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Welcome to the electronic edition of Framing French 2 Colonial vision: French voyager-artists, Aboriginal subjects and that year when rebel leader Pemulwuy was executed, alcohol and tobacco had entered 13 P. Casanova, ' Entretien avec Marie NDiaye', Les Mardis littéraires, France Culture.
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- Rameau’s Nephew - Le Neveu de Rameau - Rameau’s Nephew - Open Book Publishers
- Rameau’s Nephew - Le Neveu de Rameau
- Rameau’s Nephew - Le Neveu de Rameau
Some few French people are there already, preparing to be ill — I never shall forget a dreadful sight I once had in the little dark, dirty, six-foot cabin of a Dover steamer. Four gaunt Frenchmen, but for their pantaloons, in the costume of Adam in Paradise, solemnly anointing themselves with some charm against sea-sickness! I never could fancy the Mounseers formidable at sea. There are, of course, many Jews on board. Who ever travelled by steamboat, coach, diligence, eilwagen, vetturino, mule-back, or sledge, without meeting some of the wandering race?
By the time these remarks have been made the steward is on the deck again, and dinner is ready: The wind blows, the water looks greener and more beautiful than ever — ridge by ridge of long white rock passes away. Is this the woman who, anon, braved the jeers and brutal wrath of swindling hackney-coachmen; who repelled the insolence of haggling porters, with a scorn that brought down their demands at least eighteenpence? Is this the woman at whose voice servants tremble; at the sound of whose steps the nursery, ay, and mayhap the parlor, is in order?
Look at her now, prostrate, prostrate — no strength has she to speak, scarce power to push to her youngest one — her suffering, struggling Rosa — to push to her the — the instrumentoon! In the midst of all these throes and agonies, at which all the passengers, who have their own woes you yourself — for how can you help THEM? He is a foreigner, and you have been conversing with him, in the course of the morning, in French — which, he says, you speak remarkably well, like a native in fact, and then in English which, after all, you find is more convenient.
What can express your gratitude to this gentleman for all his goodness towards your family and yourself — you talk to him, he has served under the Emperor, and is, for all that, sensible, modest, and well-informed. He speaks, indeed, of his countrymen almost with contempt, and readily admits the superiority of a Briton, on the seas and elsewhere.
One loves to meet with such genuine liberality in a foreigner, and respects the man who can sacrifice vanity to truth. This distinguished foreigner has travelled much; he asks whither you are going? Nine, ten, eleven, the distinguished foreigner is ever at your side; you find him now, perhaps, with characteristic ingratitude, something of a bore, but, at least, he has been most tender to the children and their mamma. Curse the fellow, for an impudent, swindling, sneaking French humbug!
Bells are jangling; a family, mayhap, is going to Paris, en poste, and wondrous is the jabber of the courier, the postilion, the inn-waiters, and the lookers-on. Believe me, there is on the face of this world no scamp like an English one, no blackguard like one of these half-gentlemen, so mean, so low, so vulgar — so ludicrously ignorant and conceited, so desperately heartless and depraved.
But why, my dear sir, get into a passion? Millingen, and by innumerable guide-books besides. Only, by looking at a map, it is observable that Vimeiro is a mortal long way from Toulouse, where, at the end of certain years of victories, we somehow find the honest Marshal. However, we shall never get to Paris at this rate; let us break off further palaver, and away at once. During this pause, the ingenious reader is kindly requested to pay his bill at the Hotel at Boulogne, to mount the Diligence of Laffitte, Caillard and Company, and to travel for twenty-five hours, amidst much jingling of harness-bells and screaming of postilions.
The French milliner, who occupies one of the corners, begins to remove the greasy pieces of paper which have enveloped her locks during the journey. The old lady in the opposite corner, who has been sucking bonbons, and smells dreadfully of anisette, arranges her little parcels in that immense basket of abominations which all old women carry in their laps. She rubs her mouth and eyes with her dusty cambric handkerchief, she ties up her nightcap into a little bundle, and replaces it by a more becoming head-piece, covered with withered artificial flowers, and crumpled tags of ribbon; she looks wistfully at the company for an instant, and then places her handkerchief before her mouth: The Jewish gentleman, who has been so attentive to the milliner during the journey, and is a traveller and bagman by profession, gathers together his various goods.
The sallow-faced English lad, who has been drunk ever since we left Boulogne yesterday, and is coming to Paris to pursue the study of medicine, swears that he rejoices to leave the cursed Diligence, is sick of the infernal journey, and d — d glad that the d — d voyage is so nearly over. The postilion cracks his terrible whip, and screams shrilly. The conductor blows incessantly on his horn, the bells of the harness, the bumping and ringing of the wheels and chains, and the clatter of the great hoofs of the heavy snorting Norman stallions, have wondrously increased within this, the last ten minutes; and the Diligence, which has been proceeding hitherto at the rate of a league in an hour, now dashes gallantly forward, as if it would traverse at least six miles in the same space of time.
He gallopeth at the commencement; in the middle he lingers; at the close, again, he rouses the House, which has fallen asleep; he cracketh the whip of his satire; he shouts the shout of his patriotism; and, urging his eloquence to its roughest canter, awakens the sleepers, and inspires the weary, until men say, What a wondrous orator! What a capital coach! We will ride henceforth in it, and in no other!
But, behold us at Paris! The Diligence has reached a rude-looking gate, or grille, flanked by two lodges; the French Kings of old made their entry by this gate; some of the hottest battles of the late revolution were fought before it. At present, it is blocked by carts and peasants, and a busy crowd of men, in green, examining the packages before they enter, probing the straw with long needles. It is the Barrier of St. If you are a countryman, who would introduce a cow into the metropolis, the city demands twenty-four francs for such a privilege: Trollope, and other writers, have already enlightened the public.
In the present instance, after a momentary pause, one of the men in green mounts by the side of the conductor, and the ponderous vehicle pursues its journey. The street which we enter, that of the Faubourg St. Denis, presents a strange contrast to the dark uniformity of a London street, where everything, in the dingy and smoky atmosphere, looks as though it were painted in India-ink — black houses, black passengers, and black sky. Here, on the contrary, is a thousand times more life and color. Before you, shining in the sun, is a long glistening line of GUTTER — not a very pleasing object in a city, but in a picture invaluable.
On each side are houses of all dimensions and hues; some but of one story; some as high as the tower of Babel. From these the haberdashers and this is their favorite street flaunt long strips of gaudy calicoes, which give a strange air of rude gayety to the street. That gloomy-looking prison on your right is a prison for women; once it was a convent for Lazarists: Was it not a great stroke of the legislature to superintend the morals and linen at once, and thus keep these poor creatures continually mending?
There is only time to take a hasty glance as we pass: The Dutch Lion revived, and overcame the man some years afterwards; but of this fact, singularly enough, the inscriptions make no mention. Passing, then, round the gate, and not under it after the general custom, in respect of triumphal arches , you cross the boulevard, which gives a glimpse of trees and sunshine, and gleaming white buildings; then, dashing down the Rue de Bourbon Villeneuve, a dirty street, which seems interminable, and the Rue St.
Eustache, the conductor gives a last blast on his horn, and the great vehicle clatters into the court — yard, where the journey is destined to conclude. If there was a noise before of screaming postilions and cracked horns, it was nothing to the Babel-like clatter which greets us now. We are in a great court, which Hajji Baba would call the father of Diligences. Half a dozen other coaches arrive at the same minute — no light affairs, like your English vehicles, but ponderous machines, containing fifteen passengers inside, more in the cabriolet, and vast towers of luggage on the roof: Ow mosh loggish ave you, sare?
And now, if you are a stranger in Paris, listen to the words of Titmarsh. Here you will find apartments at any price: But all this is promiscuous, and not to the purpose. But above all, O my countrymen! In the first place, you have bad dinners; and, secondly, bad company. If you play cards, you are very likely playing with a swindler; if you dance, you dance with a —— person with whom you had better have nothing to do.
Note which ladies are requested not to read. A lady, who had passed for some time as the wife of one of the inmates, suddenly changed her husband and name, her original husband remaining in the house, and saluting her by her new title. A million dangers and snares await the traveller, as soon as he issues out of that vast messagerie which we have just quitted: And first, then, with regard to the city of Paris, it is to be remarked, that in that metropolis flourish a greater number of native and exotic swindlers than are to be found in any other European nursery.
What young Englishman that visits it, but has not determined, in his heart, to have a little share of the gayeties that go on — just for once, just to see what they are like? How many, when the horrible gambling dens were open, did resist a sight of them? My friend Pogson is a young fellow, not much worse, although perhaps a little weaker and simpler than his neighbors; and coming to Paris with exactly the same notions that bring many others of the British youth to that capital, events befell him there, last winter, which are strictly true, and shall here be narrated, by way of warning to all.
Pog, it must be premised, is a city man, who travels in drugs for a couple of the best London houses, blows the flute, has an album, drives his own gig, and is considered, both on the road and in the metropolis, a remarkably nice, intelligent, thriving young man. Sam Pogson had occasion to visit Paris, last October; and it was in that city that his love of the sex had liked to have cost him dear. He paid for two places, too, although a single man, and the reason shall now be made known. A large lady, in black satin, with eyes and hair as black as sloes, with gold chains, scent-bottles, sable tippet, worked pocket-handkerchief, and four twinkling rings on each of her plump white fingers.
Her cheeks were as pink as the finest Chinese rouge could make them. Pog knew the article: Her lips were as red as the ruby lip salve: The Baroness smiled most graciously — with such a look as Juno cast upon unfortunate Jupiter when she wished to gain her wicked ends upon him — the Baroness smiled; and, stealing her hand into a black velvet bag, drew from it an ivory card-case, and from the ivory card-case extracted a glazed card, printed in gold; on it was engraved a coronet, and under the coronet the words.
Trembling he put it into his little Russia-leather pocket-book: But Pogson did not, for some time, venture to resume that sprightly and elegant familiarity which generally forms the great charm of his conversation: Pogson piqued himself on his breeding: The Baroness did not appear inclined to move: What took place during the rest of the evening had better be described by Mr.
Pogson himself, who has given us permission to publish his letter. Of the first family in France, the Florval-Delvals, beautiful as an angel, and no more caring for money than I do for split peas. Bob Irons, who travels in linen on our circuit, told me that he had made some slap-up acquaintances among the genteelest people at Paris, nothing but by offering them Sham.
Oh, no, not the least; but I shall have her to myself the whole of the way. Adieu, then, my dear fellow, till Monday, and vive le joy, as they say. This letter reached us duly, in our garrets, and we engaged such an apartment for Mr. Pogson, as beseemed a gentleman of his rank in the world and the army. At the appointed hour, too, we repaired to the Diligence office, and there beheld the arrival of the machine which contained him and his lovely Baroness. Those who have much frequented the society of gentlemen of his profession and what more delightful?
He had put on a clean collar at breakfast, and a pair of white kids as he entered the barrier, and looked, as he rushed into my arms, more like a man stepping out of a band-box, than one descending from a vehicle that has just performed one of the laziest, dullest, flattest, stalest, dirtiest journeys in Europe. I could see a gleam of curl-papers over a sallow face — of a dusky nightcap flapping over the curl-papers — but these were hidden by a lace veil and a huge velvet bonnet, of which the crowning birds-of-paradise were evidently in a moulting state.
She was encased in many shawls and wrappers; she put, hesitatingly, a pretty little foot out of the carriage — Pogson was by her side in an instant, and, gallantly putting one of his white kids round her waist, aided this interesting creature to descend. I saw, by her walk, that she was five-and-forty, and that my little Pogson was a lost man. After some brief parley between them — in which it was charming to hear how my friend Samuel WOULD speak, what he called French, to a lady who could not understand one syllable of his jargon — the mutual hackney-coaches drew up; Madame la Baronne waved to the Captain a graceful French curtsy.
The next day at five we met; Mr. I live up a hundred and thirty-seven steps in the remote quarter of the Luxembourg, and it is not to be expected that such a fashionable fellow as Sam Pogson, with his pockets full of money, and a new city to see, should be always wandering to my dull quarters; so that, although he did not make his appearance for some time, he must not be accused of any luke-warmness of friendship on that score. Honorable Tom Ringwood, son of the Earl of Cinqbars: I thought he was getting into very good society.
Sam was a dashing fellow, and was always above his own line of life; he had met Mr. The next morning we had made an arrangement to go out shopping together, and to purchase some articles of female gear, that Sam intended to bestow on his relations when he returned. Seven needle-books, for his sisters; a gilt buckle, for his mamma; a handsome French cashmere shawl and bonnet, for his aunt the old lady keeps an inn in the Borough, and has plenty of money, and no heirs ; and a toothpick case, for his father.
Sam is a good fellow to all his relations, and as for his aunt, he adores her. Well, we were to go and make these purchases, and I arrived punctually at my time; but Sam was stretched on a sofa, very pale and dismal. Eight-and-thirty pounds he won of me before supper; and made me drunk, and sent me home: How can I afford to lose forty pounds? I was making for my hat. Pogson on business, in private, if possible. Will you, or will you not, pay the money, sir?
Ringwood sprung up, clenching his riding-whip, and looking so fierce that Sam and I bounded back to the other end of the room. Ringwood, and looked as if he would, too: The poor little man had his elbows on the marble table, his head between his hands, and looked, as one has seen gentlemen look over a steam-vessel off Ramsgate, the wind blowing remarkably fresh: Everything, too, must be pleaded in excuse for this unfortunate bagman: O ye Barons and Baronesses of England! My soul was filled, then, with a gentle yearning pity for Pogson, and revolved many plans for his rescue: There is no better guide to follow than such a character as the honest Major, of whom there are many likenesses now scattered over the Continent of Europe: I, for my part, never landed on Calais pier without feeling that a load of sorrows was left on the other side of the water; and have always fancied that black care stepped on board the steamer, along with the custom-house officers at Gravesend, and accompanied one to yonder black louring towers of London — so busy, so dismal, and so vast.
He is, moreover, one of the most useful persons in society that can possibly be; for besides being incorrigibly duelsome on his own account, he is, for others, the most acute and peaceable counsellor in the world, and has carried more friends through scrapes and prevented more deaths than any member of the Humane Society. British never bought a single step in the army, as is well known.
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Such pleasant old boys are very profitable acquaintances, let me tell you; and lucky is the young man who has one or two such friends in his list. The little gentleman was in his travelling jacket, and occupied in painting, elegantly, one of those natty pairs of boots in which he daily promenaded the Boulevards.
A couple of pairs of tough buff gloves had been undergoing some pipe-claying operation under his hands; no man stepped out so spick and span, with a hat so nicely brushed, with a stiff cravat tied so neatly under a fat little red face, with a blue frock-coat so scrupulously fitted to a punchy little person, as Major British, about whom we have written these two pages.
He stared rather hardly at my companion, but gave me a kind shake of the hand, and we proceeded at once to business. Pogson, coming from Calais the other day, encountered, in the diligence, a very handsome woman. Pogson was not more pleased with this lovely creature than was she with him; for, it appears, she gave him her card, invited him to her house, where he has been constantly, and has been received with much kindness. Gentlemen gamble, sir; tradesmen, sir, have no business with the amusements of the gentry. Did Nature give you an education, sir?
What do you mean by competing with people to whom Nature has given all these things? Stick to your bags, Mr. Pogson, and your bagmen, and leave barons and their like to their own ways. Do you mean that the honorable gent, as you call him, will go out with a bagman? He only assumed the rank in order to dazzle her weak imagination, never fancying that there was a husband, and a circle of friends, with whom he was afterwards to make an acquaintance; and then, you know, it was too late to withdraw.
The woman is always travelling between London and Paris: I saw she was hooking you at Calais; she has hooked ten men, in the course of the last two years, in this very way. You must go about as an impostor, sir, in society; and you pay richly for your swindling, sir, by being swindled yourself: Now let me wish you a good morning. What these means were I know not; but Mr.
Rameau’s Nephew - Le Neveu de Rameau - Rameau’s Nephew - Open Book Publishers
It was blank inside, but contained his two bills. Ringwood is, as yet, young at his trade; and I have often thought it was very green of him to give up the bills to the Major, who, certainly, would never have pressed the matter before the police, out of respect for his friend, Lord Cinqbars.
Do you not laugh, O Pharos of Bungay, at the continuance of a humbug such as this? The King of the Barricades is, next to the Emperor Nicholas, the most absolute Sovereign in Europe; yet there is not in the whole of this fair kingdom of France a single man who cares sixpence about him, or his dynasty: In looking at these men, their manners, dresses, opinions, politics, actions, history, it is impossible to preserve a grave countenance; instead of having Carlyle to write a History of the French Revolution, I often think it should be handed over to Dickens or Theodore Hook: The subject is one which admits of much wholesome reflection and food for mirth; and, besides, is so richly treated by the French themselves, that it would be a sin and a shame to pass it over.
Very few clergy attended; but a considerable number of the National Guard. The service was performed with the greatest pomp. The flags on the Pont Neuf were, during the ceremony, only half-mast high, and covered with crape. In front and in the middle was erected an expiatory monument of a pyramidical shape, and surmounted by a funeral vase.
On their arrival, the Municipal Guards of the Halle aux Draps, where the post had been doubled, issued out without arms, and the town-sergeants placed themselves before the market to prevent the entry of the procession. The young men passed in perfect order, and without saying a word — only lifting their hats as they defiled before the tombs. When they arrived at the Louvre they found the gates shut, and the garden evacuated. The troops were under arms, and formed in battalion. It is, you will allow, a little difficult to say: A Frenchman must have his revolution — it is his nature to knock down omnibuses in the street, and across them to fire at troops of the line — it is a sin to balk it.
Did not the King send off Revolutionary Prince Napoleon in a coach-and-four? Did not the jury, before the face of God and Justice, proclaim Revolutionary Colonel Vaudrey not guilty? The great poet composed the following verses: Grace au nom de la tombe! Victor Hugo wrote the lines out instantly on a sheet of paper, which he folded, and simply despatched them to the King of the French by the penny-post.
Poetry, in old days, was called the language of the Gods — it is better named now — it is the language of the Kings. Pardon in the name of the tomb! Pardon in the name of the cradle! Now in countries where fools most abound, did one ever read of more monstrous, palpable folly? Would he have ever despatched the nonsense? You get nothing done here gravely and decently.
Tawdry stage tricks are played, and braggadocio claptraps uttered, on every occasion, however sacred or solemn: Suppose the Count of Paris to be twenty times a reed, and the Princess Mary a host of angels, is that any reason why the law should not have its course? Justice is the God of our lower world, our great omnipresent guardian: Victor Hugo trips forward, smirking, and says, O divine Justice! I will trouble you to listen to the following trifling effusion of mine: Awful Justice stops, and, bowing gravely, listens to M. Bon jour, mon cher Monsieur Hugo, au revoir!
I can hardly bring my mind to fancy that anything is serious in France — it seems to be all rant, tinsel, and stage-play. We shall be able to go about our everyday business again, and not be hustled by the gendarmes or the crowd. The sight which I have just come away from is as brilliant, happy, and beautiful as can be conceived; and if you want to see French people to the greatest advantage, you should go to a festival like this, where their manners, and innocent gayety, show a very pleasing contrast to the coarse and vulgar hilarity which the same class would exhibit in our own country — at Epsom racecourse, for instance, or Greenwich Fair.
The greatest noise that I heard was that of a company of jolly villagers from a place in the neighborhood of Paris, who, as soon as the fireworks were over, formed themselves into a line, three or four abreast, and so marched singing home. As for the fireworks, squibs and crackers are very hard to describe, and very little was to be seen of them: John Bull, I fear, is more selfish: Bull to the public-house; but leaves her, for the most part, to take care of the children at home.
Will they ever be reproduced for other celebrations of the glorious 29th of July? The Guards and the Line employed this time nine years did no more than those who cannonaded the starving Lyonnese, or bayoneted the luckless inhabitants of the Rue Transnounain: Would we have thought Charles X. Shall I trouble you with an account of the speculations of these latter, and the state of the parties which they represent? The complication is not a little curious, and may form, perhaps, a subject of graver disquisition.
The Legitimists were always indignant at it. The high Philippist party sneers at and despises it; the Republicans hate it: It only shows how a rightful monarch was hurled from his throne, and a dexterous usurper stole his precious diadem. If there be anything noble in the memory of a day, when citizens, unused to war, rose against practised veterans, and, armed with the strength of their cause, overthrew them, why speak of it now? O hero of two worlds! O accomplished Cromwell Grandison! The three collections of pictures at the Louvre, the Luxembourg, and the Ecole des Beaux Arts, contain a number of specimens of French art, since its commencement almost, and give the stranger a pretty fair opportunity to study and appreciate the school.
The French list of painters contains some very good names — no very great ones, except Poussin unless the admirers of Claude choose to rank him among great painters — and I think the school was never in so flourishing a condition as it is at the present day. They say there are three thousand artists in this town alone: There are a dozen excellent schools which a lad may enter here, and, under the eye of a practised master, learn the apprenticeship of his art at an expense of about ten pounds a year.
In England there is no school except the Academy, unless the student can afford to pay a very large sum, and place himself under the tuition of some particular artist. Nature itself is inclined more kindly to him, for the sky is a thousand times more bright and beautiful, and the sun shines for the greater part of the year.
Add to this, incitements more selfish, but quite as powerful: The life of the young artist here is the easiest, merriest, dirtiest existence possible. He comes to Paris, probably at sixteen, from his province; his parents settle forty pounds a year on him, and pay his master; he establishes himself in the Pays Latin, or in the new quarter of Notre Dame de Lorette which is quite peopled with painters ; he arrives at his atelier at a tolerably early hour, and labors among a score of companions as merry and poor as himself.
Each gentleman has his favorite tobacco-pipe; and the pictures are painted in the midst of a cloud of smoke, and a din of puns and choice French slang, and a roar of choruses, of which no one can form an idea who has not been present at such an assembly. You see here every variety of coiffure that has ever been known.
This is the last fashion. As for the beards, there is no end of them; all my friends the artists have beards who can raise them; and Nature, though she has rather stinted the bodies and limbs of the French nation, has been very liberal to them of hair, as you may see by the following specimen. Fancy these heads and beards under all sorts of caps — Chinese caps, Mandarin caps, Greek skull-caps, English jockey-caps, Russian or Kuzzilbash caps, Middle-age caps such as are called, in heraldry, caps of maintenance , Spanish nets, and striped worsted nightcaps.
Fancy all the jackets you have ever seen, and you have before you, as well as pen can describe, the costumes of these indescribable Frenchmen. In this company and costume the French student of art passes his days and acquires knowledge; how he passes his evenings, at what theatres, at what guinguettes, in company with what seducing little milliner, there is no need to say; but I knew one who pawned his coat to go to a carnival ball, and walked abroad very cheerfully in his blouse for six weeks, until he could redeem the absent garment.
As, for instance, my friend the Rev. James Asterisk, who has an undeniable pedigree, a paternal estate, and a living to boot, once dined in Warwickshire, in company with several squires and parsons of that enlightened county. Asterisk, as usual, made himself extraordinarily agreeable at dinner, and delighted all present with his learning and wit.
I thought he had been a gentleman! The splendid and beautiful Duchess of Dash was at one of his ministerial parties; and went, a fortnight afterwards, as in duty bound, to pay her respects to M. But it happened, in this fortnight, that M. Guizot was Minister no longer; having given up his portfolio, and his grand hotel, to retire into private life, and to occupy his humble apartments in the house which he possesses, and of which he lets the greater portion. He says the Duchess, at her entrance, seemed quite astounded, and examined the premises with a most curious wonder.
Two or three shabby little rooms, with ordinary furniture, and a Minister en retraite, who lives by letting lodgings! In our country was ever such a thing heard of? But to our muttons. This country is surely the paradise of painters and penny-a-liners; and when one reads of M. Horace Vernet at Rome, exceeding ambassadors at Rome by his magnificence, and leading such a life as Rubens or Titian did of old; when one sees M.
George a dozen years ago he was not even a penny-a-liner: Gudin, the marine painter, too lame to walk through the picture-gallery of the Louvre, accommodated, therefore, with a wheel-chair, a privilege of princes only, and accompanied — nay, for what I know, actually trundled — down the gallery by majesty itself — who does not long to make one of the great nation, exchange his native tongue for the melodious jabber of France; or, at least, adopt it for his native country, like Marshal Saxe, Napoleon, and Anacharsis Clootz?
Well, this being the case, no wonder there are so many painters in France; and here, at least, we are back to them. At the Ecole Royale des Beaux Arts, you see two or three hundred specimens of their performances; all the prize-men, since , I think, being bound to leave their prize sketch or picture. Can anything good come out of the Royal Academy? The hundreds of French samples are, I think, not very satisfactory. The subjects are almost all what are called classical: Orestes pursued by every variety of Furies; numbers of little wolf-sucking Romuluses; Hectors and Andromaches in a complication of parting embraces, and so forth; for it was the absurd maxim of our forefathers, that because these subjects had been the fashion twenty centuries ago, they must remain so in saecula saeculorum; because to these lofty heights giants had scaled, behold the race of pigmies must get upon stilts and jump at them likewise!
What was the consequence, my dear friend? In trying to make themselves into bulls, the frogs make themselves into jackasses, as might be expected. Now, as Nature made every man with a nose and eyes of his own, she gave him a character of his own too; and yet we, O foolish race! It is the study of nature, surely, that profits us, and not of these imitations of her. Because Lord Byron was wicked, and quarrelled with the world; and found himself growing fat, and quarrelled with his victuals, and thus, naturally, grew ill-humored, did not half Europe grow ill-humored too?
Did not every poet feel his young affections withered, and despair and darkness cast upon his soul? Because certain mighty men of old could make heroical statues and plays, must we not be told that there is no other beauty but classical beauty? For a hundred years, my dear sir, the world was humbugged by the so-called classical artists, as they now are by what is called the Christian art of which anon ; and it is curious to look at the pictorial traditions as here handed down.
The consequence of them is, that scarce one of the classical pictures exhibited is worth much more than two-and-sixpence. Borrowed from statuary, in the first place, the color of the paintings seems, as much as possible, to participate in it; they are mostly of a misty, stony green, dismal hue, as if they had been painted in a world where no color was. There are the endless straight noses, long eyes, round chins, short upper lips, just as they are ruled down for you in the drawing-books, as if the latter were the revelations of beauty, issued by supreme authority, from which there was no appeal?
Why is the classical reign to endure? There was no reason why Agamemnon should set the fashions, and remain [Greek text omitted] to eternity: Shakspeare made a better man when his imagination moulded the mighty figure of Macbeth. There IS the sublime, if you please — a new sublime — an original sublime — quite as sublime as the Greek sublime. See yonder, in the midst of his angels, the Judge of the world descending in glory; and near him, beautiful and gentle, and yet indescribably august and pure, the Virgin by his side. It has about it something frightfully majestic, if one may so speak.
How did he suffer the painful labor of invention? One fancies that he would have been scorched up, like Semele, by sights too tremendous for his vision to bear. One cannot imagine him, with our small physical endowments and weaknesses, a man like ourselves. As for the Ecole Royale des Beaux Arts, then, and all the good its students have done, as students, it is stark naught. When the men did anything, it was after they had left the academy, and began thinking for themselves.
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Showing of 3 reviews. Top Reviews Most recent Top Reviews. There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later. Not a satisfying story in my opinion. Slimani's style is extremely precise, fast, and psychologically profound. However, I don't understand the very motivation for the construction of such a wrotten character. Does she reflect Leila's own potential pathologies? I adore Leila's prose, but the contents are at best a case for psychiatry, although Leila in her interview calls the novel a love story.
She seemingly has no idea about love. One person found this helpful. Un tres bon livre qui donne toutes sortes d'explications sur la sexualite See all 3 reviews. What other items do customers buy after viewing this item? Le bonheur n'a pas de rides French Edition Kindle Edition. A Novel Kindle Edition. Customers who viewed this item also viewed. Les Carnets Rouges French Edition. Le bonheur n'a pas de rides French Edition.
Paroles d'honneur French Edition. Thus, through him, classicism gained self-consciousness; it became possessed of a definite doctrine; and a group of writers was formed, united together by common aims, and destined to exercise an immense influence upon the development not only of French, but of European literature. For these reasons — for his almost unerring prescience in the discernment of contemporary merit and for his triumphant consolidation of the classical tradition — Boileau must be reckoned as the earliest of that illustrious company of great critics which is one of the peculiar glories of French letters.
Boileau attempted to lay down the principles universally binding upon writers of poetry; but he had not the equipment necessary for such a task. His knowledge was limited, his sympathies were narrow, and his intellectual powers lacked profundity. The result was that he committed the common fault of writers immersed in the business of contemporary controversy — he erected the precepts, which he saw to be salutary so far as his own generation was concerned, to the dignity of universal rules.
His message, in reality, was for the France of Louis XIV; he enunciated it as if it was the one guide to literary salvation for all ages and in all circumstances; and it so happened that for about a century it was accepted at his own valuation by the majority of civilized mankind. In a sense he was right: Perceiving the beauty of clarity, order, refinement, and simplicity, he jumped to the conclusion that these were the characteristics of Nature herself, and that without them no beauty could exist.
Nature is too large a thing to fit into a system of aesthetics; and beauty is often — perhaps more often than not — complex, obscure, fantastic, and strange. It was not, as has sometimes been asserted, imagination that he disliked, but singularity. More completely than any of his great contemporaries, Boileau was a representative of middle-class France. His glory is more than national — it is universal. Gathering within the plenitude of his genius the widest and the profoundest characteristics of his race, he has risen above the boundaries of place and language and tradition into a large dominion over the hearts of all mankind.
To the world outside France he alone, in undisputed eminence, speaks with the authentic voice of France herself. That this is so is owing mainly, of course, to the power of his genius; but it is also owing, in some degree, to the particular form which his genius took. It is by his very perfection, by the very completeness of his triumph, that Racine loses. Of all the great French classics, he is the least classical. His fluid mind overflowed the mould he worked in.
His art, sweeping over the whole range of comic emotions, from the wildest buffoonery to the grimmest satire and the subtlest wit, touched life too closely and too often to attain to that flawless beauty to which it seems to aspire. He lacked the precision of form which is the mark of the consummate artist; he was sometimes tentative and ambiguous, often careless; the structure of some of his finest works was perfunctorily thrown together; the envelope of his thought — his language — was by no means faultless, his verse often coming near to prose, and his prose sometimes aping the rhythm of verse.
In fact, it is not surprising that to the rigid classicists of the eighteenth century this Colossus had feet of clay. But, after all, even clay has a merit of its own: It was on this side that his work was profoundly influenced by the circumstances of his life. His early years were spent amid the rough and sordid surroundings of a travelling provincial company, of which he became the manager and the principal actor, and for which he composed his first plays. All his masterpieces were written in the ten years that followed — During that period the patronage of the king gave him an assured position; he became a celebrity at Paris and Versailles; he was a successful man.
Yet, even during these years of prosperity, he was far from being free from troubles. He was obliged to struggle incessantly against the intrigues of his enemies, among whom the ecclesiastical authorities were the most ferocious; and even the favour of Louis had its drawbacks, for it involved a constant expenditure of energy upon the frivolous and temporary entertainments of the Court. In addition, he was unhappy in his private life. What he had achieved was, in the first place, the creation of French Comedy. Before him, there had been boisterous farces, conventional comedies of intrigue borrowed from the Italian, and extravagant pieces of adventure and burlesque cast in the Spanish mould.
He was the most unromantic of writers — a realist to the core; and he understood that the true subject of comedy was to be found in the actual facts of human society — in the affectations of fools, the absurdities of cranks, the stupidities of dupes, the audacities of impostors, the humours and the follies of family life. And, like all great originators, his influence has been immense.
At one blow, he established Comedy in its true position and laid down the lines on which it was to develop for the next two hundred years. If he fell short of the classical ideal in his workmanship, if he exceeded it in the breadth and diversity of his mind, it is still true that the essence of his dramatic method was hardly less classical than that of Racine himself. His subject-matter was rich and various; but his treatment of it was strictly limited by the classical conception of art. He always worked by selection. His incidents are very few, chosen with the utmost care, impressed upon the spectator with astonishing force, and exquisitely arranged to succeed each other at the most effective moment.
The choice of the incidents is determined invariably by one consideration — the light which they throw upon the characters; and the characters themselves appear to us from only a very few carefully chosen points of view. The English dramatist shows his persons to us in the round; innumerable facets flash out quality after quality; the subtlest and most elusive shades of temperament are indicated; until at last the whole being takes shape before us, endowed with what seems to be the very complexity and mystery of life itself.
Instead of expanding, he deliberately narrows his view; he seizes upon two or three salient qualities in a character and then uses all his art to impress them indelibly upon our minds. His Harpagon is a miser, and he is old — and that is all we know about him: In Tartufe there are no such surprises. He displays three qualities, and three only — religious hypocrisy, lasciviousness, and the love of power; and there is not a word that he utters which is not impregnated with one or all of these. His method is narrow, but it is deep. He rushes to the essentials of a human being — tears out his vitals, as it were — and, with a few repeated master-strokes, transfixes the naked soul.
His flashlight never fails: Nor is it only by its vividness that his portraiture excels. At its best it rises into the region of sublimity, giving us new visions of the grandeur to which the human spirit can attain. And no doubt this teaching is to be found throughout his work, devoted as it is, by its very nature, to the eccentricities and exaggerations which beset humanity. But if he had been nothing more than a sober propounder of the golden mean he never would have come to greatness.
No man realized more clearly the importance of good sense; but he saw farther than that: Thus it is that he has invested the feeble, miserable Harpagon with a kind of sordid splendour, and that he has elevated the scoundrel Don Juan into an alarming image of intellectual power and pride. The impression which he leaves upon us at the end of the play is not simply one of the utter folly of learning out of place; in Philaminte, the central female figure, he has depicted the elevation that belongs even to a mistaken and perverted love of what is excellent; and when she finally goes out, ridiculous, baffled, but as unyielding as ever in her devotion to grammar and astronomy, we come near, in the face of her majestic absurdity, to a feeling of respect.
Here it is vice in its meanest and most repulsive forms which has become endowed with an awful grandeur. He is the gayest of writers, and his farces, in their wild hilarity, their contagious absurdity, are perfect models of what a farce should be. He has made these light, frivolous, happy things as eternal as the severest and the weightiest works of man. He has filled them with a wonderful irresponsible wisdom, condensing into single phrases the ridiculousness of generations: It is the more remote quality of his mind — his brooding melancholy, shot through with bitterness and doubt — that may at first sight escape the notice of the reader, and that will repay the deepest attention.
His greatest works come near to tragedy. Le Tartufe , in spite of its patched-up happy ending, leaves an impression of horror upon the mind. Don Juan seems to inculcate a lesson of fatalistic scepticism. Don Juan — so enigmatic in its meaning and so loose in its structure — might almost be the work of some writer of the late nineteenth century; but Le Misanthrope — at once so harmonious and so brilliant, so lucid and so profound — could only have been produced in the age of Louis XIV.
The play shows us a small group of ladies and gentlemen, in the midst of which one man — Alceste — stands out pre-eminent for the intensity of his feelings and the honesty of his thoughts. The plot is of the slightest; the incidents are very few. And that is all. Yet, when the play ends, how much has been revealed to us! The essence of Alceste is not his misanthropy the title of the play is somewhat misleading , it is his sensitiveness. He alone, of all the characters in the piece, really feels intensely. He alone loves, suffers, and understands. His melancholy is the melancholy of a profound disillusionment.
To Alceste, at any rate, the world was the great enemy — a thing of vain ideals, cold hearts, and futile consolations. He pitted himself against it, and he failed. The world swept on remorselessly, and left him, in his little corner, alone. That was his tragedy. English critics, from Dryden to Matthew Arnold, have steadily refused to allow him a place among the great writers of the world; and the ordinary English reader of to-day probably thinks of him — if he thinks of him at all — as a dull, frigid, conventional writer, who went out of fashion with full-bottomed wigs and never wrote a line of true poetry.
Yet in France Racine has been the object of almost universal admiration; his plays still hold the stage and draw forth the talents of the greatest actors; and there can be no doubt that it is the name of Racine that would first rise to the lips of an educated Frenchman if he were asked to select the one consummate master from among all the writers of his race. Now in literature, no less than in politics, you cannot indict a whole nation. Some justice, some meaning, France must have when she declares with one voice that Racine is not only one of the greatest of dramatists, but also one of the greatest of poets; and it behoves an Englishman, before he condemns or despises a foreign writer, to practise some humility and do his best to understand the point of view from which that writer is regarded by his own compatriots.
No doubt, in the case of Racine, this is a particularly difficult matter. There are genuine national antipathies to be got over — real differences in habits of thought and of taste. But this very difficulty, when it is once surmounted, will make the gain the greater. For it will be a gain, not only in the appreciation of one additional artist, but in the appreciation of a new kind of artist; it will open up a whole undiscovered country in the continent of art.
English dramatic literature is, of course, dominated by Shakespeare; and it is almost inevitable that an English reader should measure the value of other poetic drama by the standards which Shakespeare has already implanted in his mind. But what were these methods and this convention? And, if we look here, it will become apparent that the dramatic tradition of the Elizabethan age was an extremely faulty one. It allowed, it is true, of great richness, great variety, and the sublimest heights of poetry; but it also allowed of an almost incredible looseness of structure and vagueness of purpose, of dullness, of insipidity, and of bad taste.
The genius of the Elizabethans was astonishing, but it was genius struggling with difficulties which were well-nigh insuperable; and, as a matter of fact, in spite of their amazing poetic and dramatic powers, their work has vanished from the stage, and is to-day familiar to but a few of the lovers of English literature.
Shakespeare alone was not subdued to what he worked in. His overwhelming genius harmonized and ennobled the discordant elements of the Elizabethan tradition, and invested them not only with immortality, but with immortality understanded of the people. His greatest works will continue to be acted and applauded so long as there is a theatre in England.
But even Shakespeare himself was not always successful. One has only to look at some of his secondary plays — at Troilus and Cressida , for instance, or Timon of Athens — to see at once how inveterate and malignant were the diseases to which the dramatic methods of the Elizabethans were a prey. Wisdom and poetry are intertwined with flatness and folly; splendid situations drift purposeless to impotent conclusions; brilliant psychology alternates with the grossest indecency and the feeblest puns.
Rameau’s Nephew - Le Neveu de Rameau
And then one is blinded once more by the glamour of Lear and Othello ; one forgets the defective system in the triumph of a few exceptions, and all plays seem intolerable unless they were written on the principle which produced Pericles and Titus Andronicus and the whole multitude of distorted and disordered works of genius of the Elizabethan age.
His great aim was to produce, not an extraordinary nor a complex work of art, but a flawless one; he wished to be all matter and no impertinency. His conception of a drama was of something swift, simple, inevitable; an action taken at the crisis, with no redundancies however interesting, no complications however suggestive, no irrelevances however beautiful — but plain, intense, vigorous, and splendid with nothing but its own essential force.
The Elizabethan tradition has died out — or rather it has left the theatre, and become absorbed in the modern novel; and it is the drama of crisis — such as Racine conceived it — which is now the accepted model of what a stage-play should be. And, in this connexion, we may notice an old controversy, which still occasionally raises its head in the waste places of criticism — the question of the three unities.
In this controversy both sides have been content to repeat arguments which are in reality irrelevant and futile. It is irrelevant to consider whether the unities were or were not prescribed by Aristotle; and it is futile to ask whether the sense of probability is or is not more shocked by the scenic representation of an action of thirty-six hours than by one of twenty-four.
Rameau’s Nephew - Le Neveu de Rameau
The value of the unities does not depend either upon their traditional authority or — to use the French expression — upon their vraisemblance. Their true importance lies simply in their being a powerful means towards concentration. Thus it is clear that in an absolute sense they are neither good nor bad; their goodness or badness depends upon the kind of result which the dramatist is aiming at. If he wishes to produce a drama of the Elizabethan type — a drama of comprehension — which shall include as much as possible of the varied manifestations of human life, then obviously the observance of the unities must exercise a restricting and narrowing influence which would be quite out of place.
On the other hand, in a drama of crisis they are not only useful but almost inevitable. If a crisis is to be a real crisis it must not drag on indefinitely; it must not last for more than a few hours, or — to put a rough limit — for more than a single day; in fact, the unity of time must be preserved. Again, if the action is to pass quickly, it must pass in one place, for there will be no time for the movement of the characters elsewhere; thus the unity of place becomes a necessity.
Finally, if the mind is to be concentrated to the full upon a particular crisis, it must not be distracted by side issues; the event, and nothing but the event, must be displayed; in other words, the dramatist will not succeed in his object unless he employs the unity of action. The comparison is particularly interesting because the two dramas, while diametrically opposed in treatment, yet offer some curious parallels in the subjects with which they deal. Both are concerned with a pair of lovers placed in the highest position of splendour and power; in both the tragedy comes about through a fatal discordance between the claims of love and of the world; in both the action passes in the age of Roman greatness, and vast imperial issues are intertwined with individual destinies.
Nowhere else, perhaps, has that universal genius displayed more completely the extraordinary fertility of his mind. The play is crammed full and running over with the multifarious activities of human existence. But this mass of character could never have been presented to us without a corresponding variety of incident; and, indeed, the tragedy is packed with an endless succession of incidents — battles, intrigues, marriages, divorces, treacheries, reconciliations, deaths.
The complicated action stretches over a long period of time and over a huge tract of space. Some commentators have been puzzled by the multitude of these changes, and when, for a scene of a few moments, Shakespeare shows us a Roman army marching through Syria, they have been able to see in it nothing more than a wanton violation of the rule of the unity of place; they have not understood that it is precisely by such touches as these that Shakespeare has succeeded in bringing before our minds a sense of universal agitation and the enormous dissolution of empires.
The whole tragedy takes place in a small antechamber; the action lasts hardly longer than its actual performance — about two hours and a half; and the characters are three in number. As for the plot, it is contained in the following six words of Suetonius: The interest of the play never ceases for a moment; the simple situation is exposed, developed, and closed with all the refinements of art; nothing is omitted that is essential, nothing that is unessential is introduced. Racine has studiously avoided anything approaching violent action or contrast or complexity; he has relied entirely for his effect upon his treatment of a few intimate human feelings interacting among themselves.
With wonderful art Racine manages to suggest that, behind the quiet personal crisis in the retired little room, the strain and the pressure of outside things do exist. For this is the force that separates the lovers — the cruel claims of government and the state. When, at the critical moment, Titus is at last obliged to make the fatal choice, one word, as he hesitates, seems to dominate and convince his soul: Into this single syllable Racine has distilled his own poignant version of the long-resounding elaborations of Antony and Cleopatra.
But this fact should not blind us to the extraordinary merits which it does possess. In one respect, indeed, it might be urged that the English play is surpassed by the French one — and that is, as a play. It is impossible to do justice to such a work on the stage; it must be mutilated, rearranged, decocted, and in the end, at the best, it will hardly do more than produce an impression of confused splendour on an audience. It is the old difficulty of getting a quart into a pint bottle.
To witness a performance of it is a rare and exquisite pleasure; the impression is one of flawless beauty; one comes away profoundly moved, and with a new vision of the capacities of art. Unity of tone is, in fact, a more important element in a play than any other unity. To obtain it Racine and his school avoided both the extreme contrasts and the displays of physical action which the Elizabethans delighted in. The mixture of comedy and tragedy was abhorrent to Racine, not because it was bad in itself, but because it must have shattered the unity of his tone; and for the same reason he preferred not to produce before the audience the most exciting and disturbing circumstances of his plots, but to present them indirectly, by means of description.
Now it is clear that the great danger lying before a dramatist who employs these methods is the danger of dullness. Unity of tone is an excellent thing, but if the tone is a tedious one, it is better to avoid it. They did not understand the difficult art of keeping interest alive without variety of mood, and consequently their works are now almost unreadable. The truth is that they were deluded by the apparent ease with which Racine accomplished this difficult task.
Having inherited his manner, they were content; they forgot that there was something else which they had not inherited — his genius. Closely connected with this difficulty there was another over which Racine triumphed no less completely, and which proved equally fatal to his successors.
Hitherto we have been discussing the purely dramatic aspect of classical tragedy; we must not forget that this drama was also literary. The problem that Racine had to solve was complicated by the fact that he was working, not only with a restricted dramatic system, but with a restricted language. His vocabulary was an incredibly small one — the smallest, beyond a doubt, that ever a great poet had to deal with. But that was not all: Yet, even here, Racine succeeded: In both instances the English reader is looking for variety, surprise, elaboration; and when he is given, instead, simplicity, clarity, ease, he is apt to see nothing but insipidity and flatness.
To the dwellers in the mountain the smooth river may seem at first unimpressive. But still waters run deep; and the proverb applies with peculiar truth to the poetry of Racine. Those ordinary words, that simple construction — what can there be there to deserve our admiration? On the surface, very little no doubt; but if we plunge below the surface we shall find a great profundity and a singular strength.
Racine is in reality a writer of extreme force — but it is a force of absolute directness that he wields. He uses the commonest words, and phrases which are almost colloquial; but every word, every phrase, goes straight to its mark, and the impression produced is ineffaceable. In English literature there is very little of such writing. When an English poet wishes to be forceful he almost invariably flies to the gigantic, the unexpected, and the out-of-the-way; he searches for strange metaphors and extraordinary constructions; he surprises us with curious mysteries and imaginations we have never dreamed of before.
Now and then, however, even in English literature, instances arise of the opposite — the Racinesque — method. He who wishes to appreciate it to the full must steep himself in it deep and long. He will be rewarded. That he should have succeeded in infusing into his tiny commonplace vocabulary, arranged in rhymed couplets according to the strictest and most artificial rules, not only the beauty of true poetry, but the varied subtleties of character and passion, is one of those miracles of art which defy analysis. Through the flowing regularity of his Alexandrines his personages stand out distinct and palpable, in all the vigour of life.
The presentment, it is true, is not a detailed one; the accidents of character are not shown us — only its essentials; the human spirit comes before us shorn of its particulars, naked and intense. Nor is it — as might, perhaps, have been expected — in the portrayal of intellectual characters that Racine particularly excels; it is in the portrayal of passionate ones.
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His supreme mastery is over the human heart — the subtleties, the profundities, the agonies, the triumphs, of love. His gallery of lovers is a long one, and the greatest portraits in it are of women. Here there are four characters — two men and two women — all under the dominion of intense feeling, and each absolutely distinct.
Andromaque, the still youthful widow of Hector, cares for only two things in the world with passionate devotion — her young son Astyanax, and the memory of her husband. Both are the captives of Pyrrhus, the conqueror of Troy, a straightforward, chivalrous, but somewhat barbarous prince, who, though he is affianced to Hermione, is desperately in love with Andromaque. Hermione is a splendid tigress consumed by her desire for Pyrrhus; and Oreste is a melancholy, almost morbid man, whose passion for Hermione is the dominating principle of his life.
These are the ingredients of the tragedy, ready to explode like gunpowder with the slightest spark. The spark is lighted when Pyrrhus declares to Andromaque that if she will not marry him he will execute her son. Hermione, in a fury of jealousy, declares that she will fly with Oreste, on one condition — that he kills Pyrrhus. Oreste, putting aside all considerations of honour and friendship, consents; he kills Pyrrhus, and then returns to his mistress to claim his reward.
There follows one of the most violent scenes that Racine ever wrote — in which Hermione, in an agony of remorse and horror, turns upon her wretched lover and denounces his crime. She rushes out to commit suicide, and the play ends with Oreste mad upon the stage. The appearance of this exciting and vital drama, written when Racine was twenty-eight years old, brought him immediate fame. During the next ten years —77 he produced a series of masterpieces, of which perhaps the most interesting are Britannicus , where the youthful Nero, just plunging into crime, is delineated with supreme mastery; Bajazet , whose subject is a contemporary tragedy of the seraglio at Constantinople; and a witty comedy, Les Plaideurs , based on Aristophanes.
Besides this, he was an assiduous courtier, and he also found the time, among these various avocations, for carrying on at least two passionate love-affairs. The play contains one of the most finished and beautiful, and at the same time one of the most overwhelming studies of passion in the literature of the world. Here, too, Racine has poured out all the wealth of his poetic powers. He has performed the last miracle, and infused into the ordered ease of the Alexandrine a strange sense of brooding mystery and indefinable terror and the awful approaches of fate.
The splendour of the verse reaches its height in the fourth act, when the ruined queen, at the culmination of her passion, her remorse, and her despair, sees in a vision Hell opening to receive her, and the appalling shade of her father Minos dispensing his unutterable doom. The creator of this magnificent passage, in which the imaginative grandeur of the loftiest poetry and the supreme force of dramatic emotion are mingled in a perfect whole, has a right to walk beside Sophocles in the high places of eternity.
A revulsion of feeling, the precise causes of which are to this day a mystery, led him suddenly to renounce the world, to retire into the solitude of religious meditation, and to abandon the art which he had practised with such success. He was not yet forty, his genius was apparently still developing, but his great career was at an end.
Towards the close of his life he produced two more plays — Esther , a short idyllic piece of great beauty, and Athalie , a tragedy which, so far from showing that his powers had declined during his long retreat, has been pronounced by some critics to be the finest of his works. He wrote no more for the stage, and he died eight years later, at the age of sixty. It is difficult to imagine the loss sustained by literature during those twenty years of silence.
And Racine must have known this. Racine had known to the full the uses of this world, and he had found them flat, stale, and unprofitable; he had found that even the triumphs of his art were all compact of worldliness; and he had turned away, in an agony of renunciation, to lose himself in the vision of the Saints. In the Middle Ages, La Fontaine would have been a mendicant friar, or a sainted hermit, or a monk, surreptitiously illuminating the margins of his manuscripts with the images of birds and beasts. The age of Louis XIV took this dreamer, this idler, this feckless, fugitive, spiritual creature, kept him alive by means of patrons in high society, and eventually turned him — not simply into a poet, for he was a poet by nature, but into one of the most subtle, deliberate, patient, and exquisite craftsmen who have ever written in verse.
The process was a long one; La Fontaine was in his fifties when he wrote the greater number of his Fables — where his genius found its true expression for the first time. But the process was also complete. Among all the wonderful and beautiful examples of masterly craftsmanship in the poetry of France, the Fables of La Fontaine stand out as the models of what perfect art should be. By far the most important of these two elements was the latter. With the old fabulists the moral was the excuse for the fable; with La Fontaine it was the other way round. His moral, added in a conventional tag, or even, sometimes, omitted altogether, was simply of use as the point of departure for the telling of a charming little tale.
It gave him the opportunity of creating a new and delightful atmosphere, in which his wit, his fancy, his humour, and his observation could play at their ease. His animals — whatever injudicious enthusiasts may have said — are not real animals; we are no wiser as to the true nature of cats and mice, foxes and lions, after we have read the Fables than before. In their outward appearance they are deliciously true to life. Could there be a better description? And his fables are crowded with these life-like little vignettes.
But the moment one goes below the surface one finds the frailties, the follies, the virtues and the vices of humanity. And yet it is not quite that. It is this world of shifting lights, of queer, elusive, delightful absurdities, that La Fontaine has made the scene of the greater number of his stories. The stories themselves are for the most part exceedingly slight; what gives them immortality is the way they are told.
Under the guise of an ingenuous, old-world manner, La Fontaine makes use of an immense range of technical powers. He was an absolute master of the resources of metre; and his rhythms, far looser and more varied than those of his contemporaries, are marvellously expressive, while yet they never depart from a secret and controlling sense of form. His vocabulary is very rich — stocked chiefly with old-fashioned words, racy, colloquial, smacking of the soil, and put together with the light elliptical constructions of the common people. Nicknames he is particularly fond of: The charming tales, one feels, might almost have been told by some old country crony by the fire, while the wind was whistling in the chimney and the winter night drew on.
But only for a moment. One must be childish indeed and, by an odd irony, this exquisitively sophisticated author falls into the hands of most of his readers when they are children to believe, for more than a moment, that the ingenuousness of the Fables was anything but assumed. In fact, to do so would be to miss the real taste of the work. There is a kind of art, as every one knows, that conceals itself; but there is another — and this is less often recognized — that displays itself, that just shows, charmingly but unmistakably, how beautifully contrived it is.
He is like one of those accomplished cooks in whose dishes, though the actual secret of their making remains a mystery, one can trace the ingredients which have gone to the concoction of the delicious whole. As one swallows the rare morsel, one can just perceive how, behind the scenes, the oil, the vinegar, the olive, the sprinkling of salt, the drop of lemon were successively added, and, at the critical moment, the simmering delicacy served up, done to a turn. It is indeed by an infinity of small touches that La Fontaine produces his effects.
And his effects are very various. With equal ease, apparently, he can be playful, tender, serious, preposterous, eloquent, meditative, and absurd.