The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 7

Death of Mirabeau.

But Mirabeau could not live another year, any more than he could live another thousand years. Men’s years are numbered, and the tale of Mirabeau’s was now complete. Important, or unimportant; to be mentioned in World–History for some centuries, or not to be mentioned there beyond a day or two, — it matters not to peremptory Fate. From amid the press of ruddy busy Life, the Pale Messenger beckons silently: wide-spreading interests, projects, salvation of French Monarchies, what thing soever man has on hand, he must suddenly quit it all, and go. Wert thou saving French Monarchies; wert thou blacking shoes on the Pont Neuf! The most important of men cannot stay; did the World’s History depend on an hour, that hour is not to be given. Whereby, indeed, it comes that these same would-have-beens are mostly a vanity; and the World’s History could never in the least be what it would, or might, or should, by any manner of potentiality, but simply and altogether what it is.

The fierce wear and tear of such an existence has wasted out the giant oaken strength of Mirabeau. A fret and fever that keeps heart and brain on fire: excess of effort, of excitement; excess of all kinds: labour incessant, almost beyond credibility! ‘If I had not lived with him,’ says Dumont, ‘I should never have known what a man can make of one day; what things may be placed within the interval of twelve hours. A day for this man was more than a week or a month is for others: the mass of things he guided on together was prodigious; from the scheming to the executing not a moment lost.’ “Monsieur le Comte,” said his Secretary to him once, “what you require is impossible.” — “Impossible!” answered he starting from his chair, “Ne me dites jamais ce bete de mot, Never name to me that blockhead of a word.” (Dumont, p. 311.) And then the social repasts; the dinner which he gives as Commandant of National Guards, which ‘costs five hundred pounds;’ alas, and ‘the Sirens of the Opera;’ and all the ginger that is hot in the mouth:— down what a course is this man hurled! Cannot Mirabeau stop; cannot he fly, and save himself alive? No! There is a Nessus’ Shirt on this Hercules; he must storm and burn there, without rest, till he be consumed. Human strength, never so Herculean, has its measure. Herald shadows flit pale across the fire-brain of Mirabeau; heralds of the pale repose. While he tosses and storms, straining every nerve, in that sea of ambition and confusion, there comes, sombre and still, a monition that for him the issue of it will be swift death.

In January last, you might see him as President of the Assembly; ‘his neck wrapt in linen cloths, at the evening session:’ there was sick heat of the blood, alternate darkening and flashing in the eye-sight; he had to apply leeches, after the morning labour, and preside bandaged. ‘At parting he embraced me,’ says Dumont, ‘with an emotion I had never seen in him: “I am dying, my friend; dying as by slow fire; we shall perhaps not meet again. When I am gone, they will know what the value of me was. The miseries I have held back will burst from all sides on France.”’ (Dumont, p. 267.) Sickness gives louder warning; but cannot be listened to. On the 27th day of March, proceeding towards the Assembly, he had to seek rest and help in Friend de Lamarck’s, by the road; and lay there, for an hour, half-fainted, stretched on a sofa. To the Assembly nevertheless he went, as if in spite of Destiny itself; spoke, loud and eager, five several times; then quitted the Tribune — for ever. He steps out, utterly exhausted, into the Tuileries Gardens; many people press round him, as usual, with applications, memorials; he says to the Friend who was with him: Take me out of this!

And so, on the last day of March 1791, endless anxious multitudes beset the Rue de la Chaussee d’Antin; incessantly inquiring: within doors there, in that House numbered in our time ‘42,’ the over wearied giant has fallen down, to die. (Fils Adoptif, viii. 420–79.) Crowds, of all parties and kinds; of all ranks from the King to the meanest man! The King sends publicly twice a-day to inquire; privately besides: from the world at large there is no end of inquiring. ‘A written bulletin is handed out every three hours,’ is copied and circulated; in the end, it is printed. The People spontaneously keep silence; no carriage shall enter with its noise: there is crowding pressure; but the Sister of Mirabeau is reverently recognised, and has free way made for her. The People stand mute, heart-stricken; to all it seems as if a great calamity were nigh: as if the last man of France, who could have swayed these coming troubles, lay there at hand-grips with the unearthly Power.

The silence of a whole People, the wakeful toil of Cabanis, Friend and Physician, skills not: on Saturday, the second day of April, Mirabeau feels that the last of the Days has risen for him; that, on this day, he has to depart and be no more. His death is Titanic, as his life has been. Lit up, for the last time, in the glare of coming dissolution, the mind of the man is all glowing and burning; utters itself in sayings, such as men long remember. He longs to live, yet acquiesces in death, argues not with the inexorable. His speech is wild and wondrous: unearthly Phantasms dancing now their torch-dance round his soul; the soul itself looking out, fire-radiant, motionless, girt together for that great hour! At times comes a beam of light from him on the world he is quitting. “I carry in my heart the death-dirge of the French Monarchy; the dead remains of it will now be the spoil of the factious.” Or again, when he heard the cannon fire, what is characteristic too: “Have we the Achilles’ Funeral already?” So likewise, while some friend is supporting him: “Yes, support that head; would I could bequeath it thee!” For the man dies as he has lived; self-conscious, conscious of a world looking on. He gazes forth on the young Spring, which for him will never be Summer. The Sun has risen; he says: “Si ce n’est pas la Dieu, c’est du moins son cousin germain.” (Fils Adoptif, viii. 450; Journal de la maladie et de la mort de Mirabeau, par P.J.G. Cabanis (Paris, 1803).) — Death has mastered the outworks; power of speech is gone; the citadel of the heart still holding out: the moribund giant, passionately, by sign, demands paper and pen; writes his passionate demand for opium, to end these agonies. The sorrowful Doctor shakes his head: Dormir ‘To sleep,’ writes the other, passionately pointing at it! So dies a gigantic Heathen and Titan; stumbling blindly, undismayed, down to his rest. At half-past eight in the morning, Dr. Petit, standing at the foot of the bed, says “Il ne souffre plus.” His suffering and his working are now ended.

Even so, ye silent Patriot multitudes, all ye men of France; this man is rapt away from you. He has fallen suddenly, without bending till he broke; as a tower falls, smitten by sudden lightning. His word ye shall hear no more, his guidance follow no more. — The multitudes depart, heartstruck; spread the sad tidings. How touching is the loyalty of men to their Sovereign Man! All theatres, public amusements close; no joyful meeting can be held in these nights, joy is not for them: the People break in upon private dancing-parties, and sullenly command that they cease. Of such dancing-parties apparently but two came to light; and these also have gone out. The gloom is universal: never in this City was such sorrow for one death; never since that old night when Louis XII. departed, ‘and the Crieurs des Corps went sounding their bells, and crying along the streets: Le bon roi Louis, pere du peuple, est mort, The good King Louis, Father of the People, is dead!’ (Henault, Abrege Chronologique, p. 429.) King Mirabeau is now the lost King; and one may say with little exaggeration, all the People mourns for him.

For three days there is low wide moan: weeping in the National Assembly itself. The streets are all mournful; orators mounted on the bournes, with large silent audience, preaching the funeral sermon of the dead. Let no coachman whip fast, distractively with his rolling wheels, or almost at all, through these groups! His traces may be cut; himself and his fare, as incurable Aristocrats, hurled sulkily into the kennels. The bourne-stone orators speak as it is given them; the Sansculottic People, with its rude soul, listens eager, — as men will to any Sermon, or Sermo, when it is a spoken Word meaning a Thing, and not a Babblement meaning No-thing. In the Restaurateur’s of the Palais Royal, the waiter remarks, “Fine weather, Monsieur:" — “Yes, my friend,” answers the ancient Man of Letters, “very fine; but Mirabeau is dead.” Hoarse rhythmic threnodies comes also from the throats of balladsingers; are sold on gray-white paper at a sou each. (Fils Adoptif, viii. l. 19; Newspapers and Excerpts (in Hist. Parl. ix. 366–402).) But of Portraits, engraved, painted, hewn, and written; of Eulogies, Reminiscences, Biographies, nay Vaudevilles, Dramas and Melodramas, in all Provinces of France, there will, through these coming months, be the due immeasurable crop; thick as the leaves of Spring. Nor, that a tincture of burlesque might be in it, is Gobel’s Episcopal Mandement wanting; goose Gobel, who has just been made Constitutional Bishop of Paris. A Mandement wherein ca ira alternates very strangely with Nomine Domini, and you are, with a grave countenance, invited to ‘rejoice at possessing in the midst of you a body of Prelates created by Mirabeau, zealous followers of his doctrine, faithful imitators of his virtues.’ (Hist. Parl. ix. 405.) So speaks, and cackles manifold, the Sorrow of France; wailing articulately, inarticulately, as it can, that a Sovereign Man is snatched away. In the National Assembly, when difficult questions are astir, all eyes will ‘turn mechanically to the place where Mirabeau sat,’ — and Mirabeau is absent now.

On the third evening of the lamentation, the fourth of April, there is solemn Public Funeral; such as deceased mortal seldom had. Procession of a league in length; of mourners reckoned loosely at a hundred thousand! All roofs are thronged with onlookers, all windows, lamp-irons, branches of trees. ‘Sadness is painted on every countenance; many persons weep.’ There is double hedge of National Guards; there is National Assembly in a body; Jacobin Society, and Societies; King’s Ministers, Municipals, and all Notabilities, Patriot or Aristocrat. Bouille is noticeable there, ‘with his hat on;’ say, hat drawn over his brow, hiding many thoughts! Slow-wending, in religious silence, the Procession of a league in length, under the level sun-rays, for it is five o’clock, moves and marches: with its sable plumes; itself in a religious silence; but, by fits, with the muffled roll of drums, by fits with some long-drawn wail of music, and strange new clangour of trombones, and metallic dirge-voice; amid the infinite hum of men. In the Church of Saint–Eustache, there is funeral oration by Cerutti; and discharge of fire-arms, which ‘brings down pieces of the plaster.’ Thence, forward again to the Church of Sainte–Genevieve; which has been consecrated, by supreme decree, on the spur of this time, into a Pantheon for the Great Men of the Fatherland, Aux Grands Hommes la Patrie reconnaissante. Hardly at midnight is the business done; and Mirabeau left in his dark dwelling: first tenant of that Fatherland’s Pantheon.

Tenant, alas, with inhabits but at will, and shall be cast out! For, in these days of convulsion and disjection, not even the dust of the dead is permitted to rest. Voltaire’s bones are, by and by, to be carried from their stolen grave in the Abbey of Scellieres, to an eager stealing grave, in Paris his birth-city: all mortals processioning and perorating there; cars drawn by eight white horses, goadsters in classical costume, with fillets and wheat-ears enough; — though the weather is of the wettest. (Moniteur, du 13 Juillet 1791.) Evangelist Jean Jacques, too, as is most proper, must be dug up from Ermenonville, and processioned, with pomp, with sensibility, to the Pantheon of the Fatherland. (Ibid. du 18 Septembre, 1794. See also du 30 Aout, &c. 1791.) He and others: while again Mirabeau, we say, is cast forth from it, happily incapable of being replaced; and rests now, irrecognisable, reburied hastily at dead of night, in the central ‘part of the Churchyard Sainte–Catherine, in the Suburb Saint–Marceau,’ to be disturbed no further.

So blazes out, farseen, a Man’s Life, and becomes ashes and a caput mortuum, in this World–Pyre, which we name French Revolution: not the first that consumed itself there; nor, by thousands and many millions, the last! A man who ‘had swallowed all formulas;’ who, in these strange times and circumstances, felt called to live Titanically, and also to die so. As he, for his part had swallowed all formulas, what Formula is there, never so comprehensive, that will express truly the plus and the minus, give us the accurate net-result of him? There is hitherto none such. Moralities not a few must shriek condemnatory over this Mirabeau; the Morality by which he could be judged has not yet got uttered in the speech of men. We shall say this of him, again: That he is a Reality, and no Simulacrum: a living son of Nature our general Mother; not a hollow Artfice, and mechanism of Conventionalities, son of nothing, brother to nothing. In which little word, let the earnest man, walking sorrowful in a world mostly of ‘Stuffed Clothes-suits,’ that chatter and grin meaningless on him, quite ghastly to the earnest soul, — think what significance there is!

Of men who, in such sense, are alive, and see with eyes, the number is now not great: it may be well, if in this huge French Revolution itself, with its all-developing fury, we find some Three. Mortals driven rabid we find; sputtering the acridest logic; baring their breast to the battle-hail, their neck to the guillotine; of whom it is so painful to say that they too are still, in good part, manufactured Formalities, not Facts but Hearsays!

Honour to the strong man, in these ages, who has shaken himself loose of shams, and is something. For in the way of being worthy, the first condition surely is that one be. Let Cant cease, at all risks and at all costs: till Cant cease, nothing else can begin. Of human Criminals, in these centuries, writes the Moralist, I find but one unforgivable: the Quack. ‘Hateful to God,’ as divine Dante sings, ‘and to the Enemies of God,

‘A Dio spiacente ed a’ nemici sui!’

But whoever will, with sympathy, which is the first essential towards insight, look at this questionable Mirabeau, may find that there lay verily in him, as the basis of all, a Sincerity, a great free Earnestness; nay call it Honesty, for the man did before all things see, with that clear flashing vision, into what was, into what existed as fact; and did, with his wild heart, follow that and no other. Whereby on what ways soever he travels and struggles, often enough falling, he is still a brother man. Hate him not; thou canst not hate him! Shining through such soil and tarnish, and now victorious effulgent, and oftenest struggling eclipsed, the light of genius itself is in this man; which was never yet base and hateful: but at worst was lamentable, loveable with pity. They say that he was ambitious, that he wanted to be Minister. It is most true; and was he not simply the one man in France who could have done any good as Minister? Not vanity alone, not pride alone; far from that! Wild burstings of affection were in this great heart; of fierce lightning, and soft dew of pity. So sunk, bemired in wretchedest defacements, it may be said of him, like the Magdalen of old, that he loved much: his Father the harshest of old crabbed men he loved with warmth, with veneration.

Be it that his falls and follies are manifold, — as himself often lamented even with tears. (Dumont, p. 287.) Alas, is not the Life of every such man already a poetic Tragedy; made up ‘of Fate and of one’s own Deservings,’ of Schicksal und eigene Schuld; full of the elements of Pity and Fear? This brother man, if not Epic for us, is Tragic; if not great, is large; large in his qualities, world-large in his destinies. Whom other men, recognising him as such, may, through long times, remember, and draw nigh to examine and consider: these, in their several dialects, will say of him and sing of him, — till the right thing be said; and so the Formula that can judge him be no longer an undiscovered one.

Here then the wild Gabriel Honore drops from the tissue of our History; not without a tragic farewell. He is gone: the flower of the wild Riquetti or Arrighetti kindred; which seems as if in him, with one last effort, it had done its best, and then expired, or sunk down to the undistinguished level. Crabbed old Marquis Mirabeau, the Friend of Men, sleeps sound. The Bailli Mirabeau, worthy uncle, will soon die forlorn, alone. Barrel–Mirabeau, already gone across the Rhine, his Regiment of Emigrants will drive nigh desperate. ‘Barrel–Mirabeau,’ says a biographer of his, ‘went indignantly across the Rhine, and drilled Emigrant Regiments. But as he sat one morning in his tent, sour of stomach doubtless and of heart, meditating in Tartarean humour on the turn things took, a certain Captain or Subaltern demanded admittance on business. Such Captain is refused; he again demands, with refusal; and then again, till Colonel Viscount Barrel–Mirabeau, blazing up into a mere burning brandy barrel, clutches his sword, and tumbles out on this canaille of an intruder, — alas, on the canaille of an intruder’s sword’s point, who had drawn with swift dexterity; and dies, and the Newspapers name it apoplexy and alarming accident.’ So die the Mirabeaus.

New Mirabeaus one hears not of: the wild kindred, as we said, is gone out with this its greatest. As families and kindreds sometimes do; producing, after long ages of unnoted notability, some living quintescence of all the qualities they had, to flame forth as a man world-noted; after whom they rest as if exhausted; the sceptre passing to others. The chosen Last of the Mirabeaus is gone; the chosen man of France is gone. It was he who shook old France from its basis; and, as if with his single hand, has held it toppling there, still unfallen. What things depended on that one man! He is as a ship suddenly shivered on sunk rocks: much swims on the waste waters, far from help.

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