Scarron by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

Scarron, as a burlesque poet, but no other comparison exists, had his merit, but is now little read; for the uniformity of the burlesque style is as intolerable as the uniformity of the serious. From various sources we may collect some uncommon anecdotes, although he was a mere author.

His father, a counsellor, having married a second wife, the lively Scarron became the object of her hatred.

He studied, and travelled, and took the clerical tonsure; but discovered dispositions more suitable to the pleasures of his age than to the gravity of his profession. He formed an acquaintance with the wits of the times; and in the carnival of 1638 committed a youthful extravagance, for which his remaining days formed a continual punishment. He disguised himself as a savage; the singularity of a naked man attracted crowds. After having been hunted by the mob, he was forced to escape from his pursuers; and concealed himself in a marsh. A freezing cold seized him, and threw him, at the age of twenty-seven years, into a kind of palsy; a cruel disorder which tormented him all his life. “It was thus,” he says, “that pleasure deprived me suddenly of legs which had danced with elegance, and of hands, which could manage the pencil and the lute.”

Goujet, without stating this anecdote, describes his disorder as an acrid humour, distilling itself on his nerves, and baffling the skill of his physicians; the sciatica, rheumatism, in a word, a complication of maladies attacked him, sometimes successively, sometimes together, and made of our poor Abbe a sad spectacle. He thus describes himself in one of his letters; and who could be in better humour?

“I have lived to thirty: if I reach forty, I shall only add many miseries to those which I have endured these last eight or nine years. My person was well made, though short; my disorder has shortened it still more by a foot. My head is a little broad for my shape; my face is full enough for my body to appear very meagre; I have hair enough to render a wig unnecessary; I have got many white hairs, in spite of the proverb. My teeth, formerly square pearls, are now of the colour of wood, and will soon be of slate. My legs and thighs first formed an obtuse angle, afterwards an equilateral angle, and at length, an acute one. My thighs and body form another; and my head, always dropping on my breast, makes me not ill represent a Z. I have got my arms shortened as well as my legs, and my fingers as well as my arms. In a word, I am an abridgment of human miseries.”

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He had the free use of nothing but his tongue and his hands; and he wrote on a portfolio placed on his knees.

Balzac said of Scarron, that he had gone further in insensibility than the Stoics, who were satisfied in appearing insensible to pain; but Scarron was gay, and amused all the world with his sufferings.

He pourtrays himself thus humorously in his address to the queen:–

Je ne regard plus qu’en bas,
Je suis torticolis, j’ai la tete penchante;
Ma mine devient si plaisante
Que quand on en riroit, je ne m’en plaindrois pas.

“I can only see under me; I am wry-necked; my head hangs down; my
appearance is so droll, that if people laugh, I shall not

He says elsewhere,
Parmi les torticolis
Je passe pour un des plus jolis.

“Among your wry-necked people I pass for one of the handsomest.”

After having suffered this distortion of shape, and these acute pains for four years, he quitted his usual residence, the quarter du Marais, for the baths of the Fauxbourg Saint Germain. He took leave of his friends, by addressing some verses to them, entitled, Adieu aux Marais; in which he describes several celebrated persons. When he was brought into the street in a chair, the pleasure of seeing himself there once more overcame the pains which the motion occasioned, and he has celebrated the transport by an ode, which has for title, “The Way from le Marais to the Fauxbourg Saint Germain.”

The baths he tried had no effect on his miserable disorder. But a new affliction was added to the catalogue of his griefs.

His father, who had hitherto contributed to his necessities, having joined a party against Cardinal Richelieu, was exiled. This affair was rendered still more unfortunate by his mother-in-law with her children at Paris, in the absence of her husband, appropriating the property of the family to her own use.

Hitherto Scarron had had no connexion with Cardinal Richelieu. The conduct of his father had even rendered his name disagreeable to the minister, who was by no means prone to forgiveness. Scarron, however, when he thought his passion moderated, ventured to present a petition, which is considered by the critics as one of his happiest productions. Richelieu permitted it to be read to him, and acknowledged that it afforded him much pleasure, and that it was pleasantly dated. This pleasant date is thus given by Scarron:–

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Fait a Paris dernier jour d’Octobre,
Par moi, Scarron, qui malgre moi suis sobre,
L’an que l’on prit le fameux Perpignan,
Et, sans canon, la ville de Sedan.

At Paris done, the last day of October,
By me, Scarron, who wanting wine am sober,
The year they took fam’d Perpignan,
And, without cannon-ball, Sedan.

This was flattering the minister adroitly in two points very agreeable to him. The poet augured well of the dispositions of the cardinal, and lost no time to return to the charge, by addressing an ode to him, to which he gave the title of THANKS, as if he had already received the favours which he hoped he should receive! Thus Ronsard dedicated to Catherine of Medicis, who was prodigal of promises, his hymn to PROMISE. But all was lost for Scarron by the death of the Cardinal.

When Scarron’s father died, he brought his mother-in-law into court; and, to complete his misfortunes, lost his suit. The cases which he drew up for the occasion were so extremely burlesque, that the world could not easily conceive how a man could amuse himself so pleasantly on a subject on which his existence depended.

The successor of Richelieu, the Cardinal Mazarin, was insensible to his applications. He did nothing for him, although the poet dedicated to him his Typhon, a burlesque poem, in which the author describes the wars of the giants with the gods. Our bard was so irritated at this neglect, that he suppressed a sonnet he had written in his favour, and aimed at him several satirical bullets. Scarron, however, consoled himself for this kind of disgrace with those select friends who were not inconstant in their visits to him. The Bishop of Mans also, solicited by a friend, gave him a living in his diocese. When Scarron had taken possession of it, he began his Roman Comique, ill translated into English by Comical Romance. He made friends by his dedications. Such resources were indeed necessary, for he not only lived well, but had made his house an asylum for his two sisters, who there found refuge from an unfeeling step-mother.

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It was about this time that the beautiful and accomplished Mademoiselle d’Aubigne, afterwards so well known by the name of Madame de Maintenon, she who was to be one day the mistress, if not the queen of France, formed with Scarron the most romantic connexion. She united herself in marriage with one whom she well knew could only be a lover. It was indeed amidst that literary society she formed her taste and embellished with her presence his little residence, where assembled the most polished courtiers and some of the finest geniuses of Paris of that famous party, called La Fronde, formed against Mazarin. Such was the influence this marriage had over Scarron, that after this period his writings became more correct and more agreeable than those which he had previously composed. Scarron, on his side, gave a proof of his attachment to Madame de Maintenon; for by marrying her he lost his living of Mans. But though without wealth, he was accustomed to say that “his wife and he would not live uncomfortable by the produce of his estate and the Marquisate of Quinet.” Thus he called the revenue which his compositions produced, and Quinet was his bookseller.

Scarron addressed one of his dedications to his dog, to ridicule those writers who dedicate their works indiscriminately, though no author has been more liberal of dedications than himself; but, as he confessed, he made dedication a kind of business. When he was low in cash he always dedicated to some lord, whom he praised as warmly as his dog, but whom probably he did not esteem as much.

When Scarron was visited, previous to general conversation his friends were taxed with a perusal of what he had written since he saw them last. Segrais and a friend calling on him, “Take a chair,” said our author, “and let me try on you my ‘Roman Comique.’” He took his manuscript, read several pages, and when he observed that they laughed, he said, “Good, this goes well; my book can’t fail of success, since it obliges such able persons as yourselves to laugh;” and then remained silent to receive their compliments. He used to call this trying on his romance, as a tailor tries his coat. He was agreeable and diverting in all things, even in his complaints and passions. Whatever he conceived he immediately too freely expressed; but his amiable lady corrected him of this in three months after marriage.

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He petitioned the queen, in his droll manner, to be permitted the honour of being her Sick-Man by right of office. These verses form a part of his address to her majesty:

Scarron, par la grace de Dieu,

Malade indigne de la reine,

Homme n’ayant ni feu, ni lieu,

Mais bien du mal et de la peine;

Hopital allant et venant,

Des jambes d’autrui cheminant,

Des sieunes n’ayant plus l’usage,

Souffrant beaucoup, dormant bien pen,

Et pourtant faisant par courage

Bonne mine et fort mauvais jeu.

“Scarron, by the grace of God, the unworthy Sick-Man of the Queen; a man without a house, though a moving hospital of disorders; walking only with other people’s legs, with great sufferings, but little sleep; and yet, in spite of all, very courageously showing a hearty countenance, though indeed he plays a losing game.”

She smiled, granted the title, and, what was better, added a small pension, which losing, by lampooning the minister Mazarin, Fouquet generously granted him a more considerable one.

The termination of the miseries of this facetious genius was now approaching. To one of his friends, who was taking leave of him for some time, Scarron said, “I shall soon die; the only regret I have in dying is not to be enabled to leave some property to my wife, who is possessed of infinite merit, and whom I have every reason imaginable to admire and to praise.”

One day he was seized with so violent a fit of the hiccough, that his friends now considered his prediction would soon be verified. When it was over, “If ever I recover,” cried Scarron, “I will write a bitter satire against the hiccough.” The satire, however, was never written, for he died soon after. A little before his death, when he observed his relations and domestics weeping and groaning, he was not much affected, but humorously told them, “My children, you will never weep for me so much as I have made you laugh.” A few moments before he died, he said, that “he never thought that it was so easy a matter to laugh at the approach of death.”

The burlesque compositions of Scarron are now neglected by the French. This species of writing was much in vogue till attacked by the critical Boileau, who annihilated such puny writers as D’Assoucy and Dulot, with their stupid admirers. It is said he spared Scarron because his merit, though it appeared but at intervals, was uncommon. Yet so much were burlesque verses the fashion after Scarron’s works, that the booksellers would not publish poems, but with the word “Burlesque” in the title-page. In 1649 appeared a poem, which shocked the pious, entitled, “The Passion of our Lord, in burlesque Verses.”

Swift, in his dotage, appears to have been gratified by such puerilities as Scarron frequently wrote. An ode which Swift calls “A Lilliputian Ode,” consisting of verses of three syllables, probably originated in a long epistle in verses of three syllables, which Scarron addressed to Sarrazin. It is pleasant, and the following lines will serve as a specimen:–

Epitre a M. Sarrazin.

Mon voisin,
Cher ami,
Qu’a demi,
Je ne voi,
Dont ma foi
J’ai depit
Un petit.
N’es-tu pas
Le Felon?

He describes himself–

Un pauvret,
Tres maigret;
Au col tors,
Dont le corps
Tout tortu,
Tout bossu,
Est reduit,
Jour et nuit,
A souffrir
Sans guerir
Des tourmens

He complains of Sarrazin’s not visiting him, threatens to reduce him into powder if he comes not quickly; and concludes,

Mais pourtant,
Si tu viens
Et tu tiens
Un moment
Avec nous,
Mon courroux

The Roman Comique of our author abounds with pleasantry, with wit and character. His “Virgile Travestie” it is impossible to read long: this we likewise feel in “Cotton’s Virgil travestied,” which has notwithstanding considerable merit. Buffoonery after a certain time exhausts our patience. It is the chaste actor only who can keep the attention awake for a length of time. It is said that Scarron intended to write a tragedy; this perhaps would not have been the least facetious of his burlesques.

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