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Antoine Godeau

French bishop, poet and exegete; b. 1605; d. 1672

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Godeau, ANTOINE, bishop, poet and exegete; b. at Vreux in the Diocese of Chartres, 1605; d. at Vence, April 21, 1672. His facility in verse-writing early won the interest of the relative in Paris, M. Conrart, at whose house the elect of the literary world gathered to hear and discuss the productions of the young poet. The outcome of these meetings was the foundation of the French Academy, of which Godeau was one of the first memebers and the third to whose lot it fell to deliver the weekly address to that body. He was induced to settle in Paris, where he soon became a favorite at the Hotel Rambouillet, rivaling in the fecundity and ingenuity of his verse the most famous writers of his period. At that time to say of any work c’est de Godeau was to stamp it with the seal of approval. Perhaps best known among the works of his early days is his “Discours sur les oeuvres de Malherbe” (1629), which shows some critical power and is valuable for the history of the French prose of the seventeenth century. After some time Godeau forsook the company of gallants and the pursuit of literature for its own sake to devote himself to the service of God, and in 1636 was named Bishop of Grasse by Richelieu, to whom he had dedicated his first religious composition, a poetical paraphrase of the Psalm “Benedicite omnia opera Domini”. He proved a model prelate, irreproachable in life, zealous for the interests of his flock, and unwearied in upholding ecclesiastical discipline among his clergy, whom he assembled in synods and admonished in sermons and pastoral letters. By a Bull of Innocent X he was empowered to unite the Dioceses of Grasse and Vence under his administration, but seeing the dissatisfaction of the clergy of the latter diocese, he relinquished the former and established himself at Vence.

But Godeau by no means gave up his public and literary interests. In 1645 and 1655 he took a prominent part in the General Assembly of the French Clergy, and under the regency of Anne of Austria was deputy from the Estates of Provence. He turned his talent for versification to religious uses, his best known productions being a metrical version of the Psalms, poems on St. Paul, the Assumption, St. Eustace, Mary Magdalen, and one of 15,000 lines on the annals of the Church. The monotony and mechanical arrangement of the poems are relieved at intervals by passages remarkable for thought or expression, among others those lines embodied by Corneille in his “Polyeucte”:

Leur gloire tombe par terre,

Et comme elle a l’eclat du verre,

Elie en a la fragilite.

The Jesuit Father Vavasseur published, in 1647, a satire on Godeau, “Antonius Godelus, episcopus Grassensis, an elogii Aureliani scriptor idoneus idemque utrum poeta”, the verdict of which was echoed by Boileau in a letter to Maucroix.

The fame of Godeau’s poetical works, however, has been quite overshadowed by that of his historical and exegetical works. His “Eloges des Eveques qui dans tous les siecles de l’Eglise ont fleuri en doctrine et en iete” (Paris, 1665) was republished in 1802 by M. auffret. His “Histoire de 1 eglise depuis la naissance de Jesus Christ, jusqu’ a la fin du IXe siecle” (Paris, 1633) was translated into Italian by Speroni and into German by Hyper and Groote (Augsburg, 1768-96), and is still cited. Of this work Aizog says that “although written in an attractive and popular style”, it is “lacking in solid worth and original research” (Manual of Universal History, I, Dublin, 1900, 33). It is related that during the publication of this work the author chanced one day in a library to engage in conversation with the Oratorian, Pere Le Cointe, who, ignorant of Godeaus identity, indicated some grave defects in the volumes in which had already appeared, criticisms of which the author availed himself in correcting the work for a new edition. The same Pere Le Cointe, later a staunch friend of Godeaus, while conceding to the complete work many excellencies, calls attention to its frequent inaccuracies and lack of critical balance. Minor writings of Godeaus include “Vie de M. de Cordes, conseiller au Chatelet” (1645) and “Eloges historiques des empereurs” (1667).

Among Godeaus works of a religious character are: “Prieres, meditations” (Paris, 1643); “Avis a M. de Paris por le culte du Saint-Sacrement dans les paroisses et de la facon de le porter aux malades” (1644); “Instructions et ordonnances synodales” (1644); “Vie se Saint Paul Apotre” (1647); “La vie de saint Augustin” (1652) “La panegyrique de saint Augustin” (1653); “La vie de saint Charles Borromee” (1657); “L’Eloge de saint Francois de Sales” (1663). His chief title to fame, however, rests on his work in Holy Scripture. His paraphrases of the following books: Romans (Paris, 1635); Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians (1632); Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (1641); Hebrews (1637); the Canonical Epistles (1640), are still recommended as useful, the sense and connection of ideas being brought out clearly by the insertion of the fewest possible words (Simon in “Hist. critique des principaux commentateurs du N. T.”, c. iviii). His “Version expliquee du nouveau Testament” (1668) is something between a literal translation and a paraphrase. The greatest of all his works, according to Niceron, is “La morale chretienne pour l’instruction des Curez et des Pretres du diocese de Vence” (Paris, 1709), intended to combat the Casuists, a model of force, clearness, and revealing a precision rarely to be found in the other writings of the same author. In the Latin translation which appeared at Augsburg in 1774 under the title “Theologia moralis ex purissimis s. Scriptur, patrum ac conciliorum fontibus derivata, notis theologicis illustrata” the arrangement of the matter is greatly improved.

Although opinions vary as to the importance of Bishop Godeau among his contemporaries, it would seem that too much stress is laid on his achievements as a poet which are not at all commensurate in value with his work as a prelate and an exegete. He was stricken with apoplexy and died in his episcopal city at the age of sixty-seven.


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