Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

that great city and acquitted himself in this delicate office so much to the satisfaction of his noble correspondent, that he nominated him, in 1776, his resident at the court of France, and raised him at the same time to the rank and dignity of a baron. The volumes before us are a part of the despatches of this literary plenipotentiary; and are certainly the most amusing state papers that have ever fallen under our observation.

The Baron de Grimm continued to exercise the functions of this philosophical diplomacy, till the gathering storm of the revolution drove both ministers and philosophers from the territories of the new republic. He then took refuge, of course, in the court of his master, where he resided till 1795, when Catharine of Russia, to whose shrine he had formerly made a pilgrimage from Paris, gave him the appointment of her minister at the court of Saxony-which he continued to hold till the end of the reign of the unfortunate Paul, when the partial loss of sight obliged him to withdraw altogether from business, and to return to the court of Saxe-Gotha, where he continued his studies in literature and the arts with unabated ardour, till he sunk at last under a load of years and infirmities in the end of 1807. He was of an uncomely and grotesque appearance—with huge projecting eyes and discordant features, which he rendered still more hideous, by daubing them profusely with white and with red paint_according to the most approved costume of petits-maîtres in the year 1748, when he made his début at Paris.

The book embraces a period of about twelve years only, from 1770 to 1782, with a gap for 1775 and part of 1776. It is said in the title page to be partly the work of Grimm, and partly that of Diderot--but the contributions of the latter are few, and comparatively of little importance. It is written half in the style of à journal intended for the public, and half in that of private and confidential correspondence; and, notwithstanding the retrenchments which the editor boasts of having made in the manuscript, contains a vast miscellany of all sorts of intelligence; critiques upon all new publications, new operas, and new performers at the theatres ; accounts of all the meetings and elections at the academies, and of the deaths and characters of all the eminent persons who demised in the period to which it extends; copies of the epigrams, and editions of the scandalous stories that occupied the idle population of Paris during the same period-interspersed with various original compositions, and brief and pithy dissertations upon the general subjects that are suggested by such an enumeration. Of these, the accounts of the operas and the actors are the most tedious, the critical and biographical sketches the most lively, and the general observations the most striking and important. The whole, however, is given with great vivacity and talent, and with a degree of freedom which trespasses occasionally upon the borders both of propriety and of good taste.

There is nothing indeed more exactly painted in these graphical volumes than the character of M. Grimm himself; and the beauty of it is, that as there is nothing either natural or peculiar about it, it may stand for the character of all the wits and philosophers he frequented. He had more wit, perhaps, and more sound sense and information, than the greater part of the society in which he lived--but the leading traits belong to the whole class, and to all classes indeed, in similar situations, in every part of the world. Whenever there is a very large assemblage of persons who have no other occupation but to amuse themselves, there will infallibly be generated acuteness of intellect, refinement of manners, and good taste in conversation ; and, with the same certainty, all profound thought, and all serious affection, will be discarded from their society. The multitude of persons and things that force themselves on the attention in such a scene, and the rapidity with which they succeed each other and pass away, prevent any one from making a deep or permanent impression; and the mind, having never been tasked to any course of application, and long habituated to this lively succession and variety of objects, comes at last to require the excitement of perpetual change, and to find a multiplicity of friends as indispensable as a multiplicity of amusements. Thus the characteristics of large and polished society come almost inevitably to be, wit and heartlessness acuteness and perpetual derision. The same impatience of uniformity, and passion for variety which give so much grace to their conversation, by excluding all tediousness and pertinacious wrangling, make them incapable of dwelling for many minutes on the feelings and concerns of any one individual; while the constant pursuit of little gratifications, and the weak dread of all uneasy sensations, render them equally averse from serious sympathy and deep thought. They speedily find out the shortest and most pleasant way to all truths, to which a short and a pleasant way can readily be discovered; and then lay it down as a maxim that no others are worth looking after and, in the same way, they do such petty kindnesses, and indulge such light sympathies, as do not put them to any trouble, or encroach at all on their amusements-while they make it a principle to wrap themselves up in those amusements from the assault of all more engrossing or importunate affections.

The turn for derision again arises naturally out of this order of things. When passion and enthusiasm, affection and serious occupation, have once been banished by a short-sighted voluptuous

ness, the sense of ridicule is almost the only lively sensation that remains; and the envied life of those who have nothing to do but to enjoy themselves, would be utterly listless and without interest, if they were not allowed to laugh at each other. Their quickness in perceiving ordinary follies, and illusions too, affords great encouragement to this laudable practice; and aś none of them have so much passion or enthusiasm left as to be deeply wounded by the shafts of derision, they fall lightly, and without rankling, on the lesser vanities, which supply in them those master-springs of human action and feeling.

The whole style and tone of this publication affords the most striking illustration of these general remarks. From one end of it to the other, it is a display of the most complete heartlessness, and the most uninterrupted levity. It chronicles the deaths of half the author's acquaintance-and makes jests upon them all; and is much more serious in discussing the merits of an opera dancer, than in considering the evidence for the being of a God, or the first foundations of morality. Nothing, indeed, can be more just or conclusive, than the remark that is forced from M. Grimm himself, upon the utter carelesness, and instant oblivion, that followed the death of one of the most distinguished, active, and amiable members of his coterie ; " tant il est vrai que ce qui nous appellons la Societé, est ce qu'il y a de plus leger, de plus ingrat, et de plus frivole au monde !"

Holding this opinion very firmly ourselves, it will easily be believed that we are very far from envying the brilliant persons who composed, or gave the tone to this exquisite society; and while we have a due admiration for the elegant pleasantry, correct taste, and gay acuteness, of which they furnish, perhaps, the only perfect models, we think it more desirable, on the whole, to be the spectators than the possessors of those accomplishments; and would no more wish to buy them at the price of our sober thinking, and settled affections, than we would buy the dexterity of a fiddler, or a ropedancer, at the price of our personal respectability. Even in the days of youth and high spirits, there is no solid enjoyment in living altogether with people who care nothing about us; and when we begin to grow old and unamusable, there can be nothing so comfortless as to be surrounded with those who think of nothing but amusement. The spectacle, however, is gay and beautiful to those who look upon it with a goodnatured sympathy; and naturally suggests reflections that may be interesting to the most serious. A judicious extractor, we have no doubt, might accommodate both classes of readers, from the ample magazine that lies before us.

The most figuring person in the work, and indeed of the age to which it belongs, was, beyond all question, Voltaire-of whom, and of whose character, it presents us with many amusing trails. He receives no other name throughout the book, than “ The Patriarch" of the Holy Philosophical Church, of which the authors, and the greater part of their friends, profess to be humble votaries and disciples. The infallibility of its chief, however, seems to have formed no part of the creed of this reformed religion ; for, with all his admiration for the wit, and playfulness, and talent, of the philosophic pontiff, nothing can exceed the freedoms in which M. Grimm indulges, both as to his productions and his character. All his poetry, he says, after Tancred, is clearly marked with the symptoms of approaching dotage and decay; and his views of many important subjects he treats as altogether erroneous, shallow, and contemptible. He is particularly offended with him for not adopting the decided atheism of the Système de la Nature, and for weakly stopping short at a kind of paltry deism. “The patriarch," says he, “ still sticks to his Remunerateur-Vengear, without whom he fancies the world would go on very ill. He is resolute enough, I confess, for putting down the god of knaves and bigots, but is not for parting with that of the virtuous and rational. He reasons upon all this, too, like a baby-a very smart baby it must be owned-but a baby notwithstanding. He would be a little puzzled, I take it, if he were asked what was the colour of his god of the virtuous and wise, &c. &c. He cannot conceive, he says, how mere motion, undirected by intelligence, should ever have produced such a world as we inhabit--and we verily believe him. Nobody can conceive it-but it is a fuet nevertheless; and we see it-which is nearly as good.” We give this merely as a specimen of the disciple's irreverence towards his master; for nothing can be more contemptible than the reasoning of M. Grimm in support of his own desolating opinions. He is more near being right, where he makes himself merry with the patriarch's ignorance of natural philosophy. Every Achilles, however, he adds, has a vulnerable heel and that of the hero of Ferney is his physics.*

M. Grimm, however, reveals worse infirmities than this in his great preceptor. There was a Mademoiselle Raucour, it seems, who, though an actress, enjoyed an unblemished reputation. Voltaire, who had never seen her, chose one morning to write to the Marechal de Richelieu, by whom she was patronised, that she was a notorious prostitute, and ready to be taken into keeping by any one who would offer for her. This imputation having been thoughtlessly communicated to the damsel herself, produced no little commotion; and upon Voltaire's being remonstrated with, he immediately retracted the whole story, which it seems was a piece of pure invention; and confessed that the only thing he had to object to Mademoiselle Raucour was, that he had understood they had put off the representation of a new play of his in order to gratify the public with her appearance in comedy ;-—" and this was enough,” says M. Grimm, “to irritate a child of seventy-nine against another child of seventeen, who came in the way of his gratification !"

* This is only true, however, with regard to natural history and chymistry; for asta the nobler part of physics, which depends on science, his attainments were equal per haps to those of any of his age and country, with the exception of D'Alembert. Even his astronomy, however, though by no means "mince et raccourtie," had a tendeney to confirm him in that paltry deism, for which he is so unmercifully rated by M. Grimm. We no not know many quatrains in French poetry more beautiful than the following, which the patriarch indited impromptu, one fine summer evening :

“Tous ces vastes pays d'Azur et de Lumiere,
Tires du sein du vide, et formes sans matiere,
Arrondis sans compas, et tournans sans pivot,
Ont a peine coute la depense d'un mot."

A little after, he tells a story which is not only very disreputable to the patriarch, but affords a striking example of the monstrous evils that arise from religious intolerance, in a country where the whole population is not of the same communion. A Mons. de B. introduced himself into a protestant family at Montaubon, and, after some time, publicly married the only daughter of the house, in the church of her pastor. He lived several years with her, and had one daughter-dissipated her whole property-and at last deserted her, and married another woman at Paris upon the pretence that his first union was not binding, the ceremony not having been performed by a catholic priest. The parliament ultimately allowed this plea; and farther directed, that the daughter should be taken from its mother, and educated in the true faith in a convent. The transaction excited general indignation; and the legality of the sentence, and especially the last part of it, was very much disputed, both in the profession and out of it;when Voltaire, to the astonishment of all the world, thought fit to put forth a pamphlet in its defence. M. Grimm treats the whole matter with his usual coldness and pleasantry ;-and as a sort of apology for this extraordinary proceeding of his chief, very coolly observes, “The truth is, that for some time past the patriarch has been suspected, and indeed convicted, of the most abominable cowardice. He defied the old parliament in his youth with signal courage and intrepidity; and now he cringes to the new one, and even condescends to be its panegyrist, from an absurd dread of being persecuted by it on the very brink of the tomb. Ah! Seigneur Patriarche !" he concludes, in the true Parisian accent, “Horace was much more excusable for flattering Augustus who had honoured him though he destroyed the republic, than you are, for justifying, without any intelligible motive, a proceeding so utterly detestable, and upon which, if yon had not courage

« AnteriorContinuar »