1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Delavigne, Jean François Casimir

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
18434221911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 7 — Delavigne, Jean François Casimir

DELAVIGNE, JEAN FRANÇOIS CASIMIR (1793–1843), French poet and dramatist, was born on the 4th of April 1793 at Havre. His father sent him at an early age to Paris, there to be educated at the Lycée Napoléon. Constitutionally of an ardent and sympathetic temperament, he enlarged his outlook by extensive miscellaneous reading. On the 20th of March 1811 the empress Marie Louise gave birth to a son, named in his very cradle king of Rome. This event was celebrated by Delavigne in a Dithyrambe sur la naissance du roi de Rome, which secured for him a sinecure in the revenue office.

About this time he competed twice for an academy prize, but without success. Delavigne, inspired by the catastrophe of 1815, wrote two impassioned poems, the first entitled Waterloo, the second, Dévastation du musée, both written in the heat of patriotic enthusiasm, and teeming with popular political allusions. A third, but of inferior merit, Sur le besoin de s’unir après le départ des étrangers, was afterwards added. These stirring pieces, termed by him Messéniennes, sounded a keynote which found an echo in the hearts of all. Twenty-five thousand copies were sold; Delavigne was famous. He was appointed to an honorary librarianship, with no duties to discharge. In 1819 his play Les vêpres Siciliennes was performed at the Odéon, then just rebuilt; it had previously been refused for the Théâtre Français. On the night of the first representation, which was warmly received, Picard, the manager, threw himself into the arms of his elated friend, exclaiming, “You have saved us! You are the founder of the second French Theatre.” This success was followed up by the production of the Comédiens (1820), a poor play, with little plot, and the Paria (1821), with still less, but containing some well-written choruses. The latter piece obtained a longer lease of life than its intrinsic literary merits warranted, on account of the popularity of the political opinions freely expressed in it—so freely expressed, indeed, that the displeasure of the king was incurred, and Delavigne lost his post. But Louis Philippe, duke of Orleans, willing to gain the people’s good wishes by complimenting their favourite, wrote to him as follows: “The thunder has descended on your house; I offer you an apartment in mine.” Accordingly Delavigne became librarian at the Palais Royal, a position retained during the remainder of his life. It was here that he wrote the École des vieillards (1823), his best comedy, which gained his election to the Academy in 1825. To this period also belong La Princesse Aurélie (1828), and Marino Faliero (1829), a drama in the romantic style.

For his success as a writer Delavigne was in no small measure indebted to the stirring nature of the times in which he lived. The Messéniennes, which first introduced him to universal notice, had their origin in the excitement consequent on the occupation of France by the allies in 1815. Another crisis in his life and in the history of his country, the revolution of 1830, stimulated him to the production of a second masterpiece, La Parisienne. This song, set to music by Auber, was on the lips of every Frenchman, and rivalled in popularity the Marseillaise. A companion piece, La Varsovienne, was written for the Poles, by whom it was sung on the march to battle. Other works of Delavigne followed each other in rapid succession—Louis XI (1832), Les Enfants d’Édouard (1833), Don Juan d’Autriche (1835), Une Famille au temps du Luther (1836), La Popularité (1838), La Fille du Cid (1839), Le Conseiller rapporteur (1840), and Charles VI (1843), an opera partly written by his brother. In 1843 he quitted Paris to seek in Italy the health his labours had cost him. At Lyons his strength altogether gave way, and he died on the 11th of December.

By many of his own time Delavigne was looked upon as unsurpassed and unsurpassable. Every one bought and read his works. But the applause of the moment was gained at the sacrifice of lasting fame. As a writer he had many excellences. He expressed himself in a terse and vigorous style. The poet of reason rather than of imagination, he recognized his own province, and was rarely tempted to flights of fancy beyond his powers. He wrote always as he would have spoken, from sincere conviction. In private life he was in every way estimable,—upright, amiable, devoid of all jealousy, and generous to a fault.

His Poésies and his Théâtre were published in 1863. His Œuvres complètes (new edition, 1855) contains a biographical notice by his brother, Germain Delavigne, who is best known as a librettist in opera. See also Sainte-Beuve, Portraits littéraires, vol. v.; A. Favrot, Étude sur Casimir Delavigne (1894); and F. Vuacheux, Casimir Delavigne (1893).