Parnassus by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Many years ago, a gentleman with whom I was driving in a distant quarter of Paris took me to a house on the rue Montparnasse, where we remained an hour or more, he chatting with its owner, and I listening to their conversation, and wondering at the confusion of books in the big room. As we drove away, my companion turned to me and said, “Don’t forget this afternoon. You have seen one of the greatest writers our century has produced, although the world does not yet realize it. You will learn to love his works when you are older, and it will be a satisfaction to remember that you saw and spoke with him in the flesh! “

When I returned later to Paris the little house had changed hands, and a marble tablet stating that Sainte-Beuve had lived and died there adorned its fa�ade. My student footsteps took me many times through that quiet street, but never without a vision of the poet-critic flashing back, as I glanced up at the window where he had stood and talked with us; as my friend predicted, Sainte-Beuve’s writings had become a precious part of my small library, the memory of his genial face adding a vivid interest to their perusal.

I made a little Pilgrimage recently to the quiet old garden where, after many years’ delay, a bust of this writer has been unveiled, with the same companion, now very old, who thirty years ago presented me to the original.

There is, perhaps, in all Paris no more exquisite corner than the Garden of the Luxembourg. At every season it is beautiful. The winter sunlight seems to linger on its stately Italian terraces after it has ceased to shine elsewhere. The first lilacs bloom here in the spring, and when midsummer has turned all the rest of Paris into a blazing, white wilderness, these gardens remain cool and tranquil in the heart of turbulent “Bohemia,” a bit of fragrant nature filled with the song of birds and the voices of children. Surely it was a gracious inspiration that selected this shady park as the “Poets’ Corner” of great, new Paris. Henri Murger, Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville, Paul Verlaine, are here, and now Sainte-Beuve has come back to his favorite haunt. Like Fran�ois Coppée and Victor Hugo, he loved these historic allées, and knew the stone in them as he knew the “Latin Quater,” for his life was passed between the bookstalls of the quays and the outlying street where he lived.

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As we sat resting in the shade, my companion, who had been one of Sainte-Beuve’s pupils, fell to talking of his master, his memory refreshed by the familiar surroundings. “Can anything be sadder,” he said, “than finding a face one has loved turned into stone, or names that were the watchwords of one’s youth serving as signs at street corners-la rue Flaubert or Théodore de Banville? How far away they make the past seem! Poor Sainte-Beuve, that bust yonder is but a poor reward for a life of toil, a modest tribute to his encyclopædic brain! His works, however, are his best monument; he would be the last to repine or cavil.

“The literary world of my day had two poles, between which it vibrated. The little house in the rue Montparnasse was one, the rock of Guernsey the other. We spoke with awe of ‘Father Hugo’ and mentioned ‘Uncle Beuve’ with tenderness. The Goncourt brothers accepted Sainte-Beuve’s judgment on their work as the verdict of a ‘Supreme Court.’ Not a poet or author of that day but climbed with a beating heart the narrow staircase that led to the great writer’s library. Paul Verlaine regarded as his literary diploma a letter from this ‘Balzac de la critique.’ “

“At the entrance of the quaint Passage du Commerce, under the arch that leads into the rue Saint-André-des-Arts, stands a hotel, where for years Sainte-Beuve came daily to work (away from the importunate who besieged his dwelling) in a room hired under the assumed name of Delorme. It was there that we sent him a basket of fruit one morning addressed to Mr. Delorme, Sainte-Beuve. It was there that most of his enormous labor was accomplished.

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“A curious corner of old Paris that Cour du Commerce! Just opposite his window was the apartment where Danton lived. If one chose to seek for them it would not be hard to discover on the pavement of this same passage the marks made by a young doctor in decapitating sheep with his newly invented machine. The doctor’s name was Guillotin.

“The great critic loved these old quarters filled with history. He was fond of explaining that Montparnasse had been a hill where the students of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came to amuse themselves. In 1761 the slope was levelled and the boulevard laid out, but the name was predestined, he would declare, for the habitation of the ‘Parnassiens.’

“His enemies pretended that you had but to mention Michelet, Balzac, and Victor Hugo to see Sainte-Beuve in three degrees of rage. He had, it is true, distinct expressions on hearing those authors discussed. The phrase then much used in speaking of an original personality, ‘He is like a character out of Balzac,’ always threw my master into a temper. I cannot remember, however, having seen him in one of those famous rages which made Barbey d’Aurévilly say that ‘Sainte-Beuve was a clever man with the temper of a turkey!’ The former was much nearer the truth when he called the author of Les Lundis a French Wordsworth, or compared him to a lay bénédictin. He had a way of reading a newly acquired volume as he walked through the streets that was typical of his life. My master was always studying and always advancing.

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“He never entirely recovered from his mortification at being hissed by the students on the occasion of his first lecture at the Collège de France. Returning home he loaded two pistols, one for the first student who should again insult him, and the other to blow out his own brains. It was no idle threat. The man Guizot had nicknamed ‘Werther’ was capable of executing his plan, for this causeless unpopularity was anguish to him. After his death, I found those two pistols loaded in his bedroom, but justice had been done another way. All opposition had vanished. Every student in the ‘Quarter’ followed the modest funeral of their Senator, who had become the champion of literary liberty in an epoch when poetry was held in chains.

“The Empire which made him Senator gained, however, but an indocile recruit. On his one visit to Compiègne in 1863, the Emperor, wishing to be particularly gracious, said to him, ‘I always read the Moniteur on Monday, when your article appears.’ Unfortunately for this compliment, it was the Constitutionnel that had been publishing the Nouveaux Lundis for more than four years. In spite of the united efforts of his friends, Sainte-Beuve could not be brought to the point of complimenting Napoleon III. on his Life of Cæsar.

The author of Les Consolations remained through life the proudest and most independent of men, a bourgeois, enemy of all tyranny, asking protection of no one. And what a worker! Reading, sifting, studying, analyzing his subject before composing one of his famous Lundis, a literary portrait which he aimed at making complete and final. One of these articles cost him as much labor as other authors give to the composition of a volume.

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“By way of amusement on Sunday evenings, when work was temporarily laid aside, he loved the theatre, delighting in every kind of play, from the broad farces of the Palais Royal to the tragedies of Racine, and entertaining comedians in order, as he said, ‘to keep young’! One evening Théophile Gautier brought a pretty actress to dinner. Sainte-Beuve, who was past-master in the difficult art of conversation, and on whom a fair woman acted as an inspiration, surpassed himself on this occasion, surprising even the Goncourts with his knowledge of the Eighteenth century and the women of that time, Mme. de Boufflers, Mlle. de Lespinasse, la Maréchale de Luxembourg. The hours flew by unheeded by all of his guests but one. The débutante was overheard confiding, later in the evening, to a friend at the Gymnase, where she performed in the last act, ‘Ouf! I’m glad to get here. I‘ve been dining with a stupid old Senator. They told me he would be amusing, but I’ve been bored to death.’ Which reminded me of my one visit to England, when I heard a young nobleman declare that he had been to ‘such a dull dinner to meet a duffer called “Renan!” ’

“Sainte-Beuve’s Larmes de Racine was given at the Thé�tre Fran�ais during its author’s last illness. His disappointment at not seeing the performance was so keen that M. Thierry, then administrateur of La Comédie, took Mlle. Favart to the rue Montparnasse, that she might recite his verses to the dying writer. When the actress, then in the zenith of her fame and beauty, came to the lines-

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Jean Racine, le grand poête,
Le poête aimant et pieux,
Après que sa lyre muette
Se fut voilèe à tous les yeux,
Renon�ant à la gloire humaine,
S’il sentait en son �me pleine
Le flot contenu murmurer,
Ne savait que fondre en prière,
Pencher l’urne dans la poussière
Aux pieds du Seigneur, et pleurer!

the tears of Sainte-Beuve accompanied those of Racine!”

There were tears also in the eyes my companion turned toward me as he concluded. The sun had set while he had been speaking. The marble of the statues gleamed white against the shadows of the sombre old garden. The guardians were closing the gates and warning the lingering visitors as we strolled toward the entrance.

It seemed as if we had been for an hour in the presence of the portly critic; and the circle of brilliant men and witty women who surrounded him-Flaubert, Tourguéneff, Théophile Gautier, Renan, George Sand-were realities at that moment, not abstractions with great names. It was like returning from another age, to step out again into the glare and bustle of the Boulevard St. Michel.

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