A Glance Into The French Academy by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

In the republic of letters the establishment of an academy has been a favourite project; yet perhaps it is little more than an Utopian scheme. The united efforts of men of letters in Academies have produced little. It would seem that no man likes to bestow his great labours on a small community, for whose members he himself does not feel, probably, the most flattering partiality. The French Academy made a splendid appearance in Europe; yet when this society published their Dictionary, that of Furetiere’s became a formidable rival; and Johnson did as much as the forty themselves. Voltaire confesses that the great characters of the literary republic were formed without the aid of academies.–“For what then,” he asks, “are they necessary?–To preserve and nourish the fire which great geniuses have kindled.” By observing the Junto at their meetings we may form some opinion of the indolent manner in which they trifled away their time. We are fortunately enabled to do this, by a letter in which Patru describes, in a very amusing manner, the visit which Christina of Sweden took a sudden fancy to pay to the Academy.

The Queen of Sweden suddenly resolved to visit the French Academy, and gave so short a notice of her design, that it was impossible to inform the majority of the members of her intention. About four o’clock fifteen or sixteen academicians were assembled. M. Gombaut, who had never forgiven her majesty, because she did not relish his verses, thought proper to show his resentment by quitting the assembly.

She was received in a spacious hall. In the middle was a table covered with rich blue velvet, ornamented with a broad border of gold and silver. At its head was placed an armchair of black velvet embroidered with gold, and round the table were placed chairs with tapestry backs. The chancellor had forgotten to hang in the hall the portrait of the queen, which she had presented to the Academy, and which was considered as a great omission. About five, a footman belonging to the queen inquired if the company were assembled. Soon after, a servant of the king informed the chancellor that the queen was at the end of the street; and immediately her carriage drew up in the court-yard. The chancellor, followed by the rest of the members, went to receive her as she stepped out of her chariot; but the crowd was so great, that few of them could reach her majesty. Accompanied by the chancellor, she passed through the first hall, followed by one of her ladies, the captain of her guards, and one or two of her suite.

When she entered the Academy she approached the fire, and spoke in a low voice to the chancellor. She then asked why M. Menage was not there? and when she was told that he did not belong to the Academy, she asked why he did not? She was answered, that, however he might merit the honour, he had rendered himself unworthy of it by several disputes he had had with its members. She then inquired aside of the chancellor whether the academicians were to sit or stand before her? On this the chancellor consulted with a member, who observed that in the time of Ronsard, there was held an assembly of men of letters before Charles IX. several times, and that they were always seated. The queen conversed with M. Bourdelot; and suddenly turning to Madame de Bregis, told her that she believed she must not be present at the assembly; but it was agreed that this lady deserved the honour. As the queen was talking with a member she abruptly quitted him, as was her custom, and in her quick way sat down in the arm-chair; and at the same time the members seated themselves. The queen observing that they did not, out of respect to her, approach the table, desired them to come near; and they accordingly approached it.

During these ceremonious preparations several officers of state had entered the hall, and stood behind the academicians. The chancellor sat at the queen’s left hand by the fire-side; and at the right was placed M. de la Chambre, the director; then Boisrobert, Patru, Pelisson, Cotin, the Abbe Tallemant, and others. M. de Mezeray sat at the bottom of the table facing the queen, with an inkstand, paper, and the portfolio of the company lying before him: he occupied the place of the secretary. When they were all seated the director rose, and the academicians followed him, all but the chancellor, who remained in his seat. The director made his complimentary address in a low voice, his body was quite bent, and no person but the queen and the chancellor could hear him. She received his address with great satisfaction.

All compliments concluded, they returned to their seats. The director then told the queen that he had composed a treatise on Pain, to add to his character of the Passions, and if it was agreeable to her majesty, he would read the first chapter.–“Very willingly,” she answered. Having read it, he said to her majesty, that he would read no more lest he should fatigue her. “Not at all,” she replied, “for I suppose what follows is like what I have heard.”

M. de Mezeray observed that M. Cotin had some verses, which her majesty would doubtless find beautiful, and if it was agreeable they should be read. M. Cotin read them: they were versions of two passages from Lucretius: the one in which he attacks a Providence, and the other, where he gives the origin of the world according to the Epicurean system: to these he added twenty lines of his own, in which he maintained the existence of a Providence. This done, an abbe rose, and, without being desired or ordered, read two sonnets, which by courtesy were allowed to be tolerable. It is remarkable that both the poets read their verses standing, while the rest read their compositions seated.

After these readings, the director informed the queen that the ordinary exercise of the company was to labour on the dictionary; and that if her majesty should not find it disagreeable, they would read a cahier. “Very willingly,” she answered. M. de Mezeray then read what related to the word Jeu; Game. Amongst other proverbial expressions was this: Game of Princes, which only pleases the player, to express a malicious violence committed by one in power. At this the queen laughed heartily; and they continued reading all that was fairly written. This lasted about an hour, when the queen observing that nothing more remained, arose, made a bow to the company, and returned in the manner she entered.

Furetiere, who was himself an academician, has described the miserable manner in which time was consumed at their assemblies. I confess he was a satirist, and had quarrelled with the Academy; there must have been, notwithstanding, sufficient resemblance for the following picture, however it may be overcharged. He has been blamed for thus exposing the Eleusinian mysteries of literature to the uninitiated.

“He who is most clamorous, is he whom they suppose has most reason. They all have the art of making long orations upon a trifle. The second repeats like an echo what the first said; but generally three or four speak together. When there is a bench of five or six members, one reads, another decides, two converse, one sleeps, and another amuses himself with reading some dictionary which happens to lie before him. When a second member is to deliver his opinion, they are obliged to read again the article, which at the first perusal he had been too much engaged to hear. This is a happy manner of finishing their work. They can hardly get over two lines without long digressions; without some one telling a pleasant story, or the news of the day; or talking of affairs of state, and reforming the government.”

That the French Academy were generally frivolously employed appears also from an epistle to Balzac, by Boisrobert, the amusing companion of Cardinal Richelieu. “Every one separately,” says he, “promises great things; when they meet they do nothing. They have been six years employed on the letter F; and I should be happy if I were certain of living till they got through G.”

The following anecdote concerns the forty arm-chairs of the academicians.[1] Those cardinals who were academicians for a long time had not attended the meetings of the Academy, because they thought that arm-chairs were indispensable to their dignity, and the Academy had then only common chairs. These cardinals were desirous of being present at the election of M. Monnoie, that they might give him a distinguished mark of their esteem. “The king,” says D’Alembert, “to satisfy at once the delicacy of their friendship, and that of their cardinalship, and to preserve at the same time that academical equality, of which this enlightened monarch (Louis XIV.) well knew the advantage, sent to the Academy forty arm-chairs for the forty academicians, the same chairs which we now occupy; and the motive to which we owe them is sufficient to render the memory of Louis XIV. precious to the republic of letters, to whom it owes so many more important obligations!”


[Footnote 1: A very clever satire has been concocted in an imaginary history of “a forty-first chair” of the Academy which has been occupied by the great men of literature who have not been recognised members of the official body, and whose “existence there has been unaccountably forgotten” in the annals of its members.]

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