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A Note On "L’aiglon"
by [?]

THE night-scene on the battlefield of Wagram in “L’Aiglon”–an episode whose sharp pathos pierces the heart and the imagination like the point of a rapier–bears a striking resemblance to a picturesque passage in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” It is the one intense great moment in the play, and has been widely discussed, but so far as I am aware none of M. Rostand’s innumerable critics has touched on the resemblance mentioned. In the master’s romance it is not the field of Wagram, but the field of Waterloo, that is magically repeopled with contending armies of spooks, to use the grim old Dutch word, and made vivid to the mind’s eye. The passage occurs at the end of the sixteenth chapter in the second part of “Les Miserables” (Cosette), and runs as follows:

Le champ de Waterloo aujourd’hui a le calme qui appartient a la terre, support impassible de l’homme, et il resemble a toutes les plaines. La nuit pourtant une espece de brume visionnaire s’en degage, et si quelque voyageur s’y promene, s’il regarde, s’il ecoute, s’il reve comme Virgile dans les funestes plaines de Philippes, l’hallucination de la catastrophe le saisit. L’effrayant 18 juin revit; la fausse colline-monument s’efface, ce lion quelconque se dissipe, le champ de bataille reprend sa realite; des lignes d’infanterie ondulent dans la plaine, des galops furieux traversent l’horizon; le songeur effare voit l’eclair des sabres, l’etincelle des bayonnettes, le flamboiement des bombes, l’entre-croisement monstrueux des tonnerres; il entend, comme un rale au fond d’une tombe, la clameur vague de la bataille-fantome; ces ombres, ce sont les grenadiers; ces lueurs, ce sont les cuirassiers; . . . tout cela n’est plus et se heurte et combat encore; et les ravins s’empourprent, et les arbres frissonnent, et il y a de la furie jusque dans les nuees, et, dans les tenebres, toutes ces hauteurs farouches, Mont-Saint Jean, Hougomont, Frischemont, Papelotte, Plancenoit, apparaissent confusement couronnees de tourbillons de spectres s’exterminant. (1)

Here is the whole battle scene in “L’Aiglon,” with scarcely a gruesome detail omitted. The vast plain glimmering in phantasmal light; the ghostly squadrons hurling themselves against one another (seen only through the eyes of the poor little Duke of Reichstadt); the mangled shapes lying motionless in various postures of death upon the blood-stained sward; the moans of the wounded rising up and sweeping by like vague wailings of the wind–all this might be taken for an artful appropriation of Victor Hugo’s text; but I do not think it was, though it is possible that a faint reflection of a brilliant page, read in early youth, still lingered on the retina of M. Rostand’s memory. If such were the case, it does not necessarily detract from the integrity of the conception or the playwright’s presentment of it.

(1) The field of Waterloo has to-day the peacefulness which belongs to earth, the impassive support of man, and is like all other plains. At night, however, a kind of visionary mist is exhaled, and if any traveler walks there, and watches and listens, and dreams like Virgil on the sorrowful plains of Philippi, the hallucination of the catastrophe takes possession of him. The terrible June 18 relives; the artificial commemorative mound effaces itself, the lion disappears, the field of battle assumes its reality; lines of infantry waver on the plain, the horizon is broken by furious charges of cavalry; the alarmed dreamer sees the gleam of sabres, the glimmer of bayonets, the lurid glare of bursting shells, the clashing of mighty thunderbolts; the muffled clamor of the phantom conflict comes to him like dying moans from the tomb; these shadows are grenadiers, these lights are cuirassiers . . . all this does not really exist, yet the combat goes on; the ravines are stained with purple, the trees tremble, there is fury even in the clouds, and in the obscurity the sombre heights–Mont Saint-Jean, Hougomont, Frischemont, Papelotte, and Plancenoit–ap-pear dimly crowned with throngs of apparitions annihilating one another.

The idea of repeopling old battlefields with the shades of vanished hosts is not novel. In such tragic spots the twilight always lays a dark hand on the imagination, and prompts one to invoke the unappeased spirit of the past that haunts the place. One summer evening long ago, as I was standing alone by the ruined walls of Hougomont, with that sense of not being alone which is sometimes so strangely stirred by solitude, I had a sudden vision of that desperate last charge of Napoleon’s Old Guard. Marshal Ney rose from the grave and again shouted those heroic words to Drouet d’Erlon: “Are you not going to get yourself killed?” For an instant a thousand sabres flashed in the air. The deathly silence that accompanied the ghostly onset was an added poignancy to the short-lived dream. A moment later I beheld a hunched little figure mounted on a white horse with housings of purple velvet. The reins lay slack in the rider’s hand; his three-cornered hat was slouched over his brows, and his chin rested on the breast of his great-coat. Thus he slowly rode away through the twilight, and nobody cried, Vive l’Empereur!

The ground on which a famous battle has been fought casts a spell upon every man’s mind; and the impression made upon two men of poetic genius, like Victor Hugo and Edmond Rostand, might well be nearly identical. This sufficiently explains the likeness between the fantastic silhouette in “Les Miserables” and the battle of the ghosts in “L’Aiglon.” A muse so rich in the improbable as M. Rostand’s need not borrow a piece of supernaturalness from anybody.