LITERARY RAMBLES IN FRANCE
FLAUBERT'S LITERARY WORKSHOP
or pavilion in which Madame Bovary was written may well be so
styled. With a celebrated predecessor Flaubert regarded
novel-writing as no less of a trade than the making of watches.
But from an artistic standpoint only. Money, popular applause,
contemporary fame were not dreamed of in his philosophy. What
he aimed at and what by dint of superhuman laboriousness he
achieved, was literary excellence, the high water mark of style.
Hence it comes about that Croisset will ever be an interesting
literary pilgrimage. We may not find Madame Bovary
delectable reading, to some of us the so-called roman nécessaire
will prove 'thin sown with aught of pleasure or delight.' The
author's figure compels homage, the artist enlists general sympathy.
Despite his ingrained pessimism, Flaubert's life is a noble
lesson. From first to last, struggling against fell disease
and a melancholious temperament, manfully he went his way, no
obstacle damping his ardour, no checks, however mortifying, for a
single moment detaching him from his purpose.
Croisset lies three miles from Rouen and may be pleasantly
reached by steamboat. Hurried travellers will prefer to drive
and, once off the cobble-stones of the distractingly-paved city,
bowl along the quays agreeably enough. We pass an immense
stretch of bustling wharfage and warehouses, the river bristling
with masts and alive with smaller craft, the new bridge a beautiful
object amid much that is unlovely. As we advance on both sides
we have more taking scenes. Over against us rise dimpled green
slopes, and soon we come within sight of one long wooded islet
immediately succeeded by another—châteaux, farm-houses, and chalets
peeping between the trees of both.
My guide informed me that in 1875 these islets, were
ice-bound, the river being frozen. Many Rouennois have a tiny
cottage orné, or what is called a pavilion, here, in which they
spend their summer holidays. How delightful thus to be
islanded, shut off from the dust, glare, and turmoil of what is now
one of the most bustling commercial centres in France! Little
steamers ply to and fro, apparently the favourite mode of
locomotion, for every one we saw was crowded. Leaving the
quays behind we pass rows of handsome country houses and villas, all
with long flower gardens reaching to the road. Above these is
a background of wood and poplar groves. Croisset, reached in
about three quarters of an hour, consists of a long line of
scattered houses facing the river. The opposite bank is low
and featureless, a mere rim of yellowish green, but immediately
before Flaubert's eyes lay a lovely little island, truly—
'A place of nestling green for poets made.'
But alas! put to unidyllic uses in the pages of Madame Bovary.
Nothing in nature indeed can be prettier, more soothing, than
such a combination, from amid clear, sky-reflecting waters rising a
fairy kingdom, glades, woods and velvety swards of brightest,
freshest green. The river here broadens and, matching such
beautiful proportions, the landscape on one side takes a bolder
outline. Above the site of Flaubert's dwelling we gaze upon
richly wooded hills, chestnut, alder, and poplar here attaining a
great height, the latter trees often having a crest-like branching
out at the summit. This mass of woodland and the verdant
declivities running down to the road complete the picture.
Where formerly stood Flaubert's house is now seen a
dilapidated factory advertised for sale. The garden-house
however in which were written Madame Bovary and Salammbô
remains intact. Here too he wrote those delightful letters (an
expurgation here and there would not render them less so) to Madame
Louise Colet, George Sand and others.
The original dwelling with its acre or two of garden must
have represented the handsomer kind of campagne or French
country house. The entire property was sold by Flaubert's
niece and heir, and on the site of the demolished dwelling a factory
was built, this also being destined shortly to disappear. But
a little knot of ardent admirers have succeeded in getting together
enough money to purchase the pavilion, which is to be turned into a
memorial museum. A bit of ground has also been obtained, so
that the little building will soon stand amid flowers and shrubs.
The long avenue of lime-trees, destined, as Flaubert wrote, for 'graves
et douces causeries,' has of course disappeared long ago.
The garden-house consists of a single room of commodious
proportions, overlooking highway, river, wooded islet, and low-lying
Doubtless, the road beneath his windows was much less
frequented sixty years ago than it is today, but noise and dust
there must have been. In every other respect no author could
desire a more seductive retreat.
Yet these walls remind us of the most painful literary
labours on record. Flaubert was a veritable Sisyphus, and
miraculous it seems that he ever accomplished his self-imposed
tasks, above all, that from such agonising throes should have
emerged living creations and a masterpiece! Toilsomely as
Jacob wooed his brides, Flaubert wooed the creations of his fancy,
in his case being no difference between Leah and Rachel, his
literary wooings never inspired by love or admiration.
A septennate was given to the composition of Madame Bovary,
another to L'Éducation sentimentale, only a year or two less
'I have just copied all that I have written since the New
Year,' he wrote to Louise Colet, 'thirteen pages in seven weeks,
neither more nor less. At last they are done and as perfect as
I could make them.'
In this charmingly situated workshop he would literally
entomb himself, only the sound of his own voice from time to time
breaking the silence. It was his habit, and an excellent one
without doubt, to read and re-read aloud every newly framed
sentence. Old folks at Croisset still remember those clear
strident utterances, on dark winter nights his lighted window
guiding fishermen and sailors as a beacon.
In search of the right word, with Boileau he could have said,
je cherche and je sue, and the seeking and sweating
went on with results more or less successful throughout his life.
We are told that the occurrence of two genitives in the phrase
une couronne de flears d'orangers disturbed him greatly; he
wondered how he could have committed such a crime. Paragraphs
were often re-written half a dozen times before being set aside as
perfect as literary carpentry could make them. The typical
phrase in Flaubert's writings, has said one critic, resembles a
symphony having an Allegro, an Andante, and a Presto rhythm,
sonority, completeness, all the qualities necessary in verse.
Flaubert wanted to 'give prose, leaving it prose, the systematic
construction of verse,' he wrote to Louise Colet, 'perhaps an absurd
undertaking, but it is a fine, an original experiment.' The
experiment occupied his days and nights.
Nor was he less careful in the matter of punctuation.
Like the great humorist of Samothrace he paid the utmost attention
to stops; commas, he called the vertebrae of a phrase, and in the
use of them was a pronounced master. Little wonder that under
these circumstances composition went on at a snail's pace. Nor
need we feel astonished at the utter joylessness with which the
self-imposed tasks were got through. 'You have no notion,' he
wrote to his friend, George Sand, 'what it is to sit throughout an
entire day with your head between your hands, beating your
unfortunate brains for a word. With yourself ideas flow
copiously, unceasingly as a river. In my own case they form a
narrow thread of water. I have herculean labours before me ere
obtaining a cascade. Ah! the mortal terrors of style, I shall
have known all about them by the time I have done.'
One inevitable result of such fastidiousness was compression.
Take, for instance, the oft-cited description of Rouen seen from the
heights of Boisguillaume in Madame Bovary. This
incomparable passage of ten lines originally filled a page.
Six revisions reduced it to a sentence, not a single idea having
been lost in the process!
Presentment made him no less of a galley-slave. The
horrible death-scene in his famous novel was the result of
application so close and conscientious that, having poisoned his
heroine, Flaubert himself felt all the symptoms of poisoning.
Have not folks been said to die of imaginary hydrophobia, even and
small-pox, before now?
If in realistic presentment Flaubert always succeeds, so much
cannot be said of his descriptions. These are not always
In his history of French civilisation, M. Rambaud alludes to
the cap worn by Charles Bovary as a schoolboy, the head-gear of
youth worn in Louis Philippe's time. But on reading and
re-reading Flaubert's elaborate description I cannot for the life of
me conceive what poor Charbovari's cap was like. An
illustrator of the scene would probably be in similar case.
If, which is very likely, the description of Charles Bovary's cap
occupied Flaubert many hours, maybe days, we must remember that he
was no Issachar weighed down by a double burden. Throughout
his literary career he was able, in the noble words of Schiller,
having 'achieved a chef d'œuvre, to cast it without a second
thought on the waves of Time.'
If literary conscientiousness gave tormented days and
sleepless nights, from other cares he was free. Ample means
allowed him to do his best, to give as many days as he pleased to a
single page. His career was an instructive comment on Dr.
Johnson's dictum that no one but a fool would write except for
money. Flaubert's earnings must have been meagre, but the
imperishable harvest was rich indeed.
Volumes have been devoted to Flaubert's style and method.
It is not surprising that Montesquieu and La Bruyère were his
models, Fénelon and Lamartine his detestations. The superfine,
the chiselled phrase à la Goncourt he ever avoided; honeyed
sweetness, la phrase molle as exemplified in Télémaque
and Graziella, he positively loathed. What he strove
after and attained was the virility, precision, and strength of the
great seventeenth-century masters.
Of his half dozen works which will live? All were
written, as he said that authors must ever write, for eternity.
'But the people's voice, the voice and echo of all human fame?'
What will posterity say?
The rank of Madame Bovary in French literature seems
assured. Only twenty-five years after the author's death one
character out of that unlovely portrait gallery has become a
household word. In the chemist of Yonville, Flaubert has
created a type, added yet another figure to the list of literary
'You ask my opinion of Flaubert,' said a French critic to me
the other day. 'My reply is, he created Homais.'
'I reproach myself sometimes,' wrote Renan (Souvenirs de
Jeunesse), 'for having contributed to M. Homais' triumph over
the curé. What would you have? M. Homais is in the
right. Without M. Homais we should all be burnt alive.'
The vain, meddlesome, half-educated, would-be Voltairean and
encyclopædist, the great little man of the country town, may not at
first strike English readers. Familiarity with French
middle-class life is necessary for an appreciation of such a
portrait. Our neighbours now cite Homais as we speak of
Podsnap or Micawber.
Flaubert's contempt and dislike of the bourgeoisie,
whether sincere or affected, was a fashion, an epidemic in his day.
But surely it is strange that belonging as he did to the same class,
surrounded as he was by admirable types, he should have neglected
them for all that was mean, poor-spirited, and odious. With
the exception of Dr. Larivière, Madame Bovary gives us the
bourgeois bereft of every redeeming quality.
Foresight, thrift, family affection, the virtues that may be
said to have built up a nation, with one exception are absent from
the picture. In the hospital doctor, 'belonging to the great
school of Bichat,' Flaubert portrayed his father, 'who pursued his
way full of debonnaire dignity, imparted by the
self-consciousness of distinguished talent, fortune, and forty years
of a laborious and honourable career.'
Madame Bovary, strange as it may seem, was
the subject of a criminal trial on the score of its immoral
tendencies, Flaubert emerging victorious. The result could
hardly be otherwise, since from first to last the novel portrays the
disillusion of vice.
Tastes may differ concerning Salammbô, which George
Sand found unreadable, also concerning L'Éducation sentimentale.
With regard to Bouvard et Pécuchet there can be but one
opinion, that it is the dreariest farrago ever penned by genius.
And when all is said and done, many readers will doubtless prefer
Flaubert the letter-writer to Flaubert the novelist. No more
delightful letters exist in the French language. His
outpourings to the chère muse, the beautiful, eccentric, and
talented Madame Louise Colet for whom Maxime du Camp composed the
following elegy:—'Here lies Louise Colet, who compromised Victor
Cousin, ridiculed Alfred de Musset, illtreated Flaubert, and tried
to assassinate Alphonse Karr. Requiescat in pace.'—
adored by him so reluctantly, are the best preparation for this
literary pilgrimage. As we read, we realise the existence led
within these walls. Future visitors will find a fillip to the
imagination. Manuscripts, portraits, and other memorials are
being put together and will form a most interesting little temple of
Regretfully I tore myself away from the scene of Flaubert's
labours, and the picture on which his eyes daily rested, meandering
Seine, low-lying banks, narrow islets, with their wind-tossed trees
and steamer succeeding steamer, only the mast and funnel being
visible 'as in the background of a theatre.' Such experiences
bring home to us an author's personality as no mere study of his
works, however persistent, can do.
I was driven back to Rouen by another road, or rather by a
country lane. Here were hedges bright with purple loosestrife,
saponaria, agrimony and other late flowers; soon rows of suburban
villas, each standing in a garden, each unlike its neighbours,
announced the town.
On joining a French literary friend at Meudon I found that
she had seen Flaubert, and the glimpse given of him by this lady is
'Once, and once only I saw the author of Madame Bovary,'
she said; 'at that time in the prime of life and in the zenith of
his fame. Although physically afflicted throughout his entire
life, being, as you know, subject to epileptic seizures, Flaubert
possessed the figure of an athlete and was remarkably beautiful.
'With a few, a very few, highly-favoured admirers I was
invited to a reception given in his honour by Madame de A—. It
was late when a thrill ran through the assembled company.
Flaubert had arrived! Fastidiously attired in the most
approved style of evening dress he made his way to his hostess,
addressed to her a few courteous words, shook hands with this
acquaintance, bowed to that, then like a phantom, a meteor, vanished
quickly as he had come. Not one of us got so much as a word
from him, and in my case, the opportunity never occurred again.'
Tall, broad-shouldered, with a flowing beard of pale auburn,
eyes described by one who knew him as of the colour of the sea, all
the beauty of northern races, wrote another friend, was represented
in his person.
His behaviour at the evening party just named must be set
down to anything rather than vanity or the desire of posing.
He called himself a hermit, a literary monk, and conventional
society he ever avoided, reserving himself for his mother, his
niece, and his friends.
A gloomier childhood than his it is hard to conceive.
Son of a physician attached to the municipal hospital of Rouen, his
boyish years were spent within its gloomy precincts, daily
experiences familiarising him with pain, sickness, and death.
Little wonder that, subject as he was to a distressing infirmity, he
became a confirmed pessimist. His otherwise delightful letters
are a perpetual reiteration of the preacher's text: vanity, all is
Flaubert's father died in 1846, and Madame Flaubert removed
to Croisset, henceforth the novelist's home for the rest of his
days. Brief sojourns in Paris, travels in Brittany, the
Pyrenees, Italy, the East, and Tunis, in his declining years a
flying visit with Tourgeneff to George Sand at Ushant, formed the
only breaks in a singularly uneventful life. The loss of an
only sister, later of a boon companion and friend, saddened him to
his dying day. Family affection and friendship, indeed,
satisfied his heart. Of passion he seems only to have known
Between his mother and himself existed the closest ties of
love and confidence. To her as to a comrade he poured out his
innermost thoughts; 'dear old thing,' he called her in the two or
three letters that remain of their correspondence. The pair
were indeed seldom separated, and, if the tenderest mother possible,
we gather that she was also one of the most exacting. If
Flaubert was indeed a typical French son, devoted, submissive,
yielding on every point, Madame Flaubert seems to have been a
typical French mother, regarding the grown-up, even middle-aged, son
as completely her own as when a baby in arms. 'She loved him,'
writes one of his biographers, 'with the devotion that not only
binds but crushes. [p.14]
It was on her account that he became a stay-at-home. In order
to please her he was very near throwing up his Eastern journey at
the last moment. His briefest absence filled her with anxiety.
Of his art she understood nothing; at first jealous of it, she
became reconciled to a pursuit that kept him at home. The last
years of his life were very sombre for both. She could think
and talk of nothing else but her own health, and Flaubert's
principal occupation was to make her take little turns in the
garden.' Her death in 1872 proved a tremendous blow. A
few days after the event he wrote to George Sand: 'I have discovered
within the last fortnight that that poor good woman, my mother, was
the being I loved best in the world. It is as if I had lost a
part of myself.'
Flaubert, who despised the bourgeoisie, essentially
belonged to it; in him the homelier national virtues were
conspicuous—strong family feeling, utter freedom from pretence, and
strict probity in all practical matters. We must live like
bourgeois and think like artists, he used to say, a maxim he carried
Amiably nepotious, as are most French bachelors, Flaubert not
only made an idol of his niece, but also undertook her education,
his methods, as might be expected, being highly original. The
history lesson consisted of an impromptu narrative delivered by
himself which next day the pupil had to repeat, the repetition being
followed by questions and comments. 'In this fashion,' Madame
Commanville tells us, 'I acquired a knowledge of ancient history,
sometimes puzzling him with my questions; for instance, Were
Cambyses, Alcibiades, and Alexander good men? What is that to
you, he would reply; well, not perhaps exactly nice. I was
disappointed not to have more details, I expected him to know
'Geography I never learned from books either. Children
should learn from pictures, he said. Thus, in order to make me
understand what was meant by an island, a promontory, a bay, and so
forth, he would take a spade and give me object-lessons in the
garden. As I grew older these daily lessons became longer, and
they continued till my marriage at the age of seventeen.'
His little Caroline was indeed to him a daughter, and as we
shall see there was no sacrifice he was not prepared to make for her
happiness. Flaubert was also a devoted friend, the loss of
several boon companions afflicting him greatly. During his
short residence in Paris from 1840 to 1844 he was an habitue of
Pradier's studio, there meeting De Vigny, Jules Janin, Leconte de
Lisle, Victor Cousin, and other leading spirits. But it was
Dr. Cloquet, at that time a foremost anatomist and clinical
lecturer, whose acquaintance most influenced the future author of
Madame Bovary. The novel could only have been written by
one who had made medicine a special study, and we learn that Dr.
Cloquet introduced him to the most eminent of his medical brethren.
Flaubert was thus able to pursue his favourite subject,
unconsciously laying the foundation of his lifework and his fame.
His friends we learn to know in those charming letters, his
favourite books also. A finer literary taste no writer ever
possessed, yet his exceptions sometimes come with a little shock.
Fénelon and Lamartine were put on the index, George Sand he found
delightful as a friend but unreadable as a romancer, and De Musset
he set down as a great poet but no artist. Béranger, Thiers,
Augier were bourgeois writers, who wrote for bourgeois
readers; Sainte-Beuve fared at his hands as did George Sand: the man
pleased, the critic was insufferable. Sully Prudhomme he
damned with faint praise, Shakespeare he adored, but neither Dante
nor Goethe seems to have been a god of his idolatry. The Greek
dramatists and one or two Latin authors, Rabelais, Montesquieu,
Montaigne were daily pasture; to Spinoza at three different periods
of his life he returned with zest. Ronsard he 'discovered' in
1852. Herbert Spencer won his suffrages.
Sad was the close of a uniformly honourable career, sad and
very French! A Frenchman's family is ever part of himself; no
Frenchman owning kith and kin however remotely related can be
regarded as a unit, for good or for evil he is member of a clan.
Thus it came about that when the husband of his much-loved niece was
on the verge of ruin, Flaubert flew to the rescue. Without a
second's hesitation—at that time being elderly and in failing
health—he sacrificed his entire fortune in order to avert the
catastrophe. The sum-total of several hundred thousand—some
say a hundred thousand—francs was as nothing in French eyes by
comparison with the loss of family honour. If bankruptcy no
longer entails the pillory and the green cap with steps of the
Bourse, forfeiture of civil rights and banishment as under the first
Napoleon, it is still high treason, mortal sin as in the days of
César Birotteau. But the famous author of Madame Bovary
could not be left to starve. The librarianship of the
Bibliothèque Mazarine, bringing in just three thousand francs a
year, was awarded him. He survived the nomination a few months
only, dying in 1880, his end doubtless being hastened by anxieties,
unhygienic habits, and persistent self-neglect. For days, even
weeks at a time, he would shut himself up in his garden-house, not
even the avenue of favourite lime-trees tempting him abroad.
To his manuscript, like Lear, he was bound as to a wheel of fire.
Since these pages were written, that is to say, on the 17th
of June of the present year, 1906, the Pavilion Flaubert was
inaugurated with much ceremony and handed over to the city of Rouen.
Many interesting mementoes of the novelist have been laboriously got
together: an alley of lime-trees has been planted on the site of his
favourite walk, a tulip-tree, a rose bush and a root of honeysuckle,
occupy the exact spot of former favourites. The Pavilion
Flaubert therefore wears a very different aspect to that seen by me
nine months before. Two monuments memorialise Flaubert in his
native city, one adorning the museum of the Jardin Solférino, the
other, the walls of the École de Médecine, both having portraits in
And this year has been published a volume which not only
reveals the character of the man in its entirety but is a revelation
of French national character. [p.19]
Not only Flaubert—all France—lives in its pages, the France, not of
fiction, but of real life, with all its homely lovingness,
amiability and self-devotion.
Few readers, I presume, will be at pains to peruse the three
hundred and ninety letters to his adored niece Caroline, some of
these the merest scraps, only a caress on paper, covering a period
of thirty-four (Ed.—sic) years. The first, dated from
Paris, April 25, 1856, compliments his dear Lilinne—as he goes on he
finds a score of pet names for his darling—on her improved spelling,
and speaks of a new doll which is impatiently awaiting the journey
to Croisset and new clothes. The last was written from his
Rouen home on May 2, 1880, just six days before his death, and is in
a characteristically pessimistic strain. His Loulou's pictures
have been badly hung in the Salon and he has suffered shabby
treatment at the hands of a publisher. 'This is how one is
always treated by these people,' he writes bitterly; 'the contrary
is quite exceptional.'
There is very little literature in these five hundred and odd
closely printed pages. From this point of view the letters to
his Caro, his Loulou, his Carola, his bibi, his bichon,
will not bear comparison with those previously published. The
interest of the volume lies elsewhere. For, in thus portraying
himself, Flaubert portrays the real Frenchman to whom family life
and family affection stand before every other earthly good.
In the melancholy days following Sedan, after an outburst of
despair concerning the national outlook he concludes with: 'But I am
ungrateful to Heaven, since I shall have my poor Caro.'
THE STORY OF THE MARSEILLAISE
NEVER was the
irony of fate more conspicuously displayed than in the history of
Rouget de Lisle, never did splendid renown suffer completer eclipse.
When, stricken in years and broken in health, the pensioner of
Louis-Philippe died at Choisy-le-Rol, the announcement aroused no
interest. The poet-musician who had sounded the clarion note of
revolution, imbuing peasant lads with the spirit of Lacedaemon, was
utterly forgotten. Could he have lived, as do many, to be a
nonagenarian, how would he have electrified the Paris of Lamartine
and Victor Hugo, the France of '48! By comparison the apotheosis of
Voltaire would have faded into insignificance. Who can say? Had such
a span been accorded to Rouget de Lisle, the Second Empire and Sedan
might have been averted, France might still rejoice in her Rhine
provinces. It was not to be. He died in 1837, just a decade too
With its author, the most famous song in the world had been
condemned to oblivion. Like the genii of Arabian story, the
Marseillaise was long hermetically sealed, on its deliverance from
prison proving a greater miracle-worker than the guide to the
enchanted lakes. The trumpet-call of 1792 became the rallying
cry of democratic France, the watchword of the great western
From another point of view Rouget de Lisle's story is equally
strange. The efflorescence of this strange genius remained
single, unique, neither bud nor blossom keeping its one glorious
outburst company. Voluminous composer, novelist, song-writer,
vaudevilliste, with a solitary exception Rouget de Lisle's
works are as completely forgotten as if they had never been.
He lives in an impromptu durable as the language in which it was
hastily jotted down.
Claude-Joseph Rouget, afterwards self-styled de Lisle, was
born at Lons-le-Saulnier, Jura, on the 10th of May 1760.
Perhaps no part of France is less familiar to the English tourist
than Franche-Comté, the country of Victor Hugo, of how many other
great names in art, literature and science, and of how many historic
associations! It is, moreover, in these eastern highlands, to
quote Ruskin, that 'a sense of great power is beginning to be
manifested in the earth, and of a deep and majestic concord in the
long, low line of piny hills, the first utterance of those mighty
mountain symphonies soon to be heard more loudly lifted and wildly
broken along the battlements of the Alps.'
Ruskin wrote of Champagnole lying ten miles further eastward,
but the mighty mountain symphonies begin to be heard at
Lons-le-Saulnier. In clear weather Mont Blanc may be descried
from the wooded height of Montciel above the town, crowning feature
of a majestic panorama.
Lons, as the chef-lieu of the department is familiarly
called by residents, when I first knew it twenty-five years ago, was
a cheerful, artistic little town, nothing more. It has now
become a fashionable inland spa, its valuable mineral springs
attracting large numbers of valetudinarians: hotels, casino, and
concert-rooms forming quite a new quarter. More than one
pleasant autumn have I spent under a French roof here, on the
occasion of my latest visit finding many changes. In one
respect, however, I found no difference. Despite modernisation
and natural attractions, the English and American tourist had not
discovered Lons-le-Saulnier. The brilliance and sublimity of
Franc-Comtois scenery, its underground marvels, glittering cascades,
lovely little lakes, and frowning donjons, piny solitudes and
pastoral vales, remain unknown to my travelling compatriots.
The young military engineer who revolutionised France with a
song, was born in the house now numbered twenty-four of the ancient
Rue des Arcades, that picturesque street recalling the Spanish
régime of Franche-Comté. A delightful lounge alike during
winter and summer is this long stretch of covered galleries, and
many towns hereabouts are similarly embellished.
Rouget is a very usual patronymic in this part of France, and
the aristocratic de Lisle, belonging to some ancestor on the
paternal side, was adopted as a matter of necessity. The
Rouget family were bourgeois, Claude-Joseph's father being an
Avocat de Parlement. Unprovided with the particle, the
young man would not have been admitted into any military academy,
such schools being exclusively reserved for youths of the
Like most of the well-to-do professional classes in France,
formerly as nowadays, the Rouget family possessed their country
house and small landed property. Travel was out of the
question. Then, as to-day, the long vacation was mostly spent
by lawyers and notaries on their modest ancestral domain. Till
his dying day Rouget de Lisle's fondest memories clung to the
paternal home at Montaigu, a suburban village, a mile and a half
from Lons-le-Saulnier. One bright September afternoon I set
off for the spot with my host, a Protestant pastor, and his little
daughter, who carried a basket of grapes with which to refresh
ourselves on the way.
The neighbourhood of Lons-le-Saulnier abounds in delightful
walks, the half-hour's climb among the vineyards to Montaigu being
one of the prettiest. As we ascended we saw magnificent views:
to our right lay the vast plain of La Brasse, now dim and blue as a
hazy summer sea; to our left rose the Jura range, dark purple
shadows flecking the green slopes, standing out boldly on isolated
peaks the donjons of Le Pin and Montmorot, and the ruined chateaux
of L'Étoile and Bornay, whilst at our feet lay the pretty little
capital of the Jura. Although we were midway through
September, and the air was keen, a hot sun poured down upon the
In these days numbering seven hundred and odd souls, Montaigu
at one time possessed considerable importance. In the eleventh
century like a watchdog it kept guard over the valuable springs of
Lons-le-Saulnier, Étienne, Count of Burgundy, having turned the
place into a fortress. Nothing worth mentioning remains of
feudal Montaigu to-day, but its aspect is old-world, not to say
antiquated, and little changed since Rouget de Lisle was rocked in
his cradle, just upon a century and a half ago.
The village street is picturesque, if not on the whole
suggestive of comfort. To each deep red roof are attached
corner pieces for letting off the snow, which often falls in
terrible superabundance in the Jura. During the bitter winter
of 1870-71, indeed, wolves could be seen prowling by daylight around
these suburban villages!
At the time of my visit there was nothing to distinguish
Rouget de Lisle's birthplace from its neighbours but a handsome iron
gateway, or rather door. No tablet commemorated the 10th of
May 1760. Looking through that doorway and beyond a small
courtyard, we saw a modest but substantial bourgeois dwelling
with iron balcony, the whole suggesting respectability and easy
A marble inscription now arrests the attention of passing
travellers; a second ought to be added, that to a dog deserving a
niche among historic hounds.
But indeed for the country lawyer's good house-dog, the world
might never have heard of Rouget de Lisle and the Marseillaise.
When a child of three or four, Montaigu and its neighbourhood was
infested with foreign gipsies. The little fellow at this early
age seems to have showed the daringness characterising his entire
career; having strayed beyond the home premises he was popped under
the cloak of a crone. Already she had reached the extremity of
the village street when the barkings of the faithful dog alarmed the
household. One and all rushed out; the child was hastily set
down, his would-be kidnapper beating a hasty retreat. Another
fright he gave his family when six years old. One day a
company of strolling musicians gave a concert in the village, and so
fascinated was he by the music that he followed the band as they
marched away, playing as they went. On being brought back and
scolded, he excused himself thus: 'O Mamma, I do love you, but they
played so beautifully!'
The family was musical, and at this period the violin enjoyed
especial vogue. At an early age Claude-Joseph took lessons on
the instrument from a local master, his musical education, however,
never having passed the elementary stage. Of harmony he
As we survey the beautiful environment of Montaigu, its
vine-clad slopes and majestic perspectives, we can understand Rouget
de Lisle's passion for his childhood's home. 'The first
utterance of those mighty mountain symphonies soon to be wildly
lifted along the battlements of the Alps,' of which Ruskin speaks,
awoke an echo in his turbulent nature.
As we shall see, neither wedded love nor the domestic
affections brightened his stormy career. Of friendship he
fully tasted the solace, but his tenderest recollections clung to
Montaigu, the corner of France no less endeared to him by childish
associations than by natural charm. 'Thine were my first
affections, thine my last regrets,' thus pathetically he
apostrophises the place in his latter years. To the 'séjour
charmant de mon enfance' he consecrated touching words and plaintive
melodies. And Montaigu, the dearly cherished home and paternal
estate, with everything else that he prized, was destined to slip
through his fingers, become a thing of the irrevocable past whilst
he yet lived and felt stirred by the ambitions of youth!
On the 25th of April 1792, Rouget de Lisle was a guest at the
historic banquet given by Baron Friedrich Dietrich, first Mayor of
The brilliant young military engineer had already attained a
certain notoriety as novelist, poet, musical composer, and
dramatist. One of his pieces had even been produced at the
Ópera Comique, and the celebrated musician Grétry had accepted his
collaboration in several works now forgotten. As was the
fashion among young gentlemen of the period, he had composed
innumerable society verses, besides throwing off sentimental
Rouget de Lisle's early ambitions would appear to have been
by no means those of a soldier. Had success crowned these
versatile efforts, his career would doubtless have been very
different. France might perhaps have wanted her Marseillaise,
but the poet and musician of Lons-le-Saulnier might have fared after
A few words about this memorable dinner and the young
captain's hosts and fellow-guests.
The banquet, although unofficial, was eminently a patriotic
manifestation. A few days before, the Legislative Assembly had
declared war against Austria and Prussia, in other words, against
the coalition of émigrés and foreign powers formed for the
restoration of absolute monarchy. Threatened with the fate of
Poland, France answered the summons to submission by a general call
In Strassburg excitement was at fever pitch. Alike the
king's oath to maintain the constitution and the declaration of war
had been enthusiastically acclaimed. A religious ceremony in
the Cathedral, a grand musical celebration in the open air, banquets
to the agèd poor and orphans, celebrated these events, the day
winding up with Dietrich's great dinner of farewell. The
unfortunate General Luckner had been named Commander of the Alsatian
forces; on the morrow officers and volunteers would be on the march,
many with little likelihood of meeting again.
The first Mayor of Strassburg, as he is known in history, is
an ingratiating figure. A cultivated gentleman and high-minded
citizen, the friend of Turgot and Condorcet, he had welcomed the
Revolution, but from a monarchical point of view. With Arthur
Young's friend, the amiable Due de Liancourt, and many others, he
believed in the possible establishment of constitutional monarchy.
To Dietrich's cost he believed the word of Louis XVI. Hence
his growing unpopularity among the more violent faction at
Strassburg, hence the swift waning of his once immense and deserved
popularity, and tragic end.
Just now the Dietrich salon (early in 1792) was the centre of
all that was most public-spirited and refined in the city.
Both husband and wife were accomplished musicians, and the former
possessed a magnificent tenor voice. Their two sons, Friedrich
and Albert, both volunteers in the army of defence, were present at
the dinner. Among the guests were the generals in command,
Desaix, the future hero of Marengo, other officers and a few leading
citizens. The hostess and two young nieces seem to have been
the only ladies present.
Little wonder that under the circumstances conversation took
an entirely martial turn. Marches, battles, the chances and
fruits of victory formed the sole topic of conversation. The
words 'Enfants de la patrie,' a name given to the younger Dietrich's
volunteers, 'Aux armes, citoyens!' 'Marchons,' and other phrases
were on every lip, emphasised many a sentence. Champagne
circulated freely, voices became more impassioned and vociferous,
and as it was then the fashion in France, as it is still, for ladies
to remain at the table to the last, Madame Dietrich and her nieces
interposed. Could not something else be discussed?—they had
heard enough of campaigns and wars.
Then patriotic songs were mentioned. Might not some
substitute be found for the jingling 'Ça ira, ça ira'? Could
not some one compose a hymn for the army of the Rhine, General
Luckner's brave followers? The host's first notion was of a
publicly advertised competition, of offering a prize for what should
be not only a war-song, but become a national hymn. Then,
another thought having struck him, he turned to the young military
'But you, Monsieur de Lisle,' he said with charming
insinuation and persuasiveness, 'you who woo the Muses, why should
not you try to give us what we want? Compose, then, a
noble song for the French people, now a people of soldiers, and you
will have deserved well of your country.'
Rouget de Lisle tried to excuse himself, but alike host and
fellow-guests would not hear his deprecations. Again the
champagne passed round, and just as at last, amid tears, smiles, and
passionately patriotic farewells, the party broke up, a
fellow-officer, about to quit Strasburg next day, begged de Lisle
for a copy of his forthcoming song.
'I make the promise on behalf of your comrade,' Dietrich
replied with affectionate authoritativeness.
In a state of tremendous surexcitation Rouget de Lisle
reached his lodging close by, but not to sleep. His violin lay
on the table. Taking it up, he struck a few chords. Soon
a melody seemed to grow under his fingers, harmonising with the
words that had been reiterated throughout the evening, 'Aux armes,
aux armes, citoyens, marchons, formez vos bataillons!' No
sooner had he gripped his air, and put down the notes on paper, than
he dashed off the words. Thus having in a brief hour secured
for himself an undying name, he threw himself upon his bed and
In his declining years, Rouget de Lisle would ofttime narrate
the genesis of the Marseillaise to friends and acquaintances, memory
sometimes playing him false in immaterial particulars. Again
and again he told the story, among his listeners being the
celebrated painter David d'Angers.
The following version is now accepted as substantially
correct. On awakening next morning, his eye immediately rested
on the composition of a few hours before. After glancing at
verse and melody, early as was the morning, the clock had just
struck six, he hurried off to a fellow-officer and guest of the
night before, who in turn hurried him off to the Mayor's. The
young men found Dietrich strolling in his garden.
'Let us go indoors,' he said; 'I will try the air on the
clavecin, [p.33] and shall
be able to tell at once if it is very good or very bad.'
Dietrich, true musician as he was, unhesitatingly anticipated
the verdict of posterity. All the available guests of
yesterday were again invited to dinner; he had an important
communication in store for them, he said. During the banquet
his secret was carefully withheld. The party having adjourned
to the salon, one of the young ladies opened the clavecin,
and the Mayor's magnificent voice thundered forth:—
'Allons, enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé.'
The audience was electrified. Forthwith copied and
distributed to local bands and musical societies, the song acted
like a charm. Hitherto enrolling themselves by twos and
threes, the youth of Alsace now donned the tricolour cockade by
hundreds and thousands.
As yet, however, the composition was only known by the name
of 'Le Chant de Guerre de l'Armée du Rhin,' and its fame remained
local. One interesting feature of this history is the part
played in it by a woman.
Although a prolific musical composer, Rouget de Lisle
possessed, as has been said, only an imperfect knowledge of harmony
and counterpoint. It was his host's wife, the accomplished and
public-spirited Madame Dietrich, who now set to work, not only
correcting technical errors and arranging the piece for part-singing
and orchestration, but making numerous copies. In a charming
letter to her brother at Basle she wrote in May: 'Rouget de Lisle, a
Captain in the Engineers and an agreeable poet and musician, at the
suggestion of my husband, has composed a song suited to present
events (un chant de circonstance), which we find very
spirited, and not without a certain originality. It is
something after the manner of Gluck, but livelier and more stirring.
I have put my knowledge of orchestration to use, arranging the song
for different instruments, and am therefore very busy.'
It was not till the following August that Rouget de Lisle's
composition reached Paris, henceforth to be known as the
In his famous novel, The Reds of the Midi, the
Provençal novelist dramatically describes a march historic as that
of the Ten Thousand. The volunteers of Marseilles set forth
early in July, harnessing themselves like beasts of burden to their
field-pieces, singing as they went, and bequeathing the new song to
every village passed through. It was not till the last day but
one of the month that they arrived, and on the 4th of August, for
the first time, the great war-song was heard in the capital.
A few days later the king and his family were prisoners, the
Legislative Assembly dissolved, and the newly-formed Convention
demanded adhesion from all officers and public functionaries, the
alternative being immediate dismissal.
Rouget de Lisle's reply was a decided No, the fateful
word changing the course of his career, a little later bringing his
head within an inch of the guillotine.
How are we to account for il gran refiuto, such a
withdrawal of the hand from the plough? Was the step due to
social influences, to conviction, or simply to waywardness and
instability of character? He carried his secret with him to
Anterior events may in part account alike for his reactionary
mood and his incarceration later as a suspect. Strassburg had
been divided into two factions. On the one side were Dietrich
and his followers, who believed in the possibility of constitutional
reforms whilst retaining monarchical institutions; on the other the
ultra-Jacobin party, headed by that ferocious ex-priest Euloge
Schneider, the Carrier of the east, of whom Charles Nodier has left
us so striking a portrait.
Rouget de Lisle, like many another, unhappily for himself,
possessed one gift he could well have spared. Not only could
he dash off songs, operas, novels, and plays, and skilfully handle
the violinist's bow, but he wielded a mordant pen. In the art
of invective he equalled Rochefort himself. During his stay at
Strassburg he had in his editorial capacity violently lashed
Schneider and his associate Lapeaux, another and equally violent
ex-priest, in the organ of Dietrich's party. The attacks were
continued after his removal to Huningue, a small fortified place in
what until 1871 was the department of Haut Rhin. Small wonder,
therefore, that he soon found himself by these an object of
suspicion. For many months after his dismissal from the army
he led the life of a wanderer, effacing himself in the wilds of his
beloved Jura. So little, as yet, was he generally known as the
author of the Marseillaise, that six months after its composition a
friend wrote to him saying that the new war-song was performed in
all the Paris theatres, and adding: 'You have never told me the name
of the composer. Is it Edelmann?' This Edelmann, a
former close friend of Dietrich, and, with himself, an accomplished
musician, afterwards became his accuser and bitterest enemy.
In his invaluable Reminiscences of the Revolution, Charles
Nodier relates how he heard him with horrible sang-froid thus
arraign his old associate when on his trial at Besançon: 'As my
friend I am bound to weep for thee; as a traitor thou must die!'
During these wanderings, Rouget de Lisle one day engaged a
youth as guide through some mountain passes unknown to him: his ear
was greeted with the refrain:—
'Allons, enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrive.'
'What is that you are singing, my lad?' he asked with some
'You don't know, monsieur!' replied the boy still more
astonished. 'Why, that's the song of the Marseillais
volunteers that everybody knows by heart.'
His song had not only reached the capital, but his native
The instability of Rouget de Lisle's character is evidenced
in the next phase of his chameleon-like career. Apparently
overtaken by remorse he demanded re-admission into the army, now
that of the First Republic, took the civic oath, and joined the
victorious forces of Valmy at Verdun. What followed remains a
mystery. Shortly afterwards he was again dismissed the
service, and once more effaced himself among his native solitudes.
Then he returned to Paris, seeking distraction in music and
literature, was soon arrested, set at liberty, rearrested, this time
being kept in prison till the great deliverance of Thermidor.
His immediate liberation was lastly due to the fact that he was the
composer of the Marseillaise, now proclaimed the national hymn of
It is not perhaps astonishing that despite these facts and
certain honours decreed by the Convention, his first mood was of
violent reaction. He could not indeed say with Charles Nodier
[p.38] that he had been the sole
guest of a famous banquet who had preserved his head. But the
amiable Dietrich, his noble guest Victor de Broglie had fallen
victims to personal vindictiveness; a second guest on that memorable
25th of April 1792, Achille de Chastellet, had poisoned himself in
prison; a third was in exile; others had died on the field of
battle; the rest were scattered.
In curious contradiction to the mercilessness of partisanship
at this period was the prison régime. During his incarceration
Dietrich found distraction in musical composition for the
clavecin. No less than twenty pieces called Allemande, a
kind of quick dance, were composed by him whilst a prisoner, the
manuscripts still remaining in his family. For the rest
Henrietta Maria Williams tells us how the prisoners of the Terror
fared, how conversation, cards, books, music and painting in company
relieved the tedium of confinement, how 'her teakettle was never
allowed to get cool,' and above all how one of her jailors, Benoit
by name, did his utmost to alleviate the condition of his charges by
little kindnesses and comforts, 'without deviating from duty ever
pursuing his steady course of humanity.' Schneider and
Edelmann, be it recalled, met with the fate they had so ruthlessly
meted out to others.
The mental see-saw characterising Rouget de Lisle's career
now manifested itself in adhesion to the party of
counter-revolution. Heart and soul he joined the Jeunesse
dorée, danced at the celebrated ball de victimes, and
frequented the salons of Madame Tallien and of General Beauharnais's
widow, the future Empress. A little later we find the author
of the Marseillaise, as he now styled himself, demanding
reintegration into the army under Hoche, a request unhesitatingly
Disappointed at not receiving promotion after Quiberon, once
more he retired from the service, a little later once more asking
re-admission. This time he had to do with 'the organiser of
victory,' now the most powerful man in France. Carnot would
make no exception to the new law, for once and for all excluding
officers who had voluntarily thrown up their commissions. The
correspondence of the pair is curious reading. To the great 'Citoyen
directeur,' as afterwards to his still greater rival, the young
military engineer took the tone of a commander-in-chief addressing a
subaltern. With Carnot's fall and Napoleon's star in the
ascendant, Rouget de Lisle's hopes of a career revived.
Excluded from the army, he dreamed of diplomatic distinction.
His protectress Josephine, now Madame Bonaparte, twice procured him
employment, firstly a mission to the Spanish court of no political
importance, secondly a post in the commissariat. As envoy
complimentary he acquitted himself satisfactorily; as contractor for
the barracks he naturally proved a dismal failure. The
complicated story is too long for reproduction here, sufficient to
say that addressing the 'Citoyen Premier Consul' haughtily and
defiantly as he had addressed Carnot, he announced his intention of
crossing the Manche, assured, he said, of receiving honourable
hospitality in England. The intention was not carried out.
A year later again he dipped his pen in gall, his long tirade
containing such sentences as these: 'Bonaparte! you are hastening to
your own destruction, worse still to the destruction of France.
What have you done with our liberties? What in your hands has
become the fate of the Republic? . . . Bonaparte! It was not
with the intention of becoming your patrimony that France threw
herself into your arms,' and so on and so on, an admirable and
powerful arraignment, unfortunately coming from a negligible
quarter. So insignificant a personality indeed was now the
author of the Marseillaise that despite this harangue he kept his
head on his shoulders!
Rouget de Lisle's career recalls a certain Norse fable.
One day a farmer set out for market on a valuable horse he wished to
turn into money. But being of a fantastic and capricious
disposition he thought he would try barter instead. After
many, as he deemed, excellent bargains, having exchanged his good
beast respectively for a cow, pigs, cocks and hens, and what not,
the final lot was sold for a small piece of money which he lost ere
reaching home. Maybe, the one success of Rouget de Lisle's
explains his many failures.
In another respect his story is even more exceptional.
During the long struggle with poverty, neglect, and enforced
inaction that followed, but for his friends he would have found
himself alone. Family affection, the usual adamantine bond of
sympathy and good-fellowship among our neighbours, was here wanting.
'Talk not to me of brothers!' he one day said, the words recalling
Tacitus's bitter epigram, 'They hated with the hatred of brothers.'
The Musée Carnavalet is now the depository of Rouget de
Lisle's correspondence with his brothers and sisters, a collection
revealing painful dissensions. One brother was now a general
in Napoleon's army, another was employed in the naval commissariat.
But the family had not prospered, bit by bit the patrimony of
Montaigu had been parted with; finally the ancestral home, Rouget de
Lisle's asylum for five years, was sold also.
In 1817, at the age of fifty-seven, he settled in Paris,
earning a scanty and uncertain livelihood by teaching and copying
music, making translations from the English for reviews, and
literary hackwork. The inventive faculty was still alert.
He composed new national hymns and accompaniments to Béranger's
songs, wrote librettos, and, it is said, suggested to St.-Simon the
agency of music in social regeneration.
Many old friends were now dead or scattered, but one or two
remained, among these his former companion in arms General Blein,
who survived him by some years, gave him shelter under his roof and
raised a monument to his memory, and new friends gathered round him
devoted as the old. Rouget de Lisle, like most of his
countrymen, possessed a veritable genius for friendship. His
warm heart, generous spirit, versatile, scintillating nature, and
talent for conversation, endeared him to all with whom he came in
close contact, atoning for exasperating foibles. Again and
again some faithful comrade proved 'the man whose name was Help,'
and who dragged him out of the Slough of Despond. When, in
1826, he was torn from his Paris garret and thrown into prison for a
trifling debt, it was Béranger who flew to the rescue, discharging
the claim and collecting a little money for future needs.
General Blein, who lived at Choisy-le-Roi with his mother and
sister, now offered him a home, and partly as guest, partly as
boarder he remained under their friendly roof for some years.
The Blein home was later broken up owing to the death of the two
ladies, and then other friends equally devoted made him one of their
The Revolution of 1830 brought him belated honours and
independence. I have ever had a corner in my heart for the
homely citizen king who, like any honest bourgeois, used to preside
at the head of his dinner-table and carve for his large family, and
who would daily have a 'good-day' and a gossip with the guards.
Louis-Philippe never forgot that he owed his crown to revolution and
to the Marseillaise. Even before crowned as Roi des Français
he accorded a pension of 1500 francs to his comrade of 1792, the
pair having fought side by side in Dumouriez's army. Through
Béranger's agency two other pensions of a thousand francs each were
awarded Rouget de Lisle by the Ministers of the Interior and of
Commerce respectively. Finally on the 6th of December of the
same year came that honour which sends all Frenchmen happy to the
grave. The cross of the Legion of Honour now adorned his
It is pleasant to find this storm-tossed career ending in
days of deep halcyon repose, and indeed in something more.
Rouget de Lisle's last years were not only free from care, suffering
and mental depression, they were enlivened by intellectual
intercourse, irradiated by the quick, keen sympathies of artistic
fellowship. The central figure of a highly cultivated circle,
every evening he found himself surrounded by kindred spirits.
Music and conversation, above all, the reminiscences of the author
of the Marseillaise, made his hostess's reunions animated and
stimulating. The Voiart dwelling commanded a beautiful
prospect, before it stretching the verdant valley of the Seine, at
that time undisturbed by railways and unpoetised by the speculative
builder. In 1892, the centenary of the Marseillaise, old folks
living here could remember the old soldier as slowly strolling to
and fro he sunned himself and drank in the beauty of the scene.
And strange as it seems, in this year of grace nineteen
hundred and five, some hale nonagenarian might still be found who
could tell us of that pathetic figure,—the red rosette, atoning in
part for so many cruel disillusions, conspicuous on his shabby
Surrounded by his friends, Rouget de Lisle died on the 27th
of June 1836, a vast crowd following his remains to the grave.
Even under the citizen king, the son of Philippe Égalité, the
Marseillaise had been silenced, but just as the funeral party
prepared to disperse, some workmen began with solemn measure:
'Allons, enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé.'
The refrain, taken up by the crowd, swelled into a mighty volume of
sound, fitting requiem of one now numbered among the immortals!
The fate of the Marseillaise had been meteoric as that of its
composer, one day flashing forth with blinding brilliancy, now
buried in Serbonian obscurity, now the theme of Europe, now silent
as the voice of one gone down to the tomb.
It was hardly likely that Napoleon, having used the
Marseillaise for his own ends, would allow it to serve any other.
The song might prove a siren to his soldiers when in his early days
he led them on to victory. No sooner had the Corsican Cæsar
crushed the Republic and trampled French liberties under foot, than
the electrifying strains resounded no more. Nor was it at all
probable that the Restoration would tolerate consecration of
principles it had adhered to so gingerly. Louis-Philippe,
indeed, on first coming to the throne, allowed himself to be
occasionally serenaded with the hymn of liberty and revolution, but
in his ears also and in those of his advisers, its democratic note
soon seemed a portent and a warning. Eighteen years later the
Marseillaise was resuscitated, once more not only to awaken France
but Europe. Then followed the Napoleonic legend and its fatal
magic, and for eighteen years more, like the princess of fairy tale,
it was condemned to deathless slumber.
And not with the proclamation of the Third Republic was
Rouget de Lisle's song pronounced the national hymn of France.
During the reactionary MacMahon régime the Marseillaise was
studiously kept in the background. From August 1875 until the
same month of the following year I lived at Nantes, being the guest
of a French lady, widow of a former Préfet. Never once do I
remember hearing the strains now familiar even to children of our
own national schools. It was not indeed until the 14th of
February 1879 that the Chamber under Gambetta's presidency recalled
and ratified the decree of the 26 Messier, An II. (14 July 1795) and
the Marseillaise was proclaimed the national hymn of France.
As we review this strange history an inevitable reflection
occurs to the student of history. For strange it is, but true,
the Revolution was, pre-eminently a lyrical epoch. A period of
fiercest passions and superhuman endurance, of Titanic struggles for
national existence, found expression in song and melody. The
stormy years preceding the Restoration constitute indeed the most
musical period of French history. Song and vaudeville,
vaudeville and song, characterise crises appalling as any in
modern annals. Seeking relief from actualities, native genius
took a sportive turn. The authors of Jean qui pleure et
Jean qui rit, of Le Temps et l'Amour, of Il pleut,
bergère, il pleut, were severally contemporaries of Robespierre
These and many other graceful trifles have become classics,
numerous editions having been unearthed within recent years by the
Société de l'histoire de la Révolution. [p.48]
The Conservatoire, that great national school of music and
declamation, was founded by the Convention, similar schools being
opened at Marseilles, Nantes, and other large cities. In the
words of M. Rambaud, the history of French national music dates from
the Revolution, the crown being decreed to the young soldier, who as
a child followed the pipe of wandering minstrels in his beloved
Jura—whose verdict on himself was so singularly falsified.
'Your musical talent,' he wrote to Berlioz in 1830, 'is a volcano
always emitting flame. Mine is only a lighted wisp, blazing
for a moment, then smouldering away.'
ON THE TRACK OF BALZAC—LIMOGES
THERE are certain
French towns to which Balzac is the best possible, nay, the
indispensable guide. Saumur, the home of Eugénie Grandet, and
Guérande, the scene of Béatrix, have, indeed, become literary
pilgrimages, but other places of great interest in themselves
possess a double interest for the Balzac student, notably Limoges
HONORÉ DE BALZAC
Picture: Internet Text Archive.
The Danton of fiction, as Philarète Chasles has called him,
whilst bestowing world-wide fame upon a sleepy Breton bourg or a
remote Touraine hamlet had little general knowledge of his own
country. In Béatrix, for instance, he speaks of France
still retaining two walled-in towns, perfect specimens of feudal
architecture, namely Guérande and Avignon. As all travellers
know, such specimens are numerous—Carcassonne, Saumur, Provins,
Montreuil, by no means exhaust the list. Travelling was
expensive and laborious in Balzac's day, and we must be thankful
that he travelled much more than most people.
Limoges, the scene of Le Curé du Village, and
Angoulême, that of Les Deux Poètes, are both cities
commandingly placed and rich in archaeological and artistic
attractions. On lately revisiting the capitals of the Haute
Vienne and the Charente I found them more engaging than ever and
quite as neglected. Seldom, indeed, do you encounter a stray
compatriot in the surroundings so minutely interwoven with Balzac's
stories, stories as full of pathetic interest- as any of his vast
series. Crowning the lofty banks of the Vienne, Limoges is
seen from afar, the gloomy tower of its beautiful cathedral forming
a strange contrast to the bright landscape. September is the
month for the chestnut country, such is the Limousin par
excellence. What the apple-tree is to Normandy, the olive
to Provence, is the chestnut in these regions, and the veteran trees
are a glory to behold. Formerly chestnuts almost supplanted
bread with the country folks. Of late years, alas, wide areas
of chestnut wood have been levelled for the culture of cereals.
Strolling through the lower town with Balzac's novel in hand
we feel that these tortuous streets and ancient dwellings must
remain very much as he saw them three quarters of a century back.
The tumble-down shop 'unchanged from the middle ages' in which the
ill-fated girl's miserly grandfather amassed riches—the bookseller's
window on which Paul et Virginie caught her eye, a turning
point in her history—the stately hotel of the rich banker with 'the
façade of a public building,' her home when exchanging an avaricious
father for an equally avaricious husband—the cottage on the opposite
bank whither she strolled on summer evenings to enjoy the view, her
mother's society—and stolen interviews—the lonely suburban dwelling
by the river with its garden, scene of her lover's crime, the double
murder saving her from shame and exposure—all these sites seem as
identifiable as any in guidebooks.
Here, indeed, is a page that might well have been transcribed
for traveller's use: 'The bishop's palace of Limoges crowns an
eminence bordering the Vienne, the gardens flanked with solid
masonry descending stairwise to the river. So considerable is
this elevation that the Faubourg St. Étienne on the opposite bank
seems level with the lowest terrace. From that point,
according to the direction pedestrians may take, the river winds
sinuously or flows with unbroken sweep through a rich panorama.
Westward from the bishopric gardens is seen a graceful curve, the
Vienne here bathing the Faubourg St. Martial, a little further on
rising the Poplar-covered islet fancifully designated by Wronique,
the Île de France. Eastward the perspective is one of hills
forming a natural amphitheatre. The witchery of its site and
the rich simplicity of its style make the évêché the most remarkable
edifice of Limoges. . . . The bishop was seated in an angle of the
lower terrace under a trellised vine taking his dessert and drinking
in the beauty of the evening. The poplars on the islet seemed
a part of the water, so clear their reflections gilded by the
setting sun. Thus mirrored, a variety of foliage made up a
whole tinged with melancholy. . . . Beyond, the spires and roofs of
the Faubourg St. Martial gleamed between clustering greenery.
The subdued murmur of a country town half-hidden in the bent arc of
the river, the softness of the air'—here follows a truly Balzacian
touch—'all contributed to impart to the prelate that quietude of
mind insisted upon by all authorities on digestion—his eyes wandered
to the right bank, soon becoming fixed upon the enclosed garden,
scene of the double assassination.'
The bishop's palace, so glowingly described by the great
novelist, had moved Arthur Young to enthusiasm half a century
before. 'The present bishop,' wrote the Suffolk farmer in
1787, 'has erected a large and handsome palace, and his garden is
the finest object to be seen at Limoges, for it commands a landscape
hardly to be equalled for beauty; it would be idle to give any other
description than just enough to induce travellers to visit it!
A river winds through a vale surrounded by hills that present the
gayest and most animated assemblage of villas, farms, vines, hanging
meadows, and chestnuts blended so fortunately as to compose a scene
Balzac's good bishop and the country priest fetched from the
murderer's village in order to confess him play an important part
throughout the story. Véronique, whose beauty at nine years of
age was the marvel of Limoges, whom a chance reading of Paul et
Virginie in girlhood made sentimental and visionary, is a
character after Balzac's own heart. She seeks refuge from a
loveless home in Byron, Walter Scott, Schiller, Goethe, and in
pietistic exercises. These failing to satisfy her aspirations
she accepts the love of a protégé, a young man of inferior position
whom, as she said in her dying confession, she 'intended to train
for heaven, but had conducted to the scaffold.' When this
supreme crisis in her life came, when her lover lay sentenced to
death in prison, the conduct of cette sublime femme, as
Balzac calls her, was what might have been expected. The
sentimentality that did duty for passion prompted no heroic
initiative. Instead of throwing good repute to the four winds,
consoling her lover in prison, confronting his judges, thereby
averting the death penalty, she held aloof. The unhappy youth,
showing a temper truly valiant, went to his doom with sealed lips,
and Véronique betook herself to works of abstinence and piety,
thereby expiating her fault and gaining saintly renown.
But all this time the dreadful secret had not been her own.
The bishop had divined it in the first instance, and the curé
was put in possession of it by means of the confessional.
When, worn out by fasting, the cilice, and other penances, she
wished to make public avowal, these two endeavoured to dissuade her.
'Die in peace,' urged the bishop, you have endured enough, God has
The dying penitent insisted, however, and before a numerous
assemblage—priests, civic authorities, and friends—she unburdened
herself, pleaded excuse for the reticence that had saved her own
reputation at the cost of another's life, for having been 'carried
away by the terrible logic of the world' ('entraînée par la
logique terrible du monde').
Le Curé du Village is far from being one
of Balzac's greatest stories, and Limoges is by no means one of the
greatest cathedral towns in France, but the romance embellishes the
town and a sight of the town vivifies the romance. Henceforth
we cannot think of them apart. Balzac's excessive minuteness
is far from being a fault in the eyes of the wayfarer on his track.
His long descriptions do not weary under such circumstances; on the
contrary, they become vitally interesting. We should re-read
Béatrix at Guérande, hardly changed, I dare say, since I saw
it many years ago—Eugénie Grandet at lovely little Saumur,
Le Curé de Tours at Tours, Ursule Mirouët at the pretty
town of Nemours, and so on, in each case the scenery being
elaborated with as much care as the figures with which they are
Heretical as it may appear, to my thinking the fine gothic
cathedral of Limoges is disfigured by its gloomy clock tower.
The entire town seems overshadowed, rendered gloomy, by this tall
lank steeple of funereal stone which we catch sight of from every
After an interval of some years I lately revisited the
capital of the ancient Limousin and chef-lieu of the Haute Vienne.
The clock tower, I thought, looked grimmer, more spectral, than
ever. It is slightly, ever so slightly, inclined, a
peculiarity no little adding to its eeriness. As we gaze, we
cannot help contemplating a possible calamity, death and destruction
dealt by a sudden collapse of that tremendous pile.
How came these leaning and curved spires about? Was it
by chance, caprice, or from devotional motives that the clock tower
of Limoges, like Limoges beautiful spire of Dijon cathedral, was
thus constructed, made to bow before Heaven?
For many years I was in the habit of staying at the old
Burgundian capital, ever admiring that bending spire, as graceful a
thing in stone as fancy could picture. But the inclination
gradually became more marked, and it was feared that some day the
spire would fall; so, ten years since, it was taken down and a new
perfectly upright one erected in its stead.
Limoges cathedral itself is beautiful alike without and
within, perfect type of Northern French Gothic, a type we shall soon
exchange for another.
With delight I again lingered in the exquisitely proportioned
interior, ruminating on the grand old architects, stone-masons, its
creators, their names for the most part forgotten, their life's work
recorded in imperishable stone. These modest but truly great
artists have ever been to me a subject of admiring contemplation,
and at every stage of French travel the traveller is reminded of
them. It would seem that sacred legend did not suffice for the
prolific fancy of such builders, so often do we find mythological
subjects turned to account. Thus the richly ornate rood-loft
here represents the six labours of Hercules in bas-relief,
unfortunately much damaged. St. Michel-aux-Lions, on high
ground to the right of the cathedral, recalls our own beautiful
Grantham, so elegant and conspicuous is its spire.
The interest of Limoges is far from being exhausted when we
have revisited cathedrals and churches. Limoges is the cradle
of two exquisite arts, one, alas! now lost to the world for ever,
the other flourishing. The inimitable enamels of the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries are only to be admired in museums.
The dainty faïence, due to the discovery of a lady in 1760,
is to-day an important manufacture, one of the first, if not the
first, in France.
Genius has its harvests, its extraordinary efflorescence as
well as Nature's products: thus not one, but groups of enamellers
sprung up simultaneously, the delicate art ran in families, in
clans, the skill of one merged in the excellence of all, fathers and
sons, brothers and cousins earning collective fame, inheriting
collective renown! These sons of Limoges have glorified their
native city, lent it unique distinction. Their enamel remains
inimitable, unpurchasable, existing collections are not to be added
to, for all time they must remain stationary. These masterpieces of
an art which dealt in masterpieces only do not appeal to all, they
are appreciated by the eclectic, the connoisseur, not by ordinary
lovers of painting and the decorative arts. But the other speciality
of Limoges, its famous faïence, is more readily understood
and admired. The manufacture too, if we must so call it, is
eminently serviceable and within reach of rich and poor. At very
reasonable cost we can embellish our tables and walls with this
The history of Limoges porcelain is curious in more respects than
one. The fine white clay (called kaolin), found in strata above
gneiss, had long been known to the Chinese and used by them in the
manufacture of their hard or kaolinic porcelain. The Germans had
also discovered the value of kaolin at an early period, but long
kept their methods secret. In France search had been made for the
precious clay in vain, and, as in the Arabian fairy-tale, a woman it
was who discovered the speaking bird, the singing tree, and the
golden water; so, in 1768, the wife of a poor country doctor named Darnet discovered magnificent beds of kaolin at St. Yriex near
Limoges, a find worth a mine of gold. Madame Darnet's happy treasure
trove and the discovery of petuntze a little later for once and for
all assured the splendid future of Limoges faïence. The
latter mentioned substance is a kind of felspar hardly less valuable
than kaolin in this manufacture, and equally familiar to the
Chinese. In the ceramic museum of Sevres is to be seen a fragment of
the very kaolin accidentally lighted upon by Madame Darnet, a
memento making up for the non-erection of a statue. For with the
strangest inconsistency in what is par excellence a
statue-raising country, no monument records the fact. Whilst at
Angers, though portraits in stone memorialise a worthy gentlewoman
who bequeathed her small fortune to the municipality, the
benefactress of generations has not been similarly honoured. Between
three and four thousand potters of both sexes and just upon a
thousand artists and designers are employed in the various
manufactures here, the annual value of the commerce amounting to
many millions of francs.
The ceramic museum and school of decorative art called after their
founder—Adrien Dubouché—may worthily be compared to those of Sevres,
and in the former I have twice spent delightful afternoons. No
special training of the eye or technical knowledge is indispensable
to such enjoyment. Without being able to identify 'Pompadour rose'
or 'bleu de Sèvres' we can revel in the lovely things before
us—little landscapes in pale green, pink, or deep purple; sea-weeds
on a pure white ground; moon and constellations on deep blue
heavens; flowers, shells, insects, butterflies, on porcelain.
Limoges ware does not usurp undue space. The famous faïences
of France, ancient as well as modern, are here represented—Moustiers,
Strassburg—alas! poor Strassburg—Nevers, Rouen, Marseilles,
Chantilly, Sevres, Gien—and oriental nations are also in full force,
also admirable specimens of our own Wedgwood, Worcester, and Crown
Derby. Modern work is seen as well—ware from the great houses of
Minton and Doulton and the pretty Torquay majolica.
Close to this modest-looking but rich and important museum are
grouped' potteries, and on my first visit to Limoges I was shown
over one of these—certain processes are not exhibited to strangers,
but an even limited insight into the fabrication is full of
Kaolin, a bluish-white substance, found in a pure state, is first
reduced to the consistency of pulp in works by the river, and
afterwards dried, next modelled and turned, next immersed in
liquefied pegmatite, a substance composed of felspar and quartz,
which imparts the glaze. Elaborate processes of testing, sorting,
and drying follow, the pieces being finally consigned to the artist
and the decorator. The gradual transformation of uninviting looking
earth to a beautiful miniature or a cup of crystalline transparency,
is an object-lesson not to be despised by grown-up children. Certain
operations involving trade secrets are naturally withheld from
As I recall the peaceful aspect of Limoges during my two sojourns,
it is with difficulty I can realise the turbulent scenes of the late
Next to the potters, the butchers form an important section of the
community here. From the historic point of view, these worthy
citizens possess uncommon interest, once forming a powerful guild or
corporation; they still enjoy certain privileges, occupy a certain
area, have their own church, and intermarry after the manner of
Jews. Thus five or six patronymics only are found among the families
of the seventy or eighty butchers carrying on business at Limoges. The Boucherie or butchers' quarter with its mediaeval houses,
having deep wooden dormers overlapping the lower stories, is highly
picturesque. How came it about that Balzac missed this curious
feature of a town he had studied so closely?
ROCAMADOUR AND PADIRAC
quest of romance and adventure cannot do better than follow me from
Limoges to Rocamadour, the more venturesome including Padirac in
their programme. The railway journey of sixty miles will not
be found long by the most impatient.
A hundred and odd years ago Arthur Young dilated on the charm
and variety of Limousin scenery, and those who follow in his
footsteps will not feel cheated. The fine old farmer has by no means
exaggerated the natural beauties of this region. 'It is not,' he
says, 'that a fine view breaks now and then upon the eye to
compensate the traveller for the dulness of a much larger district;
but a quick succession of landscapes, many of which would be
rendered famous in England by the resort of travellers to view them. The country is all hill and valley; the hills are all high and would
be called by us mountains, if waste and covered with heather, but
being cultivated to their very tops, their magnitude is lessened to
the eye. Their forms are various, they swell in beautiful
semi-globes, they project in abrupt masses which enclose deep glens,
they expand into amphitheatres of cultivation that rise in
gradation, in some places tossed into a thousand inequalities of
surface, in others, the eye reposes on scenes of the softest
verdure. Add to this, the rich robe with which nature's bounteous
hand has dressed the slopes with hanging woods of chestnut. And
whether the vales open their verdant bosoms and admit the sun to
illumine the rivers in their comparative repose, or whether they be
enclosed in deep glens that afford a passage with difficulty to the
water rolling over their rocky beds and dazzling the eye with the
lustre of cascades, in every case the features are interesting and
characteristic of the scenery.'
The above lines, written in June 1787, might have been penned
yesterday, so true are they as a bit of description.
An hour's railway brings us to Brives, Brives-la-Gaillarde is the
little town deservedly called, for gay it is of aspect and valiant
has ofttimes been its part in history. All travellers should halt
here for the sake of the lovely walk by the Corrèze—Brives has
little else to show—and of its old-fashioned, ingratiating hôtel de
Toulouse in the principal street. The house itself is a delight,
with its oak panelling, roomy
passages and irregularities, and landlord and landlady we found all
friendliness and courtesy. Such a reception came as an agreeable
surprise after the frosty manner with which we had been greeted at
the new big house near the station. Two quiet ladies unlikely to
spend money upon expensive wines were evidently not wanted there.
Let me here set down the items of our déjeûner or midday meal
at that cordially-remembered hotel, the cooking being first-rate and
the price one franc and a half, just 1s. 3d.
Pâté de foie gras.
Ceps bordelaises (mushrooms in oil).
Grapes. Figs. Peaches.
Roquefort, Gruyere, and local Cheese.
Here let me mention that bifteck was introduced into France
with many other English things in the early years of the
Restoration. It was a reign of Anglomania, and a French historian
gratefully alludes to the importation of this excellent dish. The
word bifteck was adopted by the French Academy in 1835.
Brives has not its surname for nothing. In 1374 the hardy little
town opened its gates to the Duke of Lancaster, a little later
refusing the entry of French troops under the Due de Bourbon. Cruel
reprisals followed the taking of the town, which afterwards
rehabilitated itself by driving out the English from their strong
places in the Limousin.
At Brives we take the Toulouse railway, getting magnificent views on
either side, and soon quit the department of the Corrèze for the
Lot—the ancient province of Quercy.
Rocamadour is one of the most traditional French sites: the nether
world of Padirac was only discovered a few years ago. For nearly
eighteen hundred years pious pilgrims have flocked to the shrine of Zacchæus the publican, canonised under the name of Saint Amadour. On
the 10th of April 1899, eight thousand votaries of science fêted the
inauguration of Padirac. Here we find venerable antiquity and
natural marvels in close proximity, twin spectacles of extraordinary
grandeur, as yet, however, a myth to us, the three quarters of an
hour's drive, or rather jolt, from the station suggesting neither picturesqueness nor sublimity. Alike the bold promontory shooting
into the heavens, and the awful chasm yawning in close proximity
remained hidden, no sign betokening their existence. After the
manner of Arabian story, genii darkening the sky appear by magic, as
suddenly the very bowels of the earth are revealed to our astounded
eyes. We were indeed traversing the Causse of Gramal, one of those
treeless, waterless plateaux of central France, only within the last
twenty years familiarised to the traveller.
Closely packed as we were in the stuffy little omnibus, we contrived
to get glimpses of the landscape—here patches of rye, lucerne or
potatoes, there tiny hayfields, the autumn crop or regain
relieving the stony waste.
On we jogged, peering curiously to right and left, vainly looking
for the rocky apex, the natural Tour Eiffel we had travelled so far
to behold. Nor when the vehicle came to a halt was there any sign of
the famous shrine. We found ourselves in an open space covered with
carts, omnibuses, calèches, and amid most disconcerting
surroundings. Silence and desolation were now exchanged for
clamouring crowds. Around pressed the lame, the halt, and the blind,
gibbering crones, unsightly cripples, dwarfs, humpbacks, paralysed
and palsied besieged us, one laying hands on my tea-basket, another
on my companion's travelling-bag, a third and fourth pounced upon
our portmanteaus, the rest groaning, whining, supplicating in
professional sing-song. It really seemed as if Toulouse, that
metropolis of mendicancy as I have elsewhere described it, had
hither despatched her beggars.
The confusion and uproar were at their height when to our great joy
appeared a knight-errant, in other words, a most capable-looking man
in his shirtsleeves, who drove off our assailants and took our
persons and belongings under his protection, afterwards informing us
that his name was Monsieur Espinasse. Let future travellers bear the
name in mind, or rather I should advise them not to follow our
example approaching Rocamadour from behind, rather to stop short at
the head of the gorge taking the excellent road winding corkscrew
fashion to its base and setting you down in the village street.
We soon realised our position. We had flanked the rocky pile, lofty
as the pyramids of Ghizeh, below opening a vast ravine, its velvety
green depths set round with a semi-circle of silvery crags. Half-way
between the church-crowned summit and the rim of verdant gorge
below, a ledge or shelf of rock had been built over, a little inn
and a cluster of houses occupying the level space, whilst opposite
the masonry, dove-tailed into the rock, stands the bishop's palace,
formerly a fortress and a convent of cloistered nuns. Adjoining
there is the famous shrine, a congeries of cavernous buildings
hollowed out of the natural wall.
Rocamadour proper, with its one long street, ancient gateways, shops
and cafés, and one or two inns, lies several hundred feet below. Thus the place may be described as a gigantic staircase having three
Following our protector in shirt-sleeves we descend the giddy flight
of steps leading to the half-way bit of Rocamadour just named. Fortunately, and at the same time unfortunately for us, if I may be
permitted an oxymoron, we had arrived with two bishops and hundreds
of pilgrims. The last pilgrimage of the year and the great sight of
the place had filled every hotel, inn, and auberge to
overflowing. At first it seemed highly probable that we must pass
the night in armchairs or be jolted back to the station. After much
searching we were accommodated with two tiny rooms in a humble
restaurant, the kindly hostess of the hôtel St. Marie promising to
send in our early tea, other meals being taken with her pilgrims. The price charged for each room was a franc and a half. The Lourdes
of the Lot had not as yet rendered folks mercenary.
Matters being so far comfortably settled and our spirits restored by
some excellent tea and bread and butter, we sallied into the crowded
bit of street. The entire population of the department seemed
pouring into Rocamadour, a mere wedge of a place, its capacities as
strictly limited as those of a tunnel. What would become of such an
army? The first disagreeable impression we had received was soon effaced. Affability itself we found this perpetually increasing
stream of peasant folk. Loquacious, animated, were our
fellow-pilgrims certainly, but no crowd could be better behaved.
Before and around the hôtel St. Marie dozens of country-people were
making al fresco meals, while farther on a fair was held,
vendors of toys, photographs, clothes, eatables, and devotional
objects doing a brisk trade.
From this noisy, turbulent little platform one steep flight of stone
steps leads upward to the votive church crowning the rock, another
winds downward to the village, a third and intermediate flight
leading to the vast vestibule of the bishop's palace, scene of the
benediction. The Rocamadour of pilgrimage occupies several stages,
one ledge of the rock after another having been built upon, the
entire mountain,—for so it may be called,—being honeycombed with
churches, sanctuaries, and votive chapels. It is a veritable
ecclesiological beehive. The long, narrow street of Rocamadour
proper with its fine old portcullises is very picturesque. Nothing
can be prettier than the animated street, little scenes and bits of
mediaeval architecture peeped at through their grey stone arches,
the peasant folk, both men and women, in their sober black garb
having an antiquated look well harmonising with their surroundings.
After dull, showery days just experienced at Limoges, perfect
September weather compensated us here. The temperature was
seasonable, a delicious breeze stirred the trees; moss green valley,
glittering parapets, and dark sugar-loaf rock glowed under a
cloudless, deep blue sky. As we strolled down the village street,
now admiring the bishop's hanging garden-garland brightening the
gloomy fortress-like building—now in an opposite direction gazing on
the verdant reaches of the Alzon and dazzling parapets above, we
encountered an increasing inflow of pilgrims, some afoot, some in
carts and calèches, the majority belonging to the peasant
class. The men wore long black blouses or frocks and black cloth
trousers with broad-brimmed felt hats; the women were also dressed
as if in mourning, neat, serviceable stuff gowns with white coiffes
made up their Sunday costume. Here and there a bonnet and modish
dress proclaimed the bourgeoise or lady visitor, these also
habited in black, only a few little girls having coloured frocks and
ribbons in their hats.
The prevalence of decorum was very noticeable. It is not the
fashion in France, even among working folks, for young men and women
to pair off when holiday-making. A girl who should separate herself
from the family party when out for the day, and go her own ways with
her sweetheart, would at once lose caste. This great festival
therefore, the only fete day of the year to many, in no respect
resembled a Bank holiday at home. There was no rollicking, no
excitement, and not a single pair of lovers to be seen. The
sergent de ville and gendarme were equally absent, nor during
our stay did we see any one the worse for drink. In fact, to compare
things totally dissimilar, this assemblage of Romanist devotees
suggested a Puritan concourse, a coming together of Covenanters!
As the evening wore on, village street, cafes, al fresco
restaurants, and booths became deserted. After an excellent dinner
at the hotel St. Marie we descended a little way, then climbed the
broad flight of steps leading sideways to the bishop's palace, and
here a strange spectacle met our eyes. We had indeed come to visit
Rocamadour in the nick of time, and my advice to others is this—put
up with no matter what accommodation, with no matter what noise and
other inconveniences, but arrive anyhow for the great September
pilgrimage, allow yourself for once to be transported to the Middle
Ages. The ceremony of the Benediction had now completely emptied
both upper and lower village, filling the vast vestibule or court. I
hardly know what other name to give this open portico used as a
church, and presenting us with an unforgettable sight. Massed
together in what looked like the narthex of some vast cathedral,
were hundreds of black-robed worshippers holding lighted tapers,
whilst from a gallery above, priests and acolytes led a dolorous
chant in Latin, the congregation chanting the responses in the same
funereal tone. So lugubrious was the entire proceeding, litany,
voices, and attitude of the assemblage, that the ceremony suggested
a commination. It might have been supposed that these devotees were
met together for the purpose of expiating some national calamity,
plague, pestilence, or famine. On a sudden, at the tinkling of a
bell, all fell on their knees, the momentary hush imparting
unspeakable impressiveness to the scene. You could have heard the
softest sigh, the mere drawing of breath. Never had I witnessed more
self-abandonment, and that deep, momentary hush rendered the scene
We could realise how profound was the import of such annual
ceremonies to these simple country folks.
Myself and fellow-traveller straightway retired early to our queer
little roosting-places, but for some time sleep was out of the
question. Till past midnight I heard the distant chanting of little
processions, some climbing to the votive church crowning the rock,
others descending to the village. It is my belief that many spent
the night abroad or in the churches, for the very good reason that
no kind of lodging was available.
The tiny bedroom allotted to me was over the kitchen, in which
to-night, on the floor, slept master and mistress of the humble
restaurant, with their little son. I could plainly hear them breathe
as I lay, for the inner wall had not been carried up to the ceiling,
the interstice admitting air, at the same time noise, smoke, and
kitchen smells. A cleaner, more comfortable bed nobody could desire;
by five o'clock next morning, however, the household was astir,
savoury steam announced the preparation of soup, the countryman's
substitute for coffee, soon pilgrims dropped in for a breakfast. Sleep became out of the question. Then girls' merry voices reached
me from the courtyard under my window. Looking out I saw three
ruddy-cheeked, well-made damsels performing their toilette like
Trooper George at the pump, and combing and braiding their long,
dark hair before a bit of broken looking-glass hanging from the
But even standing-room represents money at Rocamadour during a
pilgrimage. No sooner had the three maidens adjusted their lustrous
braids, nature's head-dress in rural France, than they went away,
and their place was taken by three stalwart peasant farmers in black
smock-frocks and cloth trousers. The little yard contained nothing
on which any one could sit, but contentedly enough the men broke
their fast standing. What it was their earthen bowls held I could
not discern, most likely a compound of milk, flour, and vegetables,
with a flavouring of bacon.
Next day was one of delightful softness and beauty. Not being expert
at scaling walls like a fly, and not being fond of explorations
underground, I left my friend to explore the subterranean church,
votive chapels hollowed out of the rock, and hermitage of Zacchæus,
'chief among the publicans and he was rich.' According to tradition
and pious credence, he made his way hither from Palestine, and here
under the name of Saint Amadour ended his days, having presented the
community with a statue of the Virgin Mary.
So runs the legend. Archaeologists on the other hand, assign another
personality to the anchorite called Saint Amadour, from Roc-amator
or amator rupis. The miracle-working statue said to have been
presented to Zacchæus by the Virgin Mary, and brought hither by him
from Palestine, is now pronounced a work of the thirteenth century,
and the date of the sanctuary is stated to be apocryphal.
Be this as it may, ex-votos testifying to miraculous interposition
cover the walls, the epoch of electricity, telephone, and aerial
telegraphy supplying as many as the dark ages.
Among historic worshippers at the shrine of the publican were Saint
Louis—a very doubtful saintship if viewed in the light of
humanitarianism; Blanche of Castille, the cruel persecutor of
religious dissidents; Simon de Montfort, the exterminator of the
Albigenses; Louis XI., the astute monarch of whom we have so fearful
a portrait in Notre Dame de Paris, but who possessed two
titles to admiration. Like our rare Ben Jonson, he loved 'a nimble
wit as he loved his nutriment,' and he lived for the aggrandisement
and grandeur of France. Two names awaken a softer mood. To
Rocamadour in 1651, came M. and Mme. Lamothe Fénelon offering a
picture in gratitude for the birth of a son, that lovable bishop so
scurvily treated by Louis XIV., Mme. de Maintenon, Bossuet, and also
by his valet. The man who stole the manuscript of Télémaque
and published it surreptitiously, was in reality a public
benefactor. But for the theft—who can say? posterity might have
missed the prettiest book ever written by a bishop; Télémaque
might have been lost to the world. Many of the wooden statues
adorning these recesses are hideous to behold. The rock is at this
end honey-combed, riddled, tunnelled with votive chapels and
grottoes, but the sight of one gives an adequate idea, of all.
My own morning passed delightfully. Seated on a bench in front of a
little cafe, I revelled in the glorious scenery around—outline,
colour, and detail all surpassingly beautiful and all set off by a
brilliant blue sky. The temperature was high but modified by soft
winds, and now perfect quiet reigned, a great refreshment after
yesterday's turmoil and an almost sleepless night. Over against me,
veritable eyrie in cloudland, gleamed the tiny church crowning the
highest point of Rocamadour; midway between summit and base, the
façade of the bishop's palace with its hanging gardens made broad
belts of light and colour against the sombre background, brightening
the natural ramparts as a rainbow. Immediately under my eyes I had
sweet little vignettes, ancient domestic architecture framed by
picturesque old gateways: turning my back upon these I beheld the
dazzlingly green valley of the Alzon, lofty escarpments hemming it
round, glittering like snowy peaks against the cloudless heavens. As
I rested thus, a well-dressed peasant paused to ask me a question.
Perceiving that I did not understand what he said, the dear old
woman keeping the restaurant, and with whom I had made friends,
immediately came forward and acted as interpreter.
'That good man,' she explained to me, 'asked the way to a
tobacconist's shop, but every one speaks patois hereabouts,
and Madame, I see, is a stranger.'
It is rather a dialect that these country folks use, survival of the
Langue d'Oc, many of a passing generation not being able to
make themselves understood in France.
And as I lazily waited thus, I was reminded of the twin marvels that
are bringing the wise as well as the foolish, the learned as well as
the unsophisticated to Rocamadour, that wondrous underworld now
accessible to all but the timorous. Family parties in waggonettes,
tourists afoot passed from time to time, jauntily setting off on
their tenebrous errand.
'To Padirac, to Padirac!' they shouted to this acquaintance and
that, recalcitrants like myself whose spirit was willing but whose
flesh was weak, who were not to be tempted into Pluto's domain.
'To Padirac, to Padirac!' reiterated the jubilant explorers till
well out of hearing.
We had dropped upon Rocamadour as from a balloon, we quitted it by
the excellent carriage road winding in corkscrew fashion from the
gorge, at every turn looking back on magnificent perspectives. The
sight of the crowded platform awakened misgivings. Hundreds of
pilgrims, including the Bishop of Tulle and his vicar, were there;
it seemed impossible that the Toulouse express would find room for
us all. Long we waited in the cool breezy afternoon, the peasant
folk squatted on the turf taking their supper, the rest standing,
for the excellent reason that there were no seats. But the multitude
was disposed of as if by magic. Without the slightest turmoil,
commotion, or bustle, the little army of pilgrims was seated, the
platform was cleared in a twinkling, and the train rushed
Paris-ward, leaving Rocamadour to drowse in quiet till summer and
the pilgrims should return together.