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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Bernardin had made the acquaintance of Rousseau


Born

at Havre in 1737, Bernardin, through his imagination, was an Utopian visionary, an idyllic dreamer; through his temper, an angry disputant with society. His life was a fantastic series of adventures. Having read as a boy the story of Crusoe, and listened to the heroic record of the travels and sufferings of Jesuit missionaries, his fancy caught fire; he would seek some undiscovered island in mid-ocean, he would found some colony of the true children of nature, far from a corrupt civilisation, peaceable, virtuous, and free.

In France, in Russia, he was importunate in urging his extravagant designs upon persons of influence. When the French Government in 1767 commissioned him to work in Madagascar, he believed that his dream was to come true, but a rude awakening and the accustomed quarrels followed. He landed on the Isle of France, purposing to work as an engineer, and there spent his days in gazing at the sea, the skies, the mountains, the tropical forests. All forms and colours and sounds and scents impressed themselves on his brain, and were transferred to his collection of notes. When, on returning to Paris, he published (1773) his _Voyage a l'Ile de France_, the literature of picturesque description may be said to have been founded. Already in this volume his feeling for nature is inspired by an emotional theism, and is burdened by his sentimental science, which would exhibit a fantastic array of evidences of the designs for human welfare

of an amiable and ingenious Author of nature. Before the book appeared, Bernardin had made the acquaintance of Rousseau, then living in retirement, tormented by his diseased suspicions and cloudy indignations. To his new disciple Rousseau was in general gracious, and they rambled together, botanising in the environs of Paris.

For a time Bernardin himself was in a condition bordering upon insanity; but the crisis passed, and he employed himself on the _Etudes de la Nature_, which appeared in three volumes in 1784. The tale of _Paul et Virginie_ was not included; for when the author had read it aloud, though ladies wept, the sterner auditors had been contemptuous; Thomas slumbered, and Buffon called for his carriage. The _Etudes_ accumulate the grotesque notions of Bernardin with reference to final causes in nature: nature is benevolent and harmonious; society is corrupt and harsh; scientific truth is to be discovered by sentiment, and not by reason; the whole universe is planned for the happiness of man; the melon is large because it was designed for the family; the pumpkin is larger, because Providence intended that it should be shared with our neighbours. Providence, indeed, in a sceptical and mocking generation, suffered cruelly at the hands of its advocate. Yet Bernardin conveyed into his book a feeling of the rich and obscure life and energy of nature; his descriptive power is admirable. "He desired," says M. Barine, "to open the door for Providence to enter; in fact he opened the door for the great Pan," and in this he was a precursor of much that followed in literature.

Bernardin's fame was now established. In the sentimental reaction against the dryness of sceptical philosophy, in the return to a feeling for the poetical aspect of things, he was looked upon as a leader. In the fourth volume of _Etudes_ (1788) he had courage to print the tale of _Paul et Virginie_. It is an idyll of the tropics, written with the moral purpose of contrasting the beneficent influence of nature and of feeling with the dangers and evils of civilised society and of the intellect. The children grow up side by side in radiant innocence and purest companionship; then passion makes its invasion of their hearts. The didactic commonplaces and the faded sentimentalities of the idyll may veil, but cannot hide, the genuine power of those pages which tell of the modest ardours of first love. An element of melodrama mingles with the tragic close. Throughout we do more than see the landscape of the tropics: we feel the life of external nature throbbing in sympathy with human emotion. Something was gained by Bernardin from the _Daphnis and Chloe_ of Longus in the motives and the details of his story, but it is essentially his own. It had a resounding success, and among its most ardent admirers was Napoleon.


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