Read PROLOGUE of Raphael Pages Of The Book Of Life At Twenty, free online book, by Alphonse de Lamartine, on

The real name of the friend who wrote these pages was not Raphael. We often called him so in sport, because in his boyhood he much resembled a youthful portrait of Raphael, which may be seen in the Barberini gallery at Rome, at the Pitti palace in Florence, and at the Museum of the Louvre. We had given him the name, too, because the distinctive feature of this youth’s character was his lively sense of the beautiful in Nature and Art, a sense so keen, that his mind was, so to speak, merely the shadowing forth of the ideal or material beauty scattered through-out the works of God and man. This feeling was the result of his exquisite and almost morbid sensibility, morbid, at least, until time had somewhat blunted it. We would sometimes, in allusion to those who, from their ardent longings to revisit their country, are called home-sick, say that he was heaven-sick, and he would smile, and say that we were right.

This love of the beautiful made him unhappy; in another situation it might have rendered him illustrious. Had he held a pencil he would have painted the Virgin of Foligno; as a sculptor, he would have chiselled the Psyche of Canova; had he known the language in which sounds are written, he would have noted the aerial lament of the sea breeze sighing among the fibres of Italian pines, or the breathing of a sleeping girl who dreams of one she will not name; had he been a poet, he would have written the stanzas of Tasso’s “Erminia,” the moonlight talk of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” or Byron’s portrait of Haidee.

He loved the good as well as the beautiful, but he loved not virtue for its holiness, he loved it for its beauty. He would have been aspiring in imagination, although he was not ambitious by character. Had he lived in those ancient republics where men attained their full development through liberty, as the free, unfettered body develops itself in pure air and open sunshine, he would have aspired to every summit like Cæsar, he would have spoken as Demosthenes, and would have died as Cato. But his inglorious and obscure destiny confined him, against his will, in speculative inaction, he had wings to spread, and no surrounding air to bear them up. He died young, straining his gaze into the future, and ardently surveying the space over which he was never to travel.

Every one knows the youthful portrait of Raphael to which I have alluded. It represents a youth of sixteen, whose face is somewhat paled by the rays of a Roman sun, but on whose cheek still blooms the soft down of childhood. A glancing ray of light seems to play on the velvet of the cheek. He leans his elbow on a table; the arm is bent upwards to support the head, which rests on the palm of the hand, and the admirably modelled fingers are lightly imprinted on the cheek and chin; the delicate mouth is thoughtful and melancholy; the nose is slender at its rise, and slightly tinged with blue, as though the azure veins shone through the fair transparency of the skin; the eyes are of that dark heavenly hue which the Apennines wear at the approach of dawn, and they gaze earnestly forward, but are slightly raised to heaven, as though they ever looked higher than Nature, a liquid lustre illuminates their inmost depths, like rays dissolved in dew or tears. On the scarcely arched brow, beneath the delicate skin, we trace the muscles, those responsive chords of the instrument of thought; the temples seem to throb with reflection; the ear appears to listen; the dark hair, unskilfully cut by a sister or some young companion of the studio, casts a shadow upon the hand and cheek; and a small cap of black velvet, placed on the crown of the head, shades the brow. One cannot pass before this portrait without musing sadly, one knows not why. It represents the revery of youthful genius pausing on the threshold of its destiny. What will be the fate of that soul standing at the portal of life?

Now, in idea, add six years to the age of that dreaming boy; suppose the features bolder, the complexion more bronzed; place a few furrows on the brow, slightly dim the look, sadden the lips, give height to the figure, and throw out the muscles in bolder relief; let the Italian costume of the days of Leo X. be exchanged for the sombre and plain uniform of a youth bred in the simplicity of rural life, who seeks no elegance in dress, and, if the pensive and languid attitude be retained, you will have the striking likeness of our “Raphael” at the age of twenty-two.

He was of a poor, though ancient family, from the mountainous province of Forez, and his father, whose sole dignity was that of honor (worth all others), had, like the nobles of Spain, exchanged the sword for the plough. His mother, still young and handsome, seemed his sister, so much did they resemble each other. She had been bred amid the luxurious elegancies of a capital; and as the balmy essence of the rose perfumes the crystal vase of the seraglio in which it has once been contained, so she, too, had preserved that fragrant atmosphere of manners and language which never evaporates entirely.

In her secluded mountains, with the loved husband of her choice, and with her children, in whom she had complacently centred all the pride of her maternal heart, she had regretted nothing. She closed the fair book of youth at these three words, “God, husband, children.” Raphael especially was her best beloved. She would have purchased for him a kingly destiny, but, alas, she had only her heart with which to raise him up, for their slender fortune, and their dreams of prosperity, would ever and anon crumble to their very foundation beneath the hand of fate.

Two holy men, driven by persecution to the mountains, had, soon after the Reign of Terror, taken refuge in her house. They had been persecuted as members of a mystical religious sect which dimly predicted a renovation of the age. They loved Raphael, who was then a mere child, and, obscurely prophesying his fate, pointed out his star in the heavens, and told his mother to watch over that son with all her heart. She reproached herself for being too credulous, for she was very pious; but still she believed them. In such matters, a mother is so easy of belief! Her credulity supported her under many trials, but spurred her to efforts beyond her means to educate Raphael, and ultimately deceived her.

I had known Raphael since he was twelve years old, and next to his mother he loved me best on earth. We had met since the conclusion of our studies, first in Paris, then at Rome, whither he had been taken by one of his father’s relatives, for the purpose of copying manuscripts in the Vatican Library. There he had acquired the impassioned language and the genius of Italy. He spoke Italian better than his mother tongue. At evening he would sit beneath the pines of the Villa Pamphili, and gazing on the setting sun and on the white fragments scattered on the plain, like the bleached bones of departed Rome, would pour forth extemporaneous stanzas that made us weep; but he never wrote. “Raphael,” would I sometimes say, “why do you not write?”

“Ah!” would he answer, “does the wind write what it sighs in this harmonious canopy of leaves? Does the sea write the wail of its shores? Nought that has been written is truly, really beautiful, and the heart of man never discloses its best and most divine portion. It is impossible! The instrument is of flesh, and the note is of fire! Between what is felt and what is expressed,” would he add, mournfully, “there is the same distance as between the soul and the twenty-six letters of an alphabet! Immensity of distance! Think you a flute of reeds can give an idea of the harmony of the spheres?”

I left him to return to Paris. He was at that time striving, through his mother’s interest, to obtain some situation in which he might by active employment remove from his soul its heavy weight, and lighten the oppressive burden of his fate. Men of his own age sought him, and women looked graciously on him as he passed them by. But he never went into society, and of all women he loved his mother only.

We suddenly lost sight of him for three years; though we afterwards learned that he had been seen in Switzerland, Germany, and Savoy; and that in winter he passed many hours of his nights on a bridge, or on one of the quays of Paris. He had all the appearance of extreme destitution. It was only many years afterwards that we learned more. We constantly thought of him, though absent, for he was one of those who could defy the forgetfulness of friends.

Chance reunited us once more after an interval of twelve years. It so happened that I had inherited a small estate in his province, and when I went there to dispose of it, I inquired after Raphael. I was told that he had lost father, mother, and wife in the space of a few years; that after these pangs of the heart, he had had to bear the blows of fortune, and that of all the domain of his fathers, nothing now remained to him but the old dismantled tower on the edge of the ravine, the garden, orchard, and meadow, with a few acres of unproductive land. These he ploughed himself, with two miserable cows; and was only distinguished from his peasant neighbors by the book which he carried to the field, and which he would sometimes hold in one hand, while the other directed the plough. For many weeks, however, he had not been seen to leave his wretched abode. It was supposed that he had started on one of those long journeys which with him lasted years. “It would be a pity,” it was said, “for every one in the neighborhood loves him; though poor, he does as much good as any rich man. Many a warm piece of cloth has been made from the wool of his sheep; at night he teaches the little children of the surrounding hamlets how to read and write, or draw. He warms them at his hearth, and shares his bread with them, though God knows he has not much to spare when crops are short, as this year.”

It was thus all spoke of Raphael. I wished to visit at least the abode of my friend, and was directed to the foot of the hillock, on the summit of which stood the blackened tower, with its surrounding sheds and stables, amid a group of hazel-trees. A trunk of a tree, which had been thrown across, enabled me to pass over the almost dried-up torrent of the ravine, and I climbed the steep path, the loose stones giving way under my feet. Two cows and three sheep were grazing on the barren sides of the hillock, and were tended by an old half-blind servant, who was telling his beads seated on an ancient escutcheon of stone, which had fallen from the arch of the doorway.

He told me that Raphael was not gone, but had been ill for the last two months; that it was plain he would never leave the tower but for the churchyard; and the old man pointed with his meagre hand to the burying ground on the opposite hill. I asked if I could see Raphael. “Oh, yes,” said the old man; “go up the steps, and draw the string of the latch of the great hall-door on the left. You will find him stretched on his bed, as gentle as an angel, and,” added he drawing the back of his hand across his eyes, “as simple as a child!” I mounted the steep and worn-out steps which wound round the outside of the tower, and ended at a small platform covered by a tiled roof, the broken tiles of which strewed the stone steps. I lifted the latch of the door on my left, and entered. Never shall I forget the sight. The chamber was vast, occupying all the space between the four walls of the tower; it was lighted from two windows, with stone cross-bars, and the dusty and broken lozenge-shaped panes of glass were set in lead. The huge beams of the ceiling were blackened by smoke, the floor was paved with bricks, and in a high chimney with roughly fluted wooden jambs, an iron pot filled with potatoes was suspended over a fire, where a long branch was burning, or rather smoking. The only articles of furniture were two high-backed arm-chairs, covered with a plain-colored stuff, of which it was impossible to guess the original color; a large table, half covered with an unbleached linen table-cloth in which a loaf was wrapped, the other half being strewed pell-mell with papers and books; and, lastly, a rickety, worm-eaten four-post bedstead, with its blue serge curtains looped back to admit the rays of the sun, and the air from the open window.

A man who was still young, but attenuated by consumption and want, was seated on the edge of the bed, occupied in throwing crumbs to a whole host of swallows which were wheeling their flight around him.

The birds flew away at the noise of my approach, and perched on the cornice of the hall, or on the tester of the bed. I recognized Raphael, pale and thin as he was. His countenance, though no longer youthful, had not lost its peculiar character; but a change had come over its loveliness, and its beauty was now of the grave. Rembrandt would have wished for no better model for his “Christ in the Garden of Olives.” His dark hair clustered thickly on his shoulders, and was thrown back in disorder, as by the weary hand of the laborer when the sweat and toil of the day is over. The long untrimmed beard grew with a natural symmetry that disclosed the graceful curve of the lip, and the contour of the cheek; there was still the noble outline of the nose, the fair and delicate complexion, the pensive and now sunken eye. His shirt, thrown open on the chest, displayed his muscular though attenuated frame, which might yet have appeared majestic, had his weakness allowed him to sit erect.

He knew me at a glance, made one step forward with extended arms, and fell back upon the bed. We first wept, and then talked together. He related the past; how, when he had thought to cull the flowers or fruits of life, his hopes had ever been marred by fortune or by death, the loss of his father, mother, wife, and child; his reverses of fortune, and the compulsory sale of his ancestral domain; he told how he retired to his ruined home, with no other companionship than that of his mother’s old herdsman, who served him without pay, for the love he bore to his house; and lastly, spoke of the consuming languor which would sweep him away with the autumnal leaves, and lay him in the churchyard beside those he had loved so well. His intense imaginative faculty might be seen strong even in death, and in idea he loved to endow with a fanciful sympathy the turf and flowers which would blossom on his grave.

“Do you know what grieves me most?” said he, pointing to the fringe of little birds which were perched round the top of his bed. “It is to think that next spring these poor little ones, my latest friends, will seek for me in vain in the tower. They will no longer find the broken pane through which to fly in; and on the floor, the little flocks of wool from my mattress with which to build their nests. But the old nurse, to whom I bequeath my little all, will take care of them as long as she lives,” he resumed, as if to comfort himself with the idea; “and after her Well! God will; for He feedeth the young ravens.”

He seemed moved while speaking of these little creatures. It was easy to see that he had long been weaned from the sympathy of men, and that the whole tenderness of his soul, which had been repulsed by them, was now transferred to dumb animals. “Will you spend any time among our mountains?” he inquired. “Yes,” I replied. “So much the better,” he added; “you will close my eyes, and take care that my grave is dug as close as possible to those of my mother, wife, and child.”

He then begged me to draw towards him a large chest of carved wood, which was concealed beneath a bag of Indian corn at one end of the room. I placed the chest upon the bed, and from it he drew a quantity of papers which he tore silently to pieces for half an hour, and then bid his old nurse sweep them into the fire. There were verses in many languages, and innumerable pages of fragments, separated by dates, like memoranda. “Why should you burn all these?” I timidly suggested; “has not man a moral as well as a material inheritance to bequeath to those who come after him? You are perhaps destroying thoughts and feelings which might have quickened a soul.”

“What matters it?” he said; “there are tears enough in this world, and we need not deposit a few more in the heart of man. These,” said he, showing the verses, “are the cast-off, useless feathers of my soul; it has moulted since then, and spread its bolder wings for eternity!” He then continued to burn and destroy, while I looked out of the broken window at the dreary landscape.

At length he called me once more to the bedside. “Here,” said he “save this one little manuscript, which I have not courage to burn. When I am gone, my poor nurse would make bags for her seeds with it, and I would not that the name which fills its pages should be profaned. Take, and keep it till you hear that I am no more. After my death you may burn it, or preserve it till your old age, to think of me sometimes as you glance over it.”

I hid the roll of paper beneath my cloak, and took my leave, resolving inwardly to return the next day to soothe the last moments of Raphael by my care and friendly discourse. As I descended the steps, I saw about twenty little children with their wooden shoes in their hands, who had come to take the lessons which he gave them, even on his death-bed. A little further on, I met the village priest, who had come to spend the evening with him. I bowed respectfully, and as he noted my swollen eyes, he returned my salute with an air of mournful sympathy.

The next day I returned to the tower. Raphael had died during the night, and the village bell was already tolling for his burial. Women and children were standing at their doors, looking mournfully in the direction of the tower, and in the little green field adjoining the church, two men, with spades and mattock, were digging a grave at the foot of a cross.

I drew near to the door. A cloud of twittering swallows were fluttering round the open windows, darting in and out, as though the spoiler had robbed their nests.

Since then I have read these pages, and now know why he loved to be surrounded by these birds, and what memories they waked in him, even to his dying day.