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Sieur de Montaigne

The French National Library has recently, as it is said, made an acquisition of great value and interest. The books, and better still the notes, of Montaigne, the essayist, have been bought up at the not very exorbitant price of thirty-six thousand francs. The volumes are the beautiful editions of the sixteenth century--the age of great scholars and of printers, like the Estiennes, who were at once men of learning and of taste. It is almost certain that they must be enriched with marginal notes of Montaigne's, and the marginal notes of a great man add even more to the value of a book than the scribblings of circulating library readers detract from its beauty. There is always something characteristic in a man's treatment of his books. Coleridge's marginalia on borrowed works, according to Lamb, were an ornament of value to his friends, if they were lucky enough to get the books back again. Poe's marginalia were of exquisite neatness, though in their printed form they were not very interesting. Thackeray's seem mostly to have taken the shape of slight sketches in illustration of the matter. Scaliger's notes converted a classic into a new and precious edition of one example. Casaubon's, on the other hand, were mere scratches and mnemonic lines and blurs, with which he marked his passage through a book, as roughly as the American woodsman "blazes" his way through a forest. "None could read the comment save himself," and the text was disfigured. We may be sure that Montaigne's marginalia are of a very different value. As he walked up and down in his orchard, or in his library, beneath the rafters engraved with epicurean maxims, he jotted his thoughts hastily on the volume in his hand--on the Pliny, or Suetonius, or Livy. His library was probably not a large one, for he had but a few favourite authors, the Latin historians, moralists, and anecdotists, and for mere amusement Terence and Catullus, Boccaccio and Rabelais. His thoughts fell asleep, he says, if he was not walking about, and his utter want of memory made notes and note-books necessary to him. He who could not remember the names of the most ordinary tools used in agriculture, nor the difference between oats and barley, could never keep in his head his enormous stock of classical anecdotes and modern instances. His thoughts got innocently confused with his recollections, and his note-books will probably show whence he drew many of his stories, and the quotations that remain untraced. They will add also to our knowledge of the man and of his character, though it might seem difficult to give additional traits in the portrait of himself which he has painted with so many minute touches.

With the exception of Dr. Johnson, there is scarcely any great man of letters whom we are enabled to know so intimately as the Sieur de Montaigne. He has told us all about himself; all about his age, as far as it came under his eager and observant eyes; all about the whole world, as far as it made part of his experience. Rousseau is not more frank, and not half so worthy of credit, for Rousseau, like Topsy in the novel, had a taste for "'fessing" offences that he had never committed rather than not "'fess" at all. Montaigne strikes no such attitudes; he does not pose, he does not so much confess as blab. His life stands before the reader "as in a picture." We learn that his childhood was a happier one than usually fell to the lot of children in that age when there was but little honey smeared on the cup of learning. We know that his father taught him Greek in a kind of sport or game, that the same parent's relations with the fair sex were remarkable, and that he had extraordinary strength in his thumb. For his own part, Montaigne was so fresh and full of life that Simon Thomas, a great physician, said it would make a decrepit old man healthy again to live in his company. One thinks of him as a youth like the irrepressible Swiss who amused the ennui of Gray.

Even in his old age, Montaigne was a gay, cheerful, untiring traveller, always eager to be going on, delighted with every place he visited, and yet anxious for constant change of scene and for new experience. To be amusingly and simply selfish is ever part of the charm of Montaigne. He adds to his reader's pleasure in life by the keenness with which he relished his own existence, and savoured every little incident as a man relishes the bouquet of wine. Without selfishness, how can this be managed? and without perfect simplicity and the good faith on which he prided himself, how could Montaigne, how could Pepys, have enriched the world as they have done? His essays are among the few works that really and literally make life more opulent with accumulated experience, criticism, reflection, humour. He gives of his rich nature, his lavish exuberance of character, out of that fresh and puissant century to this rather weary one, just as his society in youth might have been given to the sick old man.

Besides what he has to give in this manner, Montaigne seems to express French character, to explain the French genius and the French way of looking at life, more clearly and completely than any other writer. He has at bottom the intense melancholy, the looking forward to the end of all, which is the ground-note of the poetry of Villon, and of Ronsard, as of the prose of Chateaubriand. The panelled library in Montaigne's chateau was carven with mottoes, which were to be charms against too great fear of death. "For my part," he says, "if a man could by any means avoid death, were it by hanging a calf-skin on his limbs, I am one that would not be ashamed of the shift." Happy it is, he thinks, that we do not, as a rule, meet death on a sudden, any more than we encounter the death of youth in one day. But this is only the dark background of the enjoyment of life, to which Montaigne clings, as he says, "even too eagerly." Merely to live, merely to muse over this spectacle of the world, simply to feel, even if the thing felt be agony, and to reflect on the pain, and on how it may best be borne--this is enough for Montaigne. This is his philosophy, reconciling in a way the maxims of the schools that divided the older worlds, the theories of the Stoic and wiser Epicurean. To make each moment yield all that it has of experience, and of reflection on that experience, is his system of existence. Acting on this idea, all contrasts of great and petty, mean and divine, in human nature do not sadden, but delight him. It was part of the play to see the division between the King of Navarre (Henri IV.) and the Duke of Guise. He told Thuanus that he knew the most secret thoughts of both these princes, and that he was persuaded that neither of them was of the religion he professed. This scandal gave him no concern, compared with his fear that his own castle would suffer in wars of the League. As to the Reformation, he held it for a hasty, conceited movement on the part of persons who did not know what they were meddling with, and, being a perfect sceptic, he was a perfectly good Churchman. Full of tolerance, good-humour, and content, cheerful in every circumstance, simple and charming, yet melancholy in his hour, Montaigne is a thorough representative of the French spirit in literature. His English translator in 1776 declares that "he meets with a much more favourable entertainment in England than in his native country, a servile nation that has lost all sense of liberty." Like many other notions current in 1776, this theory of Montaigne's popularity at home and abroad has lost its truth. Perhaps it would be more true to say that Montaigne is one of the last authors whom modern taste learns to appreciate. He is a man's author, not a woman's; a tired man's, not a fresh man's. We all come to him, late indeed, but at last, and rest in his panelled library.


Andrew Lang