Motte, Anthony Houdart De La

, an ingenious French writer, was born at Paris, Jan. 17, 1672. He was educated in a seminary of Jesuits, and afterwards entered on the study of the law, which he quitted for the stage, as in his opinion affording the more brilliant prospect. His first attempt, however, a comedy, miscarried, and he felt the disgrace so acutely as to throw himself into the celebrated monastery of La Trappe, where he fancied he could comply with its austerities; but after a few months he returned to the world, and produced some operas and pastorals, which had considerable success. His lyric efforts were particularly applauded, and he now published a volume of odes; but in these, says D’Alembert, “the images are scanty, the colouring feeble, and the harmony often neglected.” Dr. Warton had pronounced, long before, that these odes, although highly praised by Sanadon, and by Fontenelle, were fuller of delicate sentiment, and philosophical reflection, than of imagery, figures, and poetry. There are particular stanzas eminently good, but not one entire ode. So far the French and English critics seem to agree. We learn also, from D’Alembert, that La Motte’s odes were soon effaced by those of the celebrated Rousseau, who, with less wit, perhaps, than La Motte, had superior qualifications for the higher poetry. Yet, when these rivals became competitors for a seat in the academy in 1710, La Motte was preferred, from his having friends who loved him, while Rousseau, from his repulsive temper, did not | possess one. La Motte succeeded Corneille in the academy, and, like him, was at this time nearly blind. He very ingeniously made use of this calamity, in his discourse at his reception, to interest his auditors. After having spoken of the merit of his predecessor, he proceeded “You have beheld him faithful to your duties till extreme old age, infirm as he was, and already deprived of sight. The mention of this circumstance makes rne feel the condition to which I am myself reduced. What age ravished from my predecessor, I have lost from my youth. I must, however, confess, that this privation of which I complain, will no longer serve me as an excuse for ignorance you, gentlemen, have restored me my sight you, by associating me with yourselves, have laid all books open to me; and, since I am able to hear you, I no longer envy the happiness of those who can read.” La Motte soon after became totally deprived of sight. He next ventured to appear on a theatre more worthy of a poet’s ambition, and produced the tragedy of the “Maccabees,” concealing his name. The critics found a great deal of merit in it while this concealment lasted and some went so far as to conceive it a posthumous work of Racine but when he discovered himself, they withdrew their praises, or changed them into censures; and the tragedy, being really of the mediocre kind, disappeared from the stage. It was followed by others, of which “Ines de Castro” obtained a permanent place on the stage, notwithstanding many attacks from wit, malice, and arrogance; all which he bore with good-humour. He was one day in a coffee-house, in the midst of a swarm of literary drones, who were abusing his work without knowing the author. He patiently heard them a long time in silence, and then called out to a friend who accompanied him, “Let us go and yawn at the fiftieth representation of this unfortunate piece.” At another time, when told of the numerous criticisms made on his tragedy, “It is true,” said he, “it has been much criticised, but with tears.

He wrote also six comedies, of which the “Magnifique” still pleases by the ingenuity of its details, and the charms of its style. All his cornddies are written in prose: and when he produced his tragedy of “Œdipus,” after having first written it in verse, he turned it into prose, which gave occasion to the publication of his system of prose tragedies, so ingeniously supported, and so warmly refuted; | the result of the controversy was, that all the menof let ers in France deckled in favour of verse. In 1714, he published his translation of Homer’s Iliad, in which he was still less successful then in his anti- poetical paradoxes. He presumed also to write against Homer, and was answered by madame Dacier; but by this, says D’Alembert, he offered Homer a less injury than by translating him into French verse. He had attacked the subject, the disposition-, and the entire plan of the Iliad, with much ingenuity, but he did not render sufficient justice to the sublime beauties of Homer, and still less was he able to transfer these beauties to his version. He substituted a bare skeleton to the monster he meant to combat; and as he had raised the public laughter against his adversaries, he exposed himself to their shafts by an unskilful travesty of the object of their worship. The powerful diversion he afforded them by this mistake lost him almost all his advantages; and the French Iliad consoled madam Dacier for the ridicule which had been thrown upon her by the answer of la Motte to her criticisms, which was undoubtedly a very witty and ingenious defence of a bad cause. Some years after, in 1719, he produced his “Fables,” which were praised for invention and moral, while it was allowed that they were in other respects not to be compared with those of La Fontaine. Besides these he wrote, at different times, many other species of poetry, eclogues, cantatas, psalms, hymns, &c. of which, as well as his other productions, D’Alembert says, “he wished to make verses, and felt that nature tiad not made him a poet he wished to compose odes, and felt that he had more good sense than warmth, more reason than enthusiasm; he wished to write tragedies, and saw himself at an immense distance from Corneille and Racine; he wished to produce fables, and felt that his genius, the character of which was artful refinement, would in vain aim at the charming simplicity of la Fontaine.” If, however, La Motte’s verses are not master-pieces of poetry, his prosewritings may be regarded as models of style. The talent of writing prose well is a merit that scarcely any French poet possessed before la Motte. His answer to madame Dacier, entitled “Reflections on Criticism,” and his prefaces to his works, are master-pieces of elegance. All his academical discourses, delivered on different occasions, were excellent; but the most applauded was his eulogy on Lewis XIV. pronounced at a public sitting after the | death of that prince, which, of all the funeral orations made on him, is the only one which is not yet entirely forgotten.

Such was the versatility of la Motte’s genius, that he wrote charges for bishops; and though the secret was kept by both parties, his touch and manner betrayed him. He was also the author of several other writings, which his enemies would have treated with severity had they known the real father, but for which the supposed father received their profound homage. But while some prelates employed the pen of la Motte in the service of religion, by composing their charges, others accused him of being an unbeliever. Among his works has been printed “A Plan of Evidence for Religion,” which D’Alembert mentions with praise, and which was praised by much better judges of the subject. Satire only was the kind of composition in which la Motte did not exercise himself: and this his eulogist attributes to the mildness and honour of his character. It certainly was not from want of ability; and he was so frequently the object of satire, as to have sufficient provocation. This forbearance, however, and the general sweetness of his temper, gained him many partisans. No one more sincerely than he applauded the success even of his rivals; no one encouraged rising talents with more zeal and interest no one praised good works with more genuine satisfaction if he pointed out faults in them, it was not to enjoy the easy glory of mortifying another’s vanity it was with the feeling to which critics are strangers, and which common readers rarely entertain, that of being really concerned to find a blot It was therefore said of him, that “justice and justness” was his motto. Of both these qualities he exhibited a distinguished proof when he gave, as censor, his approbation to Voltaire’s first tragedy; for he did not hesitate to add to it, “that this work gave promise of a worthy successor on the theatre to Corneille and Racine.” Such candour and mildness were all he opposed, not only to literary insults, but to personal affronts. A young 1 man, upon whose foot he once happened to tread in a crowd, gave him a blow on the face. “Sir,” said la Motte to him, “you will be very sorry for what you have done: I am blind.” With the same patience he endured the painful infirmities under which he laboured, and which terminated his life on December 26, 1731. In 1754, a complete edition of all his works was published in eleven large | volumes, 8vo, but such is the declension of his popularity that no edition has since been called for. La Harpe (in his “Lyceum”) says, that when he first entered life, la Motte had already descended into the class of authors who are never read but by men of letters, who must read everything. Some passages in his operas, a few strophes of his odes, and occasionally one of his fables, were quoted: and his tragedy of “Ines,” though held in no great value, retained its place on the stage. The harshness of his versification was admitted on all hands, and his paradoxes were never mentioned but in order to be ridiculed. 1


D’Alemberi’s “Select Eulogies,” translated by Dr. Aikin, 2 vols. 8vo, 1799. —Dict. Hist. art. Houdart.