1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/La Harpe, Jean François de
LA HARPE, JEAN FRANÇOIS DE (1739–1803), French critic, was born in Paris of poor parents on the 20th of November 1739. His father, who signed himself Delharpe, was a descendant of a noble family originally of Vaud. Left an orphan at the age of nine, La Harpe was taken care of for six months by the sisters of charity, and his education was provided for by a scholarship at the Collège d’Harcourt. When nineteen he was imprisoned for some months on the charge of having written a satire against his protectors at the college. La Harpe always denied his guilt, but this culminating misfortune of an early life spent entirely in the position of a dependent had possibly something to do with the bitterness he evinced in later life. In 1763 his tragedy of Warwick was played before the court. This, his first play, was perhaps the best he ever wrote. The many authors whom he afterwards offended were always able to observe that the critic’s own plays did not reach the standard of excellence he set up. Timoléon (1764), Pharamond (1765) and Gustave Wasa (1766) were failures. Mélanie was a better play, but was never represented. The success of Warwick led to a correspondence with Voltaire, who conceived a high opinion of La Harpe, even allowing him to correct his verses. In 1764 La Harpe married the daughter of a coffee house keeper. This marriage, which proved very unhappy and was dissolved, did not improve his position. They were very poor, and for some time were guests of Voltaire at Ferney. When, after Voltaire’s death, La Harpe in his praise of the philosopher ventured on some reasonable, but rather ill-timed, criticism of individual works, he was accused of treachery to one who had been his constant friend. In 1768 he returned from Ferney to Paris, where he began to write for the Mercure. He was a born fighter and had small mercy on the authors whose work he handled. But he was himself violently attacked, and suffered under many epigrams, especially those of Lebrun-Pindare. No more striking proof of the general hostility can be given than his reception (1776) at the Academy, which Sainte-Beuve calls his “execution.” Marmontel, who received him, used the occasion to eulogize La Harpe’s predecessor, Charles Pierre Colardeau, especially for his pacific, modest and indulgent disposition. The speech was punctuated by the applause of the audience, who chose to regard it as a series of sarcasms on the new member. Eventually La Harpe was compelled to resign from the Mercure, which he had edited from 1770. On the stage he produced Les Barmécides (1778), Philoctète, Jeanne de Naples (1781), Les Brames (1783), Coriolan (1784), Virginie (1786). In 1786 he began a course of literature at the newly-established Lycée. In these lectures, published as the Cours de littérature ancienne et moderne, La Harpe is at his best, for he found a standpoint more or less independent of contemporary polemics. He is said to be inexact in dealing with the ancients, and he had only a superficial knowledge of the middle ages, but he is excellent in his analysis of 17th-century writers. Sainte-Beuve found in him the best critic of the French school of tragedy, which reached its perfection in Racine. La Harpe was a disciple of the “philosophes”; he supported the extreme party through the excesses of 1792 and 1793. In 1793 he edited the Mercure de France which adhered blindly to the revolutionary leaders. But in April 1794 he was nevertheless seized as a “suspect.” In prison he underwent a spiritual crisis which he described in convincing language, and he emerged an ardent Catholic and a reactionist in politics. When he resumed his chair at the Lycée, he attacked his former friends in politics and literature. He was imprudent enough to begin the publication (1801-1807) of his Correspondance littéraire (1774-1791) with the grand-duke, afterwards the emperor Paul of Russia. In these letters he surpassed the brutalities of the Mercure. He contracted a second marriage, which was dissolved after a few weeks by his wife. He died on the 11th of February 1803 in Paris, leaving in his will an incongruous exhortation to his fellow countrymen to maintain peace and concord. Among his posthumous works was a Prophétie de Cazotte which Sainte-Beuve pronounces his best work. It is a sombre description of a dinner-party of notables long before the Revolution, when Jacques Cazotte is made to prophesy the frightful fates awaiting the various individuals of the company.
Among his works not already mentioned are:—Commentaire sur Racine (1795-1796), published in 1807; Commentaire sur le théâtre de Voltaire of earlier date (published posthumously in 1814), and an epic poem La Religion (1814). His Cours de littérature has been often reprinted. To the edition of 1825-1826 is prefixed a notice by Pierre Daunou. See also Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du lundi, vol. v.; G. Peignot, Recherches historiques, bibliographiques et littéraires . . . sur La Harpe (1820).