One would have difficulty in finding a stranger case of the growth and decline of a vogue than that of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau as a lyric poet. Before a single verse of his poems had been published he was being referred to as “Rousseau, fameux poète.”1 When the first edition of his poems appeared, in 1712, he was in disgrace, in exile, but the poems were avidly read and soon he was being spoken of this way: “le seul poète qui nous reste dans notre siècle”1 and “il faut avouer que nous n’avons de véritable poète que Rousseau.” And yet the vogue of the so-called “grand lyrique français” has so declined that when the Tuffrau revision of the Lanson manual of French literature appeared (1931), with the announced intention of treating only important figures (“seuls les écrivains de premier plan ont trouvé place dans le manuel”), the hundred or more authors treated did not include Jean-Baptiste Rousseau. He suffered the indignity of not being even mentioned, not receiving a passing reference, not even a footnote.
It is hardly the purpose of this study to rescue Jean-Baptiste Rousseau from the oblivion into which the manuals plunge him or even to plunge him in deeper; rather its purpose is to examine critically his vogue as a curious clinical case of the extreme vicissitudes of a literary reputation. First it will relate and classify the symptoms and then it will endeavor to make a diagnosis, with the hope that the result will be something of interest to students of literary history: a demonstration of the interplay of the factors that affect a writer’s reputation, among which factors we shall consider the actions and writings of friends and enemies, changes in taste, and last, but not least, purely fortuitous circumstances. Before Rousseau fled from Paris to Switzerland (in December, 1710) his still unpublished poems had won him enough renown to cause him to be referred to as “fameux poète.” This vogue had not come to him from his dramatic compositions, for, whether through lack of merit or for other reasons, they had met with little success. Though our information is not as complete as it might be, it is evident that Jean-Baptiste’s poems circulated in manuscript for a number of years before their publi- cation.*
In a letter of 17117 to his friend Boutet, the poet says: De tous les ouvrages que j’ai jamais faits, à peine s’en trouve-t-il cinq ou six dont la propriété me soit restée; et ce sont ceux dont la longueur les a sauvés de la mémoire maligne d’un tas de coquins, devant qui j’avais la complaisance de les réciter. Il y en a d’autres dont je n’ai pu refuser des copies à des amis véritables qui pourtant n’ont pas eu le courage de les refuser à d’autres, et par là les ont fait passer innocemment entre les mains de mes plus cruels ennemis, qui aussitôt en ont usé comme de leur bien, ou, pour mieux dire, comme d’une conquête, en les mettant en pièces.
As to how complete the manuscript copies of Rousseau’s poems were, a manuscript of Troyes, which seems to have been composed before 1712, gives us an indication.® This manuscript contains some 175 epi- grams, of which about half are erotic or obscene, dealing above all with erring monks and nuns. On several occasions Rousseau admitted having written years before—in 1712, he said twenty-five years before10— êpigrammes libres to the number of thirty to thirty-five. He never, however, allowed any of them to be published in authorized editions of his works. The Troyes manuscript contains most of the thirty-seven epigrams which Rousseau published in his own first edition. Unless the poet, in admitting that he had written obscene epigrams, reduced their number tremendously, it is obvious that over half of the epigrams in the Troyes manuscript are not by him. It had apparently become the custom to attribute to Rousseau all extant epigrams of a certain erotic type. In addition to epigrams the Troyes manuscript contains several of the odes, including the Ode à la Fortune, but none of the paraphrases Rouillé du Coudray, A La Fare, A Une Veuve, A Chaulieu), two of the epistles (Epttre sur l’amour, Epître au comte d’Ayen), an allegory (La Volière), and several other poems, of which two seem to be spurious. The Mercure of mai 1711 published five of the odes sacrées (not including, strangely enough, the most admired, the Cantique d’Ezéchias), and the issues of July, August, October, and December published each a few poems, including two more odes and a number of epigrams. Thus a fairly representative collection of Rousseau’s poems was presented, with the exception of the cantatas, possibly the most generally admired of all, none of which were given. It goes without saying that the Mercure pub- lished none of the obscene epigrams.
The poet’s protests against this publication of his works were moti- vated not only by displeasure at failure to ask his permission. Several of the poems were spurious.1* Others were given in faulty versions, and some were presented in such a way as to contain personal satire of a type that Jean-Baptiste avoided carefully in all editions of his works published under his own supervision.17 He had already suffered so much—justly of unjustly—from matters involving personal satire, that he was particu- larly careful. In the preface to the first edition of his poems, he pointed out the difference between a generalized satirical portrait and personal satire:
Car enfin qu’est-ce qui caractérise la satire? ce n’est autre chose que le nom de ceux qu’on y attaque. Tout portrait, quelque ressemblant qu’il puisse être, n’a jamais mérité le nom de satire, lorsque personne n’y est attaqué nommément; autrement il faudrait traiter de libelles les comédies les plus innocentes . . , At the same time that Dufresny was publishing his version of Rous- seau’s poems, the gazettes of Holland announced that an edition of Rous- seau’s works would soon be published in that country. This determined the poet to publish an authentic version of his works as soon as possible. Although facilities in Switzerland were limited, he succeeded in getting the work out before the announced Holland edition. In January, 1712, there appeared, from the presses of Ursus Heuberger of Soleure (Solo- thurn), a small volume entitled Œuvres diverses du sieur R .It was, typographically, lacking in elegance, but correct and authentic. The preface stated that it contained all of the author’s poems, except 32 êpigrammes libres and an allegory entitled le Masque de Laverne.
Evidence is not lacking as to the immediate success of the work. There arc nine known different editions bearing the “Soleure, 1712” imprima-arc nine known different editions bearing the “Soleure, 1712” imprima-tur,19 which indicates that the demand was sufficiently gTeat for it to bereprinted several times. It must be remembered also that the volumewas shortly in competition with the unauthorized edition published inHolland.20 Curiously enough the periodicals of the time do not seem tomake any mention of the book.21 But we have statements of both enemiesand friends of Rousseau as to the interest that the public took in it.Gacon, or his publisher, in the Avertissement preceding the Anti-Rousseauof 1712, spoke of “l’empressement qu’on a témoigné pour les Œuvresdu sieur Rousseau …”
A couple of letters written to the poet by theGrand Prieur Philippe de Vendôme throw an interesting light on thereception accorded the book at Lyon, where the Grand Prieur was thenliving:De Lyon ce 2 février 1712Votre livre, quoique nouveau venu, a été presque dévoré hier au soir à unsouper que j’ai fait ici avec trois ou quatre de mes amis. Michon en faisait lalecture. … Il était si enthousiasmé qu’il l’a lu cette nuit dans son lit jusqu’àsept heures du matin . ..Je suis aussi chargé de vous dire que vous feriez un sensible plaisir à cetteville d’envoyer 200 exemplaires que vous n’auriez qu’à m’adresser et dont la dis-tribution ne languirait pas . . .De Lyon ce 18 février 1712La véritable modestie ne peut jamais que mériter des louanges, mais puisquecelles que nous donnons tous ici à votre livre sont exemptes de flatterie, vouspouvez sans craindre d’être soupçonné d’amour-propre accepter l’hommagesincère que nous rendons à la vérité . . . Nous attendons avec impatience vos200 volumes dont la distribution ne languira pas . . .*A similar enthusiasm for Rousseau’s work was expressed by his oldfriend the marquis de La Fare. He said:… je suis enchanté plus encor par la véritéPar l’heureuse variété, Qui règne en toutes tes maximes,La recherche, la nouveauté Et confond la malignitéEt la noblesse de tes rimes; De ceux qui t’a vient imputéInsolemment leurs propres crimes.. .
In the correspondence of Brossette and J.-B. Rousseau we find several indications of the growth of Jean-Baptiste’s vogue in the years between 1712 and 1723, when the poet put out a second and enlarged edition of his works. We have quoted above (on p. 139) the flattering opinion ascribed by Brossette to the Regent about 1719. In his first letter to Jean-Baptiste (1715), Brossette tells how he came to admire the poet’s works. After mentioning his acquaintance with Boileau he says: C’est dans la conversation de ce grand homme et par la préférence qu’il donnait à vos talents que j’ai commencé à vous connaître; et cette idée s’est bien perfec- tionnée dans la suite par la lecture que j’ai faite de vos ouvrages . . .
A short time later he revealed that a wealthy patron of letters of Lyon named Mazard, who had placed in his study the portraits of Rabelais, Molière, La Fontaine, Racine, and Boileau, wanted to add that of J.-B. Rousseau.* Brossette requested the poet to have his portrait painted (at Mazard’s expense) and sent on. The portrait was painted in Vienna by van Schuppen and sent to Lyon in the spring of 1716, where, according to Brossette, it was received with enthusiasm:
J’ai enfin reçu votre portrait . . . Une infinité de gens de mérite se sont fait un plaisir de le voir, et quoique l’ouvrage soit fort beau, vous jugez bien que la curiosité est moins pour la peinture que pour le nom et la personne de celui qu’elle représente. M. l’abbé de Villeroy, notre archevêque, a voulu en avoir la première vue; quelques-uns de mes amis ont même déjà pris des mesures pour en avoir des copies; en un mot, vous devez être content de la distinction où vous êtes parmi nous. . . .