1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Malherbe, François de
MALHERBE, FRANÇOIS DE (1555–1628), French poet, critic and translator, was born at Caen in 1555. His family was of some position, though it seems not to have been able to establish to the satisfaction of heralds the claims which it made to nobility older than the 16th century. The poet was the eldest son of another François de Malherbe, conseiller du roi in the magistracy of Caen. He himself was elaborately educated at Caen, at Paris, at Heidelberg and at Basel. At the age of twenty-one, preferring arms to the gown, he entered the household of Henri d’Angoulême, grand prior of France, the natural son of Henry II. He served this prince as secretary in Provence, and married there in 1581. It seems that he wrote verses at this period, but, to judge from a quotation of Tallemant des Réaux, they must have been very bad ones. His patron died when Malherbe was on a visit in his native province, and for a time he had no particular employment, though by some servile verses he obtained a considerable gift of money from Henry III., whom he afterwards libelled. He lived partly in Provence and partly in Normandy for many years after this event; but very little is known of his life during this period. His Larmes de Saint Pierre, imitated from Luigi Tansillo, appeared in 1587.
It was in the year parting the two centuries (1600) that he presented to Marie de’ Medici an ode of welcome, the first of his remarkable poems. But four or five years more passed before his fortune, which had hitherto been indifferent, turned. He was presented by his countryman, the Cardinal Du Perron, to Henry IV.; and, though that economical prince did not at first show any great eagerness to entertain the poet, he was at last summoned to court and endowed after one fashion or another. It is said that the pension promised him was not paid till the next reign. His father died in 1606, and he came into his inheritance. From this time forward he lived at court, corresponding affectionately with his wife, but seeing her only twice in some twenty years. His old age was saddened by a great misfortune. His son, Marc Antoine, a young man of promise, fell in a duel in 1626. His father used his utmost influence to have the guilty parties (for more than one were concerned, and there are grounds for thinking that it was not a fair duel) brought to justice. But he died before the suit was decided (it is said in consequence of disease caught at the camp of La Rochelle, whither he had gone to petition the king), in Paris, on the 16th of October, 1628, at the age of seventy-three.
The personal character of Malherbe was far from amiable, but he exercised, or at least indicated the exercise of, a great and enduring effect upon French literature, though by no means a wholly beneficial one. The lines of Boileau beginning Enfin Malherbe vint are rendered only partially applicable by the extraordinary ignorance of older French poetry which distinguished that peremptory critic. But the good as well as bad side of Malherbe’s theory and practice is excellently described by his contemporary and superior Regnier, who was animated against him, not merely by reason of his own devotion to Ronsard but because of Malherbe’s discourtesy towards Regnier’s uncle P. Desportes, whom the Norman poet had at first distinctly copied. These are the lines:—
“Cependant leur savoir ne s’étend nullement
This is perfectly true, and from the time of Malherbe dates that great and deplorable falling off of French poetry in its more poetic qualities, which was not made good till 1830. Nevertheless the critical and restraining tendency of Malherbe was not ill in place after the luxuriant importation and innovation of the Pléiade; and if he had confined himself to preaching greater technical perfection, and especially greater simplicity and purity in vocabulary and versification, instead of superciliously striking his pen through the great works of his predecessors, he would have deserved wholly well. As it was, his reforms helped to elaborate the kind of verse necessary for the classical tragedy, and that is the most that can be said for him. His own poetical work is scanty in amount, and for the most part frigid and devoid of inspiration. The beautiful Consolation à Duperier, in which occurs the famous line—
the odes to Marie de’ Medici and to Louis XIII., and a few other pieces comprise all that is really worth remembering of him. His prose work is much more abundant, not less remarkable for care as to style and expression, and of greater positive value. It consists of some translations of Livy and Seneca, and of a very large number of interesting and admirably written letters, many of which are addressed to Peiresc, the man of science of whom Gassendi has left a delightful Latin life. It contains also a most curious commentary on Desportes, in which Malherbe’s minute and carping style of verbal criticism is displayed on the great scale.
The chief authorities for the biography of Malherbe are the Vie de Malherbe by his friend and pupil Racan, and the long Historiette which Tallemant des Réaux has devoted to him. The standard edition is the admirable one of Ludovic Lalanne (5 vols., Paris, 1862–1869). Of the poems only, there is an excellent and handsome little issue in the Nouvelle collection Jannet (Paris, 1874). Of modern works devoted to him, La Doctrine de Malherbe, by G. Brunot (1891), is not only the most important but a work altogether capital in regard to the study of French language and literature. Others are A. Gasté, La Jeunesse de Malherbe (1890); V. Bourrienne, Points obscurs dans la vie normande de Malherbe (1895); and the duc de Broglie’s “Malherbe” in Les Grands écrivains français. On his position in French and general critical history, G. Saintsbury’s History of Criticism, vol. ii., may be consulted. (G. Sa.)