A Motor-Flight Through France

by Edith Wharton

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Part I - Chapter I - From Boulogne to Amiens

The motor-car has restored the romance of travel.

Freeing us from all the compulsions and contacts of the railway, the bondage to fixed hours and the beaten track, the approach to each town through the area of ugliness and desolation created by the railway itself, it has given us back the wonder, the adventure and the novelty which enlivened the way of our posting grandparents. Above all these recovered pleasures must be ranked the delight of taking a town unawares, stealing on it by back ways and unchronicled paths, and surprising in it some intimate aspect of past time, some silhouette hidden for half a century or more by the ugly mask of railway embankments and the iron bulk of a huge station. Then the villages that we missed and yearned for from the windows of the train—the unseen villages have been given back to us!—and nowhere could the importance of the recovery have been more delightfully exemplified than on a May afternoon in the Pas-de-Calais, as we climbed the long ascent beyond Boulogne on the road to Arras.

It is a delightful country, broken into wide waves of hill and valley, with hedge-rows high and leafy enough to bear comparison with the Kentish hedges among which our motor had left us a day or two before; and the villages, the frequent, smiling, happily-placed villages, will also meet successfully the more serious challenge of their English rivals—meet it on other grounds and in other ways, with paved marketplaces and clipped charmilles instead of gorse-fringed commons, with soaring belfries instead of square church towers, with less of verdure, but more, perhaps, of outline—certainly of line.

The country itself—so green, so full and close in texture, so pleasantly diversified by clumps of woodland in the hollows, and by streams threading the great fields with light—all this, too, has the English, or perhaps the Flemish quality—for the border is close by—with the added beauty of reach and amplitude, the deliberate gradual flow of level spaces into distant slopes, till the land breaks in a long blue crest against the seaward horizon.

There was much beauty of detail, also, in the smaller towns through which we passed: some of them high-perched on ridges that raked the open country, with old houses stumbling down at picturesque angles from the central market-place; others tucked in the hollows, among orchards and barns, with the pleasant country industries reaching almost to the doors of their churches. In the little villages a deep delicious thatch overhangs the plastered walls of cottages espaliered with pear-trees, and ducks splash in ponds fringed with hawthorn and laburnum; and in the towns there is almost always some note of character, of distinction—the gateway of a seventeenth century hôtel, the triple arch of a church-front, the spring of an old mossy apse, the stucco and black cross-beams of an ancient guild-house—and always the straight lime-walk, square-clipped or trained en berceau, with its sharp green angles and sharp black shade acquiring a value positively architectural against the high lights of the paved or gravelled place. Everything about this rich juicy land bathed in blond light is characteristically Flemish, even to the slow-moving eyes of the peasants, the bursting red cheeks of the children, the drowsy grouping of the cattle in flat pastures; and at Hesdin we felt the architectural nearness of the Low Countries in the presence of a fine town-hall of the late Renaissance, with the peculiar "movement" of volutes and sculptured ornament—lime-stone against warm brick—that one associates with the civic architecture of Belgium: a fuller, less sensitive line than the French architect permits himself, with more massiveness and exuberance of detail.

This part of France, with its wide expanse of agricultural landscape, disciplined and cultivated to the last point of finish, shows how nature may be utilized to the utmost clod without losing its freshness and naturalness. In some regions of this supremely "administered" country, where space is more restricted, or the fortunate accidents of water and varying levels are lacking, the minute excessive culture, the endless ranges of potager wall, and the long lines of fruit-trees bordering straight interminable roads, may produce in the American traveller a reaction toward the unkempt, a momentary feeling that ragged road-sides and weedy fields have their artistic value. But here in northern France, where agriculture has mated with poetry instead of banishing it, one understands the higher beauty of land developed, humanised, brought into relation to life and history, as compared with the raw material with which the greater part of our own hemisphere is still clothed. In France everything speaks of long familiar intercourse between the earth and its inhabitants; every field has a name, a history, a distinct place of its own in the village polity; every blade of grass is there by an old feudal right which has long since dispossessed the worthless aboriginal weed.

As we neared Arras the road lost its pleasant windings and ran straight across a great plateau, with an occasional long dip and ascent that never deflected it from its purpose, and the villages became rarer, as they always do on the high wind-swept plains of France. Arras, however, was full of compensations for the dullness of the approach: a charming old grey town, with a great air of faded seventeenth-century opulence, in which one would have liked to linger, picking out details of gateway and courtyard, of sculptured masks and wrought-iron balconies—if only a brief peep into the hotel had not so promptly quenched the impulse to spend a night there.

To Amiens therefore we passed on, passing again, toward sunset, into a more broken country, with lights just beginning to gleam through the windows of the charming duck-pond villages, and tall black crucifixes rising ghostly at the cross-roads; and night was obliterating the mighty silhouette of the cathedral as we came upon it at length by a long descent.

It is always a loss to arrive in a strange town after dark, and miss those preliminary stages of acquaintance that are so much more likely to be interesting in towns than in people; but the deprivation is partly atoned for by the sense of adventure with which, next morning, one casts one's self upon the unknown. There is no conjectural first impression to be modified, perhaps got rid of: one's mind presents a blank page for the town to write its name on.

At Amiens the autograph consists of one big word: the cathedral. Other, fainter writing may come out when one has leisure to seek for it; but the predominance of those mighty characters leaves, at first, no time to read between the lines. And here it may be noted that, out of Italy, it takes a town of exceptional strength of character to hold its own against a cathedral. In England, the chapter-house and the varied groupings of semi-ecclesiastical buildings constituting the close, which seem to form a connecting link between town and cathedral, do no more, in reality, than enlarge the skirts of the monument about which they are clustered; and even at Winchester, which has its college and hospital to oppose to the predominance of the central pile, there is, after all, very little dispersal of interest: so prodigious, so unparalleled, as mere feats of human will-power, are these vast achievements of the Middle Ages. In northern France, where the great cathedrals were of lay foundation, and consequently sprang up alone, without the subordinate colony of monastic buildings of which the close is a survival—and where, as far as monuments of any importance are concerned, the architectural gap sometimes extends from Louis the Saint to Louis the Fourteenth—the ascendancy of the diocesan church is necessarily even more marked. Rouen alone, perhaps, opposes an effectual defence to this concentration of interest, will not for a moment let itself be elbowed out of the way by the great buttresses of its cathedral; and at Bourges—but Bourges and Rouen come later in this itinerary, and meanwhile here we are, standing, in a sharp shower, under a notaire's doorway, and looking across the little square at the west front of Amiens.

Well! No wonder such a monument has silenced all competitors. It would take a mighty counter-blast to make itself heard against "the surge and thunder" of that cloud of witnesses choiring forth the glories of the Church Triumphant. Is the stage too crowded? Is there a certain sameness in the overarching tiers of the stone hierarchy, each figure set in precise alignment with its neighbours, each drapery drawn within the same perpendicular bounds? Yes, perhaps—if one remembers Rheims and Bourges; but if, setting aside such kindred associations, one surrenders one's self uncritically to the total impression produced, if one lets the fortunate accidents of time and weather count for their full value in that total—for Amiens remains mercifully unscrubbed, and its armies of saints have taken on the richest patina that northern stone can acquire—if one views the thing, in short, partly as a symbol and partly as a "work of nature" (which all ancient monuments by grace of time become), then the front of Amiens is surely one of the most splendid spectacles that Gothic art can show.

On the symbolic side especially it would be tempting to linger; so strongly does the contemplation of the great cathedrals fortify the conviction that their chief value, to this later age, is not so much æsthetic as moral. The world will doubtless always divide itself into two orders of mind: that which sees in past expressions of faith, political, religious or intellectual, only the bonds cast off by the spirit of man in its long invincible struggle for "more light"; and that which, while moved by the spectacle of the struggle, cherishes also every sign of those past limitations that were, after all, each in its turn, symbols of the same effort toward a clearer vision. To the former kind of mind the great Gothic cathedral will be chiefly interesting as a work of art and a page of history; and it is perhaps proof of the advantage of cultivating the other—the more complex—point of view, in which enfranchisement of thought exists in harmony with atavism of feeling, that it permits one to appreciate these archæological values to the full, yet subordinates them to the more impressive facts of which they are the immense and moving expression. To such minds, the rousing of the sense of reverence is the supreme gift of these mighty records of mediæval life: reverence for the persistent, slow-moving, far-reaching forces that brought them forth. A great Gothic cathedral sums up so much of history, it has cost so much in faith and toil, in blood and folly and saintly abnegation, it has sheltered such a long succession of lives, given collective voice to so many inarticulate and contradictory cravings, seen so much that was sublime and terrible, or foolish, pitiful and grotesque, that it is like some mysteriously preserved ancestor of the human race, some Wandering Jew grown sedentary and throned in stony contemplation, before whom the fleeting generations come and go.

Yes—reverence is the most precious emotion that such a building inspires: reverence for the accumulated experiences of the past, readiness to puzzle out their meaning, unwillingness to disturb rashly results so powerfully willed, so laboriously arrived at—the desire, in short, to keep intact as many links as possible between yesterday and to-morrow, to lose, in the ardour of new experiment, the least that may be of the long rich heritage of human experience. This, at any rate, might seem to be the cathedral's word to the traveller from a land which has undertaken to get on without the past, or to regard it only as a "feature" of æsthetic interest, a sight to which one travels rather than a light by which one lives.

The west front of Amiens says this word with a quite peculiar emphasis, its grand unity of structure and composition witnessing as much to constancy of purpose as to persistence of effort. So steadily, so clearly, was this great thing willed and foreseen, that it holds the mind too deeply subject to its general conception to be immediately free for the delighted investigation of detail. But within the building detail reasserts itself: detail within detail, worked out and multiplied with a prodigality of enrichment for which a counterpart must be sought beyond the Alps. The interiors of the great French cathedrals are as a rule somewhat gaunt and unfurnished, baring their structural nakedness sublimely but rather monotonously to eyes accustomed to the Italian churches "all glorious within." Here at Amiens, however, the inner decking of the shrine has been piously continued from generation to generation, and a quite extraordinary wealth of adornment bestowed on the choir and its ambulatory. The great sculptured and painted frieze encircling the outer side of the choir is especially surprising in a French church, so seldom were the stone histories lavished on the exterior continued within the building; and it is a farther surprise to find the same tales in bas-relief animating and enriching the west walls of the transepts. They are full of crowded expressive incidents, these stories of local saints and Scriptural personages; with a Burgundian richness and elaborateness of costume, and a quite charming, childish insistence on irrelevant episode and detail—the reiterated "And so," "And then" of the fairy-tale calling off one's attention into innumerable little by-paths, down which the fancy of fifteenth-century worshippers must have strayed, with oh! what blessedness of relief, from the unintelligible rites before the altar.

Of composition there is none: it is necessarily sacrificed to the desire to stop and tell everything; to show, for instance, in an interesting parenthesis, exactly what Herod's white woolly dog was about while Salome was dancing away the Baptist's head. And thus one is brought back to the perpetually recurring fact that all northern art is anecdotic, and has always been so; and that, for instance, all the elaborate theories of dramatic construction worked out to explain why Shakespeare crowded his stage with subordinate figures and unnecessary incidents, and would certainly, in relating the story of Saint John, have included Herod's "Tray and Sweetheart" among the dramatis personæ—that such theories are but an unprofitable evasion of the ancient ethnological fact that the Goth has always told his story in that way.

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