Birthplace: Paris, France
Location of death: Paris, France
Cause of death: Cancer - Liver
Remains: Buried, Saint Etienne-du-Mont, Paris, France
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Phèdre
French tragic dramatist, born at La Ferté Milon in the old duchy of Valois on an uncertain date in December 1639. He was certainly christened on the 22nd, and the ceremony was at that time often, though not invariably, performed on the day of birth. Racine belonged to a family of the upper bourgeoisie, which had indeed been technically ennobled some generations earlier, and bore the punning arms of a rat and a swan (rat, cygne). The poet himself subsequently dropped the rat. His family were connected with others of the same or a slightly higher station in La Ferté and its neighborhood -- the Desmoulins, the Sconins, the Vitarts, all of whom appear in Racine's life. His mother was Jeanne Sconin. His father, of the same name as himself, was only 24 at the time of the poet's birth. He seems to have been a solicitor (procureur) by profession, and held, as his father the grandfather of the dramatist had done, the office of controleur au grenier à sel. Racine was the eldest child. Little more than a year afterwards his sister Marie was born and his mother died. Jean Racine the elder married again, but three months later he himself died, and the stepmother is never heard of in connection with the poet or his sister. They were left without any provision, but their grandparents, Jean Racine the eldest and Marie Desmoulins, were still living, and took charge of them. These grandparents had a daughter, Agnes, who figures in Racine's history. She was a nun and later abbess of Port Royal under the style of Mère de Sainte Thècle, and the whole family had strong Jansenist leanings. Jean Racine the eldest died in 1649, and the poet was sent to the Collège de Beauvais. This (which was the grammar-school of the town of that name, and not the famous Collège de Beauvais at Paris) was intimately connected with Port Royal, and to this place Racine was transferred in November 1655. His special masters there were Nicole and Le Maître. The latter, in an extant letter written to his pupil, speaks of himself as "votre papa." It is evident from documents that he was a very diligent student both at Beauvais and Port Royal. He wrote verse both in Latin and French, and his Port Royal odes, which it has been the fashion with the more fanatical admirers of his later poetry to ridicule, are far from despicable.
Racine stayed at Port Royal for three years, and left it when nearly nineteen, in October 1658. He was then entered at the Collège d'Harcourt and boarded with his second cousin, Nicolas Vitart, steward of the duke of Luynes. Later, if not at first, he lived in the Hôtel de Luynes itself. It is to be observed that his Jansenist surroundings continued with him here, for the duke of Luynes was a severe Port Royalist. It is, however, clear from Racine's correspondence, which, as we have it, begins in 1660 and is for some years very abundant and interesting, that he was not at all of an austere disposition at this time. Occasionally the liveliness of the letters passes the bounds of strict decency, though there is nothing very shocking in them, and those to Madame (or, as the habit of the time called her, Mademoiselle) Vitart are free from anything of this kind. It does not appear that Racine read much philosophy, as he should have done, but he occasionally did some business in superintending building operations at Chevreuse, the duke's country house. He would seem, however, to have been already given up irrevocably to literature. This by no means suited the views of his devout relations at Port Royal, and he complains in one of his letters that an unlucky sonnet on Jules Mazarin had brought down on him "excommunications sur excommunications." The marriage of Louis XIV was the occasion of an ambitious ode, La nymphe de la Seine, which was submitted before publication to Jean Chapelain, the too famous author of the Pucelle. Chapelain made many suggestions which Racine duly adopted. Nor did the ode bound his ambitions, for in 1660 he finished one piece, Amasie, and undertook another, Les Amours d'Ovide, for the theater. The first, however, was rejected by the actors of the Marais, and it is not certain that the other was ever finished or offered to those of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Racine's letters show that he was intimate with more than one actress at this time; he also made acquaintance with La Fontaine, and the foundations at any rate of the legendary "society of four" (Boileau, La Fontaine, Molière and Racine) were thus laid.
His relations were pretty certainly alarmed by this very pardonable worldliness, though a severe expostulation with him for keeping company with the abominable actors is perhaps later in date. Racine was accordingly disturbed in his easygoing life at Paris. In November 1661 he went to Uzès in Languedoc to live with his uncle the Père Sconin, vicar-general of that diocese, whose attempts to secure a benefice for his nephew were, however, in vain. Racine was back in Paris before the end of 1663. His letters from Uzès to La Fontaine, to Le Vasseur, and others are in much the same strain as before, but there is here and there a marked tone of cynicism in them. He also attempted a little courtiership. An ode on the recovery of Louis XIV from a slight illness probably secured him the promise of a pension, of which he speaks to his sister in the summer of 1664. It is uncertain whether this pension is identical with "gratifications" which we know that Racine for some years received, and which were sometimes eight and sometimes six hundred livres. It would seem not, as one of these gratifications had been allotted to him the year before he so wrote to his sister. The ode in which he thanked the king for his presents, La Renommée, is said to have introduced him to Boileau, to whose censorship there is no doubt that he owed much, if not everything; and from this date, November 1663, the familiarity of "the four" seems to have existed in full force. Unfortunately it is precisely at this date that his correspondence ceases, and it is not renewed until after the close of his brief but brilliant career as a dramatist (Esther and Athalie excepted). From this time forward the gossip of the period, and the Life by his son Louis, are the chief sources of information. Unfortunately Louis Racine, though a man of some ability and of unimpeached character, was only six years old when his father died, and had no direct knowledge. Still his account represents family papers and traditions; and seems to have been carefully, as it is certainly in the main impartially, written. From other sources -- notably Boileau, Claude Brossette and Jean Baptiste de Valincourt -- a good deal of pretty certainly authentic information is obtainable, and there exists a considerable body of correspondence between Boileau and the poet during the last ten years of Racine's life.
The first but the least characteristic of the dramas by which Racine is known, La Thébaide, was finished by the end of 1663, and on Friday 20th June 1664 it was played by Molière's company at the Palais Royal theater. Some editors assert that Molière himself acted in it, but the earliest account of the cast we have, and that is sixty years after date, omits his name, though those of Madeleine Béjard and Mademoiselle de Brie occur. There is also a tradition that Molière suggested the subject; but Louis Racine distinctly says that his father wrote most of the play at Uzès before he knew Molière. From Racine's own earlier letters it appears that the play was designed for the rival theater, and that "La Déhanchée", Racine's familiar name for Mademoiselle de Beauchâteau, with whom he was intimate, was to play Antigone. The play itself is by far the weakest of Racine's works. He has borrowed much from Euripides and not a little from Jean de Rotrou; and in his general style and plan he has as yet struck out no great variation from Pierre Corneille. It was acted twelve times during the first month, and was occasionally revived during the year following. This is apparently the date of the pleasant picture of the four friends which La Fontaine draws in his Psyche, Racine figuring as Acante, "qui aimait extrêmement les jardins, les fleurs, les ombrages", in which surroundings he helped to compose the lampoon of Chapelain décoiffé on a writer who had helped him with criticism, obtained royal gifts for him, and, in a fashion, started him in the literary career.
We have no definite details as to Racine's doings during the year 1664, but in February 1665 he read at the Hôtel de Nevers before La Rochefoucauld, Madame de Lafayette, Madame de Sévigné, and other scarcely less redoubtable judges the greater part of his second acted play, Alexandre le Grand, or, as Pomponne (who tells the fact) calls it, Porus. It was anxiously expected by the public, and Molière's company played it on the 4th of December -- Monsieur, his wife Henrietta of England, and many other distinguished persons being present. The gazetteer, Adrien Perdou de Subligny vouches for its success, and the receipts were good and steady. But a fortnight afterwards Alexandre was played, "de complot avec M. Racine", says La Grange, by the rival actors (who had four days before performed it in private) at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. A vast amount of ink has been spilt on this question, but no one has produced any valid justification for Racine. That the piece failed at the Palais Royal, as is stated in the earliest attempt to excuse Racine, and the only one made in his lifetime, is not true. His son simply says that he was "mécontent des acteurs", which indeed is self-evident. It is certain that Molière and he ceased to be friends in consequence of this proceeding; and that Molière was in fault no one who has studied the character of the two men will easily believe. If, however, Alexandre was the occasion of showing the defects of Racine's character as a man, it raised him vastly in public estimation as a poet. He was now for the first time proposed as a serious rival to Corneille. There is a story that he read the piece to the author of the Cid and asked his verdict. Corneille praised the piece highly, but not as a drama, "Il l'assurait qu'il n'était pas propre à la poésie dramatique." There is no reason for disbelieving this, for the character of Alexander could not fail to shock Corneille, and he was notorious for not mincing his words. The contrast between the two even at this early period was accurately apprehended and put by Saint Evremond in his masterly Dissertation sur l'Alexandre, but this was not published for a year or two. To this day it is the best criticism of the faults of Racine, though not, it may be, of the merits, which had not yet been fully seen. It may be added that in the preface of the printed play the poet showed the extreme sensitiveness to criticism which perhaps excuses, and which certainly often accompanies, a tendency to criticize others. These defects of character showed themselves still more fully in another matter. The Port Royalists, as has been said, detested the theater, and in January 1666 Nicole, their chief writer, spoke in one of his Lettres sur les visionnaires, directed against Desmurets de Saint-Sulin, of dramatic poets as "empoisonneurs publics." Racine immediately published a letter to the author. It is very smartly written, and if Racine had contented himself with protesting against the exaggeration of the decriers of the stage there would have been little harm done. But he filled the piece with personalities, telling an absurd story of Mère Angélique Arnauld's supposed intolerance, drawing a ridiculous picture of Le Maître (a dead man and his own special teacher and friend), and sneering savagely at Nicole himself. The latter made no reply, but two lay adherents of Port Royal took up the quarrel with more zeal than discretion or ability. Racine wrote a second pamphlet as bitter and personal as the first, but less amusing, and was about to publish it when fortunately Boileau, who had been absent from Paris, returned and protested against the publication. It remained accordingly unprinted until after the author's death, as well as a preface to both which he had prepared with a view to publishing them together and so discharging the accumulated resentment arising from a long course of "excommunications."
After this disagreeable episode Racine's life, for ten years and more, becomes simply the history of his plays, if we except his liaisons with the actresses Mademoiselle du Parc and Mademoiselle de Champmeslé, and his election to the Academy on the 17th of July 1673. Mademoiselle du Parc (marquise de Gorla) was no very great actress, but was very beautiful, and she had previously captivated Molière. Racine induced her to leave the Palais Royal company and join the Hôtel. She died in 1668, and long afterwards the infamous Catherine Voisin accused Racine of having poisoned her. Mademoiselle de Champmeslé was plain, but an admirable actress, and apparently very attractive in some way, for not merely Racine but Charles de Sévigné and many others adored her. For five years before his marriage Racine seems to have been her amant en titre, but long afterwards, just before his own death, when he heard of her mortal illness, he spoke of her to his son without a flash of tenderness.
The series of his unquestioned dramatic triumphs began with Andromaque, and this play may perhaps dispute with Phèdre and Athalie the title of his masterpiece. It is much more uniformly good than Phèdre, and the character of Hermione is the most personally interesting on the French tragic stage. It is said that the first representation of Andromaque was on 10th November 1667, in public and by the actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, but the first contemporary mention of it by the gazettes, prose and verse, is on the 17th, as performed in the queen's apartment. Perrault, by no means a friendly critic as far as Racine is concerned, says that it made as much noise as the Cid, and so it ought to have done. Whatever may be thought of the tragédie pathétique (a less favorable criticism might call it the "sentimental tragedy"), it could hardly be better exemplified than in this admirable play. A ferocious epigram of Racine's own tells us that some critics thought Pyrrhus too fond of his mistress, and Andromache too fond of her husband, but in the contemporary depreciations is to be found the avowal of its real merit. Pyrrhus was taken by Floridor, the best tragic actor by common consent of his time, and Orestes by Montfleury, also an accomplished player. But Mademoiselle du Parc, who played Andromache, had generally been thought below, not above, her parts, and Mademoiselle des Oeillets, who played the difficult role of Hermione, was old and had few physical advantages. No one who reads Andromaque without prejudice is likely to mistake the secret of its success, which is, in few words, the application of the most delicate art to the conception of really tragic passion. Before leaving the play it may be mentioned that it is said to have been in the part of Hermione, three years later, that Mademoiselle de Champmeslé captivated the author. Andromaque was succeeded, at the distance of not more than a year, by the charming comedietta of Les Plaideurs. We do not know exactly when it was played, but it was printed on the 5th of December 1668. Many anecdotes are told about its origin and composition. The Wasps of Aristophanes, and the known fact that Racine originally destined it, not for a French company, but for the Italian troupe which was then playing the Commedia dell'arte in Paris, dispense us from enumerating them. The result is a piece admirably dramatic, but sufficiently literary to shock the profanum vulgus, which too frequently gives the tone at theaters. It failed completely, the chief favoring voice being, according to a story sufficiently well attested and worthy of belief even without attestation, that of the man who was best qualified to praise and who might have been most tempted to blame of any man then living. Molière, says Valincourt, the special friend of Racine, said in leaving the house, "Que ceux qui se moquoient de cette pièce meritoient qu'on se moquoient d'eux." But the piece was suddenly played at court a month later; the king laughed, and its fortunes were restored. It need only be added that, if Louis XIV admired Les Plaideurs, Napoleon did not, and excluded it from his travelling library. It was followed by a very different work, Britannicus, which appeared on 13th December 1669. This was much less successful than Andromaque, and seems to have held its own but a very few nights. Afterwards it became very popular, and even from the first the exquisite versification was not denied. But there is no doubt that in Britannicus the defects of Racine display themselves pretty clearly to any competent critic. The complete nullity of Britannicus himself and of Junie, and the insufficient attempt to display the complex and dangerous character of Nero are not redeemed by Agrippina, who is really good, and Burrhus, who is solidly painted as a secondary character. Voltaire calls it "la pièce des connaisseurs", a double-edged compliment. The next play of Racine has, except Phèdre, the most curious history of all. "Bérenice", says Fontenelle succinctly, "fut un duel", and he acknowledges that his uncle was not the conqueror. Henrietta of Orleans proposed (it is said without letting them know the double commission) the subject to Corneille and Racine at the same time, and rumor gives no very creditable reasons for her choice of the subject. Her death preceded the performance of the two plays, both of which, but especially Racine's, were successful. There is no doubt that it is the better of the two, but Claude Chapelle's not unfriendly criticism in quoting the two lines of an old song -- "Marion pleure, Marion crie, / Marion veut qu'on la marie" -- is said to have annoyed Racine very much, and it has a most malicious appropriateness. Bajazet, which was first played on 4th January 1672, is perhaps better. As a play, technically speaking, it has great merit, but the reproach commonly brought against its author was urged specially and with great force against this by Corneille. It is impossible to imagine anything less Oriental than the atmosphere of Bajazet; the whole thing is not only French but ephemerally French -- French of the day and hour; and its ingenious scenario and admirable style scarcely save it. This charge is equally applicable with the same reservations to Mithridate, which appears to have been produced on 13th January 1673, the day after the author's reception at the Academy. It was extremely popular, and Racine could hardly have lodged a more triumphant diploma piece. His next attempt, Iphigénie, was a long step backwards and upwards in the direction of Andromaque. It is not that the characters are eminently Greek, but that Greek tragedy gave Racine examples which prevented him from flying in the face of the propriety of character as he had done in Bérénice, Bajazet, and Mithridate, and that he here called in, as in Andromaque, other passions to the aid of the mere sighing and crying which form the sole appeal of these three tragedies. It succeeded brilliantly and deservedly, but, oddly enough, the date of its appearance is very uncertain. It was acted at court on the 18th of August 1674, but it does not seem to have been given to the public until the early spring of 1675.
The last and finest of the series of tragedies proper was the most unlucky. Phèdre was represented for the first time on New Year's Day 1677, at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Within a week the opposition company or troupe du roi launched an opposition Phèdre by Nicolas Pradon. This singular competition, which had momentous results for Racine, and in which he to some extent paid the penalty of the lex talionis for his own rivalry with Corneille, had long been foreseen. Racine had from the first been bitterly opposed, and his enemies at this time had the powerful support of the duchess of Bouillon, one of Mazarin's nieces, together with her brother the duke of Nevers and various other personages of high position. These persons of quality, guided, it is said, by Madame Deshoulières, selected Pradon, a dramatist of little talent but of much facility, to compose a Phèdre in competition with that which it was known that Racine had been elaborating. The partisans on both sides did not neglect means for correcting fortune. On her side the duchess of Bouillon is accused of having bought up the front places in both theaters for the first six nights; on his, Racine is said to have prevailed on the best actresses of the company that played Pradon's piece to refuse the title part. There is even some ground for believing that he endeavored to prevent the opposition play from being played at all. It was of no value, but the measures of the cabal had been so well taken that the finest tragedy of the French classical school was all but driven from the stage, while Pradon's was a positive success. A war of sonnets and epigrams followed, during which it is said that the duke of Nevers menaced Racine and Boileau with the same treatment which Dryden and Voltaire actually received, and was only deterred by the protection which Condé extended to them.
The unjust cabal against his piece no doubt made a deep impression on Racine. But it is impossible to decide exactly how much influence this had on the subsequent change in his life. For thirteen years he had been constantly employed on a series of brilliant dramas. He now broke off his dramatic work entirely and in the remaining twenty years of his life wrote but two more plays, and those under special circumstances and of quite a different kind. He had been during his early manhood a libertine in morals and religion; he now married, became irreproachably domestic, and almost ostentatiously devout. No authentic account of this change exists; for that of Louis Racine, which attributes the whole to a sudden religious impulse, is manifestly little more than the theory of a son, pious in both senses of the word. Probably all, the motives which friends and foes have attributed entered more or less into his action. At any rate, what is certain is that he reconciled himself with Arnauld and Port Royal generally, accepted, with whatever sincerity, their doctrine of the incompatibility of the stage and the Christian life, and on the 1st of June married Catherine de Romanet and definitely settled down to a quiet domestic life, alternated with the duties of a courtier. For his repentance was by no means a repentance in sackcloth and ashes. The drama was not then very profitable to dramatists, but Louis Racine tells us that his father had been able to furnish a house, collect a library of some value, and save 6000 livres. His wife had money, and he had possessed for some time (it is not certain how long) the honorable and valuable post of treasurer of France at Moulins. His annual "gratification" had been increased from 800 to 1500 livres, then to 2000, and in the October of the year of his marriage he and Boileau were made historiographers-royal with a salary of 2000 crowns. Besides all this he had, though a layman, one or two benefices. It would have been pleasanter if Louis Racine had not told us that his father regarded His Majesty's choice as "an act of the grace of God to detach him entirely from poetry." For the historiographer of Louis XIV was simply his chief flatterer. However, little came of this historiography. The joint incumbents of the office made some campaigns with the king, sketched plans of histories and left a certain number of materials and memoirs; but they executed no substantive work. Racine, whether this be set down to his credit or not, was certainly a fortunate and apparently an adroit courtier. His very relapse into Jansenism coincided with his rise at court, where Jansenism was in no favor, and the fact that he had been in the good graces of Madame de Montespan did not deprive him of those of Madame de Maintenon. Neither in Esther did he hesitate to reflect upon his former patroness. But a reported sneer of the king, who was sharp-eyed enough, "Cavoie avec Racine se croit bel esprit; Racine avec Cavoie se croit courtisan", makes it appear that his comparatively low birth was not forgotten at Versailles.
Racine's first campaign was at the siege of Ypres in 1678, where some practical jokes are said to have been played on the two civilians who acted this early and peculiar variety of the part of special correspondent. Again in 1683, in 1687 and in each year from 1691 to 1693 Racine accompanied the king on similar expeditions. The literary results of these have been spoken of. His labors brought him, in addition to his other gains, frequent special presents from the king, one of which was as much as 1000 pistoles. In 1690 he further received the office of "gentilhomme ordinaire du roi", which afterwards passed to his son. Thus during the later years of his life he was more prosperous than is usual with poets. His domestic life appears to have been a happy one. Louis Racine tells us that his mother "did not know what a verse was", but Racine certainly knew enough about verses for both. They had seven children. The eldest, Jean Baptiste, was born in 1678; the youngest, Louis, in 1692. It has been said that he was thus too young to have many personal memories of his father, but he tells one or two stories which show Racine to have been at any rate a man of strong family affection, as, moreover, his letters prove. Between the two sons came five daughters, Marie, Anne, Elizabeth, Françoise and Madeleine. The eldest, after showing "vocation", married in 1699, Anne and Elizabeth took the veil, the youngest two remained single but did not enter the cloister. To complete the notice of family matters -- much of Racine's later correspondence is addressed to his sister Marie, Madame Rivière.
The almost complete silence which Racine imposed on himself after the comparative failure of Phèdre was broken once or twice even before the appearance of his two last exquisite tragedies. The most honourable of these was the reception of Thomas Corneille on 2nd January 1685 at the Academy in the room of his brother. The discourse which Racine then pronounced turned almost entirely on his great rival, of whom he spoke even more than becomingly. But it was an odd conjunction of the two reigning passions of the latter part of his life -- devoutness and obsequiousness to the court -- which made him once more a dramatist. Madame de Maintenon had established an institution, first called the Maison Saint Louis, and afterwards (from the place to which it was transferred) the Maison de Saint Cyr, for the education of poor girls of noble family. The tradition of including acting in education was not obsolete. At first the governess, Madame de Grinon, composed pieces for representation, but, says Madame de Caylus, a witness at first hand and a good judge, they were "detestable." Then recourse was had to chosen plays of Corneille and Racine, but here there were obvious objections. The favorite herself wrote to Racine that "nos petites filles" had played Andromaque "a great deal too well." She asked the poet for a new play suited to the circumstances, and, though Boileau advised him against it, it is not wonderful that he yielded. The result was the masterpiece of Esther, with music by Moreau, the court composer and organist of Saint Cyr. Although played by schoolgirls and in a dormitory, it had an enormous success, with which it may be charitably hoped that the transparent comparison of the patroness to the heroine had not too much to do. Printed shortly afterwards, it had to suffer a certain reaction, or perhaps a certain vengeance, from those who had not been admitted to the private stage. But no competent judge could hesitate. Racine probably had read and to some extent followed the Aman of Antoine de Montchrétien, but he made of it only the use which a proved master in literature has a perfect right to make of his forerunners. The beauty of the chorus, which Racine had restored more probably from a study of the Pléiade tragedy than from classical suggestions, the perfection of the characters and the wonderful art of the whole piece need no praise. Almost immediately the poet was at work on another and a still finer piece of the same kind, and he had probably finished Athalie before the end of 1690. The fate of the play, however, was very different from that of Esther. Some fuss had been made about the worldliness of great court fêtes at Saint Cyr, and the new play, with settings as before by Moreau, was acted both at Versailles and at Saint Cyr with much less pomp and ceremony than Esther. It was printed in March 1691, and the public cared very little for it. The truth is that the last 25 years of the reign of Louis XIV were marked by one of the lowest tides of literary accomplishment and appreciation in the history of France. The just judgment of posterity has ranked Athalie, if not as Racine's best work (and there are good grounds for considering it to be this), at any rate as equal to his best. From this point forward Racine was practically silent, except for four cantiques spirituelles, in the style and with much of the merit of the choruses of Esther and Athalie. The general literary sentiment led by Fontenelle (who inherited the wrongs of Corneille, his uncle, and whom Racine had taken care to estrange further) was against the arrogant critic and the irritable poet, and they made their case worse by espousing the cause of Jean de La Bruyère, whose personalities in his Caractères had made him one of the best-hated men in France, and by engaging in the Ancient and Modern battle with Charles Perrault. Racine, moreover, was a constant and spiteful epigrammatist, and the unlucky habit of preferring his joke to his friend stuck by him to the last. A savage epigram on the Sesostris of Hilaire Bernard de Longepierre, who had done him no harm, was his familiar acquaintance, and had actually put him above Corneille in a parallèle between them, dates as late as 1695. Still the king maintained him in favor, and so long as this continued he could afford to laugh at Grub Street and the successors of the Hôtel de Rambouillet alike. At last, however, there seems to have come a change, and it is even probable that royal displeasure had some effect on his health. Disease of the liver appears to have been the immediate cause of his death, which took place on 12th April 1699. The king seems to have, at any rate, forgiven him after his death, and he gave the family a pension of 2000 livres. Racine was buried at Port Royal, but even this transaction was not the last of his relations with that famous home of religion and learning. After the destruction of the abbey in 1711 his body was exhumed and transferred to Saint Étienne du Mont, his gravestone being left behind and only restored to his ashes a hundred years later, in 1818. His eldest son was never married; his eldest daughter and Louis Racine have left descendants to the present day.
Racine may be considered from two very different points of view: (1) as a playwright and poetical artificer, and (2) as a dramatist and a poet. From the first point of view there is hardly any praise too high for him. He did not invent the form he practiced, and those who, from want of attention to the historical facts, assume that he did are unskilful as well as ignorant. When he came upon the scene the form of French plays was settled, partly by the energetic efforts of the Pléiade and their successors, partly by the reluctant acquiescence of Corneille. It is barely possible that the latter might, if he had chosen, have altered the course of French tragedy; it is nearly certain that Racine could not. But Corneille, though he was himself more responsible than any one else for the acceptance of the single-situation tragedy, never frankly gave himself up to it, and the inequality of his work is due to this. His heart was, though not to his knowledge, elsewhere, and with Shakespeare. Racine, in whom the craftsman dominated the man of genius, worked with a will and without any misgivings. Every advantage of which the Senecan tragedy adapted to modern times was capable he gave it. He perfected its versification; he subordinated its scheme entirely to the one motive which could have free play in it -- the display of a conventionally intense passion, hampered by this or that obstacle; he set himself to produce in verse a kind of Ciceronian correctness. The grammar-criticisms of Vaugelas and the taste-criticisms of Boileau produced in him no feeling of revolt, but only a determination to play the game according to these new rules with triumphant accuracy. And he did so play it. He had supremely the same faculty which enabled the rhétoriqueurs of the 15th century to execute apparently impossible tours de force in ballades couronnées, and similar tricks. He had besides a real and saving vein of truth to nature, which preserved him from tricks pure and simple. He would be, and he was, as much a poet as prevalent taste would let him be. The result is that such plays as Phèdre and Andromaque are supreme in their own way. If the critic will only abstain from thrusting in tierce, when according to the particular rules he ought to thrust in quart, Racine is sure to beat him.
But there is a higher game of criticism than this, and this game Racine does not attempt to play. He does not even attempt the highest poetry at all. His greatest achievements in pure passion -- the foiled desires of Hermione and the jealous frenzy of Phèdre -- are cold, not merely beside the crossed love of Ophelia and the remorse of Lady Macbeth, but beside the sincerer if less perfectly expressed passion of Corneille's Cléopâtre and Camille. In men's parts he fails still more completely. As the decency of his stage would not allow him to make his heroes frankly heroic, so it would not allow him to make them utterly passionate. He had, moreover, cut away from himself, by the adoption of the Senecan model, all the opportunities which would have been offered to his remarkably varied talent on a freer stage. It is indeed tolerably certain that he never could have achieved the purely poetical comedy of As You Like It or the Vida es Sueño, but the admirable success of Les Plaideurs makes it at least probable that he might have done something in a lower and a more conventional style. From all this, however, he deliberately cut himself off. Of the whole world which is subject to the poet he took only a narrow artificial and conventional fraction. Within these narrow bounds he did work which no admirer of literary craftsmanship can regard without admiration. It would be unnecessary to contrast his performances with his limitations so sharply if those limitations had not been denied. But they have been and are still denied by persons whose sentence carries weight, and therefore it is still necessary to point out the fact of their existence.
Father: Jean Racine
Mother: Jeanne Sconin
Wife: Catherine de Romanet (m. 1-Jul-1677, seven children)
Son: Jean Baptiste Racine (b. 1678)
Son: Louis Racine (poet, b. 1692, d. 1763)
French Academy 17-Jul-1673
Do you know something we don't?
Submit a correction or make a comment about this profile
Copyright ©2014 Soylent Communications