Pere Lachaise — An Impression
( Originally Published 1910 )
IN minds courageous enough to embrace it, the thought of death is always a conscious presence ; but they, it has been well said, are the noble minds, and I know that I am not among them. I am not more serious than most men; for, once past the black period of impotent dejection succeeding the day when it first flashed upon me, as it has flashed upon so many thousand others, that perhaps in all this seething, struggling, swarming ex-intense, there was no plan, no idea, nothing, —only hopeless confusion,—I came slowly to feel, with a lassitude to which braver men do not surrender, that the one way to face the chaos, and preserve a measure of tranquillity, was to refuse to take it seriously as a whole ; that the kindest way of considering life— since, it seemed, one must consider it somehow—was as a joke. And so I laugh at it all, — when I can, — and at myself more than the rest of it. It is not hard to laugh; for the drearier and more pointless life appears regarded as a play with a beginning, an end, and a moral, the more inimitable it be-comes as a farce. Only, beneath the amuse-ment in the observation of these pygmies playing at being heroes, myself as hard as any of the others, I am dimly aware of a something else that I do not care to face. Nearly always it lurks motionless at the bottom of my mind ; but on certain days it comes, unbidden, out of its hiding, to settle down like a black shadow on everything, obliterating the farce, and leaving me conscious only of itself, and of what it is—the thought of death.
Yesterday was such a day. I awoke to the gray November morning with a sense of unutterable desolation. All that there was of buoyant and hopeful in me seemed to have been extinguished, and I felt myself wrapped about with a moral depression that was like the pale mist enveloping the bare leafless elms in the little court on which my bedroom window looks. Through the morning I fought the sensation, struggling not to think, but in the afternoon, exhausted, I gave up, and went out into the solitude of the crowded streets. At such times there is no reality in externals; although I can recall every one of the black fancies — silly fancies they seem today that beset me as I walked, I cannot remember how and by what détours I reached the Place de la Bastille. But in that blank square, about which cling more recollections than about any other spot in Paris, I paused ; and, slowly, before the emptiness of its present and the majestic memories of its past, conflicting heterogeneous notions stole out of my mind and the vague depression that weighed down upon me resolved itself into the one great thought.' It must always be a terrible thought for those who have not faith that death is only a transition ; but there is in the very dramatic completeness of it a kind of grim satisfaction for the iconoclast, akin to that one derives from a tragedy.
From the Place de la Bastille to the cemetery of Père Lachaise leads the rue de la Roquette, and into it after a few minutes I turned, submissively it seemed to me, so possessed is one at times with the fatuous illusion that he is the tool of some unknown force. As I did so, a long funeral procession curved in from the other side of the square; and while the hearse, with its black swaying plumes and the rigid, expressionless driver, crept by, every man on the crowded sidewalks bared his head. There is in Latin countries a certain reverence before the presence of death that is nowhere more profound than in pagan France. In Spain and Italy, too, men raise their hats at the passage of the hearse, but there seems to me to be a deeper feeling about the act in France than elsewhere. Imagination, perhaps, yet I think not; for the more one learns to doubt the conclusions of his reason, the more one grows to trust the truth of these swift, ephemeral impressions. Little forms are often the symbols of great ideas; it is so, whether clearly understood or not, with this simple ceremonial in France ; for what is so nobly significant of the essential equality of men, that lies beneath their differences, as this universal salutation of Death, the one common master of us all?
Where it leaves the Place de la Bastille, the rue de la Roquette is a busy jostling street; but little by little, as it proceeds on its way, its aspect changes. It should be called the rue du Cimetière, for surely no other street ever advanced with so unmistakable an indication of its goal. Following it, one grows conscious that the crowd is first slowly thinning, then becoming sparse.
In the long even lines of architecture to right and left great gaps appear, through which one gazes at the blank windowless back walls of apartment houses surrounding the space not built up ; and the gay shows in the little shop-windows change to displays of uncut tomb-stones, artificial flowers, and mortuary wreaths. There are no rattling wagons on the cobble-stones ; a silence has settled upon the street. So that finally, when one lifts his eyes, and sees the gray wall of Père Lachaise ahead of him, the sight seems as logical as the denoûment of a book. The rue de la Roquette might be the emblem of a life.
Entering the cemetery by the great gate, I was conscious of no change. The silence here was not profounder than that which hung over the street I had just left. Only there the two sides of the thoroughfare were flanked each with an interminable wall of masonry that formed one vast dwelling, stop-ping short now and then at the edge of a yawning unused patch of ground, to begin again, always the same, at the other; while here the avenue was lined with a multitude of tiny stone constructions, like shrunken houses, none more than three or four feet wide, and crowding close upon one another, yet each built, separate and complete by it-self, in a pitiful attempt to claim a remnant of individuality for some indistinguishable bit of the dust that fills the ground beneath them all. The rue de la Roquette was life resembling death; this was death striving for the appearance of life.
To the left of the avenue, and only a little way from the Porte Principale, is the grave of de Musset. It is marked by a stone on which are carved the lines from "Lucie":-
" Mes chers amis, quand je mourrai
and over it obediently droops a very small and sickly willow. I never enter Père La-chaise without stopping to read the verses quoted, nor without satisfying myself that the willow is still as unimpressive as ever. No one doubts the importance of de Musset's rank in literature his prose is unsurpassed, and one must be callous indeed not to feel the lyric charm of his verse; but, so much granted, he remains only the finest and most delicate of sentimentalists. He was of the age of Lamartine, when poets rediscovered how pleasant it was to weep ; and in all his serious verse the note of sincerity is never once touched. To assert that " Les Nuits " were born of the unhappiness de Musset's rupture with George Sand caused him, is an absurdity; they were born of his artistic conception of his unhappiness. The distinction, however, is too subtle not to appear sophistical. " Les Nuits " were de Musset's best expression of his life, and his life was so good a pose that it convinced even himself.
After that, to say that it convinced the world is an anti-climax ; for the world, on the perpetual look-out for melodrama, is only too eager to be deceived ; its delight in being given what it craves makes its critical judgment at the time impossible. We have all been corrupted by the artistic principle. We are not much interested in existence as it is, — incoherent, unbegun, and unfinished; we want it made over into something logical and complete that we call romance. We are pleased to be told of a life which appears the working out of a theme, particularly a tragic one. Consistent grief, ending in death, especially appeals to us. But Nature has merci-fully ordained that a consistent grief shall be impossible. No one can for a great while love — except very calmly and sweetly — a person who is no longer by his side. If a lover is to kill himself in despair at his mistress's death, he must do so immediately ; for the despair will soon be gone. There is more forgetting than remembering in life.
We will not, though, recognize the kindness of such a law, except sometimes theoretically, as I am recognizing it now ; but continue always in our search for romance, indifferent to the fact that wherever romance is found it exists either as an accident,—only a seeming agreement with our drama-tic principle, — or as a pose. In de Musset's case the pose was perfect and admirably sus tained ; the laws of romance were satisfied Hence his great popularity and that of the four exquisitely worded poems which best represent him. They were written nearly a century ago, but their appeal is still great, and will be, as long as the craving for romance exists. To attempt to make any point by an attack on their sincerity would be fruit-less ; if lines from "Les Nuits" had been carved on de Musset's tomb, I should never have tried to express the feeling it aroused in me.
It is, however, from another very different poem that the verses used have been chosen. The mood of La Nuit de Mai " is elusive, wistful, and strangely enchanted, but " Lucie " is only a luxurious delighted riot of sadness. Every one knows the poem : A boy and a girl, each fifteen years old, sit dreaming one night at a harpsichord beside an open window, through which drift moon-light and the perfume of spring flowers. They are silent. The boy's hand brushes the girl's; she starts from her reverie, touches the keys, and sings. She stops, weeping, rests her head against his shoulder, and they kiss. But she is very sad, perhaps with a premonition of her fate; for two months later she is dead.
It is hard not to retain a little affection for Lucie," especially if one became acquainted with it very young ; but surely no grown man in his sober senses would maintain that this élégie is an expression of sincere grief. Grief hurts — to express and to be told about; but whatever tears de Musset shed in composing " Lucie " (and I do not doubt that they were many) must have given him untold pleasure.
The poem begins, to state the mood, and concludes, to emphasize it, with the six lines now engraved on de Musset's tomb. Let me quote them again —
"Mes chers amis, quand je mourrai,
Rereading these lines yesterday, in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, I thought suddenly and irreverently of a stanza in a song that some years ago used to be sung in America among boys and girls on pleasure parties, whenever gayety was high. It runs as follows :
" Oh, dig my grave both wide and deep,
Written down in black and white, as they now are, these four lines appear so much more atrocious than they ever sounded--though heaven knows they sounded bad enough—that I am shocked at their having seemed in any sense analogous to the quotation from "Lucie." And yet my judgment, struggling out of the anguish caused by those barbarous rhymes, still insists that they are. Although de Musset's lines are exquisite verse, the mere sound of which is delicious, and these the most abject doggerel, the sentiment of both stanzas is the same, no falser in the one than in the other. But death is a very grim and tragic reality, and so for men to have accepted the pretty mawkishness of " Lucie" as genuine feeling, to have taken de Musset at his word, and to have planted an actual willow above his grave, is a bit of the grossest vulgarity, that shocks one in the same way it would shock him to hear a Tosti song in a Gothic cathedral. To-day, when the willow is absurdly puny and unimpressive, it is the puerility of the whole proceeding that most occupies one; but before many years the tree will have become large enough to be convincing, and then one will feel only anger at the sacrilege.
De Musset's grave, however, is the first and last in Père Lachaise before which one can experience anything even so distantly akin to humor as the irony roused by this sentimentality accepted as sentiment ; for across the end of the Avenue Principale and directly in one's path as one advances rises Bartholomé's Monument to the Dead.
There is nothing comic about the fool in "Lear." With his acrid reflections he is a kind of Greek chorus, each of his jests a harping on the bitter theme that is driving the old king to madness. But a time comes when the tragedy has grown too profound to admit of even the semblance of mirth, and the fool disappears, to be heard of no more. Some similar effacement takes place in the mind of a man sensitive to impressions, when he visits Père Lachaise. As one gazes at the Monument to the Dead all incidental thoughts, however relevant, become impossible, and one is conscious only of the mystery and the grandeur and the terrible inevitability of death. The simplicity and symmetry of the work are overwhelming. These two nude central figures standing in the door of a tomb, their backs to us, the woman with her arm stretched out, her hand resting on the man's shoulder, state the mood of the whole conception as unmistakably as the first great sweeping chord states the tonality of a movement in a symphony. They are looking inward; the sculptor has not needed to reveal their faces to express the awe and the fear and the wonder that they feel at the gate of the unknown. These two stand in repose; but without, on a narrow ledge which traverses the tomb at about a third of its height, there approach from either side, in two lines of splendidly composed disorder, others, in postures of grief, of despair, of abandon, of terror, — none with hope. It may be that the artist thought of these simply as mourners, but I prefer to believe that he meant them as those who must follow the first two through the door ; and so, in imagination, one sees the two lines, continued here to the edges of the tomb, stretching on without end, inexhaustibly, and composed not of marble images but of living men and women, — of thousands, of millions, of all humanity, each with his place in the line, but none knowing surely where it may be, until he sees suddenly the black door before him.
Below the ledge in an embrasure some-what wider than the door above, but not so high, is a group of four, — a man and a woman, dead, lying rigid side by side, their heads slightly turned toward each other and the four hands clasped together, across their thighs the body of a child, face down, swathed but for a protruding foot and a tiny relaxed hand ; and on a step above the three a half-kneeling woman's figure, nude except for a veil that floats delicately behind her and falls softly over one knee. Her arms are outstretched, and she gazes down at the dead below. On the wall beneath her left arm are inscribed the words : " Sur ceux qui habitaient le pays de l'ombre de la mort une lumière resplendit"; but I think the sculptor's purpose was artistic rather than symbolic here. The contrast between the almost painful realism in the emaciated bodies of the corpses and the idealism of the gracious exquisitely poised creature above is glorious.
If I have found much meaning in this monument, it is not that I imagine its merit to consist in its intellectual significance. Its true greatness lies, of course, in its splendid unity of composition, its dignity of design, its beautiful handling of the nude, and in the architectural simplicity of the whole, — of which things, vital and all-important as they are in sculpture, it is difficult to write and still more difficult to read. Nor is it that I am accustomed to consider more than casually the symbolism of a work of art. I feel, as much as another, distrust for the picture or the statue that tells a story. A story is better told in literature, where sequence of time can be expressed. Painting and sculpture, higher forms of art, appeal to the emotions of the man aesthetically cultivated directly without the intervention of thought. The subtle laws governing them are not the sterile forms the Philistine thinks them, but the hypnotic passes by which somehow the artist is enabled to transfer his mood to the mind of another. They were discovered, not invented. The rendering in a picture or a statue of a thought capable of any save a very vague expression in words is a dangerous thing, too often but a disguise for the absence of a higher beauty in the work. Obviously, though, symbolism is to some extent inevitable. Complete detachment from the concrete is not possible, — even in music. Sculptors may chisel out of stone forms so perfect that they seem to us, standing before them, to be expressions of abstract beauty with nothing of the man or woman left in them ; but they are none the less interpretations of the human body ; and painters do not cover their can-vases simply with harmonious arrangements of colors. Just how far the subject rightly enters into the value of a work of art, it is hard to determine; but perhaps it may be an approximation of the truth to say that when the thoughts set astir by the thing presented reinforce the emotions primarily aroused by the manner of presentation, the subject has served its purpose.
This rare adjustment has seldom been more nicely attained than in Bartholomé's Monument to the Dead. At first sight of it, without as yet a thought of what it symbolizes, without any thought at all, — one apprehends the spirit of the work in an emotion impossible of translation into words, yet as vivid and poignant as those of hate or love. Afterward, when this has faded, as it must very soon fade, — moments of unalloyed feeling are brief, — one becomes aware of the symbolism in these massed figures and this black portal ; and by the thoughts so set moving in his mind one conjures up the ghost of that first sharp emotion. For they are thoughts about feelings, — about the majesty, the inevitability, the cruelty, and the beauty of death ; and although the initial emotion was subtler and stronger than any of these, it had yet something in common with each. Symbol-ism here has served a high purpose. I know of no monument to the dead nobler than this of Bartholomé's, save the tombs of the Medici in Florence.
The effect of the monument on the be-holder, when he turns at last from it, is to leave him with a sense of only the great fact of death. The irony or the dignity, the sadness or the significance, which, according to his character, he is accustomed to find in the thought of it, he can, while the spell lasts, no longer feel ; for these are aspects depending for existence on his own personal judgment, and for the time being his personal judgment is suspended, as something distinguishing him from other men. Whatever he may individually have thought about death gives way temporarily before his consciousness of it as a universal fact.
It must have been by the Avenue du Puits that I left the Avenue Principale yesterday when I had withdrawn my eyes from the monument; for I recall passing the chapel of the Rothschilds and not far from it the tomb of Abélard and Héloïse. I could feel nothing incongruous in such a proximity, though I remember I thought it strange I could not. Jewish bankers of to-day and priestly lovers of centuries ago, — only different stories, written, it may be, by the same writer, holding each a certain ephemeral existence while one reads, none afterwards. The book remains when the reader has laid it down,—words,—for one story as for another.
I do not know how long I wandered in the cemetery, but I followed many roads and stopped before many graves. Chopin, Larochefoucauld, Raspail, Ney, Daubigny, Casimir-Perier, — I said the names over to myself dully, but they stood for nothing here. Familiar characters all of them in the vague unconvincing novel we call Life; strangely futile, meaningless, and out-of-place in the midst of this eternal reality. It was as though some one had said to me: "Let me present Hamlet," or "Henry Esmond." The names I have enumerated, and others like them, were carved on stones a little apart from the rest, but such pauses were brief; inevitably after each would begin again the long line of shrunken houses ; and it was in the monotonous uniformity of these that I saw the truth indeed symbolized. I remember stopping once—in what part of the cemetery I forget—by the monument of a young English lord dead a hundred years ago, and being touched on reading the inscription, with its long list of family titles. Pathetic useless pomposity ! A few feet of turf on either side, and the interminable array of tiny mortuary houses was resumed. Their persistence began to appall me. "How close those beneath must sleep ! how close !" I thought ; and I found myself lingering in a kind of relief before the isolated tombs. Reality is harder to face than fiction.
In the end, following the long course of the Avenue des Acacias, with its leafless trees that would be so full of blossom in the spring, and taking the second Avenue Transversale, I left the cemetery by a side gate, and stood for a moment just outside, looking across the city from the little adjacent hill that is used as a park. A long way off, on the heights of Montmartre, the great dome of the Sacré Coeur rose, a pale shadow through the mist. A fair promise for the man with faith in a noble plan beneath all things, the vision of the white church seen from the cemetery gates; but faith is a rare gift, and to me the dome that hung so beautifully in the air symbolized only a glorious myth, the loveliest of the fairy castles we have built to console ourselves.
The cold November twilight was falling as I descended into the city. The mist still hung over Paris, but fainter, with a pale new moon struggling through it. The boulevards were brilliant with lights, and filled with a throng that ebbed and flowed slowly along the sidewalks and curved here and there in black spirals through the press of carriages in the streets. Whips cracked impatiently, horses' hoofs beat rhythmically on the pavement, and the vendors of evening papers cried their journals harshly; but, as I looked down from the impériale of my omnibus, it seemed to me that in this noisy confusion there was only the semblance of substantiality; reality was in the silence of the secluded place I had left. And the figures swarming here in the thoroughfare beneath me were less crowded than those motionless ones which lay beneath the ground of Père Lachaise.
What should it have mattered to me how close the dead slept? It mattered little to them. Why should that thought have remained the most vivid among those of the day? Yet all through the evening, as I sat before my fire, it haunted me, when the rest had grown dull. The mist was quite gone now; from my window I could see the moonlight rippling along the river, and I fell to imagining with what strange tracery, creeping through the bare boughs of the oaks and the acacias, it must cover the white tombs and the long rows of mortuary chapels in the cemetery, now that the great gates were closed, and there was no footfall to disturb the crowded silence. The vision was so vivid that I tried at last to put it into words, choosing verse, that I might make of the first fancy the refrain it had become in my own mind.
How close the dead sleep in this silent place!