The Poet's Princess

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Poet of Fortune

“The Sun does not beautify the sky more than Paris embellishes the Earth. Here love has al its attraction, fortune all its richness, knowledge all its light, virtues have all their space, pleasures all their freedom.

Here a lover has pleasure by the thousand, displayed in a gallant setting.

Here a motivated person finds the best occasion to make his fortune, a man of science may choose between the library and conversation.

In short: here both the brilliant and the retired existence are marvellous in equal measure.”

(Anonymous text - XVIIth century)

Jean-François Sarasin settles in the Marais , the most distinguished area of Paris. He wants to be worthy of the high society where, when introducing him, Mademoiselle de Scudéry never forgets to mention that “he comes from a good house and is well off.” Thus he feels obliged to keep a coach and a pair of horses, so scrawny that Tallemant des Réaux remarks with his usual mordancy:

“It is true that he had a coach; though his horses were the worst nourished in all France.”

Poor as a church-mouse, Sarasin nevertheless plays the part of a rich Squire of Hermanville, even if all he has is his “estate” of Hermanville to the value of thirty pounds. He cannot count on the revenue of the treasurer of the city of Caen as he still owes to the city the settlement of this function. Forced to look for a way how to get out of his desperate situation, hating the very thought of becoming a part of the industrious bourgeoisie, Sarasin decides to sell his talent and become the appointed poet, the “bel esprit” of a rich aristocrat. He does it without any illusion about such a tricky and ungrateful chore.

“There is nothing as incommodious if one has a noble heart and noble origins,” he writes in one of his letters.

The XVIIth century is hardly a time when a sponsor rewards a work of art for its beauty. Its price is valued by its usefulness. Nevertheless Sarasin has no other choice. He is born poet and literature is the only sense of his life. To rebel against it would be futile. In 1639 Sarasin decides to become “the honourable man” of Monsieur de Chavigny and moves to his sumptuous Hôtel Saint-Paul in the Marais. Seemingly he could not have made a better choice.

Léon Bouthillier, Count de Chavigny, is a highly educated man and, what’s more, he is a true and generous friend. He is aware of the outstanding talent of his appointed poet and treats him accordingly to it. The five years that Sarasin will spend with Monsieur de Chavigny will not just be the happiest but also the most prolific period of his life.

Chavigny is ten years older than Sarasin. Besides his moral and intellectual qualities he is a handsome man. To work for Chavigny means to rub shoulder with the cream of the XVIIth century. Very soon, the poet becomes indispensable to the count and accompanies him on his travels all over France and abroad: like Sarasin Monsieur de Chavigny is himself “an honourable man”, first at the service of cardinal Richelieu, then of cardinal Mazarin. Chavigny prepares Sarasin for diplomatic service. The poet has to go to Rome and attach himself to cardinal Antonio. This mission was never carried out, however. Sarasin left the count in 1644. We don’t know why. No official document gives us an explanation. All we have is a piece of gossip: the poet is suspected of having spent the four thousand pounds, meant for the trip, on “dissolute causes”. Though would someone like Sarasin, young, brilliant, strikingly handsome and charming, need to pay for the favours of women?

There is another, more probable explanation: Sarasin’s father died in 1643 and on the 26th October 1643 the poet paid into the “Normandy Chamber of Accounts” the sum of 4O33 pounds, 6 solds, 8 deniers, due in order to take over the title and function of treasurer of France.

There may be still another, more plausible reason: Sarasin’s revulsion for the diplomatic service, which was diametrically opposed to his character:

“With all my being I strive for peace and quiet. I need rest. Crowd and turmoil upset me. A man can live happily even if nobody has noticed his existence. There is such pleasure in living for oneself,” he wrote to his friend, “the elegant loner” Guez de Balzac, a gentleman who laughed off the title of one of the first members of the “Académie Française”, bestowed upon him by cardinal Richelieu, a man who was strong enough to live retired at his estate devoting his life to literature only.

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