The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 7

September in Argonne.

Plain, at any rate, is one thing: that the fear, whatever of fear those Aristocrat enemies might need, has been brought about. The matter is getting serious then! Sansculottism too has become a Fact, and seems minded to assert itself as such? This huge mooncalf of Sansculottism, staggering about, as young calves do, is not mockable only, and soft like another calf; but terrible too, if you prick it; and, through its hideous nostrils, blows fire! — Aristocrats, with pale panic in their hearts, fly towards covert; and a light rises to them over several things; or rather a confused transition towards light, whereby for the moment darkness is only darker than ever. But, What will become of this France? Here is a question! France is dancing its desert-waltz, as Sahara does when the winds waken; in whirlblasts twenty-five millions in number; waltzing towards Townhalls, Aristocrat Prisons, and Election Committee-rooms; towards Brunswick and the Frontiers; — towards a New Chapter of Universal History; if indeed it be not the Finis, and winding-up of that!

In Election Committee-rooms there is now no dubiety; but the work goes bravely along. The Convention is getting chosen, — really in a decisive spirit; in the Townhall we already date First year of the Republic. Some Two hundred of our best Legislators may be re-elected, the Mountain bodily: Robespierre, with Mayor Petion, Buzot, Curate Gregoire, Rabaut, some three score Old–Constituents; though we once had only ‘thirty voices.’ All these; and along with them, friends long known to Revolutionary fame: Camille Desmoulins, though he stutters in speech; Manuel, Tallien and Company; Journalists Gorsas, Carra, Mercier, Louvet of Faublas; Clootz Speaker of Mankind; Collot d’Herbois, tearing a passion to rags; Fabre d’Eglantine, speculative Pamphleteer; Legendre the solid Butcher; nay Marat, though rural France can hardly believe it, or even believe that there is a Marat except in print. Of Minister Danton, who will lay down his Ministry for a Membership, we need not speak. Paris is fervent; nor is the Country wanting to itself. Barbaroux, Rebecqui, and fervid Patriots are coming from Marseilles. Seven hundred and forty-five men (or indeed forty-nine, for Avignon now sends Four) are gathering: so many are to meet; not so many are to part!

Attorney Carrier from Aurillac, Ex–Priest Lebon from Arras, these shall both gain a name. Mountainous Auvergne re-elects her Romme: hardy tiller of the soil, once Mathematical Professor; who, unconscious, carries in petto a remarkable New Calendar, with Messidors, Pluvioses, and such like; — and having given it well forth, shall depart by the death they call Roman. Sieyes old-Constituent comes; to make new Constitutions as many as wanted: for the rest, peering out of his clear cautious eyes, he will cower low in many an emergency, and find silence safest. Young Saint–Just is coming, deputed by Aisne in the North; more like a Student than a Senator: not four-and-twenty yet; who has written Books; a youth of slight stature, with mild mellow voice, enthusiast olive-complexion, and long dark hair. Feraud, from the far valley D’Aure in the folds of the Pyrenees, is coming; an ardent Republican; doomed to fame, at least in death.

All manner of Patriot men are coming: Teachers, Husbandmen, Priests and Ex–Priests, Traders, Doctors; above all, Talkers, or the Attorney-species. Man-midwives, as Levasseur of the Sarthe, are not wanting. Nor Artists: gross David, with the swoln cheek, has long painted, with genius in a state of convulsion; and will now legislate. The swoln cheek, choking his words in the birth, totally disqualifies him as orator; but his pencil, his head, his gross hot heart, with genius in a state of convulsion, will be there. A man bodily and mentally swoln-cheeked, disproportionate; flabby-large, instead of great; weak withal as in a state of convulsion, not strong in a state of composure: so let him play his part. Nor are naturalised Benefactors of the Species forgotten: Priestley, elected by the Orne Department, but declining: Paine the rebellious Needleman, by the Pas de Calais, who accepts.

Few Nobles come, and yet not none. Paul Francois Barras, ‘noble as the Barrases, old as the rocks of Provence;’ he is one. The reckless, shipwrecked man: flung ashore on the coast of the Maldives long ago, while sailing and soldiering as Indian Fighter; flung ashore since then, as hungry Parisian Pleasure-hunter and Half-pay, on many a Circe Island, with temporary enchantment, temporary conversion into beasthood and hoghood; — the remote Var Department has now sent him hither. A man of heat and haste; defective in utterance; defective indeed in any thing to utter; yet not without a certain rapidity of glance, a certain swift transient courage; who, in these times, Fortune favouring, may go far. He is tall, handsome to the eye, ‘only the complexion a little yellow;’ but ‘with a robe of purple with a scarlet cloak and plume of tricolor, on occasions of solemnity,’ the man will look well. (Dictionnaire des Hommes Marquans, para Barras.) Lepelletier Saint–Fargeau, Old–Constituent, is a kind of noble, and of enormous wealth; he too has come hither:— to have the Pain of Death abolished? Hapless Ex–Parlementeer! Nay, among our Sixty Old–Constituents, see Philippe d’Orleans a Prince of the Blood! Not now d’Orleans: for, Feudalism being swept from the world, he demands of his worthy friends the Electors of Paris, to have a new name of their choosing; whereupon Procureur Manuel, like an antithetic literary man, recommends Equality, Egalite. A Philippe Egalite therefore will sit; seen of the Earth and Heaven.

Such a Convention is gathering itself together. Mere angry poultry in moulting season; whom Brunswick’s grenadiers and cannoneers will give short account of. Would the weather only mend a little! (Bertrand–Moleville, Memoires, ii. 225.)

In vain, O Bertrand! The weather will not mend a whit:— nay even if it did? Dumouriez Polymetis, though Bertrand knows it not, started from brief slumber at Sedan, on that morning of the 29th of August; with stealthiness, with promptitude, audacity. Some three mornings after that, Brunswick, opening wide eyes, perceives the Passes of the Argonne all seized; blocked with felled trees, fortified with camps; and that it is a most shifty swift Dumouriez this, who has outwitted him!

The manoeuvre may cost Brunswick ‘a loss of three weeks,’ very fatal in these circumstances. A Mountain-wall of forty miles lying between him and Paris: which he should have preoccupied; — which how now to get possession of? Also the rain it raineth every day; and we are in a hungry Champagne Pouilleuse, a land flowing only with ditch-water. How to cross this Mountain-wall of the Argonne; or what in the world to do with it? — there are marchings and wet splashings by steep paths, with sackerments and guttural interjections; forcings of Argonne Passes, — which unhappily will not force. Through the woods, volleying War reverberates, like huge gong-music, or Moloch’s kettledrum, borne by the echoes; swoln torrents boil angrily round the foot of rocks, floating pale carcasses of men. In vain! Islettes Village, with its church-steeple, rises intact in the Mountain-pass, between the embosoming heights; your forced marchings and climbings have become forced slidings, and tumblings back. From the hill-tops thou seest nothing but dumb crags, and endless wet moaning woods; the Clermont Vache (huge Cow that she is) disclosing herself (See Helen Maria Williams. Letters, iii. 79–81.) at intervals; flinging off her cloud-blanket, and soon taking it on again, drowned in the pouring Heaven. The Argonne Passes will not force: by must skirt the Argonne; go round by the end of it.

But fancy whether the Emigrant Seigneurs have not got their brilliancy dulled a little; whether that ‘Foot Regiment in red-facings with nankeen trousers’ could be in field-day order! In place of gasconading, a sort of desperation, and hydrophobia from excess of water, is threatening to supervene. Young Prince de Ligne, son of that brave literary De Ligne the Thundergod of Dandies, fell backwards; shot dead in Grand–Pre, the Northmost of the Passes: Brunswick is skirting and rounding, laboriously, by the extremity of the South. Four days; days of a rain as of Noah, — without fire, without food! For fire you cut down green trees, and produce smoke; for food you eat green grapes, and produce colic, pestilential dysentery, (Greek). And the Peasants assassinate us, they do not join us; shrill women cry shame on us, threaten to draw their very scissors on us! O ye hapless dulled-bright Seigneurs, and hydrophobic splashed Nankeens; — but O, ten times more, ye poor sackerment-ing ghastly-visaged Hessians and Hulans, fallen on your backs; who had no call to die there, except compulsion and three-halfpence a-day! Nor has Mrs. Le Blanc of the Golden Arm a good time of it, in her bower of dripping rushes. Assassinating Peasants are hanged; Old–Constituent Honourable members, though of venerable age, ride in carts with their hands tied; these are the woes of war.

Thus they; sprawling and wriggling, far and wide, on the slopes and passes of the Argonne; — a loss to Brunswick of five-and-twenty disastrous days. There is wriggling and struggling; facing, backing, and right-about facing; as the positions shift, and the Argonne gets partly rounded, partly forced:— but still Dumouriez, force him, round him as you will, sticks like a rooted fixture on the ground; fixture with many hinges; wheeling now this way, now that; shewing always new front, in the most unexpected manner: nowise consenting to take himself away. Recruits stream up on him: full of heart; yet rather difficult to deal with. Behind Grand–Pre, for example, Grand–Pre which is on the wrong-side of the Argonne, for we are now forced and rounded, — the full heart, in one of those wheelings and shewings of new front, did as it were overset itself, as full hearts are liable to do; and there rose a shriek of sauve qui peut, and a death-panic which had nigh ruined all! So that the General had to come galloping; and, with thunder-words, with gesture, stroke of drawn sword even, check and rally, and bring back the sense of shame; (Dumouriez, Memoires, iii. 29.) — nay to seize the first shriekers and ringleaders; ‘shave their heads and eyebrows,’ and pack them forth into the world as a sign. Thus too (for really the rations are short, and wet camping with hungry stomach brings bad humour) there is like to be mutiny. Whereupon again Dumouriez ‘arrives at the head of their line, with his staff, and an escort of a hundred huzzars. He had placed some squadrons behind them, the artillery in front; he said to them: “As for you, for I will neither call you citizens, nor soldiers, nor my men (ni mes enfans), you see before you this artillery, behind you this cavalry. You have dishonoured yourselves by crimes. If you amend, and grow to behave like this brave Army which you have the honour of belonging to, you will find in me a good father. But plunderers and assassins I do not suffer here. At the smallest mutiny I will have you shivered in pieces (hacher en pieces). Seek out the scoundrels that are among you, and dismiss them yourselves; I hold you responsible for them.”’ (Ibid., Memoires iii. 55.)

Patience, O Dumouriez! This uncertain heap of shriekers, mutineers, were they once drilled and inured, will become a phalanxed mass of Fighters; and wheel and whirl, to order, swiftly like the wind or the whirlwind: tanned mustachio-figures; often barefoot, even bare-backed; with sinews of iron; who require only bread and gunpowder: very Sons of Fire, the adroitest, hastiest, hottest ever seen perhaps since Attila’s time. They may conquer and overrun amazingly, much as that same Attila did; — whose Attila’s-Camp and Battlefield thou now seest, on this very ground; (Helen Maria Williams, iii. 32.) who, after sweeping bare the world, was, with difficulty, and days of tough fighting, checked here by Roman Aetius and Fortune; and his dust-cloud made to vanish in the East again! —

Strangely enough, in this shrieking Confusion of a Soldiery, which we saw long since fallen all suicidally out of square in suicidal collision, — at Nanci, or on the streets of Metz, where brave Bouille stood with drawn sword; and which has collided and ground itself to pieces worse and worse ever since, down now to such a state: in this shrieking Confusion, and not elsewhere, lies the first germ of returning Order for France! Round which, we say, poor France nearly all ground down suicidally likewise into rubbish and Chaos, will be glad to rally; to begin growing, and new-shaping her inorganic dust: very slowly, through centuries, through Napoleons, Louis Philippes, and other the like media and phases, — into a new, infinitely preferable France, we can hope! —

These wheelings and movements in the region of the Argonne, which are all faithfully described by Dumouriez himself, and more interesting to us than Hoyle’s or Philidor’s best Game of Chess, let us, nevertheless, O Reader, entirely omit; — and hasten to remark two things: the first a minute private, the second a large public thing. Our minute private thing is: the presence, in the Prussian host, in that war-game of the Argonne, of a certain Man, belonging to the sort called Immortal; who, in days since then, is becoming visible more and more, in that character, as the Transitory more and more vanishes; for from of old it was remarked that when the Gods appear among men, it is seldom in recognisable shape; thus Admetus’ neatherds give Apollo a draught of their goatskin whey-bottle (well if they do not give him strokes with their ox-rungs), not dreaming that he is the Sungod! This man’s name is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He is Herzog Weimar’s Minister, come with the small contingent of Weimar; to do insignificant unmilitary duty here; very irrecognizable to nearly all! He stands at present, with drawn bridle, on the height near Saint–Menehould, making an experiment on the ‘cannon-fever;’ having ridden thither against persuasion, into the dance and firing of the cannon-balls, with a scientific desire to understand what that same cannon-fever may be: ‘The sound of them,’ says he, ‘is curious enough; as if it were compounded of the humming of tops, the gurgling of water and the whistle of birds. By degrees you get a very uncommon sensation; which can only be described by similitude. It seems as if you were in some place extremely hot, and at the same time were completely penetrated by the heat of it; so that you feel as if you and this element you are in were perfectly on a par. The eyesight loses nothing of its strength or distinctness; and yet it is as if all things had got a kind of brown-red colour, which makes the situation and the objects still more impressive on you.’ (Goethe, Campagne in Frankreich, Werke, xxx. 73.)

This is the cannon-fever, as a World–Poet feels it. — A man entirely irrecognisable! In whose irrecognisable head, meanwhile, there verily is the spiritual counterpart (and call it complement) of this same huge Death–Birth of the World; which now effectuates itself, outwardly in the Argonne, in such cannon-thunder; inwardly, in the irrecognisable head, quite otherwise than by thunder! Mark that man, O Reader, as the memorablest of all the memorable in this Argonne Campaign. What we say of him is not dream, nor flourish of rhetoric; but scientific historic fact; as many men, now at this distance, see or begin to see.

But the large public thing we had to remark is this: That the Twentieth of September, 1792, was a raw morning covered with mist; that from three in the morning Sainte–Menehould, and those Villages and homesteads we know of old were stirred by the rumble of artillery-wagons, by the clatter of hoofs, and many footed tramp of men: all manner of military, Patriot and Prussian, taking up positions, on the Heights of La Lune and other Heights; shifting and shoving, — seemingly in some dread chess-game; which may the Heavens turn to good! The Miller of Valmy has fled dusty under ground; his Mill, were it never so windy, will have rest to-day. At seven in the morning the mist clears off: see Kellermann, Dumouriez’ second in command, with ‘eighteen pieces of cannon,’ and deep-serried ranks, drawn up round that same silent Windmill, on his knoll of strength; Brunswick, also, with serried ranks and cannon, glooming over to him from the height of La Lune; only the little brook and its little dell now parting them.

So that the much-longed-for has come at last! Instead of hunger and dysentery, we shall have sharp shot; and then! — Dumouriez, with force and firm front, looks on from a neighbouring height; can help only with his wishes, in silence. Lo, the eighteen pieces do bluster and bark, responsive to the bluster of La Lune; and thunder-clouds mount into the air; and echoes roar through all dells, far into the depths of Argonne Wood (deserted now); and limbs and lives of men fly dissipated, this way and that. Can Brunswick make an impression on them? The dull-bright Seigneurs stand biting their thumbs: these Sansculottes seem not to fly like poultry! Towards noontide a cannon-shot blows Kellermann’s horse from under him; there bursts a powder-cart high into the air, with knell heard over all: some swagging and swaying observable; — Brunswick will try! “Camarades,” cries Kellermann, “Vive la Patria! Allons vaincre pour elle, Let us conquer.” “Live the Fatherland!” rings responsive, to the welkin, like rolling-fire from side to side: our ranks are as firm as rocks; and Brunswick may recross the dell, ineffectual; regain his old position on La Lune; not unbattered by the way. And so, for the length of a September day, — with bluster and bark; with bellow far echoing! The cannonade lasts till sunset; and no impression made. Till an hour after sunset, the few remaining Clocks of the District striking Seven; at this late time of day Brunswick tries again. With not a whit better fortune! He is met by rock-ranks, by shouts of Vive la Patrie; and driven back, not unbattered. Whereupon he ceases; retires ‘to the Tavern of La Lune;’ and sets to raising a redoute lest he be attacked!

Verily so: ye dulled-bright Seigneurs, make of it what ye may. Ah, and France does not rise round us in mass; and the Peasants do not join us, but assassinate us: neither hanging nor any persuasion will induce them! They have lost their old distinguishing love of King, and King’s-cloak, — I fear, altogether; and will even fight to be rid of it: that seems now their humour. Nor does Austria prosper, nor the siege of Thionville. The Thionvillers, carrying their insolence to the epigrammatic pitch, have put a Wooden Horse on their walls, with a bundle of hay hung from him, and this Inscription: ‘When I finish my hay, you will take Thionville.’ (Hist. Parl. xix. 177.) To such height has the frenzy of mankind risen.

The trenches of Thionville may shut: and what though those of Lille open? The Earth smiles not on us, nor the Heaven; but weeps and blears itself, in sour rain, and worse. Our very friends insult us; we are wounded in the house of our friends: “His Majesty of Prussia had a greatcoat, when the rain came; and (contrary to all known laws) he put it on, though our two French Princes, the hope of their country, had none!” To which indeed, as Goethe admits, what answer could be made? (Goethe, xxx. 49.) — Cold and Hunger and Affront, Colic and Dysentery and Death; and we here, cowering redouted, most unredoubtable, amid the ‘tattered corn-shocks and deformed stubble,’ on the splashy Height of La Lune, round the mean Tavern de La Lune! —

This is the Cannonade of Valmy; wherein the World–Poet experimented on the cannon-fever; wherein the French Sansculottes did not fly like poultry. Precious to France! Every soldier did his duty, and Alsatian Kellermann (how preferable to old Luckner the dismissed!) began to become greater; and Egalite Fils, Equality Junior, a light gallant Field–Officer, distinguished himself by intrepidity:— it is the same intrepid individual who now, as Louis–Philippe, without the Equality, struggles, under sad circumstances, to be called King of the French for a season.

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