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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Jean Richepin (1849–1926)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Mathurin Marius Dondo (1884–1968)
 
THE LITERARY activity of Richepin, from 1872 to the present time, comprises over fifty volumes of poems, novels, dramas, and miscellaneous works. These works embody the salient traits which mark the principal movements of contemporary French literature. With the flamboyant rhetoric of Romanticism, Richepin combines the directness and grossness of Naturalism; thus he mingles the most extravagant idealism with the most truculent realism. We may even find symbolic tendencies in some of his writings, but “it is symbolism with Zola sauce,” as one French critic puts it.  1
  In his childhood, Richepin acquired a liking for the nomadic and adventurous life, the spirit of which permeates a large part of his writings. He was born in 1849 in Algeria, where his father was stationed as an army officer. Owing to frequent changes of garrison, Richepin’s youth was spent in various places until he was sent to the École Normale of the University of Paris. After qualifying as a professor he taught for a while in a provincial college, but found the classroom ill fitted to his nature. He then frankly started on a life of adventure. Between 1871 and 1875 he was in turn sailor, stevedore, wrestler at fairs, and official songster for a band of gypsies.  2
  In 1876 appeared his first collection of poems, ‘La Chanson des Gueux’ (The Song of the Beggars), which led him not only to fame but also to prison, as the tone of the poems was found offensive. In this work, Richepin gives free vent to his fancy and exalts without reticence the brutal poetry of the outcast. He makes frequent use of the ballad and expresses himself abundantly in the slang of the vagabonds. Both in thought and form ‘La Chanson des Gueux’ reminds us of François Villon, whom Richepin proclaims as his master.  3
  In spite of Richepin’s crude and even revolting realism, one cannot help admiring his sincerity and keen understanding of human nature. These beggars, these wretches, who have nothing to expect from life but privation and suffering, with what desperate tenacity they cling to life! Genuine pathos permeates his poems, as, for example, when he tells us of the rich families gathered on Christmas Eve in front of a blazing hearth:
  “But what a sad and bitter day
For the poor who feast on wind,
For those who have no hearth!”
  4
  Richepin excels in the “chanson,” to which he gives all the naïveté, archaism, and singing qualities so characteristic of the popular songs of France. Not a few of his compositions seem to have sprung spontaneously from the soul of an artless singer.  5
  ‘Les Caresses’ (1877), ‘Les Blasphèmes’ (1884), ‘La Mer’ (1886), are poetical works which continue and develop the inspiration which brought forth ‘La Chanson des Gueux.’ With prodigious effects of rhythm, with an exuberance of vocabulary that reminds one of Rabelais, Richepin sings the joys of love and elemental passion. In the poems of ‘The Sea,’ which deal with life as he himself had known it as a sailor before the mast, Richepin obtains great vigor and directness of expression. For sheer unaffected pathos and honest strength there is nothing better in modern French verse.  6
  Richepin detested all rules, literary as well as social. When he began to write, the Parnassian school dominated. But his sanguine and exalted temperament could not submit to the restrained and objective mood of Leconte de Lisle. The earlier Romanticists attracted him; their tempestuous lyricism is to be found in most of his poetic works. On the other hand, Naturalism had made a deep impression on the literature of that period, and Richepin did not escape its influence. This is particularly evident in his novels. ‘Miarka’ (1883), which relates the story of a gypsy girl, and ‘La Glu’ (1801), which deals with the tragic effects of a woman’s depravity, are written very much in the spirit of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series.  7
  But Richepin’s most important works are his dramas in verse. The first play to attract attention was ‘Le Chemineau’ (The Tramp, 1897). Its theme is the glorification of the Vagabond in whom the poet has embodied the spirit of his own youth. A gay and singing wanderer appears on a farm at harvest time. He is the nameless Chemineau who knows the secrets of the woods and the fields. He beguiles the young servant Toinette, who prefers this poetic companion to the industrious farm-hand, François, her admirer. But the Chemineau leaves, singing, and Toinette is saved from misery only by the generosity of François, who marries her and takes the child of the Vagabond as his own. Twenty years have passed. This child, Toinet, has grown to a youth. He falls desperately in love with the daughter of proud and wealthy Maître Pierre. The master will not consent to the marriage. In his grief, Toinet takes to drink and abandons his work. François is sick and old and his farm is on the verge of ruin. The Chemineau by chance wanders again through the village. He learns of the condition of Toinette and her son and becomes their savior. By his sorcery he coaxes the obdurate Maître Pierre to consent to the marriage of the two lovers. The Chemineau has a home at last, for all love him and entreat him to stay. But, on a snowy Christmas night, while all, save the dying François, are at midnight mass, he vanishes into the dark, carried away by the fever of wandering and the destiny of the Chemineau. Toinette alone understands his nostalgia which she explains to those who blame him for being without home and country.

  “The poor tramp counts his home by the hundreds,
By the thousands, while we have one only;
He finds home and his country wherever
A friend’s voice gives him neighborly welcome.
His the land of the grape and the apple,
His the land of the hills and low valleys,
All whose songs he learns while passing through them.
So the great big wide world is his country,
And for him every path leads straight homeward.
He is rich beyond dreams of the wealthy—
What belongs to no one he possesses—
Heaths and wastes, slumbering ponds, pathless thickets,
Which speak to him with intimate murmur,
Wild ravines, and the sweet-scented moorlands,
The lone song of the wind in the rushes,
Shade and sunshine, the flowers and the waters,
All the birds of the hedges and forests!”
(‘Le Chemineau,’ Act V, Scene III.)    
  8
 
  After Rostand’s ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ Richepin’s ‘La Martyre’ is perhaps the most successful play of the contemporary French theatre. The story of this drama bears a strong resemblance to that of ‘Quo Vadis.’ The scene is laid in Rome in the second century A.D. Flammeola, a patrician lady, falls in love with Johannes, the leading priest of the Christians. She endeavors by all sorts of allurements to win his affection. Aruns, his fanatic and uncompromising coadjutor, springs up at each critical moment and guards him against the danger of succumbing to her charms. Latro, a gladiator of great repute, is in love with Flammeola and attempts to kill Johannes in a jealous frenzy. The latter is arrested for being a Christian, having been betrayed to the authorities by Thomrys, a Scythian circus girl who vainly seeks the love of Latro. Johannes is condemned and crucified in the Coliseum. Flammeola, on seeing him in agony, moved by the grace of Eros rather than by the grace of Christ, exclaims, “I am a Christian,” which was only another way of saying “I love you.” Thereupon Latro kills her and then himself. In this Christian drama, Richepin gives but little of the spirit of Christianity. Apart from a few concessions to the conventional hero, the idea of the play is thoroughly pagan. Zythophanes, the philosopher, who is the mouthpiece of Richepin, refers to Jesus as the last incarnation of Eros, under whose influence plebeians and patricians, knaves and saints are drawn irresistibly together.  9
  In ‘Don Quichotte’ (1905) Richepin undertook the difficult task of setting on the stage the hero of Cervantes. By a careful selection of well-known incidents, which he presents in eight tableaux, he gives us a most picturesque scenic presentation of the famous hidalgo. Of course, he takes liberties with his subject and now and then attributes to the knight of La Mancha a philosophy more akin to his own. These are the words of Don Quichotte on his deathbed:

  “Not in vain on this earth have I trespassed,
Nor unfruitful my dreams, though I perish.
Poor men, down in your valley of sadness,
For your welfare these flowers called romantic
Are as needful, nay, more so, more needful
Than the so-called real things of existence.
And yet you would scorn this ambrosia
The ideal, truth, justice, and beauty!
These bright flowers you would weed from your meadows,
So a man cursed with madness and folly
Must once more sow the fragrance immortal.
You insult him. You spit on his forehead.
What of that? He has sown. The flowers blossom.
Yes! I see them! Hail, flowers of my dreaming!
Noble vision enlarging for ever,
Blessed dawn that the madmen see breaking,
Blessed dawn for whose sake I am dying,
My ideal, the joy of my sadness,
The one love of my life—Dulcinea.”
  10
 
  Richepin, it will be seen, in spite of his apparent materialism, remains incurably romantic; his distinguishing note is a sincere sympathy with the poor, especially the rebellious poor. He has remarkable technical skill, suppleness and splendor of style, which give to his descriptive passages a color and intensity unsurpassed in contemporary literature.  11
 
 
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