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Peter Corneille
by [?]

When Racine, the son, published a long poem on “Grace,” taken in its holy sense, a most unhappy subject at least for poetry; it was said that he had written on Grace without grace.

During the space of six years Corneille rigorously kept his promise of not writing for the theatre. At length, overpowered by the persuasions of his friends, and probably by his own inclinations, he once more directed his studies to the drama. He recommenced in 1659, and finished in 1675. During this time he wrote ten new pieces, and published a variety of little religious poems, which, although they do not attract the attention of posterity, were then read with delight, and probably preferred to the finest tragedies by the good catholics of the day.

In 1675 he terminated his career. In the last year of his life his mind became so enfeebled as to be incapable of thinking, and he died in extreme poverty. It is true that his uncommon genius had been amply rewarded; but amongst his talents that of preserving the favours of fortune he had not acquired.

Fontenelle, his nephew, presents a minute and interesting description of this great man. Vigneul Marville says, that when he saw Corneille he had the appearance of a country tradesman, and he could not conceive how a man of so rustic an appearance could put into the mouths of his Romans such heroic sentiments. Corneille was sufficiently large and full in his person; his air simple and vulgar; always negligent; and very little solicitous of pleasing by his exterior. His face had something agreeable, his nose large, his mouth not unhandsome, his eyes full of fire, his physiognomy lively, with strong features, well adapted to be transmitted to posterity on a medal or bust. His pronunciation was not very distinct: and he read his verses with force, but without grace.

He was acquainted with polite literature, with history, and politics; but he generally knew them best as they related to the stage. For other knowledge he had neither leisure, curiosity, nor much esteem. He spoke little, even on subjects which he perfectly understood. He did not embellish what he said, and to discover the great Corneille it became necessary to read him.

He was of a melancholy disposition, had something blunt in his manner, and sometimes he appeared rude; but in fact he was no disagreeable companion, and made a good father and husband. He was tender, and his soul was very susceptible of friendship. His constitution was very favourable to love, but never to debauchery, and rarely to violent attachment. His soul was fierce and independent: it could never be managed, for it would never bend. This, indeed, rendered him very capable of portraying Roman virtue, but incapable of improving his fortune. Nothing equalled his incapacity for business but his aversion: the slightest troubles of this kind occasioned him alarm and terror. He was never satiated with praise, although he was continually receiving it; but if he was sensible to fame, he was far removed from vanity.

What Fontenelle observes of Corneille’s love of fame is strongly proved by our great poet himself, in an epistle to a friend, in which we find the following remarkable description of himself; an instance that what the world calls vanity, at least interests in a great genius.

Nous nous aimons un peu, c’est notre foible a tous;
Le prix que nous valons que le scait mieux que nous?
Et puis la mode en est, et la cour l’autorise,
Nous parlons de nous-memes avec toute franchise,
La fausse humilite ne met plus en credit.
Je scais ce que je vaux, et crois ce qu’on m’en dit,
Pour me faire admirer je ne fais point de ligue;
J’ai peu de voix pour moi, mais je les ai sans brigue;
Et mon ambition, pour faire plus de bruit
Ne les va point queter de reduit en reduit.
Mon travail sans appui monte sur le theatre,
Chacun en liberte l’y blame ou idolatre;
La, sans que mes amis prechent leurs sentimens,
J’arrache quelquefois leurs applaudissemens;
La, content da succes que le merite donne,
Par d’illustres avis je n’eblouis personne;
Je satisfais ensemble et peuple et courtisans;
Et mes vers en tous lieux sent mes seuls partisans;
Par leur seule beaute ma plume est estimee;
Je ne dois qu’a moi seul toute ma renommee;
Et pense toutefois n’avoir point de rival,
A qui je fasse tort, en le traitant d’egal.

I give his sentiments in English verse.

Self-love prevails too much in every state;
Who, like ourselves, our secret worth can rate?
Since ’tis a fashion authorised at court,
Frankly our merits we ourselves report.
A proud humility will not deceive;
I know my worth; what others say, believe.
To be admired I form no petty league;
Few are my friends, but gain’d without intrigue.
My bold ambition, destitute of grace,
Scorns still to beg their votes from place to place.
On the fair stage my scenic toils I raise,
While each is free to censure or to praise;
And there, unaided by inferior arts,
I snatch the applause that rushes from their hearts.
Content by Merit still to win the crown,
With no illustrious names I cheat the town.
The galleries thunder, and the pit commends;
My verses, everywhere, my only friends!
‘Tis from their charms alone my praise I claim;
‘Tis to myself alone, I owe my fame;
And know no rival whom I fear to meet,
Or injure, when I grant an equal seat.

Voltaire censures Corneille for making his heroes say continually they are great men. But in drawing the character of a hero he draws his own. All his heroes are only so many Corneilles in different situations.

Thomas Corneille attempted the same career as his brother; perhaps his name was unfortunate, for it naturally excited a comparison which could not be favourable to him. Gacon, the Dennis of his day, wrote the following smart impromptu under his portrait:–

Voyant le portrait de Corneille,
Gardez-vous de crier merveille;
Et dans vos transports n’allez pas
Prendre ici Pierre pour Thomas.