FROM Montélimar to Lyons the "great north road" to Paris follows almost continuously the east shore of the Rhone, looking across at the feudal ruins that stud the opposite cliffs. The swift turns of the river, and the fantastic outline of these castle-crowned rocks, behind which hang the blue lines of the Cévennes, compose a foreground suggestive in its wan colour and abrupt masses of the pictures of Patinier, the strange Flemish painter whose ghostly calcareous landscapes are said to have been the first in which scenery was painted for scenery's sake. In all the subtler elements of beauty, as well as in the power of historic suggestion, this Rhone landscape far surpasses that of the Rhine; but, like many of the most beautiful regions of France, it has a quality of aloofness, of almost classic reserve, that defends it from the inroads of the throng.
Midway to Lyons, Valence, the capital of Cæsar Borgia's Valentinois, rises above the river, confronted, on the opposite shore, by a wild cliff bearing the ruined stronghold of Crussol, the cradle of the house of Uzès. The compact little Romanesque cathedral of Saint Etienne, scantily adorned by the light exterior arcade of its nave, is seated on an open terrace overlooking the Rhone. As sober, but less mellow, within, it offers—aside from the monument to Pius VI., who ended his troubled days here—only the comparatively recondite interest of typical constructive detail; and the impressionist sight-seer is likely to wander out soon to the little square beyond the apse.
Here stands "Le Pendentif," a curious little vaulted building of the Renaissance, full of the note of character, though its original purpose seems to be the subject of archæological debate. Like many buildings of this part of the Rhone valley, it was unhappily constructed of a stone on which the wear of the weather might suggest the literal action of the "tooth of Time"—so scarred and gnawed is the whole charming fabric. As to its original use, it appears to have been the mortuary chapel of the noble family whose arms are discernible among the incongruous animals of its decaying sculpture; for it is part of the strangeness of the little monument that the spandrils of its elegant classic order are inhabited by a rude Romanesque fauna which, combined with the dusky hue and ravaged surface of the stone, confers on it, in contrast to the rejuvenated church, a look of mysterious antiquity.
A few yards off, down a dark narrow street, the same savour of the past is found in one of those minor relics which let the observer so much deeper into by-gone institutions than the study of their official monuments. This is simply an old private house of the early Renaissance, with a narrow sculptured court-yard, a twisting staircase, and vaulted stone passages and rooms of singularly robust construction. It is still—appropriately enough—inhabited by une très vieille dame who has receded so deeply into the farthest convolution of her stout stone shell that her friendly portress had leave to conduct us from basement to attic, giving us glimpses of dusky chambers with meagre venerable furniture, and of kitchens and offices with stone floors, scoured coppers and pots of herbs, all so saturated with the old concentrated life of provincial France that it was like lifting to one's lips a glass of some ancient wine just at the turning-point of its perfection.
Not far from Valence, Tournon springs romantically from a cliff of the west bank, surmounted by the ducal castle of Soubise; and the next strong impression comes where Vienne, proudest of Rhone towns, lifts its flamboyant cathedral on a vast flight of steps above the river. The site of Vienne, and its long Roman past, prepare one for more interest of detail than a closer inspection reveals. The Roman temple, which may once have rivalled the Maison Carrée, was in the Middle Ages (like the temple of Syracuse) incorporated in a Christian church, and now, extricated lifeless from this fatal embrace, presents itself as an impersonal block of masonry from which all significance of detail is gone. The cathedral, too, has suffered in the same way, though from other causes. In its early days it was savagely mutilated by the Huguenots, and since then the weather, eating deeply into its friable stone, has wrought such havoc with the finery and frippery of the elaborate west front that the exterior attracts attention only as a stately outline.
All the afternoon we had followed the Rhone under a cloudy sky; and as we crossed the river at Vienne the clouds broke, and we pushed northward through a deluge. Our day had been a long one, with its large parenthesis at Grignan, and the rainy twilight soon closed in on us, blotting out the last miles of the approach to Lyons. But even this disappointment had its compensations, for in the darkness we took a wrong turn, coming out on a high suburb of the west bank, with the city outspread below in a wide network of lights against its holy hill of Fourvière. Lyons passes, I believe, for the most prosaic of great French towns; but no one can so think of it who descends on it thus through the night, seeing its majestic bridges link quay to quay, and the double sweep of the river reflecting the million lights of its banks.
It was still raining when we continued on our journey the next day; but the clouds broke as we climbed the hill above Lyons, and we had some fine backward glimpses of the Rhone before our road began to traverse the dull plain of the Bresse.
So rest, for ever rest, O princely pair!
If the lines have pursued one from childhood, the easiest—and, alas, the most final!—way of laying their lovely spectre is to turn aside from the road to Dijon and seek out the church of Brou. To do so, one must journey for two or three hours across one of the flat stretches of central France; and the first disillusionment comes when Brou itself is found to be no more than a faubourg of the old capital of the Bresse—the big, busy, cheese-making town of Bourg, sprawling loosely among boundless pastures, and detaining one only by the graceful exterior of its somewhat heterogeneous church.
A straight road runs thence through dusty outskirts to the shrine of Margaret of Austria, and the heart of the sentimentalist sank as we began to travel it. Here, indeed, close to the roadside, stood "the new pile," looking as new as it may have when, from her white palfrey, the widowed Duchess watched her "Flemish carvers, Lombard gilders" at work; looking, in fact, as scrubbed, scraped and soaped as if its renovation were a feat daily performed by the "seven maids with seven mops" on whose purifying powers the walrus so ingeniously speculated. Matthew Arnold's poem does not prepare the reader for the unnatural gloss which makes the unhappy monument look like a celluloid toy. Perhaps when he saw it the cleansing process had not begun—but did he ever really see it? And if so, where did he see the
Savoy mountain meadows, By the stream below the pines?
And how could he have pictured the Duchess Margaret as being "in the mountains" while she was supervising the work? Or the "Alpine peasants" as climbing "up to pray" at the completed shrine, or the priest ascending to it by the "mountain-way" from the walled town "below the pass"?
Is Bourg the walled town, and its dusty faubourg the pass? And shall we, when we pass under the traceries of the central door, and stand beneath the vaulting of the nave, hear overhead the "wind washing through the mountain pines"? It will have to travel a long way to make itself heard!
Poor Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, so maligned for her imaginative pictures of Lovere and Lake Iseo, may surely be forgiven for having gilded the lily, for adding an extra touch of romance where the romantic already so abounded; but it is less easy to explain how the poet of the church of Brou could evoke out of the dusty plain of the Bresse his pine-woods, streams and mountains. Perhaps (the pilgrim reflects) the explanation will be found within the church, and standing in the magic light of the "vast western window" we too shall hear the washing of the wind in the pines, and understand why it travelled so far to reach the poet's ear.
In this hope we enter; but only to discover that inside also the archæological mops have been at work, and that the elaborate lining of the shrine is as scoured and shiny as its exterior. Well! let us affront this last disenchantment—and the little additional one of buying a ticket for the choir from a gold-braided custodian at a desk in the nave—and closing our eyes to the secularised, museumised aspect of the monument, try to open them to a vision of what it may have been before it was turned into a show.
Alas! even this last effort—this bon mouvement of the imagination—fails to restore an atmosphere of poetry to the church of Brou, to put it in any other light than that of a kind of superlative "Albert Memorial," in which regardlessness of cost has frankly predominated over aesthetic considerations. Yet it is manifestly unfair to charge the Duchess Margaret with the indiscrimination of the parvenu. One should rather ascribe to special conditions of time and place that stifling confusion of ornament, that air of being, as Bacon puts it, so terribly "daubed with cost," which is both the first effect and the final outcome of an inspection of Brou. If Arnold gave the rein to fancy in his mise-en-scène, he was quite exact in picturing the conditions in which the monument was produced, and his enumeration of the "Flemish carvers, Lombard gilders, German masons, smiths from Spain" who collaborated in its making, reminds one that artistic unity could hardly result from so random an association of talents. It was characteristic of the time, of the last boiling-over of the heterogeneous Gothic pot, that this strange fellowship was not felt to be any obstacle to the production of a work of art. One sees the same result in almost all the monuments of the period, especially where the Spanish-Netherlands influence has added a last touch of profusion—and confusion. How could an art so evolved issue in anything but a chaos of overdone ornament? How could line survive in such a deluge of detail? The church of Brou is simply the most distressing because the most expensive product of the period. Expiring Gothic changed its outline as often as the dying dolphin is supposed to change his colours—every ornament suggests a convulsion in stone.
And on all this extravagance of design, which could be redeemed only by the lightest touch of the chisel, lies the heavy hand of the Flemish sculptor. Is it possible that the same phase of artistic feeling produced the three tombs of Brou and those of the Dukes of Burgundy at Dijon? Certainly, at least, tfie same hand did not carve them. At Brou the innumerable subordinate figures—angels, mourners and the rest—are turned out with the unerring facility of the pastry-chef's art: they represent the highest achievement in sugar and white of egg. At Dijon, on the contrary, each pleureur in the arcade beneath the tomb of Duke Philip is a living, sentient creature, a mourner whose grief finds individual utterance. Is there anything in plastic art that more vividly expresses the passionate mediæval brooding over death? Each little cowled figure takes his grief, his sense of the néant, in his own way. Some are wrung and bowed with it. One prays. Another, a serene young man, walks apart with head bent above his book—the page of a Stoic, one conjectures. And so each, in his few inches of marble, and in the confinement of his cramped little niche, typifies a special aspect of the sense of mortality—above all of its loneliness, the way it must be borne without help.
The thought came to one, the next day at Dijon, the more vividly by contrast to the simpering sorrow of Brou. The tombs of the dukes of Burgundy, so cruelly torn from the hallowed twilight of the Chartreuse, and exposed to the cold illumination of museum windows, give one, even in this impersonal light, a strong sense of personality. Even the overladen detail of the period, the aimless striving of its frets and finials, cannot obscure the serious purity of the central conception; and one is led to the conclusion that a touch of free artistic emotion will break through the strongest armour of stock formulas.
One sees them, of course, the ducal tombs, in a setting in a certain sense their own, since this privileged city, in addition to its other distinctions, has a mediæval palace for its museum, and the mailed heels of the recumbent dukes may have rung on the stone flagging of the Salle des Gardes where they now lie. But the great vaulted hall has ceased to be a guard-room, as they have ceased to be its lords, and the trail of label and number, of velvet cord and iron rail, is everywhere in their democratised palace. It is noteworthy, therefore, that, as the tombs have retained so much of their commemorative value, so the palace itself has yielded as little as might be of its private character to the encroachments of publicity: appearing almost, as one wanders from one bright room to another, like the house of a great collector who still lives among his treasures.
This felicitous impression is partly due to the beauty of the old building, and partly also to the fact that it houses a number of small collections, the spoils of local dilettanti, each kept together, however diversified its elements, so that many of the rooms exhibit a charming habitable mingling of old furniture, old porcelain and the small unobtrusive pictures that are painted to be lived with, not glanced up at from a catalogue.
The impression of happy coincidences, of really providential accidents, which gives such life to the bright varied museum, persists and deepens as one passes from it into the town—the astonishing town which seems to sum up in itself almost every phase of French art and history. Even the deep soil of France has hardly another spot where the past grows so thick and so vigorously, where the ancient growths lift such hale heads to the sunlight. The continuity of life at Dijon is as striking as its diversity and its individuality. Old Dijon is not an archipelago of relics in a sea of modern houses: it is like a vascular system, binding the place together in its network of warm veins, and seeming, not to be kept alive, but to be keeping life in the city.
It is to this vivid synthesis of the past that one reverts from even the strongest single impressions—from the civic sumptuousness of the Palais de Justice, the elegance of the Hôtel de Vogué, the mysterious symbolism of the jutting row of gargoyles on the west front of Notre Dame—suffering them to merge themselves, these and many more, into a crowded splendid tapestry, the mere background of the old city's continuous drama of ducal, Imperial, parliamentary life.
The same impression of richness, of deep assimilated experience, accompanies one on the way north through the Burgundian province—giving to the trivial motorist, the mere snarer of haphazard impressions, so annihilating a sense of his inability to render even a superficial account of what he sees, and feels beneath the thing seen, that there comes a moment when he is tempted to take refuge in reporting the homely luxury of the inns—though even here the abundance of matter becomes almost as difficult to deal with.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that after a morning among the hills and valleys of the Morvan, in sight, almost continuously, of that astonishing Burgundian canal, with its long lines of symmetrical poplars, its massive masonry, its charming lock-houses, all repeating themselves like successive states of a precious etching—that after such a morning I seek, and seem to find, its culminating astonishment in the luncheon which crowned it in the grimy dining-room of the auberge at Précy-sous-Thil. But was it an awberge, even, and not rather a gargote, this sandy onion-scented "public," with waggoners and soldiers grouped cheerfully about their petit vin bleu, while a flushed hand-maid, in repeated dashes from the kitchen, laid before us a succession of the most sophisticated dishes—the tenderest filet, the airiest pommes soufflées, the plumpest artichokes that ever bloomed on the buffet of a Parisian restaurant? It corresponded, at any rate, to the kind of place where, in any AngloSaxon country, one would have found the company as prohibitory as the food, and each equally a reason for fleeing as soon as possible from the other.
So it is that Précy-sous-Thil may stand as a modest symbol of the excessive amenity of this mellowest of French civilisations—the more memorably to one party of hungry travellers because it formed, at the same time, the final stage of their pilgrimage to Vézelay.
That thought, indeed, distracted us from the full enjoyment of the filet, and tore us from the fragrant coffee that our panting waitress carried after us to the motor's edge; for more than half the short April day was over, and we had still two hours of steep hill and vale between ourselves and Vézelay.
The remainder of the way carried us through a region so romantically broken, so studded with sturdy old villages perched on high ledges or lodged in narrow defiles, that but for the expectation before us every mile of the way would have left an individual impression. But on the road to Vézelay what can one see but Vézelay? Nothing, certainly, less challenging to the attention than the loftily seated town of Avallon which, midway of our journey, caught and detained us for a wondrous hour.
The strain of our time-limit, and the manifold charms of the old town, so finely planted above the gorge of the Cousin, had nearly caused us to defer Vézelay, and end our day's journey at the Hôtel du Chapeau Rouge. But in the mild air, and on the extreme verge of the bright sky, there was a threat of rain, and the longing to see the great Benedictine abbey against such a sunset as the afternoon promised was even stronger than the spell of Avallon. We carried away therefore (with the fixed intention of returning) only the general impression of a walled town set against a striking background of cliff and woodland, and one small vivid vignette of a deserted square where aged houses of incredible picturesqueness grouped themselves at scenic angles about the sculptured front of the church of Saint Lazare.
From Avallon to Vézelay the road winds to the west, between the leafy banks of the Cousin, through the town of Pontaubert, with its ancient church of the Templars, past the bridge of the Cure, and out at last into the valley dominated by the conical hill of Vézelay. All day the vision of the Benedictine church had hung before us beyond each bend of the road; and when at length we saw its mighty buttresses and towers clenched in the rock, above the roofs and walls of the abbatial town, we felt the impact of a great sensation—for the reality was nobler than the vision.
The mere sight of Vézelay from the valley—quite apart from the rush of associations it sets free—produces the immediate effect of one of those perfect achievements in which art and nature interpret and fulfil each other. The church stands just where such a building should stand, and looks as a building should look to be worthy of such a site. The landscape about it has the mingled serenity and ruggedness which its own lines express, and its outline grows out of the hill-top without a break between the structural harmony of the two.
Before mounting up to compare the detailed impression with the first effect, one is detained by the village of Saint Père (Pierre) sous Vézelay, which lies just at the foot of the road leading up to the abbey. Here, from a heap of sordid houses, and among stifling barnyard exhalations, rises the sweet worn old church of Saint Pierre, younger in date than the abbey church above, but stained and seamed by time. From the stone embroideries of its triple porch and its graceful fantastic narthex, it might pass, at first glance, for a more than usually temperate specimen of flamboyant Gothic; but if one backs away far enough to take in its whole outline, the upper façade and the tower reveal themselves as an exquisite instance of thirteenth-century transition. The tower, in particular, with its light ranges or arcades, and the slender trumpeting angels that so surprisingly buttress its angles, seems, as an observant traveller has already noted, more Italian than Burgundian—though to find its match in Italy one would have to seek, not among actual church-towers, but in the backgrounds of early Tuscan pictures, where, against a sky of gold-leaf, such heralds sound their call from the thatch of the manger.
After the mystical vision of the bell-tower of Saint Père it is almost a drop back to prose to climb the hill to Vézelay and stand before the church of the Magdelen—or rather it is like turning from the raptures of Joachim of Flora or Hugo of Saint Victor to the close-knit dialectic of Saint Thomas Aquinas. This vast creation of mediaeval faith might indeed be likened to the great doctrinal system out of which it grew—such a strong, tight, complex structure, so studied, balanced and mathematically exact it seems.
It has seen, the great church, in its well-nigh thousand years of existence, sights so splendid and memorable that it seems at first a mere background for its memories—for the figures of Saint Bernard and Becket, of Philip Augustus and Cœur de Lion, with their interminable train of clerical and secular dignitaries, monks, nobles, doctors of the Church, and all the wild impassioned rout of the second and third Crusades. To have seen so much, and now to stand so far apart from life! One reflects on the happier fate of those other great churches of lay growth, the French cathedrals, whose hearts beat warm for so many centuries, through so many social and political alternations.
The situation of the church of Vézelay typifies this deeper solitude. It stands alone on the crest of the hill, divided from the town below by a wide stony square. Behind the apse, where the monastic buildings lay, a shady grassy slope simulates the privacy of an English close—and on all sides are the blue distances of the Morvan. This loftiness and detachment of site give a peculiar majesty to the building, and conduce no doubt to the impression that in all church architecture there is nothing quite like it, nothing in which the passive strength of the elder style so imperceptibly blends with the springing grace of the new. The latter meets one first, in the twostoried narthex, a church in itself, which precedes the magnificent round-arched portals of the inner building, It is from the threshold of this narthex that, looking down its lofty vista, and through the triple doorways to the vast and stern perspective of the Romanesque nave, one gets the keenest impression of the way in which, in this incomparable building, the two styles have been wrought into an accord that shows their essential continuity. In the nave itself, with the doors of the narthex closed, another, subtler impression awaits one; for here one seems to surprise the actual moment of transition, to see, as nowhere else, the folded wings of the Gothic stirring under the older forms.
More even than its rich mysterious sculptures, far more than its mere pride of size and majesty, does this undefinable fremissement of the old static Romanesque lines remain with one as the specific note of Vézelay: giving it, in spite of its age-long desertion, in spite of the dead and staring look produced by indiscriminate restoration, an inner thrill of vitality, the promise of "strange futures beautiful and young," such as the greatest art alone possesses.
The long spring sunset filled the sky when we turned from Vézelay and began to wind through the valley of the Cure to Auxerre. The day had been too rich in impressions to leave space for more than a deep sense of changing loveliness as we followed the curves of the river through poplar-planted meadows, by white chalk-cliffs and villages hanging on the heights. But among these fugitive impressions is the vivid memory of a white railway viaduct, so lightly yet securely flung across the valley that in the golden blur of sunset it suggested one of Turner's dream-bridges spanning a vale of Tempe: a notable instance of the almost invariable art with which, in French engineering, the arch is still employed. After that the way grew indistinct, and night had fallen when we entered Auxerre—feeling our way through a dimly lit suburb, seeing the lights of the town multiplied in the quiet waters of the Yonne, and reaching it at last by a bridge that led straight to the steep central street.
Auxerre, the next day—even through the blinding rain which so punctually confirmed our forebodings—revealed itself as one of those closeknit, individual old French towns that are as expressive, as full of vivacity and character, as certain French faces. Finely massed above the river, in a pile culminating with the towers of the cathedral and the detached shaft of Saint Jean, it confirms, and indeed exceeds, on a nearer view, the promise of its distant aspect. A town which has had the good fortune to preserve its walls and one or two of its fortified gates, has always—and more especially if seated on a river—the more obvious opportunities for picturesqueness; and at Auxerre the narrow streets rising from the quay to the central group of buildings contribute many isolated effects—carved door, steep gable or opportune angle-turret—to the general distinction of the scene.
The cathedral itself is the heart of the charming old place—so rich in tone, so impressive in outline, so profusely yet delicately adorned, it rose at the end of the long market-square, shedding on it, even through the grey sheets of rain, the warmth of its high tawny masses. The design of the western front is so full and harmonious that it effaces from memory the less salient impression of the interior. Under a more favourable light, which would have brought out the colours of the rich clerestory glass, and the modelling of shafts and vaulting, it would have seemed, no doubt, less austere, more familiarly beautiful; but veiled and darkened by rain-clouds it offered, instead of colour and detail, only an unfolding of cavernous arches fading into the deep shades of the sanctuary.
The adjoining Bishop's palace, with its rugged Romanesque arcades planted on a bit of Gallo-Roman city wall, and the interesting fragment of the church of Saint Germain, beside the hospital, are among the other notable monuments of Auxerre; but these too, masked by the incessant downpour, remained in memory as mere vague masses of dripping masonry, pressed upon by a low black sky.
The rain pursued us northward from Auxerre along the valley of the Yonne, lifting a little toward noon to leave the landscape under that grey-green blur through which the French paysagistes have most persistently seen it. Joigny, with this light at its softest, seemed, even after Auxerre, one of the most individual of ancient French towns: its long and stately quay, closed by a fine gate at each end of the town, giving it in especial a quite personal character, and one which presented itself as a singularly happy solution of the problem of linking a town to its river. Above the quay the steep streets gave many glimpses of mediæval picturesqueness, tucked away at almost inaccessible angles; but the rain closed in on them, and drove us on reluctantly to Sens.
Here the deluge hung a still denser curtain between us and the amenities of this singularly charming town. Sens, instead of being, like Joigny, packed tight between river and cliff, spreads out with relative amplitude between Roman ramparts transformed into shady promenades; and about midway of the town, at the end of a long market-place like that of Auxerre, the cathedral rears itself in such nobility and strength of line that one instantly revises one's classification of the great French churches to make room for this one near the top.
Its beauties develop and multiply on a nearer view, and its kinship with Canterbury makes it, to those under the spell of that noblest of English choirs, of peculiar architectural interest. But when one has done full justice to the long unfolding of the nave, to the delicate pallour of Cousin's glass, and to the associations attached to the "altar of Becket" behind the choir, one returns finally to the external composition of the apsidal chapels as the most memorable and perfect thing at Sens. The development of the chevet, which Romanesque architecture bequeathed to Gothic, is perhaps the happiest product of the latter growth on French soil; and after studying so complex an example of its possibilities as the apse of Sens presents, one feels anew what English Gothic lost in committing itself to the square east end.
Of great historic interest is the so-called Offlcialité which adjoins the cathedral—a kind of diocesan tribunal built under Louis IX.; but its pointed windows and floriated niches have been so liberally restored that it has the too Gothic look of a mediæval stage-setting. Sens has many other treasures, not only in its unusually rich collection of church relics and tapestries, but among the fragments of architecture distributed through its streets; and in the eighteenth century gates of the archiepiscopal palace it can show a specimen of wrought-iron work probably not to be matched short of Jean Lamour's gates at Nancy.
One of its most coveted possessions—Jean Cousin's famous picture of the Eva prima Pandora—has long been jealously secluded by its present owner; and one wonders for what motive the inveterate French hospitality to lovers of art has been here so churlishly reversed. The curious mystical interest of the work, and its value as a link in the history of French painting, make it, one may say, almost a monument historique, a part of the national heritage; and perhaps the very sense of its potential service to art gives a perverse savour to its possessor's peculiar mode of enjoying it.
From Sens to Fontainebleau the road follows the valley of the Yonne through a tranquil landscape with level meadows and knots of slender trees along the river, till the border of the forest is reached, and a long green alley takes one straight to the granite cross on the edge of the town. Toward afternoon the rain turned to a quiet drizzle, of the kind that becomes the soft French landscape as a glass becomes certain pictures; and through it we glided on, past the mossy walls of great estates, past low-lying châteaux, green pièces d'eau, and the long grassy vistas that are cut in every direction through the forests about Melun. This district of big "shootings" and carefully tended preserves extends almost to the outer ring of environs. Beyond them Paris itself soon rose smokily through the rain, and a succession of long straight avenues, as carefully planted as if they had been the main arteries of a fashionable suburb, led us thence to the Porte de Choisy.
To be back in the roar of traffic, to feel the terrific pressure of those miles of converging masonry, gave us, after weeks of free air and unbounded landscape, a sense of congestion that made the crowded streets seem lowering and dangerous; but as we neared the river, and saw before us the curves of the lifted domes, the grey strength of the bridges, and all the amazing symmetry and elegance of what in other cities is mean and huddled and confused, the touch of another beauty fell on us—the spell of "les seuils sacrés, la Seine qui coule."