Moliere, John Baptist, Pocquelin De

, the celebrated comic writer of France, whose original name was Pocquelin, was born at Paris about 1620. He was both son and grandson to valets de chambres on one side, and tapissiers on the other, to Louis XIII. and was designed for the latter business, that of a domestic upholsterer, whose duty was to take care of the furniture of the royal apartments. But the grandfather being very fond of the boy, and at the same time a great lover of plays, used to take him often with him to the hotel de Bourgogne; which presently roused up Moliere’s natural genius and taste for dramatic representations, and created in him such a disgust to

*

See some remarks on this in Swift’s “Arguments against enlarging the power of bishops in letting leases.” Works, vol. V. edit, by Mr. Nichols, 1801, p. 287. Swift addressed the Drapier’s Letter V. to lord Molesworth. See vol. fX. But Swift’s opinion of him was not uniform. See vol. XVI. p. 227.

| his intended employment, that at last his father consented to let him study under the Jesuits, at the college of Clermont. During the five years that he resided here, he made a rapid progress in the study of philosophy and polite literature, and, if we mistake not, acquired even now much insight into the varieties of human character. He had here also an opportunity of contracting an intimate friendship with Chapelle, Bernier, and Cyrano. Chapelle, with whom Bernier was an associate in his studies, had the famous Gassendi for his tutor, who willingly admitted Moliere to his lectures, as he afterwards also admitted Cyrano. When Louis XIII. went to Narbonne, in 1641, his studies were interrupted: for his infirm father, not being able to attend the court, Moliere was obliged to go there to supply his place. This, however, he quitted on his fathers death; and his passion for the stage, which had induced him first to study, revived more strongly than ever. Some have said, that he for a time studied the law, and was admitted an advocate. This seems doubtful, but, if true, he soon yielded to those more lively pursuits which made him the restorer of comedy in France, and the coadjutor of Corneille, who had rescued the tragic Muse from barbarism. The taste, indeed, for the drama, was much improved in France, after cardinal de Richelieu granted a peculiar protection to dramatic poets. Many little societies now made it a diversion to act plays in their own houses; in one of which, known by the name of “The illustrious Theatre,” Moliere entered himself; and it was then, in conformity to the example of the actors of that time, that he changed his name of Pocquelin for that of Moliere, which he retained ever after. What became of him from 1648 to 1652 we know not, this interval being the time of the civil wars, which caused disturbances in Paris; but it is probable, that he was employed in composing some of those pieces which were afterwards exhibited to the public. La Bejart, an actress of Champagne, waiting, as well as he, for a favourable time to display her talents, Moliere was particularly kind to her; and as their interests became mutual, they formed a company together, and went to Lyons in 1653, where Moliere produced his first play, called “L’Etourdi,” or the Blunderer, and appeared in the double character of author and actor. I his drew almo_st all the spectators from the other company of comedians, which was settled in that town; some | of which company joined with Moliere, and followed him to Beziers in Languedoc, where he offered his services to the prince of Co’nti, who gladly accepted them, as he had known him at college, and was among the first to predict his brilliant career on the stage. He now received him as a friend; and not satisfied with confiding to him the management of the entertainments which he gave, he offered to make him his secretary, which the latter declined, saying, “I am a tolerable author, but I should make a very bad secretary.‘’ About the latter end of 1657, Moliere departed with his company for Grenoble, and continued there during the carnival of 1658. After this he went and settled at Rouen, where he staid all the summer; and having made some journeys to Paris privately, he had the good fortune to please the king’s brother, who, granting him his protection, and making his company his own, introduced him in that quality to the king and queen-mother. That company began to appear before their majesties and the whole court, in Oct. 1658, upon a stage erected on purpose, in the hall of the guards of the Old Louvre; and” were so well approved, that his majesty gave orders for their settlement at Paris. The hall of the Petit Bourbon was granted them, to act by turns with the Italian players. In 1663, Moliere obtained a pension of a thousand livres: and, in 1665, his company was altogether in his majesty’s service. He continued all the remaining part of his life to give new plays, which were very much and very justly applauded: and if we consider the number of works which he composed in about the space of twenty years, while he was himself all the while an actor, and interrupted, as he must be, by perpetual avocations of one kind or other, we cannot fail to admire the quickness, as well as fertility of his genius; and we shall rather be apt to think with Boileau, “that rhime came to him,” than give credit to some others, who say he “wrote very slowly.

His last comedy was “Le malade imaginaire,” or The Hypochondriac and it was acted for the fourth time, Feb. 17, 1673. Upon this very day Moliere died and the manner of his death, as it was first reported, must have been extraordinary, if true. The chief person represented in “Le ma’iade imaginaire,” is a sick man, who, upon a certain occasion, pretends to be dead. Moliere represented that person, and consequently was obliged, in one of his scenes, to act the part of a dead man. The report, | therefore, was that beexpired in that part of the play, and the poets took hold of this incident to show their wit, in a ^variety of jeux d’esprit, as if it had been a legitimate subject for jesting. The only decent lines on this occasion were the following, evidently written by some person of a graver character:

Roscius hie situs est tristi Molierus in urna, Cui genus humanum ludere, ludus erat. Dum ludit mortem, mors’indignata jocantem Corripit, & mimum h’ngere sasva negat.

But, according to the best accounts, Moliere was indisposed before the performance of the play. His wifr, and Baron the actor, urged him to take some care of himself, and not to perform that day. “And what then,” said he, “is to become of my poor performers I should reproach myself if I neglected them a single day.” The exertions which he made to go through his part, produced a convulsion, followed by a voiniting of blood, which suffocated him some hours after, in the fifty-third year of his age. The king was so extremely affected with the loss of him, that, as a new mark of his favour, he prevailed with the archbishop of Paris not to deny his being interred in consecrated ground. As Moliere had gained himself many enemies, by ridiculing the folly and knavery of all orders of men, and particularly by exposing the hypocrites of the ecclesiastical order, and the bigots among the laity, in his celebrated comedy, the “Tartuffe*,” they therefore took the advantage of this play, to stir up Paris and the court against its author; and if the king had not interposed, he had then fallen a sacrifice to the indignation of the clergy. The king, however, stood his friend now he was dead; and the archbishop, through his majesty’s intercession, permitted him to be buried at St. Joseph’s, which was a chapel of ease to the parish church of St. Eustace.

It is related that Moliere read his comedies to an elderly female servant, named Laforet, and when he perceived that the passages which he intended to be humorous and laughable had no effect upon her, he altered them. He

* This comedy was suppressed by prince of Conde, his wonder at the difthe hverest of 'he ecclesiastics, afier rent fates of these two pieces, and

it had been acted a few nights, although a*ked the reason of it, the prince nuat the same time, a very profane farce swered; " In the farce, religion only is

was permitted to have a long run. ridiculed; but Moliere, in the Tar‘­When Lows XIV. expressed to the tuftV,’ has attacked even the priests.“| required the players also to bring their children to the rehearsals, that he might form his opinion of different passages from the natural expressions of their emotions. Moliere, who diverted himself on the theatre by laughing at the follies of mankind, could not guard against the effects of his own weakness. Seduced by a violent passion for the daughter of La Bejart, the actress, he married her, and was soon exposed to all the ridicule with which he had treated the husbands who were jealous of their wives. Happier in the society of his friends, he was beloved by his equals, and courted by the great. Marshal de Vivonne, the great Conde*, and even Lewis XIV. treated him with that familiarity which considers merit as on a level with birth. These flattering distinctions neither corrupted his understanding nor his heart. A poor man having returned him a piece of gold which he had given him by mistake,” In what a humble abode,“he exclaimed,” does Virtue dwell Here, my friend, take another.“When Baron informed him of one of his old theatrical companions whom extreme poverty prevented from appearing, Moliere sent for him, embraced him, and to words of consolation added a present of twenty pistoles and a rich theatrical dress.” When he was in the height of his reputation, Racine, who was just then come from Languedoc, and was scarcely known in Paris, went to see him, under pretence of consulting him about an ode which he had just finished. Moliere expressed such a favourable opinion of the ode, that Racine ventured to shew him his first tragedy, founded on the martyrdom of Theagenes and Chariclea, as he had read it in the Greek romance. Moliere, who had an honest consciousness of superiority, which exalted him above envy, was not sparing either of praise or of counsel. His liberality carried him still farther: he knew that Racine was not in easy circumstances, and therefore lent him a hundred louis-d’ors; thinking it a sufficient recompence to have the honour of producing a genius to the public, which, he foresaw, would one day be the glory of the stage. The French have very justly placed Moliere at the head of all their comic authors. There is, indeed, no author, in all the fruitful and distinguished age of Lewis XIV. who has attained a higher reputation, or who has more nearly reached the summit of perfection in his own art, according to the judgment of all the French critics. Voltaire boldly pronounces him to be the most eminent comic poet of any | age or country nor, perhaps, is this the decision of mere partiality for, upon the whole, who deserves to be preferred to him When Louis XIV. insisted upon Boileau’s telling him who was the most original writer of his time, he answered, MoHere Moliere is always the satirist only of vice or folly. He has selected a great variety of ridiculous characters peculiar to the times in which he lived, and he has generally placed the ridicule justly. He possessed strong comic powers he is full of mirth and pleasantry and his pleasantry is always innocent. His comedies in verse, such as his “Misanthrope” and Tartuffe,“are a kind of dignified comedy, in which vice is exposed, in the style of elegant and polished satire. His verses have all the flow and freedom of conversation, yet he is said to have passed whole days’ in fixing upon a proper epithet or rhime. In his prose comedies, though there is abundance of ridicule, yet there is never any thing to offend a modest ear, or to throw contempt on sobriety and virtue. Together with those high qualities, Moliere has also some defects, which Voltaire, though his professed panegyrist, candidly admits. He is acknowledged not to be happy in the unravelling of his plots. Attentive more to the strong exhibition of characters, than to the conduct of the intrigue, his unravelling is frequently brought on with too little preparation, and in an improbable manner. In his verse comedies, he is sometimes not sufficiently interesting, and too full of long speeches; and in his risible pieces in prose, he is censured for being too farcical. Few writers, however, if any, ever possessed the spirit, or attained the true end of comedy, so perfectly, upon the whole, as Moliere. HisTartuffe,“in the style of grave comedy, and his” Avare," in the gay, are accounted his two capital productions.

At the time of his death, Moliere was intended for a vacant place in the French academy. More than a century afterwards the academicians placed his bust in their hall, the gift of D’Alembert, and from the many inscriptions proposed, the following was adopted:

Rien ne manque a sa gloiie, il manquoit a la notre.

And when the place of his interment was lately pulled down, his remains were removed to the garden of the Museum, and placed among the honorary monuments there, in 1799. | Of the numerous editions of Moliere, the French bibliographers point out, as the best, that by Bret, 1773, 6 vols. 8vo, with the engravings of the younger Moreau, and a splendid one by Didou 1792, 6 vols. 4to. 1

1

Moreri. —Dict. Hist. Warton’s Essay on Pope. Blair’s Lectures.