John Brett. Portrait of Christina Rossetti. 1857.
Elizabeth Moody

Art. XVI. Nouveaux Contes Moraux, &c. i.e. New Moral Tales. By Marmontel. 8vo. 4 Vols. Paris. 1801. Imported by De Boffe, London, Price 18s. sewed.1

Recollecting the pleasure which we formerly received from the inventive genius and sprightly talents of the deceased author of these volumes, we took them up with an avidity and a confidence which precluded all idea of disappointment. If, said we to ourselves, these tales be genuine, (of which, we are told in the preface, the widow of Marmontel has given the public an assurance,) we shall be much entertained: for, though the vigor of his mind may be in some degree abated, and the brilliancy of his setting may not altogether equal that of his meridian sun, yet Marmontel must be Marmontel; and this new collection of Moral Tales must, by their prominent features, evince their affinity to those of which we gave an account in an early volume of our Review. (See M.R. vol. xxx. p. 59.) This consanguinity is proved indeed by indisputable marks; and, being the production of his graver years, these tales are more moral than those which were before published. If, also, they have lost some of the exuberance which distinguished the former, our opinion of them will shew that the merit of these is not lessened on that account.—The editor says that they will be found to possess equal merit with those tales which have given celebrity to the name of Marmontel; —that they display, in captivating language, invention, interest, ease, and elegance; that the moral which they inculcate is always amiable and pure; and in short that it has been the principal object of the author, to form the mind and taste of the rising generation, and to develop those germs of virtuous sentiments which nature has implanted in the human heart.—A publication of such a tendency, we can have no reluctance in recommending to the British public.

The introductory tale is intitled the Evening Meeting; and it describes a society of intimate friends, who, during the commotions of Paris, assembled at the country-house of a Madame de Verval. As this lady was a great lover of stories, and possessed the talent of reciting them in the most natural and agreeable manner, she proposed that, for amusement, each of the party should in turn form and recount a tale, including the most interesting events of their life, without invading the sacred recesses of confidence. This proposition being accepted by the whole party, each narrates a personal memoir; and the general conclusion from the whole is that the parts of 11[Page 543]our lives, which have contributed most to our happiness, are those which have originated in virtuous sentiments, or have been occupied in acts of benevolence.

The second tale is called the Tripod of Helen; and its object seems to be to ridiculue the pride of philosophy, and to shew the limits of science. Marmontel might have taken these lines of Pope for his motto: In parts superior what advantage lies?Say, for thou canst, what is it to be wise?'Tis but to know how little can be known, To see all others' faults and feel our own.2 This doctrine is illustrated with great vivacity of imagination, and excellent satire; and here we recognize the hand of Marmontel himself. The scene is laid in remote antiquity. He supposes that Helen and Menelaus, being reconciled after the destruction of Troy, were returning to Lacedæmon, when they were assailed by a violent tempest as they were passing through the Cyclades, and were in imminent danger of being wrecked on the island of Cos. At this instant, Helen invoked the inconstant God of the ocean to protect a female whose disposition was so similar to his own; and, in order to give effect to her prayer, she presented him with a Golden Tripod, which had been saved from the pillage of Troy. On throwing this offering into the sea, the storm subsided, and the danger disappeared.—During six hundred years, this tripod lay at the bottom of the ocean: but at last it was again brought to light by some fishermen. After some contention about the property, between the neighbouring islands, it was wisely agreed to refer the matter to the decision of the Delphic Oracle; who settled the dispute by ordering the tripod to be presented to the Wisest of the Wise. Where however, were they to find this distinguished personage? They were puzzled to ascertain to which of the seven wise men, who flourished in Greece at that period, this title belonged: but, apprehending that this was a question which the philosophers themselves could easily determine, they appoint deputies to wait on them respectively; who commence with an application to Thales, the Milesian, their neighbour.

This philosopher, however, fairly confesses that all his knowledge has only served to convince him how little he knows; and that he continues his researches only with the view of encouraging his disciples, and in the hope that time, in his wonder-working progress, may lift up some corner of the immense veil of nature. He therefore advises them to offer the tripod to Solon, who pursues the straight path to usefulness in the study of man, and whose object is to render him better and happier.—In consequence, the deputies next apply to the Athenian legislator, but with no better success. Solon re-[Page 544]fers them to Bias, Bias to Chilo the Spartan, &c. and thus the tripod is bandied about from sage to sage; each of whom, acknowledging his own insufficiency and weakness, rejects the epithet of the Wisest of the Wise. In this conduct, perhaps, they are represented as much wiser than they really were; for here it appears that they knew themselves, which is one of the most difficult attainments. The seven wise men of Greece, each rejecting for himself the high compliment of the Wisest of the Wise, agree to give their several definitions of wisdom; and to award the tripod to him who should unite its characters in the highest degree. One defines it to consist in an unalterable tranquillity of mind, under all the diversities of fortune; another, in a profound self knowledge, applied in rendering ourselves good and happy; a third, in the moderation of our desires; the fourth, in the power of regulating the present, and preparing for the future, by the experience of the past; another, in a strength of mind which is capable of resisting the passions; and the sixth, in the absolute empire of reason over the will.— Scarcely are these definitions of wisdom given, when Bias concludes by deciding that these attributes can never unite in any individual mortal, and that they can belong only to a God. Hence, it is decreed that the Golden Tripod should be carried to the temple at Delphos, and there consecrated to Apollo.

Having but lately received these volumes, and having now approached to the close of our present Appendix, we cannot enter into an analysis of the other tales which they contain: but we shall subjoin the titles of them, in order to give our readers some idea of their nature and subjects. III. The Lesson of Misfortune. IV. The School of Friendship: in which we have a tutor resembling Sir Charles Grandison, and a pupil not unlike Emily Jervis, innocently in love with him. V. The Generous Breton. VI. The Error of a good Father. This tale was related by Cideville to Voltaire when he was ill:—the descriptions in it are beautifully pathetic. VII. The Casket. VIII. The Self-Rivals. IX. The Villages Breakfasts. X. The Watermen of Besons. XI. It must be so. XII. The Hermits of Murica. XIII. Palemon, an Arcadian Pastoral, from two pictures by Poussin. XIV. Fire-side-recollection. XV. The Mountain of the two Lovers.

Some of these tales were printed in the Mercure3 in the years 1789, 90, 91, and 92. They abound with genuine satire and wit, with pathetic sentiment and sound sense.

Prefixed to the 1st vol. is a portrait of the author; under which is a memorandum that Jean-Francois Marmontel was born on the 11th of July 1723, and died at Abbeville, Dec 29, 1799.

Notes

1This review article appeared in the Foreign Appendix to The Monthly Review, Vol. 34 (January-April 1801), pp. 542-544. The marked copy of the Monthly Review attributes this article to the collaborative efforts of Elizabeth Moody and her husband, Christopher Lake Moody. This edition of the article is produced by Emma Wiley and Mary A. Waters. Back

2Alexander Pope, Essay on Man (1733-4), Epistle IV, lines 259-62, slightly altered. Back

3The French literary journal Mercure de France was published with some interruptions from 1672-1825. Back