IT is certainly not true that what is called the artist’s temperament belongs exclusively to men of genius ; but there are certainly many men of genius whose power lies in their extreme sensibility, while that sensibility is, at the same time, a source of constant and keen suffering to themselves. We feel for their gentle, kindly weaknesses that pity which is not akin to contempt, and we look tenderly even upon their faults. We see them through a halo of romance in which their actual, every-day lives have but a shadowy existence, and we recognize rather heroes of fiction than grave, historic characters.
Such a man was Frederick Chopin, Fascinating in his personality ; gifted in a remarkable degree with the outward graces that are so full of charm when a pure and earnest soul lies beneath them ; of winning temper, diffusing always the subtle fragrance of a rare and exquisite genius ; frail, delicate, spiritual, and withal so unfitted by the pervading ideality of his nature to deal with the stern facts of his brief and troubled life, — there is no artist, unless, perhaps, it be Mendelssohn, whom it is so difficult to see clearly and judge dispassionately.
And even Mendelssohn stands in a far more vivid light. He is better known, not only through his wider relations to the world, but through a finer gift of expression outside of his art. His letters give us a direct insight into his modes of thought and feeling, as well as into his daily habits and associations. He deals musically, too, with a class of subjects that reveal his moral tendencies and the complexion of his mind. Besides, Mendelssohn appeals in a very slight degree to our compassion. Favored beyond the ordinary lot of mortals, he seems also to be raised above human frailties and weaknesses. We can recall no single misfortune and no flagrant fault in his life. There is nothing to forgive, nothing to be sorry for. Hence, surrounded as he is by the indescribable charm of his individuality and the dazzling gifts which nature and fortune united to shower upon him, crowned as he is with an aureole of purity that is almost saintly, he is still a man of defined aims and position, whom we can disentangle from the web of romance, and follow through all the windings of a career full of incident and rich in experience.
But Chopin’s life presents no such tangible points. We see him through a dim twilight of mystery, that the efforts of critics have not tended greatly to dispel. The most complete biography we have of him is from the poetic pen of Franz Liszt, who is better qualified for the work than any one else, not only from his long and familiar acquaintance with Chopin, but from his own position as critic and artist, which renders any tribute from him of rare value. But he has judged him from a stand-point purely artistic, and has given us a subtle analysis of his genius and the workings of his inner life, rather than the portrait of a man with human interests and passions. There is something so singularly delicate and elusive in the figure he has summoned before us that we fear to touch it too rudely lest it vanish altogether. George Sand offers us a better insight into Chopin’s every-day life ; but she has touched upon very few of the facts of his career, and upon his outward relations not at all. The same glamour of poetry still rests upon him, the same air of unreality still surrounds him, in spite of all that has been said and written, — I might say, heightened by all that has been said and written.
There was a lack of incident in his experience, and he had great reticence of character. He confided in no one. His nearest friends could only guess the secrets of his soul. Nor was he inclined to express his opinions upon any subject outside of his art, although he was thrown into frequent social intercourse with the leading men of his time. He listened attentively, but talked little. A single channel of expression he had, and that was music; but it affords us no clew to what he thought or how he lived. Nor does it reflect any great social or intellectual traits by which we can measure the influences that were thrown round him, as in the case of most other masters. It deals only with the inner and exclusive world of feeling, which is as intangible as the perfume of a flower. But if it does not aid us at all in picturing the man in his relations to others, it throws a strong light upon the hidden springs of his own life. It reveals a character that was, at bottom, profoundly melancholy. You feel that some sorrow must lie behind that polished and finely toned exterior, and naturally seek a solution in his experience.
But he had no unusual share of material ills, no great and crushing grief, until near the close of his life. It is true, he was never rich, but he never struggled with poverty; besides, poverty in itself is not necessarily suffering. He pursued the vocation of teacher successfully for many years. No doubt, this was drudgery to one who was conscious of sacrificing the greater talent to the less ; but it is a common fate, and he never complained. His health, too, was frail. His strength was not sufficient for the performance of great works, so that his fame was not equal to his merits. He had no hold upon the masses, who are swayed chiefly by strong personal magnetism, or a power that strikes and dazzles the senses. This he felt keenly. Home and country he had not, nor the love of wife and children. But if he missed the affection that his heart craved, he escaped also the care that would have fallen heavily upon his unworldly, unpractical nature.
Yet the tragedy of a man’s fate depends, not so much upon what is without, as upon what is within him, or a lack of harmony between the two. Happiness is the adjustment of circumstances to our own peculiar needs, and sympathy is often less demanded for what are called actual misfortunes than for the intangible sorrows that never strike the superficial eye at all. The real source of Chopin’s sufferings lay in the pure ideality of his nature, which was always asking of the world what it could not give.
Born in Warsaw in 1810, the first twenty years of his life ran parallel with the last great struggle of Poland. He was cradled in an atmosphere of sorrow, with the knell of his country’s freedom ringing forever in his ears. It is probable that his impressible nature took its tone from these early surroundings, and that the whole of his after life was more or less colored by them.
A frail and gentle child, much loved and tenderly reared by parents richer in culture and domestic virtues than in worldly goods, and liberally educated by the kindness of Prince Radziwill, who saw the rich promise of his wild and wayward genius; a dreamy, thoughtful youth of ideal beauty and refinement, moving in the courtly circles of Warsaw as if “ to the manner born,” drinking in the spirit of those scenes of sad splendor which masked in smiles the agony of breaking hearts,—scenes which his glowing imagination afterwards reproduced in forms so exquisite, in colors so brilliant and yet so tender, — this is about all we know of him until the Revolution of 1830 drove him from the home he was never to see again. There is a glimpse of an early attachment, — of a young girl whose heart he carried with him, and who, renouncing all other dreams of love, devoted her life to his parents. How deeply this may have affected him we cannot know; but, as he never returned to claim her when all obstacles were removed, it is quite probable that it was one of the transitory fancies that stir the surface of young hearts and leave no permanent trace.
At the outbreak of the Revolution he was on a concert-tour of the German cities. Prevented from returning home, he passed some months in Vienna and Berlin, where he failed to produce much sensation, and then turned his steps towards London. Stopping in Paris for a brief visit, he was received so enthusiastically that his departure was deferred from time to time, until he finally decided to make his home there. Years afterwards he used laughingly to say, “ Je ne suis ici qu’en passant.”
It was an era in which literature and art blossomed afresh. But quiet tones and soft colors belonged to a society that was passing away. People who had waded through rivers of blood in pursuit of an ideal, who had grown used to the noise of revolution and the conflict of powerful passions, were not likely to settle back into the traditional channels of life and thought. Strong sensations were demanded ; violent contrasts and striking effects alone could touch the restless and excitable Parisians. There was a rage for novelty, for stormy action, or gorgeous coloring, and poets, artists, dramatists, and novelists found their success in catering to it. Impossible ideals were sought, impracticable experiments were tried. And so the romantic school had its rise. If it was betrayed into excesses, it had an element of truth that has freshened and revivified every form of thought.
The revolution in literature extended also to music. Berlioz, with a noble poetic enthusiasm, tried to invest it with impossible powers, to make it a vehicle of ideas as well as emotions. But while he was wasting his life in the effort to establish unpopular theories, Meyerbeer, who had what might be termed a genius for success, was studying how to make them popular. He had felt the pulse of public taste to good purpose when he served up that mélange of poetry, drama, dancing, and music, that medley of arts known as modern grand opera. Every resource was exhausted to produce an effect, and not in vain. Robert le Diable was in the first flush of success, and its author was famous. Dramatic, sensuous, and brilliant, it mirrored all the salient points of French society. Meyerbeer was, musically, the representative man of the time.
It was in this whirlpool of life, in this transition period of his art, that Chopin found himself at the outset of his career. With its prevailing tone he could have had little sympathy. It was too rude, too chaotic, too demonstrative. It is true that he had embraced the new principles ; but his nature was too gentle, his taste, formed in the severely classical school of Sebastian Bach, too far removed from anything forced or melodramatic to permit him to accept them fully. He was revolutionary only by virtue of his own genius, that refused to be imprisoned. “He despised the narrow fetters of the old form, the stiff symmetry of a bird-cage ; but it was to soar like a lark into the air.” All violence and excess were repulsive to him. Even Beethoven and Franz Schubert sometimes jarred upon his sensitive taste ; he shrank from unveiling the secret agonies, the fierce passions, which they have laid bare. “ Mozart was to him the ideal type of musical poetry,” — Mozart, who, of all artists, was most healthful and sunny.
But there was a spirit underlying this stormy, feverish period that found a quick response in his own heart, — the spirit of longing and unrest that prompts strong souls to great actions, and plunges weak ones into brooding melancholy ; the spirit that lies at the root of revolutions ; that inspires the poet and the artist, or, turned inward, wastes itself in idle dreams. It was a passionate reaching out after something undefined and shadowy, the unquiet craving of a life exhausted in a weary pursuit of ideals.
This spirit had overshadowed Chopin’s childhood and youth. It was the dark heritage of his race, coloring all its legends of ancient glory, hanging like a cloud of impenetrable gloom over the present, and heavy with prophecies of a darker fate yet to come. It had wrought itself into every fibre of his finely strung life. It breathed through every strain of his wild, ethereal music, and lent a subtle, melancholy charm to his playing. The blasé Parisians were touched by a genius so fresh, so pure, so free from the taint of worldliness and sensualism. An admiring circle gathered round the young artist. Alone and an exile, with the sad poetry of his race clinging to him, he was the object of a peculiarly sympathetic interest, and quickly became a favorite in the refined and exclusive salons of Paris, —a position which he held to the end of his life.
Chopin was at that time about twenty-two years of age,— small, delicate, and graceful, with a pale face, fair hair, and blue eyes, which were rather melancholy than passionate. His forehead was broad and thoughtful. There was a shade of pride and hauteur in the slightly curved nose, but gentleness and sensibility in the flexible lines of the finely chiselled mouth. Liszt says that “ his whole appearance reminded you of the plant convolvulus, which, on an incredibly slender stem, rocks to and fro its superbly colored chalices, which are so airy in texture that the least touch tears them in pieces.” So De Quincey says of Shelley, that he “ looked like an elegant, slender flower whose head drooped from being surcharged with rain.” But delicate as Chopin was, almost femininely so, a dignity of manner, and his singular reticence in all matters pertaining to himself, relieved him from any suspicion of sentimentality.
It was in 1836, in the literary and musical salon of the charming Countess d’Agoult, that he first met the celebrated woman whose influence over his character and destiny was probably greater than that of any other person ; who fathomed the closely kept secret of his inner life, and gathered to herself all that was deepest and most sacred in his heart. George Sand occupied at that time much the same position towards the leading spirits of the age that her gifted sister had occupied during the troubled days that followed the first Revolution. With less profound philosophy, less calm insight, and less faith than Madame de Staël, the author of Lelia was keener, more penetrating, and more essentially an artist. Both entered into the great social and political questions of the day ; both wielded an immense power ; both were enthusiastic, sympathetic, and spontaneous. But the experience of Madame Dudevant had been less fortunate. Having at an early age contracted a mariage de convenance, and finding the yoke grow too galling as the years passed, she had boldly shaken it off, and in so doing had freed herself from all forms that were purely conventional. In spite of the prejudice raised by her liberal opinions and independent life, she became the centre of the most brilliant circle of Paris. Into this circle Chopin drifted. Notwithstanding his dislike of literary women, he was forced to recognize the fascination of a spirit so strong and self-reliant, so brilliant and so gifted, but withal so tender and so genial. Henceforth she was the guiding star of his life.
In the autumn of 1837 Madame Dudevant went to the Isle of Majorca for the health of her son Maurice. Chopin was suffering severely from a disease of the lungs, to which he was a victim for so many years. Hoping to find relief from the mild air of the Mediterranean, he accompanied her. They found lodgings in a ruined Carthusian convent in a lonely and secluded part of the island. “ It is the most beautiful spot I have ever lived in,” writes Madame Dudevant, “ and one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. La Chartreuse is so picturesque under its festoons of ivy, the flowers grow so luxuriantly in the valley, the mountain air is so pure, and the sea so blue in the horizon ! ”
The picture is a poetic one : a man, lonely, and an artist ; a woman who is an artist too, and in whose tender eye he reads the secrets of his own soul; a quiet spot of rarest beauty, from which the glare and din of the great world is forever shut out ; soft breezes, heavy with the perfume of orange groves, the far-off, dreamy music of the sea, the simple life with its pleasant details, the mornings of busy work, the evening rambles among the ivy-hung cloisters : — such is the elysium of many a poet’s dream. But the artist was fastidious and an invalid. He missed his wonted luxuries and refinements. The rude peasants shocked and repelled him. Even the moss-grown ruins suggested ghostly legends of his native land. He caught only the melancholy aspect of things. “ The plaintive cry of the eagle starving upon the rocks, the bitter sighing of the breeze,” impressed him more deeply than the beauties that made the isle an enchanted spot to his companion of more cheerful temper. “ Myself and my children excepted,” she writes, “ everything was antipathetic and repulsive under the sky of Spain.” It was not until time had thrown a rosy veil over the details of this period, and its joys shone out brightly through after-clouds of sorrow, that he spoke of it as condensing the “happiness of a lifetime,” and “without any hope that it could ever be possible to find a like blessedness on earth.”
Some of his most beautiful compositions were written here ; but we can scarcely imagine them the inspirations of love and happiness ; nor do they suggest the cool freshness of nature, the “ hours of sunshine and health, the laughter of children under the window, the far-off tinkling of guitars, the song of birds under the dewy leaves, the pale roses blossoming upon the snow.” They are sad pictures, all of them, — small, but exquisitely finished. The outlines are delicate and graceful, the tints rare and fine, the background soft and dreamy, as if veiled forever by a “ mist of tears.” But the key-note we must seek in his own character and organization. The very traits that were so fatal to his happiness as a man, — excessive ideality, and a susceptibility in which there was something morbid and overwrought, — gave a distinctive tone to his genius. He was forever grasping at impossibilities. He demanded beauty without flaw, appreciation without reserve, love without limit. He thirsted for perfection. Hence he was doomed to perpetual disappointment. A careless look or word chilled him ; a petty care pained him ; a trifle disenchanted him ; a fault offended him. Nor could he take refuge in action as a stronger nature might have done. He simply endured silently and passively. This keenness of sensibility, heightened as it was by disease, became a moral malady. “ His spirit was flayed alive. The fold of a roseleaf, the shadow of a fly, made him bleed.”
The extent to which he was a victim to exaggerated feeling, that took no counsel of reason, is strikingly illustrated in an incident related by Madame Dudevant. She had left him for the day to go to Parma, and, violent rains having fallen, she was detained until a late hour at night, and then reached home through serious perils. She found the invalid pale and cold with terror and anxiety. “ He was indeed alive,” she says, “ but congealed in a sort of tranquil despair, and tearfully playing his admirable prelude. Seeing us enter, he arose, uttered a loud cry, then said, with a bewildered air and in a strange voice, ‘ O, I well knew that you were dead.’ When he had recovered his senses, and saw the state we were in, he was sick with the retrospective view of our dangers. He confessed to me afterwards, that, while awaiting us, he had seen it all in a dream, and that, no longer distinguishing dreams from reality, he had grown calm and unconscious as he played upon the piano, persuaded that he was dead also. He saw himself drowned in a lake. Drops of water, heavy and icy, fell in measured time upon his breast. His composition that evening was full of the drops of rain that resounded upon the tiles of La Chartreuse ; but they were translated in his imagination and in his song by tears falling from heaven upon his heart.”
In this morbid intensity of organization he resembled the poet Keats, as well as in the fragility of his constitution and the peculiar sorrows that entered into his life. It was the misfortune of both to be painfully self-conscious. But Keats was more spontaneous and demonstrative. The world knew how loftily he aspired, how deeply he loved, how hard he struggled, and how bitterly he was disappointed. Chopin combined with the same excess of sensibility a rare pride and selfcommand. Whatever wounds rankled within, they were concealed behind the polished indifference of a man of the world. There was something heroic in this stern self-repression, — when we consider how much it must have cost him, — that redeems his character from all charge of weakness. But his life burned out none the less surely because the fires were hidden ; not so rapidly as that of Keats, perhaps, for he was not so eager and impulsive. Nor had he the compensations that Keats had. He was not so intoxicated with simple existence, not so passionately in love with sensuous beauty; he could not revel so fully in the outward aspects of nature, in the glowing, voluptuous effects of light and color. He caught, rather, their inner meaning.
In this respect, as well as in the essence of his character, he had more affinity with Shelley, like whom he was serious, earnest, and introspective, deeply tinged with the mysticism that belongs to all spiritual natures. There was the same “ passion for perfection ” in both, the same fine and subtle thought. Shelley almost steps into the province of music sometimes, so delicate and ethereal is his expression. Both are often reproached for obscurity of style ; and in both this was the result of an intensity of feeling and conception that could find no adequate language. This is more especially true of the artist’s later works, when sickness and sorrow had rendered him doubly morbid.
But Chopin had none of the combativeness that belonged to Shelley’s more complex character. He opposed no one, attempted no changes, sought no discussions. As has been said in effect before, the tragedy of his life lay in an absorbing ideality and an excessive sensibility, unbalanced by active mental discipline and practical interests. His spirit was driven to feed upon itself, — a fate not uncommon among musical artists, whose work lies in an atmosphere as full of danger as it is of fascination.
The nature that we find revealed in Chopin’s music was a nature full of caprices and inconsistencies, proud, tender, fitful, melancholy, passionate, and pure. Everything he has written bears more or less the stamp of his own individuality. His gayest strains imprison some secret sorrow, his saddest thrill with a grief too deep for tears ; but it is always veiled from a too curious gaze, — suggested, never quite disclosed. There is something akin to himself, too, in the easy perfection of his style ; in the blending of Southern grace and esprit with shy, Northern tenderness; in the airy setting he often gives to his gloomy fancies. A sparkling fioritura suddenly falls like a flash of sunshine upon some melancholy thought, leaving it only darker by the contrast. A trace of his descent appears in this ; for his father was French, although his mother was a Pole. Had not this double nationality something to do with the eternal conflict in his nature, the restless cravings that had no realization in fact, because he had no unity of aim and action ? Does it give us no clew to those tremulous shades of feeling, those subtle inner experiences, which he has portrayed as no other artist has ever done ? Beethoven had more strength, Mozart more simplicity, Schumann more passion, Mendelssohn more calmness ; but Chopin was infinitely finer and more spiritual than any of these. Artist and man are one : we cannot separate them.
After his return from Majorca his health still continued feeble, and his lodgings were lonely and cheerless ; he missed greatly the daily care and attention to which he had become accustomed. Seeing how deeply he felt the change, Madame Dudevant at last consented to receive him into her family, where he was domesticated for several years. he spent the summer at her country residence, where his writing was chiefly done. He composed with facility, but finished with great care and labor. So severe was he with himself, so difficult to satisfy, that he would sometimes spend six weeks upon a single page, and return, after all, to his first inspiration.
But the country was distasteful to him. He loved Paris. Here he could always find both excitement and relaxation, either in the thoughtful, cultivated circle that gathered round George Sand, or in the more elegant and fashionable salons where he was always sure of a ready welcome. He was peculiarly susceptible to the charms of society as it existed for him in intimate and exclusive coteries. It was here that his genius shone out in its fullest splendor. “ I am not made to give concerts,” he says ; “ the public makes me feel lowspirited I feel myself, as it were, stifled by its breath, embarrassed by its curious gaze, and dumb before all those strange faces.” But, surrounded by the elegances of the salon, inspired by the sympathy of friendly listeners and by glances of bright eyes, he gave full play to his errant fancies, sometimes improvising the wildest, saddest melodies with a feeling that made them weep, sometimes picturing strange, odd types of character with a vividness that was irresistible. He bad a delicate vein of humor that made him an agreeable companion when he chose to throw off his habitual reserve. The easy address with which he could repel an intrusion by a touch of satire is amusingly illustrated by his reply to an inconsiderate host who, wishing to entertain his guests, pressed him to play very soon after dinner. “ Ah, monsieur,” quietly suggested the artist, “ I 've eaten so little.” He was readily captivated by the charms of a beautiful face or winning manner ; but his variable fancy floated from one to another with an ease and rapidity that were fatal to all permanent affections. Fascinated one moment, he was coldly disenchanted the next. At one time he had serious thoughts of marrying a young Parisian lady ; but he happened to call one evening with a friend who was asked to be seated first. He left very soon, and never called again.
The one absolute sentiment of his life was undoubtedly his attachment to Madame Dudevant. For eight years she watched over him in illness with unwearying care, comprehended his genius, understood his caprices, sympathized with his sorrows, and sustained him by a strength foreign to his own. He had no immediate ties, and every fibre of his nature twined itself about this brilliant but tender-hearted woman. A species of emotional epicurism, not uncommon to temperaments like his, might lead him to toy with feeling elsewhere, to enliven the moment; but every other sentiment was quickly forgotten in this one cup of intoxication, so perilous, yet so full of charm.
When Chopin and Madame Dudevant first met, he was twenty-six and she was thirty-two. Both were artists in their respective spheres, but outside of art they differed widely in pursuits, tastes, and opinions. They were unlike, too, in character. She was revolutionary by instinct and democratic from conviction : he was, by nature and habit, conservative and exclusive. Her religion was one of reason : his was one of faith. Her keen and penetrating intellect busied itself with every problem of life and thought : his was bounded by the narrow circle of his own immediate pursuits and interests. Her heart went out in many channels ; at the same time there was something fiery and intense in her nature, —a capacity for concentrated passion that carried within itself the elements of its own dissolution ; she gauged its objects too soon, and exhausted them ; she saw too far through her own illusions ; she had already lived, suffered, and been disenchanted : his was the narrower heart that centres “ all sympathies in one.” “ Others seek happiness in their affections,” writes one of his critics ; “ when they no longer find it there, the affections themselves gradually disappear. So it is with almost all ; but he loved for love’s sake. No suffering could turn him from it. His love could pass, after the intoxication of delight, into the phase of sorrow; but grow cold it could not. The moment of becoming cold would have been the ceasing of the heart to beat; for his love had become his life.”
Madame Dudevant had foreseen a possible danger to both, and gravely considered it before admitting him into her family, but finally accepted this friendship, and the duties it involved towards the invalid, as “a protection against emotions she no longer wished to experience.” A veil of impenetrable silence is happily drawn over the inner tumults and agitations of those years.
But the inevitable rupture came at last. There was ill-feeling between Chopin and other members of her family. He was too imperious and exacting. Maurice threatened to leave them. The mother sided with her son. “I felt a sort of maternal adoration for the artist,” she writes, “ very deep, very true, but which could not struggle for a moment against love for one’s offspring.” This was too much for Chopin. He turned away, saying that she loved him no longer. " We never exchanged a word of reproach,” she adds, “but once, — alas ! the first time and the last. An affection so elevated ought to break, and not wear itself out in conflicts unworthy of it.” They met once more. She extended her hand, and would have spoken, but he proudly and sorrowfully left her. The wound was past healing.
Chapin lived but two years longer, — two years of restless melancholy and unavailing regrets, combined with keen physical suffering that often rendered all exertion impossible. Long and weary days, followed by feverish and sleepless nights haunted by ghostly visions of death, and the future which was a dim terror to him, —such was his existence.
At the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848 he went to England, where he was received with great enthusiasm. As if wishing to drown memory and thought, he plunged into the excitements of London life with reckless disregard of health and strength. Night after night, in spite of weariness and exhaustion, he played in the select circles of the nobility, who seemed to vie with each other in doing him honor. He made a brief visit to Edinburgh, but the cold and misty Scotch air did not agree with him. He grew rapidly worse. Returning to London, he played for the last time at a concert for the Poles, then hastened back to Paris. His strength was broken, and neither love nor care could longer avail. He died in the fall of 1849, and was buried, at his own request, in the churchyard of Père la Chaise, between Bellini and Cherubini, both of whom he had known and loved. Mozart’s Requiem was sung at his funeral, as he wished, and his own wild and mournful Funeral March was for the first time arranged for an orchestra and played.
Many friends were with him in his last hours. Among others was the graceful and gifted Countess Delphine Potocka, who stood by his bedside and sang the celebrated Prayer that saved Stradella his life. “ How beautiful ! O my God, how beautiful ! ” exclaimed the dying artist. “ Once more, once more ! ” His sister, too, was there, and Gutman, his favorite and most gifted pupil. But she whom he loved to the end was not there.
While he lived, Chopin was not widely known. It was his misfortune, in common with all poets and artists who strike no dominant vein, He could not write for the multitude any more than Shelley could, for he appealed neither to men’s senses nor men’s passions. He never attempted anything epic or dramatic, never produced an opera or an oratorio, or any work of great breadth of design. He had some thoughts of composing a national opera, but they were never carried into execution ; indeed it is a matter of great doubt whether he could ever have succeeded as a dramatic composer. He could not sufficiently comprehend passion as it existed in other minds. He could not forget himself. The world gave back a reflection of his own inner experiences. His genius was essentially lyrical, and his fame rests principally upon his short compositions, — his Études, Waltzes, Polonaises, Mazurkas,and Nocturnes. These have a purely national coloring, and mirror a peculiar civilization ; but they lack the elements that would make them household words. He could not picture feeling in its fresh and simple phases as Burns did, as Béranger did, as Mozart did, as all popular poets and artists have done. “He leads us into a region full of melancholy and mystery,” says one of his critics ; “ but we cannot remain there long ; we experience a feeling of suffocation, we gasp for air.” His audience is found among the chosen few who have penetrated deeply into the mysteries of existence and felt, in all their sad significance, those expressive words of Bossuet, “ At the bottom of everything one finds emptiness and nothingness.”
Another reason why his works can never become universally popular lies in the extreme difficulty of playing them well. There was a delicate individuality about his own rendering that defies all successful imitation. It requires a poetic sense as fine, swift, and penetrating as his own.
As a man, too, he stands alone. We cannot judge him by the influence he exerted upon other lives, for his qualities were not of a kind that leave active traces. He was not a hero, perhaps. Of such stuff heroes, in a worldly sense, are not made. Nor was he a saint. He had none of the sublime self-renunciation that even more than strength commands our admiration. He struck no great current of thought, and marked no prominent era in history. He was simply a man of many faults and many weaknesses, with a vitality in his genius and a flavor of poetry in his character that the world will not let die. But his faults were only negative, and his weaknesses almost virtues. He stands outlined against the dark background of French sensualism,—a frail figure, clothed in white purity, and invested with a certain sanctity of martyrdom.
Amanda R. Gere.