The Poet and the Consul: a late-night conversation at Malmaison

Author(s) : LEMERCIER Népomucène Louis
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Népomucène Louis Lemercier (1771-1840) was a French dramatic poet. He saw his first literary success –notably for the stage – in the last decade of the 18th century, and he moved in the same circles as Napoleon Bonaparte between 1795 and 1800 – one biographer even went so far as to suggest that it was Lemercier who had encouraged Josephine to marry the young general. Talleyrand described Lemercier as the best conversationalist in France. Lemercier was initially a supporter of the young consul, but disliking the creation of the consulship for life and Napoleon’s abandoning of the Republic, the poet retired into academia during the Empire – he was an assiduous member of the Institut. Lemercier was to return to public life during the Restoration, highly critical of the Empire. He published his account of this remarkable conversation in 1823, as a historical note to his poem Moyse. (Népomucène L. Lemercier (sic), Moyse, Poeme en quatre chants, Paris: Bossange père, 1823, p. 208-222.)
(English translation by P.H. with T.A.)

Historical note

In 1800, I had a copy of the poems Homère and Alexandre sent to First Consul Bonaparte at the Château de Tuileries(After the battle of Marengo, however (16 June 1800), because Lemercier expressly praises Bonaparte (the new Mars) leading his soldiers over snow-covered rocks and his recent success at Maringe (sic) (“la victoire encor/Vient d’y graver Maringe en traits de pourpre et d’or”) in Louis Lemercier (sic), Homère, Alexandre, Poèmes, Paris: Ant. Aug. Renouard, l’an IX – 1800 Alexandre, chant III, p. 168.I received an invitation to come to Malmaisons the following day to dine with him. A great many people of high office were there. I do not remember whether it was before or after dinner that we moved off into the neighbouring rooms and the paths of the estate. Some of us were in the salon discussing the differences between Epic and Didactic poetry. Bonaparte kept coming in and out – we thought we ought to tell him what we were talking about. One of the guests explained that a debate had arisen concerning the pre-eminence of the Epic poets over the Didactic poets, the latter of which he thought superior. Bonaparte, turning towards me, asked him “What does Lemercier think?”. The same guest hastened to explain that I was in favour of the Epic poets. “He is correct: a story told is much more ordered, and more dramatic; indeed, thrilling fiction hits harder than teaching… See here… Alexander chose Homer as his poet… Augustus chose Virgil, the author of the Aeneid… and as for me, I only had Ossian… the rest were taken’. We all fell silent. I thought, though I did not tell him at the time, that his taste would have appeared in a better light if he had chosen Milton or Tasso. During the day, everyone had been going around as their business dictated.
In the evening, as the guests took their leave, and I was getting ready to go with them, Bonaparte called me back, saying: ‘Stay. I want to have a word with you’. The gathering dispersed. We remained in the salon with Madame Bonaparte and two generals. The First Consul left the room for a moment. Madame Bonaparte drew me to her side exquisitely gracefully. He reappeared, holding my volume in his hand; he was smiling. I noticed that he had ‘cut’ the last pages with his fingers, having only looked at the passages relative to Alexandre. “Ha ha! Conquerors are not at all your cup of tea, from what I can tell; but nonetheless you do justice to their fine deeds. Your presentation of ancient and modern warriors is informative. Let us look at it together.” He sat down and beckoned me to do the same. The two generals sat down on a sofa and throughout our conversation remained with their legs stretched out and their arms crossed, unconcerned by our words, as if half asleep. Madame Bonaparte sat on a chair near on our table working at her needlepoint, and at several points during the conversation she rested her work on her knees and looked towards us with unsettled curiosity.

I took the volume to read for the First Consul Bonaparte the part mentioned; he seized it from my hands abruptly and said ‘I will read and see for myself’.
These are the passages where he stopped and made remarks:
Et Salamine, écueil des flottes de Xerxès,
D’un Ulysse nouveau signalant les essais…
‘What are you referring to there?… Oh yes, Themistocles, he was as shrewd as he was strong, like Ulysses.’ He continued reading until the verse about the invasion of Asia, and there he said ‘Yes, if Alexander had not conquered it, Greece would have perished and been ransomed off; Asia could even have bought King Philip, (Philip II of Macedon.) he who bought the republics”
 De Darius, qui fuit, il tient le diadème…
‘That verse paints a vivid picture; good’.
 Je reconnais Memnon de qui l’art me menace…
‘Had Memnon lived, it’s debatable whether Alexander would have been more successful than Agesilaus.’ ‘It was the same train of thought’, I said to him, ‘that led me to discuss the reputation of this Asian general’.
La cité qu’il fonda (Alexandre) fleurit sous les Lagides;
Son port reçoit un chef qu’en des vaisseaux rapides
Une tête à la main aborde un meurtrier :
C’était le grand César…
‘Aha! Now we come to it!’ He read the whole of this passage attentively, and then cried out, ‘Me too, me too, one day, I will write my own Commentarii, (The Latin title for Julius Caesar’s account of his campaigns in Gaul, better known as Caesar’s Gallic Wars.)  … Your versified summary of Caesar’s seems to me to be one of the best. Let us see what comes next’. He carried on, stopping at almost every word until the Battle of Cannae.
 Quand l’habile ennemi, dont il crut triompher,
L’attendit dans ses bras qui devaient l’étouffer.
‘That is essentially it. He pulled his centre back so as to envelop the Romans on the left and right; It is a shame that you did not explain that this redeployment was done by the cavalry.’
‘I thought’, I replied, ‘that I had explained it as much as poetic concision would allow me, by using the words “dans ses bras”, to depict the movement of the wings of his army.’
‘In that case, the turn of phrase is perfect, and furthermore, it is short and correct. Lengthy descriptions are not to my taste.’
 Il était temps enfin qu’un jeune home invincible
Fît tomber à Zama ce cyclope terrible…

‘Are you talking about the Scipio who conquered the famous one-eyed general? (I.e., Hannibal.)  They called him Africanus, just as they call me Italicus‘… He smiled as he added, ‘Oh! And I will not stop there…’
‘I can tell’, I replied, ‘people already want to give you the title Britannicus; but beware of that’.

We looked at each other in silence, fixing one another intently – suddenly, he questioned me gravely: ‘Out of these great men, who do you think is the greatest in Antiquity?’
‘Hannibal’, I replied, without hesitation.
‘I agree. You had no choice but to weigh one carefully up against the other, for the sake of the structure of your work. I thought you would have chosen Caesar… Caesar is the poet’s hero’.
‘He is not, in my eyes, the warrior of warriors; I prefer…’
‘Who? Brutus, maybe? The democrat’s hero… Are you a democrat?’
‘No, neither Brutus the Younger nor Julius Caesar is my hero… I would not have liked either of them as I have an aversion to tyrants and assassins.’
‘Ah! Those are two very good reasons’, he replied, looking at me up and down, his face colouring slightly, then, he replied intensely with a more affirmative and vehement tone: ‘You have judged well from a military point of view, even though that is not your profession… Hannibal, yes, Hannibal was the greatest captain in the world! Your piece on him is magnificent. He was the greatest captain in the world. But, how and why did he seem so remarkable to you?
‘Because, even when abandoned and betrayed by Carthage, the city that he served, he always kept himself going in enemy land by his own resources, and he managed to create for himself fresh troops from the foreign peoples he met on his way. You can see from my poem that I do not even believe that he gave in at Capua.’
‘I had noticed, and I approve. Those babbling historians sitting in their studies cast judgement all too easily on our affairs of state.’

We began talking about the crusades. He frequently nodded his head in approval, and said only a few words, between his teeth, ‘Oh, the peoples are mad! What were they looking for? The Holy Sepulchre? Oh yes! Commerce in the Levant, the Ladders, the Ladders! (The Ladders of the Levant were the trading cities of Constantinople, Smyrna, New Ladder (Anatolian Coast), Aleppo (and its port Alexandretta), Sidon, Tripoli in Syria (modern Lebanon), and the islands of Cyprus, Chios, Tinos, Paros and Naxos. The name was apparently derived from a corruption the Greek word Chelae (crab claws) in reference to certain typical cranes in these ports, which became the Latin word Scalae (ladders).) … The kingdoms of Jerusalem, Antioch…’
 L’Arabe aux traits brûlés, au sabre qui dévore,
Fond sur eux, se disperse, et revient… fuir encore.
‘Yes, one Arab horseman is worth more than four of our cavalrymen, but the European cavalry is worth more than all Arabs put together.’
Casting his eye over the details concerning the artillery, engineering and the Vauban fortifications, he said; ‘Here you have unwieldy subjects for poetry, and you have succeeded in describing them wonderfully in verse’.
 Même ardeur te poussant aux champs d’Arque et d’Yvri,
Met l’épée en ta main, adorable Henri !…
‘Poor Henry IV!… Here too is a man who cast his wretched body about… a good, brave prince! The Jesuits had him killed’.
 Le peuple sait ta gloire et te nomme son père.
‘Fine and well deserved’.
 Les seconds des héros s’effacent dans les âges.
‘I see your scheme now. You have only mentioned the men of the first rank.’ He began again and read until the passage about Gustavus Adolphus.
 Et Lutzen, pour ce roi nouvelle Mantinée…
‘What is the link between Mantineia and Lutzen?’
‘You see’, I told him, ‘because the King of Sweden died while fighting for his victory, just like the Theban captain’.
‘Superb!… One day I will visit the field of Lutzen; that is a very fine thing to remember’. (Little could I have foreseen then that it was there that he would give his last memorable battle).
 Quoique aveugle, Zisca marchait à la victoire.
‘Žižka, the Bohemian?’
‘The very same, the infamous Hussite general, who, after having lost both of his eyes, kept leadership of his keen army, and led them to successive victories for several years, and he was advanced in years.’
‘I understand this phenomenon: the explanation is simple; not everything can be seen with one’s eyes. We ‘see’ and judge everything in our heads.’
 Le fantassin en croupe au cavalier s’allie
Ils s’élancent ensemble, et des chevaux fougueux
Roulent des chars tonnants qui volent avec eux…
This passage reminded him, as I had written in my notes, that the King of Prussia had invented horse artillery.
‘What? As for that Frederick II, it was Voltaire and the encyclopaedists who talked him up, because the King had shown them favour.’
‘No, from what I can tell. It was the Seven Years War and the simple account he gave of it, with a real disdain for false glory, that caused this. His country rose with him, and declined after him; one could thus characterise him by the name “the Epaminondas of the Kings”!’
‘Fine expression!… But I will wipe his kingdom off the map’.
‘You will not however remove the remembrance of philosophy on the throne; that is a rarity’.
‘Aha! I do not plan to do that, my dear Lemercier’.

He stopped reading and suddenly asked me: ‘You have told me your favourite ancient captain; which out of the moderns seems to you to be the superior?’. Here, I had a splendid opportunity for flattery and to talk him up, but neither of us were thinking of ourselves.
‘Which one,’ I said to him, ‘prevails over all those of the modern period? I would say it was Prince Eugene of Savoy, he who underestimated Louis XIV and yet who became so formidable in his regard.’
‘Aha! I thought you would say Turenne… Your depiction of him in contrast to Condé is as good as your account of Hannibal against Fabius Maximus… What a shame that Turenne had died before he could fight Montecúccoli… That would have been a good fight, between two such skilful players for time! Two real Fabii, one against the other! You mention this further back… Here…’. And he flicked again through the pages.
Alors deux grands rivaux, envieux de s’abattre,
S’approchaient, s’assiégeaient sans pouvoir se combattre…’
 ‘You skim quickly over Montecúccoli… The name has an awful ring to it… Oh! With you poets, immortality never comes to you when your name is baroque… Those generals manoeuvred forty to fifty thousand men… Would they have known how to work with the great masses of our time? The prince Eugene, and only he, would have moved them as he wished, the way I do things: he should have been the head of an Empire, and not the instrument of Austrian T***s.Lemercier here hides a vulgar disrespectful expression beneath asterisks. It is feminine and plural. Could it be “Tantes”, in other words, “old wives of easy virtue”?
I assured him that, having read the memoirs, military treaties, examined the maps and plans of the countryside, and compared all the captains, Eugene seemed to me both the boldest, yet at the same time the most prudent.
‘You are correct; Eugene is one of a kind.’
‘It’s from you,’ I answered, ‘that I learned to appreciate him’.
‘What do you mean? We have never talked about this!’
‘You paused, abandoning the siege of Mantua so as to set out after a distant enemy. You cut him off and beat him, and you did not stay shut up in your entrenchments. This latter was what the old French general did, and Prince Eugene skilfully surprised him there and crushed him? Now, you avoided the mistake of one, and imitated the genius of the other. This lesson enlightened me.’
‘Aha! I see that you write nothing by chance. Those are things that the majority of the men in my camps have not grasped for themselves.’ He returned to the passage about the King of Prussia.
 Et reprend la balance, et sa flûte, et sa lyre,
Assis sous l’olivier conquis à son empire…
Yes, Frederick played the flute… Me too, I used to play music’.
Arriving at the summary of the battles of the French Revolution, his attention seemed to double and he only interrupted himself at the words:
 Et ce réparateur savant et respecté,
Dont brille en tous les rangs la modeste fierté…
‘Who is that?’
‘I mentioned him further on in relation to an event in commemoration of Hochstett.’ And we both understood each other, without naming him, the General Moreau, whom we were both thinking of. Further on, he stopped at the eulogy of the French people, at this exclamation:
 Inépuisable Antée, et vrai fils de la terre,
Pour vaincre en tous les temps ne quitte point ta mère…
‘What notion led you to this verse here?’
‘This one,’ I told him, smiling, ‘is aimed at you’.
‘Why?’
‘Because certain publications say that you are planning an invasion of England’.
He began to laugh uproariously.

In the following paragraph, he identified himself in the portraits I had drawn; the names of Arcole, Rivoli, Marengo flattered him pleasingly.
‘Here,’ he said to me, ‘I should both thank you and make a small quibble. You have portrayed me very honourably and placed me in the company of heroes; but you finish with two verses that seem strange…’
His comment made clear to me that someone had recently done me harm in his mind by some sort of crafty insinuation; he had only had my publication since the day before.
Sache combler l’espoir qu’ont donné tes hauts faits:
This is less praise than an injunction on your part. You later say:
Moderne Miltiades, égale Périclès.
This second verse, I replied, explains the first and expresses our hopes for you. The glory of Pericles is linked to that of the fine arts, eloquence and the commerce that he encouraged during his tutelary government. His name became attached to the century, in the same way that Augustus, the Medici and Louis XIV gave their names to the times they lived in? Is it unfitting to associate Pericles’ name with that of the First Consul of France?’
‘I understand. But to add Miltiades?’
‘Whilst Pericles was not particularly illustrious for his military deeds, it was precisely these actions which gave Miltiades, as indeed they do you, his great fame in the Republic, and I wished to express this by associating you with both of them, in that you are the combination of both civil and military qualities. Does this idea offend you?’
‘It might present itself in a different way to other minds. For, when seen from another angle, it could indicate to our Athenians today that it would be politic to throw a Miltiades into prison, don’t you think? No? You’re blushing.’
‘And you have turned quite pale. It is our respective natural colouring when something moves us. And this thing astounds me, I must confess.
‘This thought that disturbs you’, he added, ‘is not my own’. But people interpret it in this way, since M. **** declared it to me just yesterday.’
‘Ah’, I interjected impetuously, ‘I say only that he has mistaken my intentions, not that I wish to suspect him of any base wickedness.’

The First Consul took my hand affectionately and changed the subject, picking the book up again. “Let us leave to one side the words of fine talkers… Your praise of Desaix moved me. I slightly chewed up your verses when I read them myself so as to examine and study them. Now you read them to me so that I may enjoy them more.’
He put the book back in my hand, and I obeyed. And as soon as the reading was over, he rose, encouraging me to come back soon to see him. I set about preparing for a night return to Paris when he invited me to stay at Malmaisons. The following day, in the morning, he came upon me in a room in the château looking at some pictures.
‘You see there’, he said as he passed, the portraits of the Sheiks of Egypt. These men are the bishops of Cairo. Adieu.’

This was precisely the course one of my conversations with this man of history, who when he overturned all our liberties detached me from the man who had gloriously defended them. For it was only Napoleon who caused the rupture between Bonaparte and myself.
I would dare to advance that he knew little of endurance of the Old Courts and the greedy vanity of his own party, of which he was to become, despite his perspicacity, the dupe and victim.
Too short a time afterwards, a conversation following a reading of my tragedy, Charlemagne, which he appreciated and honoured with the description Corneille-esque, proved to me that he was straying from his consular path. The Caliph Aaron quoted in this play reminded the First Consul that he had occupied Egypt. ‘Yes, yes’, he said to me, ‘she will be mine again, but without me having to cross the sea, yes, I shall do it by land…’ My curiosity to get inside his gigantic dreams spurred me on to reply: ‘That could be as a dependency of Constantinople then?’ ‘What! Julian in Paris was viceroy of your Gaul, ruled by prefects, intendants of the Emperor of Byzantium… And it was better. It was great… The Bosphorus is the centre of everything… From there I would control Europe, Africa and Asia… These things must return…’
I interrupted him  replying: ‘With the misfortunes and vices of the Late Empire, and all that followed, the invasions of the Scythians and the Vandals.
‘I am thinking about it: it is the periodic game of destiny.’
These last words are notable. He was dreaming, I believe, of making Constantinople the capital of a combined Eastern and Western Empire, and of France as a viceroyalty within the division of grand prefectures. The establishment of several imperial towns and the kingdom of Rome were simply stages towards this imaginary goal.

When I returned home, I sent to some friends copies of my poems, in which I substituted two other lines for those which people had calumnied in his eyes. These later lines were an expression of my sad but also pointless clairvoyance:
Mais que fais-tu?… jaloux des trônes bysantins,
A pas imitateurs tu suis les Constantins.

I made sure to authenticate the date of this later version.
The reader may consider the contents of this dialogue inserted here above as if they had actually overheard it, so careful is the account: I would be ashamed to attribute to such a famous conversation partner words or thoughts that were not his own, or to paraphrase them, or to betray secrets harmful to anyone if I had taken them by surprise during unbridled private confessions. Whatever I managed to learn about him, I will never try to derive any profit from the scandalous curiosity of our contemporaries, nor will I make use of his words after his death, as if from the mouth of a Marphurius, (The Marphurius or Marforio was a famous statue in Rome in upon which people would post lampoons or invective.) to alarm or harm people living today. It should be noted that the speeches and words quoted here only turn around the subject of the dead heroes of ancient and modern history.
To sum up then, I declare that the divergence of our opinions, as regards the government he installed, was known to all Paris, and even when in his displeasure he saw fit to give me the sobriquet “fanatic”, I defended myself from this slur, publishing in literary collections this quatrain which stopped his vindictive sarcasms.

Un despote persan appelait fanatique
Un libre Athénien soumis au seul devoir:
“Qui de nous l’est le plus » dit l’homme de l’Attique;
“J’aime la liberté, comme toi le pouvoir.”

English translation: P.H. with T.A.

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