1902 Encyclopedia > Nicolas Chamfort

Nicolas Chamfort
French writer known for his witty epigrams and aphorisms
(1741-94)




NICOLAS CHAMFORT, (1741-1794), one of the most famous talkers of a century rich in conversational excellence, was born at a little village near Clermont in Auvergne. The illegitimate child of a dame de compagnie, he never knew his father, and started in life as plain Nicolas, that being the name bestowed on him by his mother. A journey to Paris resulted, through some now unknown influence, in the boy's obtaining a bursary at the College des Grassins. He worked hard, and won nine prizes out of ten in two years. It is significant of his cynical and original turn of mind that he should have been the only critic disposed to be severe on the Latin hexameters that crowned his college reputation, and that in after years he should have regarded as wasted the time bestowed on the acquisition of academical knowledge, his opinion of which is expressed in one of his most contemptuous epigrams—"Ce que j'ai appris je ne le sais plus; le peu que je sais je lai divine." After this success the future king of the salons ran away from college, in company with two class-mates, on a voyage round the world. The three rovers reached Cherbourg, and there reflected. They returned, and Chamfort became an abbe. " C'est un costume, et non point un etat," he said; and to the principal of his college who promised him a benefice, he replied that he would never be a priest, inasmuch as he preferred honour to honours— "faime I'honneur et non les honneurs."

About this time he assumed that name of Chamfort he was afterwards to render famous, and plunged hap-hazard into the press for literary work and renown. He met with scant suc-cess. Repulsed by editors and booksellers alike, he took to making sermons at a louis each for an incompetent brother ; and in this way, scribbling now and then for the journals, he contrived to exist for a whole year. A successful com-petition for one of the Academy's prizes opened to him the draw ing-rooms of the upper world, and he became fashionable. His health and constitution were exceedingly vigorous; but his passions were violent, he lived hard, and he presently had to seek rest and recovery at Spa and elsewhere. In a second competition he was unsuccessful; but a comedy of little merit, La Jeune Indienne, made some noise, and con-soled him for his failure. He was always poor. Though his was already a well known name, he lived on elee-mosynary dinners and suppers, repaying countenance and sustenance with his bons mots. Madame Helvetius entertained him at Sevres for some years. Chabanon, however, gave up to the destitute wit his pension of 1200 livres on the Mercure de France, and about the same time Chamfort took two more Academy prizes for his eulogies on Moliere and on La Fontaine, by which he also won a hundred louis from Necker, and obtained an enormous reputation. And as he wrote little and talked a great deal, his reputation increased, till, under protection of the Duchesse de Grammont, he went to court. His poor tragedy, Mustapha et Zeangir, was played at Fontainebleau before Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette; the king added 1200 livres to the gift of Chabanon, and the Prince de Conde made Chamfort his secretary. The man was then some forty years of age ; he was fast growing misanthropical ; he was " gai mais ombrageux;" he was a Bohemian naturally and by habit. He resigned his post in the prince's household, and retired into solitude at Auteuil. There, comparing the authors of old with the men of his own time, he uttered the famous mot that proclaims the superiority of the dead over the living as companions ; and there too he presently fell in love. The lady, attached to the household of the Duchesse de Maine, was forty-eight years old, but clever, amusing, a woman of the world ; and Chamfort married her. They left Auteuil, and went to Vaudouleurs, near Etampes, where in six months Madame Chamfort died. The widowed epicurean travelled, lived in Holland for a space with M. de Narbonne, and returning to Paris received the Academy arm-chair left vacant by the death of Sainte-Pelaye in 1781. He haunted the court, and made himself loved in spite of the reach and tendency of his unalterable irony ; but he quitted it for ever after an unfortunate and mysterious love affair, and was received into the house of M. de Vaudreuil. Among the many men of mark assem-bled round him there by his fine faculty of pregnant speech, he made the acquaintance and gained the friendship of Mirabeau, whom he assisted with oratious, and whom he followed heart and soul into the storm and tumult of the young Revolution.





He forgot his old friends (" ceux qui passent la fleuve des révolutions ont passé la fleuve de l'oubli") ; he frequented the clubs, and for a time was secretary of that of the Jacobins ; he became a street-orator ; he entered the Bastille among the first of the storming party ; he worked for the Mercure de France, a royalist print in which he depreciated kingship. With the reign of Marat and Robespierre, however, his uncompromising Jacobinism grew critical, and with the fall of the Girondins his political life came to an end. But he could not restrain the tongue that had made him famous ; he no more spared the Convention than he had spared the Court. His notorious republicanism failed to excuse the sarcasms he lavished on the new order of things ; and denounced by au assistant in the Bibliothèque Nationale, to a share in the direction of which he had been appointed by Boland, he was taken to the Madelonnettes. Released for a moment, he was threatened again with arrest ; but to this brilliant free-lance of thought captivity had been intolerable, and he had determined to prefer death to a repetition of the moral and physical restraint to which he had been subjected. He attempted suicide, with pistol and with poniard ; and, horribly hacked and shattered, dictated to those who came to arrest him the well-known declaration—"Moi, Sebastien-Roch-Nicolas Chamfort, declare avoir voulu mourir en homme libre plutôt que d'être conduit en esclave dans une prison"—which he signed in a firm hand and in his own blood. He did not die at once, but lingered on a while in charge of a gendarme, for whose wardship he paid a crown a day. To the Abbé Sieyès Chamfort had given fortune in the title of a pamphlet (" Qu'est-ce que le Tiers-État ? Tout. Qu'a-t-il 1 Rien"), and to Sieyès did Chamfort retail his supreme sarcasm, the famous " Je m'en vais enfin de ce monde où il faut que le cœur se brise ou se bronze." The maker of constitutions followed the dead wit to the grave.

The writings of Chamfort, which include comedies, political articles, literary criticisms, portraits, letters, and verses, are colourless and uninteresting in the extreme. As a talker, however, he was of extraordinary force. His Maximes et Pensées, highly praised' by John Stuart Mill, are, after those of La Rochefoucauld, the most brilliant and suggestive sayings that have been given to the modern world. The aphorisms of Chamfort, less systematic and psychologically less important than those of the ducal moralist, are as significant in, their violence and iconoclastic spirit of the period of storm and preparation that gave them birth as the Reflexions in their exquisite restraint and elaborate subtlety are characteristic of the tranquil elegance of their epoch ; and they have the advantage in richness of colour, in picturesqueness of phrase, in passion, in audacity. Sainte-Beuve compares them to " well-minted coins that retain their value," and to keen arrows that " arrivent brusquement et sifflent encore." An edition of his works— Œuvres complètes de Nicolas Chamfort, 5 volumes—was published at Paris in 1824-25. A selection— Œuvres de Chamfort—in one volume, appeared in 1852, with a biographical and critical preface by Arsène Houssaye, reprinted from the Revue des Deux Mondes. See also Sainte-Beuve, Causeries de Lundi. (w. E. H.)







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