The language reached its zenith in the flexible facility of Molière’s dialogue, in the sonorous rhetoric of Corneille, and in the melodious refinement of Racine.
Corneille was apparently in his prime—aged thirty-seven—when Louis became King. He began the reign with Le Menteur, which raised the tone of French comedy as Le Cid had raised that of tragedy. Thereafter he staged tragedies almost annually:Rodogune(1644), Théodore (1645), Heraclius (1646), Don Sancho d’Aragon (1649), Andromède (1650), Nicomède (1651), Pertharite (1652). A few were well received, but, as each trod on its predecessor’s heels, it became evident that Corneille was working too hastily, and that the sap of his genius was running thin. His flair for portraying nobility was lost in a river of argument; his eloquence defeated itself by continuance. “My friend Corneille,” said Molière, “has a familiar who inspires him with the finest verses in the world. But sometimes the familiar leaves him to shift for himself, and then he fares very badly.” 5 Pertharite was so unfavorably received that Corneille for six years retired from the theater (1653–59). He dealt with his critics in a series of Examens, and in three Discours on dramatic poetry; these showed his critical faculty rising as his poetic talent fell; they became a fountainhead of modern literary criticism, and served as models when Dryden defended his middling poetry in excellent prose.
In 1659 a thoughtful gift from Fouquet called Corneille back to the boards. Oedipe won some acclaim in the wake of the young King’s praise; but the works that followed—Sertorius (1662), Sophonisbe (1663), Othon (1664), Agésilas (1666), Attila (1667)—were so mediocre that Fontenelle could hardly believe that they were by Corneille; and Boileau emitted a cruel epigram: “Après l’Agésilas, hélas! Mais après l’Attila, holà!—After Agésilas, alas! But after Attila, stop!” Madame Henrietta, usually the soul of kindness, made matters worse by inviting both Corneille and Racine, each with the knowledge of the other, to write a play on the same theme—Berenice, the Jewish princess with whom the future Emperor Titus fell in love. Racine’s Bérénice was played at the Hôtel de Bourgogne on November 21, 1670, almost five months after Henrietta’s death, and met with full success; Corneille’s Tite et Bérénice was performed a week later by Molière’s company, and was coldly received. The failure broke Corneille’s spirit. He tried again with Pulchérie (1672) and Suréna (1674); they too failed; and Corneille spent the remaining decade of his life in quiet and somber piety.
He was so careless of money that, despite a pension of two thousand livres and other gifts from Louis XIV, he ended his life in poverty. Through some oversight the pension was interrupted for four years; then Corneille appealed to Colbert, who had it restored; but after the death of Colbert it lapsed again. Boileau, hearing of it, informed Louis XIV, and offered to give up his own pension in favor of Corneille. The King immediately sent two hundred livres to the old poet, who soon thereafter died (1684), aged seventy-eight. A eulogy memorable for generosity and eloquence was pronounced upon him in the French Academy by the rival who had succeeded him, and who had already raised French drama and poetry to the peak of their history.