Letters of Frédéric Ozanam. Chapter 01

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoWritings of Frédéric OzanamLeave a Comment

Author: Frédéric Ozanam · Translator: Ainslie Coates. · Year of first publication: 1886.

English translation of Volume X of Frédéric Ozanam's Œuvres complètes, edited by Jean-Jacques Ampère (París 1862, 11 vol.)

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Introductory — His family and early life.

A little more than thirty years ago, a young French­man (comparatively young, at least, for he had only passed his fortieth birthday) died at Marseilles. After his death, his wife consoled herself by collecting, arrang­ing, and putting through the press his literary remains—so much as it was practicable to publish—in nine volumes. His friends showed their appreciation of his amiable character, intellectual endowments, and earnest life by rendering their aid in this enterprise, and his all but native city, Lyons, thought the best monument they could raise to his memory was an edition of his works. This man was Antoine-Frederic Ozanam, Professor of Foreign Literature in the Sorbonne. To him M. Guizot, speaking in the Academy after his death, referred as “model of a Christian man of letters : dignified and humble ; ardent friend of science, and firm champion of the faith ; tasting with tenderness the pure joys of life, and submitting with gentleness to the long expectation of death ; carried away from the holiest affections and from the noblest labors, too soon according to the world, but already ripe for heaven and for glory.” And of him M. Renan, who had perhaps listened to his lectures, is reported to have exclaimed : ” Ah, how we loved him ! What a beautiful soul !” After the publication of his Works which spread over a period of twelve or fourteen years —his literary remains were very numerous, and many of them quite unfinished—his friends, apparently with con­siderable hesitation, resolved upon putting a biography of him into the hands of the public, by publishing two volumes of letters. These remarkable letters are worthy of being widely known and read. Ozanam calls him­self loquacious and prolix. One of his friends says of him that he not only possessed the art of loving his friends, but that of telling them so. Certainly some of these letters—written, perhaps, at rare intervals—are of a very unusual length. Whole pages are taken up in reasoning of things around him, persuading and exhorting, opening out his troubles and perplexities, sometimes in descriptions of country or of manner of life ; lastly, in laying out in detail large plans of work to be done, both in action and writing, both by him­self and any of his friends who would assist him. As they date from his eighteenth year, they are many of them written at a time when both heart and hand are apt to be diffuse and flowing. One of his friends, indeed, said that Ozanam never was young ; but while this may be descriptive of the subjects, the scope, and the reasoning of his letters, there is plenty of the artlessness and freshness and ready flow of youth about them. Some of these letters might easily, however, be divested of the epistolary form altogether, and appear by themselves as dissertations, reports, etc. But there is no end of the short sentences or brief passages which might at the same time be culled for profit and in­terest from almost all. Twenty or twenty-five years after his death, his elder brother completed the monu­ment of affection and esteem by publishing a “Life,” in which a detailed account of his youth up to the time when the letters commence, and much which could not be drawn from the letters, is found, together with extracts from the letters themselves, and from his works.

These letters are translated and reproduced in the following pages. Not, indeed, wholly ; there is much in them which may trench on Protestant feeling, or offend Protestant sympathies ; and although it would not be well to exclude all these passages, simply upon this account, yet as by reason of the length of the letters much must be omitted, it seemed preferable to omit first some of those parts which from any cause might be presumed to lack interest to the present reader. Of the accompanying sketch of the life perhaps the same may be said.

Frederic Ozanam, though he might be styled a native of Lyons, was born in Milan. In the early part of the present century, his father, John Antoine Ozanam, with his wife and two children, had settled here. The family were said to be anciently of Jewish origin, and the name to be derived from the plural form of the word “Hosanna.’ John Antoine, a man of forty years old at this time, and his wife Marie, eight years younger, each had a history behind them. The husband was a medical man at the time Frederic’s life opens, having passed his examina­tions at Pavia since coming to Milan. Early in life he had felt the desire of practicing what in later years he considered ” a kind of priesthood,” of which he often repeated that to fulfil its functions worthily one must be ready, if necessary, to give one’s life for one’s patients. In this he joined example to precept. When, in 1813, the typhus made terrible ravages in Milan, it is said that he established himself in the military hospital, and alone—for two doctors had just succumbed to the terrible plague—took under his charge three hundred sick, until the danger was past. For this devotion, “the decoration of the Iron Crown ” was sent him. Later on, for many years he gave gratuitous aid to the poor, and his son Frederic chronicles that, after his death, when he had to inspect his affairs, he found that a large share of his visits were made to the poor, to those from whom he had no expectation of payment. His father, falling into the error which he himself somewhat singularly repeated in later years, desired to bring him up for the law, and to this desire he had deferred. He was, however, compelled to take arms at the beginning of the Revolution in 1793. In this time of terror his father was imprisoned and threatened with death ; the fall of Robespierre inter­vened, after the young soldier had, by a desperately bold stroke, risked his own life to save his father’s. He was at some of the most celebrated battles of the campaign—among others, Lodi and Pavia—passed through various adventures, and received various wounds, and was pre­sented to Bonaparte, who promised to remember him. He did not, however, desire to be remembered with martial honors ; after six years’ service, he obtained with some trouble his dismission, and in the following year married. A reverse of fortune drove him in a year or two to Milan, and there, wanting resources for his family, his mind fell back upon its early idea, and he entered the profession for which Nature seemed to have destined him.

His wife Marie, born at Lyons, where her father was a silk merchant, was still a child there, when, amid the other horrors of the Revolution, its siege took place. The little girl was hidden in the cellar, that she might be sheltered from the bombs ; she saw her father and mother dragged to prison, together with a brother who was afterwards massacred. The parents escaped death, and were after joined by their child in Switzerland. In a village near Lausanne they took up their abode for a while, and there little Marie made her first Commu­nion, instructed by a good Swiss cure, who was accus­tomed to repeat to his little catechumen with great gentleness some sweet words, which she in her turn repeated to her children when they were round her knees—whether they were the refrain of a hymn or not we know not : ” We will go both of us, we will go both of us into Paradise.” The miseries of her childhood, her later misfortunes—in especial the frequent loss of children—and her own somewhat delicate health, had made her nervous and prone ” to look on the dark side of things.” ” The least thing excited her uneasiness,” and the scrupulosity of her own conscience added to this. Probably, however, these developments came later on more into view ; and in spite of all she was gentle and lively, making joyful songs for her children in their family feasts, and, adds her eldest son, in sketching her life, as an evident proof of her great goodness, ” she kept during all her life the same servant.” She herself, not­withstanding her many hindrances, was very active in her domestic life, rising at seven, dressing quickly, and forthwith “looking well to the ways of her household, occupying herself continually with her young children, teaching them to walk, to read, to write ; her happiness, above all, was to give them their earliest lessons of piety and religion.” She saw them put to bed, taught them to turn their little hearts to God, and spoke to them at the last a few words ” of God, the Holy Virgin, the good Angel, or the Saints, mingling her gentle words with those mother’s kisses which penetrated to the depth of the soul, and which embalmed them for ever.” She watched over all their little works, taught them how to study ; and the time was ruled for study, for play, for eating, and for sleeping, with regularity, and her watchfulness grew rather than lessened with their increasing years. Father and mother were earnest-minded Christians, having, indeed, as it would appear, no idea of forsaking the form of faith in which they had been brought up, but having certainly as little of abandoning the faith, or attempting to substitute for it the sceptical forms of their day. ” In the midst of an age of scepticism,” says Frederic, writing many years later, ” God gave me the grace of being born in the faith. As a child He set me on the knees of a Christian father and of a holy mother.”

While yet very young, John Antoine Ozanam had read the Bible of Calmet from beginning to end. Family prayer was had each evening ; sometimes pious reading followed the prayer. Two children formed this family at the time our history opens—Elisa, a girl of twelve, lively and intelligent, ” with a remarkable memory and a great aptitude for the sciences,” and Alphonse, nine years old, who, later on, writes his mother’s memoirs. The servant, Marie Croziat, must also be introduced here, as being in reality one of the family and a very valuable member. She must now have been about thirty years in the service of either parents or grandparents, of an honesty above proof, and a “fabulous economy,” labouring with all her might, and gifted by nature with a good deal of originality, and also, what was perhaps better still, a very good judgment. She had passed the dark days of the Revolution with her masters or mistresses, and though she was not exempt from defects of temper and manner, her employers would as little have thought of separating from her as she from them. She died in the family many years later. ” Seventy-two years in the service of our family,” says Alphonse Ozanam. Here, then, and in this manner, had this family been living for four years, watching the d/nouement of the ” gigantic drama ” which was working a complete revolution in the history of their country. ” The brilliant star of Napoleon began to pale,” the Russian war drew to its disastrous end, and the Milan hospitals were filled with sick and wounded, while typhus made frightful ravages,

It was at this time that, on one spring day, another babe came into the family (April 23rd, 1813), Antoine Frederic, who was baptized in a church since destroyed and rebuilt, Santa Maria dei Servi. He was a delicate child, and as he grew out of his first days, showed a ner­vous temperament from which he was destined to suffer greatly in future life, and an intellect decidedly in ad­vance of his physical powers. He spoke early, and before he was able to walk they used to set him on the table whilst his brother and sister repeated their lessons ; among other things, the fables of La Fontaine. He paid a serious attention to them, retained• without difficulty entire passages whose poetry enticed him and favoured his infant memory. He also learned to make use of and apply them, and was hardly two years old when, his father playing with him, he quoted appositely a portion of one of them in answer to him.

His sister, Elisa, then fourteen or fifteen, was delighted with the cleverness of her little brother, and undertook carefully to develop his intelligence. She became his instructress in his early years, and taught him the ele­ments of sacred history, geography, and some little fables. This gentle instructress, of whom Frederic, many years later, said that she was “pious and intelligent as the angels whom she went to rejoin,” died after a short illness, when her little pupil was six or seven years old. When Frederic was four the family had returned to Lyons, where he was brought up, “becoming Lyonnese by heart.” Dr. Ozanam removed when Milan came under Austrian rule, and when Frederic was ten years old he began to attend the Royal College at Lyons. The director of the College at that time was the Abbe Rousseau, and the child was happy in his teachers. One of them—M. Legeay—says that ” he was of the small number of those of whom a prudent master ought to restrain the ardour.”

Several Latin poems, preserved by M. Legeay, are given. One is put into the mouth of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, addressed to Madame Elizabeth in her last moments ; one is addressed to the Virgin Mary ; and there are various others. Of two of these the age is given—thirteen. One of these two last is ” Of the Shortness of Life.” A rough translation of this is added :


As the swift eagle like a flash of light
From thundercloud comes down with rapid flight,
From the high heaven the little birds upon,
Snatches with quick claw and again is gone;

Or as in Grecian games the flying steed,
When first the trumpet gives the signal shrill,
From post to goal darts on with breathless speed,
And in a moment at the end stands still ;

So, 0 my friends ! the years are flying on
Not to return : so swiftly life is gone,
Youth’s laughter dies away, and Time hath brought
With speedy foot old age with pensive thought.

The course of nature no delay can hold,
Not virtue’s self—not prayers though humbly told ;
No hundred victims with their dying breath
Can keep from us indomitable Death.

As from the snowy heights the mountain stream
Rushes in torrents o’er the stony ground,
O’erwhelms, effaces, like a passing dream,
Houses and trees which in its path are found ;

So our sweet life departs with hasty flight ;
Hardly the morning’s dawn is o’er the land
When Vesper beams from heaven with evening light,
And following darkness cometh close at hand.

Hardly has man, unhappy, left the bed,
A cradled infant where he feebly lay,
He presses on the tomb with trembling tread ;
Just born he seeks the tomb—another stay !

In vain we deck our temples with a crown,
In vain among the fragrant rose we twine
The violet, and our troubles seek to drown,
Our rugged cares, with draughts of honeyed wine.

In vain, triumphant in the martial field
When death is all around, the hero stands,
And, joyful, bears the trophies war can yield—
Crops of bright laurels—to his native land ;

In vain the poet with his speaking song
Earns for himself from all a poet’s name ;
And in his joy, the coming years along,
Deems he has gained an ever-flowing fame.

Earth, fame, and life must all behind be left ;
Wife and beloved children, friends so dear ;
While in one darksome kingdom we bereft
Abide, the land of shadows dark and drear.

Why not then seek the inmost rest of soul ?
The mind’s repose, with virtue’s constant powers,
Use Heaven’s brief gift, the flying years control,
And with good deeds adorn the passing hours ?

Alas ! 0 friends ! believe, believe !
Time flies along, the minutes will not stay ;
And we our short career must quickly leave :
They draw, they snatch us with themselves away.

Here are a few more of his early poems as specimens. The translation in French prose of this and the pre­ceding is given by M. Legeay, who deemed it well worth his while to preserve these compositions of his pupil.


Who is this rising through the radiant skies
With shining vesture and with countenance,
As upward to the distant stars He flies,
Of brilliant glance ?

Light flowing from His brow divine,
And majesty o’er all doth shine ;
And with sweet incense doth His floating hair
Fill the soft air.

O day for ever placed ‘mid days on high !
O shining grace of His all-conquering breath !
In which our Lord, returning to the sky,
Trampled on Death !

Already rising swift, He leaves our earth,
Our earth unhappy as it lies adown :
He looketh back, then tendeth toward the mirth
Of His Father’s throne.

So He o’ercomes the darkness of the tomb,
And snaps death’s bonds with all-victorious strife :
He comes with spoils from Hades’ deepest gloom
To the shores of life.

Not so much beauty follows the first birth,
When the sweet sun comes forth with radiance bright,
And in his brilliant course the joyful earth
Recreates with light.

Why ragest thou, 0 Satan, still in vain ?
Why sighs the gulf of darkness from beneath ?
Behold, He triumphs who hath burst the reign
And gates of Death I

Behold, the happy souls are in His train,
Following their Saviour, and with joy they sing,
They chant His praises ; in full choir again
They lead their King.

When about fifteen, Frederic gathered together a few of his Latin poems into a little book, which, with all modesty and affection, he dedicated to his father and his mother. An epistle in Latin verse to his father ends with the words, “Do not disdain these firstfruits of my labour ; be for me not a judge, but a father.” Here is the dedication—in French apparently—to his ” dear mamma :” ” It is again this giddy scholar who comes to break your head with his Latin. Take him to your indulgence ; you have accustomed him to believe that all that he does for you may be agreeable to you. Besides, he pays you with what money he has. It is the only present which his purse permits him to offer you. Receive it with the wishes your son forms for you, Frederic Ozanam.” A little later he composed a French poem, “Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem,” from which are translated roughly a few extracts of the close ; and a very different little thing—a translation into Latin verse from the Italian of Tasso, of Tasso’s sonnet to his cats.

Liban’s proud cedar which into the sky
Carried its head on high,
Is fallen ; now its trunk must lowly lie.
Its boughs are dead and dry,
Which rose aloft erewhile to touch the skies,
And seemed to dare the fiercest storm to rise.

Bethlehem’s lily droops, its dazzling white
Has gone, the rose no longer blooms in light :
And thou thyself shalt see thy youth decay,
Shalt see eclipsed thy vigour and thy power ;
And all thy beauty only is a flower
Which soon in years shall wither and decay.

All feel the burden of their conquering foe,
And Zion weeps her widowhood :
Where I heard solemn hymns before,
I only hear the silence round,
And on these altars where of yore
The Ark of Covenant was found,
I only see dumb monsters lie
Who, gorged with blood and carnage past,
Still feed them on some new repast ;
Where are the monarchs of a sinful race ?
Where are the kings of Israel found,
Whom yesterday in stately grace
I saw within their palace ground ?

Then comes the prophet’s parting address to Zoro­babel :

With clearest voices let these ruins call,
And be they graven deep within thy soul,
That Zion’s wail be king’s untimely fall ;
That Babel, drunken, with her blood and dole,
May teach thee at what price man may the Lord
Insult with deed or word.

But lo ! upon my eyelid what new star
Sends down its ray ?—a veil is torn aside,
The secret future opens from afar,
And brilliant day pours light as in a tide :
My heart is drunk with joy, reborn of pain,
Destiny unfolds again.

Where go these warriors ? O’er the desert sands
I see them marching towards our gloomy hills ;
As the proud eagle, so their conquering bands
Have come to lift up Sion from her ills ;
The temple rises and the walls once more
They now restore.

But what new sun before them beaming light,
Illumines with its shining Israel ?
It speaks already of the tempest’s flight-
‘Tis thou, my blessed son, Zorobabel !
These faithful hosts back to their land who brings ;
Winds lend your wings.

Console thyself, 0 Sion I wipe thy tears.
I see the incense on thine altars rise ;
Thy land bath laid aside her woes and fears,
And in the temple now her songs arise ;
She brings to God her firstfruits once again
With joyful strain.

And thou, proud Queen—thou, haughty Babylon !
Where shall we seek thy state, thy ruins where ?
The Lord in wrath bath overturned thy throne,
Thy crown is broken, answered is our prayer ;
But thou, Jerusalem, forget no more
Thy Saviour Lord to adore.

He speals. Zorobabel with heart-relief
Hastes to o’ertake his people in their grief,
And with the blessing of the prophet’s hand
Takes up his chains and quits his native land.


As when the tempest on a cloudy night
Covers the heavens and lifts with thunder hoarse
The watery deep, with terror and affright
The trembling sailor seeks to guide his course
By stars he dimly sees through clouds alight
With fiery vengeance, so to me whom force
Of stern misfortune in this dungeon drear
Hath cast adown, I seek my only cheer
In thy bright eyes, 0 cat 1 and thus it seems
Their sparkling glance brings comfort to my dreams.
As polar star gives hope amid the storm,
So I see them ; and yet another form—
A little cat—my straining eyes descry,
And then still more uplighteneth my care.
I think I have, as in the starry sky
Beside the Pole, a great and little,Bear !
O cats who lighten up my toilsome day-
Oh cats, how much I love you, who shall say !
May kindly Fortune keep you safe from blows,
And bring of meat and milk in full supplies !
Only enlighten me, my verse to close,
With the bright sparkle of your glancing eyes !

Frederic was rapidly approaching a less serene time of life, so far as outward things were concerned ; and indeed even now, before he went out into the world, and before it might have been expected, a trial fell upon him—a trial which comes in some form or other, at some time or other, to many, not to all—a trial from which neither his Christian education, his upright simple heartedness, neither father, nor mother, nor brother, though they might help, could entirely save him. Distressing doubts found their way into his mind—skeptical doubts. ” The noises of a world which be­lieved not,” he says, “came even to me. I knew all the horror of those doubts which consume the heart by day, and which one finds again at night on a pillow moistened by tears. The uncertainty of my eternal destiny left me no repose.” It was given to a “priest philosopher “—M. Noirot, professor of philosophy for twenty years in the College at Lyons—to come to his effectual aid, and to put into his thoughts order and light,’ so that he believed henceforward with a faith re­assured and touched with so rare a benefit he pro­mised to God to devote his days to the service of the truth which gave him peace.” M. Noirot was a highly intelligent and benevolent-hearted man. He took his young pupil Frederic with him in his walks about the rugged borders of the Saone and in the environs of Lyons, and there conversed with him without note of time on whatever he wished to consult him ; and it was he who re-opened “the windows of his soul to the day,” who dusted out from them and from the corners of his soul the cobwebs which too much thought of many things had engendered. “To him eternal gratitude,” said Frederic later on. This desolating time passed over at last, leaving, as one result, a kindlier considera­tion for those with whom in later years he had to do. ” Oh,” said he to his brother often then, ” they accuse me sometimes of treating with too much indulgence and gentleness those who have not faith. When one has passed through the sufferings of doubt, one would feel it a crime to treat harshly those unhappy ones to whom God has not yet granted the grace of believing.”

In the midst almost of his troubles, or perhaps directly after—after the promise which he had made to God—the thought rose up in his mind which left it no more, which remained with him always, forming his life­work—or the greater part of his life-work—the thought of a work which he would execute, to which he would devote himself—a written book which should undertake the proof and illustration of the truth of Christianity by history. He was then sixteen. Title and plan altered and developed as years passed on, but to the day of his death the elaboration and development of this idea occupied his mind.

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