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BéRANGER. 1 (1857.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 3 (Historical & Literary Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 3.
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The invention of books has at least one great advantage. It has half-abolished one of the worst consequences of the diversity of languages. Literature enables nations to understand one another. Oral intercourse hardly does this. In English, a distinguished foreigner says not what he thinks, but what he can. There is a certain intimate essence of national meaning which is as untranslatable as good poetry. Dry thoughts are cosmopolitan; but the delicate associations of language which express character, the traits of speech which mark the man, differ in every tongue, so that there are not even cumbrous circumlocutions that are equivalent in another. National character is a deep thing—a shy thing; you cannot exhibit much of it to people who have a difficulty in understanding your language; you are in strange society, and you feel you will not be understood. “Let an English gentleman,” writes Mr. Thackeray, “who has dwelt two, four, or ten years in Paris, say at the end of any given period how much he knows of French society, how many French houses he has entered, and how many French friends he has made. Intimacy there is none; we see but the outsides of the people. Year by year we live in France, and grow grey and see no more. We play écarté with Monsieur de Trêfle every night; but what do we know of the heart of the man—of the inward ways, thoughts, and customs of Trêfle? We have danced with Countess Flicflac, Tuesdays and Thursdays, ever since the peace; and how far are we advanced in her acquaintance since we first twirled her round a room? We know her velvet gown and her diamonds; we know her smiles and her simpers and her rouge; but the real, rougeless, intime Flicflac we know not.”1 Even if our words did not stutter, as they do stutter on our tongue, she would not tell us what she is. Literature has half mended this. Books are exportable; the essence of national character lies flat on a printed page. Men of genius, with the impulses of solitude, produce works of art, whose words can be read and re-read and partially taken in by foreigners to whom they could never be uttered, the very thought of whose unsympathising faces would freeze them on the surface of the mind. Alexander Smith has accused poetical reviewers of beginning as far as possible from their subject. It may seem to some, though it is not so really, that we are exemplifying this saying in commencing as we have commenced an article on Béranger.
There are two kinds of poetry—which one may call poems of this world, and poems not of this world. We see a certain society on the earth held together by certain relations, performing certain acts, exhibiting certain phenomena, calling forth certain emotions. The millions of human beings who compose it have their various thoughts, feelings, and desires. They hate, act, and live. The social bond presses them closely together; and from their proximity new sentiments arise which are half superficial and do not touch the inmost soul, but which nevertheless are unspeakably important in the actual constitution of human nature, and work out their effects for good and for evil on the characters of those who are subjected to their influence. These sentiments of the world, as one may speak, differ from the more primitive impulses and emotions of our inner nature as the superficial phenomena of the material universe from what we fancy is its real essence. Passing hues, transient changes have their course before our eyes; a multiplex diorama is for ever displayed; underneath it all we fancy—such is the inevitable constitution of our thinking faculty—a primitive, immovable essence, which is modified into all the ever-changing phenomena we see, which is the grey granite whereon they lie, the primary substance whose débris they all are. Just so from the original and primitive emotions of man, society—the evolving capacity of combined action—brings out desires which seem new, in a sense are new, which have no existence out of the society itself, are coloured by its customs at the moment, change with the fashions of the age. Such a principle is what we may call social gaiety: the love of combined amusement which all men feel and variously express, and which is to the higher faculties of the soul what a gay running stream is to the everlasting mountain—a light, altering element which beautifies while it modifies. Poetry does not shrink from expressing such feelings; on the contrary, their renovating cheerfulness blends appropriately with her inspiriting delight. Each age and each form of the stimulating imagination has a fashion of its own. Sir Walter sings in his modernised chivalry:—
The poet of the people “vilain et très vilain,” sings with the pauper Bohemian:—
The forms of those poems of social amusement are, in truth, as various as the social amusement itself. The variety of the world, singularly various as it everywhere is, is nowhere so various as in that. Men have more ways of amusing themselves than of doing anything else they do. But the essence—the characteristic—of these poems everywhere is, that they express more or less well the lighter desires of human nature;—those that have least of unspeakable depth, partake most of what is perishable and earthly, and least of the immortal soul. The objects of these desires are social accidents; excellent, perhaps, essential, possibly—so is human nature made—in one form and variety or another, to the well-being of the soul, yet in themselves transitory, fleeting, and in other moods contemptible. The old saying was, that to endure solitude a man must either be a beast or a god.2 It is in the lighter play of social action, in that which is neither animal nor divine, which in its half-way character is so natural to man, that these poems of society, which we have called poems of amusement, have their place.
This species does not, however, exhaust the whole class. Society gives rise to another sort of poems, differing from this one as contemplation differs from desire. Society may be thought of as an object. The varied scene of men,—their hopes, fears, anxieties, maxims, actions,—presents a sight more interesting to man than any other which has ever existed, or which can exist; and it may be viewed in all moods of mind, and with the change of inward emotion as the external object seems to change: not that it really does so, but that some sentiments are more favourable to clearsightedness than others are; and some bring before us one aspect of the subject, and fix our attention upon it, others a different one, and bind our minds to that likewise. Among the most remarkable of these varied views is the world’s view of itself. The world, such as it is, has made up its mind what it is. Childishly deceivable by charlatans on every other subject,—imposed on by pedantry, by new and unfounded science, by ancient and unfounded reputation, a prey to pomposity, overrun with recondite fools, ignorant of all else,—society knows itself. The world knows a man of the world. A certain tradition pervades it; a disciplina of the market-place teaches what the collective society of men has ever been, and what, so long as the nature of man is the same, it cannot and will not cease to be. Literature, the written expression of human nature in every variety, takes up this variety likewise. Ancient literature exhibits it from obvious causes in a more simple manner than modern literature can. Those who are brought up in times like the present necessarily hear a different set of opinions, fall in with other words, are under the shadow of a higher creed. In consequence, they cannot have the simple naïveté of the old world; they cannot speak with easy equanimity of the fugitiveness of life, the necessity of death, of goodness as a mean, of sin as an extreme. The theory of the universe has ceased to be an open question. Still the spirit of Horace is alive, and as potent as that of any man. His tone is that of prime ministers; his easy philosophy is that of courts and parliaments; you may hear his words where no other foreign words are ever heard. He is but the extreme and perfect type of a whole class of writers, some of whom exist in every literary age, and who give an expression to what we may call the poetry of equanimity, that is, the world’s view of itself; its self-satisfaction, its conviction that you must bear what comes, not hope for much, think some evil, never be excited, admire little, and then you will be at peace. This creed does not sound attractive in description. Nothing, it has been said, is so easy as to be “religious on paper”: on the other hand, it is rather difficult to be worldly in speculation; the mind of man, when its daily maxims are put before it, revolts from anything so stupid, so mean, so poor. It requires a consummate art to reconcile men in print to that moderate and insidious philosophy which creeps into all hearts, colours all speech, influences all action. We may not stiffen commonsense into a creed; our very ambition forbids:—
Still a great artist may succeed in making “calm” interesting. Equanimity has its place in literature; the poetry of equipoise is possible. Poems of society have, thus, two divisions: that which we mentioned first, the expression of the feelings which are called out by the accidents of society; next, the harmonised expression of that philosophy of indifference with which the world regards the fortunes of individuals and its own.
We have said that no modern nation can produce literature embodying this kind of cool reflection and delineation as it was once produced. By way of compensation, however, it may be, it no doubt is, easier now to produce the lyrical kinds of poems of society—the light expression of its light emotions—than it was in ancient times. Society itself is better. There is something hard in paganism, which is aways felt even in the softest traits of the most delicate society in antiquity. The social influence of women in modern times gives an interest, a little pervading excitement, to social events. Civilisation, besides, has made comfort possible; it has, at least in part, created a scene in which society can be conducted. Its petty conveniences may or may not be great benefits according to a recondite philosophy; but there can be no doubt that for actual men and women in actual conversation it is of the greatest importance that their feet should not be cold; that their eyes and mouths should not be troubled with smoke; that sofas should be good, and attractive chairs many. Modern times have the advantage of the ancient in the scenery of flirtation. The little boy complained that you could not find “drawing-room” in the dictionary. Perhaps even because our reflections are deeper, our inner life less purely pagan, our apparent life is softer and easier. Some have said, that one reason why physical science made so little progress in ancient times was, that people were in doubt about more interesting things; men must have, it has been alleged, a settled creed as to human life and human hopes, before they will attend to shells and snails and pressure. And whether this be so or not, perhaps a pleasant society is only possible to persons at ease as to what is beyond society. Those only can lie on the grass who fear no volcano underneath, and can bear to look at the blue vault above.
Among modern nations it is not difficult to say where we should look for success in the art of social poetry. “Wherever,” said Mr. Lewes the other day, “the French go, they take what they call their civilisation—that is, a café and a theatre.” And though this be a trifle severe, yet in its essence its meaning is correct. The French have in some manner or other put their mark on all the externals of European life. The essence of every country remains little affected by their teaching; but in all the superficial embellishments of society they have enjoined the fashion; and the very language in which those embellishments are spoken of, shows at once whence they were derived. Something of this is doubtless due to the accidents of a central position, and an early and prolonged political influence; but more to a certain neatness of nature, a certain finish of the senses, which enables them more easily than others to touch lightly the light things of society, to see the comme-il-faut. “I like,” said a good judge, “to hear a Frenchman talk; he strikes a light.” On a hundred topics he gives the bright sharp edge, where others have only a blunt approximation.
Nor is this anticipation disappointed. Reviewers do not advance such theories unless they correspond with known results. For many years the French have not been more celebrated for memoirs which professedly describe a real society than they have been for the light social song which embodies its sentiments and pours forth its spirit. The principle on which such writings are composed is the taking some incident—not voluntarily (for the incident doubtless of itself takes a hold on the poet’s mind)—and out of that incident developing all which there is in it. A grave form is of course inconsistent with such art. The spirit of such things is half-mirthful; a very profound meaning is rarely to be expected; but little incidents are not destitute of meaning, and a delicate touch will delineate it in words. A profound excitement likewise such poems cannot produce; they do not address the passions or the intuitions, the heart or the soul, but a gentle pleasure, half sympathy, half amusement, is that at which they aim. They do not please us equally in all moods of mind: sometimes they seem nothing and nonsense, like society itself. We must not be too active or too inactive, to like them; the tension of mind must not be too great; in our highest moods the littlenesses of life are petty; the mind must not be obtusely passive; light touches will not stimulate a sluggish inaction. This dependence on the mood of mind of the reader makes it dangerous to elucidate this sort of art by quotation; Béranger has, however, the following:—
And this is even a more characteristic specimen:—
To make poetry out of a fly is a difficult operation. It used to be said of the Lake school of criticism, in Mr. Wordsworth’s early and more rigid days, that there was no such term as “elegant” in its nomenclature. The reason is that, dealing, or attempting to deal, only with the essential aboriginal principles of human nature, that school had no room and no occasion for those minor contrivances of thought and language which are necessary to express the complex accumulation of little feelings, the secondary growth of human emotion. The underwood of nature is “elegant”; the bare ascending forest-tree despises what is so trivial,—it is grave and solemn. To such verses, on the other hand, as have been quoted, “elegance” is essential; the delicate finish of fleeting forms is the only excellence they can have.
The characteristic deficiencies of French literature have no room to show themselves in this class of art. “Though France herself denies,” says a recent writer, “yet all other nations with one voice proclaim her inferiority to her rivals in poetry and romance, and in all the other elevated fields of fiction. A French Dante, or Michael Angelo, or Cervantes, or Murillo, or Goethe, or Shakespeare, or Milton, we at once perceive to be a mere anomaly; a supposition which may, indeed, be proposed in terms, but which in reality is inconceivable and impossible.” In metaphysics, the reason seems to be that the French character is incapable of being mastered by an unseen idea, without being so tyrannised over by it as to be incapable of artistic development. Such a character as Robespierre’s may explain what we mean. His entire nature was taken up and absorbed in certain ideas; he had almost a vanity in them; he was of them, and they were of him. But they appear in his mind, in his speeches, in his life, in their driest and barest form; they have no motion, life, or roundness. We are obliged to use many metaphors remotely and with difficulty to indicate the procedure of the imagination. In one of these metaphors we figure an idea of imagination as a living thing, a kind of growing plant, with a peculiar form, and ever preserving its identity, but absorbing from the earth and air all kindred, suitable, and, so to say, annexable materials. In a mind such as Robespierre’s, in the type of the fanatic mind, there is no such thing. The ideas seem a kind of dry hard capsules, never growing, never enlarging, never uniting. Development is denied them; they cannot expand, or ripen, or mellow. Dogma is a dry hard husk; poetry has the soft down of the real fruit. Ideas seize on the fanatic mind just as they do on the poetical; they have the same imperious ruling power. The difference is, that in the one the impelling force is immutable, iron, tyrannical; in the other the rule is expansive, growing, free, taking up from all around it moment by moment whatever is fit, as in the political world a great constitution arises through centuries, with a shape that does not vary, but with movement for its essence and the fluctuation of elements for its vitality. A thin poor mind like Robespierre’s seems pressed and hampered by the bony fingers of a skeleton hand; a poet’s is expanded and warmed at the same time that it is impelled by a pure life-blood of imagination. The French, as we have said, are hardly capable of this. When great remote ideas seize upon them at all, they become fanatics. The wild, chimerical, revolutionary, mad Frenchman has the stiffest of human minds. He is under the law of his creed; he has not attained to the higher freedom of the impelling imagination. The prosing rhetoric of the French tragedy shows the same defect in another form. The ideas which should have become living realities, remain as lean abstractions. The characters are speaking officials, jets of attenuated oratory. But exactly on this very account the French mind has a genius for the poetry of society. Unable to remove itself into the higher region of imagined forms, it has the quickest detective insight into the exact relation of surrounding superficial phenomena. There are two ways of putting it: either being fascinated by the present, they cannot rise to what is not present; or being by defect of nature unable to rise to what is not present, they are concentrated and absorbed in that which is so. Of course there ought not to be, but there is, a world of bonbons, of salons, of esprit. Living in the present, they have the poetry of the present. The English genius is just the opposite. Our cumbrous intellect has no call to light artificialities. We do not excel in punctuated detail or nicely-squared elaboration. It puts us out of patience that others should. A respectable Englishman murmured in the Café de Paris, “I wish I had a hunch of mutton”. He could not bear the secondary niceties with which he was surrounded. Our art has the same principle. We excel in strong, noble imagination, in solid stuff. Shakespeare is tough work; he has the play of the rising energy, the buoyant freedom of the unbounded mind; but no writer is so destitute of the simplifying dexterities of the manipulating intellect.
It is dangerous for a foreigner to give an opinion on minutiæ of style, especially on points affecting the characteristic excellences of national style. The French language is always neat; all French styles somehow seem good. But Béranger appears to have a peculiar neatness. He tells us that all his songs are the production of a painful effort. If so, the reader should be most grateful; he suffers no pain. The delicate elaboration of the writer has given a singular currency to the words. Difficult writing is rarely easy reading. It can never be so when the labour is spent in piecing together elements not joined by an insensible touch of imagination. The highest praise is due to a writer whose ideas are more delicately connected by unconscious genius than other men’s are, and yet who spends labour and toil in giving the production a yet cunninger finish, a still smoother connection. The characteristic aloofness of the Gothic mind, its tendency to devote itself to what is not present, is represented in composition by a want of care in the pettinesses of style. A certain clumsiness pervades all tongues of German origin. Instead of the language having been sharpened and improved by the constant keenness of attentive minds, it has been habitually used obtusely and crudely. Light, loquacious Gaul has for ages been the contrast. If you take up a pen just used by a good writer, for a moment you seem to write rather well. A language long employed by a delicate and critical society is a treasure of dexterous felicities. It is not, according to the fine expression of Mr. Emerson, “fossil poetry”;1 it is crystallised esprit.
A French critic has praised Béranger for having retained the refrain, or burden, “la rime de l’air,” as he calls it. Perhaps music is more necessary as an accompaniment to the poetry of society than it is to any other poetry. Without a sensuous reminder, we might forget that it was poetry; especially in a sparkling, glittering, attenuated language, we might be absorbed as in the defined elegances of prose. In half-trivial compositions we easily forget the little central fancy. The music prevents this: it gives oneness to the parts, pieces together the shavings of the intellect, makes audible the flow of imagination.
The poetry of society tends to the poetry of love. All poetry tends that way. By some very subtle links, which no metaphysician has skilfully tracked, the imagination, even in effects and employments which seem remote, is singularly so connected. One smiles to see the feeling recur. Half the poets can scarcely keep away from it: in the high and dry epic you may see the poet return to it. And perhaps this is not unaccountable. The more delicate and stealing the sensuous element, the more the mind is disposed to brood upon it; the more we dwell on it in stillness, the more it influences the wandering, hovering faculty which we term imagination. The first constructive effort of imagination is beyond the limit of consciousness; the faculty works unseen. But we know that it works in a certain soft leisure only: and this in ordinary minds is almost confined to, in the highest is most commonly accompanied by, the subtlest emotion of reverie. So insinuating is that feeling, that no poet is alive to all its influences; so potent is it, that the words of a great poet, in our complex modern time, are rarely ever free from its traces. The phrase “stealing calm,” which most naturally and graphically describes the state of soul in which the imagination works, quite equally expresses, it is said, the coming in and continuance of the not uncommon emotion. Passing, however, from such metaphysics, there is no difficulty in believing that the poetry of society will tend to the most romantic part of society,—away from aunts and uncles, antiquaries and wigs, to younger and pleasanter elements. The talk of society does so; probably its literature will do so likewise. There are, nevertheless, some limiting considerations, which make this tendency less all-powerful than we might expect it to be. In the first place, the poetry of society cannot deal with passion. Its light touch is not competent to express eager, intense emotion. Rather, we should say, the essential nature of the poetry of amusement is inconsistent with those rugged, firm, aboriginal elements which passion brings to the surface. The volcano is inconsistent with careless talk; you cannot comfortably associate with lava. Such songs as those of Burns are the very antithesis to the levity of society. A certain explicitness pervades them:—
There is a story of his having addressed a lady in society, some time after he came to Edinburgh, in this direct style, and being offended that she took notice of it. The verses were in English, and were not intended to mean anything particular, only to be an elegant attention; but you might as well ask a young lady to take brandy with you as compliment her in this intense manner. The eager peasant-poet was at fault in the polished refinements of the half-feeling drawing-room. Again, the poetry of society can scarcely deal with affection. No poetry, except in hints, and for moments, perhaps ever can. You might as well tell secrets to the town-crier. The essence of poetry somehow is publicity. It is very odd when one reads many of the sentiments which are expressed there,—the brooding thought, the delicate feeling, the high conception. What is the use of telling these to the mass of men? Will the grocer feel them?—will the greasy butcher in the blue coat feel them? Are there not some emphatic remarks by Lord Byron on Mr. Sanders (“the d—d saltfish seller” of Venice),1 who could not appreciate Don Juan? Nevertheless, for some subtle reason or other, poets do crave, almost more than other men, the public approbation. To have a work of art in your imagination, and that no one else should know of it, is a great pain. But even this craving has its limits. Art can only deal with the universal. Characters, sentiments, actions, must be described in what in the old language might be called their conceptual shape. There must always be an idea in them. If we compare a great character in fiction, say that of Hamlet, with a well-known character in life, we are struck almost at once by the typical and representative nature of the former. We seem to have a more summary conception of it, if the phrase may be allowed, than we have of the people we know best in reality. Indeed, our notion of the fictitious character rather resembles a notion of actual persons of whom we know a little, and but a little,—of a public man, suppose, of whom from his speeches and writings we know something, but with whom we never exchanged a word. We generalise a few traits; we do what the historian will have to do hereafter; we make a man, so to speak, resembling the real one, but more defined, more simple and comprehensible. The objects on which affection turns are exactly the opposite. In their essence they are individual, peculiar. Perhaps they become known under a kind of confidence; but even if not, Nature has hallowed the details of near life by an inevitable secrecy. You cannot expect other persons to feel them; you cannot tell your own intellect what they are. An individuality lurks in our nature. Each soul (as the divines speak) clings to each soul. Poetry is impossible on such points as these: they seem too sacred, too essential. The most that it can do is, by hints and little marks in the interstices of a universalised delineation, to suggest that there is something more than what is stated, and more inward and potent than what is stated. Affection as a settled subject is incompatible with art. And thus the poetry of society is limited on its romantic side in two ways: first, by the infinite, intense nature of passion, which forces the voice of art beyond the social tone; and by the confidential, incomprehensible nature of affection, which will not bear to be developed for the public by the fancy in any way.
Being so bounded within the ordinary sphere of their art, poets of this world have contrived or found a substitute. In every country there is a society which is no society. The French, which is the most worldly of literatures, has devoted itself to the delineation of this outside world. There is no form, comic or serious, dramatic or lyrical, in which the subject has not been treated: the burden is—
There is obviously no need of affection in this society. The whole plot of the notorious novel, La Dame aux Camélias,—and a very remarkable one it is,—is founded on the incongruity of real feeling with this world, and the singular and inappropriate consequences which result, if, by any rare chance, it does appear there. Passion is almost a fortiori out of the question. The depths of human nature have nothing to do with this life. On this account, perhaps, it is that it harmonises so little with the English literature and character. An Englishman can scarcely live on the surface; his passions are too strong, his power of finesse too little. Accordingly, since Defoe, who treated the subject with a coarse matter-of-factness, there has been nothing in our literature of this kind—nothing at least professedly devoted to it. How far this is due to real excellence, how far to the bourgeois and not very outspoken temper of our recent writers, we need not in this place discuss. There is no occasion to quote in this country the early poetry of Béranger, at least not the sentimental part of it. We may take, in preference, one of his poems written in old, or rather in middle age:—
This is the last scene of the grisette, of whom we read in so many songs sparkling with youth and gaiety.
A certain intellectuality, however, pervades Béranger’s love-songs. You seem to feel, to see, not merely the emotion, but the mind, in the background viewing that emotion. You are conscious of a considerateness qualifying and contrasting with the effervescing champagne of the feelings described. Desire is rarefied; sense half becomes an idea. You may trace a similar metamorphosis in the poetry of passion itself. If we contrast such a poem as Shelley’s “Epipsychidion” with the natural language of common passion, we see how curiously the intellect can take its share in the dizziness of sense. In the same way, in the lightest poems of Béranger we feel that it may be infused, may interpenetrate the most buoyant effervescence.
Nothing is more odd than to contrast the luxurious and voluptuous nature of much of Béranger’s poetry with the circumstances of his life. He never in all his productive time had more than £80 a year; the smallest party of pleasure made him live, he tells us himself, most ascetically for a week; so far from leading the life of a Sybarite, his youth was one of anxiety and privation. A more worldly poet has probably never written, but no poet has shown in life so philosophic an estimate of this world’s goods. His origin is very unaristocratic. He was born in August, 1780, at the house of his grandfather, a poor old tailor. Of his mother we hear nothing. His father was a speculative, sanguine man, who never succeeded. His principal education was given him by an aunt, who taught him to read and to write, and perhaps generally incited his mind. His school-teaching tells of the philosophy of the revolutionary time. By way of primary school for the town of Péronne, a patriotic member of the National Assembly had founded an institut d’enfants. “It offered,” we are told, “at once the image of a club and that of a camp; the boys wore a military uniform; at every public event they named deputations, delivered orations, voted addresses: letters were written to the citizen Robespierre and the citizen Tallien.” Naturally, amid such great affairs there was no time for mere grammar; they did not teach Latin. Nor did Béranger ever acquire any knowledge of that language; and he may be said to be destitute of what is in the usual sense called culture. Accordingly, it has in these days been made a matter of wonder by critics, whom we may think pedantic, that one so destitute should be able to produce such works. But a far keener judge has pronounced the contrary. Goethe, who certainly did not undervalue the most elaborate and artful cultivation, at once pronounced Béranger to have “a nature most happily endowed, firmly grounded in himself, purely developed from himself, and quite in harmony with himself”.1 In fact, as these words mean, Béranger, by happiness of nature or self-attention, has that centrality of mind, which is the really valuable result of colleges and teaching. He puts things together; he refers things to a principle; rather, they group themselves in his intelligence insensibly round a principle. There is nothing distrait in his genius; the man has attained to be himself; a cool oneness, a poised personality pervades him. “The unlearned,” it has been said, “judge at random.” Béranger is not unlearned in this sense. There is no one who judges more simply, smoothly, and uniformly. His ideas refer to an exact measure. He has mastered what comes before him. And though doubtless unacquainted with foreign and incongruous literatures, he has mastered his own literature, which was shaped by kindred persons, and has been the expression of analogous natures; and this has helped him in expressing himself.
In the same way, his poor youth and boyhood have given a reality to his productions. He seems to have had this in mind in praising the “practical education which I have received”. He was bred a printer; and the highest post he attained was a clerkship at the university, worth, as has been said, £80 per annum. Accordingly he has everywhere a sympathy with the common people, an unsought familiarity with them and their life. Sybarite poetry commonly wants this. The aristocratic nature is superficial; it relates to a life protected from simple wants, depending on luxurious artifices. “Mamma,” said the simple-minded young nobleman, “when poor people have no bread, why do not they eat buns? they are much better.” An over-perfumed softness pervades the poetry of society. You see this in the songs of Moore, the best of the sort we have; all is beautiful, soft, half-sincere. There is a little falsetto in the tone, everything reminds you of the drawing-room and the pianoforte; and not only so—for all poetry of society must in a measure do this—but it seems fit for no other scene. Naturalness is the last word of praise that would be suitable. In the scented air we forget that there is a pavé and a multitude. Perhaps France is of all countries which have ever existed the one in which we might seek an exception from this luxurious limitation. A certain égalité may pervade its art as its society. There is no such difference as with us between the shoeblack and the gentleman. A certain refinement is very common; an extreme refinement possibly rare. Béranger was able to write his poems in poverty; they are popular with the poor.
A success even greater than what we have described as having been achieved by Béranger in the first class of the poems of society—that of amusement—has been attained by him in the second class, expressive of epicurean speculation. Perhaps it is one of his characteristics that the two are for ever running one into another. There is animation in his thinking; there is meaning in his gaiety. It requires no elaborate explanation to make evident the connection between scepticism and luxuriousness. Every one thinks of the Sadducee as in cool halls and soft robes; no one supposes that the Sybarite believes. Pain not only purifies the mind, but deepens the nature. A simple, happy life is animal; it is pleasant, and it perishes. All writers who have devoted themselves to the explanation of this world’s view of itself are necessarily in a certain measure Sadducees. The world is Sadducee itself; it cannot be anything else without recognising a higher creed, a more binding law, a more solemn reality—without ceasing to be the world. Equanimity is incredulous; impartiality does not care; an indifferent politeness is sceptical. Though not a single speculative opinion is expressed, we may feel this in “Roger Bontemps”:—
At the same time, in Béranger the scepticism is not extreme. The skeleton is not paraded. That the world is a passing show, a painted scene, is admitted; you seem to know that it is all acting and rouge and illusion: still the pleasantness of the acting is dwelt on, the rouge is never rubbed off, the dream runs lightly and easily. No nightmare haunts you, you have no uneasy sense that you are about to awaken. Persons who require a sense of reality may complain; pain is perhaps necessary to sharpen their nerves, a tough effort to harden their consciousness: but if you pass by this objection of the threshold, if you admit the possibility of a superficial and fleeting world, you will not find a better one than Béranger’s world. Suppose all the world were a restaurant, his is a good restaurant; admit that life is an effervescing champagne, his is the best for the moment.
In several respects Béranger contrasts with Horace, the poet whom in general he most resembles. The song of “Roger Bontemps” suggests one of the most obvious differences. It is essentially democratic. As we have said before, Béranger is the poet of the people; he himself says, Le peuple c’est ma muse. Throughout Horace’s writings, however much he may speak, and speak justly, of the simplicity of his tastes, you are always conscious that his position is exceptional. Everybody cannot be the friend of Mæcenas; every cheerful man of the world cannot see the springs of the great world. The intellect of most self-indulgent men must satisfy itself with small indulgences. Without a hard ascent you can rarely see a great view. Horace had the almost unequalled felicity of watching the characters and thoughts and tendencies of the governors of the world, the nicest manipulation of the most ingenious statesmen, the inner tastes and predilections which are the origin of the most important transactions; and yet had the ease and pleasantness of the common and effortless life. So rare a fortune cannot be a general model; the gospel of Epicureanism must not ask a close imitation of one who had such very special advantages. Béranger gives the acceptors of that creed a commoner type. Out of nothing but the most ordinary advantages—the garret, the almost empty purse, the not over-attired grisette—he has given them a model of the sparkling and quick existence for which their fancy is longing. You cannot imagine commoner materials. In another respect Horace and Béranger are remarkably contrasted. Béranger, sceptical and indifferent as he is, has a faith in, and zeal for, liberty. It seems odd that he should care for that sort of thing; but he does care for it. Horace probably had a little personal shame attaching to such ideas. No regimental officer of our own time can have “joined” in a state of more crass ignorance, than did the stout little student from Athens in all probability join the army of Brutus; the legionaries must have taken the measure of him, as the sergeants of our living friends. Anyhow he was not partial to such reflections; zeal for political institutions is quite as foreign to him as any other zeal. A certain hope in the future is characteristic of Béranger—
Modern faith colours even bystanding scepticism. Though probably with no very accurate ideas of the nature of liberty, Béranger believes that it is a great good, and that France will have it.
The point in which Béranger most resembles Horace is that which is the most essential in the characters of them both—their geniality. This is the very essence of the poems of society; it springs in the verses of amusement, it harmonises with acquiescing sympathy the poems of indifference. And yet few qualities in writing are so rare. A certain malevolence enters into literary ink; the point of the pen pricks. Pope is the very best example of this. With every desire to imitate Horace, he cannot touch any of his subjects, or any kindred subjects, without infusing a bitter ingredient. It is not given to the children of men to be philosophers without envy. Lookers-on can hardly bear the spectacle of the great world. If you watch the carriages rolling down to the House of Lords, you will try to depreciate the House of Lords. Idleness is cynical. Both Béranger and Horace are exceptions to this. Both enjoy the roll of the wheels; both love the glitter of the carriages; neither is angry at the sun. Each knows that he is as happy as he can be—that he is all that he can be in his contemplative philosophy. In his means of expression for the purpose in hand, the Frenchman has the advantage. The Latin language is clumsy. Light pleasure was an exotic in the Roman world; the terms in which you strive to describe it suit rather the shrill camp and droning law-court. In English, as we hinted just now, we have this too. Business is in our words; a too heavy sense clogs our literature; even in a writer so apt as Pope at the finesse of words, you feel that the solid Gothic roots impede him. It is difficult not to be cumbrous. The horse may be fleet and light, but the wheels are ponderous and the road goes heavily. Béranger certainly has not this difficulty; nobody ever denied that a Frenchman could be light, that the French language was adapted for levity.
When we ascribed an absence of bitterness and malevolence to Béranger, we were far from meaning that he is not a satirist. Every light writer in a measure must be so. Mirth is the imagery of society; and mirth must make fun of somebody. The nineteenth century has not had many shrewder critics than its easy-natured poet. Its intense dulness particularly strikes him. He dreads the dreariness of the Academy; pomposity bores him; formalism tires him; he thinks, and may well think, it dreary to have
But skilful as is the mirth, its spirit is genial and good-natured. “You have been laughing at me constantly, Sydney, for the last seven years,” said a friend to the late Canon of St. Paul’s, “and yet in all that time you never said a single thing to me that I wished unsaid.”1 So far as its essential features are concerned, the nineteenth century may say the same of its musical satirist. Perhaps, however, the Bourbons might a little object. Clever people have always a little malice against the stupid.
There is no more striking example of the degree in which the gospel of good works has penetrated our modern society, than that Béranger has talked of “utilising his talent”. The epicurean poet considers that he has been a political missionary. Well may others be condemned to the penal servitude of industry, if the lightest and idlest of skilful men boasts of being subjected to it. If Béranger thinks it necessary to think that he has been useful, others may well think so too; let us accept the heavy doctrine of hard labour; there is no other way to heave off the rubbish of this world. The mode in which Béranger is anxious to prove that he made his genius of use, is by diffusing a taste for liberty, and expressing an enthusiasm for it; and also, as we suppose, by quizzing those rulers of France who have not shared either the taste or the enthusiasm. Although, however, such may be the idea of the poet himself, posterity will scarcely confirm it. Political satire is the most ephemeral kind of literature. The circumstances to which it applies are local and temporary; the persons to whom it applies die. A very few months will make unintelligible what was at first strikingly plain. Béranger has illustrated this by an admission. There was a delay in publishing the last volume of his poems, many of which relate to the years or months immediately preceding the Revolution of 1830; the delay was not long, as the volume appeared in the first month of 1833, yet he says that many of the songs relate to the passing occurrences of a period “déjà loin de nous”. On so shifting a scene as that of French political life, the jests of each act are forgotten with the act itself; the eager interest of each moment withdraws the mind from thinking of or dwelling on anything past. And in all countries administration is ephemeral; what relates to it is transitory. Satires on its detail are like the jests of a public office; the clerks change, oblivion covers their peculiarities; the point of the joke is forgotten. There are some considerable exceptions to the saying that foreign literary opinion is a “contemporary posterity”; but in relation to satires on transitory transactions it is exactly expressive. No Englishman will now care for many of Béranger’s songs which were once in the mouths of all his countrymen, which coloured the manners of revolutions, perhaps influenced their course. The fame of a poet may have a reference to politics; but it will be only to the wider species, to those social questions which never die, the elements of that active human nature which is the same age after age. Béranger can hardly hope for this. Even the songs which relate to liberty can hardly hope for this immortality. They have the vagueness which has made French aspirations for freedom futile. So far as they express distinct feeling, their tendency is rather anti-aristocratic than in favour of simple real liberty. And an objection to mere rank, though a potent, is neither a very agreeable nor a very poetical sentiment. Moreover, when the love of liberty is to be imaginatively expressed, it requires to an Englishman’s ear a sound bigger and more trumpet-tongued than the voice of Béranger.
On a deeper view, however, an attentive student will discover a great deal that is most instructive in the political career of the not very business-like poet. His life has been contemporaneous with the course of a great change; and throughout it the view which he has taken of the current events is that which sensible men took at the time, and which a sensible posterity (and these events will from their size attract attention enough to insure their being viewed sensibly) is likely to take. Béranger was present at the taking of the Bastille, but he was then only nine years old; the accuracy of opinion which we are claiming for him did not commence so early. His mature judgment begins with the career of Napoleon; and no one of the thousands who have written on that subject has viewed it perhaps more justly. He had no love for the despotism of the Empire, was alive to the harshness of its administration, did not care too much for its glory, must have felt more than once the social exhaustion. At the same time, no man was penetrated more profoundly, no literary man half so profoundly, with the popular admiration for the genius of the empire. His own verse has given the truest and most lasting expression of it:—
This is a great exception to the transitoriness of political poetry. Such a character as that of Napoleon displayed on so large a stage, so great a genius amid such scenery of action, insures an immortality. “The page of universal history” which he was always coveting, he has attained; and it is a page which, from its singularity and its errors, its shame and its glory, will distract the attention from other pages. No one who has ever had in his mind the idea of Napoleon’s character can forget it. Nothing too can be more natural than that the French should remember it. His character possessed the primary imagination, the elementary conceiving power, in which they are deficient. So far from being restricted to the poetry of society, he would not have even appreciated it. A certain bareness marks his mind; his style is curt; the imaginative product is left rude; there is the distinct abstraction of the military diagram. The tact of light and passing talk, the detective imagination which is akin to that tact, and discovers the quick essence of social things,—he never had. In speaking of his power over popular fancies, Béranger has called him “the greatest poet of modern times”. No genius can be more unlike his own, and therefore perhaps it is that he admires it so much. During the Hundred Days, Béranger says he was never under the delusion, then not rare, that the Emperor could become a constitutional monarch. The lion, he felt, would not change his skin. After the return of the Bourbons, he says, doubtless with truth, that his “instinct du peuple” told him they could never ally themselves with liberal principles, or unite with that new order of society which, though dating from the Revolution, had acquired in five and twenty years a half-prescriptive right. They and their followers came in to take possession, and it was impossible they could unite with what was in possession. During the whole reign of the hereditary Bourbon dynasty, Béranger was in opposition. Representing the natural sentiments of the new Frenchman, he could not bear the natural tendency of the ruling power to the half-forgotten practices of old France. The legitimate Bourbons were by their position the chieftains of the party advocating their right by birth; they could not be the kings of a people; and the poet of the people was against them. After the genius of Napoleon, all other governing minds would seem tame and contracted; and Charles X. was not a man to diminish the inevitable feeling. Béranger despised him. As the poet warred with the weapons of poetry, the Government retorted with the penalties of State. He was turned out of his petty clerkship, he was twice imprisoned; but these things only increased his popularity; and a firm and genial mind, so far from being moved, sang songs at La Force itself. The Revolution of 1830 was willing to make his fortune.
“Je l’ai traitée,” he says, “comme une puissance qui peut avoir des caprices auxquels il faut être en mesure de résister. Tous ou presque tous mes amis ont passé au ministère: j’en ai même encore un ou deux qui restent suspendus à ce mât de cocagne. Je me plais à croire qu’ils y sont accrochés par la basque, malgré les efforts qu’ils font pour descendre. J’aurais donc pu avoir part à la distribution des emplois. Malheureusement je n’ai pas l’amour des sinécures, et tout travail obligé m’est devenu insupportable, hors peut-être encore celui d’expéditionnaire. Des médisants ont prétendu que je faisais de la vertu. Fi donc! je faisais de la paresse. Ce défaut m’a tenu lieu de bien des qualités; aussi je le recommande à beaucoup de nos honnêtes gens. Il expose pourtant à de singuliers reproches. C’est à cette paresse si douce, que des censeurs rigides ont attribué l’éloignement où je me suis tenu de ceux de mes honorables amis qui ont eu le malheur d’arriver au pouvoir. Faisant trop d’honneur à ce qu’ils veulent bien appeler ma bonne tête, et oubliant trop combien il y a loin du simple bon sens à la science des grandes affaires, ces censeurs prétendent que mes conseils eussent éclairé plus d’un ministre. A les croire, tapi derrière le fauteuil de velours de nos hommes d’état, j’aurais conjuré les vents, dissipé les orages, et fait nager la France dans un océan de délices. Nous aurions tous de la liberté à revendre ou plutôt à donner, car nous n’en savons pas bien encore le prix. Eh! messieurs mes deux ou trois amis, qui prenez un chansonnier pour un magicien, on ne vous a donc pas dit que le pouvoir est une cloche qui empêche ceux qui la mettent en branle d’entendre aucun autre son? Sans doute des ministres consultent quelquefois ceux qu’ils ont sous la main: consulter est un moyen de parler de soi qu’on néglige rarement. Mais il ne suffirait pas de consulter de bonne foi des gens qui conseilleraient de même. Il faudrait encore exécuter: ceci est la part du caractère. Les intentions les plus pures, le patriotisme le plus éclairé ne le donnent pas toujours. Qui n’a vu de hauts personnages quitter un donneur d’avis avec une pensée courageuse, et, l’instant d’après, revenir vers lui, de je ne sais quel lieu de fascination, avec l’embarras d’un démenti donné aux résolutions les plus sages? ‘Oh!’ disent-ils, ‘nous n’y serons plus repris! quelle galère!’ Le plus honteux ajoute: ‘Je voudrais bien vous voir à ma place!’ Quand un ministre dit cela, soyez sûr qu’il n’a plus la tête à lui. Cependant il en est un, mais un seul, qui, sans avoir perdu la tête a répété souvent ce mot de la meilleure foi du monde; aussi ne l’addressait-il jamais à un ami.”1
The statesman alluded to in the last paragraph is Manuel, his intimate friend, from whom he declares he could never have been separated, but whose death prevented his obtaining political honours. Nobody can read the above passage without feeling its tone of political sense. An enthusiasm for, yet half distrust of, the Revolution of July seems as sound a sentiment as could be looked for even in the most sensible contemporary. What he has thought of the present dynasty we do not know. He probably has as little concurred in the silly encomiums of its mere partisans as in the wild execrations of its disappointed enemies. His opinion could not have been either that of the English who fêted Louis Napoleon in 1855, or of those who despised him in 1851. The political fortunes of France during the last ten years must have been a painful scene of observation to one who remembered the taking of the Bastille. If there be such a thing as failure in the world, this looks like it.
Although we are very far from thinking that Béranger’s claims on posterity are founded on his having utilised his talent in favour of liberty, it is very natural that he should think or half-think himself that it is so. His power over the multitude must have given him great pleasure; it is something to be able to write mottoes for a revolution; to write words for people to use, and hear people use those words. The same sort of pleasure which Horace derived from his nearness to the centre of great action, Béranger has derived from the power which his thorough sympathy with his countrymen has given him over them. A political satire may be ephemeral from the rapid oblivion of its circumstances; but it is not unnatural that the author, inevitably proud of its effect, may consider it of higher worth than mere verses of society.
This shrewd sense gives a solidity to the verses of Béranger which the social and amusing sort of poetry commonly wants; but nothing can redeem it from the reproach of wanting “back thought”.1 This is inevitable in such literature; as it professes to delineate for us the light essence of a fugitive world, it cannot be expected to dwell on those deep and eternal principles on which that world is based. It ignores them as light talk ignores them. The most opposite thing to the poetry of society is the poetry of inspiration. There exists, of course, a kind of imagination which detects the secrets of the universe—which fills us sometimes with dread, sometimes with hope—which awakens the soul, which makes pure the feelings, which explains Nature, reveals what is above Nature, chastens “the deep heart of man”.1 Our senses teach us what the world is; our intuitions where it is. We see the blue and gold of the world, its lively amusements, its gorgeous if superficial splendour, its currents of men; we feel its light spirits, we enjoy its happiness; we enjoy it, and we are puzzled. What is the object of all this? Why do we do all this? What is the universe for? Such a book as Béranger’s suggests this difficulty in its strongest form. It embodies the essence of all that pleasure-loving, pleasure-giving, unaccountable world in which men spend their lives,—which they are compelled to live in, but which the moment you get out of it seems so odd that you can hardly believe it is real. On this account, as we were saying before, there is no book the impression of which varies so much in different moods of mind. Sometimes no reading is so pleasant; at others you half-despise and half-hate the idea of it; it seems to sum up and make clear the littleness of your own nature. Few can bear the theory of their amusements; it is essential to the pride of man to believe that he is industrious. We are irritated at literary laughter, and wroth at printed mirth. We turn angrily away to that higher poetry which gives the outline within which all these light colours are painted. From the capital of levity, and its self-amusing crowds; from the elastic vaudeville and the grinning actors; from chansons and cafés we turn away to the solemn in Nature, to the blue overarching sky: the one remains, the many pass; no number of seasons impairs the bloom of those hues, they are as soft tomorrow as to-day. The immeasurable depth folds us in. “Eternity,” as the original thinker said, “is everlasting.” We breathe a deep breath. And perhaps we have higher moments. We comprehend the “unintelligible world”;2 we see into “the life of things”,3 we fancy we know whence we come and whither we go; words we have repeated for years have a meaning for the first time; texts of old Scripture seem to apply to us. . . . And—and—Mr. Thackeray would say, You come back into the town, and order dinner at a restaurant, and read Béranger once more.
And though this is true—though the author of “Le Dieu des Bonnes Gens” has certainly no claim to be called a profound divine—though we do not find in him any proper expression, scarcely any momentary recognition, of those intuitions which explain in a measure the scheme and idea of things, and form the back thought and inner structure of such minds as ours,—his sense and sympathy with the people enable him, perhaps compel him, to delineate those essential conditions which constitute the structure of exterior life, and determine with inevitable certainty the common life of common persons. He has no call to deal with heaven or the universe, but he knows the earth; he is restricted to the boundaries of time, but he understands time. He has extended his delineations beyond what in this country would be considered correct; “Les Cinq étages” can scarcely be quoted here; but a perhaps higher example of the same kind of art may be so:—
Pathos in such a song as this enters into poetry. We sympathise with the essential lot of man. Poems of this kind are doubtless rare in Béranger. His commoner style is lighter and more cheerful; but no poet who has painted so well the light effervescence of light society can, when he likes, paint so well the solid, stubborn forms with which it is encompassed. The genial, firm sense of a large mind sees and comprehends all of human life which lies within the sphere of sense. He is an epicurean, as all merely sensible men by inevitable consequence are; and as an epicurean, he prefers to deal with the superficial and gay forms of life; but he can deal with others when he chooses to be serious. Indeed, there is no melancholy like the melancholy of the epicurean. He is alive to the fixed conditions of earth, but not to that which is above earth. He muses on the temporary, as such; he admits the skeleton, but not the soul. It is wonderful that Béranger is so cheerful as he is.
We may conclude as we began. In all his works, in lyrics of levity, of politics, of worldly reflection,—Béranger, if he had not a single object, has attained a uniform result. He has given us an idea of the essential French character, such as we fancy it must be, but can never for ourselves hope to see that it is. We understand the nice tact, the quick intelligence, the gay precision; the essence of the drama we know—the spirit of what we have seen. We know his feeling:—
He has acted accordingly: he has delineated to us the essential Frenchman.
[1 ]Œuvres complètes de C.-J. de Béranger. Nouvelle édition, revue par l’Auteur, contenant les Dix Chansons nouvelles, le facsimile d’une Lettre de Béranger; illustrée de cinquante-deux gravures sur acier, d’après Charlet, D’Aubigny, Johannot Grenier, De Lemud, Pauquet, Penguilly, Raffet, Sandoz, exécutées par les artistes les plus distingués, et d’un beau portrait d’après nature par Sandoz. 2 vols., 8vo, 1855.
[1 ] We have been obliged to abridge the above extract, and in so doing have left out the humour of it. (W. Bagehot.) [From the Paris Sketch Book; condensed from the section on some French fashionable novels.] (Forrest Morgan.)
[1 ] A separate lyric first published in the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808, and republished in the collected edition of Scott’s Poetical Works in 1830, under the title of “Hunting Song,” vol. viii. p. 370.
[1 ]Les Bohémiens.
[2 ] Bacon: Essay on “Friendship,” quoting from Aristotle’s Politica. (Forrest Morgan.)
[1 ] Matthew Arnold: “Youth and Calm”.
[1 ] Essay on “The Poet”.
[1 ] Moore’s Byron.
[1 ] Conversations with Eckermann and Soret, 4th May, 1830.
[1 ] Dudley: Lady Holland’s Memoirs of Sydney Smith, chap. xi.
[1 ] Preface to Chansons.
[1 ] Derwent Coleridge on Hartley.
[1 ] Shelley: “Alastor”.
[2 ] Wordsworth: “Tintern Abbey”.
[1 ] “Le Bon Français.”