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Edited by W. Robertson NicoU, LL.D.

MATTHEW ARNOLD. By G. W. E. Russell.
CARDINAL NEWMAN. By William Bany, D.D.
JOHN BUNYAN. By W. Hale White.
ERNEST RENAN. By William Barry, D.D.


CHARLOTTE BRONTE. By Clement K. Shorter.
R. H. BUTTON. By W. Robertson Nicoll.
GOETHE. By Edward Dowden.
HAZLITT. By Louise Imogen Guiney.

Each Volume, Illustrated, $i.oo net. Postage lo cts.





An immense river of oblivion sweeps us onward into a gulf without a
name. O abyss, thou art the only God ! The tears of all peoples are tears
indeed ; the dreams of all wise men have in them a parcel of the truth. All
here below is but symbol and dream. The gods pass away like men ; it would
not be well did they last forever. The faith which we have held ought never
to be a chain. We have done our duty by it when we have carefully wrapped
it round in the purple shroud wherein the dead gods sleep.

My life has been such as I desired, such as I conceived to be the best. Had
I to live it over again, I should make very little change. On the other hand, I
am not much afraid of the future. I shall have my biography and my legend.

— Ernest Renan.


Ernest Renan.

From a painting by Henry Scheffer, iS6o
Muie. Psichari's Collectiuii

Xitcrar^ Xives







Copyright, 1905, by

Published, April, 190s

new TOBK




The Breton Peasant i

Eclipse of Faith 23

The Scholar in Paris 54

Galilee and Afterward . 82

In St. Paul's Footsteps 108

Paris and Jerusalem • ?34






Last Days, Death, and Epitaph . . . .201



Born at Treguier 1823

Student in Paris 1838-1845

Leaves St. Sulpice 1845

Mission to Italy 1849

Succeeds Augustin Thierry 1856

Mission to Syria i860

Chair of Hebrew 1861

Publishes Life of Jesus 1863

Travels in Asia Minor and Greece .... 1865

St. Paul published 1869

Resumes Chair of Hebrew 1870

Antichrist published 1873

Elected to French Academy 1879

Reminiscences of Youth 1883

Philosophic Dramas 1886

History of Israel 1 888

Dies 1892

Monument at Treguier 1903


Ernest Renan, i860, from a Painting by Henry

SchefFer Frontispiece


Treguier 20

Ernest Renan's Birthplace at Treguier .... 48

Portion of a Letter written by Renan in 1838 . 76

Madame Ernest Renan 100

Ernest Renan in his Study 128

Rosmapamon 160

Ernest Renan, 1892, from a Painting by Bonnat 192
The Statue of Ernest Renan at Treguier . . .224

The publishers wish to acknowledge their indebted-
ness to Madame Psichari and M. Armand-Dayot for
kind permission to include some of the illustrations.



Brittany, the green and gray land where, ac-
cording to legend, Merlin the enchanter lies in
a magic sleep under the white thorn near Paim-
pol — this rock-bound, sea-beaten coast, famous for
its storms and its disasters — has given birth to
men who, while in language they were French or
Latin, kept the Celtic heart, and charmed the
world with Celtic eloquence. In the early Mid-
dle Ages, Abelard, born at Palais near Nantes in
1079, lived out his romance amid the battle-cries
that ushered in, on the site of the Latin Quarter
at Paris, a great secular period, the term of which
none may foresee. Abelard is the first of modern
thinkers, pointing the way through scholastic
mazes to Renaissance and Revolution. He is Yea
and Nay, " Sic et non," alive to both sides of an
argument, subtle, proud, self-determined, unhap-
py, and he stores up an inheritance which others
turn to better account. He Is the most illustrious
of Bretons, yet a rebel against Church authority,

^ " ■ RENAN

a strange complex creature, a lover and a penitent,
condemned yet devout. He has left a name over
which disputes never have ceased, nor will cease.
We admire, distrust, and pity Abelard. But sin-
gular as he remains in his greatness, he has had
no successor more closely akin to him than Ernest

Passing over seven hundred years we come to
the melancholy and splendid Chateaubriand, who
first saw the light at St. Malo, created in his Rene
the latest type of Hamlet, which Byron reproduced
in Childe Harold, and dazzled the opening nine-
teenth century with a Genius of Christianity,
framed in rhetoric of a high order but in some-
what fading colors. To him we may oppose the
figure of Lamennais, priest, republican, apostate,
revolutionary, whose tragic fortunes, gleams of
inspiration, and unmanageable temper, set him
apart from friends and foes, and whose ideas have
won their triumphs while he rests at Pere la Chaise
in an unknown grave. Had Lamennais not fallen
away from Rome, he would have shared with
Newman the foremost honors among Churchmen
of his day. But, like Abelard, he went down in
a crusade on behalf of the fresh thought which
was effacing ancient landmarks, confusing minds,
and troubling Israel.

Those who are acquainted with no more than


the outlines of Kenan's life, will yet be feeling,
in what has just been said, how much he owes to
Brittany; how he recalls Abelard by his perpetual
balancing of Yea and Nay; how he manipulates
a style as creative as Chateaubriand's, though less
brilliant and, in its shades, more exquisite; how he
is, like Lamennais, " un pretre manque " ; and how
striking is the parallel which may be drawn by
way of contrast between himself and Newman.

In all these dramas, reaching over hundreds of
years, the protagonist, ever in the arena, is the
Catholic Church. Loved or hated, that Church,
as if it were the Fate in old Greek stories, fur-
nishes the matter, interposes at a given moment,
and unbinds the issue which at last it decides.
What interest can equal this, whether we seek
pathos or sublime effects, or the complication of
moods and action, or the human touch, transfigur-
ing to lucid and beautiful imagery motives, con-
ceptions, resolves, otherwise hidden from our
eyes? From Abelard, dying in 1142, down to
Renan, whose funeral date is 1892, we reckon
seven hundred and fifty years, during which the
world's debate has gone on without intermission;
and philosophy, science, dogma, have ever met in
conflict, while ever aiming at friendship. Who
can pretend to be impartial, that is to say, coldly
indifferent, when he looks on these things? Cer-


tainly not the present writer. Nevertheless, in de-
scribing that career which Renan did not hesitate
to qualify as his " charming promenade through
the nineteenth century," I hope not to indulge in
caricature, and I shall spare invective. The tale
may often be told in its hero's own words, choice
and discreetly sarcastic; sometimes, but rarely,
touching; and if we do not deny ourselves the
grain of salt which is to season his Dichtung und
fVahrheit, we have his leave in the preface to the
Reminiscences, where he warns us frankly that no
man is ever quite candid about himself.

Ernest Renan was born at Treguier, on Febru-
ary 27, 1823. Treguier is an old decaying town,
looking out toward the broad English Channel
from its high hill, crowned with a soaring Gothic
cathedral of the fourteenth century; a town of
long silent streets bordered with convent walls
over which, in summer, the foliage hangs abun-
dantly. Many churches and chapels, each with its
legend, give the place, which was long a bishop's
See, the air, says Renan, of Benares and Jagat-
nata. Religion has ever been to the Bretons home
and country; as heathen they believed in Fairy-
land; when they were made Christian, they wor-
shipped their innumerable saints. Treguier had
its chapel of Saint Yves, the father of orphans,
to whom Renan's widowed mother dedicated her


child; it had a holy well near Notre Dame du
Tromeur; and a Madonna in painted wood to
which the people came on pilgrimage. These
memories and customs lasted on, all through the
Terror, the wars of Napoleon, the Bourbon Res-
toration. Such dates were accidents in the hfe of
Treguier, which went on dreaming of the fifth
century, when its first inhabitants passed over sea
from Wales. Its patron was St. Tudwal, whom
it inserted in the list of Popes; was not his real
name Pabu Tual? The Cathedral marked an-
other stage. This Breton bishopric was made
subject to Tours, not willingly, for it cherished
its immemorial freedom. Then, in the seven-
teenth century, the bishop's house and the con-
vents were founded. At the Revolution the last
bishop fled to England. Napoleon suppressed the
See: But when the Bourbons came back, an eccle-
siastical school was set up in the old seminar}^;
the convents flourished again; and in this atmos-
phere, pious and mediaeval, but more profoundly
Celtic, Renan drew his first breath.

Looking back over the past at Athens in 1865,
when the Life of Jesus had brought him a repu-
tation beyond all he could ever have anticipated,
he delights to dwell on his descent from sailors
and adventurers in the misty seas of the West.
The good old clan which came from Cardigan


to Goelo, and still abounds there, was called after
St. Renan or Ronan, a very singular hermit,
equally obstinate alive or dead. But he was also
proud of his mother's Gascon wit and humor, as
accounting for his own. This admirable woman
was a small bright figure, speaking Breton excel-
lently well, and her children — an elder son, Alain,
her daughter Henriette, and Ernest — learned it in
their young days. All Madame Renan's influence
made for piety and a loyal attachment to the
House of France; by no means to Louis Philippe,
whom she and her friends despised as a traitor
that had filched the crown and put it in his pocket.
Her kindred were of the middle class, moderately
well to do, and Ernest paid them visits in Lannion,
which struck him as a very worldly and frivolous
place, compared with meditative Treguier. But
on the father's side traditions and principles were
altogether different, and in fact revolutionary.

Ernest was only five when that father's dead
body was found on the sands of Erquy, in August,
1828, under circumstances that pointed to suicide.
A month earlier the boat of which he was master
had come into port at Treguier without him.
Dreamy and never sanguine, he could make noth-
ing of business, any more than the other Renans,
all of whom, said their most famous descendant
gayly, were as poor as Job, except one, who accu-


mulated a fortune and got a bad name by trading
in negroes. But Captain Renan had seen service
under Villaret Joyeuse; he had fallen Into the
hands of the English and been compelled to work
several years " sur les pontons," an indefinite
phrase, which may signify hard labor at Ports-
mouth or some naval station. Ernest's grand-
father, too, was an ardent patriot; his uncles on
that side were even Jacobins. But the patriot
grandfather would not buy any of the so-called
" national estates," the proceeds of a ruthless con-
fiscation, which were put up for sale In the open

Such conduct implies a rare degree of generos-
ity. Whether Catholics or Republicans, his kin-
dred were teaching the lad to sacrifice worldly ad-
vantages for the sake of a cause, be It the " King-
dom of God " or the " principles of humanity."
That he learned the lesson Is undoubted; we can-
not, however, follow his course through life with-
out observing In him a sense of the practical and
a sagacity in making the most of his opportunities,
which he can hardly have derived from his Breton

His training was to be wholly clerical. In the
long silent streets this ugly little lad, square built,
with a head too large for his frail body, and with
grave dreamy eyes which took in more than they


expressed, went to and fro, between the quaint old
house where he was born and the college where
he learned his lessons. As a child he was very-
delicate. His hfe had hung on a thread, and he
tells how the witch-wife Gode — that is to say, Kate
— had taken one of his little shirts when he was
two months old, gone down to the " sacred
spring," and conjured with It by flinging it out
on the waters. If it sank, he would soon die; if
it floated, he was saved. She came back triumph-
ant. " He means to live ! He means to live ! "
she cried in ecstasy. The white garment had
spread its arms and flown over the wavelets.
*' From that hour," says Renan, smiling, " I was
a favorite with the fairies, and I loved them in
turn." We Celts, he goes on to observe, shall
never build the Parthenon, we have no marble;
but we know how to lay hold of the heart and the
soul; we dip our hands into the very inmost of
man, and we draw them forth, as did the witches
in Macbeth, full of the secrets of infinitude. The
old religion, which in the twelfth century came
under Norman and Mediaeval-Roman usages, as
in the seventeenth it was guided by the Jesuits,
had never lost its more primitive color among the

These things gave to the incomparable child
of genius a rich, dim background whereon to em-


broider his early ambitions and phantasies, and
afterward the whole world, Parisian, Greek, Ori-
ental, which he conquered in thought and travel-
ling. Very poor, cut off apparently from the best
of education, he gained in secluded Treguier the
one thing which our schools cannot yield — a per-
fect detachment from " das Gemeine was uns alle
bandigt." That Is ever the condition of poetry
and the ideal. In a crowd what room is there
for distinction? But Ernest Renan kept aloof at
all times from the crowd, even when as a too in-
dulgent sceptic in his last days he flattered many
a national weakness.

The Church brought him up. Her serious and
disinterested clergy — M. Pasco, M. Duchene, M.
Auffret, and others whom he names affectionately
— taught him all they knew. They were scarcely
advanced beyond the year 1630 in their methods;
to their feeling no religious verse had been written
since the younger Racine laid down his pen. They
could not bear Lamartine's hymns and elegies,
though he too had been moulded by clerics. Vic-
tor Hugo was to them unknown, as much as the
French of Paris to Chaucer's Prioress in Strat-
ford-atte-Bowe. History they learned In Rollln.
On verse-making they looked as a dangerous ex-
citement, not to be encouraged. Hence Renan,
like some other great masters of prose — Balzac,


George Sand, Pierre Loti — could not manage the
French Alexandrine couplet, whereby the world
has had no loss that we need lament. Natural
science was neglected; yet we should bear in mind
that other ecclesiastics outside Treguier had taken
an honorable share in the development of phys-
ics and biology. But these good Bretons taught
mathematics well, and Renan felt a passionate
drawing to that discipline, as Newman also did.
His comrade, Guyomar, kept pace with him in all
his lessons; and the two boys chalked up prob-
lems as they went home, on the great closed gates
of the old mansions which they passed by.

Renan's father had left nothing but debts. His
brave mother found it hard to get food and fuel
in the winter. His clothes were often patched,
his shoes clouted. For the kindest things in life
he was indebted to his sister Henriette, twelve
years older than himself — the real good fairy
whose plain features hid an exquisite soul, and
whose devotion to him knew no bounds. Yet he
does not ascribe even to his beloved nurse and
playmate the best that was in him. It is of the
clergy at Treguier that he writes : " They were
my first spiritual teachers, and I owe to them
whatever of good there may be in me. . . .
I have had since masters more brilliant and saga-
cious; I have never had any more venerable; and


that accounts for my frequent differences with
some of my friends. I have had the happiness
of knowing absolute virtue; I understand what
faith is. ... I feel that my life is always
controlled by a faith which I possess no longer."

He calls that old time at college a *' precious
experience," though he read into it afterward
'* saintly illusions " and held it to be a divine
deception. He became, as it were, the Orpheus
of a lost Eurydice, the white seamew flying round
about the ruined church of Saint Michael, which
had been struck by lightning, and which the bird
strives to enter, while the peasant that goes by
murmurs on seeing it, " That is the soul of a priest
who wants to say Mass." In vain for him to
begin, " I will go unto the altar of God " ; there
is no server who may reply, " Unto God that giv-
eth joy to my youth." Pretty enough, and true,
and sad! Yet still more astonishing that Renan,
in his thrice-fortunate old age, felt these regrets
thus keenly.

Soldier or sailor, as his father was, he could not
be. His shy reserve, his want of physical vigor,
his growing thoughtfulness, and, above all, his
absorption in books, predestined him for the sanc-
tuary. He spent delightful hours in the Cathe-
dral; he loved to fancy himself a priest. Never-
theless, Renan was neither then nor afterward


exactly devout. A pattern scholar, he took prizes
and kept the top of his form. But he came late
to Mass; he offered none of those tokens by which
the youthful saint is recognizable. His vocation
— a solemn word among Catholics, who liken
every true priest to the young Samuel — grew out
of his love for learning. He did not look for-
ward to missionary or parochial duties ; and when
he lightly sketches what his career might have been
in the diocese of St. Brieuc, it is as a professor,
a vicar-general, and a canon lawyer that he sees
himself enjoying an excellent reputation.

From the first he wanted to know all things.
But he was very innocent. The other boys called
him " Mademoiselle," and played tricks on him.
The girls, he says, found him *' quiet and reason-
able." He tells the story of one, Noemi, for
whom he had a liking, which naturally faded away
as he turned toward his predestined novitiate. He
was learning the classics — a bad sign his uncle
Renan, the watchmaker, thought it, and warned
him not to become what La Fontaine called in the
fable an " ass, burdened with Latin." For this
prototype of M. Homais, the bourgeois Voltairian
whom we have all laughed over in Madame
Bovary, desired Ernest to succeed him at the shop.
That, indeed, might have come to pass, had not
the good fairy, Henriette, written from Paris in


a decisive moment, which brought in its wake the
most astonishing change of fortune.

Henriette, too, was highly endowed. She had
learned Latin from an old Ursuline nun; but her
special gift was teaching, and her French in time
acquired a purity, strength, and clearness which
would have charmed the grand siecle. Her char-
acter was cast on antique lines. Resolved to pay
her father's debts, she had gone up to Paris in
1835, and endured the solitary griefs and harsh
treatment of a governess in fashionable schools.
But she made friends, studied sixteen hours a day,
and would not despair. At home she had refused
an offer of marriage, honorable in itself, but which
would have separated her from her family. Alain,
it appears, was settled in Paris. Henriette spoke
of her brother Ernest, who had taken all the first
prizes in his school at Treguier, to a zealous
Catholic physician, M. Descuret; and he, in turn,
brought the list of distinctions (a striking docu-
ment which is still in existence) under the notice
of M. Dupanloup.

That celebrated man had achieved fame by se-
curing the reconciliation to the Church — or, as
it was termed, the repentance — on his death-bed,
of M. le Prince de Talleyrand, formerly Bishop
of Autun. As a reward, M. Dupanloup was set
over the junior seminary, called St. Nicolas du


Chardonnet, in the Rue St. Victor at Paris, which
he speedily raised to the first rank in point of num-
bers and renown. His cry was " Give me schol-
ars"; rich or poor, it did not matter; he asked
only for talent which he might educate. This Bre-
ton peasant's unusual record won his favor imme-
diately. Dupanloup offered him on behalf of M.
de Quelen, the archbishop, a clerical scholarship,
tenable until Ernest should be twenty-five, on con-
dition that it was accepted without delay. Hen-
riette's letter, dated August 31, 1838, told the
good news in fervent accents. Her brother must
pack up at once, catch the diligence at Guingamp,
borrow the necessary funds in her name from his
uncle Forestier, and be in Paris on Wednesday
evening or Thursday morning. *' Tell mother
that her boy's future is decided," Henriette wrote

Far more, indeed, was at stake than she or any-
one could imagine. This awkward, shy lad, a
rustic in manners, poor and proud, was destined
to become the supreme French writer of his cen-
tury. He would not be a priest, but an artist of
the Renaissance, exercising in all directions an in-
fluence which no other man has wielded. The
Church was giving every advantage to a son who
would turn out her resolute enemy, marked for-
ever in the legend of his day as having attempted



to rewrite the Gospel In secular and dilettante col-
ors. It was the strangest of dramatic sequences
in the nineteenth century which M. Dupanloup
had, after this surprising fashion, inaugurated.

The lad, now in his sixteenth year, was staying
at a place near Treguier, when a messenger
brought the happy news. Renan never forgot his
walk home across country, under the setting sun,
while village sent on to village the chimes of the
Angelus, a symbol of that tranquil faith and life
from which he was turning to plunge into our
modern world. On September 7, 1838, he ar-
rived in Paris; next day the kindly physician who
had procured his scholarship took him to St. Nico-
las, and on the day after begins his " correspond-
ence while at the seminary," by means of which
we may fill up and now and then rectify the mem-
ories long afterward written down at Ischia of
Renan's critical period.

Those seven years which followed gave tone
and meaning to his whole existence. They ran
parallel, we must remember, to a movement at
Oxford precisely the reverse of that whereby this
lonely French student, sacrificing tradition to what
he deemed scientific reason, was to exchange the
Catholic creed for a Pantheism as vague as it was
fascinating. Newman ended his seven years of
argument and agony by submitting to the ancient

1 6 REN AN

Church. Renan, twenty-two years his junior, in
contact with a literature and philosophy — the Ger-
man — which Herder, Kant, Hegel, displayed to
his admiring view, but which Oxford had not be-
gun to study, took up the problem at a stage fur-
ther on. Church and Bible were thrown into the
furnace of criticism. They came out wondrously
transfigured, no longer supernatural, but mere epi-
sodes in a process to be measured by millions of
years, during which the blind impulse that Scho-
penhauer defined as " the will to live " moved
hither and thither in quest of satisfaction. Our
interest in Renan will always be centred round
this time. We know it intimately, thanks to his
own letters and to Henriette's replies, every page
on both sides remarkable for a choice of words
which is enhanced by elevation of sentiment. Not
in any degree picturesque, they are finely drawn,
subtle, impassioned, at high moments pathetic.
And through them all Madame Veuve Renan
appears, a touching figure in her lonesome room
at Treguier — the pattern of a devout French
mother who, in giving her son to God, had left
her home desolate.

Mother and son felt it grievously. Ernest un-
derwent, in his first months at St. Nicolas, a strug-
gle with homesickness which told upon his lessons.
It was a gay and lively house, pervaded by the


energy of M. Dupanloup, who, though himself
no deeply read classic, proved to be an " incom-
parable awakener." He spoke to the lads every
evening in chapel, set them to strive one against
another in themes and declamations, infected them

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Online LibraryWilliam Francis BarryErnest Renan → online text (page 1 of 14)