Jasmin: Barber, Poet, Philanthropist

Author: Samuel Smiles

Chapter XX. Death of Jasmin—His Character.

After his final recitation at Villeneuve, Jasmin, sick, ill, and utterly exhausted, reached Agen with difficulty. He could scarcely stand. It was not often that travelling had so affected him; but nature now cried out and rebelled. His wife was, of course, greatly alarmed. He was at once carefully put to bed, and there he lay for fifteen days.

When he was at length able to rise, he was placed in his easy chair, but he was still weak, wearied, and exhausted. Mariette believed that he would yet recover his strength; but the disease under which he laboured had taken a strong hold of him, and Jasmin felt that be was gradually approaching the close of his life.

About this time Renan’s ’Life of Jesus’ was published. Jasmin was inexpressibly shocked by the appearance of the book, for it seemed to him to strike at the foundations of Christianity, and to be entirely opposed to the teachings of the Church. He immediately began to compose a poem, entitled The Poet of the People to M. Renan,[1] in which he vindicated the Catholic faith, and denounced the poisonous mischief contained in the new attack upon Christianity. The poem was full of poetic feeling, with many pathetic touches illustrative of the life and trials of man while here below.

The composition of this poem occupied him for some time. Although broken by grief and pain, he made every haste to correct the proofs, feeling that it would probably be the last work that he should give to the world. And it was his last. It was finished and printed on the 24th of August, 1864. He sent several copies to his more intimate friends with a dedication; and then he took finally to his bed, never to rise again. "I am happy," he said, "to have terminated my career by an act of faith, and to have consecrated my last work to the name of Jesus Christ." He felt that it was his passport to eternity.

Jasmin’s life was fast drawing to a close. He knew that he must soon die; yet never a word of fear escaped his lips; nor was his serenity of mind disturbed. He made his preparations for departure with as much tranquillity and happiness, as on the days when he was about to start on one of his philanthropic missions.

He desired that M. Saint-Hilaire, the vicar of the parish, should be sent for. The priest was at once by the bedside of his dying friend. Jasmin made his replies to him in a clear and calm voice. His wife, his son, his grand-children, were present when he received the Viaticum—the last sacrament of the church. After the ceremony he turned to his wife and family, and said: "In my last communion I have prayed to God that He may keep you all in the most affectionate peace and union, and that He may ever reign in the hearts of those whom I love so much and am about to leave behind me." Then speaking to his wife, he said, "Now Mariette,—now I can die peacefully."

He continued to live until the following morning. He conversed occasionally with his wife, his son, and a few attached friends.

He talked, though with difficulty, of the future of the family, for whom he had made provision. At last, lifting himself up by the aid of his son, he looked towards his wife. The brightness of love glowed in his eyes; but in a moment he fell back senseless upon the pillow, and his spirit quietly passed away.

Jasmin departed this life on the 5th of October, 1864, at the age of sixty-five. He was not an old man; but the brightest jewels soonest wear their setting. When laid in his coffin, the poem to Renan, his last act of faith, was placed on his breast, with his hands crossed over it.

The grief felt at his death was wide and universal. In the South of France he was lamented as a personal friend; and he was followed to the grave by an immense number of his townspeople.

The municipal administration took charge of the funeral. At ten o’clock in the morning of the 8th October the procession started from Jasmin’s house on the Promenade du Gravier. On the coffin were placed the Crown of Gold presented to him by his fellow-townsmen, the cross of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and that of Saint-Gregory the Great. A company of five men, and a detachment of troops commanded by an officer, formed the line.

The following gentlemen held the cords of the funeral pall:— M. Feart, Prefect of the Lot-et-Garonne; M. Henri Noubel, Deputy and Mayor of Agen; General Ressayre, Commander of the Military Division; M. Bouet, President of the Imperial Court; M. de Laffore, engineer; and M. Magen, Secretary of the Society of Agriculture, Sciences, and Arts. A second funeral pall was held by six coiffeurs of the corporation to which Jasmin had belonged. Behind the hearse were the Brothers of the Christian Doctrine, the Sisters of Saint-Vincent de Paul, and the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The mourners were headed by the poet’s son and the other members of his family. The cortege was very numerous, including the elite of the population. Among them were the Procureur-General, the Procureur-imperial, the Engineer-in-chief of the Department, the Director of Taxes, many Councillors-General, all the members of the Society of Agriculture, many officers of the army, many ecclesiastics as well as ministers of the reformed worship. Indeed, representatives of nearly the whole population were present.

The procession first entered the church of Saint Hilaire, where the clergy of the four parishes had assembled. High mass was performed by the full choir. The Miserere of Beethoven was given, and some exquisite pieces from Mozart. Deep emotion was produced by the introduction, in the midst of this beautiful music, of some popular airs from the romance of Franconnette and Me Cal Mouri, Jasmin’s first work. The entire ceremony was touching, and moved many to tears.

After the service had been finished, the procession moved off to the cemetery—passing through the principal streets of the town, which were lined by crowds of mournful spectators. Large numbers of people had also assembled at the cemetery. After the final prayer, M. Noubel, Deputy and Mayor of Agen, took the opportunity of pronouncing a eulogium over the grave of the deceased. His speech was most sympathetic and touching. We can only give a few extracts from his address:

"Dear and great poet," he said, "at the moment when we commit to the earth thy mortal remains, I wish, in the name of this town of Agen, where thou wert born and which thou hast truly loved, to address to thee a last, a supreme adieu. Alas! What would’st thou have said to me some years ago, when I placed upon thy forehead the crown—decreed by the love and admiration of thy compatriots—that I should so soon have been called upon to fulfil a duty that now rends my heart. The bright genius of thy countenance, the brilliant vigour in thine eyes, which time, it seemed, would never tarnish, indicated the fertile source of thy beautiful verses and noble aspirations!

"And yet thy days had been numbered, and you yourself seemed to have cherished this presentiment; but, faithful to thy double mission of poet and apostle of benevolence, thou redoubled thy efforts to enrich with new epics thy sheaf of poetry, and by thy bountiful gifts and charity to allay the sorrows of the poor. Indefatigable worker! Thou hast dispensed most unselfishly thy genius and thy powers! Death alone has been able to compel thee to repose!

"But now our friend is departed for ever! That poetical fire, that brilliant and vivid intelligence, that ardent heart, have now ceased to strive for the good of all; for this great and generous soul has ascended to Him who gave it birth. It has returned to the Giver of Good, accompanied by our sorrows and our tears. It has ascended to heaven with the benedictions of all the distressed and unfortunate whom he has succoured. It is our hope and consolation that he may find the recompense assured for those who have usefully and boldly fulfilled their duty here below.

"This duty, O poet, thou hast well fulfilled. Those faculties, which God had so largely bestowed upon thee, have never been employed save for the service of just and holy causes. Child of the people, thou hast shown us how mind and heart enlarge with work; that the sufferings and privations of thy youth enabled thee to retain thy love of the poor and thy pity for the distressed. Thy muse, sincerely Christian, was never used to inflame the passions, but always to instruct, to soothe, and to console. Thy last song, the Song of the Swan, was an eloquent and impassioned protest of the Christian, attacked in his fervent belief and his faith.

"God has doubtless marked the term of thy mission; and thy death was not a matter of surprise. Thou hast come and gone, without fear; and religion, thy supreme consoler, has calmed the sufferings of thy later hours, as it had cradled thee in thy earlier years.

"Thy body will disappear, but thy spirit, Jasmin, will never be far from us. Inspire us with thy innocent gaiety and brotherly love. The town of Agen is never ungrateful; she counts thee amongst the most pure and illustrious of her citizens. She will consecrate thy memory in the way most dignified to thee and to herself.

"The inhabitants of towns without number, where thou hast exercised thy apostolate of charity, will associate themselves with this work of affection and remembrance. But the most imperishable monument is that which thou hast thyself founded with thine own head and hands, and which will live in our hearts —the creations of thy genius and the memory of thy philanthropy."

After the Mayor of Agen had taken leave of the mortal remains of the poet, M. Capot, President of the Society of Agriculture, Sciences, and Arts, gave another eloquent address. He was followed by M. Magen, Secretary to the same society. The troops fired a salute over the grave, and took leave of the poet’s remains with military honours. The immense crowd of mourners then slowly departed from the cemetery.

Another public meeting took place on the 12th of May, 1870, on the inauguration of the bronze statue of Jasmin in the Place Saint Antoine, now called the Place Jasmin. The statue was erected by public subscription, and executed by the celebrated M. Vital Dubray. It stands nearly opposite the house where Jasmin lived and carried on his trade. Many of his old friends came from a considerable distance to be present at the inauguration of the statue. The Abbe Masson of Vergt was there, whose church Jasmin had helped to re-build. M. l’Abbe Donis, curate of Saint-Louis at Bordeaux, whom he had often helped with his recitations; the able philologist Azais; the young and illustrious Provencal poet Mistral; and many representatives of the Parisian and Southern press, were present on the occasion. The widow and son of the poet, surrounded by their family, were on the platform. When the statue was unveiled, a salvo of artillery was fired; then the choir of the Brothers of the Communal Christian School saluted the "glorious resurrection of Jasmin" with their magnificent music, which was followed by enthusiastic cheers.

M. Henri Noubel, Deputy and Mayor of Agen, made an eloquent speech on the unveiling of the statue. He had already pronounced his eulogium of Jasmin at the burial of the poet, but he was still full of the subject, and brought to mind many charming recollections of the sweetness of disposition and energetic labours of Jasmin on behalf of the poor and afflicted. He again expressed his heartfelt regret for the departure of the poet.

M. Noubel was followed by M. l’Abbe Donis, of Bordeaux, who achieved a great success by his eulogy of the life of Jasmin, whom he entitled "The Saint-vincent de Paul of poetry."

He was followed by the Abbe Capot, in the name of the clergy, and by M. Magen, in the name of the Society of Agriculture, Sciences, and Arts. They were followed by MM. Azais and Pozzi, who recited some choice pieces of poetry in the Gascon patois. M. Mistral came last—the celebrated singer of "Mireio"— who, with his faltering voice, recited a beautiful piece of poetry composed for the occasion, which was enthusiastically applauded.

The day was wound up with a banquet in honour of M. Dubray, the artist who had executed the bronze statue. The Place Jasmin was brilliantly illuminated during the evening, where an immense crowd assembled to view the statue of the poet, whose face and attitude appeared in splendid relief amidst a blaze of light.

It is unnecessary further to describe the character of Jasmin. It is sufficiently shown by his life and labours—his genius and philanthropy. In the recollections of his infancy and boyhood, he truthfully describes the pleasures and sorrows of his youth— his love for his mother, his affection for his grandfather, who died in the hospital, "where all the Jasmins die." He did not even conceal the little tricks played by him in the Academy, from which he was expelled, nor the various troubles of his apprenticeship.

This was one of the virtues of Jasmin—his love of truth. He never pretended to be other than what he was. He was even proud of being a barber, with his "hand of velvet." He was pleased to be entertained by the coiffeurs of Agen, Paris, Bordeaux, and Toulouse. He was a man of the people, and believed in the dignity of labour. At the same time, but for his perseverance and force of character, he never could have raised himself to the honour and power of the true poet.

He was born poor, and the feeling of inherited poverty adhered to him through life, and inspired him with profound love for the poor and the afflicted of his class. He was always ready to help them, whether they lived near to him or far from him. He was, in truth, "The Saint-Vincent de Paul of poetry." His statue, said M. Noubel, pointing up to it, represented the glorification of genius and virtue, the conquest of ignorance and misery.

M. Deydou said at Bordeaux, when delivering an address upon the genius of Jasmin—his Eminence Cardinal Donnet presiding—that poetry, when devoted to the cause of charity, according to the poet himself, was "the glory of the earth and the perfume of heaven."

Jasmin loved his dear town of Agen, and was proud of it. After his visit to the metropolis, he said, "If Paris makes me proud, Agen makes me happy." "This town," he said, on another occasion," has been my birthplace; soon it shall be my grave." He loved his country too, and above all he loved his native language. It was his mother-tongue; and though he was often expostulated with for using it, he never forsook the Gascon. It was the language of the home, of the fireside, of the fields, of the workshop, of the people amongst whom he lived, and he resolved ever to cherish and elevate the Gascon dialect.

"Popular and purely natural poetry," said Montaigne in the 16th century, "has a simplicity and gracefulness which surpass the beauty of poetry according to art." Jasmin united the naive artlessness of poetry with the perfection of art. He retained the simplicity of youth throughout his career, and his domestic life was the sanctuary of all the virtues.

In his poems he vividly described filial love, conjugal tenderness, and paternal affection, because no one felt these graces of life more fervently than himself. He was like the Italian painter, who never went beyond his home for a beautiful model.

Victor Hugo says that a great man is like the sun—most beautiful when he touches the earth, at his rising and at his setting. Jasmin’s rising was in the depths of honest poverty, but his setting was glorious. God crowned his fine life by a special act of favour; for the last song of the poet was his "act of faith"—his address to Renan.

Jasmin was loyal, single-minded, self-reliant, patient, temperate, and utterly unselfish. He made all manner of sacrifices during his efforts in the cause of charity. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of his missions on behalf of the poor. In his journey of fifty days in 1854, he went from Orthez —the country of Gaston Phoebus—to the mountains of Auvergne, in spite of the rigours of the weather. During that journey he collected 20,000 francs. In all, as we have said, he collected, during his life-time, more than a million and a half of francs, all of which he devoted to the cause of philanthropy.

Two words were engraved on the pedestal of his statue, Poetry and Charity! Charity was the object and purpose of his heroic programme. Yet, in his poetry he always exhibited his tender-hearted gaiety. Even when he weeps, you see the ray of sunlight in his tears. Though simple as a child in ordinary life, he displayed in his writings the pathos and satire of the ancient Troubadours, with no small part of the shrewdness and wit attributed to persons of his calling.

Although esteemed and praised by all ranks and classes of people —by king, emperor, princes, and princesses; by cardinals and bishops; by generals, magistrates, literary men, and politicians —though the working people almost worshipped him, and village girls strewed flowers along his pathway—though the artisan quitted his workshop, and the working woman her washing-tub, to listen to his marvellous recitations, yet Jasmin never lost his head or was carried away by the enthusiastic cheers which accompanied his efforts, but remained simple and unaffected to the last.

Another characteristic of him was, that he never forsook his friends, however poor. His happiest moments were those in which he encountered a companion of his early youth. Many still survived who had accompanied him while making up his bundle of fagots on the islands of the Garonne. He was delighted to shake hands with them, and to help, when necessary, these playmates of his boyhood.

He would also meet with pleasure the working women of his acquaintance, those who had related to him the stories of Loup Garou and the traditions of the neighbourhood, and encouraged the boy from his earliest youth. Then, at a later period of his life, nothing could have been more worthy of him than his affection for his old benefactor, M. Baze, and his pleading with Napoleon III., through the Empress, for his return to France "through the great gate of honour!"

Had Jasmin a fault? Yes, he had many, for no one exists within the limits of perfection. But he had one in especial, which he himself confessed. He was vain and loved applause, nor did he conceal his love.

When at Toulouse, he said to some of his friends, "I love to be applauded: it is my whim; and I think it would be difficult for a poet to free himself from the excitement of applause." When at Paris, he said, "Applaud! applaud! The cheers you raise will be heard at Agen." Who would not overlook a fault, if fault it be, which is confessed in so naive a manner?

When complimented about reviving the traditions of the Troubadours, Jasmin replied, "The Troubadours, indeed! Why, I am a better poet than any of the Troubadours! Not one of them could have composed a long poem of sustained interest, like my Franconnette."

Any fault or weakness which Jasmin exhibited was effaced by the good wishes and prayers of thousands of the poor and afflicted whom he had relieved by his charity and benevolence. The reality
of his life almost touches the ideal. Indeed, it was a long apostolate.

Cardinal Donnet, Archbishop of Bordeaux, said of him, that "he was gifted with a rich nature, a loyal and unreserved character, and a genius as fertile as the soil of his native country. The lyre of Jasmin," he said, "had three chords, which summed up the harmonies of heaven and earth—the true, the useful, and the beautiful."

Did not the members of the French Academy—the highest literary institution in the world—strike a gold medal in his honour, with the inscription, "La medaille du poete moral et populaire"? M. Sainte-Beuve, the most distinguished of French critics, used a much stronger expression. He said, "If France had ten poets like Jasmin—ten poets of the same power and influence— she need no longer have any fear of revolutions."

Genius is as nothing in the sight of God; but "whosoever shall give a cup of water to drink in the name of Christ, because they belong to Christ, shall not lose his reward." M. Tron, Deputy and Mayor of Bagnere-du-luchon, enlarged upon this text in his eulogy of Jasmin.

"He was a man," he said, "as rich in his heart as in his genius. He carried out that life of ’going about doing good’ which Christ rehearsed for our instruction. He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, succoured the distressed, and consoled and sympathised with the afflicted. Few men have accomplished more than he has done. His existence was unique, not only in the history of poets, but of philanthropists."

A life so full of good could only end with a Christian death. He departed with a lively faith and serene piety, crowning by a peaceful death one of the strangest and most diversified careers in the nineteenth century. "Poetry and Charity," inscribed on the pedestal of his statue in Agen, fairly sums up his noble life and character.

Footnotes for Chapter XX.

[1] ’Lou Poeto del Puple a Moussu Renan.’


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Chicago: Samuel Smiles, "Chapter XX. Death of Jasmin— His Character.," Jasmin: Barber, Poet, Philanthropist, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Stewart, Aubrey in Jasmin: Barber, Poet, Philanthropist Original Sources, accessed January 20, 2020, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4L28Q83JE1GQ4GU.

MLA: Smiles, Samuel. "Chapter XX. Death of Jasmin— His Character." Jasmin: Barber, Poet, Philanthropist, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Stewart, Aubrey, in Jasmin: Barber, Poet, Philanthropist, Original Sources. 20 Jan. 2020. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4L28Q83JE1GQ4GU.

Harvard: Smiles, S, 'Chapter XX. Death of Jasmin— His Character.' in Jasmin: Barber, Poet, Philanthropist, ed. and trans. . cited in , Jasmin: Barber, Poet, Philanthropist. Original Sources, retrieved 20 January 2020, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4L28Q83JE1GQ4GU.