19th Century

19th-century French Poets and Novelists (Part II) | G.W.M. Reynolds

A Reprint of an Article by George W.M. Reynolds

Part Two

(Read Part One First)

We now come to Alexandre Dumas.[1] Speaking of the ‘Souvenirs d’Antony,” the critic of the “Quarterly” says, “The scene of the first tale is Naples during its occupation by the French. A reward is offered for the head of a certain captain of banditti that infested the neighbourhood. Two peasant boys find him asleep, and recollecting, dear children (they are all along called enfans) how they had seen a sheep killed, cut his throat, &c.” Now this sentence corroborates our assertion relative to the critic’s ignorance of the French language. These two boys had numbered seventeen summers, and the French as often apply the word enfant as garçon to individuals of that age. Fathers of families call their sons enfans even when they are thirty or forty years old.

Alexandre Dumas (Google Art Project)

But to continue. We must inform the writer in the “Quarterly” that the two first and the last of M. Dumas’ five tales are founded on facts, that he gathered those facts himself in Naples and that all Frenchmen understand as much. We must moreover remind the same gentleman—for from his language we naturally suppose the author of the article entitled “French Novels” to be of the male sex—that there are two schools of novels, the romantic and the fashionable, and that M. Dumas’ tales come under the former denomination. We may also add, that because the days of Ann Radcliffe, Maturin, Goethe, Schiller, Clara Reeve, Monk Lewis, &c. &c., are gone by, there is no reason wherefore M. Dumas should not choose to be their imitator, if his taste or his talent induce him to follow their footsteps, and to study in the halls which, when they retired, became, as it were, deserted.

Having lashed Dumas with as little ceremony and as little reason as the others who went before him, the critic turns his arms against De Balzac, and his comments upon this author are perhaps the only fair and unprejudiced portion of the whole article. Balzac is nevertheless a beautiful, though a dangerous writer, full of sentiment, of philosophy, of metaphysical reasoning, and of energy; but his works have certainly now and then an immoral tendency, although not to the extravagant extent described in the “Quarterly.” As literary productions De Balzac’s novels are the first in France; and if the descriptive portions of his works be occasionally wearisome and tedious, as in the “Lys de Vallée,” and the “Peau de Chagrin,” the elegance of the language and the vivacity of the ideas amply compensate for this fault. The critic in the “Quarterly” has a particular regard for the word vulgar, and applies it not only as frequently as opportunities occur, but also where it is an inappropriate, a false, and an unjust epithet. The coarse ribaldry of “Joseph Andrews” is not extenuated even by the admirable wit that abounds in its pages; but no one can truly say that De Balzac’s works “are a series of unconnected tales of the vulgarest and most licentious character.”

Honoré de Balzac (Wikimedia Commons)

We, however, strongly suspect that the author of the article in the “ Quarterly” is one of those Englishmen who have passed six weeks or two months in Paris, and have, from the reminiscences of their school education, retained a sufficient smattering of the French language just barely to skim over a few easy novels (with the indispensable aid of a Nugent’s dictionary), and thence, on their return to England, imagine themselves capable of criticising and dissecting foreign institutions, customs, habits, morals, literature, and jurisprudence, while really their knowledge of those matters is too trivial even to allow them to discuss the subjects in common conversation. Of this an editor of the “Atlas” gave us a specimen about a year ago; when, in a long article intended to be a notice on the “Revue des deux Mondes,” and the “Revue de Paris,” he coolly tells us ‘‘ that the French have no other literary periodical journals of any consequence, that their reviews of new books are always scanty and short, and that they pay but little attention to criticisms on recent publications.” All this is entirely false. The Parisian press boasts of the “Chronique de Paris,” the “Voleur,” and the “Cabinet de Lecture,” which are as large as the “Athenaeum,” which appear six times a month, and which invariably contain critical notices as elaborate as those of the English parallel papers. In addition to these, there are the “Revue des deux Mondes,” the “Revue de Paris,” “France Litteraire,” and “Le Panorama de Londres,” which are published every Sunday, and consist of from 150 to 200 closely-printed octavo pages each, the “Revue du Nord,” the “Revue Brittannique,” and a variety of other magazines published monthly, and of the same size as their English cotemporaries. All these periodicals are more or less devoted to literary criticism; besides which, the French daily political newspapers (to the number of thirty-seven) all contain feuilletons where new works are reviewed with an impartiality that ought to put to shame the reckless profusion of praise, which English critics bestow on the most insignificant and contemptible books.

But let us return to our subject. The writer in the “Quarterly” has attacked the French novelists in a most savage manner: will he allow us to ask him if he has ever read any French poetry? and if he has not, we will introduce him to Lamartine, and say a few words with regard to “Jocelyn.”

Alphone de Lamartine (Wikimedia Commons)

If the attractions of any art can cause the soul of man to feel itself suddenly lifted afar from the grosser joys of earth, and wrapped in a species of blissful delirium—it is poetry. If there be any author who has complete power over the minds of his readers, to enchain them in the mystic bonds that his effusions cast around them, and actually to implicate them and their feelings, their sympathies, and their passions, in the scenes that he depicts in glowing colours—it is the poet. He is like an enchanter, who, with a magic wand, can make works of imagination appear facts, and give reality to fables, so that the bewitching pleasure which the reader experiences rather resembles a long unwearied dream of delight than the effect of a certain operation premeditated, undertaken, and pursued when awake. And such a poet is De Lamartine.

We were in raptures with many passages in Victor Hugo’s “Chants du Crepuscule;” we admired them for the novelty of the subject, the peculiarity of their style, the strange comminglings of bliss, hope, fear, sorrow, and doubt, that were their characteristics, and the pervading harmony of their versification; but we can scarcely express our ecstasy at the perusal of “ Jocelyn.” There is something so touching in the manner in which it is written, something so pleasing and yet so touching in the tale, and something so elevated in the thoughts, the metaphors, and the ideas which abound in brilliancy and number throughout the pages, that we with difficulty laid aside the book when once it was commenced. But let us be more special in our remarks.

“Jocelyn” is an episode—it is not an entire poem. Even if the work were completed, and if the fragment, as it now stands, were connected as two books with ten others in the same style, the whole would not be entitled to the name of an “Epic Poem.” We do not mean to say that “Jocelyn,” on the ground of its own merits, is unworthy of being considered an epic composition; for the word “epic” has a peculiar and singular meaning; nor that De Lamartine is incapable of achieving that summit of all poetic emulation; nor that he would be forced to remain on the sides of Mount Helicon or Parnassus, without ever arriving at the summit, even if he had tried thereto to climb. No; but the style, the incidents, and the arrangements of this episode, totally preclude the possibility of coupling it with that word, whose definition is particular.

Lamartine informs us in his preface, that as he intended at the commencement of the book to extend it at some future period, and as that extension would embrace the incidents, the subjects, and the style of “Jocelyn,” he preferred sending forth this episode of his intended work at present, in order to prepare the way for the remainder, or to furnish materials for the lucubrations of some other poet, who might take upon himself the completion or an imitation of the original ideas. But no one was bold enough to publish, if he were to write, the remaining six books to be filled up of Spenser’s “Faerie Queene;” and should M. de Lamartine be prevented from fulfilling his hopes and his anticipations in this work, we fear that it will for ever remain a fragment.

From the prologue we gather the origin of the tale. The author had a friend who lived in an enviable solitude, and who occupied his time chiefly in taking care of his flocks that wandered with him amongst the mountains. One morning the author ascended the hills, as was his wont, to visit his venerable acquaintance, and was surprised not to see him in his accustomed haunts—

For, ’twas the hour, when, free from ev’ry care,

The holy hermit pour’d to heaven his prayer;

And tow’rds the cottage as I nearer drew,

That, which was wonder first, to terror grew;

For, from the chimney, curling to the sky,

No smoke, as usual, met my anxious eye;

And then, while yet the sun had not repos’d

In Thetis’ lap, the lattices were closed.

A shudder came upon me, as the blast

A transient ruffling o’er the waves may cast;

Still, without vainly yielding to my woe,

I hastened on with step no longer slow.

(page 23)

The author entered the cottage, and encountered the old servant Martha in the little parlour. By her his fears were confirmed—his friend was no more. He ascended the stairs, and entered the chamber of death. On the bed was stretched the venerable deceased.

Calm was his visage, placid was his mien,

His cheek unruffled as it e’er had been;

And on his tranquil countenance was shed

A ray that seemed to tell he was not dead;

And the faint smile, which curled his lip ere he

Had left the earth to seek eternity,

Still lingered—happy sign that envious death

Used but small effort to withdraw his breath!

(page 26)

When the funeral obsequies were completed, the author questioned the old servant as to the domestic habits of the deceased, and whether he ever amused himself with writing. A reply in the affirmative led to further interrogation, and at length a number of manuscripts were discovered in the loft. The contents of those papers formed the tale of “Jocelyn,” which Lamartine in his preface declares to be “almost a recital of facts, and not an ideal narrative accidentally entering into his thoughts.”

The tale opens with the noble sacrifice of a brother’s worldly prospects to secure a happy marriage for his sister. The resignation of Jocelyn to the force of adverse circumstances compelling him, as the condition of his sister’s felicity, to give up all claim to the estate their mother possesses, and reducing him to the necessity of seeking an asylum in a house whose inmates are dedicated to the service of their God—is admirably delineated and portrayed. But Jocelyn had the internal satisfaction which a good man feels when he has done a good action; or, in his own words,—

Heav’n has rewarded me! ‘Twas yesterday

The happy Ernest bore his bride away.

Flashed from her eyes the bliss her bosom knew,

And to his own the warm transfusion flew.

Before the sacred altar as they knelt,

While both one sentiment of pleasure felt,

T’would seem that fortune’s choicest gifts were shed,

And fav’ring genii hovered o’er their head,

To promise future bounties, and ensure

A long duration of that union pure!

(page 54.)

It was thus in witnessing the felicity of his sister that Jocelyn was amply rewarded for the noble sacrifice he had made. But the hour for parting with his mother was dreadful.

Dear, tender parent, seek a calm repose—

‘Twas thus I tried to soothe my mother’s woes;—

Absorb the anguish of your deep distress,

A few short hours, in sleep’s forgetfulness:

Pray for thy children, suffocate those sighs,

And wipe the tear-drops from your streaming eyes,

So that amid the visions of to-night

No horrors break upon my mental sight

 Wherefore anticipate the hour when you

To him you reared must breathe a long adieu?

Alas! full soon, already far too near,

Will come that hour, despite of sigh and tear;

And then may God support thee, then from heaven

May resignation to your soul be given;

And thou shalt see me enter on the race

That God marks for me, with a smiling face.

Sleep! and when morning beams on all around,

At your bed-side shall Jocelyn be found;

And if one tear of bitterness betray

Our inward grief, Heaven wipe the drop away!

(page 61.)

And Jocelyn departed; and as he turned away from the maternal mansion, his tears fell profusely. Thus concludes the diary of the first epoch.

The date at the commencement of the second epoch, and the introductory lines, inform us that six years have passed away since the era of Jocelyn’s departure from the maternal dwelling. These six years have been spent in a religious seminary, in solitary tranquillity and sombre peace. The revolution now rages in all its fury, and the fertile plains of France are covered with blood. Jocelyn’s mother and sister, and that fair sister’s husband, quitted their disastrous country at the commencement of the civil tumult; and Jocelyn himself is obliged to fly from the persecuting hand that has thus exiled his family, and seek shelter in Dauphiny. He falls in with an old hermit, who kindly takes compassion upon him, and conducts him to the “Eagle’s Grotto,” a cave situated amidst the almost impervious recesses of the windings of the Alps. It is surrounded by an immense gulf: the only communication with the main land, as it were, from this island, (for such appellations are appropriate to the localities M. de Lamartine beautifully describes,) is an immense arched bridge of ice, which frowns over the abyss beneath, and rears its lofty curve high in the air, so that none could possibly imagine its competency to afford so practicable a thoroughfare.

For some time Jocelyn lived contentedly in his forlorn retreat, without ever crossing the tremendous bridge of communication, At length one morning he ventured to reconnoitre the lands on the other side of the gulf. This is an era marked by a circumstance which formed an important feature in the life of Jocelyn, and gave him a companion in his exile.

An individual, outlawed by the government for political offences, had taken refuge amongst the Alps, and was pursued by two military emissaries sent in search of proscribed fugitives. The unfortunate individual was accompanied by his son, a youth of fifteen or sixteen, and as they ran along the edge of the gulf the soldiers prepared to fire. Jocelyn, on the cavern side of the abyss, unmindful of his own danger, made a sign to the fugitives, and pointed towards the bridge that might lead them to security. The outlaw and his son arrived at the middle of the curved mass of ice—Jocelyn received the latter safely in his arms, but the former was mortally wounded; not, however, before he had dealt death to the two soldiers who pursued him.

Laurence, such was the boy’s name, was delicately but beautifully formed. His countenance was fraught with feminine softness; his luxuriant hair fell in long ringlets over his well-shaped shoulders; his jacket was invariably buttoned up closely to his throat; and his slender waist was encircled by his neckerchief, when he and Jocelyn climbed the mountains to collect fruits, catch birds, &c. &c., for their daily food. Jocelyn soon became sincerely attached to Laurence, and Laurence manifested a reciprocal regard for his friend. But Jocelyn often felt himself embarrassed in the society of Laurence, and frequently cast down his eyes to avoid meeting the glance which that affectionate youth threw at him.

Time passed on; and, in Jocelyn’s own words,—

Since griefs no longer his young heart oppress,

How Laurence thrives in youthful loveliness!

At times a heavenly radiance seems to shine

Upon his brow; and as his eyes meet mine,

I scarce can brook the magic of his charms,

But feel my bosom ruffled with alarms,—

 The holy fears that erst those women knew,

When tow’rds their Saviour’s sepulchre they drew,

And when the angels’ answer to their prayer

Told them in solemn sounds, “He is not there!”

(page 166.)

One morning Jocelyn ventured out at an early hour, and left Laurence asleep in the cave. Jocelyn crossed the bridge of ice which an avalanche had formed, and beneath which the waters dashed in roaring eddies, thundering onwards, and scattering the foam around. He amused himself for some time in the regions without the gulf, and then retraced his steps towards the bridge. But a terrible storm overtook him, the rage of elements resembled the combat of armed warriors in deadly strife, the earth shook, the lightning flashed, the sky was clouded over. Jocelyn hurried onwards, and was nearly separated from Laurence for ever; for the bridge gave way and mingled with the torrents beneath. Jocelyn’s activity, however, saved him, and he thanked God that Laurence was not with him.

Arrived at the cavern once more, he sought for Laurence, but sought in vain. Overcome with terror and horrible apprehensions, he almost yielded to his despair, when a certain trace led him towards a part of the gulf. Amidst the crags, near the torrents, and covered with beating sleet, lay Laurence. Jocelyn sprang to the bottom, seized his friend in his arms, and hurried with him to the cave.

Long time I called him back to life in vain,

My lips no breath to his could give again;

Despairingly I placed him on my bed,

And staunched the blood that his fair brow had shed.

Still was he lifeless! From his bleeding breast,

E’en with my teeth, I rent the gory vest;

Great God! beneath that garment long concealed,

A female’s lovely bosom was revealed!

(page 304.)

Laurence recovered, and now that Jocelyn found he might love his companion without fear and without restraint, when the mystery so singularly developed was fully explained by the blushing maiden, and when she no longer experienced the necessity of withholding a secret from her preserver, their mutual joy knew no bounds. But, alas! that felicity was of short duration. A train of circumstances, which our limits will not permit us to relate, compelled Jocelyn to become a priest, and to bid an eternal farewell to the distracted girl, who was removed from the “Eagle’s Grotto” to the protection of friends. No impure passion had sullied her innocence, and Jocelyn was again alone in the world.

Peace was restored to France, and in process of time we see Jocelyn installed in a humble curacy in the vicinity of his favourite Alps. One day he is sent for to a neighbouring town to shrive the soul of a lady at the point of death. He is the only pastor in the neighbourhood, and he hastens to obey the summons.

In the dull chamber sickly was the light,

The dingy curtains hid her from my sight,

Save when the slightest motion half-revealed

A pallid brow, at other times concealed;

And on that brow, so paly, yet so fair,

Were wildly scattered locks of auburn hair,

That, amply clust’ring o’er her bosom’s swell,

Thence to the ground in rich profusion fell.

“O Father!’ she cried in accents scarce unknown.

My soul was shaken by that dulcet tone;

I felt, while all my frame convuls’d with fear,

A vague remembrance as it met my ear;

And scarcely, in that moment of distress,

An exclamation could my lips suppress!”

(page 178, vol. ii.)

The lady proceeded with her confession, and told Jocelyn that her first and only love had been blighted in its bud, that she had since married another, that her husband died shortly after their union, and that she had vainly mingled in the dissipation and gaiety of life and society to chase away the reminiscences of her primal passion. Pleasure had been no solace to her—

“For still devoid of hope, alas! each day

In bitterness and anguish passed away;

And all the energies of life, declining,

Seemed to be broken by a constant pining.

Yet on her cheek remained the youthful bloom

That half defied th’attraction of the tomb;

Thus a fair tree, with foliage ever green,

Contains a worm which gnaws its core unseen.”

(page 186, vol. ii.)

The lady pursued her confession in the same melancholy strain, composed half of bitterness and half of an unnatural joy that she was approaching her end, and concluded in the following manner:—

“Oh! in the hour when dissolution’s nigh,

Could he but on me cast a tearful eye,

And could his voice but whisper in my ear,

That tender voice, to me so soft, so dear,

The tomb would lose its sting!”

                                    “No more restrained

By fear,” I cried, “Laurence, thy wish is gained!”

The feeble lamp a sickly lustre shed,

She rais’d herself with rapture in the bed;

And gaz’d upon my features. “Yes—’tis he!

“Laurence, ‘twas God that sent me thus to thee,

To grant you absolution, and ensure

Peace to thy soul, no longer stained—but pure!”

(page 189, vol. ii.)

Laurence never rises from that bed, which was soon pressed by the cold corpse of one so lovely, so fascinating, and so unfortunate!

The remaining pages are uninteresting, save for their poetic beauty, and the proofs they afford of the originality of M. de Lamartine’s genius. And in these times when almost all are copyists, when our great predecessors have done so much, and have done that much so well, that we, their imitators, have little left to do save to embody their ideas in our own language, and then be at fault, the merit of originality is not only singular, but also one of the best recommendations for an author.

Having thus disposed of the greater portion of our pages in this article to the consideration of Lamartine, with a view of instructing the writer in the “Quarterly” and of edifying our readers in general, we will proceed in our refutation of the most glaring falsehoods and misrepresentations to be found in the critical notice of the abovementioned Review that called forth this answer. Our limits prevent us from following the critic through his animadversions on Michel Masson and Georges Sand; suffice it to say, that they are couched in the same prejudiced style as the others, and are interlarded with the same abuse, indiscriminately distributed, and as equally unmerited as in the former instances. Let us pass on to the critic’s extraordinary argument to prove that immorality in France has arrived to such a dreadful extent, and so much preponderates over that of his own countrymen, “that no one can read the sketches he has given of French novels, and the instances he has produced of French morals, without seeing that they are not only of one country, but of one family; and that the novels, in fact, present upon the whole the less unfavourable view of the state of French society.

Now it is perfectly true that French novels are generally founded on intrigues, &c. &c., and that English novels are totally different in this respect; but do intrigues, suicides, adulteries, and murders exist the less in England for that? The French novel, as it regards sketches of domestic manners, is only a picture of society in France; but as it regards tales of intrigue, illicit love, suicide, and murder, it is a picture of all the world, and is as applicable to England, Spain, Italy, and Germany, as to France alone. Moreover, because we read in a French novel a description of a wife’s infidelity, a husband’s vengeance, and a lover’s suicide, does the critic in the “Quarterly” mean to argue that every wife is unfaithful in France, that every husband revenges his wrongs, and that every lover kills himself in despair? Are English women always pure? is vengeance unknown in Britain? and is suicide merely a name amongst our immaculate countrymen? No—we never take up a paper without reading a case of crim. con.;[2] we see, alas! too often, terrible instances of the most deadly vengeance; and occurrences of suicide have lately been so frequent in England, that the very police-magistrates have assumed to themselves the right of punishing those who are detected and saved in an attempt at self-destruction. Yet the author of the article we are examining adduces a long list of cases where individuals in France have committed suicide on account of remorse, disappointed love, or even a trivial stroke of adversity, to prove that the immorality of the French is not confined to a few depraved beings, but that it is partaken of and shared amongst thirty-four millions of souls, without a single exception, they being all one family in vice.

Perhaps the critic, whose deplorable misrepresentations we have taken some pains to correct, is not aware that the average amount of crime in England preponderates slightly over that in France; and that there are more murders, more robberies, more infanticides, and more unnatural crimes registered in the annals of turpitude and delinquency in the former than there are in the latter country. An appeal to the “Newgate Calendar,” and to a collection of the “Gazette des Tribunaux,” will bear us out in our assertion.

The abuser of French novels now proceeds to favour us with some extracts from the said “Gazette des Tribunaux,” relative to several horrible trials that have lately taken place in France. Amongst the hundreds that occur annually in that as well as in any other country, it is very easy to select half a dozen of the most dreadful, “in order to prove that the principles which pervade the novels appear to exhibit themselves elsewhere.” In answer to this we declare that the same principles exhibit themselves also in England; particularly when Mrs. Brownrigg flogged her apprentices to death, and when Cooke at Leicester, about five years ago, murdered Mr. Paas with a log of wood, and then burnt the body piecemeal on the fire to get rid of all traces that might lead to his discovery. The late murder of Mrs. Brown by Greenacre was not attended with any dreadful circumstances, we suppose. Oh! No—in England murders are always committed mercifully and humanely, according to the inferences we naturally draw from the remarks of the critic in the “Quarterly;” whereas in France they are invariably attended with unusual circumstances of horror. To support this assertion he adduces the case of Dellacollonge, “who cut the body into pieces for the purpose of more easily disposing of it in ponds and ditches.” Our worthy critic forgets the almost parallel conduct (above-mentioned) of Cooke, who cut the body into pieces to burn it; nor could he possibly foresee the monstrous deeds of Greenacre.

The verdict in Dellacollonge’s case was as follows:—“As to the murder, the culprit is guilty of voluntary homicide, but without premeditation; and as to the robbery, he is guilty, but with extenuating circumstances.”

Upon which the writer in the “Quarterly” says, “Without premeditation! He had concealed the girl for some days in his house, till he could find an occasion of making away with her. And the extenuating circumstances were that to the robbery was superadded sacrilege, and that sacrilegious robbery was committed to enable a murderer to make his escape.”

Now this is false and misrepresented; Dellacollonge did not even mean to murder the girl when he put his hand to her throat with severity, to give her an idea of the preliminary feelings of strangulation. A reference to the French journals of February, 1836, will establish the truth of this assertion. The misrepresentation is about the words “extenuating circumstances.” In England life is often wasted for trivial crimes; in France it is always spared, that the culprit may have time to repent, when mercy can possibly be thus extended; and it was only a merciful and humane feeling that caused the addition of the words “extenuating circumstances” to be made to the jury’s verdict; an addition that, without compromising their sincerity, did honour to the jurors’ hearts.

The palpable object of the article under notice, and as the author himself almost confesses, is to show that “the July revolution has worked a great and sudden change” in the morality of the French. He says it has “emancipated the women from all etiquette and reserve; that is, in one word, modesty!” This is false and absurd, so absurd, indeed, that we are astonished to meet with so palpable a folly in the “Quarterly Review.” A child could not be made to believe that the insurrection of a mighty people to displace a tyrant, and to elevate another man to the throne, could produce such baneful effects. A monarchical change cannot so essentially affect private morals. The predilections and passions of individuals are not subject to variation on account of the secession or expulsion of one dynasty and the succession of another. An extension of political liberty does not implicate a decrease of moral rectitude and social order; it rather encourages an increase. The example of a superstitious and encroaching despot could not benefit the morals of the French; but the example of a good husband, a good father, a good Christian, and a man who was a good son, certainly must be a beneficial one for the country.

[1] G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘The French Poets and Novelists’, The Monthly Magazine, June 1837, pp. 609–18.

[2] [Criminal conversation].

2 replies »

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