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Home -> Robert Louis Stevenson -> An Inland Voyage -> Noyon Cathedral

An Inland Voyage - Noyon Cathedral

1. Preface

2. Antwerp to Boom

3. On the Willebroek Canal

4. The Royal Sport Nautique

5. At Maubeuge

6. On the Sambre Canalised

7. Pont-Sur-Sambre We are Pedlars

8. Pont-Sur-Sambre The Travelling Merchant

9. On the Sambre Canalised

10. At Landrecies

11. Sambre and Oise Canal

12. The Oise in Flood

13. Origny Sainte-Benoite A By-Day

14. Origny Sainte-Benoite The Company at Table

15. Down the Oise

16. La Fere of Cursed Memory

17. Down the Oise

18. Noyon Cathedral

19. Down the Oise To Compiegne

20. At Compiegne

21. Changed Times

22. Down the Oise: Church Interiors

23. Precy and the Marionnettes

24. Back to the World


Noyon stands about a mile from the river, in a little plain
surrounded by wooded hills, and entirely covers an eminence with
its tile roofs, surmounted by a long, straight-backed cathedral
with two stiff towers. As we got into the town, the tile roofs
seemed to tumble uphill one upon another, in the oddest disorder;
but for all their scrambling, they did not attain above the knees
of the cathedral, which stood, upright and solemn, over all. As
the streets drew near to this presiding genius, through the market-
place under the Hotel de Ville, they grew emptier and more
composed. Blank walls and shuttered windows were turned to the
great edifice, and grass grew on the white causeway. 'Put off thy
shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is
holy ground.' The Hotel du Nord, nevertheless, lights its secular
tapers within a stone-cast of the church; and we had the superb
east-end before our eyes all morning from the window of our
bedroom. I have seldom looked on the east-end of a church with
more complete sympathy. As it flanges out in three wide terraces
and settles down broadly on the earth, it looks like the poop of
some great old battle-ship. Hollow-backed buttresses carry vases,
which figure for the stern lanterns. There is a roll in the
ground, and the towers just appear above the pitch of the roof, as
though the good ship were bowing lazily over an Atlantic swell. At
any moment it might be a hundred feet away from you, climbing the
next billow. At any moment a window might open, and some old
admiral thrust forth a cocked hat, and proceed to take an
observation. The old admirals sail the sea no longer; the old
ships of battle are all broken up, and live only in pictures; but
this, that was a church before ever they were thought upon, is
still a church, and makes as brave an appearance by the Oise. The
cathedral and the river are probably the two oldest things for
miles around; and certainly they have both a grand old age.

The Sacristan took us to the top of one of the towers, and showed
us the five bells hanging in their loft. From above, the town was
a tesselated pavement of roofs and gardens; the old line of rampart
was plainly traceable; and the Sacristan pointed out to us, far
across the plain, in a bit of gleaming sky between two clouds, the
towers of Chateau Coucy.

I find I never weary of great churches. It is my favourite kind of
mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it
made a cathedral: a thing as single and specious as a statue to
the first glance, and yet, on examination, as lively and
interesting as a forest in detail. The height of spires cannot be
taken by trigonometry; they measure absurdly short, but how tall
they are to the admiring eye! And where we have so many elegant
proportions, growing one out of the other, and all together into
one, it seems as if proportion transcended itself, and became
something different and more imposing. I could never fathom how a
man dares to lift up his voice to preach in a cathedral. What is
he to say that will not be an anti-climax? For though I have heard
a considerable variety of sermons, I never yet heard one that was
so expressive as a cathedral. 'Tis the best preacher itself, and
preaches day and night; not only telling you of man's art and
aspirations in the past, but convicting your own soul of ardent
sympathies; or rather, like all good preachers, it sets you
preaching to yourself;--and every man is his own doctor of divinity
in the last resort.

As I sat outside of the hotel in the course of the afternoon, the
sweet groaning thunder of the organ floated out of the church like
a summons. I was not averse, liking the theatre so well, to sit
out an act or two of the play, but I could never rightly make out
the nature of the service I beheld. Four or five priests and as
many choristers were singing Miserere before the high altar when I
went in. There was no congregation but a few old women on chairs
and old men kneeling on the pavement. After a while a long train
of young girls, walking two and two, each with a lighted taper in
her hand, and all dressed in black with a white veil, came from
behind the altar, and began to descend the nave; the four first
carrying a Virgin and child upon a table. The priests and
choristers arose from their knees and followed after, singing 'Ave
Mary' as they went. In this order they made the circuit of the
cathedral, passing twice before me where I leaned against a pillar.
The priest who seemed of most consequence was a strange, down-
looking old man. He kept mumbling prayers with his lips; but as he
looked upon me darkling, it did not seem as if prayer were
uppermost in his heart. Two others, who bore the burthen of the
chaunt, were stout, brutal, military-looking men of forty, with
bold, over-fed eyes; they sang with some lustiness, and trolled
forth 'Ave Mary' like a garrison catch. The little girls were
timid and grave. As they footed slowly up the aisle, each one took
a moment's glance at the Englishman; and the big nun who played
marshal fairly stared him out of countenance. As for the
choristers, from first to last they misbehaved as only boys can
misbehave; and cruelly marred the performance with their antics.

I understood a great deal of the spirit of what went on. Indeed it
would be difficult not to understand the Miserere, which I take to
be the composition of an atheist. If it ever be a good thing to
take such despondency to heart, the Miserere is the right music,
and a cathedral a fit scene. So far I am at one with the
Catholics:- an odd name for them, after all? But why, in God's
name, these holiday choristers? why these priests who steal
wandering looks about the congregation while they feign to be at
prayer? why this fat nun, who rudely arranges her procession and
shakes delinquent virgins by the elbow? why this spitting, and
snuffing, and forgetting of keys, and the thousand and one little
misadventures that disturb a frame of mind laboriously edified with
chaunts and organings? In any play-house reverend fathers may see
what can be done with a little art, and how, to move high
sentiments, it is necessary to drill the supernumeraries and have
every stool in its proper place.

One other circumstance distressed me. I could bear a Miserere
myself, having had a good deal of open-air exercise of late; but I
wished the old people somewhere else. It was neither the right
sort of music nor the right sort of divinity for men and women who
have come through most accidents by this time, and probably have an
opinion of their own upon the tragic element in life. A person up
in years can generally do his own Miserere for himself; although I
notice that such an one often prefers Jubilate Deo for his ordinary
singing. On the whole, the most religious exercise for the aged is
probably to recall their own experience; so many friends dead, so
many hopes disappointed, so many slips and stumbles, and withal so
many bright days and smiling providences; there is surely the
matter of a very eloquent sermon in all this.

On the whole, I was greatly solemnised. In the little pictorial
map of our whole Inland Voyage, which my fancy still preserves, and
sometimes unrolls for the amusement of odd moments, Noyon cathedral
figures on a most preposterous scale, and must be nearly as large
as a department. I can still see the faces of the priests as if
they were at my elbow, and hear Ave Maria, ora pro nobis, sounding
through the church. All Noyon is blotted out for me by these
superior memories; and I do not care to say more about the place.
It was but a stack of brown roofs at the best, where I believe
people live very reputably in a quiet way; but the shadow of the
church falls upon it when the sun is low, and the five bells are
heard in all quarters, telling that the organ has begun. If ever I
join the Church of Rome, I shall stipulate to be Bishop of Noyon on
the Oise.

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