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The Life of Napoleon I (Volume 1 of 2) by Rose

In the pages of Madame de Stael and Chateaubriand


such were the conditions under which the literature of France struggled and pined. Her poets, a band sadly thinned already by the guillotine, sang in forced and hollow strains until the return of royalism begat an imperialist fervour in the soul-stirring lyrics of Beranger: her philosophy was dumb; and Napoleonic history limped along on official crutches, until Thiers, a generation later, essayed his monumental work. In the realm of exact and applied science, as might be expected, splendid discoveries adorned the Emperor's reign; but if we are to find any vitality in the literature of that period, we must go to the ranks, not of the panegyrists, but of the opposition. There, in the pages of Madame de Stael and Chateaubriand, we feel the throb of life. Genius will out, of its own native force: but it cannot be pressed out, even at a Napoleon's bidding. In vain did he endeavour to stimulate literature by the reorganization of the Institute, and by granting decennial prizes for the chief works and discoveries of the decade. While science prospered, literature languished: and one of his own remarks, as to the desirability of a public and semi-official criticism of some great literary work, seems to suggest a reason for this intellectual malaise:

"The public will take interest in this criticism; perhaps it will even take sides: it matters not, as its attention will be fixed on these interesting debates: it will talk about grammar and

poetry: taste will be improved, and our aim will be fulfilled: _out of that will come poets and grammarians_."

And so it came to pass that, while he was rescuing a nation from chaos and his eagles winged their flight to Naples, Lisbon, and Moscow, he found no original thinker worthily to hymn his praises; and the chief literary triumphs of his reign came from Chateaubriand, whom he impoverished, and Madame de Stael, whom he drove into exile.

* * * * *

Such are the chief laws and customs which are imperishably associated with the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. In some respects they may be described as making for progress. Their establishment gave to the Revolution that solidity which it had previously lacked. Among so "inflammable" a people as the French--the epithet is Ste. Beuve's--it was quite possible that some of the chief civil conquests of the last decade might have been lost, had not the First Consul, to use his own expressive phrase, "thrown in some blocks of granite." We may intensify his metaphor and assert that out of the shifting shingle of French life he constructed a concrete breakwater, in which his own will acted as the binding cement, defying the storms of revolutionary or royalist passion which had swept the incoherent atoms to and fro, and had carried desolation far inland. Thenceforth France was able to work out her future under the shelter of institutions which unquestionably possess one supreme merit, that of durability. But while the chief civic and material gains of the Revolution were thus perpetuated, the very spirit and life of that great movement were benumbed by the personality and action of Napoleon. The burning enthusiasm for the Rights of Man was quenched, the passion for civic equality survived only as the gibbering ghost of what it had been in 1790, and the consolidation of revolutionary France was effected by a process nearly akin to petrifaction.

And yet this time of political and intellectual reaction in France was marked by the rise of the greatest of her modern institutions. There is the chief paradox of that age. While barren of literary activity and of truly civic developments, yet it was unequalled in the growth of institutions. This is generally the characteristic of epochs when the human faculties, long congealed by untoward restraints, suddenly burst their barriers and run riot in a spring-tide of hope. The time of disillusionment or despair which usually supervenes may, as a rule, be compared with the numbing torpor of winter, necessary doubtless in our human economy, but lacking the charm and vitality of the expansive phase. Often, indeed, it is disgraced by the characteristics of a slavish populace, a mean selfishness, a mad frivolity, and fawning adulation on the ruler who dispenses _panem et circenses_. Such has been the course of many a political reaction, from the time of degenerate Athens and imperial Rome down to the decay of Medicean Florence and the orgies of the restored Stuarts.

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