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Jean Baptiste Gresset
Born 29 August, 1709; died 16 June, 1777, at Amiens. Having finished his studies at the college of the Jesuits of his native town, he joined their order, and after his novitiate, taught literature in the schools of the Society at Moulins, Tours, and Rouen. He was a teacher in the celebrated college Louis-le-Grand in Paris, when he published his comico-heroic poem "Vert-Vert" (1734), which created quite a sensation in literary circles. It is the story of a parrot, the delight of a convent, who on being sent to another convent, learns profane expressions on the way, and shocks the nuns by swearing and bad manners. He is sent back to his abode, repents, and being too well fed, soon dies. This insignificant subject is treated in a masterly manner, giving a life-like picture of innocent convent pastimes. The ten-syllable line is used with the greatest ability. Other poems in the same vein followed. "Le Carême Impromptu", "Le Lutrin Vivant" (1736), and then a few "Epîtres". The publication of "La Chartreuse", which was imbued with Epicurean ideas, caused his dismissal from the Society of Jesus. Thereupon he wrote "Les Adieux aux Jésuites", a splendid testimonial of respect and gratitude. On his return to a secular life Gresset was induced to write for the stage, and he successively composed "Edouard III", a tragedy (1740), "Sidney", a drama (1745), and finally "Le Méchant", a comedy (1747). The first and second failed, while the last obtained a great success. It is still regarded as the best comedy in verse that was produced in the eighteenth century. Besides its merits of structure and style, it proved to be a strong satire of the manners of that period. At a period when wickedness, as Duclos says, "was raised to the dignity of an art and even took the place of merit with those who had no other way of distinguishing themselves, and often gave them reputation", the picture of the scoundrel's character was considered as representative of the time. In fact, "Le Méchant" marks the transition between the "Petits-Maîtres" of Marivaux and Valmont of the "Liaisons Dangereuses". In 1748 he was elected to the French Academy. It was then that he was invited by Frederick II, King of Prussia, to go to Potsdam and join the crowd of French writers who paid their court to the "Solon of the North", but he declined the invitation, being afraid of the materialitic doctrines which were professed there. In 1759 he left Paris and retired to Amiens, where he led for eighteen years a very austere life, atoning for the frivolity of his youth. His austerity was regarded as excessive by Voltaire, who wrote the well-known epigram:
"Gresset se trompe, il n'est pas si coupable"
The poet was not dismayed by Voltaire's disapproval and continued to live in seclusion, and for the rest of his life left Amiens only on two occasions, to go to the French Academy and to make a speech at the reception of D'AIembert and Suard. Before his death he destroyed all his manuscripts. In 1750 he founded at Amiens an Academy of Sciences, Letters, and Arts, which still exists. DAIRE, Vie de Gresset (Paris, 1779); ROBESPIERRE, Eloge de Gresset (Paris, 1785), CAMPENON, Essai sur la vie et les ouvrages de Gresset (Paris, 1823); WOGUE, Gresset (Paris. 1894).
LOUIS N. DELAMARRE