Corneille. I. Pierre, the father of the classical drama in France, born in Rouen, June 6, 1606, died in Paris, Oct, 1, 1684. After studying under the Jesuits of Rouen, he followed his father's profession as an advocate, and practised for a short time in the parliament of Normandy, without taste for the bar and without success. In a love adventure he became the successful rival of a friend. This diverted him from the bar to poetry, and he made it the subject of his first dramatic piece, the comedy Melite, which was produced in 1629. It obtained unusual success, and was followed between 1632 and 1636 by Clitandre, La veuve, La galerie du palais, La suivante, La place royale, Medee, L'illusion comique. Though these pieces were composed according to the rude standard of the time, and were neither natural nor regular, they were yet superior to the works of his contemporaries, and were performed with applause. They made the author known to Cardinal Richelieu, who himself composed plans of comedies, the execution of which was performed under his direction by several salaried authors. Corneille was admitted into the coterie of the cardinal's official poets, but either by his success incurred the jealousy of his master, or offended him by venturing to improve one of the plans submitted.
At the age of 30 years, having lost the favor of Richelieu, Corneille returned to Rouen, where by the advice and aid of M. de Chalon, a former secretary of Maria de' Medici, he learned the Spanish language. The fruit of his studies was the tragedy of Le Cid, founded on a play of Guilhem de Castro, and the first French dramatic masterpiece. It was distinguished by simplicity in treatment, and by a purity and elevation of style of which France had furnished no previous example. Though received with enthusiasm by the public, it brought upon the author a violent literary persecution. The academy, urged by Richelieu, published in 1638 the Sentiments de l'academie sur Le Cid, by which that drama was admitted to be a masterpiece, though most of its peculiar beauties were censured as faults. Its popularity spread through Europe, and "Asbeautiful as the Cid " became a proverb in France. The tragedy of Horace (since called also Les Horaces) appeared in 1639, and surpassed its predecessor in originality, and also in the force and grandeur which characterized alike the situations, personages, and dialogue.
It was followed in the same year by Cinna, esteemed by Voltaire the most finished of the author's pieces, and in 1640 by Polyeucte, which is usually esteemed by French critics the best work of Corneille, if not of the dramatic art. In 1641 and 1642 he produced Pompee and Le menteur, the former of which was not equal to his previous tragedies, but the latter, founded on a Spanish piece of Alarcon, renewed the glory which he had obtained by the Cid, and was the first French comedy which gave a lively and natural picture of the manners of the time. In 1643 followed La suite du menteur, which was not more felicitous than the second parts of poems usually are. The decline of his genius appeared in the complicated and fantastic subjects, excessive desire for theatrical effect, chimerical ideals, and subtleties of disquisition which now began to mark his pieces. Rodogune, Theodore, Heraclius, Don Sanche d'Aragon, Nicomede, Andromede, and Pertharite, between 1645 and 1653, were of unequal though all of inferior merit, and the decided failure of the last caused him to renounce dramatic composition for six years. In the interval he translated the "Imitation of Christ" into French verse.
In 1659 he was induced to return to the theatre, only to disfigure in his OEdipe one of the most admirable themes of ancient tragedy. The applause with which this piece and his Toison d'or (1661) were received induced him to write constantly for 15 years, but no one of his later dramas has kept its place on the stage. Sertorius (1662) has some interesting and pleasing scenes; Sophonisbe, Othon, Agesilas, and Attila (1663- '67) show the almost powerless efforts of a failing imagination; Tite et Berenice (1670) was an unequal Contest with Racine, then in the early vigor of his talent; the ballet tragedy of Psyche (1671) was composed in conjunction with Quinault and Moliere; and Pulcherie (1672) and Surena (1674) were his last and also his feeblest attempts. He wrote also in prose important Examens of each of his plays, and three discourses on the drama, on tragedy, and on the three unities. The reputation of Corneille rests chiefly upon the Cid, and the four or five pieces which immediately succeeded it, which are distinguished by the justice and vigor with which they exhibit great passions or great characters. In these his language is elevated and his sentiments generally noble.
Love, in the delineation of which he is least successful, he uses as a secondary but never as the primary motive of his dramas. His eloquence, often remarkable for strength and compression, sometimes becomes pompous declamation, amid which a few simple words interspersed here and there have been extravagantly praised. Instances of this are the Qu'il mourut of the old Horace, the Soyons amis of Cinna, and the Moi of Medee. Corneille was acquainted with polite literature, history, and politics, but he chiefly regarded them in their connection with dramatic writing; for other parts of knowledge he had neither curiosity nor much esteem. His temper was hasty and his manners were somewhat blunt. He rarely visited the salons, and was uninteresting in conversation, so that the great Conde said that he ought to be heard only at the hotel de Bourgogne. The best eloges of Corneille are those of La Bruyere, Racine, Gaillard, Bailly, Auger, and Fabre; the best lives are those of Fontenelle, Tasche-reau (1829), Vignet (1846, Anecdotes, &c), and Gruizot (Corneille et son temps, 5th ed., 1866). Among the best of the numerous editions are those of Thomas Corneille (1706), Joly (1738), Voltaire (1754 and often afterward), Renouard (1817), and Lefevre(1854). II. Thomas, brother of the preceding, also a dramatist, born in Rouen, Aug. 20,1625, died at Andelys in 1709. He was an industrious and prolific writer, and in the course of his career produced upward of 42 dramatic pieces, besides a dictionary of arts and sciences, a dictionary of history and geography, a metrical translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and some miscellaneous works.
His plays enjoyed great popularity; his style was pure; and it is customary to rank him next, though at a considerable interval, to Racine and the elder Corneille. Of all his plays three only, Ariane, Le comte d'Essex, and Le festin de Pierre, have kept possession of the stage. In 1685 he succeeded his brother in the academy. In the latter part of his life he became blind, but pursued his literary labors with undiminished zeal.