The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 8

Solemn League and Covenant.

Such dim masses, and specks of even deepest black, work in that white-hot glow of the French mind, now wholly in fusion, and confusion. Old women here swearing their ten children on the new Evangel of Jean Jacques; old women there looking up for Favras’ Heads in the celestial Luminary: these are preternatural signs, prefiguring somewhat.

In fact, to the Patriot children of Hope themselves, it is undeniable that difficulties exist: emigrating Seigneurs; Parlements in sneaking but most malicious mutiny (though the rope is round their neck); above all, the most decided ‘deficiency of grains.’ Sorrowful: but, to a Nation that hopes, not irremediable. To a Nation which is in fusion and ardent communion of thought; which, for example, on signal of one Fugleman, will lift its right hand like a drilled regiment, and swear and illuminate, till every village from Ardennes to the Pyrenees has rolled its village-drum, and sent up its little oath, and glimmer of tallow-illumination some fathoms into the reign of Night!

If grains are defective, the fault is not of Nature or National Assembly, but of Art and Antinational Intriguers. Such malign individuals, of the scoundrel species, have power to vex us, while the Constitution is a-making. Endure it, ye heroic Patriots: nay rather, why not cure it? Grains do grow, they lie extant there in sheaf or sack; only that regraters and Royalist plotters, to provoke the people into illegality, obstruct the transport of grains. Quick, ye organised Patriot Authorities, armed National Guards, meet together; unite your goodwill; in union is tenfold strength: let the concentred flash of your Patriotism strike stealthy Scoundrelism blind, paralytic, as with a coup de soleil.

Under which hat or nightcap of the Twenty-five millions, this pregnant Idea first rose, for in some one head it did rise, no man can now say. A most small idea, near at hand for the whole world: but a living one, fit; and which waxed, whether into greatness or not, into immeasurable size. When a Nation is in this state that the Fugleman can operate on it, what will the word in season, the act in season, not do! It will grow verily, like the Boy’s Bean in the Fairy–Tale, heaven-high, with habitations and adventures on it, in one night. It is nevertheless unfortunately still a Bean (for your long-lived Oak grows not so); and, the next night, it may lie felled, horizontal, trodden into common mud. — But remark, at least, how natural to any agitated Nation, which has Faith, this business of Covenanting is. The Scotch, believing in a righteous Heaven above them, and also in a Gospel, far other than the Jean–Jacques one, swore, in their extreme need, a Solemn League and Covenant, — as Brothers on the forlorn-hope, and imminence of battle, who embrace looking Godward; and got the whole Isle to swear it; and even, in their tough Old–Saxon Hebrew–Presbyterian way, to keep it more or less; — for the thing, as such things are, was heard in Heaven, and partially ratified there; neither is it yet dead, if thou wilt look, nor like to die. The French too, with their Gallic–Ethnic excitability and effervescence, have, as we have seen, real Faith, of a sort; they are hard bestead, though in the middle of Hope: a National Solemn League and Covenant there may be in France too; under how different conditions; with how different developement and issue!

Note, accordingly, the small commencement; first spark of a mighty firework: for if the particular hat cannot be fixed upon, the particular District can. On the 29th day of last November, were National Guards by the thousand seen filing, from far and near, with military music, with Municipal officers in tricolor sashes, towards and along the Rhone-stream, to the little town of Etoile. There with ceremonial evolution and manoeuvre, with fanfaronading, musketry-salvoes, and what else the Patriot genius could devise, they made oath and obtestation to stand faithfully by one another, under Law and King; in particular, to have all manner of grains, while grains there were, freely circulated, in spite both of robber and regrater. This was the meeting of Etoile, in the mild end of November 1789.

But now, if a mere empty Review, followed by Review-dinner, ball, and such gesticulation and flirtation as there may be, interests the happy County-town, and makes it the envy of surrounding County-towns, how much more might this! In a fortnight, larger Montelimart, half ashamed of itself, will do as good, and better. On the Plain of Montelimart, or what is equally sonorous, ‘under the Walls of Montelimart,’ the thirteenth of December sees new gathering and obtestation; six thousand strong; and now indeed, with these three remarkable improvements, as unanimously resolved on there. First that the men of Montelimart do federate with the already federated men of Etoile. Second, that, implying not expressing the circulation of grain, they ‘swear in the face of God and their Country’ with much more emphasis and comprehensiveness, ‘to obey all decrees of the National Assembly, and see them obeyed, till death, jusqu’a la mort.’ Third, and most important, that official record of all this be solemnly delivered in to the National Assembly, to M. de Lafayette, and ‘to the Restorer of French Liberty;’ who shall all take what comfort from it they can. Thus does larger Montelimart vindicate its Patriot importance, and maintain its rank in the municipal scale. (Hist. Parl. vii. 4.)

And so, with the New-year, the signal is hoisted; for is not a National Assembly, and solemn deliverance there, at lowest a National Telegraph? Not only grain shall circulate, while there is grain, on highways or the Rhone-waters, over all that South–Eastern region, — where also if Monseigneur d’Artois saw good to break in from Turin, hot welcome might wait him; but whatsoever Province of France is straitened for grain, or vexed with a mutinous Parlement, unconstitutional plotters, Monarchic Clubs, or any other Patriot ailment, — can go and do likewise, or even do better. And now, especially, when the February swearing has set them all agog! From Brittany to Burgundy, on most plains of France, under most City-walls, it is a blaring of trumpets, waving of banners, a constitutional manoeuvring: under the vernal skies, while Nature too is putting forth her green Hopes, under bright sunshine defaced by the stormful East; like Patriotism victorious, though with difficulty, over Aristocracy and defect of grain! There march and constitutionally wheel, to the ca-ira-ing mood of fife and drum, under their tricolor Municipals, our clear-gleaming Phalanxes; or halt, with uplifted right-hand, and artillery-salvoes that imitate Jove’s thunder; and all the Country, and metaphorically all ‘the Universe,’ is looking on. Wholly, in their best apparel, brave men, and beautifully dizened women, most of whom have lovers there; swearing, by the eternal Heavens and this green-growing all-nutritive Earth, that France is free!

Sweetest days, when (astonishing to say) mortals have actually met together in communion and fellowship; and man, were it only once through long despicable centuries, is for moments verily the brother of man! — And then the Deputations to the National Assembly, with highflown descriptive harangue; to M. de Lafayette, and the Restorer; very frequently moreover to the Mother of Patriotism sitting on her stout benches in that Hall of the Jacobins! The general ear is filled with Federation. New names of Patriots emerge, which shall one day become familiar: Boyer–Fonfrede eloquent denunciator of a rebellious Bourdeaux Parlement; Max Isnard eloquent reporter of the Federation of Draguignan; eloquent pair, separated by the whole breadth of France, who are nevertheless to meet. Ever wider burns the flame of Federation; ever wider and also brighter. Thus the Brittany and Anjou brethren mention a Fraternity of all true Frenchmen; and go the length of invoking ‘perdition and death’ on any renegade: moreover, if in their National–Assembly harangue, they glance plaintively at the marc d’argent which makes so many citizens passive, they, over in the Mother–Society, ask, being henceforth themselves ‘neither Bretons nor Angevins but French,’ Why all France has not one Federation, and universal Oath of Brotherhood, once for all? (Reports, &c. (in Hist. Parl. ix. 122–147).) A most pertinent suggestion; dating from the end of March. Which pertinent suggestion the whole Patriot world cannot but catch, and reverberate and agitate till it become loud; — which, in that case, the Townhall Municipals had better take up, and meditate.

Some universal Federation seems inevitable: the Where is given; clearly Paris: only the When, the How? These also productive Time will give; is already giving. For always as the Federative work goes on, it perfects itself, and Patriot genius adds contribution after contribution. Thus, at Lyons, in the end of the May month, we behold as many as fifty, or some say sixty thousand, met to federate; and a multitude looking on, which it would be difficult to number. From dawn to dusk! For our Lyons Guardsmen took rank, at five in the bright dewy morning; came pouring in, bright-gleaming, to the Quai de Rhone, to march thence to the Federation-field; amid wavings of hats and lady-handkerchiefs; glad shoutings of some two hundred thousand Patriot voices and hearts; the beautiful and brave! Among whom, courting no notice, and yet the notablest of all, what queenlike Figure is this; with her escort of house-friends and Champagneux the Patriot Editor; come abroad with the earliest? Radiant with enthusiasm are those dark eyes, is that strong Minerva-face, looking dignity and earnest joy; joyfullest she where all are joyful. It is Roland de la Platriere’s Wife! (Madame Roland, Memoires, i. (Discours Preliminaire, p. 23).) Strict elderly Roland, King’s Inspector of Manufactures here; and now likewise, by popular choice, the strictest of our new Lyons Municipals: a man who has gained much, if worth and faculty be gain; but above all things, has gained to wife Phlipon the Paris Engraver’s daughter. Reader, mark that queenlike burgher-woman: beautiful, Amazonian-graceful to the eye; more so to the mind. Unconscious of her worth (as all worth is), of her greatness, of her crystal clearness; genuine, the creature of Sincerity and Nature, in an age of Artificiality, Pollution and Cant; there, in her still completeness, in her still invincibility, she, if thou knew it, is the noblest of all living Frenchwomen, — and will be seen, one day. O blessed rather while unseen, even of herself! For the present she gazes, nothing doubting, into this grand theatricality; and thinks her young dreams are to be fulfilled.

From dawn to dusk, as we said, it lasts; and truly a sight like few. Flourishes of drums and trumpets are something: but think of an ‘artificial Rock fifty feet high,’ all cut into crag-steps, not without the similitude of ‘shrubs!’ The interior cavity, for in sooth it is made of deal, — stands solemn, a ‘Temple of Concord:’ on the outer summit rises ‘a Statue of Liberty,’ colossal, seen for miles, with her Pike and Phrygian Cap, and civic column; at her feet a Country’s Altar, ‘Autel de la Patrie:’ — on all which neither deal-timber nor lath and plaster, with paint of various colours, have been spared. But fancy then the banners all placed on the steps of the Rock; high-mass chaunted; and the civic oath of fifty thousand: with what volcanic outburst of sound from iron and other throats, enough to frighten back the very Saone and Rhone; and how the brightest fireworks, and balls, and even repasts closed in that night of the gods! (Hist. Parl. xii. 274.) And so the Lyons Federation vanishes too, swallowed of darkness; — and yet not wholly, for our brave fair Roland was there; also she, though in the deepest privacy, writes her Narrative of it in Champagneux’s Courier de Lyons; a piece which ‘circulates to the extent of sixty thousand;’ which one would like now to read.

But on the whole, Paris, we may see, will have little to devise; will only have to borrow and apply. And then as to the day, what day of all the calendar is fit, if the Bastille Anniversary be not? The particular spot too, it is easy to see, must be the Champ-de-Mars; where many a Julian the Apostate has been lifted on bucklers, to France’s or the world’s sovereignty; and iron Franks, loud-clanging, have responded to the voice of a Charlemagne; and from of old mere sublimities have been familiar.

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