To M. Chapelain
From Letters to Dead Authors
Monsieur,--You were a popular writer, 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 out-lives 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 probiite',_ do not in Parnassus avail the
popular poet, and some luckless Musset or The'ophile, Regnier or Villars
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 Corbie're 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 Tre'ville was Captain of the King's
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 more happy indeed; you constructed odes, corrected sonnets, presided at
the Ho'tel 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. The'ophile 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, or M. Colbert, who had such a genius for finance.
If bishops and politicians and prime ministers skilled in finance, and some
critics, Me'nage and Sarrazin and Vaugetas, 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
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. 'Molie're,' said you,
'understands the nature 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 creations. First you gravely wrote out (it
was the task of five years) all the compositions in prose. Ah, why did you not
leave it in that commonplace but appropriate medium? What says the Pre'cieuse
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 Longveille, 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 Me'nage's had his cheap sneer
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 'potter hates potter, and poet hates poet'? But
contemporary spites do not harm true genius. Who suffered more than Molie're
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. There was a M. de Puimorin who, to be
in the fashion, laughed at your once popular Epic. 'It is all very well 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'e'toit 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,
He'las! pour mes pe'che's, 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. Despre'aux, M. Racine, and M. de Molie're, the three
most renowned wits of the time, conspired to complete the poor jest, and
madden 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 puts 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 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,
Linie're, 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 this invulnerable armour of an honest vanity,
probably you declared that mere jealousy dictates 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 generation. 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 Chime'ne 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 unprickcd, 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 Prime Ministers and the
purchasing public are the only judges.
Votre tre's humble serviteur,
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