The Writings of Prosper Mérimée/Volume 1/Introduction
IT is curious that while a great deal has been written, and while much has been written very well, on the personality of the author of Colomba, the writers have usually rather shuffled off the duty of thoroughly appraising his literary character and position. Except by a few violent partisans of Republicanism or Romanticism, that position has always been acknowledged to be a very high one, from the time when, nearly eighty years ago, Goethe set his seal upon its patent; but there has been a certain half-heartedness in most of the acknowledgments, and (which is worse), a certain failure to survey the whole subject adequately. Even Mr. Pater's essay, one of the best critical things on Mérimée in any language, is not quite just, and its injustice is due to its inadequacy.
The secret of failure, if failure there has been—and it has been admitted by some of the acutest writers on Mérimée themselves—is, I think, a tolerably open one. Few people seem to have been able to keep an even hand between the consideration of Mérimée's character as a man and the consideration of his character as an author. Some of them have been so much interested in the former that they have had apparently little or no time or attention to spare for the latter; some have found the man so unsympathetic that they have allowed their disapprobation or distaste to colour and vitiate their appreciation of the literature. Hardly anybody, so far as I know, has unreservedly and methodically used both keys and both lights—the literature to unlock and irradiate the life, the life to illustrate and open the literature.
The difficulty may have been complicated, notwithstanding the passing of a whole generation since his death, by the fact that, except to his most intimate friends (who were few), the living Mérimée was to a very great extent a disguise and travesty of the true man; and that nearly fifty years of persistent, though leisurely, publication left even the literature in a most disastrous need of correction and illumination by that part of it which could not be known in the author's lifetime. A certain power of literary divination indeed might have remedied this, and did in a few cases; but literary, like other divination, is not precisely the gift of the man in the street. Even now, when every competent critic admits that the Mérimée of the Letters insists on being heard in explanation and justification of the Mérimée who was known as a man before 1870, comparatively few have admitted the testimony in similar rectification of judgments of the writer. It is this task, combined with a thorough critical examination of the whole literary Mérimée, absent from, as well as present, in this new English appearance of his work, that is the purpose of the present Introduction. I hope that readers will not find it too long; I could find it in my own heart to make it very much longer.
Among the uneventful lives of most modern men of letters, Mérimée's is almost distinguished by its exceptional want of distinguished event. Except that he was once put in prison—a curious experience for a most respectable member of society, a government official of high rank at the time, and before long to be a Senator—and excepting also the tragic circumstance of his death amid the imminent ruin of his country, nothing could possibly be less "accidented" than his existence. Yet it was very far from monotonous; and even if it had been more so in outward circumstances, it would have been filled with pulse and movement by his activities of brain and (whatever some of his contemporaries may have thought) of heart.
He was born on the 28th of September, 1803 (a date to which he often refers with a semi-Swiftian bitterness) at Paris, of a Norman family; and perhaps it is not fanciful to say that he represents, remarkably enough, one of the types of the rich and varied Norman temperament as it has shown itself on both sides of the Channel. His grandfather had been a lawyer and steward to Marshal Broglie (Carlyle's "Broglie the War God"); his father was a painter with more knowledge than artistic skill, a professor, and an official who acted as a sort of patron to Hazlitt when he visited Paris as an art student, and had travelled much. His father married rather late in life, Anna Moreau, a pupil at a school where he taught. In her Mérimée possessed (what I fancy most free-thinkers themselves would much rather not have possessed), a free-thinking mother: and his own parade of infidelity is generally set down to her influence. He was, at any rate, devoted to her, kept her with him after his father's death until her own, and has been thought by some to have sacrificed to her the only love ("in all good and honour" as his countrymen say) that he ever experienced. However that may be, all tradition and all recorded traits give her out as much more remarkable for cleverness than for amiability. A hackneyed anecdote represents his incurable distrust, and his at least affected contempt, of mankind as due to an occasion when, having been severely rebuked and punished for some childish fault, he overheard his parents laughing at his contrition and dismay. These things are very often forged or overvalued when true; but something external, and something more than that influence of friendship to which we shall come presently, is reasonably wanted to explain the difference between the Mérimée who almost unwillingly, but quite unmistakably, reveals himself in the Letters, and the Mérimée who played his part to the world.
The family was not rich, and though in his later years (whether by savings from his income as Senator, or in some other way) Mérimée appears to have accumulated some private fortune, he represents himself earlier as entirely dependent upon his stipend. He had studied law, probably never with any intention to practice, and after the Revolution of 1830, had various places in various public offices. And he was lucky enough, when he was only twenty-eight, to obtain that of Inspector-General of Historical Monuments, an office of considerable dignity, agreeable and to him, specially congenial in its duties, sufficiently well paid, and perfectly compatible with the devotion of plenty of time to society which he did not dislike, to non-official travel of which he was fond, to those occasional ensconcements at home and in solitude to which, by one of the frequent contrasts in his character, he was passionately devoted, and to literature, of which he soon showed an extraordinary command.
Mérimée was early thrown into contact with the Romantic movement. In later life he was regarded as, affected to be, and in a certain sense was, a kind of deserter from it. A man of his scholarship and his critical temperament must have very quickly perceived the extravagance, the one-sidedness, and the sciolism of not a few of those who took part in it. Yet it may still be questioned whether he was not to the day of his death a Romantic sheep (though a sheep as dangerous to meddle with as a Rocky Mountain ram) who chose to wear wolf's clothing and to howl with the wolves at times. His fondness for exotic, and what the mere French "Classic" has always openly or privately held to be barbarian, subject, character, colour; the clear inclination to the supernatural which accompanies his would-be rationalism; the passion which underlies his impassive exterior, and the sentiment which is never far behind his apparent cynicism—nay the very forms and colours of that cynicism itself—are all Romantic. It is, however, really characteristic of him that he began with two books, in extreme Romantic style and admittedly of immense Romantic influence, which are among the most audacious and cold-blooded, if also among the most successful and finished, of hoaxes in literature. There never was any such person as "Clara Gazul," the pretended Spanish comic dramatist whose Theatre startled all Europe and delighted all lovers of Romance in the year 1825; there never was any such person as her spiritual kinsman, Hyacinthe Maglanovitch, the translation of whose Illyrian lyrics followed two years later as La Guzla. And the fact that the title of the latter book is ostentatiously anagrammatised from the author's name of the other (or vice versa) is a sufficient measure of the calm audacity of the author.
Still before 1830 and in complete outward accordance with the movement, he produced in 1828 the singular series of dialogue-sketches called La Jacquerie, and in the next year—dropping the dialogue arrangement and adopting that of the regular historical novel which Scott had made popular—the Chronique du Régne de Charles IX. Of these, as of all or most of the works to be mentioned, we shall take proper notice hereafter, but for the present we must be mainly biographical. Whether by accident or not, Mérimée's appointment to his Inspectorship coincided with an apparent determination of his taste and enterprise away from works of any length and toward the short story. In this he achieved, during the next ten years, a reputation which for a full half century was never questioned. And though some changes of fashion have caused recent critics to attempt reservations as to this, there is very little doubt that his fame will be completely re-established by a later posterity. In 1844 he was elected to the Academy, in very suitable succession to Charles Nodier, who had practically shown him the way (though with far less art and style and especially with far less concentration and unity) to this very class of story.
The coup d'etat, and the Second Empire which followed, made a very great difference in Mérimée's fortunes. He was by no means a Bonapartist; indeed, though he had a strong dislike of democracy, it can not be said that he was attached to any French political party, either by intellectual or sentimental sympathies. He seems earlier to have had some positive dislike, if not even some positive contempt, of Louis Napoleon himself; and never, in what may be called their subsequent familiarity, got beyond a very lukewarm attitude toward him. But he had known from her early childhood, and was strongly attached to the beautiful and gracious Spanish-Scottish lady whom Napoleon soon made Empress; the Emperor himself, who had very few distinguished men of letters on his side, was only too glad to recruit one of the very greatest in France; and Mérimée, not by any means quite cheerfully, became, in 1853, a Senator. He astonished everybody by resigning his Inspectorship, which he might have kept, and which most men of the Imperial party, the distinguishing characteristic of which was certainly not disinterestedness or immaculate purity, as certainly would have kept.
For the seventeen years which elapsed between this time and the coincidence of his own death with the ruin of the Empire, Mérimée's life, which had already fallen into what may be called a variety of pretty identical grooves, changed these grooves a little but not much. His headquarters in Paris remained the same; and so did what may be called his other headquarters at Cannes, where, in ever increasing ill health, he more and more established himself every winter. He still made regular journeys to England, where he had many friends and hosts, the chief of them being earlier Mr. Ellice of Glenquoich, and latterly Mr. (afterward Sir Antonio) Panizzi of the British Museum. And he still occasionally went elsewhere, especially to Spain, where Madame de Montijo, the Empress's mother, was his hostess at these times, as she was always his correspondent. Even his regular tours of inspection were in a manner replaced by visits almost as regular at the Imperial country residences of Fontainebleau, Compiegne, and Biarritz. It is difficult to be very certain whether he enjoyed these visits or not. He grumbles at them; but that is a common if not almost a universal piece of human hypocrisy in such cases. It is evident that the restraints of court dress, court hours, and court routine generally, were really and, in his later and more infirm days, seriously annoying to him, especially as he had a most un-French love of "home" and would certainly never have been prevented from marrying by the famous consideration "that he should have nowhere to spend his evenings." And, as has been said, he had no warm affection for the Emperor, though they got on well enough when he was asked to assist in the Vie de César; he certainly was not more warmly disposed toward most of the members of the Imperial entourage; and while the growing "Papalino" tendency of Empire policy offended his prejudices, other points about it alarmed, with better reason, his patriotism, which was real, and his shrewdness, which was uncommon. Still his affection for the Empress, and hers for him, positively alleviated some of these things and served as a compensation for them all; and there is no doubt that Mérimée, who had in this or that way early made acquaintance with an unusual number of distinguished people in many European countries, was glad of the opportunity to maintain and extend it.
His changed life, moreover, was not entirely unfavourable to his literary production. He had always had a leaning toward historical study, and had produced his History of Peter the Cruel as early as 1843. He followed this up with a curious episode of Russian history, Les Faux Demetrius, just at the time of the change of government, and that, later still, with remarkable sketches of Les Cosaques d'Autrefois. He collected his Miscellanies. He began after a long interval to write short stories again. But the most important production of his pen during this time, even as pure literature, and by far the most important as providing stuff for the reader and material for the student of humanity, is contained in his Letters.
It is necessary to read only two or three of these to see that Mérimée was a born letter-writer; and if, later in the century, it becomes possible for anyone to collect and edit them completely, the collection will probably equal that of collection to a Rabelaisian-antiquarian friend in the Avignon library, and others still.'s in size, and yield to none in quality and variety of interest. As it is, though we have no very early ones and though what was apparently the longest and largest of all, the correspondence with Madame de Montijo, has never been published save in scraps and extracts, the known bulk is great. There is first and foremost the famous sequence (rather insequential, according to M. Filon) of the Lettres À une Inconnue; then those to Panizzi; then those À une autre Inconnue, which are the least interesting of all; then the extremely attractive and characteristic ones to Mrs. Senior which Count d'Haussonville published; then those which appeared a few years ago in the Revue des Deux Mondes, besides the abundant extracts in M. Filon's Mérimée et ses Amis, the
So far as the life of the writer is concerned, the story told by Letters, unless very carefully garbled and economised by the editor, becomes necessarily a more and more sombre one as life draws more and more into "the browner shades"; and there was not likely to be an exception in the case of a pessimist like Mérimée. He had, however, the alleviations of tolerably ample means, of some warm friendships, to use no stronger word, and of a curious and rather unexampled domestic "guardianship," which he seems to have prized most unaffectedly, at the hands of two English ladies of mature age and friends of his mother, Miss Lagden and her sister Mrs. Ewers, who kept house for him at Cannes, and seem to have always been at hand in Paris, who watched by his deathbed in the chaos of the Année Terrible, and who saw to his interment. His death on September 23, 1870, might, but for the infelicity of its circumstance, have been taken for a "happy release," inasmuch as it appears to have been painless and sudden, while he had for many months, and even many years, been suffering the most harassing inconvenience always, and sometimes the most intense pain, from a complication of lung, and other disorders.
It is usual, in studies of this kind, to subjoin immediately to the biographical part an estimate of the subject's character. But, as I have already observed, Mérimée's work and its purely literary qualities have to be taken in a rather uncommon conjunction with his life that each may interpret the other, and any characterisation had better be postponed. On one point, however, it may be as well to speak at once.
It has been usual, and for a long time I was myself not disinclined, to regard Mérimée's curious cynicism as to no small an extent a reflex if not an imitation, of the not entirely dissimilar attitude of Henri Beyle (De Stendhal) whom he knew when he was himself young, and as long as Beyle's life permitted. That there are resemblances nobody can deny, except in mere paradox; and Mérimée's own very remarkable article on Beyle is almost sufficient to show the sympathy between them. In the last twenty years or so, however, a great deal of new light has been shed, by fresh publication, on Beyle and not a very little on Mérimée: and this has rather altered the complexion of the rapport between the two. Each has been shown to have been, in familiar phrase, a much better fellow than he pretended to be: while, on the other hand, the morbid and warped strains in each have been more clearly demonstrated and illustrated. But while the motto of both was no doubt that μέμνησο απιστεῖν which Mérimée actually adopted, the complexion of their mistrust of themselves and of mankind was very different—even more different than their fortunes. Mérimée has been emphatically pronounced by more than one good judge "a gentleman," and it is exceedingly difficult to imagine any definition of that word that would take in Beyle. Beyle had been a really badly treated (though also a rather badly behaved) child, and he never forgot it; while his career was a string of failures. Mérimée was all his life rather "spoilt" by this or that person, and his career was in literature a brilliant and in other ways a considerable success.
Lastly, Mérimée, whether he did great things or small, did them with a leisurely and enjoying completeness, with an absolute knowledge of what he wanted to do and an absolute faculty of doing it, which can hardly be paralleled; while Beyle's work is to a great extent mere sketch, if not mere fragment, and even in the more apparently finished pieces displays a want of accomplishment, an uneasy and almost fretful tentativeness, which is quite as much due to uncertainty of plan as to imperfect command of style. That these differences prevented Beyle from exercising any influence on Mérimée I should not dream of suggesting; but I think now that they limited that influence decidedly, and that Mérimée would have been very much what he was if he had never met, and even never read, Beyle at all.
Returning to the books, it will probably be well to observe a good old rule and despatch the least interesting and those which will not be included within the present collection, first. Mérimée's historical work occupies a peculiar—I should think almost a unique position. It is certainly not the most common of things to find a historian who possesses unlimited patience and devotion to the "document," possessing at the same time a signal command of purely literary power. It is still more uncommon to find-these two faculties further combined with that not merely of writing, but of arranging what; is written dramatically. Now Mérimée had all three—and all three to an extent very unusual, while he also possessed a fourth and a fifth quality not less valuable than any of them, a piercing judgment and a robust common sense. No research was too troublesome for him; no man in Europe was his superior for pure style in his own language; and he was on the one hand the author of Colomba, on the other the author of the Enlèvement de la Redoute. One might have expected from him historical work as brilliant as Caryle's, but less volcanic, as masterly as Thucydides, but free from obscurity of phrase and awkwardness of arrangement. Yet, as a matter of fact, his writings of this class have never, I think, been much read even in France, while out of it they are hardly known, except to those who have special interest in their subjects. Not that these subjects are by any means devoid of interest in themselves, though some of them may be chargeable with a slightly parochial character, with handling what have been called in a famous phrase "battles of kites and crows." The two longer Roman studies deal with hackneyed subjects, but the weariness of ancient history, which is felt or affected by some, is balanced by something quite different from weariness on the part of others.
The History of Pedro the Cruel is one of the most typical historical romances of mediæval times: and if it is rendered awkward to deal with by the previous deahngs of Froissart, the most delightful of all chroniclers, this does not apply everywhere, and Froissart himself can always be drawn upon for illustration and ornament. Indeed, as it is, Mérimée's Froissartesque versions of old Spanish chronicles are admirable sets-off to his story. That of the False Demetrius is again almost an ideal canvas for a historical novel: and the still obscurer fortunes and traditions as to Stenka Razine, if they suggest verse rather than prose, are perfectly Byronic. To me I confess the actual books are not unattractive. The extraordinary limpidity of the style, which never drags, or ruffles itself, or degenerates, in all the obscure and complicated narrative; the critical judgment of character and probability, of fact and setting, more than save them. But I can quite understand their want of popularity. They are full of horrors; and though Mérimée does not in the least gloat over these, he recounts them a little too dispassionately. He may seem also a little too much to remember that he has been a romancer at other times, and to impress upon his readers that he is the soberest of historians here. He will never "let himself go" in episode or peroration, in description or character. It would not have been difficult for a man of much less power, and it would have been perfectly easy for him, to make a most striking figure out of that Polish damsel of high degree. Marine Mniszek, who was by birth almost a princess, who was beautiful, who was for a few days Czarina of All the Russias; whose husband, "pretender" or not, was massacred almost before her eyes, while she herself narrowly escaped the same fate and worse; who then gave herself into the power of a coarser adventurer and for years was a sort of "Queen of the Leaguer" among wild Cossacks and outlaws; who was perhaps herself assassinated, and certainly died in a dungeon while still in the prime of her youth. Mérimée gives you all the facts, gives you them conscientiously, clearly, very far indeed from dully; but he refuses, with almost ostentatious abstinence, the few touches of art and nature which would have made her a heroine of romance, as well as a figure in history.
On the much more fully drawn figure of "Dampeter" (as Lord Berners calls Don Pedro) himself, Mérimée, though he is too critical to accept the whitewashing of certain Spanish historians, is by no means very unmerciful. He sees perfectly well that on Peter, as on other kings elsewhere, was forced a war to the death with a turbulent, faithless, and by no means too patriotic nobility; that some of his most outrageous acts were justified by the common opinion of the time, and so forth. He tolerates the king's lawless amours; he even clears him of responsibility for some of the crimes brought against him. But once more he will hardly ever—in spite of himself he does now and then—breathe, as he so easily could, the little wind of the spirit that would clothe the dead tyrant's bones and endue his flesh with blood and life. We may do it if we like; we may—to change the metaphor—make the salad for ourselves. The green stuff is all beautifully washed and dished up; the bowl and spoons and forks are bright and clean; the cruets are full and at hand. But he will not exactly make it for us; at any rate he will not give it the last magical toss and whisk that completes the making.
Now readers (and they are not wholly to be blamed) usually resent this treatment, or at least decline to read the author who so treats them. It is beyond all doubt a noble ambition to "write true history," to assume that the reader is a serious student who desires nothing more than to have the facts loyally discovered and intelligently ordered, the arguments judicially summarised and criticised. But whether it pays sufficient attention to that "human nature" which is after all the historian's main subject, may be questioned. And it is perhaps specially unwise (though it is specially natural) when the writer is "two" or more "gentlemen at once," when it is perfectly well known that he has all the necessary powers at command and merely declines to use them. Mérimée had, if he had chosen to attend to it, a good example set him by the greatest of his craftfellows in both crafts.
It is well known how fascinatingly Scott has told the history of Scotland, yet I have been assured by one of the soberest and most thoroughgoing students of that history from the purely historical side, that it would have been difficult in Scott's time to give a better account. Nor does Mérimée, any more than Scott himself, disdain reference to purely romantic or mythical "excursions and alarms." He does not omit the wild and ghastly legend of Stenka Razine, the Cossack pirate, flinging his Persian captive and mistress overboard in all her gorgeous array, not because he was tired of her, not because he had a quarrel with her, but as "a gift to the sea which had given him so much"; the almost stranger justice—chivalrous justice for once—of Don Pedro on the felon defenders of the castle of Cabezon. But he will not give the vivifying touch to the whole, and so these wholes, as wholes, are neglected.
His Essays or Miscellanies have an interest, if not intrinsically greater, yet for several reasons of wider appeal. Being all short, they make no severe demands on the attention of the reader, and they perhaps put the peculiar genius of the writer all the better. Moreover, in their wide diversity of subject there is something to suit almost everybody who has any literary tastes at all. They deal with art and archæology, with biography and literature, with history and bric-à-brac, with things ancient and things modern, with things French and things not French. The mere survey and casual selection of their contents—Cervantes, Nodier, Beyle, Froissart, Brantôme, Pushkin, Turgueineff, Gogol, The Mormons, A Tomb at Tarragona, The Hotel de Cluny, Spanish Literature, Military Architecture in the Middle Ages, Constantinople in 1403—supplies a sort of test of appetite; a person who can not find something appetising among these (and there are others) had better confine himself to his newspaper and the circulating library when he wants anything to read. They are as varied in length as they are in subject; there are pieces of half a dozen pages for the man who has a few minutes to fill up, and pieces of a hundred for him who can devote a more solid part of the day to them.
The literary prefaces are certainly not the least interesting, although Mérimée never cared to be as good a purely literary critic as he undoubtedly might have been. The best is almost beyond question the "Beyle," where his intense interest in the man and in life makes up, not merely for any deficiencies in pure literary handling on the part of the critic, but almost for any the "Gogol" will always hold rank as the "letters of introduction" (so to speak) of a new literature to Europe, by an introducer of exceptional competence and position. If there are two disappointing pieces here, they are the "Nodier" and the "Ampère." Yet the very disappointment is interesting because it is just (to use the hackneyed jest) what we always expected. Both were diploma-pieces, exercises set to the writer in his capacity as Academician. And these are the things that a man of Mérimée's temperament,—shy, proud, not used to taskwork, and decidedly recalcitrant to it, hating gush and gossip, rhetoric and rigmarole—always does worst.deficiencies on the part of the subject himself. What with the presumed and what with the undoubted relations between the two men, their temperaments, and their productions, the peculiar appeal of the piece is such as it would be very difficult to find elsewhere; and the play of undercurrent feeling and thought, now any similar deficiencies on the part of the subject, is extraordinarily attractive. The "Cervantes," the "Froissart" and the "Brantôme," especially the last, are written with that unfeigned gusto which counts for so much in literature. The "Pushkin," the "Tourgueineff" and
I would fain dwell on his reviews of great histories, of politics and literature—Grote, Merivale, Ticknor—on the Mormon article, antiquated now, of course, as a mere piece of information and halting in the middle of the story even then, but a miracle of easy and orderly narration;—on the "Cossacks," which contains, with less elaboration and research, the gist of his later book on the subject. I should like to notice his extraordinarily sensible plan of reform for the French Schools of Art at Rome;—and still more the masterly articles, each longer than the other and each justifying its increased length by the combined art and matter of the treatment, on Mediæval Religious Architecture, Mediæval Military Architecture, and The Church of Saint Savin. But if I did so, I should encroach too much on the space left me for his purely creative work—a space hardly, as it is, sufficient for "that which is here and that which is not"—for the fictions in semi-dramatic form which have had mostly to be excluded, as well as for those in direct narrative which are the main objects and subjects of the present undertaking. For, as I have said at the beginning, there is hardly any author who demands to be studied as a whole more than Mérimée; and while it is thus all the more necessary to notice the parts of his work which can not be reproduced here in full, it is at the same time desirable to distribute this notice with a view to the relative connection of these parts with his chief and principal function.
It is noteworthy enough that Mérimée's first exercises in this function, besides being hoaxes, were taken in paths which were not really his own. "Clara Gazul" writes things which at any rate look like plays; which at any rate are "Tig and Tirry" to use Dr. Johnson's quaint and agreeable figure. Now, Mérimée certainly had not the dramatic, at least the theatrical, genius proper. Unlike almost all other men of letters, he never made the least attempt upon the boards and the only thing of his that was ever brought there, the Carrosse du Saint Sacrement, was staged against his will, and justified his objections by failing as a play, though it is one of the most charming of stories par personnages. La Guzla, on the other hand, gives itself out as a translation of poetry; and affects the extremest poetic liberties of diction and of composition. And Mérimée, like Beyle, though perhaps not to the same extent, affected to care little, and did not probably care very much, for the form of verse. Yet both books have the most admirable literary quality—a quality so admirable as to make one heartily sorry that they are much more often spoken of as mere hoaxes than as anything else. To anyone who judges literature by what it is, and not by something else, the existence or non-existence of Hyacinthe Maglanovitch is a matter of absolute indifference. It is sufficient that the pieces which their creator chose to label with his name, whether they are Illyrian or not, whether they are Hyacinthian or not, are admirable folk-verse stuff, and much better than most originals. Some of them (for instance the opening one The Hawthorn of Veliko) are indeed little more than clever imitations of Scott and Byron and Percy plus Illyrian "local colour." But the Chant de Mort and Le Seigneur Mercure, and the Vampyre poems, and L'Amant en Bouteille are not far short of masterpieces, and they supply an important "note" for the general appreciation of their author.
The "plays," under which head we may take not only Clara Gazul with the additions made to it later, but La Famille Carvajal, the Jacquerie, the more definitely dramatic volume entitled Les Deux Héritages, and the curious Les Mécontents, give us not merely a larger, but a more complicated and difficult subject. Authorities of the most diverse opinions have held that the connection between literature and drama is to a great extent fortuitous—that is to say, not, as it has been sometimes misunderstood, that a play may be thoroughly successful on the stage and have no literary qualities (which though true enough is immaterial), but that the qualities of literature as such, and the qualities of acted drama as such, are independent. Mérimée illustrates this remarkably from one side.
All the pieces referred to above are literature, generally of a high and sometimes of quite the highest class. Scarcely one gives, as we read it, the idea of an actable drama, and not one that of a good actable drama; though there may be situations and scenes here and there which might make what is called a saynète. Except that he employs the dramatic method of presentation par personnages (to repeat that useful old French phrase) instead of that of narration—except that he has side-headings of speakers' names, and stage-directions, and divisions of scenes—the whole thing is pure romance or pure novel. If there were not a great deal of pedantry in human nature I do not know why we should object to this. Some of the pieces, Les Espagnols en Danemark, for instance; Les Deux Héritages and some others would perhaps be better in narrative prose. Le Carrosse du Saint Sacrement might be. But I do not seem to see Une Femme est un Diable, or L'Occasion, or Le Ciel et L'Enfer, nearly so well in the continuous form; and when I compare La Jacquerie with Charles IX, I am by no means sure that the former would gain by adapting the shape of the latter. Nay I am not certain that some of the objections which M. Filon (for instance) has taken to the latter might not lose their force if it had taken the shape of the former. On the other hand there is not one of the great short stories which would not lose horribly by being turned into the semi-dramatic form.
All this may be thought to show that Mérimée knew what he was about—a thing which perhaps happens more frequently than critics of great writers sometimes seem to perceive. His genius appears to have had what we may call its more concentrated and also its more desultory moments. In the former he wished to take a situation or set of situations, and put it, or them, with the utmost directness—"in column" as the military folk would say. Then he wrote in plain narrative prose. At other times he wished rather to skirmish, to stroll about his subject and sketch it from various points of view; then he took the form by personages. This latter has resulted in some wonderful work. For the Famille Carvajal, I have, I confess, no great affection or admiration. Here only, perhaps, has Mérimée fallen into the mistake which originated in Early Romantic times and which has survived all the changes to the present day, that the revolting is the striking in itself. The "horrors" of La Jacquerie have, with the greater length, helped to make it more unpopular, but I think unjustly. They are not ubiquitous; the constant panoramic change of scene and subject is, except for persons whose power of attention is very feeble, rather fascinating; and the way in which the author manages not merely to paint manners but to insinuate character, is very masterly.
But the little group of short pieces in the form to which I have referred above—Une Femme est un Diable, L'Occasion, Le Ciel et L'Enfer, Le Carrosse du Saint Sacrement, supply the main justification of the arrangement; and they are so good in themselves that, with the one exception also hinted (as to which I am not quite sure) they could not possibly have been told as well narratively. Three of the four are tragical; only one comic; but the mastery in either direction is practically indifferent.
Une Femme est un Diable is perhaps the weakest; it probably owes something to Lewis's Monk, a very dangerous pattern, and the characters of the three inquisitors are somewhat conventional. But Mariquita, part victim, part almost unintentional temptress, is altogether admirable, and her various moods display a power of realisation and expression which the greatest masters of fiction have not surpassed. The pendant, for it is almost a pendant, L'Occasion, deserves at least the same praise and perhaps something higher still; for this is pure tragedy while the other is only sublimated melodrama. It is the most Browningesque of Mérimée's things; and it exhibits the quality, which Browning so curiously lacks, of being able to combine the dramatic, if not the theatrical, presentation of different characters in the same work, without making all but one merely foils to that one.
On the whole, however, Le Ciel et L'Enfer, which I think has not been a general favourite, seems to me the very best of the tragic pieces. The priest and the lover, though very good, are here purposely subordinated to Doña Urraca, the heroine; and once more her changes of mood, far deeper and more serious than Mariquita's, are a triumph. Coquetry, devotion, love, furious and almost murderous jealousy, love again and quite murderous repentance of the former act, all these drive over the soul of the heroine, and the scene of the story, like squalls and sunbursts on a stormy day—as suddenly, as irresistibly, as naturally. If Mérimée had written nothing else, he would have handed in his diploma-piece as a master with this.
He would have handed it as surely, though in another kind, if he had written nothing but Le Carrosse du Saint Sacrement. Here all is sunny enough; the spiteful tittle-tattle (whether it was quite false witness, one may be permitted to entertain the shadow of a doubt) of the secretary Martinez only gives the slight touch of dark needed to set off the brightness. The Viceroy, who allows himself to be fooled without being, in more than the very least degree, a fool, and who is wise enough not to quarrel with his own happiness; the Bishop, as wise in his generation yet not other than a very respectable child of light for all that; all the minor characters are capital. But the heroine, La Périchole, is something better. She is not only Mérimée's most amiable heroine, but what I trust I may be permitted to call, in deliberate flouting of a pedant objection, his "nicest." From the point of view of strict morality, she may need a little absolution; but there is not a drop of bad blood in her, and she is as far from being silly as she is from being disagreeable. Her donation is not only a stroke of genius as getting herself, the Viceroy, and others, out of a very awkward situation with flying colours, but it is also something better. His Excellency Don Andres de Ribera was most sincerely to be congratulated, even if he did share the subject of congratulation with a rather uncertain number of others. And this most fascinating Camilla—light-footed as her Virgilian namesake, light-hearted as anyone, quite arguably not too light in other acceptations of the word—may introduce a slight protest in passing against the theory of Mérimée's "wicked heroine" which makes a great figure in some criticisms of him.
Of course the not-quite-good heroine has great accommodations and great temptations for the novelist and the poet. It is only a Shakespeare who can make Miranda and Imogen absolutely fascinating; and perhaps even in him there are some of us who prefer Cleopatra to either. Mérimée's pessimism, some unfortunate and not quite blameless experiences of his, his other experiences, blameless but still unfortunate, of a mother who though virtuous was "hard," added to the natural tendency of the artist to make use of the most effective materials, have all no doubt had some influence on his practice. But it is quite unfair to take Carmen, who is probably his best known heroine, as his typical one. Colomba's eccentric ideas on the subject of murder were in the circumstances no blight on her general character, which is both stainless and amiable; anybody who could be quite certain of the absence of awkward points in his genealogy would be a fool not to marry Colomba if she would have him. La Périchole, as we have seen, if not quite stainless, has not one unamiable fault. Madame de Piennes, the agreeably mistaken heroine of L'Abbé Aubain, and others have nothing "fatal" or Lilith-like about them. Let us clear our minds of cant.
With minds so cleared we are in a fit state to approach the main body of Mérimée's greatest and least-questioned work, the prose tales in direct narrative form. In the usual French editions these are collected without much regard to date; but they fall chronologically into three broad divisions. The first, containing not merely Charles IX at the beginning and Colomba at the end, but most of the better-known short tales, was the product of the author's youth and tolerably early manhood, from 1829 to 1840. A smaller number, nearly all remarkable, including Carmen, Arsène Guillot, L'Abbé Aubain and the less generally popular but excellent Il Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia, are scattered over the forties; while two of the greatest, Lokis and La Chambre Bleue, date from quite the last years of Mérimée's life. But their characteristics are singularly equal; however much water may have passed the mill between 1829 and 1866, the interval saw little change and certainly no falling off in the artist's powers.
It is, however, generally agreed that those powers were not displayed at their very happiest in the Chronique de Charles IX, though Mérimée never did better things than the book contains. The demand for "unity" is sometimes thought a pedantic one; and Apollo knows only too well how often it has been made in a pedantic spirit. But to say "The Devil take all Unity" is as dangerous in literature as to say "The Devil take all Order" has often proved to be in war, before and since Shakespeare formulated it in those words. The Chronique, with all its brilliant sliding scenes, all its panorama as of a vivid dream, is certainly deficient in unity of any kind, whether of action, of character, or even that uncovenanted mercy the "Unity of Interest." And it is unluckily sure to be confronted with other work of the same time, or nearly so, in which, whether unity of action and character is present or not, unity of interest certainly is—the work of Dumas. I am myself extremely fond of the Chronique,—neither because nor in spite of the fact that I once translated it. But I can quite understand others failing to like it, and I can see that it has some positive defects.
I should be much less accommodating in the case of the shorter tales, from L'Enlèvement de la Redoute to Colomba. The last quarter of the nineteenth century prided itself particularly on its short stories, and I understand that the pride has been taken on by the twentieth. Indeed I have seen it said totidem verbis, that, good as they may be, Mérimée's examples can not pretend to the subtlety, the poignancy, the true philosophico-mythical character of ours. Well, "a gude conceit of ourselves" is no doubt a good gift of Providence in a way. But I fear I am not able to share it in this particular instance, and to this particular extent. To speak of living persons is invidious, but there are, I suppose, few living persons who would rank themselves or any of their contemporaries as superior to the late M. Guy de Maupassant in the short story. And much as I admire Maupassant, glad as I am to think I was among the very first English critics to hail him, I certainly do not think that he has beaten Mérimée. Even in what les jeunes seem to consider the last secret of their art, the secret of not finishing, of leaving a problem and a suggestion, Mérimée knew all about it, though, like a great artist, he did not too often indulge in what is at its best something of a trick, while it may be something worse—a mere subterfuge to hide an inability to finish—a sort of literary parallel to the proceedings of that gifted painter who put forth as his masterpiece a picture of "Strasburg Cathedral in the Dark."
For myself, I have never known which to admire most—the variety of effect which Mérimée produces; the economy of means by which he produces it; or the absolute perfection of the effect produced. Except by mere paradoxers of the school just glanced at, who find it too definite and clear, L'Enlèvement de la Redoute has always been confessed to be a ne plus ultra. It is in race-horse condition; not an ounce of flesh on it that can hamper or drag its progress, not a muscle wanting in development to carry it at swiftest and surest toward the goal. The same is the case with what is perhaps its companion in general esteem, Mateo Falcone. But Mérimée, though never luxuriant, is not always thus ascetic. There is nothing of his that I myself prefer to the Venus d'Ille which has the accidental but not unimportant charm of having the same subject as another masterpiece by another master as different as possible, Mr. William Morris's Ring Given to Venus. Indeed, Mérimée's management of the supernatural is one of the most interesting points about him, and supplies another "note" to be carefully heeded in estimating his general character, literary and other. The blending here of comedy with tragedy, of incident and suggestion, is unrivalled, or rivalled only by the other mixture of the voluptuous and the terrible. To call it, as it has been called, "a materialistic myth" is at least to suggest a gross misunderstanding. It is a resurrection of the flesh and blood from which all true myths have been originated.
For two great favourites with some good judges, Tamango and La Partie de Tric-Trac, I care less, though they would certainly make the fortune of any other tale-teller. But who shall overpraise Les Ames du Purgatoire? I know no story of any writer to the style of which one of the hack words of criticism "limpid" applies so absolutely; and once more it has one of those extraordinary blends, antithesis, antinomies, which give such a savour to those who can savour them in literature. Mérimée is given out—perhaps gave himself out—as a professed unbeliever to an extent rather endangering his general reputation for restraint and "good form." Yet the religious tone which this story requires is infused neither in the least insufficiently nor with that ostentatious excess which is often visible in similar cases. And what is even more wonderful, it is kept in harmony with plenty of satiric touches; while the crisis-scene, where Don Juan is present at the last possible mass for his own soul, is almost unbelievably good. Again, I know nothing like it anywhere.
The two, tragi-comic stories of society, La Double Méprise and Le Vase Etrusque may be very slightly injured now (as all stories of society are) by the fact that their atmosphere is of the day before yesterday; but that will come right as in other cases, and their merits will remain.
Colomba and Carmen—the latter perhaps by the more adventitious and rather treacherous aid of music and acting than in itself, but still also in itself—are so much the best known things of their author that it is rather difficult to write of them; but they are also so much the most "considerable," in plenary combination of most of the senses of that word, that they can not be shirked. There can be no reasonable doubt that their author intended them as pendant studies of the South, and of the women of the South. As such, they could not—no such work from a man of Mérimée's age could—escape a slightly Byronic touch; but Mérimée's intense feeling for the absurd, the purity of his taste, and the detachment which it would be too complimentary to modernity to call, modern in him, have completely kept off the rancid and the grotesque flavour and colour which usually mar Byronism. I have said that I think Colomba was meant to be, and that I think she is, quite a good girl, and quite a "nice" though rather a formidable one. It is less a point of faith whether Mérimée has entirely freed her brother from the touch of comparative unmanliness which is almost inevitably suggested by such a Pallas-Diana of a sister. But the fact I think, is that Orso, Lydia, her father, the Prefect, the bandits, and all the rest are designedly, and in the case allowably, intended to be foils and sets-off to this Pallas-Diana herself. The pains which Mérimée has taken with her are extraordinary, and some of their results—the touch of literary interest in Dante, the camaraderie with the colonel and other things—may escape the careless; but they should not. Although knowing it to be wrong, one desiderates a sequel; and I should like to ask Mr. " " whether Phroso owes anything consciously to Colomba.
In Carmen, on the other hand, the interest is very much less centred in the heroine; indeed I am heretically inclined to think that the wicked gitana is much less really the heroine than José Navarro is the hero. She has a little too much of what I have just called her "the wicked gitana" in other words, of the type—that bane of French literature, which Mérimée, as a rule, has so successfully eluded or vanquished. Her hapless lover is much more of an individual, and it is more her office, baneful or not, to bring out his individuality than to display her own. It may even seem to some that the great chagrin of Mérimée's life—his jilting by an unlawful love of many years' standing—has reflected itself too closely for art in his delineation of Carmen's character. It is quite naturally possible that Carmen, after years of faithful infidelity and false truth to José, should suddenly lose all fancy for him; but it is not so possible artistically or rather (for perhaps everything is possible artistically) it is not quite made probable in the story. Yet even here the slip (if slip it be) is redeemed by the girl's blend of fatalism] and recklessness, her refusal even to deprecate the punishment which she has provoked.
If, however, the character-painting on one side be a little "out," it is flawless on the other; and the action, the description, and the rest throughout are incomparable. For a good deal of the "local colour" which he laughed at, loved and used so victoriously, Mérimée is no doubt indebted to Borrow, but he knew Spain intimately enough to make the borrowing (this pun is entirely unintentional) his own, and the matchless method of narration is his without a suspicion of a doubt. Never was there a story which held the reader from beginning to end in so relentless and yet so delightful a grasp; and I seeing that it is not so very short this grip is even more remarkable than in mere "moments" of tale-telling like Mateo Falcone and the Redoute. Nor should we omit to notice the peculiar mastery of Mérimée's management of his rôle as narrator with a slight touch of actor as well. The conveniences of this have constantly recommended it to tale-tellers both on the small scale and the great; its inconveniences have perhaps only dawned on them when it was too late. Mérimée is rather fond of it, as here, in the Venus d'Ille, in Lokis and elsewhere. I can not think of a single instance in which he falls or even makes a false step; and it is only necessary to set against this the absolute and in fact confessed failure of Dickens in the first version of The Old Curiosity Shop and the by no means complete success of Mr. Stevenson in The Master of Ballantrae.
French critics, and perhaps some later English critics who have followed them have been specially interested in Arsène Guillot. The reasons, more and less convincing, of this interest are obvious enough. The piece is Mérimée's—that is almost as much as to say it has the easy mastery, the almost bewildering completeness and satisfaction of this master. But it displays these traits with an admixture of condescension to the weaker vessels and brethren,—to those who want something of impropriety in subject, something of conventional satire in treatment. Mérimée did sometimes condescend; and he has so condescended here. But he has not condescended very far and therefore, naturally, some say that he has not condescended far enough,—that Arsène is but a bread-and-butter Magdalen; Madame de Piennes a weakling "beautiful-soul-with-temptations"; Max a wishy-washy Don Juan. I do not agree with them, but I venture to take their grumbles as evidence that Mérimée has not gained very much by his condescension. I doubt whether anybody ever does. Tu contra audentior ito is the motto in art almost more than anywhere else. Not that I want him to be Zolaesque, which indeed he could never have been, being an artist first and last of all. But his business was not with the peculiar mixture of satire and sentiment which constitutes the appeal here.
L'Abbé Aubain, on the other hand, is a thoroughly delightful thing, and as masterly in reality as it is slight in appearance. Its interest is that of pure irony, though irony of the lightest and most delicate nature; and as all the great masters of irony know how to do, it is left by its author to make or miss its own way. If they duly receive new writings in Elysium and converse about them, I know what Lucian and Rabelais and Swift and Fielding (Thackeray was alive) said when they had read this little sketch of the romance conjured up by the lady, and the sober and solid benefit received by the unsuspecting and prosaic priest.
In Il Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia (written in 1846, but not published till posthumously), the appeals are more complex, and perhaps for that reason, I do not know that it has ever become a great favourite. The suggested supernatural, neither frankly "occultist," nor explained away fully in the Mrs. Radcliffe manner, appears in it, and this is an element which always commends itself very differently to different persons. I think very highly of it myself, and in connection with it, I may mention the remarkable Djoûmane which also appeared with the Dernières Nouvelles, after being published in the Moniteur, and the exact date of which is unknown. It is one of the best dream stories that I know, and in particular I hardly know one that effects so complete a triumph in disguising the point of the story where actuality passes into dream. I am myself, not merely a reader of stories of some fifty years' standing, but a reviewer of them through more than twenty; and I do not think I am very easy to deceive on such a point as this. Yet the first time that I read Djoûmane, I confess that I was taken in, not quite to the end, but nearly so.
As for the last fruits of this wonderful tree, La Chambre Bleue and Lokis, the former has been carped at for its arrangement and the latter because we happen to know that Mérimée had at one time thought of making it more eccentric and more "scabrous" than it is now, at least on the surface. But this latter point of view is accidental and illegitimate; and we have nothing to do, as critics, with anything but the tales as they are actually submitted to us. And they are all but impeccable. The desideration of a different ending or a different beginning or a different middle for La Chambre Bleue is one of these critical ineptitudes for which there are two admirable proverbial phrases,—"Seeking noon at fourteen o'clock" and "Asking for better bread than is made of wheat." Mérimée, whose knowledge of life, if not coextensive with life itself (whose is?) was infallible where it extended, has taken two noted facts of life, the petty disappointment of great expectations, and the curious "terrors of the night" (for which in French there is an untranslatable word, affres) and has based his story on them. Those who know the facts will prize the story; of those who do not know them, one does not really know whether to say "Lucky fellows!" or "Poor creatures!"
Lokis aims higher. I should call it in all but the highest degree imaginative: few can refuse it the epithet of fanciful in all but the highest. In these highly pitched stories, the great difficulty is in the setting of the key at first, no doubt, but still more in the observation of it afterward. To my thinking, Mérimée has here "kept the keeping," restrained his foot from ever stepping out of the enchanted circle, in a way that has never been surpassed. You could not have a better teller of such a story than the matter-of-fact but by no means milksop or merely pedantic hunter of Lithuanian irregular verbs; you could not put the setting better; you could not arrange a heroine more tempting and more provoking, or sketch an impossible-probable hero more convincingly. Every page of the history is a miracle; but the greatest miracles of all, I think, are the Count's acknowledgment of his (or Lokis') escapade in the tree, and the episode of the sorceress and the "land of the beasts beyond the marsh." The Count, we are told, was never seen after the tragedy in the bridal chamber; but we know where he went. I am not sure, however, that they crowned him successor to King Noble.
Finally, we have to turn on the results thus obtained the searchlight of the Letters. Those to the Inconnue will sufficiently illustrate what is going to be said, for the average reader; the student really interested in Mérimée should not miss anything yet published, although the Lettres à une Autre Inconnue have the least really intimate note and add least of any kind to the others. Those to Panizzi, perhaps, give most idea of the capacity for solid friendship, quite apart from sentiment or passion, which is so remarkable a feature in Mérimée; which seemed during his lifetime most incredible to shallow and superficial observers; and which supplies a most valuable corrective, even for those who do not deserve such an appellation, of the slightly paraded cynicism of some of his creative work. Those to Mrs. Senior give the most poetical touches—it is here that we find that exquisite piece of pathetic humour, the story of the madman who kept the Princess of China in a bottle, till the bottle broke (compare La Guzla as cited above). Nor is there anything in the Inconnue letters themselves (which are too sincere) quite approaching the delicate and fantastic flirtation of these same letters to the English woman who had golden hair, and whose papier rose d'outremer gentiment orné des mouches was warranted by the faculty to cure the most obstinate neuralgia.
I think myself that there is quant, suff. of seriousness even here. There can be no reasonable doubt of it as to the Inconnue. The mystery about the individual has been pretty well cleared up, though perhaps future generations will know more details about the personality of Mlle. Jenny Dacquin than we do. Such knowledge, intensely interesting it would seem to some people, is less so to others. What the whole course of the affair was and meant, why they did not marry (a thing which has puzzled even Frenchmen, less apt than ourselves to see in marriage the natural goal of love), and other questions I leave to those who like them. But I certainly must protest against the opinion of (I think) a recent Edinburgh Reviewer that the lady must have been rather a nuisance. Nobody perfect in love-lore, or even (for who is that?) nobody who has passed the lower degrees in it, could be of that mind. On the other hand, that Mérimée himself was, as the phrase goes, "head over ears" is pretty clear. Some at least of the letters are among the most perfect love letters with which, in a pretty considerable acquaintance with the class of literature designated and so often misdesignated by that name, I have ever been able to acquaint myself. They are not, of course, extravagant, or lackadaisical; they have nothing of the stale pot-pourri odour about them, which seems to be so successful in sham collections of the kind, and which is perhaps not unknown in real ones. The spirit of them is passion, not sentiment, and long afterward, when (one does not quite know how) the passion has apparently subsided, the vestiges of the old flame flash and glow through the chit-chat and the commonplaces of age, nay, under the very shadow and chill of the wings of the Angel of Death. There is not the slightest reason to suppose or to suspect what is so often more than suspected in epistolary literature, that the writer, if not exactly writing for publication, is, let us say, taking care that his or her letters shall not be absolutely unprepared for that experience, if it should come. On the contrary, it is probable, or rather certain, that the bare idea of such publication in this case would have been horrible to Mérimée. Yet we can hardly blame Mlle. Dacquin, even if we were not bribed by the gift she has bestowed upon us. The "petty treason" of revealing this thirty years' love, has a manifold atonement—of humour in the spectacle of this sceptic's enthusiasm and this cynic's inamoration; of justice in its reversal of a false public opinion; of coals-of-fire even—for there can be no doubt that Mérimée made the Inconnue even more unhappy than she made him and with far less excuse, yet, humanity being humanity, with so much excuse after all!
At any rate, here is the man "in his habit as he lived" in the one sense, as opposed to the writer in his habit as he seemed to so many, in the other. A man assuredly not perfect; nor a proper moral man by any means; not a religious one; not other things which the good man of the modern Stoics ought to be. A man with a fancy for some things which are not convenient; somewhat (though not when his friends were concerned) self-indulgent; by no means over-inclined to swim against the stream, though he could do this too; something of an epicurean, though not so much as he seemed to be; even less of a cynic, but a little somewhat of that too. Yet a man, who to very rare gifts of intellect added gifts not exactly common of heart and (I must ask indulgence for a minute) even of soul; a man who could (in the old Carlyle-Emerson sense) divine very much; who knew even more; and lastly, who loved more than all.
From mere gusto in the true art sense, from mere enjoyment and interest in the things of what some have been pleased to call the Coarse Arts, to actual passion, this peculiarity is noticeable by those we can see just as it is not noticeable in some great poets and prose-writers who have entirely escaped the reputation of cynicism and gained that of being very good men. Indeed, Mérimée's surface may sometimes show like ice, but there is almost always fire beneath, and it is this which gives him his peculiar quality—a quality not more noteworthy in his choice and handling of subjects than in his style itself.
This style of his has been the object of almost universal admiration among the competent, the only reservations having been made by those who, like Mr. Pater, had a somewhat excessive fancy for the "precious," or those who, like Mr. Henley, were affected in the same way toward the "strenuous." For both of these classes it may be a little too quiet and plain, too cold, and (as statues used to be though they are not always now) "statuesque." But with all the respect due to the representative persons just named, both as critics and friends, I venture to think both mistaken. Mérimée's style is as nearly as possible faultless, and it is also, in appearance, severely restrained. But its faultlessness is never of the kind which is itself faulty by nullity—of the kind that almost all great critics and creators, from Longinus to Tennyson, have scouted and eschewed. Nor do its restraint and its polish ever imply or reach impotence or insignificance. The old simile of the ice-covered volcano, which has been applied elsewhere to its author, is almost more applicable to him as a pure writer than in any other function, and the white light of his style is made up of easily analysable and distinguishable spectra of the most vivid and iridescent colour. It is in this heat and this colour—kept below and behind, but only a little behind and below the surface of the foreground—that his great idiosyncrasy consists. I can hardly think of any other writer who quite comes up to him in this respect, though there are points of resemblance in Cardinal Newman. The very polished styles are, as a rule, wanting in life and warmth, the very clear styles, in colour and energy. But Mérimée's lacks none of these good things, while for clearness and polish themselves, it is almost without a rival.
Perhaps it would have been impossible to better the selection of such a style (even if most people had not now come around to the inevitable identification of style with idiosyncrasy), for Mérimée's subjects, taking these, in their quintessential and truly literary forms, to be prose fiction on the smaller scale, and the composition of passionate or familiar letters. For everywhere in both of these departments, there is the opportunity for the blend or rather the contrast of surface and subsoil or undercurrent, which even M. d'Haussonville—by no means a very favourable, and I think sometimes a distinctly mistaken critic of Mérimée—admits. All satirists live upon the perception and the expression of contrasts; but the greater and more passionate of them heighten and widen the contrasts most while at the same time managing to present them in the least crude or staring fashion. How you take Mérimée's antinomies, will of course depend upon taste and method. M. d'Haussonville thought that Mérimée was perpetually "out of sympathy with his readers," was at least perpetually warning them not to take him too seriously. For myself, I can see in this only the same hopeless blunder as that of those who think "Only a woman's hair" an expression of callousness, and "She should have died hereafter" a sign that Macbeth had lost all affection for his wife. Swift and Shakespeare do not think or write in that fashion; neither does Mérimée. There are two ends and two sides to most things, and if you will take the wrong one, it is not the fault of the things themselves, nor of their creators, but yours. So it is possible for anyone, even after the warning of the Letters, to see in Colomba only the old Hume-and-Voltaire ridicule of the uncertainty of human conception of virtue and crime; in Carmen, mere lampooning of the wickedness of women and the weakness of men; in Arsène Guillot, mere Mephistophelanism, everywhere the cloven foot or the mere detection of the cloven foot.
So be it. But those who are of another house, while perfectly admitting, perfectly perceiving, the "colour" of all this and for all this which exists, will take it to be in the other sense merely "colourable"—at most mainly intended to bring out and set off and express things very different. They will use the implorer of those interviews with the Inconnue which quite evidently gave Mephistopheles no occasion for sniggering, to throw light on the methods of the supposed satirist of love and materialist in it. They will not mistake the constant and apparently irresistible attraction of this esprit fort to the supernatural, and the fact that in no single instance where the supernatural is introduced is it introduced to be ridiculed, or degraded, or rationalised, or even smiled at. Perhaps they will go even farther and maintain that Mérimée, for all his open breach with the personnel of the Romantic movement, for all his jokes at local colour, and the rest, all his expressed distaste for poetry, all the fanfaronnade in which these dreaders of dupery so often indulge, remained to the very last a Romantic, pure, hardened, immutable in every quality except that mere outward extravagance which is at best and worst but a very separable accident of Romanticism. Gautier, though much more of a poet and therefore more of an idealist than Mérimée, is less really a Romantic; Hugo, himself, putting extravagances aside and once more allowing for poetry, is not more so. The extreme outward precision of Mérimée's style, its horror of the bombastic and the dishevelled, has no doubt deceived some as to the presence in him of the Romantic passion, the Romantic colour, the Romantic vogue. But they are all there; to be seen by whoso chooses, or at any rate (for perhaps this power is necessary) by whoso chooses and can.
Therefore, unless I myself mistake grossly, it is a mistake and a grave one to speak of Mérimée as having no "soul," a mistake almost as great as to take him for an exponent of cynical disbelief in life and of arid and limited correctness in literature. His work at its best always glows with "earth-born and absolute fire"; his life often palpitates with what is nothing less than tragedy. This word is often used of authors, but for the most part improperly. Dante's life and career are serious, they are unprosperous in the ordinary sense, but they are not tragical because he is absolutely victorious in literature. He has given us the utmost that it was in him, that it could have been in any man, to give. Burns' life (to take an example as different as possible) is unprosperous too, is in some points almost sordid, and his work is unequal. But he, too, has undoubtedly given us of the best which he had to give, and as for his life, it is very doubtful whether had he been consulted, he would have ordered it very differently. And the same may be said of others. But perhaps two only of the Upper House of Letters in modern times leave us with the impression of pure tragedy, of the state and situation where greatness of soul and of position, greatness of accomplishment and deed, does not yet prevent the true tragic ἁμαρτία, the human frailty and failure, the "rift within the lute," from marring their total achievement almost, altogether. The faults in the two cases, though not distantly related to each other, are different; but the result upon the spectator is, as at least it seems to me, very much the same—a result of immense admiration, of general (not always detailed) comprehension, of infinite sympathy. And the names of the heroes, anticipated of course in one case, should be in both: they are Jonathan Swift and Prosper Mérimée.
2 Eton Terrace, Edinburgh,
- M. Filon in his Mérimée el ses Amis (Paris, 1894), an excellent book, is avowedly and purposely biographical. Taine in his Introduction to the Inconnue letters is good, but not adequate; M. d'Haussonville (Paris, 1888) very one-sided; M. Bury (Lettres à une autre Inconnue) tries too much to be vif.
- For unguarded language in defending his friend Libri.
- The surprised vexation of Mérimée's free-thinking, and the jealousy of his Roman Catholic friends, at first attributed to the meddling of these ladies, that he, a pronounced unbeliever, had been buried by a French Protestant minister. But it soon appeared that this was done by Mérimée's own direction, inserted in his will eighteen months before his death.
- "Remember to distrust" inscribed in Greek by Mérimée on a ring.
- The Social War and The Conspiracy of Catiline.
- Histoire de Don Pèdre and Les Cosaques d'Autrefois.
- Portraits Historiques et Littéraires; Mélanges Historiques et Littéraires; Etudes sur les Arts au Moyen Age.
- See Mrs. Piozzi's Anecdotes (Johnsoniana, ed. Napier p. iii, or any ed.).
- The idea that this story is a piece of Mérimée's Voltairianism and intended to be offensive to orthodoxy, is quite gratuitous.
- Some might say that it is fully explained here, but I do not think that Mérimée meant it so.