Switzerland – Literary Associations

It  has not produced much native literary genius. The literary associations of the land are mostly concerned with strangers who went to it as a land of refuge or as visitors. True, in the thirteenth century Zurich was famous for its poets, for its share in the making of the Nibelungen and the Minnelieder, and for the ” Codex Manesse “—the collection of the works of 150 German and Swiss poets of the day. Again in the days of Rousseau—perhaps the most famous of Swiss writers—there was quite a herd of sentimental novelists at Lausanne. But, on the whole, it cannot be said that the Swiss have shown themselves conspicuously a people of imagination. In war they have a magnificent record : in science and in philosophy a record above the average : in poetry and romance they have little to show. But if colonists and visitors who associated themselves strongly with Swiss life be taken into account, then Switzerland becomes one of the most interesting literary centres of Europe.

From Madame de Stael and her salon at Coppet (to cite one example) what invitations crowd to literary pilgrimages ! Madame de Stael was destined by birth for that literary limelight which she loved so well. Her mother, Mademoiselle Curchod, afterwards Madame Necker, was the charming young Swiss who inspired a discreet passion in the stately bosom of Gibbon, the historian of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon had been sent to Switzerland by his father because he had shown leanings towards the Roman Catholic faith. The robust Protestantism of Lausanne was pre-scribed as a cure for a religious feeling which was not welcome to his family. The cure was complete, so complete that Gibbon was left with hardly any Christian faith at all. Whether because that left an empty place in his heart, or in the natural order of things, Gibbon took refuge in a love affair, a very discreet, cold-blooded affair on his part ; but, judging by the correspondence which has survived, a more serious matter to the girl whose affections he engaged.

Gibbon tells the story of his early love himself, in a letter which is full of unconscious humour, since he writes of it without a tremor and with all the decorous stateliness which he gave to the narrative of a Diocletian :

I need not blush at recollecting the object of my choice ; and though my love was disappointed of success, I am rather proud that I was once capable of feeling such a pure and exalted sentiment. The personal attractions of Mademoiselle Susan Curchod were embellished by the virtues and talents of the mind. Her fortune was humble, but her family was respectable. Her mother, a native of France, had preferred her religion to her country. The profession of her father did not extinguish the moderation and philosophy of his temper, and he lived content with a small salary and laborious duty in the obscure lot of minister of Crassy, in the mountains that separate the Pays de Vaud from the county of Burgundy. In the solitude of a sequestered village he bestowed a liberal, and even learned, education on his only daughter. She surpassed his hopes by her proficiency in the sciences and languages ; and in her short visits to some relations at Lausanne, the wit, the beauty, and erudition of Mademoiselle Curchod were the theme of universal applause. The report of such a prodigy awakened my curiosity ; I saw and loved. I found her learned without pedantry, lively in conversation, pure in sentiment, and elegant in manners ; and the first sudden emotion was fortified by the habits and knowledge of a more familiar acquaintance. She permitted me to make two or three visits at her father’s house. I passed some happy days there, in the mountains of Burgundy, and her parents honour-ably encouraged the connection. In a calm retirement the gay vanity of youth no longer fluttered in her bosom, and I might presume to hope that I had made some impression on a virtuous heart. At Crassy and Lausanne I indulged my dream of felicity ; but on my return to England I soon discovered that my father would not hear of this strange alliance, and that without his consent I was myself destitute and helpless. After a painful struggle I yielded to my fate I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a sons my wound was insensibly healed by time, absence, and the habits of a new life. My cure was accelerated by a faithful report of the tranquillity and cheerfulness of the lady herself, and my love subsided in friendship and esteem.

Gibbon was a very pompous gentleman, but a gentleman. He might otherwise, without departing from the truth, have shown that the little Swiss beauty was far more in love with him than he with her, and her tranquillity and cheerfulness in giving him up were of hard earning. She contrived in time to forget the lover who probably would have made her more famous than happy, and married a Mr. Necker, a rich banker of her own country. (Berne at that time was one of the chief financial centres of Europe.) To him she bore the girl who was to be Madame de Stael, as pompous in mind as Gibbon, but somewhat warmer in temperament.

Many years after the romance had died, when Madame Necker was a happy matron, Gibbon, still a bachelor, decided to make Switzerland his permanent home. Motives of economy, not of romance, dictated this choice. In 1783 he moved to Lausanne, where he completed his history, established a literary salon, and enjoyed life in spite of somewhat serious attacks of gout. M., Mdme., and Mslle. Necker (the last to become Madame de Stael) were frequent visitors, and he attached himself to Madame Necker by the bonds of a close but strictly Platonic friendship. In 1787 Gibbon completed his famous history, and seems to have contemplated after-wards a marriage ” for companionship sake.” But he never fixed on a lady, and died a bachelor six years after.

During Gibbon’s life the Neckers had established their country-seat at Coppet, near Geneva, which was afterwards the seat of Madame de Stael’s court. Though born Swiss, Madame de Stael was altogether French in sympathy, detested Switzerland, and was impatient at any talk of its natural beauties. I would rather go miles to hear a clever man talk than open the windows of my rooms at Naples to see the beauties of the Gulf,” she said once. Napoleon, as the greatest man of the age, of course, attracted her. I suspect that she would have been a most ardent Napoleonist if he had made love to her. ” Tell me,” she said to Napoleon once, ” whom do you think is the greatest woman in France to-day ? ” And Napoleon answered, ” The woman who bears most sons for the army.” It was not an ingratiating reply. But Napoleon, who detested the idea of petticoat government and was never inclined to chain himself by any bonds to an interfering and ambitious woman, disliked Madame de Stael : and she in time learned to hate him, and intrigued against the man- whom she could not intrigue with. The upshot was exile for her. She was turned out of Paris, much to her rage. On several occasions she sought to return. But Napoleon was inexorable. She replied to his enmity by industry as a conspirator. Fouche, who speaks of her as ” the intriguing daughter of Necker,” credits Madame de Stael with having been regarded by Napoleon as ” an implacable enemy,” of having been the focus of the Senate conspiracy against Napoleon in 1802, and of being ” the life and soul ” of the opposition to him in 1812. It was certainly a remarkable woman who could thus stand up against Napoleon.

Madame de Stael’s salon at Coppet became a centre famous over all Europe. Her powers of intrigue supplemented her literary fame, and that was very great and well deserved. As an essayist she has a clear and warm style, and as a writer she could be betrayed into forgetting her personal rancours. There is, for example, no more true criticism of the literary style of Napoleon (who wrote newspaper ” leaders ” in his day) than that it was, as de Stael wrote, so vigorous that you could see that the writer ” wished to put in blows instead of words.”

An American traveller who paid a pilgrimage to the shrine of Madame de Stael at Coppet gives this picture of the lady :

Her features were good, but her complexion bad. She had a certain roundness and amplitude of form. She was never at a loss for the happiest expressions ; but deviated. into anecdotes that might be an offence to American ears !

Baron de Voght, who seemingly had not an American Puritanism of ear, wrote more warmly about the famous lady to a mutual friend, Madame Recamier :

It is to you that I owe my most amiable reception at Coppet. It is no doubt to the favourable expectations aroused by your friendship that I owe my intimate acquaintance with this remarkable woman. I might have met her without your assistance—some casual acquaintance would no doubt have introduced me—but I should never have penetrated to the intimacy of this sublime and beautiful soul, and should never have known how much better she is than her reputation. She is an angel sent from heaven to reveal the divine goodness upon earth. To make her irresistible, a pure ray of celestial light embellishes her spirit and makes her amiable from every point of view.

At once profound and light, whether she is discovering a mysterious secret of the soul or grasping the lightest shadow of a sentiment, her genius shines without dazzling, and when the orb of light has disappeared, it leaves a pleasant twilight to follow it. . . . No doubt a few faults, a few weaknesses, occasionally veil this celestial apparition ; even the initiated must sometimes be troubled by these eclipses, which the Genevan astronomers in vain endeavour to predict.

Still another pen picture of the same lady, from Benjamin Constant, who was her lover for many years and found the burden of maintaining an affection to match hers too great :

Yes, certainly I am more anxious than ever to break it off. She is the most egoistical, the most excitable, the most ungrateful, the most vain, and the most vindictive of women. Why didn’t I break it off long ago ? She is odious and intolerable to me. I must have done with her or die. She is more volcanic than all the volcanoes in the world put together. She is like an old procureur, with serpents in her hair, demanding the fulfilment of a contract in Alexandrine verse.

Byron was one of the famous men who visited the salon of Madame de Stael. He was drawn to Switzerland in the course of his ” parade of the pageant of his bleeding heart,” and found much prompting in Swiss scenery to proclaim his sorrows :

Clear, placid Leman ! thy contrasted lake, With the wild world I dwelt in is a thing Which warns me, with its stillness, to forsake Earth’s troubled waters for a purer spring.

To Madame de Stael he presented a copy of Glenarvon, an English novel in which his “devilish” character had been exposed. It was an effective introduction ; and was aided in its theatrical effect by the fact that an English lady fainted in Madame de Stael’s drawing-room when Byron’s name was announced as a visitor. But evidently Byron failed sadly to live up to his wicked reputation. Whether it was his famous hostess who was disappointed or some one else, he made no fame at Coppet. The de Staels’ son-in-law, Duke Victor de Broglie, writes with palpable sourness of the visit of this ineffectual Satan :

Lord Byron, an exile of his own free will, having succeeded, not without difficulty, in persuading the world of fashion in his own country that he was, if not the Devil in person, at least a living copy of Manfred or Lara, had settled for the summer in a charming house on the east bank of the Lake of Geneva. He was living with an Italian physician named Polidori, who imitated him to the best of his ability. It was there that he composed a good many of his little poems, and that he tried his hardest to inspire the good Genevans with the same horror and terror that his fellow-countrymen felt for him ; but this was pure affectation on his part, and he only half succeeded with it. ” My nephew,” Louis XIV. used to say of the Duc d’Orleans, ” is, in the matter of crime, only a boastful pretender ” ; Lord Byron was only a boastful pretender in the matter of vice.

As he flattered himself that he was a good swimmer and sailor, he was perpetually crossing the Lake in all directions, and used to come fairly often to Coppet. His appearance was agreeable, but not at all distinguished. His face was handsome, but without expression or originality ; his figure was round and short ; he did not manoeuvre his lame legs with the same ease and nonchalance as M. de Talleyrand. His talk was heavy and tiresome, thanks to his paradoxes, seasoned with profane pleasantries out of date in the language of Voltaire, and the commonplaces of a vulgar Liberalism. Madame de Stael, who helped all her friends to make the best of themselves, did what she could to make him cut a dignified figure without success ; and when the first movement of curiosity had passed, his society ceased to attract, and no one was glad to see him.

Omitting from this chapter Rousseau and Voltaire, as having closer kinship to political philosophy than to literature, a next famous name to be recalled of this epoch is the author of Obermann, Etienne Pivert de Senancour. Senancour was born in France in 1770. He was educated for the priesthood, and passed some time in the seminary of St. Sulpice ; broke away from the Seminary and from France itself, and passed some years in Switzerland, where he married ; returned to France in middle life, and followed thenceforward the career of a man of letters, but with hardly any fame or success. He died an old man in 1846, desiring that on his grave might be placed these words only : .Eternite, deviens mon asile ! The influence of Rousseau, Chateaubriand, and Madame de Stael shows in Senancour. Obermann is a collection of letters from Switzerland treating almost entirely of Nature and of the human soul. Senancour has been introduced to the English-speaking public by the lofty praise of Matthew Arnold, who apostrophises him in Obermann :

How often, where the slopes are green On Jaman, hast thou sate By some high chalet-door, and seen The summer-day grow late ;

And darkness steal o’er the wet grass With the pale crocus stared, And reach that shimmering sheet of glass Beneath the piny sward,

Lake Leman’s waters, far below ! And watch’d the rosy light Fade from the distant peaks of snow ; And on the air of night

Heard accents of the eternal tongue Through the pine branches play

In a later time practically all the most famous writers of English had some relation to Switzer-land. Trelawney (Shelley’s friend) was led first to seek Shelley’s acquaintance through his introduction to ” Queen Mab ” by a Lausanne book-seller. Before he retraced his way to Italy in the hope of meeting Shelley there, Trelawney records that he saw an Englishman breakfasting : ” Evidently a denizen of the North, his accent harsh, his skin white, of an angular and bony build, and self – confident and dogmatic in his opinions. With him, two ladies, whom it would appear from the blisters and blotches on their cheeks, lips and noses, that they were pedestrian tourists, fresh from the snow-covered mountains. The party breakfasted well, while the man cursed the godless wretches who have removed Nature’s landmarks by cutting roads through Alps and Apennines. ` They will be arraigned here-after with the unjust,’ he shouted.” Trelawney asked Wordsworth (for it was he, with his wife and sister) what he thought of Shelley as a poet —to which he replied, ” Nothing.” A Scotch terrier followed the Wordsworths into their carriage ; ” This hairy fellow our flea-trap,” the poet shouted out, as they went off.

Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Ruskin, Arnold all had close associations with Switzerland, and there still continues to flow there a constant stream of the world’s genius. It is everybody’s playground, and seems to have the power to tempt the man of imagination to longer stay. One effect is to give to Swiss people of the better educated classes a curiously international knowledge. Many of them seem to know all languages and to study all contemporary literature.