“The great god Pan is dead!” Bahorel teetered a little unsteadily atop the table as Courfeyrac pulled at his trouser leg. Tapping his wine bottle with a knife, he shouted again, “The great god Pan is dead!”
“Will you get down before you fall? What are you on about anyway?”
He pushed the newspaper toward Courfeyrac with his foot and bellowed again, “I have been to Paxos, and I proclaim the great god Pan is dead! Why are none of you jackals lamenting?”
“It was Messolonghi, not Paxos,” Courfeyrac sardonically corrected based on the story he was now skimming in the Courrier français, “and no one cares about English poets.”
“Yes, because it’s any better in the original.”
“I weep, I mourn, I cry lamentations to the heavens and tear my hair,” a dark-haired young man said as he approached the table, patently doing none of those things. “This is a café in Paris, monsieur, not a dockyard at Palodes.” He did not entirely look old enough to be patronising a café in Paris with such aplomb, but then, Courfeyrac was still practically a schoolboy, too, only lately released into the city on his own.
“Didn’t I tell you to sit down?” Courfeyrac snapped. There was something decidedly intimidating in the youth’s calm condescension over someone his elder.
“Quiet,” Bahorel waved him away. Looking down on his new adversary, he announced importantly, “It seems I have been charged with delivering the news. Lord Byron is dead.”
The interrupter sat down in a daze. “Dead?”
“He is not charged with delivering the news,” Courfeyrac felt compelled to assert. “He merely co-opted the Courrier français before anyone else.”
“What does that matter? Pan is dead!”
“On the battlefield!” Bahorel insisted, though he was now sitting on the table rather than continuing to stand, its uneven legs being more stable that way.
Courfeyrac passed the paper to the newcomer, pointing out the article. “Sometime last month, a fever. He never even made it into battle.”
“That isn’t the point!” Bahorel shouted. “The point is that he went to fight, not that fate prevented him from it. You can take your Keats and Shelley who fade out from consumption – give me a real man who tried to go out fighting, and I’ll call him a poet.”
“Shelley drowned,” the newcomer said. “And I was always rather partial to Wordsworth as a model for modern poetry. You read English poetry?” he asked in an incredulous tone. Indeed, Bahorel was built more like a boxer than a romantic and thoroughly looked the part.
“I am Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,” Bahorel quoted in execrably pronounced English.
“He’s attracted to anything smashed up,” Courfeyrac tried to explain.
“I can imagine. One would have to be attracted to smashing to call Byron the great god Pan.”
“What do you mean by that?” Bahorel asked defensively.
“Just what I said. The man is – was – obsessed with smashing things up, with destroying the classic forms and classic genres without building anything in their place. A force of nature pulling down the old order, and more power to him, I respect and applaud the action, but to what purpose? Destruction has its place in history, but merely to snipe at the old guard is not to replace it. Anyone can be a hooligan and start a riot, which is what Byron was doing all over literature and probably what drove him to Greece. Less the promise of creating a new dawn than the promise of shooting up some Turks.”
“I’d go to Messolonghi right now if I could afford it.”
“You can start a riot right here, or in one of the mill towns in the north, if what you want is a fight. If you want justice, then you will find a way to get to Greece even without funds.”
“Do we have to take this conversation outside?” Bahorel asked with a belligerence Courfeyrac, in their short acquaintance, had already learned not to like.
“Not at all, monsieur. You have no need to demand satisfaction for what was not intended as an insult to you. The insult, if insult it be, is to Byron, for falling headfirst into a war when he was merely bored and looking for a riot.”
“He who ascends to mountain-tops, shall find / The loftiest peaks most wrapt in clouds and snow. / He who surpasses or subdues mankind, / Must look down on the hate of those below. / Though high above the sun of glory glow, / And far beneath the earth and ocean spread, / Round him are icy rocks, and loudly blow / Contending tempests on his naked head, / And thus reward the toils which to those summits led.”
“Yes, we live in the time of the Philistines, but that is no excuse for paying homage to an undeserving man. To live ones life asserting for and against the same things is wit, not art. It is only art if one can believe both simultaneously. I might believe him if I were not convinced he thought he got more attention by running away from society than by participating in it. He was only the simulacrum of a paradox.”
“You were shocked to hear the news.”
“Shocked, yes. One does not anticipate such tragedies.”
“And you were saddened,” Bahorel insisted.
“As I said, I admire him for smashing up the conventions of literature. What saddens me is that he never built anything in their place. A dashing personality is all well and good in the life, but what has he done for the generations to come, who will hear of him in the past and never understand what it was to see his name in the newspaper?”
“He has done Childe Harold. You cannot talk a stranger out of admiration.”
“No, but I can talk him out of shouting annoying nonsense in a café.”
“You have proved it for me, monsieur. Good day.”
“Hey, wait!” Bahorel called him back. “Share a funeral toast with me.”
“To Byron’s salvation?” the young man asked sardonically.
“To the generations to come.”
“And the poets to come,” added Courfeyrac, feeling rather left out of the conversation.
The young man nodded and accepted a glass. “To the generations to come.”
“I’m called Bahorel, by the way.”
The young man made a short, quick bow. “Combeferre. Forgive me, but I must return to my friends. Unless you happen to be interested in Champollion’s book?”
“Who is Champollion when he’s at home?”
“A brilliant linguist working on the inscriptions left by the ancient Egyptians. He is to give a public lecture tonight.” Both men looked completely lost. “Good day, messieurs.”
“Really, the nerve!” Bahorel said quietly to Courfeyrac when Combeferre had crossed the room.
“I told you to quit making an ass of yourself.”
“When did I ever imply that could stop me?”
“What does stop you?”
“Nothing,” Bahorel insisted, then called for another bottle of wine. “Is there anything else interesting in the paper?”
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