Imagini ale paginilor
PDF
ePub

Editio Princeps of Molière.

3

polations were discovered. La Reynie's copy found its way to Constantinople, and it was not till 1833 that it was added to the treasures of M. de Soleine's famous collection of dramatists. Bought by him for only 31., it was sold, at his decease, for upwards of ten times that amount, to M. Armand Bertin, the lamented editor of the Journal des Débats. What sum it may ultimately realise, it would be hazardous to conjecture. Suffice it to say, that last year, in spite of the Eastern question, it was knocked down for 501. to the Comte de Montalivet. To dwell upon the importance of this unique copy as the touchstone of Molière's text, seems superfluous. The edition of 1682 has, however, a further merit, which remained unscathed by the scissors of censorship—the Preface furnishes the only narrative of the events in Molière's career on which we can rely with implicit confidence. By what it says, no less than by what it leaves unsaid, it refutes a number of silly misstatements—to use no harsher term—with which later biographers have not scrupled to season their pages. Grimarest's work, for example, the standard authority for all that might have taken place in Molière's life, is there proved to merit Boileau's summary criticism,-'a book not worth speaking of,'—by which yet later biographers would have done well to abide.

The most recent edition of Molière's works (Didot, Paris, 1855, Edition Lefévre) combines with great cheapness both the advantages as to the text and the life of Molière which have here been ascribed to the edition of 1682. We owe it to the courtesy of Messieurs Didot, from whose press it issued last year, that the four octavo volumes of which it is composed are now at our elbow, while we are writing these pages. After carefully examining its contents, we feel no scruple whatever in recommending it warmly to the English public. The notes

-selected from the best commentators—have the rare merit of being excellent in kind, without being oppressive in number.

We pass at a bound from the earliest to the latest biographer of Molière, from 1682 to 1851. To a man of greater critical acumen than M. Bazin, the standard historian of the reign of Louis XIII., the task of exposing the danger of forsaking the fountain head, Lagrange, for that broken cistern, Grimarest, could with difficulty have been confided. Into any æsthetical criticism of Molière's plays, the Notes Historiques sur la Vie de Molière (Paris, Techener, 1851), does not pretend to enter. Still, its value can scarcely be overrated, such is the shrewdness, so inexorable the rigour, with which all preceding biographies of Molière are dissected and scrutinized. One defect, and a very grave defect it is, this book certainly has. It is written in a spirit of acrimony and self-sufficiency, which

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

leads one to suppose that the author believed himself, by special licence infallible; a notion very much the reverse of the truth. We have recently put ourselves in communication with M. Taschereau, the author (it is superfluous to state) of by far the most elaborate life of Molière that has yet been given to the public. As this work has, not unfrequently, been made the object of M. Bazin's somewhat flippant censures, we thought it but fair to the author to see what could be said in defence. Courteous by double right,-a Frenchman and a man of letters,–M. Taschereau sent us some highly valuable notes, in which he shows that even M. Bazin has been betrayed into hypotheses and statements which will not bear examination. Of these notes we shall make fitting use, and we are too glad to put on record the obligations we are under to M. Taschereau for not having suffered his onerous duties at the Bibliothéque Impériale to interfere with his complying with our request. When his Vie de Molière first appeared (1825), Sir Walter Scott introduced it to the notice of English readers by an able article in the Foreign Quarterly Review. We regret that the fourth edition, which came into the world a short time ago, has not now met with a worthier godfather.

And now to business, commencing with the particulars usual at the threshold of a biographical narrative.*

It would appear, then,-and we can produce our vouchers, --that on the 27th of April, 1621, Jean Poquelin, 'tapissier,' led to the hymeneal altar one Marie Cressé, and that of this marriage was born, in due course, to wit, on the 15th January, 1622, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, hereafter to be surnamed Molière. Tourists to Paris may have observed a small narrow building, in the Rue de la Tonnellerie, No. 3, leading from the Rue St. Honoré, the groundfloor whereof is occupied by one Naudin, who furnishes · Draperies et Nouveautés' to the lieges of Paris. In a circular niche over the shop stands a bust, and under the niche runs the following inscription : 'J. B. Poquelin de Molière. Cette maison a été bâtie sur l'emplacement de celle où il naquit l'an 1620. Dot it all down in your note-book, Mr. Sightseer; but, hark you ! leave room to add : * This is the house, as 1620 is the year, in which Molière was not born. In a city such as Paris, where so much attention is paid to mementos of the worthies of France, it seems curious that the authorities who have charge of public monu

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

* In enumerating the sources at our disposal, we must not omit M. Génin's Lexique de la Langue de Molière, a valuable repertory of words and idioms peculiar to Molière. The English reader should be warned, however, that many of M. Génin's philological crotchets have not been endorsed by other and greater masters of the art.

La

Social Status of Molière's Father.

5

ments should never have repaired the mistake committed in 1799 and discovered in 1833. It was the house forming the corner of the Rue St. Honoré (No. 96) and the Rue des Vieilles Étuves (No. 2), that ought to have borne the words 'siste viator. In Molière's day it went by the designation of 'La maison des singes,' the beam forming the angle of the street having been covered with sculptures of the thirteenth century, representing a knowing old monkey sitting quietly at the bottom of a tree, up which his more thoughtless and impetuous comrades clambered with such vehemence that all the apples left the boughs and became the prize of the gentleman at the base, whose physiognomy, if one may judge from the engraving in the Musée Français (the sculptures themselves are lost), wears an expression of serene contempt. To our apprehension, the device was not unworthy of the house of one who so sagaciously scanned the follies of those educated monkeys called men.

Molière's father, we have said, exercised the vocation of 'tapissier.' Those who bear in mind the degree of refinement which we are warranted in attributing to the furniture of those days—witness the specimens in the Louvre, or the Maison Cluny, and the 'inventaires' in the archives of the Bibliothéque Impériale—will not fall into the error of supposing, with some of Molière's biographers, that the position of 'tapissier,' occupied by M. Poquelin, senior, and others of that 'ilk,' was necessarily situate on the lowest rounds of the social ladder, or incompatible with any but inferior mental acquirements. Unless, indeed, they be taken in the snare by which so many biographers lame their veracity beyond hope of cure, and think to enhance the glories of Molière's meridian splendour by shrouding his aurora in murky clouds. No doubt it makes a pretty frontispiece to a life of Molière, to represent him as compelled by a stern sire to aid in decorating the salons of Paris, and to forego furnishing his own brain, that upper story of the house of flesh. That one who was destined by fate (whatever that is) to polish his mother tongue with the graces of thought should be doomed to spend life's early prime in polishing his father's tables with spirit of turpentine; this, indeed, if properly seasoned with expressions of indignation against the father, and of admiration for the nascent genius of the son, might make a book lively, thrilling, readable—anything but probable, just, or true.

That we are warranted in attributing to Molière's father a higher social status than is generally conceded to him will, we think, appear from the fact, that in 1631 he was appointed by Louis XIII. 'tapissier valet-de-chambre' to the Crown. We gather from authentic sources that these functionaries were

eight in number; that they went on duty by turns, two at a time, for a quarter of a year, forming part of the royal household, and receiving the sum of 337 livres, in addition to such profits as they might derive from supplying the furniture of the royal palaces. In 1637, M. Poquelin succeeded in securing the reversion of this office for his eldest son, who was then in his fifteenth year.

It
may

be well to warn the reader not to infer, from this thoughtful measure on the part of the father, that he had any intention of lashing down his son to the handicraft he pursued himself. The office was

so much property, and might any day be converted into hard cash, if his son had no inclination to fulfil its duties.

Biographers, like nature, abhor a vacuum. In order to fill up the blank which presents itself in Molière's boyhood, and at the same time to trace back, as far as possible, the germs of future greatness, it was resolved that the austerity of the father should melt before the kinder influences of a grandsire, who now and then extorted permission to take his grandson to witness the performances at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Unfortunately, it was discovered that the aforesaid benevolent old gentleman quitted the world's stage only four years after Molière entered it. But this incongruity was not sufficient to throw biographers off the scent. It certainly was very improper on the part of old Poquelin's father to take his departure thus prematurely, but the mother's side would answer equally well; and as old Cressé had the civility to live till the year 1636, on him devolved the duty of teaching Molière, the boy, what Molière, the man, should do his utmost to avoid,bad acting and worse plays.

Of course we are not going to the opposite extreme by flatly denying that Molière ever went to a play. But to suppose that he first became conscious of his vocation by witnessing such actors as Bellerose, Gautier Garguille, Gros Guillaume, and Turlupin make fools of themselves and dupes of the public, is an absurdity so gross, that for our own part we should prefer adopting the Turkish theory, that every man's brain contains a neat little roll of parchment, whereon is inscribed his future career, be it that of a drayman or a dramatist. As to young Poquelin, we have no scruple whatever in confessing our utter ignorance of everything connected with him up to the year 1637, when he commenced his studies at the College Clermont, now known by the name of Louis le Grand. During the five years that he attended classes at that institution, or received the private instruction of Gassendi, he numbered among his associates men who were sufficiently famous, and more than sufficiently infamous, to entitle them

Influence of Gassendi's Teaching.

7

to some notice in any narrative of Molière's life which aimed at minute completeness.

The exigencies of space, however, will not allow us to forget that we are writing, not a life, but an essay on the life of Molière. Accordingly, we are compelled to omit from these pages interesting details on Chapelle, Bernier, Cyrano de Bergerac, Hesnaut, and Condé's brother, the Prince de Conti, which would otherwise have found a place. Those who are disposed to murmur at such an omission must console themselves with the reflection that, after all, the influences exerted upon Molière by the associates above enumerated were probably of very secondary importance, when compared with the spirit breathed alike into him and them by the teaching of Gassendi,-a man who has been called with justice philosophorum literatissimus, literatorum maximè philosophus. The recent and accomplished translator of the Port-Royal LogicMr. Baynes-observes in one of his notes to that work, that in France philosophers who have either directly or indirectly been indebted to him for their doctrine, have been lauded with acclamations as original, while he himself, one of the first men of his age, has been treated with the injustice of misrepresentation, or the still greater injustice of neglect. It is impossible to believe that Molière could have been brought into the close relationship of teacher and pupil with such a man as Gassendi, the friend of Galileo and Kepler, the precursor of Newton and of Locke, without being imbued with the spirit which stirred the heart and braced the intellect of the philosopher. In those days the relationship in question was a far closer bond than now. But even in the nineteenth century there are not a few, we apprehend, among those who have passed through our Universities, who will readily and gratefully confess the tone and colour, the direction and stimulus given to their minds by being brought into contact with the well-fed, genial intellects of those who govern or guide the efforts of the student. In the caustic boldness with which Molière laughed down the foibles and exposed the vices of the age, in the sturdy determination with which he made ready his bow against shams and impostures of every kind, we are inclined to suspect that the shaft was feathered by one who ventured to question the supremacy of Aristotle and to wrestle with the dogmas of Descartes.

Grimarest, the standard authority—we cannot too often repeat it-for all that did not take place in the life of Molière, despatches our hero, at the expiration of his studies, on a voyage to Narbonne, in his capacity as one of the royal household of Louis XIII. Voltaire thought to christen this child

« ÎnapoiContinuați »