1902 Encyclopedia > François de Malherbe

François de Malherbe
French poet, critic and translator

MALHERBE, FRANCOIS DE (1555-1628), poet, critic, and translator, was born at Caen in 1555. His family was of some position, though it seems not to have been able to establish to the satisfaction of heralds the claims which it made to nobility older than the 16th century. The poet was the eldest son of another Francois do Malherbe, comedici roi in the magistracy of Caen. Ho himself was elaborately educated at Caen, at Paris, at Heidelberg, and at Basel. At the age of twenty-one he entered the household of Henri d'Angouleme, grand prior of France, the natural son of Henry II. He served this prince as secretary in Provence, and married there in 1581. It seems that he wrote verses at this period, but, to judge from a quotation of Tallemant des PSaux, they must have been very bad ones. His patron died when -Malherbe was on a visit in his native province, and for a time he had no particular employment., though by some servile verses he obtained a considerable gift of money from Henry whom he afterwards libelled. He lived partly in Provence and partly in Normandy fur many years after this event ; but very little is known of his life during this period, It was in the year parting the two centuries (1600) that be presented to Marie de' Medici the first of his remarkable poems. But four or five years more passed before his fortune, which bad hitherto been indifferent, turned. He was presented by his countryman, the cardinal Du Perron, to Henry IV.; and, though that economical prince did not at first show any great eagerness to entertain the poet, he was at last summoned to court and endowed after one fashion or another. His father died in 1606, and he came into his inheritance. From this time forward he lived at court, corresponding affectionately with his wife, but seeing her only twice in some twenty years. His old age was saddened by a great misfortune. His son, Marc Antoine, a young man of promise, perished in one of the frivolous but desperate duels which, common at all periods of French history, were never more frivolous or more desperate than in the 16th and the early 17th centuries. Marc Antoine de Malherbe fell in 162G. His father used his utmost influence to have the guilty parties (for more than one were concerned, and there are grounds for thinking that it was not a fair duel) brought to justice. But he died before the suit was decided (it is said in consequence of disease caught at the camp of La Rochelle, whither he had gone to petition the king), at Paris, on the 16th of October 1628, at the age of seventy-three. • The personal character of Malherbe was far from amiable. He was an obstinate solicitor of favours from the great, a morose 'and_ bearish companion to his equals, a loose liver at a time of life when loose living is especially unbecoming if not especially blameable, a jealous and unfair critic ; but he exercised a great and enduring effect upon French literature, though by no means a wholly beneficial one. The lines of Boileau beginning Enfin difalherbe vent are rendered only partially applicable by the extraordinary ignorance of older French poetry which distinguished that peremptory critic. But the good. as well as bad side of Malherbe's theory and practice is excellently described by his cmternporary and superior Replier, who was animated against him, not merely by reason of his own devotion to Ronsard, but because of a brutal act of discourtesy of which ?slalherbe had been guilty towards Regnier's uncle Desportes. These are the lines : - " Cependant leer savoir no s'etend mdlement Qua regratter nn 'not donteuse au jugement, Prendre garde qu'un qui ne heurte tine diphthongue, Epier si des vers la rime est breve on longue, On bien si la voyelle 3 l'autre s'unissant Ne rend point is l'oreille Ull vers trop languissant.

C'est proser de la rime et rimer de la prose."

This is perfectly true, and from the time of Malherbe dates that great and deplorable falling off of French poetry in its more poetic qualities, which was not made good till 1830. Nevertheless the critical and restraining tendency of Malherbe was not ill in place after the luxuriant importation and innovation of the Pleiade; and if he had confined himself to preaching greater technical perfection, instead of superciliously striking his pen through the great works of his predecessors, he would have deserved wholly well. As it was his reforms helped to elaborate the kind of verse necessary for the classical tragedy, and that is the most that can be said for him. His own poetical work is scanty in amount, and for the most part frigid and devoid of inspiration. The beautiful Consoles-lion a The Perrier, in which occurs the famous line - Et, rose, elle a veeu cc que vivent les roses - the odes to Marie de' Medici and to Louis XIII., and a few other pieces comprise all that is really worth remembering of him. His prose work is much more abundant, not less remarkable for care as to style and expression, and of greater positive, value. It consists of some translations of Livy and Seneca, and of a very large number of interesting and admirably written letters, many of which are addressed to Peiresc, the man of science of whom Gassendi has left a delightful Latin life. It contains also a most curious commentary on Desportes, in which Malherbe's minute and carping style of verbal criticism is displayed on the great scale.

The authorities for the biography of Malherbe are the Vie de Malherbe of his friend and pupil Racal], and the long Historicittc which Tallemant des 14aux has devoted to him. The standard edition is the admirable one of M. Lndovie Lalanne, 5 vols., Paris, 1862-69. or the poems only, there is an excellent and handsome little issue in the Nouvelle Collection Jamul, Paris, 1874. (G. SA.)

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