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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Jean-Henri Fabre (1823–1915)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Leland Hall (1883–1957)
 
IN 1910 the French Academy offered one of its most considerable prizes, the Prix Née, to Jean-Henri Fabre, at that time eighty-seven years old, the author of ten volumes of ‘Souvenirs entomologiques’ (Recollections of an Entomologist). Naturally the prize was in recognition, not of Fabre’s work as a scientist, but of the literary merit of the ‘Souvenirs.’ Whatever may be Fabre’s rank as a scientist in years to come, the literary, one might almost say the poetic, charm of the ‘Souvenirs’ will remain imperishable. No romance has more power to hold a reader spellbound than these ten volumes, the exact record of scientific and minute observation. They are written in a language that is always simple and clear, both musical and strikingly picturesque; and in a style that is in every way free from self-consciousness, one is tempted to say uniquely so. There is no suggestion of polish or of more elegance than is inherent in the spirit of the French language. Such writing seems to have sprung from the very soil of France, and has the unforgettable beauty of her countryside.  1
  Fabre was well over fifty when he began the ‘Souvenirs.’ His life had been obscure, and was practically to remain so. From infancy he had had to fight against poverty. After his death, in 1915, there was found among his possessions but one costly instrument, a microscope which had been presented to him in recognition of the value of his researches to science. He never could afford a laboratory or any of the paraphernalia of the professional scientist. The few things that were indispensable to him in his work he made or improvised himself. This he would not perhaps have had otherwise. But that he felt a deep resentment against the ever-present necessity to take time from his true study in order to earn bread for his family is abundantly attested in the ‘Souvenirs.’ The resentment is the more bitter because it would have taken so little money to satisfy his modest needs.  2
  Up to the time that he settled at Sérignan, where the last thirty-five years of his life were passed, he had earned his living as a teacher. The ‘Souvenirs’ are full of recollections of these first sixty years. He was born at Saint-Leons in the Haut Rouergue (Aveyron) on December 23d, 1823. Almost as soon as he could walk, he has said, the wonders of nature eclipsed for him the tales that his old grandmother used to tell him, as they sat before a roaring fire on the cold nights of winter. The voice of nature remained throughout his life sweeter to him than language and as mysterious as a dream. Undeterred by poverty he made his way through the normal school at Avignon, and at the age of nineteen secured a position in the college at Carpentras as primary teacher. The teaching was not arduous, and he used his spare time in the study of mathematics and physics, preparing himself for a licentiate. After he had secured this, he was invited to the chair of physics at the university of Ajacco, in Corsica. Here he met the botanist Renquien, and with him made a thorough study of the flora in Corsica. Here, too, began his special interest in entomology. Eventually he obtained an assistant professorship in the Lycée at Avignon. In 1855 he attracted the attention of scientists by an article on the giant wasp Cerceris, which was published in the ‘Annales de Science’; and in the same year he won his doctorate.  3
  For many years he stayed at Avignon, never advanced, hardly recognized, and always poor. Then at the suggestion of Victor Duruy, who was endeavoring to extend the system of education in France, especially for women, he undertook a series of free lectures to women on subjects of natural history and science. Some of his observations aroused the animosity of the church, and the general success of the lectures stirred up envy among his colleagues in the Lyceé; so that in 1871, out of patience with the petty persecution by which he was surrounded, and victim, too, of some scheming, he left Avignon. Thanks to the generosity of the English economist, J. S. Mill, he was able to hire an old house near Orange, and here for nine years he earned a living by writing textbooks. Two of these, ‘La terre’ and ‘Le ciel,’ are among the most fascinating of his works. After this he went to Sérignan, where for the first time in his life he owned his house; and here he lived until his death, withdrawn from the world, surrounded by his family, studious up to the last of his beloved insects, and ever writing down his recollections and observations.  4
  These, by which his name has become familiar to the world, are far more than a record of his scientific research. They are full of personal reminiscences, of descriptions of the scenes of his childhood, of a simple but profoundly wise philosophy, and even of prophecy. Always the language is clear and picturesque. As for its clarity, Fabre has himself written that he owes what skill he has in expression to his study of geometry. Back of it one recognizes the highly trained mind, keen, fixed upon truth, packed with knowledge. And Fabre’s knowledge was very great. He was not only an entomologist; he wished to be considered a biologist. He was moreover a mathematician, a geologist, and a botanist. He knew exactly what he wished to say, whether he was writing about a stone, a flower, a star, or a bee.  5
  For the source of other qualities of his language, its fervor, its vividness, and above all its indescribable picturesqueness, one looks to the temperament of the man. Fabre was a poet. He wrote with emotion, even with passion. To him nature was always alive, and he had for her the love of man for living things, not the curiosity of the abstract scientist for the specimen. One secret of the charm of the ‘Souvenirs’ is that they present to us a living world. We read of insects in their life; we assist at their labors, at their warfare, their lovemaking, and their housebuilding. We feel stirred within us a sense of that vast movement in nature which surrounds us, infinitely complex and never still. Nothing that Fabre wrote of can be dissociated from that movement. Man is but a part of it, scarcely more wonderful than the blind grub that spends its life in the black heart of a tree. For him the architecture of the Louvre was surpassed by the architecture of the shell of a snail, and there was nothing more marvelous than the wings of a butterfly.  6
  Yet Fabre dealt with facts, not with marvels. His language revealed what he had seen. Ardent prophet and interpreter of the object of his lifelong love, he would make her clear to the rest of the world, not only to those who are old and wise, but also to children. Hence the simplicity of his language a youth may read and love: the homely metaphors, the bright colors and pleasant sounds, the familiar words of every day, old and deep in the heart of the race for which he wrote.
          “My dear insects, if you cannot convince these fine people because you cannot be weightily dull, I will say in my turn: You dissect creatures and I study them alive; you make them objects of horror and pity and I make them lovable; you labor in a torture chamber while I make my observations under the blue sky and to the song of the cicada; you submit the cell and the protoplasm to reactions, but I study instinct in its highest manifestations; you pore over death, I over life. And why should I not carry out my thought to its end; wild boars have troubled the clear waters of the spring; natural history, that magnificent study for youth, because of cellular perfections, has become odious, repulsive. Now, if I write for wise men, for philosophers who one day will try to solve the arduous problem of instinct, I write no less, I write above all, for young people whom I wish to make love that natural history which you have made them hate. And that is why, though I remain in the scrupulous domain of the true, I abstain from your scientific prose, which, too often, alas, seems borrowed from some idiom of the Hurons.”
  7
  From start to finish the ‘Souvenirs’ are intensely interesting. The reader can lay down a volume only with the feeling that he has been beguiled, almost as by a fairy tale. To all, no matter how little interested in natural history, M. Paul Thureau-Dangin, Secretary of the French Academy, gave the following advice in his report on the concours of 1910:
          “Read these tales, and you will feel their charm, their kindness, their simplicity, their life; you will feel within you an ardent affection for this lovable science which so goes on from day to day in the fine summer weather, ‘to the song of the cicada’; for this science which is in no way Germanic, which is thoroughly Latin, Virgilian at moments, which goes hand in hand with poetry, which is, in short, so permeated with love that often it seems as if there rose from these simple recollections of an entomologist a strophe of the Song of Praise, sung by the three Hebrew children, Benedicite, omnia opera.”
  8
 
 
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