In the Rue d’Argenteuil, number 18, there is a small quiet house, in which Corneille, the father of French tragedy, breathed his last. It has a black marble slab in front, and a bust in the yard with the following inscription:
“Je ne dois qu’a moi seul toute ma renommee.”
The great man lies buried in the beautiful church of St. Roch, where a tablet is erected to his memory.
Corneille was the son of Pierre Corneille, master of forests and waters in the viscounty of Rouen. His mother was of noble descent, but the couple were somewhat poor. The dramatist was born in 1606, and early became a pupil of the Jesuits of Rouen. He was educated for the law, but had no taste for that profession, and although he attempted to practice it he was unsuccessful. It was well for France that such was the fact, for had it been otherwise, she would have lost one of her most brilliant names.
When Corneille entered upon life, there was no theater in France, though there were exhibitions of various kinds. At last a few wretched plays were written by inferior men, and they were acted upon the stage by inferior actors. Corneille, while vainly endeavoring to win success at the bar, was incited to write a comedy, and produced one under the title of “Melite.” The plot was suggested by an incident in his own life. A friend of his was very much in love with a lady, and introduced him to her, that he might, after beholding her charms, indite a sonnet to her in the name of his friend. The poet found great favor in the eyes of the lady, and the original lover was cast into the shade. This incident was the reason Why Corneille wrote “Melite.” The success of the piece was very great, a new company of players was established in Paris, and at that time it was fully equal to any comedy which had been written in the French language, though it reads dull enough at the present day. The poet traveled up to Paris to witness his play upon the stage, and was so well pleased with its reception, that he went on writing plays. They were without merit, however. He had not yet struck the key-note of his after greatness.
With four other authors, Corneille was appointed to correct the plays of Richelieu. Parties quickly sprung into existence in the salons of Paris. Some of them espoused the cause of Corneille—others openly traduced his plays and were his enemies. He had the independence to correct one of Richelieu’s plays without the consent of his comrades, and Richelieu reprimanded him for it. He became disgusted and left Paris for Rouen. He was quite willing, too, to return to the lady who had inspired his sonnet. She was very beautiful, and he continued to love her until his death, and this may be said to be the only lasting passion of his life.
The poet was not much of a scholar, though well informed. He next wrote a tragedy entitled “Media,” and then another comedy called “The Illusion.” But he had not yet hit upon the note of success. Soon after, when about thirty years of age, he commenced the study of the Spanish language.