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J.M. Le Moine.

Picturesque Quebec : a sequel to Quebec past and present online

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France. You have heard, gentlemen, the loud hurrah of all Canada in
honour of one of her children, and here, perhaps, I might cease
speaking. Nothing that I might say could increase the glad strength of
the general voice of the country, when the news arrived here that the
grand arena of literature, the French Academy, an institution whose
life is counted by centuries, and which is without equal in the world,
that great interpreter and infallible judge of the difficulties, the
beauties and the genius of the French language, had given one of its
annual prizes, and perhaps the finest of all - the prize of poetry - to
one of our countrymen. I could never fittingly express or depict the
sentiments of pride and joy felt by all lovers of literature in this
country - I may add of all good Canadians - when the news came from
beyond the ocean, from that sacred France, mother of civilization;
from fairy Paris, capital of the Muses, that Mr. Fréchette had been
crowned! But, as Chairman of this happy reunion, at the risk of but
faintly re-echoing the general sentiment, I must at least try to
express my feelings in proposing this toast. The emotions which I feel
are of a dual nature, that of friendship and of patriotism, and, as
friendship is nearer to the heart, so I gave that feeling the first
place. The speaker here referred to his collegiate days in the
Seminary of Quebec, where he met Mr. Fréchette, and in preparing
himself for the battle of life, had won the friendship of the Canadian
poet. He alluded to Mr. Fréchette's first efforts in verse, and had
judged his early attempts, and in referring to his (the Judge's) own
literary works at the time, the speaker said that the line of Boileau
might be applied to him,

"'Pour lui, Phoebus est sourd et Pégase est rétif.'

"At that time, Mr. Fréchette had not reached the heights of Helicon,
nor attained the regions wherein the 'Boreal Flowers' are gathered and
the 'Snow Birds' fly, but the little flowers he gathered in more
modest fields had around them the perfume of genuine poetry, and the
emerald, ruby and topaz of art already shone in the dainty plumage of
his summer birds. Mr. Fréchette published in a small journal in
manuscript, called _L'Echo_, of which Judge Taschereau was then
editor in the Seminary, the first efforts of his muse. This souvenir
of the past is now very precious to me, said the speaker, because it
enables me to state that I was the first editor of our poet's works.
Judge Taschereau further alluded to the time when, with Mr. Fréchette,
he studied law, that dry study, and though the poet was thus devoted
to the goddess Themis, he nevertheless found time to worship at the
shrine of song. How could the poet do otherwise? His fame had already
gone abroad. The journals of the country were already publishing his
sonnets, odes and songs. His acrostics were sought after to grace the
albums of fair ladies. Even the volunteers of Canada asked him for
war-songs, which are happily more frequently heard in drawing-rooms
than in camps. The young student did not possess himself. He was
already the property of the country, and the Institutes of Justinian
were put aside for the more pleasing task of framing idyllic pictures
of poetic genius. In fact, Crémazie was almost forgotten, and the name
of Fréchette was on every tongue. Mr. Taschereau tried to reclaim the
poet to his legal duties, and give him the place of Mr. Faucher de St.
Maurice in his office. Mr. Fréchette accepted the sinecure, but no
sooner had he done so than Mr. Faucher returned, anxious, no doubt,
for good and congenial company. Judge of my happiness, with Fréchette
and Faucher in my office, and I their humble patron. I thought I would
succeed in converting my friends, but in this I failed, for they led
me on their own paths until I myself began to versify, and, instead of
reading Pothier, read 'proofs' of verses. As it is, Mr. Fréchette did
become a lawyer; but Mr. Faucher abandoned the pursuit - he retired
from my office, lost forever to Themis, but safe to the cause of
literature. The departure of my young friends saved me. I could never
expect to win the applause of the French Academy, and thus, as I am
enabled to preside at this banquet, I may be permitted to offer our
guest a bouquet of friendship's flowers, gathered during twenty-five
years, and I feel that its perfume will be agreeable to my
distinguished friend. The life of Mr. Fréchette is written in the
poetry and literature of this country. He has marched steadily onward
from the day on which he wrote his _Loisirs_, until the grand
moment when he stood the crowned victor in the Academy of France. We
have known our guest as a lawyer, journalist and member of Parliament,
and have always admired his wonderful faculties, ever ready as he was
to promote the welfare of his friends. His large heart contributed to
pave the way to success, for, undoubted though his talents are, his
winning manners won for him an ever-growing popularity, and we may
affirm that, if he had traducers, he had, on the other hand, a host of
friends. Traducers always follow the wake of a literary man, and they
resemble the creeping things which we suffer in our gardens, because
their existence can lead to no effectual harm. I may have occupied
your time at too great length in treating of Mr. Fréchette as a
friend. Allow me now, however, for a few moments, to speak of his
success from a patriotic point of view. As French-Canadians, we are
proud of our Laureate, and happy to see him in our midst this evening.
In crowning our distinguished poet, the French Academy has given a
splendid recognition to Canadian literature in the great Republic of
Letters. Our Laureate is a French-Canadian, but our fellow-citizens of
British origin have joined with us in this manifestation of our joy,
and through their press, as at such gatherings as this, they have
spontaneously recognized his talent, thus showing their spirit of
justice and their enlightened patriotism. Party politics have ceased
their discordant cries to join unanimously in honoring our Laureate,
and this is a spectacle of consolation to the country. No commentary
is required on this expression of our joy. It is, in itself, the most
eloquent of proofs that the citizens of Quebec, as well as those of
Montreal, in giving this festival to Mr. Fréchette, have invited all
Canadians, in the largest acceptation of the word, to do him honour.
In concluding, as I know you are anxious to hear him address you this
evening, permit me to make a comparison. One of the most distinguished
of modern poets, Alfred de Musset, said in a moment of despair: -

"J'ai perdu ma force, et ma vie,
Et mes amis, et ma gaîté:
J'ai perdu jusqu'à la fierté
Qui faisait croire à mon génie."

"'I have lost my strength and my life, my friends and my gayety,
almost my very pride, which made me believe in my genius.' We may say
to Mr. Fréchette, as an offset to this cry of despair from one of his
elder poetic brethren: 'Courage! You have strength and life! More
friends than ever! An enthusiasm of gayety which is fathomless! March
on and sing! We are proud of you, and we believe in your genius,
crowned, as it is, by the highest literary tribunal in the world - that
of the Forty Immortals!' (Cheers.)

"The utmost enthusiasm pervaded those present, and when the poet
laureate rose to reply, he was greeted with loud applause, which
continued for several minutes. Mr. Fréchette said: -

"MR. CHAIRMAN AND GENTLEMEN, - For some time past I have abstained from
public speaking, and there are those amongst my best friends who tell
me that I have done well. To-day Montreal [31] and Quebec seem to have
conspired against me, to oblige me to make two speeches on the same
subject. This, though flattering to me, is hardly fair. If, having
pleaded in one sense, I were asked to take the opposite ground, it
might appear that such would not embarrass a lawyer, and one who has
also been a politician, but in my present position I am called upon to
treat the same question twice, and absolutely in the same sense. How
can I discover something new to advance. Naturally, I felt embarrassed
at the outset, but, at any risk, my duty is to respond to your
flattering call, and thus to best avenge myself upon this conspiracy
of my friends. It will not be surprising if I affirm that the occasion
of this reunion has for me a character of especial solemnity. Seated
at this festive board, I see the representatives of different nations,
who, in private capacities also, have won general respect. I see,
also, my fellow-citizens of Quebec and of Levis, my native town - the
schoolmates of my earliest days - _confrères_ in professional
life and in the walks of literature - comrades of past political
struggles - friends, ever indulgent and generous - political leaders of
whom I have always been proud, and gentlemen of various origins,
divergent opinions and different religious beliefs, all tendering me
their warmest congratulations upon the success I have achieved in the
literary world. No words of mine are adequate to express my feelings,
not can I sufficiently thank you all for this spontaneous and
sympathetic demonstration in honour of one who regrets that he is not
more worthy of your favour. I can only accept your evidences of
friendship with cordial emotion, thank you from the depth of my heart
and bear with me from this hall a proud memory which will unite with
the remembrances of my youth, all of which are so intimately
identified with the hospitable people of Quebec, and, in so declaring,
I am but assuring you that this remembrance will ever attend upon me.
The past vouches for this; for when my tent of exile shook in the
winds from off the great Western lakes, or slept on the bowery shores
of Louisianian streams; when my traveller's skiff was rocked on the
waters of the Southern gulfs, or was reflected on the blue waves of
the Loire; when I had before me the wild majesty of Niagara, the
immensity of the ocean, or when, filled with admiration, I paused to
gaze upon the stupendous monuments of the Old World, my thoughts ever
instinctively flew back to the good old city of Champlain,
unparalleled in the world for the picturesque splendor of its site,
and the poetry which no less issues from the very stones of its
fortress, than it lingers upon every page of its history. Yes! Old
Quebec! In all places I have cherished with devotion every memory of
you, for within your walls my heart first opened to the noble teaching
of intellect! It is your lofty embrasures - your flag, bravely floating
in the skies - your abrupt rock, your stretches of ramparts, your
brilliant steeples, reflecting their beauty on the bosom of the St.
Lawrence, mingled with the sails of your cosmopolitan navies; which,
for the first time, awoke the poetic enthusiasm in my breast. Long ago
I first saw these scenes from the window of an humble cottage of
Levis, half-hidden in a screen of foliage; and in my youngest days,
ere I knew the method or formation of a verse, I felt the fluttering
against the cage of my heart of that golden bird, whose sonorous voice
is styled Poetry. In fact, gentlemen, I was carried towards a literary
career from the very outset, and in this connection you will permit me
to relate a little anecdote. You will pardon me if I appear
egotistical, but your cordial reception warrants me in looking for
your indulgence. I had learned to read in a book full of reveries and
sentiment, entitled 'Letters or the poet Gilbert to his sister.' Of
course I understood but little of it, yet it made a deep impression on
my imagination. One day my father, an honest man and good citizen, if
there were ever any such, but who had nothing in common with the
Muses, asked my brother and I what professions we would adopt when we
grew big. 'For me,' replied my happy-hearted brother Edmond, 'I will
be a carter,' and 'I will be a poet,' I immediately added. I still
remember my father's smile of affectionate pity when he heard these
unexpected declarations from the hopes of his declining years. "My
poor children," said he, with a resigned air, "these two occupations
will never lead you to wealth and fortune." Later I understood the
wise reflection of my father, but no one carves out his own destiny
and he must submit to fate. I have vainly tried other careers but
finally was obliged to return to this dream of my infancy. As the poet
says,

"Drive away the natural, and it returns at full speed."

Yes, dear old City of Quebec, so old and so glorious, so beautiful in
your _ensemble_ and so characteristic in your details, so cordial
and so hospitable, in presence of your noblest children assembled here
to welcome me, within your old walls, let me give this testimony, that
if I have had the happiness of causing the Canadian name to be heard
in the immortal shrine of French literature it is to you I owe it, and
to you is my gratitude offered. For I must tell you, gentlemen, that I
loved Quebec too much, at the distance, not to hasten across the
river, when the bird felt that his wings were strong enough to fly. At
that time the greatest of the poets of Quebec, Octave Crémazie, sang
the glories of our ancestors and the brave deeds of old France. His
energetic and inspired voice excited youthful emulation. A group of
budding writers surrounded him, but each one felt timid and hesitated
to tune his notes amongst the loud echoes of his vigorous patriotism.
Alas! the star fled from our skies, another generation of enthusiastic
poets and writers disputed the honour of seizing the lyre, so heavy
for their fingers, which had been left on the rock of Quebec, by the
author of the Flag of Carillon. O! my old comrades, do you think as
frequently as do I, of those old days, when with hearts full of poetic
illusions, we united our talents, our hopes and I might add our
poverty, to establish that spiritual association in which the
beautiful was idolized, seekers as we were after the ideal, dealers in
mental _bijouterie_, despised at first by some, but which
succeeded more than once in directing the attention of literary France
to our shores? Do you, at times, remember our joyful meetings, our
interminable readings, our long hours of continued study and waking
reveries in common - do you yet remember the bewildering evenings in
which the glass of Henri Murger mingled its sonorous tinklings, bright
and merry, to the love-song of our flowery youth? We were all rivals,
but

"Our hearts, as our lute, vibrated as one,"

and God knows that this rivalry never severed the bonds of affection
which united us, and so was founded what has since been styled the
Mutual Admiration Society. Mutual Admiration Society! If we were to
consider the number of books, dress-coats, gloves and other articles
of more intimate character that were exchanged between us, it might
more safely have been called the Society for Mutual Support. At all
events, from the spectacle before me this evening I gather that this
Society of Mutual Admiration, if admiration it must be termed, has
taken a singular development since I had the honour of assisting so
frequently at its meetings, and there is nothing surprising in this,
since one of the most distinguished of the founders of this society,
Mr. Faucher de St. Maurice, informed me the other day that the society
in question was about to annex the French Academy. (Laughter.) But to
be serious, allow me to recount another anecdote. There was a time,
gentlemen, when our Mutual Admiration was far from being so ambitious
as to dream of having a _succursale_ under the rotunda of the
French Institute. But if our productions were meagre, our revenues
were still more so, and famine often reigned in the chests of the
confraternity. However we had our own days of abundance when there was
corn in Egypt. The first Quebecer who understood that poetry, unlike
perpetual motion, could not feed itself, was a brewer, whose memory is
now legendary and who was known by the harmonious name of McCallum.
Arthur Casgrain, who in a couple of years afterwards we sorrowfully
bore to the cemetery, had thought of composing an Epic on the Grand
Trunk. This was called "La grande Tronciade!" Well in one of the
twelve parts of this production, so very original, there were three
remarkable lines.

"Buvons, buvons, amis, de ce bon maccallome,
Venant directement du brasseur qu'il dénome!
C'est ça qui vous retape et vous refait un homme?"

The effect was magical. The heart of the brewer was touched. A long
waggon on which we could read the eloquent words "pale ale and porter"
stopped next day before our door. For twenty minutes a man with
burthened step climbed the Jacob's ladder which led to the poet's
attic, and one hundred and forty-four bottles of inviting appearance
ranged themselves around the chamber. I cannot picture the joy of the
happy recipient. In his enthusiasm he offered me a community in his
good fortune - of course under a pledge of inviolable secrecy. But as I
felt the imperious necessity of communicating my emotions I was as
wanting in discretion as he had been, and that evening all the
Bohemians, students and literary friends even to the remotest degree
followed in the wake of McCallum's bottles, and invaded the attic
chamber of poor Arthur (your good-natured cousin, Mr. President.)
There we had French, English, Latin and Greek speeches in prose and in
verse. Arsène Michaud has even prepared a story for the occasion. In
brief, the hecatomb was made; the libation was Olympic, the twelve
dozen disappeared and on the morrow poor Casgrain showed me with a sad
face the Homeric remains of his one day's wealth, and in a lamentable
tone of despair he exclaimed: "I will have to write another poem."
Gentlemen, that was the first time in Canada that poetry made a return
to its author, and in tasting these delicate viands which the
hospitable city of Quebec now offers to one of those early Bohemians
in recognition of his literary success, I could not fail to recollect
with emotion this amusing circumstance now enveloped, with other
scenes of youth, sometimes glad - sometimes sorrowful, in the shadowy
robe of past recollections. Another story just suggests itself to my
mind. Lusignan and I occupied the attic of an old house in Palace
street. Our room was heated by a stove-pipe, which reached from the
lower apartments. One day I had published in _Le Canadien_ - _Tempora
Mutantur_ - a little poem in which was the following line:

"Shivering in my attic poor."

The next day a surprise awaited us. A dumb stove had replaced the mere
stove-pipe, and while holding our sides from laughter we heard this
speech: "Gentlemen, we are very indulgent, considering your noisy
meetings - we are not very particular when rent-day arrives - and if you
_so shivered_ in your room, it would have been better to have
said so privately, than to have complained of it in the newspapers."
(Laughter.) Poor Mrs. Tessier, our landlady - she was not well
acquainted with figures of speech, but she has been the Providence of
many of the destitute, and more than one who hears me now can say as I
do, that no better or more obliging heart ever beat in a more pitiful
bosom towards purseless youth. And who knows, it is perhaps due to
this sympathetic feeling of its population towards literary men and
writers that this city of Quebec has seen such an array of talent
within her bosom, such a succession of Pleiades of distinguished
litterateurs, who have glorified her name and that of their country.
For the last fifty years, men eminent in all branches of literature
have made a gorgeous and resplendent aureole around the city of
Quebec. In the generation immediately preceding us, we see Petitclerc,
Parent, Soulard, Chauveau, Garneau, L'Ecuyer, Ferland, Barthe and Réal
Angers, these grand pioneers of intellect, who in history, poetry,
drama and romance, made such a wide opening for the generation which
followed them. Then we have l'Abbé Laverdière, l'Abbé Casgrain,
LeMoine, Fiset, Taché, Plamondon, LaRue, and the first among all
Octave Crémazie, who coming at different times bravely and constantly
continued the labours of their predecessors, until we reach the
brilliant phalanx of contemporary writers, Lemay, Fabre, l'Abbé Begin,
Routhier, Oscar Dunn, Faucher de St. Maurice, Buies, Marmette and
Legendre, all charged with the glorious task of preserving for Quebec
her legitimate title of the Athens of Canada. And how could it be
otherwise? Is not Quebec the cradle of our nationality - the spot
whereon is engraved the most illustrious pages of our history - heroic
annals, touching souvenirs, all combining with the marvels of nature
to speak here the soul of the historian and of the poet. What a
flourishing field for the historian and poet is not the tale of that
handful of Breton heroes, who, three centuries ago, planted on the
rock of Quebec the flag of Christianity and civilization! What
innumerable sources of inspiration can we not find in our majestic
river, our gigantic lakes, our grand cascades, our lofty mountains,
our impenetrable forests and in all that grand and wild nature, which
will ever be the characteristic feature of our dear Canada. Oh! our
history, gentlemen! Oh, the picturesque beauties of our country! Two
marvellous veins - two mines of precious material open at our feet. The
European writers are ever striving to discover something fresh. Having
exhausted all kinds of themes, they are now stooping to the dust to
find an originality which seems to fly from them. Well, this
freshness, this originality, so courted and so rare now-a-days, may be
found within our grasp, - it is there in our historical archives - in
our patriarchal customs - in the many characters of a people young and
thirsting for independence - a robust and healthy poetry, floats on our
breezes - breathes in our popular songs - sings in the echoes of our
wild forests, and opens graceful and proud her white wings to the
winds of the free aspirations of the new world. To us this virgin
field belongs, gentlemen! Take from Europe her form and experience,
but leave to her, her old Muses. Let us be true to ourselves! Be
Canadians and the future is ours. "That which strikes us most in your
poems" said a member of the French Academy to me, "is that the modern
style, the Parisian style of your verses is united to something
strange, so particular and singular - it seems an exotic, disengaged
from the entire." This perfume of originality which this writer
discovered in my writings was then unknown to myself. What was it? It
was the secret of their nationality, - the certificate of their origin,
their Canadian stamp! And it is important for us, gentlemen, never to
allow this character to disappear. Let our young writers stamp it
broadly on their pages and then advance to their task, they need no
longer fear the thorns on the way. The path is wide open and millions
of readers await their efforts. To the work then; France offers us her
hand, and now that we have renewed the bonds between us and our
illustrious and well-beloved mother country - bonds broken by the
vicissitudes which occur in the life of peoples, we shall be enabled



Online LibraryJ.M. Le MoinePicturesque Quebec : a sequel to Quebec past and present → online text (page 6 of 59)