Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/46

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THE French Revolution concentrates within the narrow space of five years, from the 5th of May, 1789, to the 9th of Thermidor, 1794, all that man can conceive as most dramatic, repulsive, uplifting, terrifying, glorious, and disheartening. There is never a happy medium about it, nothing balanced or discriminating; everything is extreme, human emotion rising to the most intense collective utterance at the pangs of starvation, of murder, of oppression, of tyranny, at the joy of decisive action and of climbing the heights whence liberty and betterment can be seen streaking the horizon with hope. That is why the Revolution fascinates the ordinary reader more than perhaps any other period of history. It sets before him the bounds of the sublime and of the ignoble, of all that lies undeveloped in himself never, in all probability, to find expression.


How extraordinarily difficult to interpret such a movement! Even Carlyle, with all his passionate humanity, fails to catch the figure of that unfortunate woman who tramped through the empty streets of Paris at dawn one gray autumn day, starvation and despair in her eyes, mechanically tapping her drum and lugubriously chanting: "Du pain! Du pain!" ("Bread! Bread!") That distressing figure, poignant in all its naked emotions, was to uproot the Bourbons from Versailles, to make of Paris once more the capital of France, and by that deed to divert the whole current of French history from a channel of two centuries. And that is the contrast, the, difficulty, at every point. Mirabeau is a venal and corrupt individual whose turpitude insistently pursues us, and yet at moments he,is the statesman of grand vision whose eye unerringly pierces through the veil of time. Charlotte Corday is but a simple and quite unimportant