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François de Malherbe

François de MalherbeBorn: 1555
Birthplace: Caen, France
Died: 16-Oct-1628
Location of death: Paris, France
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Poet

Nationality: France
Executive summary: Larmes de Saint Pierre

French poet, critic and translator, born at Caen in 1555. His family was of some position, though it seems not to have been able to establish to the satisfaction of heralds the claims which it made to nobility older than the 16th century. The poet was the eldest son of another François de Malherbe, conseiller du roi in the magistracy of Caen. He himslf was elaborately educated at Caen, at Paris, at Heidelberg and at Basel. At the age of twenty-one, preferring arms to the gown, he entered the household of Henri d'Angoulême, grand prior of France, the natural son of Henri II. He served this prince as secretary in Provence, and married there in 1581. It seems that he wrote verses at this period, but, to judge from a quotation of Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux, they must have been very bad ones. His patron died when Malherbe was on a visit in his native province, and for a time he had no particular employment, though by some servile verses he obtained a considerable gift of money from Henri III, whom he afterwards libelled. He lived partly in Provence and partly in Normandy for many years after this event; but very little is known of his life during this period. His Larmes de Saint Pierre, imitated from Luigi Tansillo, appeared in 1587.

It was in the year parting the two centuries (1600) that he presented to Marie de Medici an ode of welcome, the first of his remarkable poems. But four or five years more passed before his fortune, which had hitherto been indifferent, turned. He was presented by his countryman, the Cardinal Du Perron, to Henri IV; and, though that economical prince did not at first show any great eagerness to entertain the poet, he was at last summoned to court and endowed after one fashion or another. It is said that the pension promised him was not paid until the next reign. His father died in 1606, and he came into his inheritance. From this time forward he lived at court, corresponding affectionately with his wife, but seeing her only twice in some twenty years. His old age was saddened by a great misfortune. His son, Marc Antoine, a young man of promise, fell in a duel in 1626. His father used his utmost influence to have the guilty parties (for more than one were concerned, and there are grounds for thinking that it was not a fair duel) brought to justice. But he died before the suit was decided (it is said in consequence of disease caught at the camp of La Rochelle, to where he had gone to petition the king), in Paris, on the 16th of October, 1628, at the age of seventy-three.

The personal character of Malherbe was far from amiable, but he exercised, or at least indicated the exercise of, a great and enduring effect upon French literature, though by no means a wholly beneficial one. The lines of Nicolas Boileau beginning Enfin Malherbe vint are rendered only partially applicable by the extraordinary ignorance of older French poetry which distinguished that peremptory critic. But the good as well as bad side of Malherbe's theory and practice is excellently described by his contemporary and superior Regnier, who was animated against him, not merely by reason of his own devotion to Pierre de Ronsard but because of Malherbe's discourtesy towards Regnier's uncle P. Desportes, whom the Norman poet had at first distinctly copied. These are the lines:

Cependant leur savoir ne s'étend nullement
Qu'à régratter un mot douteuse au jugement;
Prendre garde qu'un qui ne heurte une diphthongue,
Epier si des vers la rime est brève ou longue,
Ou bien si la voyelle à l'autre s'unissant
Ne rend point à l'oreille un vers trop languissant.
C'est proser de la rime et rimer de la prose.

This is perfectly true, and from the time of Malherbe dates that great and deplorable falling off of French poetry in its more poetic qualities, which was not made good until 1830. Nevertheless the critical and restraining tendency of Malherbe was not ill in place after the luxuriant importation and innovation of the Pléiade; and if he had confined himself to preaching greater technical perfection, and especially greater simplicity and purity in vocabulary and versification, instead of superciliously striking his pen through the great works of his predecessors, he would have deserved wholly well. As it was, his reforms helped to elaborate the kind of verse necessary for the classical tragedy, and that is the most that can be said for him. His own poetical work is scanty in amount, and for the most part frigid and devoid of inspiration. The beautiful Consolation à Duperier, in which occurs the famous line "Et, rose, elle a vécu ce que vivent les roses", the odes to Marie de Medici and to Louis XIII, and a few other pieces comprise all that is really worth remembering of him. His prose work is much more abundant, not less remarkable for care as to style and expression, and of greater positive value. It consists of some translations of Livy and Seneca, and of a very large number of interesting and admirably written letters, many of which are addressed to Peiresc, the man of science of whom Gassendi has left a delightful Latin life. It contains also a most curious commentary on Desportes, in which Malherbe's minute and carping style of verbal criticism is displayed on the great scale.

Father: François de Malherbe

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