The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 2

Let us march.

But to our minds the notablest of all these moving phenomena, is that of Barbaroux’s ‘Six Hundred Marseillese who know how to die.’

Prompt to the request of Barbaroux, the Marseilles Municipality has got these men together: on the fifth morning of July, the Townhall says, “Marchez, abatez le Tyran, March, strike down the Tyrant;” (Dampmartin, ii. 183.) and they, with grim appropriate “Marchons,” are marching. Long journey, doubtful errand; Enfans de la Patrie, may a good genius guide you! Their own wild heart and what faith it has will guide them: and is not that the monition of some genius, better or worse? Five Hundred and Seventeen able men, with Captains of fifties and tens; well armed all, musket on shoulder, sabre on thigh: nay they drive three pieces of cannon; for who knows what obstacles may occur? Municipalities there are, paralyzed by War-minister; Commandants with orders to stop even Federation Volunteers; good, when sound arguments will not open a Town-gate, if you have a petard to shiver it! They have left their sunny Phocean City and Sea-haven, with its bustle and its bloom: the thronging Course, with high-frondent Avenues, pitchy dockyards, almond and olive groves, orange trees on house-tops, and white glittering bastides that crown the hills, are all behind them. They wend on their wild way, from the extremity of French land, through unknown cities, toward an unknown destiny; with a purpose that they know.

Much wondering at this phenomenon, and how, in a peaceable trading City, so many householders or hearth-holders do severally fling down their crafts and industrial tools; gird themselves with weapons of war, and set out on a journey of six hundred miles to ‘strike down the tyrant,’ — you search in all Historical Books, Pamphlets, and Newspapers, for some light on it: unhappily without effect. Rumour and Terror precede this march; which still echo on you; the march itself an unknown thing. Weber, in the back-stairs of the Tuileries, has understood that they were Forcats, Galley-slaves and mere scoundrels, these Marseillese; that, as they marched through Lyons, the people shut their shops; — also that the number of them was some Four Thousand. Equally vague is Blanc Gilli, who likewise murmurs about Forcats and danger of plunder. (See Barbaroux, Memoires Note in p. 40, 41.) Forcats they were not; neither was there plunder, or danger of it. Men of regular life, or of the best-filled purse, they could hardly be; the one thing needful in them was that they ‘knew how to die.’ Friend Dampmartin saw them, with his own eyes, march ‘gradually’ through his quarters at Villefranche in the Beaujolais: but saw in the vaguest manner; being indeed preoccupied, and himself minded for matching just then — across the Rhine. Deep was his astonishment to think of such a march, without appointment or arrangement, station or ration: for the rest it was ‘the same men he had seen formerly’ in the troubles of the South; ‘perfectly civil;’ though his soldiers could not be kept from talking a little with them. (Dampmartin, ubi supra.)

So vague are all these; Moniteur, Histoire Parlementaire are as good as silent: garrulous History, as is too usual, will say nothing where you most wish her to speak! If enlightened Curiosity ever get sight of the Marseilles Council–Books, will it not perhaps explore this strangest of Municipal procedures; and feel called to fish up what of the Biographies, creditable or discreditable, of these Five Hundred and Seventeen, the stream of Time has not yet irrevocably swallowed?

As it is, these Marseillese remain inarticulate, undistinguishable in feature; a blackbrowed Mass, full of grim fire, who wend there, in the hot sultry weather: very singular to contemplate. They wend; amid the infinitude of doubt and dim peril; they not doubtful: Fate and Feudal Europe, having decided, come girdling in from without: they, having also decided, do march within. Dusty of face, with frugal refreshment, they plod onwards; unweariable, not to be turned aside. Such march will become famous. The Thought, which works voiceless in this blackbrowed mass, an inspired Tyrtaean Colonel, Rouget de Lille whom the Earth still holds, (A.D. 1836.) has translated into grim melody and rhythm; into his Hymn or March of the Marseillese: luckiest musical-composition ever promulgated. The sound of which will make the blood tingle in men’s veins; and whole Armies and Assemblages will sing it, with eyes weeping and burning, with hearts defiant of Death, Despot and Devil.

One sees well, these Marseillese will be too late for the Federation Feast. In fact, it is not Champ-de-Mars Oaths that they have in view. They have quite another feat to do: a paralytic National Executive to set in action. They must ‘strike down’ whatsoever ‘Tyrant,’ or Martyr–Faineant, there may be who paralyzes it; strike and be struck; and on the whole prosper and know how to die.

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