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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

The fame of DU BARTAS 1544 90 was indeed European


The

cause of Henri against the League was served by the manuscript circulation of a prose satire, with interspersed pieces of verse, the work of a group of writers, moderate Catholics or converted Protestants, who loved their country and their King, the _Satire Menipee_.[5] When it appeared in print (1594; dated on the title-page 1593) the cause was won; the satire rose upon a wave of success, like a gleaming crest of bitter spray. It is a parody of the Estates of the League which had been ineffectually convoked to make choice of a king. Two Rabelaisian charlatans, one from Spain, one from Lorraine, offer their drugs for sale in the court of the Louvre; the virtues of the Spanish Catholicon, a divine electuary, are manifold--it will change the blackest criminal into a spotless lamb, it will transform a vulgar bonnet to a cardinal's hat, and at need can accomplish a score of other miracles. Presently the buffoon Estates file past to their assembly; the hall in which they meet is tapestried with grotesque scenes from history; the order of the sitting is determined, and the harangues begin, harangues in which each speaker exposes his own ambitions, greeds, hypocrisies, and egoism, until Monsieur d'Aubray, the orator of the _tiers etat_, closes the debate with a speech in turn indignant, ironical, or grave in its commiseration for the popular wrongs--an utterance of bourgeois honesty and good sense. The writers--Canon Pierre Leroy; Gillot, clerk-advocate of the Parliament of Paris; Rapin,
a lettered combatant at Ivry; Jean Passerat, poet and commentator on Rabelais; Chrestien and Pithou, two Protestants discreetly converted by force of events--met in a room of Gillot's house, where, according to the legend, Boileau was afterwards born, and there concocted the venom of their pamphlet. Its wit, in spite of some extravagances and the tedium of certain pages, is admirable; farce and comedy, sarcasm and moral prudence alternate; and it had the great good fortune of a satire, that of coming at the lucky moment.

[Footnote 5: Varro, who to a certain extent copied from Menippus the Gadarene, had called his satires _Saturae Menippeae_; hence the title.]

The French Huguenots were not without their poets. Two of these--Guillaume Saluste, Seigneur du Bartas, and Agrippa d'Aubigne--are eminent. The fame of DU BARTAS (1544-90) was indeed European. Ronsard sent him a pen of gold, and feared at a later time the rivalry of his renown; Tasso drew inspiration from his verse; the youthful Milton read him with admiration in the rendering by Sylvester; long afterwards Goethe honoured him with praise beyond his deserts. To read his poems now, notwithstanding passages of vivid description and passages of ardent devotional feeling, would need rare literary fortitude. His originality lies in the fact that while he was a disciple of the Pleiade, a disciple crude, intemperate, and provincial, he deserted Greece and Rome, and drew his subjects from Hebraic sources. His _Judith_ (1573), composed by the command of Jeanne d'Albret, has more of Lucan than of Virgil in its over-emphatic style. _La Sepmaine, ou la Creation en Sept Journees_, appeared in 1578, and within a few years had passed through thirty editions. Du Bartas is always copious, sometimes brilliant, sometimes majestic; but laboured and rhetorical description, never ending and still beginning, fatigues the mind; an encyclopaedia of the works of creation weighs heavily upon the imagination; we sigh for the arrival of the day of rest.


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