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most arduous topics of the science. When
he found that he had chained their atten-
tion and their interest, he proceeded with
an air of great caution and mystery to
close the doors of the apartment. Then
in a low tone and guarded manner, he an-
nounced his secret : " Behold an infallible
poison which I have brought from Italy to
deliver France from her incubus, the King
and all his family." The magistrates were
immediately apprised of this nefarious
scheme, and caused Rabelais to be arrested
and sent to Paris for trial. As a State-
prisoner he was sumptuously entertained
on the road, and reached Paris in the best
possible condition. When he was ushered
into the presence of Francis I. the royal
patron of arts and letters courteously dis-
missed the Lyonese delegation, and invited
their prisoner to partake of the cheer of
the royal table, where Rabelais drank deep
and kept the court in a Homeric laughter
by the relation of his successful impos-
ture.

After this adventure Rabelais returned
to Lyons, ubi sedes est studiormnmeorum^
as he says himself. In this city, he gave
himself up entirely to study, and pursued
his intellectual labors with a fervor and dis-
interested activity that entitle him to be
considered a benefactor of humanity. As
physician to the hospital of Lyons, he gave
lectures on medicine, and dissected public-
ly. As superintendaut of the printing es-
tablishment of his friend Sebastian Gry-
phius, he revised and corrected several
editions of classical works. In his labora-
32



492



Life and Writings of Francois Rabelais.



[May,



tory he questioned nature and strove to rob
her of her deepmost secrets. For he saw
and advocated the necessity of experiment
lono- before novum organum and the
(anglice) reputed father of induction. At
nio-ht he ascended his observatory and
studied the stars until they grew pale in
the first light of day. He sought relaxa-
tion in the society of a chosen band of
friends, who had secretly organized, it is
said, under his auspices for the purpose of
advocating with the masses the doctrines
of Calvin, reserving for the initiated only
the knowledge of their remoter mysteries.
These consisted, it would seem, in that
practical epicureism expounded in the
foundation of the monastery of Theleme
by Gargantua. The mental exertions
which he put forth at this period did not
make him forget the style of literature
which he had created ; he published sev-
eral comic almanacks, which have served
as models to many imitators. It would
seem that his contemporaries would not see
the lurking satire in its true light, and took
the predictions of Rabelais in such sober
earnest that he soon obtained a vast repu-
tation as a grave astrologer. It was also
at this time that he completed and gave to
the public his final version of the first two
books of his humorous Gargantua and Pan-
tagruel, adhering to his former plan only
in so far as it made war against the ab-
surdities of chivalrous romances, but in-
dulging in the most open manner his de-
testation of monks and convents, and his
quiet contempt for bigotry in all sects and
religions.

This work appeared at a period of fierce
religious persecution. King Francis and
his Court, alarmed at the progress of the
Lutherans and Calvinists, suddenly took
into their heads to become strict Catholics.
Several wretches were burned for heresy.
The best writers of France were scattered
in exile over Europe, or lingered in canon-
ical dungeons. Rabelais wisely resolved
to absent himself for awhile, and again
took refuge at Rome, well knowing that he
was nowhere safer from the persecution of
ecclesiastics than in the shadow of the ec-
clesiastical throne. He threw himself at
the feet of the pontiff and presented an
humble request for absolution. Paul III.
proved as indulgent to the author of Pan-
^jagruel as his predecessor had been, and



granted him a brief which fully absolved
him and enabled him to practice medicine,
(without fee) while still enjoying the ben-
efit of the clerical profession — a kind of
roving commission which was well suited
to our author'.s taste. Rabelais did not
see fit to return immediately to France,
but remained at Rome, amusing the Pope
with his humorous repartees, and dictating,
it is said, many of those witty sarcasms
which the statue of Parguin had the privi-
lege of publishing in that city.

In 1537, he returned to Montpellier,
where he lectured and practised extensive-
ly, applying his system of Pantagruelism
to the cure of the sick. Indeed, he con-
sidered it a point of the utmost importance
to make his patients laugh. " Laughing,"
he says, " is the disthictive characteristic
of the human race." But he never thought
of complying with the conditions upon
which he has received his bull of absolu-
tion, until he found it necessary to do so
in order to receive emolument from an ec-
clesiastical preferment. He then sent a
new petition to Rome, and armed with a
new patent, repaired to the Benedictine
convent of Saint Maur. Here he resided
for a while, availing himself, nevertheless,
of his license, to practise physic, for ram-
bling about the country whenever his way-
ward spirit prompted him. We learn from
his correspondence, that he passed several
years in travelling from place to place,
without any other aim or object than to
enjoy life or to investigate some curious
subject.

At last, in 1546, he issued his third
book, requesting his reader to forbear laugh-
ing until the 78th should appear. We
cannot help wondering at his audacity in
acknowledging such a production at a time
when the monks had all their own way in
France. Dolet had lately been burned
alive. Des Periers had committed suicide
to escape religious persecution. And
Marot had sought safety in exile, for hav-
ing translated the Psalms into French
verse. But Rabelais had powerful friends,
and tact enough to avail himself of their
aid.

The third book is immeasurably superior
to its predecessor. We are no longer dis-
gusted with fabulous accounts of giant
prowess ; we are no longer puzzled by ob-
scure local and personal allusions. We



1850.]



Life and Writings of Francois Rabelais.



493



are admitted as spectators to a gorgeous
scene, where the comedy of life is enacting
under our eyes. Satirical and philoso-
phical digressions no longer occur as excep-
tions only. They form the substance it-
self of the work. Of the personages of
the story, nothing remains but the names.
We forget that Pantao;ruel is a eriant, and
we love to hear him expound his shrewd
and practical views of human aifairs.
Panurge himself is the embodiment of the
doctrines of Rabelais. His playful cyn-
icism is the life and soul of the work. If
we here attempt to convey an idea of this
strange production, it is less with a hope of
doing justice to so vast a subject within the
limits of our present paper, than with a
view to induce others to take it up. Our
scant extracts are chosen not altogether
from the finest passages, but from those
which are most free from obscenity, that
prevailing taint of the work. We are
compelled to give these extracts in our
own language, however inadequate, be-
cause such published translations as we
have met with are unfaithful, and often
mar the simplicity of the original with in-
terpolated wit.

King Pantagruel, having conquered Dip-
sodie, proceeds to dispose of his new terri-
tory on the most approved feudal princi-
ples. He gives the lordship of Salmy-
gondin to his favorite Panurge, who hus-
bands his estate so providently that " in
less than fourteen days he wasted and
dilapidated the fixed or contingent revenue
of his manor for three years. Nor did he
properly dilapidate it, as you might say, in
founding monasteries, erecting temples,
building colleges and hospitals, and throw-
ing his bacon to the dogs, but expended it
in a thousand little banquets and merry
roysterings, to which all comers were wel-
come, particularly jolly fellows, young
maidens and trim wenches ; felling timber,
burning large logs for the sale of the ashes,
anticipating his income ; buying high, sell-
ing low, and never waiting for his corn to
grow ripe."

To all this extravagance the king stren-
uously objects, while Panurge undertakes
to defend his conduct, and to prove logic-
ally that it is the duty of every good citizen
to waste his estate and to run in debt.
On this single issue they argue pro and
con, exhausting all the wit and learning



which the topic admits of, and which may
now be found diluted in a thousand plays
and poems from Figaro to Don Cajsar de
Bezan. The discussion proceeds through
several chapters, in that rambling, desul-
tory manner which Sterne has imitated —
as masters alone can imitate. The resem-
blance between the two writers is too ob-
vious to be overlooked. Rabelais is more
practical, more amusing, more anecdotic,
more learned, though loss ostentatious in dis-
playing his knowledge. On the other hand,
he never strives to move the heart; he
never melts, never softens, but remains
throughout joyous and even-tempered.
How could he have indulged the pathetic
mood } Sentimentalism is the luxury of
leisure and seclusion, and Rabelais had
lived a busy life of bustling adventure, of
physical and intellectual dissipation. He
had strained his comprehensive mind in
the pursuit of Truth, and had found that
all things human were a mockery and a
farce ; that no mortal sorrows were worth
a tear, and that the sum of all wisdom and
philosophy was to laugh, quaff, and be
merry.

To return to the story. Panurge, find-
ing that his sophistry is thrown away, and
that the good sense of his benefactor is
proof against his arguments, after vainly
begging that he may be allowed just a few
debts, only to keep his hand in, begins to
look about for some new source of excite-
ment. Accordingly, he presents himself
one morning before Pantagruel with a flea
in his ear — not a metaphorical flea, but a
genuine specimen of entomology, set in
gold earring. His toilet is likewise indi-
cative of a perturbed mind. He has left
off his breeches, and also, desists wearino-
— what was once the pride of his soul — a
certain article of dress, considered indis-
pensable^ at that time, but decidedly in-
expressible at the present day.

" Honest Pantagruel, not understanding
the mystery, interrogated him, asking what
meant this new prosopopeia Quoth
Panurge, ' I have a flea in my ear ; I wish
to marry.' 'In good time,' said Panta-
gruel, ' I am delighted to hear it.' " It
appears, however, that the old rake yet
entertains some doubts and scruples about
the matter. He fears to place himself in
a situation where the lex talionis may be
visited upon him for his past misdeeds.



494



Life and Writings of Francois Rabelais.



[May,



He, therefore, goes about the country,
taking counsel of every one as to whether
he had better marry. To consult Fortune
he adopts several methods in vogue at that
time, dice, dreams, sorcery, and " pricking
the book." Each successive oracle threat-
ens with all the evils of matrimony. But,
with laudable ingenuity, he tortures every
denunciation with a favorable answer, and
persists in interrogating the future. He
consults a sybil, and next, a deaf and dumb
individual. The account of his interviews
with those two personages is comical in the
extreme, and we only refrain from insert-
ing it, for fear of offending the strait-laced
morality of the day. At last he calls at
the chamber of a dying poet, under the
popular impression that there are revela-
tions of the future attendant upon death-
beds. The good old man delivers his ver-
dict in writing, and dismisses his visitors
with a touching, though sarcastic farewell :
"Go, children ; I commend you to the
great God of Heaven ; annoy me no more
with this, or any other business. I have,
this day, which is the last day of May,
and of me, turned out of my house, with
great fatigue and trouble, a crowd of ugly,
unclean, and pestilential beasts, black
and dun, white, grey, and spotted, that
would not let me die in peace, but with
their treacherous stingings, their harpy-
like filchings, and waspish teasings, wea-
pons, forged in the smithery of I know not
what insatiability, roused me from the soft
thinkings whereunto I had yielded myself,
already contemplating, seeing, touching,
and tasting the weal and felicity, which
the good God hath prepared for his ftiith-
ful and his elect in the other life, and in
the state of immortality. Turn ye from
their ways ; be not like unto them ; no
more molest me, and leave me in peace, I
beseech you."

The following chapter, where Panurge,
issuing from the dying poet's chamber, pre-
tends to take the part of the monks, is the
one for which the monks sought to bring
Rabelais to the stake :

" Issuing from the room, Panurge, affecting
to appear quite frightened, said : ' 'Sblood ! I
believe he is a heretic. The devil take me if I
do not. He speaketh evil of the good mendi-
cant fathers, the Cordeliers and Jacobins
those two hemispheres of Christendom, by the
gyrogaomic circumbilivagination whereof, as



by two celestial counterpoises, the whole
autonomatic mafagrobolism of the Roman
Church, whenever it feels pothered with any
gibberish of error, or heresy quivers homocen-
trically.* But what, in all the devil's names,
have those poor devils, the Capuchins and
minims, done unto him ? Are they not suffi-
ciently smoked and embalmed with misery
and calamity, those wretched objects, mere
extracts of ilsh diet 1 On thy faith now,
Brother John, is he in a state of salvation %
By the Lord, he is going damned, as a serpent,
to thirty thousand loads of devils. To speak
evil of those good and valiant pillars of the
Church ! Is that what you call poetic frenzy 1
I cannot stand it ; he sinneth villainously ;
he blasphemeth religion. I am scandalized.'
' I,' said friar John, ' don't care a button.
They abuse everybody, and if everybody
abuses them, I am indifferent. Let us see
whp.t he wrote.' Panurge attentively read the
good old man's writing, and said to the rest :
He is delirious, the poor toper. I excuse
him, however. I think he is near his end.
Let us go malce his epitaph. By his answer,
I am no wiser than I was before. Hearken
here, Epistemon, my darling, dost thou not
think that he answered most resolutely ? By
the Lord, a subtle, rampant, and palpable
sophist. 'Sdeath ! how cautious of speaking
amiss ! He answereth only by disjunctives.
He can but speak the truth, since it is enough

that one part be true. ' The

same was practised,' remarked Epistemon,
' by Tiresias, the great soothsayer, who, ere
he began to prophecy, openly said to those
who consulted him : ' what I shall say, may
or may not happen. Such is the style of
prudent prognoslicators.' ' Nevertheless,' said
Panurge, ' Juno put out both his eyes.'
' True,' answered Epistemon, ' for having de-
cidedly better than herself, the dubious point
mooted by Jupiter.' "

The remainder of the third book is de-
voted to the many attempts of Panurge to
solve his problem, and presents a lively
satire of Divination in all its forms.
Among the various answers he receives,
one of the wittiest is the apologue of the
ring of Hans Carvel, which the poet
Prior borrowed.! If foreign writers have

* Read Ranke's History of the Popes, and ad-
mire how the sagacious genius of Rabelais appre-
ciated what modern historical criticism has but
just begun to appreciate, viz, : the Counter-Refor-
mation, and the agency of the religious orders.

t The researches of the Jesuits have proved that
this anecdote, as well as many other popular sto-
ries, was known in China and Hindostan thou-
sands of years ago. " There is nothing new un-



der the Bua."



,;!^<v3



1850.]



Life and Writings of Francois Rahelais.



495



appropriated, witliout scruple, the rich ores
of RalDclais' inexhaustible mine of inven-
tion, his own countrymen have done the
game to a still greater extent. La Fon-
taine, Moliere, and many others, have
drawn from him some of their happiest
and most humorous passages, which, being
served up at second hand to an Anglo
Saxon public, have made the latter wonder
and exult at the prodigious fertility of
Anglo Saxon genius.

There arose one universal clamor of
hate, spite, and revenge at the appear-
ance of the third book. Calvinists and
monks united to denounce and crush its
author. The latter, however, was arm-
ed at all points. To judicial proceed-
ings he had papal bulls and king's pri-
vileges to oppose. To those who ven-
tured to attack, him in print, he replied
■with scorching satire. His reputation and
standing were but little affected by their
attacks, since a few years afterwards (in
1550, old style) he was appointed Curate
of Meudon. His appointment roused
anew the rage of his enemies, and com-
pelled him, in self-defence, to answer them
once for all. This he did, by publishing
his fourth book. Pressed by our limits,
we can scarcely more than allude to this
wonderful work, which raised the renown
of its author to the highest pitch, and
brought him within the very smoke of the
stake. The fable purports to relate the
adventures of Pantagruel, and his suite,
during their travels. Under cover of this
thin veil of allegory Rabelais plies the lash
in succession over Huguenots and Papists,
lawyers, judges, doctors, and others, in
that pitiless, yet good-humored manner,
of which the secret lies buried with him.
It will be readily perceived that the plot
resembles that of a late work, called Mardi,
the strange title of which may be less bor-
rowed from the original dialects of Poly-
nesia, than from Pantagruel's watchword
(Mardi-Grass) at the great battle on Fa-
rouche Island. There are many other
points of resemblance between the two
works, barring transcendentalism, which
was not yet invented, when Rabelais
wrote. Besides, the adventures of Pan-
tagruel are amusing — so much so, that at
the fiftieth reading of particular passages,
we have laughed till we cried.

Rabelais was so hotly assailed for this



new publication, that he did not venture
to publish its continuation. He was get-
ting old, and wished to die in his bed.
The fifth book appeared after his death.
Its authenticity has been suspected, and
rightly so, we conceive, as regards parti-
cular chapters. But it bears, generally,
the unmistakable stamp of his genius. It is
neither the least remarkable, nor the least
amusing of his works. It contains a satire
on courts and judicial officers, as keen and
severe as it is laughable. There is a pass-
age in the eleventh chapter worthy of
special notice. It foretels woe and cala-
mity whenever the dark mysteries of
French Jurisprudence shall be made evi-
dent to the people. This was first made
fully evident by Beaumarchais, and the
great French Revolution accomplished the
prophecy.

The " good curate of Meudon" was for-
tunate enough to end his days in peace.
He passed the evening of his life in the
midst of his books, plants and instruments,
surrrounded by afi^ectionate parishioners and
in the enjoyment of the most unbounded po-
pularity. Meudon became a place of fre-
fj^uent resort for the admirers of his genius
and continued long after his death to be
considered as a shrine of fashionable pil-
grimage. It is, we conceive, greatly to the
credit of Rabelais, that living as he did, in
an age of fierce religious controversy he
never permitted the prevailing mania to
lead him astray. He merely attacked bigot-
ry wherever he found it, in cloister, univer-
sity, or conventicle. The result was, that
both parties assailed him with equal fury.
Calvin never allowed an opportunity to es-
cape of venting his spite against one from
whom he had hoped so much for the cause
of the Reformation. He forgot his good
breeding so far as to perpetrate an ofiensive
anagram upon the name of our author, who
retorted with much wit and readiness. On
the other hand, the monks were indefati-
gable in striving by their writings and their
intrigues to compass his ruin. It was only
through consummate tact and admirable
address that he escaped the machinations
of cabal and envy.

He met death , at an advanced age in the
true Pantagruelic spirit. When he donned
the black robe according to the rule of his
order, he punned on the first words of the
Psalm : Beati sunt gui moriuntur in



496



Life and Writings of Francois Rabelais,



[May,



DOMINO. The priest wlio attended him,
saw fit, before administering the sacrament,
to question him as to his belief in the Real
Presence. " I believe," said Rabelais,
" that I behold my Saviour precisely as he
once entered Jerusalem, — borne by an ass."
No wonder the poor priest afterwards pub-
lished everywhere that the author of Panta-
gruel died drunk. His last will was char-
acteristic. " 1 have nothing, 1 owe much,
I give the rest to the poor." On the point
of expiring, he mustered his strength,
laughed aloud, and exclaimed, almost with
bis last breath, " draw the curtain, the
farce is over."

This is not the place for us to enlarge
upon the philosophy of Rabelais. A kind
of practical Democritism, made applicable
to human concerns was surely a leading
feature of his mind as it is of his writings.
But he alone is competent to expound his
own doctrines. There is a volume of Pan-
tagruelic wisdom in the following remark
of Panurge " All the weal which Heaven
covers, and which the earth contains in all
its dimensions, height, depth, longitude
and latitude, is not worthy to move our
affections and disturb our senses and spirits.'
As a writer, Rabelais has exerted im-
mense influence on the world. He was
the first to bring out the real wealth of the
French tongue. He was the first of a long
chain of writers who have handed down to
each other, as by a kind of intellectual
conductor, that thorough command, which
be first possessed of the difiicult idioms of
that language. Moliere, La Fontaine,
Voltaire, Gresset, Le Sage, Bcaumarchais,
and a few others, may be considered as the
lineal descendants of that great author.
The sole surviving representative of that
glorious line is Beranger, whose fate it is to
witness the decline of his country's liter-
ature. For, through all the glitter of the
modern school of France, we can discern,
at best, but misdirected genius. The na-
tional taste has become perverted. Gaudy
exotics have been engrafted upon the orig-
inal stock. But they are like parasites
that rob the tree of its sap, while their
verdm-e is that of decay.

In his style, Rabelais affected to use



obsolete expressions. This was only
a consequence of his determination to
champion the genuine vernacular in oppo-
sition to innovators. The writings of his
contemporary Ronsard are more modern by
half a century than his own. He, likewise,
delighted in eccentric turns of phrase.
Whenever he broached a subject, he ex-
hausted it. His great work may be con-
sidered as an encyclopedia of the know-
ledo;e of his ao;e. His boundless command
of expression sometimes betrayed him into
unmeaning accumulations of epithets, mere
catalogues of words, the point of which is
not often evident to us. Such was the
candor of his cynicism, that he hesitated
as little to trifle with his own fame as with
the patience of his readers.

We would, in conclusion, proffer a word
of extenuation in behalf of the moral char-
acter of the writings of Rabelais. True,
they contain many obscene passages. But
remember their date. Will it be credited
that he borrowed some of his most immod-
est anecdotes from contemporary ser-
mons of orthodox preachers ^ Squeam-
ishness was hardly the prevailing sin of the
age, since Luther himself was prone to
write in a style which we could adequate-
ly qualify only by borrowing some of his
own epithets — and these we will not ven-
ture to quote, although they are clothed in
a learned language.

Besides, we deny that the tendency of
our author's writings is immoral, except,
perhaps, in so far as they may inculcate
too great a disregard for human concerns.
Although the perusal of any single page
might revolt the most indulgent, by the
great freedom of expression, still, as you
proceed, you enter more and more into the
spirit of the author. His apparent licen-
tiousness no longer scares your propriety,
and you surrender up your judgment to
him, feeling like a child in the hands of an
intellectual giant, or like a candidate for



Online LibraryGeorge Hooker ColtonThe American review : a Whig journal of politics, literature, art, and science (Volume 11) → online text (page 89 of 121)