A Motor-Flight Through France

by Edith Wharton

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Chapter II - Beauvais and Rouen

THE same wonderful white road, flinging itself in great coils and arrow-flights across the same spacious landscape, swept us on the next day to Beauvais. If there seemed to be fewer memorable incidents by the way—if the villages had less individual character, over and above their general charm of northern thrift and cosiness—it was perhaps because the first impression had lost its edge; but we caught fine distant reaches of field and orchard and wooded hillside, giving a general sense that it would be a good land to live in—till all these minor sensations were swallowed up and lost in the overwhelming impression of Beauvais.

The town itself—almost purposely, as we felt afterward—failed to put itself forward, to arrest us by any of the minor arts which Arras, for instance, had so seductively exerted. It maintained an attitude of calm aloofness, of affected ignorance of the traveller's object in visiting it—suffering its little shuttered non-committal streets to lead us up, tortuously, to the drowsiest little provincial place, with the usual lime-arcades, and the usual low houses across the way; where suddenly there soared before us the great mad broken dream of Beauvais choir—the cathedral without a nave—the Kubla Khan of architecture. . .

It seems in truth like some climax of mystic vision, miraculously caught in visible form, and arrested, broken off, by the intrusion of the Person from Porlock—in this case, no doubt, the panic-stricken mason, crying out to the entranced creator: "We simply can't keep it up!" And because it literally couldn't be kept up—as one or two alarming collapses soon attested—it had to check there its great wave of stone, hold itself for ever back from breaking into the long ridge of the nave and flying crests of buttress, spire and finial. It is easy for the critic to point out its structural defects, and to cite them in illustration of the fact that your true artist never seeks to wrest from their proper uses the materials in which he works—does not, for instance, try to render metaphysical abstractions in stone and glass and lead; yet Beauvais has at least none of the ungainliness of failure: it is like a great hymn interrupted, not one in which the voices have flagged; and to the desultory mind such attempts seem to deserve a place among the fragmentary glories of great art. It is, at any rate, an example of what the Gothic spirit, pushed to its logical conclusion, strove for: the utterance of the unutterable; and he who condemns Beauvais has tacitly condemned the whole theory of art from which it issued. But shall we not have gained greatly in our enjoyment of beauty, as well as in serenity of spirit, if, instead of saying "this is good art," or "this is bad art," we say "this is classic" and "that is Gothic"—this transcendental, that rational—using neither term as an epithet of opprobrium or restriction, but content, when we have performed the act of discrimination, to note what forms of expression each tendency has worked out for itself?

Beyond Beauvais the landscape became more deeply Norman—more thatched and green and orchard-smothered—though, as far as the noting of detail went, we did not really get beyond Beauvais at all, but travelled on imprisoned in that tremendous memory till abruptly, from the crest of a hill, we looked down a long green valley to Rouen shining on its river—belfries, spires and great arched bridges drenched with a golden sunset that seemed to shoot skyward from the long illuminated reaches of the Seine. I recall only two such magic descents on famous towns: that on Orvieto, from the last hill of the Viterbo road, and the other—pitched in a minor key, but full of a small ancient majesty—the view of Wells in its calm valley, as the Bath road gains the summit of the Mendip hills.

The poetry of the descent to Rouen is, unhappily, dispelled by the long approach through sordid interminable outskirts. Orvieto and Wells, being less prosperous, do not subject the traveller to this descent into prose, which leaves one reflecting mournfully on the incompatibility, under our present social system, between prosperity and beauty. As for Rouen itself, as one passes down its crowded tram-lined quays, between the noisy unloading of ships and the clatter of innumerable cafés, one feels that the old Gothic town one used to know cannot really exist any more, must have been elbowed out of place by these spreading commercial activities; but it turns out to be there, after all, holding almost intact, behind the dull mask of modern streets, the surprise of its rich mediævalism.

Here indeed the traveller finds himself in no mere "cathedral town"; with one street leading to Saint Ouen, another to Saint Maclou, a third to the beautiful Palais de Justice, the cathedral itself has put forth the appeal of all its accumulated treasures to make one take, first of all, the turn to its doors. There are few completer impressions in Europe than that to be received as one enters the Lady Chapel of Rouen, where an almost Italian profusion of colour and ornament have been suffered to accumulate slowly about its central ornament—the typically northern monument of the two Cardinals of Amboise. There could hardly be a better example of the aesthetic wisdom of "living and letting live" than is manifested by the happy way in which supposedly incompatible artistic ideals have contrived to make bon ménage in this delicious corner. It is a miracle that they have been to pursue their happy experiment till now, for there must have been moments when, to the purist of the Renaissance, the Gothic tomb of the Cardinals seemed unworthy to keep company with the Sénéchal de Brézé's monument, in which the delicate note of classicalism reveals a France so profoundly modified by Italy; just as, later, the great Berniniesque altar-piece, with its twisted columns and exuberance of golden rays, must have narrowly escaped the axe of the Gothic reactionary. But there they all are, blending their supposed discords in a more complex harmony, filling the privileged little edifice with an overlapping richness of hue and line through which the eye perpetually passes back to the central splendour of the Cardinals' tomb.

A magnificent monument it is, opposing to the sober beauty of Germain Pilon's composition its insolence of varied detail—the "this, and this, and this" of the loquacious mediæval craftsman—all bound together by the new constructive sense which has already learned how to bring the topmost bud of the marble finials into definite relation with the little hooded mourners bowed in such diversity of grief in their niches below the tomb. A magnificent monument—and to my mind the finest thing about it is the Cardinal Uncle's nose. The whole man is fine in his sober dignity, humbly conscious of the altar toward which he faces, arrogantly aware of the purple on his shoulders; and the nose is the epitome of the man. We live in the day of little noses: that once stately feature, intrinsically feudal and aristocratic in character—the maschio naso extolled of Dante—has shrunk to democratic insignificance, like many another fine expression of individualism. And so one must look to the old painters and sculptors to see what a nose was meant to be—the prow of the face; the evidence of its owner's standing, of his relation to the world, and his inheritance from the past. Even in the profile of the Cardinal Nephew, kneeling a little way behind his uncle, the gallant feature is seen to have suffered a slight diminution: its spring, still bold, is less commanding; it seems, as it were, to have thrust itself against a less yielding element. And so the deterioration has gone on from generation to generation, till the nose has worn itself blunt against the increasing resistances of a democratic atmosphere, and stunted, atrophied and amorphous, serves only, now, to let us know when we have the influenza.

With the revisiting of the Cardinal's nose the first object of our visit to Rouen had been accomplished; the second led us, past objects of far greater importance, to the well-arranged but dull gallery where Gerhard David's "Virgin of the Grapes" is to be seen. Every wanderer through the world has these pious pilgrimages to perform, generally to shrines of no great note—how often, for instance, is one irresistibly drawn back to the Transfiguration or to the Venus of Milo?—but to lesser works, first seen, perhaps, at a fortunate moment, or having some special quality of suggestion and evocation that the perfect equilibrium of the masterpieces causes them to lack. So I know of some who go first to "The Death of Procris" in the National Gallery; to the little "Apollo and Marsyas" of the Salon Carré; to a fantastic allegorical picture, subject and artist unknown, in an obscure corner of the Uffizi; and who would travel more miles to see again, in the little gallery of Rimini, an Entombment of the school of Mantegna, than to sit beneath the vault of the Sistine.

All of which may seem to imply an unintentional disparagement of Gerhard David's picture, which is, after all, a masterpiece of its school; but the school is a subordinate one, and, save to the student of Flemish art, his is not a loud-sounding name: one does not say, for instance, with any hope of general recognition—"Ah, yes; that reminds me of such and such a bit in 'The Virgin of the Grapes.'"

All the more, therefore, may one enjoy his picture, in the empty room of the Rouen gallery, with that gentle sense of superiority and possessorship to which the discerner of obscure merit is surely entitled. How much of its charm this particular painting owes to its not having become the picnic-ground of the art-excursionist, how much to its own intrinsic beauty, its grave serenities of hue and gesture—how much, above all, to the heavenly translucence of that bunch of grapes plucked from the vines of Paradise—it is part of its very charm to leave unsettled, to keep among the mysteries whereby it draws one back. Only one trembles lest it should cease to shine in its own twilight heaven when it has become a star in Baedeker. . .

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