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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

The faithful and tender brother of le grand Corneille

THOMAS CORNEILLE, the faithful and tender brother of "le grand Corneille," and his successor in the Academy, belongs to a younger generation. He was born in 1625, and did not die until near the close of the first decade of the eighteenth century. As an industrious playwright he imitated his brother's manner, and reproduced his situations with a feebler hand. Many of his dramas are of Spanish origin, comic imbroglios, tragic extravagances; they rather diverted dramatic art from its true way than aided its advance. Perhaps for this reason they were the more popular. His _Timocrate_ (1656), drawn from the romance of _Cleopatre_, and itself a romance written for the stage, had a success rarely equalled during the century. The hero is at once the enemy and the lover of the Queen of Argos; under one name he besieges her, under another he repels his own attack; he is hated and adored, the conquered and the conqueror. The languors of conventional love and the plaintive accents of conventional grief suited the powers of the younger Corneille. His _Ariane_ (1672) presents a heroine, Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, who reminds us of one of Racine's women, drawn with less certain lines and fainter colours. In _Le Comte d'Essex_ history is transformed to a romance. Perhaps the greatest glory of Thomas Corneille is that his reception as an Academician became the occasion for a just and eloquent tribute to the genius of his brother uttered by Racine, when the bitterness of rivalry was forgotten and the offences of Racine's earlier years were nobly repaired.


Before noticing the theories of classical poetry in the writings of its master critic, Boileau, we must glance at certain writers who belonged rather to the world of public life and of society than to the world of art, but who became each a master in literary craft, as it were, by an irresistible instinct. Memoirs, maxims, epistolary correspondence, the novel, in their hands took a distinguished place in the hierarchy of literary art.

FRANCOIS VI., DUC DE LA ROCHEFOUCAULD, Prince de Marsillac, was born in 1613, of one of the greatest families of France. His life is divided into two periods--one of passionate activity, when with romantic ardour he threw himself into the struggles of the Fronde, only to be foiled and disillusioned; and the other of bitter reflection, consoled by certain social successes, loyal friendships, and an unique literary distinction. His _Maximes_ are the brief confession of his experience of life, an utterance of the pessimism of an aristocratic spirit, moulded into a form proper to the little world of the _salon_--each maxim a drop of the attar not of roses but of some more poignant and bitterly aromatic blossom. In the circle of Mme. de Sable, now an elderly _precieuse_, a circle half-Epicurean, half-Jansenist, frivolously serious and morosely gay, the composition of maxims and "sentences" became a fashion. Those of La Rochefoucauld were submitted to her as to an oracle; five years were given to shaping a tiny volume; fifteen years to rehandling and polishing every phrase. They are like a collection of medals struck in honour of the conquests of cynicism. The first surreptitious edition, printed in Holland in 1664, was followed by an authorised edition in 1665; the number of maxims, at first 317, rose finally in 1678 to 504; some were omitted; many were reduced to the extreme of concision; under the influence of Mme. de la Fayette, in the later texts the indictment of humanity was slightly attenuated. "Il m'a donne de l'esprit," said Mme. de la Fayette, "mais j'ai reforme son coeur."

The motto of the

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