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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Who took the name of BEAUMARCHAIS 1732 99


The Abbe Raynal (1713-96) made his _Histoire des Deux Indes_ a receptacle not only for just views and useful information, but for every extravagance of thought and sentiment. "Insert into my book," he said to his brother philosophers, "everything that you choose against God, against religion, and against government." In the third edition appears a portrait of the author, posing theatrically, with the inscription, "To the defender of humanity, of truth, of liberty!" The _salons_ caught the temper of the time. Voltairean as they were, disposed to set down Rousseau as an enthusiast or a charlatan, they could not resist the invasion of passion or of sensibility. It mingled with a swarm of incoherent ideas and gave them a new intensity of life. The incessant play of intellect flashed and glittered for many spirits over a moral void; the bitter, almost misanthropic temper of Chamfort's maxims and _pensees_ may testify to the vacuity of faith and joy; sentiment and passion came to fill the void; to desire, to love, to pity, to suffer, to weep, was to live the true life of the heart.

Madame du Deffand (1697-1780) might oppose the demon of ennui with the aid of a cool temperament and a brilliant wit; at sixty-eight, whatever ardour had been secretly stored up in her nature escaped to lavish itself half-maternally on Horace Walpole. Her young companion and reader, who became a rival and robbed her _salon_ of its brilliance, Mlle. de Lespinasse (1732?-76) might cherish a calm friendship for D'Alembert. When M. de Guibert came to succeed M. de Mora in her affections, she poured out the lava torrent of passion in those Letters which have given her a place beside Sappho and beside Eloisa. Madame Roland in her girlhood had been the ardent pupil of Rousseau, whose _Nouvelle Heloise_ was to her as a revelation from heaven. The first appearance in literature of Madame Necker's amazing daughter was as the eulogist of Rousseau.

The intellect untouched by emotion may be aristocratic; passion and sentiment have popular and democratic instincts. "The Revolution was already in action," said Napoleon, "when in 1784 Beaumarchais's _Mariage de Figaro_ appeared upon the stage." If Napoleon's words overstate the fact, we may at least name that masterpiece of comedy a symptom of the coming explosion, or even, in Sainte-Beuve's words, an armed Fronde.

Pierre-Augustin Caron, who took the name of BEAUMARCHAIS (1732-99), son of a watchmaker of Paris, was born under a merry star, with a true genius for comedy, yet his theatrical pieces were only the recreations of a man of affairs--a demon of intrigue--determined to build up his fortune by financial adventures and commercial enterprises. Suddenly in 1774-75 he leaped into fame. Defeated in a trial in which his claim to fifteen thousand livres was disputed, Beaumarchais, in desperate circumstances, made his appeal to public opinion in four _Memoires_, which admirably united seriousness, gaiety, argument, irony, eloquence, and dramatic talent. "I am a citizen," he cried--"that is to say, something wholly new, unknown, unheard of in France. I am a citizen--that is to say, what you should have been two hundred years ago, what perhaps you will be twenty years hence." The word "citizen" sounded strange in 1774; it was soon to become familiar.


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