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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
François Coppée (1842–1908)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Robert Louis Sanderson (1851–1922)
 
AMONG writers of the present day whose influence on French letters is strongly felt, François Coppée occupies a foremost rank. Indeed, poets of the new generation look up to him as a master and take him for a model. Born in 1842, at the age of twenty-four he first began to draw attention by the publication in 1866 of a number of poems, collected under the name of ‘Le Reliquaire’ (The Reliquary or Shrine). Since then he has gone on writing poems, plays, and novels; but it is on his work as a poet that his fame will stand. We cannot do better than turn to one of his books, not for his biography alone, but also for the manner of thinking and feeling of this author. ‘Toute une Jeunesse’ (An Entire Youth) is not strictly an autobiography; but Coppée informs us that the leading character in this work, Amédée Violette, felt life as he felt it when a child and young man.  1
  Here we learn that Coppée’s father was a clerk in the War Offices, earning barely enough to keep his family. The boy was of weakly constitution, nervous and sentimental. The mother died; François grew up with his three sisters, two of whom painted for a living, while the third kept house. Then the father died, and his son also obtained employment in the government offices.  2
  François’s boyhood and part of his youth were spent in sadness, almost misery; and the shadow cast over his life by this gloomy period of his existence is very perceptible in the poet’s writings. It did not however make him a cynic, a pessimist, or a rebel against the existing social conditions. To be sure, his verse is not unfrequently ironical; but it is the irony of fate that the poet makes you keenly feel, although he touches it with a light hand. The recollection of those joyless days filled Coppée with an immense feeling of sadness and sympathy for all who suffer on this earth, especially for those who struggle on, bravely concealing from all eyes their griefs and sorrows. His life, he tells us, was composed of desires and reveries. His only consolation was in his literary work. He felt the inclination and the need of expressing in a way both simple and sincere what passed under his eyes; of extracting what humble ideal there might be in the small folk with whom he had lived, in the melancholy landscapes of the Parisian suburbs where his childhood had been spent,—in short, to paint from nature. He made the attempt, felt that he was successful, and lived then the best and noblest hours of his life; hours in which the artist, already a master of his instrument and having still that abundance and vivacity of sensations of youth, writes the first work that he knows to be good, and writes it with complete disinterestedness, without even thinking that others will see it; working for himself alone, for the sole joy of producing, of pouring out his whole imagination and his whole heart. Hours of pure enthusiasm, Coppée goes on to say, and of perfect happiness, that he will nevermore find when he shall have bitten into the savory fruit of success, when he shall be spurred on by the feverish desire for fame! Delightful and sacred hours, that can be compared only to the rapture of first love!  3
  Rising at six, Coppée would vigorously begin his battle with words, ideas, pictures. At nine he left for his office. There, having blackened with ink a sufficient number of government foolscap sheets, he would find himself with two or three spare hours, which he employed in reading and taking notes. Every night found him up until twelve at his writing-table. The whole of Sunday was given to his favorite occupation of writing verse. Such a continuous effort, he says, kept up in his mind that ardor, spirit, and excitement without which no poetical production is possible.  4
  Such was Coppée’s life until, his name becoming known, he earned enough with his pen to give himself up entirely to his art. Then came his success with ‘Le Passant’ (The Passer-by: 1869), a one-act play; and the following year, the war, the siege of Paris, through which Coppée served in the militia. “Amédée Violette” has now become famous, and his reputation as a poet rests upon the sincerity of his work. He is esteemed for the dignity of his life, wholly taken up with art; and in the world of French letters his place is in the very first rank. He lives out of the world, in the close intimacy of those he loves, and knows nothing of the wretchedness of vanity and ambition. Like many writers and thinkers of the present day, he feels the weariness of life, and finds oblivion in the raptures of poetry and dreams. Such is the man: a wonderfully delicate organization, of a modest shrinking nature,—notice the name of Violette he gives himself,—sensitive to a degree of morbidness.  5
  The Academy elected him a member in 1884. Let us now consider the writer. The general character of Coppée’s poetry is tender and melancholy, and the greater part of his work may be summed up as the glorification of the lowly, the weak, the ill-favored by nature or fortune; his heroes are chosen by preference among those who fill the humblest stations in life. One naturally associates poetry with a higher order of things than those presented to our eyes by the contemplation of daily events; but Coppée possesses the art of extracting from the humblest creature, from the meanest occupation, the beautiful, the poetic, the ideal. In the treatment in familiar verse of these commonplace subjects, Coppée is an accomplished master; and therein lies his originality, and there also will be found his best work. The poems comprised in the collections called ‘Les Humbles,’ ‘Contes et Poésies,’ and certain stanzas of ‘Promenades et Intérieurs,’ contain the best specimens of this familiar and sympathetic style of poetry.  6
  There is another key that Coppée touches in his poems, with a light and tender hand; a tone difficult to analyze,—the expression of one’s inner emotions, especially that of love; a yearning for an ideal affection of woman; the feeling buried in the hearts of all who have lived, loved, and suffered; regret in comparing what is with what might have been: all these varied emotions more easily felt than defined, all that the French sum up by the term vécu, have been rendered by Coppée in some of the poems contained in ‘Le Reliquaire,’ in ‘Intimites,’ ‘Le Cahier Rouge’ (The Red Note-Book), ‘Olivier,’ under whose name the poet has portrayed himself; ‘L’Exilée’; ‘Les Mois’ (The Months), in the collection having for title ‘Les Récits et les Élégies’; ‘Arrière-Saison’ (Martinmas, or what in this country might be called Indian Summer).  7
  The patriotic chord resounds in several of Coppée’s compositions,—usually straightforward, manly; here and there however with a slight touch of chauvinism. The ‘Lettre d’un Mobile Breton,’ a letter written by a Breton soldier to his parents during the siege of Paris; ‘Plus de Sang!’ (No More Blood!) ‘Aux Amputés de la Guerre’ (To the Maimed in Battle), will serve to illustrate Coppée’s treatment of subjects inspired by the events of the war, the siege, and the Commune.  8
  Among the various well-known poems of this writer, the fame of which was increased by their being recited in Parisian salons by skilled artists, should be mentioned ‘Les Aïeules’ (The Grandmothers); ‘La Gréve des Forgerons’ (The Blacksmiths’ Strike); ‘Le Naufragé’ (The Shipwrecked Sailor); and ‘La Bénédiction,’ an episode of the taking of Saragossa by the French in 1809.  9
  François Coppée has written for the stage; but he is too elegiac, too sentimental a poet to be a first-class playwright, although some of his plays have met with great success: ‘Le Passant’ (The Passer-by: 1869), a one-act comedy whose great charm lies in the expression of suffering love; ‘Le Luthier de Crémone’ (The Musical Instrument Maker of Cremona: 1876), probably the best of his dramatic compositions, a one-act comedy in which the leading character is again one of the humble,—Filippo the hunchback, whose deformity covers a brave heart and a magnanimous spirit; and ‘Pour la Couronne’ (For the Crown: 1895), a five-act drama with more action than is usually found in Coppée’s plays. The scene is laid in the Balkans. The character of Constantine Brancomir, who is falsely accused of selling his country to the Turks and submits to an ignominious punishment to save his father’s memory, is a very noble one. With these exceptions, Coppée’s plays lack action. Remaining titles are: ‘Deux Douleurs’ (Two Sorrows), a one-act drama, the story of two women who love the same man, and from being rivals become reconciled at his death; ‘Fais ce que Dois’ (Do What You Ought), a dramatic episode in one act, of a patriotic nature,—somewhat commonplace, however; ‘L’Abandonnée,’ a two-act drama presenting the picture of a young girl abandoned by her lover, who meets again with him at her death-bed in a hospital ward; ‘Les Bijoux de la Déliverance’ (The Jewels of Ransom, Freedom), simply a scene, in which a lady dressed for the ball suddenly reflects that the foreigner is still occupying the territory of France until the payment of the ransom, and removes her glittering jewels to be used for a nobler purpose. Still other plays are ‘Le Rendezvous,’ ‘La Guerre de Cent Ans’ (The Hundred Years’ War), ‘Le Trésor’ (The Treasure), ‘Madame de Maintenon,’ ‘Severo Torelli,’ ‘Les Jacobites’; and ‘Le Pater’ (The Father), which was prohibited by the French government in 1889.  10
  In common with other modern French writers, with Daudet, Maupassant, and others, Coppée excels in the writing of tales. His prose is remarkable for the same qualities that appear in his poetical works: sympathy, tenderness, marked predilection for the weak, the humble, and especially a masterly treatment of subjects essentially Parisian and modern. These contes or tales have been collected under various titles:—‘Contes en Prose’; ‘Vingt Contes Nouveaux’ (Twenty New Tales); ‘Longues et Brèves’ (Long and Short Ones); ‘Contes Tout Simples’ (Simple Stories). The following may be mentioned as among some of the best of this writer’s prose tales:—‘Le Morceau de Pain’ (The Piece of Bread); ‘Une Mort Volontaire’ (A Voluntary Death); ‘Le Pain Bénit’ (The Consecrated Bread); ‘La Sœur de Lait’ (The Foster-Sister); ‘Un Accident’; ‘Les Vices du Capitaine’; ‘Les Sabots du Petit Wolff’; ‘Mon Ami Meutrier’ (My Friend Meutrier).  11
  Among Coppée’s other prose works are ‘Une Idylle Pendant le Siége,’ ‘Henriette,’ ‘Rivales,’ nouvelles or novelettes; ‘Toute une Jeunesse’; ‘Mon Franc-Parler’ (Freely Spoken Words), essays on different subjects, books, authors, celebrities, etc. In 1898 he published ‘La Bonne Souffrance,’ an outcome of his reconversion to the Roman Catholic Church. Henceforth he took an active part in public affairs and was a leader in organizing popular opinion against the prisoner during the agitations of the Dreyfus case. He died May 23d, 1908.  12
 
 
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