The New International Encyclopædia/Racine, Jean

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The New International Encyclopædia
Racine, Jean
Edition of 1905. See also Jean Racine on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

RACINE, rȧ'sḗn', Jean (1639-99). The greatest of French tragic poets, born December 21, 1639, at La Ferté-Milon. He received his primary education in Beauvais, at a school affiliated with the Jansenists of Port-Royal; then he passed at fifteen to the more immediate direction of the Port-Royalist teachers at l'Ecole des Granges, where he was taught by the noted Greek scholar Lancelot, and the Latinist Nicole, who was a distinguished moralist, and others skilled in the pedagogy of their time. They left indelible marks, not alone on Racine's mind, but on his character, for the great fact that dominates his whole life is his relation, intellectual and moral, to those solitaries of Port-Royal in whom persisted the Puritan element in the French Church. Sometimes an obedient, sometimes a revolting disciple, he was never indifferent to these influences of his youth. He died in their fold, and his grave bore the inscription, ‘Poet, Recluse of Port-Royal.’

At l'Ecole des Granges and later at the Collège d'Harcourt Racine ‘read and annotated all the ancient classics.’ He learned by heart long passages from Greek romances and declaimed to astonished friends the choruses of Sophocles, who, with Euripides, remained his dramatic model. He acquired also a puritanic tenacity of mind, and uncompromising uprightness and a reasoned devotion. Yet he had brilliant social gifts, and on his graduation (1658) worldly attractions so prevailed on him that his kindred took alarm. They sent him into a kind of exile at Uzès in Languedoc, where he hoped for a benefice from his uncle, Vicar-General of the diocese. His faults, from a Jansenist point of view, appear to have been intimacy with La Fontaine, Chapelain, other men of letters, and some actors and actresses, and the directing of his talent to dramatic composition and to poems for the Court, especially La nymphe de la Seine on the marriage of Louis XIV.

Fifteen months in Languedoc brought Racine no benefice, but he completed his literary education. He read diligently the Greek, Latin, and Italian poets and historians, and the Church Fathers. He returned to Paris (1662) an accomplished scholar, dominated by social and poetic ambition. He was presented to the King, became a fashionable poet, and the intimate of Chapelle, Furetière, Molière, and, above all, of Boileau, who formed in the successful poet a new and fruitful theory of dramatic art. In 1664 he obtained a pension and he was a frequent recipient through life of ‘gratifications’ from the Court. His earliest play, La Thébaïde, on the strife of Eteocles and Polynices, was acted by Molière's company in 1664. His second play, Alexandre le Grand, was first performed December 4, 1665, by the comedians of the Palais Royal. December 18th they were astonished to find out that it was being given by a rival company at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. How this came about is unknown, but it ended in a complete breach between Molière and Racine, the latter of whom seems to have been in the wrong, and who presently showed himself as an unfriendly rival to Corneille, and as an unseemly satirist of his old teachers, the Port-Royalists, in a reply to Nicole's Lettres visionnaires on the evils of the stage. He wrote also a second reply which Boileau saved him from printing, telling him that it might be a credit to his wit, but was surely none to his heart. He later repented deeply this most discreditable incident in his life. But his irritation at the attitude of his kinsfolk at Port-Royal made his thought more tragically sombre, and while the poet in him was wrestling with the Puritan he wrote Andromaque (1667), the first of his seven great plays.

Of Racine's life from 1667 to 1677 we know very little. He lived in close intimacy with at least one actress and produced his only comedy, Les plaideurs (1668), and the tragedies Britannicus (1669), Bérénice (1670), Bajazet (1672), Mithridate {1673), Iphigénie (1674) , and Phèdre (1677). This last was opposed by a cabal who supported a rival and worthless Phèdre by Pradon. Nettled at this or because of a moral dissatisfaction with the result of his theory of dramatic art, Racine withdrew from the stage, made his peace with Port-Royal, and married a worthy woman with more money than culture, and more good nature than either. Racine's domestic life was happy. He had seven children and a sufficient income from sinecure offices and from the post of royal historiographer, which he shared with Boileau. This involved the duty of accompanying the King to his various ‘sieges,’ but what Racine wrote was accidentally burned. In 1685 he pronounced in the Academy, of which he had been a member since 1673, a fine eulogy on Corneille, and in 1689 made a kind of return to the stage with Esther, written to be acted by the girls at Madame de Maintenon's school at Saint-Cyr. It was a biblical dramatic poem and very successful. Athalie, a similar and greater piece (1691), was much less successful. Neither was publicly produced in Racine's lifetime. In his last years he grew ever more devout, wrote four Cantiques spirituels and an Histoire abrégée de Port-Royal. For this or some other reason he lost Court favor. Tradition says it was for preparing a memoir on the miseries of the people. In Marcb, 1698, he sought to clear himself of complicity in the Jansenist ‘heresy’ in a long letter to Madame de Maintenon.

A careful examination of Racine's life and letters reveals a puzzling duality, a serious soul and a mobile mind. He was not merely religious; he was credulous and superstitious. He was more than loyal to the King; he was his toy. He was vain, irritable, timid, easily influenced by those he loved or feared. He was gentle and lovable, but the kind of moral goodness that he had was wholly consistent with moral weakness. His mind was keen, supple, strong, with good power of psychic analysis, remarkable delicacy of sentiment, and an exquisite though narrow sense of literary art. The best of him is in his work, a rare combination of wit and feeling, energy and poise, imagination and self-restraint, eloquence and repose.

The production of Andromaque makes November 17, 1667, one of the great dates in the history of the French stage. It marked a new conception of the tragedian's art. For Corneille's heroic tragedy is at that moment contrasted with Racine's tragedy of love. Corneille stands for the triumph of will, Racine for the inevitableness of destiny and of passion. This conditions his dramatic form. Since he deals with the universals of human nature, he chooses a conventional environment, whatever least distracts attention and least binds the development and play of passion. With comedy it is different. He puts the scene of Les plaideurs in the Paris of his day.

The dominance of passion over will is accepted more readily in women than in men, and Racine's great characters are nearly all women. This is preëminently true of Phèdre, Andromaque, and Iphigénie, his three most popular tragedies. It is true, too, though in a different way, of Athalie and Esther.

Racine's plays are simple. Each is a problem which the dramatist solves in a way often more consistent with logic than with psychology. Thus the dramatic element is enhanced, for Racine touches only such features in his characters as shall make them stand out clearly and do nothing to hinder the development of his plot. Every person behaves with the utmost decorum; not one of them says anything inelegant or unrefined; there are no visible bloody deeds, no roughness even, and no jesting nor comedy. Herein Racine's men and women constitute an ideal or rather an unreal society; perhaps it were better to say a society from which such features as did not fit Racine's æsthetic theories are absent. Again, Racine took all his tragic themes from ancient history or legend, but his tragedies are nevertheless of the seventeenth century. Frenchmen in French apparel are called Nero and Achilles. Iphigénie is French to the core. Indeed, little remains of the old heroes and heroines, villains, and saints, save their names and the thread of historic tradition. Racine's tragedies teem with anachronisms, but these anachronisms are precisely what quickens the Racinian characters and makes them national or racial. They are not restorations, but vivid adaptations.

Racine's tragedies and his Plaideurs are written wholly in Alexandrine verse. In Athalie and Esther other measures are employed in the choruses. His vocabulary is limited. There are very few allusions to visible nature, to hills, rivers, plants, animals, etc. The whole interest, in a word, is centred in man, and mostly in the aristocracy. The mob, the lowly folk, even middle class people are conspicuously absent. Racine is therefore the poet of the high-born. He has never appealed to the French nation as a whole, but rather to the most cultivated and fastidious classes, who find in him a precise and poetic interpretation of the loftier, more general sides of life.

Bibliography. Of many editions of Racine the best is Mesnard's (7 vols., Paris, 1865-73). That by Girodet (3 vols., ib., 1801-05) is remarkable for its typography. That of Anatole France is also noteworthy (5 vols., ib., 1874). The first edition is dated 1675-76; the last revision by Racine, 1697. There is an English translation (metrical) by Boswell, in Bohn's Library (London, 1889-91). Andromaque was adapted as The Distressed Mother by Ambrose Philips in 1712. Phèdre was acted in London in English in 1707. For Racine's life we have Mémoires, edited by his son Louis (Lausanne, 1747). Consult the popular biographies by Larroumet in Les grands écrivains français (Paris, 1898); Deschanel (Paris, 1884); Monceaux ((Paris, 1892); also Stendhal, Racine et Shakespeare (ib., 1882); Blaze de Bury, Racine and the French Classical Drama (London, 1845); Sainte-Beuve, Port-Royal, vol. vi. (4th ed., Paris, 1878); Roy, Racine; sa vie intime (ib., 1871), Stapfer, Racine et Victor Hugo (ib., 1887); Robert, La poétique de Racine (ib., 1890); Deltour, Les ennemis de Racine (ib., 1892); De Grouchy, Documents inédits relatifs à Jean Racine (ib., 1892); Delfour, La Bible dans Racine (ib., 1893). Brunetière, Etudes critiques de la littérature française, vol. i. (Paris, 1880); id., Histoire et littérature, vol. ii. (ib., 1884); id., Les époques du théâtre français (ib., 1892); and Lemaitre, Impressions de théâtre, vols, i., ii., iv. (Paris, 1888 et seq), contain useful criticism of Racine's dramatic art. The English series of Foreign Classics has a study by Trollope, Corneille and Racine (Edinburgh, 1881).