Jean-François de La Harpe

Jean-François de La Harpe
Born 20 November 1736
Died 1 February 1803(1803-02-01) (aged 66)
Occupation Playwright
Literay critic

Jean-François de La Harpe (November 20, 1739  February 11, 1803) was a French playwright, writer and literary critic.


La Harpe was born in Paris of poor parents. His father, who signed himself Delharpe, was a descendant of a noble family originally of Vaud. Left an orphan at the age of nine, La Harpe was taken care of for six months by the Sisters of Charity, and his education was provided for by a scholarship at the Collège d'Harcourt, now known as the Lycée Saint-Louis. When nineteen he was imprisoned for some months on the charge of having written a satire against his protectors at the college. He was imprisoned at For-l'Évêque.[1] La Harpe always denied his guilt, but this culminating misfortune of an early life spent entirely in the position of a dependent possibly had something to do with the bitterness he evinced in later life.

In 1763, his tragedy of Warwick was played before the court. This, his first play, was perhaps the best he ever wrote. The many authors whom he afterwards offended were always able to observe that the critic's own plays did not reach the standard of excellence he set up. Timoleon (1764) and Pharamond (1765) were box-office and critical failures. Mélanie was a better play, but was never represented. The success of Warwick led to a correspondence with Voltaire, who conceived a high opinion of La Harpe, even allowing him to correct his verses.

In 1764, La Harpe married the daughter of a coffee house keeper. This marriage, which proved very unhappy and was dissolved, did not improve his position. They were very poor, and for some time were guests of Voltaire at Ferney. When, after Voltaire's death, La Harpe in his praise of the philosopher ventured on some reasonable, but rather ill-timed, criticism of individual works, he was accused of treachery to one who had been his constant friend.

In 1768, he returned from Ferney to Paris, where he began to write for the Mercure de France. He was a born fighter and had little mercy on the authors whose work he handled. But he was himself violently attacked, and suffered under many epigrams, especially those of Lebrun-Pindare. No more striking proof of the general hostility can be given than his reception in 1776 at the Académie française, which Sainte-Beuve calls his "execution". Marmontel, who received him, used the occasion to eulogize La Harpe's predecessor, Charles-Pierre Colardeau, especially for his pacific, modest and indulgent disposition. The speech was punctuated by the applause of the audience, who chose to regard it as a series of sarcasms on the new member.

Eventually La Harpe was compelled to resign from the Mercure, which he had edited from 1770. On the stage he produced Les Barmecides (1778), Philoctete, Jeanne de Naples (1781), Les Brames (1783), Coriolan (1784), Virginie (1786). In 1786, he began delivering a course of literature at the newly established Lycée. In these lectures, published as the Cours de littérature ancienne et moderne, La Harpe is considered to have been at his best, finding a standpoint more or less independent of contemporary polemics. He is said to have been inexact in dealing with the ancients and that he had only a superficial knowledge of the Middle Ages, but he was excellent in his analysis of seventeenth-century writers. Sainte-Beuve found La Harpe to be the best critic of the French school of tragedy.

La Harpe was a disciple of the "philosophes", supporting their extreme party through the excesses of 1792 and 1793. In 1793, he returned to edit the Mercure de France, which blindly adhered to the revolutionary leaders. Nonetheless, in April 1794, La Harpe was seized as a "suspect". In prison he underwent a spiritual crisis which he described in convincing language, emerging an ardent Catholic and a political reactionary. When he resumed his chair at the Lycée, he attacked his former friends in politics and literature. He was sufficiently imprudent to begin the publication of his 1774-1791 Correspondance littéraire in 1801 with the grand-duke (and later emperor) Paul of Russia. In these letters he surpassed the brutalities of the Mercure.

He contracted a second marriage, which was dissolved after a few weeks by his wife. He died on February 11, 1803 in Paris, leaving in his will an incongruous exhortation to his fellow countrymen to maintain peace and concord. Among his posthumous works was a Prophétie de Cazotte, which Sainte-Beuve pronounced his best work. It is a somber description of a dinner-party of notables long before the Revolution, in which Jacques Cazotte is made to prophesy the frightful fates awaiting the various individuals of the company.

Among his works not already mentioned are: Commentaire sur Racine (1795–1796), published in 1807; Commentaire sur le théâtre de Voltaire of earlier date (published posthumously in 1814); and an epic poem La Religion (1814). His Cours de littérature has been often reprinted; a notice by Pierre Daunou prefixes the 1825–1826 edition.


La Harpe wrote numerous plays, of which almost are completely forgotten. Only Warwick and Philoctetes, imitated from Sophocles, had some success.

A particular mention must be made of Mélanie, ou les Vœux forcés, that the author had printed in 1770 but which was not played before 7 December 1791 at the Théâtre français. It remains, according to Jacques Truchet, "the most curious of his plays and the most representative of the spirit of the times." The topic - forced wishes - could suit anticlericalism that La Harpe showed when he composed this piece but much less censorship of the time, which is why it was played after the French Revolution. Although presented as a play in three acts and verse, Melanie approached the drama that would experience the fortune that we know at the end of the eighteenth.

This comparison is all the more pungent than La Harpe had always professed the greatest contempt for drama, which he violently attacked in his comedy Molière à la nouvelle salle, written in defense of the Comédie-Française against competitor theaters.

Moreover, his Correspondance littéraire addressed to Grand duke Paul I of Russia is full of theatrical anecdotes about the actors and plays of his time.


La Harpe's main work is his Lycée ou Cours de littérature (1799), which brings in 18 volumes lessons he had given twelve years in high school. It is a monument of literary criticism. Even if some parts are low - that on ancient philosophers in particular - everything that is said about the drama of Corneille to Voltaire, is beautifully thought out and reasoned, even if the thinking and reasoning of a purist often picky. The passages on contemporary authors, in which La Harpe attack vigorously the philosophical party, are often very funny.



  1.  Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Jean-François La Harpe". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  2. Louis Mayeul Chaudon, Antoine François Delandine (1810). "Harpe (Jean François de la)". Dictionnaire universel historique critique et bibliographique. VIII. Paris: Mame. pp. 254–255.
  3. Denis Diderot (1830). "April 1774". Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique de Grimm et de Diderot. VIII. p. 316, note (1).


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