The Works of Heinrich Heine/Vol. 7/Letter 6

The Works of Heinrich Heine  (1893)  by Heinrich Heine, translated by Charles Godfrey Leland
Letter 6: The Cholera in Paris

Heine's report on the cholera epidemic begins on p. 162


Paris, April 19, 1832.

I will not borrow from the workshops of political parties their common vulgar rule wherewith to measure men and things, still less will I determine their greatness or value by dreamy private feelings, but I will contribute as much as possible impartially to the intelligence of the present, and seek the solution of the stormy, noisy enigma of the day in the past. Saloons lie, graves speak the truth. But ah! the dead, those cold reciters of history, speak in vain to the raging multitude, who only understand the language of passion.

Yet certainly the saloons do not lie with deliberate intention. The society of those in power really believes in its eternal duration, when the annals of universal history, the fiery Mene tekel of the daily journals, and even the loud voice of the people in the streets, cry aloud their warnings. Nor do the coteries of the Opposition utter predetermined falsehoods; they believe that they are sure to conquer, just as men always believe in what they most desire; they intoxicate themselves with the champagne of their hopes, interpret every mischance as a necessary occurrence which must bring them nearer to their goal, their confidence flashes most brilliantly on the eve of their downfall, and the messenger of justice who officially announces to them their defeat generally finds them quarrelling as to their share in the bear's skin.[1] Hence the one-sided errors—ces erreurs d'idée fixe—which we cannot escape when we stand too near to one or the other party; either deceives, yet does it unaware, and we confide most willingly in those who think as we do. But if we are by chance of such indifferent nature that we, without special predilection, keep in continual intercourse with all, then we are bewildered by the perfect self-confidence of either party, and our judgment is neutralised in the most depressing manner. There are indeed such all-indifferent men who have no true opinions of their own, who take no part in questions of the time, who only wish to learn what may be going on, to gather all the gossip of saloons, and retail all the chronique scandaleuse of one party to the other.[2] The result of such indifferentism is that they see everywhere only persons and not principles (Dinge), or rather that they see in principles only persons,[3] and so prophesy the ruin of the first, because they have perceived the weakness of the latter, and thereby lead their constituents or those who believe in them (Kommittenten) into most serious errors and mistakes.

I cannot refrain from calling special attention to the false relationship[4] which now exists in France between things (that is, spiritual and material interests) and persons (i.e., the representatives of these). This was quite different at the end of the last century, when man towered so colossally to the height of things, so that they form in the history of the Revolution at the same time an heroic age, and as such are now celebrated, worshipped, and loved by our Republican youth.[5] Or are we in this respect deceived by the same error which we find in Madame Roland, who bewails so bitterly in her Memoirs that there was not among the men of her time one of importance? The worthy lady did not know her own greatness, nor did she observe that her contemporaries were indeed great enough when they were in nought inferior to her as regards intellectual stature. The whole French people has to-day grown so mightily that we are perhaps unjust to its public representatives, who do not rise so markedly from the mob, yet who are not on that account to be considered as small. We cannot see the forests for the trees.[6] In Germany we see the country, a terrible jungle of scraggy thicket and dwarf pines, and here and there a giant oak, whose head rises to the clouds while down below the worms do gnaw its trunk.

To-day is the result of yesterday. We must find out what the former would ere we can find what it is the latter will have. The Revolution is ever one and the same. It is not as the doctrinaires would have us think; it was not for the Charte that they fought in the great week, but for those same Revolutionary interests for which the best blood in France has been spilt for forty years. But that the author of these pages may not be mistaken merely for one of these holders-forth (Prædicanten), who understand by revolution only one overthrow after another, and who see in accidental occurrences that which is the spirit of the Revolution itself, I will here explain the main idea (Hauptbegriff) as accurately as I can.

When the intellectual developments or culture of a race are no longer in accord with its old established institutions, there results necessarily a combat in which the latter are overthrown, and which is called a revolution. Until this revolution is complete, until that reformation of institutions does not perfectly agree with the intellectual development and the habits and wants of the people, just so long the national malady (Staatssiechthum) is not perfectly cured, and the sickly and excited people will often relapse into the weakness of exhaustion, yet ever and anon be subject to attacks of burning fever, when they tear away the tightest bandages and the most soothing lint from the old wounds, throw the most benevolent, noblest nurses out of the window, and roll about in agony until they finally find themselves in circumstances, that is, adapt themselves to institutions, which suit them better.

The question whether France is now at rest, or whether we are to anticipate new political changes, and finally what end it will all take, amounts to this—What motive had the French in beginning a revolution, and have they obtained what they desired? To aid the reply I will discuss the beginning of the Revolution in my next article. This will be a doubly profitable occupation, since, while endeavouring to explain the present by the past, it will at the same time be shown how the past is made clear and in mutual understanding with the present, and how every day new light is thrown upon it, of which our writers of historical hand-books had no idea. They believed that the acts of the history of the Revolution had come to an end, and they had uttered their last judgment over men and things, when all at once there thundered the cannons of the great week, and the faculty of Göttingen remarked that there had been an appeal from the decision of its academic senate (academischen Spruchcollegium) to a higher jurisdiction, and that not only the French special revolution was not finished, but that the far more comprehensive universal revolution had begun. How terrified must these peaceable people have been when they, one fine morning, put their heads out of the window and beheld the overthrow of states and of their compendia, and the tones of the "Marseillaise" forced themselves into their ears despite their nightcaps. In fact, that in 1830 the tri-coloured flag fluttered for several days on the towers of Göttingen was a student's joke which universal history played on the eminently erudite Philistia of Georgia Augusta. In this all too serious age we have need of a few such cheerful incidents.[7]

So much for preface to an article which will busy itself with clearing up the past. The present is at this moment the most important, and the theme which it offers for discussion is of such a kind that further writing thereon especially depends on it.

I will give a fragment of the article which is here promised in an appendix. In another work the enlargement subsequently written may follow.[8]

I was very much disturbed while writing this article, chiefly by the agonising cries of a neighbour who died of cholera, and I must here lay stress on the fact that the events of that time had a sad influence on the following pages. I am not indeed conscious that I was in the least troubled, but it is very disgusting when the whetting of the scythe of Death rings distinctly in our ears. A disorder or discomfort which was more physical than mental, for which nothing could be done, would have driven me from Paris, but then my best friend would have been left here alone, and seriously ill. I note this that my remaining in Paris may not be considered as a mere bravado. Only a fool would have found pleasure in braving the cholera. It was a reign of terror far more dreadful than the first, because the executions took place so rapidly and mysteriously.[9] It was a masked executioner who passed through Paris with an invisible guillotine ambulante. "We shall all be stuck into the sack, one after the other," said my servant, with a sigh, every morning, when he announced how many had died or the loss of some one known. The expression "stuck into the sack" was no mere figure of speech, for coffins were soon wanting, and the greater part of the dead were buried in bags. When I, a week ago, passed a great open public building, and saw in the roomy halls the merry people, the gaily springing Frenchies (Französchen), the dainty little gossiping Frenchwomen, who did their shopping laughing and joking, I remembered that here, during the time of the cholera, there were ranged high piled, one on the other, many hundreds of white sacks containing every one a corpse, and that there were then heard here very few, but all the more terrible voices, or those of the watchers of the dead, who with a grim indifference counted out the sacks to the men who buried them, and how the latter, as they piled them on their cars, repeated the numbers in lower tones, or complained harshly that they had received one corpse too few, over which there often arose a strange dispute. And I remember how two small boys with sorrowful faces stood by, and that one asked me if I could tell him in which sack his father was.[10]

That which follows has perhaps the merit that it is at once a bulletin written on the field of battle during the fight, and thus bears the impress and colour of the moment. Thucydides the historian and Boccaccio the novelist have certainly left us better sketches of the kind, but I doubt whether they had sufficient calmness, while the cholera of their day was raging most terribly around, to sketch them so beautifully and in such a masterly manner as off-hand articles for the Universal Daily Gazette of Florence or Pisa.[11]

I shall, in the following pages, remain true to a principle which I have followed from the beginning of the book, which is to change nothing and to let it be printed as it was originally written, excepting, perhaps, putting in or taking out a word here and there when it, so far as I can remember, corresponds with the original manuscript. I cannot reject such small reminiscences, but they are very few, very trifling, and never involve actual errors, false prophecies, and oblique perceptions, which cannot, of course, be wanting, since they belong to the history of the time. The events themselves afford their own and the best corroboration.

I speak of the cholera which has raged here till now without limit, and which, regardless of rank and opinion, fells its victims by the thousand.

The pestilence had been regarded with less apprehension, because it was reported that there had been in London comparatively few deaths. People seemed at first inclined to really make fun of it, and it was thought that the cholera, as happens to so many other great characters, would have its reputation mightily diminished when it should come to Paris. One must not blame the good honest cholera for having, out of fear of ridicule, had recourse to means which Robespierre and Napoleon had found efficacious (Probat)—that is, in order to secure respect they decimated the people. Owing to the vast misery prevailing here, to the incredible filth, which is by no means limited to the lower classes, to the excitability of the people and their unrestrained frivolity, and to utter want of all preparation and precaution whatever, the cholera laid hold here more rapidly and terribly than elsewhere.[12]

Its arrival was officially announced on the 29th of March, and as this was the day of Mi-Carême, and there was bright sunshine and beautiful weather, the Parisians hustled and fluttered the more merrily on the Boulevards, where one could even see maskers, who, in caricatures of livid colour and sickly mien, mocked the fear of the cholera and the disease itself. That night the balls were more crowded than usual; excessive laughter almost drowned the roar of music; people grew hot in the chahut; a dance of anything but equivocal character; all kinds of ices and cold beverages were in great demand when all at once the merriest of the harlequins felt that his legs were becoming much too cold, and took off his mask, when, to the amazement of all, a violet-blue face became visible. It was at once seen that there was no jest in this; the laughter died away, and at once several carriages conveyed men and women from the ball to the Hôtel Dieu, the Central Hospital, where they, still arrayed in mask attire, soon died. As in the first shock of terror people believed the cholera was contagious, and as those who were already patients in the hospital raised cruel screams of fear, it is said that these dead were buried so promptly that even their fantastic fools' garments were left on them, so that as they lived they now lie merrily in the grave.

It was amid unparalleled trouble and confusion that hospitals (Sicherungs-anstalten) and other institutions for preserving public health were organised. A Sanitary Commission was created, Bureaux de Sécours were established, and the ordinances as regards the salubrité publique were promptly put into effect. In doing this there was at once a collision with the interests of several thousand men who regarded public filth as their own private property. These were the chiffoniers or rag-men, who pick their living from the sweepings from houses piled up in dirt heaps in odd corners. With great pointed baskets on their backs and hooked sticks in their hands, these men, with pale and dirty faces, stray through the streets, and know how to find and utilise many objects in these refuse piles. But when the police, not wishing this filth to remain longer in the public streets, had given out the cleaning to their agents, and the refuse, put into carts, was to be carried out into the open country, where the chiffoniers could freely fish in it to their hearts' content, then the latter complained that, though not reduced to starvation, that their business had been reduced, and that this industry was a right sanctioned by ancient usage, and like property, of which they could not be arbitrarily deprived. It is very curious that the proofs which they produced in this relation were quite identical with those which our country squires and nobles (Krautjunker), chiefs of corporations, guild-masters, tithe-preachers, members of faculties, and similar possessors of privileges, bring forward when any old abuses by which they profit, or other rubbish of the Middle Ages, must be cleared away, so that our modern life may not be infected by the ancient musty mould and exhalations. As their protests were of no avail, the chiffoniers attempted to oppose the reform of cleanliness by force, or get up a small counter-revolution, and that in connection with the old women called revendeuses, who had been forbidden to publicly sell on the quays or traffic in the evil-smelling stuff which they had bought from the chiffoniers. Then we beheld the most repulsive riot; the new hand-cars used to clean the town were broken and thrown into the Seine; the chiffoniers barricaded themselves at the Porte Saint-Denis; the old women dealers in rubbish (Trödelweiber) fought with their great umbrellas on the Chatelet; the general march was beaten; Casimir Perier had his myrmidons drummed up from their shops; the citizen-throne trembled; Rentes fell; the Carlists rejoiced. The latter, by the way, had found at last their natural allies in rag-men and old huxter-wives, who adopted the same principles as the champions of transmitted rights (herkömmlichen), or hereditary rubbish-interests and rotten things of every kind.

When the emeute of the chiffoniers was suppressed, and as the cholera did not take hold so savagely (nicht so wüthend um sich griff) as was desired by certain people of the kind who in every suffering or excitement among the people hope, if not to profit themselves, to at least cause the overthrow of the existing Government, there rose all at once a rumour that many of those who had been so promptly buried had died not from disease but by poison. It was said that certain persons had found out how to introduce a poison into all kinds of food, be it in the vegetable markets, in bakeries, meat-stalls, or wine. The more extraordinary these reports were, the more eagerly were they received by the multitude, and even the sceptics must needs believe in them when an order on the subject was published by the chief of police. For the police, who in every country seem to be less inclined to prevent crime than to appear to know all about it, either desired to display their universal information or else thought, as regards the tales of poisoning, that whether they were true or false, they themselves must in any case divert all suspicion from the Government—suffice it to say, that by their unfortunate proclamation, in which they distinctly said that they were on the track of the poisoners, they officially confirmed the rumours, and thereby threw all Paris into the most dreadful apprehension of death.

"We never heard the like!" said the oldest people, who, even in the most dreadful times of the Revolution, had never experienced such fearful crime. "Frenchmen! we are dishonoured!" cried the men, striking their foreheads. The women, pressing their little children in agony to their hearts, wept bitterly and lamented that the innocent babes were dying in their arms. The poor people dared neither eat nor drink, and wrung their hands in dire need and distress. It seemed as if the end of the world had come. The crowds assembled chiefly at the corners of the streets, where the red-painted wine-shops are situated, and it was generally there that men who seemed suspicious were searched, and woe to them when any doubtful objects were found on them. The mob threw themselves like wild beasts or lunatics on their victims. Many saved themselves by their presence of mind, others were rescued by the firmness of the Municipal Guard, who in those days patrolled everywhere; some received wounds or were maimed, while six men were unmercifully murdered outright. Nothing is so horrible as the anger of a mob when it rages for blood and strangles its defenceless prey. Then there rolled through the streets a dark flood of human beings, in which, here and there, workmen in their shirt-sleeves seemed like the white caps of a raging sea, and all were howling and roaring—all merciless, heathenish, devilish. I heard in the Rue Saint-Denis the well-known old cry, "A la lanterne!" and from voices trembling with rage I learned that they were hanging a poisoner. Some said that he was a Carlist, and that a brevet du lis had been found in his pocket; others declared he was a priest, and others that he was capable of anything. In the Rue Vaugirard, where two men were killed because certain white powders were found on them, I saw one of the wretches, while he was still in the death-rattle, and at the time old women plucked the wooden shoes from their feet and beat him on the head till he was dead. He was naked and beaten and bruised, so that his blood flowed; they tore from him not only his clothes, but also his hair, and cut off his lips[13] and nose; and one blackguard tied a rope to the feet of the corpse and dragged it through the streets, crying out, "Voilà le cholera-morbus!" A very beautiful woman, pale with rage, with bare breasts and bloody hands, was present, and as the corpse passed her she kicked it. She laughed to me, and begged for a few francs reward for her dainty work wherewith to buy a mourning-dress, because her mother had died a few hours before of poison.

It appeared the next day by the newspapers that the wretched men who had been so cruelly murdered were all quite innocent, that the suspicious powders found on them consisted of camphor or chlorine, or some other kind of remedy against the cholera, and that those who were said to have been poisoned had died naturally of the prevailing epidemic. The mob here, like the same everywhere, being quick to rage and readily led to cruelty, became at once appeased, and deplored with touching sorrow its rash deeds when it heard the voice of reason. With such voices the newspapers succeeded the next day in calming and quieting the populace, and it may be proclaimed, as a triumph of the press, that it was able to so promptly stop the mischief which the police had made.

I must here blame the conduct of certain people who by no means belonged to the lower class, yet who were so carried away by their prejudices as to publicly accuse the Carlists of poisoning. Passion should never carry us so far, and I should hesitate a long time ere I would accuse my most venomous foes of such horrible intentions.[14] The Carlists were quite right in complaining of this, and it is only the bitter manner in which they cursed and railed over it which could excite suspicion. That is certainly not the language of innocence. But according to the conviction of those best informed, there had been no poisoning. It may be that sham poisonings were contrived, or that a few wretches were really induced to sprinkle harmless powders on provisions in order to irritate and rouse the people; and if this was indeed the case, the people should not be too severely blamed for their riotous conduct, since it sprang not from private hate, "but in the interest of the commonweal, quite according to the theory of terrorism." Yes, the Carlists would themselves have perished in the pit dug for the Republicans, but the poisoning was not generally attributed to the one or to the other, but to that party which, "ever conquered by arms, always raises itself again by cowardly means, which attains to prosperity and power invariably by the ruin of France, and which now, dispensing with the aid of Cossacks, may readily seek refuge in common poison." This is about what is said in the Constitutional.

What I gained by personal observation on the day when these murders took place was the conviction that the rule of the elder branch of the Bourbons will never be re-established in France. I heard the most remarkable utterances in different groups; I saw deep into the heart of the people—it knows its men.

Since these events all has become quiet again, or, as Horatius Sebastiani would say, "L'ordre regne, à Paris." There is a stony stillness as of death in every face. For many evenings very few people were seen on the Boulevards, and they hurried along with hands or handkerchiefs held over their faces. The theatres are as if perished and passed away. When I enter a salon, people are amazed to see me still in Paris, since I am not detained by urgent business. In fact, most strangers, and especially my fellow-countrymen, left long since. Obedient parents received from their children orders to return at once. God-fearing sons fulfilled without delay the tender wishes of their loving sires, who longed to see them in their homes again—Honour thy father and thy mother, then thy days shall be prolonged upon the earth! In others, too, there suddenly awoke an endless yearning for their fatherland, for the romantic valleys of the noble Rhine, for the dear mountains, for winsome Suabia, the land of pure true love and woman's faith, of joyous ballads and of healthy air. It is said that thus far more than 120,000 passports have been issued at the Hôtel de Ville.[15] Although the cholera evidently first attacked the poorer classes, the rich still very promptly took to flight. Certain parvenus should not be too severely judged for having done so, for they probably reflected that the cholera, which came hither all the long way from Asia, does not know that we have quite lately grown rich on Change, and thinking that we are still poor devils, will send us to turn up our toes to the daisies.[16] M. Aguado, one of the richest bankers and a chevalier of the Legion of Honour, was field-marshal in this great retreat. The knight is said to have glared with mad apprehension out of the coach-window, and believed that his footman all in blue who stood behind was blue Death himself or the cholera morbus.

The multitude murmured bitterly when it saw how the rich fled away, and, well packed with doctors and drugs, took refuge in healthier climes. The poor man saw with bitter discontent that money had become a protection also against death. The greater portion of the juste milieu and of la haute finance have also departed, and now live in their chateaux. But the real representatives of wealth, the Messieurs Rothschild, have, however, quietly remained in Paris, thereby manifesting that they are great-minded and brave.[17] Casimir Perier also showed himself great and brave in visiting the Hôtel Dieu or hospital after the cholera had broken out. It should have grieved even his enemies that he was attacked by the cholera after this visit. He did not, however, succumb to it, being in himself a much worse pestilence. The young Prince d'Orleans, who, in company with Perier, visited the hospital, also deserves the most honourable mention. But the whole royal family has behaved quite as nobly in this sad time. When the cholera broke out, the Queen assembled her friends and servants, and distributed among them flannel bandages, which were mostly made by her own hands. The manners and customs of ancient chivalry are not yet extinct; they have only changed into domestic citizen-like forms: great ladies now bedeck their champions with less poetical, but more practical and healthier scarfs. We live no longer in the ancient days of helm and harness and of warring knights, but in the peaceful, honest bourgeois days of under-jackets and warm bandages; that is, no longer in the iron age, but that of flannel—flannel everywhere. It is, in fact, the best cuirass against the cholera, our most cruel enemy. Venus, according to the Figaro, would wear to-day a girdle of flannel. I myself am up to my neck in flannel, and consider myself cholera-proof. The King himself wears now a belt of the best bourgeois flannel.

Nor should I forget to mention that he, the citizen-king, during the general suffering, gave a great deal of money to the poor citizens, and showed himself inspired with civic sympathy and noble. And while in the vein (da ich mal im Zuge bin), I will also praise the Archbishop of Paris, who also went to the Hôtel Dieu, after the Prince Royal and Perier had made their visits, to console the patients. He had long prophesied that God would send the cholera as a judgment and punishment on the people "for having banished a most Christian king, and struck out the privileges of the Catholic religion for the Charte."[18] Now when the wrath of God falls on the sinners, M. de Quelen would fain send prayers to heaven and implore grace, at least for the innocent, for it appears that many Carlists also die.[19] Moreover, M. de Quelen offered his Château de Conflans to be used as a hospital. The proffer was declined by Government because the building is in such a ruined and deplorable condition that it would cost too much to repair it. And the Bishop had, as a condition, exacted that he should have unconditional authority or carte blanche in directing the hospital. But it was deemed too dangerous an experiment to intrust the souls of the poor patients, whose bodies were already suffering terribly, to the tortures of attempted salvation, which the Archbishop and his familiars intended to inflict. It was thought better to let the hardened Revolutionary sinners die simply of the cholera, without threats of eternal damnation and hell-fire, without confession or extreme unction. For though it is declared that the Catholic is a religion perfectly adapted to the unhappy time through which we are now passing, the French will have none of it for fear lest they should be obliged to keep on with this epidemic faith (Krankheitsreligion) when better days shall come.

Many disguised priests are now gliding and sliding here and there among the people, persuading them that a rosary which has been consecrated is a perfect preservative against the cholera.[20] The Saint-Simonists regard it as an advantage of their religion that none of their number can die of the prevailing malady, because progress is a law of nature, and as social progress is specially in Saint-Simonism, so long as the number of its apostles is incomplete none of its followers can die. The Bonapartists declare that if any one feels in himself the symptoms of the cholera, if he will raise his eyes to the column of the Place Vendôme he shall be saved and live. And so hath every man his special faith in these troubled times. As for me, I believe in flannel. Good dieting can do no harm, but one should not eat too little, as do certain persons who mistake pangs of hunger felt in the night for premonitory symptoms of cholera. It is amusing to see the poltroonery which many manifest at table, regarding with defiance or suspicion the most philanthropic and benevolent dishes, and swallowing every dainty with a sigh.[21] The doctors told us to have no fear and avoid irritation; but they feared lest they might be unguardedly irritated, and then were irritated at themselves for being afraid. Now they are love itself, and often use the words Mon Dieu! and their voices are as soft and low as those of ladies lately brought to bed (accouchées). Withal they smell like perambulating apothecary-shops, often feel their stomachs, and ask every hour how many have died. But as no one ever knew the exact number, or rather as there was a general suspicion as to the exactitude of the figures given, all minds were seized with vague terror, and the extent of the malady was magnified beyond limits. In fact, the journals have since published that on one day, on the 10th of April, two thousand people died. But the people would not be deceived by any such official statement, and continually complained that far more died than were accounted for. My barber told me how an old woman sat at her window a whole night on the Faubourg Montmartre to count the corpses which were carried by, and she counted three hundred; but when morning came she was chilled with frost, and felt the cramp of the cholera, and soon died herself. Wherever one looked in the streets, there he saw funerals, or, sadder still, hearses with no one following. But as there were not hearses sufficient, all kinds of vehicles were used, which, when covered with black stuffs, looked very strange. Even these were at last wanting, and I saw coffins carried in hackney-coaches.[22] It was most disagreeable to see the great furniture-waggons which were used for "moving" now moving about as dead men's omnibuses, or omnibus mortuis, going from house to house for fares and carrying them by dozens to the field of rest.

The neighbourhood of a cemetery where many funerals met presented the most dispiriting scene. Wishing to visit a friend one day, I arrived just as they were placing his corpse in the hearse. Then the sad fancy seized me to return the call which he had last made, so I took a coach and accompanied him to Père la Chaise. Having arrived in the neighbourhood of the cemetery, my coachman stopped, and awaking from my reverie, I could see nothing but literally sky and coffins. I was among several hundred vehicles bearing the dead, which formed a queue or train before the narrow gate, and as I could not escape, I was obliged to pass several hours among these gloomy surroundings. Out of ennui, I asked my coachman the name of my neighbour-corpse, and—woe the chance!—he named a young lady whose coach had, some months before, as I was going to a ball at Lointier, been crowded against mine and delayed just as it was to-day. There was only this difference, that then she often put out of the window her little head, decked with flowers, her lovely, lively face lit by the moon, and manifested the most charming vexation and impatience at the delay. Now she was quite still, and probably very blue; but ever and anon, when the mourning-horses of the hearses stamped and grew unruly, it seemed to me as if the dead themselves were growing impatient, and, tired of waiting, were in a hurry to get into their graves; and when, at the cemetery gate, one coachman tried to get before another, and there was disorder in the queue, then the gendarmes came in with bare sabres; here and there were cries and curses, some vehicles were overturned, coffins rolling out burst open, and I seemed to see that most horrible of all émeutes—a riot of the dead.[23]

To spare the feelings of my readers, I will not further describe what I saw at Père la Chaise. Hardened as I am, I could not help yielding to the deepest horror. One may learn by deathbeds how to die, and then await death with calmness, but to learn how to be buried in graves of quicklime, among cholera corpses, is beyond my power. I hastened to the highest hill of the cemetery, whence one may see the city spread out in all its beauty. The sun was setting; its last rays seemed to bid me a sad good-bye; twilight vapours covered sick Paris as with a light-white shroud, and I wept bitterly over the unhappy city, the city of freedom, of inspiration and of martyrdom, the saviour-city which has already suffered so much for the temporal deliverance of humanity.

  1. In allusion to the fable in Æsop of the hunters who quarrelled as to the bear's skin before they had killed the bear.
  2. "Die chronique scandaleuse jeder partie bei der andern aufgabeln." French "À colporter dans chaque parti la chronique scandaleuse de l'autre."
  3. Dinge, choses, "things." A word far too generally and loosely applied both in French and German, as in the present instance. This was satirised in the Breitmann Ballads:

    "O vot ish all dis eart'ly pliss?
    Und vot ish man's sookcess?
    Und vot ish various kinds of dings?
    Und vot is happiness?"

    It is an amusing instance of Heine's remarkably quick perception, as well as of his very frequent disposition to let errors stand rather than take the trouble to correct them, that in the next sentence he gives these "dings" a definition in parenthesis.—Translator.

  4. French version, disproportion.
  5. This admirable sentence, in which the conception of imperium in imperio is so ingeniously paraphrased, is given rather feebly in French as "en sorte qu'ils formaient dans l'histoire de la revolution la temps héroïque."
  6. "Man kann jetzt vor lauter Wald die Bäume nicht sehen," a common German saying; in English, "He cannot see the wood for the leaves;" in French, "Tout étant devenu haute futaie il est impossible d'y distinguer les arbres isolé,"—Translator.
  7. This remark is a curious instance of intuition or prophetic spirit. When Heine wrote it, the esprit gaulois had manifested no sign whatever of decadence, and in England merry Dickens had not even begun to publish. But, with his usual perception, Heine felt that the "all too serious age" was coming, when the world was to put away childish things, and "take its amusements sadly," even in novels, as it is now doing.
  8. This sentence, as well as the Appendix to Letter VI., is wanting in the French version.—Note by the German Editor.
  9. It might be here added that it was far more terrible, owing to the number of victims, since people died in Paris at the rate of from 1000 to 2000 per diem, as I remember to have heard at the time. There are not many of my readers who now remember the cholera of 1832 and its horrors. I can recall distinctly passing through New York when it was at its worst, and that the city seemed to be almost deserted.—Translator.
  10. It is a strange fact that the cholera of 1832, with all its horrors, was as nothing compared to the pestilences which had previously swept over the world. Then the dead in the great capitals of Europe were often not buried at all, and lay everywhere in heaps for many months. It is only yesterday, as I now write (April 29, 1892), that I saw in the National Museum of Florence the marvellous groups in wax, modelled after the piles of corpses in the streets in the Great Plague commemorated by Boccaccio. Yet even this appears to have been as much surpassed in its turn by the earlier scourges as the cholera of 1832 surpassed the influenza of 1891.
  11. In justice to Heine it should be observed that while this sentence might be misunderstood as declaring that neither Thucidydes nor Boccaccio could write so beautifully as himself under the circumstances, it really means that they could not have sketched so well as they did had they been exposed as our author was. It is less ambiguous in the French version—"Je doute s'ils eussent eu l'âme assez calme pour les faire si belles et si savantes, si pendant que le cholera de leur temps," &c. The twelve following lines are wanting in the French.—Translator.
  12. Our author sketches the true causes of the cholera with great intelligence. Prominent among these was that neglect of cleanliness, which, as he says, was by no means confined to the lower classes. Even in the Forties and Fifties there was to be found in a vast majority of the houses in Paris such fearful filth and poisonous smells as would be now deemed utterly incredible. That the cholera was to a great degree endemic or local from such causes was fully proved by its being confined chiefly to towns. While it raged, for instance, in cities, it often happened that in rural villages at no great distance not a single case occurred. In the last generation it was very commonly said and believed by many that "dirt is healthy." Now we are learning that it is another name for death.—Translator.
  13. Die scham occurs here in the German text. It is omitted in the French.—Translator.
  14. All which follows, to the word Constitutional, is omitted in the French version, that is, twenty-seven lines of the German text, and it is little to our author's credit that it is found in German.
  15. French version "On dit qu'on a délivré" dans ces circonstances plus de cent mille passeports."—Translator.
  16. "Halt uns vielleicht noch für einen armen Lump, und lässt uns ins Gras beissen." French version—"Pourrait bien nous prendre encore pour de pauvres hères et nous faire manger de l'herbe par la racine." An American might render this: "Bid us go to grass, and stay under." "Multæ terricolis linguæ, una cœlestibus."—Translator.
  17. Our author here indirectly compliments himself. But unless a man remains to nurse and aid the sufferers, it is difficult to see wherein the bravery or common-sense of staying in a pestilence consists.—Translator.
  18. So a few years ago the President of an American College, who had, as it was declared, utterly and scandalously neglected his duty as to sanitary precautions and cleanliness, informed the public, when a number of students died of typhoid fever, that it was a "dispensation." We may, however, both as regards Paris and the American College, for "decree of Providence," read "dirt."—Translator.
  19. This remark recalls the anecdote of a Baptist minister in Kansas during the civil war. "I am asked, my hearers, how it is that, if this war is sent to punish rebels and slave-holders, so many Union men perish? My friends, when an Injun goes for buffalo, he still knocks over any antelope or jack-rabbits or skunks which come in his way; and even so the Lord, when he is on the war-path after the chief of sinners—which are Secesh—still takes a pop at any smaller evil-doer who comes on the trail, even though he be an Union man."—Translator.
  20. We are not as yet so far advanced in physiology as to understand the causes, but it is quite certain that those who have no fear of a disease or who boldly affront it often escape contagion. This saving confidence is often the result of a man's bearing something which he firmly believes protects him, be it a rabbit's paw, a blessed rosary, a relic of a saint, or any other kind of "hand"' or "charm." The antiquities and illustrations of this subject are most fully given in a very rare work of about 800 pages, entitled, "Curiosus Amuletorum Scrutator . . . ac in Specie de Zenechtis," to which is added a treatise on amulets by Julius Reichalt (Frankfort, 1690). In this extraordinary and immensely erudite book almost every known disease is cited, and the amulets described which must be carried about the person to cure it. Thus, according to this authority, ivy (as I have heard in Florence, and read in Marcellus of Bordeaux, fourth century), when worn, is a cure for headache; also plaintain-roots and the gem ophites. In addition to these there are directions as to what should be done to secure favour, to avert the evil eye, to protect against lightning, to become rich, or be constantly jolly (herba contra melancholiam)—in short, for almost everything desirable under the sun. In some cases legitimate cures seem to indicate a certain empirical knowledge, as, for instance, where we are told that camphor when carried is good for heart complaints. It is remarkable that, as regards amulet-rosaries, those which are made of a curious kind of triangular seed or nut are considered as possessing special virtue both by Turks and Italian Christians.—Translator.
  21. I can well remember the great fear which prevailed during all the cholera season of 1832 as regards food, especially fish and fruit. Young as I was, I do not think that I touched a peach or a water-melon all that summer, and I can remember the amazement which I felt in the autumn at hearing from a black servant-girl that she had during the whole time eaten all the peaches she could get, which must have been many, since fruit of all kinds was almost given away.—Translator.
  22. I have heard my father relate how, during a terrible attack of yellow fever in Philadelphia in the earlier part of the present century, he remained by a friend who died in a lodging-house, and the panic was so great that no medical attendance or any kind of aid whatever could be had during the last stages. The patient passed away about midnight, and my father, going forth, with some difficulty obtained a coffin or box and a black man, with whose help the body was nailed up, put into a hackney-coach and taken to the burying-ground. Of this yellow fever pestilence I remember a strange tale. There was a very small house of one storey in Eleventh Street, near Locust, in which a man had been left to die, and the doors locked. He recovered, and endeavouring to escape from the upper window, fell to the ground and was killed. As his ghost was believed to haunt the house, it remained without a tenant until about 1840, when it was pulled down. Tempi passati! such events are becoming almost incomprehensible to the younger readers of the present day.—Translator.
  23. The reader will excuse the remark that nine-tenths of all which constituted the external horrors of the cholera or other great pestilences would have been avoided by the very simple process of cremation. It is said that even within a very few years, in breaking up the ground where great numbers of victims of cholera or yellow fever were long since buried, the most deadly forms of disease or malaria have been developed, which could not assuredly have taken place had the remains been reduced to ashes. When I, in 1856, published an article advocating the burning of the dead, I was literally alone in my ideas. Eppur si muove.Translator.

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This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.