Call him to justice ? Be content, be still,
And thank your stars he does not write your will.

I cannot linger here, my heart grows faint
At hopeless sorrow's all-unnoticed plaint.
I hear the moanings of a helpless throng-
Who dares to grapple with the boundless wrong ?
Or if he dares, what prospect can he see
Of doing right and aiding misery?
'Tis madness with those customs to contend,
Which law allows and sycophants defend.
'Tis not that herds of hireling scribblers ply
That kind of sneer which best maintains a lie;
They write to order, and their master pays,
I scorned their censure and I loathed their praise ;
I did not envy them; my lowlier lot
Was to know what is true, and prove it not.
Like Paul, I sought to do so, and I must-
How prove it, in this region of distrust ?
Where selfish knaves may aid, aye, win their end
Because men know not how to find their friend.
What? would he teach them? Keep them in the dark,
And then no skill avails to hit the mark.
Or like the pious, gentle, bland, Magee,

Heap on his efforts every calumny.


« PreviousContinue »