Orphaned at an early age, Jean Racine (1639-99) was given a strict Jansenist upbringing and a superb education. He decided against entering the Church, and between 1664 and 1677 wrote some of the greatest plays in the French language. Disappointed with the reception of Phèdre, he married and retired from the stage, returning to write the religious dramas Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691), the second a great masterpiece.

Racine's plays are as complex as their author. With a character described as voluptuous, uneasy and jealous, Jean Racine was an ambitious courtier, an astute business man, and a frequenter of innumerable actresses. But he was also a childhood believer in the Jansenist doctrine that man is a miserable creature saved only by God's grace.

Jean Racine was steeped in the ancient world, which was real and moving to him, as indeed it was to anyone of good education in the 17th-19th centuries. To be popular, Baroque plays added pagan mythology, oriental splendour, dramatic events in history, but an overriding concern was structure. Plays observed Aristotle's unities of place, time and action. But where Corneille expressed heroic sentiments in noble oratory, Racine's restrained, polished but always appropriate language depicted man's ferocious passions, savagery and imprudence. Classicism, with its balance and wholeness. was retained, with a very correct and restricted vocabulary, but given an unforgettable force.

If somewhat disregarded by the popular press, classical literature, painting and theatre are still being practised. Not many will want to return to the pedagogical exercise of translating from Latin or Greek to English, and then back again, though this was how Racine and other great poets came to love the classics and find a grammar for expressing what is universal in human nature. Jean Racine went beyond the ancient myths in devising new terrors for his characters, but his language remained miraculously natural. Modernism takes great liberties with expression, as with social decorum, but Racine's example may explain why the classics have never died out, placing an alternative vision before artists in the 20th century, even in the popular arena.

Bibliographies are given in the French Poetry section of the The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Particularly useful may be P. Butler's Racine: A Study (1974), G. Brereton's Racine: A Critical Biography (1973) and J. Lapp's Aspects of Racinian Tragedy (1955). Translations of Phèdre and Athalie are available from Ocaso Press in free pdf form.

French classical verse is built on the hexameter, which relies on a syllabic subtleties that escape English ears. Try On Reading French Verse by R. Lewis (1982) or French Verse-Art: A Study by C. Scott (1980) to develop appreciation: it'll pay dividends for reading any French poetry.

Suggestion: Complete Plays of Jean Racine: Vol. One. Translated by Geoffrey Argent. P A Hutchison Company. 2003. $12.00

Start of an ambitious attempt to translate all twelve plays of Racine into accurate and effective English verse. Volume One covers Iphigenia, Andromache and Britannicus, here rendered into rhyming couplets by Geoffrey Argent. The lengthy Introduction places Racine in context, and discusses some of the problems facing the translator.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.