Bibliotherapy

Maurice de Guérin – The Centaur

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Illustration by Henri Bellery-Desfontaines, engraving by Ernest Florian for the 1901 edition of ‘Poèmes en Prose’ by Maurice de Guérin. Edouard Pelletan Editions.

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Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, is a prose poem by Maurice de Guérin, ‘The Centaur’, composed in Autumn 1835. English Translation from Maurice de Guérin’s original French by Thomas Sturge Moore, Ballantyne Press, Hagon &- Ricketts, London_1899. Mythological notes are by professor Robert W. Newcomb (1966). French original excerpted from ‘ La Revue des Deux Mondes’, période initiale, tome 22, 1840 (p. 583-589) available on Wikisource. All of the bellow illustrations are by Henri Bellery-Desfontaines.  More to come!

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A little introduction

Maurice de Guérin, whose works were imbued with a passion for nature whose intensity reached almost to worship and was enriched by pagan elements, hence being compared to Hölderlin and Novalis. According to Sainte-Beuve, no French poet or painter rendered “the feeling for nature, the feeling for the origin of things and the sovereign principle of life” as well as Guérin.’  Mathew Arnond said: ‘The magic of expression, to which by the force of his passion for perfection he won his way, will make the name of Maurice de Guérin remembered in literature.”

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‘It was given me to be born in the caves of these mountains. As with the river of this valley, whose first drops flow from some rock weeping in a deep recess, the earliest moments of my life fell upon the gloom of a secluded abode, and that without disturbing its silence. When the mothers of our race feel themselves about to be delivered, they keep apart and near the caverns; then in the most forbidding depths, in the thickest of the darkness, they bear, without a cry, offspring as silent as themselves. Their mighty milk enables us to surmount the early straits of life without languor or doubtful struggle; nevertheless, we leave our caverns later than you your cradles. For it is generally received among us, that one should withhold and every way shield existence at the outset, counting those days to be engrossed by the gods.

My growing-up ran almost its entire course in that darkness wherein I was born. Our abode at its innermost lay so far within the thickness of the mountain, that I should not have known on which side there might be an issue, if, turning astray sales the entrance, the winds had not sometimes driven in thither freshets of air and sudden commotions. Also, at times, my mother returned, having about her the perfume of valleys, or streaming from waters which she frequented. “These homecomings, which she made without ever instructing me about glens of rivers, but followed by their emanations, disquieted my spirit, so that, restlessly, I roamed the darkness. “What are they,” I said to myself, “these ‘withouts’ whither my mother betakes herself, and what is it that reigns there of such power as to call her to itself so frequently? But what can that be, which is experienced there, of nature so contrarious that she returns every day diversely moved”

My mother came home, now animated by a deep-seated joy, then again sad, trailing her limbs, and as it were wounded. The joy which she brought back announced itself from afar in certain features of her walk and was shed abroad in her glances. It was communicated throughout my whole being; but her prostration gained on me even more and drew me much farther along those conjectures into which my spirit would go forth. At such moments I was perturbed on account of my own powers, and used to recognise therein a repo that could not dwell alone; then be-taking myself either to whirl my arms about, or to redouble my galloping in the spacious darkness of the cavern, I spurred myself on to discover, by the blows which I struck in the void and the rush of the pace I made, that toward which my arms were intended to reach out and my feet to carry me…. Since then, I have knotted my arms about the bust of centaurs, and the bodies of heroes, and the trunks of oaks; my hands have gained experience of rocks, of waters, of the innumerable plants, and of subtilest impressions from the air; for I lift them up, on blind calm nights, in order that they may take knowledge of any passing breaths and draw from thence signs of augury to determine my path. My feet, behold, O Melampus! how they are worn away! And nevertheless, all numbed as I am in these last remnants of old age, there are days whereon, in broad daylight upon the hilltops, I start off on those racings of my youth in the caverns and to the same end, brandishing my arms and putting forth all that remains of my fleetness.

Those fits of turbulence would alternate with long periods of cessation from all unquiet movement. Straightway, throughout my entire being, I no longer possessed any other sensation save that of growth, and of the gradual progress of life as it mounted within my breast. o more caring to career about, recoiled on an absolute repose, I used to savour in its integrity the boon of the gods working throughout me. Calm and darkness preside over the secret charm of conscious life. Ye glooms, which dwell in caverns of these mountains, to your tendance I owe the underlying education that has so powerfully fostered me, and this, also, that in your keeping I tasted life wholly pure, such as it flows at first, welling from the gods. When I descended from your fastnesses into the light of day, I staggered and saluted it not. For it laid hold on me with violence, making me drunk as some malignant liquor might have done, suddenly poured through my veins; and I felt that my being, till then so compact and simple, underwent shaking and loss, as though it were bound to disperse upon the winds.

O Melampus, by what design of the gods have you, who desire knowledge of the life led by centaurs, been guided to me, the oldest and saddest of the mall? It is now along while that I have ceased from all active share in their life. I no longer leave the heights of this mountain whereon age has confined me. ‘The point of my arrow serves now only to dig up plants of tenacious root. Tranquil lakes know me still, but the rivers have forgotten me.

To you I will impart certain things concerning my youth; but such memories, issuing from a dwindled source, lag like drops of a niggard Libation, falling from a damaged urn. I easily pictured for you my earliest years, because they were calm and perfect; simple life, and that only slaked all craving. Such things are both retained in the mind and recounted without difficulty. If a god were besought to relate his life, it would be done, O Melampus, in two words.

My youth was of wont hurried and full of agitation. I lived for movement and knew no limit to my going. In the pride of my unfettered powers, I wandered about, visiting all parts of these wildernesses. One day as I was following a valley where seldom the centaurs set foot, I came upon a man making his way along by the river, on its opposite bank. He was the first my eyes had chanced upon; I despised him. “There at most,” said I,” is but the half of me! How short his steps are, and how uneasy his gait! His eyes seem to measure space with sadness. Doubtless it is some centaur, degraded by the gods, one whom they have reduced to dragging himself along like that.”

Often, after my day, for relaxation I would seek some river bed. One half of me, beneath the surface, was exerted to keep me up, while the other raised itself tranquility, and I carried my arms idly, out of reach of the waves. Becoming oblivious thus in the midst of the waters, I yielded to the sweep of their course, which would hear me far away, and escort their wild guest past every charm of their hanks. How often, after my day, for relaxation I would seek some river bed. One half of me, beneath the surface, was exerted to keep me up, while the other raised itself tranquilly, and I carried my arms idly, out of reach of the waves. Becoming oblivious thus in the midst of the waters, I yielded to the sweep of their course, which would bear me far away, and escort their wild guest past every smear of their banks. How many times, overtaken by night, have I not followed the stream under the spreading darkness, that let fall, even to the depths of valleys, the nocturnal influence of the gods!

‘Then my head-long life would become tempered till there was left but a faint sense of existence, equably apportioned throughout my whole being; even as throughout the waters in which I was swimming, there was a glimmer infused, shed by that goddess who traverses the night. Melampus, my old age yearns after the rivers; peaceful and monotonous for the most part, they take their appointed way with more calm than centaurs, and with a wisdom more beneficent than that of men. On coming up out of them I was followed by their bounties, which would continue with me for whole days, and take long in dispersing, after the manner of perfumes.

My steps used to beat the disposal of a wild and blind waywardness. In the midst of the most violent racings it would happen that my galop was suddenly broken off, as though meet had stopped short of an abyss, or as though a god stood upright before me. Such sudden immobility would allow me to savour my life thrilled through by the rapture of vigour I had reached. In those days, too, I have cut branches in the forest, that, while running, I held above my head; the swiftness of my motion would suspend the restless foliage, which no longer gave forth any but the faintest rustle; but on the least pause, the wind and tumult re-entered the bough, which again resumed the volume of its wonted murmur.

Thus, my life, on the sudden interruption of the impetuous tush that I could command across these valleys, quivered throughout me. I used to hear it course, all boiling, as it drove on the internal fire which had been kindled by passage through space so ardently traversed. My flanks, exhilarated, opposed the tides by which they were crushed from within, and savoured, during such storms, that luxury, only known else to the shores of the sea, of shutting in, without chance of escape, a life raised to acme pitch and goaded still. Meanwhile, with head inclined to the breeze, which brought me a cool freshness, I contemplated the summits of mountains, distant since a few moments only—I considered too the trees on the banks and the waters in the rivers, these borne on by a lagging flow, those fastened into the bosom of the earth and only so far endowed with movement as their branches are submissive to the breath of air that compels them to sigh.

“Mine only,” I said, “is free motion; at will, I transport my life from one end of these valleys to the other. I am happier than torrents that descend mountains never to re-ascend. The sound of my going is more beautiful than the sighing of woods, or than the noise of waters, and, with a voice as of thunder, bespeaks the wandering centaur, who is his own guide.”

Thus, while my flanks were still possessed by the intoxication of the race, higher up I indulged its pride and, turning my head, remained so, for some time, in contemplation of my smoking crupper. Similar to green and leafy forests teased by winds, Youth heaves to every side with the rich dower of life, and some profound murmur continuously prevails throughout its foliage. Abandoning myself to existence as rivers do, ceaselessly inhaling the effluence of Cybele, were it in the lap of valleys or upon the summit of the mountains, I bounded along every whither, a mere life, blind and at large.

But when the night, replete with the calm of the gods, found me upon the mountain slopes, she constrained me to seek the threshold of some cavern, and soothed me there as she soothes the billows of the sea, permitting survival of such gentle undulations as kept sleep aloof, without however flawing the perfection of repose. Couched on the threshold of my retreat, with flanks hidden in the cavern, and head under the sky, I followed the pageant of the dark hours with my eyes.

Then it was that the foreign life which interpenetrated me during the day, detached itself little by little, returning to the peaceful bosom of Cybele, as, after the downpour, fragments of rain, caught in the foliage, fall, they too, and rejoin the runnels. It is said that the gods of the sea, during the night-watches, quit their palaces in the deep, and, seating themselves on promontories, gaze out over the waves. Even so did I keep watch, having at my feet a live-expanse resembling a sea drowsed to torpor. Rendered back to full and clear consciousness, it would seem to me as though I came forth from a womb, and that the deep waters, which had conceived me, were but just returned from depositing me upon the height of mountains, even as a dolphin is left stranded on quick-sands by the waves of Amphitrite.

My gaze roved freely and pierced to immense distances. Like an ever-humid sea-beach, the range of mountains in the west retained traces of a glory but ill expunged by the darkness. Out there in the wan clearness, persisted, live yet, peaks naked and pure. There I used to watch coming down, now the god Pan, habitually solitary; now a choir of occult divinities; or else a mountain nymph would pass, intoxicated by the night. Sometimes the eagles of Mount Olympus traversed the highest heaven and melted away among remote constellations, or vanished, dipping under the inspired woods. The potency of the gods, suddenly rousing into activity, troubled the calm of the old oaks.

You pursue wisdom, 0 Melampus, wisdom which is science concerning the will of the gods; and you wander among the nations like a mortal turned from his true path by the destinies. There is hereabouts a stone which, so soon as it is touched, gives forth a sound like to that of the snaping chord of an instrument, and men tell how Apollo, having set down his lyre on this stone, left therein that melodious cry. O Melampus! the wandering gods have rested their lyres upon stones, but none-none has ever forgotten his there.

Of old, when I used to keep the night-watches in the caverns, I have sometimes believed that I was about to overhear the dreams of sleeping Cybele, and that the mother of the gods, betrayed by a vision, would let secrets escape her; but I have never made out more than sounds which dissolved in the breath of night, or words inarticulate as the bubbling hum of rivers.

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“O Macareus,” said to me one day the great Chiron, whom I was accustomed to follow in his old age, “both of us are mountain-bred centaurs, but how diverse are we in our habits! As you see, all the study of my days is given to discovery of plants, but you resemble those mortals who have picked up on the waters or in the woods, and carried to their lips, fragments of some reed-pipe broken by god Pan; thenceforth those mortals, having inhaled from such relics of the god a zest for wild life, or being seized on by some occult frenzy, enter the wilderness, plunge into forests, keep company with running waters, or become involved among the mountains, restless, and carried forward on some unconscious enterprise. Mares, paramours of the wind in farthest Scythia, are not wilder than you, nor more downcast at nightfall, when Aquilo has withdrawn him­ self.

Search you after the gods, O Macareus, inquisitive as to whence are derived men, animals and the elements of universal fire. But the old Ocean, father of all things, keepeth these secrets to himself, and, chanting, the nymphs ring him round in an eternal choir, that they may drown whatever might else escape from his lips parted in slumber. Mortals, who by reason of virtue have touched the gods, have received from their hands lyres where… with to charm nations, or the seeds of new plants wherewith to enrich them; but from their inexorable lips, nothing.

In my youth Apollo inclined my heart toward the plants, and taught me how to despoil their veins of cordial juices. Since then, I have remained faithful to these mountains, my grand abode, restless, but turning with ever renewed application to the quest for simples, and to making known the virtues that I discover. Do you see yonder the bald crown of Mount Oeta? Alcides stripped it in order to construct his pyre. O Macareus! that heroes, children of the gods, should spread out the spoil of lions upon their pyres, and burn themselves to death upon the mountain tops! that the infections of earth should so ravage blood derived from the immortals. And we, centaurs, begotten by an insolent mortal in the womb of a cloud which had the semblance of a goddess, what help should we look for from Jupiter, whose thunderbolt struck down the father of our race! By the god’s decree a vulture eternally tears at the entrails of him who fashioned the first man. O Macareus! Men and centaurs alike recognise, in the authors of their race, subtracters from the privileges of immortals, apart from whom, perhaps, all that moves is only a petty theft-mere dust of their essence, borne abroad, like seed that floats in the air, by the almighty current of destiny. It is noised about, that Aegeus, father of Theseus, hid, under the weight of a boulder by the sea-side, remembrances and tokens by which his son might on a future day, recognise his parentage. Somewhere the jealous gods have buried the evidences of universal descent; but by the shore of what sea have they rolled to the stone that covers them, O Macareus?”

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Such was the wisdom toward which the great Chiron inclined my heart. Brought down to the extreme verge of old age, that centaur used still to foster in his spirit the loftiest discourse. His bust, vigorous yet, had but little settled back upon his flanks, slightly inclined o’er which, it rose like an oak saddened by the winds; and the firmness of his step had scarcely been shaken in the course of years. One might have said that he still kept some remnants of the immortality received by him in time past from Apollo, but which he had delivered back to the god.

As for me, O Melampus, I decline into old age calmly, as do the setting constellations. Though I preserve vigour enough to enable me to gain the summit of crags, whereon I be late myself at nightfall, be it to consider the restless and inconstant clouds, be it to watch mounting up from, the horizon the rainy Hyades, the Pleiades or the giant Orion; none the less I perceive that I dwindle away and suffer loss rapidly, even as a clot of snow floating on a stream, and that in a little I shall make hence, to be mingled with the rivers that take their way across the vast bosom of the earth.’

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(1966) Mythology Notes

by Professor Robert W. Newcomb

To lend insight into the meaning of the above text we here, very briefly, review the mythological tales relating to it; page numbers refer to the source: E. Hamilton, “Mythology,” The New American Library, New York, 1953.

1. Melampus (p. 295): A famous diviner and soothsayer who learned the language of flying and creeping creatures from two snakes he raised as pets.

2. Cybele (pp, 65, 326): A Phrygian goddess, often called the “Great Mother” and often identified with Rhea, the mother of Zeus and sister-queen of Cronus the lord of the universe.

3. Syrtes: Gulfs north of Africa,

4. Amphitrite (pp. 28, 38): Wife of Poseidon (in Roman, Neptune) the lord of the Mediterranean and Black Seas and underground rivers. The granddaughter of the Titan Ocean and one of the fifty nymphs of the sea as a daughter, of Nereus and Doris (the daughter of Ocean).

5. Pan (p. 40): A deity of earth, part animal with goat’s horns and hoofs; the goatherds’ and shepherds’ god and companion of wood nymphs. Perhaps best known for his sweet and melodic music.

6. Mount Olympus (p, 25): Home of the twelve great Greek gods and often identified with the highest mountain in Thessaly.

7. Apollo (p. 30): The son of Zeus and Leto; the God of Light and Truth; the archer-God; the Healer and Master Musician; a beautiful figure who served as a link between men and gods.

8. Chiron (pp. 43, 73, 291): The best-known centaur, who were generally violent half man, half horse; but Chiron was known for his goodness and wisdom. He was entrusted to teach the sons of heroes (as Achilles). Though immortal he volunteered his life to free Prometheus from his bonds,

9. Scythia: A region, now in southern Russia, where an ancient and savage people roamed.

10. Aquilo (p. 43): Latin for Boreas, the North Wind.

11. Ocean (pp. 25, 67}: A noble Titan who was the great river that flowed around the earth and on whose bank abode the souls of the righteous dead, The gods of all rivers were his sons through his wife Tethys.

12. Mount Oeta (p. 171}: A mountain in Greece, south of Thessaly, today called Katavothra, on which Hercules ordered a pyre for his death.

13. Alcides (p. 161): The boyhood name of Hercules, used to hide his descendance from Zeus. His history is rich with his hero status being based on his unsurpassed physical strength,

14. Jupiter (pp, 25, 65): Roman name for Zeus, the ruler of heaven and earth, who, as the son of Cronus and Rhea, captured the Titans.

15. The Vulture (p. 72): That which, though sometimes called an eagle, tore at Prometheus, the Titan who sided with Zeus in the defeat of the Titans. Prometheus was instrumental in the creation of man and because of his refusal to disclose a secret to Zeus, was hung on a cliff and so tortured until released by Chiron.

16. Aegeus (p. 149): An Athenian King, and the father of Theseus who hid a sword and shoes under a stone to be recovered by Theseus when of age to disclose his royal lineage.

17. Theseus (p, 149): The greatest of Athenian heroes who, though of strength, as Hercules, often conquered by intellectual power. His adventures and accomplishments are many and make for rich reading.

18. Hyades (pp, 55, 293): Nymphs which took care of Zeus’ child, Dionysus, by Semele in the valley Nysa, where no man has set eyes or foot, As a reward for this care, these six daughters of Atlas and half-sisters of the Pleiades were set in the stars as the stars of rain which they bring on when near the horizon,

19. Pleiades (p. 297): Seven daughters of Atlas which were placed in heaven
by Zeus as a consequence of the constant but unsuccessful pursuit of Orion,

20. Orion (p. 297): A mighty hunter of great beauty and size put into a deep sleep by Dionysus for insulting Aero whom he loved. On death he became a constellation and continued his pursuit of the Pleiades.

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Original French

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‘J’ai reçu la naissance dans les antres de ces montagnes. Comme le fleuve de cette vallée dont les gouttes primitives coulent de quelque roche qui pleure dans une grotte profonde, le premier instant de ma vie tomba dans les ténèbres d’un séjour reculé et sans troubler son silence. Quand nos mères approchent de leur délivrance, elles s’écartent vers les cavernes, et dans le fond des plus sauvages, au plus épais de l’ombre, elles enfantent sans élever une plainte des fruits silencieux comme elles-mêmes. Leur lait puissant nous fait surmonter sans langueur ni lutte douteuse les premières difficultés de la vie ; et cependant nous sortons de nos cavernes plus tard que vous de vos berceaux. C’est qu’il est répandu parmi nous qu’il faut soustraire et envelopper les premiers temps de l’existence, comme des jours remplis par les dieux.

Mon accroissement eut son cours presque entier dans les ombres où j’étais né. Le fond de mon séjour se trouvait si avancé dans l’épaisseur de la montagne, que j’eusse ignoré le côté de l’issue, si, détournant quelquefois dans cette ouverture, les vents n’y eussent jeté des fraîcheurs et des troubles soudains. Quelquefois aussi, ma mère rentrait, environnée du parfum des vallées ou ruisselante des flots qu’elle fréquentait. Or, ces retours qu’elle faisait, sans m’instruire jamais des vallons ni des fleuves, mais suivie de leurs émanations, inquiétaient mes esprits, et je rôdais tout agité dans mes ombres. Quels sont-ils, me disais-je, ces dehors où ma mère s’emporte, et qu’y règne-t-il de si puissant qui l’appelle à soi si fréquemment ? Mais qu’y ressent-on de si opposé qu’elle en revienne chaque jour diversement émue ? Ma mère rentrait, tantôt animée d’une joie profonde, et tantôt triste et traînante et comme blessée. La joie qu’elle rapportait se marquait de loin dans quelques traits de sa marche et s’épandait de ses regards. J’en éprouvais des communications dans tout mon sein ; mais ses abattemens me gagnaient bien davantage et m’entraînaient bien plus avant dans les conjectures où mon esprit se portait.

Dans ces momens, je m’inquiétais de mes forces, j’y reconnaissais une puissance qui ne pouvait demeurer solitaire, et me prenant, soit à secouer mes bras, soit à multiplier mon galop dans les ombres spacieuses de la caverne, je m’efforçais de découvrir dans les coups que je frappais au vide, et par l’emportement des pas que j’y faisais, vers quoi mes bras devaient s’étendre et mes pieds m’emporter… Depuis, j’ai noué mes bras autour du buste des centaures, et du corps des héros, et du tronc des chênes ; mes mains ont tenté les rochers, les eaux, les plantes innombrables et les plus subtiles impressions de l’air, car je les élève dans les nuits aveugles et calmes pour qu’elles surprennent les souffles et en tirent des signes pour augurer mon chemin ; mes pieds, voyez, ô Mélampe, comme ils sont usés ! Et cependant, tout glacé que je suis dans ces extrémités de l’âge, il est des jours où, en pleine lumière, sur les sommets, j’agite de ces courses de ma jeunesse dans la caverne, et pour le même dessein, brandissant mes bras et employant tous les restes de ma rapidité.

Ces troubles alternaient avec de longues absences de tout mouvement inquiet. Dès-lors, je ne possédais plus d’autre sentiment dans mon être entier que celui de la croissance et des degrés de vie qui montaient dans mon sein. Ayant perdu l’amour de l’emportement, et retiré dans un repos absolu, je goûtais sans altération le bienfait des dieux qui se répandait en moi. Le calme et les ombres président au charme secret du sentiment de la vie. Ombres qui habitez les cavernes de ces montagnes, je dois à vos soins silencieux l’éducation cachée qui m’a si fortement nourri, et d’avoir, sous votre garde, goûté la vie toute pure et telle qu’elle me venait sortant du sein des dieux ! Quand je descendis de votre asile dans la lumière du jour, je chancelai et ne la saluai pas, car elle s’empara de moi avec violence, m’enivrant comme eût fait une liqueur funeste soudainement versée dans mon sein, et j’éprouvai que mon être, jusque-là si ferme et si simple, s’ébranlait et perdait beaucoup de lui-même, comme s’il eût dû se disperser dans les vents.

Ô Mélampe, qui voulez savoir la vie des centaures, par quelle volonté des dieux avez-vous été guidé vers moi, le plus vieux et le plus triste de tous ? Il y a long temps que je n’exerce plus rien de leur vie. Je ne quitte plus ce sommet de montagne où l’âge m’a confiné. La pointe de mes flèches ne me sert plus qu’à déraciner les plantes tenaces ; les lacs tranquilles me connaissent encore, mais les fleuves m’ont oublié. Je vous dirai quelques points de ma jeunesse ; mais ces souvenirs, issus d’une mémoire altérée, se traînent comme les flots d’une libation avare en tombant d’une urne endommagée. Je vous ai exprimé aisément les premières années, parce qu’elles furent calmes et parfaites ; c’était la vie seule et simple qui m’abreuvait, cela se retient et se récite sans peine. Un dieu, supplié de raconter sa vie, la mettrait en deux mots, ô Mélampe.

L’usage de ma jeunesse fut rapide et rempli d’agitation. Je vivais de mouvement et ne connaissais pas de borne à mes pas. Dans la fierté de mes forces libres, j’errais m’étendant de toutes parts dans ces déserts. Un jour que je suivais une vallée où s’engagent peu les centaures, je découvris un homme qui côtoyait le fleuve sur la rive contraire. C’était le premier qui s’offrît à ma vue, je le méprisai. Voilà tout au plus, me dis-je, la moitié de mon être ! Que ses pas sont courts et sa démarche malaisée ! Ses yeux semblent mesurer l’espace avec tristesse. Sans doute c’est un centaure renversé par les dieux et qu’ils ont réduit à se traîner ainsi.

Je me délassais souvent de mes journées dans le lit des fleuves. Une moitié de moi-même, cachée dans les eaux, s’agitait pour les surmonter, tandis que l’autre s’élevait tranquille et que je portais mes bras oisifs bien au-dessus des flots. Je m’oubliais ainsi au milieu des ondes, cédant aux entraînemens de leur cours qui m’emmenait au loin et conduisait leur hôte sauvage à tous les charmes des rivages. Combien de fois, surpris par la nuit, j’ai suivi les courans sous les ombres qui se répandaient, déposant jusque dans le fond des vallées l’influence nocturne des dieux ! Ma vie fougueuse se tempérait alors au point de ne laisser plus qu’un léger sentiment de mon existence répandu par tout mon être avec une égale mesure, comme, dans les eaux où je nageais, les lueurs de la déesse qui parcourt les nuits. Mélampe, ma vieillesse regrette les fleuves ; paisibles la plupart et monotones, ils suivent leur destinée avec plus de calme que les centaures, et une sagesse plus bienfaisante que celle des hommes. Quand je sortais de leur sein, j’étais suivi de leurs dons qui m’accompagnaient des jours entiers et ne se retiraient qu’avec lenteur, à la manière des parfums.

Une inconstance sauvage et aveugle disposait de mes pas. Au milieu des courses les plus violentes, il m’arrivait de rompre subitement mon galop, comme si un abîme se fût rencontré à mes pieds, ou bien un dieu debout devant moi. Ces immobilités soudaines me laissaient ressentir ma vie tout émue par les emportemens où j’étais. Autrefois j’ai coupé dans les forêts des rameaux qu’en courant j’élevais par-dessus ma tête ; la vitesse de la course suspendait la mobilité du feuillage qui ne rendait plus qu’un frémissement léger ; mais au moindre repos le vent et l’agitation rentraient dans le rameau qui reprenait le cours de ses murmures. Ainsi ma vie, à l’interruption subite des carrières impétueuses que je fournissais à travers ces vallées, frémissait dans tout mon sein. Je l’entendais courir en bouillonnant et rouler le feu qu’elle avait pris dans l’espace ardemment franchi. Mes flancs animés luttaient contre ses flots dont ils étaient pressés intérieurement, et goûtaient dans ces tempêtes la volupté qui n’est connue que des rivages de la mer, de renfermer sans aucune perte une vie montée à son comble et irritée.

Cependant, la tête inclinée au vent qui m’apportait le frais, je considérais la cime des montagnes devenues lointaines en quelques instans, les arbres des rivages et les eaux des fleuves, celles-ci portées d’un cours traînant, ceux-là attachés dans le sein de la terre, et mobiles seulement par leurs branchages soumis aux souffles de l’air qui les font gémir. « Moi seul, me disais-je, j’ai le mouvement libre, et j’emporte à mon gré ma vie de l’un à l’autre bout de ces vallées. Je suis plus heureux que les torrens qui tombent des montagnes pour n’y plus remonter. Le roulement de mes pas est plus beau que les plaintes des bois et que les bruits de l’onde ; c’est le retentissement du centaure errant et qui se guide lui-même. » Ainsi, tandis que mes flancs agités possédaient l’ivresse de la course, plus haut j’en ressentais l’orgueil, et détournant la tête, je m’arrêtais quelque temps à considérer ma croupe fumante.

La jeunesse est semblable aux forêts verdoyantes tourmentées par les vents : elle agite de tous côtés les riches présens de la vie, et toujours quelque profond murmure règne dans son feuillage. Vivant avec l’abandon des fleuves, respirant sans cesse Cybèle, soit dans le lit des vallées, soit à la cime des montagnes, je bondissais partout comme une vie aveugle et déchaînée. Mais lorsque la nuit, remplie du calme des dieux, me trouvait sur le penchant des monts, elle me conduisait à l’entrée des cavernes et m’y apaisait comme elle apaise les vagues de la mer, laissant survivre en moi de légères ondulations qui écartaient le sommeil sans altérer mon repos. Couché sur le seuil de ma retraite, les flancs cachés dans l’antre et la tête sous le ciel, je suivais le spectacle des ombres.

Alors la vie étrangère qui m’avait pénétré durant le jour se détachait de moi goutte à goutte, retournant au sein paisible de Cybèle, comme après l’ondée les débris de la pluie attachée aux feuillages font leur chute et rejoignent les eaux. On dit que les dieux marins quittent durant les ombres leurs palais profonds, et, s’asseyant sur les promontoires, étendent leurs regards sur les flots. Ainsi je veillais ayant à mes pieds une étendue de vie semblable à la mer assoupie. Rendu à l’existence distincte et pleine, il me paraissait que je sortais de naître, et que des eaux profondes et qui m’avaient conçu dans leur sein venaient de me laisser sur le haut de la montagne, comme un dauphin oublié sur les sirtes par les flots d’Amphitrite.

Mes regards couraient librement et gagnaient les points les plus éloignés. Comme des rivages toujours humides, le cours des montagnes du couchant demeurait empreint de lueurs mal essuyées par les ombres. Là survivaient, dans les clartés pâles, des sommets nus et purs. Là, je voyais descendre tantôt le dieu Pan, toujours solitaire, tantôt le chœur des divinités secrètes, ou passer quelque nymphe des montagnes enivrée par la nuit. Quelquefois les aigles du mont Olympe traversaient le haut du ciel et s’évanouissaient dans les constellations reculées ou sous les bois inspirés. L’esprit des dieux, venant à s’agiter, troublait soudainement le calme des vieux chênes.

Vous poursuivez la sagesse, ô Mélampe ! qui est la science de la volonté des dieux, et vous errez parmi les peuples comme un mortel égaré par les destinées. Il est dans ces lieux une pierre qui, dès qu’on la touche, rend un son semblable à celui des cordes d’un instrument qui se rompent, et les hommes racontent qu’Apollon, qui chassait son troupeau dans ces déserts, ayant mis sa lyre sur cette pierre, y laissa cette mélodie. Ô Mélampe, les dieux errans ont posé leur lyre sur les pierres, mais aucun… aucun ne l’y a oubliée. Au temps où je veillais dans les cavernes, j’ai cru quelquefois que j’allais surprendre les rêves de Cybèle endormie, et que la mère des dieux, trahie par les songes, perdrait quelques secrets ; mais je n’ai jamais reconnu que des sons qui se dissolvaient dans le souffle de la nuit, ou des mots inarticulés comme le bouillonnement des fleuves.

« Ô Macarée, me dit un jour le grand Chiron dont je suivais la vieillesse, nous sommes tous deux centaures des montagnes, mais que nos pratiques sont opposées ! Vous le voyez, tous les soins de mes journées consistent dans la recherche des plantes, et vous, vous êtes semblable à ces mortels qui ont recueilli sur les eaux ou dans les bois et porté à leurs lèvres quelques fragmens du chalumeau rompu par le dieu Pan. Dès-lors ces mortels, ayant respiré dans ces débris du dieu un esprit sauvage ou peut-être gagné quelque fureur secrète, entrent dans les déserts, se plongent aux forêts, côtoient les eaux, se mêlent aux montagnes, inquiets et portés d’un dessein inconnu. Les cavales aimées par les vents dans la Scythie la plus lointaine, ne sont ni plus farouches que vous, ni plus tristes le soir, quand l’Aquilon s’est retiré. Cherchez-vous les dieux, ô Macarée, et d’où sont issus les hommes, les animaux et les principes du feu universel ? Mais le vieil Océan, père de toutes choses, retient en lui-même ces secrets, et les nymphes qui l’entourent décrivent en chantant un chœur éternel devant lui, pour couvrir ce qui pourrait s’évader de ses lèvres entr’ouvertes par le sommeil. Les mortels qui touchèrent les dieux par leur vertu, ont reçu de leurs mains des lyres pour charmer les peuples, ou des semences nouvelles pour les enrichir, mais rien de leur bouche inexorable.

« Dans ma jeunesse, Apollon m’inclina vers les plantes, et m’apprit à dépouiller dans leurs veines les sucs bienfaisans. Depuis j’ai gardé fidèlement la grande demeure de ces montagnes, inquiet, mais me détournant sans cesse à la quête des simples, et communiquant les vertus que je découvre. Voyez-vous d’ici la cime chauve du mont Œta ? Alcide l’a dépouillée pour construire son bûcher. Ô Macarée ! les demi-dieux enfans des dieux étendent la dépouille des lions sur les bûchers, et se consument au sommet des montagnes ! les poisons de la terre infectent le sang reçu des immortels ! Et nous, centaures engendrés par un mortel audacieux dans le sein d’une vapeur semblable à une déesse, qu’attendrions-nous du secours de Jupiter, qui a foudroyé le père de notre race ? Le vautour des dieux déchire éternellement les entrailles de l’ouvrier qui forma le premier homme. Ô Macarée ! hommes et centaures reconnaissent pour auteurs de leur sang des soustracteurs du privilége des immortels, et peut-être que tout ce qui se meut hors d’eux-mêmes n’est qu’un larcin qu’on leur a fait, qu’un léger débris de leur nature emporté au loin, comme la semence qui vole, par le souffle tout puissant du destin. On publie qu’Égée, père de Thésée, cacha sous le poids d’une roche, au bord de la mer, des souvenirs et des marques à quoi son fils pût un jour reconnaître sa naissance. Les dieux jaloux ont enfoui quelque part les témoignages de la descendance des choses ; mais au bord de quel océan ont-ils roulé la pierre qui les couvre, ô Macarée !’

Telle était la sagesse où me portait le grand Chiron. Réduit à la dernière vieillesse, le centaure nourrissait dans son esprit les plus hauts discours. Son buste encore hardi s’affaissait à peine sur ses flancs qu’il surmontait en marquant une légère inclinaison, comme un chêne attristé par les vents, et la force de ses pas souffrait à peine de la perte des années. On eût dit qu’il retenait des restes de l’immortalité autrefois reçue d’Apollon, mais qu’il avait rendue à ce dieu.

Pour moi, ô Mélampe, je décline dans la vieillesse, calme comme le coucher des constellations. Je garde encore assez de hardiesse pour gagner le haut des rochers où je m’attarde soit à considérer les nuages sauvages et inquiets, soit à voir venir de l’horizon les hyades pluvieuses, les pléiades ou le grand Orion ; mais je reconnais que je me réduis et me perds rapidement comme une neige flottant sur les eaux, et que prochainement j’irai me mêler aux fleuves qui coulent dans le vaste sein de la terre.’

***

More about Maurice de Guerin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_de_Guérin🌿More about Henri Bellery-Desfontaines: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Bellery-Desfontaines 🌿 More about Thomas Sturge Moore: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Sturge_Moore 🌿 More about professor Robert W. Newcomb: https://user.eng.umd.edu/~newcomb 🌿 Professor Newcomb 1966 study and alternative translation of ‘ The Centaur’: https://user.eng.umd.edu/~newcomb/creative_works/TR1_Le_Centaure_translation.pdf
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