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Thursday
Apr072011

On Lord Byron (part 1)

The first part of an essay by this French man of letters on this English poet. You can read the original here.

ON THE OCCASION OF HIS DEATH

We are in June of 1824.  Lord Byron has just died. 

We are asked for our thoughts on Lord Byron, and on Lord Byron dead.  What do our thoughts matter?  What good would they be to write down, unless one thinks it impossible not to say to whomever it may concern a few words worthy of posterity on a poet and an event of such stature?  To believe those ingenious fables of the Orient, a tear will become a pearl as it falls into the sea.     

In this particular existence that has bestowed upon us a taste for literature, in this peaceful region whither we have been led by a love of independence and of poetry, Byron's death must certainly strike us, as it were, as a domestic calamity, one of those woes which touch us to the quick.  The man who has devoted his days to the religion of literature senses the circle of his physical life tightening around him at the same time as the sphere of his intellectual existence expands.  His heart's tender sentiments go out to only a few dear beings, whereas all the poets dead or alive, foreigners and countrymen, seize the affections of his soul.  Nature gave him one family; poetry creates within him a second.  His sympathies, which may summon so few to his side, will then seek out across the turbulence of social relations, beyond time and space itself, a few men whom he understands and deems deserving to understand him.  Whereas in the monotonous rotation of habits and business the indifferent mob will hurt and batter him without rousing his attention; he will establish between himself and those men he has chosen as his peers intimate connections and communications, that is to say, electric.  A soft community of thoughts like an insoluble and invisible bond will attach him to these elite beings isolated in their world just as he is in his own, in such a way that if by chance he finds himself among them, one look will suffice to reveal them to one another, one word for them both to enter into the depths of each other's souls and there to recognize this equilibrium.  And after a few moments these two strangers will be together like two brothers fed on the same milk, like two friends tried by the same misfortune.       

May we be allowed to express to him and, if necessary, to revel in such talk, our sympathy of the kind which we just said steered us to Byron.  It was certainly not the appeal that one genius inspires in another; it was rather a sincere feeling of admiration, enthusiasm and recognition, for we ought to acknowledge those men whose works and actions make the heart beat nobly.  When we were informed of the death of this poet, it seemed like a part of our future had been stolen.  It was only with bitterness that we renounced our plans never to forge with Byron one of those friendships between poets that are so soft and glorious to maintain with the majority of the main figures of our epoch, and to him we addressed this lovely line which a poet of his school employed to address the generous shadow of André Chénier :

So farewell young friend whom I never knew.

Since we just let a word escape about Lord Byron's particular school, it may then not be off the subject to examine here which place it holds in the totality of contemporary literature, which he attacks as if it could have been conquered, and which he calumniates as if it could have been condemned.  False minds, skilled at dodging all the questions, seek to emphasize a rather unusual error in our midst.  They imagined that our present society was expressed in France by two literatures in absolute opposition: that is to say, that the same tree naturally bore two fruits of opposing species and that the same cause produced simultaneously two incompatible effects.

Yet even these enemies of innovation do not realize that they have created thereby an entirely new logic.  Every day they continue to treat the literature they label classic as if it were still alive, and that which they label Romantic as something about to perish.  These learned rhetoricians who unceasingly propose to change what exists to what once existed involuntarily remind us of Ariosto's mad Orlando who so gravely begged a passer-by to take a dead mare in exchange for a live horse.  True enough, Roland accepts that his mare is dead and at the same time adds that this is her only flaw.  But the Orlandos of this alleged classic genre are not yet at this level in either judgment or good faith.   Thus one must wrest from them what they do not wish to give up willingly and tell them that today there is only one literature just like there is one society, and that previous literatures, while bequeathing us immortal monuments, had to vanish and have vanished with the generations whose social habits and political emotions they expressed.  The genius of our era may be just as beautiful as that of the most illustrious eras, but not the same; and it is not incumbent upon contemporary writers to revive a past literature[1] as it is not incumbent upon a gardener to make the leaves of autumn green again upon the branches of spring.        

Let us not be mistaken: it is first and foremost in vain that a small number of petty minds try to shepherd these general ideas towards the distressing literary system of the past century.  This naturally arid terrain has long since dried out.  Moreover, one cannot start over from the madrigals of Dorat after the guillotines of Robespierre; and Voltaire cannot carry into the century of the Corsican.  The real literature of our age in which authors are proscribed from the manner of Aristides, which, repudiated by all our quills, is then adopted by all the lyres; which, despite vast and calculated persecution, witnesses all its talents bloom within its stormy sphere, like those flowers which only grow in places battered by winds; which, finally, condemned by those who make decisions without forethought, is defended by those who think with their souls, judge with their minds and feel with their hearts.  This literature is no way the soft and shameless allure of the muse that sang of Cardinal Dubois, flattered Madame de Pompadour, and outraged our Joan of Arc.  She neither  questions the crucible of the atheist or the scalpel of the materialist.  She does not borrow from the skeptic this combination of lead in which interest alone shatters the equilibrium.  She does not give birth during orgies to songs for massacres.  She does not contain either adulation or injury.  She does not lend herself to the seductions of lying.  She does not relieve illusions of their charm.  Alien to everything which is not her true goal, she draws her poetry from the sources of truth.  Her imagination nourishes itself on faith.  She follows the progress of time but with a heavy and measured step.  Her character is serious, her voice melodious and sonorous.  She is, in a word, what must be the common thoughts of a great nation after great calamities – sad, proud, and religious.       

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[1] : One should not lose sight of the fact that, in reading this, the words 'literature of a century' must be understood not only as the totality of works produced during the century, but also the general order of ideas and sentiments which – more often than not unbeknownst even to the authors themselves – presided over their composition.

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