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BY WALTER PATER.
From The Fortnightly Review. of the thirteenth century, that is to say, PROSPER MERIMEE.
with its consequent aptitude for the co
ordination of human effort. Deprived of For one born in 1803 much was re
that exhilarating yet pacific outlook, imcently become incredible that had at least prisoned now in the narrow cell of its own warmed the imagination even of the
subjective experience, the action of a
scep tical eighteenth century. Napoleon, seal powerful nature will be intense, but excluing the tomb of the Revolution, had sive and peculiar. It will come to art, or foreclosed many a problem, extinguished science, to the experience of life itself, not many a hope, in the sphere of practice.
as to portions of human nature's daily And the mental parallel was drawn by food, but as to something that must be by Heipe. In the mental world too a great almost as men turn in despair to gambling
the circumstances of the case exceptional; outlook had lately been cut off. After Kant's criticism of the mind, its preten.
or narcotics, and in a little while the narsions to pass beyond the limits of individ. cotic, the game of chance or skill, is valued ual experience seemed as dead as those for its own sake. The vocation of the of old French royalty. And Kant did but artist, of the student of life or books, will furnish its jonermost theoretic force to a
be realized with something — say of more general criticism which had with fanáticism, as an end in itself, unrelated,
unassociated. The science he turns to drawn from every department of action underlying principles once thought eter
will be a science of crudest fact; pal, A time of disillusion followed. The sion extravagant, a passionate love of pastypical personality of the day was Ober- sion, varied through all the exotic phases mand, the very genius of ennui, a French- of French fiction as inaugurated by Balmao disabused even of patriotism, who zac; the art exaggerated, in matter or bas bardly strength enough to die. More form, or both, as in Hugo or Baudelaire. energetic souls, however, would recover
The development of these conditions is themselves, and find some way of making
the mental story of the nineteenth century, the best of a changed world. Art: the especially as exemplified in France. passions, above all, the ecstasy and sor
In no century would Prosper Mérimée row of love ; a purely empirical knowledge have been a theologian or metaphysician. of nature and man; these still remained,
But that sense of negation, of theoretic at least for pastime, in a world of which it insecurity, was in the air, and conspiring was no longer proposed to calculate the with what was of like tendency in himself remoter issues; art, passion, science, how- made of him a central type of disillusion. ever, in a somewhat novel attitude towards lo him the passive ennui of Obermann
became a satiric, aggressive, almost angry the practical interests of life. The désillusionné, who had found in Kant's nega: around; it was as if man's fatal limitations
conviction of the littleness of the world tions the last word concerning an unseen world, and is living, on the morrow of the constituted a kind of stupidity in him,
what the French call bêtise. Gossiping Revolution, under a monarchy made out of band, might seem cut off from certain tional in him and in the age with an inció
friends, indeed, linked what was constituancient natural hopes, and will demand, dent of his earliest years. Corrected for from wbat is to interest him at all, some.
some childish fault, in passionate distress, thing in the way of artificial stimulus. He bas lost that sense of large proportion in
he overhears a half-pitying laugh at his things, that all-embracing prospect of life expense, and has determined, in a moment, as a wbole (from end to end of time and never again to give credit to be forever space, it bad seemed), the utmost expanse stinctive movements. Quite unreserved,
on his guard, especially against his own in. of whicb was afforded from a cathedral tower of the Middle Age ; by the church certainly, he never was again. Almost
everywhere he could detect the hollow • A lecture delivered at the Taylor Institution, Ox- ring of fundamental nothingness under ford, and at the London Institution.
the apparent surface of things. Irony
surely, habitual irony, would be the proper | sculpturesque creations is ceither more 'complement thereto, on his part. In his nor less than empty space. infallible self-possession, you might even So disparate are his writings that at fancy him a mere man of the world, with first sight you might fancy them only the a special aptitude for matters of fact. random efforts of a man of pleasure or Though indifferent in politics, he rises to affairs, who, turning to this or that for the social, to political eminence; but all the relief of a vacant hour, discovers to his while he is feeding all his scholarly curi- surprise a workable literary gift, of whose osity, his imagination, the very eye, with scope, however, he is not precisely aware. the, to him ever delightful, relieving, re. His sixteen volumes nevertheless range assuring spectacle, of those straightfor themselves in three compact groups. ward forces in human nature, which are There are his letters — those “ Lettres à also matters of fact. There is the formula une Inconnue," and his letters to the libra. of Mérimée; the enthusiastic amateur of rian Panizzi, revealing him in somewhat rude, crude, naked force in men and close contact with political intrigue. But women wherever it could be found; him in this age of novelists, it is as a writer of self carrying ever, as a mask, the conven- novels, of fiction in the form of highly detional attire of the modero world scriptive drama, that he will count for carrying it with an infinite, contemptuous most; Colomba,” for instance, by its grace, as if that, too, were an all-sufficient intellectual depth of motive, its firmly end in itself. With a natural gift for words, conceived structure, by the faultlessness for expression, it will be his literary func-of its execution, vindicating the function tion to draw back the veil of time from of the novel as no tawdry light literature, the true greatness of old Roman charac- but in very deed a fine art. The “Chro. ter; the veil of modern habit from the nique du Règne de Charles IX.," an unuprimitive energy of the creatures of his sually successful specimen of bistorical fancy, as the "Lettres à une Inconnue” romance, links his imaginative work to the discovered to general gaze, after his third group of Mérimée's writings, bis ...death, a certain depth of passionate force historical essays. One resource of the which had surprised him in himself. And disabused soul of our century, as we saw, how forcible will be their outlines in an would be the empirical study of facts, the otherwise insignificant world ! Funda- empirical science of nature and man, surmental belief gone, in almost all of us, at viving all dead metaphysical philosoleast some relics of it remain – queries, phies. Mérimée, perhaps, may have had echoes, reactions, after-thoughts; and they in him the making of a master of such help to make an atmosphere, a mental science, disinterested, patient, exact; atmosphere, hazy perhaps, yet with many scalpel in hand, we may fancy, he would secrets of soothing light and shade, asso- have penetrated far. But quite certainly ciating more definite objects to each other, he had something of genius for the exact by a perspective pleasant to the inward study of history, for the pursuit of exact eye against a hopefully receding back. truth, with a keenness of scent as if that ground of remoter and ever remoter pos. alone existed, in some special area of hissibilities. Not so with Mérimée. For toric fact determined by his own peculiar him the fundamental criticism has nothing mental preferences. Power here too again, more than it can do; and there are no half the naked power of men and women which lights. The last traces of hypothesis, of mocks, while it makes its use, of aversupposition, are evaporated. Sylla, the age human nature; it was the magic funcfalse Demetrius, Carmen, Colomba, that tion of history to put one in living contact impassioned self within himself, have no with that. To weigh the purely physiogatmosphere. Painfully distinct in out-nomic import of the memoir, of the pam. line, inevitable to sight, unrelieved, there phlet saved by chance, the letter, the they stand, like solitary mountain forms anecdote, the very gossip by which one on some hard, perfectly transparent day. came face to face with energetic personWhat Mérimée gets around his singularly 'alities; there lay the true business of the
bistoric student, not in that pretended A lover of ancient Rome, its great chartheoretic interpretation of events by their acter and incident, Mérimée valued, as if mechanic causes, with which he dupes it had been personal property of his, every others if not invariably bimself. In the extant relic of it in the art that had been great hero of the “Social War,” in Sylla, most expressive of its genius -architecstudied, indeed, through his environment, ture. In that grandiose art of building, but only so far as that was in dynamic the most national, the most tenaciously contact with himself, you saw, without rooted of all the arts in the stable condiany manner of doubt, on one side, the tions of life, there were historic docusolitary height of human genius; on the ments hardly less clearly legible than the other, though on the seemingly so heroic manuscript chronicle. By the mouth of stage of antique Roman story, the wholly those stately Romanesque churches, scatinexpressive level of the humanity of tered in so many strongly characterized: every day, the spectacle of man's eternal varieties over the soil of France, above all bêtise. Fascinated, like a veritable son of in the hot, half-pagan south, the people of the old pagan Renaissance, by the gran- empire still protested, as he understood, deur, the concentration, the satiric hard against what must seem a smaller race. ness of ancient Roman character, it is to The Gothic enthusiasm indeed was al. Russia nevertheless that he most readily ready born, and he shared it — felt intelliturns youthful Russia, whose native gently the fascination of the pointed style; force, still unbelittled by our western civ. but only as a further transformation of old ilization, seemed to have in it the promise Roman structure, the round arch is for of a more dignified civilization to come. him still the great architectural form, la It was
as if old Rome itself were here forme noble, because it was to be seen again; as, occasionally, a new quarry is in the monuments of antiquity. Romanlaid open of what was thought long since esque, Gothic, the manner of the Renaisexhausted ancient marble, cipollino or sance, of Lewis the Fourteenth: they were verde antique. Mérimée, indeed, was all, as in a written record, in the old abbey not the first to discern the fitness for im- church of Saint-Savin, of which Mérimée aginative service of the career of “the was instructed to draw up a report. false Demetrius,” pretended son of Ivan Again, it was as if to his concentrated the Terrible; but he alone seeks its ut. attention through many months that de. most force in a calm, matter-of-fact, care serted sanctuary of Benedict were the fully ascertained presentment of the naked only thing on earth. Its beauties, its events. Yes! In the last years of the peculiarities, its odd military features, its : Valois, when its fierce passions seemed faded mural paintings, are no merely pic=' to be bursting France to pieces, you might turesque matter for the pencil he could have seen, far away beyond the rude Polish use so well, but the lively record of a domioion of which one of those Valois human society. With what appetite ! prioces bad become king, a display more with all the animation of Georges Sand's. effective still of exceptional courage and Mauprat,” he tells the story of romantic cunding, of borror in circumstance, of violence having its way there, defiant of, bêtise, of course, of bêtise and a slavish law, so late as the year 1611, of the family capacity of being duped, in average man- of robber nobles perched, as abbots in kind; all that under a mask of solemn commendam, in those sacred places. Muscovite court-ceremonial. And Méri. That grey, pensive old church in the little mée's style, simple and unconcerned, but valley of Poitou, was for a time like Santa with the eye ever on its object, lends itself Maria del Fiore to Michael Angelo, the perfectly to such purpose to an almost mistress of his affections — of a practical phlegmatic discovery of the facts, in all affection ; for the result of his elaborate
; their crude natural coloring, as if he but report was the government grant which beld up to view, as a piece of evidence, saved the place from ruin. In architecsome harshly dyed Oriental carpet from ture, certainly, he had what for that day the sumptuous floor of the Kremlin, on was nothing less than intuition which blood had fallen.
tuitive sense, above all, of its logic, of the
necessity which draws into one all minor regret, “is no longer a part of our mao: changes, as elements in a reasonable de pers. In fact, the duel, and the whole velopment. And his care for it, his curi-morality of the duel, which does but en. osity about it, were symptomatic of his force a certain regularity on assassination, own genius. Structure, proportion, design, what has been well called le sentiment du a sort of architectural coherency; that was fer, the sentiment of deadly, steel, had the aim of his method in the art of litera. then the disposition of refined existence. ture, in that form of it, especially, which It was, indeed, very different, and is, he will live by, in fiction.
in Mérimée's romance. In his gallant As historian and archæologist, as a man hero, Bernard de Mergy, all the prompt. of erudition turned artist, he is well seen ings of the lad's virile goodness are in in the '" Chronique du Règne de Charles natural collusion with that sentiment du IX.,” by which we pass naturally from fer. Amid his ingenuous blushes, his Mérimée's critical or scientific work to prayers, and plentiful tears between while, the products of his imagination. What it is a part of his very sex. With bis economy in the use of a large antiquarian delightful, fresh-blown air, he is forever knowledge ! what an instinct, amid a hun- tossing the sheath from the sword, but dred details, for the detail that carries always as if into bright natural sunshine. physiognomy in it, that really tells! And A winsome, yet withal serious and even again what outline, what absolute clarity piteous figure, he conveys his pleasantof outline! For the historian of that ness, in spite of its gloomy theme, into puzzling age which centres in the “Eve Mérimée's one quite cheerful book. of Saint Bartholomew," outward events Cheerful, because, after all, the gloomy themselves seem obscured by the vague- passions it presents are but the accidents ness of motive of the actors in them. But of a particular age, and not like the mental Mérimée, disposing of them as an artist, conditions in which Mérimée was most not in love with half-lights, compels events apt to look for the spectacle of human and actors alike to the clearness he de power, allied to madness or disease in the sired; takes his side without hesitation ; individual. For him, at least, it was the and makes his hero a Huguenot of pure office of fiction to carry one into a differ. blood, allowing its charm, in that charm. ent if not a better world than that actually ing youth, even to Huguenot piety. And around us; and if the “Chronicle of as for the incidents = however freely it Charles the Ninth " provided an escape may be undermined by historic doubt, all from the tame circumstances of contem. reaches a perfectly firm surface, at least porary life into an impassioned past, for the eye of the reader. The “Chron. * Colomba” is a measure of the resources icle of Charles the Ninth " is like a series for mental alteration which may be found of masterly drawings in illustration of a even in the modern age. There was a period - the period in which two other corner of the French Empire, in the manmasters of French fiction have found their ners of which assassination still had a opportunity, mainly by the development large part. “The beauty of Corsica," of its actual historic characters. Those says Mérimée, characters Catherine de Medicis, and is grave and sad. The aspect of the capital the rest — Mérimée, with significant irony does but augment the impression caused by and self-assertion, sets aside, preferring the solitude that surrounds it. There is no to think of them as essentially common movement in the streets. You hear there place. For him the interest lies in the none of the laughter, the singing, the loud creatures of his own will, who carry in talking, common in the towns of Italy. Somethem, however, so lightly! a learning times, under the shadow of a tree on the equal to Balzac's, greater than that of promenade, a dozen armed peasants will be Dumas. He knows with like complete playing cards, or looking on at the game. The ness the mere fashions of the time - how Corsican is naturally silent. Those who walk courtier and soldier dressed themselves, stand at their doors; every one seems to be
the pavement are all strangers; the islanders and the large movements of the desperate on the watch, like a falcon on its nest. All game which fate or chance was playing around the gulf there is but an expanse of with those pretty pieces. Comparing that tanglework; beyond it, bleached mountains. favorite century of the French Renais- Not a habitation! Only, here and there, on sance with our own, he notes a decadence the heights about the town, certain white of the more energetic passions in the in- constructions detach themselves from the terest of general tranquillity, and perhaps background of green. They are funeral chap (only perhaps !), of general happiness. els or family tombs. 10 Assassination,” he observes, as if with Crude in color, sombre, taciturn, Corsica,
as Mérimée here describes it, is like the bumble manoir of his ancestors. From national passion of the Corsican — that his first step among them the villagers of morbid personal pride, usurping the place Pietranera, divided already into two rival even of grief for the dead, which centuries camps, are watching him in suspense of traditional violence had concentrated Pietranera, perched among those deep into an all-absorbing passion for blood forests where the stifled sense of violent sbed, for bloody revenges, in collusion with death is everywhere. Colomba places in the natural wildness, and the wild, social his hands the little chest which contains condition of the island still unaffected the father's shirt covered with great spots even by the finer ethics of the duel. The of blood. “ Behold the lead that struck supremacy of that passion is well indi- him!” and she laid on the shirt two cated by the cry put into the mouth of a rusted bullets.
" Orso ! you will avenge young man in the presence of the corpse him!” She embraces him with a kind of bis father deceased in the course of of madness, kisses wildly the bullets and nature - a young man meant to be com- the shirt, leaves him with the terrible rel: mooplace. “Ah! Would thou hadst died ics already exerting their mystic power malamorle - by violence ! We might upon him. It is as if in the nineteenth have avenged thee!” In Colomba, Méri- century a girl, amid Christian habits, had mée's best-known creation, it is united to gone back to that primitive old pagan a singularly wholesome type of personal version of the story of the Grail, which beauty, a natural grace of manner which identifies it not with the most precious is irresistible, a cunning intellect patiently blood, but only with the blood of a murdiverting every circumstance to its design; dered relation crying, for vengeance. and presents itself as a kind of genius, Awake at last in his old chamber at Pie. allied to fatal disease of mind. The inter- tranera, the house of the Barricini at the est of Mérimée's book is that it allows us to other end of the square, with its rival watch the action of this malignant power tower and rudely carved escutcheons, on Colomba's brother, Orso della Rebbia, stares him in the face. His ancestral as it discovers, rouses, concentrates, to the enemy is there, an aged man now, but leaping-point, in the somewhat weakly with iwo well-grown sons, like two stupid diffused nature of the youth, the dormant dumb animals, whose innocent blood will elements of a dark humor akin to her soon be on his so oddly lighted con
Two years after his father's murder, science. At times, his better hope seemed presumably at the instigation of his an- to lie in picking a quarrel and killing at cestral enemies, the young lieutenant is least in fair fight, one of these two stupid returning home in the company of two dumb animals; with rude ill-suppressed bumorously conventional English people, laughter one day, as they overhear Colomhimself now half Parisianized with an im- ba's violent utterances at a funeral feast, meose natural cheerfuloess, and willing to for she is a renowned improvisatrice. believe an account of the crime which re. “Your father is an old man," he finds lieves those hated Barricini of all com himself saying, “I could crush with my plicity in its guilt. But from the first, bands. 'Tis for you I am destined, for Colomba, with voice soft and musical,” you and your brother!” And if it is by is at his side, gathering every accident course of nature that the old man dies not and echo and circumstance, the very light long after the murder of these sons (selfest circumstance, into the chain of neces. provoked after all), dies a fugitive at Pisa, sity which draws him to the action every as it happens, by an odd accident, in the one at home expects of him as the head of presence of Colomba, no violent death by his race. He is not unaware. Her
Orso's own hand could have been more silence on the matter speaks so plainly: to her mind. In that last hard page of * You
are forming me!” he admits. Mérimée's story, mere dramatic propriety “ Well !. Hot shot, or cold steel !'- you itself for a moment seems to plead for the see I have not forgotten my Corsican.” forgiveness, which, from Joseph and his More and more as he goes on his way brethren to the present day, as we know, with her, he finds himself accessible to the has been as winning in story as in actual damoing thoughts he has so long com- | life. Such dramatic propriety, however, bated. In horror, he tries to disperse i was by no means in Mérimée's way. them by the memory of his comrades in “What I must have is the hand that fired the regiment, the drawing.rcoms of Paris, the shot,” she had sung, “ the eye that the English lady who has promised to be guided it; ay! and the mind moreover bis bride, and will shortly visit him in the the mind, which had conceived the deed !”