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When we regard the course of events in our sister republic, France, we are fondly desirous to see our institutions reflected there, but if we study the character of those who founded our institutions, and compare them with the men who founded the French Republic, we shall have little room to hope for much. The man on whom the hopes of Europe turned in the hour when Louis Philippe became a fugitive, was but a poet, who had sung the praises of two royal inasters, and as he himself stated “ By the services and family of my father, I belong to Charles X.; by the family and services of my mother, I belong to the House of Orleans." What a strange material is this of which to compose the organizer of a republic! As M. Lamartine's course has been mostly literary, it may be traced as it has been variously recounted.
About the year 1818 there arrived at Paris, with a volume of verses for sale, a nameless young man, or, at least, one who had no right to any other appellation than that of his father. He was nearly twenty years of age, of a slender but elegant figure, with a markedly aristocratic air, indicating one of those choice natures for which Despréaux himself would not have dreaded the deafness of Phæbus, or the restiveness of Pegasus. But Phæbus and Pegasus were very distant then! There had just appeared upon the horizon that poetic school of which the destinies already confusedly revealed themselves through the voice of their precursors, and the young man of whom we speak, seemed the living personification of that new poesie, with its elegiac tendencies, its revivals of Christianity, its pious sympathies for the past, and its harmonious mixture of love, chivalry and faith.
He arrived from one of those hills of Bourgoyne which he subsequently immortalized, and where, under a peaceful roof, he had passed the first years of his youth. He confidently entered into that Paris, which is the secret end of all juvenile aspirations—the mysterious pole towards which tends without cessation, all magnetized imaginations. His luggage was light, as is the case with all true poets. He brought only his thin MSS., and a letter from a charming lady, who was temporarily detained in the province. That lady, very intellectual, although a royalist, recommended the young poet to one of her friends in Paris, who was very amiable, al. though a liberal. My dear
m," she wrote nearly, “ I address you from the place of my provincial exile, and this letter will be handed you by a young man, whom I recommend to you, as we usually recommend those of whom we have ourselves no present want, that is to say, with all my heart. He is handsome, that you will see. He is intellectual, that you will hear, and besides all that, he makes verses. You will ask if the verses are good ? But we ladies never find merit except in those lines which are addressed to us, and I am not his Elvira. But I beseech you to receive him with your Sabbath disposition, which with you is that of the whole week, and also with that smile which is at once an inspiration and a recompense. I beg of you further, but softly, to protect him among those Jacobins, as we
call them here. I am sure that you see much of them, and that you could already have converted them, if, traitor that you are, you had made proper use of your
fine eyes to recall the infidels. They pretend up there that they regulate the political atmosphere-alas ! they only await the storm ! Beg of them, however, to vouchsafe a little of their sunshine to the young poet whom I send you, and promise them the acknowledgments of a poor exile, who would wish to be among you if only to scold you and to say that she loves you."
The person to whom that letter was addressed, received the young provincial with perfect benevolence. It happened that many of the intellectual “ Jacobins," who were at that time, by means of the saloons and the academy, practising the part of politicians, were to dine on that day with the hostess of the poet, and she proposed to introduce the protégé of her friend to the party. Accordingly, in the evening, before he arrived, she gave notice of his appearance ; and as the conversation was of poets, she declared her intention of requesting the new comer to recite some of his verses after coffee. The manifestations of chagrin at this proposal, induced the promise, in guise of compensation, that the coffee should be excellent. The young man entered, and his appearance was prepossessing. He had that air of provincial modesty which men destined to become illustrious know how to observe before they are known to fame. Many of the company remarked in a low voiceWhat a pity that a person of so respectable an appearance should make verses! They seated theinselves at the table, where the stranger heard much, eat little, and talked less—all auguries in his favor. Soon the coffee arrived, which each sipped with wise deliberation, until the mistress of the house whispered some words in the ear of the poet, who bowed in sign of obedience-preserving, however, in that critical moment, the exact shade imposed by his position, between the eagerness which would betray anxiety to be heard, and that resistance which would badly conceal a desire to be solicited. The audience composed themselves to listen as best they might, with polite resignation, and with the air of men who, having dined well, prepare themselves to put the best face on all that may happen. Then, with a sympathetic, vibrating, affected voice, the unknown commenced “The Elegy to the Lake.”
Alphonse de Lamartine had not reached the 18th verse of that enchanting elegy, when he was interrupted by one of those cries of joy and astonishment which mark the advent of a Columbus of thought in a new world of intellect—a Leverrier of intelligence in discovering a new planet. The agreeableness of the surprise was great in proportion as the dread of ennui had been considerable, and it is said, that M. Villemain, who made one of that happy auditory, sprang towards the poet, and seizing his hands with an enthusiastic vigor, that much resembled anger, exclaimed—“ Young man, whence come you, that you bring us such verses as these ?"
From that day a new star shone in the poetic heaven. The triumphs subsequently attained by M. de Lamartine were only the logical developments of that first soiree, when a dozen select friends were startled by the sudden revelations of his genius. The success which marks such an epoch, resembles the uncorking of a vial of those precious essences which, before they spread their fragrance on the air, have already, in the narrow flask which encloses them, all their virtues and their perfumes.
But from that day, also, M. de Lamartine took political rank among royalists, and religious rank among Christians. His political creed at that time manifested itself in the motto to his first publication—" Meditations Poétiques,” in 1820, viz., “ ab Jove principium.” This sublime axiom, inscribed on the first page of a book dedicated by a royalist to the most ultra-royalists in power, M. Cháteaubriand, and others, was received as it was intended, viz., as an acknowledgment of the divine right from which both kings and poets derive their
This toadyism, and his subserviency to the returned Bourbons, procured for him the appointment of attachée to the legation at Florence.
Through marriage with an English lady, he gained a fortune, which was increased by the death of his uncle, and his Bourbon loyalty promoted him to the secretaryship of the legation at Naples and at London. He nearly ruined himself with his employers, however, by his “ Death of Socrates," in which, seduced by the imposing spectacle of a great man victimized to popular fury, he somewhat abated his flunkeyism, and the work was less successful. He made speedy amends, however, in a new work, called “ Nouvelles Meditations Poetiques,” in which the political toadyism of the first publication, on which he had thriven so well, was “enlarged and improved," and first impressions were revived in his favor. His natural and inordinate vanity was so excited by this success, that he had the folly to attempt to add a fifth canto to Childe Harold. The only relief from the ridicule this excited, was his narrow escape from death in a duel with a Neapolitan officer, who challenged him for the supposed libels on Italy which his spurious canto contained. Following the maxim of the Stuarts and most despotic kings, viz., that, “ to take a stone from the Church is to take two from the throne,” M. Lamartine now published his “ Harmonies Religieuses,” in which the elegy ran into the canticle. It would seem that the profitable, but rather uncertain Christianity expressed in the first “meditations,”, confirmed and softened by family affections, had become confirmed into the steady purpose of a Christian sure of his object. The dreams, instead of losing themselves on the borders of lakes, soared towards heaven, and became prayers. This aided him in procuring admission as a member of the Academy, and getting the appointment of minister to Greece from the tottering government of Charles X. Before he entered upon this new duty, the revolution of July shifted, as by sleight of hand, the occupant of the throne. The family that M. Lamartine had toadied from 1817 to 1830, gave place to the one which he had perseveringly attacked, and point was now given to those attacks, by stupidly publishing new editions with the most pungent satires upon the House of Orleans stricken out. The rigidity of his monarchical principles, and the power of royal commands over his pliant mind, was apparent in the Chant du Sacre, wherein, as the official instrument of Charles X., the lyre emitted the following strain :
Le fils a racheté les crimes de son pere." The finger of d'Orleans, become royal, interfered, however, and the lyre changed its note to the following :
" Le fils a racheté les armes de son pere." It is not to be supposed that M. Lamartine belongs to that mercenary
race of mortals who change with the caprices of the fickle goddess, keeping always the shoulder turned to misfortune, and the knee pliant to prosperity. The glory of great genius is not to be influenced by those causes which raise or destroy thrones. Their place is above all political changes. They belong to an age, and not to a reign—to a nation, and not to a party only. The motives which influence other men cannot be ascribed to them, because they are unaffected by the same circumstances. Neither the driving clouds nor the raging storm affect the eagle, because he builds his eyrie above the influence of either.
But if these privileged men escape the weaknesses of ordinary mortals, they have also their shoals and perils; they in effect are not men, but are lyres; they neither feel nor think, they vibrate; they do not speak, they resound; each ruffle of the wind, each murmur from heaven, from earth, or from beneath it, glides over the chords, and draws thence a sound always melodious, never passionate. From being thus forced to sing all that affects them, they end by not being affected by anything that they sing, and they acquire the faculty of responding with sublime notes to everything which touches them, with the indifference of an instrument which obeys every hand without being devoted to any.
It was thus with M. Lamartine. The restoration was to France a royalist era, and feudal reminiscences, mingled with the public manners, histories, literature, and even the caprices of fashion, were influenced by the revived royalty; accordingly, the lyre responded aristocratically to the surrounding agitation—a throne fell—a new state of things presented itself -a sort of interregnum between a departing dynasty and the accession of a new one. The whirl of events drew from the passive instrument only confused and rapid sounds.
However willing he might have been to sing the glories of the Orleans dynasty, the unforgiving nature of the Bourbons seemed to present an obstacle ; and the poet, turning politician, offered himself as opposition candidate for the deputyship from Dunkerque and from Toulon, but was defeated, of course, and the harp hung on the willows.
Greedy of new impressions, however, M. Lamartine set out for the East, surrounded with a princely pageantry. It is not a little singular that the man who, in 1848, was so eloquent in favor of black emancipation, in 1832 left Marseilles for the East with a large retinue, which was swollen by numbers of slaves, purchased, not for the indispensable culture of the ground, but to swell the pomp of a royalist poet, about to become a republican politician. He trod that land at once sacred and profane, depository of the most profound truths and the lightest fables, Mahometan guardian of the cradle of Christianity, with wavering step. In the soul of M. Lamartine, as in the splendid horizon of that latitude, where the mists seem luminous, and where the light is bathed in mist, truths and fables, Mahometanism and Christianity, mingled in wild confusion, and the “ lute” received a new impulse, under which it emitted a new song—that of universal tolerance—where all religious dogmas are to be treated with equal respect. One step further, and the poet arrived at the last shoal of modern dreamers—viz., pantheism, a brilliant Utopia, where they love to define the great first cause, sometimes as good, sometimes as nature. again as mind, and also as form. That deification of matter found still a responsive chord in the indefatigable lyre, and that powerful but insensate chord exhaled the “ Chute d'un Ange.”
This whimsical production of M. de Lamartine is, we believe, the only one of his works which had not a happy destiny. It may be supposed to occupy, in the domain of fiction, a place analogous to that occupied by the history or romance of the “ Girondins” in that of reality. It is written with the same vigorous and ardent style, drawing the reader through its misrepresentations, false deductions and errors, as the indomitable horse of Mazeppa drew its hapless rider through the brush and briars of the Ukraine. There are the same traces of rapid improvisation, arrogant negligence, and superb contempt for the finish of details. It is still pantheism, leaving remote traditions, in order to apply itself to the events of recent history; social pantheism, finding its gods everywhere—in the utterance of the forum, in the bureau of the pamphleteer, on the lips of the demagogue, in the street, in the gutter, in the malice of the murderer, and in the appetite of the cannibal; and, regarded from the political position occupied by the author for more than twenty years, his patrons were justified in regarding it equally as the “ fall of an angel.”
The return to France from the East was followed by a return to politics; and the poet, being returned as deputy from Dunkerque, had an opportunity for oratorical display. But his strange enigmatical orations were understood by few persons, and cared for by a still less number. Gradually, however, the subjects on which he spoke being generally of literary or moral natures, such as against capital punishment, in favor of foundlings, &c., giving scope to his rhapsodical transcendental style, made up of unmeaning phrases and pointless sentences, gradually won for him the position of mouth-piece for the socialists, a party without either definite ends or means to attain them, but whose principles were beautifully expressed by M. Lamartine in defining his own views :
“ The organic and progressive constitution of the entire democracy, the diffusive principle of mutual charity and social fraternity, organized and applied to the satisfaction of the interests of the masses.
"The beautiful is the virtue of the intellect. In restricting its worship, let us beware of impairing the virtue of the heart.”
The socialists only pretended to understand this style of oratory, and they said, in the classic language of a member of parliament, " Them's our sentiments," and they recognized him as their leader. But M. Lamartine, although generally considered only as the poet, and his sayings merely as ornamental, and without any other value, was gradually improving in oratory, when, in the winter of 1847, he produced his Histoire des Girondins.
Before he arrived at the political position defined in the Girondins, M. Lamartine had successively traversed the social party, that fools' paradise, which is always the sequence of revolutions, the royalist party, the liberal party; and now, when a new change was to be made, what resource was left ? It may here be remarked, that men of great genius never content themselves either with the past or the present, or both. The greater the idea which they form of their own mission, the greater is their tendency to limit its operation to the time beyond that in which they have their own being. It seems to them, so much are they exalted above vulgar minds, that the future, dread oracle which we turn pale in interrogating, is their natural state of being, and that the most cruel humiliation that they can possibly suffer, would be to be useless to the persons they imagine around them. To be available in all new combinations; to be assured a place