The Poet's Princess

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BOOK THREE: MAZE. On the crest of a wave

Our appearance at the Court passes unnoticed. At this time it is fashionable to admire the poet Benserade and, quite frankly, the poem “To King Louis XVIII Lightning Having Struck his Coach” with which Sarasin tries to open the door of the Palace, is certainly no masterpiece.

Another sun, more dazzling, attracts the most refined minds: the Hôtel de Rambouillet is at the height of its splendour. There is the theatre of worldly and wordly distractions, the meeting place of the noble society. Who would not dream of being in this “sanctuary of courtesy” of vital necessity to anyone striving to prove his excellence? Madame de Rambouillet makes her choice from among the élite. She is most demanding. And rightly so. She herself is a person of the highest rank, as mind and morals go, depicted as Roman. Madame de Rambouillet is the only person to receive nothing but praise in Tallemant des Réaux malicious portrait-gallery:

“Savelli married his daughter before she was twelve years old to the Vidame of Mans. Never has there been a man more obliging to his wife. She confided to me that he has always been in love with her and that he did not believe that a person more accomplished than she could possibly exist. To tell the truth it could not have been difficult for him to enthuse about his wife because she never asked him for anything unreasonable. She has always loved beauty. She wanted to learn Latin simply to read Virgil, though an illness prevented her from doing so.”

Certain of these remarks send shivers down my spine and I block my mind from anything that threatens to shatter my marvellous retreat. I try to disregard the cruel destiny of a child married to an aged man , a man she has never seen until the day of her wedding, to overlook those constant pregnancies, discreetly referred to as “illness”, to pass over this absolute powerlessness of a woman who, despite all her accomplishments, is submitted to the absolute domination of a husband who, quite by chance as it happens in this case, is luckily neither without culture nor vicious. This servitude is to be ended only by death.

Turning my eyes away, I delve back into my XVIIth century. Not as it was but as I need it to be. Call me a cheat. It’s my right to manipulate reality if need be. A subtle touch here and there, a little shift in the right direction! What’s wrong with that if it makes it easier to live with myself and with the others as well. If I am scared, I clench my fists and hit out. I firmly believe that to strive for beatitude is more reasonable than to aspire to the truth.

As in Magritte’s paintings, my private universe turns to me its face fixed on an everlasting candour. Nothing is false. Everything is made up. I do not shut my eyes. I turn them away.

Not only Madame de Rambouillet’s mind fills Tallemant des Réaux with wonder. According to him nobody else in the whole world is as altruistic as she is: “She outdoes those who consider that to give is the pleasure of Kings. She calls it a godly pleasure.”

Even the fastidious Guez de Balzac sings Madame de Rambouillet’s praises:

“I shall always be one of her devotees and offer her the veneration men owe the divine,” he writes in one of his letters.

Nowhere else seems to suit Jean-François Sarasin better that the Blue Room of the Hôtel de Rambouillet on the Rue Saint-Thomas de Louvre, where the distinguished linguist and grammarian Claude Favre de Vaugelas elaborates on the “bon usage” (good usage) inspired by the perfection of Guez de Balzac’s letters, read and discussed there with veneration. This society, linking the high-ranked and the gifted, where the Condés exchange their ideas with Ménage, Scudérys, Scarron, Conrart and the others of brilliant minds, where the eccentricities of abbé Charles Cottin, a man not always fit to be seen but always presentable as a talented poet, are accepted with an amused smile, is an ideal setting for our charmer. There, Sarasin should have been enthusiastically received.

Alas, this was not to be, even if Angélique Paulet herself knocks on the door of the Blue Room. And very few locks ever resisted her soft hand. Not a trace of Sarasin’s talent can be found in the social life of the salon. He did not take part in any of its collective distractions, not a single poem of “Julie’s Garland”, a collection of poems composed by Madame de Rambouillet’s accredited bards, is due to him.

Sarasin’s intimate friend Jean Chapelain asserts in a letter to Monsieur de Brieux, written in 167O, that Sarasin never so much as entered the Blue Room. On what grounds was he excluded from this highly educated circle where the mind served as the magic wand? Did Madame de Rambouillet found him not good enough? Surely not! At this time, Sarasin is the man-in-waiting to the austere and exemplary Monsieur de Chavigny who receives the same elite as the marchioness, in his Hôtel at the Marais. Was Sarasin otherwise engaged? Not likely. The seven years he spent with the count made the most leisurely moments of the poet’s life. He served Chavigny because of his talent and not as an agent of his political ambitions as it will be later at the Condés.

The most probable reason for Sarasin’s exclusion from the Blue Room can be traced to the poet Vincent Voiture who, since 1625, when he was presented to the marchioness by his friend Chaudebonne, had performed the part of her accredited versifier. No wonder that in his desire to remain the sole master of ceremonies, Voiture was wary about any newcomer, and especially of Jean-François Sarasin. For if both of them were “beautiful minds”, only one of them was a “beautiful man”.

It is hard to say who lost more on the issue. Sarasin’s poetry might have blossomed amidst the refined minds of the Blue Room and refreshed the dry air of this elegant glass-house with a new fragrance.

It was Sarasin’s destiny that the Hôtel de Condé with its political intrigues, the place where play lost its lightness and turned to a performance, would lock the poet in.

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