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BÉRANGER: HIS SONGS AND POLITICS.
CARE NOT who makes the laws of a nation so long as I make its songs,' was the dictum of a wise man, who recognised the vast influence that popular refrains and ballads have in swaying the mind, heart and temper of a people either for good or evil. There is a kind of inspiration in national popular songs; they not only implant and foster an idea, but give the irresistible élan which enables it to be carried out; they exalt a cause into a religion, and nerve its votaries for martyrdom or triumph. A great poet may be known and read of all men without having the power to wake any such chords in the souls of his fellows, while he whose touch is like magic on their hearts, at whose call they arise and follow whithersoever he leads, may be anything but a great poet, though he must have some spark of genius, and consciously or unconsciously strike the key-note of the age in which he lives and writes.
It is very difficult to be just to such a one-to give him his meed of praise and no more, to decide how much he owes to merit and how much to circumstances, and to define the exact point to which the muse guides him, ere fortune takes him by the hand and leads him up to fame. We do not, as a rule, love strict justice any more than we practise it; we are ready enough with pity, anger, enthusiasm, or even worship; but cool, impartial equity is a thing apart, and seems nearly unattainable. After the lapse of years, however, we ought to be able to weigh an author's value and productions without bias or prejudice; to consider him in the light of posterity, and see what harvests his words have brought forth, whether tares and dragon's teeth, or goodly corn and fruit.
The present is a specially fitting occasion to review the character and lyrical influence of the popular poet of France-his fellow countrymen are this month to celebrate his centenary. Beranger was a manysided figure-poet, politician, man of the world, and hero-worshipper. The good-humoured, old-fashioned-looking figure which was to be seen at street corners and on the Boulevards continually some five and twenty or thirty years ago was that of a man of mark more powerful than many who looked more imposing. But the wind bloweth where it listeth, and the cherub of song takes up its abode where it will, and is often worse lodged than in the mortal coil of Béranger. The spirit which from time to time leads mankind forth conquering and to conquer frequently goes to work in an unprecedented fashion, and accomplishes its mission in its own way. It seldom proceeds from the rich, the powerful, or the renowned, but,
1 Béranger was born August 19, 1780.
on the contrary, makes choice of a visionary mouk, an enterprising libertine, or an eccentric misanthrope. This time it spoke by the mouth of a singer, who proved faithful to the light that was in him, and carried out implicitly the rôle with which he was entrusted. He, more than any other man, effaced from the mind of France the memory of her kings, and chased from the national soil the last representatives of monarchy. He tore all the velvet off the old throne, and made masks of it for the amusement of the populace, and after his activity in destroying the ancient royalty, busied himself with the erection of a new one. Nor was this the end of his task, for throughout his whole career he nourished in his countrymen the military sentiment, and the worship of glory as none other has ever done or will do.
In his songs he embalmed the memory of the wonderful genius who made France so great, and left her so exhausted. He was the creator of the Napoleonic legend, and made the grandeur of the Republic a living spectacle to a generation which had not known it. Consequently the name of Béranger is attached to the mightiest feat of contemporary history, and his poems have surrounded it with a halo of glory. He formed, so to speak, an integral element of the popularity of the first Napoleon; he was the most implacable foe of the Bourbon monarchy, and as though these were not titles enough to celebrity, the Republican party claimed him as their patriarch and pope.
Important as was the place occupied by Béranger in general and political society, his intellectual and literary position was, if possible, more remarkable still. English people can neither understand nor appreciate the estimation in which the author of Frétillon' and 'Lisette' was held, and it is certain that in our language both these little poems would have fallen flat, or been at once banished to the shades to which sentiments unfit for ears polite are usually consigned, and no one who values the sanctity of home, and the purity which ought to attach to the names of wife and mother, would wish it to be otherwise. But in the circles among which he moved his commonest words were quoted as oracles of good sense, and his opinions, though they were too often of the earth earthy, were accepted as the expression of wisdom which had profited by experience. He had neither critics nor flatterers, but only admirers, and he was perhaps the only man of his age whose renown was neither envied nor begrudged.
In general society Béranger was merely the most popular man in France, but in his retreat he became a species of saint, and was enthroned as an idol on the summit of contemporary literature. It would have been the sheerest folly imaginable for anyone to have attacked him, for all the faults with which he could possibly have been reproached were transformed by his adorers into gifts and virtues. If an objection were ever raised to the manner in which he overstepped the bounds of conventional decency, it was met by an
asseveration that he only used the language of practical common sense; and if a complaint was occasionally whispered against his irreverence, it was smothered by a declaration that its true designation was Socratic irony, or mere Gallic gaiety, and that the detractor had better hold his tongue. Being thus defended by a vigilant guard and invincible arguments, his glory was impregnable, and he enjoyed it to the full in security and peace. Nor was this all, for the other stars of the age did homage to him, and Chateaubriand, Lamennais, and Lamartine performed humble pilgrimages to his retreat, that they might ask pardon for their orthodoxy, expiate their sins as royalists, and receive at his venerable hands the absolution of democracy. At length he died full of years and honour; the Moniteur announced to France the death of the national poet, the State undertook his obsequies, he was borne to his long home between two files of soldiers, and as soon as his corpse had received the last rites of the Church, the organ pealed forth the air of his Souvenirs du Peuple.'
It has been said by one of the most eloquent writers of the present day that nations are wont to wreathe the tombstone when they have not crowned the brow; but Béranger was one of the few who received both of these tributes from a grateful country, and left behind him openly recognised as well as indelible 'footprints on the sands of time. He has never yet been judged simply as a poet, because we cannot dissociate him from the events in which he took part; the poet and the personage were a single being, but the one was the creation of the other. When the bow is drawn, we follow the arrow in its flight, and watch to see if it strike the mark, but no one inquires what Wood it is made of. The gun is fired, and an assailant falls shot through the heart, and it does not occur to any of us to ask if the powder were of the best quality. The importance of the times, the excitement of the contest, and the intoxication of triumph came to the aid of Béranger's muse, and attached a date to each of his songs, so that it is impossible to separate the words from the acts that called them forth, and consequently the poet and the personage are so closely blended in him that they can hardly be contemplated apart. Popular logic, especially in France, can always find a wellSounding explanation, whether there be any sense in it or no, and would fain have us believe that there is an exact proportion between the talents and the achievements of a man. Béranger accomplished great things by means of his chansons; ergo, he must have received the gift of song to an unprecedented extent. Not so, says the impartial observer at this distance of time; the gift of poetry was his no doubt, but he was not so supremely dowered with genius as some of his confrères. The airy grace and flowery sentiments which animate many of his verses can bear no comparison with the exquisite tenderness, the nervous sensibility, and melancholy eloquence of Alfred de Musset, who was consecrated by the Muse to her service with an ardent and impassioned kiss, very different from the light impress
No. 608 (No. CXXVIII. N. 8.)
she left in passing on the brow of the popular poet, yet only thirty people followed him to his grave, while two months afterwards no fewer than 100,000 watched the cortège which accompanied the latter to the tomb.
Béranger does not captivate us by his imagination, though he is industriously inventive, and like a busy bee gathers honey from all blossoms, and he does not soar with the flight and aim which make us feel that the idea of wings is inseparable from our conception of the true poet; he hovers and flutters over the fields of fancy, but never for an instant loses sight of the earth.
No one, however, knew his own failings better than Béranger himself; he was too clear-sighted not to be aware of his shortcomings, and constituted himself his own critic. He was truly modest, and the clouds of pride were unable to obscure his mental vision to such a degree as to make him fancy that his genius was equal to his fame. In the lively prefaces to his poems, and in the fragments of conversation which have been collected by M. Lapointe, he expresses the fear that his reputation is on the decline, and attributes to circumstances a great part of his success. This consciousness doubtless regulated his whole life from the moment when he became illustrious, and caused him to adopt the line of conduct which he followed to his dying day. His voluntary retirement, his modest life, his obstinate refusal of the recompense due to his talents, and the tactics which made the ego as humble and insignificant as possible, all bear witness to it. Circumstances cleverly manipulated had given him his popularity, and other circumstances might take it away, if he happened to cross them. So he prudently drove a nail into Dame Fortune's wheel, and forbade it to turn any longer for him.
He was wise in his generation, for at the moment when his star reached its zenith, a new school of poetry arose whose success was independent of the outer world. The romantic movement, so audacious and irreverent towards the classics and literary celebrities of the preceding generation, seems to have alarmed Béranger, so after a little parley he bade the new comers welcome and departed with a good grace. The renown which the Restoration had given him might otherwise have vanished, and it would have been a singular spectacle if Béranger's poetry had gone into exile with King Charles X. It was running too great a risk to occupy the public any longer with his name, so he yielded to the very natural and legitimate fear lest he should survive himself. He wished to die, and thanks to his clairvoyance he did die, with unfaded glory. Perhaps it was to this feeling that he owed his latest and best success; he was, as we have said, really modest; he did not indulge in that disdain and Byronic arrogance towards the public which was displayed by so many men of his time. He drew his renown from the people, and was grateful for it, and even felt that he owed some duty to his patrons. So at each step in his career he made new efforts, fresh attempts. He had been congratulated on his perpetual good humour, and he endea
voured thereupon to soften the notes of his lyre. He was called the French Horace, and he took the compliment seriously, and sought to deserve it by writing verses in which he expressed indulgent phi losophy and optimism. He was told that his poems were perfect odes, so he made an effort to climb the heights of heroic sentiment, and met on his way the zephyr which inspired the "Souvenirs du Peuple,' and Chant du Cosaque.' Even when crowned with glory, he did not stop short as most men would have done; he thought he could not be sufficiently worthy of it. He still aimed higher and higher, watched the progress of public opinion and the advance of new ideas, and this time he produced some of the best songs in the French language- Jeanne la Rousse,' Les Bohémiens,' and Le Juif errant.' Starting from the simple Parisian ditty, he advanced to the ode, and at the end of his poetic journey attained to the dignity of the ballad. He began with the artificial poetry of a false and corrupt civilisation, and at length found the poetry of nature. This great achievement he certainly owed to his recognition of the public, and to his conviction that he ought to merit his renown. Such a feeling atones for many sins against both taste and morality, and suffices in itself to justify the personal respect with which he was surrounded.
The poetic gifts exhibited in Béranger's works are very various and conflicting; they have no suite, they do not sustain or correspond with each other; in point of fact, many of them are not natural to him, they are acquired by dint of perseverance, care, art, and a strong will. What gifts then had he received from Nature? and of what kind could they have been before they were enriched by study and work? Let us try to imagine them, and as Béranger loved allegories we will follow his example. He frequently said that, after his birth in his grandfather's house, a fairy was seen beside his cradle. Was she really there? Yes, but she was not the dazzling fairy who inspired the dreams of Oberon; she was rather one of the mischievous band who accompanied Puck in his expeditions, and helped him to turn the butter sour in the churns, to steal the cakes, and drink the wine. Moreover she was a city elf, and taught the boy the tricks with which she was herself familiar, such as how to splash an emblazoned carriage, how to bewilder sacristans by ringing their bells at unseasonable hours, and how to irritate kings by throwing pebbles at their palace windows. At his baptism this erratic godmother gave him a piercing little ivory whistle, a tiny trumpet, and a drum; instead of a shepherd's flute, Apollo's lyre, or a troubadour's guitar. Béranger's muse was no bird with splendid plumage and resounding voice; but at the outset, a poor little Parisian sparrow, familiar, saucy, gay, acquainted with no nature save that of suburban gardens, making love on the house-tops, and twittering all the while with cheery, chirping voice, of sunshine, spring, and liberty.
It is not enough to say of a French poet or writer that he is by birth a Frenchman; if we would understand his being in all its bear