1902 Encyclopedia > Jean Racine

Jean Racine
French dramatist
(1639-99)




JEAN RACINE (1639-1699), the most equal and accomplished, if not the greatest, tragic dramatist of France, was born at La Ferté Milon in the old duchy of Valois in the month of December 1639. The 20th and the two following days of the month are variously given as his birthday ; all that is certain is that he was christened on the 22d. The ceremony was at that time often, though not invariably, performed on thye day of birth. Racine belonged to a family of the upper bourgeoisie, which had indeed been technically ennobled some generations earlier and bore the punning arms of a rat and a swan (rat, cygne). The poet himself subsequently dropped the rat. His family were connected with others of the same or a slightly higher station in La Ferté and its neighbourhood,—the Des Moulins, the Vitarts, all of whom appear in Racine’s life. His mother was Jeanne Sconin. His father, o the same name as himself, was only four-and-twenty at the time of the poet’s birth. He seems to have been a solicitor (procureur) by profession, and held, as his father, the grandfather of the dramatist, had done, the office of controleur au grenier à sel. Racine was the eldest child of his parents. Little more than a year afterwards his sister Marie was born and his mother died. Jean Racine the elder married again, but three months later he himself died and the stepmother is never heard of in connexion with the poet or his sister. They were left without any provision, but their grandparents, Jean Racine the eldest and Marie des Moulins, were still living, and took charge of them. These grandparents had a daughter, Agnes, who figures in Racine’s history. She was a nun of Port Royal under the style of Mère de Sainte Thècle, and the whole family had strong Jansenist leanings. Jean Racine the eldest died in 1649, and, apparently as a consequence of this, the poet was sent to the Collége de Beauvais. This (which was the grammar-school of the town of that name, and not the famous Collége de Beauvais at Paris) was intimately connected with Port Royal, and to this latter place Racine was transferred in November 1655. His special masters there were Nicole and Le Maître. The latter, in an extant letter written to his pupil during one of the gusts of persecution which Port Royal constantly suffered, speaks of himself as "votre papa" ; the manner in which Racine repaid this affection will be seen shortly. It is evident from documents that he was a very diligent student both at Beauvais and Port Royal. He wrote verse both in Latin and French, and his Port Royal odes, which it has been the fashion with the more fanatical admirers of his later poetry to ridicule, are far from despicable. They show the somewhat garrulous nature-worship of the Pléiade tempered by the example of the earlier school of Malherbe. He seems also to have made at least a first draft of his version of the breviary hymns ; some, if not most, of a considerable mass of translations from the classics and annotations on them must also date from this time. Racine stayed at in October 1658. He was then entered at the Collége d’ Harcourt and boarded with his second cousin, Nicolas Vitart, steward of the duke of Luynes. Later, if not at first, he lived in the Hôtel de Luynes itself. It is to be observed that his Jansenist surrounding continued with him here, for the duke of Luynes was a severe Port Royalist. It is, however, clear from Racine’s correspondence, which as we have it begins in 1660 and is for some years very abundant and interesting, that he was not at all of an austere disposition at this time. His chief correspondent is a certain young abbé Le Vasseur, who seems to have been by no means seriously given. The letters are full of verse-making and of other diversions ; a certain Mademoiselle Lucrèce, who seems to have been both amiable and literary, is very frequently mentioned, neither is she neither is she the only one of her sex who appears. Occasionally the liveliness of the letters passes the bonds of strict decency, though there is nothing very shocking in them.

Those to Madame (or, as the habit of the time called her, Mademoiselle) Vitart are free from anything of this kind, while they are very lively and pleasant. It does not appear that Racine read much philosophy, as he should have done, but he occasionally did some business in superintending building operations at Chevreuse, the duke’s country house. He would seem, however, to have been already given up irrevocably to literature. This by no means suited the views of his devout relations at Port Royal, and he complains inone of his letters that an unlucky sonnet on Mazarin had brought down on him "excommunications sur excommunications." But he had much more important works in hand than sonnets. The marriage of Louis XIV. was the occasion of an ambitious ode, "La Nymphe de la Seine," which was submitted before publication to Charpelain, in too famous author of the Pucelle. Chapelain’s fault was not ill-nature, and he made many suggestions (including the very pertinent one that Tritons were not usually found in rivers), which Racine duly adopted. Nor did the ode bound his ambitions, for he finished one piece, Amasie, and undertook, another, Les Amours d’ Ovide, for the theatre. The first, however, was rejected by the actors of the Marais, and it is not certain that the other was ever finished or offered to those of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Racine’s letters show that he was intimate with more than one actress at this time ; he also made acquaintance with La Fontaine, and the foundations at any rate of the legendary "society of four" (Boileau, La Fontaine, Molière, an Racine) were thus laid.

His relations were pretty certainly alarmed by this very pardonable worldliness, though a severe expostulation with him for keeping company with the abominable actors is perhaps later in date. Allusions in a letter to his sister leave little doubt of this. Racine was accordingly disturbed in his easy-going life at Paris. In November 1661 he went to Uzès in Languedoc to live with his uncle the Père Sconin, vicar-general of that diocese, where it was hoped that Sconin would be able to secure a benefice for his nephew. It is certain that he was not slack in endeavouring to do this, but his attempts were in vain, and perhaps the church did not lose as much as the stage gained. Racine was at Uzès for an uncertain time. All that is known is that he was back in Paris before the end of 1663. His letters from Uzès to La Fontaine, to Le Vasseur, and others are in much the same strain as before, but there is here and there a marked tone of cynicism in them. One passage in particular, in which he tells how he was disenchanted with a damsel of Uzès, has an unpleasantly Swiftian touch about it. One back in Paris, he gave himself up entirely to letters with a little courtiership. An ode on the recovery of Louis XIV. from a slight illness probably secured him the promise of a pension, of which he speaks to his sister in the summer of 1664, and on 22d August he actually received it. It is uncertain whether this pension is identical with "gratifications" which we know that Racine for some years received and which were sometimes eight and sometimes six hundred livres. It would seem not, as one of these gratifications had been allotted to him the year before he aso wrote to his sister. All this shows that he had already acquired some repute as a promising novice in letters, though he had as yet done nothing substantive. The ode in which he thanked the king for his presents, "La Renommée," is said to have introduced him to Boileau, to whose consorship there is no doubt that he owed much, if not everything ; and from this date, November 1663, the familiarity of "the four" undoubtedly existed in full force. Racine was at the time the least distinguished, but he rapidly equalled, if not the merit, the reputation of his friends. Unfortunately it is precisely at this date that his correspondence ceases, and it is not renewed till after the close of his brief but brilliant career as a dramatist (Esther and Athalie excepted). This is the more to be regretted in that the most disputable events of Racine’s life as well as the greatest part of his literary work fall within this silent period. His strange behaviour to Molière, his virulent attack on his masters and friends of Port Royal, and the sudden change by which, after the failure of Phèdre and for no clearly expressed cause, a man of pleasure and on active literary worker became a sober domestic character of almost ostentatiously religious habits, and abstained from almost all but official work are unillumined by any word of his own. From this time forward the gossip of the period and the Life by his son Louis are the chief sources of information. Unfortunately Louis Racine, though a man of some ability and of unimpeached character, was only six years old when his father died, and had no direct knowledge. Still his account represents family papers and traditions and seems to have been carefully, as it is certainly in the main impartially, written. From other sources—notably Boileau, Brossettle, and Valin court—a good deal of pretty certainly authentic information is obtainable, and there exists a considerable body of correspondence between Boileau and the poet during the last ten years of Racine’s life.

The first but the least characteristic of the dramas by which Racine is known, La Thébaide, was finished by the end of 1663, and on Friday 20th June 1664 it was played by Molière’s company at the Palais Royal theatre. Some editors assert that Molière himself acted in it, but the earliest account of the cast we have, and that is sixty years after date, omits his name, though those Madeleine Béjard and Mademoiselle de Brie occur. There is a tradition, supported by very little evidence, that Molière suggested the subject ; on the other hand, Louis Racine distinctly says that his farther most of the play of Uzès before he knew Molière. Racine’s own letters, which cover the period of composition, though not that of representation, give little help in deciding this not very important question, except that it appears from them that the play was designed for the rival theatre, and that "La Déhanchée," Racine’s familiar name for Mademoiselle de Beauchâteau, with whom he was intimate, was to play Antigone. The play itself is by far the weakest of Racine’s works. He has borrowed much from Euirides and not a little from Rotrou ; and in his general style and plant he has as yet struck out no great variation from Corneille. We have very little intelligence about the reception of the piece. It was acted twelve times during the first mouth, which was for the period a very fair success, and was occasionally revived during the year following.

This is apparently the date of the pleasant picture of the four friends which la Fontaine draws in his Psyche, Racine figuring as Acante, "qui aimait extrêmement les jandins, les fleurs, les ombrages." Various stories, more or less mythical, also belong to this period ; the best authenticated of them contributes to the documents for Racine’s unamiable temper. He had absolutely no reason to complain of Chapelain, who had helped him with criticism, obtained royal gifts for him, and, in a fashion, started him in the literary career, yet he helped in composing the lampoon o Chapelain décoiffé. The sin would not be unpardonable if it stood alone, but unluckily a much graver one followed.





We have no definite details as to Racine’s doings during the year 1664, but in February 1665 he read at the Hôtel de Nevers before La Rochefoucauld, Madame de La Fayette, Madame de Sévigné, and other scarcely less redoubtable judges the greater pat of his second acted play, Alexandre le Grand, or, as Pomponne (who tells that fact) calls it, Porus. This was a frequent kind of preliminary advertisement at the time, and it seems as we find from the rhymed gazettes, to have been successful. It was anxiously expected by the public, and Molière’s company played it on 4th December,—Monsieur, his wife Henrietta of England, and many other distinguished persons being present. The gazetteer Subligny vouches for its success, an the still more certain testimony of the accounts of the theatre shows that the receipt were good and, what is more, steady. But a fortnight afterwards Alexandre was played, "de complot avec M. Racine," says La Grange, by the rival actors (who had four days before performed it in private) at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. A vast amount of ink has been spilt on this question, but no one has produced any valid justification for Racine. That the piece failed at the Palais Royal is demostrably false, and as this is stated in the earliest attempt to excuse Racine, and the only one made in his lifetime, it is pretty clear that his case was very weak. His son simply says that he was "mécontent des acteurs," which indeed is self-evident. It is certain that Molière and he ceased to be friends in consequence of this proceeding ; and that Molière was in fault no one who has studied the character of the two men, no one even who considers the probabilities of the case, will easily believe. If, however, Alexandere was the occasion of showing the defects of Racine’s character as a man, it raised him vastly in public estimation aas a poet. He was now for the first time proposed as a serious rival to Corneille. There is a story, which a credible witness vouches for as Racine’s own, that he read the piece to the author of the Cid and asked his verdict. Corneille praised the piece highly, but not as a drama, "Il l’assurait qu’il n’était pas propre a la poésie dramatique." There is no reason for disbelieving this, for the character of Alexander could not fail to shock Corneille, and he was notorious for not mincing his words. Nor can it be denied that Racine might have been justly hurt, though with a man of more amiable temper the slight would hardly caused the settled antagonism to Corneille which he displayed. The contrast between the two even at this early period was accurately apprehended and put y Saint Evremond in his masterly Dissertation sur l’ Alexandre, but this was not published for a year or two. To this day it is the best criticism of the faults of Racine, though not , it may be, of the merits, which had not yet been fully seen. It may be added that in the preface of the printed play the poet showed the extreme sensitiveness to criticism which perhaps excuses, and which certainly often accompanies, as tendency to criticize others. These defects of character showed themselves still more fully in another matter. The Port Royalists, as has been said, detested the theatre, and in January 1666 Nicole, their chief writer, spoke in one of his Lettres sur Visionnaires of dramatic poets as "empoisonneurs publics." There was absolutely no reason why Racine should fit this cap on his own head ; but he did so, and published immediately a letter to the author. It is very smartly written, and if Racine had contented himself with protesting against the absurd exaggeration of the decriers of the stage there would have been little harm done. But he filled the piece with personalities, telling an absurd story of Mère Angelique Arnauld’s supposed intolerance, drawing a ridiculous picture of Le Maître (a dead man and his won special teacher and friend), and sneering savagely at Nicole himself. The latter made no reply, but two lay adherents of Port Royal took up the quarrel with more zeal than discretion or ability. Racine wrote a second pamphlet as bitter and personal as the first, out less amusing, and was about to publish it when fortunately Boileau, who had been absent from Paris, returned and protested against the publication. It remained accordingly unprinted till after the author’s death, as well as a preface to both which he had prepared with a view to publishing them together. In this respect Boileau was certainly Racine’s good angel, for no one has ventured to excuse the tone of these letters. The best excuse for them is that they represent the accumulated resentment arising from a long course of "excommunications."

After this disagreeable episode Racine’s life for then years and more becomes simply the history of his plays, if we except his liaisons with the actress Mademoiselle du Parc and Mademoiselle de Champmeslé (which are undoubted, though there is not much to be said about them) and his election to the Academy on 17th July 1673. Mademoiselle du Parc (Marquise de Gorla) was no very great actress, but was very beautiful, and she had previously captivated Molière. Racine induced her to leave the Palais Royal company and join the Hôtel. She died in 1668, and long afterwards the infamous Voisin accused Racine of having poisoned her. Mademoiselle de Champmeslé was plain and stupid, but an admirable actress and apparently very attractive in some way, for not merely Racine but Charles de Sévigné and many others adored her. She was cruel to noon, but for five years before his marriage Racine seems to have been her amant en titre. Long afterwards, just before his own death, he heard of her mortal illness and speaks of her to his son without a flash of tenderness.

The series of his dramatic triumph began with Andromaque, and this play may perhaps dispute with Phèdre and Athalie the title of his masterpiece. It is much more uniformly good that Phèdre, and the character of Hermione is the most personally interesting on the French tragic stage. It is said that the first representation of Andromaque was on 10th November 1667, in public and by the actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, but the first contemporary mention of it by the gazette, prose and verse, is on the 17th, as performed in the queen’s apartment. Perrault, by no means a friendly critic as far as Racine is concerned, says that it made as much noise as the Cid, and so it ought to have done. Whatever may be thought of the tragédie pathétique (a less favourable criticism might call it the "sentimental tragedy"), it could hardly be better exemplified than in this admirable play. A ferocious epigram of Racine’s own (an epigram not unworthy of Martial, and as difficult to comment on to modern ears polite as some of Martial’s own) tells us that some critics thought Pyrrhus too fond of his mistress, and Andromache too fond of her husband, which is not likely to be he present verdict. In the contemporary depreciations is to be found the avowal of its real merit. The interest was too varied, the pathos too close to human nature to content Boileau, and the partisans of Corneille still found Racine unequal to the heroic height of their master’s grandeur. A just criticism will probably hod that these two objections neutralize each other. Both parties agreed in saying that much of the success was due to the actors, another censure which is equivalent to praise. It so happens, too, that, though the four main parts were played by accomplished artists, two at least of them were such as to try those artists severely. Pyrrhus was taken by Floridor, the best tragic actor by common consent of his time, and Orestes by Montfleury, also an accomplished player. But Mademoiselle du Parc, who played Andromache, had generally been thought below, not above, her parts, and Mademoiselle des Oeillets, who played the difficult rôle of Hermione, was old and had few physical advantages. No one who reads Andromaque without prejudice is likely to mistake the secret of its success, which is, in few words, the application of the most delicate art to the conception of really tragic passion. Before leaving the play it may be mentioned that it is said to have been in the part of Hermione, three years later, that Mademoiselle de Champmeslé captivated the author. Andromaque was succeeded, at the distance of not more than a year, by a play which, taken in conjunction with his others, is perhaps the best proof of the theatrical talent of Racine,—the charming comedietta of Les Plaideurs. We do not know exactly when it was played, but it was printed on 5th December 1668, and it had succeeded so badly that doubtless no long time passed between its appearance on the stage and in print. For the printing at that time both in France and England made the play publica materies, and therefore in the case of very successful pieces it was put off as long as possible. Many anecdotes are told about the origin and composition of Les Plaideurs. The Wasps of Aristophanes and the known fact that Racine originally destined it, not for a French company, but for the Italian troupe which was then playing the Commedia dell’s Arte in Paris dispense us from enumerating them. The result is a piece admirably dramatic, but sufficiently literary to shock the profanum vulgus, which too frequently gives the tone at theatres. It failed completely, the chief favouring voice being, according to a story sufficiently well attested and worthy of belief even without attestation, that of the man who was best qualified to praise and who might have been most tempted to blame of any man then living. Molière, say Valincourt, the special friends of Racine, said in leaving the house, "Que ceux qui se moquoient de cette pièce meritoient qu’on se moquoient d’eux." But the piece was suddenly played at court a month later ; the king laughed, and its fortunes were restored. The truth probably was that the legal profession, which was very powerful in the city of Paris, did not fancy the most severe satire on its ways which had been made public since the most severe satire on its ways which had been made public since the or ça of the fifth book of Rabelais. It needd only be added that, if Louis XIV. admired Les Plaideurs, Napoleon did not, and excluded it from his travelling library. It was followed by a very different work, Britannicus, which appeared on 13th December 1669. It was much less successful than Andromaque, and, whether or not the cabals, of which Racine constantly complaints, and which he certainly did nothing to disarm, had anything to do with this, it seems to have held its own but a very few nights. Afterwards it became very popular, and even from the first the exquisite versification was not denied. But there is no doubt that in Britannicus the defects of Racine, which in his first two plays were exclusable on the score of apprenticeship, and in the next two hardly appeared at all, display themselves pretty clearly to any competent critic. The complete nullity of Britannicus and Junie and the insufficient attempt to display the complex and dangerous character of Nero and not redeemed by Agrippina, who is really good, and Burrhus, who is solidly painted as a secondary character. Voltaire calls it "la pièce des connaisseurs," and the description is—not quite in the sense in which the critic meant it—a very pregnant one. Britannicus is eminently the piece in which persons of a dilettante turn are seduced by the beauties which do exist to discover those which do not. The next play of Racine has, except Phèdre, the most curious history of all. "Bérénice," says Fontenelle succinctly, "fut un duel," and he acknowledges that his uncle was not the conqueror. Henrietta of Orleans proposed (it is said without letting them know the double commission) the subject to Corneille and Racine at the same time, and rumour gives no very creditable reasons for her choice of the subject. Her death, famous for its disputed causes and for Bossuet’s sermon, preceded the performance of the two plays, both of which, but especially Racine’s were successful. There is no doubt that it is the better of the two, but Chapelle’s not unfriendly criticism in quoting the two lines of an old song—

"Marion pleure, Marion crie,
Marion veut qu’on la marie"—

is said to have annoyed Racine very much, and it has a most malicious appropriateness. Bajazet, which was first played on 4th January 1672 (for Racine punctually produced his piece a year), is perhaps better. As a play, technically speaking, it has great merit, but the reproach commonly brought against its author was urged specially and with great force against this by Corneille. It is impossible to imagine anything less Oriental than the atmosphere of Bajazet ; the whole thing is not only French but ephemerally French—French of the day and hour ; and its ingenious scenario and admirable style scarcely save it. This charge is equally applicable with the same reservations to Mithridate, which appears to have been produced on 13th January 1673, the day after the author’s reception at the Academy. It was extremely popular and, as far as style and perfection in a disputable kind go, Racine could hardly have lodged a more triumphant diploma piece. His next attempt, Iphigénie, was a long step backwards and upwards in the direction of Andromaque. It is not that the characters are eminently Greek, but that Greek tragedy gave Racine examples which prevented him from flying in the face of the propriety of character as he had done in Bérénice, Bajazet, and Mithridate, and that he here called in as in Andromaque, other passions to the aid of the mere sighing and crying which form the sole appeal of these three tragedies. Achilles is a rather pitiful personage, and the grand story of the sacrifice is softened very tamely to suit French tastes ; but the parental agonies of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon are truly drawn, and the whole play is full of pathos. It succeeded brilliantly and deservedly, but, oddly enough, the date of its appearance is very uncertain. It was assuredly acted at court in the late summer of 1674, but it does not seem to have been given to the public till the early spring of 1675, the usual time at which Racine produced his work.

The last and finest of the series of tragedies proper was the msot unlucky. Phèdre was represented for the first time on New-Year’s Day 1677 at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Within a week the opposition company or "troupe du roi" launched an opposition Phèdre by Pradon. This singular competition, which had momentous results for Racine, and in which he to some extent paid the penalty of the lex talionis for his own rivalry with Corneille, had long been foreseen. It has been hinted that Racine had from the first been bitterly opposed by a clique, whom his great success irritated, while his personal character did nothing to conciliate them. His enemies at this time had the powerful support of the duchess of Bouillon, one of Mazarin’s nieces, a woman of considerable talents and imperious temper, together with her brother the duke of Nevers and divers other personages of high position. These persons of quality, guided, it is said, by Madame Deshoulières, a poetess of merit whom Boileau unjustly depreciated, selected Pradon, a dramatist of little talent but of much facility, to compose a Phèdre in competition with that which it was known that Racine had been elaborating with unusual care. Pradon, perhaps assisted, was equal to the occasion, and it is said that the partisans on both sides did not neglect means for corrrecting fortune. On her side the duchess of Bouillon is accused of having bought up the front places in both theatres for the first six nights ; on his part Racine is said to have repeated an old trick of his and prevailed on the best actresses of the company that played Pradon’s piece to refused the title part. There is even some ground for believing that Racine endeavoured to prevent the opposition play from being played at all, and that an express order from the king had to be obtained for it. It was of no value, but the measures of the cabal had been so well taken that the finest tragedy of the French classical school was all but driven from the stage, while Pradon’s was a positive success. A war of sonnets and epigrams followed, during which it is said that the duke of Nevers menaced Racine and Boileau with the same treatment which Dryden and Voltaire actually received, and was only deterred by the protection which Condé extended to them.





The unjust cabal against his piece and the various annoyances to which it gave rise no doubt made a deep impression on Racine. But in the absence of accurate contemporary information it is impossible to decide exactly how much influence they had on the subsequently change in his life. For thirteen years he had been constantly employed on a series of brilliant dramas. He now broke all off his dramatic work entirely and in the remaining twenty years of his life wrote but two more plays, and those under special circumstances and of quite a different kind. He had been during his early manhood a libertine in morals and religion ; he now married, became irreproachably domestic, and almost ostentatiously devout. No authentic account of this change exists ; for that of Louis Racine, which attributes the whole to a sudden religious impulse, is manifestly little more than the theory of a son pious in both senses of the word. Probably all the motives which friends and foes have attiributed—weariness of dissipated life, jealously of his numerous rivals in Mademoiselle de Champmeslé’s favour, pique at Pradon’s success, fear of losing still further the position of greatest tragic poet which after Corneille’s Surena was indisputably his, religious sentiment, and so forth—entered more or less into action. At any rate what is certain is that he reconciled himself with Arnauld and Port Royal generally, and on 1st June married Catherine de Romanet and definitely settled down to a quiet domestic life, alternated with the duties of a courtier. For his repentance was by no means a repentance in sackcloth and ashes. The drama was not then very profitable to dramatists, but Louis Racine tells us that his father had been able to furnish a house, collect a library of some value, and save 6000 livres. His wife had money, and he had possessed for some time (it is not certain how long the honorable and valuable post of treasurer of France at Moulins. His annual "gratification" had been increased from 800 to 1500 livres, then to 2000, and in the October of the year of his marriage he and Boileau were made historiographers-royal with a salary of 2000 crowns. Besides all this he had, though a layman, one or two benefices. It would have been pleasanter if Louis Racine had not told us that his father regarded His Majesty’s choice as "an act of the grace of God to detach him entirely from poetry." Even after allowing for Louis Racine’s religiosity and the conventional language of all times there is a flavour of hypocrisy about this which is disagreeable, and has shocked even Racine’s most uncompromising admirers. For the historiographer of Louis XIV. was simply his chief flatterer. Before going further it may be observed that very little came of this historiography. The joint incumbents of the office made some campaigns with the king, sketched plans of histories, and left a certain number of materials and memoirs ; but they executed no substantive work. Racine, whether this be set down to his credit or not, was certainly a fortunate and apparently an adroit courtier. His very relapse into Jansenism coincided with his rise at court, where Jansenism was in no favour, and the fact that he had been in the good graces of Madame de Montespan did not deprive him of those of Madame de Maintenon. Neither in Esther did he hesitate to reflect upon his former partroness. But a reported sneer of the king, who was sharp-eyed enough, "Cavoie avec Racine se croit bel esprit ; Racine avec Cavoie so croit courtisan," makes it appear that his comparatively low birth was not forgotten at Versailles.

Racine’s first campaign was at the siege of Ypres in 1678, where some practical jokes are said to have been played on the two civilians who acted this early and peculiar variety of the part of special correspondent. Again in 1683, in 1687, and in each year from 1691 to 1693 Racine accompanied the king on similar expeditions. The literary results of these have been spoken of. His labours brought him, in addition to his other gains, frequent special presents from the king, one of which was as much as 1000 pistoles. In 1690 he further received the office of "gentilhomme ordinaire du roi," which afterwards passed to his son. Thus during the later years of his life he was more prosperous than is usual with poets. His domestic life appears to have been a happy one. Louis Racine tells us that his mother "did not know what a verse was," but Racine certainly knew enough about verses for both. They had seven children. The eldest, Jean Baptiste, was born in 1678 ; the youngest, Louis, in 1692. It has been said that he was thus too young to have many personal memories of his father, but he tells one or two stories which show Racine to have been at any rate a man of strong family affection, as, moreover, his letters prove. Between the two sons came five daughters, Marie, Anne, Elizabeth, François, and Madeleine. The eldest, after showing "vocation," married in 1699, Anne and Elizabeth took the veil, the youngest two remained single but did not enter the cloister. To complete the notice of family matters—much of Racine’s later correspondence is addressed to his sister Marie, Madame Rivière.

The almost complete silence in the literary sphere which Racine imposed on himself after the comparative failure, shameful not for himself but for his adversaries, of Phèdre was broken once or twice even before the appearance of the two exquisite tragedies in which under singular circumstances he took leave of the stage. The most honourable of these was the reception of Thomas Corneille on 2d January 1685 at the Academy in the room of his brother. The discourse which Racine then pronounced turned almost entirely on his great rival, of whom he spoke even more than becomingly. But it was an odd conjunction of the two reigning passions of the latter part of his life—devoutness and obsequiouness to the court—which made him once more a dramatist. Madame de Maintenon had established an institution, first called the Maison Saint Louis, and afterwards (from the place to which it was transferred) the Maison de Saint Cyr, for the education of poor girls of noble family. The tradition of including acting in education was not obsolete. At first the governess, Madame de Grinon, composed pieces for representation, but, says, Madame de Caylus, a witness at first hand and a good judge, they were "detestable." Then recourse was had to chosen plays of Corneille and Racine, but here there were obvious objections. The favourite herself wrote to Racine that "nos petites filles" had played Andromaque "a great deal too well." She asked the poet for a new play suited to the circumstances, and, though Boileau advised him against it, it is not wonderful that he yielded. The result was the masterpiece of Esther, with music by Moreau, the court composer and organist of Saint Cyr. Although played by schoolgirls and in a dormitory, it had an enormous success, in which it may be charitably hoped that the transparent comparison of the patroness to the heroine had not to suffer a certain reaction, or perhaps a certain vengeance, from those who had not been admitted to the private stage. But no competent judge could hesitate. Racine probably had read and to some extent followed the Aman of Montchrestien, but he made of it only the use which a proved master in literature has a perfect right to make of his forerunners. The beauty of the chorus, which Racine had restored more probably from a study of the Pléiade tragedy than from classical suggestions, the perfection of the characters, and the wonderful art of the whole piece need no praise. Almost immediately the poet was at work on another and a still finer piece of the same kind, and he had probably finished Athalie before the end of 1690. The fate of the play, however, was every different from that of Esther. Some fuss had been made about the worldliness of great court fêtes at Saint Cyr, and the new play, with settings as before by Moreau, was acted both at Versailles and at Saint Cyr with much less pomp and ceremony than Easter. It was printed in March 1691 and the public cared very little for it. The truth is that the last five-and-twenty of the reign of Louis XIV. were marked by one of the lowest tides of literary accomplishment and appreciation in the history of France. The just judgment of posterity has ranked Athalie, if not as Racine’s best work (and there are good grounds for considerating it to be this), at any rate as equal to his best. Thence-forward Racine was practically silent, except for four cantiques spirituelles, in the style and with much of the merit of the choruses of Esther and Athalie. The general literary sentiment led by Fontenelle (who inherited the wrongs of Corneille, his uncle and whom Racine had taken care to estrange further) was against the arrogant critic and the irritable poet, and they made their case worse by espousing the cause of La Bruyère, whose personalities in his Caractères had made him one of the best hated men in France, and by engaging in the ancient and modern battle with Perrault. Racine, moreover, was a constant and spiteful epigrammatist, and the unlucky habit of preferring his joke to his friend stuck by him to the last. A savage epigram on the Sesostris of Longepierre, who had done himno harm and was his familiar acquaintance, dates as late as 1695. Still the king maintained him in favour, and so long as this continued he could afford to laugh at Grub Street and the successors of the Hôtel de Rambouillet alike. At last, however, there seems (for the matter is not too clear) to have come a change. Some say that he disobliged Madame de Maintenon, some (and this would be much to his honour, but not exactly in accord with anything else known of him that, like Vauban and Fénelon, he urged the growing misery of the people. But there seems to be little doubt of the fact of the royal displeasure, and it is even probabley that it had some effect on his health. Disease of the liver appears to have been the immediate cause of his death, which took place on 12th April 1699. The king seems to have, at any rate forgiven him after his death, and he gave the family a pension of 2000 livres. Racine was buried at Port Royal, but even this transaction was not the last of his relations with that famous home of religion and learning. After the destruction of the abbey in 1711 his body was exhumed and transferred to Saint Étienne du Mont, his gravestone being left behind and only restored to his ashes a hundred years later, in 1818. His eldest son wads never married; his eldest daughter and Loius Racine have left descendants to the present day.

A critical biography of Racine is, in more ways than one, an exceptionally difficult undertaking,—not in regard to the facts, which, as will have been seen, are fairly abundant, but as to the construction to be placed to them. The admirers of Racine’s literary genius have made it a kind of religion to defend his character ; and strictures on his character, it seems to be thought, imply a desire to depreciate his literary worth. The reader of the above sketch of his life must judge for himself whether Racine is or is not to be ranked with those great men of letters, fortunately the greater number, whose personality is attractive and their foibles at worst excusable. There is no doubt that the general impression given, not merely by the flying anecdotes of the time, but by ascertained facts, is somewhat unfavourable.

Painting Racine's affection for his family and his unbroken friendship for Boileau are the sole points of his life which are entirely creditable to him. His conduct to Moliere and to Nicole cannot be excused ; his attitude towards his critics and his rivals was querulous and spiteful ; his relation to Corneille contrasts strikingly with the graceful position which young men of letters, sometimes by no means his inferiors, have often taken up towards the surviving glories of a past generation ; his "conversion," though there is no just cause for branding it as hypocritical, appears to have been a singularly accommodating one, enabling. him to tolerate adultery, to libel his friends in secret, and to flatter greatness unhesitatingly. None of these things perhaps are very heinous crimes, but they are all of the class of misdoing which, fairly or unfairly, mankind are apt to regard with greater dislike than positive misdeeds of a more glaring but less unheroic character.

The personality of an author is, however, by all the laws of the saner criticism, entirely independent of the rank to be assigned to his work, and, as in other cases, the strongest dislike for the character of Racine as a man is compatible with the most unbounded admiration of his powers as a writer. But here again his injudicious admirers have interposed a difficulty. There is a theory common in France, and sometimes adopted out of it, that only a Frenchman, and not every Frenchman, can properly appreciate Racine. The charm of his verse and of his dramatic presentation is so esoteric and delicate that foreigners cannot hope to taste it. This is of course absurd, and if it were true it would be fatal to Racine's claims as a poet of the highest rank. Such poets, such writers, are not parochial or provincial, and even the greatest nations are but provinces or parishes in the realm of literature. Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, even Moliere, Rabelais, Goethe, are not afraid to challenge the approval of the whole world, and the whole world is not found incompetent or unwilling to give it. Nor need Racine in reality avail himself of this unwise pretension. Judged by the common tests of literature he is a consummate artist, but he is scarcely a great poet, for his art, though unsurpassed in its kind, is narrow in range and his poetry is neither of the highest nor of the most genuine.

He may be considered from two very different points of view, - (1) as a playwright and poetical artificer, and (2) as a dramatist and a poet. From the first point of view there is hardly any praise too high for him. He did not invent the form he practised, and those who, from want of attention to the historical facts, assume that he did are unskilful as well as ignorant. When be came upon the scene the form of French plays was settled, partly by the energetic efforts of the Pleiade and their successors, partly by the reluctant acquiescence of Corneille. It is barely possible that the latter might, if he had chosen, have altered the course of French tragedy ; it is nearly certain that Racine could not. o But Corneille, though he was himself more responsible than any one else for the acceptance of the single-situation tragedy, never frankly gave himself up to it, and the inequality of his work is due to this. His heart was, though not to his knowledge, elsewhere, and with Shakespeare. Racine, in whom the craftsman dominated the man of genius, worked with a will and without any misgivings. Every advantage which the Senecan tragedy adapted to modern times was capable of he gave it. He perfected its versification ; be subordinated its scheme entirely to the one motive which could have free play in it, - the display of a conventionally intense passion ; he set himself to produce in verse a kind of Ciceronian correctness. The grammar criticisms of Vaugelas and the taste criticisms of Boileau produced in him no feeling of revolt, but only a determination to play the game according to these new rules with triumphant accuracy. And he did so play it. He had supremely the same faculty which enabled the rhetoriqueurs of the 15th century to execute apparently impossible tours de force in ballades couronnees, and similar tricks. He had besides a real and saving vein of truth to nature, which preserved him from tricks pure and simple. He would be and he was as much a poet as prevalent taste would let him be. The result is that such plays as Phedre and Andromaque are supreme in their own way. If the critic will only abstain from thrusting in tierce, when according to the particular rules he ought to thrust in quart, Racine is sure to beat him.

But there is a higher game of criticism than this, and this game Racine does not attempt to play. He does not even attempt the highest poetry at all. His greatest achievements in pure passion - the foiled desires of Hermione and the jealous frenzy of Phedre - are cold, not merely beside the crossed love of Ophelia and the remorse of Lady Macbeth, but beside the sincerer if less perfectly expressed passion of Corneille's Cleopatre and Camille. In men's parts he fails still more completely. As the decency of his stage would not allow him to make his heroes frankly heroic, so it would not allow him to make them utterly passionate. He had, moreover, cut away from himself by the adoption of the Senecan model all the opportunities which would have been offered to his remarkably varied talent on a freer stage. It is indeed tolerably certain that he never could have achieved the purely poetical comedy of As You Like It or the Vida es Sueno, but the admirable success of Les Plaideurs makes it at least probable that he might have done something in a lower and a more conventional style. From all this, however, he deliberately cut himself off. Of the whole world which is subject to the poet he took only a narrow artificial and conventional fraction. Within these narrow bounds he did work which no admirer of literary craftsmanship can regard without admiration. But at the same time no one speaking with competence can deny that the bounds are narrow. It would be unnecessary to contrast his performances with his limitations so sharply if those limitations had not been denied. But they have been and are still denied by persons whose sentence carries weight, and therefore it is still necessary to point out the fact of their existence.

Nearly all Racine's works are mentioned in the above notice. There is here no room for a bibliographical account of their separate appearances. The first collected edition was in 1675-76, and contained the nine tragedies which had then appeared. The last and most complete which appeared in the poet's lifetime (1697) was revised by him, and contains the dramas and a few miscellaneous works. Like the editio princeps, it is in 2 vols. 12mo. The posthumous editions are innumerable and gradually became more and more complete. The most noteworthy are the Amsterdam edition of 1722 ; that by Abbe d'Olivet, also at Amsterdam, 1743 ; the Paris quarto of 1760 ; the edition of Luneau de Boisjermain, Paris and London, 1768 ; the magnificent illustrated folios of 1805 (Paris); the edition of Germain Garnier with La Harpe's commentary, 1807 ; Geoffroy's of the next year ; Aime Martin's of 1820 ; and lastly, the grands écrivains edition of Paul Mesnard (Paris, 1865-73). This last contains almost all that is necessary for the study of the poet, and has been chiefly used in preparing the above notice. Louis Racine's Life was first published in 1747. Translations and imitations of Racine are innumerable. In English the Distressed Mother of Philips and the Phaedra and Hippolytus of Smith, both composed more or less under Addison's influence, are the most noteworthy. (G. SA.)



The above article was written by: George Edward Bateman Saintsbury, M.A.; Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature, Edinburgh University, from 1895; author of A Short History of French Literature, The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory, A Short History of English Literature, etc.



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