The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 12

Sound and Smoke.

And so now, in spite of plotting Aristocrats, lazy hired spademen, and almost of Destiny itself (for there has been much rain), the Champ-de-Mars, on the 13th of the month is fairly ready; trimmed, rammed, buttressed with firm masonry; and Patriotism can stroll over it admiring; and as it were rehearsing, for in every head is some unutterable image of the morrow. Pray Heaven there be not clouds. Nay what far worse cloud is this, of a misguided Municipality that talks of admitting Patriotism, to the solemnity, by tickets! Was it by tickets we were admitted to the work; and to what brought the work? Did we take the Bastille by tickets? A misguided Municipality sees the error; at late midnight, rolling drums announce to Patriotism starting half out of its bed-clothes, that it is to be ticketless. Pull down thy night-cap therefore; and, with demi-articulate grumble, significant of several things, go pacified to sleep again. Tomorrow is Wednesday morning; unforgetable among the fasti of the world.

The morning comes, cold for a July one; but such a festivity would make Greenland smile. Through every inlet of that National Amphitheatre (for it is a league in circuit, cut with openings at due intervals), floods-in the living throng; covers without tumult space after space. The Ecole Militaire has galleries and overvaulting canopies, where Carpentry and Painting have vied, for the upper Authorities; triumphal arches, at the Gate by the River, bear inscriptions, if weak, yet well-meant, and orthodox. Far aloft, over the Altar of the Fatherland, on their tall crane standards of iron, swing pensile our antique Cassolettes or pans of incense; dispensing sweet incense-fumes, — unless for the Heathen Mythology, one sees not for whom. Two hundred thousand Patriotic Men; and, twice as good, one hundred thousand Patriotic Women, all decked and glorified as one can fancy, sit waiting in this Champ-de-Mars.

What a picture: that circle of bright-eyed Life, spread up there, on its thirty-seated Slope; leaning, one would say, on the thick umbrage of those Avenue–Trees, for the stems of them are hidden by the height; and all beyond it mere greenness of Summer Earth, with the gleams of waters, or white sparklings of stone-edifices: little circular enamel-picture in the centre of such a vase — of emerald! A vase not empty: the Invalides Cupolas want not their population, nor the distant Windmills of Montmartre; on remotest steeple and invisible village belfry, stand men with spy-glasses. On the heights of Chaillot are many-coloured undulating groups; round and far on, over all the circling heights that embosom Paris, it is as one more or less peopled Amphitheatre; which the eye grows dim with measuring. Nay heights, as was before hinted, have cannon; and a floating-battery of cannon is on the Seine. When eye fails, ear shall serve; and all France properly is but one Amphitheatre: for in paved town and unpaved hamlet, men walk listening; till the muffled thunder sound audible on their horizon, that they too may begin swearing and firing! (Deux Amis, v. 168.) But now, to streams of music, come Federates enough, — for they have assembled on the Boulevard Saint–Antoine or thereby, and come marching through the City, with their Eighty-three Department Banners, and blessings not loud but deep; comes National Assembly, and takes seat under its Canopy; comes Royalty, and takes seat on a throne beside it. And Lafayette, on white charger, is here, and all the civic Functionaries; and the Federates form dances, till their strictly military evolutions and manoeuvres can begin.

Evolutions and manoeuvres? Task not the pen of mortal to describe them: truant imagination droops; — declares that it is not worth while. There is wheeling and sweeping, to slow, to quick, and double quick-time: Sieur Motier, or Generalissimo Lafayette, for they are one and the same, and he is General of France, in the King’s stead, for four-and-twenty hours; Sieur Motier must step forth, with that sublime chivalrous gait of his; solemnly ascend the steps of the Fatherland’s Altar, in sight of Heaven and of the scarcely breathing Earth; and, under the creak of those swinging Cassolettes, ‘pressing his sword’s point firmly there,’ pronounce the Oath, To King, to Law, and Nation (not to mention ‘grains’ with their circulating), in his own name and that of armed France. Whereat there is waving of banners and acclaim sufficient. The National Assembly must swear, standing in its place; the King himself audibly. The King swears; and now be the welkin split with vivats; let citizens enfranchised embrace, each smiting heartily his palm into his fellow’s; and armed Federates clang their arms; above all, that floating battery speak! It has spoken, — to the four corners of France. From eminence to eminence, bursts the thunder; faint-heard, loud-repeated. What a stone, cast into what a lake; in circles that do not grow fainter. From Arras to Avignon; from Metz to Bayonne! Over Orleans and Blois it rolls, in cannon-recitative; Puy bellows of it amid his granite mountains; Pau where is the shell-cradle of Great Henri. At far Marseilles, one can think, the ruddy evening witnesses it; over the deep-blue Mediterranean waters, the Castle of If ruddy-tinted darts forth, from every cannon’s mouth, its tongue of fire; and all the people shout: Yes, France is free. O glorious France that has burst out so; into universal sound and smoke; and attained — the Phrygian Cap of Liberty! In all Towns, Trees of Liberty also may be planted; with or without advantage. Said we not, it is the highest stretch attained by the Thespian Art on this Planet, or perhaps attainable?

The Thespian Art, unfortunately, one must still call it; for behold there, on this Field of Mars, the National Banners, before there could be any swearing, were to be all blessed. A most proper operation; since surely without Heaven’s blessing bestowed, say even, audibly or inaudibly sought, no Earthly banner or contrivance can prove victorious: but now the means of doing it? By what thrice-divine Franklin thunder-rod shall miraculous fire be drawn out of Heaven; and descend gently, life-giving, with health to the souls of men? Alas, by the simplest: by Two Hundred shaven-crowned Individuals, ‘in snow-white albs, with tricolor girdles,’ arranged on the steps of Fatherland’s Altar; and, at their head for spokesman, Soul’s Overseer Talleyrand–Perigord! These shall act as miraculous thunder-rod, — to such length as they can. O ye deep azure Heavens, and thou green all-nursing Earth; ye Streams ever-flowing; deciduous Forests that die and are born again, continually, like the sons of men; stone Mountains that die daily with every rain-shower, yet are not dead and levelled for ages of ages, nor born again (it seems) but with new world-explosions, and such tumultuous seething and tumbling, steam half way to the Moon; O thou unfathomable mystic All, garment and dwellingplace of the UNNAMED; O spirit, lastly, of Man, who mouldest and modellest that Unfathomable Unnameable even as we see, — is not there a miracle: That some French mortal should, we say not have believed, but pretended to imagine that he believed that Talleyrand and Two Hundred pieces of white Calico could do it!

Here, however, we are to remark with the sorrowing Historians of that day, that suddenly, while Episcopus Talleyrand, long-stoled, with mitre and tricolor belt, was yet but hitching up the Altar-steps, to do his miracle, the material Heaven grew black; a north-wind, moaning cold moisture, began to sing; and there descended a very deluge of rain. Sad to see! The thirty-staired Seats, all round our Amphitheatre, get instantaneously slated with mere umbrellas, fallacious when so thick set: our antique Cassolettes become Water-pots; their incense-smoke gone hissing, in a whiff of muddy vapour. Alas, instead of vivats, there is nothing now but the furious peppering and rattling. From three to four hundred thousand human individuals feel that they have a skin; happily impervious. The General’s sash runs water: how all military banners droop; and will not wave, but lazily flap, as if metamorphosed into painted tin-banners! Worse, far worse, these hundred thousand, such is the Historian’s testimony, of the fairest of France! Their snowy muslins all splashed and draggled; the ostrich feather shrunk shamefully to the backbone of a feather: all caps are ruined; innermost pasteboard molten into its original pap: Beauty no longer swims decorated in her garniture, like Love-goddess hidden-revealed in her Paphian clouds, but struggles in disastrous imprisonment in it, for ‘the shape was noticeable;’ and now only sympathetic interjections, titterings, teeheeings, and resolute good-humour will avail. A deluge; an incessant sheet or fluid-column of rain; — such that our Overseer’s very mitre must be filled; not a mitre, but a filled and leaky fire-bucket on his reverend head! — Regardless of which, Overseer Talleyrand performs his miracle: the Blessing of Talleyrand, another than that of Jacob, is on all the Eighty-three departmental flags of France; which wave or flap, with such thankfulness as needs. Towards three o’clock, the sun beams out again: the remaining evolutions can be transacted under bright heavens, though with decorations much damaged. (Deux Amis, v. 143–179.)

On Wednesday our Federation is consummated: but the festivities last out the week, and over into the next. Festivities such as no Bagdad Caliph, or Aladdin with the Lamp, could have equalled. There is a Jousting on the River; with its water-somersets, splashing and haha-ing: Abbe Fauchet, Te–Deum Fauchet, preaches, for his part, in ‘the rotunda of the Corn-market,’ a Harangue on Franklin; for whom the National Assembly has lately gone three days in black. The Motier and Lepelletier tables still groan with viands; roofs ringing with patriotic toasts. On the fifth evening, which is the Christian Sabbath, there is a universal Ball. Paris, out of doors and in, man, woman and child, is jigging it, to the sound of harp and four-stringed fiddle. The hoariest-headed man will tread one other measure, under this nether Moon; speechless nurselings, infants as we call them, (Greek), crow in arms; and sprawl out numb-plump little limbs, — impatient for muscularity, they know not why. The stiffest balk bends more or less; all joists creak.

Or out, on the Earth’s breast itself, behold the Ruins of the Bastille. All lamplit, allegorically decorated: a Tree of Liberty sixty feet high; and Phrygian Cap on it, of size enormous, under which King Arthur and his round-table might have dined! In the depths of the background, is a single lugubrious lamp, rendering dim-visible one of your iron cages, half-buried, and some Prison stones, — Tyranny vanishing downwards, all gone but the skirt: the rest wholly lamp-festoons, trees real or of pasteboard; in the similitude of a fairy grove; with this inscription, readable to runner: ‘Ici l’on danse, Dancing Here.’ As indeed had been obscurely foreshadowed by Cagliostro (See his Lettre au Peuple Francais, London, 1786.) prophetic Quack of Quacks, when he, four years ago, quitted the grim durance; — to fall into a grimmer, of the Roman Inquisition, and not quit it.

But, after all, what is this Bastille business to that of the Champs Elysees! Thither, to these Fields well named Elysian, all feet tend. It is radiant as day with festooned lamps; little oil-cups, like variegated fire-flies, daintily illumine the highest leaves: trees there are all sheeted with variegated fire, shedding far a glimmer into the dubious wood. There, under the free sky, do tight-limbed Federates, with fairest newfound sweethearts, elastic as Diana, and not of that coyness and tart humour of Diana, thread their jocund mazes, all through the ambrosial night; and hearts were touched and fired; and seldom surely had our old Planet, in that huge conic Shadow of hers ‘which goes beyond the Moon, and is named Night,’ curtained such a Ball-room. O if, according to Seneca, the very gods look down on a good man struggling with adversity, and smile; what must they think of Five-and-twenty million indifferent ones victorious over it, — for eight days and more?

In this way, and in such ways, however, has the Feast of Pikes danced itself off; gallant Federates wending homewards, towards every point of the compass, with feverish nerves, heart and head much heated; some of them, indeed, as Dampmartin’s elderly respectable friend, from Strasbourg, quite ‘burnt out with liquors,’ and flickering towards extinction. (Dampmartin, Evenemens, i. 144–184.) The Feast of Pikes has danced itself off, and become defunct, and the ghost of a Feast; — nothing of it now remaining but this vision in men’s memory; and the place that knew it (for the slope of that Champ-de-Mars is crumbled to half the original height (Dulaure, Histoire de Paris, viii. 25).) now knowing it no more. Undoubtedly one of the memorablest National Hightides. Never or hardly ever, as we said, was Oath sworn with such heart-effusion, emphasis and expenditure of joyance; and then it was broken irremediably within year and day. Ah, why? When the swearing of it was so heavenly-joyful, bosom clasped to bosom, and Five-and-twenty million hearts all burning together: O ye inexorable Destinies, why? — Partly because it was sworn with such over-joyance; but chiefly, indeed, for an older reason: that Sin had come into the world and Misery by Sin! These Five-and-twenty millions, if we will consider it, have now henceforth, with that Phrygian Cap of theirs, no force over them, to bind and guide; neither in them, more than heretofore, is guiding force, or rule of just living: how then, while they all go rushing at such a pace, on unknown ways, with no bridle, towards no aim, can hurlyburly unutterable fail? For verily not Federation-rosepink is the colour of this Earth and her work: not by outbursts of noble-sentiment, but with far other ammunition, shall a man front the world.

But how wise, in all cases, to ‘husband your fire;’ to keep it deep down, rather, as genial radical-heat! Explosions, the forciblest, and never so well directed, are questionable; far oftenest futile, always frightfully wasteful: but think of a man, of a Nation of men, spending its whole stock of fire in one artificial Firework! So have we seen fond weddings (for individuals, like Nations, have their Hightides) celebrated with an outburst of triumph and deray, at which the elderly shook their heads. Better had a serious cheerfulness been; for the enterprise was great. Fond pair! the more triumphant ye feel, and victorious over terrestrial evil, which seems all abolished, the wider-eyed will your disappointment be to find terrestrial evil still extant. “And why extant?” will each of you cry: “Because my false mate has played the traitor: evil was abolished; I meant faithfully, and did, or would have done.” Whereby the oversweet moon of honey changes itself into long years of vinegar; perhaps divulsive vinegar, like Hannibal’s.

Shall we say then, the French Nation has led Royalty, or wooed and teased poor Royalty to lead her, to the hymeneal Fatherland’s Altar, in such oversweet manner; and has, most thoughtlessly, to celebrate the nuptials with due shine and demonstration, — burnt her bed?

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30