Selections from _Corinne_ by Germaine de Staël

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The Last Man, Edited by Steven E. Jones

from Germaine de Staël, Corinne, or Italy

Book II: Corinne at the Capitol


Oswald awoke in Rome. He opened his eyes to a dazzling sun, an Italian sun, and his soul was filled with loving gratitude to a heaven that seemed revealed in its radiant beams. He heard bells ringing out from the city's many churches; he heard canons firing at intervals to announce some important ceremony. When he asked for the reason, he was told that this very morning the most celebrated woman in Italy was to be crowned at the Capitol: Corinne--poet, writer, improvisatrice, and one of the most beautiful women in Rome. All that he heard about the ceremony consecrated by the names of Petrarch and Tasso keenly excited his curiosity.

Nothing could have been more opposed to an Englishman's customs and opinions than focusing the public eye on a woman's fortunes. But, for a time at least, foreigners are caught up in the Italian enthusiasm for all the gifts of the imagination; and living among a people who so vividly express feeling, they forget the prejudices of their own countries. The common people of Rome are familiar with the arts, and show their taste in arguing over statues. Indeed paintings, monuments, and all the art of classical antiquity, as well as a certain level of literary achievment, are a national preoccupation.

Oswald went out, making his way toward the public square where he overheard people talking about Corinne, her gifts and her genius. He saw that they had decorated the streets she would pass through. As a rule, the common people gather only in the wake of power and wealth, but here they were, almost clamoring to see a person superior by her mind alone. In their present situation Italians are allowed but one glory: the fine arts. Their vivid sense of this form of genius should give rise to many great men, yet mere acclaim is not enough to bring them forth; only intense life, lofty concerns, and an independent existence can nourish thought.

As Oswald strolled through the streets of Rome, waiting for Corinne to arrive, he heard her name on everyone's lips, as people all around told of some new sign heralding the union of all those that captivate the imagination. One person said that she had the most moving voice in Italy; another, that no one in Italy could play tragedy as she did; still another, that she danced like a nymph and that her drawing was as charming as it was original. It was universally agreed that never before had anyone written or improvised such beautiful poetry, and that in ordinary conversation, her eloquence and grace captivated her listeners' minds. They debated over what Italian city had given her birth, but the Romans stoutly maintained that you had to be born in Rome to speak such pure Italian. Her last name was not known; her first work had come out five years earlier signed only Corinne. No one knew where she had lived before or what kind of person she had been. Now she was about twenty-six. To Lord Nelvil, the combination of mystery and public notice--this woman everyone discussed without even knowing her real name--seemed one of the wonders of the singular country he had come to visit. In England he would have judged such a woman severely, but he did not apply any social conventions to Italy. He looked forward to Corinne's coronation with the same expectation he would have brought to one of Ariosto's tales of adventure.

Thrilling music sounded before the triumphal procession came into view. No matter what the event, it will stir the emotions if heralded by music. Many Roman noblemen and a few foreigners led the way for the chariot bearing Corinne.

There goes her troop of admirers, said one Roman.

Yes, responded another, she accepts everyone's praise, but she gives no one special preference. She's rich and independent; they even think she's well born--and she certainly looks it--but she doesn't want her identity known.

Say what you will, continued a third, she is a goddess amid the clouds.

Oswald looked at the man who was speaking: everything about him suggested the humblest level of society; but in the south, people use such naturally poetic language that it seems to be snatched out of the air and inspired by the sun.

At last four white horses drawing Corinne's chariot made their way into the midst of the throng. Corinne sat on the chariot built in the ancient style, and white-clad girls walked alongside. Wherever she passed, perfumes were lavishly flung into the air. Everyone came forward to see her from their windows which were decorated with potted plants and scarlet hangings. Everyone shouted: Long live Corinne! Long live genius! Long live beauty! There was universal emotion, but Lord Nelvil did not yet share it in the slightest. Even though he had already decided that English reserve and French banter had to be set aside if he were to form an opinion on all this, he was still keeping emotion tightly in check when, at last, he caught sight of Corinne.

She was dressedlike Domenichino's Sibyl, an Indian turban wound round her head, intertwined with hair of the most beautiful black. She wore a white tunic with a blue drapery fastened beneath her breast. While colorful, her dress did not so diverge from accepted practice as to seem affected. Her bearing as she rode by was noble and modest: she was visibly pleased to be admired, but her joy was suffused with a timidity that seemed to beg indulgence for her triumph. Her expression, her eyes, her smile spoke in her favor, and one look made Lord Nelvil her friend even before any stronger feeling brought him into subjection. Her arms were ravishingly beautiful; her tall full figure, reminiscent of Greek statuary, vigorously conveyed youth and happiness. In her expression there was something inspired. Her way of greeting people, of thanking them for their applause, revealed a kind of naturalness in her that enhanced the splendor of her extraordinary position. She seemed at once a priestess of Apollo making her way toward the Temple of the Sun, and a woman perfectly simple in the ordinary relationships of life. Indeed in her every gesture there was a charm that aroused interest and curiosity, astonishment and affection.

The closer she came to the Capitol, a place so rich in memories, the stronger the people's admiration grew. The splendor of the sky, the enthusiastic Romans, and above all, Corinne, electrified Oswald's imagination. In his own country he had often seen statesmen borne in triumph by the people, but here, for the first time, he was witness to such homage paid a woman, a woman renowned only for the gifts of genius. Her triumphal chariot had cost not a single tear to anyone; and neither remorse nor fear checked admiration for those most beautiful gifts of nature: imagination, feeling, and thought.

Oswald was so absorbed in his thoughts, so engrossed in new ideas, that he took no notice whatever of the ancient places traversed by Corinne's chariot. When it came to a halt at the foot of a stairway leading to the Capitol, all Corinne's friends rushed to help her down. To everyone's delight, she chose among them Prince Castel-Forte, the Roman lord most respected for his wit and character. She went up the stairway of the Capitol whose imposing majesty seemed to greet a woman's light footsteps with kindly welcome. A fresh burst of music was heard as Corinne arrived; the canon roared, and the triumphant Sibyl entered the palace that had been made ready to receive her.

At the far end of the reception hall stood the conservators of the Senate and the senator who was to crown her. On one side were all the cardinals and the most eminent women of the land; on the other, the men of letters of the Roman Academy. The opposite end of the room was filled with part of the immense throng that had followed Corinne. The chair meant for her was set on the step below the senator's. As custom decreed, before sitting down she bent her knee on the first step, in full view of the august assembly. Her manner in doing so was so noble and modest, so sweet and dignified, that Lord Nelvil felt tears well up in his eyes. He was astonished at his own emotion; but it seemed to him that in the very midst of all the splendor and all her success, Corinne's eyes pleaded for the protection of a friend, a protection no woman can ever do without, however superior she may be. And he felt that it would be gratifying to be the sustaining strength of a person whose sensibility alone made sustenance necessary.

As soon as Corinne took her seat, the poets of Rome began to read the sonnets and odes they had written in her honor. All of them exalted her to the skies, but the terms of their praise might have described any other woman of genius just as well. There was a pleasant mixture of images and mythological allusions which could have been addressed over the centuries to any woman renowned for her literary talent, from Sappho's day to her own.

Such praise of Corinne distressed Lord Nelvil, for already he thought that just by looking at her he could have done a portrait more accurate, true, and detailed, a portrait that would fit no one but Corinne.

[. . . ]

from III

. . . . Impassioned applause interrupted Corinne for some moments. Oswald alone failed to join in the rapturous clamor around him. He had bowed his head on his hand as Corinne said: "even the heart's anguish is consoled," and from that moment on he had not looked up. Corinne noticed and quickly realized he was English from his features, the color of his hair, his clothing, his height, his whole bearing. She was struck by his air of sadness, and his mourning clothes. Then his gaze, fixed on her, seemed to chide her gently. Divining the thoughts going through his mind, she was impelled to meet his need by talking of happiness with less certainty, by devoting a few verses to death in the midst of celebration. With this idea, she took up her lyre again; the lingering moving sounds she summoned from it completely quieted the audience and once more she spoke.

"And yet there is an anguish that our consoling skies can never ef face; but in what other dwelling place could sorrow bring the soul a more nobly gentle sensation!

"Elsewhere there is scarcely room for the rapid race and passionate desires of the living. Here the ruins, the barren ground, the empty palaces, leave vast spaces for the ghosts to walk. Is Rome not now the land of tombs!

"Gathered here are the Colosseum, the obelisks, all the wonders from deepest Egypt and from Greece, from the furthest ages, from Romulus to Leo X, as if one splendor attracted another so that a single place might contain all that man could shelter from time. All these wonders are monuments to the dead. Our idle life is scarcely noticed; the silence of the living is a tribute to the dead: they endure and we pass on.

"It is they alone who are honored, they alone who are famous still. The obscurity of our fate heightens the splendor of our ancestors. Our present existence leaves only the past standing, making no stir around memories. All our masterpieces are the work of those who are no more, and genius itself is numbered among the illustrious dead.

"Perhaps one of the Rome's secret charms is that she reconciles the imagination to the long sleep of the dead. Here is resignation for the self and less pain for those one loves. The southern peoples picture death in less somber colors than those who dwell in the north. Like glory, the sun warms even the tomb.

"Under this beautiful sky, frightened spirits are less hounded by the chill and solitude of the grave along with so many funeral urns. It seems as if a crowd of ghosts awaits us; and from our lonely city to the city underground, the transition seems rather gentle.

"Thus the sharp edge of pain is dulled, not that the heart is indifferent, not that the soul is arid, but a more perfect harmony, a more fragrant air pervade existence. One surrenders less fearfully to nature, of whom the Creator has said: 'Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.'"

These final stanzas so enchanted Oswald that he expressed the liveliest admiration. And this time the raptures of the Italians themselves did not equal his. Indeed, it was to him, more than to the Romans, that Corinne's second improvisation was addressed.

Most Italians read verse in a monotonous tone called cantilena that destroys all feeling. It makes no difference that the words vary; the effect is the same since the tone of voice--more telling than the words--scarcely changes. But Corinne used a variety of tones that did not destroy the sustained charm of the harmony. The effect was of different airs, all played on a celestial instrument.

Corinne gave movingly sensitive voice to the stately and resonant Italian language, producing an entirely new effect on Oswald. English prosody is regular and veiled, its natural beauties all melancholy; the clouds have shaped its hues, and the sound of waves its modulations. But when these Italian words--sparkling like a holiday, resounding like the trumpets of victory so like scarlet among the colors, all imprinted still with the joys a fair climate spreads in every heart; when these same Italian words are pronounced with feeling, their softened brilliance, their concentrated power set off an emotion in the listener as vivid as it is unexpected. Nature's plan seems betrayed, its bounty useless, its advances repelled; for amid so many pleasures, the expression of suffering astonishes and moves even deeper than the sorrow sung in the languages of the north which suffering seems to inspire.


The senator took up the crown of myrtle and laurel he was to place on Corinne's head. She unwound the turban encircling her forehead, and all her ebony hair came tumbling in curls upon her shoulders. Bareheaded, she went forward, her gaze brightened by a sense of pleasure and gratitude she in no way sought to hide. Once more she knelt, this time to receive the crown, but she seemed more composed and less tremulous now. She had just spoken, filling her soul with the noblest thoughts, and through the power of enthusiasm she was not timid anymore. No longer a fearful woman, she was an inspired priestess, joyously devoting herself to the cult of genius.

When the crown was placed on Corinne's head, all the instruments resounded, playing those triumphal airs that exalt the soul with sublime power. The roll of the drums, the fanfares, moved Corinne anew. Her eyes filled with tears, she sat for a moment, covering her face with her handherchief. Touched to the quick, Oswald came forward to speak to her, but he could not master the embarrassment holding him back. Corinne watched him closely for a time, careful not to draw his attention; but when Prince Castel-Forte took her hand to escort her back to her chariot, she went along absentmindedly, turning several times to look at Oswald under various pretexts.

He followed, and as she went down the stairway escorted by her cortege, she drew back suddenly to catch sight of him again, dislodging her crown. Oswald hastened to pick it up, and handing it back spoke a few words in Italian to the effect that humble mortals placed at the feet of the gods the crowns they dared not set upon their heads. Corinne thanked him in English with the pure native accent that can almost never be reproduced on the Continent. How astonished he was at her words! At first he was rooted to the spot; then, feeling unsteady, he leaned against one of the basalt lions at the foot of the stairway of the Capitol. Corinne gazed at him again, keenly sruck by his emotion, but long before Oswald recovered his strength and presence of mind, Corinne had been swept off toward her chariot and the crowd had dispersed.

Until that moment Corinne had delighted him as the most charming of foreigners, one of the wonders of the country he wanted to explore. But that English accent, bringing back every memory of his native land, naturalized all of Corinne's charms. Was she English? Had she spent a few years of her life in England? He could not say, but study alone could not have taught her so well. Corinne and Lord Nelvil had to have lived in the same country. Who knows whether their families had not been on friendly terms? Perhaps in childhood he had even seen her! Often the heart has some innate image of what we love that may persuade us we recognize its materialization at first sight.

Oswald was quite biased against Italians; he thought them passionate but flighty, unable to feel deep and enduring attachments. Still, Corinne's words at the Capitol had inspired a completely different idea: what if he could recover memories of his native land and at the same time gain a new life through the imagination; what if he could be reborn to the future and yet not break with the past?

In the midst of his reverie, Oswald realized he was on the Sant' Angelo Bridge leading to the castle of that name: Hadrian's tomb which had been converted into a fortress. The silence of the place, the pale waters of the Tiber, the moonbeams lighting up the statues placed along the bridge and transforming them into white ghosts who unblinkingly watched the flow of the stream and of the ages that concerned them no longer: all these things brought him back to his usual thoughts. Putting his hand to his chest, he felt for the portrait of his father he always carried there. Taking it out, he gazed at it, and his momentary happiness along with the cause of that happiness reminded him only too clearly of the feeling that had once made him offend his father so badly. The thought revived his remorse.

"Undying memory of my life!" he exclaimed. "My friend so hurt and yet so generous! Could I have thought that feelings of pleasure would win access to my heart this soon? You, the best and kindest of men, you do not blame me. You want me to be happy; you want that still in spite of what I did. But should you speak to me from out of the heavens, may I at least not mistake your voice then as I mistook it when you were on this earth!"

Published @ RC

October 1997