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Theodore de Banville

There are literary reputations in France and England which seem, like the fairies, to be unable to cross running water. Dean Swift, according to M. Paul de Saint-Victor, is a great man at Dover, a pigmy at Calais--"Son talent, qui enthousiasme l'Angleterre, n'inspire ailleurs qu'un morne etonnement." M. Paul De Saint-Victor was a fair example of the French critic, and what he says about Swift was possibly true,--for him. There is not much resemblance between the Dean and M. Theodore de Banville, except that the latter too is a poet who has little honour out of his own country. He is a charming singer at Calais; at Dover he inspires un morne etonnement (a bleak perplexity). One has never seen an English attempt to describe or estimate his genius. His unpopularity in England is illustrated by the fact that the London Library, that respectable institution, does not, or did not, possess a single copy of any one of his books. He is but feebly represented even in the collection of the British Museum. It is not hard to account for our indifference to M. De Banville. He is a poet not only intensely French, but intensely Parisian. He is careful of form, rather than abundant in manner. He has no story to tell, and his sketches in prose, his attempts at criticism, are not very weighty or instructive. With all his limitations, however, he represents, in company with M. Leconte de Lisle, the second of the three generations of poets over whom Victor Hugo reigned.

M. De Banville has been called, by people who do not like, and who apparently have not read him, un saltimbanque litteraire (a literary rope-dancer). Other critics, who do like him, but who have limited their study to a certain portion of his books, compare him to a worker in gold, who carefully chases or embosses dainty processions of fauns and maenads. He is, in point of fact, something more estimable than a literary rope-dancer, something more serious than a working jeweller in rhymes. He calls himself un raffine; but he is not, like many persons who are proud of that title, un indifferent in matters of human fortune. His earlier poems, of course, are much concerned with the matter of most early poems--with Lydia and Cynthia and their light loves. The verses of his second period often deal with the most evanescent subjects, and they now retain but a slight petulance and sparkle, as of champagne that has been too long drawn. In a prefatory plea for M. De Banville's poetry one may add that he "has loved our people," and that no poet, no critic, has honoured Shakespeare with brighter words of praise.

Theodore de Banville was born at Moulin, on March 14th 1823, and he is therefore three years younger than the dictionaries of biography would make the world believe. He is the son of a naval officer, and, according to M. Charles Baudelaire, a descendant of the Crusaders. He came much too late into the world to distinguish himself in the noisy exploits of 1830, and the chief event of his youth was the publication of "Les Cariatides" in 1842. This first volume contained a selection from the countless verses which the poet produced between his sixteenth and his nineteenth year. Whatever other merits the songs of minors may possess, they have seldom that of permitting themselves to be read. "Les Cariatides" are exceptional here. They are, above all things, readable. "On peut les lire e peu de frais," M. De Banville says himself. He admits that his lighter works, the poems called (in England) vers de societe, are a sort of intellectual cigarette. M. Emile de Girardin said, in the later days of the Empire, that there were too many cigarettes in the air. Their stale perfume clings to the literature of that time, as the odour of pastilles yet hangs about the verse of Dorat, the designs of Eisen, the work of the Pompadour period. There is more than smoke in M. De Banville's ruling inspiration, his lifelong devotion to letters and to great men of letters-- Shakespeare, Moliere, Homer, Victor Hugo. These are his gods; the memory of them is his muse. His enthusiasm is worthy of one who, though born too late to see and know the noble wildness of 1830, yet lives on the recollections, and is strengthened by the example, of that revival of letters. Whatever one may say of the renouveau, of romanticism, with its affectations, the young men of 1830 were sincere in their devotion to liberty, to poetry, to knowledge. One can hardly find a more brilliant and touching belief in these great causes than that of Edgar Quinet, as displayed in the letters of his youth. De Banville fell on more evil times.

When "Les Cariatides" was published poets had begun to keep an eye on the Bourse, and artists dabbled in finance. The new volume of song in the sordid age was a November primrose, and not unlike the flower of Spring. There was a singular freshness and hopefulness in the verse, a wonderful "certitude dans l'expression lyrique," as Sainte-Beuve said. The mastery of musical speech and of various forms of song was already to be recognised as the basis and the note of the talent of De Banville. He had style, without which a man may write very nice verses about heaven and hell and other matters, and may please thousands of excellent people, but will write poetry-- never. Comparing De Banville's boy's work with the boy's work of Mr. Tennyson, one observes in each--"Les Cariatides" as in "The Hesperides"--the timbre of a new voice. Poetry so fresh seems to make us aware of some want which we had hardly recognised, but now are sensible of, at the moment we find it satisfied.

It is hardly necessary to say that this gratifying and welcome strangeness, this lyric originality, is nearly all that M. De Banville has in common with the English poet whose two priceless volumes were published in the same year as "Les Cariatides?" The melody of Mr. Tennyson's lines, the cloudy palaces of his imagination, rose


"As Ilion, like a mist rose into towers,"


when Apollo sang. The architecture was floating at first, and confused; while the little theatre of M. De Banville's poetry, where he sat piping to a dance of nixies, was brilliantly lit and elegant with fresh paint and gilding. "The Cariatides" support the pediment and roof of a theatre or temple in the Graeco-French style. The poet proposed to himself


"A cote de Venus et du fils de Latone
Peindre la fee et la peri."


The longest poem in the book, and the most serious, "La Voie Lactee," reminds one of the "Palace of Art," written before the after-thought, before the "white-eyed corpses" were found lurking in corners. Beginning with Homer, "the Ionian father of the rest," -


"Ce dieu, pere des dieux qu'adore Ionie," -


the poet glorifies all the chief names of song. There is a long procession of illustrious shadows before Shakespeare comes-- Shakespeare, whose genius includes them all.


"Toute creation e laquelle on aspire,
Tout reve, toute chose, emanent de Shakespeare."


His mind has lent colour to the flowers and the sky, to


"La fleur qui brode un point sur les manteau des plaines,
Les nenuphars penches, et les pales roseaux
Qui disent leur chant sombre au murmure des eaux."


One recognises more sincerity in this hymn to all poets, from Orpheus to Heine, than in "Les Baisers de Pierre"--a clever imitation of De Musset's stories in verse. Love of art and of the masters of art, a passion for the figures of old mythology, which had returned again after their exile in 1830, gaiety, and a revival of the dexterity of Villon and Marot,--these things are the characteristics of M. De Banville's genius, and all these were displayed in "Les Cariatides." Already, too, his preoccupation with the lighter and more fantastic sort of theatrical amusements shows itself in lines like these:


"De son lit e baldaquin
Le soleil de son beau globe
Avait l'air d'un arlequin
Etalant sa garde-robe;

"Et sa soeur au front changeant Mademoiselle la Lune Avec ses grands yeux d'argent Regardait la terre brune."


The verse about "the sun in bed," unconsciously Miltonic, is in a vein of bad taste which has always had seductions for M. De Banville. He mars a fine later poem on Roncevaux and Roland by a similar absurdity. The angel Michael is made to stride down the steps of heaven four at a time, and M. De Banville fancies that this sort of thing is like the simplicity of the ages of faith.

In "Les Cariatides," especially in the poems styled "En Habit Zinzolin," M. De Banville revived old measures--the rondeau and the "poor little triolet." These are forms of verse which it is easy to write badly, and hard indeed to write well. They have knocked at the door of the English muse's garden--a runaway knock. In "Les Cariatides" they took a subordinate place, and played their pranks in the shadow of the grave figures of mythology, or at the close of the procession of Dionysus and his Maenads. De Banville often recalls Keats in his choice of classical themes. "Les Exiles," a poem of his maturity, is a French "Hyperion." "Le Triomphe de Bacchus" reminds one of the song of the Bassarids in "Endymion" -


"So many, and so many, and so gay."


There is a pretty touch of the pedant (who exists, says M. De Banville, in the heart of the poet) in this verse:


"Il reve e Cama, l'amour aux cinq fleches fleuries,
Qui, lorsque soupire au milieu des roses prairies
La douce Vasanta, parmi les bosquets de santal,
Envoie aux cinq sens les fleches du carquois fatal."


The Bacchus of Titian has none of this Oriental languor, no memories of perfumed places where "the throne of Indian Cama slowly sails." One cannot help admiring the fancy which saw the conquering god still steeped in Asiatic ease, still unawakened to more vigorous passion by the fresh wind blowing from Thrace. Of all the Olympians, Diana has been most often hymned by M. De Banville: his imagination is haunted by the figure of the goddess. Now she is manifest in her Hellenic aspect, as Homer beheld her, "taking her pastime in the chase of boars and swift deer; and with her the wild wood-nymphs are sporting the daughters of Zeus; and Leto is glad at heart, for her child towers over them all, and is easy to be known where all are fair" (Odyssey, vi.). Again, Artemis appears more thoughtful, as in the sculpture of Jean Goujon, touched with the sadness of moonlight. Yet again, she is the weary and exiled spirit that haunts the forest of Fontainebleau, and is a stranger among the woodland folk, the fades and nixies. To this goddess, "being triple in her divided deity," M. De Banville has written his hymn in the characteristic form of the old French ballade. The translator may borrow Chaucer's apology--


"And eke to me it is a grete penaunce,
Syth rhyme in English hath such scarsete
To folowe, word by word, the curiosite
Of Banville, flower of them that make in France."



"BALLADE SUR LES HOTES MYSTERIEUX DE LA FORET


"Still sing the mocking fairies, as of old,
Beneath the shade of thorn and holly tree;
The west wind breathes upon them pure and cold,
And still wolves dread Diana roving free,
In secret woodland with her company.
Tis thought the peasants' hovels know her rite
When now the wolds are bathed in silver light,
And first the moonrise breaks the dusky grey,
Then down the dells, with blown soft hair and bright,
And through the dim wood Dian thrids her way.

"With water-weeds twined in their locks of gold The strange cold forest-fairies dance in glee; Sylphs over-timorous and over-bold Haunt the dark hollows where the dwarf may be, The wild red dwarf, the nixies' enemy; Then, 'mid their mirth, and laughter, and affright, The sudden goddess enters, tall and white, With one long sigh for summers passed away; The swift feet tear the ivy nets outright, And through the dim wood Dian thrids her way.

"She gleans her sylvan trophies; down the wold She hears the sobbing of the stags that flee, Mixed with the music of the hunting rolled, But her delight is all in archery, And nought of ruth and pity wotteth she More than the hounds that follow on the flight; The tall nymph draws a golden bow of might, And thick she rains the gentle shafts that slay, She tosses loose her locks upon the night, And Dian through the dim wood thrids her way.

ENVOI.

"Prince, let us leave the din, the dust, the spite, The gloom and glare of towns, the plague, the blight; Amid the forest leaves and fountain spray There is the mystic home of our delight, And through the dim wood Dian thrids her way."


The piece is characteristic of M. De Banville's genius. Through his throng of operatic nixies and sylphs of the ballet the cold Muse sometimes passes, strange, but not unfriendly. He, for his part, has never degraded the beautiful forms of old religion to make the laughing-stock of fools. His little play, Diane au Bois, has grace, and gravity, and tenderness like the tenderness of Keats, for the failings of immortals. "The gods are jealous exceedingly if any goddess takes a mortal man to her paramour, as Demeter chose Iasion." The least that mortal poets can do is to show the Olympians an example of toleration.

"Les Cariatides" have delayed us too long. They are wonderfully varied, vigorous, and rich, and full of promise in many ways. The promise has hardly been kept. There is more seriousness in "Les Stalactites" (1846), it is true, but then there is less daring. There is one morsel that must be quoted,--a fragment fashioned on the air and the simple words that used to waken the musings of George Sand when she was a child, dancing with the peasant children:


"Nous n'irons plus an bois:  les lauries sont coupes,
Les amours des bassins, les naiades en groupe
Voient reluire au soleil, en cristaux decoupes
Les flots silencieux qui coulaient de leur coupe,
Les lauriers sont coupes et le cerf aux abois
Tressaille au son du cor:  nous n'irons plus au bois!
Ou des enfants joueurs riait la folle troupe
Parmi les lys d'argent aux pleurs du ciel trempes,
Voici l'herbe qu'on fauche et les lauriers qu'on coupe;
Nous n'irons plus au bois; les lauriers sont coupes."


In these days Banville, like Gerard de Nerval in earlier times, RONSARDISED. The poem 'A la Font Georges,' full of the memories of childhood, sweet and rich with the air and the hour of sunset, is written in a favourite metre of Ronsard's. Thus Ronsard says in his lyrical version of five famous lines of Homer--


"La gresle ni la neige
N'ont tels lieux pour leur siege
Ne la foudre oncques le
Ne devala."

(The snow, and wind, and hail May never there prevail, Nor thunderbolt doth fall, Nor rain at all.)


De Banville chose this metre, rapid yet melancholy, with its sad emphatic cadence in the fourth line, as the vehicle of his childish memories:


"O champs pleins de silence,
Ou mon heureuse enfance
Avait des jours encor
Tout files d'or!"

O ma vieille Font Georges, Vers qui les rouges-gorges Et le doux rossignol Prenaient leur vol!


So this poem of the fountain of youth begins, "tout file d'or," and closes when the dusk is washed with silver -


"A l'heure ou sous leurs voiles
Les tremblantes etoiles
Brodent le ciel changeant
De fleurs d'argent."


The "Stalactites" might detain one long, but we must pass on after noticing an unnamed poem which is the French counterpart of Keats' "Ode to a Greek Urn":


"Qu'autour du vase pur, trop beau pour la Bacchante,
La verveine, melee e des feuilles d'acanthe,
Fleurisse, et que plus bas des vierges lentement
S'avancent deux e deux, d'un pas sur et charmant,
Les bras pendants le long de leurs tuniques droites
Et les cheyeux tresses sur leurs tetes etroites."


In the same volume of the definite series of poems come "Les Odelettes," charming lyrics, one of which, addressed to Theophile Gautier, was answered in the well-known verses called "L'Art." If there had been any rivalry between the writers, M. De Banville would hardly have cared to print Gautier's "Odelette" beside his own. The tone of it is infinitely more manly: one seems to hear a deep, decisive voice replying to tones far less sweet and serious. M. De Banville revenged himself nobly in later verses addressed to Gautier, verses which criticise the genius of that workman better, we think, than anything else that has been written of him in prose or rhyme.

The less serious poems of De Banville are, perhaps, the better known in this country. His feats of graceful metrical gymnastics have been admired by every one who cares for skill pure and simple. "Les Odes Funambulesques" and "Les Occidentales" are like ornamental skating. The author moves in many circles and cuts a hundred fantastic figures with a perfect ease and smoothness. At the same time, naturally, he does not advance nor carry his readers with him in any direction. "Les Odes Funambulesques" were at first unsigned. They appeared in journals and magazines, and, as M. de Banville applied the utmost lyrical skill to light topics of the moment, they were the most popular of "Articles de Paris." One must admit that they bore the English reader, and by this time long scholia are necessary for the enlightenment even of the Parisian student. The verses are, perhaps, the "bird-chorus" of French life, but they have not the permanent truth and delightfulness of the "bird-chorus" in Aristophanes. One has easily too much of the Carnival, the masked ball, the debardeurs, and the pierrots. The people at whom M. De Banville laughed are dead and forgotten. There was a certain M. Paul Limayrac of those days, who barked at the heels of Balzac, and other great men, in the Revue des Deux Mondes. In his honour De Banville wrote a song which parodied all popular aspirations to be a flower. M. Limayrac was supposed to have become a blossom:


"Sur les coteaux et dans les landes
Voltigeant comme un oiseleur
Buloz en ferait des guirlandes
Si Limayrac devenait fleur!"


There is more of high spirits than of wit in the lyric, which became as popular as our modern invocation of Jingo, the god of battles. It chanced one night that M. Limayrac appeared at a masked ball in the opera-house. He was recognised by some one in the crowd. The turbulent waltz stood still, the music was silent, and the dancers of every hue howled at the critic


"Si Paul Limayrac devenait fleur!"


Fancy a British reviewer, known as such to the British public, and imagine that public taking a lively interest in the feuds of men of letters! Paris, to be sure, was more or less of a university town thirty years ago, and the students were certain to be largely represented at the ball.

The "Odes Funambulesques" contain many examples of M. De Banville's skill in reviving old forms of verse--triolets, rondeaux, chants royaux, and ballades. Most of these were composed for the special annoyance of M. Buloz, M. Limayrac, and a M. Jacquot who called himself De Mirecourt. The rondeaux are full of puns in the refrain: "Houssaye ou c'est; lyre, l'ire, lire," and so on, not very exhilarating. The pantoum, where lines recur alternately, was borrowed from the distant Malay; but primitive pantoum, in which the last two lines of each stanza are the first two of the next, occur in old French folk-song. The popular trick of repetition, affording a rest to the memory of the singer, is perhaps the origin of all refrains. De Banville's later satires are directed against permanent objects of human indignation--the little French debauchee, the hypocritical friend of reaction, the bloodthirsty chauviniste. Tired of the flashy luxury of the Empire, his memory goes back to his youth -


"Lorsque la levre de l'aurore
Baisait nos yeux souleves,
Et que nous n'etions pas encore
La France des petits creves."


The poem "Et Tartufe" prolongs the note of a satire always popular in France--the satire of Scarron, Moliere, La Bruyere, against the clerical curse of the nation. The Roman Question was Tartufe's stronghold at the moment. "French interests" demanded that Italy should be headless.


"Et Tartufe?  Il nous dit entre deux cremus
Que pour tout bon Francais l'empire est e Rome,
Et qu'ayant pour aieux Romulus et Remus
Nous tetterons la louve e jamais--le pauvre homme."


The new Tartufe worships St. Chassepot, who once, it will not be forgotten, "wrought miracles"; but he has his doubts as to the morality of explosive bullets. The nymph of modern warfare is addressed as she hovers above the Geneva Convention, -


"Quoi, nymphe du canon raye,
Tu montres ces pudeurs risibles
Et ce petit air effraye
Devant les balles exploisibles?"


De Banville was for long almost alone among poets in his freedom from Weltschmerz, from regret and desire for worlds lost or impossible. In the later and stupider corruption of the Empire, sadness and anger began to vex even his careless muse. She had piped in her time to much wild dancing, but could not sing to a waltz of mushroom speculators and decorated capitalists. "Le Sang de la Coupe" contains a very powerful poem, "The Curse of Venus," pronounced on Paris, the city of pleasure, which has become the city of greed. This verse is appropriate to our own commercial enterprise:


"Vends les bois ou dormaient Viviane et Merlin!
L'Aigle de mont n'est fait que pour ta gibeciere;
La neige vierge est le pour fournir ta glaciere;
Le torrent qui bondit sur le roc sybillin,
Et vole, diamant, neige, ecume et poussiere,
N'est plus bon qu'e tourner tes meules de moulin!"


In the burning indignation of this poem, M. De Banville reaches his highest mark of attainment. "Les Exiles" is scarcely less impressive. The outcast gods of Hellas, wandering in a forest of ancient Gaul, remind one at once of the fallen deities of Heine, the decrepit Olympians of Bruno, and the large utterance of Keats's "Hyperion." Among great exiles, Victor Hugo, "le pere le-bas dans l'ile," is not forgotten:


"Et toi qui l'accueillis, sol libre et verdoyant,
Qui prodigues les fleurs sur tes coteaux fertiles,
Et qui sembles sourire e l'ocean bruyant,
Sois benie, ile verte, entre toutes les iles."


The hoarsest note of M. De Banville's lyre is that discordant one struck in the "Idylles Prussiennes." One would not linger over poetry or prose composed during the siege, in hours of shame and impotent scorn. The poet sings how the sword, the flashing Durendal, is rusted and broken, how victory is to him -


" . . . qui se cela
Dans un trou, sous la terre noire."


He can spare a tender lyric to the memory of a Prussian officer, a lad of eighteen, shot dead through a volume of Pindar which he carried in his tunic.

It is impossible to leave the poet of gaiety and good-humour in the mood of the prisoner in besieged Paris. His "Trente Six Ballades Joyeuses" make a far more pleasant subject for a last word. There is scarcely a more delightful little volume in the French language than this collection of verses in the most difficult of forms, which pour forth, with absolute ease and fluency, notes of mirth, banter, joy in the spring, in letters, art, and good-fellowship.


"L'oiselet retourne aux forets;
Je suis un poete lyrique," -


he cries, with a note like a bird's song. Among the thirty-six every one will have his favourites. We venture to translate the "Ballad de Banville":


"AUX ENFANTS PERDUS


"I know Cythera long is desolate;
I know the winds have stripped the garden green.
Alas, my friends! beneath the fierce sun's weight
A barren reef lies where Love's flowers have been,
Nor ever lover on that coast is seen!
So be it, for we seek a fabled shore,
To lull our vague desires with mystic lore,
To wander where Love's labyrinths, beguile;
There let us land, there dream for evermore:
'It may be we shall touch the happy isle.'

"The sea may be our sepulchre. If Fate, If tempests wreak their wrath on us, serene We watch the bolt of Heaven, and scorn the hate Of angry gods that smite us in their spleen. Perchance the jealous mists are but the screen That veils the fairy coast we would explore. Come, though the sea be vexed, and breakers roar, Come, for the breath of this old world is vile, Haste we, and toil, and faint not at the oar; 'It may be we shall touch the happy isle.'

"Grey serpents trail in temples desecrate Where Cypris smiled, the golden maid, the queen, And ruined is the palace of our state; But happy loves flit round the mast, and keen The shrill wind sings the silken cords between. Heroes are we, with wearied hearts and sore, Whose flower is faded and whose locks are hoar. Haste, ye light skiffs, where myrtle thickets smile; Love's panthers sleep 'mid roses, as of yore: 'It may be we shall touch the happy isle.'

ENVOI.

"Sad eyes! the blue sea laughs, as heretofore. All, singing birds, your happy music pour; Ah, poets, leave the sordid earth awhile; Flit to these ancient gods we still adore: 'It may be we shall touch the happy isle.'"


Alas! the mists that veil the shore of our Cythera are not the summer haze of Watteau, but the smoke and steam of a commercial time.

It is as a lyric poet that we have studied M. De Banville. "Je ne m'entends qu'e la meurique," he says in his ballad on himself; but he can write prose when he pleases.

It is in his drama of Gringoire acted at the Theatre Francais, and familiar in the version of Messrs. Pollock and Besant, that M. De Banville's prose shows to the best advantage. Louis XI. is supping with his bourgeois friends and with the terrible Olivier le Daim. Two beautiful girls are of the company, friends of Pierre Gringoire, the strolling poet. Presently Gringoire himself appears. He is dying of hunger; he does not recognise the king, and he is promised a good supper if he will recite the new satirical "Ballade des Pendus," which he has made at the monarch's expense. Hunger overcomes his timidity, and, addressing himself especially to the king, he enters on this goodly matter:--


"Where wide the forest boughs are spread,
Where Flora wakes with sylph and fay,
Are crowns and garlands of men dead,
All golden in the morning gay;
Within this ancient garden grey
Are clusters such as no mail knows,
Where Moor and Soldan bear the sway:
This is King Louis' orchard close!

"These wretched folk wave overhead, With such strange thoughts as none may say; A moment still, then sudden sped, They swing in a ring and waste away. The morning smites them with her ray; They toss with every breeze that blows, They dance where fires of dawning play: This is King Louis' orchard close!

"All hanged and dead, they've summoned (With Hell to aid, that hears them pray) New legions of an army dread, Now down the blue sky flames the day; The dew dies off; the foul array Of obscene ravens gathers and goes, With wings that flap and beaks that flay: This is King Louis' orchard close!

ENVOI.

"Prince, where leaves murmur of the May, A tree of bitter clusters grows; The bodies of men dead are they! This is King Louis' orchard close!


Poor Gringoire has no sooner committed himself, than he is made to recognise the terrible king. He pleads that, if he must join the ghastly army of the dead, he ought, at least, to be allowed to finish his supper. This the king grants, and in the end, after Gringoire has won the heart of the heroine, he receives his life and a fair bride with a full dowry.

Gringoire is a play very different from M. De Banville's other dramas, and it is not included in the pretty volume of "Comedies" which closes the Lemerre series of his poems. The poet has often declared, with an iteration which has been parodied by M. Richepin, that "comedy is the child of the ode," and that a drama without the "lyric" element is scarcely a drama at all. While comedy retains either the choral ode in its strict form, or its representative in the shape of lyric enthusiasm (le lyrisme), comedy is complete and living. Gringoire, to our mind, has plenty of lyric enthusiasm; but M. De Banville seems to be of a different opinion. His republished "Comedies" are more remote from experience than Gringoire, his characters are ideal creatures, familiar types of the stage, like Scapin and "le beau Leandre," or ethereal persons, or figures of old mythology, like Diana in Diane au Bois, and Deidamia in the piece which shows Achilles among women. M. De Banville's dramas have scarcely prose enough in them to suit the modern taste. They are masques for the delicate diversion of an hour, and it is not in the nature of things that they should rival the success of blatant buffooneries. His earliest pieces--Le Feuilleton d'Aristophane (acted at the Odeon, Dec. 26th, 1852), and Le Cousin du Roi (Odeon, April 4th, 1857)--were written in collaboration with Philoxene Boyer, a generous but indiscreet patron of singers.


"Dans les salons de Philoxene
Nous etions quatre-vingt rimeurs,"


M. De Banville wrote, parodying the "quatre-vingt ramuers" of Victor Hugo. The memory of M. Boyer's enthusiasm for poetry and his amiable hospitality are not unlikely to survive both his compositions and those in which M. De Banville aided him. The latter poet began to walk alone as a playwright in Le Beau Leandre (Vaudeville, 1856)--a piece with scarcely more substance than the French scenes in the old Franco-Italian drama possess. We are taken into an impossible world of gay non-morality, where a wicked old bourgeois, Orgon, his daughter Colombine, a pretty flirt, and her lover Leandre, a light-hearted scamp, bustle through their little hour. Leandre, who has no notion of being married, says, "Le ciel n'est pas plus pur que mes intentions." And the artless Colombine replies, "Alors marions-nous!" To marry Colombine without a dowry forms, as a modern novelist says, "no part of Leandre's profligate scheme of pleasure." There is a sort of treble intrigue. Orgon wants to give away Colombine dowerless, Leandre to escape from the whole transaction, and Colombine to secure her dot and her husband. The strength of the piece is the brisk action in the scene when Leandre protests that he can't rob Orgon of his only daughter, and Orgon insists that he can refuse nothing except his ducats to so charming a son-in-law. The play is redeemed from sordidness by the costumes. Leandre is dressed in the attire of Watteau's "L'Indifferent" in the Louvre, and wears a diamond-hilted sword. The lady who plays the part of Colombine may select (delightful privilege!) the prettiest dress in Watteau's collection.

This love of the glitter of the stage is very characteristic of De Banville. In his Deidamie (Odeon, Nov. 18th, 1876) the players who took the roles of Thetis, Achilles, Odysseus, Deidamia, and the rest, were accoutred in semi-barbaric raiment and armour of the period immediately preceding the Graeco-Phoenician (about the eighth century B.C.). Again we notice the touch of pedantry in the poet. As for the play, the sombre thread in it is lent by the certainty of Achilles' early death, the fate which drives him from Deidamie's arms, and from the sea king's isle to the leagues under the fatal walls of Ilion. Of comic effect there is plenty, for the sisters of Deidamie imitate all the acts by which Achilles is likely to betray himself--grasp the sword among the insidious presents of Odysseus, when he seizes the spear, and drink each one of them a huge beaker of wine to the confusion of the Trojans. {1} On a Parisian audience the imitations of the tone of the Odyssey must have been thrown away. For example, here is a passage which is as near being Homeric as French verse can be. Deidamie is speaking in a melancholy mood:


"Heureux les epoux rois assis dans leur maison,
Qui voient tranquillement s'enfuir chaque saison -
L'epoux tenant son sceptre, environne de gloire,
Et l'epouse filant sa quenouille d'ivoire!
Mais le jeune heros que, la glaive e son franc!
Court dans le noir combat, les mains teintes de sang,
Laisse sa femme en pleurs dans sa haute demeure."


With the accustomed pedantry, M. De Banville, in the scene of the banquet, makes the cup-bearer go round dealing out a little wine, with which libation is made, and then the feast goes on in proper Homeric fashion. These overwrought details are forgotten in the parting scenes, where Deidamie takes what she knows to be her last farewell of Achilles, and girds him with his sword:


"La lame de l'epee, en sa forme divine
Est pareille e la feuille austere du laurier!"


Let it be noted that each of M. De Banville's more serious plays ends with the same scene, with slight differences. In Florise (never put on the stage) the wandering actress of Hardy's troupe leaves her lover, the young noble, and the shelter of his castle, to follow where art and her genius beckon her. In Diane au Bois the goddess "that leads the precise life" turns her back on Eros, who has subdued even her, and passes from the scene as she waves her hand in sign of a farewell ineffably mournful. Nearer tragedy than this M. De Banville does not care to go; and if there is any deeper tragedy in scenes of blood and in stages strewn with corpses, from that he abstains. His Florise is perhaps too long, perhaps too learned; and certainly we are asked to believe too much when a kind of etherealised Consuelo is set before us as the prima donna of old Hardy's troupe:


"Mais Florise n'est pas une femme.  Je suis
L'harmonieuse voix que berce vos ennuis;
Je suis la lyre aux sons divers que le poete
Fait resonner et qui sans lui serait muette--
Une comedienne enfin.  Je ne suis pas
Une femme."


An actress who was not a woman had little to do in the company of Scarron's Angelique and Mademoiselle de l'Estoile. Florise, in short, is somewhat too allegorical and haughty a creature; while Colombine and Nerine (Vaudeville, June 1864) are rather tricksy imps than women of flesh and blood. M. De Banville's stage, on the whole, is one of glitter and fantasy; yet he is too much a Greek for the age that appreciates "la belle Helene," too much a lyric dramatist to please the contemporaries of Sardou; he lends too much sentiment and dainty refinement to characters as flimsy as those of Offenbach's drama.

Like other French poets, M. De Banville has occasionally deigned to write feuilletons and criticisms. Not many of these scattered leaves are collected, but one volume, "La Mer de Nice" (Poulet- Malassis et De Broise, Paris, 1861), may be read with pleasure even by jealous admirers of Gautier's success as a chronicler of the impressions made by southern scenery.

To De Banville (he does not conceal it) a journey to a place so far from Paris as the Riviera was no slight labour. Even from the roses, the palms, the siren sea, the wells of water under the fronds of maiden-hair fern, his mind travels back wistfully to the city of his love.

"I am, I have always been, one of those devotees of Paris who visit Greece only when they gaze on the face, so fair and so terrible, of the twice-victorious Venus of the Louvre. One of those obstinate adorers of my town am I, who will never see Italy, save in the glass that reflects the tawny hair of Titian's Violante, or in that dread isle of Alcinous where Lionardo shows you the mountain peaks that waver in the blue behind the mysterious Monna Lisa. But the Faculty of Physicians, which has, I own, the right to be sceptical, does not believe that neuralgia can be healed by the high sun which Titian and Veronese have fixed on the canvas. To me the Faculty prescribes the real sun of nature and of life; and here am I, condemned to learn in suffering all that passes in the mind of a poet of Paris exiled from that blessed place where he finds the Cyclades and the islands blossoming, the vale of Avalon, and all the heavenly homes of the fairies of experience and desire."

Nice is Tomi to this Ovid, but he makes the best of it, and sends to the editor of the Moniteur letters much more diverting than the "Tristia." To tell the truth, he never overcomes his amazement at being out of Paris streets, and in a glade of the lower Alps he loves to be reminded of his dear city of pleasure. Only under the olives of Monaco, those solemn and ancient trees, he feels what surely all men feel who walk at sunset through their shadow--the memory of a mysterious twilight of agony in an olive garden.

"Et ceux-ci, les pales oliviers, n'est-ce pas de ces heures desolees ou, comme torture supreme, le Sauveur acceptait en son ame l'irreparable misere du doute, n'est-ce pas alors qu'il ont appris de lui e courber le front sous le poids imperieux des souvenirs?"

The pages which M. De Banville consecrates to the Villa Sardou, where Rachel died, may disenchant, perhaps, some readers of Mr. Matthew Arnold's sonnet. The scene of Rachel's death has been spoiled by "improvements" in too theatrical taste. All these notes, however, were made many years ago; and visitors of the Riviera, though they will find the little book charming where it speaks of seas and hills, will learn that France has greatly changed the city which she has annexed. As a practical man and a Parisian, De Banville has printed (pp. 179-81) a recipe for the concoction of the Marseilles dish, bouillabaisse, the mess that Thackeray's ballad made so famous. It takes genius, however, to cook bouillabaisse; and, to parody what De Banville says about his own recipe for making a mechanical "ballade," "en employment ce moyen, on est sur de faire une mauvaise, irremediablement mauvaise bouillabaisse." The poet adds the remark that "une bouillabaisse reussie vaut un sonnet sans defaut."

There remains one field of M. De Banville's activity to be shortly described. Of his "Emaux Parisiens," short studies of celebrated writers, we need say no more than that they are written in careful prose. M. De Banville is not only a poet, but in his "Petit Traite de Poesie Francaise" (Bibliotheque de l'Echo de la Sorbonne, s.d.) a teacher of the mechanical part of poetry. He does not, of course, advance a paradox like that of Baudelaire, "that poetry can be taught in thirty lessons." He merely instructs his pupil in the material part--the scansion, metres, and so on--of French poetry. In this little work he introduces these "traditional forms of verse," which once caused some talk in England: the rondel, rondeau, ballade, villanelle, and chant royal. It may be worth while to quote his testimony as to the merit of these modes of expression. "This cluster of forms is one of our most precious treasures, for each of them forms a rhythmic whole, complete and perfect, while at the same time they all possess the fresh and unconscious grace which marks the productions of primitive times." Now, there is some truth in this criticism; for it is a mark of man's early ingenuity, in many arts, to seek complexity (where you would expect simplicity), and yet to lend to that complexity an infantine naturalness. One can see this phenomenon in early decorative art, and in early law and custom, and even in the complicated structure of primitive languages. Now, just as early, and even savage, races are our masters in the decorative use of colour and of carving, so the nameless master-singers of ancient France may be our teachers in decorative poetry, the poetry some call vers de societe. Whether it is possible to go beyond this, and adapt the old French forms to serious modern poetry, it is not for any one but time to decide. In this matter, as in greater affairs, securus judicat orbis terrarum. For my own part I scarcely believe that the revival would serve the nobler ends of English poetry. Now let us listen again to De Banville.

"In the rondel, as in the rondeau and the ballade, all the art is to bring in the refrain without effort, naturally, gaily, and each time with novel effect and with fresh light cast on the central idea." Now, you can TEACH no one to do that, and M. De Banville never pretends to give any recipes for cooking rondels or ballades worth reading. "Without poetic VISION all is mere marquetery and cabinet- maker's work: that is, so far as poetry is concerned--nothing." It is because he was a poet, not a mere craftsman, that Villon was and remains the king, the absolute master, of ballad-land." About the rondeau, M. De Banville avers that it possesses "nimble movement, speed, grace, lightness of touch, and, as it were, an ancient fragrance of the soil, that must charm all who love our country and our country's poetry, in its every age." As for the villanelle, M. De Banville declares that it is the fairest jewel in the casket of the muse Erato; while the chant royal is a kind of fossil poem, a relic of an age when kings and allegories flourished. "The kings and the gods are dead," like Pan; or at least we no longer find them able, by touch royal or divine, to reanimate the magnificent chant royal.

This is M. De Banville's apology in pro lyra sua, that light lyre of many tones, in whose jingle the eternal note of modern sadness is heard so rarely. If he has a lesson to teach English versifiers, surely it is a lesson of gaiety. They are only too fond of rue and rosemary, and now and then prefer the cypress to the bay. M. De Banville's muse is content to wear roses in her locks, and perhaps may retain, for many years, a laurel leaf from the ancient laurel tree which once sheltered the poet at Turbia.


{1} The subject has been much more gravely treated in Mr. Robert Bridges's "Achilles in Scyros."


Andrew Lang

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