IMPROMPTU (from in promptu, on the spur of the moment), a short literary composition which has not been, or is not supposed to have been, prepared beforehand, but owes its merit to the ready skill which produces it without premeditation. The word seems to have been introduced from the French language in the middle of the 17th century. Without question, the poets have, from earliest ages, made impromptus, and the very art of poetry, in its lyric form, is of the nature of a modified improvisation. It is supposed that many of the epigrams of the Greeks, and still more probably those of the Roman satirists, particularly Martial, were delivered on the moment, and gained a great part, at least, of their success from the evidence which they gave of rapidity of invention. But it must have been difficult then, as it has been since, to be convinced of the value of that evidence. Who is to be sure that, like Mascarille in Les Procieuses ridicules, the impromptu-writer has not employed his leisure in sharpening his arrows? James Smith received the highest praise for his compliment to Miss Tree, the cantatrice: On this tree when a nightingale settles and sings, The Tree will return him as good as he brings.
This was extremely neat, but who is to say that James Smith had not polished it as he dressed for dinner? One writer owed all his fame, and a seat among the Forty Immortals of the French Academy, to the reputation of his impromptus. This was the Marquis Francois Joseph de St Aulaire (1643-1742). The piece which threw open the doors of the Academy to him in 1706 was composed at Sceaux, where he was staying with the duchess of Maine, who was guessing secrets, and who called him Apollo. St Aulaire instantly responded: La divinite qui s'amuse A me demander mon secret, Si j'etais Apollon, ne serait pas ma muse, Elle serait Thetis - et le jour finirait.
This is undoubtedly as neat as it is impertinent, and if the duchess had given him no ground for preparation, this is typical of the impromptu at its best. Voltaire was celebrated for the savage wit of his impromptus, and was himself the subject of a famous one by Young. Less well known but more certainly extemporaneous is the couplet by the last-mentioned poet, who being asked to put something amusing in an album, and being obliged to borrow from Lord Chesterfield a pencil for the purpose, wrote: - Accept a miracle instead of wit, See two dull lines with Stanhope's pencil writ.
The word "impromptu" is sometimes used to designate a short dramatic sketch, the type'of which is Moliere's famous Impromptu du Versailles (1663), a miniature comedy in prose.
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