His father destined him for his own profession; but his mother, who had known Ronsard, had determined otherwise. At an early age Chapelain began to qualify himself for literature, learning, under Nicolas Bourbon, Greek and Latin, and teaching himself Italian and Spanish.
Having finished his studies, he was engaged for a while in teaching Spanish to a young nobleman. He was then appointed tutor to the two sons of a M. de la Trousse, grand provost of France. Attached for the next seventeen years to the family of this gentleman, the administration of whose fortune was wholly in his hands, he seems to have published nothing during this period, yet to have acquired a great reputation as a probability.
His first work given to the public was a preface for the Adone of Marini, who printed and published that notorious poem at Paris. This was followed by an excellent translation of Mateo Aleman's novel, Guzman de Alfarache, and by four extremely indifferent odes, one of them addressed to Richelieu. The credit of introducing the law of the dramatic unities into French literature has been claimed for many writers, and especially for the Abbé d'Aubignac, whose Pratique du théâtre appeared in 1657. The theory had of course been enunciated in the Art poetique of JC Scaliger in 1561, and subsequently by other writers, but there is no doubt that it was the action of Chapelain that transferred it from the region of theory to that of actual practice.
In a conversation with Richelieu in about 1632, reported by the abbé d'Olivet, Chapelain maintained that it was indispensable to maintain the unities of time, place and action, and it is explicitly stated that the doctrine was new to the cardinal and to the poets who were in his pay. French classical drama thus owes the riveting of its fetters to Chapelain. Rewarded with a pension of a thousand crowns, and from the first an active member of the newlyconstituted Academy, Chapelain drew up the plan of the grammar and dictionary the compilation of which was to be a principal function of the young institution, and at Richelieu's command drew up the Sentiments de l’Académie sur le Cid.
In 1656 he published, in a magnificent form, the first twelve cantos of his celebrated epic La Pucelle, on which he had been engaged during twenty years. Six editions of the poem were disposed of in eighteen months. But this was the end of the poetic reputation of Chapelain, "the legist of Parnassus." Later the slashing satire of Boileau (in this case fairly master of his subject) did its work, and Chapelain ("Le plus grand poète Français qu’ait jamais été et du plus solidejugement," as he is called in Colbert's list) took his place among the failures of modern art.
Chapelain's reputation as a critic survived this catastrophe, and in 1663 he was employed by Colbert to draw up an account of contemporary men of letters, destined to guide the king in his distribution of pensions. In this pamphlet, as in his letters, he shows to far greater advantage than in his unfortunate epic. His prose is incomparably better than his verse; his criticisms are remarkable for their justice and generosity; his erudition and kindliness of heart are everywhere apparent; the royal attention is directed alike towards the author’s firmest friends and bitterest enemies. To him young Racine was indebted not only for kindly and seasonable counsel, but also for that pension of six hundred livres which was so useful to him. The catholicity of his taste is shown by his De la lecture des vieux romans (pr. 1870), in which he praises the chansons de geste, forgotten by his generation.
Chapelain refused many honours, and his disinterestedness in this and other cases makes it necessary to receive with caution the stories of Ménage and Tallemant des Réaux; who assert that he was in his old age a miser, and that a considerable fortune was found hoarded in his apartments when he died.
There is a very favourable estimate of Chapelain's merits as a critic in George Saintsbury's History of Criticism, ii. 256-261. An analysis of La Pucelle is given in pp. 23-79 of Robert Southey's Joan of Arc. See also Les Lettres etc Jean Chapelain (ed. Philippe Tamizey de Larroque, 1880-1882); Lettres inédites.... D Hurt (1658-1673, ad. by LG Pellissier, 1894); Julien Duchesne, Les Poèmes épiques du XVII' siècle (1870); the abbé A Fabre, Les Enémis de Chapelain (1888), Chapelain et nos deux premières Académies (1890); and A Muehian, Jean Chapelain (1893).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.