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Jean Racine

Two hostile religious factions kept the minds of seventeenthcentury France, and especially of seventeenth-century Paris, in a state of ferment. The wars and persecutions of the preceding century had left in the hearts of men a taste for a stern, rugged, and ascetic religion. So there arose gradually a strong feeling of dissatisfaction with the supple attitude of the Jesuits, who, through their control of the theological faculty of Paris, the Sorbonne, exercised the spiritual direction of the period. Jansenius, bishop of Yprès (1585-1638), in his "Augustinus" (published 1640) formulated the dogmas upon which his followers, the Jansenists, based their revolt. The teachings of Jansenius, which are quite similar to those of Calvin, denied man's freedom of will, and revived the doctrine of predestination, whereby one's salvation depends wholly upon the arbitrary and irrevocable decree of the Almighty. The headquarters of the sect, or better its sanctuary, was Port-Royal des Champs, an abbey situated well out of Paris in the Faubourg SaintJacques. To the comparative solitude of this place there retired, from 1638 on, some of the most intellectual, the most highly educated, and the most upright men of the century. Without taking any vows, they lived the life of ascetics, dividing their time between physical labor, study, writing, and teaching. The movement is thus characterized by Lanson: "Jansenism plunges man into the depths of his misery and inanity; it holds ever before him the inaccessible perfection to which he must attain. It drives him to despair, it crushes him, it obliges him to renounce all that is lovable and pleasurable in life. ... A single work is necessary and permissible, that of seeking his salvation, which must be his sole thought and his whole life." This austere institution cast its shadow over all the life of Jean Racine, even during the periods when he was most in conflict with it.

Jean Racine was born on the twenty-second of December, 1639, at La Ferté-Milon, of a good bourgeois family. Left an orphan at the age of three years, he went to live with his grandmother, whose home was beside the Abbey walls. One of his aunts, Agnès Racine, became abbess in the convent of nuns connected with the institution. At the age of twelve the lad was sent to the College de Beauvais, which was also under its influence. At the age of sixteen he was admitted to the École des Granges, which was conducted by the men of Port-Royal. Here he was steeped in the religious atmosphere of the place; and here, too, he received the most efficient instruction that was to be found then in France. It was a classic education: he read and made commentaries on the great writers of antiquity, from Homer to Plutarch, Terence, and the church fathers. In Greek especially, for which he early showed a marked predilection, he was very thoroughly trained both in the letter and the spirit. Tradition represents him wandering in the groves of Port-Royal, a copy of Sophocles in his hand, and memorizing the lengthy Greek love story of Theagenes and Chariclea in order to have it for his delectation when his copy should be confiscated by his austere superiors.

At the same time he gave signs of poetic talent. He paraphrased in French verses the hymns of the Latin breviary; he composed seven odes on the scenery around the Abbey, "Promenade de Port-Royal des Champs." At the same time he was'writing letters in verse to his cousin Antoine Vitart in which the spirit was quite the reverse of austere. It was the other side of his nature beginning to assert itself. This other side could develop in all freedom when he left Port-Royal, at the age of eighteen, to continue his studies at the Collège d'Harcourt. Once out of his cage, he begins to lead a life of quite joyous complexion; he gets into debt; he goes into society; he makes friends with the happy-go-lucky La Fontaine, who is to make himself immortal by his "Fables." Literary aspirations arise within him. He composes madrigals, chansons, sonnets; when the king marries, Racine celebrates the occasion with an ode, "La Nymphe de la Seine" (1660). This ode was admired and obtained from the king a recognition in the shape of a hundred louis. But the theater was the highway to poetic fame in those days. And so Racine composed a tragedy "Amasie," which just missed being played at the Théâtre du Marais (1660). Encouraged, he planned another, "Les Amours d'Ovide."

However, the profession of poet was then, as always, a precarious one for a young man of limited resources. All the influences on the side of his family and of his former teachers were in very active opposition. They were worried over his tendencies to dissipation, his own conscience was probably not quiescent, — he was finally persuaded to turn towards a church career. An uncle, vicar general at Uzès, in the southern part of France, held out hopes of procuring for him a benefice. Racine made his way thither, though rather perfunctorily, to put himself in line. Arrived there, he entered upon the preparation for his career, reading Thomas Aquinas and other church fathers. But at the same time he continued to study assiduously his favorite classic authors, he sketched new tragedies, and he was well pleased at being made something of a social lion by these provincials who had heard of the success of his ode to the king. In the meantime his uncle found it less easy than he had anticipated to secure the benefice for his nephew. One delay followed another, and Racine's interest in the church fathers went on diminishing, while his poetic preoccupations grew stronger, nurtured by his correspondence with La Fontaine and other friends who kept him in touch with literary conditions at the capital. Finally the obstacles which stood in the way of the benefice became insurmountable for the time being, even to a vicar general, and late in 1662 or early in 1663 Racine returned to Paris.

He lost no time in renewing intercourse with his old friends; literary aspirations soon crowded more than ever to the fore. Louis XIV had just recovered from an attack of the measles; Racine celebrated the event in an " Ode sur la convalescence du Roi." It was presented to the king, who rewarded the poet with a present of six hundred livres. Quick to follow up his advantage, the poet presented another ode: "La Renommée aux Muses." This composition paved the way for his reception at court: he was introduced by the Duc de Saint-Aignan; henceforth he figured at the king's levee. Shortly afterwards, in 1664, Molière's troupe presented his tragedy " La Thébaïde," with very fair success. Racine was now looked upon as a rising poet, and he entered enthusiastically into the literary comradeship of the young generation of men of letters. This group of young men were the liberals of the period, in revolt against the pedantry of Chapelain and the other pontiffs of the domain of literature, demanding a return to la nature and la raison as the basis of poetic composition in place of a blind deference to classic authorities. Not that they proposed to disregard these authorities, quite the contrary; but they insisted upon an adaptation of the classic conventions to the life of the time. "Étudiez la cour et connaissez la ville " was to be a dominant note in the "Art Poétique" of Roileau, the leading spirit of the group, who, to the end, assisted Racine in the composition of his works with a fraternal zeal.

Racine's second tragedy, "Alexandre," was played in 1665

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