English Literature

Jasmin by Samuel Smiles

Jasmin by Samuel Smiles


Agen is an important town in the South of France, situated on the right bank of the Garonne, about eighty miles above Bordeaux. The country to the south of Agen contains some of the most fertile land in France. The wide valley is covered with vineyards, orchards, fruit gardens, and corn-fields.

The best panoramic view of Agen and the surrounding country is to be seen from the rocky heights on the northern side of the town. A holy hermit had once occupied a cell on the ascending cliffs; and near it the Convent of the Hermitage has since been erected. Far underneath are seen the red-roofed houses of the town, and beyond them the green promenade of the Gravier.

From the summit of the cliffs the view extends to a great distance along the wide valley of the Garonne, covered with woods, vineyards, and greenery. The spires of village churches peep up here and there amongst the trees; and in the far distance, on a clear day, are seen the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees.

Three bridges connect Agen with the country to the west of the Garonne—the bridge for ordinary traffic, a light and elegant suspension bridge, and a bridge of twenty-three arches which carries the lateral canal to the other side of the river.

The town of Agen itself is not particularly attractive. The old streets are narrow and tortuous, paved with pointed stones; but a fine broad street—the Rue de la Republique—has recently been erected through the heart of the old town, which greatly adds to the attractions of the place. At one end of this street an ideal statue of the Republic has been erected, and at the other end a life-like bronze statue of the famous poet Jasmin.

This statue to Jasmin is the only one in the town erected to an individual. Yet many distinguished persons have belonged to Agen and the neighbourhood who have not been commemorated in any form. Amongst these were Bernard Palissy, the famous potter{1}; Joseph J. Scaliger, the great scholar and philologist; and three distinguished naturalists, Boudon de Saint-Aman, Bory de Saint-Vincent, and the Count de Lacepede.

The bronze statue of Jasmin stands in one of the finest sites in Agen, at one end of the Rue de la Republique, and nearly opposite the little shop in which he carried on his humble trade of a barber and hairdresser. It represents the poet standing, with his right arm and hand extended, as if in the act of recitation.

How the fame of Jasmin came to be commemorated by a statue erected in his native town by public subscription, will be found related in the following pages. He has told the story of his early life in a bright, natural, and touching style, in one of his best poems, entitled, “My Recollections” (Mes Souvenirs), written in Gascon; wherein he revealed his own character with perfect frankness, and at the same time with exquisite sensibility.

Several of Jasmin’s works have been translated into English, especially his “Blind Girl of Castel-Cuille,” by Longfellow and Lady Georgina Fullerton. The elegant translation by Longfellow is so well known that it is unnecessary to repeat it in the appendix to this volume. But a few other translations of Jasmin’s works have been given, to enable the reader to form some idea of his poetical powers.

Although Jasmin’s recitations of his poems were invariably received with enthusiastic applause by his quick-spirited audiences in the South of France, the story of his life will perhaps be found more attractive to English readers than any rendering of his poems, however accurate, into a language different from his own. For poetry, more than all forms of literature, loses most by translation—especially from Gascon into English. Villemain, one of the best of critics, says: “Toute traduction en vers est une autre creation que l’original.”

We proceed to give an account—mostly from his own Souvenirs—of the early life and boyhood of Jasmin. The eighteenth century, old, decrepit, and vicious, was about to come to an end, when in the corner of a little room haunted by rats, a child, the subject of this story, was born. It was on the morning of Shrove Tuesday, the 6th of March, 1798,—just as the day had flung aside its black night-cap, and the morning sun was about to shed its rays upon the earth,—that this son of a crippled mother and a humpbacked tailor first saw the light. The child was born in a house situated in one of the old streets of Agen—15 Rue Fon-de-Rache—not far from the shop on the Gravier where Jasmin afterwards carried on the trade of a barber and hairdresser.

“When a prince is born,” said Jasmin in his Souvenirs, “his entrance into the world is saluted with rounds of cannon, but when I, the son of a poor tailor made my appearance, I was not saluted even with the sound of a popgun.” Yet Jasmin was afterwards to become a king of hearts! A Charivari was, however, going on in front of a neighbour’s door, as a nuptial serenade on the occasion of some unsuitable marriage; when the clamour of horns and kettles, marrow-bones and cleavers, saluted the mother’s ears, accompanied by thirty burlesque verses, the composition of the father of the child who had just been born.

Jacques Jasmin was only one child amongst many. The parents had considerable difficulty in providing for the wants of the family, in food as well as clothing. Besides the father’s small earnings as a tailor of the lowest standing, the mother occasionally earned a little money as a laundress. A grandfather, Boe, formed one of the family group. He had been a soldier, but was now too old to serve in the ranks, though France was waging war in Italy and Austria under her new Emperor. Boe, however, helped to earn the family living, by begging with his wallet from door to door.

Jasmin describes the dwelling in which this poor family lived. It was miserably furnished. The winds blew in at every corner. There were three ragged beds; a cupboard, containing a few bits of broken plates; a stone bottle; two jugs of cracked earthenware; a wooden cup broken at the edges; a rusty candlestick, used when candles were available; a small half-black looking-glass without a frame, held against the wall by three little nails; four broken chairs; a closet without a key; old Boe’s suspended wallet; a tailor’s board, with clippings of stuff and patched-up garments; such were the contents of the house, the family consisting in all of nine persons.

It is well that poor children know comparatively little of their miserable bringings-up. They have no opportunity of contrasting their life and belongings with those of other children more richly nurtured. The infant Jasmin slept no less soundly in his little cot stuffed with larks’ feathers than if he had been laid on a bed of down. Then he was nourished by his mother’s milk, and he grew, though somewhat lean and angular, as fast as any king’s son. He began to toddle about, and made acquaintances with the neighbours’ children.

After a few years had passed, Jasmin, being a spirited fellow, was allowed to accompany his father at night in the concerts of rough music. He placed a long paper cap on his head, like a French clown, and with a horn in his hand he made as much noise, and played as many antics, as any fool in the crowd. Though the tailor could not read, he usually composed the verses for the Charivari; and the doggerel of the father, mysteriously fructified, afterwards became the seed of poetry in the son.

The performance of the Charivari was common at that time in the South of France. When an old man proposed to marry a maiden less than half his age, or when an elderly widow proposed to marry a man much younger than herself, or when anything of a heterogeneous kind occurred in any proposed union, a terrible row began. The populace assembled in the evening of the day on which the banns had been first proclaimed, and saluted the happy pair in their respective houses with a Charivari. Bells, horns, pokers and tongs, marrow-bones and cleavers, or any thing that would make a noise, was brought into requisition, and the noise thus made, accompanied with howling recitations of the Charivari, made the night positively hideous.

The riot went on for several evenings; and when the wedding-day arrived, the Charivarists, with the same noise and violence, entered the church with the marriage guests; and at night they besieged the house of the happy pair, throwing into their windows stones, brickbats, and every kind of missile. Such was their honeymoon!

This barbarous custom has now fallen entirely into disuse. If attempted to be renewed, it is summarily put down by the police, though it still exists among the Basques as a Toberac. It may also be mentioned that a similar practice once prevailed in Devonshire described by the Rev. S. Baring Gould in his “Red Spider.” It was there known as the Hare Hunt, or Skimmity-riding.

The tailor’s Charivaris brought him in no money.

They did not increase his business; in fact, they made him many enemies. His uncouth rhymes did not increase his mending of old clothes. However sharp his needle might be, his children’s teeth were still sharper; and often they had little enough to eat. The maintenance of the family mainly depended on the mother, and the wallet of grandfather Boe.

The mother, poor though she was, had a heart of gold under her serge gown. She washed and mended indefatigably. When she had finished her washing, the children, so soon as they could walk, accompanied her to the willows along the banks of the Garonne, where the clothes were hung out to dry. There they had at least the benefit of breathing fresh and pure air. Grandfather Boe was a venerable old fellow. He amused the children at night with his stories of military life—

 "Wept o'er his wounds, or, tales of sorrow done,
 Shouldered his crutch, and showed how fields were won."

During the day he carried his wallet from door to door in Agen, or amongst the farmhouses in the neighbourhood; and when he came home at eve he emptied his wallet and divided the spoil amongst the family. If he obtained, during his day’s journey, some more succulent morsel than another, he bestowed it upon his grandson Jacques, whom he loved most dearly.

Like all healthy boys, young Jasmin’s chief delight was in the sunshine and the open air. He also enjoyed the pleasures of fellowship and the happiness of living. Rich and poor, old and young, share in this glorified gladness. Jasmin had as yet known no sorrow. His companions were poor boys like himself. They had never known any other condition.

Just as the noontide bells began to ring, Jasmin set out with a hunch of bread in his hand—perhaps taken from his grandfather’s wallet—to enjoy the afternoon with his comrades. Without cap or shoes he sped’ away. The sun was often genial, and he never bethought him of cold. On the company went, some twenty or thirty in number, to gather willow faggots by the banks of the Garonne.

“Oh, how my soul leapt!” he exclaimed in his Souvenirs, “when we all set out together at mid-day, singing. ‘The Lamb whom Thou hast given me,’ a well known carol in the south. The very recollection of that pleasure even now enchants me. ‘To the Island—to the Island!’ shouted the boldest, and then we made haste to wade to the Island, each to gather together our little bundle of fagots.”

The rest of the vagrants’ time was spent in play. They ascended the cliff towards the grotto of Saint John. They shared in many a contest. They dared each other to do things—possible and impossible. There were climbings of rocks, and daring leaps, with many perils and escapades, according to the nature of boys at play. At length, after becoming tired, there was the return home an hour before nightfall. And now the little fellows tripped along; thirty fagot bundles were carried on thirty heads; and the thirty sang, as on setting out, the same carol, with the same refrain.

Jasmin proceeds, in his Souvenirs, to describe with great zest and a wonderful richness of local colour, the impromptu fetes in which he bore a part; his raids upon the cherry and plum orchards—for the neighbourhood of Agen is rich in plum-trees, and prunes are one of the principal articles of commerce in the district. Playing at soldiers was one of Jasmin’s favourite amusements; and he was usually elected Captain.

“I should need,” he says, “a hundred trumpets to celebrate all my victories.” Then he describes the dancing round the bonfires, and the fantastic ceremonies connected with the celebration of St. John’s Eve.

Agen is celebrated for its fairs. In the month of June, one of the most important fairs in the South of France is held on the extensive promenade in front of the Gravier. There Jasmin went to pick up any spare sous by holding horses or cattle, or running errands, or performing any trifling commission for the farmers or graziers. When he had filled to a slight extent his little purse, he went home at night and emptied the whole contents into his mother’s hand. His heart often sank as she received his earnings with smiles and tears. “Poor child,” she would say, “your help comes just in time.” Thus the bitter thought of poverty and the evidences of destitution were always near at hand.

In the autumn Jasmin went gleaning in the cornfields, for it was his greatest pleasure to bring home some additional help for the family needs. In September came the vintage—the gathering in and pressing of the grapes previous to their manufacture into wine. The boy was able, with his handy helpfulness, to add a little more money to the home store. Winter followed, and the weather became colder. In the dearth of firewood, Jasmin was fain to preserve his bodily heat, notwithstanding his ragged clothes, by warming himself by the sun in some sheltered nook so long as the day lasted; or he would play with his companions, being still buoyed up with the joy and vigour of youth.

When the stern winter set in, Jasmin spent his evenings in the company of spinning-women and children, principally for the sake of warmth. A score or more of women, with their children, assembled in a large room, lighted by a single antique lamp suspended from the ceiling. The women had distaffs and heavy spindles, by means of which they spun a kind of coarse pack-thread, which the children wound up, sitting on stools at their feet. All the while some old dame would relate the old-world ogreish stories of Blue Beard, the Sorcerer, or the Loup Garou, to fascinate the ears and trouble the dreams of the young folks. It was here, no doubt, that Jasmin gathered much of the traditionary lore which he afterwards wove into his poetical ballads.

Jasmin had his moments of sadness. He was now getting a big fellow, and his mother was anxious that he should receive some little education. He had not yet been taught to read; he had not even learnt his A B C. The word school frightened him. He could not bear to be shut up in a close room—he who had been accustomed to enjoy a sort of vagabond life in the open air. He could not give up his comrades, his playing at soldiers, and his numerous escapades.

The mother, during the hum of her spinning-wheel, often spoke in whispers to grandfather Boe of her desire to send the boy to school. When Jasmin overheard their conversation, he could scarcely conceal his tears. Old Boe determined to do what he could. He scraped together his little savings, and handed them over to the mother. But the money could not then be used for educating Jasmin; it was sorely needed for buying bread. Thus the matter lay over for a time.

The old man became unable to go out of doors to solicit alms. Age and infirmity kept him indoors. He began to feel himself a burden on the impoverished family. He made up his mind to rid them of the incumbrance, and desired the parents to put him into the family arm-chair and have him carried to the hospital. Jasmin has touchingly told the incident of his removal.

“It happened on a Monday,” he says in his Souvenirs: “I was then ten years old. I was playing in the square with my companions, girded about with a wooden sword, and I was king; but suddenly a dreadful spectacle disturbed my royalty. I saw an old man in an arm-chair borne along by several persons. The bearers approached still nearer, when I recognised my afflicted grandfather. ‘O God,’ said I, ‘what do I see? My old grandfather surrounded by my family.’ In my grief I saw only him. I ran up to him in tears, threw myself on his neck and kissed him.

“In returning my embrace, he wept. ‘O grandfather,’ said I, ‘where are you going? Why do you weep? Why are you leaving our home?’ ‘My child,’ said the old man, ‘I am going to the hospital,{2} where all the Jasmins die.’ He again embraced me, closed his eyes, and was carried away. We followed him for some time under the trees. I abandoned my play, and returned home full of sorrow.”

Grandfather Boe did not survive long in the hospital. He was utterly worn out. After five days the old man quietly breathed his last. His wallet was hung upon its usual nail in his former home, but it was never used again. One of the bread-winners had departed, and the family were poorer than ever.

“On that Monday,” says Jasmin, “I for the first time knew and felt that we were very poor.”

All this is told with marvellous effect in the first part of the Souvenirs, which ends with a wail and a sob.

Endnotes to Chapter I.

{1} It is stated in the Bibliographie Generale de l’Agenais, that Palissy was born in the district of Agen, perhaps at La Chapelle Biron, and that, being a Huguenot, he was imprisoned in the Bastille at Paris, and died there in 1590, shortly after the massacre of St. Bartholomew. But Palissy seems to have been born in another town, not far from La Chapelle Biron. The Times of the 7th July, 1891, contained the following paragraph:—

“A statue of Bernard Palissy was unveiled yesterday at Villeneuvesur-Lot, his native town, by M. Bourgeois, Minister of Education.”

{2} L’hopital means an infirmary or almshouse for old and impoverished people.


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