Malherbe, Francis De

, a celebrated French poet, has always been considered by his countrymen as the father of their poetry; since, upon his appearance, all their former poets fell into disgrace. Bayle looks upon him as one of the first and greatest masters, who formed the taste and judgment of that nation in matters relating to polite literature. Balzac says, that the French poetry before | Malherbe was perfectly gothic but Boileau, a better judge, has pronounced that he was the first in France who taught the muse harmonious numbers, a just cadence, purity of language, regularity of composition, and order; in short, who laid down all those rules for writing which future poets were to follow, if they hoped to succeed. The poetical works of Malherbe, though divided into six books, yet make but a small volume. They consist of paraphrases upon the Psalms, odes, sonnets, and epigrams: and they were published in several forms, to 1666, when a very complete edition of them came out at Paris, with the notes and observations of Menage. Malherbe was certainly the first who gave his countrymen any idea of a legitimate ode, though his own have hardly any thing but harmony to recommend them. He also translated some works of Seneca, and some books of Livy; and if he was not successful in translation, yet he had the happiness to be very well satisfied with his labour. His principal business was to criticize upon the French language; in which he was so well skilled, that some of his friends desired him one day to make a grammar for the tongue. Malherbe replied, “that there was no occasion for him to take that pains, for they might read his translation of the thirtythird book of Livy, and he would have them write after that manner.

Malherbe was born at Caen, about 1555, of an ancient and illustrious family, who had formerly borne arms in, England, under Robert duke of Normandy. He lived to be old; and, about 1601, he became known to Henry the Great, from a very advantageous mention of him to that prince by cardinal du Perron. The king asked the cardinal one day, “if he had made any more verses?” To which the cardinal replied, that “he had totally laid aside all such amusements since his majesty had done him the honour to take him into his service; and added, that every body must now throw away their pens for ever, since a gentleman of Normandy, named Malherbe, had carried the French poetry to such a height, as none could hope to reach.” About four years after, he was called to court, and enrolled among the pensioners of that monarch. After the death of Henry, queen Mary of Medicis became his patroness, and settled upon him a very handsome pension. This he enjoyed to the time of his death, which happened at Paris in 1628. It was the misfortune of this poet, that | he had no great share in the affection of cardinal Richelieu. It was discovered, that, instead of taking more than ordinary pains, as he should have done, to celebrate the glory of that great minister, he had only patched together old scraps, which he had found among his papers. This was not the way to please a person of so haughty a spirit; and therefore he received this homage from Malherbe very coldly, and not without disgust. “I learned from M. Racan,” says Menage, “that Malherbe wrote those two stanzas above thirty years before Richelieu, to whom he addressed them, was made a cardinal; and that he changed only the four first verses of the first stanza, to accommodate them to his subject. I learned also from the same Racan, that cardinal Richelieu knew that these verses had not been made for him.” His apparent indolence upon such an occasion was probably owing to that extreme difficulty with which he always wrote. All writers speak of the time and labour it cost Malherbe to produce his poems.

This poet was a man of a very singular humour; and many anecdotes are related of his peculiarities, by Racan, his friend and the writer of his life. A gentleman of the law, and of some distinction, brought him one day some indifferent commendatory verses on a lady; telling him at the same time, that some very particular considerations had induced him to compose them. Malherbe having run them over with a supercilious air, asked the gentleman bluntly, as his manner was, “whether, he had been sentenced to be hanged, or to make those verses?” His manner of punishing his servant was likewise characteristic, and partook not a little of the caprice of Swift. Besides twenty crowns a year, he allowed this servant ten-pence a day board wages, which in those times was very considerable; when therefore he had done any thing amiss, Malherbe would very gravely say: “My friend, an offence against your master is an offence against God, and must be expiated by prayer, fasting, and giving of alms; wherefore I shall now retrench five-pence out of your allowance, and give them to the poor on your account.” From other accounts it may be inferred that his impiety was at least equal to his wit. When the poor used to promise him that they would pray to God for him, he answered them, that “he did not believe they could have any great interest in heaven, since they were left in so bad a condition upon earth; and that he should be better pleased if the duke de Luyne, or same | other favourite, had made him the same promise.” He would often say, that “the religion of gentlemen was that of their prince.” During his last sickness he was with great difficulty persuaded to confess to a priest; for which he gave this reason, that “he never used to confess but at Easter.” And some few moments before his death, when he had been in a lethargy two hours, he awaked on a suddea to reprove his landlady, who waited on him, for using a word that was not good French; saying to his confessor, who reprimanded him for it, that “”he could not help it, and that he would defend the purity of the French language to the last moment of his life." 1


Gen. Dict. —Niceron, vol. VII. —Moreri. Bullart’s Academie des Sciences, vol. II.