Pere la Chaise

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


The cemetery of Pere la Chaise is the Westminster Abbey of Paris. Both are the dwellings of the dead; but in one they repose in green alleys and beneath the open sky--in the other their resting-place is in the shadowy aisle, and beneath the dim arches of an ancient abbey. One is a temple of nature; the other a temple of art. In one, the soft melancholy of the scene is rendered still more touching by the warble of birds and the shade of trees, and the grave receives the gentle visit of the sunshine and the shower; in the other, no sound but the passing footfall breaks the silence of the place; the twilight steals in through high and dusky windows; and the damps of the gloomy vault lie heavy on the heart, and leave their stain upon the moldering tracery of the tomb.

Pere la Chaise stands just beyond the Barriere d'Aulney, on a hill-side, looking toward the city. Numerous gravel-walks, winding through shady avenues and between marble monuments, lead up from the principal entrance to a chapel on the summit. There is hardly a grave that has not its little inclosure planted with shrubbery; and a thick mass of foliage half conceals each funeral stone. The sighing of the wind, as the branches rise and fall upon it,--the occasional note of a bird among the trees, and the shifting of light and shade upon the tombs beneath, have a soothing effect upon the mind; and I doubt whether any one can enter that inclosure, where repose the dust and ashes of so many great and good men, without feeling the religion of the place steal over him, and seeing something of the dark and gloomy expression pass off from the stern countenance of death.

It was near the close of a bright summer afternoon that I visited this celebrated spot for the first time. The object that arrested my attention, on entering, was a monument in the form of a small Gothic chapel, which stands near the entrance, in the avenue leading to the right hand. On the marble couch within are stretched two figures, carved in stone and drest in the antique garb of the Middle Ages. It is the tomb of Abelard and Heloise. The history of these unfortunate lovers is too well known to need recapitulation; but perhaps it is not so well known how often their ashes were disturbed in the slumber of the grave. Abelard died in the monastery of Saint Marcel, and was buried in the vaults of the church. His body was afterward removed to the convent of the Paraclet, at the request of Heloise, and at her death her body was deposited in the same tomb. Three centuries they reposed together; after which they were separated to different sides of the church, to calm the delicate scruples of the lady- abbess of the convent. More than a century afterward, they were again united in the same tomb; and when at length the Paraclet was destroyed, their moldering remains were transported to the church of Nogent-sur- Seine. They were next deposited in an ancient cloister at Paris; and now repose near the gateway of the cemetery of Pere la Chaise. What a singular destiny was theirs! that, after a life of such passionate and disastrous love,--such sorrows, and tears, and penitence--their very dust should not be suffered to rest quietly in the grave!--that their death should so much resemble their life in its changes and vicissitudes, its partings and its meetings, its inquietudes and its persecutions!--that mistaken zeal should follow them down to the very tomb--as if earthly passion could glimmer, like a funeral lamp, amid the damps of the charnel-house, and "even in their ashes bum their wonted fires!"….

Leaving this interesting tomb behind me, I took a pathway to the left, which conducted me up the hill-side. I soon found myself in the deep shade of heavy foliage, where the branches of the yew and willow mingled, interwoven with the tendrils and blossoms of the honeysuckle. I now stood in the most populous part of this city of tombs. Every step awakened a new train of thrilling recollections; for at every step my eye caught the name of some one whose glory had exalted the character of his native land, and resounded across the waters of the Atlantic. Philosophers, historians, musicians, warriors, and poets slept side by side around me; some beneath the gorgeous monument, and some beneath the simple headstone. But the political intrigue, the dream of science, the historical research, the ravishing harmony of sound, the tried courage, the inspiration of the lyre--where are they? With the living, and not with the dead! The right hand has lost its cunning in the grave; but the soul, whose high volitions it obeyed, still lives to reproduce itself in ages yet to come.

Among these graves of genius I observed here and there a splendid monument, which had been raised by the pride of family over the dust of men who could lay no claim either to the gratitude or remembrances of posterity. Their presence seemed like an intrusion into the sanctuary of genius. What had wealth to do there? Why should it crowd the dust of the great? That was no thoroughfare of business--no mart of gain! There were no costly banquets there; no silken garments, nor gaudy liveries, nor obsequious attendants!….

I continued my walk through the numerous winding paths, as chance or curiosity directed me. Now I was lost in a little green hollow, overhung with thick-leaved shrubbery, and then came out upon an elevation, from which, through an opening in the trees, the eye caught glimpses of the city, and the little esplanade, at the foot of the hill, where the poor lie buried. There poverty hires its grave, and takes but a short lease of the narrow house. At the end of a few months, or at most of a few years, the tenant is dislodged to give place to another, and he in turn to a third. "Who," says Sir Thomas Browne, "knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?"

Yet, even in that neglected corner, the hand of affection had been busy in decorating the hired house. Most of the graves were surrounded with a slight wooden paling, to secure them from the passing footstep; there was hardly one so deserted as not to be marked with its little wooden cross, and decorated with a garland of flowers; and here and there I could perceive a solitary mourner, clothed in black, stooping to plant a shrub on the grave, or sitting in motionless sorrow beside it….

After rambling leisurely about for some time, reading the iscriptions on the various monuments which attracted my curiosity, and giving way to the different reflections they suggested, I sat down to rest myself on a sunken tombstone. A winding gravel-walk, overshaded by an avenue of trees, and lined on both sides with richly sculptured monuments, had gradually conducted me to the summit of the hill, upon whose slope the cemetery stands. Beneath me in the distance, and dim-discovered through the misty and smoky atmosphere of evening, rose the countless roofs and spires of the city. Beyond, throwing his level rays athwart the dusky landscape, sank the broad red sun. The distant murmur of the city rose upon my ear; and the toll of the evening bell came up, mingled with the rattle of the paved street and the confused sounds of labor. What an hour for meditation! What a contrast between the metropolis of the living and the metropolis of the dead!….

Before I left the graveyard the shades of evening had fallen, and the objects around me grown dim and indistinct. As I passed the gateway, I turned to take a parting look. I could distinguish only the chapel on the summit of the hill, and here and there a lofty obelisk of snow-white marble, rising from the black and heavy mass of foliage around, and pointing upward to the gleam of the departed sun, that still lingered in the sky, and mingled with the soft starlight of a summer evening.

[8] From "Outre Mer." Published by Houghton, Mifflin Co.