IV. IMMORTALS FOR A DAY

After Montaigne French literature rested on his oars for a generation. He had almost succeeded in escaping the Religious Wars, hiding himself in himself till they passed by. Elsewhere the martial-theologic fever blighted letters in France: between Montaigne and Corneille she fell behind England and Spain in literature, just as England fell behind France after the Civil War. A succession of gaseous comets crossed the firmament, leaving no fixed stars. Richelieu tried to nurse genius with pensions, but he hampered it with censorship and suborned it to his praise. When he died the pensions were canceled by Louis XIII with a shrug of the pen: “We’re not going to be troubled with that any more.” More stimulating to literature were the literary soirees of the Hôtel de Rambouillet and Richelieu’s establishment of the French Academy.

The Academy began in gatherings of scholars and authors in a private home—that of Valentin Conrart, a secretary to the King (1627). Richelieu, alert to letters as well as war, envying the academies of Italy and the literature of Spain, offered to constitute the group as a public body recognized by the state. Some members opposed the plan as a bribe to orthodoxy; but the poet Chapelain (who was enjoying a pension from the Cardinal) reminded them that “they had to do with a man who willed in no halfhearted way whatever he willed.”122 Chapelain’s caution prevailed; the group unanimously resolved to “accede to the pleasure of his Eminence,” and was incorporated (1635) as the Académie Française. Its statutes declared that

it seems that naught was wanting to the happiness of the kingdom but to take this language, which we speak, out of the list of barbarous tongues … that, already more perfect than any other living language, it might at length fairly succeed to the Latin as the Latin had to the Greek, if more care were taken than hitherto; that the functions of the Academicians should be to purify the language from the defilements which it had contracted, whether in the mouths of the people, or in the crowds of the law courts … or by the bad habits of ignorant courtiers.123

One of the original thirty members, Claude Vaugelas, was charged with compiling a dictionary; fifty-six years were to elapse before its first publication (1694). Meanwhile the Academy raised significantly the status of literary men; to be one of the (by 1637) forty “Immortals” became as great an honor as to stand high in the government; no nation has so honored letters as France. Frequently the Academy, composed mostly of old men, acted as a conservative brake upon literary developments or linguistic growth; now and then it closed its doors to genius (Molière, Rousseau); but it kept its head above the factions, and taught its members a courteous tolerance of diverse ideas; and France rewarded it with a permanence that stood the shocks of change while so much else gave way.

Having corralled the poets and the scholars, Richelieu cast his watchful eye upon the journalists. In May 1631 Théophraste Renaudot, aided by the Cardinal, began publication of the first French newspaper, afterward called the Gazette de France. Appearing weekly as a sheet folded into eight pages, it gave such official news as Richelieu permitted or supplied, and it added some pages of nouvelles ordinaires. Louis XIII was a frequent contributor; in the Gazette he answered the critics of the government and defended his banishment of his mother; sometimes he took his paragraphs in person to supervise their graduation into type; even a king is fascinated when he finds himself in print. From its beginning the French press was an agent of propaganda—in this case a means of explaining to the literate minority the policies of the state. The people soon distrusted the Gazette and bought, rather, the scurrilous sheets sold on the streets by the pensioners of the Cardinal’s foes.

The most widely read production of the age was a romance. The chivalric romance was going out of fashion, not merely because Cervantes and others ridiculed it, but because feudalism, now subordinated to royalty, was losing more and more of its privileges and prestige. Tales of when knighthood was in flower were replaced by agonizing romances of impeded desire. Every possessor of letters and leisure under Louis XIII read the Astré e (1610–19) of Honoré d’Urfé. The author’s genius grew from a wound in love. His wife, well named Diana, preferred the venery of the hunt to the venery of marriage; she had her dogs eat at table with her and share her bed. She was delivered of an abortion annually.124 Honoré retired to his estate and disguised his plaintive autobiography as a pastoral romance. He found this cure by expression so satisfactory that he stretched it out to 5,500 pages in five volumes issued at intervals from 1610 to 1627. In the story of the shepherd Céladon’s love for the shepherdess Astrée we hear an interminable echo of Montemayor’s Diana enamorada and Sannazaro’s and Sidney’s Arcadias; but the echo was melodious, the shepherds and shepherdesses had all the grace and lace of the French court, the language met all the demands of the Rambouillet Hôtel, the varieties of amorous experience rivaled Henry IV’s, and the adoration of woman pleased the goddesses of the salons, who made the book a code of manners for platonic love. Here was the gushing spring from which streamed the sentimental romances of Mlle. de Scudéry, Abbé Prévost (Antoine Prévost d’Exiles), Samuel Richardson, Jean Jacques Rousseau—who professed to have read the book once a year through most of his life. For nearly a century the lords and ladies of the French, German, and Polish courts took the names and played the parts of L’ Astrée; and half the prose written in France cultivated romance.

The other half contained some memorable prose. Jean Louis Guez de Balzac’s Lettres (1624f.) were really essays, designed to impress the précieuses, sharing with Vaugelas and Malherbe in purifying the language, and helping to give French prose the form and logic of the classic age…. Pierre de Bourdeilles de Brantôme, after a gay life in the army and at the court, left at his death (1614) a bundle of memoirs retailing with gusto the amours of the French ladies, the virtues of Catherine de Médicis, the beauty of Mary Stuart, and the wit of Marguerite of Valois; it is a pity that his most fascinating stories are unverifiable. “It is not good,” he thought, “to grow old in the same hole, and no man of spirit ever did so; one must adventure boldly in all directions, in love as in war.” In a more judicious moment he acknowledged that “the greatest blessing God can grant us in our marriage is fair issue, not concubinage.” … Jacques Auguste de Thou, magistrate and councilor of state under his friend Henry IV, helped to draft and negotiate the Edict of Nantes, and devoted half his life to writing Historia sui temporis (1604–8), or History of His Own Time, a book distinguished by its scholarship, its impartiality, and its courage in branding the Massacre of St. Bartholomew as “an outburst of fury unexampled in the annals of any nation.” … The Duke of Sully, in his old age and with the help of secretaries, composed the famous Mémoires des sages et royales économies domestiques, politiques, et militaires de Henri le Grand, which he dedicated “to France, to all good soldiers, and to all the French people.” … In the final year of Louis XIII a group of Flemish Jesuits, led by Jean de Bolland, began to publish the Acta Sanctorum, giving with cautious criticism the lives of the saints in the order of their commemoration by the Catholic Church. Despite the vicissitudes of the Society, the labor was zealously pursued, until in 1910 it ran to sixty-five volumes. Some mythmongers protested, but the work stands as a credit to the scholarship of the most scholarly of religious orders. Finally, we must list again the ubiquitous and incredible Richelieu, who dipped his pen into every literary well and left us his Mémoires—a bit prejudiced in favor of the Cardinal, but standing high in that remarkable sequence of French memoirs which has no rival in any other tongue.

Minor poets were never so plentiful. Théophile de Viau, Vincent Voiture, and Honorat de Bueil, Marquis of Racan, are still read by loyal Frenchmen, if only in school. Théophile’s libertine loves and scandalous doubts made him the Villon of the age, condemned to the stake and then let off with banishment. Voiture’s breezy wit made him the bel esprit (we had almost dared to say the prime ribber) of the Hôtel de Rambouillet. When Bossuet, aged twelve, preached at midnight in that salon, Voiture said he had never heard a sermon delivered so early and so late.

Two major poets honored these reigns. François de Malherbe illustrated the principle that each age, to relish itself, must denounce and reverse the past. The great Ronsard was still singing in Malherbe’s youth; he and his Pléiade had chastened French verse by directing it to classic models and themes; but their successors were now sonneteering France and their mistresses to sleep with archaic terms, fanciful phrases, Italian concetti, clumsy inversions, obscure allusions, recondite mythology. Malherbe decided that there had been enough of this. Born at Caen (1555), he studied at Basel and Heidelberg, spent years in travel, and was already fifty when he reached the court of France. Despite his impudences and impieties, he made his way and became the favorite poet of Henry the Great, who, however, gave him “more compliments than money.”125 He lived by selling his verses to the highest bidder, and he promoted his wares by eviscerating his predecessors. Like the précieuses of the salon Rambouillet, he declared war on words that smacked of rural coarseness or the less poetical operations of the human bag; he banished inversions, ambiguities, colloquialisms, provincialisms, Gasconisms (which was hard on the King), padding, cacophony, solecisms, importations, Latinisms, technicalities, poetic license, imperfect rhymes. Now there should be dignity of ideas, simplicity and clarity of expression, harmony of rhythm, consistency of metaphors, order in exposition, logic in phrase. Good writing must breathe well and must be welcome to the ear; hiatus (“a historian”) is an auditory offense, a respiratory disease. Malherbe tried his verses on his butler’s ears.126

Let us breathe one of his poems—a “Consolation” addressed to a friend who mourned the passing of a daughter:

Mais elle était du monde, où les plus belles choses

    Ont le pire destin,

Et rose elle a vécu ce que vivent les roses,

    L’espace d’un matin …

La mort a des rigueurs à mille autre pareilles;

    On a beau la prier,

La cruelle qu’elle est se bouche les oreilles,

    Et nous laisse crier.

Le pauvre en sa cabane, où le chaume le couvre,

    Est sujet à ses lois;

Et la garde qui veielle aux barrières du Louvre

    N’en défend point nos roisII127

Malherbe’s practice was less effective than his principles; his verses suffered a chill from his rules; and Guez de Balzac, who was at this time reforming prose, saw only good prose in Malherbe’s poetry. But the Hôtel de Rambouillet took him to its bosoms, the Academy adopted his precepts, and Boileau inherited them as the foundation of the classic style. They became for two centuries a stoic saintly shirt of hair and mail for the lyric bards of France. In old age Malherbe swelled into a very pontiff of poetry, an oracle on questions of language and style; some of his admirers saluted him as “the most eloquent man of all time,” and he agreed that “what Malherbe writes will last eternally.”128 On his deathbed (1628), he roused himself from his final stupor to reprove his nurse for using incorrect French.129

Mathurin Régnier thought him a bore, ignored his rules, and, like Villon, sent up poetry steaming from the stews. Tonsured and destined for the priesthood, he so lost himself in Venusberg that he became old and gray while young. At thirty-one he was infirm with gout and syphilis. He still found that “every woman is to my taste,” but they were more discriminating. He wrote some of the most vigorous verse in the language, recklessly venereal, savagely satirical, rivaling Horace in form and Juvenal in vinegar, and alive with persons and places felt or seen. He laughed at the linguistic purism of the précieuses and the classic rigor of Malherbe; impassioned ardor from an inner flame seemed to him more vital to poetry than grammatical, rhetorical, prosodical orthodoxy; here at the dawn of the classic age romanticism stirred. Even science and philosophy got their comeuppance for their vaunts:

Philosophes rêveurs, discourez hautement;

Sans bouger de la terre allez au firmament;

Faites que tout le ciel branle à votre cadence,

Et pesez vos discours même dans sa balance …

Portez une lanterne aux cachots de nature;

Sachez qui donne aux fleurs cette aimable peinture …

Déchiffrez les secrets de nature et des cieux:

Votre raison vous trompe aussi bien que vos yeux. III130

In 1609 he became court poet to Henry IV. Four years later, aged thirty-nine, he died, worn out with melodious lechery. He had composed his epitaph:

J’ai vécu sans nul pensement,

Me laissant aller doucement

À la bonne loi naturelle,

Et ne saurais dire pourquoi

La mort daigna penser à moi,

Qui n’ai daigné penser à elle.IV131

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