Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/795

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Louis Racine tells us that his mother “ did not know what a verse was, ” but Racine certainly knew enough about verses for both. They had seven children. The eldest, Jean Baptiste, was born in 1678; 'the youngest, Louis, in 1692. It has been said that he was thus too young to have many personal memories of his father, but he tells one or two stories which show Racine to have been at any rate a man of strong family affection, as, moreover, his letters prove. Between the two sons came five daughters, Marie, Anne, Elizabeth, Francoise and Madeleine. The eldest, after showing “ vocation, ” married in 1699, Anne and Elizabeth took the veil, the youngest two remained single but did not enter the cloister. To complete the notice of family matters-much of Racine's later correspondence is addressed to his sister Marie, Madame Riviére. The almost complete silence which Racine imposed on himself after the comparative failure of Phédre was broken once or twice even before the appearance of his two last exquisite tragedies. The most honourable of these was the reception of Thomas Corneille on 2nd January 1685 at the Academy in the room of his brother. The discourse which Racine then pronounced turned almost entirely on his great rival, of whom he spoke even more than becomingly. But it was an odd conjunction of the two reigning passions of the latter part of his life-devoutness and obsequiousness to the court-which made him once more a dramatist. Madame de Maintenon had established an institution, first called the Maison Saint Louis, and afterwards (from the place to which it was transferred) the Maison de Saint Cyr, for the education of poor girls of noble family. The tradition of including acting in education was not obsolete. At first the governess, Madame de Grinon, composed pieces for representation, but, says Madame de Caylus, a witness at first hand and a good judge, they were “detestable.” Then recourse was had to chosen plays of Corneille and Racine, but here there were obvious objections. The favourite herself wrote to Racine that “ nos petites filles ” had played Andromaque “ a great deal too well.” She asked the poet for a new play suited to the circumstances, and, though Boileau advised him against it, it is not wonderful that he yielded. The result was the masterpiece of Esther, with music by Moreau, the court composer and organist of Saint Cyr. Although played by schoolgirls and inadormitory, it had an enormous success, with which it may be charitably hoped that the transparent comparison of the patroness to the heroine had not too much to do. Printed shortly afterwards, it had to suffer a certain reaction, or perhaps a certain vengeance, from those who had not been admitted to the private stage. But no competent judge could hesitate. Racine probably had read and to some extent followed the Aman of Antoine de Montchrétien, but he made of it only the use which a proved master in literature has a perfect right to make of his forerunners. The beauty of the chorus, which Racine had restored more probably from a study of the Pléiade tragedy than from classical suggestions, the perfection of the characters and the wonderful art of the whole piece need no praise. Almost immediately the poet was at work on another and a still finer piece of the same kind, and he had probably finished Athalie before the end of 1690. The fate of the play, however, was very different from that of Esther. Some fuss had been made about the worldliness of great court fétes at Saint Cyr, and the new play, with settings as before by Moreau, was acted both at Versailles and at Saint Cyr with much less pomp and ceremony than Esther. It was printed in March 1691, and the public cared very little for it. The truth is that the last five-and-twenty years of the reign of Louis XIV. were marked by one of the lowest tides of literary accomplishment and appreciation in the history of France. The just judgment of posterity has ranked Aihalie, if not as Racine's best work (and there are good grounds for considering it to be this), at any rate as equal to his best. Thenceforward Racine was practically silent, except for four antiques spirituelles, in the style and with much of the merit of the choruses of Esther and Athalie. The general literary sentiment led by Fontenelle (who inherited the wrongs of Corneille, his uncle, and whom Racine had taken care to estrange further) was against the arrogant critic and the irritable poet, and they made their case worse by espousing the cause of La Bruyére, whose personalities in his Caractéres had made him one of the best-hated men in France, and by engaging in the Ancient and Modern battle with Charles Perrault. Racine, moreover, was a constant and spiteful epigrammatist, and the unlucky habit of preferring his joke to his friend stuck by him to the last. A savage epigram on the Sesostris of Hilaire Bernard de Longepierre, who had done him no harm, was his familiar acquaintance, and had actually put him above Corneille in a paralléle between them, dates as late as 1695. Still the king maintained him in favour, and so long as this continued he could afford to laugh at Grub Street and the successors of the Hotel de Rambouillet alike. At last, however, there seems to have come a change, and it is even probable that royal displeasure had some effect on his health. Disease of the liver appears to have been the immediate cause of his death, which took place on 12th April 1699. The king seems to have, at any rate, forgiven him after his death, and he gave the family a pension 'of 2000 livres. Racine was buried at Port Royal, but even this transaction was not the last of his relations with that famous home of religion and learning. After the destruction of the abbey in 1711 his body was exhumed and transferred to Saint Etienne du Mont, his gravestone being left behind and only restored to his ashes a hundred years later, in 1818. His eldest son was never married; his eldest daughter and Louis Racine have left descendants to the present day.

Racine may be considered from two very different points of view, -(1) as a playwright and poetical artificer, and (2) as a dramatist and a poet. From the first point of view there is hardly any praise too high for him. He did not invent the form he practised, and those who, from want of attention to the historical facts, assume that he did are unskilful' as well as ignorant. When he came upon the scene the form of French plays was settled, partly by the energetic efforts of the Pléiade and their successors, partly by the reluctant acquiescence of Corneille. It is barely possible that the latter might, if he had chosen, have altered the course of French tragedy; it is nearly certain that Racine could not. But Corneille, though he was himself more responsible than any one else for the acceptance of the single-situation tragedy, never frankly gave himself up to it, and the inequality of his work is due to this. His heart was, though not to his knowledge, elsewhere, and with Shakespeare. Racine, in whom the craftsman dominated the man of genius, worked with a will and without any misgivings. Every advantage of which the Senecan tragedy adapted to modern times was capable he gave it. He perfected its versification; he subordinated its scheme entirely to the one motive which could have free play in it, -the display of a conventionally intense passion, hampered by this or that obstacle; he set himself to produce in verse a kind of Ciceronian correctness. The grammar-criticisms of Vaugelas and the taste-criticisms of Boileau produced in him no feeling of revolt, but only a determination to play the game according to these new rules with triumphant accuracy. And he did so play it. He had supremely the same faculty which enabled the rhétoriqueurs of the 15th century to execute apparently impossible tours de force in ballades couronnéesyand similar tricks. He had besides a real and saving vein of truth to nature, which preserved him from tricks pure and simple. He would be, and he was, as much a poet as prevalent taste would let him be. The result is that such plays as Phédre and Andromaque are supreme in their own way. If the critic will only abstain from thrusting in tierce, when according to the particular rules he ought to thrust in quart, Racine is sure to beat him.

But there is a higher game of criticism than this, and this game Racine does not attempt to play. He does not even attempt the highest poetry at all. His greatest achievements in pure passion-the foiled desires of Hermione and the jealous frenzy of Phédre-are cold, not merely beside the crossed love