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S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.

Madame de Sévigné

  • [Marie de Rabutin-Chantal; born in Burgundy about 1626; married the Marquis de Sévigné, 1644, who was killed in a duel, 1651; refused all subsequent offers of marriage; was a member of the circle of the Hotel de Rambouillet, and celebrated for her epistolary powers; died 1696.]
  • Racine will go out of fashion like coffee.

  • “How is it,” asks a French writer, “that this judgment became a proverb?” He himself answers the question, by telling the following interesting history of a literary transformation. Mme. de Sévigné wrote, March 16, 1672: “Racine makes comedies for La Champneslé [a celebrated actress, who created many of Racine’s rôles, and to whom he was much attached]; his work is not for posterity … vive our old friend Corneille!” Four years afterwards, March 10, 1676, she wrote to her daughter: “So you have recovered from your liking for coffee: Mlle. de Méri has also given it up. After such a double disgrace, can its fortune be considered secure?” For eighty years these two expressions reposed in the Correspondence of Mme. de Sévigné, at a respectful distance from each other, each in its place and neighborhood, until Voltaire brought them together, and altered them at the same time: “Mme. de Sévigné still believes that Racine has no future before him (n’ira pas loin); she judges of him as of coffee, of which she said that people would soon rid themselves” (qu’on se désabuserait bientôt).—GÉRUZEZ: Essais d’Histoire Littéraire). Finally Voltaire remarked, in a letter to the Academy, which serves as a preface to his “Irene:” “We have been provoked with Mme. de Sévigné, who wrote so well, and judged so badly…. We revolted against that miserable party spirit, against that blind prejudice, which made her say, ‘The fashion of liking Racine will pass away like that of coffee’” (La mode d’aimer Racine passera comme la mode du café). La Harpe, the celebrated critic and dramatist (1739–1803), then reduced the mot to its present form: “Racine passera comme le café.” Not the least singular part of the history is, that in reality Mme. de Sévigné praised Racine with enthusiasm, as in a letter dated Feb. 20, 1689, and that to her we owe the first use of café au lait.—Letters, Jan. 29, 1690.
  • God fights on the side of the heaviest battalions.

  • Mme. de Sévigné wrote to her daughter: “La fortune est toujours pour les gros bataillons.” In the form of the mot first given, it is attributed by Alison to Gen. Moreau, by others to Napoleon, and by Irving (“Life of Washington”) to Gen. Charles Lee. It is quoted as an on dit by Voltaire, in a letter to Riche, Feb. 6, 1770. It is also found in a French epigram:—
  • “J’ai toujours vu Dieu, dans la guerre,
  • Du coté des gros bataillons.”
  • And again: “Un prince veut faire la guerre en croyant que Dieu est toujours pour les gros bataillons.” When Anne of Austria said to Marshal de la Ferté that the enemy were too strong that year, but they themselves had God and justice on their side; “Don’t be too sure,” he replied, “j’ai toujours vu Dieu du coté des gros bataillons.”
  • Gibbon says, “The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.”—Decline and Fall, chap. lxviii. When some one wrote in a German album, during the Seven Years’ War: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Voltaire replied underneath, “The big Prussian battalions.”
  • These French maxims are forms of the proverb that “God helps them that help themselves;” which is found in Sir Philip Sidney’s “Discourse Concerning Government,” chap. ii.; and which, in a negative form, is as old as Sophocles: “Heaven never helps the men who will not act.”—Fragments. Pliny the Elder made use of it as he undertook the observation of the eruption of Vesuvius, August, A.D. 79, which proved fatal to him: “Fortune favors the brave” (Fortes fortuna adjuvat). Other forms of the expression in Latin are found in Claudian, Fors juvat audentes; in Ennius, VI. 6, quoted by Macrobius, Fortibus est fortuna viris data; in Terence, “Phormio,” I. 4, as it was used by Pliny. It is alluded to as a proverb both by Cicero and Livy; Virgil (“Æneid,” x. 284) has it, Audentes fortuna juvat; and Ovid (“Metamorphoses,” x. 586), Audentes Deus ipse juvat.
  • Schiller employs the proverb in “William Tell,” I. 2, where Gertrude says to Stauffacher, “God helps the brave!” (Dem muthigen hilft Gott!) The last part of the line of Claudian,—
  • “Fors juvat audentes, Cei sententia vatis,”
  • refers the origin of the maxim to Simonides, the Greek lyric poet, who was born in Ceos, flourished in the time of the Persian invasion, and wrote the epitaph of the Spartans who fell at Thermopylæ (see Leonidas). To Simonides is attributed the remark, that he “never felt sorry for having held his tongue;” anticipating Carlyle’s “Silence is golden.”
  • The poor woman cannot so close up her ranks, as to fill this vacant place.

  • Of Mme. de La Fayette, after the death of her friend the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, author of the “Maxims.” Àpropos of these literary celebrities, Fournier calls attention to the change of meaning a mistake of punctuation may cause, with the consequent perversion of a well-established mot. Thus, in one volume of French Ana, we find: “‘Mme. de La Fayette,’ said M. de La Rochefoucauld, ‘has given me wit, but I have reformed her heart’ (Mme. de La Fayette, disoit M. de La Rochefoucauld, m’a donné de l’esprit, mais j’ai réformé son cœur). The change of a comma should make Mme. de La Fayette the speaker: ‘Mme. de La Fayette disoit, M. de La Rochefoucauld m’a donné de l’esprit, mais j’ai réformé son cœur.’”—L’Esprit, 330, note.
  • Such a mistake might have cost the Abbé Sieyès his life. He was correcting, during the Terror, the proof of a panegyric, in which he defended his political career. What was his astonishment at finding himself saying, “I have abjured (abjuré) the Republic,” for, “I have adjured (adjuré) the Republic”! “Miserable man!” he exclaimed to the printer, “do you wish to send me to the guillotine?”
  • It was Mme. de La Fayette who said, “If I had a lover who wanted to hear from me every day, I would break with him.”
  • I should like Provence, were there no Provençaux.

  • Of a country more interesting than its inhabitants. Horace Walpole once wrote: “I should like my country well enough if it were not for my countrymen.”
  • The value of all pleasures or blessings depends upon the state of our mind when we receive them.

    Want of reason offends me: want of faith hurts me.

    The world has no long injustices.

  • Saying that “it is necessary to be, if one wishes to appear” (Il faut être, si l’on veut paraître. Le monde n’a pas de longues injustices). Dr. Johnson says, “When the world thinks long about a matter, it generally thinks right.” It was Pope’s opinion that “the mass of mankind are generally right in their judgments.” Socrates said, “You will gain a good reputation if you endeavor to be what you desire to appear.”
  • Thicken your religion a little. It is evaporating altogether by being subtilized.

  • To a friend whose religious distinctions she thought casuistical.
  • I dislike clocks with second-hands, they cut up life into too small pieces (elles hachent la vie trop menu).

    I fear nothing so much as a man who is witty all day long (Je ne crains rien qu’un homme qui a de l’esprit toute la journée).

    The heart has no wrinkles.

    He only lacked some vices to be perfect.

  • Of Charles Louis d’Orléans, Duc de Longueville, nephew of the Great Condé, who was killed at the passage of the Rhine in 1672, at the age of thirty-two, when the Polish deputies were on their way to offer him the crown of Poland. By “vices,” she meant pride, vanity, self-love, etc., by the aid of which men often rise higher in the world than by the possession of many amiable qualities.
  • At the death of Monseigneur de Harlay, the worldly Archbishop of Paris, Mme. de Sévigné wittily said, “There are only two trifles which make his funeral oration difficult,—the life and death of the subject of it” (il n’y a que deux bagatelles, qui rendent cette oraison difficile, c’est la vie et la mort de celui qui en est le sujet).
  • Napoleon said of the “Letters” of Mme. de Sévigné, “You gain nothing by reading her. It is like eating snowballs, with which one can surfeit one’s self without satisfying the stomach.”