Article 10

ART. X. Lettres et Pensées du Marichal Prince de Ligne, publiées par Madame la Baronne de Staël Holstein: contenant des Anecdotes inédites sur Joseph II. Catherine II. Frederic le Grand, Rousseau, Voltaire, &c. &c. et des Remarques intéressantes sur les Turcs. 2 tom. 12mo. Londres, Dulau. 1808.

[pp. 362-371] [original article in PDF format]

  1. IT was said of the great Earl of Peterborough, that he was personally acquainted with all the Sovereigns and with all the postillions in Europe; and we believe that the author of these letters might fairly add, to an equally extensive list of friends in these two classes, the names of every distinguished individual on the Continent, and of a large proportion of those English travellers who, during the last thirty or forty years, have visited the cities of Paris or Vienna. Madame de Staël, therefore, in describing the Prince de Ligne, has sketched a portrait of which the far greater number of her readers will be able to estimate the resemblance; and we believe that they will generally concur in admiring the talent of the painter. But whilst we approve her delineation of the man, we are compelled to dissent from her admiration of his writings. His style, she admits, is generally colloquial, and she adds, 'We must figure to ourselves the expression of his fine countenance, the characteristic gaiety of his stories, the simplicity with which he abandons himself to pleasantry, that we may love even the negligence of his mode of writing. Those who are not influenced by the charm of his presence, analyse as an author the man to whom they ought to listen whilst they read; because the faults of his style are an additional grace in conversation. That which is not grammatically clear becomes so by the á propos of conversation, by the archness of the look, by the inflexion of the voice, and by all those minute circumstances which give to the art of speaking a thousand resources and charms unattainable by the art of writing.' Now we suspect that Madame de Staël has here suggested to her readers an expedient, which many will not be inclined, and many will not be able, to adopt. A young lady may, indeed, peruse [362] the letter of a favoured lover under some such illusion as that which is here recommended; may discover in uncouth spellings, or in grammatical inaccuracy, that charming confusion of intellect which passion is apt to inspire; and may be able to fix her attention on the graces and beauties of the absent writer with a more steady gaze than she could do, if the words which float before her eyes wore more encumbered with meaning. But we cannot assume, at will, this happy temper of mind; we cannot, therefore, bestow our indiscriminate applause on the whole composition of the work before us; yet we think it lively and amusing, and shall now proceed to lay before our readers a short analysis of its contents, together with such remarks as they may occasionally suggest.

  2. The correspondence begins by two letters addressed to the King of Poland, in the years 1783 and 1786, and are filled with anecdotes of Ferdinand II. with whom the Prince de Ligne began his acquaintance at the celebrated interview between that Monarch and the Emperor Joseph II. in the camp of Neustadt, in 1770; and whom he afterwards visited at Berlin after the war of Bohemia. The character of the King of Prussia has been so fully canvassed, and the minutest particulars of his public and domestic life so carefully collected and recorded, that much novelty or interest cannot be expected from the remarks of an accidental and transient visitor. Indeed the Prince de Ligne, who knew that the reputation of Ferdinand was well able to take care of itself, appears to be at least as anxious to inspire his royal correspondent with some degree of respect for the Emperor, and with a due admiration of his own talent at repartee, as to describe the King of Prussia. Yet it must be owned that his sallies of wit form a part of the picture, as they shew the delicacy and address of an experienced courtier, anxious to please, and cautious of offending a monarch whom it was easy to offend, and difficult to pacify. 'The king,' says he, 'could not bear our General Ried, who had displeased him when sent as Austrian minister to Berlin, and he had a trick of imputing every sort of fault to persons whom he did not happen to like.' This observation, we presume, was not useless to the observer, who, however, found it sometimes difficult to preserve his complaisance without sacrificing his dignity of character. This appears from the following passage:

    'I know not how our conversation happened to change; but I remember that it became so extravagantly free that the King, on seeing some one prepare to take part in it, cautioned him to beware, [363] observing that there was no small risk in conversing with a man whom the theologians had condemned to everlasting fire. I thought that he set too high a value on damnation, and was too fond of boasting of it. Independently of the bad faith of these haughty freethinkers, who are often most sincerely afraid of the devil, I think it is at least in very bad taste to exhibit themselves thus publicly; and it was from people of bad taste whom he had received into his society, such as Jordans, d'Argens, Maupertuis, La Beaumelle, La Mettrie, 1'Abbé de Prades, and some heavy unbelievers of his own academy, that he had acquired the habit of scoffing at religion, &c. I never made any reply when he entered on such subjects.'

  3. We cannot help thinking that an apostle of infidelity, armed with sovereign power, impatient of contradiction, acute, sarcastic, and capricious, must have found it difficult to preserve, amongst his habitual and daily companions, those feelings of enthusiastic admiration with which he inspired the Prince de Ligne by 'a sound of voice which was soft and musical, and as agreeable as the motion of his lips, which was inexpressibly graceful; so that few were disposed to remark that he was, like Homer's heroes, rather talkative, though sublime.' We will add one more quotation from these letters, because it places in a curious and picturesque point of view the persons and characters of Joseph and Ferdinand.

    'The King was, sometimes, too ceremonious; and this was a frequent cause of annoyance to the Emperor. I do not know whether it was for the purpose of displaying his talents as a well-disciplined Elector, but, whenever the Emperor put his foot in the stirrup, the King insisted on holding the horse's bridle; and when the Emperor threw his leg over the saddle, the King thought fit to place his foot in the stirrup; and so of the rest. The polite attentions of the Emperor had a greater air of frankness, as being due from a young prince to an aged king, and from an inexperienced soldier to the greatest of generals.'

  4. The Prince de Ligne having accompanied the Empress Catherine during her tour through her southern provinces in 1787, has given us a series of nine letters addressed to Madame de Coigny, from the principal stages of the journey. He has filled these letters with compliments to his fair correspondent, with fragments of insipid conversation, and with remarks on himself, interspersed with occasional hints rather than descriptions of the curious spectacle every where exhibited to his eyes. The following passages comprehend the whole that we have been able to extract: [364]

    'Cherson and Sebastopol surpass all that can be said of them. Every day is marked by something interesting: sometimes a cloud of Cossacks, from the banks of the Don, manoeuvre round us in their manner; sometimes the Tartars of the Crimea, who rebelled against their Khan Selim Gherai because he wished to form them into regiments, assemble spontaneously in large bodies to come and meet the Empress. We have been traversing during several days an immense tract of deserts formerly inhabited by hostile Tartar hordes, but recovered by the arms of her Majesty, and at present ornamented, from stage to stage, with magnificent tents, where we are supplied with breakfast, collation, dinner, supper, and lodging; and our encampments, decorated with all the pomp of Asiatic splendour, present a noble military spectacle. These deserts will soon be transformed into fields and woods, and villages: they are already the habitations of many regiments, and will soon be filled with peasants, attracted by the excellence of the soil. The Empress has left, in each town of the government, presents to the amount of more than 100,000 roubles. Each day of rest is marked by the gift of some diamonds, by balls, by fireworks, and by illuminations extending for leagues in every direction.—I know that it is not the fashion to believe travellers, or courtiers, or, in general, those who speak well of Russia. Some, indeed, even amongst the Russians themselves, who are displeased at not having been permitted to accompany us, will pretend that we have been deceived, and that we deceive our hearers. A ridiculous story has been spread, which affirms that villages of paste-board, and paintings representing distant fleets and arsenals, and bodies of cavalry, have been so disposed as to cheat our eyes during our rapid journey, &c. During the last two months I have been daily employed in throwing money out of our carriage windows, and have thus distributed the value of some millions of livres. The mode is this. Close by my side in the coach is a large green bag filled with imperials (a gold coin of four ducats value). The inhabitants of the neighbouring villages, and even of those which are at many leagues distance, come from all quarters to behold the passage of the Empress; and throwing themselves on their faces, and kissing the earth, await her approach, and continue in the same posture till she is out of sight: on their backs and heads I shower my gold whilst we are passing at full speed; and this happens, perhaps, ten times in a day. I believe indeed that some little contrivance is occasionally employed: that, for instance, the Empress, who cannot move about on foot as we do, is persuaded that some towns, for the building of which she has paid considerable sums, are really finished; whereas there are in fact many towns without streets, streets without houses, and houses without roofs, doors, or windows. She sees only well-built shops, and the colonnades of the palaces belonging to the governors-general, on forty two of whom she has bestowed services of plate, each consisting of a hundred covers.' [365]

  5. We are almost inclined to infer, from the general tone of these letters, and from the caution with which the Prince de Ligne abstains altogether from mentioning or even hinting at the existence of one of his fellow-travellers, we mean the favourite, that he supposed the channel by which his letters were conveyed to be somewhat insecure, and rather wished to gratify the feelings of those by whom they might possibly be opened on their passage, than the curiosity of the correspondent to whom they were addressed. Be this as it may, the longest letter in the book, a letter of four and twenty pages, which is dated from Parthenissa in the Crimea, contains, not a description of that celebrated peninsula, but a recapitulation of the principal adventures of the author's life, and a long string of reflections arising out of them, written in a style exactly resembling that of Beaumarchais' Figaro. The narrative itself is not long, and is amusing; and as it is not more foreign to our work than to a history of the Crimea, we will extract it.

    'I must question my memory to discover why, having no taste for constraint, nor for honours, nor for wealth, nor for court favours, and being born in a station which entitled me to despise them, I have still, in every country in Europe, passed my life in courts. I remember that the almost paternal kindness of the Emperor Francis I., who was fond of giddy and inconsiderate young men, first attached me to him; and that a passion for one of his mistresses fixed me for a long time at his court; because after losing, as was natural, the affections of the lady, I still retained the kindness of my sovereign. At his death I thought myself, though then very young, a personage of the old court, and was preparing to criticise the new one, when I discovered that the successor to the imperial throne was also very amiable, and possessed qualities which rendered me ambitious of meriting his esteem rather than of courting his favour. Certain that he was not inclined to unreasonable partialities, I was at liberty to express, without meanness, my attachment to his person; and though I could not but blame the too great rapidity of his operations, I really admired the greater part of them, and shall always praise his excellent intentions; and the activity and fertility of his genius.—Sent to the court of France in the prime of life, with the news of a brilliant victory, I had no thoughts of repeating my journey, when accident conducted M. le Comte d'Artois to a garrison in the neighbourhood of that in which I was inspecting the troops. I went to visit him with about thirty of my best Austrian officers: as soon as he saw us he called me to him, and in the course of a short interview the brother of the King of France seemed to become my own: we drank, played, laughed; he had just obtained his liberty, and scarcely knew how to enjoy it sufficiently. The first [366] burst of the petulance and gaiety of youth, combined with his frankness and excellence of disposition, attracted and charmed me. He invited me to Versailles, and spoke of me to the queen, who ordered me to accept the invitation. The sweetness of her countenance and temper, and the attractions of the society by which she is surrounded, have since induced me to spend five months in every year at Versailles: a taste for pleasure draws me thither, and gratitude retains me there.—Prince Henry of Prussia being engaged in a military tour, the love of philosophy and of tactics brings us together; I accompany him, and have the pleasure to suit him. Kindness on his part, and zealous attentions on mine, are followed by a regular correspondence, and by frequent meetings at Spa and at Reinsburg. An encampment of the Emperor in Moravia attracts the king and the Prince of Prussia. The former, perceiving my enthusiastic admiration for great men, invites me to Berlin; and the marks of esteem and kindness, and the familiarity to which I was admitted by this first of heroes, are the pride and glory of my life. His nephew comes to Strasburgh. Some trifling but confidential commissions which I had been able to execute for him, produced an acquaintance which there grew into greater intimacy, notwithstanding the general opposition of our views and interests. I narrowly escape a similar intimacy with two other kings of the north. The very moderate understanding of the one happened to derange altogether the brains of the other, and thus saved me from much insipid amusement prepared for me during an intended visit to Copenhagen and to Stockholm: a few entertainments which I gave to the one and received from the other, serve as an acquittal of my promise.—My son Charles marries a pretty little Polish girl. Her family gives us, instead of money, some papers containing claims on the court of Russia. I make myself, and am made a Pole. A mad bishop, who has since been hanged, but who was uncle to my daughter in law, having learned that I had been treated with great kindness by the Empress of Russia, persuades himself that I am on the best possible terms with her, and that, if once naturalized, I shall certainly be made king of Poland. What a change, says he, in the affairs of Europe! what happiness for the families of Ligne and Massalsky! I laugh at him: but I am seized with a fancy to please the Polish nation then assembled in diet; the nation applauds me. I talk latin; I embrace and caress the whiskered deputies. I intrigue in favour of the king of Poland, who is himself an intriguer, like all kings who only occupy a throne on the condition of complying with the wishes of their neighbours or of their subjects. He is good, amiable, attractive; I give him some useful hints, and we suddenly become intimate friends.—I arrive in Russia. The first thing I do is to dismiss from my mind the object of my journey, because I think it indelicate to take advantage of the gracious indulgence with which I am received every day, for the purpose of soliciting pecuniary favours. [367] The frank and seductive simplicity of Catherine the Great effectually captivates me, and it is her genius which has conducted me to this scene of enchantment.'

  6. We are disposed to believe that a great name, a princely fortune, a handsome person, elegant manners, brilliant courage, and considerable talents, would have secured to the Prince de Ligne the ready attainment of every object of his ambition, if that ambition had been less subordinate to his vanity. But he wished for general admiration; he wished to be the idol of mobs, the envy of courtiers, and the familiar acquaintance of sovereigns: and to become all this is an arduous undertaking. Those offices in the state which confer wealth and power, may generally be obtained by incessant importunity and solicitation, and seem to be the natural rewards of patient mediocrity; but the sterile advantage of enlivening the insipidity of conversations, from which natural gaiety is banished by the frivolous solemnity of etiquette and ceremony, requires an expense of cheerfulness, and an exerting of talent, which even the pliant and good-humoured Prince de Ligne was, not unfrequently, compelled to lament. But it must be confessed, that he played this difficult and laborious part with a lightness of heart which is very unusual, and with a grace peculiar to himself; and hence his correspondence, though not, in our opinion, distinguished by much literary excellence, nor rendered valuable by much important or interesting information, is always playful and amusing. The best letters in the collection, we think, are those addressed to the Emperor Joseph, and particularly those which are written from the Russian camp before Oczakow, to which the Prince de Ligne had been sent by the empress for the purpose of assisting Prince Potemkin with his advice, at the same time that he had secret instructions from the emperor to direct, if possible, the operations of the campaign to those objects which should be most advantageous to the interests of Austria. 'I am here' says he, 'exactly like a nurse with her child; but my child is tall, and stout, and mutinous. No longer ago than yesterday, he said to me, do you suppose that you are come hither for the purpose of leading me by the nose? And do you suppose, answered I, that I should have come hither for any other purpose? Indolent and inexperienced as you are, my dear Prince, what can you do better than rely on a man sincerely anxious for your glory and that of both empires? Very little is wanting to render you a perfect being; but even your genius will be unavailing, if not assisted by confidence and friendship. [368]

  7. It was essential to the success of the Prince de Ligne, that he should study, with attention, the character of this singular favourite, who so long directed the councils of Catherine II. and possessed, through her confidence, the means of influencing, to a great extent, the general politics of Europe; and he has accordingly given us, in addition to a variety of detached particulars which are scattered throughout the series of his letters, a long and laboured description of Prince Potemkin. It is, perhaps, too long and too much laboured; and is certainly too much infected with that fondness for antithesis which is observable in almost every French writer since the days of the Cardinal de Retz: but as it is a legitimate portrait, drawn from the life, we shall here submit it, with the omission of a few unimportant touches, to the examination of the reader.

    'I behold a commander who, with the appearance of extreme indolence, is eternally occupied; who has no writing desk but his knees, no comb but his fingers; who passes his life on a couch, yet never closes his eyes, through the anxiety of his zeal for his mistress whom he adores, and through fear that every cannon shot of which he does not see the direction may cost the life of some of his soldiers. Trembling for others, but fearless for himself; anxious and alarmed at the approach of danger, but meeting it with gaiety, he is most cheerful and decided when giving his orders under the fire of a battery. He is melancholy in the midst of pleasure; unhappy from excess of good fortune; satiated with every thing; easily offended, morose, and inconstant, but ready to ask pardon for the uneasiness he may occasion, and to repair the injustice he has committed. He thinks himself sincerely pious, and is, in truth, very much afraid of the devil, whom he represents to himself as even bigger and more powerful than a Prince Potemkin, and alternately embraces a crucifix or a mistress. Prodigal in squandering the wealth which is profusely showered on him by the Empress; more willing to bestow than to pay; ever creating palaces and gardens, and abandoning them when finished; giving way to every impulse; adopting every prejudice, and rejecting it with the same facility; talking divinity to generals, and tactics to archbishops; never opening a book, but reading the thoughts of all who approach him, and eliciting their opinions by contradictions; with an air and manners the most morose and repulsive, or the most conciliating and agreeable, he sometimes appears like the proudest representative of an Asiatic despot, and sometimes as the most fascinating courtier of Louis XIV. With a harsh and forbidding exterior, he has a tender and affectionate heart. Fantastic about his house, his meals, and his rest; capricious in all his tastes; wishing for everything like a child; bearing the severest privations like a great man; sober, with the appearance of [369] gluttony; biting his nails, or gnawing an apple or a turnip; scolding or laughing; mimicking or swearing; he calls around him twenty aides de camp at a time, and dismisses them with or without some unimportant message. At one moment appealing to tremble at every breeze, he will, at the next, brave the extremes of heat and cold, without drawers, in his shirt, over which is buttoned a full uniform with all its embroidery, his naked feet thrust into a pair of black slippers covered with spangles. Thus accoutred, without a hat or cap, I have seen him more than once in the midst of the enemy's fire; at other times, in a wretched nightgown and occasionally in a superb tunic, with his three stars and ribbands, and the portrait of the Empress set round with the most costly diamonds, whose splendor was well calculated to attract a shower of bullets. At home, his air slovenly, careless, and crouching; at the head of troops he is erect, colossal, majestic, like Agamemnon towering above the kings of Greece. What, then, was his magic? Genius, native genius; a strong understanding, an excellent memory; that acuteness which detects artifices without the cunning which practises them; a character, capricious yet seductive; elevation of soul, abundant generosity, with much grace and discrimination in dispensing favours; the talent of guessing what he does not know, and an intuitive knowledge of the characters of men.'

  8. We are not of opinion that either the 'moral reflections' of the Prince de Ligne, or the 'interesting remarks on the Turks,' announced in the title-page, would very much interest our readers; but although we have already extended this article to an unreasonable length, we cannot dismiss the work without transcribing the following short letter, dictated by Joseph II. on the, very day of his death.

    'My dear Marechal de Lacy,
                  The impossibility of tracing these few lines with my trembling hand, alone engages me to employ the hand of another. I feel the rapid approach of that moment which must separate us. I should be very ungrateful, my dear friend, if I left this world without repeating to you my sense of the many obligations I owe you, and of which I have had the pleasure of acknowledging the extent in the most public manner. Yes, if I have had any I owe it to you; for you have formed me, you have enlightened me, you have taught me the knowledge of mankind; and, besides this, the whole army owes to you its formation, its credit, and its consideration. The safe and judicious advice which you have given me under all circumstances, your personal attachment to me, which has not failed on any occasion, great or small, all this is the cause that I cannot sufficiently, my dear marechal, repeat to you my thanks. I have seen your tears flow for me; those of a great and [370] wise man are my best apology. Receive my last farewell. I embrace you tenderly. The only thing which I quit with regret in this world, is the small number of my real friends, of whom you are certainly the first. Remember me, as your most sincere friend and affectionate.

  9. We had always supposed that this ill-starred monarch was 'made of sterner stuff,' but the foregoing letter seems to confirm the opinion of the Prince de Ligne, that if he appeared insensible to love or friendship, it was because he was conscious of too great a propensity to both; and was alarmed by the numerous examples of sovereigns who have been deceived by their friends and mistresses. We also believe, with our author, that a very injudicious education, added to a constitutional restlessness of mind, produced in the emperor that unhappy 'fondness for governing, where he ought to have been satisfied with reigning,' and that series of experiments and innovations from which posterity may possibly date the general disorganization of Europe.