Compromises/French Love-Songs

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Quand on est coquette, il faut être sage;
L'oiseau de passage
Qui vole à plein cœur
Ne dort pas en l'air comme une hirondelle,
Et peut, d'un coup d'aile,
Briser une fleur.

Alfred de Musset.

The literature of a nation is rooted in national characteristics. Foreign influences may dominate it for a time; but that which is born of the soil is imperishable, and must, by virtue of tenacity, conquer in the end. England, after the Restoration, tried very hard to be French, and the "happy and unreflecting wantonness" of her earlier song was chilled into sobriety by the measured cadences of Gallic verse; yet the painful and perverse effort to adjust herself to strange conditions left her more triumphantly English than before. We are tethered to our kind, and the wisest of all wise limitations is that which holds us well within the sphere of natural and harmonious development.

It is true, however, that nationality betrays itself less in lyrics, and, above all, less in love lyrics, than in any other form of literature. Love is a malady, the common symptoms of which are the same in all patients; and though love-songs—like battle-songs and drinking-songs—are seldom legitimate offsprings of experience, they are efforts to express in words that sweet and transient pain. "Les âmes bien nées"—without regard to birthplace—sing clearly of their passion, and seek their "petit coin de bonheur" under Southern and Northern skies. The Latin races have, indeed, depths of reserve underlying their apparent frankness, and the Saxons have a genius for self-revelation underlying their apparent reticence; but these traits count for little in the refined duplicity of the love-song.

Garde bien ta belle folie!

has been its burden ever since it was first chanted by minstrel lips.

M. Brunetière frankly admits the inferiority of the French lyric, an inferiority which he attributes to the predominance of social characteristics in the literature, as in the life of France. When poetry is compelled to fulfil a social function, to express social conditions and social truths, to emphasize fundamental principles and balance contrasted forces, the founts of lyrical inspiration are early dried. Individualism is their source,—the sharp, clear striking of the personal note; and the English, says M. Brunetière, excel in this regard. "To Lucasta. Going to the Warres," has no perfect counterpart in the love-songs of other lands.

Even the eager desire of the Frenchman to be always intelligible ("That which is not lucid is not French") militates against the perfection of the lyric. So too does his exquisite and inborn sense of proportion. "Measure," says Mr. Brownell, "is a French passion;" but it is a passion that refuses to lend itself to rapturous sentiment.

Et veut que l'on soit sage avec sobriété

is hardly a maxim to which the genius of the love-song gives willing ear. Rather is she the La Belle Dame sans Merci, or the Elfin Lady who rode through the forests of ancient France.

My sire is the nightingale,
That sings, making his wail,
In the wild wood, clear;
The mermaid is mother to me,
That sings in the salt sea,
In the ocean mere.

"What," asks Mr. Brownell hopelessly, "has become of this Celtic strain in the French nature?"—a strain which found vent in the "poésie courtoise," playful, amorous, laden with delicate subtleties and fond conceits. This poesie—once the delight of Christendom—echoes still in Petrarch's sonnets and in Shakespeare's madrigals; but it is difficult to link its sweet extravagances with the chiselled verse of later days, and critics forget the past in their careful contemplation of the present. "French poetry," says Mr. Zangwill, "has always leant to the frigid, the academic, the rhetorical,—in a word, to the prosaic. The spirit of Boileau has ruled it from his cold marble urn."

But long before Boileau lay in his urn—or in his cradle—the poets of France, like the poets of Albion, sang with facile grace of love, and dalliance, and the glory of youth and spring. The fact that Boileau ignored and despised their song, and taught his obedient followers to ignore and despise it also, cannot silence those early notes. When he descended frigidly to his grave, Euterpe tucked up her loosened hair, and sandalled her bare white feet, and girdled her disordered robes into decent folds. Perhaps it was high time for these reforms. Nothing is less seductive in middle age than the careless gayety of youth. But once France was young, and Euterpe a slip of a girl, and no grim shadow of that classic urn rested on the golden days when Aucassin—model of defiant and conquering lovers—followed Nicolette into the deep, mysterious woods.

Jeunesse sur moy a puissance,
Mais Vieillesse fait son effort
De m'avoir en sa gouvernance,

sang Charles d' Orléans, embodying in three lines the whole history of man and song. Youth was lusty and folly riotous when Ronsard's mistress woke in the morning, and found Apollo waiting patiently to fill his quiver with arrows from her eyes; or when Jacques Tahureau watched the stars of heaven grow dim before his lady's brightness; or when Vauquelin de la Fresnaye saw Philis sleeping on a bed of lilies, regardless of discomfort, and surrounded by infant Loves.

J'admirois toutes ces beautez
Égalles à mes loyautez,
Quand l'esprit me dist en l'oreille:
Fol, que fais-tu? Le temps perdu
Souvent est chèrement vendu;
S'on le recouvre, c'est merveille.

Alors, je m'abbaissai tout bas,
Sans bruit je marchai pas à pas,
Et baisai ses lèvres pourprines:
Savourant un tel bien, je dis
Que tel est dans le Paradis
Le plaisir des âmes divines.

With just such sweet absurdities, such pardonable insincerities, the poets of Elizabeth's England fill their amorous verse. George Gascoigne "swims in heaven" if his mistress smiles upon him; John Lyly unhesitatingly asserts that Daphne's voice "tunes all the spheres;" and Lodge exhausts the resources of the vegetable and mineral kingdoms in searching for comparisons by which to set forth the beauties of Rosalind. The philosophy of love is alike on both sides of the Channel, and expressed in much the same terms of soft insistence. Carpe diem is, and has always been, the lover's maxim; and the irresistible eloquence of the lyric resolves itself finally into these two words of warning, whether urged by Celt or Saxon. Herrick is well aware of their supreme significance when he sings:—

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day,
To-morrow will be dying.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

Ronsard, pleading with his mistress, strikes the same relentless note:—

Donc, si vous me croyez, Mignonne,
Tandis que vostre age fleuronne
En sa plus vert nouveauté,
Cueillez, cueillez vostre jeunesse;
Comme à cette fleur, la vieillesse
Fera ternir vostre beauté.

May-day comes alike in England and in France. Herrick and Jean Passerat, poets of Devonshire and of Champagne, are equally determined that two fair sluggards, who love their pillows better than the dewy grass, shall rise from bed, and share with them the sparkling rapture of the early dawn. Herrick's verse, laden with the freshness of the Spring, rings imperatively in Corinna's sleepy ears:—

Get up, get up, for shame! The blooming Morn
Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.
See how Aurora throws her fair
Fresh-quilted colours through the air.
Get up, sweet Slug-a-bed, and see
The dew bespangling herb and tree.

And then—across the gayety of the song—the deepening note of persuasion strikes a familiar chord:—

Come, let us go, while we are in our prime;
And take the harmless folly of the time!
We shall grow old apace, and die
Before we know our liberty.

Passerat is no less insistent. The suitors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seem to have dedicated the chill hours of early morning to their courtship. Nor was the custom purely pastoral and poetic. When Lovelace makes his appointments with Clarissa Harlowe at five A. M., the modern reader—if Richardson has a modern reader—is wont to think the hour an unpropitious one; but to Herrick and to the Pléiade it would have seemed rational enough.

Laissons le lit et le sommeil
Ceste journée:
Pour nous, l'Aurore au front vermeil
Est desjà née

sings the French poet beneath his lady's window; adding, to overcome her coyness—or her sleepiness—the old dominant argument:—

Ce vieillard, contraire aus amans,
Des aisles porte,
Et en fuyant, nos meilleurs ans
Bien loing emporte.
Quand ridée un jour tu seras,
Mélancholique, tu diras:
J'estoy peu sage,
Qui n'usoy point de la beauté
Que si tost le temps a osté
De mon visage.

No less striking is the similarity between the reproachful couplets in which the singers of England and of France delight in denouncing their unfaithful fair ones, or in confessing with harmonious sighs the transient nature of their own emotions. Inconstancy is the breath of love's nostrils, and the inspiration of love's songs, which enchant us because they express an exquisite sentiment in its brief moment of ascendency. The tell-tale past, the dubious future, are alike discreetly ignored. Love in the drama and in the romance plays rather a heavy part. It is too obtrusively omniscient. It is far too self-assertive. Yet the average taxpayer, as has been well remarked, is no more capable of a grand passion than of a grand opera. The utmost he can achieve is some fair, fleeting hour, and with the imperative gladness of such an hour the love-song thrills sympathetically. It is not its business to

That first fine careless rapture.

It does not essay the impossible.

Now the old and nameless French poet who wrote—

Femme, plaisir de demye heure,
Et ennuy qui sans fins demeure,

was perhaps too ungraciously candid. Such things, when said at all, should be said prettily.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,—
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.

Gay voices came bubbling with laughter from the happy days that are dead. Sir John Suckling, whose admirable advice to an over-faithful young suitor has been the most invigorating of tonics to suitors ever since, vaunts with pardonable pride his own singleness of heart:—

Out upon it! I have loved
Three whole days together,
And am like to love three more,
If it prove fair weather.

Time shall moult away his wings
Ere he shall discover
In the whole wide world again
Such a constant lover.

Sir John Sedley epitomizes the situation in his praises of that jade, Phillis, whose smiles win easy pardon for her perfidy:—

She deceiving,
I believing,—
What need lovers wish for more?

And Lovelace, reversing the medal, pleads musically—and not in vain—for the same gracious indulgence:—

Why shouldst thou sweare I am forsworn,
Since thine I vowed to be?
Lady it is already Morn,
And 't was last night I swore to thee
That fond impossibility.

Mr. Lang is of the opinion that no Gallic verse has equalled in audacity this confession of limitations, this "Apologia pro Vita Sua;" and perhaps its light-heartedness is well out of general reach. But the French lover, like the English, was made of threats and promises alike fruitless of fulfilment, and Phillis had many a fair foreign sister, no whit more worthy of regard. Only, amid the laughter and raillery of a Latin people, there rings ever an undertone of regret,—not passionate and heart-breaking, as in Drayton's bitter cry,—

Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part,

but vague and subtle, linking itself tenderly to some long-ignored and half-forgotten sentiment, buried deep in the reader's heart.

Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?

A little sob breaks the smooth sweetness of Belleau's verse, and Ronsard's beautiful lines to his careless young mistress are heavy with the burden of sighs:—

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, devisant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en voua esmerveillant:
'Ronsard me célébroit du temps que j'estois belle.'

The note deepens as we pass into the more conscious art of later years, but it is always French in its grace and moderation. How endurable is the regret with which de Musset sings of Juana, who loved him for a whole year; how musical his farewell to Suzon, whose briefer passion lasted eight summer days:—

Que notre amour, si tu m'oublies,
Suzon, dure encore un moment;
Comme un bouquet de fleurs pâlies;
Cache-le dans ton sein charmant!
Adieu! le bonheur reste au gîte;
Le souvenir part avec moi:
Je l'emporterai, ma petite,
Bien loin, bien vite,
Toujours à toi.

In Murger's familiar verses, so pretty and gay and heartsick, in the finer art of Gautier, in the cloudy lyrics of Verlaine, we catch again and again this murmur of poignant but subdued regret, this sigh for the light love that has so swiftly fled. The delicacy of the sentiment is unmatched in English song. The Saxon can be profoundly sad, and he can—or at least he could—be ringingly and recklessly gay; but the mood which is neither sad nor gay, which is fed by refined emotions, and tranquillized by time's subduing touch, has been expressed oftener and better in France. Four hundred and fifty years ago François Villon touched this exquisite chord in his "Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis," and it has vibrated gently ever since. We hear it echoing with melancholy grace in these simple lines of Gérard de Nerval:—

Où sont les amoureuses?
Elles sont au tombeau!
Elles sont plus heureuses,
Dans un séjour plus beau.

Nerval, like Villon, had drunk deep of the bitterness of life, but he never permitted its dregs to pollute the clearness of his song:—

Et vent que l'on soit triste avec sobriété.

In the opinion of many critics, the lyric was not silenced, only chilled, by the development of the classical spirit in France, and the corresponding conversion of England. Its flute notes were heard now and then amid the decorous couplets that delighted well-bred ears. Waller undertook the reformation of English verse, and accomplished it to his own and his readers' radiant satisfaction; yet Waller's seven-year suit of Lady Dorothy Sidney is the perfection of that poetic love-making which does not lead, and is not expected to lead, to anything definite and tangible. Never were more charming tributes laid at the feet of indifferent beauty; never was indifference received with less concern. Sacharissa listened and smiled. The world—the august little world of rank and distinction—listened and smiled with her, knowing the poems were written as much for its edification as for hers; and Waller, well pleased with the audience, nursed his passion tenderly until it flowered into another delicate blossom of verse. The situation was full of enjoyment while it lasted; and when the seven years were over, Lady Dorothy married Henry, Lord Spencer, who never wrote any poetry at all; while her lover said his last good-bye in the most sparkling and heart-whole letter ever penned by inconstant man. What would the author of "The Girdle," and "Go, Lovely Rose," have thought of Browning's uneasy rapture?

O lyric love, half angel and half bird,
And all a wonder and a wild desire.

He would probably have pointed out the exaggeration of the sentiment, and the corresponding looseness of the lines. He would certainly have agreed with the verdict of M. Sévelinges, had that acute critic uttered it in his day. "It is well," says M. Sévelinges, "that passionate love is rare. Its principal effect is to detach men from all their surroundings, to isolate them, to render them independent of the relations which they have not formed for themselves; and a civilized society composed of lovers would return infallibly to misery and barbarism."

Here is the French point of view, expressed with that lucidity which the nation so highly esteems. Who shall gainsay its correctness? But the Saxon, like the Teuton, is sentimental to his heart's core, and finds some illusions better worth cherishing than truth. It was an Englishman, and one to whom the epithet "cynical" has been applied oftenest, and with least accuracy, who wrote,—

When he was young as you are young,
When he was young, and lutes were strung,
And love-lamps in the casement hung.