A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 8.

The Satyre Ménippée. Regnier.

Satyre Ménippée.

The period of the Renaissance in France closed with two works (one for the most part in prose and due to various authors, the other wholly in verse and the work of one only) which exhibit the highest excellence. The Satyre Ménippée and the satires of Regnier are separated in point of date of publication by some fifteen years, and the contributors to the first-named work belong for the most part to an earlier generation, and represent a less accomplished state of the language than the great satirist who, after fifteen centuries, took up the traditions of his Roman masters. But both are satirical in substance, though the Ménippée is almost wholly political, and Regnier busies himself with social and moral subjects only. Both possess in a high degree the characteristics of the period which they close. Both exhibit a remarkable power of treating ephemeral subjects in a manner calculated to make their interest something more than ephemeral. Both have met with the just reward of continuing to be popular even at times when the most unjust unpopularity rested on work scarcely less excellent but less calculated to please the taste of those who, however much they may sympathise with the fashions of their own day, are unable to sympathise with those of a day which is not theirs.

The Satyre Ménippée222 was a remarkable, and, for those who take an interest both in literature and in politics, a most encouraging instance of the power of literary treatment at certain crises of political matters. It appeared in 1594, at the crucial period of the League. For years there had existed the party known for the most part uncomplimentarily as Les Politiques. These persons professed themselves unable to find, in the simple difference of Catholic v. Protestant, a casus belli for Frenchmen against Frenchmen. Their influence, however, though it occasionally rose to the surface in the days of Charles IX. and Henri III., had never been lasting, and they laboured under the charge of being Laodiceans, trimmers, men who cared for nothing but hollow peace and material prosperity. The assassination of Henri III., and the open confederation between the Leaguers and the Spanish party, at last gave them their opportunity, and it was seized with an adroitness which would have been remarkable in a single man, but which is still more remarkable in a group of men of very different antecedents, professions, ages, and beliefs. The Satyre Ménippée is, in fact, the first and most admirable example of the theory of the modern newspaper — the theory that the combined ability of many men is likely, on the whole, to treat complicated and ephemeral affairs better than the limited, though perhaps individually greater, ability of any one man. The Ménippée, prose and verse, was due to the working of a new Pléiade — Leroy, Gillot, Passerat, Rapin, Chrestien, Pithou, and Durant. Most of them were lawyers, a few were more or less connected with the Church. Pierre Leroy, a canon of Rouen, of whom nothing is known, but whose character De Thou praises, is said to have planned the book, and to have acted in some way as editor. Jacques Gillot, clerk-advocate of the Parliament, received the literary conspirators in his house. Passerat and Rapin represented the mixed classical and French culture of the immediate companions of Ronsard. Florent Chrestien was a converted Huguenot, much given to translation of ancient authors. Pithou (the writer of the harangue of Claude d'Aubray, the most important piece of the whole and containing the moral and idea of the book) was, like Chrestien, a convert. He ranks as one of the most distinguished members of the French bar, and had a deserved reputation for every kind of learning in his time. Lastly, Durant, who contributed rather to the appendix of the book than to the book itself, was an Auvergnat gentleman, who preferred poetry to law, and justified his preference by some capital work, partly of a satirical kind, partly of an elegant and tender gallantry, anticipating, as has been justly said, the eighteenth century in elegance, and excelling it in tenderness.

The plan of the Ménippée (the title of which, it is hardly necessary to say, is borrowed from the name of the cynic philosopher celebrated by Lucian) is for the time singularly original and bold; but the spirit in which the subject is treated is more original still. Generally speaking, the piece has the form of a compte-rendu of the assembly of the states at Paris. The full title is De la Vertu du Catholicon d'Espagne et de la Tenue des États de Paris. The preface contains a sarcastic harangue in orthodox charlatan style on the merits of the new Catholicon or Panacea. Then comes a description (in which, as throughout the work, actual facts are blended inextricably with satirical comment) of the opening procession. To this succeeds a sketch of the tapestries with which the hall of meeting was hung, all of which are, of course, allegorical, and deal with murders of princes, betrayal of native countries to foreigners, etc. Next comes L'Ordre tenu pour les Séances, in which the chief personages on the side of the League are enumerated in a long catalogue, every item of which contains some bitter allusion to the private or public conduct of the person named. Seven solemn speeches are then delivered by the Duke de Mayenne as lieutenant, by the legate, by the Cardinal de Pelvé, by the bishop of Lyons, by Rose, the fanatical rector of the University, by the Sieur de Rieux, as representative of the nobility; and, lastly, by a certain Monsieur d'Aubray, for the Tiers-État. A burlesque coda concludes the volume, the joints of which are, first, a short verse satire on Pelvé; secondly, a collection of epigrams due to Passerat; and, thirdly, Durant's Regret Funèbre à Mademoiselle ma Commère sur le Trépas de son Âne, a delightful satire on the Leaguers, which did not appear in the first edition, but which yields to few things in the book.

It has been said that the plan of the Ménippée has of itself not a little originality. Satirical comment and travesty devoted to political affairs had been common enough almost for centuries in France, but no satire of the kind had hitherto flown so high, or with so well-organised a flight. The seven speeches, which form the bulk of the book, display moreover a remarkable variety and a still more remarkable combination of excellences. The first six — those of Mayenne, the legate, Pelvé, the bishop of Lyons, Rose, and Rieux, none of which is long — are, without exception, caricatures, and of that peculiar order of caricature in which the victim is made, without a glaring violation of probability, to render himself vile and ridiculous, and to give utterance to the satire and invective which the author desires to pour upon him. Butler (who beyond all doubt had the Satyre Ménippée in his mind when he projected his own immortal travesty of the Puritan party) is the only writer who has ever come near to its authors in this particular department of satire. Treated as they were by different hands, there is a curiously pleasing variety of style in the portraits. Mayenne uses a mixture of aristocratic and somewhat haughty frankness with garrulous digression. The two cardinals indulge in an astounding macaronic jargon, the one of Italian mingled with Latin, the other of Latin mingled with French. The bishop of Lyons, and Rose the rector, preach sermons, after the fashion of the time, thickly larded with quotations, stories, and so forth. Rieux (he was a noted bandit) expresses with soldierly frankness his extreme surprise that he should have become a gentleman and the representative of the nobility, and mildly reproaches Mayenne and the League for not having given carte-blanche to himself and his likes to finish off the Politiques bag-and-baggage. But in the last harangue, that of the representative of the Tiers-État, Claude d'Aubray, which is, as has been said, the work of Pithou, and which occupies something like half the book, the tone is entirely altered. In this remarkable discourse the whole political situation is treated seriously, and with a mixture of practical vigour and literary skill of which there had hardly been any precedent instance. D'Aubray denounces the condition of Paris first, and the condition of the kingdom afterwards. The foreign garrisons, the sufferings of private persons by the war, the deprivation or suspension of privileges, are all commented upon. A remarkable historical sketch of the religious wars follows, and then turn by turn the speaker attacks those who have spoken before him, and exposes their conduct. A vigorous sketch of 'Le Roy que nous voulons et que nous aurons,' leads up to the announcement that this king is no other than 'Notre vray Roy légitime, naturel et souverain, Seigneur Henry de Bourbon, cy-devant Roy de Navarre.' After this discomposing harangue the assembly breaks up in some confusion.

The Satyre Ménippée had an immense effect, and may, perhaps, be justly described as the first example, in modern politics, of a literary work the effect of which was really great and lasting. It is not surprising that such should have been its fortune. For it is a remarkably happy mixture of the older style of gaulois jocularity (in which exaggeration, personal attack, insinuations of a more or less scandalous character and the like, furnished the attraction) and the newer style of chastened and comparatively polished prose. The greater part of the first six speeches are of a more antique cast than Montaigne; and though the speech of D'Aubray exhibits a more elaborate and less familiar style, it too is definitely plain and popular in manner. Although there are the allusions usual at the time to classical subjects, the Pléiade pedantry, with which at least two of the contributors, Passerat and Rapin, were sufficiently imbued, is conspicuously absent. Rabelais is frequently alluded to; and when the style of the book and the obvious intention of appealing to the general, which it exhibits, are considered, no better testimony to the popularity of Gargantua and Pantagruel could be produced. The descriptions, too, have a Rabelaisian minuteness and richness about them; and in the burlesque parts the influence of that master is equally perceptible. But the strictly practical point of view is always maintained; and the temptation, always a strong one with French writers of the middle age and Renaissance, to lose sight of this in endless developments of mere amusing buffoonery, is constantly resisted. There is certainly less exaggeration in the Ménippée than in Hudibras, though the personal weaknesses of the innumerable individual persons satirised contribute more to the general effect than they do in Butler's great satire. The distinguishing trait of the Satyre Ménippée, next to those already mentioned, is the constant rain of slight ironical touches contributing to the general effect. Thus the arms of the processioning Leaguers are, 'le tout rouillé par Humilité Catholique;' the League scholastics and preachers 'forment tous leurs arguments in ferio.' The deputies' benches are covered with cloth, 'parsemées de croisettes de Lorraine et de larmes miparties de vair et de faux argent.' These sure and rapid touches distinguish the book strongly from nearly all mediaeval satire, in which the satirists are wont, whenever they make a point, to dwell on it, and expound it, and illustrate it, and make the most of it, until it loses almost all its piquancy. Very different from this over-elaboration is the confident irony of the Ménippée, which trusts to the intelligence of the reader for understanding and emphasis. 'Vous prévoyez bien,' says Mayenne, 'les dangers et inconvéniens de la paix qui met ordre à tout, et rend le droit à qui il appartient.' Hardly even Antoine de la Salle, and certainly no other among the authors of the preceding centuries, would have ventured to leave this, obvious as it seems now-a-days, to reach the reader by itself.


A similar but a still more remarkable, because an individually complete, example of the combination of Gallican tradition with classical study was soon afterwards shown by Mathurin Regnier223. Regnier was born at Chartres on the 21st of December, 1573, his father being Jacques Regnier, a citizen of position; his mother was Simonne Desportes, sister of the poet. Jacques Regnier desired for his son the ecclesiastical, but not the poetical, eminence of his brother-in-law, and Mathurin was tonsured at nine years old. The boy, however, wished to follow his uncle's steps in the other direction, and early began to write. It is said that he wrote lampoons on the inhabitants of his native town, and, repeating them to the frequenters of a tennis-court which his father had built, got himself thus into trouble. His father's threats and punishments, however, had no more effect than is usual in such cases, and Regnier soon, but at a date not exactly known, betook himself to his uncle at Paris. By Desportes, who was in favour with many high personages, he was recommended to the Cardinal de Joyeuse, and took part in that prelate's embassy to Rome in 1593. Joyeuse, however, did nothing for him, and in 1601 he again went to Rome in the suite of Philippe de Bethune. He returned before long, and, in 1604, a canonry, to the reversion of which he had been presented long before, fell in. His first collection of satires appeared in 1608. Five years afterwards, in 1613, on the 22nd of October, he died at Rouen, having not quite completed his fortieth year. His way of life had unfortunately been by no means regular, and his early death is said to have been directly caused by his excesses.

In this short sketch almost everything that is known of Regnier, except a few anecdotes, has been included, and the total is, it will be seen, exceedingly meagre. Nor is his work abundant even for a man who died comparatively young. Sixteen satires, three epistles, five elegies, and a few miscellaneous pieces, make it up, and probably the total does not exceed seven or eight thousand lines. The relative excellence of this work is however exceedingly high. Regnier is almost the only French poet before the so-called classical period who has continuously maintained his reputation, and who has only been decried by a few eccentric or incompetent critics. He was an ardent defender of the Ronsardising tradition, yet Malherbe, whom he did not hesitate to attack, thought and spoke highly of him. In the next age Boileau allotted to him a mixture of praise and blame which is not too apposite, but in which the praise far exceeds the blame, and elsewhere declared him to be the French writer, before Molière, who best knew human nature. The approval of Boileau secured that of the eighteenth century, while Regnier's defence of the Pléiade propitiated the first Romantics. Thus buttressed on either side, he has had nothing to fear from literary revolutions. Nor will any judgment which looks rather at merit than authority arrive at an unfavourable conclusion respecting him. His satires are not indeed absolutely the first of their kind in French. Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, Jean de la Taille, and above all, D'Aubigné, had preceded him. But in breadth as well as, except in the case of D'Aubigné, in force, and above all in even excellence and technical merit, he far surpassed those who in a manner had shown him the way. His satire is exclusively social, and thus it escapes one of the chief drawbacks of political satire, that of dealing with matters of more or less ephemeral existence and interest. He has indeed borrowed considerably from the ancients, but he has almost always made his borrowings his own, and he has in some cases improved on his originals. He has softened the exaggerated air of moral indignation which his English contemporaries, Hall and Marston, borrowed from Juvenal, and which sits so awkwardly on them and on many other satirists. He has avoided such still more awkward followings as that which made Pope upset all English literary history in order to echo Horace's remarks about Rome and Greece. Sometimes he has fallen into the besetting sin of his countrymen, the tendency to represent mere types or even abstractions instead of lifelike individuals embodying the type, but he has more often avoided it. His descriptive passages are of extraordinary vigour and accuracy of touch, and his occasional strokes are worthy of almost any satiric or didactic poet. He is perhaps weakest, like all poets with the signal exception of Dryden, when he is panegyrical. Yet his first satire — in the order of arrangement not of writing — addressed to the King, Henri IV., has much merit. The second, on poets, has more, and abounds in vigorous strokes, such as that of the courtier bard who

Méditant un sonnet, médite un évêché;

and as the couplet which concludes a lively sketch of his diplomatic experiences —

Mais instruit par le temps à la fin j'ai connu

Que la fidélité n'est pas grand revenu.

This poem, which contains some humorous descriptions of the poverty of poets, ends with an eloquent panegyric on Ronsard. The next, on 'La Vie de la Cour,' attacks a very favourite subject of the age, and winds up with an extremely well-told version of the fable of the beast of prey and the mule whose name is written on its hoof. The fourth returns to the subject of the poverty of poets. The fifth argues at some length, and in a spirit not very far removed from that of Montaigne, the thesis that 'Le goût particulier décide de tout.' It contains some of Regnier's finest passages. A subject somewhat similar in kind, 'L'honneur ennemi de la vie,' gives further occasion, in the sixth, for the display of the moralising spirit of the age, which, in Regnier, takes the form of a kind of epicurean pococurantism mingled with occasional bursts of noble sentiment. The seventh is one of the most personal of all; it is entitled 'L'amour qu'on ne peut dompter,' and is a comment on the text Video meliora proboque. The eighth is one of the innumerable imitations of the famous ninth satire of the first book of Horace, Ibam forte via sacra, and perhaps the happiest of all such, though it is difficult not to regret that Regnier should have devoted his too rare moments of work to mere imitation. The ninth, however, is open to no such charge. It is entitled Le Critique outré, and is an extraordinarily vigorous and happy remonstrance against the intolerant pedantry with which Malherbe was criticising the Pléiade. This satire is addressed to Rapin, the veteran contributor to the Ménippée. It is impossible to describe the weak side of the reforms which Malherbe, and after him Boileau, introduced into French poetry, better than in these lines, which deserve citation for their literary importance:—

Cependant leur scavoir ne s'estend seulement

Qu'à regratter un mot douteux au jugement,

Prendre garde qu'un qui ne heurte une diphtongue;

Espier si des vers la rime est brève ou longue;

Ou bien si la voyelle, à l'autre s'unissant,

Ne rend point à l'oreille un vers trop languissant.

Ils rampent bassement, foibles d'inventions,

Et n'osent, peu hardis, tenter les fictions,

Froids à l'imaginer; ear s'ils font quelque chose

C'est proser de la rime, et rimer de la prose,

Que l'art lime et relime, et polit de façon,

Qu'elle rend à l'oreille un agréable son.

The tenth satire, with its title 'Le souper ridicule,' seems to return to Horace, but in reality the scene described has little in common with the Coena of Nasidienus. It affords Regnier an excellent opportunity for displaying his talent for Dutch painting, but is in this respect inferior to the sequel 'Le mauvais gîte.' The subject of this is sufficiently unsavoury, and the satire is almost the only one which in the least deserves Boileau's strictures on the author's 'rimes cyniques,' but the vigour and skill of the treatment are most remarkable. The twelfth is short, and once more apologetically personal. But the thirteenth is the longest, one of the most famous, and unquestionably on the whole the best work of the author. It is entitled 'Macette,' and describes an old woman who hides vice under a hypocritical mask and corrupts youth with her evil philosophy of the world and its ways. Indebted in some measure to the Roman de la Rose for the idea of his central character, Regnier is entirely original in his method of treatment. Nowhere are his verses more vigorous —

Son œil tout pénitent ne pleure qu'eau béniste.

L'honneur est un vieux saint que l'on ne chomme plus.

La sage se sait vendre où la sotte se donne.

Nowhere is Regnier so uniformly free from technical defects and from colloquialisms in which he sometimes indulges. The fourteenth returns to general and somewhat vague satire, dealing with the vanity of human reason and conduct, while the fifteenth is once more personal, 'Le Poète malgré soi.' Lastly, the sixteenth sums up the author's theoretical philosophy in the opening line, 'N'avoir crainte de rien et ne rien espérer.'

The satires are in bulk and in importance so much the larger part of the work of Regnier, and represent such an important innovation in French literature, that it has seemed well to describe them with some minuteness. The miscellaneous poems may be reviewed more rapidly, though the best of them add very considerably to the poet's reputation, because they show him in an entirely different light. Not a few of the elegies are imitated from Ovid, and some of them might perhaps have been left unwritten with advantage. Indeed, Regnier is here much more open to Boileau's censure than in his more famous verse. But some lyrical pieces exhibit his command of other measures besides the Alexandrine, and afford occasion for the expression of a melancholy and genuine sensibility which is not common in French poetry. The poem called 'Plainte' is very beautiful, and is written in a lyric stanza of much more elaboration than any which was to be used in France for two centuries. One of its peculiarities is a hemistich replacing the expected fourth line of the stanza, which is of eight verses, with singularly musical effect. A so-called 'Ode' is almost better, and ends thus:

Un regret pensif et confus

D'avoir esté, et n'estre plus,

Rend mon âme aux douleurs ouverte;

A mes despens, las! je vois bien

Qu'un bonheur comme estoit le mien

Ne se cognoist que par la perte.

Regnier was in many ways a fitting representative for the close of the great poetical school of the sixteenth century. In manner he represented the fusion of the purely Gallic school of Marot and Rabelais, with the classical tradition of the Pléiade in its best form. His Alexandrines, if not quite so vigorous as D'Aubigné's, have all the polish that could be expected before the administration of Malherbe's rules. His lyric measures have the boldness and harmony which those rules banished from French poetry for full seven generations. In matter he displays a singular mixture of acute observation and philosophic criticism with ardent sensibility both to pleasure and pain. This, as has been repeatedly pointed out, is the dominant temper of the French Renaissance, and though in Regnier it shows something of the melancholy of the decadence as compared with the springing hope of Rabelais and the calm maturity of Montaigne, it is scarcely less characteristic.

222 Ed. Labitte. Paris, 1869.

223 Ed. Courbet. Paris, 1875. In this edition some of the dates and statements in the text, which have been generally accepted, are contested.


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