We have too long delayed to express our sense of the value of this work. One of the first points to be mentioned, in doing so, is its readableness. The historian possesses the talent of seizing on what is characteristic and arranging such traits in an order so clear, so closely linked, and progressive in its development, that his book is one to be read very rapidly yet no less distinctly kept in mind.
He takes you over a great deal of ground in a short time, but without hurry or neglecting any thing of importance. Yet his talent is not that of compression but of selection, so you are left with a feeling of leisure.
He has the French talent at interpretation; his candor and his insight are both superficial; but he has skill at arrangement and a willingness to let the truth be known; there is nothing to impede, but much to assist the reader in forming a just judgment.
As a specimen of his skill at marking characteristics (and no nation possesses the freedom of spirit and readiness of sympathy requisite for observation of what is specific and individual in a higher degree than the French) none can be found better than what is said of the Celts. To give an idea of his pictures, painted with long sweeps of the brush, and effective at any distance, take the following. The landscape, the human or moral interest, the images and allusions are touched and mingled with a lightness, an energy, a richness, and a power of assimilation that make this little piece of writing, by itself alone, a valuable gift from any one writer. And of such there are many. This is the very book for the American, who wishes to learn something useful while he is traveling on the railroad, for we must again repeat he will find it difficult not to read or to forget it when read.*
“Brittany, poor and hard, the resistant element of France, extends her fields of quartz and of schistus from the slate-quarries of Châteaulin, near Brest, to the slate-quarries of Angers. This is her extent, geologically speaking. However, from Angers to Rennes, the country is a debateable land, a border like that between England and Scotland, which early escaped from Brittany. The Breton tongue does not even begin at Rennes, but about Elven, Pontivy, Loudéac, and Châteaulin. Thence, as far as Cape Finisterre, it is true Brittany—Breton Brittany, (Bretagne Bretonnante,) a country which has become altogether foreign from ours, exactly because it has remained too faithful to our primitive condition, the more unlike the French that it is like the Gaul, and which would have slipped from us more than once, had we not held it grasped, as if in a vice, between four French cities of rough and decisive character, Nantes and St. Mao, Rennes and Brest.
And yet this poor old province has saved us more than once. Often when our country has been held at bay and been at the point of despair, Breton heads and breasts have been found harder than the stranger’s sword. When the Northmen were ravaging with impunity our coasts and rivers, the Breton, Nomenoé, was the first to resist. The English were repulsed in the fourteenth century by Duguesclin; in the fifteenth, by Richemont; and, in the seventeenth, were chased through every sea by Duguay Trouin. The wars of religious and those of political liberty present no more purely and innocently glorious names than Lanoue’s and that of Latour d’Auvergne, the first grenadier of the republic. The story runs, that it was a native of Nantes who uttered the last exclamation heard at Waterloo—“The guard dies, but does not surrender!”
The Breton character is that of untameable resistance, and of blind, obstinate, intrepid opposition—for instance, Moreau, the opponent of Bonaparte. In the history of philosophy and literature, this chracter is still more plainly evidenced. The Breton, Pelagius, who infused stoicism into Christianity, and was the first churchman who uplifted his voice in behalf of human liberty, was succeeded by the Breton Abelard, and the Breton Decartes. Each of these three gave the impetus to the philosophy of his own age. However, Descartes’ disdain of facts, and contempt for history and languages, clearly show that this independent genius, who founded psychology, and doubled the sphere of mathematics, was rather vigorous than comprehensive.
This spirit of opposition, which is natural to Brittany, manifested itself in the last century and in ours, by apparently contradictory facts. The same part of Brittany (St. Malo, Dinan, and St. Bileuc) which in Louis the Fifteenth’s day, produced the unbelievers Duclos, Maupertuis, and Lamètrie, has given birth in our own time to the poet and to the orator of Catholicism, to Chateaubriand and to La Mannais
Now, to take a rapid survey of the country.
At its two gates, Bretagne had two forests—the Norman Bocage, and the Vendean Bocage; and two cities—St. Malo and Nantes, the one the city of privateers, the other of Guineamen. St. Malo is of singularly ugly and sinister appearance; and there is in it, besides, something fantastical, observable throughout the whole peninsular as well, whether in costume, in pictures, or in monuments. It is a small, wealthy, sombre, and melancholy spot—the home of vultures and of ospreys; by turns, as the tide ebbs and flows, a peninsular and an island, and bordered with foul and fetid shoals where the seaweed rots at will. In the distance, is a coast of white, angular rocks, cut sheer as if with a razor. War is the harvest of St. Malo—they know no more delightful holiday. To feel this, one should have seen them on their black walls with their telescopes, which already brooded over the ocean, when, no long time since, they were filled with hopes of running down the vessels of the Hollander.
At its other extremity lies Brest, our great military port—planned by Richelieu, created by Louis XIV; fort, arsenal, and bagnio, cannon and ships, armies and millions, the strength amassed at one end of France—and all this in a contracted harbor, where one is pent up and stifled between two mountains, covered with immense buildings. The entrance into port is like passing into a small boat between two lofty vessels—the heavy masses seem to close upon and crush you. Your general impression is grand, but painful. You see a prodigious effort of strength, at once a defiance to England and to Nature. You every where are conscious of the effort, and so are you of the air of the bagnio, and of the galley-slave’s chain. It is precisely at the point on which the sea, escaping from the Straits of Dover, dashes with its utmost fury, that we have pitched our great naval arsenal. Certes, it is well guarded. I saw a thousand cannon there. All entrance is barred; but, at the same time, the port is not to be left at pleasure. More than one vessel has been lost in Brest channel. The whole coast is a graveyard. Sixty vessels are wrecked on it every winter. The sea is English at heart. She loves not France, but dashes our ships to pieces, and blocks up our harbors with sand.
Nothing can be more sinister and formidable then the coast of Brest; it is the extreme limit, the point, the prow of the old world. Here the two enemies, land and sea, man and nature, are face to face. When the sea madly lashes herself into fury, you should see what monstrous waves she hurls on point St. Matthew, fifty, sixty, eighty feet high. The spray is flung as far as the church, where mothers and sisters are at prayers. And even in those moments of truce, when the sea is silent, who has passed along this funereal coast without exclaiming or feeling—Tristis usque ad mortem! (The shadow of death is here!)
’Tis that there is here what is worse than shoal or tempest. Nature is fierce, man is fierce; and they seem to understand each other. As soon as the sea casts a hapless vessel on the coast, man, woman and child hurry to the shore to fall on their quarry. Hope not to stay these wolves. They plunder at their ease under the fire of the coast-guard. It would be something if they always waited for shipwreck, but it is asserted that they often cause it.—Often, it is said; a cow led about with a lighted lantern at its horns, has lured vessels on the rocks. God alone knows the night-scenes that then take place! A man has been known to gnaw off a finger with his teeth, in order to get at a ring on the finger of a drowned woman.
On this coast, man is hard. The accursed son of creation, a true Cain, wherefore should he spare Abel? Nature spares him not. Does the wave spare him, when in the fearful nights of winter he roams the shoals to gather the floating sea-weed which is to fertilize his sterile field—when the billow which bears the plant so often carries off the man? Does it spare him when he tremblingly glides beneath Cape Raz, by the red rocks, where the hell of Plogoff yearns for its prey; or along Deadman’s Bay, whose currents have for so many centuries swept corpses with them? The Breton proverb says, “None pass the Raz without hurt or a fright;” another, “Help me, great God, at Cape Raz,—my ship is so small, and the sea is so great!”
Here nature expires; humanity becomes mournful and cold. There is no poetry, little religion, and Christianity dates but from yesterday. Michel Noblet was the apostle of Batz in 1648. In the islands of Sein, Batz, and Ushant, the wedding festival itself is sad and severe. The very senses seem dead: and there is nor love, nor shame, nor jealousy. The girls unblushingly make the marriage proposals. Woman there labors harder than man, and in the Ushant isles she is taller and stronger. She tills the land, while the man remains seated in his boat, rocked and cradled by the sea, his rough nurse. The animals also degenerate, and seem to change their nature. Horses and rabbits are wonderfully diminutive in these islands.
Let us seat ourselves on this formidable Cape Raz, upon this overhanging rock, three hundred feet above the sea, and hence we descry seven leagues of coast-line. This is, in some sort, the sanctuary of the Celtic world. The dot you discern beyond Deadman’s Bay is the island of Sein, a desolate, treeless, and all but unsheltered sandbank, the abode of some poor and compassionate families, who yearly save the shipwrecked mariners. This island was the abode of the sacred virgins who gave the Celts fine weather or shipwreck. There they celebrated their gloomy and murderous orgies; and the seamen heard with terror, far off at sea, the clash of barbaric cymbals. This island is the traditionary birth place of Myrddyn, the Merlin of the middle age. His tomb is on the other side of Brittany, in a forest of Broceliande, under the fatal stone where his Vyvyan has enchanted him. All these rocks around us are towns which have been swallowed up—this is Douarnenez, that is, the Breton Sodom; those two ravens you see, ever flying heavily on the shore, are the souls of King Grallo and his daughter; and those shrill whistlings, which one would take for the voice of the tempest, are the crierien, the ghosts of the shipwrecked clamoring for burial.
At Lanvau, near Brest, there rises, as if to mark the limit of the continent, a large unhewn stone.—From this spot as far as Lorient, and from Lorient again as far as Quiberon and Carnac, you cannot walk along the southern coast of Brittany without meeting at every step one of those shapeless monuments which are called Druidical. You often descry them from the road on landes covered with briars and thistles. They consist of huge low stones, placed upright, and often a little rounded at top; or else of a stone laid flat on three or four standing stones. Whether we see them in altars, tombs, or mere memorials of events, these monuments are exceedingly imposing. Yet is the impression they make a saddening one, there being something singularly repulsive and rude in their effect. They seem to be the first essays in art of a hand already intelligent, but as hard and as little human as the rock which it has fashioned. Neither inscription nor sign is visible on them, if we except some marks under those stones of Loc Maria Ker that have been thrown down, so indistinct as to induce a belief that they are merely accidental. Question the people of the country and they will briefly reply that they are the houses of the Torrigans, the Courils, wanton dwarfs, who at night bar your road, and force you to dance with them until you die of fatigue. In other parts they are fairies, who, descending from the mountains, spinning, have brought away these rocks in their aprons. Those scattered rocks are a whole wedding party petrified. One solitary stone, near Morlaix, bears witness to the miserable fate of a peasant, who was swallowed up by the moon for blasphemy.
Never shall I forget the day on which I set out, early in the morning, from Auray, the sacred city of the Chouans, to visit the great Druidical monuments of Loc Maria Ker, and of Carnac, which are some leagues distant. The first of these villages lies at the mouth of the filthy and fetid river of the Aurray, with its islands of Morbihan, outnumbering the days of the year, add looks across a small bay to the fatal shore of Quiberon. There was a fog, such an envelops these coasts one-half of the year. Sorry bridges lead across the marshes; at one point you meet with the low and sombre manor-house, with its long avenue of oaks—a feature religiously preserved in Brittany; at another, you encounter a peasant, who passes without looking at you, but he has scanned you askance with his night-bird eye,—a look which explains their famous war-cry, and the name of Chouans (owls) given them by the blues. There are no houses on the road-side; the peasants return nightly to their villages. On every side are vast landes, sadly set off by purple heath and goers; the cultivated fields are white with buckwheat.—The eye is rather distressed than refreshed by this summer-snow, and those dull and faded-looking colors—resembling Ophelia’s coronet of straw and flowers. As you proceed to Carnac, the country saddens. The plains are all rock, with a few black sheep browsing on the flint. In the midst of this multitude of stones, many of which stand upright of themselves, the lines of Carnac inspire no astonishment; although there are several hundred stones still standing, the highest of which is fourteen feet.”
“Michelet’s History of France.” New-York Daily Tribune, 20 May 1845, p. 1.