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From Hours With Men and Books, by William Mathews, LL. D.; S. C. Griggs and Company; Chicago: 1877;  pp. 287-298. (French translated for the online text and enclosed in brackets.)

A Forgotten Wit
William Mathews

WHAT is more uncertain than literary fame? The history of literature shows that, if it is one of the most enviable of human possessions, it is at the same time one of the most fleeing. There is scarcely anything about which one can prophesy with so little certainty as concerning the future fame of an author who is now the pet or favorite of the reading world. Fifty years ago Byron was the poetic idol of the public; and Macaulay did not exaggerate when he said that all the readers of verse in England, — nay, in Europe, — hastened to sit at his feet. Now, instead of having his thousands of worshipers, who drink gin ceaselessly, and strive, in turned-down collars, to look Conrad-like and misanthropic, he is barely a power in literature. Who reads Crabbe now, or Southey, or Moore? Yet Crabbe, the “Pope in worsted stockings,” was so famous in his day as to create a decided sensation at the hotel where he stayed on visiting London: Southey, who, as a poet, is remembered to-day only by a few pieces and passages which he himself pronounced clap-trap, believed that his ponderous epics would be immortal; and Moore, whose songs were sung in a thousand drawing-rooms, might well have believed that they, at least, would not be ephemeridae. Again, what reader of to-day has toiled through the seven volumes of Richardson’s “Pamela”; or how many have ever heard the name of “Clarissa” and “Sir Charles Grandison”? Yet 288 these were the novels which held our great-grandmothers spellbound, — which were more popular than are the tales of Dickens or Miss Evans now. Rousseau hung over Richardson’s pages with rapture; and Diderot declared that, if forced to sell his books, he would never part with these, which he ranked with the productions of Moses, Homer, Euripedes, and Sophocles. Who reads Cleveland now, or “the great Churchill,” or Hayley, or Dr. Darwin, or Beattie’s prose or poetry, or “Fitzosborne’s Letters,” which reached its eightieth edition, or Blair’s Sermons, which sold in their day like Robertson’s Sermons and “Ecce Homo” in ours? These, and a thousand other cases that might be cited, show that the highest contemporary fame is no guarantee of immortality. The suddenness with which an author who has been puffed into the loftiest elevation is sometimes hurled into the gulf of forgetfulness reminds one of the vicissitudes that befell Milton’s Satan in his flight through chaos:

                          “His sail-broad vans
He spreads for flight, and, in the surging smoke
Uplifted, spurns the ground; thence, many a league,
As in a cloudy chair, ascending, rides
Audacious. . . .
. . . . All unawares.
Fluttering his pennons vain, plumb down he drops
Ten thousand fathoms deep.”

These reflections have been provoked by a perusal of the writings of Chamfort, of which a new edition was published a few years ago in Paris. Though a leading journalist in the French Revolution, he is now almost forgotten in Europe, while few persons in America have even heard of his name. Sebastian Roch Nicholas Chamfort was born in 1741, near Clermont, in Auvergne. He was a natural 289 son, and had the quickness of parts which the proverb ascribes to such children. He never knew who his father was. His mother, who was a dame de compagnie [courtesan], came to Paris to hide her shame, and there found friends and protectors, through whose influence he found a boursier’s place at the College of the Grassins. Rather a dull scholar at first, he at last shone forth brilliantly, and in his third year this filius nullius [son of no one], this “child of misery, baptized in tears,” carried off the five grand prizes of the University. These triumphs determined his calling; he chose letters. At first he tried to get employment from the journals and booksellers, but failed, and would have starved had not a young Abbé paid him a louis a week for writing sermons. He next became a tutor; then secretary to a rich citizen of Liege, whom he followed across the Rhine; but they soon quarreled, and Chamfort returned to Paris, saying that “the thing in the world for which he was least fitted was to be a German.” An indifferent comedy, which had some success, and the winning of a prize at the Academy, and another at the Academy of Marseilles for an Éloge on La Fontaine, introduced him into society, where his good looks, his aplomb, and his ready and brilliant wit, soon made him a favorite. Men and women of rank now sought him and doated on him. That they did not for a moment suspect the intensity of pride and the rage for equality which slumbered in his heart, is not strange; for far keener observers were deceived than the great ladies who caressed him. When he was elected an Academician, Rivarol said that he was “like a bit of lily-of-the-valley in a bouquet of poppies.” The lily-of-the-valley exhaled strange and deadly poisons with its perfume.


Gradually the gay and dissipated life which Chamfort led told upon his health. He went from watering-place to watering-place, among others to Spa and Barèges, but with little benefit. He lost the vigor and good looks which led the Princess of Craon to say of him, “He looks only an Adonis, but he is a Hercules”; but his position was assured. Places and pensions were showered upon him. At Barèges, four ladies fell in love with him, among them Madame de Grammont and Madame de Choiseul, — “in reality,” wrote Mdlle. Lespinasse to a friend, “four friends, who each of them loved him with all the strength of four,” and she adds, “he is very well pleased, and tries his best to be modest.” About this time he wrote his tragedy of “Mustapha et Zéanger,” a play which has been much praised for its purity of style and sweetness of sentiment, — which Sainte-Beuve notes as somewhat singular in a tragedy, and in an author like Chamfort: “he reserved,” adds the critic, “all his sweetness for his tragedies. He shows himself a feeble disciple of Racine in his Bajazet, and of Voltaire in Zaïre.” Marie Antoinette, flattered by some allusions to herself in one of his tragedies, gave him a pension of one thousand two hundred livres. The Prince of Condé also offered him the post of Secrétaire des Commandements. In spite of these successes, however, envy, malice, and uncharitableness continued to gnaw at his heart. His acrid sayings about those with whom he lived burn, it has been well said, the very paper on which they are written. His reply to Rulhière, itself stinging enough, is among the mildest of them. “I have committed,” said the wit and historian, “but one wickedness in my life.” “When will it end?” asked Chamfort. Resigning his secretaryship in a fit of 291 spleen and misanthropy, he retired to Auteuil, saying, “It is not with the living, but with the dead, one should commune,” meaning, of course, with books. His communion had hardly begun, before, at the dangerous age of forty, he fell in love with the Duchess of Maine, a beauty who counted eight-and-forty winters. They married and lived together but a few months, when she died, and her husband relapsed into a profound melancholy. The secret of his unhappiness at this time was his inaction and his sterility. Nothing, as Sainte-Beauve truly observes, is so consoling to the man of letters as to produce; nothing better reconciles him with others and with himself. The excessive pleasures in which Chamfort had indulged had rapidly destroyed his health and his youth. “I have destroyed my passions,” he said, “pretty much as a violent man kills his horse, not being able to govern him.” Made an Academician, he delivered on the occasion a brilliant discourse, and immediately after published a “Discourse against Academies.” Occasionally he went to Court, where the Queen, Marie Antoinette, once said to him: “Do you know, M. de Chamfort, that you pleased all the world at Versailles, not by your wit, but in spite of it?” “The reason is easy to find,” replied the sparkling satirist; “at Versailles I learn with resignation many things I know from people who are completely ignorant of them.”

When the Revolution burst forth, Chamfort’s friendship was sought by Mirabeau. The influence he soon had with the great Tribune is the highest proof of his sagacity and power. In his letters to Chamfort, Mirabeau recognizes him as not only his dearest and most sympathetic, but as his most suggestive and inspiring friend. “I cannot deny myself the pleasure,” said Mirabeau to him, “of rubbing 292 the most electric head I have ever known. There is hardly a day I do not find myself saying, ‘Chamfort froncerait le sourcil; ne faisons pas, n’érions pas cela [Chamfort will frown, if we do not do this if we can]; or, on the other hand, ‘Chamfort sera content. [Chamfort will be content]’ ” In the union of the two men there was just that blending of opposite qualities which is essential to the strongest friendship. Delicacy, neatness, subtlety, finesse, characterized the one; force, impetuosity, fury, sensibility, predominated in the other, — each supplementing the other’s defects. Throwing himself into the revolutionary struggles, Chamfort defended the new doctrine with heart, mind, tongue, and pen; and, in the enthusiasm of the hour, though his whole fortune was in pensions, vindicated the decree that suppressed them. For a time he was one of the most active and powerful revolutionary journalists; but, at last, as the Reign of Terror grew darker, he was shocked and disgusted by its atrocities, and began to denounce the reigning furies in vehement terms. Indignant at the mockery of the words “Fraternity” and “Liberty” traced on all the walls, he translated them thus: “Be my brother, or I kill thee.” He used to liken the fraternity of the revolutionary cut-throats to that of Cain and Abel. Finally he was denounced by an employé in the National Library, of which he had been made one of the Librarians by Roland, and was hurried to prison. Soon after he was released; but, finding himself “shadowed” by a gendarme, he mentally swore that he would die rather than go back to the dungeon. Being seized again by the myrmidons of power, he tried first to shoot, then to stab himself, but only succeeded in inflicting ugly wounds. “You see what it is to be maladroit in the use of one’s hands,” he exclaimed; “one cannot even kill one’s self to escape the pangs of tyranny.” 293 In spite of a ball in his head, the loss of one eye, and other mutilations, he recovered, but only to live for a brief time, dying on the 13th of April, 1793, in the fifty-second year of his age. It was still the Reign of Terror, and but three friends dared to follow him to the tomb. It was his opinion to the last, that the pistol-ball, with which he had attempted to blow out his brains, was still in his head. “Je sens,” said he, “que la balle est resté dans ma tête; ils n’iront pas l’y chercher.” [I feel that the ball remains in my head; they looked for it but did not get it.]

Chateaubriand, describing the personal appearance of Chamfort, says that “he was pale-faced and of a delicate complexion. His blue eye, occasionally cold and veiled when unexcited, sparkled and flashed with fire when he became animated. His slightly open nostrils gave to his countenance an expression of energetic sensibility. His voice was flexible, and its modulations followed the movements of his soul; but in the last days of my sojourn at Paris, it had acquired some asperity, and one detected in it the agitated and imperious accent of the factions.”

The best edition of Chamfort for the English reader is that edited by Arséne Houssaye, which contains his choicest pieces, omitting all of temporary interest. Few books contain a greater amount of sparkling wit, delicate satire, and worldly wisdom, than is condensed in this small volume. Mingling much with the world, Chamfort brought into it a spirit of observation so ingenious and penetrating that the shrewdest and most sagacious of his contemporaries deemed him almost unerring and miraculous in his judgments. Many sayings which are now on everybody’s lips first fell from his lips or pen. It was he who first divided our friends into “those who love us, those who are indifferent to us, and those who hate us.” 294 It was he, not Talleyrand, who said, “Revolutions are not made with rose-water.” It was he who gave to the French armies, as they marched into Belgium, the motto, “War to the castle; peace to the cottage.” It was Chamfort, too, that furnished the Abbé Siéyes with the memorable closing words of his pamphlet: “What is the Third Estate? All. What has it? Nothing.” Chamfort was accustomed to write out daily, on little bits of paper, the results of his observations and reflections condensed into maxims; and these mots, carefully polished and sharpened, with the anecdotes he had picked up in the great world among professional men, artists, and men of letters, form the most brilliant and attractive part of his writings. The following, selected almost at random, are fair specimens of the whole:

“The public, the public, how many fools does it take to make a public?”
“The menace of a neglected cold is for the doctors that which purgatory is for the priests, — a mine of wealth.”
“ ‘You yawn,’ said a lady to her husband. ‘My dear friend,’ said the husband, ‘husband and wife are but one, and when I am alone I become weary.’ ”
“To despise money is to dethrone a king; il y a du ragoût.”
“The majority of nobles recall their ancestors pretty much as an Italian cicerone recalls Cicero.”
“Madame de Tencin, with the suavest manners in the world, was an unprincipled woman, capable of anything. On one occasion, a friend was praising her gentleness. ‘Aye, aye,’ said the Abbé Imblet, ‘If she had any object whatever in poisoning you, undoubtedly she would choose the sweetest and least disagreeable poison in the world.’ ”
“I heard one day a devotee, speaking against people who discuss articles of faith, say naivement: ‘Gentlemen, a true Christian never examines what he is ordered to believe. It is with that as with a bitter pill; if you chew it, you will never be able to swallow it.’ ”
“The most utterly lost of all days is that on which you have not once laughed.”
“Society is composed of two great classes, — those who have more dinners than appetites, and those who have more appetites than dinners.”
“Madame de Talmont, seeing M. de Richelieu, instead of lavishing attention on herself, paying court to Madame Brionne, a very pretty woman without the least mind, said to him. ‘Marshal, you are not blind, but I believe you are a little deaf.’ ”
“A lady, who shall be nameless, was at the representation of ‘Mérope’ and did not shed a tear. Everybody was surprised; perceiving which the lady said, ‘I could indeed have wept, but I am engaged out to-night to supper.’ ”
“L’Éclure used to relate, that, when quite a young man, and without a fortune, arriving at Lunéville, he obtained the place of dentist to King Stanislaus on the very day on which the king lost his last tooth.”
“A lady aged ninety said to Fontenelle, at ninety-five: ‘ Death has forgotten us.’ ‘Silence! not a word!’ said Fontenelle, placing his finger upon his mouth.”
“A person chided M.” (Chamfort himself) “upon his taste for solitude. He replied, ‘It is because I am more accustomed to my own faults than to those of another person.’ ”
“Man arrives a novice at every age of life.”
“Nature, in loading us with so much misery, and in giving us an invincible attachment to life, seems to have dealt with man like an incendiary who sets our house on fire after having posted sentinels at our door. The danger must be very great to oblige us to leap out of the window.”
“M. de Lassay, a very pleasant man, but who had a great knowledge of society, said that it would be necessary to swallow a toad every morning, in order not to find anything disgusting the rest of the day, when one has to spend it in the world.”
“A certain person, who shall be nameless, had been, for thirty years, in the habit of passing his evenings at Madame H’s. At length his wife died. People thought he would marry the lady whose house he frequented, and his best friends encouraged him to perpetrate the deed. He refused, saying, “In that case, my friends, where should I find a house of refuge to pass my evenings?”
“People give ten-guinea dinners to entertain those for whose good digestion of the expensive dinner they would not give a groat.”
“France is a country in which it is always necessary to display one’s vices, and always dangerous to disclose one’s virtues.”

These sayings, so acrid and corrosive, are a fair specimen of what a witty French writer has called les tenailles mordantes de Chamfort [the scathing pincers]. The majority of those relating to society apply only to the great world in which he lived, the society of the great; they wholly fail to characterize the less factitious society in which the natural 296 sentiments are not abolished. It was because he lived too long in high life, that theatre of unequal struggles, of trickery, and of vanity, — because he passed too many years in refined society, and saw its hollowness, selfishness and dissimulation, — that he has given us so many pictures of hypocrisy and insincerity, and was able to utter his famous saying: “I have been led there by degrees. In living and in seeing men, the heart must break or be bronzed (se brise ou se bronze.) Chamfort had one of those unfortunate natures, which, ignorant of the happy alchemy which converts even gall and wormwood into honey, find bitterness in everything, and echo the sentiment of the poet, —

“La rose a des poisons qu’on finit par trouver.’ [The rose has in it poisons, which one finished off by it, finds out.]

He confesses, however, to have had in his life two years of happiness, and six months of perfect felicity. He had retired to the country with a female friend older than himself, but with whom he felt himself in perfect sympathy of sentiment and of thought. He lost her, and appears to have buried with her the remains of his heart. He never speaks of her but in terms that mark a profound sadness:

“When my heart has need of tenderness, I recall the friends whom I have lost, women of whom death has robbed me. I inhabit their grave; I send my soul to wander about theirs. Alas! I have three tombs.”

In estimating many of his maxims we must not forget that they come from a man who never had a family, who was not softened by its endearments, ni en remontant ni en descendant, who had no father, and who, in his turn, never wished to be one. “Consulting reason only,” he again and again asks, “what man would wish to be a father?” “I will not marry,” he says again, “for fear 297 of leaving a son to resemble me. Yes, for fear of having a son who, being poor like myself, may know not how to lie, or to flatter, or to creep, and may have to undergo the same trials as myself.”

Chamfort did nothing continuously; he has left no book as a monument of his powers. He left others to execute important enterprises, and was content to supply the stimulus. His forte, his genius, lay in summing up a situation, a counsel, a general impression, in a single word. His influence upon French society was unquestionable, but it was exercised wholly in conversation, in sallies of wit, in those sparkling sayings “which make one (a thing so rare) laugh and think at the same time.” It is in the Maximes et Pensées, which form the latter half of Houssaye’s edition of his remains, that we must look for the quintessence of this piquant and spirituel writer. Whether he deserves a literary resurrection, the reader can judge. That his genius was quite as original and brilliant as that of many an author whom the world does “not willingly let die,” we think is clear. That he was especially a keen observer of men, the volume we have quoted from abundantly proves. The court, the camp, the city, the exchange, the theatres, the churches, — all the classes, ranks, and conditions of society, — pass in review in his pictured pages, and reveal themselves to us “in their habit as they lived.”

Will it be said that he was cynical, — that his wit was dry, caustic, and sardonic? So was Swift’s and Rochefoucauld’s. Are there occasional passages in his writings that one would not like to read aloud? Yes: but are there not more such in Shakspeare, Sterne, Pope, and Montaigne? That Chamfort would have produced 298 works more worthy of his genius if his energies had not been drained by the exhausting labors of journalism, we cannot doubt. We all know the effects of these labors, when ceaseless and engrossing, upon even the most lavishly-endowed writer. He becomes at last a hack thinker and a loose writer; he is a race-horse in the shafts of an omnibus. Aaron’s beard never would have come down to us in history, had he been in the habit of shaving daily; and had Montaigne and Pascal lived in our day, the immortal “Essays” might have dwindled into a Moniteur correspondence, and the “Provincial Letters” might have been let off in squibs to fizz and sparkle through fifty-two weeks in Charivari. Granting all that can be said in disparagement of Chamfort, — that he was sour and misanthropical; that his genius had little flow; that his wit was disproportionate to his other gifts; that he lacked that highest wisdom which only goodness can give, and was blunt and vehement where a milder and more courteous expression of his opinions would have better insured their reception, — we still think his works should be kept from the “moth and worm, and mouldering hand of time.” We believe with Sainte-Beauve, that, in spite of his faults, Chamfort will continue to be classed in the front rank of those who have managed la saillie française with the most dexterity and boldness. Too sickly and too irritable to deserve ever to obtain a place in the series of true moralists, his name will remain attached to a number of concise, sharp, vibrating, and picturesque sayings, which pique the attention, and which fix themselves like barbed arrows in the memory. At the same time, however, we would say to all his readers, in the words of the same critic: “Méfiez-vous, pourtant! je crains qu’il n’y ait toujours un peu d’arsenic au fond.” [Yet all beware! I am afraid that there is nothing that doesn’t have a little arsenic at the bottom.]


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