Close to the Luxembourg is the Theatre de l’Odeon, one of the State theaters, which was first built in 1782, twice to be burned and rebuilt, and which is still surrounded by fascinating bookstalls. Opposite the theater is the Cafe Voltaire, which has been for two hundred years the meeting place of men of letters, and where I once saw Verlaine.
Bookshops fill the arcades round the theatre and eager readers read as much as they can from the uncut pages of the new books. Anatole France says of these enthusiasts:
“These open-air readers must have plenty of imagination. They will shortly be going along the cold, black streets, finishing the interrupted sentence in a dream. And very likely they will make it more beautiful than the reality. They will carry away with them an illusion, a desire, or at least a curiosity. It is seldom that a book yields us as much when we read it through at leisure.”
It was from No. 2 Place Voltaire that Camille Desmoulins was hurried off in April 1794 to the Luxembourg and then to the guillotine, his beautiful young wife hovering round the prison day and night, as Carlyle says ” like a disembodied spirit.”
Near the Odeon in the Rue des Cordeliers, Charlotte Corday stabbed Jean Paul Marat on July 17, 1793- Carlyle makes Marat the arch -villain of the Revolution. To Charlotte Corday, the Girondiste, he was a savage wild beast ; to Carlyle he is squalid, atrocious, and nothing more. The truth is that Marat was a man of great capacity, a physician with a St. Andrews degree, a student of politics who alone of the revolutionaries realised that eighteenthcentury England was an aristocratic oligarchy and not a democracy ; an enthusiast who abandoned a good professional income to give his whole time and energy to the cause of the people, and who left exactly twenty-five francs when he died. Marat being a Frenchman was a realist, and he understood that it is impossible to have a revolution without sooner or later indulging in more or less wholesale executions. Revolutions are inconceivable without executions, and as the English temperament is unsympathetic to the guillotine and the gallows, I am convinced that a revolution in this country must be of necessity an ineffective waste of time and money. But although Marat demanded the execution of the enemies of the Republic, it is unlikely that he would have supported the September massacres of 1794 which were reasonless and actually destructive of the Revolution, and it is probable that, if he had lived, Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and perhaps even Robespierre would have been saved from the knife. That Marat had acute judgment is shown by his estimate of Robespierre : ” He has the knowledge of a wise Senator and the integrity of a really good man as well as the zeal of an honest patriot, but his defects as a statesman are a dimness of vision and a lack of determination.” Compare this with Mr. Belloc’s picture : ” -.He (Robespierre) stood a pale exception, a man all conviction and emptiness, too passionless to change, too iterant to be an artist, too sincere and tenacious to enliven folly with dramatic art or to save it by flashes of its relation to wisdom.”
In this same neighbourhood, in the Rue de l’Abbaye there was another revolutionary prison in which Mme. Roland and Charlotte Corday both spent their last days. Charlotte Corday appeared, played her part, killing one man ” to save a hundred thousand,” and disappeared with almost inhuman calmness, unperturbed, courteously declining the ministrations of a priest, blushing when the executioner insisted that she should take the neckerchief from her neck, ” most definite, most complete ; angelic – demonic ; like a star.”
Close by again in the Rue du Four, Robespierre once lived, and Ernest Renan lived in the Rue de Mezieres. I like to think of Renan, with Paris broken-hearted after the tragedy of Sedan, with the Emperor whom he hated a prisoner in Germany, calmly dining chez Brebant and eulogising his country’s enemies. ” In everything I have studied,” he said, ” I have always been struck by the superiority of German intelligence and work. It is not astonishing that in the art of war, which after all is an inferior art, but complicated, they have reached this superiority which I see in everything, I repeat I have studied, which I know. Yes, gentlemen, the Germans are a superior race.” It is not surprising that philosophers are apt to be unpopular in war time.
Alfred de Musset lived in the Rue Cassette, the poet who had the appearance of a ” dandy cavalry officer in mufti.” The finicky grace of his poetry was characteristic of the man who always refused to take any coppers given him in change, a habit that was a sore trial to his economically minded brother Paul, who none the less had for him deep admiration and affection. When it was suggested to Paul, who was himself a writer of some distinction, that he should stand as a candidate for the Academie Francaise, he replied : ” C’est bien assez d’un immortel dans la famille.”
In a tennis court in the Rue Mazarine, Moliere opened his ill-fated 1’Illustre Theatre in 1643. The audiences were poor, and by the end of 1644 his company had deserted the dramatist actor-manager, -and he was arrested on the plaint of a candlemaker, to whom he owed one hundred and forty-two livres.
Laurence Sterne boarded for a time with a French family in the Rue Jacob during his long stay in France from 1762 to 1764. He fell in love with Paris at first sight. As he was driving to the hotel in the Faubourg St. Germain, where he stayed on his first night, he translated the legend on the Louvre :
Earth no such folks-no folks e’er such a town
As Paris is-sing derry derry down.
In Paris Sterne met Diderot and the encyclopacdist: was received by the Due d’Orleans and preached at the British Embassy chapel. One always recalls Yorick’s preaching with a little shudder, but his sermon in Paris seems to have been particularly good. In a letter to his daughter he said : ” I have preached at the Ambassador’s chapel-on Hezekiah (an odd subject your mother will say). There was a concourse of all nations and all religions too.”
The most interesting of the churches in the neighbourhood of the Luxembourg is St. Sulpice, where Camille Desmoulins was married, with Robespierre, as best man-a tragic wedding indeed-Camille young, enthusiastic, goodlooking, his wife rich and beautiful, with Robespierre, the skeleton at the feast. St. Sulpice was built in the eighteenth century and is generally regarded as an example of the degraded taste of the time, but to Gibbon, who was typically eighteenth century, it was ” one of the noblest structures in Paris.” Victor Hugo had the same contempt for St. Sulpice as Dickens had for St. John’s, Westminster. He said that its two towers reminded him of two enormous clarionets. The famous seminary of St. Sulpice was shut up by the State twenty years ago. The English may remember with some pride that among the more recent seminaristes was Cardinal Bourne, the present Archbishop of Westminster.
In the middle sixties of the last century in a wine-shop on the corner of the Rue Bonaparte and the Place St. Sulpice, a dining club called ” Les Vilains Bonhommes,” used regularly to meet once a week. Its members were the poets who were known as Parnassiens, among them Verlaine, Anatole France, Francois Coppee, who was to become famous as a defender of the Church; Catulle Mendes, whom many years afterwards I saw night after night writing theatrical criticisms for the Matin in the Cafe Napolitain ; Villiers de 1’Isle-Adam, always poor, always homeless, of whom Anatole France has said with his genius for painting his contemporaries : ” He was of a livid colour splotched with red with a lack-lustre eye and the bowed back of the poor man ” ; and Stephen Mallarme, the author of l’Apres-midi d’un Faune, ” a little brown gentle person,” to quote Sir Edmund Gosse, who besides being a poet, was a teacher of English.
One evening Verlaine took with him to ” Les Vilains Bonhommes ” that most offensive young genius, Rimbaud, who was responsible for the most doleful incidents of his life. Rimbaud was dirty, uncouth, and intentionally illmannered. He received anything but a cordial welcome, and when he proceeded to interrupt when one of the poets was reading a ” masterpiece,” he was promptly told that he would have his ears pulled if he did not behave. Whereupon Rimbaud, who was half mad and almost a savage, seized a sword – stick, rushed at the poet and severely wounded him, and from that night neither he nor his introducer was; admitted to the club.
The Parnassiens, whose movement was a revolt against romanticism, were roughly criticised by Barbey d’Aurevilly, already an old man, although he did not die till 1889, and who, beginning life as a worshipper of Byron, lived to be the last of the romantics. D’Aurevilly lodged for thirty years in the Rue Rousselet, just across the western border of this Luxembourg district. He must have been a strange and wonderful figure. When Anatole France was a small boy he met him at his grandmother’s, ” wearing over his ear a hat with crimson velvet edges, with his figure encased in an overcoat with puffed skirts, tapping the gold stripe on his tight trousers with a whip as he walked.” Even in his old age he was seen in the streets of the quartier ” in black satin trousers which fitted his old legs like a glove, in a flapping brigand wideawake, in a velvet waistcoat which revealed diamond studs, and lace cravat, and in a wonderful shirt that covered the most artful pair of stays.”
Victor Hugo called d’Aurevilly an imbecile, but Anatole France regarded him with at least tempered admiration. His eccentricities, he said, were never malicious. He had a natural gift for eccentricity, and while Sir Edmund Gosse would have us believe that his room in the Rue Rousselet was sordid in its misery, Anatole refers to ” the noble poverty ” of that apartment.
D’Aurevilly’s most interesting book is Du Dandyisme de Georges Brummel. He was the last of the dandies. Even Mr. Max Beerbohm has not had the courage really to revive the tradition. He belonged to the French writers of the nineteenth century who are sometimes called neoCatholics and were the followers of Chateaubriand. While immensely impressed by ritual and paying lip homage to the Church, they paid little heed to its, ethical injunctions. But Anatole France suggests that they will be gently treated in another world. He imagined that when the dandy met St. Peter, the saint said :
” Here is M. Barbey d’Aurevilly. He longed to possess all the vices, but failed ; for that is very difficult, and requires a peculiar temperament. He would have liked to wallow in crime, for crime is picturesque ; but he remained the kindliest person in the world, and his life was almost monastic. He has often said bad things, it is true ; but as he never believed them or made any one else do so, they remained nothing but literature, and his error may be pardoned.”
Not far from St. Sulpice is St. Germain des Pres. The Abbey of St. Germain was founded in the sixth century by King Childebert in honour of St. Vincent, whose miracle working coat he had taken from the people of Saragossa. There is a contemporary description of this great church with its roof sheathed in copper-gilt, which was dedicated to St. Germanus, Bishop of Paris, to whom it had owed as much as it owed to the king, and who was buried within its walls. Round it a whole district grew up, the district of what is now the Faubourg St. Germain, nowadays the home of such of the old French nobility as is left, with a great many more of the new profiteers.
Five centuries after its foundation the church, which had been partly destroyed three times by the Normans, was rebuilt, and there is nothing left now of the church of Childebert and Germanus where Charlemagne, as a little boy of eight, walked in procession with a candle in his hand. Returning eastward and crossing the Boulevard St. Michel, the wanderer discovers the Pantheon, which was built by Louis XV. as a church in honour of St. Genevieve. In 1791 it became the Pantheon and was dedicated Aux grands hommes de France la Patrie Reconnaissante. On April 4 of that year the body of Mirabeau was brought here, the funeral procession being a league long and the streets crowded with a hundred thousand mourners. But Mirabeau was not to stay in the Pantheon very long, for two years later his body was bundled out to make way for the ashes of Marat, carried there in a funeral car specially designed by the Jacobin artist David. Marat, who had hated Mirabeau and had denounced him as an aristocrat, stayed in the Pantheon an even shorter time. Less than a year and his dust was taken away to be hastily buried at Montmartre. ” Shorter godhead had no divine man,” comments Carlyle.
While Mirabeau lay in the Pantheon, a gloomy depressing building, he was joined by Voltaire, whose funeral procession would surely have given that cynic not a little amusement. On the funeral car was an effigy of the dead philosopher being crowned with laurels by a young girl, and fifty other girls dressed in the costume of the characters of his plays walked in the procession. But, unfortunately, on the day of the funeral there was a tremendous rain storm. The colour was washed off the face of the effigy, and the mourners were compelled to take shelter in convenient doorways.
Victor Hugo was buried in the Pantheon in 1885, after his body had lain in state under the Arc de Triomphe. His funeral was even more magnificent than Voltaire’s. The hearse was humble and unassuming, but after it came delegation after delegation, representatives of the army, Parliament, the Academy with, as Madame Duclaux relates, ” the Friendly Society of Menilmontant, the Freemasons of Montmartre, the Gymnasts of Belleville (in their tights), Ba-Ta-Clan ` les Beni-bouffe-toujours.’ ” One of the crowd exclaimed as he watched the procession pass : ” II serait content, le pere,” and Madame Duclaux agrees that the procession would have delighted Hugo’s Cyclopean humour, his vague humanitarianism, his Socialistic fervour, his eye for effect, his talent for staging enormous scenes.
Years afterwards Hugo, the romanticist, was joined by Zola, the realist, who was carried to the Pantheon, not as a literary man, but as the champion of Dreyfus, the honour causing considerable trouble and forcible protest from ‘angry Nationalists.
Near the Pantheon there are two interesting churches. St. Severin dates back to the sixth century. Severinus was a hermit who sheltered Clodwig, son of Clodomir, who lives in history as St. Cloud. Severinus was buried near the cell where he had lived and Clodwig built a chapel in his memory. The church was rebuilt in the time of St. Louis and is today famous for its wonderful glass-the subject of one of the windows is the Martyrdom of St. Thomas of Canterbury-and for the appeal written on the tower : Bonnes gens qui par cy passez, priez Dieu pour les trepasses. The dedication of the church has a curious history. In the fifteenth century the hermit was forgotten and the patron-saint became another Severin, who was also the patron-saint of travellers. In his honour horseshoes were nailed on the church door. But in 1753 the hermit was again remembered, and the church is now under the patronage of both the Severins.
St. Etienne du Mont is the church of St. Genevieve, the patron-saint of Paris. In this church, the history of which goes back to the sixth century, were kept the relics of the city’s patron until they were burnt during the Revolution, and here, during the War, many prayers were offered to her that she should, as in former days, save the city from its enemies from across the Rhine.