Montaigne: A Sketch
SKETCH OF THE LIFE OF MONTAIGNE BY WILLIAM CAREW HAZLETT
THE AUTHOR of the Essays was born, as he informs us himself, between eleven and twelve o’clock in the day, the last of February 1533, at the chateau of St. Michel de Montaigne. He was possibly descended from a family which had been located in those parts many generations. An Everard de Montaigne went to the Fifth Crusade in 1202. He mentions that the name was not uncommon, however, and predicts the possibility that some other Montaigne might hereafter be credited or otherwise with what he had done. His father, Pierre Eyquem, esquire, born at Montaigne, 29th September 1495, and a person engaged in a lucrative business at Bordeaux, was successively first Jurat of the town of Bordeaux (1530), Under-Mayor (1536), Jurat for the second time in 1540, Procureur in 1546, and at length Mayor from 1553 to 1556. He was a man of austere probity, who had “a particular regard for honor and for propriety in his person and attire . . . a mighty good faith in his speech, and a conscience and a religious feeling inclining to superstition, rather than to the other extreme;” but he was also, as we have to learn in perusing the Essays of his more distinguished son, that son’s veritable father in more than a single respect, yet in some ways different, inasmuch as he was, for instance, a man extremely particular in ordering his household affairs. He did not profess to be a man of letters; but he was very far from being illiterate; he was a master of the Latin, Italian, and Spanish languages; and in early life, as a youth of seventeen, he published some Latin verses, thus testifying at all events to his possession of a fair scholastic culture. Pierre Eyquem bestowed great care on the education of his children, especially on the practical side of it. To associate closely his son Michel with the people, and attach him to those who stand in need of assistance, he caused him to be held at the font by persons of the meanest position; subsequently he put him out to nurse with poor persons in the adjoining village of Papessus, and then, at a later period, made him accustom himself to the most common sort of living, taking care, nevertheless, to cultivate his mind, and superintend its development without the exercise of undue rigor or constraint. From many passages in the Essays we gather with satisfaction that he retained through life a steadfast, sincere, and charming affection for his father, alone sufficient to atone for a thousand foibles. We all remember the ancestral cloak, in which he felt as if “wrapped up” in him. We shall encounter in the course of the Essays some grateful and engaging reminiscences of the elder Montaigne. His son followed him, he tells us, even in the style of his dress. Of his mother, on the contrary, he has nothing to say, which in the case of great men is most unusual. He gives us the minutest account of his earliest years, narrates how they used to awake him by the sound of some agreeable music, and how he learned Latin, without suffering the rod or shedding a tear, before beginning French, thanks to the German teacher whom his father had placed near him, and who never addressed him except in the language of Virgil and Cicero. The study of Greek took precedence. At six years of age young Montaigne went to the College of Guienne at Bordeaux, where he had as preceptors the most eminent scholars of the sixteenth century, Nicole Grouchy, Guerente, Muret, and Buchanan. At thirteen he had passed through all the classes; and, as he was destined for the law, he left school to study that science. He was then about fourteen, but these early years of his life are involved in obscurity. The next information that we have is that in 1554 he received the appointment of councillor in the Parliament of Bordeaux; in 1559 he was at Bar-le-Duc with the court of Francis II., and in the year following he was present at Rouen to witness the declaration of the majority of Charles IX. We do not know in what manner he was engaged on these occasions; but from casual notices of incidents, which occurred to him, in the course of his book and from passages in the correspondence, he evidently paid numerous visits to different localities in his own country both before and after his marriage, and even proceeded as far as Navarre.
Between 1556 and 1563 an important incident occurred in the life of Montaigne, in the commencement of his romantic friendship with Etienne de la Boetie, whom he had met, as he tells us, by pure chance at some festive celebration in the town. From their very first interview the two found themselves drawn irresistibly close to one another; and during six years this alliance was foremost in the heart of Montaigne, as it was afterward in his memory, when death had severed it.
Although he blames severely in his own book those who, contrary to the opinion of Aristotle, marry before five-and-thirty, Montaigne did not wait for the period fixed by the philosopher of Stageira; for in 1566, in his thirty-third year, he espoused Francoise de Chassaigne, daughter of a councillor in the Parliament of Bordeaux, and two years later he lost his beloved father. The history of his early married life vies in obscurity with that of his youth. His biographers are not agreed among themselves; and in the same degree that he lays open to our view all that concerns his secret thoughts, the innermost mechanism of his mind, he observes too much reticence in respect to his public functions and conduct and his social relations. The title of Gentleman in Ordinary to the King, which he assumes in a preface, and which Henry III. gives him in a letter which we print a little farther on; what he says as to the commotions of courts, where he passed a portion of his life; the Instructions which he wrote under the dictation of Catherine de Medici for King Charles IX., and his noble correspondence with Henry IV., leave no doubt, however, as to the part which he played in the transactions of those times, and we find an unanswerable proof of the esteem in which he was held by the most exalted personages in a letter which was addressed to him by Charles at the time he was admitted to the Order of St. Michel, which was, as he informs us himself, the highest honor of the French noblesse.
It is hardly worth while to discuss the statements which have been made in respect to the civil and military transactions of Montaigne. The earlier authorities, from the still greater dearth of material for a biography than exists to-day, formed very erroneous theories as to the public life of the Essayist, which, whatever might have been his personal wishes and tastes, was destined to be a very busy and eventful one. After the successive deaths of his father and eldest brother, however, he resigned, it is said, the post of Councillor, and having arrived at his thirty-eighth year, resolved to dedicate to study and contemplation the remaining term of his life. On his birthday, the last of February 1571, he caused a Latin inscription to be placed on one of the walls of his chateau to the effect, that in the year 1571, on the last of February, his birthday, weary of court life and charges, he, Michel de Montaigne, while in perfect health of body, withdrew into the society of the learned virgins for what remained to him of a career already more than half-spent. The vow was perchance sincere enough. How vain and unreal we shall presently and abundantly see; and yet when it was registered, it was not necessarily so, as the civil troubles had then not yet broken out, and Montaigne might think himself in a position to treat soldiering as an agreeable retrospect, and to quote his favorites, Horace and Seneca, for “militavi non sine gloria,” and “vivere militare est.”
At the time to which we have come, Montaigne was unknown to the world of letters, except as a translator and an editor. In 1569 he had published a translation of the “Natural Theology” of Raymond de Sebonde, which he had solely undertaken to please his father. In 1571 he had caused to be printed at Paris certain opuscula of Etienne de la Boetie; and these two efforts, inspired in one case by filial duty and in the other by friendship, prove that affectionate motives overruled with him mere personal ambition as a literary man. We may suppose that he began to compose the Essays at the very outset of his retirement from public engagements; for as, according to his own account, observes the President Bouhier, he cared neither for the chase, nor building, nor gardening, nor agricultural pursuits, and was (in the leisure snatched from public affairs) exclusively occupied with reading and reflection, he devoted himself with satisfaction to the task of setting down his thoughts just as they occurred to him. Those thoughts became a book, and the first edition of that book, which was to confer immortality on the writer, appeared at Bordeaux in 1580. The author presented a copy to his sovereign, who expressed himself extremely pleased by the gift. Montaigne intimated his gratification at such a feeling, and described the volume as merely giving an account of his own life and actions.
Montaigne was about fifty-seven; he had suffered for some years past from renal colic and stone, to the latter of which maladies his father had been subject; and it was with the necessity of distraction from his pain, and the hope of deriving relief from the waters, that he undertook at this time a great journey. As the account which he has left of his travels in Germany and Italy comprises some highly interesting particulars of his life and personal history, it seems worth while to furnish a sketch or analysis of it. The Essayist was accompanied not only by a secretary, but by his young brother, Bertrand-Charles de Montaigne, Sieur de Mattecoulon, a gentleman of the King of Navarre’s privy chamber, and Michel’s junior by many years, and by three other connections or intimate friends. From what we are able to glean of the composition of the household at Montaigne, it is a reasonable deduction that the Essayist employed foreign body-servants, from whom he collected much general information about Italy and other adjacent countries calculated to inspire him with a desire to become personally acquainted with foreign scenery and manners.
“The Journey, of which we proceed to describe the course simply,” says the editor of the Itinerary, “had, from Beaumont-sur-Oise to Plombieres, in Lorraine, nothing sufficiently interesting to detain us . . . we must go as far as Basle, of which we have a description, acquainting us with its physical and political condition at that period, as well as with the character of its baths. The passage of Montaigne through Switzerland is not without interest, as we see there how our philosophical traveller accommodated himself everywhere to the ways of the country. The hotels, the provisions, the Swiss cookery, everything was agreeable to him; it appears indeed, as if he preferred to the French manners and tastes those of the places he was visiting, and of which the simplicity and freedom (or frankness) accorded more with his own mode of life and thinking. In the towns where he stayed, Montaigne took care to see the Protestant divines, to make himself conversant with all their dogmas. He even held disputations with them occasionally.
“Having left Switzerland, he went to Isny, an imperial town, then on to Augsburg and Munich. He afterward proceeded to the Tyrol, where he was agreeably surprised, after the warning which he had received, at the very slight inconveniences which he suffered, which gave him occasion to remark that he had all his life distrusted the statements of others respecting foreign countries, each person’s taste being according to the notions of his native place; and that he had consequently set very little on what he was told beforehand.
“Upon his arrival at Botzen, Montaigne wrote to Francois Hotman to say that he had been so pleased with his visit to Germany that he quitted it with great regret, although it was to go into Italy. He then passed through Branzoll, where he put up at the Rose inn, and so on to Trent or Trienta; thence going to Rovera; and here he first lamented the scarcity of crawfish, but made up for the loss by partaking of truffles cooked in oil and vinegar, oranges, citrons, and olives, in all of which he delighted.”
After passing a restless night, when he bethought himself in the morning that there was some new town or district to be seen, he rose, we are told, with alacrity and pleasure. His secretary, to whom he dictated his Journal, assures us that he never saw him take so much interest in surrounding scenes and persons, and believes that the complete change helped to mitigate his sufferings in concentrating his attention on other points. When there was a complaint made that he had led his party out of the beaten route, and then returned very near the spot from which they started, his answer was that he had no settled course, and that he merely proposed to himself to pay visits to places which he had not seen, and so long as they could not convict him of traversing the same path twice, or revisiting a point already seen, he could perceive no harm in his plan. As to Rome, he cared less to go there, inasmuch as everybody went there; and he said that he never had a lacquey, who could not tell him all about Florence or Ferrara. He also would say that he seemed to himself like those who are reading some pleasant story or some fine book, of which they fear to come to an end: he felt so much pleasure in travelling that he dreaded the moment of arrival at the place where they were to stop for the night.
We see that Montaigne travelled, just as he wrote, completely at his ease, and without the least constraint, turning, just as he fancied, from the common or ordinary roads taken by tourists. The good inns, the soft beds, the fine views, attracted his notice at every point; and in his observations on men and things he confines himself chiefly to the practical side. The consideration of his health was constantly before him, and it was in consequence of this that, while at Venice, which disappointed him, he took occasion to note, for the benefit of readers, that he had an attack of colic, and that he evacuated two large stones after supper.
Nevertheless, his sojourn in the city was by no means unobservant or uninteresting. He remarked the absence of the use of side-arms there, which had been officially interdicted in consequence of the danger which the practice involved, of promoting fatal affrays in the streets; but he did not perhaps observe that many carried weapons under their cloaks. His secretary makes him dwell a little on the splendor and excellent status of the hetaira at that time (1580), and there is in the Italian Diary a particular notice of the luxuriously appointed residence of the famous Imperia (Veronica Franco), who was openly visited by persons of the highest rank, and who possessed not only musical tastes, but a library of Latin and Italian books. We are told that she presented Montaigne with a copy of her Familiar Letters, just newly published, as she had previously to Henry III., when he paid her a visit, given her Sonnets, and that the bearer of the gift received a douceur of two gold scudi—probably to his intense astonishment. It was during his stay in the east of Europe, that the Essayist enjoyed the opportunity of seeing the Turkish soldier, whose appearance and bearing struck him so forcibly that he recommended him as a model to his own countrymen. We observe that, after his return home, he arrived at the conclusion that Venice would be a good place for a residence in a man’s declining years.
On quitting Venice he went in succession to Ferrara, where one of his party, M. d’Estissac, had letters of introduction to the Duke from the French King and Catherine de Medici, and where Montaigne saw the unhappy Tasso, Rovigo, Padua, Bologna (where he had a stomach-ache), Florence, &c.; and everywhere, before alighting, he made it a rule to send some of his servants to ascertain where the best accommodation was to be had. He pronounced the Florentine women the finest in the world, but had not an equally good opinion of the food, which was less plentiful than in Germany, and not so well served. He lets us understand that in Italy they sent up dishes without dressing, but in Germany they were much better seasoned, and served with a variety of sauces and gravies. He remarked farther, that the glasses were singularly small and the wines insipid.
After dining with the Grand-Duke of Tuscany and his Duchess, the famous Bianca Cappello, who took, he noted, less water with her wine than the Duke, and paying a visit to Pisa in order to see an Aristotelian, Montaigne passed rapidly over the intermediate country, which had no fascination for him, and arrived at Rome on the last day of November, entering by the Porta del Popolo, and putting up at the Orso. But he afterward hired, at twenty crowns a month, three fine furnished rooms in the house of a Spaniard, who included in these terms the use of the kitchen fire. What most annoyed him in the Eternal City was the number of Frenchmen he met, who all saluted him in his native tongue; but otherwise he was very comfortable, and his stay extended to five months. A mind like his, full of grand classical recollections, could not fail to be profoundly impressed in the presence of the ruins at Rome, and he has enshrined in a magnificent passage of the Journal the feelings of the moment: “He said,” writes his secretary, “that at Rome one saw nothing but the sky under which she had been built, and the outline of her site: that the knowledge we had of her was abstract, contemplative, not palpable to the actual senses: that those who said they beheld at least the ruins of Rome, went too far, for the ruins of so gigantic a structure must have commanded greater reverence—it was nothing but her sepulchre. The world, jealous of her prolonged empire, had in the first place broken to pieces that admirable body, and then, when they perceived that the remains attracted worship and awe, had buried the very wreck itself. As to those small fragments which were still to be seen on the surface, notwithstanding the assaults of time and all other attacks, again and again repeated, they had been saved by fortune to be some slight evidence of that infinite grandeur which nothing could entirely distinguish. But it was likely that these disfigured remains were the least entitled to attention, and that the enemies of that immortal renown, in their fury, had addressed themselves in the first instance to the destruction of what was most beautiful and worthiest of preservation; and that the buildings of this bastard Rome, raised upon the ancient productions, although they might excite the admiration of the present age, reminded him of the crows’ and sparrows’ nests built in the walls and arches of the old churches, destroyed by the Huguenots. Again, he was apprehensive, seeing the space which this grave occupied, that the whole might not have been recovered, and that the burial itself had been buried. And, moreover, to see a wretched heap of rubbish, as pieces of tile and pottery, grow (as it had ages since) to a height equal to that of Mont Gurson, and thrice the width of it, appeared to show a conspiracy of destiny against the glory and pre-eminence of that city, affording at the same time a novel and extraordinary proof of its departed greatness. He (Montaigne) observed that it was difficult to believe, considering the limited area taken up by any of her seven hills, and particularly the two most favored ones, the Capitoline and the Palatine, that so many buildings stood on the site. Judging only from what is left of the Temple of Concord, along the Forum Romanum, of which the fall seems quite recent, like that of some huge mountain split into horrible crags, it does not look as if more than two such edifices could have found room on the Capitoline, on which there were at one period from five-and-twenty to thirty temples, besides private dwellings. But, in point of fact, there is scarcely any probability of the views which we take of the city being correct, its plan and form having changed infinitely; for instance, the Velabrum, which, on account of its depressed level, received the sewage of the city and had a lake, has been raised by artificial accumulation to a height with the other hills, and Monte Savello has, in truth, grown simply out of the ruins of the theatre of Marcellus. He believed that an ancient Roman would not recognize the place again. It often happened that in digging down into the earth the workmen came upon the crown of some lofty column, which, though thus buried, was still standing upright. The people there have no recourse to other foundations than the vaults and arches of the old houses, upon which, as on slabs of rock, they raise their modern palaces. It is easy to see that several of the ancient streets are thirty feet below those at present in use.”
Sceptical as Montaigne shows himself in his book, yet during his sojourn at Rome he manifested a great regard for religion. He solicited the honor of being admitted to kiss the feet of the Holy Father, Gregory XIII.; and the Pontiff exhorted him always to continue in the devotion which he had hitherto exhibited to the Church and the service of the Most Christian King.
“After this, one sees,” says the editor of the Journal, that construable piece of filial homage, “Montaigne employing all his time in making excursions about the neighborhood on horseback or on foot, in visits, in observations of every kind. The churches, the stations, the processions, even the sermons; then the palaces, the vineyards, the gardens, the public amusements, as the Carnival, &c.—nothing was overlooked. He saw a Jewish child circumcised, and wrote down a most minute account of the operation. He met at San Sisto a Muscovite ambassador, the second who had come to Rome since the pontificate of Paul III. This minister had despatches from his court for Venice, addressed to the Grand Governor of the Signory. The court of Muscovy had at that time such limited relations with the other powers of Europe, and it was so imperfect in its information, that it thought Venice to be a dependency of the Holy See.”
Of all the particulars with which he has furnished us during his stay at Rome, the following passage in reference to the Essays is not the least singular: “The Master of the Sacred Palace returned him his Essays, castigated in accordance with the views of the learned monks. ‘He had only been able to form a judgment of them,’ said he, ‘through a certain French monk, not understanding French himself’ ”—we leave Montaigne himself to tell the story—“and he received so complacently my excuses and explanations on each of the passages which had been animadverted upon by the French monk, that he concluded by leaving me at liberty to revise the text agreeably to the dictates of my own conscience. I begged him, on the contrary, to abide by the opinion of the person who had criticised me, confessing, among other matters, as, for example, in my use of the word fortune, in quoting historical poets, in my apology for Julian, in my animadversion on the theory that he who prayed ought to be exempt from vicious inclinations for the time being; item, in my estimate of cruelty, as something beyond simple death; item, in my view that a child ought to be brought up to do everything, and so on; that these were my opinions, which I did not think wrong; as to other things, I said that the corrector understood not my meaning. The Master, who is a clever man, made many excuses for me, and gave me to suppose that he did not concur in the suggested improvements; and pleaded very ingeniously for me in my presence against another (also an Italian), who opposed my sentiments.”
Such is what passed between Montaigne and these two personages at that time; but when the Essayist was leaving, and went to bid them farewell, they used very different language to him. “They prayed me,” says he, “to pay no attention to the censure passed on my book, in which other French persons had apprised them that there were many foolish things; adding, that they honored my affectionate intention toward the Church and my capacity; and had so high an opinion of my candor and conscientiousness that they should leave it to me to make such alterations as were proper in the book, when I reprinted it; among other things, the word fortune. To excuse themselves for what they had said against my book, they instanced works of our time by cardinals and other divines of excellent repute which had been blamed for similar faults, which in no way affected the reputation of the author, or of the publication as a whole; they requested me to lend the church the support of my eloquence (this was their fair speech), and to make a longer stay in the place, where I should be free from all further intrusion on their part. It seemed to me that we parted very good friends.”
Before quitting Rome, Montaigne received his diploma of citizenship, by which he was greatly flattered; and after a visit to Tivoli he set out for Loretto, stopping at Ancona, Fano, and Urbino. He arrived at the beginning of May 1581 at Bagno-a-Corsena, near Lucca, where he established himself, in order to try the famous waters. There, we find in the Journal, of his own accord the Essayist lived in the strictest conformity with the regime, and henceforth we only hear of his diet, the effect which the waters had by degrees upon his system, of the manner in which he took them: in a word, he does not omit an item of the circumstances connected with his daily routine, his habit of body, his baths, and the rest. It was no longer the journal of a traveller which he kept, but the diary of an invalid, attentive to the minutest details of the cure which he was endeavoring to accomplish: a sort of memorandum book, in which he was noting down everything that he felt and did, for the benefit of his medical man at home, who would have the care of his health on his return, and the attendance on his subsequent infirmities. Montaigne gives it as his reason and justification for enlarging to this extent here, that he had omitted, to his regret, to do so in his visits to other baths, which might have saved him the trouble of writing at such great length now; but it is perhaps a better reason in our eyes, that what he wrote he wrote for his own use.
We find in these accounts, however, many touches which are valuable as illustrating the manners of the place. The greater part of the entries in the Journal, giving the account of these waters, and of the travels, down to Montaigne’s arrival at the first French town on his homeward route, are in Italian, because he wished to exercise himself in that language.
The minute and constant watchfulness of Montaigne over his health and over himself might lead one to suspect that excessive fear of death which degenerates into cowardice. But was it not rather the fear of the operation for the stone, at that time really formidable? Or perhaps he was of the same way of thinking with the Greek poet, of whom Cicero reports this saying: “I do not desire to die; but the thought of being dead is indifferent to me.” Let us hear, however, what he says himself on this point very frankly: “It would be too weak and unmanly on my part if, certain as I am of always finding myself in the position of having to succumb in that way, and death coming nearer and nearer to me, I did not make some effort, before the time came, to bear the trial with fortitude. For reason prescribes that we should joyfully accept what it may please God to send us. Therefore the only remedy, the only rule, and the sole doctrine for avoiding the evils by which mankind is surrounded, whatever they are, is to resolve to bear them so far as our nature permits, or to put an end to them courageously and promptly.”
He was still at Bagno when, on the 7th September 1581, he learned by letter that he had been elected Mayor of Bordeaux on the 1st August preceding. This intelligence made him hasten his departure; and from Lucca he proceeded to Rome. He again made some stay in that city, and he there received the letter of the jurats of Bordeaux, notifying to him officially his election to the mayoralty, and inviting him to return as speedily as possible. He left for France, accompanied by young D’Estissac and several other gentlemen, who escorted him a considerable distance; but none went back to France with him, not even his travelling companion. He passed by Padua, Milan, Mont Cenis, and Chambery; thence he went on to Lyons, and lost no time in repairing to his chateau, after an absence of seventeen months and eight days.
“The gentlemen of Bordeaux,” says he, “elected me Mayor of their town while I was at a distance from France, and far from the thought of such a thing. I excused myself; but they gave to understand that I was wrong in so doing, it being also the command of the King that I should stand.” This is the letter which Henry III. wrote to him on the occasion:
“Monsieur de Montaigne,—Inasmuch as I hold in great esteem your fidelity and zealous devotion to my service, it has been a pleasure to me to learn that you have been chosen mayor of my town of Bordeaux, having had the agreeable duty of confirming the selection, which I did so much the more willingly, seeing that it was made without intrigue and in your distant absence. Wherefore my intention is, and I command and enjoin you expressly, that you return without delay or excuse, as soon as the present letter is delivered to you, to do the duties and service of the charge to which you have received so legitimate a call. And you will do a thing which will be very agreeable to me, and the contrary would displease me greatly. Praying God, M. de Montaigne, to have you in His holy keeping.
“Written at Paris, the 25th day of November 1581.
“A Monsieur de Montaigne, Knight of my Order, Gentleman in Ordinary of my Chamber, being at present in Rome.”
Montaigne, in his new employment, the most important in the province, obeyed the axiom that a man may not refuse a duty, though it absorb his time and attention, and even involve the sacrifice of his blood. Placed between two extreme parties, ever on the point of getting to blows, he showed himself in practice what he is in his book, the friend of a middle and temperate policy. Tolerant by character and on principle, he belonged, like all the great minds of the sixteenth century, to that political sect which sought to improve, without destroying, institutions; and we may say of him, what he himself said of La Boetie, “that he had that maxim indelibly impressed on his mind, to obey and submit himself religiously to the laws under which he was born. Affectionately attached to the repose of his country, an enemy to changes and innovations, he would have preferred to employ what means he had toward their discouragement and suppression, than in promoting their success.” Such was the platform of his administration.
He applied himself in an especial manner to the maintenance of peace between the two religious factions which at that time divided the town of Bordeaux. In July 1583, on his personal intercession, Henry III. repealed the customs duties (traite foraine) hitherto payable by ships loading and unloading at that port; and in the same year his grateful fellow-citizens renewed the mayoralty in his person for a further term of two years, a distinction which had been enjoyed, he tells us, only in two prior cases. On the expiration of his official career, after four years’ duration, he could say fairly enough of himself, that he left behind him neither hatred nor cause of offence. But we do not know whether he obtained the preferment mentioned in the letter of 1583, from which he augured the receipt by the King of (no doubt complimentary) presents of game and poultry.
Numerous letters to the Marechal de Matignon, the Jurats of Bordeaux, and others, as well as communications from correspondents which have been successively brought to light, attest the activity and appreciation of Montaigne as a public man during the troublous and difficult years 1584 and 1585, and seem to suggest the eminent probability that he wrote others not hitherto recovered. This correspondence presents him in an aspect forcibly contrasting with his quiet and secluded life at his chateau amid his books and literary avocations, and exhibits a complete reversal of the dedication of his future years in 1571 to learned repose among the Muses; but, if the attribution be a correct one, he farther distinguished his term of office by penning a Representation of the Authorities at Bordeaux on the occasion of the opening of the Court of Justice there in January 1582-83. The peculiar structure of the piece seems to betray its origin, and it could scarcely have been issued without the concurrence at least of the Mayor.
In the midst of the cares of government, however, Montaigne found leisure to revise and enlarge his Essays, which, since their appearance in 1580, were continually receiving augmentations in the form of additional chapters or papers. Two more editions were printed in 1582 and 1587; and during this time the author, while making alterations in the original text, had composed part of the Third Book. He went to Paris to make arrangements for the publication of his enlarged labors; and a fourth impression in 1588 was the result. He remained in the capital some time on this occasion, and it was now that he met for the first time Mademoiselle Le Jars de Gournay. Gifted with an active and inquiring spirit, and, above all, possessing a sound and healthy tone of mind, Mademoiselle de Gournay had been carried from her childhood with that tide which set in with the sixteenth century toward controversy, learning, and knowledge. She learned Latin without a master; and when, at the age of eighteen, she accidentally became possessor of a copy of the Essays, she was transported with delight and admiration. She was now about twenty.
She quitted the chateau of Gournay-sur-Aronde in Picardy to come and see him. We cannot do better, in connection with this journey of sympathy, than to repeat the words of Pasquier: “That young lady, allied to several great and noble families of Paris, proposed to herself no other marriage than with her honor, enriched with the knowledge gained from good books, and, beyond all others, from the essays of M. de Montaigne, who making in the year 1588 a lengthened stay in the town of Paris, she went there for the purpose of forming his personal acquaintance; and her mother, Madame de Gournay, and herself took him back with them to their chateau, where, at two or three different times, he spent three months altogether, most welcome of visitors.” It was from this moment that Mademoiselle de Gournay dated her adoption as Montaigne’s daughter, a circumstance which has tended to confer immortality upon her in a far greater measure than her own literary productions. Mr. St John has supplied a few other interesting particulars of the relations between the Essayist and this singular young woman, as well as of her subsequent fortunes. In the posthumous edition of the Essays, 1595, livre i. chap. 40, the author particularly commemorates this notable meeting. It was during the temporary sojourn of Montaigne at Paris, when the enlarged impression of his Essays was in the press, that he became for a short time, by a curious contretemps, an inmate of the Bastille. He was almost immediately released through the offices of the queenmother; but he did not recollect to modify the passage in his book, where he disclaims having ever seen the interior of a prison. He tells us himself that he was arrested between three and four in the afternoon, and liberated at eight in the evening.
Montaigne, on leaving Paris, stayed a short time at Blois, to attend the meeting of the States-General. We do not know what part he took in that assembly; but it is known that he was commissioned, about this period, to negotiate between Henry of Navarre (afterward Henry IV.) and the Duc de Guise. De Thou assures us that Montaigne enjoyed the confidence of the principal persons of his time. He calls him a frank man without constraint, and tells us that, walking with him and Pasquier in the court at the Castle of Blois, he heard him pronounce some very remarkable opinions on contemporary events, and adds that Montaigne had foreseen that the troubles in France could not end without witnessing the death of either the King of Navarre or of the Duc de Guise. He had made himself so completely master of the views of these two princes, that he told De Thou that the King of Navarre would have been prepared to embrace Catholicism, if he had not been afraid of being abandoned by his party, and that the Duc de Guise, on his part, had no particular repugnance to the Confession of Augsburg, for which the Cardinal de Lorraine, his uncle, had inspired him with a liking, if it had not been for the peril involved in quitting the Romish communion. For the present, Montaigne returned to his chateau, where he could carry out his motto, Otio et libertati, and compose a chapter for his next edition on The Inconveniences of Greatness.
The author of the Essays was now fifty-five. The hereditary complaint which tormented him grew only worse and worse with years; and in 1588, while he was in Paris, he had had in addition an attack of gout in his left foot. During the wars of the League he had exposed himself to a vast amount of fatigue and exertion; in 1585 he is heard appealing for consideration on account of his old age; and his correspondence, at present readable in an ampler form, establishes him beyond doubt as one of the principal actors in the busy and critical period which preceded the accession of Henry IV. to the French throne. This is to be predicated of his public career: that he never flinched from his duty even when the discharge involved severe toil and considerable expense, and that he was regarded by all with whom he came into official contact with confidence and respect; and yet he occupied himself at all spare intervals with reading, meditating, and composition, which doubtless did not fail to exercise the usual effect of a too sedentary life. He employed the years 1589, 1590, and 1591 in making fresh additions to his book; and he might have fairly anticipated many happy hours, when he was unexpectedly attacked by a new and yet more lethal enemy—quinsy, depriving him of the power of utterance. Pasquier, who has left us some details of his last hours, obtained, it is presumable, from some witness of the scene, narrates that he remained three days in full possession of his faculties, but unable to speak, so that, in order to make known his desires, he was obliged to resort to writing; and as he felt his end drawing near, he begged his wife to summon certain of the gentlemen who resided in the neighborhood to bid them a last farewell. When they had arrived, he caused mass to be celebrated in his apartment; and just as the priest was elevating the host, Montaigne fell forward, with his arms extended in front of him, on the bed, and so expired. He was in his sixtieth year. It was the 13th September 1592.
Montaigne was buried near his own house; but a few months after his decease, his remains were removed to the Church of the Feuillants at Bordeaux, where they still continued till 1871, when they were finally removed to the vestibule of the Hall of Faculties. But the vessel containing the heart of the Essayist, originally deposited in the Church of Saint Michel de Montaigne, has not been recovered.
The Essayist lived in easy circumstances, his income, which represented only, we must recollect, a portion of the whole paternal fortune, being about 6000 francs a year, and he left a large sum in land and money—90,000 francs. The property, which shared the general fortune of all French estates prior to modern improvements, and was, no doubt, relatively unprofitable, has repeatedly changed hands, and would be probably worth at the present time at least half a million of francs.
The family of Eyquem, in truth, had had a lengthened commercial experience and record; and so far down as the time of Pierre the father the house still continued to devote close attention to practical affairs, and chiefly resided at Bordeaux, where Pierre, following the precedent of his ancestors, engaged in the shipping and export trade, as well as in any other undertakings calculated to prove profitable. The elder Montaigne, who enjoyed the entire revenue, must have had a very affluent independence. But his eldest son seems, agreeably to the view and principle laid down in one of the Essays, to have had an income allowed to him vita patris.
He tells us in one passage of his book, that his father apprehended diminution of the estate from his want of aptitude for business; “but,” says Montaigne, “it did not so happen,” and he even improved matters.
Montaigne was in one sense the first gentleman of his race, unless the crusader was of the same blood. But it was a puerile trait on the part of Joseph Scaliger to stigmatize him as the son of a herring-salesman; nor was it inopportune, granting such a thing, to congratulate all such dealers, past, present, and to come, on such an egregious accession of honor.
In 1595 Mademoiselle de Gournay published a new edition of Montaigne’s Essays, and the first with the latest emendations of the author, from a copy examined and set in order by the poet Pierre de Brach, and forwarded to the lady at Paris by Mme. de Montaigne in the March of 1594. But in the same year the Lyons press brought out a reprint of the text of 1588 in duodecimo form, probably an independent contrefacon; and its main curiosity is the presence on the title of a striking appreciation of the author, which reads as if it were the product of the pen of some anonymous admirer. We are here apprised that the Essays contain “vn riche et rare thresor de plusieurs beaux et notables discours couchez en vn stile le plus pur et orne qu’il se trouve en nostre siecle.”
Whatever may have been the general reception of Montaigne’s literary productions by the generation immediately succeeding his own age, his genius grew into just esteem in the seventeenth century, when such great spirits arose as La Bruyere, Moliere, La Fontaine, Madame de Sevigne. “O,” exclaimed the Chatelaine des Rochers, “what capital company he is, the dear man! he is my old friend; and just for the reason that he is so, he always seems new. My God! how full is that book of sense!” Balzac said that he had carried human reason as far and as high as it could go, both in politics and in morals. On the other hand, Malebranche and the writers of Port Royal were against him; some reprehended the licentiousness of his writings; others their impiety, materialism, epicureanism. Even Pascal, who had carefully read the Essays, and gained no small profit by them, did not spare his reproaches. But Montaigne has outlived detraction. As time has gone on, his admirers and borrowers have increased in number, and his Jansenism, which recommended him to the eighteenth century, may not be his least recommendation in the twentieth. Here we have certainly, on the whole, a first-class man, and one proof of his masterly genius seems to be, that his merits and his beauties are sufficient to induce us to leave out of consideration blemishes and faults which would have been fatal to an inferior writer.
The books which constituted the library of Montaigne occasionally occur, and bear his autograph; he probably possessed a fairly large collection, as he informs us in his Essay 30 of the First Book, that he had a hundred volumes of the Italian Letter-writers alone; and he speaks elsewhere of being surrounded by thousands of works. But since he resided and composed his Essays at a distance from any other collection, a catalogue might be experimentally drawn up from the references to authors consulted by him, and probably all in his hands. No two writers could have been more different in their style and method, though occasionally so parallel in their thoughts, than Montaigne and Shakspeare. The former lived at a distance from books, and was obliged to retain them at his elbow for reference and quotation, of which he was inordinately prodigal. Shakspeare lived in the midst of them, kept nothing or next to nothing, and instead of transcribing sentences, not to say entire paragraphs, from others, reproduced the matter chemically transformed—sometimes so much so as to be barely recognizable.
In his Essays, 1600, Sir William Cornwallis the Younger was the first person in England to call attention to the merits of Montaigne, and the subject evidently interested him, since he left behind him in manuscript, an epigram first inserted by the editor in a privately printed volume of poetical miscellanies. This production runs as follows:—
Upon Montaigne’s Essays.
“Come, Montaigne, come, I’ll love thee with my heart;
We may not part.
I’ll harken: thou shalt sing of Nature’s King,
Music’s chief part.
Union’s division to discover to the lover,
Rarest of art.”
It is sufficiently curious that Cornwallis speaks of having seen some of the Essays in English before Florio succeeded in printing his version, for he observes: “For profitable recreation, that noble knight, the Lord de Montaigne, is most excellent, whom, though I have not been so much beholding to the French as to see in his original, yet divers of his pieces I have seen translated, they that understand both languages say very well done; and I am able to say (if you will take the word of ignorance) translated into a style admitting as few idle words as our language will endure. It is well fitted in this new garment, and Montaigne now speaks good English. It is done by a fellow less beholding to nature for his fortune than wit, yet lesser for his face than his fortune. The truth is, he looks more like a good fellow than a wise man, and yet he is wise beyond either his fortune or education.”
Thus Cornwallis, prior to 1600, had seen not only parts of the book, but the translator; and as Florio was at one time in the service of Lord Southampton as a tutor, there is the special probability that Shakspeare may have had the opportunity of glancing at the manuscript. But this aspect of the question is treated more at large in my New Essay on Shakspeare, where I show some warrant for a new view of the matter.
The translation by Florio, completed some years before it found a publisher, appeared in 1603 and was reprinted in 1613 and 1632; and readers had to wait more than half a century more for the idiomatic but loose and treacherous version by Cotton, which passed through several impressions.
I notice merely for the sake of the slight indication which it affords of an increasing call for the book, that in 1701 we meet with a small duodecimo volume entitled: “An Abstract of the most curious and excellent Thoughts in Seigneur de Montaigne’s Essays. Very useful for improving the Mind and forming the manners of Men.” This effort was well meant, but the essential point about the Essays seems to be their possession and perusal in all their full and even garrulous detail. Doubtless the Cotton version, periodically republished down to 1743, at once helped to diffuse a knowledge of the Essays in a far greater measure than the Florio one; and allusions in such books as Spence’s Anecdotes show that Montaigne was known to the literary circle in which Pope and Addison moved.