I have explored the seas of the Old World and the New, and trod the soil of the four quarters of the globe. After camping in Iroquois shelters and Arab tents, in the wigwams of the Hurons, amid the remains of Athens, Jerusalem, Memphis, Carthage, Grenada, among Greeks, Turks and Moors, in forests and among ruins; after wearing the bearskin of the savage and the silken caftan of the mameluke; after enduring poverty, hunger, thirst, and exile, I have sat, as minister and ambassador, in a gold-laced coat, my breast motley with stars and ribbons, at the tables of kings, at the feasts of princes and princesses, only to relapse into indigence and to receive a taste of prison….
I have endless materials in my possession; more than four thousand private letters, the diplomatic correspondence of my several embassies, that of my term at the Foreign Office, including documents of a unique character, known to none save myself. I have carried the soldier’s musket, the traveler’s cudgel, the pilgrim’s staff: I have been a sea-farer, and my destinies have been as fickle as my sails; a halcyon, and made my nest upon the billows.
When death lowers the curtain between me and the world, it shall be found that my drama was divided into three acts.
From my early youth until 1800, I was a soldier and a traveler; from 1800 to 1811, under the Consulate and the Empire, my life was given to literature; from the Restoration to the present day, it has been devoted to politics.
Of the modern French authors of my own period, I may be said to be the only one whose life resembles his works; a traveler, soldier, poet, publicist, it is amid forest that I have sung the forest, aboard ship that I have depicted the sea, in camp that I have spoken of arms, in exile that I have learnt to know exile, in Courts, in affairs of State, in Parliament that I have studied princes, politics, law, and history.
Reading aloud to others my first rough drafts helped to enlighten me. Reading aloud is an excellent form of instruction, when one does not take the necessary compliments for gospel. Provided an author be in earnest, he will soon feel, through the impression which he instinctively receives from the others, which are the weak places in his work, and especially whether that work is too long or too short, whether he keeps, does not reach, or exceeds the right dimensions.
Shakespeare is of the number of the five or six writers who have sufficed for the needs and nutriment of thought: those parent geniuses seem to have brought forth and suckled all the others. Homer impregnated antiquity: AEschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Horace, Virgil are his sons. Dante engendered Modern Italy, from Petrarch to Tasso. Rabelais created French literature: Montaigne, La Fontaine, Moliere descend from him. England is all Shakespeare, and in these later days he has lent his language to Byron, his dialogue to Walter Scott.
Men often disown these supreme masters; they rebel against them;… but they struggle in vain against their yoke…. They open out horizons whence burst forth sheaves of light; they sow ideas, the germs of a thousand others; they supply all the arts with imaginations, subjects, styles: their works are the mines or the bowels of the human mind.
These geniuses occupy the first rank; their vastness, their variety, their fruitfulness, their originality cause them to be accepted from the very first as laws, models, moulds, types of the various forms of intellect, even as there are four or five races of men issuing from one single stock, of which the others are only branches.
None is a competent judge, in living literature, of other than works written in his own tongue. It is in vain that you believe yourself thoroughly acquainted with a foreign idiom:… certain accents belong to the mother country alone.
In short, for the sake of our own glory and for that of our works, we cannot too much attach ourselves to virtue; it is the beauty of the sentiments which creates beauty of style. When the soul is elevated the words fall from on high, and nobleness of expression will always follow nobleness of thought. Horace and the Stagyrite do not teach the whole of the art: there are delicacies and mysteries of language which can only be communicated to the writer by the probity of his own heart, and which can never be taught by the precepts of rhetoric.