1902 Encyclopedia > François René de Chateaubriand

François René de Chateaubriand
French writer. soldier and diplomat

FRANÇOIS RENÉ, VISCOUNT DE CHATEAUBRI AND, (1768-1848), the most brilliant representative of the reaction against the ideas of the French Revolution, and the most conspicuous figure in French literature during the First Empire, was born at St Malo, September 4, 1768. Here, as beautifully narrated by himself, his naturally poetical temperament was fostered by picturesque influences, the mysterious reserve of his morose father, the ardent piety of his mother, the traditions of his ancient family, the legends and antiquated customs of the sequestered Breton district, above all, the vagueness and solemnity of the neighbouring ocean. He received his education at Dol and Rennes, and after declining to enter the church from an absence of vocation, obtained a commission in the army when on the point of proceeding to try his fortune in India (1788).
His thirst for distinction, further excited by the political convulsions of the following year, found vent in a romantic scheme for the discovery of the North West Passage, in pursuance of which he departed for America in 1790. The passage was not found or even attempted, but the adventurer returned enriched with the to him more important discovery of his own powers and vocation, conscious of his marvellous faculty for the delineation of nature, and stored with ideas and imagery, the material of much of his future work. His return coincided with the execution of Louis XVI. Chateau-briand, a Breton and a soldier, could not do otherwise than throw himself into the ranks of the emigrants. After the failure of the duke of Brunswick's invasion he retired to England, where he lived obscurely for several years, gaining an intimate acquaintance with English literature, and elaborating Thi Natchez, a prose epic designed to portray the life of the Red Indian tribes, and inspired by reminis-cences of his American travels. Two brilliant episodes of this work, Atala and Bene, have acquired universal renown ; but the work as a whole, to say nothing of the unreality of its pictures of savage life, belongs to that unfortunate compromise between the forms of prose and poetry in a manner imposed upon the French language by the penury of its poetic diction, but incapable of the perfection of either poetry or prose. Chateaubriand's first publication, however, was the Essay on Revolutions (1797). In this remarkable work, which the author subsequently retracted, but took care not to suppress, he appears as a mediator between royalist and revolutionary ideas, a free-thinker in religion, and in philosophy imbued with the spirit of Rousseau. A great change in his views was, however, at hand, induced, as he would have us believe, by the death of his mother in the same year. It is certain that upon his restoration to his country three years subse-quently, the Genius of Christianity was already in an advanced state. Before publishing it, however, he determined to make an essay with an episode of his romance. Atala, or The Loves of Two Savages, appeared in 1801, and immediately raised the author to the summit of literary distinction. Exquisite style, impassioned eloquence, and glowing descriptions of nature, gained indulgence for the incongruity between the rudeness of the personages and the refinement of the sentiments, and for the distasteful blending of prudery with sensuousness ; the latter was indeed conformable to the example of the author's models and predecessors. Alike in its merits and defects, the piece is a more emphatic and highly-coloured " Paul and Virginia ;" it has been justly said that Bernardin Saint Pierre models in marble and Chateaubriand in bronze. Encouraged by his success, the author resumed his Genius of Christianity, which appeared in the following year, just upon the eve of Napoleon's re-establishment of the Catholic religion, for which it thus almost seemed to have prepared the way. No coincidence could have been more opportune, and Chateaubriand might almost be pardoned for esteeming himself the counterpart of Napoleon in the intellectual order, as he certainly did. In composing his work he had borne in mind the admonition of his friend Joubert, that the public would care very little for his erudition and very much for his eloquence. It is consequently an inefficient production from the point of view of serious argument. The considerations derived from natural theology are but commonplaces rendered dazzling by the magic of style ; and the parallels between Christianity and antiquity, especially in arts and letters, are at best ingenious sophis-tries. The less polemical passages, however, where the author depicts the glories of the Catholic liturgy and its accessories, or expounds its symbolical significance, are splendid instances of the effect produced by the accumula-tion and judicious distribution of particulars gorgeous in the mass, and individually treated with the utmost refine-ment of detail Taken altogether, the work is a master-piece of literary art, and its immediate effect was very considerable. It admirably subserved the statecraft of Napoleon, who appointed the writer attaché at Rome, and when his insubordinate and intriguing spirit compelled his recall, transferred him as envoy to the canton of the Valais. The murder of the duke of Enghien took place during his absence on this mission. Chateaubriand, to his honour, immediately resigned his post, and subsequently manifested great courage in his indirect censures of Napoleon in a journal of which he had become proprietor, and which was ultimately suppressed. Ere this he had departed on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, undertaken, as he subsequently acknowledged, less in a devotional spirit than in quest of new imagery, and in deference to the wishes of a lady friend. The journey produced (1811) a record of travel distinguished by his habitual picturesqueness, and also inspired his prose epic of The Martyrs, published two years previously. This work may be regarded as the argument of the Genius of Christianity thrown into an objective form. Moore's Epicurean, and the more ambitious passages of Bulwer's earlier romances, may convey an adequate notion of it to the merely English reader. As in the Epicurean, the professed design is the contrast between Paganism and Christianity, which fails of its purpose partly from the absence of real insight into the genius of antiquity, and partly because the heathen are the most interesting characters after all. Two years previously had appeared Rene, another detached episode of The Natchez, and perhaps Chateaubriand's most characteristic production. The connecting links in European literature between Wer-ther and Childe Harold, it paints with wonderful mastery the misery of a morbid and dissatisfied soul, the type of a character blighted by over-sensitiveness on the one hand, and an egotism thinly disguised by poetical sentiment on the other. The representation is mainly from the life, and Chateaubriand must certainly be acquitted of the unreality and affectation which so frequently characterize similar delineations of the poetic temperament. Bene's morbid de-spondency is but the too faithful protrait of the desolation begotten in his own mind by the unnatural alliance between opulence of imagination and poverty of heart. His sister Lucile is the Amelie of the story. The Natchez, of which Rene was to have formed an episode, was not published until 1826, at which time also appeared the beautiful tale of The Jjast of the Abencerrages, written about 1809, and, as the author asserts, withheld from publication on account of the Peninsular War. With this composition Chateau-briand's career as an imaginative writer is closed ; and we have henceforth chiefly to consider him as a politician. His character in this point of view may be comprised in a sentence ; he was equally formidable to his antagonists when in opposition and to his friends when in office. His-poetical receptivity and impressionableness rendered him honestly inconsistent with himself, while his vanity and ambition, too morbidly acute to be restrained by the ties of party allegiance, made him dangerous and untrustworthy as a political associate. His pamphlet, Bonaparte and the Bourbons, published in 1814, while the fate of Napoleon yet trembled in the balance, was as opportune in the moment of its appearance as the Genius of Christianity, and produced a hardly less signal effect. Louis XVIII. declared that it had been worth a hundred thousand men to him. Chateaubriand was called to his councils, accompanied him to Ghent during the Hundred Days, and for a time asso-ciated himself with the excesses of the royalist reaction. Political bigotry, however, was not among his faults; he gradually drifted into liberalism and opposition, and upon a change of ministry, obtained the London embassy, from which he was transferred to represent his country at the Congress of Verona. He here made himself mainly responsible for the iniquitous invasion of Spain,—an expedition undertaken, as he himself admits, with the puerile idea of restoring French prestige by a military parade. He next received the portfolio of foreign affairs, which he soon lost by his desertion of his colleagues on the question of a reduction of the interest on the national debt. After another interlude of effective pamphleteering in opposition, he accepted the embassy to Rome under the Martignac administration, resigned it at Prince Polignac's accession to office, and on the downfall of the elder branch of the Bourbons, made one last extremely brilliant but inevitably fruitless protest from the tribune in defence of the principle of legitimacy. During the first half of Louis Philippe's reign he was still active with his pen, and was regarded as the most efficient champion of the exiled dynasty, but as years increased upon him, and the prospect of his again performing a conspicuous part diminished, he relapsed into an attitude of complete discouragement, and contributed to chill the ardour of his own party. His narrative of his share in the Congress of Verona, the Life of Ranee, aad his translation of Milton, belong to the writings of these later days. He expired on July 4, 1848, wholly exhausted and thoroughly discontented with himself and the world, but affectionately teuded by his old friend Madame Récamier, herself deprived of sight. His remains were interred in Grand Bey, a lonely islet off the coast of Brittany. Shortly after his death his memory was powerfully revived, and at the same time exposed to much adverse criticism, by the publication, with sundry mutila-tions as has been suspected, of his celebrated Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe, the composition of which had occupied him at intervals during the greater part of his life. These memoirs undoubtedly reveal his vanity, his egotism, the frequent hollowness of his professed convictions, and his incapacity for sincere attachment, except, perhaps, in the case of Madame Récamier. They abound, on the other hand, with beauties of the first order, and much of the rough treatment they have experienced is attributable to the animosity of party. Their principal literary defect is the frequent encroachment of the historical element upon the autobiographical, the writer's exaggerated estimate of his own consequence leading him to allow a disproportionate space to transactions in which he had in fact but little share.
Chateaubriand ranks rather as a great rhetorician than as a great poet, rather as a great writer than a great man. Something of affectation or unreality commonly interferes with the enjoyment of his finest works. The Genius of Christianity is a brilliant piece of special pleading ; Atala is marred by its unfaithfulness to the truth of uncivilized human nature, René by the perversion of sentiment which solicits sympathy for a character rather deserving of contempt. Chateaubriand's fame owes much to the timeliness of his appearances in print, and even more to the genuine conviction of his countrymen that French literature and European literature are practically convertible terms. They have hence made his position in the former the standard of his influence over the latter, which, for an author so widely read and so generally admired, has in reality been but small. Even in France he is chiefly significant as marking the transition from the old classical to the modern romantic school. He belongs to the latter by the idiosyncrasy of his genius, to the former by the comparative severity of his taste. The fertility of ideas, vehemence of expression, and luxury of natural description, which he shares with the romanticists, are controlled by a discipline imbibed in the school of their predecessors. His palette, always brilliant, is never gaudy ; he is not merely a painter but an artist. He is a master of epigrammatic and incisive sayings, and has contributed as much as any great French writer to foster the disastrous national partiality for la phrase. Perhaps, however, the most truly characteristic feature of his genius is the peculiar magical touch which Mr Arnold has indicated as a note of Celtic extraction, which reveals some occult quality in a familiar object, or tinges it, one knows not how, with " the light that never was on sea or land." This incommunicabls gift is of necessity genuine, and supplies an element of sincerity to Chateaubriand's writings which goes far to redeem the artificial effect of his calculated sophistry and set declamation. It is also fortunate for his fame that so large a part of his writings should directly or indirectly refer to himself, for on this theme he always writes well. Egotism was his master-passion, and beyond his intrepidity and the loftiness of his intellectual carriage his character presents little to admire. He is a signal instance of the compatibility of genuine poetic emotion, and sympathy with the grander aspects both of man and nature, and even munificence in pecuniary matters, with absorption in self and general sterility of heart.
The principal authority for Chateaubriand's biography is his
own Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe. The Souvenirs et Correspondance of
Madame Récamier may also be consulted. The best general review
of his character and writings is Sainte Beuve's Chateaubriand et sa
Groupie Littéraire, Paris, 1872 ; see also the Count de Marcellus's
Chateaubriand et son Temps, and for his diplomatic career the
latter's Souvenirs Diplomatiques. The best edition of his works is
Sainte Beuve's, Paris, 1859-fiO. (R. G.)

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