In 1832, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited the Père La Chaise cemetery in Paris which he compares to the Westminster Abbey in London; both are dwellings of the dead, but one is a temple of art and the other a temple of nature. He wrote about his visit in the chapter “Père La Chaise” in Outre-Mer.
Has the Père La Chaise changed much since that time? Not really.
The great French philosophers, historians, musicians, warriors, poets and military heroes have continued to be interred and honored here. These statesmen who exalted the character of their native land with “political intrigue, the dream of science, the historical research, the ravishing harmony of sound, the tried courage, and the inspiration of the lyre”—they leave behind grand memorials which will remind us of their valor (Père La Chaise,80).
The right hand has lost its cunning in the grave; but the soul, whose high volitions it obeyed still lives to reproduce itself in ages yet to come.–Longfellow
I was introduced to Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Honoré de Balzac’s famous novel, Père Goriot (1835). At the end of this novel the protagonist Rastignac stands by Goriot’s grave and looks out onto the city of Paris. Fifteen years after writing this novel, Balzac was buried in this same cemetery. I first visited Balzac’s grave in 2006 to try and identify what the author was imagining as he wrote this doleful scene of at the end of Père Goriot’s life in which his protagonist, Rastignac, gives a challenge from a view of Paris: “A nous deux maintenant!” (It is between us now)
Longfellow also stood on this summit of the hill in Père La Chaise and looked out over the city of Paris. These were his reflections:
“Beneath me in the distance…rose the countless roofs and spires of the city. The distant murmur of the city rose upon my ear, and the toll of the evening bell came up, mingled with the rattle of the paved street and the confused sounds of labor. What a contrast between the metropolis of the living and the metropolis of the dead” (90).
Like most tourists, my first visit to Père La Chaise cemetery was a treasure hunt: try to find as many memorials plotted on a very confusing map before my feet wore out. As I was new to French history and culture, I relied on the suggestions from the “tour guides” such as: Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Moliere, Abélard and Héloise, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Chopin, etc.
However, the more I studied French history and culture, each subsequent visit to this temple of nature became more meaningful.
My new searches included the great artists Gustave Caillebotte and Georges Seurat; literary figures La Fontaine, Zola, Proust; and men of science Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Georges Cuvier, founder of paleontology and cetology; Melville used his research for Moby-Dick.
In « Père La Chaise », Longfellow doesn’t spend much time on these memorials. Most of these great men and women that are buried in Père Lachaise were still living or had not even been born. Instead, Longfellow describes the beauty and serenity of his walks through this historic landmark, a repose in green alleys beneath the open sky:
“ In Père La Chaise, the soft melancholy of the scene is rendered still more touching by the warble of birds and the shade of trees, and the grave receives the gentle visit of the sunshine and the shower. There are numerous gravel-walks, winding through shady avenues and between marble monuments; a thick mass of foliage half conceals each funeral stone; the sighing of the wind, as the branches rise and fall upon it,–the occasional note of a bird among the trees, and shifting of light and shade upon the tombs beneath, have a soothing effect upon the mind. A pathway in the deep shade of heavy foliage, where the branches of the yew and willow mingled, interwoven with the tendrils and blossoms of the honeysuckle. Beyond the level rays athwart the dusky landscape, sank the broad red sun”(83, 84).
In Longfellow’s last, parting look as he was leaving the cemetery, he can distinguish only a chapel on the summit of the hill; atop this chapel is “a lofty obelisk of snow-white marble, rising from the black and heavy mass of foliage around, and pointing upward to the gleam of the departed sun, that still lingered in the sky, and mingled with the soft starlight of a summer evening”(92).
In the Père Lachaise Cemetery, two great writers were awakened with deep emotions in their hearts and I with a new appreciation for a great temple of nature.
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Longfellow, Henry W. Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea. Philadelphia: McKay Publisher. 1892.