« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
straight forward. His intellect was clear, intuitive, commanding, incapable of the theoretical, and abhorrent of the visionary. He was practical in mind, although passionate in temperament, and figurative in speech. His creed was atheism, not apparently wrought out by personal investigation, or even sought for as an opiate to conscience, but carelessly accepted, as the one he found fashionable at the time. His conduct, too, was merely the common licentiousness of his country, taking a larger shape from his larger constitution and stronger passions. His political faith was less definite and strict, but more progressive and practical, and more accommodated to circumstances than Robespierre's. His patriotism was as sincere as Robespierre's, but hung about him in more easy and voluminous folds. It was a toga, not a tunic. A sort of lazy greatness, which seemed, at a distance, criminal indifference, characterised him when in repose. His cupidity was as Cyclopean as his capacity. Nothing less than a large bribo could fill such a hand. No common goblet could satisfy such a maw. Greedy of money, for money's sake, he was not. He merely wished to live, and all Paris knew what he meant by living. And with all the royal sops to Cerberus, he remained Cerberus still. Never had he made the pretensions of a Lord Russell, or Algernon Sidney, and we know how they were subsidised. His “ poverty, but not his will, consented." Had he lived in our days, a public subscription—a “Danton testimonial, all subscriptions to be handed in to the office of Camille Desmoulins”—would have saved this vast needy patriot from the disgrace of taking supplies from Louis, and then laughing a wild laughter at his provider, as he hewed on at the foundations of his throne.
In fact, careless greatness, without principle, was the key to Danton's merits and faults-his power and weakness. Well did Madame Roland call him “ Sardanapalus.” When he found a clover field, he rolled in it. When he had nothing to do, he did nothing; when he saw the necessity of doing something immediately, he could condense ages of action into a few hours. He was like some dire tocsin, never ruig till danger was imminent, but then arousing cities and nations as one man. And thus it was that he saved his country and lost himself, repulsed Brunswick, and sunk before Robespierre.
It had been otherwise, if his impulses had been under the watchful direction of high religious, or moral, or even political principle. This would have secured unity among his passions and powers, and led to steady and cumulative effort. From this conscious greatness, and superiority to the men around him, there sprung a fatal security and a fatal contempt. He sat on the Mountain, smiling, while his enemies were undermining his roots ; and while he said, “ He dares not imprison me," Robespierre was calmly muttering, “I will.”
It seemed as if even revolution were not a sufficient stimulus to, or a sufficient element for, Danton's mighty powers. It was only when war had reached the neighborhood of Paris, and added its hoarse voice to the roar of panic from within, that he found a truly Titanic task waiting for him. And he did it manfully. His words became “half- battles.” His actions corresponded with, and exceeded, his words. He was as calm, too, as if he had created the chaos around him. That the city was roused, yet concentrated-furious as Gehenna, but firm as fate, at that awful crisis—was all Danton's doing. Paris seemed at the time but a projectile in his massive hand, ready to be hurled at the invading foe. His alleged cruelty was the result, in a great measure, of his habitual carelessness. Too indifferent to superintend with sufficient watchfuluess the administration of justice, it grew into the Reign of Terror. He was, nevertheless, deeply to blame. He ought to have cried out to the mob, “ The way to the prisoners in the Abbaye lies over Danton's dead body;" and not one of them had passed on. He repented, afterwards, of his conduct, and was, in fact, the first martyr to a milder regime. Not one of his personal enemies perished in that massacre; hence the name
butcher” applied to him is not correct. He did not dabble in blood. He made but one fierce and rapid irruption into the neighborhood of the “Red Sea," and returned sick and shuddering therefrom.
His person and his eloquence were in keeping with his mind and character. We figure him always after the pattern of Bethlehem Gabor, as Godwin describes him: his stature gigantic, his hair a dead black, a face in which sagacity and fury struggle for the mastery-a voice of thunder. His mere ligure might have saved the utterance of his watchword
We must put our enemies in fear.” His face was itself a " Reign of Terror." His eloquence was not of the intellectual, nor of the rhetorical cast. It was not labored with care, nor moulded by art. It was the full, gushing utterance of a mind seeing the real merits of the case in a glare of vision, and announcing them in a tone of absolute assurance. He did not indulge in long arguments or elaborate declamations. His speeches were Cyclopcan cries, at the sight of the truth breaking, like the sun, on his mind. Each speech was a peroration. His imagination was fertile, rugged, and grand." Terrible truth was sheathed in terrible figure. Each thought leaped into light, like Minerva, armed with bristling imagery. Danton was a true poet, and some of his sentences are the strongest and most characteristic utterances amid all the wild eloquence the Revolution produced. His curses are of the streets, not of Paris, but of Pandemonium; his blasphemies were sublime as those heard in the trance of Sicilian seer, belched up from fallen giants through the smoke of Etna, or like those which made the “burning marl” and the “fiery gulf” quake and recoil in fear.
Such an extraordinary being was Danton. There was no beauty about him, but there were the power and the dreadful brilliance, the rapid rise and rapid subsidence, of an Oriental tempest. Peace-the peace of one of the monsters of the Egyptian desert, calm-sitting and colossal, amid long desolations, and kindred forms of vast and coarse sublimity-be to his ashes!
It is lamentable to contemplate the fate of such a man. Newly married, sobered into strength and wisdom, in the prime of life, and with mildness settling down upon his character, like moonlight on the rugged features of the Sphinx, le was snatched away. “ One feels," says Scott of him, “ as if the eagle had been brought down by a 'mousing owl.'" More melancholy still to find him dying “game," as it is commonly called—that is, without hope and without God in the world-caracoling and exulting, as he plunged into the waters of what he deemed the bottomless and the endless night; as if a spirit so strong as his could die—as if a spirit so stained as his could escape the judgment—the judgment of a God as just as he is merciful; but also—blessed be his name !-as merciful as he is just.
ELOQUENCE, like many other powers of the human mind, lies often dormant and unsuspected, till it is elicited by circumstances. The quantity of silent eloquence awaiting deliverance in a nation, is only to be calculated by those who can compute the amount of undeveloped electricity in the earth or sky. Genius is natus haud factus; but eloquence is often facta haud nata. Rouse ordinary men to the very highest pitch, and they never even approach to the verge of genius, because it is the unsearchable and subtle result of a combination of rare faculties with rare temperament; but any man, touched to the quick, may become, for a season, as eloquent as Demosthenes himself. The child, when struck to a certain measure of brutality, utters screams and words, and assumes attitudes, of high eloquence, and every sob of her little heart is an “ Oration for the Crown." How eloquent the pugilist, when his blood is up, and the full fury of the fray has kindled around, and made his very fists scem inspired! What speeches have sometimes come from the gutter, where a drunk Irishman is leaving Curran far behind in the grotesque combination of his maddened fancy and the “ strange oaths” of his infuriated passions! And now many dull men has the approach of death stirred up into an almost superhuman tide of eloquence, as if both soul and tongue were conscious that their time was short. Perhaps the most eloquent words ever spoken by man were those of Jackson, the Irish rebel, who, having swallowed poison ere his trial commenced, called his advocate to his side when the pleading was over, and gasped out, as he dropped down dead, in a whisper which was heard like thunder (using the language of Pierre, in “ Venice Preserved”), “ We have deceived the Senate.”
Upon this principle, we need not be surprised that revolu
tions, while developing much latent genius, have inspired far more of genuine eloquence. A collection, enuitled the “ Oratory of Revolutionists," would contain the noblest specimens of human eloquence. What the speeches of Cicero, compared to those of Cataline or Cethegus ! What poor things, in mere eloquence, the long elaborate orations of Pitt and Fox, to the electric words, the spoken signals, the sudden lightning strokes, to even the mere gestures, of Mirabeau and Danton! And has not the recent Italian revolution-quenched though it has been-roused one orator worthy of any age or country, Gavazzi—the actual of Yendys' ideal and magnificent “ Monk,” the tongue of Italy, just as Mazzini is its far-stretching and iron hand ?
Such remarks may fitly introduce us to Vergniaud, the most eloquent of the “ eloquent of France," the facile princeps of the Girondins—that hapless party who, with the best professions, and the most brilliant parts ( parts not powers—the distinction is important, and so far explains their defeat), committed an egregious and inexpiable mistake: they mistook their age and their work, and, as they did not discern their time, their time revenged itself by trampling on them as it went on its way.
The most misplaced of this misplaced party was Vergniaud. But no more than his party was he fitted, as some would have it, for those Roman days to which he and they incessantly reverted their gaze. Sterner, stronger spirits were then required, as well as in the times of the French Revolution. The Girondins were but imitative and emasculate Romans at the best. Vergniaud would have been in his element in the comparatively peaceful atmosphere of Britain. There, a Charles Grant on a larger scale, he might have one-third of the day “sucked sugar-candy," the other third played with children, and in the evening either sat silent or poured out triumphant speeches, as he pleased. But, in France, while he was playing at marbles, others were playing at human heads. His speeches were very brilliant; but they wanted the point which Robespierre's always had—the edge of the guillotine. And for want of that terrible finish, they were listened to, admired, but not obeyed. “Slaves," says Cowper, “ cannot breathe in England.” We