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Peter Corneille
by [?]

Exact Racine and Corneille’s noble fire
Show’d us that France had something to admire.

POPE.

The great Corneille having finished his studies, devoted himself to the bar; but this was not the stage on which his abilities were to be displayed. He followed the occupation of a lawyer for some time, without taste and without success. A trifling circumstance discovered to the world and to himself a different genius. A young man who was in love with a girl of the same town, having solicited him to be his companion in one of those secret visits which he paid to the lady, it happened that the stranger pleased infinitely more than his introducer. The pleasure arising from this adventure excited in Corneille a talent which had hitherto been unknown to him, and he attempted, as if it were by inspiration, dramatic poetry. On this little subject he wrote his comedy of Melite, in 1625. At that moment the French drama was at a low ebb: the most favourable ideas were formed of our juvenile poet, and comedy, it was expected, would now reach its perfection. After the tumult of approbation had ceased, the critics thought that Melite was too simple and barren of incident. Roused by this criticism, our poet wrote his Clitandre, and in that piece has scattered incidents and adventures with such a licentious profusion, that the critics say he wrote it rather to expose the public taste than to accommodate himself to it. In this piece the persons combat on the theatre; there are murders and assassinations; heroines fight; officers appear in search of murderers, and women are disguised as men. There is matter sufficient for a romance of ten volumes; “And yet,” says a French critic, “nothing can be more cold and tiresome.” He afterwards indulged his natural genius in various other performances; but began to display more forcibly his tragic powers in Medea. A comedy which he afterwards wrote was a very indifferent composition. He regained his full lustre in the famous Cid, a tragedy, of which he preserved in his closet translations in all the European languages, except the Sclavonian and the Turkish. He pursued his poetical career with uncommon splendour in the Horaces, Cinna, and at length in Polyeucte; which productions, the French critics say, can never be surpassed.

At length the tragedy of “Pertharite” appeared, and proved unsuccessful. This so much disgusted our veteran bard, that, like Ben Jonson, he could not conceal his chagrin in the preface. There the poet tells us that he renounces the theatre for ever! and indeed this eternity lasted for several years!

Disgusted by the fate of his unfortunate tragedy, he directed his poetical pursuits to a different species of composition. He now finished his translation in verse, of the “Imitation of Jesus Christ,” by Thomas a Kempis. This work, perhaps from the singularity of its dramatic author becoming a religious writer, was attended with astonishing success. Yet Fontenelle did not find in this translation the prevailing charm of the original, which consists in that simplicity and naivete which are lost in the pomp of versification so natural to Corneille. “This book,” he continues, “the finest that ever proceeded from the hand of man (since the gospel does not come from man) would not go so direct to the heart, and would not seize on it with such force, if it had not a natural and tender air, to which even that negligence which prevails in the style greatly contributes.” Voltaire appears to confirm the opinion of our critic, in respect to the translation: “It is reported that Corneille’s translation of the Imitation of Jesus Christ has been printed thirty-two times; it is as difficult to believe this as it is to read the book once!”

Corneille seems not to have been ignorant of the truth of this criticism. In his dedication to the Pope, he says, “The translation which I have chosen, by the simplicity of its style, precludes all the rich ornaments of poetry, and far from increasing my reputation, must be considered rather as a sacrifice made to the glory of the Sovereign Author of all, which I may have acquired by my poetical productions.” This is an excellent elucidation of the truth of that precept of Johnson which respects religious poetry; but of which the author of “Calvary” seemed not to have been sensible. The merit of religious compositions appears, like this “Imitation of Jesus Christ,” to consist in a simplicity inimical to the higher poetical embellishments; these are too human!