Shall we now, exhausted, jumble together in a cowardly appendix some Immortals who are beginning to die?

There is Jean Chapelain, who helped to organize the French Academy, and was considered in his day (1595–1674) the greatest poet in France. There is Jean Baptiste Rousseau, who wrote forgettable poetry, but such biting epigrams that he was banished from France (1712) for defamations of character. Almost every noble active in politics wrote memoirs; we have seen those of de Retz and La Rochefoucauld, and will come later to those of Saint-Simon; only next to these are the three volumes in which Mme. de Motteville recorded, with charming modesty, her twenty-two years at the court of Anne of Austria. We note that she agreed with La Rochefoucauld: “The hard experience I have had of the fictitious friendship of human beings has forced me to believe that there is nothing so rare in this world as probity, or a good heart capable of gratitude.” 105 She was such a rarity.

Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy, made a succès de scandale with his Histoire amoureuse des Gaules (1665), which described the liaisons of his contemporaries under the guise of ancient Gauls. The King, angry at a quip on Madame Henrietta, sent him to the Bastille. He was released after a year on condition of retiring to his estate; there, fretting to the end of his days, he composed his lively Mémoires. Even more untrustworthy are the Historiettes in which Tallemant des Réaux drew malicious vignettes of celebrities in literature or affairs. Claude Fleury, with his conscientious Histoire ecclésiastique (1691), and Sébastien de Tillemont, with his Histoire des empereurs (1690f), and his sixteen-volume Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire ecclésiastique des six premiers siècles(1693), labored painstakingly, unwittingly, to clear the wilderness for Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776f.).

And there is, last of all, Charles de Marquetel, Seigneur de Saint-Évremond. He was the most genial of those esprits forts who shocked Catholics and Huguenots, Jesuits and Jansenists alike by questioning the basic doctrines of their common faith. His adventurous military career was leading him toward a marshal’s baton when he fell into disfavor as a friend of Fouquet and a critic of Mazarin. Learning that he was scheduled for arrest, he fled to Holland, and then (1662) to England. His fine manners and skeptical wit made him a favorite in the London salon of Hortense Mancini, and at the court of Charles II. Like the Maréchal d’Hocquincourt in one of his merriest dialogues, 106 he loved war best, women next, philosophy third. Having sipped all the delights in Montaigne and studied Epicurus with Gassendi, he concluded with the maligned Greek that sense pleasure is good but intellectual pleasure better, and that we need as little concern ourselves with the gods as they seem to do with us. To eat well and write well appeared to him a reasonable combination. In 1666 he visited Holland again, met Spinoza, and was deeply impressed by the Christian life of the pantheist Jew. 107 A pension from the English government, added to the salvaged remnants of his fortune, enabled him to write a long series of minor works, all in a style of airy grace that shared in forming Voltaire. His Réflexions sur les divers génies du peuple romain helped Montesquieu, and his correspondence with Ninon de Lenclos made part of the fragrance that permeates French letters. On reaching the age of fifty-eight, and unaware that he had thirty-two years of life still before him, he described himself as irremediably infirm. “Without M. Descartes’ philosophy, which says, ’I think, therefore I am,’ I should scarcely believe myself to be; that is all the benefit I have received from studying that famous man.” 108 He almost rivaled Fontenelle in longevity, dying in 1703 at the age of ninety; and he achieved for a Frenchman the rare distinction of being buried in Westminster Abbey.

“Some centuries hence,” wrote Frederick the Great to Voltaire, “they will translate the good authors of the time of Louis XIV as we translate those of the age of Pericles and of Augustus.” 109 Long before the King was dead many Frenchmen had already compared the art and literature of the reign to that of the ancient best. In 1687 Charles Perrault (brother of the Claude Perrault who had designed the eastern façade of the Louvre) read to the French Academy a poem, Le Siècle de Louis le Grand, in which he ranked his own time above any period in the history of Greece or Rome. Though Perrault included Boileau among the contemporaries whom he considered superior to their classic analogues, the old critic leaped to the defense of antiquity, and told the Academy it was a shame to listen to such nonsense. Racine tried to smother the fire by pretending that Perrault was jesting, 110 but Perrault felt that he had a remunerative point. He returned to the battle in 1688 with Parallèles des Anciens et des Modernes, a long but lively dialogue upholding the superiority of the moderns in architecture, painting, oratory, and poetry—except for the Aeneid, which he thought finer than the Iliad, the Odyssey, or any other epic. Fontenelle supported him brilliantly, but La Bruyère, La Fontaine, and Fénelon sided with Boileau.

It was a healthy quarrel; it marked the end of the Christian and medieval theory of degeneration, and of Renaissance and humanist humility before ancient poetry, philosophy, and art. It was generally agreed that science had now advanced beyond any stage reached in Greece or Rome; even Boileau admitted this; and the court of Louis XIV readily conceded that the art of life had never been so beautifully developed as at Marly and Versailles. We shall not pretend to decide the issue; let us put it aside until all phases of this age, in all Europe, have been passed in review. We need not believe that Corneille was superior to Sophocles, or Racine to Euripides, or Bossuet to Demosthenes, or Boileau to Horace; we should hardly equate the Louvre with the Parthenon, or Girardon and Coysevox with Pheidias and Praxiteles. But it is pleasant to know that these preferences are debatable, and that those ancient models are not beyond rivalry.

Voltaire called the reign of Louis XIV “the most enlightened age the world has ever seen,” 111 not anticipating that his own epoch would be named “the Enlightenment.” We should have to moderate his eulogy. Officially it was an age of obscurantism and intolerance, capped by the Revocation of the humane Edict of Nantes; “enlightenment” was the possession of a small minority discountenanced by the court and sometimes disgraced by epicurean excess. Education was controlled by a clergy dedicated to the medieval creed. Freedom of the press was hardly dreamed of; freedom of speech was a clandestine audacity amid enveloping censorship. There had been more initiative and spirit, more birth of genius, under Richelieu than under the Great King. The age was unrivaled in the royal patronage and eloquent servility of literature and art. Both the art and the literature touched grandeur, as in the Louvre Colonnade and Andromaque; sometimes they fell into the grandiose, as in the Palace of Versailles or the rhetoric of the later Corneille. There was something artificial in the tragic drama and major arts of the period; they leaned too heavily upon Greek, Roman, or Renaissance models; they took their subjects from an alien antiquity rather than from the history, faith, and character of France; they expressed the classical education of an exclusive caste rather than the life and soul of the people. Hence, amid all that gilded galaxy, the plebeian Molière and La Fontaine are most alive today, because they forgot Greece and Rome and remembered France. The classic age cleansed the language, chiseled the literature, gave grace to speech, and taught passion to reason; but also it chilled French (and English) poetry for almost a century after the great reign.

Nevertheless it was a great reign. Never in history had a ruler been so generous to science, letters, and the arts. Louis XIV persecuted Jansenists and Huguenots, but it was under him that Pascal wrote, Bossuet preached, and Fénelon taught. He conscripted árt to his purpose and glory, but with his nourishment it gave France magnificent architecture, sculpture, and painting. He protected Molière against a swarm of enemies, and supported Racine from tragedy to tragedy. Never did France write better drama, better letters, or better prose. The King’s good manners, his self-control, his patience, his respect for women, helped to spread a charming courtesy through the court, into Paris and France and Europe. He misused some women, but it was under his rule that women reached a status, in literature and life, that gave France a bisexual culture lovelier than any other in the world. After making every discount, and regretting that so much beauty was tarnished with so much cruelty, we may join the French in acclaiming the age of Louis XIV as standing with Periclean Greece, Augustan Rome, Renaissance Italy, and Elizabethan-Jacobean England among the peaks in the faltering trajectory of mankind.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!