Marcel Schwob

New York Times Saturday Review of Books

Nov. 30, 1906, p. 803

A Tribute to the Recently Deceased Parisian and Neo-Pagan.

Written for The New York Times Saturday Review of Books by


THE other day there died in Paris a young writer whose works, though little known now, will occupy a high place in French literature. Marcel Schwob, like Pierre Louyes, was a revenant of old Greece, a shade that had wandered out of its tomb in Athens, passing in its frail, wasted body through the sunlit isles of Sicily into modern Paris, where he wrote his “Mimes.”

Twenty wonderful little prose poems, living masks of old Greek faces! Twenty facets in a perfect stone wrought out of the opal lights of the dawn and shot through with a subtle glimmer of green and blue! Twenty hymns to beauty set to a passionate pagan lilt!

The great God Pan is dead! The great God Pan is dead! The great God Pan is dead!

Then the pearly city of Mitylene fell down and all the statues were overthrown, the tiny souls of the brooks escaped, and the lesser deities took flight from the hearts of the trees, the pitch of the plants, and the vitalized calices of the flowers; and silence brooded over the white marble fragments.

The shades of Daphnis and Chloe, turned very old in the new light of day, suddenly vanished, and the Kind Goddess, whose power over the subterranean realms was annulled, bore them with her as she fled over the meadows to the unknown regions where the Gods have withdrawn. With her breath she caused Lesbos to bloom anew and returned Daphnis and Chloe to earth once more; for the isle, midst the white canals that intersect it, is covered with their multiplied souls, so many laurels and verdant osier beds have sprung from its buried heart.

And thus it was Marcel Schwob dreamed forever of the younger vanished world, a world that was, in his poetic dream, like a goblet wreathed about with silver vines and golden grapes from which the sons and daughters of men drank of the inexhaustible wine of life, and living was as the sound of the flute on the ear.

The gods came among men in those days, and even Death was sought with joy as a sweet sleep. Did not the soul and body reappear in all things? Was not the passion for death no less than the passion for life? Did not those earth lovers know what we have forgotten, that after Winter come the Springtides, after death regermination?

Then they come to the bank of Lethe, where I range them along the shore of the silent-flowing water. Some plunge therein their heads, containing evil thoughts, others the hands that wrought evil. Rising therefrom, the water of Lethe had effaced all remembrance.

IN other Mimes Schwob seems to be threading his way through moon haze, balancing himself on a star beam, leaving the earth lightly, with a bound. Again he threads the ways of men, mingling with the fishmongers in old Athens or dreaming in a cottage with his fantastic women, with their hats of plaited straw and their silver mirrors. Here is a complete Mime. It is not included in the original edition:


She whom you see in withered form was called Sismé, daughter of Thratta; in her youth she knew but the bees and the flocks; then she tasted the salt of the sea; at length a merchant led her into the white houses of Syria. Now she is closely swathed, like a precious statuette, in her stone sheath. Count the rings which gleam on her fingers; just so many years had she. See the fillet that bands her forehead; thereon she timidly received her first love kiss. Touch the star of pale rubies that sleeps where once was her bosom; there reposed a beloved head.

Near Sismé they have placed her tarnished mirror, her silver osselets and long amber pins which once adorned her hair; for at her twentieth year (there are twenty rings) she was covered with gems.

A rich magistrate gave her all that women covet: Sismé never forgets him, and her little white bones have not rejected the jewels.

Now the magistrate has built this ornate sepulchre for her, to protect the tender dead, and surrounded her with vases of unguents and golden lachrimatories. Sismé thanks him.

But thou, if thou wouldst know the secret of an embalmed heart, unclasp the tiny joints of this left hand: there thou wilt find a simple little glass ring. This ring was transparent; from the passing of the years it has become smoky and opaque; Sismé loves it. Be silent and comprehend.

This is exquisite art, poetic, melancholy, chaste. There is, too, a gleam of the barbaric over it all, the scent of things sensuous, hints of a  wan and ancient sadness. Gone, gone in the dead years is Sismé, and around her body lie the vanities of love, pale memories of a passion as dead as death.

His death was announced in a single line by cable, and wherever read the question was asked, “Who was Marcel Schwob?” and the world passed on to its immortal buffooneries.

But the perfect work of art outlives all the other works of man. He who steals the divine fire from the secret spiritual chambers where it lies hidden and weaves it into written words or images on canvas or passionately strikes it from the musical instrument is already as immortal as—memory.

Schwob wrought in a divine frenzy, and his death did not matter. His work is ours.

B. DE C.
City of Mexico, November, 1906.