Obrazy na stronie
[ocr errors]

They are mutually attached, and the reader naturally looks forward to their union as a probable extraction from those distresses, which are thickly sown in the generality of love-tales. But Atala has taken a vow of celibacy. The missionary offers to obtain her release from it, but his offer comes too late ; for, ignorant of the possibility of such release from her oppressive thraldom, she has swallowed poison. This tale defeats its object. M. de Chateaubriand, both in this and other of his writings, intends to advocate religious vows, and holds celibacy in especial reverence. But if he had meant to write against such vows, he could hardly have constructed a tale better calculated for such a purpose than the story of Atala. But for this vow all might have been well. Now example is better than precept, and a few sentences laudatory of celibacy in the mouth of the missionary will weigh little with the majority of readers against a practical illustration of its evil consequences. Atala is the most interesting character in the work, and we are taught to regard her as a Christian heroine ; but the good effect of the religious sentiments which are put into her mouth, is completely neutralized by the termination of her life in suicide. In René we find religious vows again interwoven with the story. The sister of Réné, the hero of the tale, flies to a convent and takes the veil, as a means of effectual separation from her brother, for whom she had conceived an unhallowed passion. This is ill-imagined. Unnatural love is revolting to our feelings ; nor can it place a convent in a favorable light to represent it as an asylum for the worst of criminals. Besides, if resistance to a temptation be meritorious (as who can doubt), it must be still more meritorious when effected without the forced interposition of doors and walls. Atala and Réné have each a merit which Les Natchez wants, — brevity. We mean only that their length is less, not that they exhibit greater terseness and compression of style. In these requisites they are alike deficient; and, short as they are, we cannot help wishing that the small portion of incident they contain had been less elaborately beaten out. But if this is felt in Atala and Réné, still more is it felt in Les Natchez, which is long, heavy, and ill-constructed, deficient in unity of style and skilful conduct of plot, and offensive to good taste, both in the absurd jumble of its machinery, and the aggravated horrors of its tragical termination.

“ I was yet very young,” says the author, “when I conceived the idea of making man, in a state of nature, the subject of an epic, or of painting the manners of savages, by connecting them with some known event. After the discovery of America, I knew of no subject more interesting, particularly to the French, than the massacre of the colony of Natchez in Louisiana, in 1727. All the In

dian tribes conspiring, after two centuries of oppression, to restore liberty to the New World, appeared to me to offer a subject almost as happy as the conquest of Mexico. I threw some fragments of this work upon paper ; but I soon perceived that I was deficient in true coloring, and, that if I desired to make a correct representation, it was necessary, after the example of Homer, to visit the people that I wished to delineate."

The principle is good, whether Homer followed it or not ; but we cannot say that the attainment of “ 'true coloring” and "a correct representation ” seems in this case to have been the consequent result. We should have expected, too, from the tone of this passage, that we were to be made to sympathize with the oppressed Indians in their attempts at liberation : but the author's nationality struggles successfully with his admiration of “the man " of nature.” He cannot resolve to take part decidedly either with French or with Indians; and the result is a degree of impartiality very detrimental to the interest of the story. We have complained of the want of unity of style. On this point let us hear the author himself:

“I have already said that there were two manuscripts of the Natchez; one divided into books, which contained only about half the work; the other, which contained the whole, without divisions, and with the want of order inherent in the subject. Hence follows a literary singularity in the work, as I give it to the public. The first volume rises to the dignity of the epic, as in The Martyrs, the second volume descends to ordinary narration, as in Atala and Réné.

'To produce unity of style it would have been necessary to efface from the first volume the epic tone, or to extend it over the second. But in either case I should not have reproduced the labor of my youth with fidelity.

"Thus, then, in the first volume of the Natchez, the marvellous may be found, and the marvellous of every kind; that which belongs to Christianity, to mythology, or to the Indian faith. There appear in it muses, angels, demons, genii, combats, allegorical personages; Fame, Time, Night, Death, and Friendship. This volume presents invocations, sacrifices, prodigies, multiplied comparisons, some short, others long, after the fashion of Homer, and forming little pictures.

“In the second volume the marvellous disappears, but the plot becomes complicated, and the personages are multiplied; some among them are even taken from the inferior ranks of society. In a word, a romance takes the place of a poem, without, however, descending below the style of Réné and Atala, and rising sometimes, through the nature of the subject, through its characters, and through the description of scenery, to the tone of the epic."

Of the numerous passages

“after the fashion of Homer,” the reader


like to see a short example : “Chactas entered his hut, he hung his cloak of martin's skin on his left shoulder, he asked for his hickory staff surmounted by a vulture's head. Miscoue had cut the staff in his old age, he left it as a legacy to his son Outalissi, and he to his son Chactas, who, resting upon his hereditary sceptre, gave lessons of wisdom to the young hunters collected in an open space in the forest.”

This is a tolerably close imitation of Homer's account of the transmission of the sceptre of Achilles. It also reminds us of the genealogy of Belinda's bodkin. We know what Pope meant: he meant to parody amusingly, and he fully succeeded. M. de Chateaubriand's intentions are not equally clear; but if they are what we suspect, he has utterly failed. If his pompous account of the Indian's hickory stick be meant for a serious imitation, we can confidently say that he has written that which is only a parody, and can scarcely excite any thing but a smile.

The author, in a passage previously cited, does not encourage us to think favorably of his machinery, in which Christianity, ancient Paganism, Indian superstitions, and allegorical personifications belonging to no creed at all, are strangely and incongruously assembled. But nothing, save examples, can give an adequate idea of the incomparable absurdity of this farrago. The following is more in “ Ercles' vein,” than in that of Homer or Milton.

The advice of Chactas was adopted; four deputies, bearing the calumet of peace, were sent to fort Rosalie. But Areskoui, faithful to the orders of Satan, followed with a savage laugh, at some distance, the messengers of peace, with Treason, Fear, Flight, Grief, and Death.

" In the mean while the Prince of Darkness had reached the extremity of the world, under that pole, the circumference of which the intrepid Cook measured, through winds and tempests. There, in the midst of those southern regions, which a barrier of ice conceals from the curiosity of man, rises a mountain whose height surpasses the most elevated suminits of the Andes in the New World, or of Thibet in ancient Asia.

“Upon that mountain is built a palace, a work of the infernal Powers. This palace has a thousand porticos of brass ; the lowest sounds are echoed by the domes of this edifice, over the threshold of which silence has never entered.”

This palace is inhabited by Fame, the daughter, (according to our author) of the Devil and Pride, which, in our ignorance of the rules of personification, we thought had been a masculine virtue, as its French name (l'Orgueil) would seem to denote. Upon the instigation of Satan, his daughter Fame quits her palace,

and sets out upon a secret mission. And what is the object of this marvellous machinery? What mighty empire is Fame thus charged to overturn? Never was a finer specimen of bathos, never was that excellent rule, “Nec Deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus," more ridiculously violated. Fame “goes preceded “ by Astonishment, followed closely by Envy, and accompanied by “ Admiration,” to play the gossip in an Indian wigwain! We wish we could say of the machinery in Les Natchez that it is merely ridiculous; but it is worse. As long as M. de Chateaubriand chose to confine himself to "headstrony ” allegories and Pagan mythology, we could smile complacently at the use he made of them ; but when he renders Christianity burlesque, and would bring on the scene even the persons of the Trinity, our disapprobation must assume a different tone. There is no writer whom we are less willing to charge with intentional impiety that M. de Chateaubriand; but we must deeply grieve for that strange perversion of judgment which could lead him to commit a fault which we are persuaded he would himself be foremost to censure. The whole of the 4me livre of Les Natchez is more or less objectionable, and the concluding part of it cannot be read without pain by any right-minded person.

Les Natchez contains, among other things, the recital of the visit of a North American Indian to Paris : “ The design of “this narrative,” says the author, “is to contrast the manners “of a people who are hunters, fishermen, and shepherds, with “ those of the most polished people upon earth.” The idea, though by no means new, is good; but its developement in the present instance we are compelled to pronounce a failure. The savage is presented to Louis XIV., and taken to sup with Ninon de l'Enclos ; and there pass before him, as in a magic lantern, almost all the greatest men whom he could possibly have seen at that place and time, and some whom he certainly could not have seen. We must forgive the anachronisms where probability is so utterly set at naught; but we could forgive them more easily if we had found them productive of any advantage. Much as our curiosity is excited, on arriving at this portion of the tale, we find it exceedingly tame. There is not much piquancy in calling Paris, "the great village”; Versailles, “the hut of the Chief of chiefs”! the Louvre, “a cabin”; and books, " wampum”; and, yet, if we strip away this Indian phraseology, there remains very little that is pleasant and original. We have spoken in terms of censure of the tragical horrors which are, in a vitiated taste, which the French are very prone to attribute to English writers, accumulated towards the conclusion. A guilty woman is plunged into a pond full of rattlesnakes ! Murders follow in quick


VOL. I. - NO. II.

succession, accompanied with a crime which we will not mention. The last page contains a passage which is supposed to sum up the moral of the story, and which we cannot suffer to pass unnoticed :

“ There are some families which destiny appears to persecute; let us not accuse Providence. The life and death of Réné were pursued by those unlawful fires which gave heaven to Amelia, and hell to Ondouré. Réné bore the double chastisement of those guilty passions. One can never lead others astray without having in himself some beginning of evil; and he who, even involuntarily, is the cause of any misfortune, or any crime, is never innocent in the eye of God.

“Let us not accuse Providence!” Certainly ; but let us not do what is equally bad, — attempt its justification by such a dogma as this! We know not what shadow of misinterpreted authority M. de Chateaubriand can have found for the strange principle which he so confidently asserts, and in asserting which, he seems to outrage the plainest axioms of religion and morality. What! is he who has even involuntarily caused a crime, therefore not innocent in the eye of his Maker? Is the possession of wealth which tempts the robber, to be counted as a crime to its plundered owner? Is the victim who falls under the knife of a midnight assassin, to be counted guilty, because he has been the object of a heinous offence? We cannot control our astonishment at this grave announcement of a proposition, than which we know none more dangerously calculated to blunt our moral sense, and to lead us to confound the just limits of right and wrong.

Les Martyrs, which is very superior to Les Natchez, has more decidedly the character of a prose epic, and the elevation of its style is more in keeping with the antiquity and dignity of its subject. Its period is that of the reigns of Diocletian and Galerius; its subject, the persecution of the Christians, and especially of the hero and heroine, Eudorus and Cymodocea, both converts to Christianity, — the former the descendant of Philopæmen, the latter of Homer, — whose lives and adventures form the principal interest of the tale, and who finally suffer martyrdom together in the Coliseum. It abounds, perhaps, more than any other of his works, in eloquent passages and brilliant specimens of descriptive talent, but as a story it is ill-constructed. It contains numerous episodes and recitals, which, though good in themselves, impede the progress of the action, allow the interest of the tale to cool, and in no way contribute to the furtherance of the plot. This want of skill in the conduct of a story is visible alike in all M. de Chateaubriand's novels, and is one of the chief impediments to his success in this department of literature. By him the art of

« PoprzedniaDalej »