« VorigeDoorgaan »
might, almost as well, have been delivered on any other funeral occasion, and, with a little alteration, might have been exchanged for one of Lysias. Plato informs us how this happened. As funeral orators were selected by the popular voice, and very little time was given for preparation, it was customary with those, who aspired to this honor, to keep such discourses on hand; and Plato has given us a specimen, in his Menexenus. Hence their want of appropriateness. But the productions of the French preachers are admirably adapted to the occasion. They possess the definiteness and charm of biography. In contrast with the funeral orations of Greece, they show how differently a heathen and a Christian will speak on the same subject. The Grecian orator can present no higher incentive to patriotic devotion than that posthumous applause, which falls unheeded on the "dull cold ear of death;" but, the Christian preacher points to a glorious reversion; and throws around the gloom of the sepulchre the light of a blessed immortality.
At the commencement of the reign of Louis XIV, the funeral oration, in France, was little else than a strain of pagan compliment, and lying panegyric; and discourses pronounced over the dead were, with few exceptions, more fit for the market-place than the pulpit. But, Bossuet and Fléchier, Mascaron, Bourdaloue and Massillon christianized this species of eloquence.* It was a favorable circumstance for these masters in oratory, that they appeared upon the stage, just as the French language had attained its adult purity and elegance. Fresh and ductile, it yielded to the plastic hand
*The funeral oration, says the Abbé Mongin, was. before this period, the art of composing specious falsehoods. (Eloge de Fléchier) The example of these great orators did not correct, altogether, the vitiated taste of the people; for Bruyère, a contemporary, asserts that a funeral oration was acceptable to the majority of hearers, in proportion as it was unlike a Christian discourse. (De la Chaire.) The office of the professed panegyrist is surrounded with snares; and his commendation is apt to degenerate into flattery. Bourdaloue was apprized of these snares, and he did not himself escape their influence. (Œuvres, III, 64.) Even the pious Massillon did not keep his garments entirely unspotted. He speaks of Louis as "a spouse, who, notwithstanding the foibles which divided his heart. always respected the virtue of Theresa." &c. This is, certainly, a very courtly apology for a royal adulterer and libertine. Well may La Harpe exclaim, on reading this, in Massillon, "Et tu, Brute!" It is quite common to speak of the French preachers, as if they were, in this respect, the only offenders, or at least, sinners above all others; and to castigate them accordingly. But to be convinced of the injustice of this course, it is only necessary to turn to the sermons of their contemporaries in England, and read their fulsome eulogiums upon "Charles I, of blessed memory" and the flatteries heaped upon "that best nursing-father of the best church in the world," his hopeful son, Charles II, whom, while yet alive. Tillotson was foolish enough to compliment as "the great security of our religion, and the life of all our hopes, and as truly as any prince ever was to any people, the light of our eyes and the breath of our nostrils." Sermon CXCVI.
†The Provinciales of Pascal, which presents the language in its golden age, appeared in 1654.
of genius; and poetry and eloquence sprung from it, like the flowers of spring from the emerald bosom of the youthful year. It is enough to say, that this was the age of Corneille and Racine, Molière, Pascal and Fenelon. At this fortunate juncture, Bossuet appeared, and won for himself the honor of being, as his biographer correctly states, "the creator of funeral eloquence" in France.*
Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet was born at Dijon, Sept. 27, 1627, and, we may almost say, born an orator; for at the early age of sixteen, he astonished his friends by precocious displays of extemporaneous eloquence. After finishing his education under the Jesuits, he was honored with the doctorate of the Sorbonne, and made his debut in the pulpit of the metropolis, in 1659; when he attracted the regard of the Queen-mother, and was appointed to deliver the Advent sermons before the Court, in 1661, and the Lent sermons, in 1662. The monarch, delighted with the young preacher, caused a letter to be written to his father, to congratulate him on having a son, who would immortalize his name. a further proof of his regard, he nominated him to the see of Condom, afterwards to that of Meaux, and, finally, in 1610, committed to him the education of the dauphin. Bossuet was styled the Plato of the clergy; because, he was "philosopher, orator and poet;" to which we add, although it spoils the comparison, polemic. He was a genuine malleus hæreticorum, and dealt his blows with no sparing hand. In controversy, his disciplined and well-stored mind gave him an immense advantage over his adversaries. His genius makes even error triumphant. He seems, to borrow his own figure, like some majestic eagle, who, whether he soars in the upper sky, or stands upon the summit of a cliff, throws all around his piercing glance, and darts upon his prey, with so unerring and fatal an aim, that it can no more escape the grasp of his talons, than the lightning of his eye.
The bishop of Meaux did not reach this eminence by any primrose path. He was always a laborious student. When at school, his industry was so conspicuous, that the boys, by a classical pun on his name, dubbed him, bos suetus aratro. These early habits he retained through life. Emphatically a working man, and seeking relief from the fatigue of one
*Histoire de Bossuet par Cardinal de Bausset, I, 234.
labor, as his editor informs us, by plunging into another, he became distinguished for profound and varied learning, so as almost to justify the extravagant terms in which he is spoken of by his friend La Rue: "Vir divinis humanisque doctrinis excultissimus." His favorite study was eloquence; and he pursued it with that enthusiasm, which is, at once, the condition and the omen of success. For this purpose, he attended the theatre,* where, in addition to a graceful and appropriate action, he acquired the mastery of the voice; that wonderful instrument, so powerless in most men, but mighty and irresistible, in those who have the skill to wield it.
Bossuet's prominent characteristics are impressed upon his funeral orations. They smell of the lamp, and bear the traces of the oft-inverted style. They were all carefully elaborated. Every sentence, every image, every word passed through a severe ordeal. Every stone was squared and polished, before it was permitted to take its place in these monuments of his fame. It was his custom, when he had to compose a funeral oration, to retire for several days to his study, and ruminate over the pages of Homer. When asked the reason of it, he replied,
"Magnam mihi mentem, animumque "Delius inspirat vates."
The first great impression made by Bossuet, in the oraison funebre, was in 1669; when he was summoned by the king to grace the obsequies of the ill-fated Henrietta, wife of Charles I. He was then in the forty-third year of his age. The exordium of this oration has been often and justly admired; and is, we think, his best. The train of thought is elevated; and there are some passages of graphic description and melting pathos. The portrait of Cromwell is drawn with a bold and masterly hand. But it is an exaggerated caricature. The varied fortunes of the queen, the vicissitudes that checkered her singular career, her meekness in prosperity and fortitude in adversity, her wanderings, toils and sufferings,
* Voltaire, speaking of the stage, observes, "The preacher came there to learn eloquence and the art of delivery. It was the school of Bossuet." Pref. sur Sertorius. But in mature life, Bossuet was no friend to the stage. Louis, who was very fond of it, once asked his opinion of theatrical entertainments. He replied, "There are great examples in their favor; but invincible arguments against them."
↑ D'Israeli's Literary Character, ch. VII.
VOL. VII.-NO. XXV.
her pious life and tranquil death, are touched with a delicate pencil, and told with the warmth of a tender heart; and the orator reaches the sublime, when he breaks out in that noble passage, "As a column, whose solid mass seems the most firm support of a ruined temple, when the great edifice which it sustained falls upon it, without battering it down; so the queen showed herself the pillar of the state, when, after having long borne the burden of it, she was not even bent in its fall."* The peroration of the discourse, commencing at the words," Elle est morte, cette grande reine,"—is peculiarly solemn and impressive. It falls upon the ear like the last strain of plaintive music, sweeping gracefully on to its dying close.
The funeral orations of the Duchess of Orleans and Maria Theresa, although inferior to the one just noticed, and somewhat liable to the objections which have been made by Kaimes and other British critics, contain passages of rare felicity and power. When the preacher came to that affecting passage "O nuit désastreuse! etc.-Madame se meurt ! Madame est morte !"-the whole court burst into tears.† Perhaps, the finest tribute to the merit of these orations is found in the fact, that Robert Hall, in his incomparable sermon on the death of the Princess Charlotte, has borrowed from them some of its most striking beauties. But the palm must be assigned to the funeral oration of the Great Condé. The occasion was suited to call forth all the powers of the orator. He felt the death of Louis de Bourbon, as a private as well as a public calamity. He stood at the bier of the warrior, smitten with deep and irrepressible grief; and others wept beside him. The nation mourned the loss of their great general; and the monarch's tears, publicly shed, attested his sense of his worth. The church of Notre Dame, hung with black, and decorated with all those emblems of mortality, which could render it a fit representation of the court of Death, was filled with the highest orders of the kingdom, who had come to pay the last offices to the warrior, and to listen,
*Concerning the merits of Henrietta, as well as the other subjects of Bossuet's elaborate encomiums, there exist various opinions. If the English reviewers are to be trusted, the queen of England was an infamous character; her daughter, worse; the dauphin, a glutton and a fool; and Louis himself, no better than the tool of the old sorceress Maintenant. But we must look elsewhere for candid views of French character. In the case of Henrietta, we prefer to follow Bourdaloue, who speaks favorably of her, and declares, that the fortitude with which she bore her almost unparalleled afflictions made her a model of the heroic virtues. Euvres II, 350.
† Voltaire, Siècle de Louis XIV, tom. II, ch. 32.
perhaps for the last time, to that great man whose sun was already verging to its decline. What must have been the impression, when the veteran orator, emerging from the sable throng that hung like a dense cloud around the pulpit, his venerable countenance shaded with silvery locks, and with an expression, in which admiration of the hero seemed struggling with grief for his friend, announced his text, and thus, slowly, began his discourse:
"At the moment that I open my lips to celebrate the immortal glory of Louis de Bourbon, I feel myself equally confounded with the greatness of the subject, and, if I may be permitted to avow it, the uselessness of the task. What part of the habitable world has not heard of the victories of the Prince de Condé, and the wonders of his life? They are told every where. The Frenchman, in extolling them, conveys no information to the stranger. And although I may rehearse them to you to-day, yet, always anticipated by your thoughts, I shall have to contend with your secret dissatisfaction, for falling so far below them. We, feeble orators, cannot add to the glory of extraordinary souls."
As the orator advances, our interest increases. We are led captive by the spell of a magician. We forget the speaker, and think of nothing but the hero. We are lost in admiration; nay more; we are awed by his august mission; for, in the delineation of Bossuet, he is no longer a patriot warrior, fighting for his country; but a servant of the Most High, rearing, in the van of battle, the ensign of the Lord of hosts; contending under the protection of Heaven; and, by his successes, urging to their consummation the purposes of divine Providence. The conclusion of this grand historical painting (as it may be fitly styled), is confessedly the finest of the author's productions. We are not prepared, with his biographer, to pronounce it "the most magnificent conception of ancient and modern eloquence;"* but, we feel that it is exceedingly beautiful and eloquent. We venture to give the latter part of it, sensible, however, how much it must suffer by translation. After calling upon his hearers to behold, in the death of the Great Condé, the emptiness of earthly grandeur and glory, and inviting those, whom he had honored with his friendship, to pour forth their tears and their prayers at his tomb,-he thus feelingly alludes to himself:
Histoire de Bossuet, I, 224.