Joseph Forster.

Some French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon online

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Online LibraryJoseph ForsterSome French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon → online text (page 11 of 19)
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ship ; both refused a hearing in their own defence,
because they had refused to hear others; both
decreed to prosecution by the unanimous vote of
their own accomplices; both found guilty by the


Revolutionary tribunal they had themselves created ;
both outlawed almost in the bloom of life al-
though there was never much bloom about the
cold-blooded Robespierre Danton by Robespierre,
and Robespierre on account of Danton ; both, in fine,
dragged to punishment in the same cart to the same

Danton was intemperate, abandoned in his plea-
sures, and greedy of money, less to hoard than to
spend it ; Robespierre, sombre, austere, economical,
incorruptible. Danton, indolent by nature and by
habit ; Robespierre, diligent in labour, eveu to
the sacrifice of sleep. Danton disdained Robes-
pierre, and Robespierre feared, despised, and hated

Danton was careless, even of his life ; Robes-
pierre, bilious, concentrated, distrustful ; Danton,
boastful of his real vices and of the evil which he
had done, and a pretender even to crimes which he
had never committed ; Robespierre, varnishing his-
animosity and vengeance with colour of devotion to
the public weal ; Danton, in his brutal passion,
utterly reckless of consequences.

Before concluding, I must give Carlyle's portrait
of Danton :

'Still more interesting is it, not without a touch
almost of pathos, to see how the rugged Terrce Filius,
Danton, begins likewise to emerge, from amid the blood-
tinted obscurations and shadows of horrid cruelty, into
calm light ; and seems now not an anthropophagus, but
partly a man.



' On the whole, the Earth feels it to be something to
have a " Son of Earth ; " any reality, rather than a
hypocrisy and a formula ! With a man that went
honestly to work with himself, and said and acted, in any
sense, with the whole mind of him, there is always
something to be done. Satan himself, according to
Dante, was a praiseworthy object compared with those
juste milieu angels who " were neither faithful nor re-
bellious," but were for their little selves only : trimmers,
moderates, plausible persons, who, in the Dantean hell,
are found doomed to this frightful penalty, that "they
have not the hope to die ; but sunk in torpid death-
life, in mud and the plague of flies, they are doomed
to doze and dree for ever hateful to God and the
enemies of God ! "

' If Bonaparte was the " armed soldier of Democracy,"
invincible when he continued true to that, then let us
call this Danton the enfant perdu and unenlisted re-
volter and Titan of Democracy, which could not yet
have soldiers and discipline, but was by the nature of
it lawless. An Earth-born, we say, yet honestly born
of Earth.

*In the memoirs of Garat, and elsewhere, one sees
these fire-eyes beam with earnest thought, fill with the
water of tears ; the broad, rude features speak withal of
human sympathies ; that Antaeus' bosom also held a
heart. " It is not the alarm-cannon that you hear,"
cries he to the terror-struck, when the Prussians were
already at Verdun ; " it is the pas de charge against our
enemies ! To dare, and again to dare, and without limit
to dare ! there is nothing left but that."

' Poor Mirabeau of the Sansculottes, what a mission !
And it could not but be done and it was done.'


The whole philosophy of the French Revolution
is there in a nutshell. The proud and rotten flesh
of France had to be cut and burnt away. It had to
be done, and it was done.

A few more lines of Carlyle's superb portrait-
painting :

' But, indeed, may there not be, if well considered,
more virtue in this feeling itself, once bursting earnest
from the wild heart, than in whole lives of immaculate
Pharisees and Respectabilities, with their eye ever set on
"character" and the letter of the law. "Let my name
be blighted, then ; but let the Cause be glorious and
have victory !"..." A rough-hewn giant of a man,
not anthropophagus entirely ; whose figures of speech,"
and also of action, "are all gigantic," whose "voice
reverberates from the domes," and dashes Brunswick
across the marches in a very wrecked condition. Always
his total freedom from cant is one thing; even in his
briberies, and sins as to money, there is a frankness,
a kind of broad greatness. Sincerity, a great rude
sincerity of insight and of purpose, dwelt in the man,
which quality is the root of all : a man who could see
through many things, and would stop at very few things ;
who marched and fought impetuously forward, in the
questionablest element, and now bears the penalty in a
name " blighted," yet, as we say, rapidly clearing itself.
Once cleared, why should not this name, too, have sig-
nificance for men 1 The wild history is a tragedy, as all
human histories are. It is an unrhymed tragedy
bloody, fuliginous ; yet full of tragic elements, not un-
deserving natural pity and fear. In quiet times, perhaps
still at great distance, the happier onlooker may stretch


out the hand across centuries to him and say : " Ill-
starred brother, how thou foughtest with wild lion-like
strength, and yet not strength enough, and flamedst
aloft, and wert trodden down of sin and misery ; behold,
thou also wert a man ! " '

Danton and Robespierre were the two men who
brought the Revolution to a lurid and horrible con-
clusion, and by their excesses created a reaction of
feeling which rendered possible the reign of the
Corsican brigand, Napoleon.

The lesson, I think, taught by those events was
this, that no nation can pass with one stride from
despotism to order and liberty ; and for this reason :
the vices engendered by despotism are so great that
it takes years for a people to free themselves from
their degrading influences ; and, before that is ac-
complished, full and perfect liberty is not for that

Still, the first step towards liberty and law is to
shake off the chains of despotism.

But the French Revolution, with all its crimes
and horrors, was an awakening of the people from
a sleep of death.

Before they could bask beneath the glorious
sim of liberty, they had to be scathed by the terrible
lightning of revolution. How can men and women,
degraded and outraged into wild beasts, be at once
reasonable and moderate ? Those who turn men and
women into wild beasts must bear the penalty for
their neglect of duty. We have arrived at maturity


now, and when wild and foolish men and frantic
women talk of violence and blood, we should tell
them that those days are passed : we call for more
light; the days of revolutionary lightning are




BERANGER was born on the 19th August, 1780, at
the house of his grandfather, a tailor. His first
names were Peter John apostolic names rather
appropriate to a poet who had a distinct message to
deliver, and who was not afraid to deliver it in the
most emphatic and caustic manner. His father was
a witty, clever, energetic man, who had the impu-
dence not to be satisfied with his wretched condition,
and despite of the prayer-book and the priests who
are, of course, never ambitious themselves tried to
rise to something higher and better.

He made some claim to a noble ancestry, but our
poet laughed at such pretensions and gloried in
being one of the people, as we shall hear presently
in one of his best songs, ' Le Vilain.'

He lived with his grandfather, the tailor, nine
years, and witnessed, the taking of the Bastille.

186 B^R ANGER.

Forty years later, in 1829, he was imprisoned in
La Force jail for celebrating that event in terms too
glowing for the long ears of Charles X. and his
flunkeys. A short time after the glorious Bastille
day he was sent to his aunt, who lived at Peronne
and kept a wine- shop there. She was very good
to the boy and fostered his young genius, and, I am
glad to say, lived to be proud of it This aunt had
copies of Fenelon, Racine, and Voltaire, which the
boy eagerly devoured.

From his aunt he received much pious and moral
instruction. The religious teaching did not appear
to cling to the ^bright, sharp, sarcastic boy. On
one occasion he was rendered senseless by a thunder-
bolt which struck the house. At the beginning
of the storm his aunt had sprinkled the threshold
and room with holy water of the best quality.
When the boy recovered his senses he said to his
aunt, * What was the good of the holy water you
threw about ? It did not save me I * At about this
time the fiery strains of the ' Marseillaise ' fired our
young poet's blood.

At fourteen years of age Beranger entered the
printing-house of M. Laisne*, and there he first
learnt the rules of grammar. But the school to
which he owed most was that of M. Ballue de Bel-
langlise, ancient deputy of the Chamber. This
gentleman was an enthusiastic admirer of Rousseau,
and endeavoured to carry out his principles of
education. The boys wore a military costume ; at
each great public event they named deputations,


delivered addresses, made speeches, and wrote to
Robespierre or Tallien. Young Beranger was the
orator, and wrote the best addresses. These exercises
awakened his taste, helped to form his style, ex-
tended his knowledge of history and geography, and
in addition made him take an interest in public
events, and thus married his ardent young heart to
his beloved country. But, dreadful to relate, no
one taught him Latin, and worse still, he proved his
possession of genius without it ; that was perhaps
better than proving his pedantry and stupidity with
it. Beranger studied French translations of the
great Greek and Latin authors, and it appears to me
that he thoroughly mastered their spirit, without
slavishly copying their forms. Then his study of
Montaigne, the immortal Rabelais, Moliere, and La
Fontaine had been profound : their influence is per-
ceptible in every page he has written.

At seventeen Beranger, furnished with the exr
cellent moral teachings of his good aunt, and with
his intellectual faculties thoroughly alive, returned
to his father in Paris.

At eighteen our young poet felt the desire to
write verse steal into his heart. This desire was
awakened by a visit he paid to the theatre. He
wrote a satirical comedy, where he laughed at cox-
combs and fools, and at vain and affected women.
But his appreciation of Moliere and La Fontaine
was too keen for him not to realise that his work
was very poor stuff. So like a fine gritty fellow he
set to work again to study these masters of satire


and comedy, analysing every little trait and detail,
until he was able to divine and appreciate his own

Still, his dramatic attempts served their end ; in
my opinion they gave that racy, vivid, dramatic
character to his poems which renders them quite
unique in literature. Like La Fontaine's fables,
Beranger's best songs are delightful little plays.
But the boy was too young to be a satirist. He
thought he would write an epic poem : Clovis was
the hero he chose. The preparation for the gigantic
task would take years ; but in the meantime he felt
the bitter grip of poverty and hunger. He thought
then of becoming a soldier, but fortunately was
dissuaded from carrying out that project. But this
bitter time had its sweet compensations. He lived
in a garret, it is true, but he made friends with the
people ; he turned his coat when one side was too
shabby, but he learnt the hard, cruel facts of life,
and how to do very well on very little. Some of
his brightest poems were written during that time
of privation. In the garret many friends met, and
the laughter was louder and heartier, and better-
natured, too, than the polite snigger one hears in
conventional drawing-rooms. The good temper, the
many interests, the good opinion genius has of itself
and the contempt it cannot help feeling for respect-
able windbags and humbugs, made Beranger's
poverty a thousand times happier than the dull,
bovine pleasures of rich snobs.

When the poet was an old man, in writing to a


lady friend, lie says of these days of his youth,
outwardly so hard :

'At that time I was so poor that a day's pleasure
cost me eight days' fast. Still, in thinking of those old
times when, without help often without daily bread
without instruction, I dreamt of future fame, but did
not neglect the little pleasures of to-day, my eyes over-
flow with tears. Oh, what a beautiful thing is youth,
when it can spread its charm even over old age, that
time so disenchanted and so poor ! Employ well that
which remains to you, my dear friend. Love and let
yourself be loved. I have known that happiness ; it is
the greatest in life.'

Beranger was drawn from his poverty by the
hand of Lucien Buonaparte, brother of the First
Consul. This was one cause for the liking he had
for the family, in which I can't agree with him.

Chateaubriand's genius had great influence on
Beranger, so great that he wrote a religious poem
on the Deluge and other scriptural subjects. I need
not say that our caustic, witty, genial poet did not
shine in these efforts. But no one could shine in
the Deluge : it would be too damp. Conversing one
day with an Academician and poet, Beranger said
that when he wrote of the sea, he called it the sea
and not the realm of Neptune, and did not even
once mention Amphitrite, Tethys, and Co. The
Academician was lost in astonishment at the bold-
ness of a man who dared to leave out the names
sacred to conventional poetry.


Thanks to a friend, Beranger was made clerk
to the University, and occupied this post, which pro-
duced him 2000 francs yearly, for ten years.

In 1821 his political poems cost him his situation.

But this is rather anticipating. The 2000 francs
(80/.) satisfied amply the simple wants of Beranger.
He understood the Spartan lesson, that to preserve
one's independence it is necessary to learn to
simplify one's wants. A crust of bread and a glass
of wine sufficed for him. He sang like a bird, and
could live on nearly as little. Not that he did not
like good cheer, but he was equal to either fortune :
master of Fortune instead of her slave. But our
friend Beranger was a terrible fellow. He was like
a bull in a china-shop. He thought nothing at all
of making fun of kings, princes, senators, as we
shall hear presently ; aye, of bishops, cardinals, and
even of the Pope himself. He had the supreme
audacity of preferring a poor, honest man to a rich,
greasy rascal What an awful man ! I almost feel
my hair stand on end ! Smug, canting respect-
ability made him angry. No wonder he lost his
place, poor as it was. He looked every one he met
full in the eyes ; and people with fishy, dishonest,
mean eyes did not like the keen, flashing glance of
our sarcastic poet. He gave a man just the amount
of respect or scorn he was entitled to no more and
no less ; so that every charlatan, humbug, and fool was
his bitter enemy. And when we come to consider
how many charlatans, humbugs, and fools there are
in this world, one can imagine that Beranger lived


and died a poor man ; in fact he was locked up by the
rogues for being honest. Now a few words about
his personal appearance. He was a little man, his
figure not much to speak of ; but his head was
superb. The intellectual and distinguished brow
marked him out at once as a king of men : his eyes
were piercingly bright full of fire, humour, and
tenderness ; his mouth was large, the lips full, and
I must admit, sensual sweet or caustic, according
to circumstances ; the mouth, in fact, of a richly
endowed man of genius. Indeed, I don't know a
finer head and face, or a countenance displaying more
genius, rich humour and wit, than Beranger's.

The poets and wits of the Cave received Beranger
as a member in 1813. At this time he wrote some
of his highly- spiced poems, such as the ' Infidelities
of Lisette/ the ' Orgies,' the * Bacchante/ &c. He
had not at that time discovered his true mission,
which was to sing, as no one had sung before, the
joys and sorrows of the people, and to introduce a
distinct dramatic element into popular song. It was
some years before he ventured, when at table with
some literary friends, to sing one of these songs.
He began with a faltering voice, but the passionate
applause which greeted his effort taught him where
his chief strength lay. He never forgot that lesson.
Invitations to the gilded salons of fashion, to the
court itself, were refused ; and he became the poet
of the French people, putting into beautiful verse,
full of wit, genius, and tenderness, their hopes, their
sorrows, and their aspirations, not to mention their


bitter contempt for hypocrites and flunkeys. The
public loved his songs so passionately that when his
first collection was printed, the people knew them
already by heart. A new song was passed from
hand to hand, committed to memory and sung in the
streets, until it was known by everybody.

Five editions of Beranger's works were published
during his life ; the first in 1815, the second in
1821, the third in 1825, the fourth in 1828, and the
fifth in 1835. The first edition was very racy and
gay ; the third edition, which appeared during the
ministry of M. de Villelle, and the fifth did not
cause the prosecution of Beranger. The edition of
1821, however, attacked by M. de Marchangy, cost
our poet three months' imprisonment ; that of 1828
sent him to jail for nine months. While the poet
was behind the bars of his prison, the people were
singing his songs under them and throughout
France, in spite of the tender susceptibilities of
those in power. So that while the beloved defender
of the rights and liberties of the people was in jail,
their betrayers, the slaves of power, were in palaces.
I would rather have been the poet. I will now
introduce to the reader's notice some of B-
ranger's songs, using the capital versions of John

I have tried to arrange the poems selected in a
way that, I trust, will illustrate the life of the poet
of the French people, the French Burns, and teach
us to love truth more, and trust kings, courtiers, and
priests less than ever.


The first song was composed during the early
part of our poet's career, and is addressed to his coat.

My poor old coat, be faithful to the end :

We both grow old ; ten years have gone, [friend ;
Through which my hand has brushed thee, ancient

Not more could Socrates have done.
Now weakened to a threadbare state,

Thou still must suffer many a blow ;
E'en like thy master, brave the storms of fate j

My good old coat, we'll never part Oh, no !

I still can well remember the first day

I wore thee, for my memory's strong ;
It was my birthday, and my comrades gay

Chanted thy fashion in a song.
Thy poverty might make me vain ;

The friends who loved me long ago,
Though thou art poor, will drink to thee again \

My good old coat, we'll never part Oh, no !

This fine-drawn rent its cause I'll ne'er forget ;

It beams upon my memory still :
I feigned one night to fly from my Lisette,

And even now her grasp I feel.
She tore thee, but she made more fast

My fetters, while she wronged me so ;
Then two whole days in mending thee she passed :

My dear old coat, we'll never part Oh, no !

Ne'er drugged with musk and amber hast thou been,
Like coats by vapid coxcombs worn ;

Ne'er in an antechamber wert thou seen,
Insulted by some lordling's scorn.



How slavishly all France has eyed
The hands that ribbons can bestow !

The field-flower is thy ornament and pride,
My good old coat, we'll never part Oh, no !

We shall not have those foolish days again,

When our two destinies were one ;
Those days so full of pleasure and of pain ;

Those days of mingled rain and sun.
I somehow think, my faithful friend,

That to a coatless realm I go ;
Yet wait awhile, together we will end,

My good old coat, we'll never part Oh, no !

The next song is one of Beranger's best, and is


Flung down upon this earth,

Weak, sickly, ugly, small ;
Half stifled by the mob,

And pushed about by all ;
I utter heavy sighs,

To Fate complaints I bring,
When lo ! kind Heaven cries,

' Sing, little poet, sing.'

The gilded cars of state,

Bespattering, pass me by ;
None from the haughty great

Have suffered more then I.


I feel my bosom rise

Against the venomed sting,

But still kind Heaven cries,
' Sing, little poet, sing.'

In early days I learned

A doubtful life to dread,
And no employment spurned

To earn my daily bread.
Though liberty I prize,

My stomach claims can bring ;
Yet still kind Heaven cries,

' Sing, little poet, sing.'

Sweet love has often deigned

My poverty to cheer ;
But now my youth has waned,

I see its flight is near.
Stern beauties now despise

The tribute I can bring ;
Yet still kind Heaven cries,

1 Sing, little poet, sing.'

To sing -or I mistake

Is my appointed task ;
Those whom to joy I wake,

To love me may I ask 1
With friends to glad mine eyes,

With wine mine heart to wing,
Kind Heaven still to me cries,

' Sing, little poet, sing.'

Now for a song where Beranger strikes, with a
strong, nervous hand, a sterner, stronger chord,


and shows how revolutions are brought about and


Jack ! wake from your slumber if you can,
For here's a fellow tall and stout,
Who through the village sniffs about :

He's coming for your tax, poor man.
So out of bed, Jack, quickly spring,
And pay the taxes of the king.

The sun is up why thus delay 1

You never were so hard to waken.

Old Remi's furniture they've taken
For sale, before the close of day.

So out of bed, Jack, quickly spring,

And pay the taxes of the king.

By these hard taxes, poor as rats,
Unhappy wretches we are made :
My distaff only, and your spade,

Keeps us, my father, and our brats.
So out of bed, Jack, quickly spring,
And pay the taxes of the king.

Our land, with this small hovel, makes

A quarter acre they are sure ;

The poor man's tears are its manure,
And usury the harvest takes.
Our work is hard, our gain so small,

We ne'er shall taste of meat, I fear,

For food has grown so very dear,
With everything the salt and all


A drink of wine new heart might bring ;

But then the wine is taxed as well ;

Still, never mind, love, go and sell,
To buy a cup, my wedding-ring.
Dream you of wealth, of some good change,

That fate at last its grip relaxes 1

What to the wealthy are the taxes ?
Mere mice that nibble in the grange.

So out of bed, Jack, quickly spring,

And pay the taxes of the king.

He comes ! 0, heavens ! what must I fear 1
Your cheek is pale, no word you say ;
You spoke of suff'ring yesterday,

You, who so much in silence bear.

She calls in vain extinct is life.

For those whom labour has worn out,
A welcome end is death, no doubt :

Pray, all good people, for his wife.
So out of bed he could not spring
He paid his tax to Death, the king.

I have ventured to alter the last two lines.

In the following most dramatic and powerful
poem, Be*ranger shows his sympathy with Napo-
leonic ideas ; but I think it was written to express
his loathing of the Bourbons more than his love of

An old soldier, one of the Grand Army, has been
insulted by a young sprig of nobility ; the veteran
strikes him and is condemned to death. He is being
led to execution.



Come, gallant comrades, move apace ;

With shouldered musket march away ;
I've got my pipe and your embrace,

So quickly give me my congt.
Too old I in the service grew,

But rather useful I could be
As father of the drill to you.
March merrily,
And do not weep,
Or sadly creep ;
No, comrades ! march on merrily.

An officer an upstart swell
Insulted me I broke his head ;

I'm to be shot he's getting well :
Your corporal will die instead.

My wrath and brandy fired me so,

I cared for nought and then, d'ye see,

I served the great man long ago.

Young conscripts you, I'm sure, will not
Lose arms or legs a cross to get ;

The cross you see me wear I got
In wars, where kings were overset.

You willingly would stand a drink,
Old battle-tales to hear from me ;

Still, glory's something, I must think.

You, Robert, who wert born and bred
In mine own village mind your sheep ;

Soon April will its beauties shed,

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Online LibraryJoseph ForsterSome French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon → online text (page 11 of 19)