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Bernardin de St. Pierre

Bernardin de St. Pierre
Title: Bernardin de St. Pierre
Release Date: 2019-01-19
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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Transcriber's Note:
Obvious typographic errors have been corrected.


[Pg i]


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[Pg ii]

The Great French Writers

[Pg iii]

The Great French Writers

Bernardin de St. Pierre








[Pg v]


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Chapter Page
I.   Youth—Years of Travel 1
II.   Period of Uncertainty—Voyage to the Isle
of France; Acquaintance with J. J. Rousseau;
The Crisis
III.   The "tudes de La Nature" 87
IV.   Paul and Virginia 149
V.   Works of His Old Age—The Two Marriages—Death
of Bernardin de St. Pierre—His
Literary Influence

[Pg vii]


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The life of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre is so unusual, so interesting,so suggestive and amusing, that the grumpiest of Anglo-Saxons neednot complain of the fact that no series of Great French Writers wouldbe complete which did not contain the name of the author of "Paul andVirginia." Even "Shakespeare's heirs" must accept the judgment of othernations about their own authors. Our duty is to comprehend a verdict weare powerless to upset. Dorian women, as Gorgo says in the famous odeof Theocritus, have a right to chatter in a Dorian accent, and a greatFrench writer is not necessarily the worse for a strong infusion ofFrench sentiment.

Saint-Pierre was no ordinary person, either as man or author. Hiswas a strong and original character, more bent on action than onliterature. Though a master of style and a great painter in words, hewas ever a preacher, a sermonneur, as Sainte-Beuve calls him. Hismasterpiece—as the French reckon "Paul and Virginia" to be—came bychance, and is but a chapter in a huge treatise, a parable told by theway in a voluminous gospel. It is as if Ruskin's chef d'œuvre werea novelette, or as if Carlyle's story had been a perfect whole, insteadof a fragment and a failure.

[Pg viii]

To understand "Paul and Virginia" aright, one should read the "tudesde la Nature," first published in 1784. Our grandparents read themgreedily enough, either in the original or in the excellent translationof Dr. Henry Hunter, the accomplished minister of the Scots Church,London Wall. A hundred years have, however, pressed heavily upon theseStudies, but to this day a tender grace clings to them. Even so willour own descendants in 1984 turn the pages of Ruskin and inhale a straywhiff of the breath which once animated a generation.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre was as obstinate a theorist as ever lived,and his theory was that Providence had fashioned the whole world withone intent only, namely, the happiness of man. That man was not happy,Saint-Pierre sorrowfully admitted; but there was no reason whatever,save his own folly, why he should not be as happy as the days werelong. Nothing could shake this faith of Saint-Pierre's. The terriblecatastrophes of life—plague, pestilence, and famine, earthquakes andshipwreck—counted with him as nothing. That sombre view of humanaffairs which so oppressed with gloom the great mind of Bishop Butler,and drove the lighter but humaner spirit of Voltaire into a revolthalf desperate, half humorous, never affected the imagination ofSaint-Pierre, who none the less had a tender heart, had travelled farby land and sea, and often had laid down his head to rest with the poorand the miserable.

Walking once in the fertile district of Caux, he has described how hesaw something red running across[Pg ix] the fields at some distance, andmaking towards the great road. "I quickened my pace and got up in timeenough to see that they were two little girls in red jackets and woodenshoes, who, with much difficulty, were scrambling through the ditchwhich bounded the road. The tallest, who might be about six or sevenyears old, was crying bitterly. 'Child,' said I to her, 'what makes youcry, and whither are you going at so early an hour?' 'Sir,' repliedshe, 'my poor mother is very ill. There is not a mess of broth to behad in all our parish. We are going to that church in the bottom to seeif the Cur can find us some. I am crying because my little sister isnot able to walk any farther.' As she spoke, she wiped her eyes with abit of canvas which served her for a petticoat. On her raising up therag to her face, I could perceive she had not the semblance of a shift.The abject misery of the children, so poor in the midst of plains sofruitful, wrung my heart. The relief which I could administer them wassmall indeed. I myself was then on my way to see misery in other forms."

These woebegone little figures scrambling across a great French ditchin search of broth attest the tenderness of Saint-Pierre's heart, whosedescriptions are free from all taint of affectation and insincerity. Hehas neither the leer of Sterne nor the affected stare of Chateaubriand.He had, however, a theory which was proof against all sights andsounds. The great earthquake of Lisbon is reported to have made manyatheists, and certainly no event of the kind has ever so[Pg x] seized holdof men's imaginations. Saint-Pierre brushes it contemptuously on oneside. Says he in his Seventh Study: "The inhabitants of Lisbon knowwell that their city has been several times shattered by shocks ofthis kind, and that it is imprudent to build in stone. To personswho can submit to live in a house of wood, earthquakes have nothingformidable. Naples and Portici are perfectly acquainted with the fateof Herculaneum. After all, earthquakes are not universal; they arelocal and periodical. Pliny has observed," etc.

And so he works his way through the long list of human miseries.Tigers, indeed! Who need care for tigers? Have they not dusky stripesperceptible a great way off on the yellow ground of their skin? Do nottheir eyes sparkle in the dark? How easy to avoid a tiger! With all theenthusiasm of a theorist, he heaps up his authorities for statementsgreat and small, and levels his quotations from all and sundry athis reader's head, much after the fashion of Mr. Buckle. Of a trulyscientific spirit these Studies have not a trace, but they contain muchattractive and delightful writing, and, though dominated by a fantasticand provoking theory, are full of shrewdness and wisdom as well as oflofty eloquence.

Thus, whilst combating what he conceives to be the error of supposingthat morality is determined by climate, he points out that there is asmuch difference in manners, in opinions, in habiliments, and even inphysiognomy, between a French opera actor and a Capuchin friar as thereis between a Swede and a Chinese, and concludes by observing: "It isnot climate which [Pg xi]regulates the morality of man; it is opinion, itis education, and such is their power that they triumph not only overlatitudes, but even over temperament."

Saint-Pierre's views on governments and supreme authority are worthreading, even after a course of Bodin or Hobbes. He says in the sameSeventh Study:—

"Without paying regard to the common division of governments intodemocracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, which are only at bottompolitical forms that determine nothing as to either their happinessor their power, we shall insist only on their moral constitution.Every government of whatever description is internally happy andrespectable abroad when it bestows on all its subjects their naturalright of acquiring fortune and honors, and the contrary takes placewhen it reserves to a particular class of citizens the benefits whichought to be common to all. It is not sufficient to prescribe limitsto the people, and to restrain them within those limits by terrifyingphantoms. They quickly force the person who puts them in motion totremble more than themselves. When human policy locks the chain roundthe ankle of a slave, Divine Justice rivets the other end round theneck of the tyrant."

Nor is there much amiss with Saint-Pierre's political economy.

"It has always appeared to me strangely unaccountable that in France,where there are such numerous and such judicious establishments, weshould have ministers of superintendence in foreign affairs, for war,the marine, finance, commerce, manufactures, the clergy,[Pg xii] publicbuildings, horsemanship, and so on, but never one for agriculture. Itproceeds, I am afraid, from the contempt in which the peasantry areheld. All men, however, are sureties for each other, and, independentlyof the uniform stature and configuration of the human race, I wouldexact no other proof that all spring from one and the same original.It is from the puddle by the side of the poor man's hovel which hasbeen robbed of the little brook whose stream sweetened it the epidemicplague shall issue forth to devour the lordly inhabitants of theneighboring castle."

But I must stop my quotations, which have been made only because bytheir means better than by any other the English reader can be madeto perceive the manner of man the author of "Paul and Virginia" was,and how it came about that he should write such a book. Saint-Pierrewas a missionary. He longed to convince the whole world that he wasright, and to win them over to his side and make them see eye to eyewith him. Hence his fervor and his force. He had not the genius ofRousseau, with whom he had some odd conversations, but by virtue of hiswondrous sincerity he has an effectiveness which vies with the charmof the elder and greater writer. There is an air of good faith aboutSaint-Pierre. Though he deliberately sets to work and manufacturesdescriptions, he seems to do so with as much honesty of purpose and ofdetail as Gilbert White made his famous jottings in the parsonage ofSelborne.

Of "Paul and Virginia" little need be said. It is a French classic, bythe same title as "Robinson Crusoe"[Pg xiii] is a British one. Defoe has madeEnglish boys by the thousand want to be shipwrecked, and Saint-Pierrehas made French boys by the thousand want to cry. The position of"Paul and Virginia" in French literature is attested in a score ofways. Editions abound both for the rich and for the poor. It iseverywhere, in every bookshop and on every bookstall. The author of"Mademoiselle de Maupin" has left it on record that "Paul and Virginia"made his youthful soul burn within him, and he solemnly pronounces ita dangerous book. That Theophile Gautier was an expert in such matterscannot be disputed. His evidence, therefore, must be admitted, thoughas expert evidence it may be criticised. Sainte-Beuve is unfailing inpraise of "Paul and Virginia." He discerns in it the notes of realityand freshness, the dew of youth is upon it,—it is sweet and comely."What will ever distinguish this graceful pastoral is its truth, itshumane and tender reality. The graces and sports of childhood arenot followed by an ideal and mythical youth. From the moment whenVirginia is agitated by an unknown trouble, and her beautiful blueeyes are rimmed with black, we are in the midst of genuine passion,and this charming little book, which Fontanes with an almost stupidsuperficiality judgment placed between 'Telemachus' and the 'Deathof Abel,' I should myself classify between 'Daphnis and Chloe' andthe immortal Fourth Book in honor of Dido. A quite Virgilian geniusbreathes through it."

That arch-sentimentalist, Napoleon Bonaparte, kept "Paul et Virginie"under his pillow during his Italian[Pg xiv] campaign; so at least he assuredSaint-Pierre, but as he is known to have

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