Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Jean François Casimir Delavigne

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1521724Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition, Volume VII — Jean François Casimir DelavigneEric Sutherland Robertson

DELAVIGNE, Jean François Casimir (1793-1843), French poet and dramatist, was born April 4, 1793, at Havre, whence his father sent him at an early age to Paris, there to be educated at the Lycée Napoléon. During the first years of his attendance at this school he was little else than a dullard, but on reaching the age of fourteen he seems to have undergone a complete change—sluggishness gave place to unusual facility in the acquisition of knowledge; a decided taste for literary studies, especially poetry, was evinced; and he quickly became a distinguished student. He read with avidity all the poets, great and small, to whose works access was obtainable, and was known to spend many an hour snatched from school duties in the elaboration of his own juvenile pieces. Constitutionally of an ardent and sympathetic temperament, with a mind the natural intelligence of which was quickened by extensive miscellaneous reading, and by contact with a world then in a state of revolutionary ferment, it will be seen that Delavigne had much in his favour when he first sought popular applause. An opportunity for display soon presented itself. On the 20th of March 1811 the Empress Marie Louise gave birth to a son, christened in his very cradle king of Rome. This long-desired event was hailed with the utmost satisfaction; congratulations reached Napoleon from every quarter of Europe, and fifty millions of human beings did homage to their future sovereign. But the poets were dumb. Our young aspirant to fame, therefore, seeing the field unoccupied, composed a festal hymn. It was completely successful; even the critics were pleased. On being shown the verses, Andrieux, albeit a man little disposed to flatter, exclaimed, “ Bring him to me ! He shall make nothing but verses, and these, I hope, good ones.” Encouragement such as this augured well for the future; but Delavigne's purse was scantily furnished, and his friends were poor and unable to render any assistance. At this point he was fortunate in securing as a patron Count Français of Nantes, who attached him to the revenue office, but with the single proviso, that he should not trouble himself to appear at his post oftener than once a month.

About this time he competed twice for an academy prize, but without success. A victory, however, was at hand. Amid the throes in which society laboured at the period of Napoleon's downfall, Delavigne, catching inspiration from the mingled hopes and fears which agitated his fellow-countrymen, burst upon the world with 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 key-note which found an echo in the hearts of all. Twenty-five thousand copies were sold; Delavigne was famous. Nor was his reputation made solely with the populace; his verses were the subject of much discussion in court circles; and in spite of their political tone it was thought necessary to bestow upon him some mark of attention. He was therefore appointed to an honorary librarianship, with no duties to discharge. Thus was he fortunately rendered independent by the offer of one sinecure just as he was deprived of another, for his intercourse with Français had now ceased.

Having achieved so signal a triumph in one department of literature, Delavigne was desirous of attaining distinction in another, and accordingly brought out upon the stage a play well-known under the title of Les Vêpres Siciliennes. The manuscript having been refused at the Théâtre-Français, the critic of which, a supercilious poetaster, told him that “ some day he might write comedy very fairly,” the mortified author, like Voltaire on a similar occasion, cast the sheets into the flames, from which they were rescued by his brother Germain. A better fate than burning awaited the piece, and in 1819 it was performed at the Odéon, then just rebuilt. On the night of the first representation, which was warmly received, Picard, the manager, throw himself into the arms of his elated friend, exclaiming, “ You have saved us! You are the founder of the second French Theatre.” This 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 the 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 he 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, which gained his election to the Academy in 1825. To this period also belong La Princess 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 celebrated 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 ;—Don Juan d'Autriche (1835), Une Famille au temps du Luther (1836), La Popularité (1838), La Fille du Cid (1839), Le Conseiller rapporteur (1841), and Charles VI. (1843), an opera partly written by his brother.

But the poet had reached the acme of his reputation, and was now on the decline. In 1843 he quitted Paris to seek in Italy the health his labours had cost him. At Lyons his strength altogether gave way, and on the 11th of December, while listening to his wife, who read aloud one of Scott's novels, he gently expired, murmuring some verses.

By many of his own time Delavigne was looked upon as unsurpassed and unsurpassable. Every one bought his works; nay more, every one read them. If a new play of his was announced at the theatre, it was the affair of a month to secure a seat. Talma and Mademoiselle Mars felt honoured in receiving from him a part; theatrical managers lay in wait for the fruits of his pen. But the applause of the moment was gained at the sacrifice of lasting fame. Delavigne wrote but for the hour; he was too little the retired, contemplative poet, and too much the busy man of the world. In the region of politics alone does he shine; when he quits this sphere it is to descend to the level of utter common-place.

But as a writer Delavigne had many excellencies. He is never at a loss for language, yet expresses himself in a terse and vigorous style. The poet of reason rather than of imagination, he recognizes his own province, and is 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. The best edition of his works is that of Furne, in 8 volumes.