Wednesday, May 06, 2009

on the trigness of the French

From the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Note from the editor of the Journals: "In the first week in May, Mr. Emerson, neglecting the advice of solicitous friends, in his wish to see France especially in days of national crisis, and, incidentally, to gain a better knowledge of the language, crossed the Channel."

May 6.        

From Boulogne to Paris fifty-six leagues, seven and one-half mortal hours.

In approaching Paris, it seemed a nation of soldiers. The climate seemed altered, and 't is in credible that this Syrian capital all the people poured into the street should be so near to London.

In Paris, my furnished lodgings, a very comfortable suite of rooms (15 Rue des petits Augustins] on the second floor, cost me ninety francs a month, or three francs a day. . . . The expenses of living for a day, at my rate, are six francs fifteen sous, or seven francs. 'T is true that a breakfast consists of a certain number of mouthfuls. Well, in France they count the number of mouthfuls say thirty-two or sixty and put a price on the mouthfuls, three centimes, five centimes a spoonful.

I looked in all the shop windows for toys this afternoon and they are very many and gay, but the only one of all which I really wish to buy is very cheap; yet I cannot buy it, namely, their speech. I covet that which the vilest of the people possesses. French poetry is feu de chose and in their character and performance is always prose, prose ornée, but never poesy.

Madame de Tocqueville, who is English, tells me that the French is so beautiful a language, so neat, concise, and lucid, that she can never bear to speak English. 'T is a peculiarity of the French that they assimilate all foreign words, and do not suffer them to be pronounced in the foreign manner. . . . Every blouse in the street speaks like an academician; which is not possible in England. I do not distinguish between the language of a blouse, talking philosophy in a group, and that of a Cousin.

After the pair of noble fountains which play all day, the principal ornament of the Place de la Concorde is the Obelisk brought from Thebes.

The boulevards have lost their fine trees, which were all cut down for barricades in February. At the end of a year we shall take account, and see if the Revolution was worth the trees.

In Paris, the number of beggars does not compare with that in London, or in Manchester even.

The architecture of Paris compares most favorably with that of London; is far more original, spirited, national. Here is a royal Palace. They have spent a great deal of money, and they have something to show for it. This Tuileries, this Louvre, this Hotel de Ville, Palais de Justice, and old tower de la Boucherie (St. Jacques). Efflorescence of France.

I find the French all soldiers, all speakers. The aplomb which these need, every Frenchman has; every gamin a certain trimness or trigness and a certain fancy cut like a dandy boat at a regatta. A certain ingenuity and verbal clearness of statement they require, and that satisfies them that they have a new and lucid and coherent statement, though it is artificial, and not an idea; verbally help, and not really. M. Lambert is the servant of his literary theory. But where is the emancipation and joy that comes from new life of an idea?

I find the French intensely masculine. I find them expressive, not reticent. Their heads are not so round as the English head, said Doherty.1

Saw Clough,2 talked of the inevitable civilization, and how much we owe it; as inevitable as we are the development of inevitable parts. We have got our bread and blood out of it until this hour, and must contrive to get our friction-pump or tap-root still applied to it, nor must we protest in parts, but in system.

I suppose you could never prove to the mind of the most ingenious mollusk that such a creature as a whale was possible.

When men feel and say, "Those men occupy my place." the revolution is near. But I never feel that any men occupy my place;3 . . .

I have never met a person superior to his talent, one who had money in his pocket and did not use it.


Notes by the editor of the Journals:

1 Hugh Doherty, whom Mr. Emerson speaks of later as a Unitarian minister, apparently at Paris at this time.

2. Mr. Emerson took pleasure in Clough s society and val ued his poems, especially The Botbie of Tober-na-Vuottcb. His presence in Paris at the time of this visit was also helpful to Mr. Emerson. They dined together daily and often went about together.

3. 1 For the rest of the passage, see Aristocracy in the Lectures and biographical sketches (1883) ca. p. 54.

{Part of the Rue des petits Augustins from an 18th c. map; source: Histoire de la rue par les cartes}

Some sources:

Journals Of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1820-1872, with Annotations, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes; Vol. VII, 1845-1848 (London, Constable & Co.; Boston And New York Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913)

Journals Of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1820-1872, with Annotations, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes; Vol. VII, 1845-1848, (New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912)

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