Page images

and the diary-keeping Motteville, and many another gentlewoman of note. Within the next few years would be born the leaders of France's eighteenth-century literature-Rousseau and Diderot, Vauvenargues and D'Alembert, Buffon and Helvetius. Already was the future dictator of their republic, Voltaire to wit, a brisk, inquisitive, keen-eyed, sharptongued, mischievous, meddling, mocking urchin, in the tenth year of his age, and a pronounced pet with St. Evremond's aged, not venerable correspondent, Ninon de l'Enclos. Between Voiture and Voltaire, between the epoch of Voiture and that of Voltaire, what a difference! Yet does one middle term suffice to connect them, widely sundered as they may seem ; and that function St. Evremond discharges, in virtue of his position, his tastes, his authorship, and his fourscore years and ten.

With Sainte Beuve, we may divide the life of St. Evremond into two clearly distinct portions. Till he was forty-eight he lived in France, at the court, or with the army, a life of brilliancy and activity ; high in favour with the great commanders of that period, he was fairly on the way to military fortune of no mean sort. The celebrated letter, however, which he wrote against Mazarin, on the subject of the treaty of the Pyrenees, so exasperated Louis XIV. that his majesty wrote a letter in his turn-a letter of introduction to the Bastille. He for whom this favour was intended, failed to appreciate the privilege of such an entrée, and managed to reach England viâ Holland, there to shelter himself until the tyranny was overpast, or the tyrant in a better temper. In England he also managed to add forty-two years to the existing stock of forty-eightobserving much, reading moderately, talking a great deal, and amusing himself with writing polite verses, and gallant epistles, and historical dissertations, and critical essays, as the fit took him, or his fair and fashionable friends required. Sainte-Beuve sees in him an " amiable sage," a mind of the first order as regards good sense, and conversant with the whole range of the graces." His natural characteristic is easy superiority; he can hardly be better defined than as a kind of Montaigne adouci

. His intellect is distinguished at once by firmness and finesse. The passions of our nature he has experienced, has given way to, has indeed, to a certain extent, cultivated within himself, but without blindly abandoning himself to their sway; for even when he yielded, he did so with discernment and moderation.”*

More of a man of the world than a professed author, St. Evremond's writings were eagerly read in manuscript by the favoured habitués of the circle he frequented. As it was a favour to hear them read, it became a matter of amour-propre, as another historian of French literature observes, to praise them up to the skies; the vanity of the listeners swelled the renown of the author. It is La Bruyère's remark that a work thus made known, may be thoroughly common-place in itself, and yet, from these extrinsic accompaniments

, be panegyrised as a miracle of genius. It is when the printer has set hands upon it, and the charm of coterie and clique has evanished, that the process of disenchantment rapidly sets in. But St. Evremond's repute survived even the trials of the printing-press. “Not that there is real power in his thought or any great brilliancy in his style; but we do find in him the finesse in observation of a man who

Causeries du Lundi, t. iv.

has lived much in the world, and the ingenious easy table-talk of the high society of that era.” “ The disciple of Voiture and the master of Voltaire, he has infinitely less of affectation than the former, and of wit and sagacity than the latter; still, he serves as a medium of transition between these two men.” So writes M. Demogeot, * who, in effect, describes St. Evremond as a spirituel talker; an epicurean of good taste, an elegant and superficial moralist, who piqued himself rather on living than writing well, and fully conformed to his own maxim, that we are far more interested in enjoying the world than in understanding it.

Vinet commits one mistake in saying that “St. Evremond died in 1709, at nearly a hundred years of age;" and probably another when he declares him to “bear the exclusive impress of the eighteenth century.”+ More accurately Mr. Hallam characterises him as evidently belonging to the latter half of the seventeenth century, and speaks of his fame as a brilliant star in the polished aristocracy of France and England, giving for a time a considerable lustre to his writings, the greater part of which are such effusions as the daily intercourse of good company called forth. 6 In verse or in prose, he is the gallant friend, rather than lover, of ladies who, secure probably of love in some other quarter, were proud of the friendship of a wit. He never, to do him justice, mistakes his character, which, as his age was not a little advanced, might have incurred ridicule. Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, is his heroine ; but we take little interest in compliments to a woman neither respected in her life, nor remembered since.” Mr. Hallam judges that nothing can be more trifling than the general character of the writings of St. Evremond, who sometimes, however, rises to literary criticism, or even civil history; on which topics he is clear, unaffected, cold, without imagination or sensibility ; a type of the frigid being, whom an aristocratic and highly polished society is apt to produce. The chief merit of St. Evremond, adds the same critic, is in his style and manner. He has less wit than Voiture, who contributed to form him, or than Voltaire, whom he contributed to form; but he shows neither the effort of the former, nor the restlessness of the latter—though Voltaire, when he is quiet, as in the earliest and best of his historical works, seems to bear a considerable resemblance to St. Evremond, and there can be no doubt that he was familiar with the latter's writings. I

The said Voltaire traces St. Evremond's reputation as an author to the combined influences of a voluptuous morale, a knack at writing letters to people at court, at a time when the word court was uttered with servile emphasis,-a turn for composing vers de société, to hit the taste of fashion and frivolity,—and a good stock of esprit to animate his various effusions. “His exile, his philosophy, and his works are known to all." Especial interest the arch-scoffer of the eighteenth century takes in repeating the story, be it true or false (and either way it has a too vraisemblable look, on the face of it), of a death-bed mot ascribed to St. Evremond,—who, being asked, as he lay a dying, if he would " se réconcilier," answered (as anecdotage has it) : "Je voudrais me récon

* Hist. de la Lit. Fr., ch. xxxvi.

Alex. Vinet: Hist. de la Lit. Fr., Introduction.
Hallam's Lit. of Europe, vol. iii. part iv. ch. vii. s. 9.
Ecrivains du Siècle de Louis XIV.

cilier avec l'appétit”-more solicitous, in his consistent and ever persistent epicureanism, to redeem his lost appetite, than to save his soul alive.

No longer are his works known to all; though most of us, who read anything, have some notion of his philosophy, and have heard of his exile. St. Evremond's exile was consequent upon the fall of Fouquetthe occasional cause being a satirical letter he had written on Mazarin's peace of the Pyrenees. According to Des Maiseaux, the affair happened in this manner: Louis XIV. set out for Brittany some days before Fouquet was arrested; and St. Evremond, being summoned to attend the royal cortége, left a strong-box, containing money and letters, in the hands of Madame du Plessis-Bellière, whose liaison with the surintendant is made so much of in one* of the longest and boldest of Alexandre Dumas's many long and daring romances. “ As soon as M. Fouquet was arrested, they were not contented,” says Des Maiseaux," with seizing all his papers, but furthermore clapped a seal on what they found at the houses of all such as were thought to be his confidants; and did not fail making a visit to the Lady du Plessis-Bellière, who was too great a friend to the superintendent to be forgotten. There they seized M. de St. Evremond's strong-box, and the Letter relating to the Pyrenean treaty. . . . . MM. . le Tellier and Colbert, who were the Cardinal's creatures, pretending a grateful veneration for the memory of their benefactor, read the Letter to the King, and left no stone unturned to exasperate him against M. de St. Evremond," whose invectives, they further complained, "reflected on the regency of the Queen-mother, and even on the King's reign, since his majesty had thought fit to pursue the Cardinal's scheme and maxims." + The result was, that the obnoxious Letter-writer was ordered to the Bastille. But news of the order reaching him in time, St. Evremondwhom the warning overtook in the forest of Orleans,

Under the shade of melancholy boughs,betook himself with becoming speed to his native Normandy, preferring to be “cabin'd” and “crib’d” there, to being “confined" in the Bastille, notwithstanding all the ineffable advantages of that domicile, as regards proximity to peerless Paris, the Frenchman's paradise, and to Louis Quatorze, the Frenchman's magnus Apollo and Jupiter tonans in one. In Normandy he concealed himself a while, and thence made his way, when opportunity offered, to Holland; whence he departed, after no long stay, to that England which he had visited under far different auspices a year before, as attaché to the French embassy sent to congratulate Charles II. on his restoration, and in which, during the six months of his then agreeable sojourn, he had become acquainted with some of the leading note-worthies of the English court.

In London St. Evremond lived and died, in Voltaire's phrase, as a free man and philosopher. His friend, the Marquis de Miremont, assured Voltaire, during the visit of the latter to the banks of the Thames, that there was quite another efficient cause at work in the matter of St. Evremond's exile, which the refugee himself could never be induced to explain. Late in the century, Louis XIV. graciously gave leave for the banished man to return to France ; but ce philosophe “disdained,” as

• Le Vicomte de Bragelonne.
† Life of St. Evremond, by P. des Maiseaux.

Voltaire words it,* to look upon this permission as a favour, and proved that a man's country is that where he can live happy, which St. Evremond could, and did, even in the capital of Cockaigne.

If Mazarin was the occasion of his disgrace, a niece of the Cardinals, Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, was St. Evremond's chief consolation in exile. During the years that elapsed before her arrival, he counted among his intimates or his privados (to adopt a Spanish distinction) such persons of rank and renown as the Dukes of Buckingham and'Ormond, the Earls of St. Albans and Arlington, the crotchety and chivalric Sir Kenelm Digby, the free-thinking Hobbes of Malmesbury, Mr. Abraham Cowley the poet, and Mr. Edmund Waller of the same guild, and parliament-man besides. With bis Grace of Buckingham and my Lord d'Aubigny, our foreign guest concocted the comedy of “ Sir Politic Would-be." In commemoration of the alleged miracles of Mr. Valentine Greatrakes — whose wonderful cures were attested by philo. sophers and prelates, by a Boyle and a Cudworth, a Whichcot and a Patrick-he wrote his novelet of “ The Irish Prophet.” With Madame de Queroualle he discussed the art of love, and the way to manage a Merry Monarch. There was an interruption to his sojourn in England a few years after its commencement, when our native fogs, or his own native vapours, seem to have brought the poor gentleman to a sorry pass, insomuch that medical advice hurried him (in default of Montpellier) to the Hague (save the mark !) for change of air. In Holland he consorted with literati of first-class dimensions; talked politics with Heinsius, ancient literature with Vossius, and metaphysics with Spinoza-the last of which triad he is pleased to commend for learning, modesty, and disinterestedness. Breda, Spa, and Brussels were visited by him in turn; and he was not without hopes of making a return to England unnecessary, by means of working on the clemency of the Grand Monarque to grant him a plenary forgiveness, and receive him back again, before age should render a recal indifferent, to a withered senior with

neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,

To make the summons pleasant. But though his friends at court duly ventilated the question, St. Evremond was not to be now recalled not to be recalled at all until it was too late to answer his purpose. He came back to England, therefore, and little by little became increasingly settled, and even in his French way attached to us sad-hearted islanders. It was to the Frenchified section of our society, however, that his intercourse was almost exclusively confined. He did his endeavour, too, and by all accounts with tolerable success, to Frenchify us more extensively. If England was his adopted country, at any rate he would not turn Englishman. He would not even learn English-why should he? In that age the island-home of St. Evremond was odious to his countrymen as a hive of heretics and revolutionary rascals. The two courts, presided over by two cousins, might correspond and communicate between themselves, and no harm done. But as far as national influence was concerned, that, like the Irishman's reciprocity, must be all in one direction. France might,

* Siècle de Louis XIV., ch, xxv.

could, and inevitably would influence England; poor barbarous England neither might, would, nor possibly could influence enlightened France. Villemain declares that notwithstanding the frequent rapprochements between the cabinets of London and Versailles, in the matter of political interests,—and notwithstanding the marriage of Charles's sister with Louis's brother, and again, at a later day, the prolonged exile of James II.,—all of which events must have tended to familiarise France with English ideas,—there is yet not a single trace of any such idea in French literature at large. “ And this because what communication there was, took place between the two courts, not between the two countries. The beaux esprits of France seemed on their guard against England, as a land of savages. Antony Hamilton, an Englishman, wrote French in a style more sprightly, airy, and française, than perhaps any Frenchman. But St. Evremond, a refugee in England, for the space of twenty years, did not so much as learn to read the English language.”

2."* Philarète Chasles, again, says great things of what was going on in a little corner of London, where St. Evremond directed the reunions chez Madame de Mazarin; and there we are instructed to see the French centre whence were to radiate the new forces of English literature—there to recognise “the original source which shall one day feed the entire literature of Great Britain, and shall become more than half French in the reigns of Charles II., William, and Anne. The genius of Shakspeare then folds up its wings and withdraws its rays; the delicacy of St. Evremond and the severity of Boileau hover above English literature of the eighteenth century,”+ while in due time Gassendi, and Fontenelle, and Molière are virtually reproduced, or at least represented, M. Chasles takes it, by Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison. Less exceptionable in the main is the observation of another critic, I-viz., that St. Évremond's destiny would appear, when it fixed him in England, to have intended him for the precursor of that philosopher by whom Frenchmen were first made acquainted with this a noble country;" but that his thoroughly French prejudices debarred him from comprehending, much less sympathising with, the men and manners he met with when he crossed the Channel.

Like as St. Evremond was in several respects to another long-lived Frenchman, still longer-lived and far more important than himself—we mean Fontenelle, who saw out nearly half of the seventeenth century, and more than half of the eighteenth-he was, with all his epicurism and epicureanism (not a hendiadys, reader), considerably less of a coldblooded animal than that accomplished centenarian. St. Evremond was capable of attachments, pretty strong and lasting. As Montaigne had his Etienne de la Boëtie, so St. Evremond had his D’Aubigny, whom he lost, however, before age had tested the quality of his regard, and whom he lamented with tears that did him credit, and gained him other friends. Lax as was his theory, and eke his practice, of morality, he was considered quite an exemplar by some in that debauched generation. He played the Mentor in his way, and was quizzed for it by the young

* Villemain : Cours de Littérature Française.
† Etudes sur l'Espagne.
| Demogeot: Hist. de la Lit. Fr., ch. xxxvi.

« PreviousContinue »