Story type: Essay
Buildings become tombs when the race that constructed them has disappeared. Libraries and manuscripts are catacombs where most of us might wander in the dark forever, finding no issue. To know dead generations and their environments through these channels, to feel a love so strong that it calls the past forth from its winding-sheet, and gives it life again, as Christ did Lazarus, is the privilege only of great historians.
France is honoring the memory of such a man at this moment; one who for forty years sought the vital spark of his country’s existence, striving to resuscitate what he called “the great soul of history,” as it developed through successive acts of the vast drama. This employment of his genius is Michelet’s title to fame.
In a sombre structure, the tall windows of which look across the Luxembourg trees to the Pantheon, where her husband’s bust has recently been placed, a widow preserves with religious care the souvenirs of this great historian. Nothing that can recall either his life or his labor is changed.
Madame Michelet’s life is in strange contrast with the ways of the modern spouse who, under pretext of grief, discards and displaces every reminder of the dead. In our day, when the great art is to forget, an existence consecrated to a memory is so rare that the world might be the better for knowing that a woman lives who, young and beautiful, was happy in the society of an old man, whose genius she appreciated and cherished, who loves him dead as she loved him living. By her care the apartment remains as it stood when he left it, to die at Hyères,-the furniture, the paintings, the writing-table. No stranger has sat in his chair, no acquaintance has drunk from his cup. This woman, who was a perfect wife and now fills one’s ideal of what a widow’s life should be, has constituted herself the vigilant guardian of her husband’s memory. She loves to talk of the illustrious dead, and tell how he was fond of saying that Virgil and Vico were his parents. Any one who reads the Georgics or The Bird will see the truth of this, for he loved all created things, his ardent spiritism perceiving that the essence which moved the ocean’s tides was the same that sang in the robin at the window during his last illness, which he called his “little captive soul.”
The author of La Bible de l’Humanité had to a supreme degree the love of country, and possessed the power of reincarnating with each succeeding cycle of its history. So luminous was his mind, so profound and far-reaching his sympathy, that he understood the obscure workings of the mediæval mind as clearly as he appreciated Mirabeau’s transcendent genius. He believed that humanity, like Prometheus, was self-made; that nations modelled their own destiny during the actions and reactions of history, as each one of us acquires a personality through the struggles and temptations of existence, by the evolving power every soul carries within itself.
Michelet taught that each nation was the hero of its own drama; that great men have not been different from the rest of their race-on the contrary, being the condensation of an epoch, that, no matter what the apparent eccentricities of a leader may have been, he was the expression of a people’s spirit. This discovery that a race is transformed by its action upon itself and upon the elements it absorbs from without, wipes away at a stroke the popular belief in “predestined races” or providential “great men” appearing at crucial moments and riding victorious across the world.
An historian, if what he writes is to have any value, must know the people, the one great historical factor. Radicalism in history is the beginning of truth. Guided by this light of his own, Michelet discovered a fresh factor heretofore unnoticed, that vast fermentation which in France transforms all foreign elements into an integral part of the country’s being. After studying his own land through the thirteen centuries of her growth, from the chart of Childebert to the will of Louis XVI., Michelet declared that while England is a composite empire and Germany a region, France is a personality. In consequence he regarded the history of his country as a long dramatic poem. Here we reach the inner thought of the historian, the secret impulse that guided his majestic pen.
The veritable hero of his splendid Iliad is at first ignorant and obscure, seeking passionately like Œdipus to know himself. The interest of the piece is absorbing. We can follow the gradual development of his nature as it becomes more attractive and sympathetic with each advancing age, until, through the hundred acts of the tragedy, he achieves a soul. For Michelet to write the history of his country was to describe the long evolution of a hero. He was fond of telling his friends that during the Revolution of July, while he was making his translation of Vico, this great fact was revealed to him in the blazing vision of a people in revolt. At that moment the young and unknown author resolved to devote his life, his talents, his gift of clairvoyance, the magic of his inimitable style and creative genius, to fixing on paper the features seen in his vision.
Conceived and executed in this spirit, his history could be but a stupendous epic, and proves once again the truth of Aristotle’s assertion that there is often greater truth in poetry than in prose.
Seeking in the remote past for the origin of his hero, Michelet pauses first before the Cathedral. The poem begins like some mediæval tale. The first years of his youthful country are devoted to a mystic religion. Under his ardent hands vast naves rise and belfries touch the clouds. It is but a sad and cramped development, however; statutes restrain his young ardor and chill his blood. It is not until the boy is behind the plough in the fields and sunlight that his real life begins-a poor, brutish existence, if you will, but still life. The “Jacques,” half man and half beast, of the Middle Ages is the result of a thousand years of suffering.
A woman’s voice calls this brute to arms. An enemy is overrunning the land. Joan the virgin-“my Joan,” Michelet calls her-whose heart bleeds when blood is shed, frees her country. A shadow, however, soon obscures this gracious vision from Jacques’s eyes. The vast monarchical incubus rises between the people and their ideal. Our historian turns in disgust from the later French kings. He has neither time nor heart to write their history, so passes quickly from Louis XI. to the great climax of his drama-the Revolution. There we find his hero, emerging at last from tyranny and oppression. Freedom and happiness are before him. Alas! his eyes, accustomed to the dim light of dungeons, are dazzled by the sun of liberty; he strikes friend and foe alike.
In the solitary galleries of the “Archives” Michelet communes with the great spirits of that day, Desaix, Marceau, Kleber,-elder sons of the Republic, who whisper many secrets to their pupil as he turns over faded pages tied with tri-colored ribbons, where the cities of France have written their affection for liberty, love-letters from Jacques to his mistress. Michelet is happy. His long labor is drawing to an end. The great epic which he has followed as it developed through the centuries is complete. His hero stands hand in hand before the altar with the spouse of his choice, for whose smile he has toiled and struggled. The poet-historian sees again in the Fête de la Fédération the radiant face of his vision, the true face of France, La Dulce.
Through all the lyricism of this master’s work one feels that he has “lived” history as he wrote it, following his subject from its obscure genesis to a radiant apotheosis. The faithful companion of Michelet’s age has borne witness to this power which he possessed of projecting himself into another age and living with his subject. She repeats to those who know her how he trembled in passion and burned with patriotic emotion in transcribing the crucial pages of his country’s history, rejoicing in her successes and depressed by her faults, like the classic historian who refused with horror to tell the story of his compatriots’ defeat at Cannæ, saying, “I could not survive the recital.”
“Do you remember,” a friend once asked Madame Michelet, “how, when your husband was writing his chapters on the Reign of Terror, he ended by falling ill?”
“Ah, yes!” she replied. “That was the week he executed Danton. We were living in the country near Nantes. The ground was covered with snow. I can see him now, hurrying to and fro under the bare trees, gesticulating and crying as he walked, ‘How can I judge them, those great men? How can I judge them?’ It was in this way that he threw his ‘thousand souls’ into the past and lived in sympathy with all men, an apostle of universal love. After one of these fecund hours he would drop into his chair and murmur, ‘I am crushed by this work. I have been writing with my blood!’”
Alas, his aged eyes were destined to read sadder pages than he had ever written, to see years as tragic as the “Terror.” He lived to hear the recital of (having refused to witness) his country’s humiliation, and fell one April morning, in his retirement near Pisa, unconscious under the double shock of invasion and civil war. Though he recovered later, his horizon remained dark. The patriot suffered to see party spirit and warring factions rending the nation he had so often called the pilot of humanity’s bark, which seemed now to be going straight on the rocks. “Finis Galliæ,” murmured the historian, who to the end lived and died with his native land.
Thousands yearly mount the broad steps of the Panthéon to lay their wreaths upon his tomb, and thousands more in every Gallic schoolroom are daily learning, in the pages of his history, to love France la Dulce.