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thither he withdrew, absorbed in the care of his invalid
wife, and in the cultivation of his thoughts. His voice



Alfred de Vigny 27

was scarcely heard any more in French Hterature, and
gradually he grew to be forgotten. The louder and
more active talents of his contemporaries filled up the
void ; Alfred de Vigny glided into silence, and was not
missed. During the last twenty-eight years of his
existence, on certain rare occasions, Vigny's intensity
of dream, of impassioned reverie, found poetical relief.
When he died, ten poems of various length were dis-
covered among his papers, and these were published in
1864, as a very slender volume called Les Destinees, by
his executor, Louis Ratisbonne.

Several of these posthumous pieces are dated, and
the earhest of them seems to be La Colere de Samson,
written in April 1839, ^vhen the Vignys were staying
with the Earl of Kilmorey at Shavington Park in Shrop
shire. It is a curious proof of the intensity with which
Alfred de Vigny concentrated himself on his vision that
this terrible poem, one of the most powerful in the French
language, should have been written in England during
a country visit. It would seem that for more than three
years the wounded poet had been brooding on his
wrongs. Suddenly, without warning, the storm breaks
in this tremendous picture of the deceit of woman and the
helpless strength of man, inverses the melody and majesty
of which are only equalled by their poignant agony : —

" Tou jours voir serpenter la vipere doree
Qui se traine en sa fange et s'y croit ignoree ;
Toujours ce compagnon dont le coeur n'est pas sur,
La Femme, enfant malade et douze fois impur !
Toujours mettre sa force a garder sa colere
Dans son coeur offense, comme en un sanctuaire,
D'ou le feu s'echappant irait tout devorer;
Interdire a ses yeux de voir ou de pleurer,
C'est trop ! Dieu, s'il le veut, peut balayer ma cendre,
J'ai donne men secret, Dalila va le vendre."

He buried the memory of Madame Dorval under La



28 French Profiles

Colere de Samson, as a volcano buries a guilty city be-
neath a shower of burning ashes, and he turned to the
contemplation of the world as he saw it under the soft
light of the gentle despair which now more and more
completely invaded his spirit.

The genius of Alfred de Vigny as the philosophical
exponent of this melancholy composure is displayed in
the noble and sculptural elegy, named Les Destinees,
composed in terza rima in 1849 '< but in a still more
natural and personal way in a poem which is among
the most fascinating that he has left behind him, La
Maison du Berger. Here he adopted a stanzaic form
closely analogous to rime royal, and this adds to the
curiously English impression, as of some son of Words-
worth or brother of Matthew Arnold, which this poem
produces; it may make a third in our memories with
" Laodamia " and " The Scholar-Gipsy." Vigny de-
scribes in it the mode in which the soul goes burdened,
by the weight of life, hke a wounded eagle in captiA-ity,
dragging at its chain. The poet must escape from this
obsession of the world; he finds a refuge in the shep-
herd's cabin on wheels, far from all mankind, on a vast,
undulating surface of moorland. Here he meditates on
man's futility and fever, on the decline of the dignity
of conduct, on the public disdain of immortal things.
It is remarkable that at this lofty station, no modern
institution is too prosaic for his touch ; his treatment of
the objects and methods of the day is magnificently
simple, and he speaks of railways as an ancient Athenian
might if restored to breath and \'ision. A certain
mystical Eva is evoked, and a delicate analysis of woman
follows. Erom the solitude of the shepherd's wheeled
house the exile looks out on life and sees the face of
nature. But here he parts wth Wordsworth and the



Alfred de Vigny 29

pantheists ; for in nature, also, he finds illusion and the
reed that runs into the hand : — ■

" Vivez, froide Nature, et revivez sans cesse
Sur nos picds, sur nos fronts, puisque c'est votre loi;
Vivez, et dedaignez, si vous etes deesse,
L'homme, humble passager, qui dut vous etre un roi;
Plus que tout votre regne et que ses splendeurs vaines,
J'aime la majestc des souffrances humaines;
Vous ne recevroz pas un cri d'amour de moi."

Finally, it is in pity, in the tender patience of human
sympathy, in the love which is " taciturne et toujours
menace," that the melancholy poet finds the sole solace
of a broken and uncertain existence.

It is in the same connection that we must read La
Sauvage and La Mort die Loup, poems which belong to
the year 1843. The close of the second of these presents
us with the pessimistic philosophy of Vigny in its most
concise and penetrating form. The poet has described
in his admirable way the scene of a wolf hunt in the
woods of a chateau where he has been staying, and the
death of the wolf, while defending his mate and her cubs.
He closes his picture with these reflections : —

" Comment on doit quitter la vie et tous ses maux, —
C'est vous que le savez. sublimes animaux !
A voir ce que Ton fut sur terre et ce qu'on laisse,
Seul le silence est grand : tout le reste est faiblesse;
Ah ! je t'ai bien compris, sauvage voyageur,
Et ton dernier regard m'est alle jusqu'au coeur !
II disait : ' Si tu peux, fais que ton ame arrive
A force de rester studieuse et pensive,
Jusqu'a ce haut degre de stoique fierte
Ou, naissant dans les bois, j'ai tout d'abord monte.
Gemir, pleurer, prier, est egalement 13,che.
Fais energiquement ta longue et lourde tdche
Dans la voie ou le sort a voulu t'appeler —
Puis, apres, comme moi, souffre et meurs sans parler.' " *

It was in nourishing such lofty thoughts as these that

^ We have here, doubtless, a reminiscence of Byrou and Childs
Harold, — " And the wolf dies in silence."



3© French Profiles

Alfred de Vigny lived the life of a country gentleman
at Maine-Giraud, reading, dreaming, cultivating his vines,
sitting for hours by the bedside of his helpless Lydia.

" Silence is Poetry itself for me," Alfred de Vigny
says in one of his private letters, and as time went on
he had scarcely energy enough to write down his thoughts.
When he braced himself to the effort of doing so, as
when in 1858 he contrived to compose La Bouteille a
la Mer, his accent was found to be as clear and his
music as vivid and resonant as ever. The reason was
that although he was so solitary and silent, the labour
of the brain was unceasing; under the ashes the fire
burned hot and red. He has a very curious phrase
about the action of his mind; he says, " Mon cerveau,
toujours mobile, travaille et tourbillonne sous mon front
immobile avec une vitesse effrayante; des mondes
passent devant mes yeux entre un mot qu'on me dit
et le mot que je reponds." Dumas, who was peculiarly
predisposed to miscomprehend Vigny, could not recon-
cile himself, in younger days, to his " immateriality," to
what another observer called his " perpetual seraphic
hallucination " ; after 1835, this disconcerting remote-
ness and abstraction grew upon the poet so markedl)^
as to cut him off from easy contact with other men.
But his isolation, even his pessimism, failed to harden
him ; on the contrary, by a divine indulgence, they
increased his sensibility, the enthusiasm of his pity,
his passion for the welfare of others.

Death found him at last, and in one of its most cruel
forms. Soon after he had passed his sixtieth year, he
began to be subjected to vague pains, which became
intenser, and which presently proved to be the symptoms
of cancer. He bore this final trial with heroic fortitude,
and as the physical suffering grew more extreme, the



Alfred de Vigny 31

intellectual serenity prevailed above the anguish. In
the very last year of his life, the poetical faculty awak-
ened in him again, and he wrote Les Oracles, the incom-
parably solemn and bold apologue of Le Mont des
Olivier s, and the mystical ode entitled U Esprit Pur.
This last poem closed with the ominous words, " et
pour moi c'est assez." On September 17, 1863, his
soul was released at length from the tortured and
exhausted body, and the weary Stello was at peace.

It is not to be pretended that the poetry of Alfred de
Vigny is to every one's taste. He was too indifferent
to the public, too austere and arrogant in his address,
to attract the masses, and to them he will remain per-
petually unknown. But he is a writer, in his best prose
as well as in the greater part of his scanty verse, who has
only to become famihar to a reader susceptible to beauty,
to grow more and more beloved. The other poets of
his age were fluent and tumultuous; Alfred de Vigny
was taciturn, stoical, one who had lost faith in glory,
in life, perhaps even in himself. While the flute and
the trumpet sounded, his hunter's horn, blown far
away in the melancholy woodland, could scarcely raise
an echo in the heart of a warrior or banqueter. But
those who visit Vigny in the forest will be in no hurry
to return. He shall entertain them there with such high
thoughts and such proud music that they will follow
him wherever his dream may take him. They may
admit that he is sometimes hard, often obscure, always
in a certain facile sense unsympathetic, but they will
find their taste for more redundant melodies than his
a good deal marred for the future. And some among
them, if they are sincere, will admit that, so far as they
are concerned, he is the most majestic poet whom France
produced in the rich course of the nineteenth century.



MADEMOISELLE AISSE



MADEMOISELLE AISSE

Literature presents us with no more pathetic figure
of a waif or stray than that of the poor httle Circassian
slave whom her friends called Mademoiselle Aisse.
But interesting and touching as is the romance of her
history, it is surpassed by the rare distinction of her
character and the dehcacy of her mind. Placed in the
centre of the most depraved society of modern Europe,
protected from ruin by none of those common bulwarks
which proved too frail to sustain the high-born virtues
of the Tencins and the Paraberes, exposed by her wit
and beauty to all the treachery of fashionable Paris
unabashed, this little Oriental orphan preserved an
exquisite refinement of nature, a conscience as sensitive
as a nerve. If she had been devote, if she had retired
to a nunnery, the lesson of her life would have been
less wholesome than it is ; we may go further and admit
that it would be less poignant than it is but for the
single frailty of her conduct. She sinned once, and
expiated her sin with tears; but in an age when love
was reduced to a caprice and intrigue governed by
cynical maxims, Aisse's fault, her solitary abandonment
to a sincere passion, almost takes the proportions of a
virtue. Ruskin has somewhere recommended Swiss
travellers who find themselves physically exhausted
by the pomp of Alpine landscape, to sink on their knees
and concentrate their attention on the petals of a rock-
rose. In comparison with the vast expanse of French

i5



36



French Profiles



literature the pretensions of Aissc are little more than
those of a flower, but she has no small share of a flower's
perfume and beauty.

In her lifetime Mademoiselle Aisse associated with
some of the great writers of her time. Yet if any one
had told her that she would hve in literature with such
friends as Montesquieu and Destouches her modesty
would have been overwhelmed with confusion. She
made no pretensions to being a blue-stocking ; she would
have told us that she did not know how to write a page.
An exact coeval of hers was the sarcastic and brilliant
young man who called himself Voltaire ; he w^as strangely
gentle to Aisse, but she would have been amazed to
learn that he would long survive her, and would anno-
tate her works in his old age. Her works ! Her only
works, she would have told us, were the coloured em-
broideries with which, in some tradition of a Turkish
taste, she adorned her own rooms in the Hotel Ferriol.
Notwithstanding all this, no history of French literature
would have any pretensions to completeness if it omitted
Aisse's name. Among all the memoir-writers, letter-
writers, and pamphleteers of the early eighteenth
century she stands in some respects pre-eminent. As
a correspondent pure and simple there is a signihcance
in the fact that her life exactly fills the space between
the death of Sevigne, which occurred when Aisse was
about two years old, and the birth of L'Espinasse, which
happened a few months before Aisse's death. During
this period of nearly forty years no woman in France
wrote letters which could be placed beside theirs except
our Circassian. They form a singularly interesting trio ;
and if Aisse can no more pretend to possess the breadth
of vision and rich imagination of Madame de Sevigne
than to command the incomparable accent of passion



Mademoiselle Aisse 37

which cries through the correspondence of Mademoiselle
de L'Espinasse, she has qualities which are not unworthy
to be named with these — an exquisite sincerity, an
observation of men and things which could hardly be
more picturesque, a note of pensive and thrilling tender-
ness, and a candour which melts the very soul to pity.

In the winter of 1697 or spring of 1698, a dissipated
and eccentric old bachelor, Charles de Ferriol, Baron
d'Argental, who was French Envoy at the court of the
Grand Vizier, bought a little Circassian child of about
four years old in one of the bazaars of Constantinople.
He had often bought slaves in the Turkish market before,
and not to the honour of his memory. But this time
he was actuated by a genuine kindly impulse. He was
fifty-one years of age ; he did not intend to marry, and
he seems to have thought that he would supply himself
with a beautiful daughter for the care of his old age.
Sainte-Beuve, with his unfailing intuition, insisted on
this interpretation, and since his essay was written, in
1846, various documents have turned up, proving beyond
a doubt that the intentions of the Envoy were parental.
The little girl said that her name was Haidee. She
preserved in later life an impression of a large house,
and many servants running hither and thither. Her
friends agreed to consider her as the daughter of a
Circassian prince, and the very large price (1500 livres)
which M. de Ferriol paid for her, as well as the singular
distinction of her beauty, to some extent support the
legend. In August 1698, M. de Ferriol, who had held
temporary missions in Turkey for seven years, was
recalled to France, to be sent out again as French
ambassador to the Porte in 1699, He brought his little
Circassian orphan with him, and placed her in the charge
of his sister-in-law, Madame de Ferriol, in Paris. She






38 French Profiles

was immediately christened as Charlotte Haidee, but
she preserved neither of these names in ordinary life ;
Charlotte was dropped at once, and Haidee on the lips
of her new French relations became the softer Aisse.

Aisse's adopted aunt, as we may call her, Madame de
Ferriol, was a very fair average specimen of the fashion-
able lady of the Regency. She belonged to the notorious
family of Tencin, whose mark on the early part of the
eighteenth century is so ineffaceable. Of Madame de
Ferriol it may be said by her defenders that she was not
so openly scandalous as her sister the Canoness, who
appears in a very curious light in the letters of Aisse.
Born in 1674, Madame de Ferriol was still quite a young
woman, and her sons, the Marquis de Pont-de-Veyle
and Comte d'Argental, were little children, fit to become
the playmates of Aisse. Indeed these two boys were
regarded almost as the Circassian's brothers, and the
family documents speak of all three as " nos enfants."
She was put to school — it is believed, from a phrase of
her own, " Je viens de me ressouvenir " — with the
Nouvelles Catholiques, a community of nuns, whose
house was a few doors away from the Hotel Ferriol,
and there for a few years we may suppose her to have
passed the happy life of a child. From this life she
herself, in one of the most charming of her letters, draws
aside the curtain for a moment. In 1731 some gossip
accused her of a passion for the Due de Gesvres, and her
jealous mentor in Geneva wrote to know if there was
any truth in the report. Aisse, then about thirty-seven
years of age, wrote back as follows : —

" I admit, Madame, notwithstanding your anger and
the respect which I owe you, that I have had a violent
fancy for M. le Due de Gesvres, and that I even carried
this great sin to confession. It is true that my confessor



Mademoiselle AYsse 39

did not think it necessary to impose any penance on me.
I was eight years old when this passion began, and at
twelve I laughed at the whole affair, not that I did not
still like M. de Gesvres, but that I saw how ludicrous
it had been of me to be so anxious to be talking and
playing in the garden with him and his brothers. He
was two or three years older than I, and we thought
ourselves a great deal more grown up than the rest.
We liked to be conversing while the others were playing
at hide-and-seek. We set up for reasonable people ;
we met regularly every day : we never talked about
love, for the fact was that neither of us knew what
that meant. The window of the little drawing-room
opened upon a balcony, where he often came ; we made
signs to each other ; he took us out to see the fireworks,
and often to Saint Ouen. As we were always together,
the people in charge of us began to joke about us and
it came to the ears of my aga (the Ambassador), who,
as you can imagine, made a fine romance out of all this.
I found it out ; it distressed me ; I thought that, as a
discreet person, I ought to watch my own behaviour,
and the result was that I persuaded myself that I must
really be in love with M. de Gesvres. I was devote, and
went to confession ; I first mentioned all my little sins,
and then I had to mention this big sin ; I could scarcely
make up my mind to do so, but as a girl that had been
well brought up, I determined to hide nothing. I
confessed that I was in love with a young man. My
director seemed astonished; he asked me how old he
was. I told him he was eleven. He laughed, and told
me that there was no penance for that sin; that I had
only to keep on being a good girl, and that he had nothing
more to say to me for the time being."

It is like a page of Hans Andersen ; there is the same



40 French Profiles

innocence, the same suspicion that all the world may
not be so innocent.

The incidents of the early womanhood of Aisse are
known to us only through an anonj^mous sketch of
her life, printed in 1787, when her Letters first appeared.
This short life, which has been attributed to Made-
moiselle Rieu, the granddaughter of the lady to whom
the letters were addressed, informs us that Aisse was
carefully educated, so far as the head went, but more than
neglected in the lessons of the heart. " From the moment
when Mademoiselle Aisse began to lisp," says this rather
pedantic memoir, " she heard none but dangerous
maxims. Surrounded by voluptuous and intriguing
women, she was constantly being reminded that the
only occupation of a woman without a fortune ought
to be to secure one." But she found protectors. The
two sons of Madame de Ferriol, though themselves no
better than their neighbours, guarded her as though she
had really been their sister; and in her own soul there
were no germs of the fashionable depravity. When
she was seventeen, her " aga " came back from his long
exile in Constantinople, broken in health, even, it is
said, more than a little disturbed in intellect. To the
annoyance of his relatives he nourished the design of
being made a cardinal ; he was lodged, for safety's sake,
close to the family of his brother. From Ferriol's return
in 1711 to his death in 1722, we have considerable
difficulty in realising what Aisse's existence was.

There is some reason to suppose that it was Lord
Bolingbroke who first perceived the exceptional charm
of Aisse's mind. When the illustrious English exile
came to France in 1715, he was almost immediately
drawn into the society of the Hotel Ferriol. One of
Aisse's kindest friends was that wise and charming



Mademoiselle Aisse 41

woman, the Marquise de Villette, whom BoHngbroke
somewhat tardily married about 1720, and it was doubt-
less through her introduction that he became intimate
with Madame de Ferriol. As early as 17 19 Bolingbroke
writes of Aisse as of an intimate friend, and speaks of
her as threatened by a " disadvantageous metamor-
phosis," by which he probably refers to an attack of
the small-pox. It appears to have been during a visit
to the chateau of Lord and Lady Bolingbroke that Aisse
first met Voltaire ; and later on we shall see that these
persons played a singular but very important part in
the drama of her life. There seems no doubt that,
however little Madame de Villette and Lord Bolingbroke
could claim the white flower of a spotless life, they were
judicious and useful friends at this perilous moment of
her career. Aisse's beauty, which was extraordinary,
and her dubious social station, made the young Circassian
peculiarly liable to attack from the men of fashion who
passed from alcove to alcove in search of the indulgence
of some ephemeral caprice. The poets turned their
rhymes in her honour, and one of their effusions, that
of the Swiss Vernet, was so far esteemed that it was
engraved fifty years afterwards underneath her portrait.
It may thus be paraphrased : —

" Aisse's beauty is all Greek;

Yet was she wise in youth to borrow
From France the charming tongue we speak,
And wit, anil airs that banish sorrow :

A theme like this deserves a verse
As warm and clear as mine is cold.

For has there been a heart like hers
Since our Astrean age of gold ? "

Aisse received all this homage unmoved. The Duke
of Orleans one day met her in the salon of Madame de



42 French Profiles

Parabere, was enchanted with her beauty, and declared
his passion to Madame de Ferriol. To the lasting shame
of this woman, she agreed to support his claim, and the
Regent imagined that the little Greek would fall an
easy prey. To his amazement, and to the indignation
of Madame de Ferriol, he was indignantly repulsed ;
and when further pressure was brought to bear upon her,
Aisse threatened to retire at once to a convent if the
proposition w^as so much as repeated. She was one of
the principal attractions of Madame de Ferriol's salon,
and, says the memoir, " as Aisse was useful to her,
fearing to lose her, she consented, though most un-
willingly, to say no more to her " about the Duke.
This was but one, though certainly the most alarming,
of the traps set for her feet in the brilliant and depraved
society of her guardians. The habitual life of the
Tencins and Paraberes of 1720 was something to us
quite incredible. Such a " moral dialogue " as Le
Hasard au Coin du Feu would be rejected as the dream
of a licentious satirist, if the memoirs and correspondence
of the Cidalises and the Clitandres of the age did not
fully convince us that the novelists merely repeated
what they saw around them. We must bear in mind
what an extraordinary condition of roseate semi-nudity
this politest of generations lived in, to understand the
excellence as well as the frailty of Aisse. We must
also bear in mind, when our Puritan indignation is
ready to carry us away in profuse condemnation of this
whole society, that extremely shrewd remark of Duclos :
" Le peuple fran9ais est le seul peuple qui puisse perdre
ses moeurs sans se corrompre."

In 1720 the old ex-ambassador fell ill. Aisse imme-
diately took up her abode with him, and nursed him
assiduously until he died. That he was not an easy



Mademoiselle Ai'sse 43

invalid to cherish we gather from a phrase in one of
her own letters, as well as from hints in those of Boling-
broke. In October 1722 he died, leaving to Aisse
a considerable fortune in the form of an annuity, as well
as a sum of money in a bill on the estate. The sister-
in-law, Madame de Ferriol, to whose guardianship Aisse
had been consigned, thought her own sons injured by
the ambassador's generosity, and had the extreme bad
taste to upbraid Aisse. The note had not yet been
cashed, and at the first word from Madame de Ferriol,
Aisse fetched it and threw it into the fire. This little
anecdote speaks worlds for the sensitive and independent
character of the Circassian ; one almost blushes to com-
plete it by adding that Madame de Ferriol took advantage



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