Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Jean Baptiste Gresset

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GRESSET, Jean Baptiste (1709-1777). The literary history of Gresset might be dismissed with the simple state ment that he wrote Vert Vert. By that one poem he is remembered. His life is, however, interesting from another fact, that he, who almost alone among French poets wrote nothing of which a moralist need be ashamed, spent the last twenty-five years of his life in regretting the frivolity which enabled him to produce the most charming of poems. He was born at Amiens, and brought up by the Jesuits of that place. ^ As a boy he displayed such great promise that, according to the usual custom of the society, the fathers resolved to receive him among themselves. He was accepted as a novice at the age of sixteen, and sent to pursue his studies at the College Louis le Grand in Paris. After completing his course he was appointed, being then under twenty years of age, to a post as professor or assistant master in a college at Rouen. He was, it must be remembered, a son of the society of Jesus ; as such he had been drilled and disciplined to perfect obedience ; in every point except that of orders he was an ecclesiastic. Probably it was not the intention of the society that he should become a priest. They reckoned upon his continuing a lay brother, and help ing the cause by his position as a teacher. From such a mind so trained, so taught to regard everything from the priestly point of view, devoted to the most severe studies, occupied in the grave and responsible work of teaching, what literary fruit was to be expected 1 Perhaps a treatise on a Greek particle, an essay on Latin style, a grammatical thesis, anything but that which really appeared, the graceful, pleasant poem by which he will ever be remem bered. He published Vert Vert at Rouen, being then twenty-four years of age. It is a story, in itself exceedingly humorous, showing how a parrot, the delight of a convent, whose talk was all of prayers and pious ejaculations, was conveyed to another convent as a visitor to please the nuns. On the way he falls among bad companions, forgets his convent language, and shocks the sisters on arrival by pro fane swearing. He is sent back in disgrace, punished by solitude and plain bread, presently repents, reforms, and is killed by kindness. The story, however, is nothing. The treatment of the subject, the atmosphere which surrounds it, the delicacy in which the little prattling ways of the nuns, their jealousies, their tiny trifles, are presented, takes the reader entirely by surprise. The poem stands absolutely unrivalled, even among French contes en vers, Gresset found himself famous. He left Rouen, went up to Paris, where he found refuge in the same garret which had sheltered him when a boy at the College Louis Is Grand, and there wrote his second poem, Ma Chartreuse. Then trouble came upon him ; complaints were made to the fathers of the alleged licentiousness of verses which were as innocent as any school-girl s novel, the real cause of complaint being the ridicule which Vert Vert seemed to throw upon the whole race of nuns. An example, it was urged, must be made ; Gresset was expelled the order. Men of robust mind would have "been glad to get rid of such a yoke. Gresset, who had never been taught to stand alone, went forth weeping. He became a man of letters ; he wrote many other poems, none of which made any mark. He never in fact attained the same level as Vert Vert. He wrote two or three comedies. One, called Le Mediant, still keeps the stage, though it is difficult to assign it much merit. He was admitted to the Academy. And then, still young, he retired to Amiens, where he fell into the hands of the priests, and became their abject slave. His brief relapse from the discipline of the church became the subject of the deepest remorse. He repented of his poems, and even went so far as to address to the bishop an abjuration of his title of dramatist, and to implore pardon of the Virgin for having written plays. The history of French literature presents many examples of poets in old age repenting the sins of their youth ; the example of Gresset is unique as beginning, while in full manhood, a senile repentance for having even in so pleasant and innocent a way brought into ridicule the institutions of the church.