E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Blanche of Aquitaine”
Of course, Hoffmann is the creator of the “The Nutcracker” and many other wonderful tales … much of his work challenging to find in translation. But, always, the antique volumes are my particular interest … and my greatest pleasure. “Blanche of Aquitaine, A Tale of the Days of Charlemagne” is a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann I found published in London’s Novel Newspaper of 1841. Evocative in a way of Schiller’s “Don Carlos” and Byron’s “Parasina” … it’s a beautiful tale. And I would like to share an excerpt with you now…
The day arrived appointed for the ceremony. Early in the day, the gates of the City were thrown open. Nobles, with pompous retinues, and rustics, with their families, crowded the avenues. Greediness of spectacle has been common to all ages of the world. Church and convent bells were tolling; processions of the religious orders filled the streets with the sublime anthems appointed by the church; and the Gregorian chant resounded from the choir of the great chapel.
The emperor and his court, in their ceremonial costumes, entered the chapel by a private door, and occupied seats at the right of the altar; the emperor and queen were in position a little elevated, and in advance of their attendants. There was an unquietness in Charlemagne’s manner, and a shade to his brow, that indicated the yearning of his heart towards his son, and the reluctance with which he had submitted to the usage that imposed the humiliation of a public ceremony.
The doors were thrown open, and the eager crowd of spectators, marshalled by officers, were conducted to seats assigned them, according to rank. The chapel bell struck, and the prince, preceded by men-at-arms, and followed by a procession of monks from St. Alban’s, entered the grand aisle. His dress resembled that worn by his father in high festivals: A golden diadem, set with precious stones, bound in its circlet a head that looked as if it were formed to ennoble such an appendage; his buskins were thickly studded with gems – his tunic was of golden tissue – and his purple mantle fastened by a clasp of glittering stones. This royal apparel was meant in part to show forth the ambition that had o’erleaped itself, and, in part, to set the splendours of the world in overpowering contrast with the humility of the religious garb.
The prince advanced with a firm step. His demeanor showed, that if he had lost everything else, he had gained the noblest victory – victory over himself. There was nothing in his air of a crushed man; on the contrary, there was his usual loftiness, and more than his usual serenity. As men gazed at him, and saw the impress of his father on his mild majestic brow, they felt that nature had set her seal to his right of inheritance. He paused, as he reached a station opposite his father, signed to his attendants to stop, and turning aside, he knelt at his father’s feet. Their eyes met as tenderly as a mother’s meets her child. Charles stretched out his hand – Pepin grasped it, and pressed it to his lips. The spectators looked in vain for some sign of sternness in the father, and resentment in the son. Little did they dream that the father and son had met that morning, with no witness save the approving eye of Heaven; and had exchanged promises of forgiveness and loyalty, never to be retracted in thought, word or deed.
As the prince rose to his feet, his eye encountered the queen’s, flashing with offended pride; but hers fell beneath the steady overpowering glance of his, which said, “I am not yet so poor as to do you reverence.”
The emperor did not rebuke, or even seem to notice the omission; his eyes were riveted to the gracious tears his son had left upon his hand.
The devotions and pompous ceremonial proscribed by the Romish church were then performed. The prince then laid down his glittering crown, and exchanged his gorgeous apparel for the garb of the St. Alban’s monks, a russet gown fashioned at the waist by a hempen cord. It was noticed by the keenest observers that he did not lay aside his sword; but he might have forgotten it, or a soldier might be permitted to the very last to retain the badge of his honour and independence. A glow of shame shot over his face, as he bent his head to the humiliating rite of the tonsure; and the eyes of the truly noble were averted , as his profuse and glossy locks fell beneath the razor of the officiating priest. This initiatory rite performed, a hood was thrown over his head. and the soldier-prince was lost in the humble aspect of the monk of St. Alban.
But, of course, that’s not the end of the story <g>