Richard Aldington (essay date 1923)
SOURCE: Introduction to Cyrano de Bergerac: Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, translated by Richard Aldington, George Routledge & Sons, 1923, pp. 1-46.
[In the following essay, Aldington attempts to distinguish between myth and fact in regard to Cyrano's life and career.]
I. THE LEGEND OF CYRANO
The legend of Cyrano de Bergerac began, one might say, during his life; but it was strongly founded by his friend Henry Le Bret who edited The Voyage to the Moon with an introduction, in 1657, two years after Cyrano's death. The ‘Préface’ of Le Bret is one of the chief sources of information about Cyrano. It is no discredit to Le Bret that he drew as favourable a portrait of his friend as he could, but we cannot accept literally everything he says and we are forced to read between the lines of his panegyric. Le Bret is largely responsible for the moral legend of Cyrano. He says:
In fine, Reader, he always passed for a man of singular rare wit; to which he added such good fortune on the side of the senses that he always controlled them as he willed; in so much that he rarely drank wine because (said he) excess of drink brutalizes, and as much care is needed with it as with arsenic (with this he was wont to compare it) for everything is to be feared from this poison, whatever care is used; even if nothing were to be dreaded but what the vulgar call qui pro quo, which makes it always dangerous. He was no less moderate in his eating, from which he banished ragoûts as much as he could in the belief that the simplest and least complicated living is the best; which he supported by the example of modern men, who live so short a time compared with those of the earliest ages, who appear to have lived so long because of the simplicity of their food.
He added to these two qualities so great a restraint towards the fair sex that it may be said he never departed from the respect owed it by ours; and with all this he had so great an aversion from self-interest that he could never imagine what it was to possess private property, his own belonging less to him than to such of his acquaintance as needed it. And so Heaven, which is not unmindful, willed that among the large number of friends he had during his life some should love him until death and a few even beyond death.1
It will be seen later that many of these virtues were probably necessities arising from an unheroic cause; but this moral character given by Le Bret was very useful to the 19th-century builders of the Cyrano legend.
Other 17th-century writers give a very different impression of Cyrano de Bergerac: where Le Bret saw a noble, almost austere genius, they went to the opposite extreme and saw a madman. An anecdote in the Historiettes of Tallemant des Réaux gives us another Cyrano:
A madman named Cyrano wrote a play called The Death of Agrippina where Sejanus says horrible things against the Gods. The play was pure balderdash (un vray galimathias).2 Sercy, who published it, told Boisrobert that he sold out the edition in a twinkling. “You surprise me”, said Boisrobert. “Ah, Monsieur”, replied the bookseller, “it has such splendid impieties”.3
The implication that the success of the play was due to its “impieties” is repeated in an anecdote of the Menagiana quoted by Lacroix, to the following effect: When the pious people heard there were impieties in The Death of Agrippina, they went prepared to hiss it; they passed over in silence all the tirades against the Gods which had caused the rumour, but when Sejanus said:
Frappons, voilà l'hostie,4
they interrupted the actor with whistling, booing and shouts of:
Ah! the rascal! Ah! The atheist! Hear how he speaks of the holy sacrament!
I cannot find this anecdote in my own copy of the Menagiana, but since my edition is 1693 and Lacroix quotes that of 1715, I presume his is an addition. In my edition I find another anecdote of Cyrano which I give here both for its rarity and because it shows 17th-century contempt for Cyrano at its most virulent:
What wretched works are those of Cyrano de Bergerac! He studied at the College de Beauvais in the time of Principal Grangier. They say he was still in his “rhetoric” when he wrote The Pedant Outwitted against his head-master. There are a few passable things in this play but all the rest is very flat. When he wrote his Voyage to the Moon I think he had one quarter of the moon in his head. The first public sign he gave of his madness was to go to mass in the morning in trunk hose and a night cap without his doublet. He had not one sou when he fell ill of the disease from which he died and if M. de Sainte-Marthe had not charitably supplied all his necessities he would have died in the poor-house.5
More 17th-century anecdotes of Cyrano will be found in the Life; those cited will at least show the early tendency to attach anecdotes to him and the curious conflict of contemporary opinion. During the second half of the 17th century Cyrano remained popular and his works were frequently reprinted. The 18th century saw a great decline in reputation and in editions; Voltaire repeated the accusation: “A madman!” No edition of Cyrano's works appeared in Paris between 1699 and 1855; the last of them before the revival of the 19th century was the Amsterdam edition of 1761. For a century there was no edition of Cyrano. He dropped out of sight almost entirely; but in the 19th century he was destined to be revived as an increasingly legendary figure, culminating in the heroic apotheosis of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.
Strangely enough the revival began in England in 1820 with an article in the Retrospective Review.6 This article shows some acquaintance with Cyrano's originals as well as with the translation reviewed. The anonymous writer says:
Cyrano de Bergerac is a marvellously strange writer—his character, too, was out of the common way. His chief passion appears to have been duelling; and, from the numerous affairs of honour in which he was concerned in a very short life and the bravery he displayed on those occasions, he acquired the cognomen of “The Intrepid”. His friend Le Bret says he was engaged in no less than one hundred duels for his friends, and not one on his own account. Others however say, that, happening to have a nose somewhat awry, whoever was so unfortunate or so rash as to laugh at it, was sure to be called upon to answer its intrepid owner in the field. But however this may be, it is indisputable that Cyrano was a distinguished monomachist and a most eccentric writer.7
Seventeen years later that amiable man of letters, Charles Nodier, resuscitated Cyrano in his Bonaventure Desperiers et Cyrano de Bergerac. Before this Nodier had incidentally defended Cyrano in his Bibliographie des Fous:
As to this book (The Voyage to the Moon), which he wrote when he was already mad (according to Voltaire), would you not be astonished if you were told that it contained more profound perceptions, more ingenious foresight, more anticipations in that science whose confused elements Descartes scarcely sorted out, than the large volume written by Voltaire under the supervision of the Marquis du Châtelet? Cyrano used his genius like a hot-head, but there is nothing in it which resembles a madman.8
Nodier is responsible for that portion of the Cyrano legend which makes him an innovator, plagiarized from, and persecuted to an early grave.
It seems that a man who opened up so many paths to talent and who went so far in all the paths he opened, ought to have left a name in any literature. …
There was once a wooden horse which bore in its flanks all the conquerors of Ilion, yet had no part in the triumph. This begins like a fairy-tale … and yet it is true.
Poor wooden horse! Poor Cyrano!9
But, if Charles Nodier carried on the legend, he did little more than open the way for Theophile Gautier, whose famous Grotesque is filled with every conceivable error of fact and yet is obviously one of Rostand's chief sources. Les Grotesques appeared in 1844 and contained ten pseudo-biographical sketches of “romantic” personalities in French literature chiefly of the 17th century. The book itself is an interesting by-product of the romantic movement, but here we are only concerned with the sixth sketch, Cyrano de Bergerac. This opens with a fantastic divagation upon noses, perhaps the most exaggerated development of the legendary Cyranesque appendage. If the reader will examine Cyrano's portraits, without prejudice and with particular attention to the nose, he will scarcely be prepared for this outburst:
This incredible nose is settled in a three-quarter face [portrait], the smaller side of which it covers entirely; it forms in the middle a mountain which in my opinion must be the highest mountain in the world after the Himalayas; then it descends rapidly towards the mouth, which it largely obumbrates, like a tapir's snout or the rostrum of a bird of prey; at the extremity it is divided by a line very similar to, though more pronounced than, the furrow which cuts the cherry lip of Anne of Austria, the white queen with the long ivory hands. This makes two distinct noses in one face, which is more than custom allows, … the portraits of Saint Vincent de Paul and the deacon Paris will show you the best characterized types of this sort of structure; but Cyrano's nose is less doughy, less puffy in contour; it has more bones and cartilage, more flats and high-lights, it is more heroic.
We then learn that Cyrano was a wonderful duellist, that he revenged any insult to his nose with a challenge; after more disquisition on noses we read that Cyrano was “born in 1620, in the castle of Bergerac, in Périgord”,10 that he was unable to endure the pedantry of his schoolmaster and so that good country gentleman, his father, allowed him to go to Paris, where at eighteen he threw himself into fashionable life with the greatest success. Then comes a highly-coloured picture of the contrast between life in Paris in 1638 and the Bergerac family in their “tranquil and discreet house, sober and cold, well ordered and silent, almost always half-asleep in the shadow of its pallid walnut trees between the church and the cemetery.” This is followed by a defence of Cyrano against the charge of atheism with a quotation from The Death of Agrippina. Next we hear that this Gascon gentleman joined the Gascon company of guards with Le Bret and of his numerous prowesses with the sword, and this slides into a description of Cyrano's early slashing style, with quotations from The Pedant Outwitted and the story of the actor whom Cyrano forbade to play. This is followed by several pages of excited panegyric, paraphrased from Le Bret; we get Cyrano's wounds, his love of study, his disinterestedness, his love of freedom and scorn of serving les grands, his subsequent service with the duc d'Arpajon, the falling timber on his head and his death; then we hear of his simple habits, his brilliant friendships and his study under Gassendi. The essay ends with several pages, dealing with Molière's famous plagiarism from The Pedant Outwitted and containing a most exaggerated account of Cyrano's writings, extremely loose in expression, showing that Gautier can have had but a superficial acquaintance with Cyrano's books.
If this essay of Gautier's were meant as biography and criticism, one can only say that it is likely to be misleading; if as fiction, that the form is not well chosen. Nevertheless, this and Nodier's article stimulated curiosity in Cyrano sufficiently to cause his works to be reprinted in 1855. Lacroix in 1858 issued another edition and wrote an enthusiastic preface (from the point of view of an ardent free-thinker), making Cyrano a great predecessor of the 18th-century philosophes and adding more legend.
After this, the legend of Cyrano smouldered for some forty years and then broke out in a final conflagration in 1897, with Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. Everything picturesque which fancy and rumour had attached to the name of Cyrano during the centuries was taken up by Rostand, exaggerated, idealised almost to infinity—and the world believed, and doubtless still believes, that this is the “real” Cyrano de Bergerac. Strangely, Rostand apparently shared this illusion; for a French savant, M. Emile Magne, wrote a pamphlet pointing out some of Rostand's worst errors, and Rostand replied with a letter, claiming that his play was historically correct.
Rostand's play is a pleasing, if belated, specimen of the French romantic drama; its dramatic quality is undeniable, its appeal to the sentiments irresistible, its verse skilfully handled; it is characteristically, delightfully, absurdly French; it deserved its popularity. A man who cannot enjoy Rostand's Cyrano has taste too fastidious for his own good. But when he has watched the heroic lover of Roxanne fight his duels to the accompaniment of a ballade, promenade his huge nose about the stage, exhibit the remarkable delicacy of his sentiments and finally die a Gascon death—“mon Panache!”—this imaginary spectator must not tell us that this is “the real” Cyrano de Bergerac. It is an amusing Cyrano one would prefer not to lose; but Rostand's invention has nothing to do with the man who wrote the tragedy of The Death of Agrippina and The Voyages to the Sun and Moon; this is not the young man who enlisted in M. de Casteljaloux's company of guards; this is not the follower of Gassendi and Rohault; and this delicate lover is—alas!—not that Savinien de Cyrano, self-styled de Bergerac, who died miserably in the prime of his age not so much from the effects of the falling piece of timber as probably of venereal disease.
II. THE LIFE OF CYRANO DE BERGERAC
The family of Cyrano was not Gascon and was not noble. The first Cyrano of whom anything was known in France is Savinien I de Cyrano, of Sardinian origin, bourgeois of Paris and a merchant of fish. Doubtless the prejudice of noble birth is antiquated, yet when one has been brought up on Rostand's Cyrano the discovery is a shock, rather like finding that Sir Philip Sidney's grandfather was a London fishmonger. But this is only the first of the disagreeable surprises modern investigators prepare for us.
This Savinien, grandfather of the poet, became notary and ‘secrétaire du Roy’ in 1571. He was wealthy, he owned a large house in the rue des Prouvaires, various annuities, the fiefs of Boiboisseaux, Mauvières, and Bergerac, the last two bought in 1582. These purchases represent a familiar scene in the eternal social comedy of the rise and fall of families; the genuine old de Bergerac family had disappeared but their memory lingered on and no member of the Cyrano family ventured to call himself de Bergerac at Bergerac. Indeed the poet was the only member of the family who used the name either during the fifty-four years they possessed the fief or afterwards. In any case this Bergerac is not the Dordogne or Gascon Bergerac but a little estate not very far from Paris in the modern department of Seine et Oise.11 So much for the noble Gascon of Gautier and Rostand.
This Savinien I de Cyrano married Anne Le Maire; their eldest son, Abel I de Cyrano, ‘avocat au Parlement de Paris,’ married Espérance Bellenger on the third of September 1612.12 An inventory of their goods shows that Cyrano's father was an educated man who read Greek, Latin, and Italian. Abel de Cyrano had six children; the eldest surviving son was Savinien II, the poet, baptised on the sixth of March 1619 in Paris.
In 1622 Abel de Cyrano left Paris for his house at Mauvières, where young Savinien de Cyrano remained “until he was old enough to read”. He was then sent to a small private school kept by a country parson, where he met his lifelong friend and posthumous panegyrist, Henry Le Bret. Savinien did not like his tutor; and this is not the first or the last time in history when there has existed a mutual hatred between a pert boy of talent and some plodding pedagogue. The boy complained so continually to his father that he was taken away from the parson and sent to the Collège de Beauvais in Paris.
These meagre details are all we know positively of Cyrano's childhood except that his godmother left him six hundred livres in 1628. How much of the rebelliousness of his temper in later years was due to hatred of this pedagogical parson is a matter of pure conjecture, but Cyrano's dislike of pedants and priests might plausibly be attributed at least in part to this man's clumsy usage. We may also surmise that access to his father's extensive library gave him that precocity for which he was remarkable, and that the years of childhood spent at Mauvières created in him a genuine love of nature. Numerous passages might be quoted from his writings to show that he really liked out-of-doors life, enjoyed the beauty of the country, and felt that kinship with wild living things—animals, birds, plants—which is supposed to be a wholly modern sentiment. This sentiment may be seen in the Letters, expressed with a good deal of affectation; but unmistakably in those pages of The Voyage to the Sun which describe the talking birds and trees.
The head-master of Beauvais was at that time Jean Grangier, described by some as an excellent pedagogue, by others as brutal, superstitious, violent, and vicious. Apparently he was one of those pedagogues who, in Ben Jonson's words, “swept their livings from the posteriors of little children”; and therefore was very unpopular with Cyrano, who made him the hero of The Pedant Outwitted. Flogging will always drive a sensitive and high-spirited boy to revolt; and when we find a truculent and sometimes offensive mood of revolt a main feature of Cyrano's work, we should remember before condemning him that a large portion of his childhood was passed under the birch of two bigoted pedants.
Cyrano left Beauvais in 1637, when he was eighteen. In the preceding year Abel de Cyrano had sold the fiefs of Mauvières, and Bergerac and had returned to Paris. This sale of land only fifty-four years after the purchase by the first Savinien de Cyrano shows how rapidly the affairs of the family declined financially. It would be interesting to know more of Cyrano's life in the period between his leaving school and joining the guards. Le Bret tells us that “at the age when nature is most easily corrupted”, and when Cyrano “had liberty to do as he chose”, he (Le Bret) stopped him “on a dangerous incline”. It will easily be conjectured that the change from a flogging school to complete liberty in the Paris of 1637 would not incline a precocious youth to the monastic virtues. Many fantastic pictures of Paris under Louis XIII have been drawn by novelists and essayists; whether it were quite as picturesque as they make out may be doubted, but that its taverns were filled with riot, excitement and debauch is certain; and Cyrano frequented the taverns. The famous Pomme de Pin, the Croix de Lorraine, the Boisselière, the Pressoir d'Or, and a dozen other taverns were crowded with heterogeneous sets of courtiers, gentlemen, gossips, poets, atheists, duellists, rogues of all sorts, talking, laughing, drinking, writing, whoring, gambling and brawling. From Gaston d'Orléans, the King's brother, downwards, the greater part of the nobility, gentry and the learned at some time of their lives frequented these commodious taverns, rubbed shoulders with knaves and bawds and poets and held high carouse.
Morbieu! comme il pleut là dehors! Faisons pleuvoir dans nostre corps Du vin, tu l'entens sans le dire, Et c'est là le vray mot pour rire; Chantons, rions, menons du bruit, Beuvons ici toute la nuit, Tant que demain la belle Aurore Nous trouve tous à table encore.(13)
Into that society of revellers, unscrupulous, heedless, coarse, irreligious, but brave, witty, chivalrous, talented and merry, came a young man of eighteen, the owner of a curious nose “shaped like a parrot's beak”, talented, witty and brave himself, already a brilliant swordsman, scatter-brained, vain with all the vanity of young men in Latin countries, eager for knowledge but filled with hatred for the theology and pedantry of his early masters. Imagine the London of James the First's reign so vividly and delightfully sketched in The Fortunes of Nigel, adding to it that freedom of speech, morals and speculation which Scott largely left out; transfer it to the turbulent Paris of 1637 and throw into that milieu not a sober Scotch laird, but a hot-headed young Frenchman. Is it not almost hypocritical to expect that he would do anything different from what he apparently did do: Drink, gamble, blaspheme, whore, talk atheism, play mad pranks and slit men's throats in duels?
From this wild cabaret life Cyrano was rescued by Le Bret just about the time when Abel de Cyrano threatened seriously to cut off supplies. At nineteen Cyrano entered the company of guards commanded by the “triple Gascon”, M. de Carbon de Casteljaloux.
Cyrano de Bergerac was a good soldier, but that does not mean he was free from the ordinary vices of soldiers. If the “dangerous incline” from which Le Bret rescued his friend was gambling, he chose a curious remedy; for gambling is inevitably one means of dispelling the crushing ennui of military life. Another, almost universal, military amusement is drinking; one would not expect to find teetotallers among the Gascon guard. It seems probable that the “dangerous incline” was atheism or a serious love affair; for the military life is dulling to the affections and fatal to thought. Certainly, the mess and guard-room of M. de Carbon de Casteljaloux's company would not greatly differ from a noisy cabaret. One hardly sees what moral advantages were gained by the change, except that military discipline and comradeship probably steadied Cyrano if they failed to correct the extravagance of his character and behaviour. Casteljaloux's company consisted almost entirely of Gascons, and this fact has helped to propagate the myth of Cyrano's noble birth; and doubtless he assumed the Gascon-sounding name of de Bergerac to increase the illusion. But he must have possessed some other merit than that of an assumed name to enable him to enter the guards; this was of course his swordsmanship.
Duelling in France in the first half of the 17th century was more than a fashionable mania, it was a real danger to the state. The fashion was at its height in the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIII. During eight years of the former reign no less than two thousand gentlemen lost their lives in duels. Even the great Cardinal Richelieu only succeeded in diminishing, not in crushing the habit. The duelling in Rostand's Cyrano is the most accurate part of the play; indeed it would be difficult to exaggerate the fantastic nature of these duels. Men fought for the merest trifles; not so much for honour as for the love of fighting, of prestige and notoriety. Successful duelling was then a sure means to those commonly desired ends. The thirst for “monomachy” was so ardent that the seconds were not content to regulate the combat but must needs take part in it; so that a girl's ribbon might be the pretext for six men to pull out their rapiers in mortal combat, with the result perhaps of several wounds and more than one death. Cyrano de Bergerac was a brilliant swordsman, a talent which gave him a position comparable to that of an aeroplane “ace” during the European war. The stories told of his duelling sound fabulous and are probably exaggerated, but certainly have a foundation in fact. Le Bret tells us:
Duels, which at that time seemed the unique and most rapid means of becoming known, in a few days rendered him so famous that the Gascons, who composed nearly the whole company, considered him the demon of courage and credited him with as many duels as he had been with them days.
The most remarkable thing about these duels, and a point very much in Cyrano's favour, was that he fought over a hundred as second to other men and not on his own account. He was no Bobadil. Brun tries to argue that Cyrano must have fought on his own account, but even M. Lachèvre, who is hostile to Cyrano, denies it. Moreover, we have Cyrano's own declaration: “I have been everybody's second.”
Casteljaloux's company was ordered for active service in 1639. The company was besieged in Mouzon by the Croats of the Imperial Army. Cyrano has described part of the siege in the twenty-fourth of his Lettres Diverses. The garrison was short of provisions and during one of the numerous sorties Cyrano was shot through the body. He had not recovered when the garrison was relieved by Chatillon on the twenty-first of June 1639. Next year Cyrano was again on active service. He was wounded a second time by a sword-thrust in the throat at the siege of Arras, sometime before the ninth of August 1640. He had served this campaign in Conti's gendarmes.
Two severe wounds in fourteen months are “cooling cards” even to a pseudo-Gascon. Cyrano determined to retire from the service.
“The hardships he suffered during these two sieges,” says Le Bret, “the inconveniences resulting from two severe wounds, the frequent duels forced upon him by his reputation for courage and skill, which compelled him to act as second more than one hundred times (for he never had a quarrel on his own account), the small hope he had of preferment, from the lack of a patron, to whom his free genius was incapable of submitting, and finally his great love of learning, caused him to renounce the occupation of war which demands everything of a man and makes him as much an enemy of literature as literature makes him a lover of peace.”
Cyrano, then, returned to his studies. Hitherto he had been unfortunate in his instructors, but he now made the acquaintance of several scholars and men of letters who had a strong influence on him, whose ideas he adopted and copied in his works. The celebrated Gassendi, who revived the philosophy of Epicurus and opposed both the Aristotelians and Descartes, came to Paris and lectured to a small number of selected students. Niceron makes the unlikely assertion that Cyrano forced his way into this learned society at the sword's point. It is certain that Cyrano sat at Gassendi's feet and picked up from his lectures those fragments of Epicurean physics he afterwards scattered through his works. There most probably he met Molière, Rohault, Bernier, Chapelle and the younger La Mothe Le Vayer. Cyrano was therefore a member of a distinguished literary group which contained one eminent philosopher and a dramatist of supreme genius.
Philosophy and the society of men of letters...
(The entire section is 11454 words.)