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13 January, 2012
Letters To Dead Authors|
LETTER--To M. Chapelain
by Lang, Andrew
|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
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
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.
Votre tres-humble serviteur, &c.