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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsLetters To Dead Authors - Letter To M. Chapelain
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Letters To Dead Authors - Letter To M. Chapelain Post by :Priscilla Category :Nonfictions Author :Andrew Lang Date :August 2011 Read :1218

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Letters To Dead Authors - Letter To M. Chapelain

Letter To M. Chapelain

Monsieur,--You were a popular poet, and an honourable, over- educated, upright gentleman. Of the latter character you can never be deprived, and I doubt not it stands you in better stead where you are, than the laurels which flourished so gaily, and faded so soon.

Laurel is green for a season, and Love is fair for a day,
But Love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.

I know not if Mr. Swinburne is correct in his botany, but YOUR laurel certainly outlived not May, nor can we hope that you dwell where Orpheus and where Homer are. Some other crown, some other Paradise, we cannot doubt it, awaited un si bon homme. But the moral excellence that even Boileau admitted, la foi, l'honneur, la probite, do not in Parnassus avail the popular poet, and some luckless Glatigny or Theophile, Regnier or Gilbert, attains a kind of immortality denied to the man of many contemporary editions, and of a great commercial success.

If ever, for the confusion of Horace, any Poet was Made, you, Sir, should have been that fortunately manufactured article. You were, in matters of the Muses, the child of many prayers. Never, since Adam's day, have any parents but yours prayed for a poet-child. Then Destiny, that mocks the desires of men in general, and fathers in particular, heard the appeal, and presented M. Chapelain and Jeanne Corbiere his wife with the future author of "La Pucelle." Oh futile hopes of men, O pectora caeca! All was done that education could do for a genius which, among other qualities, "especially lacked fire and imagination," and an ear for verse--sad defects these in a child of the Muses. Your training in all the mechanics and metaphysics of criticism might have made you exclaim, like Rasselas, "Enough! Thou hast convinced me that no human being can ever be a Poet." Unhappily, you succeeded in convincing Cardinal Richelieu that to be a Poet was well within your powers, you received a pension of one thousand crowns, and were made Captain of the Cardinal's Minstrels, as M. de Treville was Captain of the King's Musketeers.

Ah, pleasant age to live in, when good intentions in poetry were more richly endowed than ever is Research, even Research in Prehistoric English, among us niggard moderns! How I wish I knew a Cardinal, or even, as you did, a Prime Minister, who would praise and pension ME; but envy be still! Your existence was made happy indeed; you constructed odes, corrected sonnets, presided at the Hotel Rambouillet, while the learned ladies were still young and fair, and you enjoyed a prodigious celebrity on the score of your yet unpublished Epic. "Who, indeed," says a sympathetic author, M. Theophile Gautier, "who could expect less than a miracle from a man so deeply learned in the laws of art--a perfect Turk in the science of poetry, a person so well pensioned, and so favoured by the great?" Bishops and politicians combined in perfect good faith to advertise your merits. Hard must have been the heart that could resist the testimonials of your skill as a poet offered by the Duc de Montausier, and the learned Huet, Bishop of Avranches, and Monseigneur Godeau, Bishop of Vence, and M. Colbert, who had such a genius for finance.__

If bishops and politicians and Prime Ministers skilled in finance, and some critics (Menage and Sarrazin and Vaugelas), if ladies of birth and taste, if all the world in fact, combined to tell you that you were a great poet, how can we blame you for taking yourself seriously, and appraising yourself at the public estimate?

It was not in human nature to resist the evidence of the bishops especially, and when every minor poet believes in himself on the testimony of his own conceit, you may be acquitted of vanity if you listened to the plaudits of your friends. Nay, you ventured to pronounce judgment on contemporaries--whom Posterity has preferred to your perfections. "Moliere," said you, "understands the genius of comedy, and presents it in a natural style. The plot of his best pieces is borrowed, but not without judgment; his morale is fair, and he has only to avoid scurrility."

Excellent, unconscious, popular Chapelain!

Of yourself you observed, in a Report on contemporary literature, that your "courage and sincerity never allowed you to tolerate work not absolutely good." And yet you regarded "La Pucelle" with some complacency.

On the "Pucelle" you were occupied during a generation of mortal men. I marvel not at the length of your labours, as you received a yearly pension till the Epic was finished, but your Muse was no Alcmena, and no Hercules was the result of that prolonged night of creation. First you gravely wrote out all the composition in prose: the task occupied you for five whole years. Ah, why did you not leave it in that commonplace but appropriate medium? What says the Precieuse about you in Boileau's satire?

 

In Chapelain, for all his foes have said,
She finds but one defect, he can't be read;
Yet thinks the world might taste his Maiden's woes,
If only he would turn his verse to prose!

 

The verse had been prose, and prose, perhaps, it should have remained. Yet for this precious "Pucelle," in the age when "Paradise Lost" was sold for five pounds, you are believed to have received about four thousand. Horace was wrong, mediocre poets may exist (now and then), and he was a wise man who first spoke of aurea mediocritas. At length the great work was achieved, a work thrice blessed in its theme, that divine Maiden to whom France owes all, and whom you and Voltaire have recompensed so strangely. In folio, in italics, with a score of portraits and engravings, and culs de lampe, the great work was given to the world, and had a success. Six editions in eighteen months are figures which fill the poetic heart with envy and admiration. And then, alas! the bubble burst. A great lady, Madame de Longueville, hearing the "Pucelle" read aloud, murmured that it was "perfect indeed, but perfectly wearisome." Then the satires began, and the satirists never left you till your poetic reputation was a rag, till the mildest Abbe at Menage's had his cheap sneer for Chapelain.

I make no doubt, Sir, that envy and jealousy had much to do with the onslaught on your "Pucelle." These qualities, alas! are not strange to literary minds; does not even Hesiod tell us that "potter hates potter, and poet hates poet"? But contemporary spites do not harm true genius. Who suffered more than Moliere from cabals? Yet neither the court nor the town ever deserted him, and he is still the joy of the world. I admit that his adversaries were weaker than yours. What were Boursault and Le Boulanger, and Thomas Corneille and De Vise, what were they all compared to your enemy, Boileau? Brossette tells a story which really makes a man pity you. You remember M. de Puimorin, who, to be in the fashion, laughed at your once popular Epic. "It is all very well," said you, "for a man to laugh who cannot even read." Whereon M. de Puimorin replied: "Qu'il n'avoit que trop su lire, depuis que Chapelain s'etoit avise de faire imprimer." A new horror had been added to the accomplishment of reading since Chapelain had published. This repartee was applauded, and M. de Puimorin tried to turn it into an epigram. He did complete the last couplet,


Helas! pour mes peches, je n'ai su que trop lire
Depuis que tu fais imprimer.


But by no labour would M. de Puimorin achieve the first two lines of his epigram. Then you remember what great allies came to his assistance. I almost blush to think that M. Despreaux, M. Racine, and M. de Moliere, the three most renowned wits of the time, conspired to complete the poor jest, and assail you. Well, bubble as your poetry was, you may be proud that it needed all these sharpest of pens to prick the bubble. Other poets, as popular as you, have been annihilated by an article. Macaulay put forth his hand, and "Satan Montgomery" was no more. It did not need a Macaulay, the laughter of a mob of little critics was enough to blow him into space; but you probably have met Montgomery, and of contemporary failures or successes I do not speak.

I wonder, sometimes, whether the consensus of criticism ever made you doubt for a moment whether, after all, you were not a false child of Apollo? Was your complacency tortured, as the complacency of true poets has occasionally been, by doubts? Did you expect posterity to reverse the verdict of the satirists, and to do you justice? You answered your earliest assailant, Liniere, and, by a few changes of words, turned his epigrams into flattery. But I fancy, on the whole, you remained calm, unmoved, wrapped up in admiration of yourself. According to M. de Marivaux, who reviewed, as I am doing, the spirits of the mighty dead, you "conceived, on the strength of your reputation, a great and serious veneration for yourself and your genius." Probably you were protected by the invulnerable armour of an honest vanity, probably you declared that mere jealousy dictated the lines of Boileau, and that Chapelain's real fault was his popularity, and his pecuniary success,

Qu'il soit le mieux rente de tous les beaux-esprits.

This, you would avow, was your offence, and perhaps you were not altogether mistaken. Yet posterity declines to read a line of yours, and, as we think of you, we are again set face to face with that eternal problem, how far is popularity a test of poetry? Burns was a poet: and popular. Byron was a popular poet, and the world agrees in the verdict of their own generations. But Montgomery, though he sold so well, was no poet, nor, Sir, I fear, was your verse made of the stuff of immortality. Criticism cannot hurt what is truly great; the Cardinal and the Academy left Chimene as fair as ever, and as adorable. It is only pinchbeck that perishes under the acids of satire: gold defies them. Yet I sometimes ask myself, does the existence of popularity like yours justify the malignity of satire, which blesses neither him who gives, nor him who takes? Are poisoned arrows fair against a bad poet? I doubt it, Sir, holding that, even unpricked, a poetic bubble must soon burst by its own nature. Yet satire will assuredly be written so long as bad poets are successful, and bad poets will assuredly reflect that their assailants are merely envious, and (while their vogue lasts) that the purchasing public is the only judge. After all, the bad poet who is popular and "sells" is not a whit worse than the bad poets who are unpopular, and who deride his songs.

Monsieur,

Votre tres-humble serviteur, &c.

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