Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Eugénie (1805–1848) and Maurice (1810–1839) de Guérin

OF this remarkable brother and sister might have been written the words: “They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.” “We were,” says Eugénie, “two eyes looking out of one head.” Their history as well as their literary work is left in the form of Journals and Letters. Not written for publication, these are most intimate records of their characters and spirits.

Eugénie and Georges Maurice de Guérin were born in the old château of Cayly, Languedoc, of a noble but impoverished family; Eugénie, the eldest of four children, in 1805, and Maurice, the youngest, August 5th, 1810. On the death of their mother, Eugénie assumed care of the delicate brother to whom her life was thenceforth devoted. To a desolate home where sorrow and an austere religion held sway, the morbid note of Maurice’s impressionable nature must be attributed. He went to school in Toulouse, spent five years in college, joined in 1832 the famous Lamennais in his monastic retreat at La Chênaie, and finally went to Paris to seek fame by literary work. Here he taught, wrote, and married, dying at the early age of twenty-nine on July 19th, 1839. In 1840 Madame George Sand brought out in the Revue des Deux Mondes his principal composition, ‘Le Centaur.’

Maurice was a dreamer from his infancy, possessed of a melancholy spirit and a wonderful insight into nature’s physical and mystical beauties. “He has a truly interpretative faculty,” says Matthew Arnold: “the most profound and delicate sense of the life of nature, and the most exquisite felicity in finding expressions to render that sense.”

We may divide his life into two periods: the first under the influence of Lamennais at La Chênaie, where so much of his “Journal’ was written; and the second in Paris, where he soon became, Sainte-Beuve tells us, “a man of the world, elegant, even fashionable; a conversationalist who could hold his own against the most brilliant talkers of Paris.” To the first period belongs the greater part of his ‘Journal,’ upon which, with the ‘Centaur,’ his fame rests; for his verses possess little value. Of the suggestions of landscapes in the ‘Journal’ Sainte-Beuve says:—“They are delicate; they are felt and painted at the same time: they are painted from near by on the spot, according to nature, but without crudeness. There is no trace of the palette. The colors have their original freshness and truth, and also a certain tenderness. They have passed into the mirror of the inner man, and are seen by reflection. One finds in them, above all, expression; and they breathe the very soul of things.”

Maurice de Guérin describes his own life as “made up of serious projects ever changing, and of permanent but idle dreams; of long intoxications of the fancy, and of almost absurd contests between my will and my soul, which is independent and as light in flight as a wild creature; while in the most sensitive and hidden depths of my being there is always acute suffering or dull discomfort, according as the disorder increases or diminishes.” Here then he gives us the keynote to his life and writings,—morbid introspection combined with a rare poetic fancy; and it is largely owing to this combination that the ‘Journal’ is an interesting psychological study.

‘The Centaur’ was suggested by a visit to the Musée des Antiques with his friend Trébutien, and is masterly in its conception of that strange imaginative borderland between animal and human life. This being, partaking equally of both these lives, is supposed to stand in his melancholy old age on the summit of a mountain, while he relates to an inquisitive mortal the history of his youth.

Sainte-Beuve considers Eugénie de Guérin of equal rank with her brother; but Matthew Arnold in his ‘Essays in Criticism’ says that Eugénie’s words “are but intellectual signs, not symbols of nature like Maurice’s. They bring the notion of the thing described to the mind: they do not bring the feeling of it to the imagination.”

The literary interest in Eugénie centers also in her ‘Journal.’ Her life was passed at La Cayla, in the simple routine of household duties and neighborhood charities. Once only she went to Paris, on the occasion of her brother’s marriage. She was intensely religious, and spent much time in prayer, meditation, and preparation for death.

Despite her pleasure in the beauty of nature and in the trivial incidents of her daily life, she was subject to the moods of morbid depression noted in Maurice. She condemns this, calling it languor, ennui, or weariness. Of course the Roman Catholic Eugénie de Guérin is ignorant of Puritan dogma; but allowing for her poetic temperament and tenderness, her rigid asceticism is strangely identical with Puritanism. Everything that gives her pleasure seems to her self-indulgent,—even writing. She says, “I have renounced poetry because I have seen that God did not ask it of me; but the sacrifice has been so much the more painful, as in abandoning poetry, poetry has not abandoned me.” Again she writes:—

  • “Shall I tell you why I gave up the journal? Because I find the time lost that I spend in writing. We owe an account of our minutes to God; and is it not making a bad use of them to employ them in tracing the days that are departing? Would to God that my thoughts, my spirit, had never taken their flight beyond the narrow round in which it is my lot to live! In spite of all that people say to the contrary, I feel that I cannot go beyond my needlework and my spinning without going too far; I feel it, I believe it: well then, I will keep in my proper sphere; however much I am tempted, my spirit shall not be allowed to occupy itself with great matters until it occupies itself with them in heaven.”
  • And Maurice writes:—

  • “So long as the wind wafts me from time to time whiffs of wild fragrance, and my ear catches distant accents of the melodies of nature, what shall I have to regret? Does the spider, which at evening-tide hangs suspended on its thread between two leaves, concern itself with the flight of the eagle and the pinions of the birds? And does the imagination of the bird, as it broods over its nestlings well sheltered beneath some bush, regret the caprices of its liberty and the soft undulations of its flight through the airy heights? Never have I had the freedom of the bird, nor has my thought ever been as happy as its wings; then let us fall asleep in resignation, as does the bird in its nest.”
  • Maurice was the one thought of Eugénie’s life, and all her ‘Journal’ is addressed to him. Two days after his death she writes:—“No, my dear, death shall not part us, shall not remove you from my thoughts. Death only separates our bodies; the soul instead of being there is in heaven, and the change of abodes takes nothing away from its affections. Far from it; I trust one loves better in heaven, where all becomes Divine.” Determined that the world should know Maurice, she wrote to his friends and prepared a memoir for his works; yet she died on May 31st, 1848, before their publication. Sainte-Beuve made her the subject of a ‘Causerie de Lundi,’ and Trébutien published her ‘Reliquæ’ at Caen (1855). In 1862 this tribute appeared for public circulation, was crowned by the French Academy, and passed through sixteen editions in eight months.