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THE triumphs of the intellectual history of France are continuous to this day, and are among the most notable land-marks of universal literature. The first germs of religious reformation manifest themselves on French soil, and it is through France that the influence of the Renaissance spread over the civilized world. It is owing to her illustrious writers more than to her princes and captains that we have our modern France, if not our modern civilization. For it is one of her immortal glories to have accomplished this transformation rather by the power of thought than by that of military achievements; and her action upon the rest of the world was always independent of her military triumphs. Her great thinkers are, for this reason, of worldwide interest. But French literature down to the end of the sixteenth century was wanting to a certain extent in form and seriousness ; it was too spontaneous, not well enough guarded in its expressions, and too indifferent in respect to art. It acquired the needed form during the seventeenth century, which may be termed the period during which literary doctrines were expounded and accepted; and this form continued throughout the time of the philosophical renaissance of which Voltaire and Rousseau were the European apostles in the eighteenth century, and down to the eclectic and scientific period in which we live. The seventeenth century moreover was the age of the reviving drama, from Jodelle to Corneille, from Corneille and Racine to the one man who knew well how to bring out upon his
canvas the lights and shadows of every-day life, the king of dramatists, the anatomist of humanity, Molière.
Jean Baptiste Poquelin, who subsequently assumed the name of Molière, was born on the 15th of January, 1622. In those times, the sole ambition of a father was to see in his son a worthy heir to his name and profession. The nobleman would have his son enter the military profession and show him by the record of his ancestors that it was his paramount duty to serve his king and his country, sword in hand ; the lawyer was eager to have his son succeed him in the grave functions of magistracy, and taught him that the practice of virtue, not any less than a perfect knowledge of the laws governing society, is necessary in those who are called upon to pronounce judgment upon the honor and life of their fellow-beings; and the merchant was happy in thinking, that his son, a merchant like himself, would uphold his reputation for probity to the same degree that a young nobleman would keep pure and unpolluted the coat-of-arms of his ancestors.
Such was indeed the hope, such was the ambition of Molière's father. He was a rich upholsterer just as his father had been, and he now cherished the thought that his son, in his turn, would learn his trade, and in time follow him in the honorable position of valet de chambre tapissier de la cour which he held, and whose main business and highest privilege it was to make up the bed of the king. When quite young, Molière lost his mother. His father was an austere and narrow-minded man ; he did all he could to stifle the natural aptitudes of his son, thinking that the ordinary knowledge of reading, writing and arithmetic would be quite sufficient for him in his struggle with the world. But fortunately for the glory of France, young Poquelin had a jolly old man for a grandfather, and the two became constant companions. It is said that they went frequently to the theatre, and that the grandfather was delighted with his grandson's bright remarks about the actors. If this is true it being questioned by some - it would then seem as if his genius was awakened at the théâtre de l'hôtel de Bourgogne ; and later on the thought came to Molière that there were other fields from which he might choose his profession : for instance, from poetry or drama. But to reach this goal, it was not enough that he should know how to read and write. But, that he should long for knowledge at a time when education was the almost exclusive privilege of the nobility and the clergy, was a thought that well nigh called for vengeance from above, and especially, as his father firmly believed that he had not the least objection to following in his footsteps. Young Poquelin, however, instead of devoting himself to his professional work, thinks and meditates upon a wonderland of his own that he would create. The plays he has seen acted on the stage are constantly before his eyes ; when he cannot exactly recall some act or scene, he rewrites it after his fashion, and it often happens, when done, that his work equals and perhaps surpasses the original. And so it happens that one fine day his father scolds him for his absent-mindedness; he asks questions of such directness that there is no other alternative left to young Poquelin than to make a clean breast of it all; and the father is surprised and grieved when he learns that the heir he had been dreaming of for his name, his business, and his shop, wishes to study Latin and Greek. Though reluctantly, he is at last prevailed upon to send his son to school, and he enters the Collège de Clermont, kept by the Jesuits, and at that time (1637), the finest and the most popular of all the colleges in Paris. Within five years, young Poquelin has learned everything that could then be learned at college, the classic languages and philosophy.