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Pierre Corneille

Pierre CorneilleBorn: 6-Jun-1606
Birthplace: Rouen, France
Died: 1-Oct-1684
Location of death: Paris, France [1]
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Church of Saint-Roch, Paris, France

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Playwright, Poet

Nationality: France
Executive summary: Le Cid

French dramatist and poet, born at Rouen, in the Rue de la Pie, on the 6th of June 1606. The house, which was long preserved, was destroyed in the 19th century. His father, whose Christian name was the same, was avocat du roi à la Table de Marbre du Palais, and also held the position of maître des eaux et forêts in the vicomté (or bailliage, as some say) of Rouen. In this latter office he is said to have shown himself a vigorous magistrate, suppressing brigandage and plunder without regard to his personal safety. He was ennobled in 1637 (it is said not without regard to his son's distinction), and the honor was renewed in favor of his sons Pierre and Thomas in 1669, when a general repeal of the letters of nobility recently granted had taken place. There appears, however, to be no instance on record of the poet himself assuming the "de" of nobility. His mother's name was Marthe le Pesant.

After being educated by the Jesuits of Rouen, Corneille at the age of eighteen was entered as avocat, and in 1624 took the oaths, as we are told, four years before the regular time, a dispensation having been procured. He was afterwards appointed advocate to the admiralty, and to the waters and forests, but both these posts must have been of small value, as we find him parting with them in 1650 for the insignificant sum of 6000 livres. in that year and the next he was procureur-syndic des États de Normandie. His first play, Mélite, was acted in 1629. It is said by Fontenelle (his nephew) to have been inspired by personal experiences, and was extremely popular, either because or in spite of its remarkable difference from the popular plays of the day, those of A. Hardy. In 1632 Clitandre, a tragedy, was printed (it may have been acted in 1631); in 1633 La Veuve and the Galerie du palais, in 1634 La Suivante and La Place Royale, all the last-named plays being comedies, saw the stage. In 1634 also, having been selected as the composer of a Latin elegy to Richelieu on the occasion of the cardinal visiting Rouen, he was introduced to the subject of his verses, and was soon after enrolled among the "five poets." These officers (the others being G. Colletet, Boisrobert and C. de l'Étoile, who in no way merited the title, and J. de Rotrou, who was no unworthy yokefellow even of Corneille) had for task the more profitable than dignified occupation of working up Richelieu's ideas into dramatic form. No one could be less suited for such work than Corneille, and he soon (it is said) incurred his employer's displeasure by altering the plan of the third act of Les Thuileries, which had been entrusted to him.

Meanwhile the year 1635 saw the production of Médée, a grand but unequal tragedy. In the next year the singular extravaganza entitled L'Illusion comique followed, and was succeeded about the end of November by the Cid, based on the Mocedades del Cid of Guillem de Castro. The triumphant success of this, perhaps the most "epoch-making" play in all literature, the jealousy of Richelieu and the Academy, the open attacks of Georges de Scudéry and J. de Mairet and others, and the pamphlet-war which followed, are among the best-known incidents in the history of letters. The trimming verdict of the Academy, which we have in J. Chapelain's Sentiments de l'Académie française sur la tragi-comédie du Cid (1638), when its arbitration was demanded by Richelieu, and not openly repudiated by Corneille, was virtually unimportant; but it is worth remembering that no less a writer than Georges de Scudéry, in his Observations sur le Cid (1637), gravely and apparently sincerely asserted and maintained of this great play that the subject was utterly bad, that all the rules of dramatic composition were violated, that the action was badly conducted, the versification constantly faulty, and the beauties as a rule stelen! Corneille himself was awkwardly situated in this dispute. The esprit bourru by which he was at all times distinguished, and which he now displayed in his rather arrogant Excuse à Ariste, unfitted him for controversy, and it was of vital importance to him that he should not lose the outward marks of favor which Richelieu continued to show him. Perhaps the pleasantest feature in the whole matter is the unshaken and generous admiration with which Rotrou, the only contemporary whose genius entiled him to criticise Corneille, continued to regard his friend, rival, and in some sense (though Rotrou was the younger of the two) pupil. Finding it impossible to make himself fairly heard in the matter, Corneille (who had retired from his position among the "five poets") withdrew to Rouen and passed nearly three years in quiet there, perhaps revolving the opinions afterwards expressed in his three Discours and in the Examens of his plays, where he bows, somewhat as in the house of Rimmon, to "the rules." In 1639, or at the beginning of 1640, appeared Horace with a dedication to Richelieu. The good offices of Madame de Combalet, to whom the Cid had been dedicated, and perhaps the satisfaction of the cardinal's literary jealousy, had healed what breach there may have been, and indeed the poet was in no position to quarrel with his patron. Richelieu not only allowed him 500 crowns a year, but soon afterwards, it is said, though on no certain authority, employed his omnipotence in reconciling the father of the poet's mistress, Marie de Lampérière, to the marriage of the lovers (1640). In this year also Cinna appeared. A brief but very serious illness attacked him, and the death of his father the year before had increased his family anxieties by leaving his mother in very indifferent circumstances. It has, however, been denied that he himself was at any time poor, as older traditions asserted.

In the following year Corneille figured as a contributor to the Guirlande de Julie, a famous album which the Marquis de Montausier, assisted by all the literary men of the day, offered to his lady love, Julie d'Angennes. 1643 was, according to the latest authorities (for Cornelian dates have often been altered), a very great year in the dramatist's life. Therein appeared Polyeucte, the memorable comedy of Le Menteur, which though adapted from the Spanish stood in relation to French comedy very much as Le Cid, which owed less to Spain, stood to French tragedy; its less popular and far less good Suite -- and perhaps La Mort de Pompée. Rodogune (1644) was a brilliant success; Théodore (1645), a tragedy on a somewhat perilous subject, was the first of Corneille's plays which was definitely damned. Some amends may have been made to him by the commission which he received next year to write verses for the Triomphes poétiques de Louis XIII. Soon after (22nd of January 1647) the Academy at last (it had twice rejected him on frivolous pleas) admitted the greatest of living French writers. Héraclius (1646), Andromède (1650), a spectacle-opera rather than a play, Don Sanche d'Aragon (1650) and Nicomède (1651) were the products of the next few years' work; but in 1652 Pertharite was received with decided disfavor, and the poet in disgust resolved, like Ben Jonson, to quit the loathed stage. In this resolution he persevered for six years, during which he worked at a verse translation of the Imitation of Christ (finished in 1656), at his three Discourses on Dramatic Poetry, and at the Examens which are usually printed at the end of his plays. In 1659 Fouquet persuaded him to alter his resolve, and Oedipe, a play which became a great favorite with Louis XIV, was the result. It was followed by La Toison d'or (1660), Sertorius (1662) and Sophonisbe (1663). In this latter year Corneille (who had at last removed his residence from Rouen to Paris in 1662) was included among the list of men of letters pensioned at the proposal of Colbert. He received 2000 livres. Othon (1664), Agésilas (1666), Attila (1667), and Tite et Bérénice (1670), were generally considered as proofs of failing powers. In 1665 and 1670 some versifications of devotional works addressed to the Virgin had, appeared. The part which Corneille took in Psyché (1671), Molière and P. Quinault being his coadjutors, showed signs of renewed vigor; but Pulchérie (1672) and Suréna (1674) were allowed even by his faithful followers to be failures. He lived for ten years after the appearance of Suréna, but was almost silent save for the publication, in 1676, of some beautiful verses thanking Louis XIV for ordering the revival of his plays. He died at his house in the rue d'Argenteuil on the 30th of September 1684. For nine years (1674-81), and again in 1683, his pension had, for what reason is unknown, been suspended. It used to be said that he was in great straits, and the story went (though, as far as Nicolas Boileau is concerned, it has been invalidated), that at last Boileau, hearing of this, went to the king and offered to resign his own pension if there were not money enough for Corneille, and that Louis sent the aged poet two hundred pistoles. He might, had it actually been so, have said, with a great English poet in like case, "I have no time to spend them." Two days afterwards he was dead.

Corneille was buried in the church of St. Roch, where no monument marked his grave until 1821. He had six children, of whom four survived him. Pierre, the eldest son, a cavalry officer who died before his father, left posterity in whom the name has continued; Marie, the eldest daughter, was twice married, and by her second husband, M. de Farcy, became the ancestor of Charlotte Corday. Repeated efforts have been made for the benefit of the poet's descendants, Voltaire, Charles X, and the Comédie française having all borne part therein.

The portraits of Corneille (the best and most trustworthy of which is by Lasne, an engraver of Caen), represent him as a man of serious, almost of stern countenance, and this agrees well enough with such descriptions as we have of his appearance, and with the idea of him which we should form from his writings and conduct. His nephew Fontenelle admits that his general address and manner were by no means prepossessing. Others use stronger language, and it seems to be confessed that either from shyness, from pride, or from physical defects of utterance, perhaps from all three combined, he did not attract strangers. Racine is said to have assured his son that Corneille made verses "cent fois plus beaux" than his own, but that his own greater popularity was owing to the fact that he took some trouble to make himself personally agreeable. Almost all the anecdotes which have been recorded concerning him testify to a rugged and somewhat unamiable self-contentment. "Je n'ai pas le mérite de ce pays-ci", he said of the court. "Je n'en suis pas moins Pierre Corneille", he is said to have replied to his friends as often as they dared to suggest certain shortcomings in his behavior, manner or speech. "Je suis saoul de gloire et affamé d'argent" was his reply to the compliments of Boileau. Yet tradition is unanimous as to his affection for his family, and as to the harmony in which he lived with his brother Thomas who had married Marguerite de Lampérière, younger sister of Marie, and whose household both at Rouen and at Paris was practically one with that of his brother. Notwithstanding this domestic felicity, an impression is left on the reader of Corneille's biographies that he was by no means a happy man. Melancholy of temperament will partially explain this, but there were other reasons. He appears to have been quite free from envy properly so called, and to have been always ready to acknowledge the excellences of his contemporaries. But, as was the case with a very different man -- Oliver Goldsmith -- praise bestowed on others always made him uncomfortable unless it were accompanied by praise bestowed on himself. As François Guizot has excellently said, "Sa jalousie fut celle d'un enfant qui veut qu'un sourire le rassure contre les caresses que reçoit son frère."

Although his actual poverty has been denied, he cannot have been affluent. His pensions covered but a small part of his long life and were most irregularly paid. He was no "dedicator", and the occasional presents of rich men, such as Montauron (who gave him a thousand, others say two hundred, pistoles for the dedication of Cinna), and Fouquet (who commissioned Oedipe), were few and far between, though they have exposed him to reflections which show great ignorance of the manners of the age. Of his professional earnings, the small sum for which, as we have seen, he gave up his offices, and the expression of Fontenelle that he practiced "sans goût et sans succès", are sufficient proof. His patrimony and his wife's dowry must both have been trifling. On the other hand, it was during the early and middle part of his career impossible, and during the later part very difficult, for a dramatist to live decently by his pieces. It was not until the middle of the century that the custom of allowing the author two shares in the profits during the first run of the piece was observed, and even then revivals profited him nothing. Thomas Corneille himself, who to his undoubted talents united wonderful facility, untiring industry, and (gift valuable above all others to the playwright) an extraordinary knack of hitting the public fancy, died, notwithstanding his simple tastes, "as poor as Job." We know that Pierre received for two of his later pieces two thousand livres each, and we do not know that he ever received more.

But his reward in fame was not stinted. Corneille, unlike many of the great writers of the world, was not driven to wait for the next age to do him justice. The cabal or clique which attacked the Cid had no effect whatever on the judgment of the public. All his subsequent masterpieces were received with the same ungrudging applause, and the rising star of Racine, even in conjunction with the manifest inferiority of Corneille's last five or six plays, with difficulty prevailed against the older poet's towering reputation. The great men of his time -- Condé, Turenne, the maréchal de Grammont, the knight-errant duc de Guise -- were his fervent admirers. Nor had he less justice done him by a class from whom less justice might have been expected, the brother men of letters whose criticisms he treated with such scant courtesy. The respectable mediocrity of Chapelain might misapprehend him; the lesser geniuses of Scudéry and Mairet might feel alarm at his advent; the envious Claverets and D'Aubignacs might snarl and scribble. But Balzac did him justice; Rotrou, as we have seen, never failed in generous appreciation; Molière in conversation and in print recognized him as his own master and the foremost of dramatists. We have quoted the informal tribute of Racine; but it should not be forgotten that Racine, in discharge of his duty as respondent at the Academical reception of Thomas Corneille, pronounced upon the memory of Pierre perhaps the noblest and most just tribute of eulogy that ever issued from the lips of a rival. Boileau's testimony is of a more chequered character; yet he seems never to have failed in admiring Corneille whenever his principles would allow him to do so. Questioned as to the great men of Louis XIV's reign, he is said to have replied: "I only know three, Corneille, Molière and myself." "And how about Racine?" his auditor ventured to remark. "He was an extremely clever fellow to whom I taught the art of elaborate rhyming" (rimer difficilement). It was reserved for the 18th century to exalt Racine above Corneille. Voltaire, who was prompted by his natural benevolence to comment on the latter (the profits went to a relation of the poet), was not altogether fitted by nature to appreciate Corneille, and moreover, as has been ingeniously pointed out, was not a little wearied by the length of his task. His partially unfavorable verdict was endorsed earlier by Vauvenargues, who knew little of poetry, and later by La Harpe, whose critical standpoint has now been universally abandoned. Napoleon Bonaparte was a great admirer of Corneille ("s'il vivait, je le ferais prince", he said), and under the Empire and the Restoration an approach to a sounder appreciation was made. But it was the glory of the romantic school, or rather of the more catholic study of letters which that school brought about, to restore Corneille to his true rank. So long, indeed, as a certain kind of criticism was pursued, due appreciation was impossible. When it was thought sufficient to say with Boileau that Corneille excited, not pity or terror, but admiration which was not a tragic passion; or that "D'un seul nom quelquefois le son dur ou bizarre / Rend un poème entier ou burlesque ou barbare;" when Voltaire could think it crushing to add to his exposure of the "infamies" of Théodore -- "après cela comment osons-nous condamner les pièces de Lope de Vega et de Shakespeare?" -- it is obvious that the Cid and Polyeucte, much more Don Sanche d'Aragon and Rodogune, were sealed books to the critic.

Almost the first thing which strikes a reader is the singular inequality of this poet, and the attempts to explain this inequality, in reference to his own and other theories, leave the fact untouched. Producing, as he certainly has produced, work which classes him with the greatest names in literature, he has also signed an extraordinary quantity of verse which has not merely the defects of genius, irregularity, extravagance, bizarreté, but the faults which we are apt to regard as exclusively belonging to those who lack genius, to wit, the dullness and tediousness of mediocrity. Molière's manner of accounting for this is famous in literary history or legend. "My friend Corneille", he said, "has a familiar who inspires him with the finest verses in the world. But sometimes the familiar leaves him to shift for himself, and then he fares very badly." That Corneille was by no means destitute of the critical faculty his Discourses and the Examens of his plays (often admirably acute, and, with John Dryden's subsequent prefaces, the originals to a great extent of specially modern criticism) show well enough. But an enemy might certainly contend that a poet's critical faculty should be of the Promethean, not be Epimethean order. The fact seems to be that the form in which Corneille's work was cast, and which by an odd irony of fate he did so much to originate and make popular, was very partially suited to his talents. He coud imagine admirable situations, and he could write verses of incomparable grandeur -- verses that reverberate again and again in the memory, but he could not, with the patient docility of Racine, labor at proportioning the action of a tragedy strictly, at maintaining a uniform rate of interest in the course of the plot and of excellence in the fashion of the verse. Especially in his later plays a verse and a couplet will crash out with fulgurous brilliancy, and then be succeeded by pages of very second-rate declamation or argument. It was urged against him also by the party of the Doucereux, as he called them, that he could not manage, or did not attempt, the great passion of love, and that except in the case of Chimène his principle seemed to be that of one of his own heroines: "Laissons, seigneur, laissons pour les petites âmes / Ce commerce rampant de soupirs et de flammes." (Aristie in Sertorius.) There is perhaps some truth in this accusation, however much some of us may be disposed to think that the line just quoted is a fair enough description of the admired ecstasies of Achille and Bajazet. But these are all the defects which can be fairly urged against him; and in a dramatist bound to a less strict service they would hardly have been even remarked. They certainly neither require, nor are palliated by, theories of his "megalomania", of his excessive attention to conflicts of will and the like. On the English stage the liberty of unrestricted incident and complicated action, the power of multiplying characters and introducing prose scenes, would have exactly suited his somewhat intermittent genius, both by covering defects and by giving greater scope for the exhibition of power.

How great that power is can escape no one. The splendid soliloquies of Medea which, as Voltaire happily says, "annoncent Corneille", the entire parts of Rodogune and Chimène, the final speech of Camille in Horace, the discovery scene of Cinna, the dialogues of Pauline and Sévère in Polyeucte, the magnificently contrasted conception and exhibition of the best and worst forms of feminine dignity in the Cornélie of

Pompée and the Cléopâtre of Rodogune, the singularly fine contrast in Don Sanche d'Aragon, between the haughtiness of the Spanish nobles and the unshaken dignity of the supposed adventurer Carlos, and the characters of Aristie, Viriate and Sertorius himself, in the play named after the latter, are not, to be surpassed in grandeur of thought, felicity of design or appropriateness of language. "Admiration" may or may not properly be excited by tragedy, and until this important question is settled the name of tragedian may be at pleasure given to or withheld from the author of Rodogune. But his rank among the greatest of dramatic poets is not a matter of question. For a poet is to be judged by his best things, and the best things of Corneille are second to none.

The Plays. It was, however, some time before his genius came to perfection. It is undeniable that the first six or seven of his plays are of no very striking intrinsic merit. On the other hand, it requires only a very slight acquaintance with the state of the drama in France at the time to see that these works, poor as they may now seem, must have struck the spectators as something new and surprising. The language and dialogue of Mélite are on the whole simple and natural; and though the construction is not very artful (the fifth act being, as is not unusual in Corneille, superfluous and clumsy), it is still passable. The fact that one of the characters jumps on another's back, and the rather promiscuous kissing which takes place, are nothing to the liberties usually taken in later plays. A worse fault is the Cat-and-Puss dialogue, which abounds. But the common objection to the play at the time was that it was too natural and too devoid of striking incidents. Corneille accordingly, as he tells us, set to work to cure these faults, and produced a truly wonderful work, Clitandre. Murders, combats, escapes and outrages of all kinds are provided; and the language makes The Rehearsal no burlesque. One of the heroines rescues herself from a ravisher by blinding him with a hair-pin, and as she escapes the seducer apostrophizes the blood which trickles from his eye, and the weapon which has wounded it, in a speech forty verses long. This, however, was his only attempt of the kind. For his next four pieces, which were comedies, there is claimed the introduction of some important improvements, such as the choosing for scenes places well known in actual life (as in the Galerie du palais), and the substitution of the soubrette inplace of the old inconvenient and grotesque nurse. It is certain, however, that there is more interval between these six plays and Médée than between the latter and Corneille's greatest drama. Here first do we find those sudden and magnificent lines which characterize the poet. The title role is, however, the only good one, and as a whole the play is heavy. Much the same may be said of its curious successor L'Illusion comique. This is not only a play within a play, but in part of it there is actually a third involution, one set of characters beholding another set discharging the parts of yet another. It contains, however, some very fine lines, in particular, a defense of the stage and some heroics put into the mouth of a braggadocio. We have seen it said of the Cid that it is difficult to understand the enthusiasm it excited. But the difficulty can only exist for persons who are insensible to dramatic excellence, or who so strongly object to the forms of the French drama that they cannot relish anything so presented. Rodrigue, Chimène, Don Diègue are not of any age, but of all time. The conflicting passions of love, honor, duty, are here represented as they never had been on a French stage, and in the strong style which was Corneille's own. Of the many objections urged against the play, perhaps the weightiest is that which condemns the frigid and superfluous part of the Infanta. Horace, though more skilfully constructed, is perhaps less satisfactory. There is a hardness about the younger Horace which might have been, but is not made, imposing, and Sabine's effect on the action is quite out of proportion to the space she occupies. The splendid declamation of Camille, and the excellent part of the elder Horace, do not altogether atone for these defects. Cinna is perhaps generally considered the poet's masterpiece, and it undoubtedly contains the finest single scene in all French tragedy. The blot on it is certainly the character of Émilie, who is spiteful and thankless, not heroic. Polyeucte has sometimes been elevated to the same position. There is, however, a certain coolness about the hero's affection for his wife which somewhat detracts from the merit of his sacrifice; while the Christian part of the matter is scarcely so well treated as in the Saint Genest of Rotrou or the Virgin Martyr of Philip Massinger. On the other hand, the entire parts of Pauline and Sévère are beyond praise, and the manner in which the former reconciles her duty as a wife with her affection for her lover is an astonishing success. In Pompée (for La Mort de Pompée, though the more appropriate, was not the original title) the splendid declamation of Cornélie is the chief thing to be remarked. Le Menteur fully deserves the honor which Molière paid to it. Its continuation, notwithstanding the judgment of some French critics, we cannot think so happy. But Théodore is perhaps the most surprising of literary anomalies. The central situation, which so greatly shocked Voltaire and indeed all French critics from the date of the piece, does not seem to blame. A virgin martyr who is threatened with loss of honor as a bitterer punishment than loss of life offers points as powerful as they are perilous. But the treatment is thoroughly bad. From the heroine who is, in a phrase of Dryden's, "one of the coolest and most insignificant" heroines ever drawn, to the undignified Valens, the termagant Marcelle, and the peevish Placide, there is hardly a good character. Immediately upon this in most printed editions, though older in representation, follows the play which (therein agreeing rather with the author than with his critics) we should rank as his greatest triumph, Rodogune. Here there is hardly a weak point. The magnificent and terrible character of Cleopâtre, and the contrasted dispositions of the two princes, of course attract most attention. But the character of Rodogune herself, which has not escaped criticism, comes hardly short of these. Héraclius, despite great art and much fine poetry, is injured by the extreme complication of its argument and by the blustering part of Pulchérie. Andromède, with the later spectacle piece, the Toison d'or, do not call for comment, and we have already alluded to the chief merit of Don Sanche. Nicomède, often considered one of Corneille's best plays, is chiefly remarkable for the curious and unusual character of its hero. Of Pertharite it need only be said that no single critic has to our knowledge disputed the justice of its damnation. Oedipe is certainly unworthy of its subject and its author, but in Sertorius we have one of Corneille's finest plays. It is remarkable not only for its many splendid verses and for the nobility of its sentiment, but from the fact that not one of its characters lacks interest, a commendation not generally to be bestowed on its author's work. Of the last six plays we may say that perhaps only one of them, Agésilas, is almost wholly worthless. Not a few speeches of Suréna and of Othon are of a very high order. As to the poet's non-dramatic works, we have already spoken of his extremely interesting critical dissertations. His minor poems and poetical devotions are not likely to be read save from motives of duty or curiosity. The verse translation of à Kempis, indeed, which was in its day immensely popular, passing through many editions, condemns itself.


[1] Rue d'Argenteuil, Paris, France.

Father: Pierre Corneille
Mother: Marthe le Pesant

    French Academy 1647


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