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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

In La Veuve he returned to the style of Melite


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influence of the Spanish drama, seen in the writings of Rotrou and others, might be supposed to make for freedom. It encouraged romantic inventions and ambitious extravagances of style. Much that is rude and unformed is united with a curiosity for points and laboured ingenuity in the dramatic work of Scudery, Du Ryer, Tristan l'Hermite. A greater dramatist than these showed how Spanish romance could coalesce with French tragedy in a drama which marks an epoch--the _Cid_; and the _Cid_, calling forth the judgment of the Academy, served to establish the supremacy of the so-called rules of Aristotle.

PIERRE CORNEILLE, son of a legal official, was born at Rouen in 1606. His high promise as a pupil of the Jesuits was not confirmed when he attempted to practise at the bar; he was retiring, and spoke with difficulty. At twenty-three his first dramatic piece, _Melite_, a comedy, suggested, it is told, by an adventure of his youth, was given with applause in Paris; it glitters with points, and is of a complicated intrigue, but to contemporaries the plot appeared less entangled and the style more natural than they seem to modern readers. The tragi-comedy, _Clitandre_, which followed (1632), was a romantic drama, crowded with extravagant incidents, after the manner of Hardy. In _La Veuve_ he returned to the style of _Melite_, but with less artificial brilliance and more real vivacity; it was published with laudatory verses prefixed, in one of which Scudery

bids the stars retire for the sun has risen. The scene is laid in Paris, and some presentation of contemporary manners is made in _La Galerie du Palais_ and _La Place Royale_. It was something to replace the nurse of elder comedy by the soubrette. The attention of Richelieu was attracted to the new dramatic author; he was numbered among the five _garcons poetes_ who worked upon the dramatic plans of the Cardinal; but he displeased his patron by his imaginative independence. Providing himself with a convenient excuse, Corneille retired to Rouen.

These early works were ventures among which the poet was groping for his true way. He can hardly be said to have found it in _Medee_ (1635), but it was an advance to have attempted tragedy; the grandiose style of Seneca was a challenge to his genius; and in the famous line--

"_Dans un si grand revers, que vous reste-t-il? Moi!_"

we see the flash of his indomitable pride of will, we hear the sudden thunder of his verse. An acquaintance, M. de Chalon, who had been one of the household of Marie de Medicis, directed Corneille to the Spanish drama. The _Illusion Comique_, the latest of his tentative plays, is a step towards the _Cid_; its plot is fantastical, but in some of the fanfaronades of the braggart Matamore, imported from Spain, are pseudo-heroics which only needed a certain transposition to become the language of chivalric heroism. The piece closes with a lofty eulogy of the French stage.

The sun had indeed risen and the stars might disappear when in the closing days of 1636 the _Cid_ was given in Paris at the Theatre du Marais; the eulogy of the stage was speedily justified by its author. His subject was found by Corneille in a Spanish drama, _Las Mocedades del Cid_, by Guilhem de Castro; the treatment was his own; he reduced the action from that of a chronicle-history to that of a tragedy; he centralised it around the leading personages; he transferred it in its essential causes from the external world of accident to the inner world of character; the critical events are moral events, victories of the soul, triumphs not of fortune but of the will. And thus, though there are epic episodes and lyric outbreaks in the play, the _Cid_ definitely fixed, for the first time in France, the type of tragedy. The central tragic strife here is not one of rival houses. Rodrigue, to avenge his father's wrong, has slain the father of his beloved Chimene; Chimene demands from the King the head of her beloved Rodrigue. In the end Rodrigue's valour atones for his offence. The struggle is one of passion with honour or duty; the fortunes of the hero and heroine are affected by circumstance, but their fate lies in their own high hearts.


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