Paul-Louis Courier

Courrierist, lampooner, polemist
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Paul-Louis Courier
Portrait of Paul-Louis Courier by Ary Scheffer

Paul-Louis Courier (1772-1825) was the attentive witness and scoffer of his time. With dazzling manner, it stigmatized through its letters and its lampoons the smallness of the great and paid homage to the small people. Its corrosive style and brilliance, its independence of mind make an author always topicality.
Hellenist except par, this burning admiror of antiquity translated also many Greek texts and in particular, for the first time in his entirety, Daphnis and Chloé by Longus.
CharacteristicsGunner with horse
BirthJanuary 4, 1772
Paris, France France
Death april 10, 1825(53 years old)
Larçay, France France
Religious funeral April 12, 1825
in Véretz, France France
Marriage May 12, 1814
Paris 7thFrance France
avec Herminie Clavier, 18 years old
Born on July 30, 1795 in Noneville close to NemoursFrance France
remarried with Théodore Maunoir on August 4, 1834 in ParisFrance France
Deceased on November 13, 1842 in Geneva, Suisse Suisse
Practised languages french
ancient greek
fields of excellence Mount the horse
greek literature
Distinctions Legion of Honor
ligneaul-Louis Courier, with such a typically French mind was on familiar terms with Ancient Greece and proved the poets wrong. At least one of them: Le Tasse. If one does not question his Delivered Jerusalem the Touraine province would be gentle, pleasant and delightful and its inhabitants in harmony with it. This picture is unquestioned by a native of Touraine, Balzac, that fine connoisseur of the Garden of France.
Another poet, Alfred de Vigny, who was not born in Italy but in Touraine, writes about the local people’s language, in his novel Cinq-Mars, that it is « the purest French, not too slow, not too quick and with no accent; the cradle of the language is there, close to the cradle of the monarchy ». This often repeated statement would be the trace left by the royal court’s long stay, in the province studded with châteaux and stately homes, haunted by an idealised past.

He was born in Paris, on 4th January 1772, just a stone’s throw away from Saint-Eustache’s church, where he was baptised. Courier then spent a happy childhood about eight miles west of Tours, near the “lady river”, the Loire’s bank. Was there any softness in him? None whatsoever. Even the illness, cowering in his lungs, is not insignificant. Did it not lead him close to death on several occasions in adulthood? He is a passionate man: his passion for Greek, awakened in him when he was only seven or eight, will never relinquish him, not even in the midst of the hazards and mortal dangers encountered during his seventeen year-long service in the Napoleonic armies; his passion for spiritual freedom will lead him to sneer at the Empire’s Aulic customs and to gibe at men’s greedy ambitions and stupidity, the driving forces in every century; his passion for the Renaissance and XVIII century French writers; these three indissociable passions make his life meaningful as, for example, in the case of the famous incident of the ink-stain.
After the battle of Wagram, he found himself to be at odds with the Army. His love of Greek led to attacks by the transalpine press, which condemned him for staining with ink an unpublished extract that he had discovered in Florence at the end of 1807, in a story written by Longus: Daphnis and Chloe. The hounds barked long at his heels till September 1810, when, exasperated as he was, he pilloried his enemies in the Letter to Monsieur Renouard, bookseller. After this tumultuous episode had become blurred, and just a few days before Napoleon defeated the Russians at Smolensk, Courier came back to France with about a hundred rough copies of letters he had written when he was serving his country, and renewed his friendship with the erudite Parisian society of which he was a member.
He also renewed his ties with the long neglected Touraine, where his parents slept their last sleep. What should he do henceforth with his life? That he did not know. Very lonely, he often returned to the Hellenist with whom he was best acquainted: Etienne Clavier. Between the two learned men, harmony was unwavering and certain to last. Several months went by. Then, three weeks after the Emperor had taken leave of the Old Guard in Fontainebleau, this confirmed bachelor surprised everybody by obtaining the hand of Clavier’s elder daughter, Herminie.

Once the return of the Bourbons had been confirmed for good, following the battle of Waterloo, and after many wavering, Courier decides to settle down in Touraine. On 16th December 1815, he buys the forest of Larcay, comprising 250 hectares. He must not live too far away from it, so he buys a farm in Veretz, on the hillside overlooking the Cher valley: la Chavonnière. He is convinced that his young wife will be able to manage the household, just as her mother, a capable woman, had done so before her. During that time, as his father-in-law is busy with Παυσανίας (Pausanias), he will devote himself to Ξενοφῶν (Xenophon) and Нρόδοτος (Herodote). Having at last put an end to his vagrant lifestyle, the time has come to apply the motto he had chosen when he was not yet twenty years old: Ού δοκειν άλλ΄ ειναί ολβιος (« not just to look happy »), but to be so. In order to do that, he does not wish to make friends with the genteel local people but, like his parents before him, he wants to have an heir. By this line of conduct he will abide.
Alas! The devil meddles with his clever plans by igniting the fire under the cauldron of politics. France enters a long period of harsh clashes between two factions: the vengeful Right, supported by the Church, anxious to come to grips with all those who still believe in the Revolution. Napoleon has been swept away and the bad old habits rule the country once again: in Nimes, two hundred Protestants are slaughtered, Maréchal Brune is murdered like a dog, the guillotine is in full swing, great soldiers like Nevy, loyal to the Emperor, are shot dead, others are arbitrarily jailed, some of them just because they are civilians infatuated with the republic or the empire; the prisons are full… In Luynes, where Courier still owned an estate which he had inherited from his parents, this period was known as the White Terror, and it was marked by a strange episode. As an enemy of fanaticism, he was disgusted. He expressed himself openly about it in a petition, this means of expression having been granted by Louis XVIII in his Charter: The petition to both Chambers. As crystal-clear and straightforward as one of Λυσίας (Lysias) the Athenian’s speeches, this text proves, in striking terms, le Tasse to be wrong and Vigny to be right. To hell with moderation, what a pure language!
Everything seems to be quietening down. Alas! For the misfortune of the household, the awful news reaches the Touraine province: Clavier, the friend and father-in-law, the elder and beloved master of one, and the revered father of the other, Clavier who, in days gone by had held his ground against Bonaparte, who had translated the entire works of…, no, it seems unbelievable, but Clavier is dead! Just as two misfortunes often occur at the same time, the political situation deteriorates. Courier reacts to it in 1819, in a left-wing newspaper, by writing short and biting articles, in sharp contrast to the so-called softness of Rabelais’s native province. His use of language is impressive, his irony hits the bull’s-eye, and people relish his gift for expression. His good peasant’s common sense appeals to them… in short, he sets himself up as the champion of all those who make their living on the land, and at a time when France, being essentially rural, hums or sings Beranger’s rebellious songs. Once the newspaper is banned, people urge him to join this or that opposition political party. Well, he tells the whole crew of meddlers to go to hell! He knows what he has to do: put the finishing touches to a few articles now and again- the kind that is just snatched up in Paris. He takes great care over the writing of his lampoons, supervises their printing, and keeps himself informed of their circulation and the public’s reactions… Does he not proclaim it? “It is not just a right, but a duty, a strict obligation for those who think, to express their thoughts and ventilate them for the common good.”
In Veretz, where he and his wife have been living since 1818, life becomes hellish for Courier. With the complicity of Tours’ Chief Commissioner of Police, the staunchly royalist mayor does his best to make life as difficult as possible for him. The ex- gunner, who knows that, whatever he does, he is being constantly spied on, fights on two fronts: for the fatherland and for himself. For France, which this disillusioned mind loves, he is so successful that he serves a two-month prison sentence, because he offended the Mighty Ones. In Veretz, he suffers a series of stinging upsets before the final collapse: he does not eat well, is always running up hill and down dale, never gets any rest, finds himself with serious financial difficulties, is lured into hopeless lawsuits, and is fully but helplessly conscious of the fact that his wife is suffering from this dreadful situation, which he is unable to improve in any way.
Forsaken by her husband, whom the political turmoil keeps exceedingly busy, Herminie nevertheless manages for a while. But she is not endowed with as much energy as her mother was. The mammoth task is too much of a burden for her and, being left alone with her first-born baby, she sinks into deep moral distress.
Now, to the last act of this rise to martyrdom: six months after Mme Courier gave birth to their second son, a local plot is laid against the Veretz’ lampoonist, who dares to shoot his poisoned arrows at the throne. Five or six people, belonging to Touraine’s working class, whom he had defended tooth and nail by means of his quill, weave the greatest evil against him. Did the secret police play a part in the atrocious outcome? Did they have any inkling of what was being planned? Did they voluntarily abstain from intervening so as to settle the Courier’s case? Late in the afternoon, on Sunday 10th 1825, while all those who had danced and enjoyed themselves at the local fair in Saint-Avertin come home tired but happy, ready to resume their hard work, a shot rings out, not far from the forest.
The following morning, Courier’s body is found lying; face down, on the rain-sodden ground. His clothes are singed near the right kidney, indicating that he had been shot at point-blank range.
He died in his Touraine forest, which he had bought just ten years previously.

Traduction de Jean-Luc Le Fouler, dit Yann Le Puits, écrivain, revue et corrigée par Tony Gibbs, B.A. (Licencié ès Lettres de l’Université d’Oxford)

  Eglise Saint-Eustache à Paris monument_commemoratif.jpg
      Saint-Eustache church in Paris Memorial on the Place of Véretz
(drawn by Viollet-le-Duc)