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This article is taken from PN Review 172, Volume 33 Number 2, November - December 2006.

A Natural Art: the Poetry of Racine David Gervais

'... but the art itself is nature.'

Racine has always worried the English. Even Dryden, who had no doubt of his greatness, did not feel quite at ease with him: 'Monsieur Hippolyte', he complained, always wore a periwig. Later English readers have often dwelt on what seemed to them Racine's stuffy side, the courtier-poet who piqued himself on the privilege of reading Louis XIV to sleep at night: a great poet should not be the lackey of a king. Yet Racine was a more daring writer than he seemed. The notion of him as a time-server is really no more than a nervous defence against his ruthless penetration into human frailty, a self-protective way of not taking his tragic vision on the chin. How could such disturbing news be articulated with such composure? Tragedy should be accompanied with the gnashing of teeth. It is easier to believe in 'unaccommodated man' on the heath in King Lear than in an elegant palace.

That, at least, is a way of explaining the kind of mauvaise foi the English fall into when they make pointed contrasts between Racine's formality and the life-enhancing openness of Shakespeare. It is not just that they like to put him in a bad light. Sometimes it seems as if they thought there could only be one way of writing tragedy. Yet Shakespeare may be unique without being exclusive. The drawback of the conventional contrast between his plays and Racine's, a staple ...

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