A Little Tour In France/Chapter XVII
It is an injustice to Poitiers to approach her by night, as I did some three hours after leaving La Rochelle; for what Poitiers has of best, as they would say at Poitiers, is the appearance she presents to the arriving stranger who puts his head out of the window of the train. I gazed into the gloom from such an aperture before we got into the station, for I remembered the impression received on another occasion; but I saw nothing save the universal night, spotted here and there with an ugly railway lamp. It was only as I departed, the following day, that I assured myself that Poitiers still makes something of the figure she ought on the summit of her considerable bill. I have a kindness for any little group of towers, any cluster of roofs and chimneys, that lift themselves from an eminence over which a long road ascends in zigzags; such a picture creates for the moment a presumption that you are in Italy, and even leads you to believe that if you mount the winding road you will come to an old town-wall, an expanse of creviced brownness, and pass under a gateway surmounted by the arms of a mediaeval despot. Why I should find it a pleasure, in France, to imagine myself in Italy, is more than I can say; the illusion has never lasted long enough to be analyzed. From the bottom of its perch Poitiers looks large and high; and indeed, the evening I reached it, the interminiable climb of the omnibus of the hotel I had selected, which I found at the station, gave me the measure of its commanding position. This hotel, "magnifique construction ornee de statues," as the Guide-Joanne, usually so reticent, takes the trouble to announce, has an omnibus, and, I suppose, has statues, though I didn't perceive them; but it has very little else save immemorial accumulations of dirt. It is magnificent, if you will, but it is not even relatively proper; and a dirty inn has always seemed to me the dirtiest of human things, - it has so many opportunities to betray itself.
Poiters covers a large space, and is as crooked and straggling as you please; but these advantages are not accompanied with any very salient features or any great wealth of architecture. Although there are few picturesque houses, however, there are two or three curious old churches. Notre Dame la Grande, in the market-place, a small romanesque structure of the twelfth century, has a most interesting and venerable exterior. Composed, like all the churches of Poitiers, of a light brown stone with a yellowish tinge, it is covered with primitive but ingenious sculptures, and is really an impressive monument. Within, it has lately been daubed over with the most hideous decorative painting that was ever inflicted upon passive pillars and indifferent vaults. This battered yet coherent little edifice has the touching look that resides in everything supremely old: it has arrived at the age at which such things cease to feel the years; the waves of time have worn its edges to a kind of patient dulness; there is something mild and smooth, like the stillness, the deafness, of an octogenarian, even in its rudeness of ornament, and it has become insensible to differences of a century or two. The cathedral interested me much less than Our Lady the Great, and I have not the spirit to go into statistics about it. It is not statistical to say that the cathedral stands half-way down the hill of Poitiers, in a quiet and grass-grown place, with an approach of crooked lanes and blank garden-walls, and that its most striking dimension is the width of its facade. This width is extraordinary, but it fails, somehow, to give nobleness to the edifice, which looks within (Murray makes the remark) like a large public hall. There are a nave and two aisles, the latter about as high as the nave; and there are some very fearful modern pictures, which you may see much better than you usually see those specimens of the old masters that lurk in glowing side-chapels, there being no fine old glass to diffuse a kindly gloom. The sacristan of the cathedral showed me something much better than all this bright bareness; he led me a short distance out of it to the small Temple de Saint-Jean, which is the most curious object at Poitiers. It is an early Christian chapel, one of the earliest in France; originally, it would seem, - that is, in the sixth or seventh century, - a baptistery, but converted into a church while the Christian era was still comparatively young. The Temple de Saint-Jean is therefore a monument even more venerable than Notre Dame la Grande, and that numbness of age which I imputed to Notre Dame ought to reside in still larger measure in its crude and colorless little walls. I call them crude, in spite of their having been baked through by the centuries, only because, although certain rude arches and carvings are let into them, and they are surmounted at either end with a small gable, they have (so far as I can remember) little fascination of surface. Notre Dame is still expressive, still pretends to be alive; but the Temple has delivered its message, and is completely at rest. It retains a kind of atrium, on the level of the street, from which you descend to the original floor, now uncovered, but buried for years under a false bottom. A semicircular apse was, apparently at the time of its conversion into a church, thrown out from the east wall. In the middle is the cavity of the old baptismal font. The walls and vaults are covered with traces of extremely archaic frescos, attributed, I believe, to the twelfth century. These vague, gaunt, staring fragments of figures are, to a certain extent, a reminder of some of the early Christian churches in Rome; they even faintly recalled to me the great mosaics of Ravenna. The Temple de Saint-Jean has neither the antiquity nor the completeness of those extraordinary monuments, nearly the most impressive in Europe; but, as one may say, it is very well for Poitiers.
Not far from it, in a lonely corner which was animated for the moment by the vociferations of several old, women who were selling tapers, presumably for the occasion of a particular devotion, is the graceful romanesque church erected in the twelfth century to Saint Radegonde, - a lady who found means to be a saint even in the capacity of a Merovingian queen. It bears a general resemblance to Notre Dame la Grande, and, as I remember it, is corrugated in somewhat the same manner with porous-looking carvings; but I confess that what I chiefly recollect is the row of old women sitting in front of it, each with a tray of waxen tapers in her lap, and upbraiding me for my neglect of the opportunity to offer such a tribute to the saint. I know not whether this privilege is occasional or constant; within the church there was no appearance of a festival, and I see that the nameday of Saint Radegonde occurs in August, so that the importunate old women sit there always, perhaps, and deprive of its propriety the epithet I just applied to this provincial corner. In spite of the old women, however, I suspect that the place is lonely; and indeed it is perhaps the old women that have made the desolation.
The lion of Poitiers, in the eyes of the natives, is doubtless the Palais de Justice, in the shadow of which the statue-guarded hotel, just mentioned, erects itself; and the gem of the court-house, which has a prosy modern front, with pillars and a high flight of steps, is the curious salle des pas perdus, or central hall, out of which the different tribunals open. This is a feature of every French court-house, and seems the result of a conviction that a palace of justice - the French deal in much finer names than we - should be in some degree palatial. The great hall at Poitiers has a long pedigree, as its walls date back to the twelfth century, and its open wooden roof, as well as the remarkable trio of chimney-pieces at the right end of the room as you enter, to the fifteenth. The three tall fireplaces, side by side, with a delicate gallery running along the top of them, constitute the originality of this ancient chamber, and make one think of the groups that must formerly have gathered there, - of all the wet boot-soles, the trickling doublets, the stiffened fingers, the rheumatic shanks, that must have been presented to such an incomparable focus of heat. To-day, I am afraid, these mighty hearts are forever cold; justice it probably administered with the aid of a modern calorifere, and the walls of the palace are perforated with regurgitating tubes. Behind and above the gallery that surmounts the three fireplaces are high Gothic windows, the tracery of which masks, in some sort, the chimneys; and in each angle of this and of the room to the right and left of the trio of chimneys, is all open-work spiral staircase, ascending to - I forget where; perhaps to the roof of the edifice. This whole side of the salle is very lordly, and seems to express an unstinted hospitality, to extend the friendliest of all invitations, to bid the whole world come and get warm. It was the invention of John, Duke of Berry and Count of Poitou, about 1395. I give this information on the authority of the GuideJoanne, from which source I gather much other curious learning; for instance, that it was in this building, when it had surely a very different front, that Charles VII. was proclaimed king, in 1422; and that here Jeanne Darc was subjected, in 1429, to the inquisition of certain doctors and matrons.
The most charming thing at Poitiers is simply the Promenade de Blossac, - a small public garden at one end of the flat top of the hill. It has a happy look of the last century (having been arranged at that period), and a beautiful sweep of view over the surrounding country, and especially of the course of the little river Clain, which winds about a part of the base of the big mound of Poitiers. The limit of this dear little garden is formed, on the side that turns away from the town, by the rampart erected in the fourteenth century, and by its big semicircular bastions. This rampart, of great length, has a low parapet; you look over it at the charming little vegetable-gardens with which the base of the hill appears exclusively to be garnished. The whole prospect is delightful, especially the details of the part just under the walls, at the end of the walk. Here the river makes a shining twist, which a painter might have invented, and the side of the hill is terraced into several ledges, - a sort of tangle of small blooming patches and little pavillions with peaked roofs and green shutters. It is idle to attempt to reproduce all this in words; it should be reproduced only in water-colors. The reader, however, will already have remarked that disparity in these ineffectual pages, which are pervaded by the attempt to sketch without a palette or brushes. He will doubtless, also, be struck with the grovelling vision which, on such a spot as the ramparts of Poitiers, peoples itself with carrots and cabbages rather than with images of the Black Prince and the captive king. I am not sure that in looking out from the Promenade de Blossac you command the old battle-field; it is enough that it was not far off, and that the great rout of Frenchmen poured into the walls of Poitiers, leaving on the ground a number of the fallen equal to the little army (eight thousand) of the invader. I did think of the battle. I wondered, rather helplessly, where it had taken place; and I came away (as the reader will see from the preceding sentence) without finding out. This indifference, however, was a result rather of a general dread of military topography than of a want of admiration of this particular victory, which I have always supposed to be one of the most brilliant on record. Indeed, I should be almost ashamed, and very much at a loss, to say what light it was that this glorious day seemed to me to have left forever on the horizon, and why the very name of the place had always caused my blood gently to tingle. It is carrying the feeling of race to quite inscrutable lengths when a vague American permits himself an emotion because more than five centuries ago, on French soil, one rapacious Frenchman got the better of another. Edward was a Frenchman as well as John, and French were the cries that urged each of the hosts to the fight. French is the beautiful motto graven round the image of the Black Prince, as he lies forever at rest in the choir of Canterbury: a la mort ne pensai-je mye. Nevertheless, the victory of Poitiers declines to lose itself in these considerations; the sense of it is a part of our heritage, the joy of it a part of our imagination, and it filters down through centuries and migrations till it titillates a New Yorker who forgets in his elation that he happens at that moment to be enjoying the hospitality of France. It was something done, I know not how justly, for England; and what was done in the fourteenth century for England was done also for New York.