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Béranger, the Poet - The Atlantic

Béranger is certainly the most popular poet there has ever been in France; there was convincing proof of it at the time of and after his death. He had not printed anything since 1833, the epoch when he published the last collection of his poems; when he died, then, on the 16th of July, 1857, he had been silent twenty-four years. He had, it is true, appeared for a moment in the National Assembly, after the Revolution of February, 1848; but it was only to withdraw again almost immediately and to resign his seat. In spite of this long silence and this retirement, in which he seemed a little forgotten, no sooner did the news of his last illness spread and it was known that his life was in danger, than the interest, or we should rather say the anxiety, of the public was awakened. In the ranks of the people, in the most humble classes of society, everybody began inquiring about him and asking day by day for news; his house was besieged by visitors; and as the danger increased, the crowd gathered, restless, as if listening for his last sigh. The government, in charging itself with his obsequies and declaring that his funeral should be celebrated at the cost of the State, may have been taking a wise precaution to prevent all pretext for disturbance; but it responded also to a public and popular sentiment. At sight of the honors paid to this simple poet, with as much distinction as if he had been a Marshal of France,—at sight of that extraordinary military pomp, (and in France military pomp is the great sign of respectability, and has its place whenever it is desired to bestow special honor,) no one among the laboring population was surprised, and it seemed to all that Béranger received only what was his due.

And since that time there has been in the French journals nothing but a succession of hymns to the memory of Béranger, hymns scarcely interrupted by now and then some cooler and soberer judgments. People have vied with each other in making known his good deeds done in secret, his gifts,—we will not call them alms,—for when he gave, he did not wish that it should have the character of alms, but of a generous, brotherly help. Numbers of his private letters have been printed; and one of his disciples has published recollections of his conversations, under the title of Mémoires de Béranger. The same disciple, once a simple artisan, a shoemaker, we believe, M. Savinien Lapointe, has also composed Le petit Évangile de la Jeunesse de Béranger. M. de Lamartine, in one of the numbers of his Cours familier de Littérature, has devoted two hundred pages to an account of Béranger and a commentary on him, and has recalled curious conversations which he had with him in the most critical political circumstances of the Revolution of 1848. In short, there has been a rivalry in developing and amplifying the memory of the national songster, treating him as Socrates was once treated,—bringing up all his apophthegms, reproducing the dialogues in which he figured,—going even farther,—carrying him to the very borders of legend, and evidently preparing to canonize in him one of the Saints in the calendar of the future.

What is there solid in all this? How much is legitimate, and how much excessive? Béranger himself seems to have wished to reduce things to their right proportions, having left behind him ready for publication two volumes: one being a collection of his last poems and songs; the other an extended notice, detailing the decisive circumstances of his poetic and political life, and entitled "My Biography."

The collection of his last songs, let us say it frankly, has not answered expectation. In reading them, we feel that the poet has grown old, that he is weary. He complains continually that he has no longer any voice,—that the tree is dead,—that even the echo of the woods answers only in prose,—that the source of song is dried up; and says, prettily,—

  "If Time still make the clock run on,
  He makes it strike no longer."

And unhappily he is right. We find here and there pretty designs, short felicitous passages, smiling bits of nature; but obscurity, stiffness of expression, and the dragging in of Fancy by the hair continually mar the reading and take away all its charm. Even the pieces most highly lauded in advance, and which celebrate some of the most inspiring moments in the life of Napoleon,—such as his Baptism, his Horoscope cast by a Gypsy, and others,—have neither sparkle nor splendor. The prophet is not intoxicated, and wants enthusiasm. On the theme of Napoleon, Victor Hugo has done incomparably better; and as to the songs, properly so called, of this last collection, there are at this moment in France numerous song-writers (Pierre Dupont and Nadaud, for instance) who have the ease, the spirit, and the brilliancy of youth, and who would be able easily to triumph over this forced and difficult elevation of the Remains of Béranger, if one chose to institute a comparison. We may well say that youth is youth; to write verses, and especially songs, when one is old, is to wish still to dance, still to mount a curvetting horse; one gains no honor by the experiment. Anacreon, we know, succeeded; but in French, with rhyme and refrain, (that double butterfly-chase,) it seems to be more difficult.

But in prose, in the Autobiography, the entire Béranger, the Béranger of the best period, the man of wit, freshness, and sense, is found again; and it is pleasant to follow him in the story of his life, till now imperfectly known. He was born at Paris, on the 19th of August, 1780; and he glories in being a Parisian by birth, saying, that "Paris had not to wait for the great Revolution of 1789 to be the city of liberty and equality, the city where misfortune receives, perhaps, the most sympathy." He came into the world in the house of a tailor, his good old grandfather, in the Rue Montorgueil,—one of the noisiest of the Parisian streets, famous for its restaurants and the number of oysters consumed in them. "Seeing me born," he says, "in one of the dirtiest and noisiest streets, who would have thought that I should love the woods, fields, flowers, and birds so much?" It is true that Béranger loved them,—but he loved them always, as his poems show, like a Parisian and child of the Rue Montorgueil. A pretty enclosure, as many flowers and hedges as there are in the Closerie des Lilas, a little garden, a courtyard surrounded by apple-trees, a path winding beside wheat-fields,—these were enough for him. His Muse, we feel, has never journeyed, never soared, never beheld its first horizon in the Alps, the ocean, or the illimitable prairie. Lamartine, born in the country, amid all the wealth of the old rural and patriarchal life, had a right to oppose him, to put his own first instincts as poet in contrast with his, and to say to him, "I was born among shepherds; but you, you were born among citizens, among proletaries." Béranger loved the country as people love it on a Sunday at Paris, in walks just without the suburbs. How different from Burns, that other poet of the people, with whom he has sometimes been compared! But, on the other hand, Béranger loved the dweller in the city, the mechanic, the ouvrier, industrious, intellectual, full of enthusiasm and also of imprudence, passionate, with the heart of a soldier, and with free, adventurous ideas. He loved him even in his faults, aided him in his poverty, consoled him with his songs. Before all things he loved the street, and the street returned his love.

His father was a careless, dissipated man, who had tried many employments, and who strove to rise from the ranks of the people without having the means. His mother was a pretty woman, a dress-maker, and thorough grisette, whom his father married for her beauty, and who left her husband six months after their marriage and never gave a thought to her child. The little Béranger, born with difficulty and only with the aid of instruments, put out to nurse in the neighborhood of Auxerre, and forgotten for three years, was the object of no motherly cares. He may be said never to have had a mother. His Muse always showed traces of this privation of a mother's smile. The sentiment of home, of family, is not merely absent from his poems,—it is sometimes shocked by them.

Returning to his grandparents in Paris, and afterwards sent to a school in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, where, on the 14th of July, 1789, he saw the Bastille taken, he pursued his primary studies very irregularly. He never learned Latin, a circumstance which always prejudiced him. Later in life, he sometimes blushed at not knowing it, and yet mentioned the fact so often as almost to make one believe he was proud of it. The truth is, that this want of classical training must have been felt more painfully by Béranger than it would have been by almost any other person; for Béranger was a studied poet, full of combinations, of allusion and artifice, even in his pleasantry,—a delicate poet, moreover, of the school of Boileau and Horace.

The pension in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, even, was too much for the narrow means of his father. He was taken away and sent to Péronne, in Picardy, to an aunt who kept an inn in one of the suburbs, at the sign of the Royal Sword. It was while he was with this excellent person, who had a mind superior to her condition, that he began to form himself by the reading of good French authors. His intelligence was not less aroused by the spectacle of the events which were passing under his eyes. The Terror, the invasion by the armies of the Coalition, the roar of cannon, which could be heard at this frontier town, inspired him with a patriotism which was always predominant in him, and which at all decisive crises revived so strongly as even to silence and eclipse for the moment other cherished sentiments which were only less dear.

"This love of country," said he, emphatically, "was the great, I should say the only, passion of my life." It was this love which was his best inspiration as poet,—love of country, and with it of equality. Out of devotion to these great objects of his worship, he will even consent that the statue of Liberty be sometimes veiled, when there is a necessity for it. That France should be great and glorious, that she should not cease to be democratic, and to advance toward a democracy more and more equitable and favorable to all,—such were the aspirations and the programme of Béranger. He goes so far as to say that in his childhood he had an aversion, almost a hatred, for Voltaire, on account of the insult to patriotism in his famous poem of La Pucelle; and that afterwards, even while acknowledging all his admirable qualities and the services he rendered to the cause of humanity, he could acquire only a very faint taste for his writing. This is a striking singularity, if Béranger does not exaggerate it a little; it is almost an ingratitude,—for Voltaire is one of his nearest and most direct masters.

There is, indeed, a third passion which disputes with those for country and equality the heart of Béranger, and which he shares fully with Voltaire,—the hatred, namely, we will not say of Christianity, but of religious hypocrisy, of Jesuitic Tartufery. What Voltaire did in innumerable pamphlets, facetioe, and philosophic diatribes, Béranger did in songs. He gave a refrain, and with it popular currency to the anti-clerical attacks and mockeries of Voltaire; he set them to his violin and made them sing with the horsehair of his bow. Béranger was in this respect only the minstrel of Voltaire.

Bold songs against hypocrites, the Reverend Fathers and the Tartufes, so much in favor under the Restoration, and some which carry the attack yet higher, and which sparkle with the very spirit of buffoonery, like Le Bâtard du Pape; beautiful patriotic songs, like Le vieux Drapeau; and beautiful songs of humanity and equality, like Le vieux Vagabond;—these are the three chief branches which unite and intertwine to make the poetic crown of Béranger in his best days, and they had their root in passions which with him were profound and living,—hatred of superstition, love of country, love of humanity and equality.

His aunt at Péronne was superstitious, and during thunder-storms had recourse to all kinds of expedients, such as signs of the cross, holy-water, and the like. One day the lightning struck near the house and knocked down young Béranger, who was standing on the door-step. He was insensible for some time, and they thought him killed. His first words, on recovering consciousness, were, "Well, what good did your holy-water do?"

At Péronne he finished his very irregular course of study at a kind of primary school founded by a philanthropic citizen. During the Directory, attempts were made all over France to get up free institutions for the young, on plans more or less reasonable or absurd, by men who had fed upon Rousseau's Émile and invented variations upon his system. On leaving school, Béranger was placed with a printer in the city, where he became a journeyman printer and compositor, which has occasioned his being often compared to Franklin,—a comparison of which he is not unworthy, in his love for the progress of the human race, and the piquant and ingenious turn he knew how to give to good sense. From this first employment as printer Béranger acquired and retained great nicety in language and grammar. He insisted on it, in his counsels to the young, more than seems natural in a poet of the people. He even exaggerated its importance somewhat, and might seem a purist.

Béranger's father reappeared suddenly during the Directory and reclaimed his son, whom he carried to Paris. The father had formed connections in Brittany with the royalists. He had become steward of the household of the Countess of Bourmont, mother of the famous Bourmont who was afterwards Marshal of France and Minister of War. Bourmont himself, then young, was living in Paris, in order the better to conspire for the restoration of the Bourbons. The elder Béranger was neck-deep in these intrigues, and was even prosecuted after the discovery of one of the numerous conspiracies of the day, but acquitted for want of proof. He was the banker and money-broker of the party,—a wretched banker enough! The narrative of the son enables us to see what a miserable business the father was engaged in. This near view of political intriguers, of royalists driven to all manner of expedients and standing at bay, of adventurers who did not shrink from the use of any means, not even the infernal-machine, did not dispose the young man already imbued with republican sentiments to change them, and this initiation into the secrets of the party was not likely to inspire him with much respect for the future Restoration. He had too early seen men and things behind the scenes. His father, in consequence of his swindling transactions, made a bankruptcy, which reduced the son to poverty and filled him with grief and shame.

He was now twenty years old; he had courage and hope, and he already wrote verses on all sorts of subjects,—serious, religious, epic, and tragic. One day, when he was in especial distress, he made up a little packet of his best verses and sent them to Lucien Bonaparte, with a letter, in which he set forth his unhappy situation. Lucien loved literature, and piqued himself on being author and poet. He was pleased with the attempts of the young man, and made him a present of the salary of a thousand or twelve hundred francs to which he was entitled as member of the Institute. It was Béranger's first step out of the poverty in which he had been plunged for several years, and he was indebted for the benefit to a Bonaparte, and to the most republican Bonaparte of the family. He was always especially grateful for it to Lucien, and somewhat to the Bonapartes in general.

Receiving a small appointment in the bureau of the University through the intervention of the Academician Arnault, a friend of Lucien Bonaparte, Béranger lived gayly during the last six years of the Empire. He managed to escape the conscription, and never shouldered a musket. He reserved himself to sing of military glory at a later day, but had no desire to share in it as soldier. He was elected into a singing club called The Cellar, all of whose members were songwriters and good fellows, presided over by Désaugiers, the lord of misrule and of jolly minstrels. Béranger, after his admission to the Caveau, at first contended with Désaugiers in his own style, but already a ground of seriousness and thought showed through his gayety. He wrote at this time his celebrated song of the Roi d'Yvetot, in which, while he caricatured the little play-king, the king in the cotton nightcap, he seemed to be slyly satirizing the great conquering Emperor himself.

The Empire fell, and Béranger hesitated for some time to take part against the Bourbons. It was not till after the battle of Waterloo and the return of Louis XVIII. under convoy of the allied armies, that he began to feel the passion of patriotism blaze up anew within him and dictate stinging songs which soon became darts of steel. Meanwhile he wrote pretty songs, in which a slight sentiment of melancholy mingled with and heightened the intoxication of wine and pleasure. La bonne Vieille is his chef-d'oeuvre in this style. He arranged the design of these little pieces carefully, sketching his subjects beforehand, and herein belongs to the French school, that old classic school which left nothing to chance. He composed his couplets slowly, even those which seem the most easy. Commonly the song came to him through the refrain;—he caught the butterfly by the wings;—when he had seized the refrain, he finished at intervals, and put in the nicer shadings at leisure. He wrote hardly ten songs a year at the time of his greatest fecundity. It has since been remarked that they smell of the lamp here and there; but at first no one had eyes except for the rose, the vine, and the laurel.

The Bourbons, brought back for the second time in 1815, committed all manner of blunders: they insulted the remains of the old grande armée; they shot Marshal Ney and many others; a horrible royalist reaction ensanguined the South of France. The Jesuit party insinuated itself at Court, and assumed to govern as in the high times of the confessors of Louis XIV. It was hoped to conquer the spirit of the Revolution, and to drive modern France back to the days before 1789; hence thousands of hateful things impossible to be realized, and thousands of ridiculous ones. Towards 1820 the liberal opposition organized itself in the Chambers and in the press. The Muse of Béranger came to its assistance under the mask of gay raillery. He was the angry bee that stung flying, and whose stings are not harmless; nay, he would fain have made them mortal to the enemy. He hated even Louis XVIII., a king who was esteemed tolerably wise, and more intelligent than his party. "I stick my pins," said Béranger, "into the calves of Louis XVIII." One must have seen the fat king in small-clothes, his legs as big as posts and round as pin-cushions, to appreciate all the point of the epigram.

Béranger had been very intimate since 1815 with the Deputy Manuel, a man of sense and courage, but very hostile to the Bourbons, and who, for words spoken from the Tribune, was expelled from the Chamber of Deputies and declared incapable of reëlection. Though intimate with many influential members of the opposition, such as Laffitte the banker, and General Sebastiani, it was only with Manuel that Béranger perfectly agreed. It is by his side, in the same tomb, that he now reposes in Père la Chaise, and after the death of Manuel he always slept on the mattress upon which his friend had breathed his last. Manuel and Béranger were ultra-inimical to the Restoration. They believed that it was irreconcilable with the modern spirit of France, with the common sense of the new form of society, and they accordingly did their best to goad and irritate it, never giving it any quarter. At certain times, other opposition deputies, such as General Foy, would have advised a more prudent course, which would not have rendered the Bourbons impossible by attacking them so fiercely as to push them to extremes. However this might have been, poetry is always more at home in excess than in moderation. Béranger was all the more a poet at this period, that he was more impassioned. The Bourbons and the Jesuits, his two most violent antipathies, served him well, and made him write his best and most spirited songs. Hence his great success. The people, who never perceive nice shades of opinion, but love and hate absolutely, at once adopted Béranger as the singer of its loves and hatreds, the avenger of the old army, of national glory and freedom, and the inaugurator or prophet of the future. The spirit prisoned in these little couplets, these tiny bodies, is of amazing force, and has, one might almost say, a devilish audacity. In larger compositions, breath would doubtless have failed the poet,—the greater space would have been an injury to him. Even in songs he has a constrained air sometimes, but this constraint gave him more force. He produces the impression of superiority to his class.

Béranger had given up his little post at the University before declaring open war against the government. He was before long indicted, and in 1822 condemned to several months' imprisonment, for having scandalized the throne and the altar. His popularity became at once boundless; he was sensible of it, and enjoyed it. "They are going to indict your songs," said some one to him. "So much the better!" he replied,—"that will gilt-edge them." He thought so well of this gilding, that in 1828, during the ministry of M. Martignac, a very moderate man and of a conciliatory semi-liberalism, he found means to get indicted again and to undergo a new condemnation, by attacks which some even of his friends then thought untimely. Once again Béranger was impassioned; he declared his enemies incurable and incorrigible; and soon came the ordinances of July, 1830, and the Revolution in their train, to prove him right.

In 1830, at the moment when the Revolution took place, the popularity of Béranger was at its height. His opinion was much deferred to in the course taken during and after "the three great days." The intimate friend of most of the chiefs of the opposition who were now in power, of great influence with the young, and trusted by the people, it was essential that he should not oppose the plan of making the Duke of Orleans King. Béranger, in his Biography, speaks modestly of his part in these movements. In his conversations he attributed a great deal to himself. He loved to describe himself in the midst of the people who surrounded the Hôtel of M. Laffitte, going and coming, listening to each, consulted by all, and continually sent for by Laffitte, who was confined to his armchair by a swollen foot. Seeing the hesitation prolonged, he whispered in Laffitte's ear that it was time to decide, for, if they did not take the Duke of Orleans for King pretty soon, the Revolution was in danger of turning out an émeute. He gave this advice simply as a patriot, for he was not of the Orleans party. When he came out, his younger friends, the republicans, reproached him; but he replied, "It is not a king I want, but only a plank to get over the stream." He set the first example of disrespect for the plank he thought so useful; indeed, the comparison itself is rather a contemptuous one.

He afterwards behaved, however, with great sense and wisdom. He declined all offices and honors, considering his part as political songster at an end. In 1833 he published a collection in which were remarked some songs of a higher order, less partisan, and in which he foreshadowed a broader and more peaceful democracy. After this he was silent, and as he was continually visited and consulted, he resolved upon leaving Paris for some years, in order to escape this annoyance. He went first to the neighborhood of Tours, and then to Fontainebleau; but the free, conversational life of Paris was too dear to him, and he returned to live in seclusion, though always much visited by his troops of friends, and much sought after. In leaving Paris during the first years of Louis Philippe's reign, and closing, as he called it, his consulting office, his chief aim was to escape the questions, solicitations, and confidences of opposite parties, in all of which he continued to have many friends who would gladly have brought him over to their way of thinking. He did not wish to be any longer what he had been so much,—a consulting politician; but he did not cease to be a practical philosopher with a crowd of disciples, and a consulting democrat. Chateaubriand, Lamennais, Lamartine,—the chiefs of parties at first totally opposed to his own,—came to seek his friendship, and loved to repose and refresh themselves in his conversation. He enjoyed, a little mischievously, seeing one of them (Chateaubriand) lay aside his royalism, another (Lamennais) abjure his Catholicism, and the third (Lamartine) forget his former aristocracy, in visiting him. He looked upon this, and justly, as a homage paid to the manners and spirit of the age, of which he was the humble but inflexible representative.

When the Revolution of 1848 burst unexpectedly, he was not charmed with it,—nay, it made him even a little sad. Less a republican than a patriot, he saw immense danger for France, as he knew her, in the establishment of the pure republican form. He was of opinion that it was necessary to wear out the monarchy little by little,—that with time and patience it would fall of itself; but he had to do with an impatient people, and he lamented it. "We had a ladder to go down by," said he, "and here we are jumping out of the window!" It was the same sentiment of patriotism, mingled with a certain almost mystical enthusiasm for the great personality of Napoleon, nourished and augmented with growing years, which made him accept the events of 1851-2 and the new Empire.

The religion of Béranger, which was so anti-Catholic, and which seems even to have dispensed with Christianity, reduced itself to a vague Deism, which in principle had too much the air of a pleasantry. His Dieu des bonnes gens, which he opposed to the God of the congregation and the preachers, could not be taken seriously by any one. Nevertheless, the poet, as he grew older, grew more and more attached to this symbol of a Deity, indulgent before all else, but very real and living, and in whom the poor and the suffering could put their trust. What passed in the days preceding his death has been much discussed, and many stories are told about it. He received, in fact, some visits from the curate of the parish of Saint Elizabeth, in which he lived. This curate had formerly officiated at Passy,—a little village near Paris, where Béranger had resided,—and was already acquainted with the poet. The conversations at these visits, according to the testimony of those best informed, amounted to very little; and the last time the curate came, just as he was going out, Béranger, already dying, said to him, "Your profession gives you the right to bless me; I also bless you;—pray for me, and for all the unfortunate!" The priest and the old man exchanged blessings,—the benedictions of two honest men, and nothing more.

Béranger had one rare quality, and it was fundamental with him,—obligingness, readiness to perform kind offices, humanity carried to the extent of Charity. He loved to busy himself for others. To some one who said that time lay heavy on his hands, he answered, "Then you have never occupied yourself about other people?" "Take more thought of others than of yourself" was his maxim. And he did so occupy himself,—not out of curiosity, but to aid, to succor with advice and with deeds. His time belonged to everybody,—to the humblest, the poorest, the first stranger who addressed him and told him his sorrows. Out of a very small income (at most, four or five thousand francs a year) he found means to give much. He loved, above all, to assist poor artisans, men of the people, who appealed to him; and he did it always without wounding the fibre of manhood in them. He loved everything that wore a blouse. He had, even stronger than the love of liberty, the love of equality, the great passion of the French.

He spent the last years of his life with an old friend of his youth by the name of Madame Judith. This worthy person died a few months before him, and he accompanied her remains to the church. He was seventy-seven years old when he died.

Estimating and comparing chiefly literary and poetic merits, some persons in France have been astonished that the obsequies of Béranger should have been so magnificently celebrated, while, but a few months before, the coffin of another poet, M. Alfred de Musset, had been followed by a mere handful of mourners; yet M. de Musset was capable of tones and flights which in inspiration and ardor surpassed the habitual range of Béranger. Without attempting here to institute a comparison, there is one thing essential to be remarked: in Béranger there was not only a poet, but a man, and the man in him was more considerable than the poet,—the reverse of what is the case with so many others. People went to see him, after having heard his songs sung, to tell him how much they had been applauded and enjoyed,—and, after the first compliments, found that the poet was a man of sense, a good talker on all subjects, interested in politics, a wonderful reasoner, with great knowledge of men, and characterizing them delicately with a few fine and happy touches. They became sincerely attached to him; they came again, and delighted to draw out in talk that wisdom armed with epigram, that experience full of agreeable counsels. His passions had been the talent of the poet; his good sense gave authority to the man. Even by those least willing to accept popular idols, Béranger will always be ranked as one of the subtilest wits of the French school, and as something more than this,—as one of the acutest servants of free human thought.