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Three French Moralists and The Gallantry of France   By: (1849-1928)

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THREE FRENCH MORALISTS AND THE GALLANTRY OF FRANCE

BY

EDMUND GOSSE, C.B.

OFFICIER DE LA LÉGION D'HONNEUR

LONDON WILLIAM HEINEMANN

TO

LORD RIBBLESDALE

This little book, long the subject of my meditation, suddenly began to take shape one Sunday morning when I was your guest at Gisburne. We were actually starting for church, and the car was at the door, when I announced to you that the spirit moved me to stay behind. "Very well, then," you said, with your habitual good nature, "we leave you to your folios." My "folios" were the three volumes of one of the smallest of books, the 18mo edition of Vauvenargues published by Plon in 1874. In the midst of a violent thunderstorm, which was like a declaration of war upon your golden Yorkshire summer, I wrote my first pages, and you were so sceptical, when you came back, as to my having done anything but watch the lightning, that I told you you would have to endure the responsibility of being sponsor to a work thus suddenly begun in all the agitation of the elements. So, such as time has proved it, here it is.

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

THREE FRENCH MORALISTS

LA ROCHEFOUCAULD

LA BRUYÈRE

VAUVENARGUES

THE GALLANTRY OF FRANCE

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

INTRODUCTION

The object of these essays is to trace back to its source, or to some of its sources for the soul of France is far too complex to be measured by one system the spirit of gallantry which inspired the young French officers at the beginning of the war. We cannot examine too minutely, or with too reverent an enthusiasm, the effort of our great ally, and in this theme for our admiration there are many strains, some of which present themselves in apparent opposition to one another. The war has now lasted so long, and has so completely altered its character, that what was true of the temper of the soldiers of France in November 1914 is no longer true in April 1918. Confidence and determination are still there, there is no diminution in domestic intensity or in patriotic fervour, but the long continuance of the struggle has modified the temper of the French officer, and it will probably never be again what it was in the stress and tempest of sacrifice three years and a half ago, when the young French soldiers, flushed with the idealisms which they had imbibed at St. Cyr, rushed to battle like paladins, "with a pure heart," in the rapture of chivalry and duty.

All that has long been wearied out, and might even be forgotten, if the letters and journals of a great cloud of witnesses were not fortunately extant. The record kept by the friends of Paul Lintier and those others whom I am presently to mention, and by innumerable persons to whose memory justice cannot here be done, will keep fresh in the history of France the idealism of a splendid generation. Now we see, and for a long time past have seen, a different attitude on the fields of Champagne and Picardy. There is no feather worn now in the cap, no white gloves grasp the sword; the Saint Cyrian elegance is over and done with. There is no longer any declamation, any emphasis, any attaching of importance to "form" or rhetoric. The fervour and the emotion are there still, but they are kept in reserve, they are below the surface, "at the bottom of the heart," as La Rochefoucauld puts it.

Heroism is now restrained by a sense of the prodigious length and breadth of the contest, by the fact, at last patent to the most unthinking, that the war is an octopus which has wound its tentacles about every limb and every organ of the vitality of France. A revelation of the overwhelming violence of enormous masses of men has broken down the tradition of chivalry... Continue reading book >>




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