Pierre-Jean de Béranger

On this date in 1780, Pierre-Jean de Béranger was born in Paris. Although he briefly attended a school based on the principles of Rousseau, he was largely unschooled and illiterate when he was apprenticed at age 14 to a printer who educated him. Béranger was an eyewitness to the storming of the Bastille and was a lifelong republican.

By 1802 he was living in a garret in Paris in great poverty, where he wrote lyric poetry, songs and epics. He became a protegé of Lucien Bonaparte, who sent him money and gave him commissions, eventually helping him find work as a clerk at a university.

By 1813 Béranger was a highly popular songwriter. His first collection of songs, including many high-spirited satires on the clergy, was published in 1815. The song “Le Roi d’Yvetot,” a satire about Napoleon, literally traveled by word of mouth and was sung throughout France. His second collection of songs, also including anti-clerical works, was published in 1821 and lost him his university position.

He was tried, found guilty, fined 500 francs and imprisoned for three months. Reportedly, he found his warm jail cell preferable to his own cold lodgings. Béranger was imprisoned for nine months after publication of his fourth collection of songs. In 1848 he was elected by near acclamation to the Constituent Assembly. Reluctantly he was seated but later quietly resigned. (D. 1857)

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