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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Pierre Jean de Béranger (1780–1857)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Alcée Fortier (1856–1914)
 
BÉRANGER, like Hugo, has commemorated the date of his birth, but their verses are very different. Hugo’s poem is lofty in style, beginning—
  “Ce siècle avait deux ans! Rome remplaçait Sparte,
Déjà Napoléon perçait sous Bonaparte,
Et du premier consul déjà, par maint endroit,
Le front de l’empereur brisait le masque étroit.”
(This century was two years old; Rome displaced Sparta,
Napoleon already was visible in Bonaparte,
And the narrow mask of the First Consul, in many places,
Was already pierced by the forehead of the Emperor.)
  1
  Béranger’s verses have less force, but are charming in their simplicity:—
  “Dans ce Paris plein d’or et de misère,
En l’an du Christ mil sept cent quatre-vingt,
Chez un tailleur, mon pauvre et vieux grand-père,
Moi, nouveau-né, sachais ce qui m’advint.”
(In this Paris full of gold and misery,
In the year of Christ one thousand seven hundred and eighty,
At the house of a tailor, my grandfather poor and old,
I, a new-born child, knew what happened to me.)
  2
  Authors of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries are more subjective in their writings than those of the seventeenth, whose characters can rarely be known from their works. A glance at the life and surroundings of Béranger will show their influence on his genius.  3
  Béranger’s mother was abandoned by her husband shortly after her marriage, and her child was born at the house of her father, the old tailor referred to in the song ‘The Tailor and the Fairy.’ She troubled herself little about the boy, and he was forsaken in his childhood. Béranger tells us that he does not know how he learned to read. In the beginning of the year 1789 he was sent to a school in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, and there, mounted on the roof of a house, he saw the capture of the Bastille on the 14th of July. This event made a great impression on him, and may have laid the foundations of his republican principles. When he was nine and a half his father sent him to one of his sisters, an innkeeper at Péronne, that town in the north of France famous for the interview in 1468 between Louis XI. and Charles the Bold, when the fox put himself in the power of the lion, as related so vividly in ‘Quentin Durward.’  4
  Béranger’s aunt was very kind to him. At Péronne he went to a free primary school founded by Ballue de Bellenglise, where the students governed themselves, electing their mayor, their judges, and their justices of the peace. Béranger was president of a republican club of boys, and was called upon several times to address members of the Convention who passed through Péronne. His aunt was an ardent republican, and he was deeply moved by the invasion of France in 1792. He heard with delight of the capture of Toulon in 1793 and of Bonaparte’s exploits, conceiving a great admiration for the extraordinary man who was just beginning his military career. At the age of fifteen Béranger returned to Paris, where his father had established a kind of banking house. The boy had previously followed different trades, and had been for two years with a publishing house as a printer’s apprentice. There he learned spelling and the rules of French prosody. He began to write verse when he was twelve or thirteen, but he had a strange idea of prosody. In order to get lines of the same length he wrote his words between two parallel lines traced from the top to the bottom of the page. His system of versification seemed to be correct when applied to the Alexandrine verse of Racine; but when he saw the fables of La Fontaine, in which the lines are very irregular, he began to distrust his prosody.  5
  Béranger became a skillful financier, and was very useful to his father in his business. When the banker failed the young man was thrown into great distress. He now had ample opportunity to become familiar with the garret, of which he has sung so well. In 1804 he applied for help to Lucien Bonaparte, and received from Napoleon’s brother his own fee as member of the Institute. He obtained shortly afterwards a position in a bureau of the University. Having a weak constitution and defective sight, he avoided the conscription. He was however all his life a true patriot, with republican instincts; and he says that he never liked Voltaire, because that celebrated writer unjustly preferred foreigners and vilified Joan of Arc, “the true patriotic divinity, who from my childhood was the object of my worship.” He had approved of the eighteenth of Brumaire: for “my soul,” says he, “has always vibrated with that of the people as when I was nineteen years old;” and the great majority of the French people in 1799 wished to see Bonaparte assume power and govern with a firm hand. In 1813 Béranger wrote ‘The King of Yvetot,’ a pleasing and amusing satire on Napoleon’s reign. What a contrast between the despotic emperor and ruthless warrior, and the simple king whose crown is a nightcap and whose chief delight is his bottle of wine! The song circulated widely in manuscript form, and the author soon became popular. He made the acquaintance of Désaugiers and became a member of the Caveau. Concerning this joyous literary society M. Anatole France says, in his ‘Vie Littéraire,’ that the first Caveau was founded in 1729 by Gallet, Piron, Crébillon fils, Collé, and Panard. They used to meet at Laudelle the tavern-keeper’s. The second Caveau was inaugurated in 1759 by Marmontel, Suard, Lanoue, and Brissy, and lasted until the Revolution. In 1806 Armand Gouffé and Capelle established the modern Caveau, of which Désaugiers was president. The members met at Balaine’s restaurant. In 1834 the society was reorganized at Champlanc’s restaurant. The members wrote and published songs and sang them after dinner. “The Caveau,” says M. France, “is the French Academy of song,” and as such has some dignity. The same is true of the Lice, while the Chat Noir is most fin de siècle.  6
  To understand Béranger’s songs and to excuse them somewhat, we must remember that the French always delighted in witty songs and tales, and pardoned the immorality of the works on account of the wit and humor. This is what is called l’esprit gaulois, and is seen principally in old French poetry, in the fabliaux, the farces, and ‘Le Roman de Renart.’ Molière had much of this, as also had La Fontaine and Voltaire, and Béranger’s wildest songs appear mild and innocent when compared with those of the Chat Noir. In his joyous songs he continues the traditions of the farces and fabliaux of the Middle Ages, and in his political songs he uses wit and satire just as in the sottises of the time of Louis XII.  7
  Béranger’s first volume of songs appeared at the beginning of the second Restoration; and although it was hostile to the Bourbons, the author was not prosecuted. In 1821, when his second volume was published, he resigned his position as clerk at the University, and was brought to trial for having written immoral and seditious songs. He was condemned, after exciting scenes in court, to three months’ imprisonment and a fine of five hundred francs, and in 1828 to nine months’ imprisonment and a fine of ten thousand francs, which was paid by public subscription.  8
  No doubt he contributed to the Revolution of July, 1830; but although he was a republican, he favored the monarchy of Louis Philippe, saying that “it was a plank to cross over the gutter, a preparation for the republic.” The king wished to see him and thank him, but Béranger replied that “he was too old to make new acquaintances.” He was invited to apply for a seat in the French Academy, and refused that honor as he had refused political honors and positions. He said that he “wished to be nothing”; and when in 1848 he was elected to the Constitutional Assembly, he resigned his seat almost immediately. He has been accused of affectation, and of exaggeration in his disinterestedness; but he was naturally timid in public, and preferred to exert an influence over his countrymen by his songs rather than by his voice in public assemblies.  9
  Béranger was kind and generous, and ever ready to help all who applied to him. He had a pension given to Rouget de l’Isle, the famous author of the ‘Marseillaise,’ who was reduced to poverty, and in 1835 he took into his house his good aunt from Péronne, and gave hospitality also to his friend Mlle. Judith Frère. In 1834 he sold all his works to his publisher, Perrotin, for an annuity of eight hundred francs, which was increased to four thousand by the publisher. On this small income Béranger lived content till his death on July 16th, 1857. The government of Napoleon III. took charge of his funeral, which was solemnized with great pomp. Although Béranger was essentially the poet of the middle classes, and was extremely popular, care was taken to exclude the people from the funeral procession. While he never denied that he was the grandson of a tailor, he signed de Béranger, to be distinguished from other writers of the same name. The de, however, had always been claimed by his father, who had left him nothing but that pretense of nobility.  10
  For forty years, from 1815 to his death, Béranger was perhaps the most popular French writer of his time, and he was ranked amongst the greatest French poets. There has been a reaction against that enthusiasm, and he is now severely judged by the critics. They say that he lacked inspiration, and was vulgar, bombastic, and grandiloquent. Little attention is paid to him, therefore, in general histories of French literature. But if he is not entitled to stand on the high pedestal given to him by his contemporaries, we yet cannot deny genius to the man who for more than a generation swayed the hearts of the people at his will, and exerted on his countrymen and on his epoch an immense influence.  11
  Many of his songs are coarse and even immoral; but his muse was often inspired by patriotic subjects, and in his poems on Napoleon he sings of the exploits of the great general defending French soil from foreign invasion, or he delights in the victories of the Emperor as reflecting glory upon France. Victor Hugo shared this feeling when he wrote his inspiring verses in praise of the conqueror. Both poets, Béranger and Hugo, contributed to create the Napoleonic legend which facilitated the election of Louis Napoleon to the presidency in 1848, and brought about the Second Empire. What is more touching than ‘The Reminiscences of the People’? Are we not inclined to cry out, like the little children listening to the old grandmother who speaks of Napoleon: “He spoke to you, grandmother! He sat down there, grandmother! You have yet his glass, grandmother!” The whole song is poetic, natural, and simple. François Coppée, the great poet, said of it: “Ah! if I had only written ‘The Reminiscences of the People,’ I should not feel concerned about the judgment of posterity.”  12
  Other works of Béranger’s are on serious subjects, as ‘Mary Stuart’s Farewell to France,’ ‘The Holy Alliance,’ ‘The Swallows,’ and ‘The Old Banner.’ All his songs have a charm. His wit is not of the highest order, and he lacks the finesse of La Fontaine, but he is often quaint and always amusing in his songs devoted to love and Lisette, to youth and to wine. He is not one of the greatest French lyric poets, and cannot be compared with Lamartine, Hugo, Musset, and Vigny; nevertheless he has much originality, and is without doubt the greatest song-writer that France has produced. He elevated the song and made it both a poem and a drama, full of action and interest.  13
  Béranger wrote slowly and with great care, and many of his songs cost him much labor. He was filled with compassion for the weak, for the poor and unfortunate; he loved humanity, and above all he dearly loved France. Posterity will do him justice and will preserve at least a great part of his work. M. Ernest Legouvé in his interesting work, ‘La Lecture en Action,’ relates that one day, while walking with Béranger in the Bois de Boulogne, the latter stopped in the middle of an alley, and taking hold of M. Legouvé’s hand, said with emotion, “My dear friend, my ambition would be that one hundred of my lines should remain.” M. Legouvé adds, “There will remain more than that,” and his words have been confirmed. If we read aloud, if we sing them, we too shall share the enthusiasm of our fathers, who were carried away by the pathos, the grandeur, the wit, the inexpressible charm of the unrivaled chansonnier.  14
 
 
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