Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library
  PREVIOUSNEXT  

CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · QUICK INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHIES
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · PORTRAITS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
François Rabelais (c. 1490–1553)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Henry Bérenger (1867–1952)
 
FRANÇOIS RABELAIS was born toward the end of the fifteenth century. The chronological legend would have you believe that he was born the same year as Martin Luther. While Luther, however, was born in a peasant’s hut at Eisleben, in the shadow of the Gothic towers and the forests of dreamy Germany, François Rabelais was born in an apothecary’s shop or the inn of a publican, at Chinon, on the banks of the sluggish Loire, among the songs of drinkers which awoke him in his cradle. At the threshold of the sixteenth century these two powerful and popular geniuses, both vowed to the monastic state, still half sheathed in the past, escape from the convent to create the future.  1
  Rabelais studied first at the convent of Seville; then at the convent of the Franciscans of La Baumette, near Angers, where at first he was novice. In 1509 he went to finish his novitiate at the convent of Fontenay-le-Comte, where he became priest about 1519, and lived until 1523. Thus his early youth was passed among those rich and gracious landscapes of Touraine, where Honoré de Balzac also was to be born, and to grow up three centuries later, with the same exuberant and magnificent talents of reason and imagination as his great elder and compatriot, François Rabelais.  2
  The first convents in which young Rabelais studied were prisons rather than refuges. The mendicant monks among whom he dwelt at La Baumette and at Fontenay-le-Comte were ignorant, sensual, and superstitious beings, who detested the intellectual life. It was in such an environment, however, but secretly, that Rabelais acquired that passion for study which never quitted him. As long as he studied only Latin and the old French authors, he was unmolested. But one day they discovered some Greek books in his cell. This was a case of heresy. The Greek books were confiscated, and Rabelais was forced to flee in order to escape the stake or the oubliettes. The Pope, Clement VII., was more liberal than these monks, and in 1524 he authorized Rabelais to enter the order of St. Benedict. Just at this time he became regular canon of the abbey of Maillezais. He remained there only a short time. He then passed to the secular clergy, and was attached to the household of Guy d’Estissac, bishop of Maillezais. He seems to have lived there very happily.  3
  Soon afterward the taste for travel seized him. He visited France, and studied at her chief universities. On the 16th of September, 1530, we know that he took his first registry at the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier. He received all the degrees of that University, and rapidly achieved a great medical reputation. He was appointed physician of the great hospital of Lyons in 1532, and exercised that function until February 1534. During the same period he published ‘Gargantua’ and the first book of ‘Pantagruel.’ In 1534 he left Lyons to accompany as physician the bishop of Paris, Jean du Bellay, uncle of Joachim, the celebrated poet of the Pleiade,—who was sent to Rome as ambassador extraordinary of Francis I. to the Holy See, from which mission he was to win the cardinal’s cap. He possessed a noble and liberal spirit, and always protected Rabelais against the rage of his enemies. Rabelais followed him again to Rome in 1536–1537. Thanks to the protection of the Cardinal du Bellay, Pope Paul III. granted him absolution for his apostasy (that is, for his change of costume), and moreover permitted him to become a Benedictine again, and to exercise the profession of medicine. Strong in these two authorizations, Rabelais took at the Faculty of Montpellier, where he had been received doctor in 1537, a course in anatomy. Later he was consulting physician in different cities,—Narbonne, Castres, and Lyons. His faithful patron, the Cardinal du Bellay, who was also abbot of St. Maur as well as bishop of Paris, had him appointed canon of the abbey of St. Maur-les-Fossés. Not being bound to reside there, he continued to travel. He was in Poitou; then in his dear native land of Touraine; then again in Piedmont with the vice-king Guillaume de Langey (brother of the Cardinal du Bellay), where he continued to act as physician. In 1545 he obtained from the King, Francis I., permission to publish the third book of his work. After the death of the King he was in great anxiety; for the Cardinal du Bellay was not in favor with the new King, Henry II. But he found new protectors in the houses of Châtillon and of Lorraine, who recalled him from Metz and from Rome, where he had gone, in a measure to find refuge. In 1550 he was allowed to publish his fourth book, which he dedicated to the Cardinal de Châtillon. The same year he was appointed parish priest of Meudon by Cardinal du Bellay. We do not know whether Rabelais exercised his priestly functions. Everything indicates that he did, however, for he possessed a practical spirit desirous of action. But at the beginning of the year 1552 he resigned his two charges, just as his fourth book appeared. Doubtless he wished to be more independent, unless he simply quitted these too exacting functions on account of his health; indeed, he died in 1553. The fifth book of his work, part of which seems apocryphal, was not published until 1562.  4
  Considering this life as a whole, it appears that of a laborious as well as daring genius, and of one independent as well as able. Man of free studies and free pleasures, Rabelais was above all the enemy of whatever constrained him. Action was life to him. On coming into the world, he found about him all kinds of fetters: first those of the convent, then those of the Sorbonne, and later those of Parliament; finally those of fanatics, both papists and Huguenots. Rabelais never posed as apostle or martyr, but far more as a shrewd and witty dilettante, whose device, framed by himself, was—Primo vivere, deinde philosophari. In order to live, he sought protectors. Like Jean de Meung before him, and Molière after him, he relied upon royalty. He went to Rome to solicit the Pope. He obtained protection against the monks from the high dignitaries of the Church. And having once taken these precautions against the malice and stupidity of subalterns, he composed, at his own leisure and convenience, one of the most vehement and most revolutionary works ever directed by human thought against the social institutions among which it struggles.  5
  The work of Rabelais is divided into five books, of which the first is entitled ‘La Vie Très-Horrifique du Grand Gargantua, Père de Pantagruel’ (The Astounding Life of the Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel); the second, ‘Pantagruel, Roi des Dipsodes, avec ses Faits et Prouesses Épouvantables’ (Pantagruel, King of the Drunkards, with his Heroic Acts and Achievements); while the last three narrate ‘Les Faits et Dicts Heroïques du Bon Pantagruel’ (The Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Good Pantagruel). This work was written at different times during a period of twenty years, and among all kinds of journeys and occupations, from 1532 to 1553. Therefore those who look upon it as a work composed once for all, issuing harmoniously from the artist’s brain like Minerva all armed issuing from the brain of Jupiter, are entirely wrong. It is rather a Gothic monument like the cathedrals of the same period, to which have been added one after another a portal, a tower, a gable, a gallery, rose-windows, gargoyles, with no thought of unity other than that of the general inspiration. Strange monument built of mud and of marble, bathed in shadow and in sunshine, decked with a thousand monstrous forms, with riddles and logogriphs, and upon which the artist has carved innumerable sacred or grotesque personages, angels, beasts, monks, maidens, wise men and fools, devils and phantoms! But this monument is already illuminated by the classic glimmers of the Renaissance; rays of ancient wisdom penetrate it, and reveal here and there passages worthy of a place beside the works of Homer, of Plato, or of Plutarch. The religion of human reason and of natural beauty ennobles this architecture, apparently so barbarous and monstrous. An encyclopædic genius, stationed on the boundary between two epochs, two civilizations, and two countries, between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, between the north and the south,—Rabelais is the heir of the free-singers, of the bold story-tellers and farce-lovers of past time, from Maître Renart to the Basoche. In this immense monument still resound all the echoes of the Gallic spirit, and already vibrates the alarum of the classic spirit. The abbey of Thélème is vast enough to harbor at one time Plato, St. Paul, Virgil, Socrates, Jean de Meung, Patelin, François Villon; and also those macaronic poets of Italy whose unctuous joviality and gigantomachia had so greatly diverted him during his stay at Rome. Rabelais combined in his work all these inspirations, as he blended in his style all the dialects of Picardy, Normandy, Touraine, Champagne, Provence, etc.  6
  ‘Gargantua’ and ‘Pantagruel’ are, under a diverting and fantastic form, the epic of the sixteenth century, as the Iliad and Odyssey were the epic of ancient Greece; as the ‘Divine Comedy’ was the epic of mediæval Catholicism; as the ‘Comédie Humaine’ of Balzac is the epic of modern democracy. Chateaubriand was right in defining Rabelais as “a mother-genius”; for he has conceived and given life to most of the great French geniuses who followed him. In a tragic and tumultuous age, filled with public calamities, with the follies of royal ambition, with the mania for military conquests, with the fury of intellectual controversies, with the nascent rage for civil wars, with the Parliament’s sentences to death, with the decrees and the fagots of the Sorbonne, Rabelais attempted to restore his contemporaries to mental health by making them laugh at their own maladies. The powerful mocker cast such ridicule upon bad kings (Picrochole), bad priests (Janotus de Bragmardo), bad magistrates (Grippemihaud, etc.), all kinds of fanatics (Coresme-Prenant, Autyrhysis), that he almost destroyed their infernal power by the mere force of his genial buffoonery. And he did not content himself merely with destroying; he constructed. He was as sublime an idealist as he was a profound, sometimes coarse, realist. He invented the succession of good kings (Grangousier, Gargantua, Pantagruel), he created the type of the good educator (Ponocrates), of the good monk (Brother Jean des Entommeures), he dreamed the Utopia of the new society, more tolerant, more generous, happier than the old; and over the ruins accumulated by his terrible and avenging irony he built the abbey of Thélème,—that is, of Free Will. On the front he inscribed, “Do what thou wilt;” thus answering the old cry of the Dominican Izarn at the stake of the Albigeois, “Believe as you do, and you shall be burned.” Rabelais is a powerful emancipator of modern thought, and the natural ancestor of the Voltaires and the Diderots.  7
  But he is at the same time a great and incomparable artist. He had the gift of creating types and the power of creating a language. A key to Rabelais has been made and remade twenty times: the commentators have striven to attach a historic name to every character. According to the usual opinion, Grangousier is Louis XII.; Gargantua, Francis I.; Pantagruel, Henry II.; Picrochole, either Maximilien Sforza, Ferdinand of Aragon, or Charles V.; Brother Jean, the Cardinal du Bellay; Panurge, the Cardinal of Lorraine, or the author himself. It singularly lessens and lowers Rabelais to reduce him to the rôle of a contemporary portrait painter; and thus doing, one understands nothing of the essence or the scope of his work. The truth is that Rabelais’s imagination transformed the matter upon which it worked, brought out its essential features,—the figures worthy of preservation,—and composed those imperishable types, mixtures of fancy and truth, which, rooted in their own time, reach to the most distant future. And Rabelais is not only an epic genius: he is also the first of the great comic poets of France. Before Corneille and Molière, no author possessed to such a degree the sense of action, the art of scenic effect, and that of writing dialogue. The meeting of Pantagruel and the Limousin student, the visit to Rondibilis, the bargain with Dindenant, the consultation of Panurge with the philosopher Trouillogan, are scenes of the most living comedy.  8
  Finally, his style, like his thought, is magnificent in contrasts, in exuberance, in fancy and profoundness, lights and shadows. It has the opulence of Rubens, the irony of Callot, the sublimity of Rembrandt. The sentence, capricious and unrestrained, is curiously chiseled, clear, and finished; it is embellished and embroidered at pleasure, like the ornamental stone of the Gothic monuments under the hands of the great artists of the Middle Ages. The vocabulary, one of unequaled wealth, is a heap of diamonds and of waste matter for the future to sort out. The syntax is a curious one: complex, multiform, sheathed in Latin, not quite emancipated from dialect, but already singularly flexible, agile, undulating; realistic or lyrical, brutal or winged, at his will. Finally, it is French language forged and shaped from pure Latin and Romance metal, with great blows of the hammer, by the first and most vigorous of its workers of genius. Every great French writer proceeds from Rabelais, as every great Italian writer proceeds from Dante.  9
  Such is this strong and jovial figure, both comic and serious, like the spectacle of life itself. Great philosopher, great artist, and great author, Rabelais compels the admiration of the centuries—in spite of his masks, voluntarily coarse and jocose—as the first complete type of French genius: of the genius of tolerance, of liberty, of generous irony, which since Rabelais, and from century to century, has given us Molière, Voltaire and Diderot, Balzac and Hugo.  10
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
 

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.