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FABRE, POET OF SCIENCE
by DR. G.-V. LEGROS.
“De fimo ad excelsa.”
WITH A PREFACE BY JEAN-HENRI FABRE.
TRANSLATED BY BERNARD MIALL.
The good friend who has so successfully terminated the task which he felt a vocation to undertake thought it would be of advantage to complete it by presenting to the reader a picture both of my life as a whole and of the work which it has been given me to accomplish.
The better to accomplish his undertaking, he abstracted from my correspondence, as well as from the long conversations which we have so often enjoyed together, a great number of those memories of varying importance which serve as landmarks in life; above all in a life like mine, not exempt from many cares, yet not very fruitful in incidents or great vicissitudes, since it has been passed very largely, in especial during the last thirty years, in the most absolute retirement and the completest silence.
Moreover, it was not unimportant to warn the public against the errors, exaggerations, and legends which have collected about my person, and thus to set all things in their true light.
In undertaking this task my devoted disciple has to some extent been able to replace those “Memoirs” which he suggested that I should write, and which only my bad health has prevented me from undertaking; for I feel that henceforth I am done with wide horizons and “far-reaching thoughts.”
And yet on reading now the old letters which he has exhumed from a mass of old yellow papers, and which he has presented and co-ordinated with so pious a care, it seems to me that in the depths of my being I can still feel rising in me all the fever of my early years, all the enthusiasm of long ago, and that I should still be no less ardent a worker were not the weakness of my eyes and the failure of my strength to-day an insurmountable obstacle.
Thoroughly grasping the fact that one cannot write a biography without entering into the sphere of those ideas which alone make a life interesting, he has revived around me that world which I have so long contemplated, and summarized in a striking epitome, and as a strict interpreter, my methods (which are, as will be seen, within the reach of all), my ideas, and the whole body of my works and discoveries; and despite the obvious difficulty which such an attempt would appear to present, he has succeeded most wonderfully in achieving the most lucid, complete, and vital exposition of these matters that I could possibly have wished.
November 12, 1911.
CHAPTER 1. THE INTUITION OF NATURE.
CHAPTER 2. THE PRIMARY TEACHER.
CHAPTER 3. CORSICA.
CHAPTER 4. AT AVIGNON.
CHAPTER 5. A GREAT TEACHER.
CHAPTER 6. THE HERMITAGE.
CHAPTER 7. THE INTERPRETATION OF NATURE.
CHAPTER 8. THE MIRACLE OF INSTINCT.
CHAPTER 9. EVOLUTION OR “TRANSFORMISM.”
CHAPTER 10. THE ANIMAL MIND.
CHAPTER 11. HARMONIES AND DISCORDS.
CHAPTER 12. THE TRANSLATION OF NATURE.
CHAPTER 13. THE EPIC OF ANIMAL LIFE.
CHAPTER 14. PARALLEL LIVES.
CHAPTER 15. THE EVENINGS AT SÉRIGNAN.
CHAPTER 16. TWILIGHT.
Here I offer to the public the life of Jean-Henri Fabre; at once an admiring commentary upon his work and an act of pious homage, such as ought to be offered, while he lives, to the great naturalist who is even to-day so little known.
Hitherto it was not easy to speak of Henri Fabre with exactitude. An enemy to all advertisement, he has so discreetly held himself withdrawn that one might almost say that he has encouraged, by his silence, many doubtful or unfounded rumours, which in course of time would become even more incorrect.
For example, although quite recently his material situation was presented in the gloomiest of lights, while it had really for some time ceased to be precarious, it is none the less true that during his whole life he has had to labour prodigiously in order to earn a little money to feed and rear his family, to the great detriment of his scientific inquiries; and we cannot but regret that he was not freed from all material cares at least twenty years earlier than was the case.
But he was not one to speak of his troubles to the first comer; and it was only after the sixth volume of the “Souvenirs entomologiques” had appeared that his reserve was somewhat mitigated. Yet it was necessary that he should speak of these troubles, that he should tell everything; and, thanks to his conversation and his letters, I have been able to revive the past.
Among the greatest of my pleasures I count the notable honour of having known him, and intimately. As an absorbed and attentive witness I was present at the accomplishment of his last labours; I watched his last years of work, so critical, so touching, so forsaken, before his ultimate resurrection. What fruitful and suggestive lessons I learned in his company, as we paced the winding paths of his Harmas; or while I sat beside him, at his patriarchal table, interrogating that memory of his, so rich in remembrances that even the remotest events of his life were as near to him as those that had only then befallen him; so that the majority of the judgments to be found in this book, of which not a line has been written without his approval, may be regarded as the direct emanation of his mind.
As far as possible I have allowed him to speak himself. Has he not sketched the finest pages of his “biography of a solitary student” in those racy chapters of his “Souvenirs”: those in which he has developed his genesis as a naturalist and the history of the evolution of his ideas? (Introduction/1.) In all cases I have only introduced such indications as were essential to complete the sequence of events. It would have been idle to re-tell in the same terms what every one may read elsewhere, or to repeat in different and less happy terms what Fabre himself has told so well.
I have therefore applied myself more especially to filling the gaps which he has left, by listening to his conversation, by appealing to his memories, by questioning his contemporaries, by recording the impressions of his sometime pupils. I have endeavoured to assemble all these data, in order to authenticate them, and have also gleaned many facts among his manuscripts (Introduction/2.), and have had recourse to all that portion of his correspondence which fortunately fell into my hands.
This correspondence, to be truthful, does not appear at any time to have been very assiduous. Fabre, as we shall see in the story of his life (Introduction/3.), disliked writing letters, both in his studious youth and during the later period of isolation and silence.
On the other hand, although he wrote but little, he never wrote with difficulty or as a mere matter of duty. Among all the letters which I have succeeded in collecting there are scarcely any that are not of interest from one point of view or another. No frivolous narratives, no futile acquaintances, no commonplace intimacies; everything in his life is serious, and everything makes for a goal.
But we must set apart, as surpassing all others in interest, the letters which Fabre addressed to his brother during the years spent as schoolmaster at Carpentras or Ajaccio; for these are more especially instructive in respect of the almost unknown years of his youth; these most of all reveal his personality and are one of the finest illustrations that could be given of his life, a true poem of energy and disinterested labour.
I have to thank M. Frédéric Fabre, who, in his fraternal piety, has generously placed all his family records at my disposal, and also his two sons, my dear friends Antonin Fabre, councillor at the Court of Nîmes, and Henri Fabre, of Avignon, for these precious documents; and I take this opportunity of expressing my profound gratitude.
Let me at the same time thank all those who have associated themselves with my efforts by supplying me with letters in their possession and furnishing me with personal information; and in particular Mme Henry Devillario, M. Achard, and M. J. Belleudy, ex-prefect of Vaucluse; not forgetting M. Louis Charrasse, teacher at Beaumont-d’Orange, and M. Vayssières, professor of the Faculty of Sciences at Marseilles, all of whom I have to thank for personal and intimate information.
I must also express my gratitude to M. Henri Bergson, Professor Bouvier, and the learned M. Paul Marchal for the advice and the valuable suggestions which they offered me during the preparation of this book.
I shall feel fully repaid for my pains if this “Life” of one of the greatest of the world’s naturalists, by enabling men to know him better, also leads them to love him the more.
FABRE, POET OF SCIENCE.
CHAPTER 1. THE INTUITION OF NATURE.
Each thing created, says Emerson, has its painter or its poet. Like the enchanted princess of the fairy-tales, it awaits its predestined liberator.
Every part of nature has its mystery and its beauty, its logic and its explanation; and the epigraph given me by Fabre himself, which appears on the title-page of this volume, is in no way deceptive. The tiny insects buried in the soil or creeping over leaf or blade have for him been sufficient to evoke the most important, the most fascinating problems, and have revealed a whole world of miracle and poetry.
He saw the light at Saint-Léons, a little commune of the canton of Vezins in the Haut Rouergue, on the 22nd December, 1823, some seven years earlier than Mistral, his most famous neighbour, the greater lustre of whose celebrity was to eclipse his own.
Here he essayed his earliest steps; here he stammered his first syllables.
His early childhood, however, was passed almost wholly at Malaval, a tiny hamlet in the parish of Lavaysse, whose belfry was visible at quite a short distance; but to reach it one had to travel nearly twenty-five rough, mountainous miles, through a whole green countryside; green, but bare, and lacking in charm. (1/1.)
All his paternal forebears came from Malaval, and thence one day his father, Antoine Fabre, came to dwell at Saint-Léons, as a consequence of his marriage with the daughter of the huissier, Victoire Salgues, and in order to prepare himself, as working apprentice, in the tricks and quibbles of the law. (1/2.)
In the roads of Malaval, bordered with brambles, in the glades of bracken, and amid the meadows of broom, he received his first impressions of nature. At Malaval too lived his grandmother, the good old woman who could lull him to sleep at night with beautiful stories and simple legends, while she wound her distaff or spun her bobbin.
But what were all these imaginary marvels, what were the ogres who smelt fresh meat, or “the fairies who turned pumpkins into coaches and lizards into footmen” beside all the marvels of reality, which already he was beginning to perceive?
For above all things he was born a poet: a poet by instinct and by vocation. From his earliest childhood, “the brain hardly released from the swaddling-bands of unconsciousness,” the things of the outer world left a profound and living impression. As far back as he can remember, while still quite a child, “a little monkey of six, still dressed in a little baize frock,” or just “wearing his first braces,” he sees himself “in ecstasy before the splendours of the wing-cases of a gardener-beetle, or the wings of a butterfly.” At nightfall, among the bushes, he learned to recognize the chirp of the grasshopper. To put it in his own words, “he made for the flowers and insects as the Pieris makes for the cabbage and the Vanessa makes for the nettle.” The riches of the rocks; the life which swarms in the depth of the waters; the world of plants and animals, that “prodigious poem; all nature filled him with curiosity and wonder.” “A voice charmed him; untranslatable; sweeter than language and vague as a dream.” (1/3.)
These peculiarities are all the more astonishing in that they seem to be absolutely spontaneous and in nowise hereditary. What his parents were he himself has told us: small farmers, cultivating a little unprofitable land; poor “husbandmen, sowers of rye, cowherds”; and in the wretched surroundings of his childhood, when the only light, of an evening, came from a splinter of pine, steeped in resin, which was held by a strip of slate stuck into the wall; when his folk shut themselves in the byre, in times of severe cold, to save a little firewood and while away the evenings; when close at hand, through the bitter wind, they heard the howling of the wolves: here, it would seem, was nothing propitious to the birth of such tastes, if he had not borne them naturally within him.
But is it not the very essence of genius, as it is the peculiarity of instinct, to spring from the depths of the invisible?
Yet who shall say what stores of thought unspoken, what unknown treasures of observation never to be communicated, what patient reflections unuttered, may be housed in those toil-worn brains, in which, perhaps, slowly and obscurely, accumulate the germs of faculties and talents by which some more favoured descendant may one day benefit? How many poets have died unpublished or unperceived, in whom only the power of expression was lacking!
When he was seven years old his parents recalled him to Saint-Léons, in order to send him to the school kept by his godfather, Pierre Ricard, the village schoolmaster, “at once barber, bellringer, and singer in the choir.” Rembrandt, Teniers, nor Van Ostade never painted anything more picturesque than the room which served at the same time as kitchen, refectory, and bedroom, with “halfpenny prints papering the walls” and “a huge chimney, for which each had to bring his log of a morning in order to enjoy the right to a place at the fireside.”
He was never to forget these beloved places, blessed scenes of his childhood, amid which he grew up like a little savage, and through all his material sufferings, all his hours of bitterness, and even in the resignation of age, their idyllic memory sufficed to make his life fragrant. He would always see the humble paternal garden, the brook where he used to surprise the crayfish, the ash-tree in which he found his first goldfinch’s nest, and “the flat stone on which he heard, for the first time, the mellow ringing of the bellringer frog.” (1/4.) Later, when writing to his brother, he was to recall the good days of still careless life, when “he would sprawl, the sun on his belly, on the mosses of the wood of Vezins, eating his black bread and cream” or “ring the bells of Saint-Léons” and “pull the tails of the bulls of Lavaysse.” (1/5.)
For Henri had a brother, Frédéric, barely two years younger than he; equally meditative by nature, and of a serious, upright mind; but his tastes inclined rather to matters of administration and the understanding of business, so that where Frédéric was bored, Henri was more than content, thirstily drinking in science and poetry “among the blue campanulas of the hills, the pink heather of the mountains, the golden buttercups of the meadows, and the odorous bracken of the woods.” (1/6.) Apart from this the two brothers “were one”; they understood one another in a marvellous fashion, and always loved one another. Henri never failed to watch over Frédéric with a wholly fatherly solicitude; he was prodigal of advice, helpful with his experience, doing his best to smooth away all difficulties, encouraging him to walk in his footsteps and make his way through the world behind him. He was his confidant, giving an ear to all that befell him of good or ill; to his fears, his disappointments, his hopes, and all his thoughts; and he took the keenest interest in his studies and researches. On the other hand, he had no more sure and devoted friend; none more proud of his first success, and in later days no more enthusiastic admirer, and none more eager for his fame. (1/7.)
He was twelve years old when his father, “the first of all his line, was tempted by the town,” and led all his family to Rodez, there to keep a café. The future naturalist entered the school of this town, where he served Mass on Sunday, in the chapel, in order to pay his fees. There again he was interested in the animal creation above all. When he began to construe Virgil the only thing that charmed him, and which he remembered, was the landscape in which the persons of the poem move, in which are so many “exquisite details concerning the cicada, the goat, and the laburnum.”
Thus four years went by: but then his parents were constrained to seek their fortune elsewhere, and transported their household to Toulouse, where again the father kept a café. The young Henri was admitted gratuitously to the seminary of the Esquille, where he managed to complete his fifth year. Unfortunately his progress was soon interrupted by a new exodus on the part of his family, which emigrated this time to Montpellier, where he was haunted for a time by dreams of medicine, to which he seemed notably adapted. Finally, a run of bad luck persisting, he had to bid farewell to his studies and gain his bread as best he could. We see him set out along the wide white roads: lost, almost a wanderer, seeking his living by the sweat of his brow; one day selling lemons at the fair of Beaucaire, under the arcades of the market or before the barracks of the Pré; another day enlisting in a gang of labourers who were working on the line from Beaucaire to Nîmes, which was then in process of construction. He knew gloomy days, lonely and despairing. What was he doing? of what was he dreaming? The love of nature and the passion for learning sustained him in spite of all, and often served him as nourishment; as on the day when he dined on a few grapes, plucked furtively at the edge of a field, after exchanging the poor remnant of his last halfpence for a little volume of Reboul’s poems; soothing his hunger by reciting the verses of the gentle baker-poet. Often some creature kept him company; some insect never seen before was often his greatest pleasure; such as the pine-chafer, which he encountered then for the first time; that superb beetle, whose black or chestnut coat is sprinkled with specks of white velvet; which squeaks when captured, emitting a slight complaining sound, like the vibration of a pane of glass rubbed with the tip of a moistened finger. (1/8.)
Already this young mind, romantic and classic at once, full of the ideal, and so positive that it seemed to seek support in an intense grasp of things and beings–two gifts well-nigh incompatible, and often mutually destructive–already it knew, not only the love of study and a passion for the truth, but the sovereign delight of feeling everything and understanding everything.
It was under these conditions–that is, amid the rudest privations–that he ventured to enter a competitive examination for a bursary at the École Normale Primaire of Avignon; and his will-power realized this first miracle of his career–he straightway obtained the highest place.
In those days, when education had barely reached the lower classes, the instruction given in the primary normal school was still of the most summary. Spelling, arithmetic, and geometry practically exhausted its resources. As for natural history, a poor despised science, almost unknown, no one dreamed of it, and no one learned or taught it; the syllabus ignored it, because it led to nothing. For Fabre only, notwithstanding, it was his fixed idea, his constant preoccupation, and “while the dictation class was busy around him, he would examine, in the secrecy of his desk, the sting of a wasp or the fruit of the oleander,” and intoxicate himself with poetry. (1/9.) His pedagogic studies suffered thereby, and the first part of his stay at the normal school was by no means extremely brilliant. In the middle of his second year he was declared idle, and even marked as an insufficient pupil and of mediocre intelligence. Stung to the quick, he begged as a favour that he should be given the opportunity of following the third year’s course in the six months that remained, and he made such an effort that at the end of the year he victoriously won his superior certificate. (1/10.)
A year in advance of the regulation studies, his curiosity might now exercise itself freely in every direction, and little by little it became universal. A chance chemistry lesson finally awakened in him the appetite for knowledge, the passion for all the sciences, of which he thirsted to know at least the elements. Between whiles he returned to his Latin, translating Horace and re-reading Virgil. One day his director put an “Imitation” into his hands, with double columns in Greek and Latin. The latter, which he knew fairly well, assisted him to decipher the Greek. He hastened to commit to memory the vocables, and idioms and phrases of all kinds (1/11.), and in this curious fashion he learned the language. This was his only method of learning languages. It is the process which he recommended to his brother, who was commencing Latin:
“Take Virgil, a dictionary, and a grammar, and translate from Latin into French for ever and for ever; to make a good version you need only common sense and very little grammatical knowledge or other pedantic accessories.
“Imagine an old inscription half-effaced: correctness of judgment partly supplies the missing words, and the sense appears as if the whole were legible. Latin, for you, is the old inscription; the root of the word alone is legible: the veil of an unknown language hides the value of the termination: you have only the half of the words; but you have common sense too, and you will make use of it.” (1/12.)
CHAPTER 2. THE PRIMARY TEACHER.
Furnished with his superior diploma, he left the normal school at the age of nineteen, and commenced as a primary teacher in the College of Carpentras.
The salary of the school teacher, in the year 1842, did not exceed 28 pounds sterling a year, and this ungrateful calling barely fed him, save on “chickpeas and a little wine.” But we must beware lest, in view of the increasing and excessive dearness of living in France, the beggarly salaries of the poor schoolmasters of a former day, so little worthy of their labours and their social utility, appear even more disproportionately small than they actually were. What is more to the point, the teachers had no pension to hope for. They could only count on a perpetuity of labour, and when sickness or infirmity arrived, when old age surprised them, after fifty or sixty years of a narrow and precarious existence, it was not merely poverty that awaited them; for many there was nothing but the blackest destitution. A little later, when they began to entertain a vague hope of deliverance, the retiring pension which was held up to their gaze, in the distant future, was at first no more than forty francs, and they had to await the advent of Duruy, the great minister and liberator, before primary instruction was in some degree raised from this ignominious level of abasement.
It was a melancholy place, this college, “where life had something cloistral about it: each master occupied two cells, for, in consideration of a modest payment, the majority were lodged in the establishment, and ate in common at the principal’s table.”
It was a laborious life, full of distasteful and repugnant duties. We can readily imagine, with the aid of the striking picture which Fabre has drawn for us, what life was in these surroundings, and what the teaching was: “Between four high walls I see the court, a sort of bear-pit where the scholars quarrelled for the space beneath the boughs of a plane-tree; all around opened the class-rooms, oozing with damp and melancholy, like so many wild beasts’ cages, deficient in light and air…for seats, a plank fixed to the wall…in the middle a chair, the rushes of the seat departed, a blackboard, and a stick of chalk.” (2/1.)
Let the teachers of our spacious and well-lighted schools of to-day ponder on these not so distant years, and measure the progress accomplished. Evoking the memory of their humble colleague of Carpentras, may they feel the true greatness of his example: a noble and a glorious example, of which they may well be proud.
And what pupils! “Dirty, unmannerly: fifty young scoundrels, children or big lads, with whom,” no doubt, “he used to squabble,” but whom, after all, he contrived to manage, and by whom he was listened to and respected: for he knew precisely what to say to them, and how, while talking lightly, to teach them the most serious things. For the joy of teaching, and of continually learning by teaching others, made everything endurable. Not only did he teach them to read, write, and cipher, which then included almost the entire programme of primary education; he endeavoured also to place his own knowledge at their service, as he himself acquired it.
It was not only his love of the work that sustained him; it was the desire to escape from the rut, to accomplish yet another stage; to emerge, in short, from so unsatisfactory a position. Now nothing but physical and mathematical science would allow him to entertain the hope of “making an opening” in the world of secondary schoolmasters. He accordingly began to study physics, quite alone, “with an impossible laboratory, experimenting after his own fashion”; and it was by teaching them to his pupils that he learned first of all chemistry, inexpensively performing little elementary experiments before them, “with pipe-bowls for crucibles and aniseed flasks for retorts,” and finally algebra, of which he knew not a word before he gave his first lesson. (2/2.)
How he studied, what was the secret of his method, he told his brother a few years later, when the latter, marking time behind him, was pursuing the same career. A very disappointing career, no doubt, and far from lucrative, but “one of the noblest; one of those best fitted for a noble spirit, and a lover of the good.” (2/3.)
Listen to the lesson which he gives his brother:
“To-day is Thursday; nothing calls you out of doors; you choose a thoroughly quiet retreat, where the light is not too strong. There you are, elbows on table, your thumbs to your ears, and a book in front of you. The intelligence awakes; the will holds the reins of it; the outer world disappears, the ear no longer hears, the eye no longer sees, the body no longer exists; the mind schools itself, recollects itself; it is finding knowledge, and its insight increases. Then the hours pass quickly, quickly; time has no measure. Now it is evening. What a day, great God! But hosts of truths are grouped in the memory; the difficulties which checked you yesterday have fused in the fire of reflection; volumes have been devoured, and you are content with your day…
“When something embarrasses you do not abuse the help of your colleagues; with assistance the difficulty is only evaded; with patience and reflection IT IS OVERTHROWN. Moreover, one knows thoroughly only what one learns oneself; and I advise you earnestly, as far as possible, to have recourse to no aid other than reflection, above all for the sciences. A book of science is an enigma to be deciphered; if some one gives you the key of the enigma nothing appears more simple and more natural than the explanation, but if a second enigma presents itself you will be as unskilful as you were with the first…
“It is probable that you will get the chance of a few lessons; do not by preference accept the easier and more lucrative, but rather the more difficult, even when the subject is one of which as yet you know nothing. The self-esteem which will not allow one’s true character to be seen is a powerful aid to the will. Do not forget the method of Jules Janin, running from house to house in Paris for a few wretched lessons in Latin: ‘Unable to get anything out of my stupid pupils, with the besotted son of the marquis I was simultaneously pupil and professor: I explained the ancient authors to myself, and so, in a few months, I went through an excellent course of rhetoric…’
“Above all you must not be discouraged; time is nothing provided the will is always alert, always active, and never distracted; ‘strength will come as you travel.’
“Try only for a few days this method of working, in which the whole energy, concentrated on one point, explodes like a mine and shatters obstacles; try for a few days the force of patience, strength, and perseverance; and you will see that nothing is impossible!” (2/4.)
These serious reflections show very clearly that his mind was already as mature, as earnest, and as concentrated as it was ever to be.
Not only did he join example to precept; he looked about him and began to observe nature in her own house. The doings of the Mason-bee, which he encountered for the first time, aroused his interest to such a pitch that, being no longer able to constrain his curiosity, he bought–at the cost of what privations!–Blanchard’s “Natural History of the Articulata,” then a classic work, which he was to re-read a hundred times, and which he still retains, giving it the first place in his modest library, in memory of his early joys and emotions.
The rocks also arrested and captivated his attention: and already the first volumes were corpulent of what was eventually to become his gigantic herbiary. His brother, about to leave for Vezins on vacation, was told of the specimens which he wanted to complete his collection; for although he had never set foot there since his first departure, he recalled, with remarkable precision, all the plants that grew in his native countryside; their haunts, their singularities, and the characteristics by which one could not fail to recognize them: as well as all the places which they chose by preference, where he used to wander as an urchin; the Parnassia palustris, “which springs up in the damp meadows, below the beech-wood to the west of the village; which bears a superb white flower at the top of a slightly twisted stem, having an oval leaf about its middle”; the purple digitalis, “whose long spindles of great red flowers, speckled with white inside, and shaped like the fingers of a glove,” border a certain road; all the ferns that grow on the wastes, “amid which it is often no easy task to recollect one’s whereabouts,” and on the arid hills all the heathers, pink, white, and bluish, with different foliage, “of which the innumerable species do not, however, very greatly differ.” Nothing is to be neglected; “every plant, whatever it may be, great or little, rare or common, were it only a frond of moss, may have its interest.” (2/5.)
Never weary of work, he accumulated all these treasures in his little museum, in order to study them the better; he collected all the coins exhumed from this ancient soil, formerly Roman, “records of humanity more eloquent than books,” and which revealed to him the only method of learning and actually re-living history: for he saw in knowledge not merely a means of gaining his bread, but “something nobler; the means of raising the spirit in the contemplation of the truth, of isolating it at will from the miseries of reality, so to find, in these intellectual regions, the only hours of happiness that we may be permitted to taste.” (2/6.)
Fabre was so steeped in this passion for knowledge that he wished to evoke it in his brother, now teacher at Lapalud, on the Rhône, not far from Orange. It seemed to him that he would delight in his wealth still better could he share it with another. (2/7.) He stimulated him, pricked him on, and sought to encourage the remarkable aptitude for mathematics with which he believed him endowed. He employed his whole strength in breathing into the other’s mind “that taste for the true and the beautiful” which possessed his own nature; he wished to share with him those stores of learning “which he had for some years so painfully amassed”; he would profit by the vacation to place them at his disposal; they would work together “and the light would come.” Above all his brother must not allow his intelligence to slumber, must beware of “extinguishing that divine light without which one can, it is true, attend to one’s business, but which alone can make a man honourable and respected.”
Let him, on the contrary, cultivate his mind incessantly, “the only patrimony on which either of us can count”; the reward would be his moral well-being, and, he hoped, his physical welfare also.
Once more he reinforced his advice by that excellent counsel which was always his own lodestar:
“Science, Frédéric, knowledge is everything…You are too good a thinker not to say with me that no one can better employ his time than by acquiring fresh knowledge…Work, then, when you have the opportunity…an opportunity that very few may possess, and for which you ought to be only too thankful. But I will stop, for I feel my enthusiasm is going to my head, and my reasons are so good already that I have no need of still more triumphant reasons to convince you.” (2/8.)
He had only one passion: shooting; more especially the shooting of larks. This sport delighted him, “with the mirror darting its intermittent beams under the rays of the morning sun amid the general scintillation of the dewdrops and crystals of hoarfrost hanging on every blade of grass.” (2/9.)
His sight was admirably sure, and he rarely missed his aim. His passion for shooting was always sustained by the same motive: the desire to acquire fresh knowledge; to examine unknown creatures close at hand; to discover what they ate and how they lived.
Later, when he again took up his gun, it was still because of his love of life: it was to enable him to enumerate, inventory, and interrogate his new compatriots, his feathered fellow-citizens of Sérignan; to inform himself of their diet, to reveal the contents of their crops and gizzards.
At one time he suddenly ceased to employ this distraction; he seems to have sacrificed it easily, under the stress of present necessities and cruel anxieties as to his uncertain future. “When we do not know where we shall be tomorrow nothing can distract us.” (2/10.)
His responsibilities were increasing. He had lately married. On the 30th October, 1844, he was wedded to a young girl of Carpentras, Marie Villard, and already a child was born. His parents, always unlucky, met nowhere with any success. By dint of many wanderings they had finally become stranded at Pierrelatte, the chief town of the canton of La Drôme, sheltered by the great rock which has given the place its name; and there again, of course, they kept a café, situated on the Place d’Armes.
The whole family was now assembled in the same district, a few miles only one from another: but Henri was really its head. Having heard that a quarrel had arisen between his brother and his mother, he wrote to Frédéric in reprimand; gently scolding him and begging him to set matters right, “even if all the wrongs were not on his side.”
“My father, in one of his letters, complains that in spite of your nearness you have not yet been to see them. I know very well there is some reason for sulking; but what matter? Give it up: forget everything; do your best to put an end to all these petty and ugly estrangements. You will do so, won’t you? I count on it, for the happiness of all.” (2/11.)
He was their arbitrator, their adviser, their oracle, their bond of union.
With all this, he was ready to attempt the two examinations which were to decide his future. Very shortly, at Montpellier, he passed almost successively, at an interval of only a few months the examinations for both his baccalauréats; and then the two licentiate examinations in mathematics and physical science.
While he was ardently studying for these examinations, sorrow for the first time knocked at his door. His first-born fell suddenly ill, and in a few days died. On this occasion all his ardent spirituality asserted itself, though in stricken accents, in the letter which he wrote to his brother to announce his loss:
“After a few days of a marked improvement, which made me think he was saved, two large teeth were cut…and in three days a dreadful fever took him, not from us, who will follow him, but from this miserable world. Ah, poor child, I shall always see you as you were during those last moments, turning those wide, wandering eyes toward heaven, seeking the way to your new country. With a heart full of tears, I shall often let my thoughts go straying after you; but alas! with the eyes of the body I shall never see you again. I shall see you no more: yet only a few days ago I was making the finest plans for you. I used to work for you only; in my studies I thought only of you. Grow up, I used to say, and I will pour into your mind all the knowledge which has cost me so dear, which I am hoarding little by little…But reflection leads me to higher thoughts. I choke back the tears in my heart, and I congratulate him that Heaven has mercifully spared him this life of trials…My poor child…you will never, like your father, have to struggle against poverty and misfortune; you will never know the bitterness of life, and the difficulties of creating a position at a time when there are so many paths that lead to failure…I weep for you because we have lost you, but I rejoice because you are happy…You are happy, and this is not the mad hope of a father broken by sorrow; no, your last glance told me so, too eloquently for me to doubt it. Oh, how beautiful you were in your mortal pallor; the last sigh on your lips, your gaze upon heaven, and your soul ready to fly into the bosom of God! Your last day was the most beautiful!” (2/12.)
Although study was his refuge, although he was thereby able to live through these evil days without too greatly feeling their weight, his position was hateful, and he lived a wretched life “from one day to another, like a beggar.”
In those troublous times, when education was of no account, it often happened that his teacher’s salary was several months in arrears, and the city of Carpentras, “not being in funds,” paid it only by instalments, and even so kept him a long time waiting. “One has to besiege the paymaster’s door merely to obtain a trifle on account. I am ashamed of the whole business, and I would gladly abandon my claim if I knew where to raise any money.” (2/13.)
The genius of Balzac has recorded some unforgettable types of those poor and notable lives, at once so humble and so lofty. He has described the village curé and the country doctor. But how we should have loved to encounter in his gallery, among so many living portraits, a picture of the university life of fifty years ago; and above all a picture of the small schoolmaster of other days, living a life so narrow, so slavish, so painful, and yet so full of worth, so imbued with the sense of duty, and withal so resigned; a portrait for which Fabre might have served as model and prototype, and for which he himself has drawn an unforgettable sketch.
He awaited impatiently the news of his removal, very modestly limiting his ambitions to the hope of entering some lycée as professor of the sciences. His rector was not unnaturally astonished that a young man of such unusual worth, already twice a licentiate, should be so little appreciated by those in high places and allowed to stagnate so long in an inferior post, and one unworthy of him.
In the end, however, after much patient waiting, he became indignant; as always, he could see nothing ahead. The chair of mathematics at Tournon escaped him. Another position, at Avignon, also “slipped through his fingers”; why or how he never knew. He “began to see clearly what life is, and how difficult it is to make one’s mark amid all this army of schemers, beggars and imbeciles who besiege every vacant post.”
But his heart was “none the less hot with indignation”; he had had enough of “Carpentras, that accursed little hole”; and when the vacations came round once more he “plainly considered the question” and declared “that he would never again set foot inside a communal school.” (2/14.)
He wrote to the rector: “If instead of crushing me into the narrow round of a primary school they would give me some employment of the kind for which my studies and ideas fit me, they would know then what is hatching in my head and what untirable activity there is in me.” (2/15.)
He resigned himself nevertheless; he cursed and swore and stormed at his fate; but he had once more to put up with it “for want of a better.” All the same “the injustice was too unheard-of, and no one had ever seen or would ever see the like: to give him two licentiate’s diplomas, and to make him conjugate verbs for a pack of brats! It was too much!” (2/16.)
CHAPTER 3. CORSICA.
At last the chair of physics fell vacant at the college of Ajaccio, the salary being 72 pounds sterling, and he left for Corsica. His stay there was well calculated to impress him. There the intense impressionability which the little peasant of Aveyron received at birth could only be confirmed and increased. He felt that this superb and luxuriant nature was made for him, and that he was born for it; to understand and interpret it. He would lose himself in a delicious intoxication, amid the deep woodlands, the mountains rich with scented flowers, wandering through the maquis, the myrtle scrub, through jungles of lentisk and arbutus; barely containing his emotion when he passed beneath the great secular chestnut-trees of Bastelica, with their enormous trunks and leafy boughs, whose sombre majesty inspired in him a sort of melancholy at once poetic and religious. Before the sea, with its infinite distances, he lingered in ecstasy, listening to the song of the waves, and gathering the marvellous shells which the snow-white breakers left upon the beach, and whose unfamiliar forms filled him with delight.
He was soon so accustomed to his new life in peaceful Ajaccio, whose surroundings, decked in eternal verdure, are so captivating and so beautiful, that in spite of a vague desire for change he now dreaded to leave it. He never wearied of admiring and exalting the beautiful and majestic aspects of his new home. How he longed to share his enthusiasm with his father or his brother, as he rambled through the neighbouring maquis!
“The infinite, glittering sea at my feet, the dreadful masses of granite overhead, the white, dainty town seated beside the water, the endless jungles of myrtle, which yield intoxicating perfumes, the wastes of brushwood which the ploughshare has never turned, which cover the mountains from base to summit; the fishing-boats that plough the gulf: all this forms a prospect so magnificent, so striking, that whosoever has beheld it must always long to see it again.” (3/1.)
“What is their rock of Pierrelatte, that enormous block of stone which overhangs the place where they dwell, a reef which rises from the surface of the ancient sea of alluvium, compared with these blocks of uprooted granite which lie upon the hillsides here?”
And what were the Aubrac hills which traversed his native country; what was the Ventoux even, that famous Alp, “beside the peaks which rise about the gulf of Ajaccio, always crowned with clouds and whitened with snow, even when the soil of the plains is scorching and rings like a fired brick?”
Time did nothing to abate these first impressions, and after more than a year on the island he was still full of wonder “at the sight of these granite crests, corroded by the severities of the climate, jagged, overthrown by the lightning, shattered by the slow but sure action of the snows, and these vertiginous gulfs through which the four winds of heaven go roaring; these vast inclined planes on which snow-drifts form thirty, sixty, and ninety feet in depth, and across which flow winding watercourses which go to fill, drop by drop, the yawning craters, there to form lakes, black as ink when seen in the shadow, but blue as heaven in the light…
“But it would be impossible for me to give you the least idea of this dizzy spectacle, this chaos of rocks, heaped in frightful disorder. When, closing my eyes, I contemplate these results of the convulsion of the soil in my mind’s eye, when I hear the screaming of the eagles, which go wheeling through the bottomless abysses, whose inky shadows the eye dares hardly plumb, vertigo seizes me, and I open my eyes to reassure myself by the reality.”
And he sends with his letter a few leaves of the snow immortelle–the edelweiss–plucked on the highest summits, amid the eternal snows; “you will put this in some book, and when, as you turn the leaves, the immortelle meets your eyes, it will give you an excuse for dreaming of the beautiful horrors of its native place.” (3/2.)
What a misfortune for him, what regret he would feel, “if he had now to go to some trivial country of plains, where he would die of boredom!”
For him everything was unfamiliar: not only the flora, but the maritime wealth of this singular country. He would set out of a morning, visiting the coves and creeks, roving along the beaches of this magnificent gulf, a lump of bread in his pocket, quenching his thirst with sea-water in default of fresh!
They were mornings full of rosy illusions, whose smiling hopes were revealed in his admirable letters to his brother. Already he meditated a conchology of Corsica, a colossal history of all the molluscs which live upon its soil or in its waters. (3/3.) He collected all the shells he could procure. He analysed, described, classed, and co-ordinated not only the marine species, but the terrestrial and freshwater shells also, extant or fossil. He asked his brother to collect for him all the shells he could find in the marshes of Lapalud, in the brooks and ditches of the neighbourhood of Orange. In his enthusiasm he tried to convince him of the immense interest of these researches, which might perhaps seem ridiculous or futile to him; but let him only think of geology; the humblest shell picked up might throw a sudden light upon the formation of this or that stratum. None are to be disdained: for men have considered, with reason, that they were honouring the memory of their eminent fellows by giving their names to the rarest and most beautiful. Witness the magnificent Helix dedicated to Raspail, which is found only in the caverns where the strawberry-tree grows amid the high mountains of Corsica. (3/4.)
Moreover, he said, “the infinitesimal calculus of Leibnitz will show you that the architecture of the Louvre is less learned than that of a snail: the eternal geometer has unrolled his transcendent spirals on the shell of the mollusc that you, like the vulgar profane, know only seasoned with spinach and Dutch cheese.” (3/5.)
For all that, he did not neglect his mathematics, in which, on the contrary, he found abundant and suggestive recreation. The properties of a figure or a curve which he had newly discovered prevented his sleep for several nights.
“All this morning I have been busy with star-shaped polygons, and have proceeded from surprise to surprise…perceiving in the distance, as I advanced, unforeseen and marvellous consequences.”
Here, among others, is one question which suddenly presented itself to his mind “in the midst of the spikes” of his polygons: what would be the period of the rotation of the sun on its own centre if its atmosphere reached as far as the earth? And this question gave rise to another, “without which the sequence stops then and there; number, space, movement, and order form a single chain, the first link of which sets all the rest in motion.” (3/6.) And the hours went by quickly, so quickly with “x,” the plants and the shells, that “literally there was no time to eat.”
For Fabre was born a poet, and mathematics borders upon poetry; he saw in algebra “the most magnificent flights,” and the figures of analytical geometry unrolled themselves in his imagination “in superb strophes”; the Ellipse, “the trajectory of the planets, with its two related foci, sending from one to the other a constant sum of vector radii”; the Hyperbole, “with repulsive foci, the desperate curve which plunges into space in infinite tentacles, approaching closer and closer to a straight line, the asymptote, without ever finally attaining it”; the Parabola, “which seeks fruitlessly in the infinite for its second, lost centre: it is the trajectory of the bomb: it is the path of certain comets which come one day to visit our sun, then flee into the depths whence they never return.” (3/7.)
And one fine morning we behold him mounting, thrilled by a lyric passion, to the lofty regions in which Number, “irresistible, omnipotent, keystone of the vault of the universe, rules at once Time and Space.” He ascends, he rushes forward, farther than the chariot–
“Beyond the Husbandman who ploughs in space And sows the suns in furrows of the skies.”
He ascends those tracks of flame, where on high
“in those lists inane
Wise regulator, Number holds the reins Of those indomitable steeds;
Number has set a bit i’ the foaming mouths Of these Leviathans, and with nervous hand Controls them in their tracks;
Their smoking flanks beneath the yoke in vain Quiver; their nostrils vainly void as foam Dense tides of lava; and in vain they rear; For Number on their mettled haunches poised Holds them, or duly with the rein controls, Or in their flanks buries his spur divine.” (3/8.)
Later he confessed all that he owed, as a writer, to geometry, whose severe discipline forms and exercises the mind, gives it the salutary habit of precision and lucidity, and puts it on its guard against terms which are incorrect or unduly vague, giving it qualities far superior to all the “tropes of rhetoric.”
It was then that he became the pupil of Requien of Avignon, the retired botanist, a lofty but somewhat limited mind, who was hardly capable of opening up other horizons to him. But Requien did at least enrich his memory by a prodigious quantity of names of plants with which he had not been acquainted. He revealed to him the immense flora of Corsica, which he himself had come to study, and for which Fabre was to gather such a vast amount of material.
Fabre found in Requien more especially a friend “proof against anything”; and when the latter died almost suddenly at Bonifacio, Fabre was overwhelmed by the sad news. On that very day he had on the table before him a parcel of plants gathered for the dead botanist. “I cannot let my eyes rest upon it,” he wrote at the time, “without feeling my heart wrung and my sight dim with tears.” (3/9.)
But the most admirably fruitful encounter, as it exercised the profoundest influence upon his destiny, was his meeting with Moquin-Tandon, a Toulouse professor who followed Requien to Corsica, to complete the work which the latter had left unfinished: the complete inventory of the prodigious wealth of vegetation, of the innumerable species and varieties which Fabre and he collected together, on the slopes and summits of Monte Renoso, often botanizing “up in the clouds, mantle on back and numb with cold.” (3/10.)
Moquin-Tandon was not merely a skilful naturalist; he was one of the most eloquent and scholarly scientists of his time. Fabre owed to him, not his genius, to be sure, but the definite indication of the path he was finally to take, and from which he was never again to stray.
Moquin-Tandon, a brilliant writer and “an ingenious poet in his Montpellerian dialect,” (3/11.) taught Fabre never to forget the value of style and the importance of form, even in the exposition of a purely descriptive science such as botany. He did even more, by one day suddenly showing Fabre, between the fruit and the cheese, “in a plate of water,” the anatomy of the snail. This was his first introduction to his true destiny before the final revelation of which I shall presently speak. Fabre understood then and there that he could do decidedly better than to stick to mathematics, though his whole career would feel the effects of that study.
“Geometers are made; naturalists are born ready-made,” he wrote to his brother, still excited by this incident, “and you know better than any one whether natural history is not my favourite science.” (3/12.)
>From that time forward he began to collect not only dead, inert, or dessicated forms, mere material for study, with the aim of satisfying his curiosity; he began to dissect with ardour, a thing he had never done before. He housed his tiny guests in his cupboard; and occupied himself, as he was always to do in the future, with the smaller living creatures only.
“I am dissecting the infinitely little; my scalpels are tiny daggers which I make myself out of fine needles; my marble slab is the bottom of a saucer; my prisoners are lodged by the dozen in old match-boxes; maxime miranda in minimis.” (3/13.)
Roaming at night along the marshy beaches, he contracted fever, and several terrible attacks, accompanied by alarming tremors, left him so bloodless and feeble that, much against his will, he had to beg for relief, and even insist upon his prompt return to the mainland. in the meantime he obtained sick-leave, and returned to Provence after a terrible crossing which lasted no less than three days and two nights, on a sea so furious that he gave himself up for lost. (3/14.)
Slowly he recovered his health, and after a second but brief stay at Ajaccio he received the news of his appointment to the lycée of Avignon. (3/15.)
He returned with his imagination enriched and his mind expanded, with settled ideas, and thoroughly ripe for his task.
CHAPTER 4. AT AVIGNON.
The resolute worker resumed his indefatigable labours with an ardour greater than ever, for now he was haunted by a noble ambition, that of becoming a teacher of the superior grade, and of “talking plants and animals” in a chair of the faculty. With this end in view he added to his two diplomas–those of mathematics and physics–a third certificate, that of natural sciences. His success was triumphant.
Already tenacious and fearless in affirming what he believed to be the truth, he astonished and bewildered the professors of Toulouse. Among the subjects touched upon by the examiners was the famous question of spontaneous generation, which was then so vital, and which gave rise to so many impassioned discussions. The examiner, as it chanced, was one of the leading apostles of this doctrine. The future adversary of Darwin, at the risk of failure, did not scruple to argue with him, and to put forward his personal convictions and his own arguments. He decided the vexed question in his own way, on his own responsibility. A personality already so striking was regarded with admiration; a candidate so far out of the ordinary was welcomed with enthusiasm, and but for the insufficiency of the budget which so scantily met the needs of public instruction his examination fees would have been returned. (4/1.)
Why, after this brilliant success, was Fabre not tempted to enter himself for a fellowship, which would later in his career have averted so many disappointments? It was doubtless because he felt, obscurely, that his ideal future lay along other lines, and that he would have been taking a wrong turning. Despite all the solicitations which were addressed to him he would think of nothing but “his beloved studies in natural history” (4/2.); he feared to lose precious time in preparing himself for a competitive examination; “to compromise by such labour, which he felt would be fruitless” (4/3.), the studies which he had already commenced, and the inquiries already carried out in Corsica. He was busy with his first original labours, the theses which he was preparing with a view to his doctorate in natural science, “which might one day open the doors of a faculty for him, far more easily than would a fellowship and its mathematics.” (4/4.)
At heart he was utterly careless of dignities and degrees. He worked only to learn, not to attain and follow up a settled calling. What he hoped above all was to succeed in devoting all his leisure to those marvellous natural sciences in which he could vaguely foresee studies full of interest; something animated and vital; a thousand fascinating themes, and an atmosphere of poetry.
His genius, as yet invisible, was ripening in obscurity, but was ready to come forth; he lacked only the propitious circumstance which would allow him to unfold his wings.
He was seeking them in vain when a volume by Léon Dufour, the famous entomologist, who then lived in the depths of the Landes, fell by chance into his hands, and lit the first spark of that beacon which was presently to decide the definite trend of his ideas.
It was this incident which then and there developed the germs already latent within him. These had only awaited such an occasion as that which so fortunately came to pass one evening of the winter of 1854.
Fabre offers yet another example of the part so often played by chance in the manifestations of talent. How many have suddenly felt the unexpected awakening of gifts which they did not suspect, as a result of some unusual circumstance!
Was it not simply as a result of having read a note by the Russian chemist Mitscherlich on the comparison of the specific characteristics of certain crystals that Pasteur so enthusiastically took up his researches into molecular asymmetry which were the starting-point of so many wonderful discoveries?
Again, we need only recall the case of Brother Huber, the celebrated observer of the bee, who, having out of simple curiosity undertaken to verify certain experiments of Réaumur’s, was so completely and immediately fascinated by the subject that it became the object of the rest of his life.
Again, we may ask what Claude Bernard would have been had he not met Magendie? Similarly Léon Dufour’s little work was to Fabre the road to Damascus, the electric impulse which decided his vocation.
It dealt with a very singular fact concerning the manners of one of the hymenoptera, a wasp, a Cerceris, in whose nest Dufour had found small coleoptera of the genus Buprestis, which, under all the appearances of death, retained intact for an incredible time their sumptuous costume, gleaming with gold, copper, and emerald, while the tissues remained perfectly fresh. In a word, the victims of Cerceris, far from being desiccated or putrefied, were found in a state of integrity which was altogether paradoxical.
Dufour merely believed that the Buprestes were dead, and he gave an attempted explanation of the phenomenon.
Fabre, his curiosity and interest aroused, wished to observe the facts for himself; and, to his great surprise, he discovered how incomplete and insufficiently verified were the observations of the man who was at that time known as “the patriarch of entomologists.”
>From that moment he saw his way ahead; he suspected that there was still much to discover and much to revise in this vast department of nature, and conceived the idea of resuming the work so splendidly outlined by Réaumur and the two Hubers, but almost completely neglected since the days of those illustrious masters. He divined that here were fresh pastures, a vast unexplored country to be opened up, an entire unimagined science to be founded, wonderful secrets to be discovered, magnificent problems to be solved, and he dreamed of consecrating himself unreservedly, of employing his whole life in the pursuit of this object; that long life whose fruitful activity was to extend over nearly ninety years, and which was to be so “representative” by the dignity of the man, the probity of the expert, the genius of the observer, and the originality of the writer.
The year 1855 saw the first appearance, in the “Annales des sciences naturelles,” of the famous memoir which marked the beginning of his fame: the history, which might well be called marvellous and incredible, of the great Cerceris, a giant wasp and “the finest of the Hymenoptera which hunt for booty at the foot of Mont Ventoux.” (4/5.)
Fabre was now thirty-two years old, and his situation as assistant- professor of physics was somewhat precarious. From the 72 pounds sterling which he drew at Ajaccio, an overseas post, his salary was reduced, on his return to the mainland, to 64 pounds sterling, and during the whole of his stay at Avignon he obtained neither promotion nor the smallest increase of pay, excepting a few additional profits which were unconnected with his habitual duties. When he left the university after twenty well-filled years, he left as he had entered, with the same title, rank, and salary of a mere assistant-professor.
Yet all about him “everywhere and for every one, all was black indeed”: his family had increased and therewith his expenses; there were now seven at table every day. Very shortly his modest salary would no longer suffice; he was obliged to supplement it by all sorts of hack-work–classes, “repetitions,” private lessons; tasks which repelled him, for they absorbed all his available time; they prevented him from giving himself up to his favourite studies, to his silent and solitary observations. Nevertheless, he acquitted himself of these duties patiently and conscientiously, for at heart he loved his profession, and was rather a fellow-disciple than a master to his pupils. For this reason all those about him worked with praiseworthy assiduity; even the worst elements, the black sheep, the “bad eggs” of other classes, with him were suddenly transformed and as attentive as the rest. Although he knew how to keep order, how to make himself respected, and could on occasion deal severely and speak sternly, so that very few dared to forget themselves before him, he knew also how to be merry with his pupils, chatting with them familiarly, putting himself in their place, entering into their ideas, and making himself their rival. If life was laborious under his ferula, it was also merry. The best proof of this is the fact that of all his colleagues at the lycée he was the only one who had no nickname, a rarity in scholastic annals.
He did not therefore object to these lessons; but while at Carpentras he was made much of and praised by the principal, was a general favourite, and had perfect liberty to follow his inspiration during his partly gratuitous classes, here the hours and the programme tied him down, which was precisely what he found insupportable.
Everything made things difficult for him here: his external self; his character, ever so little shy and unsocial; his temperament, which was made for solitude.
In the thick of this hierarchical society of university professors he remained independent; he knew nothing of what was said or what was happening in the college, and his colleagues were always better informed than he. (4/6.) As he was not a fellow, he was made to feel the fact and was treated as a subordinate; the others, who prided themselves on the title, and who were incapable of recognizing his merit, which was a little beyond them, were jealous of him, all the more inasmuch as his name was momentarily noised abroad, and they revenged themselves by calling him “the fly” among themselves, by way of allusion to his favourite subject. (4/7.)
Indifferent to distinctions, as well as to those who bore them, contemptuous of etiquette, and incapable of putting constraint upon his nature, he remained an “outsider,” and refused to comply with a host of factitious or worldly obligations which he regarded as useless or disgusting. Thus even at Ajaccio he managed to escape the customary ceremonies of New Year’s Day.
“Good society I avoid as much as possible; I prefer my own company. So I have seen no one; I did not respond to the principal’s invitation to make the official round of visits.” (4/8.)
When obliged to accept some invitation, apart from occasions of too great solemnity, when he was really constrained to dress himself in the complete livery of circumstance and ceremony, he remained faithful to his black felt hat, which made a blot among all the carefully polished “toppers” of his colleagues. He was called to order; he was reprimanded; he obeyed unwillingly, or worse, he resisted; he revolted, and threatened to send in his resignation. To pay court to people, to endeavour to make himself pleasant, to grovel before a superior, were to him impossibilities. He could neither solicit, nor sail with the wind, nor force himself on others, nor even make use of his relations.
However, when he went to Paris to take his doctor’s degree in natural sciences, he did not forget Moquin-Tandon, who had formerly, in Corsica, revealed to him the nature of biology, and whom he himself had received and entertained in his humble home.
The ex-professor of Toulouse, who was now eminent in his speciality, occupied the chair of natural history in the faculty of medicine in Paris. What better occasion could he wish of introducing himself to a highly placed official? Fabre had formerly been his host; he could recall the happy hours they had spent together; he could explain his plans, and ask for the professor’s assistance! Fate pointed to him as a protector. But if Fabre had been capable of climbing the professor’s stairs with some such ambitious desires, he would quickly have been disabused.
The “dear master” had long ago forgotten the little professor of Ajaccio, and his welcome was by no means such as Fabre had the right to expect. Far from insisting, he was disheartened, perhaps a little humiliated, and hastened to take his leave.
The theses which Fabre brought with him, and which, he had thought, ought to lead him one day to a university professorship, did not, as a matter of fact, contain anything very essentially original.
He had been attracted, indeed fascinated, by all the singularities presented by the strange family of the orchids; the asymmetry of their blossoms, the unusual structure of their pollen, and their innumerable seeds; but as for the curious rounded and duplicated tubercles which many of them bore at their base, what precisely were they? The greatest botanists–de Candolle, A. de Jussieu–had perceived in them nothing more than roots. Fabre demonstrated in his thesis that these singular organs are in reality merely buds, true branches or shoots, modified and disguised, analogous to the metamorphosed tubercle of the potato. (4/9.)
He added also a curious memoir on the phosphorescence of the agaric of the olive-tree, a phenomenon to which he was to return at a later date.
In the field of zoology his scalpel revealed the complicated structure of the reproductive organs of the Centipedes (Millepedes), hitherto so confused and misunderstood; as also certain peculiarities of the development of these curious creatures, so interesting from the point of view of the zoological philosopher (4/10.), for he had become expert in handling not only the magnifying glass, which was always with him, but also the microscope, which discovers so many infinite wonders in the lowest creatures, yet which was not of particular service in any of the beautiful observations upon which his fame is built.
Returning to Avignon, in the possession of his new degree, he commenced an important task which took him nearly twenty years to complete: a painstaking treatise on the Sphaeriaceae of Vaucluse, that singular family of fungi which cover fallen leaves and dead twigs with their blackish fructifications; a remarkable piece of work, full of the most valuable documentation, as were the theses whose subjects I have just detailed; but without belittling the fame of their author, one may say that another, in his place, might have acquitted himself as well.
Although he continued to undertake researches of limited interest and importance, although he persisted in dissecting plants, and, although he disliked it, in “disembowelling animals,” the fact was that apart from Thursdays and Sundays it was scarcely possible for him to escape from his week’s work; hardly possible to snatch sufficient leisure to undertake the studies toward which he felt himself more particularly drawn. Tied down by his duties, which held him bound to a discipline that only left him brief moments, and by the forced hack-work imposed upon him by the necessity of earning his daily bread, he had scarcely any time for observation excepting vacations and holidays.
Then he would hasten to Carpentras, happy to hold the key to the meadows, and wander across country and along the sunken lanes, collecting his beautiful insects, breathing the free air, the scent of the vines and olives, and gazing upon Mont Ventoux, close at hand, whose silver summit would now be hidden in the clouds and now would glitter in the rays of the sun.
Carpentras was not merely the country in which his wife’s parents dwelt: it was, above all, a unique and privileged home for insects; not on account of its flora, but because of the soil, a kind of limestone mingled with sand and clay, a soft marl, in which the burrowing hymenoptera could easily establish their burrows and their nests. Certain of them, indeed, lived only there, or at least it would have been extremely difficult to find them elsewhere; such was the famous Cerceris; such again, was the yellow-winged Sphex, that other wasp which so artistically stabs and paralyses the cricket, “the brown violinist of the clods.”
At Carpentras too the Anthophorae lived in abundance; those wild bees with whom the vexed and enigmatic history of the Sitaris and the Meloë is bound up; those little beetles, cousins of the Cantharides, whose complex metamorphoses and astonishing and peculiar habits have been revealed by Fabre. This memoir marked the second stage of his scientific career, and followed, at an interval of two years, the magnificent observations on the Cerceris.
These two studies, true masterpieces of science, already constituted two excellent titles to fame, and would by themselves have sufficed to fill a naturalist’s whole lifetime and to make his name illustrious.
>From that time forward he had no peer. The Institute awarded him one of its Montyon prizes (4/11.), “an honour of which, needless to say, he had never dreamed.” (4/12.) Darwin, in his celebrated work on the “Origin of Species,” which appeared precisely at this moment, speaks of Fabre somewhere as “the inimitable observer.” (4/13.)
Exploring the immediate surroundings of Avignon, he very soon discovered fresh localities frequented almost exclusively by other insects, whose habits in their turn absorbed his whole attention.
First of these was the sandy plateau of the Angles, where every spring, in the sunlit pastures so beloved of the sheep, the Scarabaeus sacer, with his incurved feet and clumsy legs, commences to roll his everlasting pellet, “to the ancients the image of the world.” His history, since the time of the Pharaohs, had been nothing but a tissue of legends; but stripping it of the embroidery of fiction, and referring it to the facts of nature, Fabre demonstrated that the true story is even more marvellous than all the tales of ancient Egypt. He narrated its actual life, the object of its task, and its comical and exhilarating performances. But such is the subtlety of these delicate and difficult researches that nearly forty years were required to complete the study of its habits and to solve the mystery of its cradle. (4/14.)
On the right bank of the Rhône, facing the embouchure of the Durance, is a small wood of oak-trees, the wood of Des Issarts. This again, for many reasons, was one of his favourite spots. There, “lying flat on the ground, his head in the shadow of some rabbit’s burrow,” or sheltered from the sun by a great umbrella, “while the blue-winged locusts frisked for joy,” he would follow the rapid and sibilant flight of the elegant Bembex, carrying their daily ration of diptera to her larvae, at the bottom of her burrow, deep in the fine sand.” (4/15.)
He did not always go thither alone: sometimes, on Sundays, he would take his pupils with him, to spend a morning in the fields, “at the ineffable festival of the awakening of life in the spring.” (4/16.)
Those most dear to him, those who in the subsequent years have remained the object of a special affection, were Devillario, Bordone, and Vayssières (4/17.), “young people with warm hearts and smiling imaginations, overflowing with that springtime sap of life which makes us so expansive and so eager to know.
Among them he was “the eldest, their master, but still more their companion and friend”; lighting in them his own sacred fire, and amazing them by the deftness of his fingers and the acuteness of his lynx-like eyes. Furnished with a notebook and all the tools of the naturalist–lens, net, and little boxes of sawdust steeped in anaesthetic for the capture of rare specimens– they would wander “along the paths bordered with hawthorn and hyaebla, simple and childlike folk,” probing the bushes, scratching up the sand, raising stones, running the net along hedge and meadow, with explosions of delight when they made some splendid capture or discovered some unrecorded marvel of the entomological world.
It was not only on the banks of the Rhône or the sandy plateau of Avignon that they sought adventure thus, “discussing things and other things,” but as far as the slopes of Mont Ventoux, for which Fabre had always felt an inexplicable and invincible attraction, and whose ascent he accomplished more than twenty times, so that at last he knew all its secrets, all the gamut of its vegetation, the wealth of the varied flora which climb its flanks from base to summit, and which range “from the scarlet flowers of the pomegranate to the violet of Mont Cenis and the Alpine forget-me-not” (4/18.), as well as the antediluvian fauna revealed amid its entrails, a vast ossuary rich in fossils.
His disciples, all of whom, without exception, regarded him with absolute worship, have retained the memory of his wit, his enthusiasm, his geniality and his infectious gaiety, and also of the singular uncertainty of his temperament; for on some days he would not speak a word from the beginning to the end of his walk.
Even his temper, ordinarily gentle and easy, would suddenly become hasty and violent, and would break out into terrible explosions when a sudden annoyance set him beside himself; for instance, when he was the butt of some ill-natured trick, or when, in spite of the lucidity of his explanations, he felt that he had not been properly understood. Perhaps he inherited this from his mother, a rebellious, crotchety, somewhat fantastic person, by whose temper he himself had suffered.
But the young people who surrounded him were far from being upset by these contrasts of temperament, in which they themselves saw nothing but natural annoyance, and the corollary, as it were, of his abounding vitality. (4/19.)
It was because he was the only university teacher in Avignon to occupy himself with entomology that Pasteur visited him in 1865. The illustrious chemist had been striving to check the plague that was devastating the silkworm nurseries, and as he knew nothing of the subject which he proposed to study, not even understanding the constitution of the cocoon or the evolution of the silkworm, he sought out Fabre in order to obtain from his store of entomological wisdom the elementary ideas which he would find indispensable. Fabre has told us, in a moving page (4/20), with what a total lack of comprehension of “poverty in a black coat” the great scientist gazed at his poor home. Preoccupied by another problem, that of the amelioration of wines by means of heat, Pasteur asked him point-blank– him, the humble proletarian of the university caste, who drank only the cheapest wine of the country–to show him his cellar. “My cellar! Why not my vaults, my dusty bottles, labelled according to age and vintage! But Pasteur insisted. Then, pointing with my finger, I showed him, in a corner of the kitchen, a chair with all the straw gone, and on this chair a two- gallon demijohn: ‘There is my cave, monsieur!'”
If the country professor was embarrassed by the chilliness of the other, he was none the less shocked by his attitude. It would seem, from what Fabre has said, that Pasteur treated him with a hauteur which was slightly disdainful. The ignorant genius questioned his humble colleague, distantly giving him his orders, explaining his plans and his ideas, and informing him in what directions he required assistance.
After this, we cannot be surprised if the naturalist was silent. How could sympathetic relations have survived this first meeting? Fabre could not forgive it. His own character was too independent to accommodate itself to Pasteur’s. Yet never, perhaps, were two men made for a better understanding. They were equally expert in exercising their admirable powers of vision in the vast field of nature, equally critical of self, equally careful never to depart from the strict limits of the facts; and they were, one may say, equally eminent in the domain of invention, different though their fortunes may have been; for the sublimity of scientific discoveries, however full of genius they may be, is often measured only by the immediate consequences drawn therefrom and the practical importance of their results.
In reality, were they not two rivals, worthy of being placed side by side in the paradise of sages? Both of them, the one by demolishing the theory of spontaneous generation, the other by refuting the mechanical theory of the origin of instincts, have brought into due prominence the great unknown and mysterious forces which seem destined to hold eternally in suspense the profound enigma of life.
Now he was anxious not to leave the Vaucluse district, the scene of his first success, and a place so fruitful in subjects of study. He wished to remain close to his insects, and also near the precious library and the rich collections which Requien had left by will to the town of Avignon. In spite of the meagreness of his salary, he asked for nothing more; and, what is more, by an inconsequence which is by no means incomprehensible, he avoided everything that might have resulted in a more profitable position elsewhere, and evaded all proposals of further promotion. Twice, at Poitiers and Marseilles, he refused a post as assistant professor, not regarding the advantages sufficient to balance the expenses of removal. (4/21.)
It is true that his modest position was slightly improved; at the lycée he had just been appointed drawing-master, thanks to his knowledge of design, for he could draw–indeed, what could he not do? The city, on the other hand, appointed him conservator of the Requien Museum, and presently municipal lecturer, so that his earnings were increased by 48 pounds sterling per annum, and he was at last able to abandon “those abominable private lessons” (4/22.), which the insufficiency of his income had hitherto forced him to accept. These new duties, which naturally demanded much time and much labour, kept him almost as badly tied as he had been before.
To be rich enough to set himself free; to be master of all his time, to be able to devote himself entirely to his chosen work: this was his dream, his constant preoccupation: it haunted him; it was a fixed idea.
Such was the principal motive of his inquiry into the properties of madder, the colouring principle of which he succeeded in extracting directly, by a perfectly simple method, which for a time very advantageously replaced the extremely primitive methods of the old dyers, who used a simple extract of madder; a crude preparation which necessitated long and expensive manipulations. (4/23.)
He had been working at this for eight years when Victor Duruy, Minister of Public Instruction and Grand Master of the University, came to surprise him in his laboratory at Saint-Martial, in the full fever of research. Whatever was Duruy’s idea in entering into relations with him, it seems that from their first meeting the two men were really taken with one another: there were, between them, so many close affinities of taste and character. Duruy found in Fabre a man of his own temper; for his, like Fabre’s, was a modest and simple nature. Both came of the people, and the principal motive of each was the same ideal of work, emancipation, and progress.
A little later Duruy summoned the modest sage of Avignon to Paris, with particular insistence; he was full of attentions and of forethought, and made him there and then a chevalier of the Legion of Honour; a distinction of which Fabre was far from being proud, and which he was careful never to obtrude; but he nevertheless always thought of it with a certain tenderness, as a beloved “relic” in memory of this illustrious friend.
On the following day the naturalist was conveyed to the Tuileries to be presented to the Emperor. You must not suppose that he was in the least disturbed at the idea of finding himself face to face with royalty. In the presence of all these bedizened folk, in his coat of a cut which was doubtless already superannuated, he cared little for the impression he might produce. As good an observer of men as of beasts, he gazed quietly about him; he exchanged a few words with the Emperor, who was “quite simple,” almost suppressed, his eyes always half-closed; he watched the coming and going of “the chamberlains with short breeches and silver- buckled shoes, great scarabaei, clad with café au lait wing-cases, moving with a formal gait.” Already he sighed regretfully; he was bored; he was on the rack, and for nothing in the world would he have repeated the experience. He did not even feel the least desire to visit the vaunted collections of the Museum. He longed to return; to find himself once more among his dear insects; to see his grey olive-trees, full of the frolicsome cicadae, his wastes and commons, which smelt so sweet of thyme and cypress; above all, to return to his furnace and retorts, in order to complete his discovery as quickly as possible.
But others profited by his happy conceptions. Like the cicada, the Cigale of his fable (See “Social Life in the Insect World,” by Jean-Henri Fabre (T. Fisher Unwin, 1912).), which makes a “honeyed reek” flow from–
Tender and juicy, of the bough,”
on which it is quickly supplanted by
“Fly, drone, wasp, beetle too with hornèd head” (4/24.),
“Now lick their honey’d lips, and feed at leisure,”
so, after he had painfully laboured for twelve years in his well, he saw others, more cunning than he, come to his perch, who by dint of “stamping on his toe,” succeeded in ousting him. Pending the appearance of artificial alizarine, which was presently to turn the whole madder industry upside down, these more sophisticated persons were able to benefit at leisure by the ingenious processes discovered by Fabre, so that the practical result of so much assiduity, so much patient research, was absolutely nil, and he found himself as poor as ever.
So faded his dream: and, if we except his domestic griefs, this was certainly the deepest and cruellest disappointment he had ever experienced.
Thenceforth he saw his salvation only in the writing of textbooks, which were at last to throw open the door of freedom. Already he had set to work, under the powerful stimulus of Duruy, preoccupied as he always was by his incessant desire for freedom. The first rudiments of his “Agricultural Chemistry,” which sounded so fresh a note in the matter of teaching, had given an instance and a measure of his capabilities.
But he did not seriously devote himself to this project until after the industrial failure and the distressing miscarriage of his madder process; and not until he had been previously assured of the co-operation of Charles Delagrave, a young publisher, whose fortunate intervention contributed in no small degree to his deliverance. Confident in his vast powers of work, and divining his incomparable talent as POPULARIZER, Delagrave felt that he could promise Fabre that he would never leave him without work; and this promise was all the more comforting, in that the University, despite his twenty-eight years of assiduous service, would not accord him the smallest pension.
Victor Duruy was the great restorer of education in France, from elementary and primary education, which should date, from his great ministry, the era of its deliverance, to the secondary education which he himself created in every part. He was also the real initiator of secular instruction in France, and the Third Republic has done little but resume his work, develop his ideas, and extend his programme. Finally, by instituting classes for adults, the evening classes which enabled workmen, peasants, bourgeois, and young women to fill the gaps in their education, he gave reality to the generous and fruitful idea that it is possible for all to divide life into two parts, one having for its object our material needs and our daily bread, and the other consecrated to the spiritual life and the delights of the Ideal.
At the same time he emancipated the young women of France, formerly under the exclusive tutelage of the clergy, and opened to them for the first time the golden gates of knowledge; an audacious innovation, and formidable withal, for it shrewdly touched the interests of the Church, struck a blow at her ever-increasing influence, and clashed with her consecrated privileges and age-long prejudices. (4/25.)
At Avignon Fabre was instructed to give his personal services. He gave them with all his heart; and it was then that he undertook, in the ancient Abbey of Saint-Martial, those famous free lectures which have remained celebrated in the memory of that generation. There, under the ancient Gothic vault, among the pupils of the primary Normal College, an eager crowd of listeners pressed to hear him; and among the most assiduous was Roumanille, the friend of Mistral, he who so exquisitely wove into his harmonies “the laughter of young maidens and the flowers of springtime.” No one expounded a fact better than Fabre; no one explained it so fully and so clearly. No one could teach as he did, in a fashion so simple, so animated, so picturesque, and by methods so original.
He was indeed convinced that even in early childhood it was possible for both boys and girls to learn and to love many subjects which had hitherto never been proposed; and in particular that Natural History which to him was a book in which all the world might read, but that university methods had reduced it to a tedious and useless study in which the letter “killed the life.”
He knew the secret of communicating his conviction, his profound faith, to his hearers: that sacred fire which animated him, that passion for all the creatures of nature.
These lectures took place in the evening, twice a week, alternately with the municipal lectures, to which Fabre brought no less application and ardour. In the intention of those who instituted them these latter were above all to be practical and scientific, dealing with science applied to agriculture, the arts, and industry.
But might he not also expect auditors of another quality, in love only with the ideal, “who, without troubling about the possible applications of scientific theory, desired above all to be initiated into the action of the forces which rule nature, and thereby to open to their minds more wondrous horizons”?
Such were the noble scruples which troubled his conscience, and which appeared in the letter which he addressed to the administration of the city, when he was entrusted by the latter with what he regarded as a lofty and most important mission.
“…Is it to be understood that every purely scientific aspect, incapable of immediate application, is to be rigorously banished from these lessons? Is it to be understood that, confined to an impassable circle, the value of every truth must be reckoned at so much per hundred, and that I must silently pass over all that aims only at satisfying a laudable desire of knowledge? No, gentlemen, for then these lectures would lack a very essential thing: the spirit which gives life!” (4/26.)
Physically, according to the testimony of his contemporaries, he was already as an admirable photograph represents him twenty years later: he wore a large black felt hat; his face was shaven, the chin strong and wilful, the eyes vigilant, deep-set and penetrating; he hardly changed, and it was thus I saw him later, at a more advanced age.
The ancient Abbey of Saint-Martial, where these lectures were given, was occupied also by the Requien Museum, of which Fabre had charge. It was here that he one day met John Stuart Mill.
The celebrated philosopher and economist had just lost his wife: “the most precious friendship of his life” was ended. (4/27.) It was only after long waiting that he had been able to marry her. Subjected at an early age by a father devoid of tenderness and formidably severe to the harshest of disciplines, he had learned in childhood “what is usually learned only by a man.” Scarcely out of his long clothes, he was construing Herodotus and the dialogues of Plato, and the whole of his dreary youth was spent in covering the vast field of the moral and mathematical sciences. His heart, always suppressed, never really expanded until he met Mrs. Harriett Taylor.
This was one of those privileged beings such as seem as a rule to exist only in poetry and literature; a woman as beautiful as she was astonishingly gifted with the rarest faculties; combining with the most searching intelligence and the most persuasive eloquence so exquisite a sensitiveness that she seemed often to divine events in advance.
Mill possessed her at last for a few years only, and he had resigned his post in the offices of the East India Company to enjoy a studious retreat in the enchanted atmosphere of southern Europe when suddenly at Avignon Harriett Mill was carried off by a violent illness. (Mill retired in 1858, when the government of India passed to the Crown. He had married Mrs. John Taylor in 1851. [Tr.])
>From that time the philosopher’s horizon was suddenly contracted to the limit of those places whence had vanished the adored companion and the beneficent genius who had been the sole charm of his entire existence. Overwhelmed with grief, he acquired a small country house in one of the least frequented parts of the suburbs of Avignon, close to the cemetery where the beloved dead was laid to rest for ever. A silent alley of planes and mulberry-trees led to the threshold, which was shaded by the delicate foliage of a myrtle. All about he had planted a dense hedge of hawthorn, cypress, and arborvitae, above which, from the vantage of a small terrace, built, under his orders, at the level of the first floor, he could see, day by day and at all hours, the white tomb of his wife, and a little ease his grief.
Thus he cloistered himself, “living in memory,” having no companion but the daughter of his wife; trying to console himself by work, recapitulating his life, the story of which he has told in his remarkable “Memoirs.” (4/28.)
Fabre paid a few visits to this Thebaïd. A solitary such as Mill had become could be attracted only by a man of his temper, in whom he found, if not an affinity of nature, at least tastes like his own, and immense learning, as great as his. For Mill also was versed in all the branches of human knowledge: not only had he meditated on the high problems of history and political economy, but he had also probed all branches of science: mathematics, physics, and natural history. It was above all botany which served them as a bond of union, and they were often seen to set forth on a botanizing expedition through the countryside.
This friendship, which was not without profit for Fabre (4/29.), was still more precious to Mill, who found, in the society of the naturalist, a certain relief from his sorrow. The substance of their conversation was far from being such as one might have imagined it. Mill was not highly sensible to the festival of nature or the poetry of the fields. He was hardly interested in botany, except from the somewhat abstract point of view of classification and the systematic arrangement of species. Always melancholy, cold, and distant, he spoke little; but Fabre felt under this apparent sensibility a rigorous integrity of character, a great capacity for devotion, and a rare goodness of heart.
So the two wandered across country, each thinking his own thoughts, and each self-contained as though they were walking on parallel but distant paths.
However, Fabre was not at the end of his troubles; and secret ill-feeling began to surround him. The free lectures at Saint-Martial offended the devout, angered the sectaries, and excited the intolerance of the pedants, “whose feeble eyelids blink at the daylight,” and he was far from receiving, from his colleagues at the lycée, the sympathy and encouragement which were, at this moment especially, so necessary to him. Some even went so far as to denounce him publicly, and he was mentioned one day from the height of the pulpit, to the indignation of the pupils of the upper Normal College, as a man at once dangerous and subversive.
Some found it objectionable that this “irregular person, this man of solitary study,” should, by his work and by the magic of his teaching, assume a position so unique and so disproportionate. Others regarded the novelty of placing the sciences at the disposal of young girls as a heresy and a scandal.
Their bickering, their cabals, their secret manoeuvres, were in the long run to triumph. Duruy had just succumbed under the incessant attacks of the clericals. In him Fabre lost a friend, a protector, and his only support. Embittered, defeated, he was now only waiting for a pretext, an incident, a mere nothing, to throw up everything.
One fine morning his landladies, devout and aged spinsters, made themselves the instruments of the spite of his enemies, and abruptly gave him notice to quit. he had to leave before the end of the month, for, simple and confident as usual, he had obtained neither a lease nor the least written agreement.
At this moment he was so poor that he had not even the money to meet the expenses of his removal. The times were troublous: the great war had commenced, and Paris being invested he could no longer obtain the small earnings which his textbooks were beginning to yield him, and which had for some time been increasing his modest earnings. On the other hand, having always lived far from all society, he had not at Avignon a single relation who could assist him, and he could neither obtain credit nor find any one to extricate him from his embarrassments and save him from the extremity of need with which he was threatened. He thought of Mill, and in this difficult juncture it was Mill who saved him. The philosopher was then in England; he was for the time being a member of the House of Commons, and he used to vary his life at Avignon by a few weeks’ sojourn in London. His reply, however, was not long in coming: almost immediately he sent help; a sum of some 120 pounds sterling, which fell like manna into the hands of Fabre; and he did not, in exchange, demand the slightest security for this advance.
Then, filled with disgust, the “irregular person” shook off the yoke and retired to Orange. At first he took shelter where he could, anxious only to avoid as far as possible any contact with his fellow-men; then, having finally discovered a dwelling altogether in conformity with his tastes, he moved to the outskirts of the city, and settled at the edge of the fields, in the middle of a great meadow, in an isolated house, pleasant and commodious, connected with the road to Camaret by a superb avenue of tall and handsome plane-trees. This hermitage in some respects recalled that of Mill in the outskirts of Avignon; and thence his eyes, embracing a vast horizon, from the pediment of the ancient theatre to the hills of Sérignan, could already distinguish the promised land.
CHAPTER 5. A GREAT TEACHER.
It was in 1871. Fabre had lived twenty years at Avignon. This date constitutes an important landmark in his career, since it marks the precise moment of his final rupture with the University.
At this time the preoccupations of material life were more pressing than ever, and it was then that he devoted himself entirely and with perseverance to the writing of those admirable works of introduction and initiation, in which he applied himself to rendering science accessible to the youngest minds, and employed all his profound knowledge to the thorough teaching of its elements and its eternal laws.
To this ungrateful task–ungrateful, but in reality pleasurable, so strongly had he the vocation, the feeling, and the genius of the teacher– Fabre applied himself thenceforth with all his heart, and for nine years never lifted his hand.
How insipid, how forbidding were the usual classbooks, the second-rate natural histories above all, stuffed with dry statements, with raw knowledge, which brought nothing but the memory into play! How many youthful faces had grown pale above them!
What a contrast and a deliverance in these little books of Fabre’s, so clear, so luminous, so simple, which for the first time spoke to the heart and the understanding; for “work which one does not understand disgusts one.” (5/1.)
To initiate others into science or art, it is not enough to have understood them oneself; it is not enough even that one should be an artist or a scientist. Scientists of the highest flight are sometimes very unskilful teachers, and very indifferent hands at explaining the alphabet. It is not given to the first comer to educate the young; to understand how to identify his understanding with theirs, to measure their powers. It is a matter of instinct and good sense rather than of memory or erudition, and Fabre, who had never in his life been the pupil of any one, could better than any remember the phases through which his mind had passed, could recollect by what detours of the mind, by what secret labours of thought, by what intuitive methods he had succeeded in conquering, one by one, all the difficulties in his path, and in gradually attaining to knowledge.
It is wonderful to watch the mastery with which he conducts his demonstrations, the simplest as well as the most involved, singling out the essential, little by little evoking the sense of things, ingeniously seeking familiar examples, finding comparisons, and employing picturesque and striking images, which throw a dazzling light upon the obscurest question or the most difficult problem. How in such matters can one dispense with figurative speech, when one is reduced, as a rule, to an inability to show the things themselves, but only their images and their symbols?
Follow him, for example, in the “The Sky” (5/2.), which seems to thrill with the ardent and comprehensive genius of a Humboldt, and admire the ease with which he surmounts all the difficulties and smooths the way for the vast voyage on which he conducts you, past the infinity of the suns and the stars in their millions, scintillating in the cold air of night, to descend once more to our humble “Earth” (5/3.); first an ocean of fire, rolling its heavy waves of molten porphyry and granite, then “slowly hardening into strange floes and bergs, hotter than the red iron in the fire of the forge,” rounding its back, all covered with gaping pustules, eruptive mountains and craters, and the first folds of its calcined crust, until the day when the vast mist of densest vapours, heaped up on every hand and of immeasurable depth, begins gradually to show rifts, giving rise at last to an infinite storm, a stupendous deluge, and forming the strange universal sea, “a mineral sludge, veiled by a chaos of smoke,” whence at length the primitive soil emerges, “and at last the green grass.”
And although “a little animal proteid, capable of pleasure and pain, surpasses in interest the whole immense creation of dead matter,” he does not forget to show us the spectacle of life flowing through matter itself; and he animates even the simple elementary bodies, celebrating the marvellous activities of the air, the violence of Chlorine, the metamorphoses of Carbon, the miraculous bridals of Phosphorus, and “the splendours which accompany the birth of a drop of water.” (5/4.)
A man must indeed love knowledge deeply before he can make others love it, or render it easy and attractive, revealing only the smiling highways; and Fabre, above all things the impassioned professor, was the very man to lead his disciples “between the hedges of hawthorn and sloe,” whether to show them the sap, “that fruitful current, that flowing flesh, that vegetable blood,” or how the plant, by a mysterious transubstantiation, makes its wood, “and the delicate bundle of swaddling-bands of its buds,” or how “from a putrid ordure it extracts the flavour and the fragrance of its fruits”; or whether he seeks to evoke the murderous plants that live as parasites at the cost of others; the white Clandestinus, “which strangles the roots of the alders beside the rivers,” the Cuscuta, “which knows nothing of labour,” the wicked Orobanche, plump, powerful and brazen, the skin covered with ugly scales, “with sombre flowers that wear the livery of death, which leaps at the throat of the clover, stifling it, devouring it, sucking its blood.” (5/5.)
Botany, by this genial treatment, becomes a most interesting study, and I know of no more captivating reading than “The Plant” and “The Story of the Log,” the jewels of this incomparable series.
Employ Fabre’s method if you wish to learn by yourself, or to evoke in your children a love of science, and, according to the phrase of the gentle Jean-Jacques, to help them “to buy at the best possible of prices.” Give them as sole guides these exquisite manuals, which touch upon everything, initiating them into everything, and bringing within the reach of all, for their instruction or amusement, the heavens and the earth, the planets and their moons, the mechanism of the great natural forces and the laws which govern them, life and its materials, agriculture and its applications. For more than a quarter of a century these catechisms of science, models of lucidity and good sense, effected the education of generations of Frenchmen. Abridgments of all knowledge, veritable codes of rural wisdom, these perfect breviaries have never been surpassed.
It was after reading these little books, it is said, that Duruy conceived the idea of confiding to this admirable teacher the education of the Imperial heir; and it is very probable that this was, in reality, the secret motive which would explain why he had so expressly summoned Fabre to Paris. What an ideal tutor he had thought of, and how proud might others have been of such a choice! But the man was too zealous of his independence, too difficult to tame, to bear with the environment of a court, and God knows whether he was made for such refulgence! We need not be surprised that Fabre never heard of it; it must have sufficed the minister to speak with him for a few minutes to realize that the most tempting offers and all the powers of seduction would never overcome his insurmountable dislike of life in a capital, nor prevail against his inborn, passionate, exclusive love of the open.
For these volumes Fabre was at first rather wretchedly paid; at all events, until public education had definitely received a fresh impulse; and for a long time his life at Orange was literally a hand-to-mouth existence.
As soon as he was able to realize a few advances, he had nothing so much at heart as the repayment of Mill, and he hastened to call on the philosopher; all the more filled with gratitude for his generosity in that the loan, although of the comparatively large amount of three thousand francs, was made without security, practically from hand to hand, with no other warranty than his probity.
For this reason this episode was always engraven on his memory. Thirty years later he would relate the affair even to the most insignificant details. How many times has he not reminded me of the transaction, insisting that I should make a note of it, so anxious was he that this incident in his career should not be lost in oblivion! How often has he not recalled the infinite delicacy of Mill, and his excessive scrupulousness, which went so far that he wished to give a written acknowledgment of the repayment of the debt, of which there was no record whatever save in the conscience of the debtor!
Scarcely two years later Mill died suddenly at Avignon. Grief finally killed him; for this unexpected death seemed to have been only the ultimate climax of the secret malady which had so long been undermining him.
It was in the outskirts of Orange that Fabre for the last time met him and accompanied him upon a botanizing expedition. He was struck by his weakness and his rapid decline. Mill could hardly drag himself along, and when he stooped to gather a specimen he had the greatest difficulty in rising. They were never to meet again.
A few days later–on the 8th May, 1873–Fabre was invited to lunch with the philosopher. Before going to the little house by the cemetery he halted, as was his custom, at the Libraire Saint-Just. It was there that he learned, with amazement, of the tragic and sudden event which set a so unexpected term to a friendship which was doubtless a little remote, but which was, on both sides, a singularly lofty and beautiful attachment.
His class-books were now bringing in scarcely anything; their preparation, moreover, involved an excessive expenditure of time, and gave him a great deal of trouble; it is impossible to imagine what scrupulous care, what zeal and self-respect Fabre brought to the execution of the programme which he had to fulfil.
To begin with, he considered that he could not enjoy a more splendid opportunity to give children a taste for science and to stimulate their curiosity than by finding a means to interest them, from their earliest infancy, in their simple playthings, even the crudest and most inexpensive; so true is it that “in the smallest mechanical device or engine, even in its simplest form, as conceived by the industry of a child, there is often the germ of important truths, and, better than books, the school of the playroom, if gently disciplined, will open for the child the windows of the universe.”
“The humble teetotum, made of a crust of rye-bread transfixed by a twig, silently spinning on the cover of a school-book, will give a correct enough image of the earth, which retains unmoved its original impulse, and travels along a great circle, at the same time turning on itself. Gummed on its disc, scraps of paper properly coloured will tell us of white light, decomposable into various coloured rays…
“There will be the pop-gun, with its ramrod and its two plugs of tow, the hinder one expelling the foremost by the elasticity of the compressed air. Thus we get a glimpse of the ballistics of gunpowder, and the pressure of steam in engines…”
The little hydraulic fountain made of an apricot stone, patiently hollowed and pierced with a hole at either side, into which two straws are fitted, one dipping into a cup of water and the other duly capped, “expelling a slender thread of water in which the sunlight flickers,” will introduce us to the true syphon of physics.
“What amusing and useful lessons” a well-balanced scheme of education might extract from this “academy of childish ingenuity”! (5/6.)
At this time he was undertaking the education of his own children. His chemistry lessons especially had a great success. (5/7.) With apparatus of his own devising and of the simplest kind, he could perform a host of elementary experiments, the apparatus as a rule consisting of the most ordinary materials, such as a common flask or bottle, an old mustard-pot, a tumbler, a goose-quill or a pipe-stem.
A series of astonishing phenomena amazed their wondering eyes. He made them see, touch, taste, handle, and smell, and always “the hand assisted the word,” always “the example accompanied the precept,” for no one more fully valued the profound maxim, so neglected and misunderstood, that “to see is to know.”
He exerted himself to arouse their curiosity, to provoke their questions, to discover their mistakes, to set their ideas in order; he accustomed them to rectify their errors themselves, and from all this he obtained excellent material for his books.
For those more especially intended for the education of girls he took counsel with his daughter Antonia, inviting her collaboration, begging her to suggest every aspect of the matter that occurred to her; for instance, in respect of the chemistry of the household, “where exact science should shed its light upon a host of facts relating to domestic economy” (5/8.), from the washing of clothes to the making of a stew.
Even now, to his despair, although freed from the cares of school life, he was always almost wholly without leisure to devote himself to his chosen subjects.
It was at this period above all that he felt so “lonely, abandoned, struggling against misfortune; and before one can philosophize one has to live.” (5/9.)
And his incessant labour was aggravated by a bitter disappointment. In the year of Mill’s death Fabre was dismissed from his post as conservator of the Requien Museum, which he had held in spite of his departure from Avignon, going thither regularly twice a week to acquit himself of his duties. The municipality, working in the dark, suddenly dismissed him without explanation. To Fabre this dismissal was infinitely bitter; “a sweeper-boy would have been treated with as much ceremony.” (5/10.) What afflicted him most was not the undeserved slight of the dismissal, but his unspeakable regret at quitting those beloved vegetable collections, “amassed with such love” by Requien, who was his friend and master, and by Mill and himself; and the thought that he would henceforth perhaps be unable to save these precious but perishable things from oblivion, or terminate the botanical geography of Vaucluse, on which he had been thirty years at work!
For this reason, when there was some talk of establishing an agronomic station at Avignon, and of appointing him director, he was at first warmly in favour of the idea. (5/11.) Already he foresaw a host of fascinating experiments, of the highest practical value, conducted in the peace and leisure and security of a fixed appointment. It is indeed probable that in so vast a field he would have demonstrated many valuable truths, fruitful in practical results; he was certainly meant for such a task, and he would have performed it with genuine personal satisfaction. He had already exerted his ingenuity by trying to develop, among the children of the countryside, a taste for agriculture, which he rightly considered the logical complement of the primary school, and which is based upon all the sciences which he himself had studied, probed, taught, and popularized.
It will be remembered how patiently he devoted himself for twelve years to the study of madder, multiplying his researches, and applying himself not only to extracting the colouring principle, but also to indicating means whereby adulteration and fraud might be detected.
He had published memoirs of great importance dealing with entomology in its