One would have difficulty 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.” When the first edition of his poems appeared in 1712, he was in disgrace and in exile. However, the poems were avidly read, and soon he was being spoken of as “le seul poète qui nous reste dans notre siècle” and “il faut avouer que nous n’avons de véritable poète que Rousseau.” Yet the vogue of the so-called “grand lyrique français” has declined so much that when the Tuffrau revision of the Lanson manual of French literature appeared in 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 even being mentioned, receiving a passing reference, or 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 these 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Before Rousseau fled from Paris to Switzerland (in December 1710), his still unpublished poems had won him enough renown to cause him to be referred to as “fameux poète.”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 publication.
In a letter of 1711 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 epigrams, 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 before— épicgrammes libres to the number of thirty to thirty-five. However, he never 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 (Epître 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 May 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 published none of the obscene epigrams.
The poet’s protests against this publication of his works were motivated not only by displeasure at the failure to ask his permission. Several of the poems were spurious. 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. He had already suffered so much—justly or unjustly—from matters involving personal satire, that he was particularly 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 Rousseau’s poems, the gazettes of Holland announced that an edition of Rousseau’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 (Solothurn), 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 épigrammes libres and an allegory entitled le Masque de Laverne.
Evidence is not lacking as to the immediate success of the work. There are nine known different editions bearing the “Soleure, 1712” imprimatur, which indicates that the demand was sufficiently great for it to be reprinted several times. It must be remembered also that the volume was shortly in competition with the unauthorized edition published in Holland. Curiously enough, the periodicals of the time do not seem to make any mention of the book. But we have statements of both enemies and friends of Rousseau as to the interest that the public took in it. Gacon, or his publisher, in the Avertissement preceding the Anti-Rousseau of 1712, spoke of “l’empressement qu’on a témoigné pour les Œuvres du sieur Rousseau …”
A couple of letters written to the poet by the Grand Prieur Philippe de Vendôme throw an interesting light on the reception accorded the book at Lyon, where the Grand Prieur was then living:
“De Lyon ce 2 février 1712
Votre livre, quoique nouveau venu, a été presque dévoré hier au soir à un souper que j’ai fait ici avec trois ou quatre de mes amis. Michon en faisait la lecture. … Il était si enthousiasmé qu’il l’a lu cette nuit dans son lit jusqu’à sept heures du matin. ..
Je suis aussi chargé de vous dire que vous feriez un sensible plaisir à cette ville d’envoyer 200 exemplaires que vous n’auriez qu’à m’adresser et dont la distribution ne languirait pas . . .
De Lyon ce 18 février 1712
La véritable modestie ne peut jamais que mériter des louanges, mais puisque celles que nous donnons tous ici à votre livre sont exemptes de flatterie, vous pouvez sans craindre d’être soupçonné d’amour-propre accepter l’hommage sincère que nous rendons à la vérité . . . Nous attendons avec impatience vos 200 volumes dont la distribution ne languira pas . . .”
A similar enthusiasm for Rousseau’s work was expressed by his old friend, the Marquis de La Fare. He said:
“… je suis enchanté plus encore par la vérité
Par l’heureuse variété,
Qui règne en toutes tes maximes,
La recherche, la nouveauté
The text appears to be well-written with only a few minor errors. Below is the corrected version:
“In the correspondence between Brossette and J.-B. Rousseau, we find several indications of the growth of Jean-Baptiste’s popularity in the years between 1712 and 1723 when the poet released a second and enlarged edition of his works. We have quoted above (on p. 139) the flattering opinion ascribed by Brossette to the Regent around 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 perfectionnée 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 from Lyon named Mazard, who had placed the portraits of Rabelais, Molière, La Fontaine, Racine, and Boileau in his study, wanted to add that of J.-B. Rousseau. Brossette requested the poet to have his portrait painted (at Mazard’s expense) and sent it 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. . . .”