Page images
PDF
EPUB

FRANCOIS, DUC DE LA ROCHEFOUCAULT, AND THE

DUC DE SAINT-SIMON. THE precursor of Saint-Simon, the model of Lord Chesterfield, this ornament of his age belonged, as well as SaintSimon, to that state of society in France which was characterized as Lord John Russell, in his “Memoirs of the Duchess of Orleans," tells us - by an idolatry of power and station. “God would not condemn a person of that rank," was the exclamation of a lady of the old régime, on hearing that a notorious sinner, “Pair de France,” and one knows not what else, had gone to his account impenitent and unabsolved; and though the sentiment may strike us as profane, it was, doubtless, genuine.

Rank, however, was often adorned by accomplishments which, like an exemption from rules of conduct, it almost claimed as a privilege. Good-breeding was a science in France; natural to a peasant, even, it was studied as an epitome of all the social virtues. “N’être pas poliwas the sum total of all dispraise: a man could only recover from it by splendid valor or rare gifts; a woman could not hope to rise out of that Slough of Despond to which good-breeding

We were behind all the arts of civilization in England, as François de Rochefoucault (we give the orthography of the present day) was in his cradle. This brilliant personage, who combined the wit and the moralist, the courtier and the soldier, the man of literary tastes and the sentimentalist

par" excellence, was born in 1613. In addition to his hereditary title of duc, he had the empty honor, as Saint-Simon calls it, of being Prince de Marsillac, a designation which was lost in that of De la Rochefoucault-so famous even to the present day. As he presented himself at the court of the regency, over which Anne of Austria nominally presided, no youth there was more distinguished for his elegance or for the fame of his exploits during the wars of the Fronde than this youthful scion of an illustrious house. Endowed by nature with a pleasing countenance, and, what was far more important in that fastidious region, an air of dignity, he displayed wonderful contradictions in his character and bearing. He had, says Madame de Maintenon," beaucoup d'esprit, et peu de savoir;" an expressive phrase. "He was,” she adds, "pli

never came.

246

THE HÔTEL DE ROCHEFOUCAULT.

ant in nature, intriguing, and cautious;" nevertheless she never, she declares, possessed a more steady friend, nor one more confiding and better adapted to advise. Brave as he was, he held personal valor, or affected to do so, in light estimation. His ambition was to rule others. Lively in conversation, though naturally pensive, he assembled around him all that Paris or Versailles could present of wit and intellect.

The old Hôtel de Rochefoucault, in the Rue de Seine, in the Faubourg St. Germain, in Paris, still grandly recalls the assemblies in which Racine, Boileau, Madame de Sévigné, the La Fayettes, and the famous Duchesse de Longueville, used to assemble. The time-honored family of De la Rochefoucault still preside there; though one of its fairest ornaments, the young, lovely, and pious Duchesse de la Rochefoucault of our time, died in 1852—one of the first known victims to diphtheria in France, in that unchanged old locality. There, where the De Longuevilles, the Mazarins, and those who had formed the famous council of state of Anne of Austria had disappeared, the poets and wits who gave to the age of Louis XIV. its true brilliancy, collected around the Duc de la Rochefoucault. What a scene it must have been, in those days when, as Buffon said of the earth in spring, “ tout fourmille de vie !” Let us people the salon of the Hôtel de Rochefoucault with visions of the past; see the host there, in his chair, a martyr to the gout, which he bore with all the cheerfulness of a Frenchman, and picture to ourselves the great men who were handing him his cushion, or standing near his fauteuil.

Racine's joyous face may be imagined as he comes in fresh from the College of Harcourt. Since he was born in 1639, he had not arrived at his zenith till La Rochefoucault was almost past his prime. For a man at thirty-six in France can no longer talk prospectively of the departure of youth; it is gone. A single man of thirty, even in Paris, is “un vieux garçon :"

" life begins too soon and ends too soon with those pleasant sinners, the French. And Racine, when he was first routed out of Port Royal, where he was educated, and presented to the whole Faubourg St. Germain, beheld his patron, La Rochefoucault, in the position of a disappointed man. An early adventure of his youth had humbled, perhaps, the host of the Hôtel de Rochefoucault. At the battle of St. Antoine, where he had distinguished himself, a musket ball had nearly deprived him of sight. On this occasion he had quoted these lines, taken from the tragedy of “ Alcyonnée." It must, however, be premised that the famous Duchesse de Longueville had urged him to engage in the wars of the Fronde. To her these lines were addressed:

[ocr errors]

RACINE AND HIS PLAYS.

247

“ Pour mériter son cour, pour plaire à ses beaux yeux,

J'ai fait la guerre aux Rois, je l'aurais faite aux dieux.” But now he had broken off his intimacy with the duchesse, and he therefore parodied these lines:

“Pour ce cour inconstant, qu'enfin je connais mieux,

J'ai fait la guerre aux Rois, j'en ai perdue les yeux.” Nevertheless La Rochefoucault was still the gay, charming, witty host and courtier. Racine composed, in 1660, his “Nymphe de Seine,” in honor of the marriage of Louis XIV., and was then brought into notice of those whose notice was no empty compliment, such as, in our day, illustrious dukes pay to more illustrious authors, by asking them to be jumbled in a crowd at a time when the rooks are beginning to caw. We catch, as they may, the shadow of a dissolving water-ice, or see the exit of an unattainable tray of negus. No; in the days of Racine, as in those of Halifax and Swift in England, solid fruits grew out of fulsome praise; and Colbert, then minister, settled a pension of six hundred livres, as francs were called in those days (twenty-four pounds), on the poet. And with this the former pupil of Port Royal was fain to be content. Still he was so poor that he almost went into the church, an uncle offering to resign him a priory of his order if he would become a regular.

He was a candidate for orders, and wore a sacerdotal dress when he wrote the tragedy of “Theagenes, and that of the “Frères Ennemis," the subject of which was given him by Molière.

He continued, in spite of a quarrel with the saints of Port Royal, to produce noble dramas from time to time, but quitted theatrical pursuits after bringing out (in 1677) “Phèdre," that chef-d'oeuvre not only of its author, but, as a performance, of the unhappy but gifted Rachel. Corneille was old, and Paris looked to Racine to supply his place, yet he left the theatrical world forever. Racine had been brought up with deep religious convictions; they could not, however, preserve him from a mad, unlawful attachment. He loved the actress Champmesle: but repentance came. He resolved not only to write no more plays, but to do penance for those already given to the world. He was on the eve of becoming, in his penitence, a Carthusian friar, when his religious director advised marriage instead. He humbly did as he was told, and united himself to the daughter of a treasurer for France, of Amiens, by whom he had seven children. It was only at the request of Madame de Maintenon that he wrote “ Esther” for the convent of St. Cyr, where it was first acted.

His death was the result of his benevolent, sensitive nature.

.248

LA ROCHEFOUCAULT'S WIT AND SENSIBILITY.

Having drawn up an excellent paper on the miseries of the people,

he
gave

it to Madame de Maintenon to read it to the king. Louis, in a transport of ill-humor, said, “ What! does he suppose because he is a poet that he ought to be minister of state ?” Racine is said to have been so wounded by this speech that he was attacked by a fever and died. His decease took place in 1699, nineteen years after that of La Rochefoucault, who died in 1680.

Among the circle whom La Rochefoucault loved to assemble was Boileau, Despréaux, and Madame de Sévigné—the one whose wit and the other whose grace completed the delights of that salon. A life so prosperous as La Rochefoucault's had but one cloud—the death of his son, who was killed during the passage of the French troops over the Rhine. We attach to the character of this accomplished man the charms of wit; we may also add the higher attractions of sensibility. Notwithstanding the worldly and selfish character which is breathed forth in his “Maxims and Reflections,” there lay at the bottom of his heart true piety. Struck by the death of a neighbor, this sentiment seems even on the point of being expressed; but, adds Madame de Sévigné, and her phrase is untranslatable, " il n'est pas effleuré."

All has passed away! the Fronde has become a memory, not a realized idea. old people shake their heads, and talk of Richelieu; of his gorgeous palace at Rueil, with its lake and its prison thereon, and its mysterious dungeons, and its avenues of chestnuts, and its fine statues; and of its cardinal, smiling, while the worm that never dieth is eating into his very heart; a seared conscience, and playing the fine gentleman to fine ladies in a rich stole, and with much garniture of costly lace; while beneath all is the hair shirt, that type of penitence and sanctity which he ever wore as a salvo against all that passion and ambition that almost burst the beating heart beneath that hair shirt. Richelieu has gone to his fathers. Mazarin comes on the scene; the wily, grasping Italian. He too vanishes; and forth, radiant in youth, and strong in power, comes Louis, and the reign of politeness and periwigs begins.

The Duc de Saint-Simon, perhaps the greatest portraitpainter of any time, has familiarized us with the greatness, the littleness, the graces, the defects of that royal actor on the stage of Europe, whom his own age entitled Louis the Great. A wit, in his writings, of the first order—if we comprise under the head of wit the deepest discernment, the most penetrating satire—Saint-Simon was also a soldier, philosopher, a reformer, a Trappist, and, eventually, a devotee. Like all

LOOKING OUT FOR A WIFE.

249

young men who wished for court favor, he began by fighting: Louis cared little for carpet knights. He entered, however, into a scene which he has chronicled with as much fidelity as our journalists do a police report, and sat quietly down to gather up observations not for his own fame, not even for žhe amusement of his children or grandchildren-but for the edification of posterity yet a century afar off his own time. The treasures were buried until 1829.

A word or two about Saint-Simon and his youth. At nineteen he was destined by his mother to be married. Now every one knows how marriages are managed in France, not only in the time of Saint-Simon, but even to the present day: A mother, or an aunt, or a grandmother, or an experienced friend, looks out; be it for son, be it for daughter, it is the business of her life. She looks and she finds: family, suitable; fortune, convenient; person, pas mal ; principles, Catholic, with a due abhorrence of heretics, especially English ones. After a time, the lady is to be looked at by the unhappy prétendú ; a church, a mass, or vespers, being very often the opportunity agreed. The victim thinks she will do. The proposal is discussed by the two mammas; relatives are called in; all goes well; the contract is signed; then, a measured acquaintance is allowed: but no tête-à-têtes; no idea of love. 66 What! so indelicate a sentiment before marriage! Let me not hear of it,” cries mamma, in a sanctimonious panic. “Love! Quelle bêtise !" adds mon père.

But Saint-Simon, it seems, had the folly to wish to make a marriage of inclination. Rich, pair de France, his fatheran old roué, who had been page to Louis XIII.-dead, he felt extremely alone in the world. He cast about to see whom he could select. The Duc de Beauvilliers had eight daughters; a misfortune, it may be thought, in France or any where else. Not at all: three of the young ladies were kept at home, to be married; the other five were at once disposed of, as they passed the unconscious age of infancy, in convents. SaintSimon was, however, disappointed. He offered, indeed; first for the eldest, who was not then fifteen years old; and finding that she had a vocation for a conventual life, went on to the third, and was going through the whole family, when he was convinced that his suit was impossible. The eldest daughter happened to be a disciple of Fénélon's, and was on the very eve of being vowed to Heaven.

Saint-Simon went off to La Trappe, to console himself for his disappointment. There had been an old intimacy between Monsieur La Trappe and the father of Saint-Simon; and this friendship bad induced him to buy an estate close to the an

« PreviousContinue »