The Forty Immortals
WHEN the seventeenth century was still young, and men took a lively interest in those writers, young also, who, unknown to themselves were to make of it the “ great century,” ten cronies met once a week to discuss the last book or the successful tragedy of the day. These men bore names unfamiliar to our forgetful age: Godeau, Gourbault, Chapelain, Desmarets, Habert, Abbé de Cérisy, Conrart, Cérisay, Malleville, and Giry. Their trysting-place was Conrart’s house. He was well-to-do in the world, a man of taste and learning, and most hospitable, so that we can imagine how comfortable these masculine meetings were.
A vast room, with the visible rafters of well-seasoned, dark-hued oak; a huge fireplace where blazed big logs, cheerfully but somewhat ineffectually, after the fashion of the day, scorching faces and leaving backs very cold; high armchairs, so fashioned as to protect head and ears from insidious draughts; screens used for the same purpose; on the broad table a tray with slim glasses and certain cobwebbed bottles, — none of your sugared water such as satisfies modern orators grown dry-throated, but rich burgundy or ancient bordeaux, fit for gods — and Frenchmen. Then, with drawn curtains, all feminine intrusion out of the question, the ten cronies, most agreeably to themselves, dealt out praise and blame (the latter with greater gusto doubtless, for the saying of sharp things has ever been a joy to sweet humanity) to rising young authors such as Mairet, Rotrou, Scudéry, Corneille, and many others.
For a few years, these quiet meetings went on most unobtrusively. But the judgments of this new sort of “ Council of Ten ” little by little oozed out. Even men are not always so discreet as they fancy themselves; then, some of these gentlemen were doubtless married, — and it became the object of all young authors to be discussed at Conrart’s evening reunions.
In those days, Louis XIII sat on the throne, and the Cardinal de Richelieu reigned, most despotically, over France and its King. The minister shrewdly suspected that he was a consummate statesman, but he knew, even more surely, that he was a great poet. He would have abandoned many a political scheme for the sake of seeing a tragedy in five acts, and in verse, applauded by that very multitude he despised and governed. For some time past, he had been turning over in his mighty brain a project for the disciplining of French minds; he wished to introduce into the world of letters that order, that subserviency, which he had obtained in the turbulent world of the nobility. In the Conrart intimate reunions, he saw the nucleus of what was to become the French Academy.
At first the ten gentlemen, well content with their comfort, drew back. But who could long resist the powerful cardinal, especially when he chose to be courteous and charming ? And so, they yielded.
The new company was first called Académie des Beaux-esprits, then Académie de l’éloquence, Académie éminente, and finally the simpler and better name of Académie Française was adopted. The first meeting took place on March 13, 1634. The Parliament, however, only signed the papers that gave it a legal existence on July 10, 1637. The custom of academical discourses dates from 1640, The number of academicians was fixed at thirty-four; then went up to forty.
If we consult the first list, we see that not only literary men were received into this august company, but also amateurs of refined taste and judgment. Later on, statesmen, orators, savants, or simply high-born and powerful protectors of literature, were admitted. The celebrated phrase, “ L’Académie est un salon,” was soon heard, and it reduced to silence all rough and untidy candidates.
From the start, these forty great men took themselves very much in earnest, and expected their immortality to be more than a mere name. In 1640 the advocate Patru, one of the first Academicians, said, “ Gentlemen: Do not hope that the future will furnish men equal to yourselves. It is enough that our century should have produced forty persons of sufficient greatness, and of eminent virtue. So great an effort could not have been made without exhausting nature.” And yet every generation has proved equal to that great effort, and who now remembers the advocate Patru ?
Forty men cannot, like a small and chummy set, assemble around a roaring fire, drink good wine, and cut up poor writers. Work had to be provided. Chapelain, one of the first Immortals, proposed that they should compile a dictionary, destined to become the Gospel of French literature. In June, 1639, the letter A was nearly completed. This dictionary has proved to be a sort of Penelope’s tapestry: it has eternally to be recommenced. Language will not stand still, in spite of all the Academies in the world. It grows like a willful child; its hair and nails must constantly be trimmed, and it bursts its buttons, and needs a lengthening of its clothes at each change of season. The Forty have a never-ending task before them.
If candidates knock humbly at the door of the big dome-crowned Palais de l’Institut, impertinent words (slang at their birth) knock unblushingly at the door of the dictionary, and many have gained admittance, the acceptance of which would have caused poor Chapelain’s wig to rise on his head. And yet, it was Chapelain himself who said, “ If félicité is not yet French, it will be next year: M. Vaugelas has promised not to vote against it when we shall plead its cause.”
That “felicity ” should ever have been considered as bohemian, rather astonishes us. But words which we use daily, in no matter what language, may have scandalized our remote forefathers. We read in Madame du Deffand’s Correspondance that, a hundred years or more after the founding of the Academy, she could hardly reconcile herself to the use of the word être as a noun, meaning a being; she had always looked upon it as merely an auxiliary verb, which knew its place in a sentence, and kept it.
The first dictionary appeared in 1694, the second edition in 1718, the seventh in 1879. The work is still going on.
The Academy was at once solemnly organized. A Director, a Chancellor, and a Secretary presided over the meetings. The Director and Chancellor are renewed every year; the Secrétaire perpétuel is named for life, and enjoys a fine apartment in the Palais de l’Institut. This is a much envied position.
During many years, a panegyric of the founder, Richelieu, was obligatory upon all new members, and it was not always easy gracefully to introduce into an academic oration. After a while, a visit to the head of the nation was substituted for the rather stale and inopportune panegyric. But even this had to be abandoned in modern times. Chateaubriand, then Berryer, among others, absolutely refused to conform to this custom: the former because he hated Napoleon I; the latter, because he hated Napoleon III.
On the left side of the Seine, just across the Pont des Arts, looms up a fine but rather melancholy-looking building, surmounted by a majestic dome. There is a small open space, scarcely a square, before it; intricate, narrow, old-time streets wind around it. It is almost opposite the beautiful Louvre, not far from the Tuileries gardens and that wonderful Place de la Concorde. But the Palais de l’Institut yet seems to turn its back on modern Paris, and to slumber, half-buried in the dust of ages, like old, much-honored, rarely opened books on the top shelf of a library. It is the abode of conservatism.
In the thirteenth century, vineyards covered all this ground, and a big tower was built at the water’s edge. In the course of time, it belonged to Jeanne de Bourgogne, wife of Philippe le Long. Alexandre Dumas, in his famous drama La Tour de Nesle, has given a sorry reputation to this queen, whom he called, I know not why, Marguerite. On this very spot rose a college endowed by Mazarin for the education of needy, but noble youths, and to it he gave his wonderful library. During the Revolution, the college disappeared. In 1806, Napoleon caused the words Institut de France to be cut above the door, and, ever since, the five Academys have met under the dome. These are l’Académie Française, l’Académie des Sciences, l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, l’Academie des Beaux-Arts, l’Académie des Sciences morales et politiques. But the first of these and the oldest is the Académie Française, and toward it all men who hold a pen turn very longing eyes.
Not all, however. Some, and not the least among writers, proudly disdained it: Pascal, Molière, Balzac, Dumas the elder, Flaubert, never belonged to the Academy. Piron wrote his own epitaph thus, —
Pas même Académicien.”
The poet had indeed been elected, but Louis XV, celebrated as we know for his high moral principles, refused to sanction his election. To console the wouldbe Immortal, the King granted him a pension of one thousand livres.
In our days, that exquisite writer, Alphonse Daudet, after having been enticed into the vestibule of the sacred edifice, violently slammed the door after him, and wrote his book L’Immortel. On that occasion, the charming novelist put a little venom in his ink. All recognized the portraits, the caricatures rather, with which his pages were filled. He vowed they were not portraits, and, in truth, a detail here and there had generally been changed: one man wore another man’s nose; a woman’s personal appearance, or some circumstance of her well-known life, was not exactly true; but each personage, as it appeared in the story, was greeted by his or her real name. On the title-page of the novel are printed these words: “ I am not, I never was, I never will be a candidate for the French Academy.”
Another modern writer took a very different view of the question: this was Emile Zola. While his friend and rival, Daudet, said very hard things of the institution, Zola declared that “ since the Academy existed, he was bound to belong to it.” In those already distant days, if Zola had passionate admirers, his detractors were more passionate still, and, at every new election, the same question arose: “ Should Zola be elected or not ? ” The famous phrase, “The Academy is a salon,” buzzed through the air, was caught up by the press, was repeated especially in beautiful drawing-rooms where, according to public report, academical candidates were supported or black-balled. Zola doggedly made the regulation visits after each vacancy, and asked for admittance. Each time, he received one vote. All wondered who was the brave Academician who imperturbably voted for the author of L’Assommoir and Pot-Bouille. New Peri at the gate of Paradise, Zola never entered within its precincts.
From the earliest times, in our day especially, an election to the French Academy has ever been a matter of great importance. In all times also an election has been made more against an unpopular candidate, than in favor of the one admitted. Women, particularly, grow quite frantic on the subject and, for the time being, can think of nothing else.
In Pailleron’s witty and ever young comedy, Le monde où l’on s’ennuie, a great lady, the Comtesse de Céran, has her candidate. She says to him, —
“ No, no . . . not at the first turn: 15 ... 8 ... 15 ... It will be a drawn contest, consequently there will be a ballot . . . How simple!
“ The Candidate; Simple . . . simple! The second time I can receive but four votes, with the nine of the first . . . total: 13.
“ Mme. de Céran: And our seven of the first, will make twenty. Can’t you understand ? . . . Mind you pay court to Dalibert and his liberals. Just now, the Academy is liberal . . . just now, I say . . .”
The comedy goes on from year to year, as the “ Immortals ” prove the ghastly falsehood of their title. Immortal in another sense ? Here are some names, chosen at random through the centuries which have vanished since the Academy came into existence: Garat, Dureau, Delanville, Arnault, Laujon, Picard, Merlin, Esménard, Duval, Campenon, Laya, Roger, Lemontey, Pastoret, de Bausset, Auger, Soumat, Brifaut, Guiraud, Feletz, Pongeville, Tissot, Michaud, SaintPriest, Biot, Comte de Carné, Champigny . . . and the list might be prolonged almost indefinitely. Who, beyond the walls of the Institut, or outside of a small and learned circle, could recall the works of these forgotten great men ?
There is another kind of struggle after an election: all are eager to obtain a card of invitation to the solemn ceremony of the new member’s reception. The hemicircle is but a small one; the galleries cramped and uncomfortable. Twice as many invitations are issued as there are seats. Long before the doors are opened, rows of anxious people wait and wait. Many fine ladies send their unfortunate footmen at five o’clock in the morning, if not overnight, to secure the places they will occupy at one o’clock in the afternoon. And, be the weather as vile as it often is during a Paris winter, the patient line is unbroken. When, at last, the doors are thrown open, in a twinkling the best seats are secured, and the Secretary of the Institute, noted for his urbanity and his cleverness in insinuating supplementary chairs into insufficient space, has his hands full. Often, the unfortunate holders of gallery cards are stopped by the crush in the narrow, winding, stifling staircase, and, unable either to advance or to retreat, hear the distant echoes of the Academic sing-song, and of aristocratic applause.
In Daudet’s L’Immortel, a provincial poet has come to Paris to solicit a prize, and later on to become that most lamentable of wrecks, a perpetual candidate for the Academy. Here is a picture of what he saw on the eve of a reception, —
“ Picheral [his real name was Pingard] and his clerks were in all the confusion of names, addresses, tossed from one desk to the other, surrounded by a litter of blue, yellow, green cards, all the turmoil of invitations for the great reception. . . .
I wish you could have heard him speak to the Comte de Brétigny, ex-minister, one of the great noblemen of the Academy, who had come to remonstrate about a mistake in his account. You must know that each time a member assists at a meeting he receives a presence-counter worth six francs. As there are forty members, the sum amounts to 240 francs; the fewer the assistants, the greater sum awarded to each. At the end of the month, a linen bag is given to each, a paper pinned to it, like a laundry bill. Brétigny complained that two of the counters had been overlooked, and it was as good as a play to see this noble and rich lord, president of I know not how many boards, coming in his equipage to haggle over twelve francs. Finally, after a long debate, Picheral beat him down to six and threw them at him as if he had been a beggar. The Immortal pocketed his six francs with great satisfaction. ... I heard the venerable Jean Rehu, who is nearly a hundred years old, relate that his friend, Suard, went to the Academy on January 21, 1793, the day of Louis XVI’s decapitation, and, thanks to the absence of the other Academicians, swept up the whole of the 240 francs. . . . And you must not think that to belong to the Academy is a sinecure: every year there are new bequests that have to be utilized, therefore more books to read, more reports to make . . . Then there are the orations and the Dictionary.! ”
Every year, sums of money, varying from several thousand to a few hundred francs, are distributed among writers, while other sums are destined to reward virtue; and every year, the Secrétaire perpétuel and the Director of the day read out the list of the laureates. It is a marvel to note how these hackneyed themes can be rejuvenated by clever men. I once heard Alexander Dumas, the younger, speak of the humble heroism of servant girls or obscure priests, and his most successful “ premières ” were scarcely more delightful.
At the distribution of prizes, in November, 1907, the late M. Gaston Boissier, an old man of an astonishingly youthful spirit, said, —
“ This is the eighty-seventh time that the Academy has met to recompense virtue. The harvest is always the same: miracles of devotion, of sympathy, of kindness. . . . Our predecessors have said all that could be said in praise of virtue. I have consulted eighty-seven orations, pronounced by such men as Laplace, Cuvier, Tocqueville, Guizot, Montalembert, Sainte-Beuve, Dumas fils, Renan, Brunetière, and Sully-Prudhomme ... In these orations genius received a kind of after-glow from the virtues it glorified, and we are able, through them, to follow, year by year, the movement — I should not dare say the fashion — of French sensibility.”
Now let us turn to those writers who, for one reason or another, were left out in the cold. Daudet’s provincial poet says, —
“ I timidly mentioned the name of Balzac. The novelist Desminières [read Feuillet], who used to get up the Compiègne charades, exclaimed hotly, “ Balzac! Did you know him ? Do you know of whom you are speaking ? . . . A bohemian, ... a man who never had a twenty-franc piece with which to bless himself !”
Flaubert, who was haughtily indifferent to all academic ambition, and who certainly would have been black-balled had he applied for admission to the sacred precincts, wrote to George Sand,—
“ To have missed the Academy was to Théophile Gautier a frightful sorrow. What weakness! and how cheap must one hold oneself! . . . In truth, seeking after any sort of honor seems to me an act of incomprehensible immodesty.”
In one of George Sand’s delightful letters to the author of Madame Bovary, she says, “ Violent criticism is the inevitable consecration of great talent. Be sure that those who have not been cut and slashed in that way are only fit for the Academy.”
In 1839, when Victor Hugo did not obtain the necessary majority of votes, Béranger wrote to a friend, “ I certainly do not belong to your Academy; luckily so, for I should have had a fit of misanthropy on discovering the criss-cross of intrigues which brought about your last two elections.”
Very different was the attitude of Taine. He wrote to Alexander Dumas, fils, in 1878, “ I consider it a great honor to belong to the French Academy . . . it seems that I can count on a majority of votes . . . of this I am very proud and very happy ...” Later on, he wrote again, in a more subdued tone; “ I could not have imagined that a candidate would have to take so many steps and waste so much ink. . . . After all, I am not of those who find life unbearable for lack of a coat embroidered in green. ... I should willingly give up all vain satisfactions to find a new idea or clearly to demonstrate an idea which I already possess. ...” Still later, when he found that he was likely to be beaten, he wrote to his wife: “ This sickening task is as useless as it is displeasing. I have lost fifteen days, traveled three hundred leagues, spent six days making visits. . . I am weary and disgusted. My only wish is to leave all this parade to others and to settle down in my corner once more. It seems to me that I have been walking amid evil smells, and I long for my books that do not lie.”
He was not received, and did not apply again. His friends, ashamed of this failure, carried on the campaign in his name, and the news of his election reached him, at the next vacancy, in his quiet summer home at Menthon Saint-Bernard, on the Lake of Anneçy.
In his discourse, March, 1880, he said, —
“ I shall assist faithfully at the meetings of the Academy: it is the duty of a new-comer and a most agreeable one. The French Academy is a sort of Club, composed of men differing widely one from another, but who are all most polite; they converse familiarly and on a footing of perfect equality . . . their courtesy is that of the last century.”
To make ceremonious visits to thirtynine Academicians, with the hope of becoming the fortieth, is bad enough when success comes at once. It rarely does. The greatest often knock several times at the door before it opens, and on each occasion the thirty-nine (more or less) visits have to be repeated.
Once received, Academicians have often been accused of slumbering gently on their laurels. Like all sweeping assertions, this one is scarcely true. Many works, bearing the magical title De l’Académie Française, are as living and as interesting as when the name in itself was a sufficient title to glory.
Alphonse Daudet thought otherwise. In L’Immortel, he describes the funeral of an Academician. On such occasions, the whole Academy turns out to honor its dead.
“ Decrepit, broken, twisted like superannuated fruit-trees, heavy-footed, unsteady of leg, with the blinking eyes of night-birds, those who did not lean on a friendly arm, tottered with outspread hands, and their names were whispered in the crowd, reminding one of dead and long-forgotten books.”
Three classes especially are clearly marked in the Academy. These are familarly known as the “ Dukes,” that is all the highborn members, such as were, in bygone years, the Duc d’Aumale, the Due de Broglie and others; the “ Pedants ” comprising historians, critics, savants — and I fancy that Renan, Pasteur, Littré, to speak only of the dead, carried their title of “ pedants ” very lightly; and the “ Cabotins ” (for which word there is no adequate English translation) ; in this class, dramatic authors, novelists, journalists, and lawyers are huddled together. In an election, or even for the obtaining of a modest prize, one had to choose the patrons most likely to push one’s fortunes.
The candidate, once elected, is bound to pronounce a harangue before he is allowed to take part in the work of the noble body. The Director who happens to be in office, answers him. This oration is invariably, or at least should be, composed first of thanks, more or less humble, for the great honor conferred, then of a panegyric of the happy one’s predecessor. And oh! how difficult that sometimes must be! More than one has rushed to the Encyclopedia, then to the libraries, so as to get some clear notion of the illustrious ex-Immortal! Then, fate is often ironical: a priest may be bound to celebrate the talent of an atheist; an historian that of a writer of light comedies; a legitimist may have to praise a socialist; or else the newly elected member may have to speak of his most intimate enemy.
Some orations were never pronounced. In 1812, Chateaubriand refused to speak of Joseph-Marie Chénier, the revolutionary brother of that exquisite poet, André Chénier. The harangue of Emile Ollivier, after the war of 1870, was not approved by his sponsors, on account of an enthusiastic eulogy of Napoleon III. Edmond About, who was elected toward 1880, if I am not mistaken, never took possession of his seat, and died in 1883 without having donned the green-embroidered coat, and that was a great pity. About, familiarly called Voltaire’s grandson, had a wonderful command of the French language, and a wit so keen that his grandsire might have claimed it for his own.
Let us go back to the beginning of the Nineteenth century, and work our way up to modern times, gleaning here and there a few ears of wheat wherewith to make a modest sheaf, out of the rich harvest. These fragments will give an idea of what is called academic eloquence. And do not fancy that, especially in early days, all went merry as a marriage-bell and that nothing but sugarplums and compliments were showered on the new Academician. More than one Director imagined it his duty to use the rod, as with some schoolboy whom he was to instruct in the virtue of humility. The great art consisted in so mixing sour with sweets as to tickle the fancy of the audience, without really giving cause of complaint to the novice.
This rapid review will also have the advantage of initiating us in the ideas, the tastes, of Frenchmen after the Revolution, before Romanticism, and after Romanticism had died of old age.
In 1816 Desèze took the place of Ducis, that gentle Ducis who “ softened ” Shakespeare. Thus spoke Desèze: —
“ What Ducis chose, he adorned; the most severe of critics acknowledged that he had simplified Shakespeare; that he had rid him of some of his most revolting faults, and that he had even at times improved on him.”
We all remember that Voltaire “ discovered Shakespeare,” did him the honor to rob him, presented him to his countrymen ; then, finding that some of these were only too prone to admire the “ barbarian,” said with his easy grace “ that he had found some diamonds on that dunghill.”
Casimir Delavigne, after the great success of his comedy L’ Ecole des Vieillards, knocked at the door of the Academy. He was only thirty: his youth was against him, and Monseigneur de Frayssinous, Bishop of Hermopolis, was elected. A second attempt failed; Monseigneur de Quélan, Archbishop of Paris, was the favored one. “ I shall not present rayself again,” declared Delavigne; “ you understand that, on the third occasion, the Holy Father himself would be my rival.” Nevertheless, in 1825, he was admitted. His discourse was an interesting one, for it was frankly romantic. His was a rather curious position with regard to Romanticism, for in politics he was a liberal, whereas in 1825 Victor Hugo and his adherents were royalists. This declaration of Romanticism by Casimir Delavigne was the first ever heard at the French Academy, and it must have caused some emotion. However, he was not a violent sectarian, and the most conservative of his new brethren could scarcely have objected to this passage of his oration : “ Ardent admirers that we all are of Sophocles, let us also admire Shakespeare and Goethe, less to imitate them than to learn from them to be what nature made us.”
In 1828, the great professor and critic, Villemain, took possession of the seat that Fontanes, the friend of Chateaubriand, had occupied. Roger, in his answer to Villemain, relates this anecdote. It is well known that Chateaubriand gave in his resignation as ambassador, after the murder of the Duc d’Enghien, and Fontanes approved his conduct. “ One day the Emperor said to the latter, ‘ Do you still think about your Duc d’Enghien? ’ — ‘ It seems to me,’ was the reply, ' that the Emperor thinks of him as much as I do.’ ”
In reading over these innumerable discourses, one is struck by their variety, even though the order remains about the same. Individuality shows itself through conventionality. Sturdy and muscular arms may crack the seams of the embroidered coat. Victor Hugo was Apocalyptic; Taine divided his speech, as he was wont to do, with his articles for the Revue des Deux Mondes. Monseigneur Dupanloup preached a noble sermon. De Lesseps was brief and to the point; there was no nonsense about him. To make up for the bitter humiliations of his last years, de Lesseps had the great good fortune to be praised by that most rare of writers, M. Anatole France, who succeeded him at the Academy. Thiers spoke like an historian, who was scarcely a stylist. Here is one of his sentences: “ A crown fell crashing to the ground, carrying with it the august head that wore it.” Dramatic authors, like Scribe, Dumas, Labiche, changed the solemn platform into a stage; poets with difficulty kept rhymes from their prose address; novelists allowed their pen to dissect a character or relate an anecdote.
Lamartine, elected in 1830, was both an exquisite poet and a great prose writer; it was rather the latter who said, — “You open your ranks to men of talent, of genius, to virtue, to all that is preeminent. . . . Without any difference of school or of party, you place yourselves, like truth, above systems. All systems are false; genius alone is true, because nature alone is infallible.”
In 1836, Scribe, in his turn, was admitted. He was certainly not one of those geniuses to whom Lamartine alluded, but no man ever more thoroughly understood the stage and its exigencies. He said, — “ Many years ago, I entered this hall; I was a pupil at the Lycée Napoléon, and here we were to receive our prizes of the Concours Général. In these tribunes, then as now, sat our comrades, our rivals. I asked who was the President. I was told, ‘ It is the Head-Master of the University, M. de Fontanes.’ — ‘ And next to him, that handsome man ? ’ — ' M. Arnault, the author of Marius,’ that tragedy whose fine verses we all knew by heart! ”
And Villemain courteously replied,— “ Your discourse has obtained the same success as one of your comedies;” which in our day would seem but tame praise.
Victor Hugo, in 1841, broke somewhat with the traditions of the place. He was not much given to humility, and he succeeded Lemercier, an antagonist of Napoleon I. Instead of praising his predecessor, as was his bounden duty, he made a magnificent panegyric of his favorite hero: “A man then made the land ring with his fame; France grew to be so great that it filled Europe. . . . This man was blessed with the three supreme conditions of success: he came, he was adored, he was consecrated. . . . He was the man to whom Alexander of Russia said, ‘You were predestined; ’ to whom Kléber said, ' I am the soldier, you are the general;’ to whom Vallembert said, ‘ I am about to die, but you will reign.’ All in that man was immeasurable and splendid. Once he was seen in the midst of fourteen sovereigns, seated between the Cæsar and the Czar, on a throne higher than theirs. . . . He said, ' My predecessor, Charlemagne.’ ”
No one dared to criticise Victor Hugo. It was not the case with another poet, and a very great poet, Alfred de Vigny, who succeeded Etienne in 1846. He spoke but little of this estimable writer, probably because he had not much to say about him. There is some tinge of Vigny’s habitual melancholy in this sentence: “ In every man’s life comes a moment when it is good for him to pause . . . and to consider whether, on the road, he has left behind him a stone worthy of remaining to mark his passage. . .”Evidently Molé, who received him, thought that the poet had left no such stone; he said, “ I can but admire the wonderful power of imagination and talent which gives life to all it touches . . . and, thanks to the brilliancy of the coloring, dispenses with reality.” (In other words, “You lie.”) Then, referring to Vigny’s historical romance, Cinq-Mars: “This, I believe, you call ‘ truth in art.’ We, simple readers, merely call it the historical novel. I do not like, for my part, those deep gashes inflicted on the truth, and therefore on the morality of history. . . . You take as your hero the scatter-brained, bold rival of Richelieu . . . and you reduce to mean proportions one of the greatest statesmen, whose vast ambition had no other aim than the power of France. . . . Such men belong to truth rather than to art. You will not wonder that, in this Company of which he was the illustrious founder, a voice should be raised to recall the glory, and, if need be, to defend the memory of Cardinal Richelieu.”
As long as the irate statesman lived, Alfred de Vigny refused to occupy his seat in the noble assembly.
In 1852, Alfred de Musset was received. He had been called l’enfant terrible of the romantic school. He certainly was an unruly child, and strongly objected to being lectured even by the Academy. “I protest with all my might against those preconceived judgments which force the man to pay for the child’s faults: those judgments, that, in the name of the past, forbid him to have common sense, and make use of the evil he no longer commits, to punish deeds of which he is not guilty.”
If Monseigneur Dupanloup, after an elaborate act of humility, preached a rather long sermon, Lacordaire, when, in 1861, he was called to the vacant seat of Tocqueville, showed that he was really a liberal religious as well as an orator. “ It was impossible,” said he, “for M. de Tocqueville to step upon American soil without being struck by this new world, so different from his own. For the first time, a nation revealed itself to him, flourishing, peaceful, industrious, rich, powerful, respected by others, each day peopling vast solitudes with the overflow of its population, acknowledging no master but itself, enduring no distinction of birth, electing its magistrates from the highest to the lowest, free as its own Indians, civilized like Europeans, religious without allowing a monopoly to any sect, and, in a word, presenting to the amazed world the living drama of the most absolute liberty in the most absolute equality. . . ”
Let us, however we may enjoy such praise of America, descend from these heights. Octave Feuillet, in 1863, spoke thus of his predecessor, Scribe: “ He was a detestable lawyer’s clerk. One morning, as ill-luck would have it, he met his principal face to face. This excellent man, who had a sense of humor, merely said, ‘As I have something to say to you, Monsieur Scribe, I am delighted to meet you. ... I wished to suggest that if, by good fortune, you should happen to be in my part of the world, I should be infinitely obliged to you if you would call at my office.’ — ‘ Sir,’ answered Scribe, ‘ I was on my way to it.’ ”
The Duc d’Aumale was allowed by the French government to return to France, while the other members of his family remained in exile. The Academy, in 1873, hastened to open its doors to the historian of the Condés. The Duke returned the compliment by leaving to the Academy his superb castle of Chantilly, with all its treasures. “ You welcomed and admitted me at the very moment when my foot trod the soil of my country: you admitted the exile of yesterday to this Company which bears the name of France.”
One of the most brilliant receptions was that of Alexandre Dumas, in 1875. His father had never been one of the Forty, and he thus alluded to the fact: “ In order to penetrate into your circle, gentlemen, I made use of magic. ... I knew that a good genius — that is the appropriate word — was fighting for me, and that you were determined not to defend yourselves. I placed myself under the patronage of a name which, for a long time past, you had wished to honor, and which you now could only honor in me.”
M. Victorien Sardou, who in 1878 took the place of the poet Autran, described the arrival of Lamartine at Marseilles, on his way to the Orient. “The young poet, Autran, was deputed to receive him and to accompany him in his walks. Lamartine exclaimed, ‘Admirable landscape! What majesty in those ancient sycomores! ’ Astonished, Autran sought the sycomores and saw only scrubby mulberry trees. Out of deference, he remained silent. ‘Ah! this time . . . look at this limpid spring, this youthful maiden— it’s Nausicaa.’ And M. Autran was bound to confess that Nausicaa was but a sturdy peasant wench, at the village washing-pool. One evening, a young writer, heir to a great name, was conversing with Autran . . . when the Parisian spied a certain manuscript: ‘ A play, no doubt ? ’ Autran, not without embarrassment, answered that it was. ’A comedy ? ’ Blushing, the author had to confess the painful truth: it was a tragedy ... in verse. ‘May I glance at it ? ’ — ‘ Certainly.’ When the manuscript was laid aside: ' It is very bad, is it not ? ’ — ‘ My dear friend, give me your play; I shall take it to my father; it shall be put on the stage — and have great success.’ And that is how, gentlemen, the Fille d’Eschyle was discovered, one evening at Marseilles, and taken to the elder Dumas by his son.”
When Renan was named, in 1879, the amiable Pingard had much difficulty in finding even stools for the fine ladies who crowded the hemicircle. Renan’s oration was noble and simple. He said, “ What is this Company, gentlemen, but a centre for liberty; here, all political, philosophical, religious, literary opinions, all the different ways of understanding life, every sort of talent, all kinds of merit are assembled in perfect equality. That is the secret of your eternal youth; that is why your institution puts forth new shoots as the world grows old. . . . We reach your circle at the age of the Ecclesiast, a charming age, the most conducive to serene gaiety, where a man begins to see, after a laborious youth, that all is vanity, but also that many vain things are worthy to be tasted and relished.”
The modern candidates have to fear no such stinging sarcasms as wounded poor Alfred de Vigny. If criticism is not absent from the Director’s discourse, it is so enveloped with praise that the pill is swallowed before the patient has had time to make a wry face. The orations of the new members have also gained in simplicity, in dignity, in straightforward, earnest thought : such are those of the historian and professor, M. Ernest Lavisse, now Director of the famous Ecole Normale; of the eminent critic M. Emile Faguet, who began thus, —
“ I thank you. Having asked myself what formula of gratitude was most likely to be acceptable to you, I concluded that it must be the simplest. I thank you.”
M. Pierre Loti, in his turn, addressed his new colleagues, and it was noticed that his use of the personal pronoun was perhaps a little too frequent. In his novels, as well as in life, that exquisite writer’s hero has ever been Pierre Loti. This has afforded us so much pleasure that it would be ungrateful to complain; his word-pictures are always most harmonious. He said, —
“ To me, the evening of May 21, 1891, was one never to be forgotten. The election took place that day, — and I, not believing in the possibility of so great a triumph, actuated also by I know not what quiet Oriental fatalism . . . had spent my time, vaguely musing, wandering on the heights of ancient Algiers, in those dead and whitely shrouded regions which surround an antique and holy mosque: it is one of those places where I have always deeply felt the most intimate, but also the most peaceful conviction of the nothingness of earthly things.”
But the news that he had become an Immortal brought nevertheless some human joy to this lover of Mohammedan indifference.
Of M. Paul Bourget’s discourse (1895) I shall quote a paragraph only; it does him more credit than many of his rather lengthy pages of analysis: —
“ A youth plucks, in books, the flowers of human sentiment. . . . He is like his child-brother who, picking flowers to play at being a gardener, plants them in a heap of sand, thinking that he has thus created a real garden. At noon, he leaves it bright and perfumed; but in the evening, returning, he finds the blossoms faded and he weeps, for he is but a child and does not know that flowers need roots. . . . The youth likewise is ignorant of the law which imposes certain conditions to the growth of sentiment. He does not know that ecstatic moments are rare and that one must become worthy of them, worthy of love, worthy to feel, I was going to say, worthy to suffer.”
M. Jules Lemaître, that prince of critics, that most charming of writers, was elected in 1896. Those who expected intellectual fireworks from the witty polemist were disappointed. His task was to praise the historian and professor, Victor Duruy, and he accomplished that task with all the earnestness and dignity of which he was capable. He remembered that he, also, had had the honor of wearing the professor’s robe. Of this oration, I shall quote only a portrait of Napoleon III which has, I think, never been equaled : —
“ The epic poem of his uncle’s life, the marvelous strangeness of his own, acted upon him as a sort of opium, all the more that circumstances had greatly come to his aid, and that he had known the extremities of fortune without being in any sense a man of action. With halfshut eyes, he dreamed confusedly of the enfranchisement of nationalities, of the establishment of a slightly socialistic and yet Cæsarian democracy, of the historical completion of the Revolution: vast projects; how they were to be accomplished remained vague in the gentle fatalist’s imagination, dazzled as he was by a prodigious destiny, of which he had been the toy and of which he thought himself the hero.”
To close this long enumeration, which is yet too short to give an idea of the infinite variety of talents sheltered by the big dome, let us take a poet dear to all of us who love winged verse — Edmond Rostand. His discourse was almost too pretty, too sparkling, too poetic. Let us pick up a dainty bit here and there, and thus take leave of the Académie Fran false.
M. Rostand succeeded, in 1903, to Bornier, the author of the Fille de Roland ; the Vicomte de Bornier was a small man, almost a dwarf, and he always chose gigantic subjects. M. Rostand said,—
“ Gentlemen, I have looked over innumerable green pamphlets, on which we see Minerva portrayed. I come too late to shorten the preliminary humility, too late to find some original way of being overwhelmed. . . . Let me say, if you will, that when you were called upon to choose a successor to the author of La Fille de Roland, I happened to be the poet, who, in the course of a journey, was nearest to Roncevaux. . . .
“ I only met M. de Bornier two or three times, and I see in my mind’s eye a romantic little old gentleman, sprightly and kind, with a pink face half covered with a silver beard, eyes that recalled clear water, tiny hands eternally in motion and often hidden by his big cuffs, and I know not what awkward grace which made of him a sort of hobgoblin of tragedy. . . .
“ When he reached Paris, the Vicomte de Bornier gave lessons so as not to starve; the Vicomte published a volume of poems. ... A superb waiting for glory began, and lasted twenty years, without discouragement. on the poet’s part. He took up his abode on Rue du Bac; he only had the bridge to cross to have his manuscripts refused at the Comédie Française: but, on his way home, he saw his star twinkle in Mme. de Staël’s beloved gutter. . . . Nothing could shake the optimism of this intrepid idealist. . . .
“ I shall speak only of the effect produced by the Fille de Roland. When it was known that Gerald was the victor, the whole house rose to its feet. It was a moment of thrilling emotion when were uttered the dear words, ‘ Oh, France! Sweet France! ’ It seemed as if, for the first time since her defeat, France heard herself thus invoked, and thus she wept, as weep convalescents who, on recognizing their name, understand that they are saved! ”
Thus does a poet speak of a poet; thus, a Frenchman of one who honored France.