Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of Sketches of Conspicuous Living Characters of France” [Text-02], Graham's Magazine, April 1841, pp. 202-203


[page 202, column 1:]

“Sketches of Conspicuous Living Characters of France.” Translated by R. M. Walsh. Lea and Blanchard.

The public are much indebted to Mr. Walsh for this book, which is one of unusual interest and value. It is a translation from the French, of fifteen biographical and critical sketches, written, and originally published in weekly numbers at Paris, by some one who styles himself “un homme de rien” — the better to conceal the fact, perhaps, that he is really un homme de beaucoup. Whatever, unhappily, may be the case with ourselves, or in England, it is clear that in the capital of France, at least, — that hot-bed of journalism, and Paradise of journalists — nobody has any right to call himself “nobody,” while wielding so vigorous and vivacious a pen as the author of these articles.

We are told in the Preface to the present translation that they met with the greatest success, upon their first appearance, and were considered by the Parisians as perfectly authentic in their statement of facts, and “as impartial in their appreciation of the different personages sketched as could be desired.” “As impartial, &c.” means, we presume, entirely so; for in matters of this kind an absolute impartiality, of course, is all, but still the least “that could be desired.” [column 2:]

Mr. Walsh farther assures us that Châteaubriand wrote the author a letter “of a highly complimentary tenor” which was published, but of which the translator, “unfortunately, does not happen to have a copy in his possession.” A more unfortunate circumstance is that Mr. W. should have thought it necessary to bolster a book which needs no bolstering, by the authority of any name, however great; and the most unfortunate thing of all, so far as regards the weight of the authority, is that Châteaubriand himself is belauded ad nauseam in those very pages to the inditer of which he sent that letter of the “complimentary tenor.” When any body shall puff us, as this Mr. Nobody has bepuffed the author of The Martyrs, we will send them a letter “of a complimentary tenor” too. We do not mean to decry the general merit of the book, or the candor of him who composed it. We wish merely to observe that Châteaubriand, under the circumstances, cannot be received as evidence of the one, nor his biography as instance of the other.

These sketches of men now playing important parts in the great drama of French affairs would be interesting, if only from their subjects. We have here biographies (sufficiently full) of Thiers, Châteaubriand, Laffitte, Guizot, Lamartine, Soult, Berryer, De La Mennais, Hugo, Dupin, Bèranger, Odilion Barrot, Arago, George Sand, and the Duke De Broglie. We are most pleased with those of Thiers, Hugo, Sand, Arago, and Bèranger.

Among many good stories of Thiers, this is told. A prize had been offered by the Academy of Aix for the best eulogium on Vauvenargues. Thiers, then quite a boy, sent a M. S. It was deemed excellent; but the author being suspected, and no other candidate deserving the palm, the committee, rather than award it to a Jacobin, postponed their decision for a year. At the expiration of this time our youth's article again made its appearance, but, meanwhile, a production had arrived from Paris which was thought far better. The judges were rejoiced. They were no longer under the cruel necessity of giving the first honor to a Jacobin — but felt bound to pre-sent him with the second. The name of the Parisian victor was unsealed. It was that of Thiers — Monsieur Tonson come again. He had been at great pains to mystify the committee; (other committees of the same kind more frequently reverse affairs and mystify the public) the M. S. had been copied in a strange hand, and been sent from Aix to Paris and from Paris to Aix. Thus our little friend obtained both the main prize and the accessit.

An anecdote somewhat similar is related of Victor Hugo. In 1817, the Academy offered a premium for the best poem on the advantages of study. Hugo entered the lists. His piece was considered worthiest, but was rejected because a falsehood was supposed to be implied in the concluding lines, which ran thus: —

Moi qui, toujours fuyant les cités et les cours,

De trois lustres à peine ai vu finir le cours.

The Academy would not believe that any one under twenty-five years of age had written so fine a poem, and, supposing a mystification designed, thought to punish the author by refusing him the prize. Informed [page 203:] of the facts, Hugo has-tened to show the certificate of his birth to the reporter, M. Raynouard; but it was too late — the premium had been awarded.

Of Laffitte many remarkable incidents are narrated evincing the noble liberality of his disposition.

In the notice of Berryer it is said that, a letter being addressed by the Dutchess of Berry to the legitimists of Paris, to inform them of her arrival, it was accompanied by a long note in cypher, the key of which she had forgotten to give. “The penetrating mind of Berryer,” says our biographer, “soon discovered it. It was this phrase substituted for the twenty-four letters of the alphabet — Le gouvernement provisoire.

All this is very well as an anecdote; but we cannot understand the extraordinary penetration required in the matter. The phrase “Le gouvernement provisoire” is French, and the note in cypher was addressed to Frenchmen. The difficulty of decyphering may well be supposed much greater had the key been in a foreign tongue; yet any one who will take the trouble may address us a note, in the same manner as here proposed, and the key-phrase may be either in French, Italian, Spanish, German, Latin or Greek, (or in any of the dialects of these languages), and we pledge ourselves for the solution of the riddle. The experiment may afford our readers some amusement — let them try it.

But we are rambling from our theme. The genius of Arago is finely painted, and the character of his quackery put in a true light. The straight-forward, plainly-written critical comments upon this philosopher, as well as upon George Sand, and that absurd antithesis-hunter, Victor Hugo, please us far more than that mere cant and rhapsody in which the biographer involves himself when speaking of Châteaubriand and Lamartine. We have observed that all great authors who fall occasionally into the sins of ranting and raving, meet with critics who think the only way to elucidate, is to out-rant and out-rave them. A beautiful confusion of thought of course ensues, which it is truly refreshing to contemplate.

The account of George Sand (Madame Dudevant) is full of piquancy and spirit. The writer, by dint of a little chicanery, obtained access, it seems, to her boudoir, with an opportunity of sketching her in dishabille. He found her in a gentleman's frock coat, smoking a cigar.

Speaking of the equivocal costume affected by this lady, Mr. Walsh, in a foot-note, comments upon a nice distinction made once by a soldier on duty at the Chamber of Deputies. Madame D., habited in male attire, was making her way into the gallery, when the man, presenting his musket before her, cried out “Monsieur, les dames ne passent pas par ici!”

But we regret that our space will not allow us to cull even a few of the good things with which the book abounds. The whole volume is exceedingly piquant, and replete with that racy wit which is so peculiarly French as to make us believe it a consequence of the tournure of the language itself. But if a Frenchman is invariably witty, he is not the less everlastingly bombastic; and these memoirs are decidedly French. What can we do but smile when we hear any one talk about Châteaubriand's Essay upon English Poetry, [column 2:] with his Translation of Milton! as a task which he alone was qualified to execute! or when we read page after page in which Lamartine is discoursed of as “a noble child, with flaxen locks,” “disporting upon the banks of the Seine,” “picking up Grecian lyres dropped by the mild Chenier,” “enriching them with Christian chords,” and “ravishing the world with new melodies!” What can we do but laugh outright at such phrases as the “sympathetic swan-like cries,” and the “singular lyric precocity of the crystal soul” — of such an ass as the author of Bug-Jargal?

So far as mere translation goes, the volume now before us is, in some respects, not very well done. Too little care has been taken in rendering the French idioms by English equivalents; and, because a French writer, through the impulses of his vivacity, cannot avoid telling, in the present tense, a story of the past, it does not follow that such a misusage of language is consonant with the graver genius of the Saxon. Mr. Walsh is always too literal, although sufficiently correct. He should not employ, however, even in translation, such queer words as “to legitimate,” meaning “to legitimatize,” or “to fulmine,” meaning “to fulminate.”

At page 211, the force of the compound “l’homme-calembourg” is not conveyed by the words “the punster,” even when we italicize the. The walking-pun, perhaps, is an analogous phrase which might be more properly employed.

There is some odd mistake at page 274, where the translator speaks of measuring the diameter of the earth by measuring its rays. We presume the word in the original is rayons; if so we can only translate it by the Latin radii. No doubt a radius, literally, is a ray; but science has its own terms, and will employ them. We should like to see either Mr. Walsh or Monsieur Arago (or both together) trying to measure a ray of the earth.

The mechanical execution of the book is good, saving a thousand outrageous typographical blunders, and that lithograph of Thiers. We have no doubt in the world that this gentleman (who ran away during the three days and hid himself in the woods of Montmorency), is a somewhat dirty, insignificant little fellow, and so be it; but we will never be brought to believe that any individual in Christendom ever did or could look half as saucy, or as greasy, as does “Monsieur Mirabeau-mouche” in that picture.



This is the second review in the section titled: “Review of New Books.”


[S:0 - GM, 1841] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of Conspicuos Living Characters of France [Text-02]