1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Béranger, Pierre Jean de
BÉRANGER, PIERRE JEAN DE (1780-1857), French song-writer, was born in Paris on the 19th of August 1780. The aristocratic de was a piece of groundless vanity on the part of his father, who had assumed the name of Béranger de Mersix. He was descended in truth from a country innkeeper on the one side, and, on the other, from a tailor in the rue Montorgueil. Of education, in the narrower sense, he had but little. From the roof of his first school he beheld the capture of the Bastille, and this stirring memory was all that he acquired. Later on he passed some time in a school at Péronne, founded by one Bellenglise on the principles of Rousseau, where the boys were formed into clubs and regiments, and taught to play solemnly at politics and war. Béranger was president of the club, made speeches before such members of Convention as passed through Péronne, and drew up addresses to Tallien or Robespierre at Paris. In the meanwhile he learned neither Greek nor Latin—not even French, it would appear; for it was after he left school, from the printer Laisney, that he acquired the elements of grammar. His true education was of another sort. In his childhood, shy, sickly and skilful with his hands, as he sat at home alone to carve cherry stones, he was already forming for himself those habits of retirement and patient elaboration which influenced the whole tenor of his life and the character of all that he wrote. At Péronne he learned of his good aunt to be a stout republican; and from the doorstep of her inn, on quiet evenings, he would listen to the thunder of the guns before Valenciennes, and fortify himself in his passionate love of France and distaste for all things foreign. Although he could never read Horace save in a translation, he had been educated on Télémaque, Racine and the dramas of Voltaire, and taught, from a child, in the tradition of all that is highest and most correct in French.
After serving his aunt for some time in the capacity of waiter, and passing some time also in the printing-office of one Laisney, he was taken to Paris by his father. Here he saw much low speculation, and many low royalist intrigues. In 1802, in consequence of a distressing quarrel, he left his father and began life for himself in the garret of his ever memorable song. For two years he did literary hackwork, when he could get it, and wrote pastorals, epics and all manner of ambitious failures. At the end of that period (1804) he wrote to Lucien Bonaparte, enclosing some of these attempts. He was then in bad health, and in the last state of misery. His watch was pledged. His wardrobe consisted of one pair of boots, one greatcoat, one pair of trousers with a hole in the knee, and “three bad shirts which a friendly hand wearied itself in endeavouring to mend.” The friendly hand was that of Judith Frère, with whom he had been already more or less acquainted since 1796, and who continued to be his faithful companion until her death, three months before his own, in 1857. She must not be confounded with the Lisette of the songs; the pieces addressed to her (La Bonne Vieille, Maudit printemps, &c.) are in a very different vein. Lucien Bonaparte interested himself in the young poet, transferred to him his own pension of 1000 francs from the Institute, and set him to work on a Death of Nero. Five years later, through the same patronage, although indirectly, Béranger became a clerk in the university at a salary of another thousand.
Meanwhile he had written many songs for convivial occasions, and “to console himself under all misfortunes”; some, according to M. Boiteau, had been already published by his father, but he set no great store on them himself; and it was only in 1812, while watching by the sick-bed of a friend, that it occurred to him to write down the best he could remember. Next year he was elected to the Caveau Moderne, and his reputation as a song-writer began to spread. Manuscript copies of Les Gueux, Le Sénateur, above all, of Le Roi d’Yvetot, a satire against Napoleon, whom he was to magnify so much in the sequel, passed from hand to hand with acclamation. It was thus that all his best works went abroad; one man sang them to another over all the land of France. He was the only poet of modern times who could altogether have dispensed with printing.
His first collection escaped censure. “We must pardon many things to the author of Le Roi d’Yvetot,” said Louis XVIII. The second (1821) was more daring. The apathy of the Liberal camp, he says, had convinced him of the need for some bugle call of awakening. This publication lost him his situation in the university, and subjected him to a trial, a fine of 500 francs and an imprisonment of three months. Imprisonment was a small affair for Béranger. At Sainte Pélagie he occupied a room (it had just been quitted by Paul Louis Courier), warm, well furnished, and preferable in every way to his own poor lodging, where the water froze on winter nights. He adds, on the occasion of his second imprisonment, that he found a certain charm in this quiet, claustral existence, with its regular hours and long evenings alone over the fire. This second imprisonment of nine months, together with a fine and expenses amounting to 1100 francs, followed on the appearance of his fourth collection. The government proposed through Laffitte that, if he would submit to judgment without appearing or making defences, he should only be condemned in the smallest penalty. But his public spirit made him refuse the proposal; and he would not even ask permission to pass his term of imprisonment in a Maison de santé, although his health was more than usually feeble at the time. “When you have taken your stand in a contest with government, it seems to me,” he wrote, “ridiculous to complain of the blows it inflicts on you, and impolitic to furnish it with any occasion of generosity.” His first thought in La Force was to alleviate the condition of the other prisoners.
In the revolution of July he took no inconsiderable part. Copies of his song, Le Vieux Drapeau, were served out to the insurgent crowd. He had been for long the intimate friend and adviser of the leading men; and during the decisive week his counsels went a good way towards shaping the ultimate result. “As for the republic, that dream of my whole life,” he wrote in 1831, “I did not wish it should be given to us a second time unripe.” Louis Philippe, hearing how much the song-writer had done towards his elevation, expressed a wish to see and speak with him; but Béranger refused to present himself at court, and used his favour only to ask a place for a friend, and a pension for Rouget de l’Isle, author of the famous Marseillaise, who was now old and poor, and whom he had been already succouring for five years.
In 1848, in spite of every possible expression of his reluctance, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly, and that by so large a number of votes (204,471) that he felt himself obliged to accept the seat. Not long afterwards, and with great difficulty, he obtained leave to resign. This was the last public event of Béranger’s life. He continued to polish his songs in retirement, visited by nearly all the famous men of France. He numbered among his friends Chateaubriand, Thiers, Jacques Laffitte, Michelet, Lamennais, Mignet. Nothing could exceed the amiability of his private character; so poor a man has rarely been so rich in good actions; he was always ready to receive help from his friends when he was in need, and always forward to help others. His correspondence is full of wisdom and kindness, with a smack of Montaigne, and now and then a vein of pleasantry that will remind the English reader of Charles Lamb. He occupied some of his leisure in preparing his own memoirs, and a certain treatise on Social and Political Morality, intended for the people, a work he had much at heart, but judged at last to be beyond his strength. He died on the 16th July 1857. It was feared that his funeral would be the signal for some political disturbance; but the government took immediate measures, and all went quietly. The streets of Paris were lined with soldiers and full of townsfolk, silent and uncovered. From time to time cries arose:—“Honneur, honneur à Béranger!”
The songs of Béranger would scarcely be called songs in England. They are elaborate, written in a clear and sparkling style, full of wit and incision. It is not so much for any lyrical flow as for the happy turn of the phrase that they claim superiority. Whether the subject be gay or serious, light or passionate, the medium remains untroubled. The special merits of the songs are merits to be looked for rather in English prose than in English verse. He worked deliberately, never wrote more than fifteen songs a year and often less, and was so fastidious that he has not preserved a quarter of what he finished. “I am a good little bit of a poet,” he says himself, “clever in the craft, and a conscientious worker to whom old airs and a modest choice of subjects (le coin où je me suis confiné) have brought some success.” Nevertheless, he makes a figure of importance in literary history. When he first began to cultivate the chanson, this minor form lay under some contempt, and was restricted to slight subjects and a humorous guise of treatment. Gradually he filled these little chiselled toys of verbal perfection with ever more and more of sentiment. From a date comparatively early he had determined to sing for the people. It was for this reason that he fled, as far as possible, the houses of his influential friends and came back gladly to the garret and the street corner. Thus it was, also, that he came to acknowledge obligations to Emile Debraux, who had often stood between him and the masses as interpreter, and given him the key-note of the popular humour. Now, he had observed in the songs of sailors, and all who labour, a prevailing tone of sadness; and so, as he grew more masterful in this sort of expression, he sought more and more after what is deep, serious and constant in the thoughts of common men. The evolution was slow; and we can see in his own works examples of every stage, from that of witty indifference in fifty pieces of the first collection, to that of grave and even tragic feeling in Les Souvenirs du peuple or Le Vieux Vagabond. And this innovation involved another, which was as a sort of prelude to the great romantic movement. For the chanson, as he says himself, opened up to him a path in which his genius could develop itself at ease; he escaped, by this literary postern, from strict academical requirements, and had at his disposal the whole dictionary, four-fifths of which, according to La Harpe, were forbidden to the use of more regular and pretentious poetry. If he still kept some of the old vocabulary, some of the old imagery, he was yet accustoming people to hear moving subjects treated in a manner more free and simple than heretofore; so that his was a sort of conservative reform, preceding the violent revolution of Victor Hugo and his army of uncompromising romantics. He seems himself to have had glimmerings of some such idea; but he withheld his full approval from the new movement on two grounds:—first, because the romantic school misused somewhat brutally the delicate organism of the French language; and second, as he wrote to Sainte-Beuve in 1832, because they adopted the motto of “Art for art,” and set no object of public usefulness before them as they wrote. For himself (and this is the third point of importance) he had a strong sense of political responsibility. Public interest took a far higher place in his estimation than any private passion or favour. He had little toleration for those erotic poets who sing their own loves and not the common sorrows of mankind, “who forget,” to quote his own words, “forget beside their mistress those who labour before the Lord.” Hence it is that so many of his pieces are political, and so many, in the later times at least, inspired with a socialistic spirit of indignation and revolt. It is by this socialism that he becomes truly modern and touches hands with Burns.