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A Glance Into The French Academy
by [?]

During these ceremonious preparations several officers of state had entered the hall, and stood behind the academicians. The chancellor sat at the queen’s left hand by the fire-side; and at the right was placed M. de la Chambre, the director; then Boisrobert, Patru, Pelisson, Cotin, the Abbe Tallemant, and others. M. de Mezeray sat at the bottom of the table facing the queen, with an inkstand, paper, and the portfolio of the company lying before him: he occupied the place of the secretary. When they were all seated the director rose, and the academicians followed him, all but the chancellor, who remained in his seat. The director made his complimentary address in a low voice, his body was quite bent, and no person but the queen and the chancellor could hear him. She received his address with great satisfaction.

All compliments concluded, they returned to their seats. The director then told the queen that he had composed a treatise on Pain, to add to his character of the Passions, and if it was agreeable to her majesty, he would read the first chapter.–“Very willingly,” she answered. Having read it, he said to her majesty, that he would read no more lest he should fatigue her. “Not at all,” she replied, “for I suppose what follows is like what I have heard.”

M. de Mezeray observed that M. Cotin had some verses, which her majesty would doubtless find beautiful, and if it was agreeable they should be read. M. Cotin read them: they were versions of two passages from Lucretius: the one in which he attacks a Providence, and the other, where he gives the origin of the world according to the Epicurean system: to these he added twenty lines of his own, in which he maintained the existence of a Providence. This done, an abbe rose, and, without being desired or ordered, read two sonnets, which by courtesy were allowed to be tolerable. It is remarkable that both the poets read their verses standing, while the rest read their compositions seated.

After these readings, the director informed the queen that the ordinary exercise of the company was to labour on the dictionary; and that if her majesty should not find it disagreeable, they would read a cahier. “Very willingly,” she answered. M. de Mezeray then read what related to the word Jeu; Game. Amongst other proverbial expressions was this: Game of Princes, which only pleases the player, to express a malicious violence committed by one in power. At this the queen laughed heartily; and they continued reading all that was fairly written. This lasted about an hour, when the queen observing that nothing more remained, arose, made a bow to the company, and returned in the manner she entered.

Furetiere, who was himself an academician, has described the miserable manner in which time was consumed at their assemblies. I confess he was a satirist, and had quarrelled with the Academy; there must have been, notwithstanding, sufficient resemblance for the following picture, however it may be overcharged. He has been blamed for thus exposing the Eleusinian mysteries of literature to the uninitiated.

“He who is most clamorous, is he whom they suppose has most reason. They all have the art of making long orations upon a trifle. The second repeats like an echo what the first said; but generally three or four speak together. When there is a bench of five or six members, one reads, another decides, two converse, one sleeps, and another amuses himself with reading some dictionary which happens to lie before him. When a second member is to deliver his opinion, they are obliged to read again the article, which at the first perusal he had been too much engaged to hear. This is a happy manner of finishing their work. They can hardly get over two lines without long digressions; without some one telling a pleasant story, or the news of the day; or talking of affairs of state, and reforming the government.”

That the French Academy were generally frivolously employed appears also from an epistle to Balzac, by Boisrobert, the amusing companion of Cardinal Richelieu. “Every one separately,” says he, “promises great things; when they meet they do nothing. They have been six years employed on the letter F; and I should be happy if I were certain of living till they got through G.”

The following anecdote concerns the forty arm-chairs of the academicians.[1] Those cardinals who were academicians for a long time had not attended the meetings of the Academy, because they thought that arm-chairs were indispensable to their dignity, and the Academy had then only common chairs. These cardinals were desirous of being present at the election of M. Monnoie, that they might give him a distinguished mark of their esteem. “The king,” says D’Alembert, “to satisfy at once the delicacy of their friendship, and that of their cardinalship, and to preserve at the same time that academical equality, of which this enlightened monarch (Louis XIV.) well knew the advantage, sent to the Academy forty arm-chairs for the forty academicians, the same chairs which we now occupy; and the motive to which we owe them is sufficient to render the memory of Louis XIV. precious to the republic of letters, to whom it owes so many more important obligations!”


[Footnote 1: A very clever satire has been concocted in an imaginary history of “a forty-first chair” of the Academy which has been occupied by the great men of literature who have not been recognised members of the official body, and whose “existence there has been unaccountably forgotten” in the annals of its members.]