Belloc's Robespierre

ROBESPIERRE, one of the great typical, symbolic figures of history, by reason of his very typicalness has come to have in the mind of the less considerate reader a kind of false unity and simplicity of character. For most of us his personality is eternalized in Carlyle’s lurid epithets, which discover him moving in the hot and smoky air of the French Revolution, “ sea-green,” “ Jesuitic,” and " incorruptible.” But, after all, how hardly shall the mystery of a temperament be precipitated in a phrase. It is well to partake of the temper of that perennial humanism which forever distrusts all the categorical formulations of biography ; it is right to be grateful for such a book as Mr. Belloc’s Robespierre.1

Mr. Belloc has not adduced many new facts concerning the career of his protagonist. Indeed, after M. Ernest Hamel’s monumental Vie de Robespierre, published some four decades ago, this was scarcely possible. He has, rather, subjected M. Hamel’s work to long scrutiny and meditation; he has interpreted it, subtilized it, and, in a good sense, Paterized it. He has endeavored so to wind himself into the heart of that record as to stand where Robespierre’s “ own soul stood, looking out with his own pale eyes.” This is, perhaps, a Quixotic enterprise, somewhat preciously phrased, yet, so it be well done, there is a sure place for precisely this kind of imaginative biography. Mr. Belloc has made due allowance for the darkness and uncertain illusion of his cave, and has produced an admirable study in subjectivity.

In fulfilling the resurrective function of his criticism Mr. Belloc wisely begins with externals. His elaborately drawn picture of the corporeal presence of Robespierre memorializes certain salient and significant physical traits that it is well to bear in mind.

“ His frame was of a delicate mould, his hands and feet small and well shaped, his chest neither broad nor deep. He had not that vitality of action which proceeds from well-furnished lungs ; neither the voice nor the gesture, the good humor, nor the sudden powers that belong to men whose fires have draught to them. . . . His eyes, whence most his self pierced outward, gave immediate evidence of the homogeneity, sincerity, and circumscription, as they did also of the half unquiet of his mind and of its unfittedness for reception. . . . His face was free from the lines which constant anxiety or ceaseless assiduity drew upon those of his contemporaries, nor had he any marked development of such indications of character, save in the furrows that flank the mouth, and that stand commonly for some perception of irony and for a habit of self-control.”

As this prim figure grows more familiar to us we begin to know something of the mind by which it was informed. The mild deprecatory manner of a man but ill endowed with the thing we call force became impressive and imposing by the constant iteration of the intellectual formulas which held the hopes of a people. Robespierre, by Mr. Belloc’s showing, was essentially the provincial lawyer with a turn for literary composition. But, coming early under the spell of Rousseau, and enjoying something of that spontaneous activity of mind, which the leisure of country life under the old régime afforded, he deduced the reasonable order of an ideal state. Mr. Belloc is particularly happy in portraying Robespierre’s political complexion. His democracy was of the head rather than of the heart; not passionate, doctrinaire. The wild drama of the Revolution with its renaissance of epic song, its recrudescence of old thirsts, passed unheeded under Robespierre’s Rousseau-like contemplation, as a tide slips under a mist.

Mr. Belloc’s reader will be likely to revise a little his notion of Robespierre’s importance as a leader of revolt. Indeed, in a strict sense he was not a leader at all ; he was a symbol. He had no real initiative. His mind constructed systems in a void ; when confronted with tangible, insistent facts he was chiefly an obstructionist. His interminable, painfully filed speeches expressed, but rarely determined, the course of the Revolution. As Mr. Belloc says finely, Paris made him an idea because he made Paris an idea. Yet when the storm and stress were over, and men had leisure and space to measure their leaders, Robespierre was seen to lack the quality of the great captains of reform ; “ he was seen to have neither instinctive human foreknowledge, nor the sad human laughter, and there was no exile in his eyes.”

The essential dramatic course of Robespierre’s life stands out in certain episodes of Mr. Belloc’s narrative with the closely articulated structure of a Greek tragedy. His tragic fault of an ambition inconsistent with his creed cumulates tragically in that fatal moment when he looked at Danton, the incarnation of the primal force of the Revolution, and, as Carlyle said in words that Mr. Belloc has not bettered, “ grew greener to behold him.” When, a little later, he tacitly consented to Danton’s death, the descent to the catastrophe had begun. The losing struggle of Robespierre against the factions in the convention and in the committee, outwardly at the very summit of his power, while secretly his supports were sapped one after one, is a theatric katabasis that would have given pleasure to Aristotle. Then, finally, came that last pathetic act of Thermidor which brings, by pity and terror, a purification how beneficent.

All this is set forth by Mr. Belloc according to the best traditions of biography and with striking brilliancy of style. Indeed, if he errs at all it is through too great rhetorical care. His style has the effect of constantly preening itself, and his highly metaphorical manner sometimes evolves conceits that would have abashed John Donne. But, despite this suspicion of posture, his writing at its best is singularly sinuous, cogent, and suggestive. Above all, he has a peculiar gift for the apothegmatic expression of wise saws and historic lore.

The final impression we derive of Robespierre’s character is curiously, but wisely, inconsistent with much that has gone before. We are led to remember that after all he was comparatively a young man, dying tragically at thirtysix, — as Danton had died at thirty-five, and Camille Desmoulins at thirty-four, — at a time when Wordsworth, himself not a very passionate young man, had felt that “to be young was very Heaven.” In judging him it is well to side with the humane charity of Mr. Belloc’s concluding paragraphs: —

“ I return also to the memory of the jejune, persistent mind which has haunted me through the description of his fortunes. I fear to have done him a wrong. Such men may be greater than their phrases or their vain acts display them. I know that he passed through a furnace of which our paltry time can re-imagine nothing, and I know that throughout this trial he affirmed — with monotonous inefficiency, but still affirmed — the fundamental truths which our decadence has neglected or despised, and is even in some dens beginning to deny.

“ He saw God Personal, the soul immortal, man of a kind with man, and he was in the company of those who began to free the world. God have mercy on his soul and on each of ours who hope for better things.”

F. G.

  1. Robespierre. A Study. By HILAIRE BELLOC. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1901.