Saturday, February 14, 2015

Pere-Lachaise described by Sir Jonah Barrington, 1827

["PERE LA CHAISE," in Personal Sketches of His Own Times, volume II, 1827, by Sir Jonah Barrington, pp. 432-35

The visitor of Paris will find it both curious and interesting to contrast with these another receptacle for the dead - the cemetery of Pere la Chaise. It is strange that there should exist amongst the same people, in the same city, and almost in the same vicinity - two Golgothas in their nature so utterly dissimilar and repugnant from each other.

The soft and beautiful features of landscape which characterise Pere la Chaise are scarcely describable: so harmoniously are they blended together,-so sacred does the spot appear to quiet contemplation and hopeful repose,that it seems almost profanation to attempt to submit its charms in detail before the reader's eye. All in fact that I had ever read about it fell, as in the case of the catacombs - ("alike, but ah, how different!") far short of the reality.

I have wandered whole mornings together over its winding paths and venerable avenues. Here are no "ninety steps" of descent to gloom and horror: on the contrary, a gradual ascent leads to the cemetery of Pere la Chaise, and to its enchanting summit, on every side shaded by brilliant evergreens. The straight lofty cypress and spreading cedar uplift themselves around, and the arbutus exposing all its treasure of deceptive berries. In lieu of the damp mouldering scent exhaled by three millions of human skeletons, we are presented with the fragrant perfume of jessamines and of myrtles-of violet beds or variegated flower-plats decked out by the ministering hand of love or duty; as if benignant nature had spread her most splendid carpet to cover, conceal, and render alluring even the abode of death.

Whichever way we turn, the labours of art combine with the luxuriance of vegetation to raise in the mind new reflections: marble, in all its varieties of shade and grain, is wrought by the hand of man into numerous bewitching shapes; whilst one of the most brilliant and cheerful cities in the universe seems to lie, with its wooded boulevards, gilded domes, palaces, gardens, and glittering waters, just beneath our feet. One sepulchre, alone, of a decidedly mournful character, attracted my notice :-a large and solid mausoleum, buried amidst gloomy yews and low drooping willows; and this looked only like a patch on the face of loveliness. Pere la Chaise presents a solitary instance of the abode of the dead ever interesting me in an agreeable way.

I will not remark on the well-known tomb of Abelard and Eloisa: a hundred pens have anticipated me in most of the observations I should be inclined to make respecting that celebrated couple. The most obvious circumstance in their "sad story" always struck me as being -- that he turned priest when he was good for nothing else, and she became "quite correct" when opportunities for the reverse began to slacken. They no doubt were properly qualified to make very respectable saints: but since they took care previously to have their fling, I cannot say much for their morality.

I am not sure that a burial-place similar to Pere la Chaise would be admired in England: it is almost of too picturesque and sentimental a character. The humbler orders of the English people are too coarse to appreciate the peculiar feeling such a cemetery is calculated to excite: the higher orders too licentious; the trading classes too avaricious. The plum-holder of the city would very honestly and frankly "d--n all your nonsensical sentiment!" I heard one of these gentlemen, last year, declare that what poets and such-like called sentiment was neither more nor less than deadly poison to the Protestant religion!

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