Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
François Arago (1786–1853)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edward Singleton Holden (1846–1914)
DOMINIQUE FRANÇOIS ARAGO was born February 26th, 1786, near Perpignan, in the Eastern Pyrenees, where his father held the position of Treasurer of the Mint. He entered the École Polytechnique in Paris after a brilliant examination, and held the first places throughout the course. In 1806 he was sent to Valencia in Spain, and to the neighboring island of Iviza, to make the astronomical observations for prolonging the arc of the meridian from Dunkirk southward, in order to supply the basis for the metric system.  1
  Here begin his extraordinary adventures, which are told with inimitable spirit and vigor in his ‘Autobiography.’ Arago’s work required him to occupy stations on the summits of the highest peaks in the mountains of southeastern Spain. The peasants were densely ignorant and hostile to all foreigners, so that an escort of troops was required in many of his journeys. At some stations he made friends of the bandits of the neighborhood, and carried on his observations under their protection, as it were. In 1807 the tribunal of the Inquisition existed in Valencia; and Arago was witness to the trial and punishment of a pretended sorceress,—and this, as he says, in one of the principal towns of Spain, the seat of a celebrated university. Yet the worst criminals lived unmolested in the cathedrals, for the “right of asylum” was still in force. His geodetic observations were mysteries to the inhabitants, and his signals on the mountain top were believed to be part of the work of a French spy. Just at this time hostilities broke out between France and Spain, and the astronomer was obliged to flee disguised as a Majorcan peasant, carrying his precious papers with him. His knowledge of the Majorcan language saved him, and he reached a Spanish prison with only a slight wound from a dagger. It is the first recorded instance, he says, of a fugitive flying to a dungeon for safety. In this prison, under the care of Spanish officers, Arago found sufficient occupation in calculating observations which he had made; in reading the accounts in the Spanish journals of his own execution at Valencia; and in listening to rumors that it was proposed (by a Spanish monk) to do away with the French prisoner by poisoning his food.  2
  The Spanish officer in charge of the prisoners was induced to connive at the escape of Arago and M. Berthémie (an aide-de-camp of Napoleon); and on the 28th of July, 1808, they stole away from the coast of Spain in a small boat with three sailors, and arrived at Algiers on the 3d of August. Here the French consul procured them two false passports, which transformed the Frenchmen into strolling merchants from Schwekat and Leoben. They boarded an Algerian vessel and set off. Let Arago describe the crew and cargo:—
          “The vessel belonged to the Emir of Seca. The commander was a Greek captain named Spiro Calligero. Among the passengers were five members of the family superseded by the Bakri as kings of the Jews; two Maroccan ostrich-feather merchants; Captain Krog from Bergen in Norway; two lions sent by the Dey of Algiers as presents to the Emperor Napoleon; and a great number of monkeys.”
  As they entered the Golfe du Lion their ship was captured by a Spanish corsair and taken to Rosas. Worst of all, a former Spanish servant of Arago’s—Pablo—was a sailor in the corsair’s crew! At Rosas the prisoners were brought before an officer for interrogation. It was now Arago’s turn. The officer begins:—

          “‘Who are you?’
  “‘A poor traveling merchant.’
  “‘From whence do you come?’
  “‘From a country where you certainly have never been.’
  “‘Well—from what country?’
  “I feared to answer; for the passports (steeped in vinegar to prevent infection) were in the officer’s hands, and I had entirely forgotten whether I was from Schwekat or from Leoben. Finally I answered at a chance, ‘I am from Schwekat’; fortunately this answer agreed with the passport.
  “‘You’re from Schwekat about as much as I am,’ said the officer: ‘you’re a Spaniard, and a Spaniard from Valencia to boot, as I can tell by your accent.’
  “‘Sir, you are inclined to punish me simply because I have by nature the gift of languages. I readily learn the dialects of the various countries where I carry on my trade. For example, I know the dialect of Iviza.’
  “‘Well, I will take you at your word. Here is a soldier who comes from Iviza. Talk to him.’
  “‘Very well; I will even sing the goat-song.’
  “The verses of this song (if one may call them verses) are separated by the imitated bleatings of the goat. I began at once, with an audacity which even now astonishes me, to intone the song which all the shepherds in Iviza sing:—
  Ah graciada Señora,
Una canzo bouil canta,
    Bè bè bè bè.
No sera gaiva pulida,
Nosé si vos agradara,
    Bè bè bè bè.
  “Upon which my Ivizan avouches, in tears, that I am certainly from Iviza. The song had affected him as a Switzer is affected by the ‘Ranz des Vaches.’ I then said to the officer that if he would bring to me a person who could speak French, he would find the same embarrassment in this case also. An emigré of the Bourbon regiment comes forward for the new experiment, and after a few phrases affirms without hesitation that I am surely a Frenchman. The officer begins to be impatient.
  “‘Have done with these trials: they prove nothing. I require you to tell me who you are.’
  “‘My foremost desire is to find an answer which will satisfy you. I am the son of the innkeeper at Mataro.’
  “‘I know that man: you are not his son.’
  “‘You are right: I told you that I should change my answers till I found one to suit you. I am a marionette player from Lerida.’
  “A huge laugh from the crowd which had listened to the interrogatory put an end to the questioning.”
  Finally it was necessary for Arago to declare outright that he was French, and to prove it by his old servant Pablo. To supply his immediate wants he sold his watch; and by a series of misadventures this watch subsequently fell into the hands of his family, and he was mourned in France as dead.  5
  After months of captivity the vessel was released, and the prisoner set out for Marseilles. A fearful tempest drove them to the harbor of Bougie, an African port a hundred miles east of Algiers. Thence they made the perilous journey by land to their place of starting, and finally reached Marseilles eleven months after their voyage began. Eleven months to make a journey of four days!  6
  The intelligence of the safe arrival, after so many perils, of the young astronomer, with his packet of precious observations, soon reached Paris. He was welcomed with effusion. Soon afterward (at the age of twenty-three years) he was elected a member of the section of Astronomy of the Academy of Sciences, and from this time forth he led the peaceful life of a savant. He was the Director of the Paris Observatory for many years; the friend of all European scientists; the ardent patron of young men of talent; a leading physicist; a strong Republican, though the friend of Napoleon; and finally the Perpetual Secretary of the Academy.  7
  In the latter capacity it was part of his duty to prepare éloges of deceased Academicians. Of his collected works in fourteen volumes, ‘Œuvres de François Arago,’ published in Paris, 1865, three volumes are given to these ‘Notices Biographiques.’ Here may be found the biographies of Bailly, Sir William Herschel, Laplace, Joseph Fourier, Carnot, Malus, Fresnel, Thomas Young, and James Watt; which, translated rather carelessly into English, have been published under the title ‘Biographies of Distinguished Men,’ and can be found in the larger libraries. The collected works contain biographies also of Ampère, Condorcet, Volta, Monge, Porson, Gay-Lussac, besides shorter sketches. They are masterpieces of style and of clear scientific exposition, and full of generous appreciation of others’ work. They present in a lucid and popular form the achievements of scientific men whose works have changed the accepted opinion of the world, and they give general views not found in the original writings themselves. Scientific men are usually too much engrossed in advancing science to spare time for expounding it to popular audiences. The talent for such exposition is itself a special one. Arago possessed it to the full, and his own original contributions to astronomy and physics enabled him to speak as an expert, not merely as an expositor.  8
  The extracts are from his admirable estimate of Laplace, which he prepared in connection with the proposal, before him and other members of a State Committee, to publish a new and authoritative edition of the great astronomer’s works. The translation is mainly that of the ‘Biographies of Distinguished Men’ cited above, and much of the felicity of style is necessarily lost in translation; but the substance of solid and lucid exposition from a master’s hand remains.  9
  Arago was a Deputy in 1830, and Minister of War in the Provisional Government of 1848. He died full of honors, October 2d, 1853. Two of his brothers, Jacques and Étienne, were dramatic authors of note. Another, Jean, was a distinguished general in the service of Mexico. One of his sons, Alfred, is favorably known as a painter; another, Emmanuel, as a lawyer, deputy, and diplomat.  10

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.