Miscellaneous Studies: A Series of Essays
by Walter Horatio Pater
Public Domain Books
FOR one born in eighteen hundred and three much was recently become incredible that had at least warmed the imagination even of the sceptical eighteenth century. Napoleon, sealing the tomb of the Revolution, had foreclosed many a problem, extinguished many a hope, in the sphere of practice. And the mental parallel was drawn by Heine. In the mental world too a great outlook had lately been cut off. After Kant’s criticism of the mind, its pretensions to pass beyond the limits of individual experience seemed as dead as those of old French royalty. And Kant did but furnish its innermost theoretic force to a more general criticism, which had withdrawn from every department of action, underlying principles once thought eternal. A time of disillusion followed. The typical personality of the day was Obermann, the very genius of ennui, a Frenchman disabused even of patriotism, who has hardly strength enough to die.
 More energetic souls, however, would recover themselves, and find some way of making the best of a changed world. Art: the passions, above all, the ecstasy and sorrow of love: a purely empirical knowledge of nature and man: these still remained, at least for pastime, in a world of which it was no longer proposed to calculate the remoter issues:–art, passion, science, however, in a somewhat novel attitude towards the practical interests of life. The desillusionne, who had found in Kant’s negations the last word concerning an unseen world, and is living, on the morrow of the Revolution, under a monarchy made out of hand, might seem cut off from certain ancient natural hopes, and will demand, from what is to interest him at all, something in the way of artificial stimulus. He has lost that sense of large proportion in things, that all-embracing prospect of life as a whole (from end to end of time and space, it had seemed), the utmost expanse of which was afforded from a cathedral tower of the Middle Age: by the church of the thirteenth century, that is to say, with its consequent aptitude for the co-ordination of human effort. Deprived of that exhilarating yet pacific outlook, imprisoned now in the narrow cell of its own subjective experience, the action of a powerful nature will be intense, but exclusive and peculiar. It will come to art, or science, to the experience of life itself, not as to portions of human nature’s daily food, but as to  something that must be, by the circumstances of the case, exceptional; almost as men turn in despair to gambling or narcotics, and in a little while the narcotic, the game of chance or skill, is valued for its own sake. The vocation of the artist, of the student of life or books, will be realised with something–say! of fanaticism, as an end in itself, unrelated, unassociated. The science he turns to will be a science of crudest fact; the passion extravagant, a passionate love of passion, varied through all the exotic phases of French fiction as inaugurated by Balzac; the art exaggerated, in matter or form, or both, as in Hugo or Baudelaire. The development of these conditions is the mental story of the nineteenth century, especially as exemplified in France.
In no century would Prosper Merimee have been a theologian or metaphysician. But that sense of negation, of theoretic insecurity, was in the air, and conspiring with what was of like tendency in himself made of him a central type of disillusion. In him the passive ennui of Obermann became a satiric, aggressive, almost angry conviction of the littleness of the world around; it was as if man’s fatal limitations constituted a kind of stupidity in him, what the French call betise. Gossiping friends, indeed, linked what was constitutional in him and in the age with an incident of his earliest years. Corrected for some childish fault, in passionate distress, he overhears a half-pitying laugh at his expense, and has determined,  in a moment, never again to give credit–to be for ever on his guard, especially against his own instinctive movements. Quite unreserved, certainly, he never was again. Almost everywhere he could detect the hollow ring of fundamental nothingness under the apparent surface of things. Irony surely, habitual irony, would be the proper complement thereto, on his part. In his infallible self- possession, you might even fancy him a mere man of the world, with a special aptitude for matters of fact. Though indifferent in politics, he rises to social, to political eminence; but all the while he is feeding all his scholarly curiosity, his imagination, the very eye, with the, to him ever delightful, relieving, reassuring spectacle, of those straightforward forces in human nature, which are also matters of fact. There is the formula of Merimee! the enthusiastic amateur of rude, crude, naked force in men and women wherever it could be found; himself carrying ever, as a mask, the conventional attire of the modern world–carrying it with an infinite, contemptuous grace, as if that, too, were an all-sufficient end in itself. With a natural gift for words, for expression, it will be his literary function to draw back the veil of time from the true greatness of old Roman character; the veil of modern habit from the primitive energy of the creatures of his fancy, as the Lettres a une Inconnue discovered to general gaze, after his death, a certain depth of  passionate force which had surprised him in himself. And how forcible will be their outlines in an otherwise insignificant world! Fundamental belief gone, in almost all of us, at least some relics of it remain–queries, echoes, reactions, after-thoughts; and they help to make an atmosphere, a mental atmosphere, hazy perhaps, yet with many secrets of soothing light and shade, associating more definite objects to each other by a perspective pleasant to the inward eye against a hopefully receding background of remoter and ever remoter possibilities. Not so with Merimee! For him the fundamental criticism has nothing more than it can do; and there are no half-lights. The last traces of hypothesis, of supposition, are evaporated. Sylla, the false Demetrius, Carmen, Colomba, that impassioned self within himself, have no atmosphere. Painfully distinct in outline, inevitable to sight, unrelieved, there they stand, like solitary mountain forms on some hard, perfectly transparent day. What Merimee gets around his singularly sculpturesque creations is neither more nor less than empty space.
So disparate are his writings that at first sight you might fancy them only the random efforts of a man of pleasure or affairs, who, turning to this or that for the relief of a vacant hour, discovers to his surprise a workable literary gift, of whose scope, however, he is not precisely aware. His sixteen volumes nevertheless range themselves in three compact groups. There are his letters  – those Lettres a une Inconnue, and his letters to the librarian Panizzi, revealing him in somewhat close contact with political intrigue. But in this age of novelists, it is as a writer of novels, and of fiction in the form of highly descriptive drama, that he will count for most:–Colomba, for instance, by its intellectual depth of motive, its firmly conceived structure, by the faultlessness of its execution, vindicating the function of the novel as no tawdry light literature, but in very deed a fine art. The Chronique du Regne de Charles IX., an unusually successful specimen of historical romance, links his imaginative work to the third group of Merimee’s writings, his historical essays. One resource of the disabused soul of our century, as we saw, would be the empirical study of facts, the empirical science of nature and man, surviving all dead metaphysical philosophies. Merimee, perhaps, may have had in him the making of a master of such science, disinterested, patient, exact: scalpel in hand, we may fancy, he would have penetrated far. But quite certainly he had something of genius for the exact study of history, for the pursuit of exact truth, with a keenness of scent as if that alone existed, in some special area of historic fact, to be determined by his own peculiar mental preferences. Power here too again,–the crude power of men and women which mocks, while it makes its use of, average human nature: it was the magic function of history to put one in living  contact with that. To weigh the purely physiognomic import of the memoir, of the pamphlet saved by chance, the letter, the anecdote, the very gossip by which one came face to face with energetic personalities: there lay the true business of the historic student, not in that pretended theoretic interpretation of events by their mechanic causes, with which he dupes others if not invariably himself. In the great hero of the Social War, in Sylla, studied, indeed, through his environment, but only so far as that was in dynamic contact with himself, you saw, without any manner of doubt, on one side, the solitary height of human genius; on the other, though on the seemingly so heroic stage of antique Roman story, the wholly inexpressive level of the humanity of every day, the spectacle of man’s eternal betise. Fascinated, like a veritable son of the old pagan Renaissance, by the grandeur, the concentration, the satiric hardness of ancient Roman character, it is to Russia nevertheless that he most readily turns–youthful Russia, whose native force, still unbelittled by our western civilisation, seemed to have in it the promise of a more dignified civilisation to come. It was as if old Rome itself were here again; as, occasionally, a new quarry is laid open of what was thought long since exhausted, ancient marble, cipollino or verde antique. Merimee, indeed, was not the first to discern the fitness for imaginative service of the career of “the false Demetrius,” pretended  son of Ivan the Terrible; but he alone seeks its utmost force in a calm, matter-of-fact carefully ascertained presentment of the naked events. Yes! In the last years of the Valois, when its fierce passions seemed to be bursting France to pieces, you might have seen, far away beyond the rude Polish dominion of which one of those Valois princes had become king, a display more effective still of exceptional courage and cunning, of horror in circumstance, of betise, of course, of betise and a slavish capacity of being duped, in average mankind: all that under a mask of solemn Muscovite court- ceremonial. And Merimee’s style, simple and unconcerned, but with the eye ever on its object, lends itself perfectly to such purpose– to an almost phlegmatic discovery of the facts, in all their crude natural colouring, as if he but held up to view, as a piece of evidence, some harshly dyed oriental carpet from the sumptuous floor of the Kremlin, on which blood had fallen.
A lover of ancient Rome, its great character and incident, Merimee valued, as if it had been personal property of his, every extant relic of it in the art that had been most expressive of its genius– architecture. In that grandiose art of building, the most national, the most tenaciously rooted of all the arts in the stable conditions of life, there were historic documents hardly less clearly legible than the manuscript chronicle. By the mouth of those stately Romanesque  churches, scattered in so many strongly characterised varieties over the soil of France, above all in the hot, half-pagan south, the people of empire still protested, as he understood, against what must seem a smaller race. The Gothic enthusiasm indeed was already born, and he shared it–felt intelligently the fascination of the Pointed Style, but only as a further transformation of old Roman structure; the round arch is for him still the great architectural form, la forme noble, because it was to be seen in the monuments of antiquity. Romanesque, Gothic, the manner of the Renaissance, of Lewis the Fourteenth:–they were all, as in a written record, in the old abbey church of Saint-Savin, of which Merimee was instructed to draw up a report. Again, it was as if to his concentrated attention through many months that deserted sanctuary of Benedict were the only thing on earth. Its beauties, its peculiarities, its odd military features, its faded mural paintings, are no merely picturesque matter for the pencil he could use so well, but the lively record of a human society. With what appetite! with all the animation of George Sand’s Mauprat, he tells the story of romantic violence having its way there, defiant of law, so late as the year 1611; of the family of robber nobles perched, as abbots in commendam, in those sacred places. That grey, pensive old church in the little valley of Poitou, was for a time like Santa Maria del Fiore to  Michelangelo, the mistress of his affections- -of a practical affection; for the result of his elaborate report was the Government grant which saved the place from ruin. In architecture, certainly, he had what for that day was nothing less than intuition–an intuitive sense, above all, of its logic, of the necessity which draws into one all minor changes, as elements in a reasonable development. And his care for it, his curiosity about it, were symptomatic of his own genius. Structure, proportion, design, a sort of architectural coherency: that was the aim of his method in the art of literature, in that form of it, especially, which he will live by, in fiction.
As historian and archaeologist, as a man of erudition turned artist, he is well seen in the Chronique du Regne de Charles IX., by which we pass naturally from Merimee’s critical or scientific work to the products of his imagination. What economy in the use of a large antiquarian knowledge! what an instinct amid a hundred details, for the detail that carries physiognomy in it, that really tells! And again what outline, what absolute clarity of outline! For the historian of that puzzling age which centres in the “Eve of Saint Bartholomew,” outward events themselves seem obscured by the vagueness of motive of the actors in them. But Merimee, disposing of them as an artist, not in love with half-lights, compels events and actors alike to the clearness he  desired; takes his side without hesitation; and makes his hero a Huguenot of pure blood, allowing its charm, in that charming youth, even to Huguenot piety. And as for the incidents–however freely it may be undermined by historic doubt, all reaches a perfectly firm surface, at least for the eye of the reader. The Chronicle of Charles the Ninth is like a series of masterly drawings in illustration of a period–the period in which two other masters of French fiction have found their opportunity, mainly by the development of its actual historic characters. Those characters–Catherine de Medicis and the rest–Merimee, with significant irony and self-assertion, sets aside, preferring to think of them as essentially commonplace. For him the interest lies in the creatures of his own will, who carry in them, however, so lightly! a learning equal to Balzac’s, greater than that of Dumas. He knows with like completeness the mere fashions of the time–how courtier and soldier dressed themselves, and the large movements of the desperate game which fate or chance was playing with those pretty pieces. Comparing that favourite century of the French Renaissance with our own, he notes a decadence of the more energetic passions in the interest of general tranquillity, and perhaps (only perhaps!) of general happiness. “Assassination,” he observes, as if with regret, “is no longer a part of our manners.” In fact, the duel, and the whole  morality of the duel, which does but enforce a certain regularity on assassination, what has been well called le sentiment du fer, the sentiment of deadly steel, had then the disposition of refined existence. It was, indeed, very different, and is, in Merimee’s romance. In his gallant hero, Bernard de Mergy, all the promptings of the lad’s virile goodness are in natural collusion with that sentiment du fer. Amid his ingenuous blushes, his prayers, and plentiful tears between-while, it is a part of his very sex. With his delightful, fresh-blown air, he is for ever tossing the sheath from the sword, but always as if into bright natural sunshine. A winsome, yet withal serious and even piteous figure, he conveys his pleasantness, in spite of its gloomy theme, into Merimee’s one quite cheerful book.
Cheerful, because, after all, the gloomy passions it presents are but the accidents of a particular age, and not like the mental conditions in which Merimee was most apt to look for the spectacle of human power, allied to madness or disease in the individual. For him, at least, it was the office of fiction to carry one into a different if not a better world than that actually around us; and if the Chronicle of Charles the Ninth provided an escape from the tame circumstances of contemporary life into an impassioned past, Colomba is a measure of the resources for mental alteration which may be found even in the modern age. There was a corner of  the French Empire, in the manners of which assassination still had a large part.
“The beauty of Corsica,” says Merimee, “is grave and sad. The aspect of the capital does but augment the impression caused by the solitude that surrounds it. There is no movement in the streets. You hear there none of the laughter, the singing, the loud talking, common in the towns of Italy. Sometimes, under the shadow of a tree on the promenade, a dozen armed peasants will be playing cards, or looking on at the game. The Corsican is naturally silent. Those who walk the pavement are all strangers: the islanders stand at their doors: every one seems to be on the watch, like a falcon on its nest. All around the gulf there is but an expanse of tanglework; beyond it, bleached mountains. Not a habitation! Only, here and there, on the heights about the town, certain white constructions detach themselves from the background of green. They are funeral chapels or family tombs.”
Crude in colour, sombre, taciturn, Corsica, as Merimee here describes it, is like the national passion of the Corsican–that morbid personal pride, usurping the place even of grief for the dead, which centuries of traditional violence had concentrated into an all- absorbing passion for bloodshed, for bloody revenges, in collusion with the natural wildness, and the wild social condition of the island still unaffected even by the finer  ethics of the duel. The supremacy of that passion is well indicated by the cry, put into the mouth of a young man in the presence of the corpse of his father deceased in the course of nature–a young man meant to be commonplace. “Ah! Would thou hadst died malamorte–by violence! We might have avenged thee!”
In Colomba, Merimee’s best known creation, it is united to a singularly wholesome type of personal beauty, a natural grace of manner which is irresistible, a cunning intellect patiently diverting every circumstance to its design; and presents itself as a kind of genius, allied to fatal disease of mind. The interest of Merimee’s book is that it allows us to watch the action of this malignant power on Colomba’s brother, Orso della Robbia, as it discovers, rouses, concentrates to the leaping-point, in the somewhat weakly diffused nature of the youth, the dormant elements of a dark humour akin to her own. Two years after his father’s murder, presumably at the instigation of his ancestral enemies, the young lieutenant is returning home in the company of two humorously conventional English people, himself now half Parisianised, with an immense natural cheerfulness, and willing to believe an account of the crime which relieves those hated Barricini of all complicity in its guilt. But from the first, Colomba, with “voice soft and musical,” is at his side, gathering every accident and echo and circumstance, the very lightest circumstance,  into the chain of necessity which draws him to the action every one at home expects of him as the head of his race. He is not unaware. Her very silence on the matter speaks so plainly. “You are forming me!” he admits. “Well! ’Hot shot, or cold steel!’–you see I have not forgotten my Corsican.” More and more, as he goes on his way with her, he finds himself accessible to the damning thoughts he has so long combated. In horror, he tries to disperse them by the memory of his comrades in the regiment, the drawing-rooms of Paris, the English lady who has promised to be his bride, and will shortly visit him in the humble manoir of his ancestors. From his first step among them the villagers of Pietranera, divided already into two rival camps, are watching him in suspense–Pietranera, perched among those deep forests where the stifled sense of violent death is everywhere. Colomba places in his hands the little chest which contains the father’s shirt covered with great spots of blood. “Behold the lead that struck him!” and she laid on the shirt two rusted bullets. “Orso! you will avenge him!" She embraces him with a kind of madness, kisses wildly the bullets and the shirt, leaves him with the terrible relics already exerting their mystic power upon him. It is as if in the nineteenth century a girl, amid Christian habits, had gone back to that primitive old pagan version of the story of the Grail, which  identifies it not with the Most Precious Blood, but only with the blood of a murdered relation crying for vengeance. Awake at last in his old chamber at Pietranera, the house of the Barricini at the other end of the square, with its rival tower and rudely carved escutcheons, stares him in the face. His ancestral enemy is there, an aged man now, but with two well-grown sons, like two stupid dumb animals, whose innocent blood will soon be on his so oddly lighted conscience. At times, his better hope seemed to lie in picking a quarrel and killing at least in fair fight, one of these two stupid dumb animals; with rude ill-suppressed laughter one day, as they overhear Colomba’s violent utterances at a funeral feast, for she is a renowned improvisatrice. “Your father is an old man,” he finds himself saying, “I could crush with my hands. ’Tis for you I am destined, for you and your brother!” And if it is by course of nature that the old man dies not long after the murder of these sons (self-provoked after all), dies a fugitive at Pisa, as it happens, by an odd accident, in the presence of Colomba, no violent death by Orso’s own hand could have been more to her mind. In that last hard page of Merimee’s story, mere dramatic propriety itself for a moment seems to plead for the forgiveness, which from Joseph and his brethren to the present day, as we know, has been as winning in story as in actual life. Such dramatic propriety, however, was by no means  in Merimee’s way. “What I must have is the hand that fired the shot," she had sung, “the eye that guided it; aye! and the mind moreover– the mind, which had conceived the deed!” And now, it is in idiotic terror, a fugitive from Orso’s vengeance, that the last of the Barricini is dying.
Exaggerated art! you think. But it was precisely such exaggerated art, intense, unrelieved, an art of fierce colours, that is needed by those who are seeking in art, as I said of Merimee, a kind of artificial stimulus. And if his style is still impeccably correct, cold-blooded, impersonal, as impersonal as that of Scott himself, it does but conduce the better to his one exclusive aim. It is like the polish of the stiletto Colomba carried always under her mantle, or the beauty of the fire-arms, that beauty coming of nice adaptation to purpose, which she understood so well–a task characteristic also of Merimee himself, a sort of fanatic joy in the perfect pistol-shot, at its height in the singular story he has translated from the Russian of Pouchkine. Those raw colours he preferred; Spanish, Oriental, African, perhaps, irritant certainly to cisalpine eyes, he undoubtedly attained the colouring you associate with sun-stroke, only possible under a sun in which dead things rot quickly.
Pity and terror, we know, go to the making of the essential tragic sense. In Merimee, certainly, we have all its terror, but without the  pity. Saint-Clair, the consent of his mistress barely attained at last, rushes madly on self-destruction, that he may die with the taste of his great love fresh on his lips. All the grotesque accidents of violent death he records with visual exactness, and no pains to relieve them; the ironic indifference, for instance, with which, on the scaffold or the battle-field, a man will seem to grin foolishly at the ugly rents through which his life has passed. Seldom or never has the mere pen of a writer taken us so close to the cannon’s mouth as in the Taking of the Redoubt, while Matteo Falcone–twenty-five short pages–is perhaps the cruellest story in the world.
Colomba, that strange, fanatic being, who has a code of action, of self-respect, a conscience, all to herself, who with all her virginal charm only does not make you hate her, is, in truth, the type of a sort of humanity Merimee found it pleasant to dream of–a humanity as alien as the animals, with whose moral affinities to man his imaginative work is often directly concerned. Were they so alien, after all? Were there not survivals of the old wild creatures in the gentlest, the politest of us? Stories that told of sudden freaks of gentle, polite natures, straight back, not into Paradise, were always welcome to men’s fancies; and that could only be because they found a psychologic truth in them. With much success, with a credibility insured by his literary tact, Merimee tried his own hand at such stories: unfrocked the  bear in the amorous young Lithuanian noble, the wolf in the revolting peasant of the Middle Age. There were survivals surely in himself, in that stealthy presentment of his favourite themes, in his own art. You seem to find your hand on a serpent, in reading him.
In such survivals, indeed, you see the operation of his favourite motive, the sense of wild power, under a sort of mask, or assumed habit, realised as the very genius of nature itself; and that interest, with some superstitions closely allied to it, the belief in the vampire, for instance, is evidenced especially in certain pretended Illyrian compositions–prose translations, the reader was to understand, of more or less ancient popular ballads; La Guzla, he called the volume, The Lyre, as we might say; only that the instrument of the Illyrian minstrel had but one string. Artistic deception, a trick of which there is something in the historic romance as such, in a book like his own Chronicle of Charles the Ninth, was always welcome to Merimee; it was part of the machinery of his rooted habit of intellectual reserve. A master of irony also, in Madame Lucrezia he seems to wish to expose his own method cynically; to explain his art–how he takes you in–as a clever, confident conjuror might do. So properly were the readers of La Guzla taken in that he followed up his success in that line by the Theatre of Clara Gazul, purporting to be from a rare Spanish original, the work  of a nun, who, under tame, conventual reading, had felt the touch of mundane, of physical passions; had become a dramatic poet, and herself a powerful actress. It may dawn on you in reading her that Merimee was a kind of Webster, but with the superficial mildness of our nineteenth century. At the bottom of the true drama there is ever, logically at least, the ballad: the ballad dealing in a kind of short-hand (or, say! in grand, simple, universal outlines) with those passions, crimes, mistakes, which have a kind of fatality in them, a kind of necessity to come to the surface of the human mind, if not to the surface of our experience, as in the case of some frankly supernatural incidents which Merimee re-handled. Whether human love or hatred has had most to do in shaping the universal fancy that the dead come back, I cannot say. Certainly that old ballad literature has instances in plenty, in which the voice, the hand, the brief visit from the grave, is a natural response to the cry of the human creature. That ghosts should return, as they do so often in Merimee’s fiction, is but a sort of natural justice. Only, in Merimee’s prose ballads, in those admirable, short, ballad-like stories, where every word tells, of which he was a master, almost the inventor, they are a kind of half-material ghosts–a vampire tribe– and never come to do people good; congruously with the mental constitution of the writer, which, alike in fact and fiction,  could hardly have horror enough–theme after theme. Merimee himself emphasises this almost constant motive of his fiction when he adds to one of his volumes of short stories some letters on a matter of fact- -a Spanish bull-fight, in which those old Romans, he regretted, might seem, decadently, to have survived. It is as if you saw it. In truth, Merimee was the unconscious parent of much we may think of dubious significance in later French literature. It is as if there were nothing to tell of in this world but various forms of hatred, and a love that is like lunacy; and the only other world, a world of maliciously active, hideous, dead bodies.
Merimee, a literary artist, was not a man who used two words where one would do better, and he shines especially in those brief compositions which, like a minute intaglio, reveal at a glance his wonderful faculty of design and proportion in the treatment of his work, in which there is not a touch but counts. That is an art of which there are few examples in English; our somewhat diffuse, or slipshod, literary language hardly lending itself to the concentration of thought and expression, which are of the essence of such writing. It is otherwise in French, and if you wish to know what art of that kind can come to, read Merimee’s little romances; best of all, perhaps, La Venus d’Ille and Arsene Guillot. The former is a modern version of the beautiful old story of the Ring given to Venus, given to her, in  this case, by a somewhat sordid creature of the nineteenth century, whom she looks on with more than disdain. The strange outline of the Canigou, one of the most imposing outlying heights of the Pyrenees, down the mysterious slopes of which the traveller has made his way towards nightfall into the great plain of Toulouse, forms an impressive background, congruous with the many relics of irrepressible old paganism there, but in entire contrast to the bourgeois comfort of the place where his journey is to end, the abode of an aged antiquary, loud and bright just now with the celebration of a vulgar worldly marriage. In the midst of this well- being, prosaic in spite of the neighbourhood, in spite of the pretty old wedding customs, morsels of that local colour in which Merimee delights, the old pagan powers are supposed to reveal themselves once more (malignantly, of course), in the person of a magnificent bronze statue of Venus recently unearthed in the antiquary’s garden. On her finger, by ill-luck, the coarse young bridegroom on the morning of his marriage places for a moment the bridal ring only too effectually (the bronze hand closes, like a wilful living one, upon it), and dies, you are to understand, in her angry metallic embraces on his marriage night. From the first, indeed, she had seemed bent on crushing out men’s degenerate bodies and souls, though the supernatural horror of the tale is adroitly made credible by a certain vagueness in the  events, which covers a quite natural account of the bridegroom’s mysterious death.
The intellectual charm of literary work so thoroughly designed as Merimee’s depends in part on the sense as you read, hastily perhaps, perhaps in need of patience, that you are dealing with a composition, the full secret of which is only to be attained in the last paragraph, that with the last word in mind you will retrace your steps, more than once (it may be) noting then the minuter structure, also the natural or wrought flowers by the way. Nowhere is such method better illustrated than by another of Merimee’s quintessential pieces, Arsene Guillotand here for once with a conclusion ethically acceptable also. Merimee loved surprises in human nature, but it is not often that he surprises us by tenderness or generosity of character, as another master of French fiction, M. Octave Feuillet, is apt to do; and the simple pathos of Arsene Guillot gives it a unique place in Merimee’s writings. It may be said, indeed, that only an essentially pitiful nature could have told the exquisitely cruel story of Matteo Falcone precisely as Merimee has told it; and those who knew him testify abundantly to his own capacity for generous friendship. He was no more wanting than others in those natural sympathies (sending tears to the eyes at the sight of suffering age or childhood) which happily are no extraordinary component in men’s natures. It was, perhaps, no fitting return for a  friendship of over thirty years to publish posthumously those Lettres a une Inconnue, which reveal that reserved, sensitive, self- centred nature, a little pusillanimously in the power, at the disposition of another. For just there lies the interest, the psychological interest, of those letters. An amateur of power, of the spectacle of power and force, followed minutely but without sensibility on his part, with a kind of cynic pride rather for the mainspring of his method, both of thought and expression, you find him here taken by surprise at last, and somewhat humbled, by an unsuspected force of affection in himself. His correspondent, unknown but for these letters except just by name, figures in them as, in truth, a being only too much like himself, seen from one side; reflects his taciturnity, his touchiness, his incredulity except for self-torment. Agitated, dissatisfied, he is wrestling in her with himself, his own difficult qualities. He demands from her a freedom, a frankness, he would have been the last to grant. It is by first thoughts, of course, that what is forcible and effective in human nature, the force, therefore, of carnal love, discovers itself; and for her first thoughts Merimee is always pleading, but always complaining that he gets only her second thoughts; the thoughts, that is, of a reserved, self-limiting nature, well under the yoke of convention, like his own. Strange conjunction! At the beginning of the correspondence he seems to have been  seeking only a fine intellectual companionship; the lady, perhaps, looking for something warmer. Towards such companionship that likeness to himself in her might have been helpful, but was not enough of a complement to his own nature to be anything but an obstruction in love; and it is to that, little by little, that his humour turns. He–the Megalopsychus, as Aristotle defines him–acquires all the lover’s humble habits: himself displays all the tricks of love, its casuistries, its exigency, its superstitions, aye! even its vulgarities; involves with the significance of his own genius the mere hazards and inconsequence of a perhaps average nature; but too late in the day–the years. After the attractions and repulsions of half a lifetime, they are but friends, and might forget to be that, but for his death, clearly presaged in his last weak, touching letter, just two hours before. There, too, had been the blind and naked force of nature and circumstance, surprising him in the uncontrollable movements of his own so carefully guarded heart.
The intimacy, the effusion, the so freely exposed personality of those letters does but emphasise the fact that impersonality was, in literary art, Merimee’s central aim. Personality versus impersonality in art:–how much or how little of one’s self one may put into one’s work: whether anything at all of it: whether one can put there anything else:–is clearly a far-reaching and complex question. Serviceable as  the basis of a precautionary maxim towards the conduct of our work, self-effacement, or impersonality, in literary or artistic creation, is, perhaps, after all, as little possible as a strict realism. “It has always been my rule to put nothing of myself into my works,” says another great master of French prose, Gustave Flaubert; but, luckily as we may think, he often failed in thus effacing himself, as he too was aware. “It has always been my rule to put nothing of myself into my works” (to be disinterested in his literary creations, so to speak), “yet I have put much of myself into them”: and where he failed Merimee succeeded. There they stand–Carmen, Colomba, the “False” Demetrius–as detached from him as from each other, with no more filial likeness to their maker than if they were the work of another person. And to his method of conception, Merimee’s much-praised literary style, his method of expression, is strictly conformable–impersonal in its beauty, the perfection of nobody’s style–thus vindicating anew by its very impersonality that much worn, but not untrue saying, that the style is the man:–a man, impassible, unfamiliar, impeccable, veiling a deep sense of what is forcible, nay, terrible, in things, under the sort of personal pride that makes a man a nice observer of all that is most conventional. Essentially unlike other people, he is always fastidiously in the fashion–an expert in all the little, half-  contemptuous elegances of which it is capable. Merimee’s superb self-effacement, his impersonality, is itself but an effective personal trait, and, transferred to art, becomes a markedly peculiar quality of literary beauty. For, in truth, this creature of disillusion who had no care for half-lights, and, like his creations, had no atmosphere about him, gifted as he was with pure mind, with the quality which secures flawless literary structure, had, on the other hand, nothing of what we call soul in literature:–hence, also, that singular harshness in his ideal, as if, in theological language, he were incapable of grace. He has none of those subjectivities, colourings, peculiarities of mental refraction, which necessitate varieties of style–could we spare such?–and render the perfections of it no merely negative qualities. There are masters of French prose whose art has begun where the art of Merimee leaves off.
11. *A lecture delivered at the Taylor Institution, Oxford, and at the London Institution. Published in the Fortnightly Review, Dec. 1890, and now reprinted by the kind permission of the proprietors.