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There BURNS, in canister compact,
A mystic drug we next behold,
It is a potent-stirring drink,
It makes men doubt, it makes men think,
Some call it essence of despair,
And by its side, upon the shelf,
And whoso drinketh of that stream,
That drug through all the world is sent,
Yet so 'tis taken, I'm content,
Two other drugs of hue serene,
Next, sugar plums of TENNYSON,
LONGFELLOW's Cooling powders, fit
Extract of LOWELL, and of PoE,
And many more, the drugs which fill
And as for me, in drugs I deal ;
HENRI DE BALZAC.
SCARCELY two years have elapsed since Balzac, the greatest of novelists, ended his long labors and his short life. In the prime of manhood, and the completeness of success, he died; truly regretted by the readers whom his fancy had enchanted, by the contemporaries who had acknowledged his genius. Illustrious poets and men of letters accompanied his mortal remains to the tomb. He left his fame to France, and his works to the world. On those works criticism can now sit in impartial judgment.
Balzac is comparatively unknown out of France. In England or America, he is far from being either generally read or appreciated. Few of his works have been translated. We need not therefore apologize to our readers for essaying to give a brief summary of his literary merits. To those familiar with his writings, we are sure that any attempt to popularize
them will be regarded as a good work. To those who are strangers to their excellences, we shall open a mine of enjoyment for which in due time they will give us credit.
Except Shakspeare, or to a certain degree Walter Scott, we know of no English writer of fiction to compare with BalBulwer and Thackeray, who have both in different ways been his imitators, are alike immeasurably his inferiors. He as much excels Thackeray in minute perception and delineation of social characteristics, as he surpasses Bulwer in depth of thought, grandeur of moral conception, and power of execution. Bulwer's passionate scenes are often theatrical and ridiculous; Balzac's are ever natural, and logical. Thackeray too often seems to grovel amid the meannesses he delights to describe. Balzac paints the vilest of the vile with the calm. serenity of a man of science, who is not afraid of truth because it is occasionally revolting.
Before his death, Balzac's collected works were published under the title of "The Comedy of Human Life." They form above an hundred volumes, and embrace the most perfect description of modern French life and manners that can be imagined. They are professedly a vast gallery of studies from nature, embodied in the creations of art. They display a profound knowledge of every phase of civilized life, and a familiarity with literature, science, and politics, of the most marvellous extension. Balzac is at home with the details of every profession and trade, with every form of religious belief, and ›very shade of philosophical opinion. He displays with equal rilliancy and penetration the arcana of the existence of the Danker and the beggar, the duchess and the courtezan, the hief and the minister; the Swedenborgians and the materialsts will find themselves impartially represented in his pages. Every combination of active and passive heroism or baseness s analyzed in his crucible with equal care. His "Comedy" is a literary microcosm, a little world of human specimens preserved in the amber of romance.
Anybody with the slightest acumen can detect both in Bulwer and Thackeray, a latent penchant for all that is aristocratic. Bulwer is obviously a bit of a coxcomb, an exclusive, a fine gentleman; Thackeray is a palpable snob, an essential flunky. Both are deficient in that radical nobility of self-respect, which alone enables men to respect others. Both are virtually on the constant qui vive to assert their own position. One is continually entreating you indirectly to remember his ancestors, the other everlastingly impressing upon you that he is admitted to the best
society. We pity Bulwer; we laugh at Thackeray. In dark and cynical moments, we perhaps despise both. The "we" here means the philosophers-the Balzacians generally, not the poor scribblers of an article; the sublime idealized upper ten of letters which imagination pictures, not the imperfectly developed man of actual fact which reason acknowledges.
Balzac, as an artist, is above the pettiness of mind we have indicated. He can allude to a person of obscure station without a grin or a sneer. He can give a ducal pedigree without an internal cringe. He looks at both upon a level as a human being (one of the ordo bimana, genus homo.) The one is not above, nor the other below, they are mere varieties of the original Adam, objects of studious science, not of personal repugnance or attraction. He is a mirror which reflects, not a lens which distorts.
Balzac's works form a connected series. Consequently the same characters reappear. Those which are heroes in one, in another perform but secondary parts. Thackeray and D'Israeli have feebly tried to imitate this peculiarity. To the great master, it appears almost a necessity of his complicated drama. So perfect is his creation of character, so distinct and individual each personage, that we feel it to be quite an amusing experiment to see what he or they will do amid entirely new circumstances and new actors. Thus we have-1. The great man of the province. 2. The great man of the province at Paris. 3. David Sechard, in which the great man (Lucien de Rubempré, a young poet of weak and selfish character, combined with great sensibility and talent,) returns in despair. 4. Esther, in which he is thrown into the vortex of Parisian life again by the agency of Vautrin, the escaped galley slave, who had already figured in the Pere Goriot, which has been well called the King Lear of modern life. 5. We have the last incarnation of Vautrin. And so with all his characters.
The above series we cordially recommend to those who are beginning to Balzacise, as of an interest superior perhaps to any novels of the age, unless it were Le Peau de Chagrin by the same author, the wildest, and at the same time the most real of all romances in which the supernatural plays a part. We will conclude our brief panegyric, which relentless time and space compel us to restrain within certain limits, by a rapid sketch of the plot of this tale. It will convey no idea of the work, because its excellence lies mainly in its splendid style and marvellous accuracy of detail, but it will faintly evidence the richness of imagination of the author of the
"Search for the Absolute," "Seraphita, the Mystic Book," and of the most vivid domestic and social scenes ever depicted by the pen of author.
A young man-Raphael-enters a gambling house in the Palais Royal, stakes, and loses his last Napoleon-resolves on suicide, but defers his leap into the Seine till nightfall-takes his last look at the beauty which had ruined him, as she enters her carriage in the street, unobserved-enters a curiosity shop with a vague notion of distraction-sees a variety of wonders of art, and finally in the midst of the costly lumber, encounters a strange old man, the owner of the shop, who gives him after due warning the skin of shagreen which has the property of fulfilling all his desires at the expense of its size, which, at the same time, represents his life. Thus each gratified wish, by so much shortens the term of his existence. Half incredulous, he accepts the gift. Nothing happens by magic, but, by the strangest coincidences, all his desires are accomplished. Going out, he meets a party of friends-he had wished a splendid supper-they invite him to an orgy which Paris alone could produce, and Balzac only describe. It is to celebrate the foundation of a new paper; the conversation is an admirable specimen of the mixture of depth and frivolity of French wit of the first order. After the supper, in the midst of the general torpor, which succeeds to the exaggerated worship of Bacchus, Raphael tells his previous history, which fills a volume, and would be matter for a dozen, to his friend Emile, tells of his life of study and singular privation, of the devotion of an exquisitely beautiful girl whom he could not, and of the infernal coldness of a fashionable beauty he did love, and love with a passion exceeding all ordinary commonplaces of commonplace romances. Lastly: he tells of his recent adventure, and produces the skin of shagreen round which, in mockery of its mystic power, they trace a line upon a napkin with a pen. But at breakfast a notary arrives to announce that Raphael, by an Indian uncle's death, is a millionaire! All overwhelm him with congratulations. He is silent. He eagerly measures the skin of shagreen by the drawing. It has shrunk visibly! All joy is over for him! He remembers that he had fancied himself consumptive. He is dying. What matters all the fortunes in the world to him? He rudely repulses all his flatterers, and obsequiously congratulating friends. He rushes away. Henceforward he has but one object-to live without desires. *
Science itself bends before the miserable skin of shagreen. No tension, no pressure, will affect it, no fire will fuse it. The
most powerful machinery bursts in the attempt. Thrown down a well, it is recovered after a time, most hideously diminished by the intermediate gratification of its luckless owner's desires.
Finally, Raphael-who had married Pauline-a type of the ideal perfection of woman, his early benefactress and guardian angel,-Raphael dies in the arms of his adored wife-vainly driven from his presence in his egotistical aim at prolonged life-and the skin of shagreen, already diminished from the size of a napkin to that of a small leaf, vanishes into nothingness.
We shall not attempt to explain the allegory, if allegory there be. Never did a story fascinate us, as did "The Skin of Shagreen." How often in Paris did we, walking over the bridge of the Holy Fathers from the Tuileries to the Quai Voltaire, involuntarily look out for that marvellous curiosity shop in which science versus passion vainly pleaded to the desperate Raphael of Balzac of Balzac, the Shakspeare of France, the Homer of the social epic, in the words of France's fairest and noblest students-who did not disdain to adopt in their most exquisite reunions the names and characters of his drama · —l'adorable Balzac !
THE INDIAN SORCERER'S INVOCATION.
Scene-A FOREST AT NIGHT.
[A band of Indian warriors round a burning pile. They circle it three times, and the sorcerer comes forward and speaks :]
GREAT Spirit! Master of the life of man,
In clouds, in thunder-storms, in silent woods,
And chattering haunts of man,-hearing all things,
Past and to come. Thou that art everything,
And all things thee,-tell us, oh! lone and lofty one,
What we must do for measureless revenge!
The Indians again circle round the pile casting in their offerings, then stand in solemn silence listening.
Ye spirits that inhabit lonely shades,
Where everlasting twilight holds her reign;