Things and Thoughts in Europe . . . XIII

Things and Thoughts in Europe

Correspondence of The Tribune[No. XIII.

Maxie in Paris—Chopin and the Chevalier Neukomm—Adieu to Paris—A Midnight Drive in a Diligence—Lyons and its Weavers—Their Manner of Life—A Young Wife—The Weavers’ Children—The Banks of the Rhone—Dreary Weather for Southern France—The old Roman Amphitheatre at Arles—The Women of Arles—Marseilles—The Passage to Genoa—Italy—Genoa and Naples—Baia—Vesuvius—The Italian Character at Home—The Passage from Leghorn in a small Steamer—Narrow Escape—A Confusion of Languages—The Degradation of Neapolitans.

  In the last days at Paris I was fortunate in hearing some delightful music. A friend of Chopin’s took me to see him, and I had the pleasure, which the delicacy of his health makes a rare one for the public, of hearing him play. All the impressions I had received from hearing his music imperfectly performed were justified, for it has marked traits which can be veiled but not travestied; but to feel it as its merits, one must hear himself; only a person as exquisitely organized as he can adequately express these subtle secrets of the creative spirit.

  It was with a different sort of pleasure that I listened to the Chevalier Neukomm, the celebrated composer of “David,” which has been so popular in our country. I heard him improvise on the Orgue Expressif, and afterward on a great organ which has just been built here by Cavaille for the Cathedral of Ajaccio. Full, sustained, ardent, yet exact, the stream of his thought bears with it the attention of hearers of all characters, as his character, full of bonhomie, open, friendly, animated and sagacious, would seem to have something to present for the affection and esteem of all kinds of men. One was the minstrel, the other the orator of music; we want them both—the mysterious whispers and the resolute pleadings from the better world which calls us not to slumber here, but press daily onward to claim all our heritage.

  Paris! I was sad to leave thee, thou wonderful forms, where ignorance ceases to be a pain, because there we find such means daily to lessen it. It is the only school where I ever found abundance of teachers who could bear being examined by the pupil in their special branches. I must go to this school more before I again cross the Atlantic, where often for years I have carried about some trifling question without finding the person who could answer it. Really deep questions we must all answer for ourselves—the more the pity not to get more quickly through with a crowd of details, where the experience of others might accelerate our progress.

  Parting by diligence, we pursued our way from twelve o’clock on Thursday till twelve at night on Friday, thus having a large share of magnificent moonlight upon the unknown fields we were traversing. At Chalons we took a boat and reached Lyons [illegible]times that afternoon. So soon as refreshed, we sallied out to visit some of the garrets of the weavers. As we were making inquiries about these, a sweet little girl who heard us offered to be our guide. She led us by a weary, winding way, whose pavement was much easier for her feet in their wooden sabots than for ours in Paris shoes, to the top of a hill from which we saw for the first time “the blue and arrowy Rhone.” Entering the high buildings on this high hill, I found each chamber tenanted by a family of weavers, all weavers, wife, husband, sons, daughters—from nine years old upward—each was helping. On one side were the looms, nearer the door the cooking apparatus, the beds were shelves near the ceiling; they climbed up to them on ladders. My sweet little girl turned out to be a wife of six or seven years’ standing, with two rather sickly looking children; she seemed to have the greatest comfort that is possible amid the perplexities of a hard and anxious lot, to judge by the proud and affectionate manner in which she always said “mon mare,” and by the courteous gentleness of his manner toward her. —She seemed, indeed, to be one of those persons on whom “the Graces have smiled in their cradle” and to whom a natural loveliness of character makes the world as easy as it can be made while the evil spirit is still so busy choking the wheat with tares. I admired her graceful manner of introducing us into those dark little rooms, and she was affectionately received by all her acquaintance. But alas! that voice, by nature of such bird-like vivacity, repeated again and again, “Ah! we are all very unhappy now.” “Do you sing together or go to evening schools?” “We have not the heart.—When we have a piece of work we do not stir till it is finished, and then we run to try and get another; but often we have to wait idle for weeks.—It grows worse and worse, and they say it is not likely to be any better. We can think of nothing but whether we shall be able to pay our rent. Ah! but the work-people are very unhappy now.” This poor, lovely little girl, at an age when the merchants’ daughters of Boston and New-York are just making their first experiences of “society,” knew the price of every article of food and clothing that is wanted by such a household to a farthing, her thought by day and her dream by night was, whether she should long be able to procure a scanty supply of these, and Nature had gifted her with precisely these qualities, which, unembarrassed by care, would have made her and all she loved really happy, and she was fortunate now, compared with many of her sex in Lyons—of whom a gentleman who knows the class well said to me, “When their work fails they have no resource except in the sale of their persons. There are but these two ways open to them, of weaving or prostitution to gain their bread.” And there are those who dare say that such a state of things is well enough, and what Providence intended for man—who call those who have hearts to suffer at the sight, energy and zeal to seek its remedy, visionaries and fanatics! To themselves be woe, who have eyes and see not, ears and hear not, the convulsions and sobs of injured Humanity!

  My little friend told me she had nursed both her children—though almost all of her class are obliged to put their children out to nurse; “but,” said she, “they are brought back so little, so miserable, that I resolved, if possible, to keep mine with me.”—Next day in the steamboat I read a pamphlet by a physician of Lyons in which he recommends the establishment of Creches not merely, like those of Paris, to keep the children by day, but to provide wet nurses for them. Thus by the infants receiving nourishment from more healthy persons, and who under the supervision of directors, would treat them well, be hopes to counteract the tendency to degenerate in this race of sedentary workers, and to save the mothers from too heavy a burden of care and labor, without breaking the bond between them and their children, whom, under such circumstances, they could visit often and see them taken care of—as they, brought up to know nothing except how to weave, cannot take care of them.—Here, again, how is one reminded of Fourier’s observations and plans, still more enforced by the recent developments at Manchester as to the habit of feeding children on opium, which has grown out of the position of things there.

  Descending the next day to Avignon, I had the mortification of finding the banks of the Rhone still sheeted with white, and there waded through melting snow to Laura’s tomb. We did not see Mr. Dickens’s Tower and Goblin; it was too late in the day—but we saw a snow-ball fight between two bands of the military in the Castle-yard that was gay enough to make a goblin laugh. And next day, on to Arles, still snow, snow and cutting blasts in the South of France, where everybody had promised us bird-songs and blossoms to console us for the dreary winter of Paris. At Arles, indeed, I saw the little saxifrage blossoming on the steps of the Amphitheatre, and fruit-trees in flower amid the great tombs. Here was the first time I saw the great hand-writing of the Romans in its proper medium of stone, and I was content. It looked as grand and solid as I expected, as if life in those days was thought worth the having, the enjoying and the using. The sunlight was warm this day; it lay deliciously still and calm upon the ruins. One old woman sat knitting where twenty-five thousand persons once gazed down in fierce excitement on the fights of men and lions. Coming back, we were refreshed all through the streets by the sight of the women of Arles. They answered to their reputation for beauty: tall, erect and noble, with high and dignified features, and a full, earnest gaze of the eye, they looked as if the Eagle still waved its wings over their city. Even the very old women still have a degree of beauty, because when the colors are all faded and the skin wrinkled, the face retains this dignity of outline. The men do not share in these characteristics; some Priestess, well beloved of the powers of old religion, must have called down an especial blessing on her sex in this town.

  Hence to Marseilles—where is little for the traveler to see, except of the mixture of Oriental blood in the crowd of the streets. Thence by steamer to Genoa. Of this transit, he who has been on the Mediterranean in a stiff breeze well understands I can have nothing to say, except “I suffered.” It was all one dull, tormented dream to me and, I believe, to most of the ship’s company—a dream too of thirty hours’ duration, instead of the promised sixteen.

  The excessive beauty of Genoa is well known and the impression upon the eye alone was correspondent with what I expected, but, alas! the weather was still so cold I could not realize that I had actually touched those shores to which I had looked forward all my life, where it seemed that the heart would expand, and the whole nature be turned to delight. Seen by a cutting wind, the marble palaces, the gardens, the magnificent water-view of Genoa failed to charm. “I saw, not felt how beautiful they were.” Only at Naples have I found my Italy, and here not till after a week’s waiting—not till I began to believe that all I had heard in praise of the climate of Italy was fable, and that there is really no Spring anywhere except in the imagination of poets. For the first week was an exact copy of the miseries of a New England Spring; a bright sun came for an hour or two in the morning just to flatter you forth without your cloak, and then—and then—came up a villainous, horrible wind, exactly like the worst East wind of Boston, breaking the heart, racking the brain and turning hope and fancy to an irrevocable green and yellow hue in lieu of their native rose.

  However, here at Naples I have at last found my Italy; I have passed through the Grotto of Pausilippo, visited Cama, Baia, and Capré—ascended Vesuvius, and found all familiar, except the sense of enchantment, of sweet exhilaration this scene conveys.

“Behold how brightly breaks the morning!”

and yet all new, as if never described, for Nature here, most prolific and exuberant in her gifts, has touched them all with a charm unhackneyed, unhackneyable, which the boots of English dandies cannot trample out, nor the raptures of sentimental tourists daub or fade. Baia had still a hid divinity for me, Vesuvius a fresh baptism of fire, and Sorrento—oh Sorrento was beyond picture, beyond poesy, for the greatest Artist had been at work there in a temper beyond the reach of human art.

  Beyond this, reader, my old friend and valued acquaintance on other themes, I shall tell you nothing of Naples, for it is a thing apart in the journey of life, and, if represented at all, should be so in a fairer form than offers itself at present. Now the actual life here is over, I am going to Rome, and expect to see that fane of thought the last day of this week.

  At Genoa and Leghorn, I saw for the first time Italians in their homes. Very attractive I found them, charming women, refined men, eloquent and courteous. If the cold wind hid Italy, it could not the Italians. A little group of faces, each so full of character, dignity, and what is so rare in an American face, the capacity for pure, exalting passion, will live ever in my memory—the fulfillment of a hope!

  We came from Leghorn in an English boat, highly recommended, and as little deserving of such praise as many another bepuffed article. In the middle of a fine, clear night, she was run into by the mail steamer, which all on deck perfectly saw coming upon her, for no reason that could be ascertained except that the man at the wheel said he had turned the right way, and it never seemed to occur to him that he could change when he found the other steamer had taken the same direction. To be sure the other steamer was equally careless, but as a change on our part would have prevented an accident that narrowly missed sending us all to the bottom, it hardly seemed worth while to persist for the sake of convicting them of error.

  Neither the Captain nor any of his people spoke French, and we had been much amused before by the chambermaid acting out the old story of “Will you lend me the loan of a gridiron?” A Polish lady was on board with a French waiting-maid, who understood o word of English. The daughter of John Bull would speak to the lady in English, and, when she found it of no use, would say imperiously to the suivante— “Go and ask your mistress what she will have for breakfast.” And now when I went on deck there was a parley between the two steamers, which the Captain was obliged to manage by such interpreters as he could find; it was a long and confused business. It ended at last in the Neapolitan steamer taking us in tow for an inglorious return to Leghorn. When she had decided upon this she swept round, her lights glancing like sagacious eyes, to take us. The sea was calm as a lake; the sky full of stars; she made a long detour with her black hull, her smoke and lights, which look so pretty at night, then came round to us like the bend of an arm embracing. It was a pretty picture, worth the stop and the fright—perhaps the loss of twenty-four hours, though I did not think so at the time. At Leghorn we changed the boat, and, retracing our steps, came now at last to Naples,—to this priest-ridden, misgoverned, full of dirty, degraded men and women, yet still most lovely Naples,—of which the most I can say is that the divine aspect of Nature can make you forget the situation of Man in this region, which was surely intended for him as a princely child, angelic in virtue, genius and beauty, and not as a begging, vermin-haunted, image-kissing Lazzarone.            *

“Things and Thoughts in Europe,” New-York Daily Tribune, 29 May 1847, p. 1.