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

From ‘Lélia’

By George Sand (1804–1876)

  • [Written in 1833, the period of passion and despair. In this magnificent, fiery, yet at times absurd poem of doubt and despair, Sténio sometimes stands for Alfred de Musset, and again for the Ideal; while Lélia is at once George Sand, and the human soul warred upon and torn by its dual nature.]

  • “THE PROPHETS are crying in the desert to-day, and no voice answers, for the world is indifferent and deaf: it lies down and stops its ears so as to die in peace. A few scattered groups of weak votaries vainly try to rekindle a spark of virtue. As the last remnants of man’s moral power, they will float for a moment about the abyss, then go and join the other wrecks at the bottom of that shoreless sea which will swallow up the world.”

    “O Lélia, why do you thus despair of those sublime men who aspire to bring virtue back to our iron age? Even if I were as doubtful of their success as you are, I would not say so. I should fear to commit an impious crime.”

    “I admire those men,” said Lélia, “and would like to be the least among them. But what will those shepherds bearing a star on their brows be able to do before the huge monster of the Apocalypse—before that immense and terrible figure outlined in the foreground of all the prophets’ pictures? That woman, as pale and beautiful as vice,—that great harlot of nations, decked with the wealth of the East, and bestriding a hydra belching forth rivers of poison on all human pathways,—is Civilization; is humanity demoralized by luxury and science; is the torrent of venom which will swallow up all virtue, all hope of regeneration.”

    “O Lélia!” exclaimed the poet, struck by superstition, “are not you that terrible and unhappy phantom? How many times this fear has taken possession of my dreams! How many times you have appeared to me as the type of the unspeakable agony to which the spirit of inquiry has driven man! With your beauty and your sadness, your weariness and your skepticism, do you not personify the excess of sorrow produced by the abuse of thought? Have you not given up, and as it were prostituted, that moral power, so highly developed by what art, poetry, and science have done for it, to every new impression and error? Instead of clinging faithfully and prudently to the simple creed of your fathers, and to the instinctive indifference God has implanted in man for his peace and preservation; instead of confining yourself to a pious life free from vain show, you have abandoned yourself to all the seductions of ambitious philosophy. You have cast yourself into the torrent of civilization rising to destroy, and which by dashing along too swiftly has ruined the scarcely laid foundations of the future. And because you have delayed the work of centuries for a few days, you think you have shattered the hour-glass of Eternity. There is much pride in this grief, Lélia! But God will make this billow of stormy centuries, that for him are but a drop in the ocean, float by. The devouring hydra will perish for lack of food; and from its world-covering corpse a new race will issue, stronger and more patient than the old.”

    “You see far into the future, Sténio! You personify Nature for me, and are her unspotted child. You have not yet blunted your faculties: you believe yourself immortal because you feel yourself young and like that untilled valley now blooming in pride and beauty,—never dreaming that in a single day the plowshare and the hundred-handed monster called industry can tear its bosom to rob it of its treasures; you are growing up full of trust and presumption, not foreseeing your coming life, which will drag you down under the weight of its errors, disfigure you with the false colors of its promises. Wait, wait a few years, and you too will say, ‘All is passing away!’”

    “No, all is not passing away!” said Sténio. “Look at the sun, and the earth, and the beautiful sky, and these green hills; and even that ice, winter’s fragile edifice, which has withstood the rays of summer for centuries. Even so man’s frail power will prevail! What matters the fall of a few generations? Do you weep for so slight a thing, Lélia? Do you deem it possible a single idea can die in the universe? Will not that imperishable inheritance be found intact in the dust of our extinct races, just as the inspirations of art and the discoveries of science arise alive each day from the ashes of Pompeii or the tombs of Memphis? Oh, what a great and striking proof of intellectual immortality! Deep mysteries had been lost in the night of time; the world had forgotten its age, and thinking itself still young, was alarmed at feeling itself so old. It said as you do, Lélia: ‘I am about to end, for I am growing weak, and I was born but a few days ago! How few I shall need for dying, since so few were needed for living!’ But one day human corpses were exhumed from the bosom of Egypt—Egypt that had lived out its period of civilization, and has just lived its period of barbarism! Egypt, where the ancient light, lost so long, is being rekindled, and a rested and rejuvenated Egypt may perhaps soon come and establish herself upon the extinguished torch of our own. Egypt, the living image of her mummies sleeping under the dust of ages, and now awaking to the broad daylight of science in order to reveal the age of the old world to the new! Is this not solemn and terrible, Lélia? Within the dried-up entrails of a human corpse, the inquisitive glance of our century discovered the papyrus, that mysterious and sacred monument of man’s eternal power,—the still dark but incontrovertible witness of the imposing duration of creation. Our eager hand unrolls those perfumed bandages, those frail and indissoluble shrouds at which destruction stopped short. These bandages that once enfolded a corpse, these manuscripts that have rested under fleshless ribs in the place once occupied perhaps by a soul, are human thought; expressed in the science of signs, and transmitted by the help of an art we had lost, but have found again in the sepulchres of the East,—the art of preserving the remains of the dead from the outrages of corruption,—the greatest power in the universe. O Lélia, deny the youth of the world if you can, when you see it stop in artless ignorance before the lessons of the past, and begin to live on the forgotten ruins of an unknown world.”

    “Knowledge is not power,” replied Lélia. “Learning over again is not progress; seeing is not living. Who will give us back the power to act, and above all, the art of enjoying and retaining? We have gone too far forward now to retreat. What was merely repose for eclipsed civilizations will be death for our tired-out one; the rejuvenated nations of the East will come and intoxicate themselves with the poison we have poured on our soil. The bold barbarian drinkers may perhaps prolong the orgy of luxury a few hours into the night of time; but the venom we shall bequeath them will promptly be mortal for them, as it was for us, and all will drop back into blackness…. In fact, Sténio, do you not see that the sun is withdrawing from us? Is not the earth, wearied in its journey, noticeably drifting towards darkness and chaos? Is your blood so young and ardent as not to feel the touch of that chill spread like a pall over this planet abandoned to Fate, the most powerful of the gods? Oh, the cold! that penetrating pain driving sharp needles into every pore. That cursed breath that withers flowers and burns them like fire; that pain at once physical and mental, which invades both soul and body, penetrates to the depths of thought, and paralyzes mind as well as blood! Cold—the sinister demon who grazes the universe with his damp wing, and breathes pestilence on bewildered nations! Cold, tarnishing everything, unrolling its gray and nebulous veil over the sky’s rich tints, the waters’ reflections, the hearts of flowers, and the cheeks of maidens! Cold, that casts its white winding-sheet over fields and woods and lakes, even over the fur and feathers of animals! Cold, that discolors all in the material as well as in the intellectual world; not only the coats of bears and hares on the shores of Archangel, but the very pleasures of man and the character of his habits in the spots it approaches! You surely see that everything is being civilized; that is to say, growing cold. The bronzed nations of the torrid zone are beginning to open their timid and suspicious hands to the snares of our skill; lions and tigers are being tamed, and come from the desert to amuse the peoples of the north. Animals which had never been able to grow accustomed to our climate, now leave their warm sun without dying, to live in domesticity among us, and even forget the proud and bitter sorrow which used to kill them when enslaved. It is because blood is congealing and growing poorer everywhere, while instinct grows and develops. The soul rises and leaves the earth, no longer sufficient for her needs, to steal the fire of Prometheus from heaven again: but, lost in darkness, it stops in its flight and falls; for God, seeing its presumption, stretches forth his hand and deprives it of the sun.”