About the year 1640, James Howell, an English traveller spoke of "the Netherlands" as "the cockpit of Christendom." Someone suspecting him of cynicism has altered the phrase to "the cockpit of Europe." Howell was not, of course, referring to the Dutch Netherlands, for within its frontiers comparatively few battles have been fought, but to the Low Countries, comprising what is now Belgian Flanders and the old French province of Artois. If a cockpit then, how much more has it deserved the name since, for in the same arena Conde, Turenne, William of Orange, Marlborough, and Marshal Saxe marched and counter-marched, fought, and laid siege to cities; the Revolutionary armies of France overran it, and the long fight between Wellington and Napoleon was there brought to a close.
Howell's advice to the "foreign traveller" was that "if there be any leaguers (i.e., sieges) afoot or armies in motion, it should be time well spent to see them." This recommendation seemed to him as ordinary and natural as a Baedeker's not to miss seeing one of the great Continental Fairs. About the time Howell was visiting Flanders, the traveller might have had a considerable choice of "leagues" open for his inspection, and in 1640, at Arras, he might have found an example of military operations which even a moderate experience of sieges would not have deemed banal.
Arras, with a history dating from Roman times, was no stranger to the besieger. It had been sacked by the Vandals and by the Normans, and it had endured two sieges in the fifteenth century. The stronghold fell again in the next century, this time to the Prince of Orange. But at the period we are writing of, Arras, with the greater part of Artois, was under Spanish rule. The Spanish occupation of this part of modern France was sufficiently long and thorough to impress upon the architecture of the towns something more than a flavour of Spain and upon the common speech of the inhabitants many of the tones of the South.
The Thirty Years' War was, in 1640, entering its final and more political phase. His Christian Majesty Louis XIII. was forwarding the aggrandisement of his country in Flanders, and the Government for His Catholic Majesty of Spain was holding Arras for his master. The French army had settled down to a long siege before its walls. The Citadel, and those remnants of fortifications still to be found near the Porte Baudimont on the road to St Pol, had not yet been brought into being by Vauban, but the city was strong and the siege long. Under Marshal de Gassion, the great Conde lay around the town and was gaining some of his first experience in the field. All was proceeding according to the rules of the siege-game till the Infanta of Spain appeared with a considerable force - insufficient to raise the siege, but enough to hem in the besiegers and give them more than a taste of the privation they were creating for the garrison of Arras. The besiegers tried to appease their hunger on minnows fished from the River Scarpe, and on sparrows, which alone represented the game of the district. Ultimately, Conde tried to break through to Doullens to get supplies, and succeeded, although the troops which remained had to withstand a fierce attack planned by the Spaniards for the occasion.
The names of those who took part in this double siege have almost all gone down to the dust with the men who bore them. But the memory of one man who served France with the Gascons of Carbon de Castel-Jaloux, who bore the brunt of the Spanish attack, we shall not easily let die. He was Cyrano de Bergerac - called Captain Satan. The historical Cyrano pales a little before the character depicted in the literature of successive generations. The culmination of the portrayal of the legendary Cyrano is in M. Rostand's tragicomedy, which provided Coquelin with, perhaps, his most famous role. Speaking of the Cyrano of romance, a critic said: "He is the most French of all Frenchmen of his time. Brimful of cleverness, but mad; commanding attention, yet grotesque; he is a caricature and a hero; he is the very form and feature of tragi-comedy." He appears as a fire-eating duellist, but one as keen in the fence of words as a sword. He can turn out a triolet when on guard in the camp, and duelling, his rapier flashes to the measure of a ballade, and his blade goes home at the end of the envoi. Among Gascons, he is "Gascon et demi"; gay and fearless, full of rodomontade and braggadocio. Cyrano is a lover full of romance, whose words are the sweetest poetry. To hear him is to love him; to see him is to make love impossible, for a huge and hideous nose mars all else, physical and mental.
The historical Cyrano, although possessed of a Southern temperament, so as to justify his description as a "Frenchified Spaniard," was not a Gascon. His baptismal certificate shows him to have been born in the district of St Sauveur in Paris and sprung from a daily whose seat was not many leagues from the capital. He was brought up in Paris, and never ever lived at Bergerac. He seems to have assumed the title of de Bergerac, and he varied his name from Cyrano Bergerac to de Bergerac-Cyrano, and thus tempted the gibing Scarron to write in one of his plays
"Don Zapala Pascal, Ou Pascal Zapala car m'emporte guere Que Pascal soit devant, ou Pascal par derriere."
The name Cyrano, too, was his middle name, Savinien being his first. Although he joined Carbon de Castel-Jaloux's Gascon soldiery and was wounded, first at Mouzon near the Ardennes, and then at the siege of Arras, he transferred after his recovery from the second wound, which was in the throat, into the Guard of the Prince of Conti. In thus accepting private service, Cyrano withdrew from the army and from the siege. He had evidently more taste for private than for public warfare, but the quarrelsome duellist, whose sword flew out at the mention of the word "nose," or when a person gave his nose more than a glance, was unknown to his intimate friend Le Bret, who declares that Cyrano fought not as a principal but as a second - the duel in his day being fought a quatre. As he himself says in his witty way in a letter: "Vous auriez grand tort de m'appeler le premier des hommes, car, je vous proteste, qu'il y a plus d'un mois que je suis le second de tout le monde." He adds, however, that his knowledge of paper would have been lost had not cartels been written upon it. It was the pure love of fence and not of quarrelling that placed Cyrano's sword at the service of all his friends.
Theophile Gautier has an amusing page of dissertation on Cyrano's nose as seen in an engraving. He calls it a mixture of a bird's beak on the snout of a tapir; a promontory; Himalaya, the highest mountain on earth. To be loved with such a nose was not for Cyrano, so M. Rostand makes his hero resort to stratagem. Cousin Madeleine Robineau is the object of his affections - a "precious," self-styled "Roxane" - who, all ignorant of his concealed passion, asks Cyrano to protect her lover, Christian de Neuvillette. Bergerac sees in this youth a mouthpiece for conveying the poetic love he longs to utter, and the young man, who is unable to write a single verse, or to speak one pretty sentence, is all too pleased to use Cyrano's beautiful letters and honeyed poetry which prove so fascinating for his mistress. He even uses the other's living words; for, in the darkness, beneath Roxane's balcony, it is Cyrano who, Romeo-like, outpours his soul, but it is Christian who climbs up to be rewarded with a kiss. Cyrano's life becomes long self-sacrifice that has secret joys. He is the means of getting the lovers married against powerful opposition, which, however, is strong enough to part the newly-wedded pair as they leave the alter. The husband and Cyrano are ordered to Arras, and while in the field the hero performs prodigies of valour in passing through the Spanish lines in order that Roxane may have a letter (written as from her husband) every day. Then Christian is killed, and the widowed Roxane, who has never been wife, keeps her husband's memory fresh by the recollection of the sweet verses and the cherished letters which he had not written. As the years pass it is her chiefest joy, one afternoon each week, to talk of Christian with the appreciative Cyrano, who still guards his secret. At last, the enemies of the satirical Gascon duellist prevail, and Cyrano one day drags himself wounded and dying to Roxane, lest she misses the weekly visit. Amid the ravings caused by bodily pain, he betrays the secret of the letters and the poetry. Roxane's confession of her love for him as the real poet of her dreams is only in time to sweeten the last moments of his life.
The Cyrano of history would ironically smile at the puppet-show in which M. Rostand has made him dance. His amours had nothing of romance to relieve the sordidness, and his cousin Madeleine, who did become Madeleine de Neuvillette, had when quite young so much hair on her chin as to be called "a fright." Without quarrelling, however, with an author's privilege of giving the most effective treatment to his hero for the purpose of the theatre. let us turn again to what we know of the real man.
Cyrano was brought up in Paris by one Grangier, whose pedantry gave the youth such disgust that his first literary work was "Le Pedant Joue." in which his tutor figured in all his folly. Not only was the youth attracted to literature, but also to natural science and philosophy. As he deemed his tutor an "Aristotelian ass," he was naturally attracted to Gassendi, who was at the head of a school of neo-Epicureans opposed to the teaching of Descartes. At Gassendi's feet, Cyrano sat side by side with Moliere, and they formed a lasting friendship. Moliere showed his high appreciation of de Bergerac's ability. He did more than place an imprimatur on his works; he even printed portions of them himself - among his own scenes. In particular, we find that it is to Cyrano's "Pedant joue" that we owe "Que diable allait-il faire dans cette maudite galere," and the scene in the Fourberies de Scapin" where we find the Turkish galley.
Cyrano's speculative mind was never happier than when he was dealing with other worlds and their possible systems. He put his thoughts and ironical comments on his age under the aegis of the Comic Muse in his "Historic Comique des estat et empire de la lune," and similar work on the Sun. A simple style and a mordant satire on man and his thoughts and ways show where Dean Swift found his model for Gulliver and his travels. Indeed, Cyrano's writings seem to have been almost irresistible, not only to subsequent generations but even to his contemporaries. He wrote a tragedy called "Agrippine," and the great Corneille seized whole verses from it just as Moliere had done. But Corneille was not allowed to go Scot-free. De Bergerac published two letters on plagiarists, "those," as he says, "who having no children of their own adopt ours."
Cyrano's works brought him into trouble. His mockery of accepted ideas in his "Voyages Fantastiques," and his outspoken free-thinking views in "Agrippine" and elsewhere, led to his being charged with atheism, which his early period of libertinism was held to confirm. He denied that charge but remained suspect. Not only did he make enemies of the orthodox in this way, but, by his clever and biting attacks on individuals, he added to that number. He put Champfleury, the actor, under a ban from acting for a month, and ordered him from the stage in the middle of a performance. Against the clamorous nobles assembled in the theatre, Cyrano upheld the ban with his sword.
The political and military ferment known as La Fonde, which began as a popular movement against the despotic and foreign influences of Cardinal Mazarin and ended as a factional quarrel of the nobility, provided the very happiest conditions in which Cyrano's activity could find scope. Captain Satan never let his sword grow dull any more than he did his brain. He feared no odds. A hundred cut-throats lay in wait for a friend at the Porte de Nesle, and Cyrano went forth single-handed to meet them. After killing or wounding half a score, he put the rest to flight. But he tasted hardships and the bitterness of patronage. At first, he attacked Mazarin, and then, supporting the Cardinal, he attacked his former literary colleagues. Thus he multiplied his enemies.
The siege of Arras, at which we found Cyrano in 1640, ended by its capture by the French the same year, and Arras has since then never ceased to be French. But during the Fronde the cross-currents of politics whirled the great Conde to the support of Spain, and, commanding this time the Spanish troops, he sat down in 1654 before Arras to reduce it. Turenne came up in time to save the town. That year Cyrano was but five-and-thirty, but he was never to take the field again, or visit the scenes of his exploits with the Gascons of Carbon de Castel-Jaloux. In Paris, his enemies were on the watch. As he was going home one night a block of wood was dropped from a house. It struck his head and felled him. His death was only a question of time. But what a time was those months of fever that dragged on till the following year for the turbulent Captain Satan! He sank into depression and bewailed the years that folly had eaten. Fantastic enough were the ideas of his brain normally; the prelude of death was delirium. His enemies seemed to gather around his bed in crowds. M. Rostand makes his hero raise his sword for the last time to strike at them, as he cries:-
"Que dites vous .... 'C'est inutile ... Je le sais. Mais on ne bat pas dans l'espoir du succes. Non! Non! c'est bien plus beau lorsque c'est inutile."
Let that stand for his epitaph.
One who had been an intermittent patron - the Duc d'Arpajon - gave Cyrano burial in his own family vault in the Covent of the Daughters of the Cross at Paris. At the Revolution, the ever-troubling world broke in upon his rest in that aristocratic sanctuary and scattered his ashes to the winds. No wonder that Gaurier concludes a sketch of his life with the fond commiseration, "Pauvre Cyrano."
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