Corinne; or, Italy
—"Udrallo il bel paese,
Ch' Apennin parte, e 'l mar circonda e l'Alpe."
MADAME DE STAËL
TRANSLATED BY ISABEL HILL;
METRICAL VERSIONS OF THE ODES BY L. E. LANDON
RICHARD BENTLEY, NEW BURLINGTON STREET,
(SUCCESSOR TO HENRY COLBURN).
Whatever defects may exist in my attempt at rendering "Corinne"into English, be it remembered, that we have many words for onemeaning—in French there are several significations for the same word.Repetition, an elegance in French, is a barbarism in English. ThusI had to contend with a tautology almost unmanageable, and even areiteration of the same sentiments. Sentences, harmonious in French,lost all agreeable cadence, until entirely reconstructed. Madame deStaël's diffuse manner obliged me also to transpose pretty freely. Ifound, in so doing, many self-contradictions, some of which I couldnot efface. Her boldness of condensation, too, and love of vague,mysterious sublimity, often left me in doubt as to what might be hiddenbeneath the dazzling veil of her eloquence. It may appear profanationto have altered a syllable; but, having been accustomed to consult thetaste of my own country, I could not outrage it by being more literal.I have taken the liberty of making British peasants and childrenspeak their native idiom, and have added a few explanatory notes;occasionally availing myself of quotations from more recent authoritiesthan that of the Baroness. Lest I should unconsciously have committedany great mistake, be it known that the printers of her "eighthcorrected and revised edition" gave Corinne a military instead of aliterary career, and made the Roman mob throw handfuls of bon motsinto the carriages during the carnival.
Miss Landon had kindly undertaken to render the lyric portions of thework; but we feared for awhile, that our own Improvisatrice would beprevented by circumstances from gracing the volume by her name. I,therefore, translated Corinne's compositions into rhyme. Only one ofmy essays, however, "The Fragment of Corinne's Thoughts," was required.I am conscious of its imperfect regularity; but, having no poeticalreputation at stake, I throw myself on the mercy of my judges.
6, CECIL STREET, STRAND.
Madame de Staël—Her Infancy and Education—Her Marriage—Her PersonalAppearance—The Revolution—Her First Meeting and Conversation withBonaparte—Interview with Josephine—Her Portrait and Character—HerRepartees—Exile—Delphine—Auguste de Staël and Napoleon—PrivateTheatricals—Corinne—Police Interference—Travels in ForeignCountries—Her Illness and Death—Effect of Napoleon's Persecution uponthe Literary Position of Madame de Staël.
Jacques Necker, the father of Madame de Staël, a Genevese and aProtestant, was at the birth of his daughter Annie-Louise-GermaineNecker, in 1766, a clerk in a banking-house at Paris. He had marriedM'lle Curchod, a Swiss like himself, and who had, some years before,been the object of the first and last love of Gibbon the historian.Madame Necker undertook the education of Louise, plied her with booksand tasks, and introduced her, even in infancy, to her own circleof brilliant and accomplished men. "At the age of eleven," writes alady who was at the time her companion, "she spoke with a warmth andfacility which were already eloquent. In society she talked but little,but so animated was her face that she appeared to converse with all.Every guest at her mother's house addressed her with some compliment orpolite speech; she replied with ease and grace." She was encouraged towrite, and her youthful productions were read in public, and some ofthem were even printed. This process of education, while it renderedthe subject of it rather brilliant than profound, and encouragedvanity and a love of display, broke down her health, and the physiciansordered her to retire to the country, and to renounce all mentalapplication. Her mother, disappointed and discouraged, ceased to takethe same interest in her talents and progress; this indifference ledLouise to attach herself more closely to her father, and developed inher what became through life her ruling passion—filial affection.
In 1776, Necker, who had in the meantime become the partner of hislate employer, and had attracted attention by an essay on the cornlaws, was considered by the masses as the only person capable of savingthe country from bankruptcy. He was, therefore, appointed to controlthe finances, being the first Protestant who had held office sincethe revocation of the Edict of Nantes. One of his acts, five yearsafterward, having excited clamor among the royalists, an anonymouspamphlet appeared, in which his defence was warmly espoused and thepropriety of his conduct successfully asserted. Necker detectedhis daughter's style in this production, and she acknowledged itsauthorship, being then fifteen years old. Necker resigned office, andretreated with his family to Coppet, on the borders of the Lake ofGeneva.
Madame de Genlis saw M'lle Necker for the first time, when the latterwas sixteen. She thus speaks of her in her memoirs: "This young ladywas not pretty; her manner was very animated, and she talked a greatdeal, too much indeed, though always with wit and discernment. Iremember that I read one of my juvenile plays to Madame Necker, herdaughter being present. I cannot describe the enthusiasm and thedemonstrations of M'lle Louise, while I was reading. She wept, sheuttered exclamations at every page, and constantly kissed my hands. Hermother had done wrong in allowing her to pass three-quarters of hertime with the throng of wits who continually surrounded her, and whoheld dissertations with her upon love and the passions."
At the age of twenty, Louise married Baron de Staël-Holstein, theSwedish ambassador at the court of France. She sought neither a lovernor a friend in her husband; she treated marriage as a convenience, andbecame a wife in order to obtain that liberty and independence whichwere denied her as a young lady. She required that her husband shouldbe noble and a Protestant, and as in addition to these essentials Baronde Staël was an agreeable and an honorable man, and engaged never tocompel her to follow him to Sweden, she consented to marry him. In thesame year, 1786, a failure of the crops, and the consequent distressof the poorer classes, compelled the king to recall Necker to theadministration of the finances.
Madame de Staël is thus described, at the age of twenty-five, by awriter who, to justify the peculiar and oriental extravagance of hisstyle, assumed the character of a Greek poet: "Zulmé advances; herlarge dark eyes sparkle with genius; her hair, black as ebony, fallson her shoulders in wavy ringlets; her features are more strikingthan delicate, and express superiority to her sex. 'There she is,'all exclaim when she appears, and at once become breathless. Whenshe sings, she extemporizes the words of her song, the ecstasy ofimprovisation animates her face, and holds the audience in raptattention. When the song ceases, she talks of the great truths ofnature, the immortality of the soul, the love of liberty, of thefascination and danger of the passions. Her features meanwhile wearan expression superior to beauty; her physiognomy is full of play andvariety. When she ceases, a murmur of approbation thrills through theroom; she looks down modestly; her long lashes sink over her flashingeyes, and the sun is clouded over."
The Revolution now advanced with rapid steps. Necker, whosecapabilities as a financier have been generally acknowledged, wastotally deficient in the higher qualities of the statesman. He soughtto assume a middle position between the court and the people, butfailing of success, was in consequence dismissed on the 11th of July,1789. Paris rose in insurrection when this event became known, and onthe 14th, the Bastille was in the hands of the people. The king wasforced to send an order to recall Necker, who had left the country;this overtook him at Frankfort. "What a period of happiness," writesMadame de Staël, "was our journey back to Paris! I do not believe thata similar ovation was ever extended to a man not the sovereign of thecountry. Women, afar off in the fields, threw themselves on theirknees, as the carriage passed: the most prominent citizens acted aspostilions, and in many towns people detached the horses and draggedthe carriage themselves. Oh, nothing can equal the emotions of a womanwho hears the name of a beloved parent repeated with eulogy by a wholepeople!" This triumph was of short duration. In a little more than ayear, Necker, who had opposed some of the more radical measures ofreform in the National Assembly, lost the confidence of the people,resigned, and again withdrew to Switzerland. He was now accompaniedby the revilings and maledictions of the populace, and even narrowlyescaped with his life.
Madame de Staël remained at Paris, and speedily became involved in theintrigues of the day. Her salon was the rendezvous of the royalists andGirondins, and the scene of ardent political discussions. In the midstof the sanguinary excesses of '92, she fearlessly used her influenceto shelter and save her friends. She took them to her own house,which, being the residence of an ambassador, she presumed would beinviolable. But one night the police appeared at the gate, and requiredthat the doors be opened for a rigid search. Madame de Staël met themat the threshold, spoke to them of the rights of ambassadors and ofthe vengeance of Sweden, and by dint of wit, argument and intrepidity,persuaded them to abandon their designs. She was soon compelled toflee, however, and take refuge with her father at Coppet. Here shewrote and published an appeal in behalf of Marie Antoinette, and"Reflections on the Peace of 1783." The fall of Robespierre, in July,1794, enabled her to return to Paris, whither she hastened, upon thenews of his execution.
Her residence in the capital formed an event in the annals of societyat that period. The most distinguished foreigners and the best men inFrance flocked around her. She gave her influence to the government ofthe Directory, being desirous of the establishment of some guaranty forthe preservation of order and of individual security.
"Madame de Staël," says de Goncourt, "was a man of genius as earlyas the year 1795. It was by her hand, that France signed a treaty ofalliance with existing institutions, and for a period accepted theDirectory. Who obtained her the victory? Herself, with the aid of afriend who was the scribe of her dictation, the aid-de-camp and thenotary-public of her thought, Benjamin Constant. The daughter of Neckerforbade France to recall its line of kings: she retained the republic:she condemned the throne. She agitated victoriously in behalf of themaintenance of the representative system. The human right of victorywas equivalent, with her, to the divine right of birth."
The appearance of Bonaparte upon the stage of action produced a violentchange in her life, pursuits and pleasures. She disliked and distrustedhim from the first, and her drawing-room became an opposition club, or,as Napoleon himself described it, an arsenal of hostility. He, in turn,was vexed at her intellectual supremacy, and dreaded her influence.They first met at a ball given to Josephine, toward the close of theyear 1797. She had long hunted him from place to place, for she wasdesirous of subjecting him, if possible, to the fascinations of herconversation, and he, avoiding the interview with consummate address,had always escaped her importunities. At the ball in question, hesaw retreat to be impossible, and boldly seated himself in a vacantchair by her side. The following conversation, attributed to them,contains, in a concise form, the best of the authenticated sallies andrepartees perpetrated by the illustrious interlocutors. After the usualpreliminaries, the dialogue proceeded thus:
MADAME DE STAËL. Madame Bonaparte is a charming lady.
BONAPARTE. Any compliment passing through your lips, madame, acquiresadditional value.
ST. Ah! then you appreciate my opinion and my approbation? But you havedoubted my capacity, you have thought me frivolous; nevertheless, mystudies in diplomacy, in the history of courts——
BON. I implore Madame de Staël not to drag the Graces to the pillory ofpolitics.
ST. I assure you, General, that your mythological compliment is totallylost upon me: I should prefer that you judge me worthy to talk reasonwith you.
BON. The right of your sex is to make us lose our reason: do notdespise so excellent a privilege.
ST. General, I beg of you not to play with me as with a doll: I desireto