Alfred de Vigny.

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~ OR




" Jetons l'ceuvre a la mer ! "
( La mer des multitudes )


2.(/ a^? /-oi- > c^-

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_// '■;. 1899.

/y V

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" Cest La une ceuvre divine a faire."

An officer of the Garde-Royale, Alfred-Victor,
Comte de Vigny, recorded these Souvenirs after
the Revolution of 1830, after twenty years
acquaintance with the highest military service.

In literature he then became the personifica-
tion of that Passive Grandeur he so highly
and so justly honored; in marked contrast to
the Active Grandeur of the world-renowned
Victor Hugo.

Above all men, Victor Hugo recognized the
worth of de Vigny ; towards the close of the
reign of Louis Philippe, his friendship and

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— 6 —

firmness made de Vigny a member of the French
Academy ; and he would have made him Direc-
tor or Chancellor of the Academy, so highly did
he appreciate the silent grandeur of this man.
When he was himself proposed as Director,
Hugo declined the honor, saying : " So long as
the Academy chooses to keep one of its
members * in the corner ' I will keep company
with that member."

Not only Victor Hugo, but Lamartine, though
much older, and Alfred de Musset looked upon
de Vigny as

"L'Ideal du poete et des graves penseurs."

" His nobility of thought, winnowed as wheat
and refined as purest gold, saves him from the
reproach, which has been unjustly thought to
rest, upon the technically perfect work of
Theophile Gautier."

In our own day, we have seen Ernest Renan,
envying the future historian of the Genius of
Greece, almost regretting his "Nazarite's vow;"
and we contemplate the "Tour d'lvoire" of
Victor de Vigny :

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— 7 —

" He will have for his recompense the great-
est joy which man can taste ; that of following
up the evolution of Life in the very centre of
the divine egg, within which, life — the life of
Honor — first began to palpitate."

De Vigny himself says, in the greatest of his
works :


To nationalize the first of modern armies, even
the invincible genius of Von Moltke found
necessary, to convince the opposing nation,
three decisive wars : that of 1 864, (following
immediately the death of de Vigny), the war
which lost to Denmark, Schleswig-Holstein ;
that of 1866, which lost, to Austria, the control
of Germany; and that of 1870, which lost to
France, the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.

The French Republic, born in anguish, with

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— 8 —

great loss of blood, territory and treasure, hav-
ing accomplished the identification of the army
and the nation, publishes, since 1882, de Vigny's

now more rapidly; may nations recognize de
Vigny's efforts; for he kept alive the dimmed,
yet sacred flame, within the *' devastated Temple,"
before which stood the altar to "the unknown
God;" may the splendor of Eternal Truth
soon fill the re-raised **Tent of David" with
His Glory.

"For from ruins like these, rise the fe(^es

that shall last ;
And to build up the future, Heaven shatters

the past."

Lord Lytton.

" Many temples crumble. But his image

DOES NOT tremble."

Comte de Vigny.

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(le chaste nao)






" Jetons l'ceuvre a la mer ! "
(La mer. des Multitudes)

Vol. Ill


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<3 recti;,

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Should military responsibility cause one to
commit a crime?

i During the epoch of The Terror a captain
of vessel received, as did all captains in the
navy, the monstrous order of the Committee
of Public Safety to put to death all prisoners
of war ; and this captain had the misfortune to
take an English vessel, and the still greater
misfortune to obey the order of the Government.
Returning to the land, he reported his shameful
obedience and retired from the service, dying
of chagrin soon after. That captain was in

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— 12 —

command of la BoudeusCy the frigate that was
the first vessel of our fleet to circumnavigate the
globe, when commanded by my kinsman M. de
Bougainville. I have seen that grand navigator
weep for the honor of his vessel ; and I felt
myself humiliated to find in my hand the sabre
of a slave (un sabre d'esclave) instead of a
noble's sword (une epee de chevalier).

Slowly was I cured of that malady military
enthusiasm ; slowly faded before my eyes all the
brilliancy of that noble caste that I would have
wished consecrated solely to the defense of La

Will there never come a law that will put in
accord Duty and Conscience?

Was the disobedience of the Vi comte d'Orte
wrong, when he replied to Charles IX who had
ordered him to extend to Dax the Parisian
Saint-Bartholomew :

— Sire, I have communicated the command of
Your Majesty to the faithful inhabitants and
men of war; I have found only good citizens
and brave soldiers ; not one butcher.

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And if he were right in refusing to obey, how
are we to h've under a law that decrees death to
him who counts himself superior to blind
OBEDIENCE? Such an absurdity cannot reign
forever — it will be necessary one day to come
out from under such a law.

I do not dissimulate: this is a question touch-
ing the very basis of all discipline. Far
from wishing to weaken obedience and disci-
pline, I think they are in need of being streng-
thened, among us, at many points ; that, in the
presence of the real enemy, the army should
present, as one man, its breast plate of Light ;
but when it turns its eyes inward, towards La
Mere-Patrie, it should then behold far-seeing
laws and recognize the higher duty of Her

Also, it is to be desired that immutable limits
be fixed, once for all, to the absolute orders that
may be given an army by the Souvereign-Power,
which may often fall into unworthy hands ; that
it may not be possible for mere adventurers to
attain Dictatorship, transforming into assassins

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— 14 —

hundreds of thousands of men, by a law that
endures, like their reign, but a day.

The open, noble, freedom from care, so notice-
able in men of war, is due, I think, to the
discipline of obedience relieving them of respon-
sibility. I was very young myself when I began
to feel the effect of this upon my conscience, for
it was not an enlightened, but a blind obedience,
that caused me to see in each General-in-Chief a
sort of Moses, who alone had to render his
terrible account with the God; and who had all
necessary authority to say, as to the sons of
Levi : *' Go through the camp ; let each one
slay his brother, his son, his friend and whoever
is most dear to him!" And, for making gods
OF gold, there were three thousand slain, it is
said in the Book of Exodus (Ch. XXXII — v.
27-31) ; for I knew my Bible by heart, and that
Book and I were inseparable, in camp or on the
march. One can see how blindly I applied its
teachings ; though truly, in my heart, I felt
things would be very bad with me and mine,
before my gold-laced Moses would command my

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family to be slain ; and I very wisely foresaw that
no such order would be given. Nevertheless,
in my resignation to a passive obedience, I felt
that I had surrendered my responsibility ; and I
began to consider to what Source this passive
OBEDIENCE would cause me to ascend, seeing that
OBEDIENCE Seemed the basis of all social order ;
by what reasonings could I solve its mysteries ;
for though it seemed admirably adapted for its
purposes, in regard to the feet ; when applied to
the heady it seemed absurd.

I have since seen many superior officers reason
the same way ; I was myself, at that time, but
a Levite sixteen years of age, I did not, at that
time, comprehend la patrie entiere de notre
France ; nor that other Patria that encircles her,
all Europe ; nor the Great Patria of humanity,
the globe; which, happily, becomes each day
yet smaller, in the hand of the Great Souvereign
Power, Civilization.

I did not dream, at that time, how much
lighter would become the heart of the man of
war, if, though mute within the camp, his voice

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was heard within the city; if he were but the
executioner in the one, of the laws eternally
existing for the welfare of the other ; if, to con-
ceal the blood upon the sword, the toga, as a
robe of righteousness, was worn within the city.

.Now it is not impossible that all this may come
to pass one day.

And, truly, we are without pity when we
would count one man so strong as to be alone
responsible for the armed nation that we place
within his hand. No, I can bear testimony that
the conscience of each man revolts, when he sees
the flow of human blood ; one head is not
sufficient to bear the heavy burden of so many
murders ; it would not be too many were there
as many heads as there are combatants. To be
true to their responsibilities under the law of
blood they execute, it would be but just that
they at least well comprehend that law.

But when the actual organization of the army
is but an electric chain of blind obedience,
suspended from a single finger, it can only too
easily, at any given time, overturn completely

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the very State itself. Such a revolution, but
half formed, but half recruited, has only to gain
a Minister of War to become at once complete.
All the rest would follow of necessity, under
ministerial law, without a single link of that
electric chain being able to clear itself from the
commotion that has been started from above.

War and armies are for the present, only, not
forever. The earth will not always thirst for
blood ; when the blood itself has ceased to cry for
vengeance ; for they even who shed it, have of
blood a secret horror. The earth of itself cries
out to Heaven only that the God may send it
rivers of fresh water, refreshing showers from
His messengers the clouds, and the pure dew
drops sparkling in the dawn. ( Deut. XXXII).
War is a curse from God and from man also.
(II Samuel XXIV-14).

Sooner or later this idea must come to the
light and take form. It will be demanded : *' Is
there no country where the men of war and the
men of peace are one? Is there no country
where the man of war is not a separate being

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from the man of the family ; where he is not
placed in the position of the family's worst
enemy?" It is probable that, at present, the
Powers are too much interested in surrounding
themselves with gladiators, ready for the contest
with which, without ceasing, we are menaced, to
consent to put into execution the proper organi-
zation of the armies of nations, or even to
permit the proper organization to be known.

It was not in my early youth, so given up to
action, that I examined, for myself, what the
ancients can teach us on this subject. Never-
theless the army such as it is, is a good book to
open to become acquainted with humanity ; in
it we find ourselves in touch with that which is
lowest and with that which is highest ; the most
refined, the very richest, are forced to see poverty
living beside them, and to live with her; with
her, to measure the ration of coarse bread and
weigh the meat. Were it not for the army, what
son of a great lord would ever imagine how a
soldier lives the year round, and grows fat, on
nine sous a day and a pitcher of fresh water,

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carrying on his back a knapsack that, with all
it contains, costs his country only forty francs ?

The regiments are convents for young men,
but nomad convents ; everywhere they carry
with them their customs, stamped with gravity,
self-restraint, and silence. Their simplicity of
customs, the careless, joyous poverty of so many
young men, their vigorous, healthy existence,
without false politeness or false sensibility, the
uniformity of sentiment imprinted upon them by
their discipline, fill these convents with the vows
of Poverty and Obedience. Never, without a
throbbing heart, do I see the uniform of a regi-
ment of the Guard.

By means of the sentiment of exalted personal
dignity, what noble sentiments can be exalted and
preserved I I have in my memory many ex-
amples ; I have around me, ready to furnish me
others, numberless intimate friends, content, even
gayly resigned to their submission, obedience and
freedom from care, in that liberty of the spirit in
the midst of the very sjavery of their corps,
which recalls to my mind the horses beneath

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them, measuring nobly their freedom within the
limits of a bridle and a spur, proud of being
responsible for nothing, and the perfect calm of
the spirit of the soldier and officer controlling.

May I be permitted, therefore, to give a beau-
tiful example of this perfect calm of the military
life, in the simple history of the family of a

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A soldier's scruples of honor

One summer evening, in 1819, with Timoleon
d'Arc — , like myself a lieutenant of the Guard,
I was walking in the interior of the fortress at
Vincennes, where we were in garrison. We had
taken part in the ricochet firing, and were walk-
ing, according to our custom, in the polygon,
listening to each other and talking, peacefully, of
the history of war ; discussing the organization
of the Polytechnic School, its usefulness and its
defects ; considering especially the sallow looking
men the soil of geometry produces. The pale
color of the school had not as yet been bronzed

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— 22 —

upon the forehead of Timoleon ; they, who knew
him, will recall with me his graceful figure, though
so thin ; his great black eyes and the beautifully
arched eyebrows over them ; and how sweet and
rarely troubled was the serious look on his Spar-
tan-like face. That evening he was very preoc-
cupied. I remember that he had under his arm
a book : Laplace. And we spoke of the system
of probabilities, over which Timoleon was often

The night descended ; or, rather, it seemed to
spread itself around us : a beautiful night in
August. With what pleasure I turned my eyes
toward the castle chapel, built by the orders of
Saint Louis; and considered that crown of moss-
grown towers, half ruined, which still ornamented
Vincennes ; my eyes resting on the great don-
jon, standing in the midst, like a king surrounded
by his guard. The chapel crescents were shin-
ing, in the midst of the first western stars, at the
tips of the tall pinnacle spires. The perfume of
the forest came to us over the ramparts, and the
grassy mounds of the batteries began to breathe

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— 23 —

the breath of that summer night. We seated
ourselves on one of the great cannon of Louis
XIV ; and, in silence, we watched some young
soldiers testing their strength, holding a shell at
arm's length; others were slowly entering the
castle ; crossing — by twos and by fours — the
drawbridge, with all the laziness of the military-
off-duty. Within the castle, the court-yard was
filled with field artillery, the caissons charged
with powder, ready for the review the next morn-
ing. Beside us, near the Forest Gate, an old
adjutant of artillery was closing and re-opening,
with noticeable uneasiness, the very small door
of a little tower, used as the magazine for the foot
artillery, and full of barrels of powder, small arms
and munitions of war. In passing, he saluted.
He was a man very tall, though a little bent.
His hair was white, his moustache grey and very
heavy ; his manner was open, and he appeared
still fresh and robust, as though he had lived to
a happy, sweet and wise old age. He held three
great registers in his hands and appeared to have
been verifying the long columns of figures. We

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asked him why he was working so late, contrary
to his custom. He replied, with the tone of calm
respect of the old soldiers, that the next day was
a day of general inspection, at five in the morn-
ing; that he was responsible for the contents of
the little magazine, and that he had not finished
comparing the figures of his accounts, though he
had been over the figures twenty times, that he
might not be reproached for negligence ; that he
had to work while the day-light lasted, because
the orders were very severe and forbade one en-
tering at night the powder magazines with a
light; even with a closed lantern; that he was
very sorry he had not had time to see everything,
that there were yet the shells to be examined ;
and he gave a look of impatience at the grena-
dier who had just been placed on guard at the
door, to prevent any one from entering.

After he had given us these details, the adju-
tant went once more to the door and kneeled at
the threshold, to see if any powder had been
spilled. He feared lest the spurs or iron heels

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— 25 —

of the officers' boots might, at inspection, set fire
to a train.

— There is none there, said he, rising ; but it
is in regard to my records I am most concerned;
and he looked again at the magazine, with re-

— You are too scrupulous, said Timoleon.

— Ah ! mon lieutenant, when one is in the
Guard he cannot be too much on his honor.
Rather than be placed in the guard house, one
of our quarter-masters blew his brains out last
Monday. I should be, also, an example to the
under officers. During all my service in the
Guard, my chiefs have never reproached me ; to
receive punishment would cause me great unhap-

It is true that these brave soldiers, chosen from
the army to serve among the elite of the elite,
believe themselves dishonored by the slightest

— Come, you are all Puritans of Honor, said
I to him, as I tapped him on the shoulder.

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He again saluted and retired to his quarters ;
but he soon returned, according to an innocent
custom, which pertains to an honest race of sol-
diers, bringing in the hollow of his hands some
hempseed for the hen that was raising her twelve
chicks under the old bronze cannon where we
were seated.

It was certainly the most charming hen that I
had ever known in my life; she was entirely
white, without a single spot ; and this brave man,
with his great fingers, mutilated at Marengo and
at Austerlitz, had glued to her head a little red
plume, and around her neck a little silver collar
with a badge bearing her monogram. The good
hen appeared to be proud and grateful. She
knew that the sentinels caused her to be respect-
ed, and she feared no one, not even a little suck-
ing pig and an owl, quartered near her — under
the next cannon. '^La Belle Poule" was the joy
of the gunners ; she would receive from all of us
the crumbled bread and sugar, so long as we
were in uniform ; but she had a horror for the
clothing of the bourgeois ; and, not even recog-

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nizing us in that disguise, she would flee with
her family under the cannon of Louis XIV. A
magnificent cannon, upon which was engrcived
the eternal sun, with the king's Nee pluribus im-
par, and Ultima ratio Regum. And a hen with
her chicks found protection beneath it !

The good adjutant spoke her praise in the
strongest terms. She furnished eggs for himself
and daughter with unparalleled generosity ; and
he loved her so, in return, that he had never had
the courage to kill a single one of the poulets,
for fear of afflicting her.

As he was telling us her good habits, the
drums and trumpets began to beat and to sound
together the evening call. They prepared to
raise the draw bridges, and the chains began to
rattle. We were not on duty, so we went out
from the castle through the Forest Gate. Tim-
oleon, who had not ceased marking angles in the
sand, with the end of his sword scabbard, had
risen from the cannon with regret, regretting his
triangles; while I regretted my white hen and
my adjutant.

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We turned to the left, following the ramparts ;
andj^ passing thus the grassy mound raised to the
due d'Enghien, over his body shot and his head
crushed in with a paving stone ; we kept along
the edge of the castle moat, looking into it ; with
our eyes regarding the little white path that he
had taken to lead him to that grave.

There ar^ two kinds of men who can very well
walk together five hours continuously without
speaking a word : they are prisoners and officers.
Compelled to see each other always, even when
they are together, each one is alone. We walked
along in silence, our arms behind our backs.

I noticed, in the moonlight, that Timoleon

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Online LibraryAlfred de VignyImperial grandeur, or The familyc: A translation of his La veillée de ... → online text (page 1 of 6)