The Expansion of the French Idea (part II)

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England, however, barely missed participating in the miracle at the same time with northern France, when the latter country lived through that moment which, until then, has never occurred more than once in the history of a people and which France, the India of the Middle Ages, and the Ancient Empire of Egypt alone have known. England discovered the ogive at the same time that we did, if not some years earlier. Why, therefore, could she not, by making use of those powerful faculties for generalization of which, from Roger Bacon to Newton, she has given as great a proof as we have from Abelard to Lamarck—why could she not systematize the use of the ogive, hang the stones of her soil in the air between two diagonal lines of ribbing, articulate the gigantic limbs of the great body, and cause the flying buttresses to rise from the pavement of the cities as if to support the weight of the towers? [And why did she send over to France for Guillaume de Sens if this builder, and perhaps the architect of Saint-Denis, were not the first in Europe to use the broken arch as the determining principle of the whole architecture of the ogive?]

It was because the English cathedral was principally the luxury of a certain class of society, because it did not translate one of those surges of idealism in which the French crowd sometimes offers a meeting place—for ten years, for a month, for an hour—to the poor and the rich, to those who do nothing, and to those who work, to those who suffer, and to those who are happy. As in France, to be sure, the English middle class had, in the eleventh century, secured the rights that were confirmed by Magna Charta in 1215. But in order to maintain these rights it was not obliged to struggle constantly as did our communes, which were menaced incessantly by the Church and the barons. In the freedom of the English commune, the solidarity of the social organs was not so necessary, and the fierce pride of the corporations, which the political powers always treated on the footing of equality, set them up one against the other without danger to themselves. The cathedral was an expression of the wealth they had in common and not of their brotherhood.

It is egoistic, exclusive, and close to the great current of humanity; its formula is stiff and dry, seldom animated—and then always timidly—by the confused and swarming life of the bas-reliefs and the statues through which the French artisans brought to the framework of society, like fruits on an altar, the tribute of their love. For five hundred years the aristocratic arts of priests and soldiers had been carried on in the shelter of the ramparts of the military strongholds and the walls of the monasteries of these mystic islands, and from such arts nothing of the people, or of life itself, could come forth. Ireland, with its dripping humidity buried under its green leaves, could not pass on to England, when transmitting Christianity to that country, anything more than the miniatures patiently composed in its monasteries while the eternal rain drenched the windowpanes. The weapons of the Saxons, the carved prows of the Scandinavian barks, and the importations from Byzantium were only so many separate elements for which the flame of a homogeneous people, that could weld them into a unified force, was lacking. When the Normans arrived they appropriated the Roman tradition imported from France in the course of previous centuries, and built many powerful churches in which a square and crenelated tower rose from the center of the nave, as if to impress upon the mind the idea of military domination. But they were camping on British soil. They were to furnish to the English people only the unshakable foundation of temples and strongholds. Cathedrals, abbeys, castles, ramparts, illuminated manuscripts, funerary statues of alabaster—all was an art of the classes, from the beginning until the hour when Shakespeare frees and spreads over the world the torrent of emotions and images sealed up in the heart of the crowd by all those somber stones and those carved sepulchers.

As one descends the valley of the Seine, the spires that appear above the towers become sharper and frailer. In Normandy, the life that creeps about the side of the French cathedrals and thoroughly imbues them with movement, becomes fixed and already tends to lose movement, even while it becomes slighter and more abundant, while the mass becomes airy and is cut into more and more by openings. The mighty poem of the people becomes complicated, mannered, and inclines toward the attributes of the art object. We are midway between the social art of France and the stiff rich monument, that we see when the mist rises, lifting above the lawns and the trees the symmetrically pointed spires and the parapets of the central tower that weighs heavily upon the long, low nave. Already at Rouen and at Coutances the tower is placed over the cross of the transept. And if the living decoration of the French provinces still animates the Norman churches, their sharply cut and voluntary movement gives us a foretaste of the geometrical decoration of England.

The diadem raised by the merchants of the British Isles above their rude industrial cities seemed to be made by the hands of goldsmiths and, in contrast with the enthusiasm expressed in the monuments which on the other side of the Channel derive their life from the houses and the fields in order to exalt it, the English cathedral is very obviously conceived as a proud homage to the emancipation of a hard and egoistic class. Whereas wings spread out above the naves of the Continental churches in which the vibrant columns rose from the soil, here a wooden roof supported by corbels dominated the low naves, which were arrested on all sides by implacable horizontals. Often, tight sheaves of parallel ribbing choked all the lines of the nave whose profiles and curves disappeared among the tense clusters which they formed—a forest composed of a thousand dead branches without the leafage of the vault and without space and without air above them. In the apse, where the French builder allowed the darkness to deepen, where the wall was rounded like a cradle about the living god that it inclosed so lovingly, the wall fell away like a portcullis, permitting the light to pass through the straight-lined colonnades as if they were iron railings.

The supreme expression of the English ogival style, the perpendicular, appeared at the time when, among us, the flame of stone, crackling as it launched skyward, was announcing the last flicker of the exhausted life around which a fatal twilight was rapidly gathering. On the one hand we have the end of a dream, on the other an affirmation of the will; on one side the abrupt dissociation of the social forces, the defeat that comes day by day, even as man's illusions recommence each day, the mad charges, the feverish plunging of a civilization at the point of death—and on the other side the concentration of all the means of conquest: method in warfare, a definite goal to attain, victory, the practiced and steady rigor of a civilization that is determining and establishing itself. Whereas on the one side there is no longer anything more than ruins or abandoned works, we find pinnacles arising on the other side and spires shooting upward, the wrinkled façades that appear to be made of frost and glass, and the close-set latticed tracery of stone stalactites. For the spectral, aerial, and vague poetry of the English people to have its full effect in these icy and magnificent monuments, one should see them under a blue veil of moonlight or see the sharp spires rising out of the wet leaves and the mist. The art of the north demands the complicity of the vapor that spreads through space, of the foliage, of the sleeping water, and the uncertain illumination of the night. The rectangular manor houses lift up above the lakes the formidable profile of their polygonal towers, and as we view them we feel their whole bulk, and yet something more than their bulk, weighing upon the sinister history of the Middle Ages in England. They would not become a part of the mighty dream of this people—whose will has all the power that dwells in the lines of its towers, a people as resistant as their walls, this people whose soul, when it peers to its depths, is as steeped in fog and moonlight as they are themselves —they would not become a part of the dream of England, I repeat, if a mantle of ivy did not cover them from top to bottom, if blood did not filter between their stones, and if the echo of falling axes were not heard when one traverses their black corridors, where wandering specters brush by one in passing. The soul of the north has not been able to define itself by the visible lines of the world; and only poetry and music are vague enough to receive it in their embrace.

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