Racine was transferred from Beauvais to the school of the convent of Port Royal, and the Jesuits noticing his natural quickness, bestowed careful attention upon his education. He was so wretchedly poor that he could not buy copies of the classics, and he was obliged to use those owned by others, and which were much inferior to copies he could have purchased had he possessed money. He was early struck with the beauty of the Greek writers—and more especially the Greek tragedians. He wandered in the woods with Sophocles and Euripides in his hands, and many years after could recite their chief plays from memory. He got hold of the Greek romance of Theogines and Chariclea, but the priests would not tolerate such reading and committed the volume to the flames. He got another copy and it shared the same fate. He concluded to purchase another, kept it till he learned it by heart, and then took it to the priests and told them they might have that also.
At Port Royal Racine was happy. He was a gentle-hearted boy and his masters loved him. He early began to compose verses and showed an intense love of poetry. At nineteen he left Port Royal for the college of Harcour, at Paris. When he was twenty-one Louis XIV. was married, and invited every versifier in the kingdom to write in honor of the occasion. Racine was an obscure student and was unknown as a poet. He wrote a poem on the marriage, and it was shown to M. Chapelain, who was the poetical critic of Paris at that time. He thought it showed a good deal of promise and suggested a few alterations. It was carried to the patron of the critic, who sent him a hundred louis from the king, and a pension of six hundred livres. The poet’s friends were anxious that he should choose a profession, and that of the bar was strongly urged upon him. He objected. An uncle who had a benefice at Uzes, wished to resign it to his nephew. Racine concluded to visit his uncle in the provinces. He remained for some time there, but he found there was little hope of advancement and grew restless. The scenery around him was magnificent, yet, though he was a poet, he had no eye for the grand and impressive in scenery. He was too much of a Parisian for that. A Parisian is all art—and cares nothing for nature. He prefers fine buildings and paintings to fields, mountains, and majestic rivers.
Racine wrote a poem entitled “The Bath of Venus,” and began a play upon the Greek one of Theogines and Chariclea, which had delighted him so much when he was young. He returned to Paris somewhat discouraged, after an absence of only three months. Here, through the rivalry of two play-writers, he was persuaded to write very hastily a new play. He consented, and produced one which was well received by the Parisians. It did not do justice to his powers, however, and he soon after wrote “Alexandre,” which was an advance upon the previous performance. He was unacquainted with the English or Spanish drama, and had studied only the French of Corneille, and the Greek. He attempted the Greek drama, and of course found it very difficult to render dramas founded upon Grecian national subjects, and with Grecian manners, interesting to a Parisian audience. “Alexandre” was not successful upon the stage, but the best critics did not hesitate to award the premium of great dramatic genius to Racine, and he was encouraged to go on.