Acajou And Zirphile by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

As a literary curiosity, and as a supplemental anecdote to the article of PREFACES,[1] I cannot pass over the suppressed preface to the “Acajou et Zirphile” of Du Clos, which of itself is almost a singular instance of hardy ingenuity, in an address to the public.

This single volume is one of the most whimsical of fairy tales, and an amusing satire originating in an odd circumstance. Count Tessin, the Swedish Ambassador at the Court of France, had a number of grotesque designs made by Boucher, the king’s painter, and engraved by the first artists. The last plate had just been finished when the Count was recalled, and appointed Prime Minister and Governor to the Crown Prince, a place he filled with great honour; and in emulation of Fenelon, composed letters on the education of a Prince, which have been translated. He left behind him in France all the plates in the hands of Boucher, who, having shown them to Du Clos for their singular invention, regretted that he had bestowed so much fancy on a fairy tale, which was not to be had; Du Clos, to relieve his regrets, offered to invent a tale to correspond with these grotesque subjects. This seemed not a little difficult. In the first plate, the author appears in his morning-gown, writing in his study, surrounded by apes, rats, butterflies, and smoke. In another, a Prince is drest in the French costume of 1740, strolling full of thought “in the shady walk of ideas.” In a third plate, the Prince is conversing with a fairy who rises out of a gooseberry which he has plucked: two dwarfs, discovered in another gooseberry, give a sharp fillip to the Prince, who seems much embarrassed by their tiny maliciousness. In another walk he eats an apricot, which opens with the most beautiful of faces, a little melancholy, and leaning on one side. In another print, he finds the body of his lovely face and the hands, and he adroitly joins them together. Such was the set of these incomprehensible and capricious inventions, which the lighter fancy and ingenuity of Du Clos converted into a fairy story, full of pleasantry and satire.[2]

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Among the novelties of this small volume, not the least remarkable is the dedication of this fairy romance to the public, which excited great attention, and charmed and provoked our author’s fickle patron. Du Clos here openly ridicules, and dares his protector and his judge. This hazardous attack was successful, and the author soon acquired the reputation which he afterwards maintained, of being a writer who little respected the common prejudices of the world. Freron replied by a long criticism, entitled “Reponse du Public a l’Auteur d’Acajou;” but its severity was not discovered in its length; so that the public, who had been so keenly ridiculed, and so hardily braved in the light and sparkling page of the haughty Du Clos, preferred the caustic truths and the pleasant insult.

In this “Epistle to the Public,” the author informs us that, “excited by example, and encouraged by the success he had often witnessed, he designed to write a piece of nonsense. He was only embarrassed by the choice of subject. Politics, Morals, and Literature, were equally the same to me: but I found, strange to say, all these matters pre-occupied by persons who seem to have laboured with the same view. I found silly things in all kinds, and I saw myself under the necessity of adopting the reasonable ones to become singular; so that I do not yet despair that we may one day discover truth, when we shall have exhausted all our errors.

“I first proposed to write down all erudition, to show the freedom and independence of genius, whose fertility is such as not to require borrowing anything from foreign sources; but I observed that this had sunk into a mere commonplace, trite and trivial, invented by indolence, adopted by ignorance, and which adds nothing to genius,

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“Mathematics, which has succeeded to erudition, begins to be unfashionable; we know at present indeed that one may be as great a dizzard in resolving a problem as in restoring a reading. Everything is compatible with genius, but nothing can give it.

“For the bel esprit, so much envied, so much sought after, it is almost as ridiculous to pretend to it, as it is difficult to attain. Thus the scholar is contemned, the mathematician tires, the man of wit and genius is hissed. What is to be done?”

Having told the whimsical origin of this tale, Du Clos continues: “I do not know, my dear Public, if you will approve of my design; however, it appears to me ridiculous enough to deserve your favour; for, to speak to you like a friend, you appear to unite all the stages of human life, only to experience all their cross-accidents. You are a child to run after trifles; a youth when driven by your passions; and, in mature age, you conclude you are wise, because your follies are of a more solemn nature, for you grow old only to dote; to talk at random, to act without design, and to believe you judge, because you pronounce sentence.

“I respect you greatly; I esteem you but little; you are not worthy of being loved. These are my sentiments respecting you; if you insist on others from me, in that case,

“I am,
“Your most humble and obedient servant.”

The caustic pleasantry of this “Epistle Dedicatory” was considered by some mawkish critics so offensive, that when the editor of the “Cabinet de Fees,” a vast collection of fairy tales, republished this little playful satire and whimsical fancy-piece, he thought proper to cancel the “Epistle:” concluding that it was entirely wanting in that respect with which the public ought to be addressed! This editor, of course, was a Frenchman: we view him in the ridiculous attitude of making his profound bow, and expressing all this “high consideration” for this same “Public,” while, with his opera-hat in his hand, he is sweeping away the most poignant and delectable page of Acajou and Zirphile.

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[Footnote 1:
See ante. vol. i. p. 71. ]

[Footnote 2:
The plates of the original edition are in the quarto form; they have been poorly reduced in the common editions in twelves. ]

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