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RACINE, POET OF DESTRUCTION A. E. CARTER·THE day is coming when it will be possible to write_ an article in English on Racine without an apology. It is still only a short time ago that our Shakespearean prejudices made us intolerant of any tragic poet whose work differed from Macbeth and King Lear; and since Racine's work differed in nearly every way, the critic who wrote of him favourably was in danger of being supposed an apostate from good Anglo-Saxon doctrine, a wilful Francophile or an arty poseur whose judgment was not worth · much for those very :reasons. But a change is at hand-if it has not already arrived. The defence of Racine which Lytton Strachey began .some forty years ago has made great st~ides in the last few decades; and the time has even come when Mr. Somerset Maugham, in a popular novel, can praise Berenice. Such a critical revolution poses a number of interesting problems. When an age like the twentieth century sets about re-reading a poet like Jean Racine, we are justified in asking the reasons; and complex and difficult as many of those reasons are, one or two are clear enough and throw an interesting light on the spirit of our time. _ _ For one thing,' we have grown less sanguine about the durability of modern civilization. The nineteenth century witnessed the nadir of Racine's reputation; and the nineteenth century was precisely the age in which the ideals of progress seemed nearest realization. Poised at the summit of some six or seven centuries of advanceme'nt, it could contemplate benignly the hesitant steps and false starts of the past. To such an age, what could the reign of Louis XIV appear but a baroque anachronism, the haggard stage-setting for a system of tyranny and privilege which an enlightened democracy had long since consigned .to limbo? Two great wars and all their train .of wretchedness have forced us to reconsider this verdict. We are less ready thal). were our grandfathers to deny the past. In the·long and dark annals of the West, seen as we see them from a period almost as dark as' any, the age of Louis XIV ~ppears as a spot of light. A time of social injustice and stuffy privilege, but also a time of splendid achievement. It set the seal of ordered beauty upon the chaos of human life and human strivjng;. and with our twentieth-century knowledge of how difficult such an ·accomplishment is, we can only register a rueful admiration. This alone has made us appreciate one aspect of Racine which even his admirers used to praise with som·e timidity: his technical perfection. Racine's tragedies are the literary equivalents of Boule and pietra-dura. Besides influencing him in profounder ways, the seventeenth · century marked hiin in this respect also. It gave him its own rooted love of elegance. His style, with its wonderful balancing of syllables, its vowels and harmonies, its Mozartian perfume, reflects perfectly the seventeenth century's dexterity in casting gilt bronze or turning the lines of a balustrade. 231 232 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY The artists of the time understood the mere technique of their craft supremely well, and the poets, and especially Racine, shared the knowledge·. Quels courages Venus n'a-t-elle pas domptes? Vous-meme ou seriez.-vous, vous qui la combattez, Si toujours Antiope ases lois opposee -D'une pudique ardeur n'e1lt brule pour Thesee? ... . On vous voit mains souvent, orgueilleux et sauvage, Tant6t faire voler un char sur le rivage, Tan't6t, savant dans !'art par Neptune invente, Rendre docile au frein un· coursier indompte .•.. Such lines reflect their age in miniature as the glass bead of a chandelier. holds the Gallery of Mirrors in microcosm. They harmonize perfectly . with the hoop-skirted goddesses and periwigged emperors we can still see in the ceilings of Le Brun and the statues of Coysevox. There is the same technical sophistication, the same modish_ chic. They were obviously written for a world of parade, with its terraces, its fountains, arid its cataracts of marble steps. ' Seen in the perspective of three...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 231-238
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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