Jean-François de La Harpe
(November 20, 1739 – February 11, 1803) was a French
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...
A playwright, also called a dramatist, is a person who writes plays.The term is not a variant spelling of "playwrite", but something quite distinct: the word wright is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder...
, writer and critic
A critic is anyone who expresses a value judgement. Informally, criticism is a common aspect of all human expression and need not necessarily imply skilled or accurate expressions of judgement. Critical judgements, good or bad, may be positive , negative , or balanced...
La Harpe was born in Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...
of poor parents. His father, who signed himself Delharpe, was a descendant of a noble family originally of Vaud
Vaud is one of the 26 cantons of Switzerland and is located in Romandy, the French-speaking southwestern part of the country. The capital is Lausanne. The name of the Canton in Switzerland's other languages are Vaud in Italian , Waadt in German , and Vad in Romansh.-History:Along the lakes,...
. Left an orphan at the age of nine, La Harpe was taken care of for six months by the Sisters of Charity
Many religious communities have the term Sisters of Charity as part of their name. The rule of Saint Vincent for the Daughters of Charity has been adopted and adapted by at least sixty founders of religious orders around the world in the subsequent centuries....
, and his education was provided for by a scholarship at the Collège d'Harcourt, now known as the Lycée Saint-Louis
The lycée Saint-Louis is a higher education establishment located in the VIe arrondissement of Paris, in the Latin Quarter. It is the only public French lycée exclusively dedicated to classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles...
. When nineteen he was imprisoned for some months on the charge of having written a satire
Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...
against his protectors at the college. He was imprisoned at For-l'Évêque
The For-l’Évêque was a prison in Paris. It was in operation from 1674 until 1780, and demolished at the start of the 19th century.-History:- Sources :* Jules Édouard Alboise du Pujol, Auguste Maquet, Les Prisons de l’Europe, t...
. La Harpe always denied his guilt, but this culminating misfortune of an early life spent entirely in the position of a dependent possibly had something to do with the bitterness he evinced in later life.
In 1763, his tragedy of Warwick
was played before the court. This, his first play, was perhaps the best he ever wrote. The many authors whom he afterwards offended were always able to observe that the critic's own plays did not reach the standard of excellence he set up. Timoleon
(1764) and Pharamond
(1765) were box-office and critical failures. Mélanie
was a better play, but was never represented. The success of Warwick
led to a correspondence with Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet , better known by the pen name Voltaire , was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, free trade and separation of church and state...
, who conceived a high opinion of La Harpe, even allowing him to correct his verses.
In 1764, La Harpe married the daughter of a coffee house keeper. This marriage, which proved very unhappy and was dissolved, did not improve his position. They were very poor, and for some time were guests of Voltaire at Ferney. When, after Voltaire's death, La Harpe in his praise of the philosopher ventured on some reasonable, but rather ill-timed, criticism of individual works, he was accused of treachery to one who had been his constant friend.
In 1768, he returned from Ferney to Paris, where he began to write for the Mercure de France
The Mercure de France was originally a French gazette and literary magazine first published in the 17th century, but after several incarnations has evolved as a publisher, and is now part of the Éditions Gallimard publishing group....
. He was a born fighter and had little mercy on the authors whose work he handled. But he was himself violently attacked, and suffered under many epigrams, especially those of Lebrun-Pindare. No more striking proof of the general hostility can be given than his reception in 1776 at the Académie française
L'Académie française , also called the French Academy, is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution,...
, which Sainte-Beuve
Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve was a literary critic and one of the major figures of French literary history.-Early years:...
calls his "execution". Marmontel
Jean-François Marmontel was a French historian and writer, a member of the Encyclopediste movement.-Biography:He was born of poor parents at Bort, Limousin...
, who received him, used the occasion to eulogize La Harpe's predecessor, Charles Pierre Colardeau, especially for his pacific, modest and indulgent disposition. The speech was punctuated by the applause of the audience, who chose to regard it as a series of sarcasms on the new member.
Eventually La Harpe was compelled to resign from the Mercure
, which he had edited from 1770. On the stage he produced Les Barmecides
, Jeanne de Naples
(1781), Les Brames
(1786). In 1786, he began delivering a course of literature at the newly-established Lycée. In these lectures, published as the Cours de littérature ancienne et moderne
, La Harpe is considered to have been at his best, finding a standpoint more or less independent of contemporary polemics. He is said to have been inexact in dealing with the ancients and that he had only a superficial knowledge of the Middle Ages, but he was excellent in his analysis of seventeenth-century writers. Before the rise of Racine
Jean Racine , baptismal name Jean-Baptiste Racine , was a French dramatist, one of the "Big Three" of 17th-century France , and one of the most important literary figures in the Western tradition...
, Sainte-Beuve found La Harpe to the best critic of the French school of tragedy.
La Harpe was a disciple of the "philosophes", supporting their extreme party through the excesses of 1792 and 1793. In 1793, he returned to edit the Mercure de France
, which blindly adhered to the revolutionary leaders. Nonetheless, in April 1794, La Harpe was seized as a "suspect". In prison he underwent a spiritual crisis which he described in convincing language, emerging an ardent Catholic
The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase , meaning "on the whole," "according to the whole" or "in general", and is a combination of the Greek words meaning "about" and meaning "whole"...
and a political reactionary
The term reactionary refers to viewpoints that seek to return to a previous state in a society. The term is meant to describe one end of a political spectrum whose opposite pole is "radical". While it has not been generally considered a term of praise it has been adopted as a self-description by...
. When he resumed his chair at the Lycée, he attacked his former friends in politics and literature. He was sufficiently imprudent to begin the publication of his 1774-1791
in 1801 with the grand-duke (and later emperor) Paul of Russia. In these letters he surpassed the brutalities of the Mercure
He contracted a second marriage, which was dissolved after a few weeks by his wife. He died on February 11, 1803 in Paris, leaving in his will an incongruous exhortation to his fellow countrymen to maintain peace and concord. Among his posthumous works was a Prophétie de Cazotte
, which Sainte-Beuve pronounced his best work. It is a somber description of a dinner-party of notables long before the Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...
, in which Jacques Cazotte
Jacques Cazotte was a French author.Born at Dijon, he was educated by the Jesuits. Cazotte then worked for the French Ministry ofthe Marine and at the age of 27 he obtained a public office at Martinique....
is made to prophesy the frightful fates awaiting the various individuals of the company.
Among his works not already mentioned are: Commentaire sur Racine
(1795–1796), published in 1807; Commentaire sur le théâtre de Voltaire
of earlier date (published posthumously in 1814); and an epic poem La Religion
(1814). His Cours de littérature
has been often reprinted; a notice by Pierre Daunou
Pierre Claude François Daunou was a French statesman and historian of the French Revolution and Empire.- Early career :...
prefixes the 1825–1826 edition.