Jean Francois De La Harpe, a French critic, horn in Paris, Nov. 20, 1739, died there, Feb. 11, 1803. His father died when he was nine years old, and he was admitted as a free scholar to the Harcourt college, where he gave early evidence of literary talent. On leaving this institution, he wrote with several of his comrades some satirical verses on certain members of the college, for which he was imprisoned by the police for several months. This severe punishment, together with his narrow circumstances, increased the natural bitterness of his disposition. His first attempts at poetry were heroic epistles, a kind of poem then much in vogue. In 1763 he produced his tragedy of Warwick, which was successful. Three similar plays, Timoleon (1764), Pharamond (1765), and Gustave Wasa (1760), failed; and, disappointed in his anticipations of fortune, he went to Ferney, where he remained for nearly two years the guest of Voltaire. On his return to Paris in 1768, he became a contributor to the Mercure de France, and was noted for the bitterness of his criticism. He won 11 of the academical prizes within 10 years, 8 being at the French academy.
These successes, as well as the reputation which he won by his Melanie, ou la Religieuse, a play flattering the liberal ideas of the time, procured in 1776 his election to the academy. The tragedies he produced after this were mercilessly criticised, and, with the exception of Philoc-tete (1780) and Coriolan (1784), were coldly received by the public. He was meanwhile the correspondent of the grand duke Paul of Russia, the son of Catharine II., and undertook several publications, especially an Abrege de l'histoire generate des voyages, from which he realized some profit. He adopted the revolutionary principles, showed himself an ardent Jacobin, and became an occasional flatterer of Robespierre. Yet he was incarcerated during the reign of terror, which made such an impression on his mind that he became a devout Christian and an uncompromising enemy of all that was called philosophy. On his liberation after the 9th Thermidor, he resumed with great success a course of public lectures which he had begun a few years before. These lectures, collected under the title of Lycee, ou Cours de litterature ancienne et moderne (12 vols. 8vo, 1799-1805), were long regarded as a standard of literary criticism.
His Correspon-dance litteraire with the grand duke Paul was printed in 1801 (4 vols. 8vo); and the severity of its judgments rekindled the hatred against him, and embittered the last years of his life.