Merit and Popularity by Albany Poyntz

What is popularity? By what indications is it known? Who ratifies its titles? And do those titles, conferred by favoritism, error, influence, prejudice, interest, or flattery, possess more value or more durability than the scattered leaves on which the Sybil inscribed her oracles? Is merit a positive thing or a relative—a matter of conversation, or of proof?

What, we say again, is popularity? How is it acquired? How forfeited? Is it the result of merit, or a capricious out-burst of opinion impersonating itself so as to enjoy its own homage under the traits of a living statue?

To these questions, it is difficult to give a definitive and conclusive reply. Popularity is often the privilege and shield of a fool or rascal; while genuine merit of a real and indisputable quality seldom secures it unless from some accidental cause. Those who aspire to popularity care more for the amount of suffrages, than for their specific worth. They delight in being the object of popular excitement; and hearing their name re-echoed, assign their personal qualities as the cause of these capricious demonstrations. True merit heeds not such fulsome acclamations;—too well aware that the man who becomes the tool of popularity, ends in being an object of contempt.

There are numerous ways of achieving popularity. But we must not forget to distinguish the difference between the popularity of men, and the popularity of their productions. Both are variable; being subject to the influence of events, the vacillations of parties, and of human inconstancy. Popularity is, however, less fickle as regards the masterpieces of the mind of man, than as regards individuals whom it frequently raises to the sky, the better to fling them down into the dust. A man may sometimes be popular in spite of himself; dragged from his seclusion, elevated above his natural position only to sink for want of appropriate support.

How many examples are to be found in our history, of such ephemeral popularity; the idol of to-day being proscribed on the morrow of his ovation! On such occasions, the public resembles a mind obeying by turns two directly opposite impulsions. In such perplexities, the scales are rarely held with a steady hand; and when they discover a man to be deficient in the merit they have gratuitously attributed to him, they avenge themselves by unnecessarily depreciating that which they have capriciously overrated. The man who delights in popularity is as much subjugated as the veriest slave in Rome. He must obey those whom he desires to command; must adopt measures he wishes to repress; and if for a moment he venture to pause for the admeasurement of the abyss he is approaching, is taxed with cowardice and treachery!

How great was the popularity of the brothers Lameth, when Mirabeau made the terrible allusion: “And I too could command a triumph. But from the Capitol to the Tarpeian rock, there is but a step!” How great was the popularity of that very colossus of eloquence, Mirabeau himself; who died in the nick of time that he might not survive the public favour which was rapidly declining.

What King was ever so popular as Louis XVI.? Yet his popularity had passed away long before he ascended that throne of revolutions, the scaffold. The popularity of Henri IV. lasted during his life, and was renewed by his tragic end; but lay torpid for a century after his death, to be revived by the genius of Voltaire. Under Louis XIII. and Louis XIV., the name of Henri IV. was never mentioned; and had not the poem of the Henriade refreshed the memory of the only King of whom the people are said to keep holy the recollection; Henri IV., like Louis XII., and other excellent Kings of France, would have been forgotten.

After repopularizing Henri IV., Voltaire became in his turn the most popular man in France, especially in the regions of the social and intellectual world. Voltaire was the prince of flatterers. He flattered, at the same time, kings and the people, but reproved as skilfully, so that he delighted kings by their personal praise, and the people by general reproaches against kings.

Voltaire enjoyed immense popularity during his life, and high honours after death; but in the sequel, he reaped the bitter fruits of the tree of evil he had planted. All but forgotten during the Revolution, quite so during the Empire, Voltaire only renewed his popularity at the Restoration. The official censure issued against the reprinting of his works, served for a time to restore him to importance.

Voltaire so completely absorbed the attention of his time, that not one of the great geniuses moving in the same sphere, arrived at any thing approaching his popularity. Montesquieu would not compete with him; and even Jean Jacques Rousseau, in spite of the superiority of his style, barely acquired popularity.

In general, popularity attaches rather to political than literary eminence; inclining towards trivialities, such as songs and epigrams, rather than to works of merit. A particular style of dress, or a cap of a particular colour is often necessary to secure popular favour. Yet popularity among the vulgar is not to be despised, being often the guerdon of works of genuine merit; more particularly as regards the Fine Arts. Barrel organs grinding the beautiful airs of our great composers in the streets, stamp them with a certificate of popularity; while, as regards pictures, their popularity is often insured by the intervention of some unskilful engraver.

Popularity sometimes attaches itself to tyrants; and Caligula and Nero were more popular in Rome than Germanicus. What mattered the slaughter of senators and patricians, or the confiscation of their property, so long as the proceeds afforded food and sports to the people? The populace delight especially in the downfall of royal favourites; and the overthrow of the statue of Sejanus, once the idol of Rome, was hailed with shouts of exultation. We cannot be surprised, however, that the Emperors of Rome were popular; since Louis XI. of France, and Henry VIII. of England were popular because they humbled the great, and summoned into their council men of the lowest origin.

Cardinal Richelieu completed the work of Louis XI. and destroyed the last vestiges of feudalism. But in this case, the same course produced a contrary effect. Richilieu was not popular. So true is it that popularity knows neither law nor precedent. Louis XIV., though not individually popular, was honoured for his conquests, so long as he remained victorious. Louis XV. was popular only twice in his long life; once, when a false report of his death had prevailed; and once, when he alighted from his carriage in Paris to kneel before the Holy Sacrament. Popularity possesses a somewhat loose morality; at times adopting the mistresses of Kings; such as Gabrielle d’Estrées, Agnes Sorel, and even the infamous Pompadour and du Barry.

Of the great men who adorned the reign of Louis XIV., few were popular during their life-time, with the exception of Molière and Corneille. Molière, because the power of his genius placed itself between the monarch and his people, castigating the vices of all classes with equal ridicule; Corneille, because he excited the heroism of the kingdom by exalting the Romans. His popularity was, however, less the result of his genius, than of the envious persecutions of Cardinal Richelieu.

Racine, Boileau, La Fontaine, acquired only posthumous fame, purely literary, and likely to last for ever. Men of science are seldom popular; their devotion to science, and the purity of their calling confining their renown within certain limits. Those who benefit by the results of their labours, think of them as lightly as those who enjoy the warmth of the sun, without bestowing a thought upon its source. Few who use the barrow and the truck are aware that for these useful inventions they are indebted to Pascal; and what more popular than certain proverbs and quotations forming part of every conversation, of which few of us are able to name the author.

The Revolution of 1789 was popular, and men of the highest merit shared in its popularity by their adherence. Mathieu de Montmorency was popular when the representative of the first Christian Barony sacrificed his titles to the love of equality. The Bishop of Autun was popular when he presented to the Constituent Assembly a proposition for applying the revenues of the church to make good the deficit in the public revenue. The Abbé Sièyes was popular when he pointed out the rights of man, omitting to speak of his duties; and no popularity ever exceeded that of Bailly, till the fatal day of his death upon the scaffold. The taking of the Bastille cannot be considered a popular act, if the quality and number of the instigators be taken into account. But the remembrance of the act became popular; and it was consecrated the following year by the first federation solemnized in the Champ de Mars.

Never were there two more striking examples of the changes of public opinion, than Rienzi at Rome, and Marat at Paris. The same populace which dragged the remains of the former through the mud, afterwards assisted to place his relics in the Pantheon dedicated to the illustrious men of the country.

In like manner, Cromwell, whose memory was for more than a century infamous in England, is about to obtain a statue in the National Senate.

Robespierre forfeited his popularity the moment he attempted to check the effusion of blood of the victims; when the good cause of 1789 had become sanguinary and frantic. Danton was more popular than Barrère. The Girondins were popular with the people; the Mountagre faction with the populace. It is remarkable, that in those times, every new administration of Government was hailed by the acclamations of the people: who were just as sure to rejoice at its downfall. So has it been in every great crisis in France. In public exigencies, promises are made, incapable of realization; every successive Government having shrunk from innovation and reform, when it came to the moment of fulfilment. After the first Revolution, popularity attended their military successes; but deserted the vacillating policy of the Directory, and followed the banner of conquest to Italy, under which the genius of Napoleon first shone forth; saluting its victorious General on his return to Paris, accompanying him into Egypt; and on his second return, raising him to sovereign power.

From the 18th Brumaire, till the year 1812, popularity adhered constantly to a single victorious standard. At the murder of the Duke D’Enghien, popular enthusiasm underwent a certain degree of modification, and partially adopted the Empress Josephine as the palladium of the imperial fortunes; to which vulgar credulity and subsequent events seemed to lend authenticity. The popularity of the Emperor declined after his divorce.

In our examination of the influence of events upon the French people, we have only twice found them manifest, at the same moment, exultation and sorrow. Their indignation at the Emperor’s cruel usage of Josephine, vanished before the cradle of the King of Rome, and France was unanimous in its gratulations on the birth of the imperial infant. The other event is of later date. The day after the assassination of the Duke de Berry, the gloom was universal. Some were horror-struck at the murder, some deeply attached to the Prince and his family; while many were astonished to find a mortal man where they had hitherto only discerned a Prince. Nevertheless, the partizans of the imperial cause regarded the event as the removal of an obstacle.

Popularity escorted Charles X. from St. Cloud to Paris upon proceeding there to take possession of his throne, and restore the liberty of the press, which was destined some day to reverse it. It also attached itself to the gates of the Palais Royal as the residence of the Orleans family; but merely to mark a growing aversion to the Tuileries; a negative triumph like that of an opposition united only by a common enmity to the powers that be.

In England, a similar transition was visible when the once popular Prince of Wales, adopted by the people in opposition to the Court of the reigning sovereign, became, as Prince Regent, an object of public dislike!

Among the heroes and victims of popularity may be numbered La Fayette. For half a century did he wrestle with the fluctuations of public favour. When at the head of the Urban Guard, which subsequently assumed the name of the National Guard, La Fayette was at the zenith of his glory. The colour of his very horse became popular; and every one adopted his method of dressing his hair. Popularity becoming negligent of her idol, the scowls of the Court served to revive it; but falling into disgrace with the Legislative Assembly, it was again at fault. Thus ended the first act of the drama of La Fayette’s popularity.

Madame de Staël pronounced him to be an obstacle to his adversaries, rather than an aid to his friends. The public soon lost sight of the man so long the toy of its caprices. Shut up in the prison of Olmütz, he owed his deliverance to the Conqueror of Italy, and returned to France unnoticed; he afterwards offended the First Consul by presuming to offer lessons to him upon the art of Government, and till the Restoration lived in complete seclusion.

A trip to the United States, in securing whose Independence he had distinguished himself in early life, served to stir up the smouldering embers of his popularity, which he left no means unattempted to increase; and at the Revolution of July, popularity assigned to La Fayette the honours of a new triumph; restoring to him the command of the National Guard.

The rapidity with which his name fell into oblivion on his decease, proves that these apparitions of departed popularity—these reflections of an earlier favour—are rarely permanent; and that to attain the honours of history, a more solid merit is required than that which secures the ephemeral sunshine of Popularity.