1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Rousseau, Jean Baptiste

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ROUSSEAU, JEAN BAPTISTE (1671-1741), French poet, was born at Paris on the 6th of April 1671; he died at Brussels on the 17th of March 1741. The son of a shoemaker, he was well educated and early gained favour with Boileau, who encouraged him to write. He began with the theatre, for which he had no aptitude. A one-act comedy, Le Café, failed in 1694, and he was not much happier with a more ambitious play, Le Flatteur (1696), or with the opera of Vénus et Adonis (1697). He tried in 1700 another comedy, Le Capricieux, which had the same fate. He then went with Tallard as an attaché to London, and, in days when literature still led to high position, seemed likely to achieve success. His misfortunes began with a club squabble at the Café Laurent, which was much frequented by literary men, and where Rousseau indulged in lampoons on his companions. A shower of libellous and sometimes obscene verses was written by or attributed to him, and at last he was turned out of the café. At the same time his poems, as yet only singly printed or in manuscript, acquired him a great reputation, due to the dearth of genuine lyrical poetry between Racine and Chénier. He had in 1701 been made a member of the Académie des inscriptions; he had been offered, though he had not accepted, profitable places in the revenue department; he had become a favourite of the libertine but influential coterie of the Temple; and in 1710 he presented himself as a candidate for the Académie française. Then began the second chapter of an extraordinary history of the animosities of authors. A copy of verses, more offensive than ever, was handed round, and gossip maintained that Rousseau was its author. Legal proceedings of various kinds followed, and Rousseau ascribed the lampoon to Joseph Saurin. In 1712 Rousseau was prosecuted for defamation of character, and, on his non-appearance in court, was condemned par contumace to perpetual exile. He spent the rest of his life in foreign countries except for a clandestine visit to Paris in 1738, refusing to accept the permission to return which was offered him in 1716 because it was not accompanied by complete rehabilitation.

Prince Eugène and then other persons of distinction took him under their protection during his exile, and he printed at Soleure the first edition of his poetical works. Voltaire and he met at Brussels in 1722. Voltaire's Le Pour et le contre is said to have shocked Rousseau, who expressed his sentiments freely. At any rate the latter had thenceforward no fiercer enemy than Voltaire. His death elicited from Lefranc de Pompignan an ode of real excellence and perhaps better than anything of Rousseau's own work. That work is divided, roughly speaking, into two contrasted divisions. One consists of formal and partly sacred odes and cantatas of the stiffest character, of which perhaps the Ode à la fortune is the most famous; the other of brief epigrams, sometimes licentious and always, or almost always, ill-natured. As an epigrammatist Rousseau is only inferior to his friend Alexis Piron. In the former he stands almost alone. The frigidity of conventional diction and the disuse of all really lyrical rhythm which characterize his period do not prevent his odes and cantatas from showing at times true poetical faculty, though cramped, and inadequate to explain his extraordinary vogue. Few writers were so frequently reprinted during the 18th century, but even in his own century La Harpe had arrived at a truer estimate of his real value when he said of his poetry: “Le fond n'est qu'un lieu commun chargé de declamations et même d'idées fausses.”

Besides the Soleure edition mentioned above Rousseau published another issue of his work in London in 1723. The chief edition since is that of J. A. Amar (5 vols., 1820), preceded by a notice of his life. M. A. de Latour published (1869) a useful though not complete edition, with notes and a biographical introduction.