Despite the guillotine, publishers embalmed the evanescent, poets rhymed and scanned, orators declaimed, dramatists mingled history and love, historians revised the past, philosophers chastised the present, and two women authors rivaled the men in depth of feeling, political courage, and intellectual power. One of these, Mme. Roland, we have met in prison and at the guillotine.
The Didot family, most famous of French publishers, continued to improve the casting of type and the bindings of books. François Didot had established the firm as printers and booksellers in Paris in 1713; his sons François-Ambroise and Pierre-François carried on experiments in typography, and issued a collection of French classics on commission from Louis XVI; François-Ambroise’s son Pierre published editions of Virgil (1798), Horace (1799), and Racine (1801), so exquisite that the rich purchasers could enjoy them without reading them; Firmin Didot (1764–1836), another son of François-Ambroise, earned fame by founding a new type, and was credited with inventing stereotyping; and the company of Firmin Didot published in 1884 the magnificent edition of Paul Lacroix’sDirectoire, Consulat, et Empire, from which many items herein related have been filched; therein, for example, we learn that all through the Revolutionary period the sale of the works of Voltaire and Rousseau ran in the hundred thousands. A decree of the Convention (July 19, 1793) guaranteed an author’s ownership of his copyrighted publications until ten years after his death.57
The two most famous poets of the Revolutionary decade began far apart in decoration and style, and ended under the same knife in 1794. Philippe-François Fabre d’Églantine composed pretty verses and successful plays; he became president of the Cordeliers Club, secretary to Danton, and deputy in the Convention, where he voted for the expulsion of the Girondins and the beheading of the King. Appointed to the committee for devising a new calendar, he invented many of the picturesquely seasonal names for its months. On January 12, 1794, he was arrested on charges of malversation, forgery, and dealings with foreign agents and mercantile profiteers. At his trial he sang his charming ballad “Il pleut, il pleut, bergère; rentre tes blancs moutons” (“It is raining, it is raining, shepherd; bring in your white sheep”); but the jurors had no ear for pastorals. On his way to the guillotine (April 5, 1794) he distributed copies of his poems to the people.
André-Marie de Chénier was a better poet with better morals, but no better fate. Born at Constantinople (1762) of a French father and a Greek mother, he divided his literary love between Greek poetry and French philosophy. He was educated in Navarre, came to Paris in 1784, made friends with David and Lavoisier, and accepted the Revolution with reservations. He opposed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which bound the state with the Catholic Church; he recommended to the National Assembly the complete separation of Church and state, and full freedom of worship for every faith; he condemned the September Massacres, praised Charlotte Corday for killing Marat, and wrote for Louis XVI a letter to the Convention asking for the right to appeal to the people from the sentence of death; this service made him suspect to the ruling Jacobins. Imprisoned as a Girondin, he fell in love with a pretty prisoner, Mlle, de Coigny, and addressed to her “La Jeune Captive,” which Lamartine pronounced “the most melodious sigh that ever issued from the apertures of a dungeon.”58 Brought to trial, he refused to defend himself, and went to his death as a relief from an age of barbarism and tyranny. He had published only two poems in his lifetime, but his friends issued, twenty-five years after his execution, an edition of his collected verse, which established him as the Keats of French literature. It must have been his plaint, as well as hers, that he expressed in the final stanza of “The Young Captive”:
O mort, tu peux attendre, éloigne, éloigne-toi;
Va consoler les coeurs que la honte, l’effroi,
Le pâle désespoir dévore.
Pour moi Pâles encore a des asiles verts,
Les amours des baisers, les Muses des concerts;
Je ne veux pas mourir encore.
O Death, you need not haste!—begone! begone!
Go solace hearts that shame and fear have known,
And hopeless woes beset.
For me Pales [goddess of the flocks] still has her grassy ways,
Love has its kisses, and the Muse her lays;
I would not die as yet.59
Andre’s younger brother, Joseph de Chénier (1764–1811), was a successful dramatist; recall the turmoil caused when Talma played Charles IX. He wrote the words for the martial “Chant du départ,” and the “Hymne à la liberté” sung at the Feast of Reason; with a skillful translation he introduced to France Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Elected to the Convention, he became in a sense the official poet of the Revolution. In his later years he was commissioned by the Institut to compose a Tableau historique de l’état et du progrès de la littérature française depuis 1789. He died before completing it; even so it is an extensive record of writers once famous and now mostly forgotten even by educated Frenchmen. Immortals die soon after death.
Commanded and engulfed by politics during the Convention, literature recovered under the Directory. Hundreds of literary societies were formed, reading clubs multiplied, the reading public grew. Most of it was content with novels; romantic fiction and poetry began to displace classic tragic drama. Macpherson’s “Ossian,” translated into French, became a favorite with a wide variety of readers, from chambermaids to Napoleon.