Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Saint-Évremond, Charles de Marguetel de Saint Denis, de
SAINT-ÉVREMOND, CHARLES DE MARGUETEL DE SAINT DENIS, de (1613?–1703), soldier, poet, and essayist, and, according to the Duc d'Aumale, the ‘most refined epicurean of his age,’ is said to have been born on 1 April 1613 at Saint-Denis-le-Guast in Normandy. He belonged to a noble and fairly wealthy family, and, as a younger son, it was at first intended that he should enter the magistracy. At the age of nine he was sent to the Collège de Clermont in Paris, a school conducted by the jesuits. After remaining there four years he was removed to the university of Caen, and then, a year afterwards, to the Collège d'Harcourt in Paris, where he devoted himself to the study of law, and became a skilled fencer. He soon decided to abandon the law for a military career, and, when scarcely more than sixteen, obtained a commission in the army as an ensign. He served, during the thirty years' war, in Italy, on the Rhine, and in Flanders, obtaining his captaincy for his conduct at the siege of Landrecies in 1637. At Paris, during the winter suspension of hostilities, he came under the influence of Gassendi, the opponent of Descartes and teacher of Molière. Saint-Évremond acquired from Gassendi a sceptical habit of mind in religious matters, and a resolve to govern his life with an exclusive view to its enjoyment. Well read and witty, he was favourably noticed by the young Duc d'Enghien, ‘the Grand Condé,’ who, in order to enjoy his society, appointed him in 1642 to the lieutenancy of his guards. With the duke, Saint-Évremond fought at Rocroi (1643), Friedburg (1644), and Nordlingen (1645), where he was dangerously wounded in the knee. Next year (1646) he followed the duke into Flanders, again doing good service, and was commissioned by the latter to induce Mazarin to sanction the siege of Dunkirk, a mission in which he succeeded excellently. The winter of 1646–7 he again spent in Paris, mixing in the most brilliant society. Already, some three years before, he had written, or helped to write, a clever dramatic satire on the then still young French academy (La Comédie des Académistes), and now, 1647, he wrote three or four short essays on subjects suggested by the conversation of the salons, such as ‘That the man who would know everything does not know himself.’ These essays were circulated in manuscript among the wits. In 1647 Saint-Évremond followed Condé into Catalonia; but next year (1648), after accompanying him to Flanders, he offended his commander by a satire, and was cashiered.
During the troubles of the Fronde, the Duc de Longueville, a leader against the court in Normandy, vainly offered Saint-Évremond the command of the artillery; and Saint-Évremond wrote soon after a satirical account of the ‘Retreat of M. le Duc de Longueville in his Government of Normandy.’ The piece so pleased Mazarin that during his last illness he invited the author to read it to him several times. On 16 Sept. 1652, while the civil war was at its height, the king appointed Saint-Évremond to be a ‘maréchal de camp’ in his armies, and by warrant dated the following day gave him a pension of three thousand livres. In his new rank he served under the Duc de Candale in Guienne till the reduction of Bordeaux, and, with the help of Fouquet, supplemented his emoluments so satisfactorily as to bring home from the campaign fifty thousand francs, which, as he told Silvestre, proved ‘of great use to him during the remainder of his life.’ Soon afterwards he fell into temporary disgrace for some unexplained cause, and was confined to the Bastille for two or three months. Mazarin made him a kind of apology on his release. In the next year (1654) he was again serving in Flanders, and continued his active military service till the peace with Spain in 1659.
Meanwhile his fame as a man of society had spread. The time was one of easy morality, when, according to his own account, ‘delicate vice went by the name of pleasure.’ He himself was not, if we are to believe Des Maizeaux, greatly addicted to the society of women; but he was one of the first lovers of the famous Ninon de Lenclos, named by him ‘the modern Leontium,’ and remained in affectionate correspondence with her till the end of their long lives. He had a wide reputation as a gastronome. In the autumn of 1659 he accompanied Mazarin on his journey south to conclude the peace of the Pyrenees with Don Louis de Haro, the Spanish minister. Before starting, he promised the Marquis de Créqui to give him an account of what took place. The peace was very unpopular with the army, and Saint-Évremond's report to the marquis formed, in effect, a very able and bitter attack on Mazarin and his policy, but it was kept secret at the time. Early in 1661 he formed a member of the embassage sent to England to congratulate Charles II on his accession. In the August of that year Saint-Évremond, before proceeding with the court into Brittany, confided some of his more important papers, and among them the manuscript of his report for the Marquis de Créqui on the peace, to Madame de Plessis-Bellière, his friend, and the friend of Fouquet. After Fouquet's fall Madame de Plessis-Bellière's house was searched, and the letter on the peace came to light. Mazarin had died on the previous 9 March, but Colbert and Le Tellier, making a show of respect for his memory, placed the letter in the king's hands, and the arrest of the writer was decreed. Saint-Évremond had already had a taste of the Bastille, and did not care to renew the experience. He lay hid for some time in Normandy, and towards the end of 1661 took refuge in Holland, bidding a final farewell to France.
The letter on the peace was the ostensible cause of Saint-Évremond's downfall; but Voltaire says expressly, ‘The Marquis de Miremond, his friend, told me in London that there was another reason for his disgrace, and that Saint-Évremond never would explain what it was.’ The secret has been well kept. Possibly his satiric gifts of pen and tongue had rendered him obnoxious to Colbert and Colbert's master.
Saint-Évremond, according to Des Maizeaux, ‘had too many friends in England to remain long in Holland.’ At the English court, then at its gayest, he found a society differing little from the society of Paris, and no more outwardly decorous. The Dukes of Buckingham and Ormonde, the Earls of St. Albans and Arlington, were among his best friends. Almost at the same time with himself, Grammont, also in disgrace, came over from France. With the latter Saint-Évremond was on the best possible terms, Grammont being, according to Hamilton, Grammont's biographer, Saint-Évremond's hero, whom he nevertheless constantly exhorted to greater sobriety. Saint-Évremond was a constant guest at Grammont's supper parties. Saint-Évremond was also on excellent terms with Cowley, with Hobbes, and with Waller, for whom he entertained a great admiration. English he seems never to have learned.
In 1664 Saint-Évremond fell ill, and went to Holland for change of air. He remained in the Low Countries till 1670, not without hopes of being allowed to return to France, mixing with the best Dutch society, and making acquaintance with Spinoza. In April 1670 it was intimated to him by Lord Arlington, through Sir William Temple, then ambassador at The Hague, that his return to London would be favourably regarded. On his acceding to this request Charles II gave him a pension of 300l. a year, which he enjoyed till the king's death. He afterwards stood well with James II and with William III, who showed him marked favour.
Towards the end of 1675 the Duchess of Mazarin, niece of the cardinal, came to England with designs on the king's affections, and, to counteract the influence of the Duchess of Portsmouth, Saint-Évremond at once attached himself to her service. He had previously exhorted Mlle. de Keroualle not to turn a deaf ear to the royal addresses. He now urged Mme. de Mazarin, whose heart was fickle, not to neglect her golden opportunities. Until her death on 2 July 1699 he remained in almost daily attendance upon her, whether at St. James's or Windsor, or at her house in Chelsea. Much of his later prose and verse was composed for her edification.
During the earlier years of Saint-Évremond's exile he made more than one fruitless effort to obtain permission to return to France. In 1689 an intimation was sent to him that he might do so; but the old man answered that it was then too late, and that he was happy where he was. ‘In the country in which I now am,’ he wrote in 1693, ‘I see Mme. Mazarin every day; I live among people who are sociable and friendly, who have great cleverness and much wit.’ Nor when the duchess died in 1699 could he be induced to stir. After her death he frequented the society of a dubious Marquise de la Perrine, to whom he left a legacy of 50l. He himself died on 20 Sept. 1703, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. ‘Mr. Saint-Évremond,’ wrote Atterbury (Correspondence, iii. 117), ‘died renouncing the Christian religion, yet the church of Westminster thought fit, in honour of his memory, to give his body room in the abbey, and to allow him to be buried there gratis, as far as the chapter was concerned, though he left 800l. sterling behind him, which is thought every way an unaccountable piece of management. … Dr. Birch proffered to be at the charge of the funeral on the account of the old acquaintance between Saint-Évremond and his patron Waller, but that proffer not being accepted, is resolved to have the honour of laying a marble stone upon his grave.’ His monument is in Poets' Corner, within a few feet of that of Chaucer.
Saint-Évremond's literary reputation has undergone some vicissitudes. In his own time it stood very high—five hundred louis according to Voltaire being offered for the play of ‘Sir Politick Would-be.’ In the eighteenth century his fame declined, and Voltaire, notwithstanding, or perhaps because of, a sort of intellectual filiation, spoke of him with uniform disparagement; ‘never,’ he said, ‘was reputation more usurped than his.’ In the last fifty years greater justice had been rendered him, and it has been recognised that he was in certain respects a fit contemporary or even precursor of Pascal, and a precursor of Voltaire, and that a fair proportion of his prose—not his verse—is, to use the Duc d'Aumale's words, ‘exquisite and delicate.’
His medical attendant, Silvestre, has given this portrait of him: ‘M. de Saint-Évremond was well made. As he had in youth taken part in all manly exercises, he retained, even to a very advanced age, a natural and easy carriage. His eyes were blue, keen, and full of fire, his face bright and intelligent, his smile somewhat satirical. In youth he had had fine black hair, but though it had become quite white, and even very sparse, he never would wear a wig, and contented himself with wearing a skull-cap. More than twenty years before his death a wen developed at the root of his nose, and grew to a good size, but this did not disfigure him very much, at least in the eyes of those who saw him habitually. His conversation was gay and easy, his repartees lively and incisive, his manners good and polite; in a word, one can say of him that in all things he showed himself to be a man of quality.’
There exist, however, hints of less flattering characteristics. Christopher Pitt [q. v.], in a ‘Dialogue between a Poet and his Servant,’ has the following lines:
Old Évremond, renowned for wit and dirt,
Would change his living oftener than his shirt;
Roar with the rakes of state a month; and come
To starve another in his hole at home.
A portrait of Saint-Évremond, painted by Parmentier in 1701, is in the National Portrait Gallery. An engraving of it is given in the first volume of the quarto edition of the ‘Works,’ London, 1705, and another engraved portrait from an original by Kneller is in volume iii. of the edition of the ‘Works’ in English, 1728 (London). There is also a bust over the grave in Westminster Abbey.
All his works were composed for his own pleasure, or the pleasure of his friends, and circulated only, so far as his responsibility was concerned, in manuscript. They are thus mainly of an occasional kind, and consist of poems, chiefly of an amatory kind; three or four plays, the ‘Comédie des Académiciens,’ ‘Sir Politick Would-be,’ a play ‘à la manière angloise,’ ‘Les Opéra;’ various essays, dialogues, dissertations, and reflections, the most extended being ‘Sur les divers génies du Peuple Romain dans les divers tems de la République,’ and a considerable correspondence with Ninon de Lenclos, the Duchess of Mazarin, and others. Being much sought after, and having therefore a money value, all that he wrote was pirated, and a good deal was attributed to him of which he was not the author. A pirated selection appeared in an English translation in 1700 (London, 2 vols. 8vo). He treated such piracies with characteristic indifference till quite the end of his life, when Des Maizeaux induced him to begin the work of authentication. Death supervened. But Des Maizeaux and Silvestre, with such notes and indications as Saint-Évremond had left, published his authentic works in 1705, in London, in 2 vols. 4to (3rd edit. 1709). Des Maizeaux also brought out at Amsterdam in 1706 a collection of the works attributed to Saint-Évremond, under the title of ‘Mélange curieux des meilleures pièces attribuées à M. de Saint-Évremond.’ The works were several times republished, the edition of 1753, in 12 vols., containing much that he confessedly had not written.
In later times selections from Saint-Évremond's works have been edited by Hippeau (1852), Giraud (1865), Gidel (no date, but circa 1866), Merlet (1870), Lescure (1881), Macé (1894).[The chief authority about Saint-Évremond is Des Maizeaux, who first published, in 1705, a memoir with Saint-Évremond's collected works; it was several times reprinted. To it should be added the preface of P. Silvestre to the fifth edition of 1739. The volumes of selections mentioned above contain biographical sketches more or less extended, the notice by Giraud being specially elaborate, but unfortunately only carrying the story of Saint-Évremond's life to the date of his exile. A continuation had been projected, but was apparently never carried out. Sainte-Beuve wrote two papers on Saint-Évremond in his Causeries du Lundi, vol. iv., and Nouveaux Lundis, vol. xiii. A notice with some reference to his influence on English literature will be found in Saintsbury's Miscellaneous Essays and Notes and Queries, 8th ser. xi. 186.]