FRENCH LITERATURE. —Origin and Formation of the French Language.—When the Romans became masters of Gaul they imposed their language on that country together with their religion, their laws, their customs, and their culture. The Low Latin, which thus became universal throughout Gaul, was not slow in undergoing a change while passing through Celtic and Frankish throats, and in showing traces of climate and of racial genius. From this transformation arose a new tongue, the Romance, which was destined to gradually evolve itself into the French. The glossaries of Reichenau and of Cassel contain many translations of Latin and Germanic words into Romance; they date from the eighth century. The earliest texts in our possession belong to the ninth century, and are more valuable from an archaeological than from a literary standpoint. These are the formulas called “Les Serments de Strasbourg” (the oaths pronounced by the soldiers of Louis the German and of Charles the Bald, A.D. 842); the song or “Prose de Sainte Eulalie”, an imitation of a Latin hymn of the Church (about A.D. 880); a portion of a “Homelie sur Jonas” discovered at Valenciennes, and written in a mixture of Latin and Romance, dating from the early part of the tenth-century Vie de Saint Legela bald narrative in verse, written in the latter part of the tenth century. The metamorphosis, under the action of influences now no longer traceable, of Low Latin into Romance did not proceed along the same lines everywhere in Gaul. From the Pyrenees to the Scheldt it varied with the varying localities, and gave rise to many dialects. These dialects may be grouped into two principal languages which are usually named from the word used as an affirmative in each: the Romance language of oc in the South: and the Romance language of oil in the North. The oil language comprised all the varieties of speech in use to the north of an imaginary line drawn from the estuary of the Gironde to the Alps, passing through Limousin, Auvergne, and Dauphiny. In the twelfth century, the speech of the Ile-de-France began to take the lead over all the others, for the very good reason that it was the speech of the royal domain. Hereafter the French language possesses its form, and can give birth to a literature.
In the Middle Ages.—Epic Poetry.—In France, as everywhere else, literature began with poetry, and that epic. For many centuries this seems to have been the form natural to the French mind; and the abundance of the output is a striking proof of the breadth and power of the movement. To comprehend more clearly the great mass of epic works of this period, we distinguish three subject-matters, or three cycles: the French, or national, cycle; the Breton cycle; the antique cycle.
The origins of the French cycle go back to the first ages of Frankish domination. The Frankish chiefs all kept their singers, who celebrated their exploits in poems of heroic inspiration. These compositions, called cantilenes, were sung to the harp, either at their festivals or at the head of the army before a battle. This spontaneous growth of epic poetry goes on until the tenth century; but after the tenth century the inventive power of the poets—the trouveres, as they are called—is exhausted; they no longer compose new songs, but coordinate, above all amplify, and, finally, reduce to writing the songs left to them by their predecessors. By dint of this labor of arrangement and editing they compose the chansons de geste (“history songs”, from the Latin gesta, “things done”, “history”). Comparatively short, these chansons de geste are written in lines of six syllables which are made into couplets, or laisses, with assonances, or imperfect rhymes (such, e.g., as perde and superbe). Like the old cantilenes, they were intended to be sung by the trouvere at feasts or in battle. They are all connected with real historical episodes, which, however, are embellished, and often disfigured, with popular traditions and the fruits of the poet’s own imagination. The most famous of these chansons de geste, the “Chanson de Roland”, put into writing about the year 1080, and by an unknown author, is the chef d’oeuvre of this national epic poetry admirably reflects the society of the time. With its scenes of carnage, its loud clash of blades, its heroic barons who sacrifice their lives for the emperor and die after commending their souls to God, its miraculous intervention of angels who receive the soul of the brave warrior, the “Chanson de Rol-and” places vividly before the imagination the France of the eleventh century, warlike, violent, still barbarous, but thoroughly animated by an ardent faith. The “Chanson de Roland” is the most widely known of the chansons de geste, but a multitude of them are extant, and they all contain great beauties. While some of them, centring upon Charlemagne (“Le Pelerinage de Charlemagne“, “Aimeri de Narbonne”, “Girard de Viane”, etc.), celebrate the union of France under the kingship and conflicts with external enemies, others are inspired by the struggles maintained by great feudal chiefs against the king (“Ogier le Danois”, “Renaud de Montauban”, “Gerard de Roussillon”), by the wars of vassals among themselves, and by historical memories belonging particularly to this or that province (“Raoul de Cambrai”, the “Geste des Lorrains”, Auberi le Bourgoing”). The interesting element in all of them is, chiefly, their faithful portrayal of the feudal world, its virtues, and its asperities.
From the end of the twelfth century the success of the chansons de geste is counterbalanced by that of the romances of the Breton cycle. Here imagination roams at large, above all that kind of imagination which we call fantasy. The marvellous plays an important part. Manners are less violent, more delicate. Love, almost absent from the chansons de geste, holds a great place and utters itself in a style at once respectful and exalted. We find everywhere the impress of a twofold mysticism, that of chivalry and of religion. In other words, if the chansons de geste bear the stamp of the Germanic spirit, the Breton romances are inspired by the Celtic. The central figure is that of King Arthur, a character borrowed from history, the incarnation of the independence of the Breton race. Around him are his companions, the knights of the Round Table and Merlin the wizard. The Breton romances were intended to be read, not to be sung; they were written, moreover, in prose. In course of time Chrestien de Troyes, a poet rather facile and prolific than truly talented, put them into rhymed verse; between 1160 and 1180 he wrote “Perceval le Gallois”, “Le Chevalier au lion”, “Lancelot en la charrette”, “Cliges”, “Erec et Enide”. In these romances Launcelot is the type of l’amour courtois— the “gentle” love which every knight must bear his lay.
As for the antique cycle, it is no more than a work of imitation. The clerics, observing the success of epic and narrative poetry, conceived the idea of throwing into the same form the traditions of antiquity. The “Roman d’Alexandre” and the “Roman de Troie”, both written in the second half of the twelfth century, and amusing for their anachronisms and their baroque conceits, are, on the other hand, long, diffuse, and mediocre.
Lyric Poetry.—In these primitive periods of history the lines of division between various types of literature are not well defined. From the cantilene there sprang in turn the lyric poetry of the North. In these rough-hewn romances the poet relates in four or five coupletsof varied rhythm, but all ending with the same refrain, an adventure of war or of love; they are called chansons de toile (spinning songs) or chansons de danse, because women sang them either as they spun and chatted or as they danced rondes. Love nearly always plays the chief part in them—the love, successful or crossed, of a young girl for a beau chevalier, or perhaps a love crushed by the death of the beloved—such are the themes of the principal chansons de toile that have come down to us, “Belle Bremboure”, “Belle Idoine”, “Belle Aiglantine”, “Belle Doette”. But it was in Provence that lyric verse was to reach its fullest development. Subtile, learned, and somewhat artificial, Provencal poetry had for its only theme love—an idealized and quintessential love—l’amour courtois. On this common theme the troubadours embroidered variations of the utmost richness; the form which they employed, a very complex one, had given rise to manifold combinations of rhythms. The men of the North were dazzled when they came to know the Provencal poetry. Strangely enough, it did not spread directly from province to province within the borders of France, but by way of the Orient, from the Holy Land, during the Crusades, where Southern and Northern lords met each other. Soon a whole group of poets of the oil tongue in the North and East—Conon de Bethune, Gace Brule, Blondel de Nesles, and especially Thiebaut, Count of Champagne—set to work to imitate the Provencal compositions.
Bourgeois and Satirical Literature.—The epic and the lyric were essentially aristocratic; they addressed themselves to an audience of barons and represented almost exclusively the manners and feelings of the upper classes in the feudal world. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, and after the emancipation of the communes, the bourgeoisie makes its appearance, and from that moment dates the origin and rise of a bourgeoise literature. It begins with the f abliaux, little tales told in lines of eight syllables, pleasant stories intended only to amuse. The characters they intro-duce are people of humble or middling station—tradesmen, artisans, and their womenfolk—who are put through all sorts of ridiculous adventures; their vices and oddities are ridiculed smartly and with some degree of malice—too often, also, with coarseness and indecency. These fabliaux are animated by the Gallic spirit of irony and banter, in contrast to the heroic, or “gentle” (courtois), spirit which inspires the epic and lyric works. Bourgeois and villagers find here a realistic picture of their existence and their manners, but freely caricatured so as to provoke laughter.
Combine the spirit of the fabliaux with memories of the chanson de geste, and we have the “Roman de Renart”, a vast collection, formed early in the thirteenth century, of stories in verse thrown together without sequence or connection. This work, which, it is believed, was preceded by another now lost, contains 30,000 lines. Enlarged by successive additions, the “Roman de Renart” is the work not only of several authors, but of a whole country and a whole epoch. What gives it unity, in spite of the diversity and incongruity of the stories of which it is made up, is that in all its parts the same hero appears again and again—Renart, the fox. The action round about Renart is carried on by many other characters, such as Ysengrin, the wolf, Noble, the lion, Chantecler, the cock, pseudo-animals that mingle with their bearing and instincts as animals traits and feelings borrowed from humanity. Under pretext of relating an intrigue bristling with Froissart knew how to depict the outward semblance complications, in which Ysengrin and Renart are pitted against each other, the “Roman”, a kind of hand, the historian of Louis XI, is a connoisseur parody of the chansons de geste, ridicules the nobles, feudal society, and feudal instiutions.
Didactic Poetry.—Nobles and bourgeois, the two classes which, in the literature of the Middle Ages, speak with two accents so dissimilar, have one point of resemblance: the one class is as ignorant as the other. Only the clerics had any hold upon science—the little science which those times possessed. It had long remained shut up in Latin books composed in imitation of ancient models, but, beginning from the thirteenth century, the clerics conceived the idea of bringing the intellectual contents of these works within the domain of the vulgar tongue. This was the origin of didactic literature, in which the most important work is the “Roman de la Rose”, an immense encyclopedic work produced by two authors with tendencies and mentalities in absolute mutual opposition, collaborating at an interval of forty years. The first 4000 lines of the “Roman de la Rose” were written about the year 1236 by Guillaume de Lorris, a charming versifier endowed with every attractive quality. In the design of Guillaume de Lorris, the work is another “Art of Love“; the author proposes to describe in it love and the effects of love and to indicate the way of success for a lover. He personifies all the phases and varieties of love and of the other sentiments which attend it, and makes of them so many allegorical figures. Jealousy, Sadness, Reason, Fair Response (Bel-Accueil)—such are the abstractions to which Lorris lends a tenuous embodiment. With Jean de Meung, who wrote the continuation of the “Roman de la Rose”, about 1275, the inspiration changes completely. Love is no longer the only subject. In a number of prolix discourses, aggregating 22,000 lines in length, the later author not only contrives to bring in a multitude of notions on physics and philosophy, but enters into a very severe criticism of contemporary social orginization.
Prose and the Chroniclers.—Prose separates itself from poetry but slowly; when the epic outpouring has been exhausted history appears to take its place. It is the great movement of the Crusades that gives the impulse. Villehardouin, in his “Histoire de la Conquete de Constantinople” (1207), relates the events which he witnessed as a participant in the fourth crusade; he knows how to see and how to tell, with restraint and vigour, what he has seen and done. His chronicle is not, strictly speaking, history, but rather memoirs. Joinville attaches more importance to the moral element; the charm of his “Histoire de Saint Louis” (1309) is in the bonhomie, at once frank and deliberate, with which he sets forth the king’s virtues stating the theme and recounts his “chevaleries”.
The great representative of history in the Middle Ages is Froissart (1337-1410); in him we have to deal with a veritable writer. Just when the feudal world was entering upon its period of decadence, and the chivalry of France had been decimated at Crecy and Agincourt, feudalism and chivalry find in Froissart their most marvellous portrayer. His work, “Chroniques de France, d’Angleterre, d’Espagne, de Bretagne, Gascogne, de Flandre et autres lieux”, is the story of all the splendid feats of arms in the Hundred Years’ War. Pitched battles, assaults, mere skirmishes, isolated raids, deeds of chivalric daring, single combats—he describes them with a picturesque effect and a distinction of style new in our literature. An aristocratic writer, he is above all attracted by the brilliant aspects of society—wealth, gallantry, chivalry. He scorns the of bourgeois and the common people, and considers it quite natural that they should pay the cost of the war.
In his work is nothing to recall the gloominess of the period; he has seen in it nothing but exploits and heroic adventure.
Froissart knew how to depict the outward semblance of an epoch. Philippe de Commynes, on the other hand, the historian of Louis XI, is a connoisseur of souls; his viewpoint is from within. A minister of Louis XI, and them of Charles VIII, he is versed in affairs. He is much given, moreover, to analysis of character and the unravelling of events which have a political bearing. He goes back from effects to causes and is already rising to the conception of the general laws which govern history. One must not look for either brilliancy or relief in his style; but he has clearness, precision, solidity.
The Drama.—The fifteenth century would make but a sorry figure in the history of French literature had it not been that in this epoch there developed and flourished a literary form which had already been inochate during the preceding centuries. Entirely original in foundation and style, that drama owes nothing to antiquity. It was the Church, the great power of those ages, which gave birth to it. For the masses in the Middle Ages the church was the home where, united in the same thoughts and the same consoling hopes, they spent that part of their lives which was the best, and so the longest offices of the Church were the most beloved by the people. Conformably with this feeling, the clergy interpolated in the offices representations of certain events in religious history. Such was the liturgical drama, which was presented more especially at the feasts of Christmas (“Les Pasteurs”, “L’Epoux”, “Les Prophetes”) and Easter (“La Passion”, “La Resurrection“, “Les Pelerins”). At first the liturgical drama was no more than a translation of the Bible into action and dialogue, but little by little it changed as it developed. The text became longer, verse took the place of prose, the vernacular supplanted Latin. The drama at the same time was tending to make for itself an independent existence and to come forth from the Church.
In the fourteenth century there appeared “Les Miracles de Notre-Dame”, a stage presentment of a marvellous event brought about by the intervention of the Blessed Virgin. Thus was the drama making its way towards its completer form, that of the mysteries. A mystery is the exposition in dialogue of an historical incident taken from the Holy Scripture or the lives of the saints. Mysteries may be grouped, according to their subjects, in three cycles: the Old Testament cycle (“Le Mystere du Viel Testament”, in 50,000 lines), the New Testament cycle (“La Passion”, composed by Arnoul Greban and presented in 1450), the cycle of the saints (“Les Actes des Apotres”, by Arnoul and Simon Greban). Metrically, the mystery is written in lines of eight syllables; the lyric passages were supposed to be sung. A prologue serves the purpose of stating the theme and bespeaking silence of the audience. The piece itself is divided into days, each day occupying as many lines as could be recited at one séance, and the whole ends with an invitation to prayer: “Chantons Te Deum laudamus.”
The dramatic system of the mysteries contains certain thoroughly characteristic elements. First of all, the constant recourse to the marvellous: God, the Blessed Virgin, and the Saints intervene in the action; later on abstract characters—Justice and Peace, Truth, Mercy—are added. Then the mingling of the tragic and the comic: side by side with scenes intended to excite deep emotion, the authors of mysteries present others which are mere buffoonery, and sometimes of the coarsest kind. This comic element is borrowed from scenes of modern life; for anachronism is rampant in the mysteries, contemporary questions are discussed, Christ and the saints are depicted as people of the fifteenth century. Lastly, not only does the action wander without restraint from place to place, but occasionally it goes on in several different places at the same time. If the conception was original and interesting, the execution of it, unfortunately, was very mediocre. The authors of mysteries were not artists; they knew nothing of character-drawing, their characters are all of a piece, without individual traits. Above all, the style is deplorable, and but seldom escapes platitude and solecism. The fifteenth was, as a whole, the great century of the mysteries; they were then in perfect harmony with the ideas and sentiments of the period. In the next century, with the change of those ideas and sentiments, they were to enter upon their decadence and to disappear.
Did comedy too, in its turn, come forth from the dissipation of what little still survived of the medieval Church? Can we connect it with the burlesque offices of the “Feast of Fools” and the “Feast of the Ass“?—Beyond doubt we cannot. But in the fourteenth century joyous bands of comrades organized themselves for their own common amusement—the “Basoche”, a society of lawyers, and the “Sots” or the “Enfants sans souci”. It was by these societies that comic pieces were composed and played throughout the fifteenth century. Farces, moralities, and follies (soties) were the kinds of compositions which they cultivated. The farce was a comic piece the only aim of which was to amuse; although it did not issue all complete from the fabliau, the farce bore a strong analogy to that form, and, as the themes were identical, the farce was often nothing more than a fabliau in action. The best specimen of the type is “La Farce l’Avocat Pathelin” (1470), which presents a duel of wits between an advocate and a cloth-merchant, the one as thorough a rascal as the other. The morality, a comic piece with moral aims, is far inferior to the farce. Essentially pedantic, it constantly employs allegory, personifying the sentiments, defects, and good qualities of men, and sets them in opposition to each other on the stage. As for the folly (sotie), which may be called a dramatic pamphlet or squib, and belongs to the satiric drama, it was the special the best of his work of the “Enfants sans souci” and lasted but a short while.
The true literary distinction of the fifteenth century is to have given France a great poet—not the elegant, cold Charles d’Orleans, but that child of “poor and mean extraction” (de povre et petite extrace), that “mauvais garcon” who was Francois Villon. Insubordinate scholar, haunter of taverns, guilty of theft and even of assassination, the marvel is that he should have been able to evoke his grave and lofty poetry from that life of infamy. His chief collection, “Le Grand Testament” (1489), is dominated by that thought of death which, for the first time in France, finds its expression in the “Ballade des Dames du Temps jadis”. Thus did the Christian Middle Ages utter through Villon what had been their essential preoccupation.
The Renaissance and the Reformation.—When the sixteenth century opens, literature in France may be regarded as exhausted and moribund. What had been lacking in the Middle Ages was the enthusiasm for form, the worship of art, combined with a language sufficiently supple and opulent. The Renaissance was about to bestow these gifts; it was to communicate the sense of beauty to the writers of that age by in the setting before them as models the great masterpieces of antiquity. Reversion to antiquity—this is the characteristic which dominates all the literature of the sixteenth century. The movement did not attain its effect directly, but through Italy, and as a sequel to the wars of Charles VIII. “The first contact with Italy“, says Brunetiere, “was in truth a kind of revelation for us French. In the midst of the feudal barbarism of which the fifteenth century still bore the stamp, Italy presented the spectacle of an old civilization. She awed the foreigner by the ancient authority of her religion and all the pomp of wealth and of the arts. Add this to the allurement of her climate and her manners. Italy of the Renaissance, invaded, devastated, trampled under foot by these men of the North, suddenly, like Greece of yore, took possession of the rude conquerors. They conceived the idea of another life, more free, more ornate—in one word, more ‘human’—than that which they had been leading for five or six centuries; a confused feeling of the power of beauty twined itself into the souls of gendarmes and lansqenets, and it was then that the breath of the Renaissance, coming over the mountains with the armies of Charles VIII, of Louis XII, and of Francis I, completed in less than fifty years the dissipation of what little still survived of the medieval tradition.”
If the language very quickly undergoes the modifications brought about by this new spirit, it is only little by little that the various forms of literature allow themselves to be penetrated by it. Such is the case with poetry. The principal poet of the earlier half of the sixteenth century, Clement Marot (1497-1544), belongs, by his inspiration, to both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Of the Middle Ages he has first of all his scholastic education and also an uncontrolled passion for allegories and for bizarre and complicated versification. In the best of his “Epitres” he sacrifices to the worst of the faults held in honor by the fifteenth century: the taste for alliteration, for playing upon words, and for childish tricks of rhyme. On another side the influence of the Renaissance reveals itself in his work in many imitations of the Latins, Virgil, Catullus, Ovid. The “Epitres”, his masterpiece, are, besides, in a style of composition borrowed from the Latin. A court poet, attached to the personal suite of Marguerite de Valois, herself a humanist and a patroness of humanists, no man was more favorably situated for the effect of that influence. Marot is, in other respects, a very original poet; his “Epitres” mark the appearance of a quality almost new in French literature—wit. The art of saying things prettily, of telling a story cleverly, of winning pardon for his mockeries by mocking himself, was Marot’s.
Graeco-Latin imitation is really only an accidental feature in the work of Marot; with the poets who succeeded him it becomes the very origin of their inspiration. For the poets who later formed the group called “La Pleiade” Joachim du Bellay furnished a program in the “Deffense et Illustration de la langue francaise” (1549). To eschew the superannuated formulae and the “condiment” (epiceries) of the Middle Ages, to imitate without reserve everything that has come down to us from antiquity, to enrich the language by every means practicable—by borrowing from Greek, from Latin, from the vocabulary of the handicrafts—these are the principles which this author lays down his work. And these are the principles which the chief of the “Pleiade”, Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85), applies. Ronsard’s ambition is to exercise his wits in all the styles of composition in which the Greeks and Romans excelled. After their example he composed odes, an epic work (the “Franciade”, in which he aspires to do for France what Virgil, with the Aeneid, did for Rome), and some eclogues. If he has utterly failed in his epic attempt, and if his abuse of erudition renders his odes very difficult to read, it must nevertheless be said that these works sparkle with beauties of the first order. Ronsard is not only, as was long ago said of him, the marvellous workman of little pieces, of sonnets and tiny odes; in brilliancy of imagination, in the gift for inventing new rhythms, he is one of the greatest poets known to French literature. Side by side with him Du Bellay, in his “Regrets”, inaugurated la poesie intime, the lyricism of confidences, and Jodele gave to the world “Cleopatre” (1552), the first, in point of date, of the tragedies imitated from the antique, thus opening the way for Robert Garner and Montchrestien.
At the same time that the Renaissance was bringing us the feeling for art, the Reformation was giving currency to new ideas and tendencies. The two inspirations commingled rendered possible the work of the two masters of sixteenth-century prose, Rabelais and Montaigne. In that prodigious nursery tale, in which he scatters buffooneries and indecencies by the handful, it would be a mistake to think that the author of “Gargantua” hides a thought and a symbol under very line of text. All the same, it is true that one must break the bone to find the “susbtantific marrow”. Rabelais has a hatred of the Middle Ages, of its Scholasticism and its asceticism. For his part, he does not mistrust human nature; he believes it to be good and wants people to follow its law, which is instinct. His ideal is the abbey of Thelema, where the rule runs: Do as you please (Fais ce que to voudras). “Nature is my gentle guide”, says Montaigne on his part. This is one of the ideas which circulate in his essays, the first book of which appeared in 1580. In this sort of disjointed confession, Montaigne speaks above all of himself, his life, his tastes, his habits, his favorite reading. As he goes along he expounds his philosophy, which is a kind of scepticism, if you will, but applying exclusively to the things that belong to reason, for with Montaigne the Christian Faith remains intact. What makes Montaigne an original writer, and makes his part in French literature one of capital importance, is his having been the first to introduce into that literature, by his minute study of his own Ego, that psychological and moral observation of man which was to form the foundation of great works in the next century.
In a general way the Reformation produced a profound impression on the writers of the sixteenth century, giving them a freedom of movement and of thought unknown to their predecessors of the Middle Ages. On the other hand, multiplying theological discussions, controversies, and fierce polemics between Catholics and Protestants—dividing France into two parties—it gave birth to a whole literature of conflict. We will confine ourselves to the mention of Calvin and his “Institution de la religion chretienne” (1541). As a theologian he need not concern us here; we need only say that, by the simplicity of his exposition, by the energy of his harsh and gloomy style, he effects an entrance into our literature for a whole range of subject-matters which had until them been reserved for Latin. Calvin was the teacher of the Reformation; Agrippa d’Aubigne was its soldier, but one who had taken the pen in hand. It was after long service in the field that he composed his “Tragiques”, a versified work unlike any other, a medley of satire and epic. Here the author presents a picture of France devastated by wars of religion, and paints his adversaries in odious colors. Now and then hatred inspires him with fine utterances. After all these struggles and all this violence, the age could not but long for peace, could not but hold all these excesses in horror. Such a spirit inspires the “Satire Menipee” (1594), a work, part prose, part verse, which, with its irony, gives evidence that an epoch has come to its end, fatigued with its own struggles and is ready for a great renovation.
The Seventeenth Century; the Classical Age.—The seventeenth century is the most noteworthy epoch in the history of French literature. The circumstances of the age, it is true, are peculiarly favorable for literary development. France is once more the strongest factor in European statecraft; her political influence is supreme, thanks to the wonderful achievements of her arms and the brilliant triumphs of her diplomacy. Conscious of her greatness, she ceases to be dependent on foreign literatures, and fashions new literary forms which she bids other countries copy. The internal peace which she enjoys favors disinterested study in the domains of art and literature, without the need of giving to her literary creations a social or political tendency. Authors are patronized by society and the court. Intellectual conditions are especially favorable; the national mind, steeped in the learning and culture of the classes, has become sufficiently strengthened to emancipate itself from the yoke of servile imitation. The language, capable henceforth of giving adequate expression to every shade of thought, has become clearly conscious of its power and is exclusively French in syntax and vocabulary. Such are the circumstances, such the elements, which combine to form the genesis of the classical literature of France. It does not, indeed, claim to have determined the extreme limits beyond which literary activity in France may not range; progress will continue throughout the ages to come. But in the works of that period may be seen the most complete and perfect presentation of the distinguishing qualities of the French race; the ideal counterpart, in miniature, of the most perfect form of French literature.
It is characterized, in the main, by a tendency which seeks the apotheosis of human reason in the realm of literary activity, and regards the expression of moral truth as the end of literary composition. Hence the fondness of the literature of the seventeenth century for general ideas and for the sentiments that are common to mankind, and its success in those kinds of literature which are based on the general study of the human heart. It reached perfection in dramatic literature, in sacred eloquence and in the study of morals. Hence the contempt of the seventeenth-century literature for all that is relative, individual, and mutable; in lyric poetry, which appeals primarily to the individual sentiment, in the description of material phenomena, and the external manifestations of nature, it falls short of success.
For thorough understanding of the development of French literature in the seventeenth century, we must consider it in three periods: (I) from the year 1600 to 1659, the period of preparation; (2) 1659-1688, the Golden Age of classicism; (3) 1688-1715, the period of transition between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
First Period (1600-1659).—With the followers of Ronsard and those poets who immediately succeeded him a kind of lassitude had seized upon poetry at the end of the sixteenth century; impoverished and spiritless, it handled only trifling subjects. Besides, having been long subject to the artistic domination of Italy, and having owed allegiance to Spain also since the intervention of the Spaniards in the days of the League, poetry had become infected with mannerisms, and suffered a considerable lowering of tone. A reform was necessary, and Malherbe, whose “Odes” appear between the years 1600 and 1628, undertook it. From him the first he repudiated the idea of servile imitation of ancient classical authors; discrimination should be shown in borrowing from their writings, and imitation should be restricted to features likely to strengthen the thought. On the other hand, if the language of the sixteenth century was copious, many of its terms were not of the purest; these Malherbe severely interdicted. With regard to prosody, he lays down the strictest rules. Malherbe’s reform, therefore, aims at purifying the terminology of the language, and fixing set forms for prosody. Unluckily, it must be secured at a heavy price; subordinated unduly to inflexible rule, its freedom of movement impeded, lyric poetry is finally crushed out of life. Two centuries must elapse before it revives and shakes off the yoke of Malherbe. Nor was the rule of Malherbe established without resistance. Of the writers of that time, none were less disposed to submit to it than Mathurin Regnier (1579-1613), a poet who in many ways recalls the sixteenth century. His satires are one long protest against the theory so dear to Malherbe. An enemy to rule and constraint, Regnier again and again insists upon the absolute freedom of the poet; the poet must write as the spirit moves him; let every writer be what he is, is the only principle he accepts. A numerous group of poets shared Regnier’s views, those known by the name of les Grotesques. Such are Saint-Amant, Theophile de Viau, the direct heirs of the Pleiade; and Scarron, whose poetry is the very incarnation of the burlesque form imported from Italy.
Malherbe would perhaps have been unable to combat this opposition, had not two other forces come to his assistance in checking the flood of licence that was spreading with Regnier and his associates. The first of these was the culture of French society. The rise of a cultured class and of its life of refinement, which took place toward the end of the reign of Henry IV, is one of the striking facts of the first half of the seventeenth century. A new institution, the salon, presided over by women, now makes its appearance; here men of the world meet literary men to discuss serious questions with women. The salon will prove of service to writers, though sometimes a hindrance or a lure to false paths, and the next two centuries of literature will show evidence of its influence. The first salon was that of the Marquise de Rambouillet; for more than twenty years people of superior intellect and culture were wont to gather there. By exacting from its guests refinement and elegant manners it contributed to chasten the language and to strip it of all low and grotesque words. It is in the salon that the over-refinement called preciosity budded and bloomed. However, the influence of the Precieuses was perhaps more harmless than some would have us believe. They have enriched the lanugage with many clever expressions; they have helped to develop the taste for precision and subtilty in psychological analysis. They favored also, though in an indirect way, that study of the human heart which was the grand theme of seventeenth century literature.
Authority also, as represented by Richelieu, enrolled itself in the crusade of reform and added its sanction to the new disciplinary laws. Under the patron-age of the great minister, and by his inspiration, the French Academy was founded in the year 1635. In virtue of its origin and of its aims, the Academy exercised officially the same influence as the salon. It watched over the purity of the language and over its regular development. One of its members, Vaugelas, the great grammarian of that age, contributed in an especial way towards the achievement of this object. If the new ideal found its first expression in poetry, prose also was soon to share in the advantages of the reform. Balzac, in his “Lettres” (1624), created French prose. He is said to have furnished the rules of French prose composition; in fact it is his chief merit to have taught his own age, along with the art of composition, what the greatest minds of the sixteenth century—what Rabelais and Montaigne—had not known: the rhythm, the flow, and the harmony of the period. In this way, he has fashioned the magnificent form, which the great prose writers of the last half of the seventeenth century will find at their disposal when they seek to give outward shape to the sublime conceptions of their minds.
At the same time, Voiture, one of the habitués of the Hotel de Rambouillet, gave to French prose its raciness, its vigour and its ease of movement. Balzae and Voiture, of the great writers of that time, are masters of styles in the seventeenth century, but Descartes, whose “Discours de la Methode”‘ appeared in 1673, has left his mark deeply stamped on French classical literature. This could not be otherwise; the principles which gained distinction for him were the same as those invoked for the literary reform. But reason, whose sovereign authority Descartes proclaimed, and whose power he demonstrated, was the same reason whose absolutism Malherbe sought to establish in literature. The abstract tone, the surety of inference proceeding directly to the solution of one or two questions clearly laid down, permitting no chance thoughts to lead it away from the straight line, the determination to take up only one subject, mastering it completely, to simplify everything, to see in man only an abstract soul, without a body, and in this soul not the phenomena, but the substance—these are at the same time Cartesian principles and literary peculiarities of the seventeenth century.
The craving for order and uniformity which made itself felt in every branch of literature seized the theatrical world and achieved the masterpieces of the classic drama. In 1629, Jean Mairet produced his “Sophonisbe”, in which the unities are for the first time observed—unity of action, unity of time, unity of place. The plot turns upon one incident which is tragic without a trace of the comic element, the action does not extend beyond one day, and there is no change of scene. The framework of classical tragedy was created; what was needed was a writer of genius to fill in the structure. Corneille was this man. In the merveille of “Le Cid”, he gave to the French stage its first masterpiece. Lofty sentiments, strong dialogue, a brilliant style, and rapid action, not exceeding twenty-four hours, were all combined in this play. While its subject was taken from modern history, Corneille, after the famous controversy on “Le Cid”, stirred up by his jealous rivals, returned to subjects taken from Roman history in his later pieces, which date from 1640 to 1643, namely “Horace”, “Canna”, and “Polyeucte”. In these the plot becomes more and more complicated; the poet prefers perplexing and anomalous situations, and looks for variety and strangeness of incident to the neglect of the sentiments and the passions. The noble simplicity and serene beauty which characterized his great works are replaced by the riddles of “Herachus” and the extravagances of “Attila“.
Corneille’s “Polyeucte” shows traces of the controversies on Divine Grace which at that time agitated the minds of men. Jansenism profoundly influenced the entire literature of the seventeenth century, giving rise, first and foremost, to one of its prose master-pieces, the “Lettres provinciales” (1656-67) of Pascal. In these the author champions the cause of his friends of Port-Royal against the Jesuits. They display all the qualities which it had taken sixty years of progress in literature to develop: clearness of exposition, beauty of form, elegance and distinction of style, a subtile wit, graceful irony, and geniality. Divested of all dull learning and all dialectic formalism, it placed within the reach of every serious mind the deepest theological questions. As far removed from the vigorous rhetoric of Balzac, as from the studied wit of Voiture, it embodied in prose the greatest effort to reach perfection that we meet with in the early part of the seventeenth century.
Second Period.—(1659-88); the Great Epoch.—Towards 1660 all the literary characteristics which we have seen gradually developing in the previous sixty years have taken definite form. This is now rein-forced by the influence of the Court. After the short-lived trouble of the Fronde, one man embodies all the destinies of France: the king, Louis XIV, young, victorious, at the zenith of his glory. In literature, as in his government, the king will successfully carry out his taste for regularity, for harmony, and nobility. The influence of his strong personality will check the tender,` towards the caprice, tricity, and imaginative waywardness that characterized the preceding period.
Henceforth nothing is appreciated in literature but what is reasonable, natural, and harmoniously proportionate, and what depicts the universal in man. Then follow in succession all those masterpieces which realize this ideal, upheld by Boileau, the great law giver of classicism. Beginning in 1660, Boileau gave to the world his “Satires”, his “Epistles”, in which he shows himself a marvellous critic, unerring in his estimate of contemporary writers, and his “Art poetique” (1674), a literary code which held sway for more than a century. Seek the truth, be guided by reason, imitate nature—these are the principles which Boileau never ceases to enjoin, and which his friends, Moliere, Racine, La Fontaine, put into practice.
Moliere, who, since the year 1653, had been playing in the provinces his first comedy, “L’Etourdi”, produced the “Precieuses Ridicules’.’ at Paris, in 1659, and until his death (1673) continued to produce play after play. To paint human life and to delineate character are the aims which Moliere proposed to himself. Even his farces are full of points drawn from observation and study. In his great comedies it is clear that he rejects everything which is not based on a study of the heart. Moliere is not concerned with plot and denouement; each incident stands on its own merits; for him a comedy is but a succession of scenes whose aim is to place a character in the full light of day. Each of his characters is an exhaustive study of some particular failing or the comprehensive presentment of a whole type in a single physiognomy. Some of his best types are not characteristic of any one period, but of humanity in all ages—the hypocrite, the miser, the coquette. It is Moliere’s undying merit that we cannot observe in our experience any of these characteristics without being reminded of some of Moliere’s originals.
In 1667 Racine, after his first attempts, the “Thebaide” and “Alexandre”, reproduced his “Andromaque”, which achieved a success no less marked than that of the “Cid”; after that, scarcely a year passed without the production of a new work. After bringing out the “Phedre” in 1677, Racine withdrew from the stage, partly from a desire for rest and partly on account of religious scruples. The only dramas produced by him in this last period were “Esther” (1689) and “Athalie” (1691). His tragedies were a reaction against the heroic and romantic drama which had prevailed during the first part of the century. He places on the stage the representation of reality; his plays have their source in reason rather than in imagination. The result is a loss of apparent grandeur, on the one hand, but also, on the other hand, an increased moral range and a wider psychology. Again, instead of the complicated action of which Corneille is so fond, Racine substitutes “a simple action, burdened with little incident, which, as it gradually advances towards its end, is sustained only by the interests, the sentiments and the emotions of the characters” (preface to “Berenice”). It is, accordingly, the study of character and emotion that we must look for in Racine. In “Britannicus” and in “Athalie” he has painted the passion of ambition; but it is love which dominates his tragedies. The vigour, the vehemence, with which Racine has analysed this passion show what a degree of audacity may coexist with that classic genius of which he himself is the best example.
In some points of detail, La Fontaine, whose “Fables” began to appear in 1668, differs from the other great classics. He has a weakness for the old authors of the sixteenth century and even for those of the Middle Ages, for the words and phrases of a bygone time, and certain popular expressions. But he is an utter classic in his correctness and appropriateness of expression, in the nice attention to details of composition displayed in his “Fables” (a charming genre which he himself created), and in the added perfection of nature as he paints it. The winged grace with which he skims over every theme, his talent for giving life and interest to the actors in his fables, his consummate skill in handling verse—all these qualities make him one of the great writers of the seventeenth century.
In this second period of the seventeenth century, indeed, all forms of literature bear their fine flower. In his “Maxims” (1665), the Duke de La Rochefoucauld displays a profound knowledge of human nature, and an almost perfect literary style. The “Lettres” of Madame de Sevigne, the first of which bears the date 1617, are marvels of wit, vivacity, and sprightliness.
In his “Memoires” (completed in 1675) Cardinal de Retz furnishes us a model for this class of writing. In the “Princesse de Cleves” (1678) Madame de La Fayette created the psychological romance. Finally, it would be a misconception of the classical genius not to allow to religious inspiration a marked place in this period. The whole course of the seventeenth century was deeply permeated by the spirit of religion. Few of its writers escaped that influence; and those who did, also remained outside the general current and the philosophic movement of the century. Pulpit oratory, too, reached a high degree of excellence. The first years of the century had been, so to say, fragrant with the oratory of that most lovable of saints, Francois de Sales (1567-1622). He had, in 1602, preached the Lenten sermons before Henry IV at the Louvre, and ravished his hearers by the unction of his discourse, overflowing with a wealth of pleasing imagery. The religious revival was then universal; orders were founded or reformed. Among them the Oratorians, like the Jesuits, produced more than one remarkable and vigorous preacher. The Jansenists, in their turn, introduced into pulpit eloquence a sober style without any great wealth of fancy, without vivacity or brilliancy, but simple, grave, uniform. Thus, sacred eloquence, already flourishing before 1660, gradually rid itself of the defects from which it had suffered in the preceding period—the trivialities, the tawdry refinements, the abuse of profane learning. It was especially during the brilliant period extending from 1659 to 1688 that Christian eloquence reached its greatest power and perfection, when its two most illustrious representatives were Bossuet and Bourdaloue.
In 1659 Bossuet preached in Paris, at the Minims, his first course of Lenten sermons; during the next ten years his mighty voice was heard pouring forth eloquent sermons, panegyrics, and funeral orations. Animated, earnest, and familiar in his sermons, sub-lime in his funeral orations, simple and lucid in theological expositions, he always carried out the principle, embodied in a celebrated definition, “of employing the word only for the thought, and the thought for truth and virtue”. Not only is he a magnificent orator, the greatest that ever occupied the pulpit in France, but he is also, perhaps, the writer who has had the most delicate appreciation of the French language. Furthermore, it must not be forgotten that Bossuet, in his “Discourse on Universal History” (1681), did the work of a historian. He is, indeed, the only historian of the seventeenth century. In the art of investigating historical causes, he is a master of exceptional penetration, and his conclusions have been confirmed by the most recent discoveries of historical science. He founded the philosophy of history, and Montesquieu, in the following century, had but little to add to his work. Bourdaloue, who ascended the pulpit left vacant by Bossuet (1669), is a very different man. In Bourdaloue we do not find the abruptness and familiarity of Bossuet, but an unbroken evenness, a style always regular and symmetrical, above all a logician; he appeals to the reason, rather than to the imagination and sensibilities.
From 1688 to 1715—In the short space of eighteen years classical literature was in its glory. It resulted from the equilibrium between all the forces of society and all the faculties of the mind, an equilibrium not destined to last long. If, during the last years of the century, the great writers still living preserve their powers unimpaired to the end, we feel, nevertheless, that new forces are forming. In 1688, the king, aged and absorbed by the cares of his foreign policy, ceased to take his former interest in literature. Discipline becomes relaxed. The salon, which for a while had been eclipsed by the Court, gradually regained its ascendancy. Under its influence, preciosity, which had disappeared during the great period of classicism, began to revive. This becomes evident in a department in which it would seem the precieux would have but little interest, that of sacred eloquence. Flechier marks an inordinate propensity to wit and frivolities of language. Massillon, who is Flechier’s heir, lacks the fine equilibrium between thought and form which was found in Bossuet. He is a wonderful rhetorician who sacrifices too much to the adornments of style. Besides, the conception of style prevalent from 1659 to 1688 underwent a change. In the writers of the golden age the period was, perhaps, somewhat too long, but it was broad and spacious, effectively reproducing the movements of the thought; it was now replaced by a shorter phrase, more rapid and more incisive. This new style is that of the “Caracteres” of La Bruyere (1688). The appearance of the “Caracteres” marks, furthermore, a still more important change in taste. La Bruyere, unlike the great classics, does not give himself up to the general and abstract study of man; what he paints is not the man of all time, but the man of his own day, his looks, his vices, and his ridiculous traits. Picturesque details and outward peculiarities constitute the great attraction in the style of the “Caracteres”; these, too, distinguish it from the works of the preceding period. The same artistic qualities are also found in Saint-Simon, who did not write his “Memoires” until after 1722, the materials for which he had been collecting since 1696. He is a writer, however, who from many points of view is connected with the seventeenth century. Saint-Simon not only gives a moral portrait of the person dealt with in his “Memoires”, but by dint of violent colors, of contrasting touches, daring figures combined into a brutal, incorrect, passionate, and feverish style, he reproduces the physical man to the life. In dramatic literature comedy follows the same tendencies. After Moliere, and after Regnard, who imitated him, the comedy of character comes to an end, and with Dan-court (1661-1725), the comedy of manners, which has its inspiration in the actual, replaces it. Lastly, Fenelon introduces into literature a spirit utterly foreign to the pure classics, so reverent of tradition—the spirit of novelty. Telemaque (1699), a romance imitated from antiquity, records the views of the author on government, foreshadows the eighteenth century, and its mania for reform.
The Eighteenth Century.—To do justice to the writers of the eighteenth century, we must change our point of view. In truth, the eighteenth century’s conception of literature differed profoundly from that of the great writers of the time of Louis XIV. The eighteenth century, moreover, never rises above mediocrity when it attempts to follow in the footsteps of the seventeenth, but is always interesting when it breaks loose from it. To follow its literary development, we must divide it, like the preceding century, into three periods: (I) 1715-50; (2) 1750-89; (3) 1789-1800.
From 1715 to 1750.—After the death of Louis XIV, the tendencies which already manifested themselves in the last period of the seventeenth century become more marked. The classical ideal becomes more and more distorted and weakened. Consequently, all the great branches of literature which flourished by following this ideal either decay or are radically modified. The tragic vein in particular is completely exhausted. After Racine, there are no longer any great writers of tragedy, but only imitators, of whom the most brilliant is Voltaire, whose versatility fits him for every kind of literature. Comedy shows more vitality than tragedy. With Dancourt it had taken the direction of portrayal of manners in their most fleeting aspects, and the tendency betrays itself in Lesage (1668-1747). “Turcaret”, which places on the stage not a character, but a condition in life—that of the financier, is a piece of direct, profound, and merciless observation. Applying the same methods to romantic literature, Lesage wrote “Gil Bias”, which first appeared in 1715, and in which, in spite of a peculiar method of narration, borrowed from Spain, the manners and the society of the time are drawn to the life. Thus “Gil Blas” inaugurates in French literature the romance of manners. The most original of the writers of comedy in this period, however, is Marivaux, who, between 1722 and 1740, produced his charming works, “La surprise de l’amour”, “Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard”, “Le Legs”, “Les fausses confidences”, etc. The utmost refinement in the analysis of love—a love that is timid and scrupulous—propriety in the settings of his works, a subtile wit bearing the stamp of good society, grace and delicacy of feeling—these are the distinguishing characteristics of Marivaux.
But if the great classical types are exhausted or fall to pieces in giving birth to new forms, literature is compensated by the enlargement of its domain in some directions, absorbing new sources of inspiration. Writers turn away from the consideration of man as a moral unit; on the other hand, they devote themselves to the study of man regarded as a product of the changing conditions of the State, political, social and religious. In fact, this new direction of literary activity is favored by the birth of what has been called “the philosophic spirit”. After the death of Louis XIV, the severe restraint imposed upon men’s intellects was at an end. Respect for authority and for the social hierarchy, submission to the dictates of religion—these were things never questioned by any of the seventeenth-century writers. From the earliest years of the eighteenth century, on the contrary, an aggressive movement against every form of authority, spiritual as well as temporal, becomes perceptible. This two-fold disposition—curiosity about human idiosyncrasies as they vary with times, places, environments, and governments, and a spirit of unfettered criticism—is met with in Montesquieu, chronologically the first of the great writers of the eighteenth century. Montesquieu, indeed, does not manifest any destructive inclination in regard to government and religion; nevertheless, in the “Lettres persanes” (1721), there is a tone of satire previously unknown. Montesquieu shows himself the disciple of La Bruycre, but does not hesitate to discuss subjects from which his master would have been obliged to refrain: social problems, the royal power, the papacy. The “Lettres persanes” is a pamphlet rather than the work of a moralist. They make an epoch in the history of French literature, marking the first appearance of the political satire. But the two truly great works of Montesquieu are the “Considerations sur la grandeur et la decadence des Romains” (1734), and the “Esprit des Lois” (1748). In the “Considerations”, Montesquieu, by undertaking to explain the succession of events by the power of ideas, the character of the people, the action and reaction of cause and effect, inaugurated an historical method unknown to his predecessors—certainly not to Bossuet, who was the most illustrious of them. From the “Considerations” the whole movement of modern historical study was to draw its inspiration later on. In the “Esprit des Lois”, he studies how laws are evolved under the influences of government, climate, religion, and manners. —On-all these subjects, in spi#, ieertain errors of tail, he threw a light that was altogether new.
With Montesquieu, jurisprudence, politics, and sociology made their entrance into literature. With Buffon, science has its turn. Already Fontenelle, in his “Entretiens sur la pluralite des Mondes”, had popularized the most difficult astronomical theories. Buffon, in his “Histoire naturelle”, the first volumes of which appeared in 1749, set forth the ideas of his time on geology and biological species in a style that is brilliant and highly colored, but somewhat studied in its magnificence. No doubt Buffon’s descriptions are written in a pompous, ambitious style ill suited to the severity of a scientific subject, and they are too often interlarded with commonplaces. It is none the less true that in introducing natural history into literature he exercised a considerable influence; from Buffon, who set forth nature in its various aspects, a number of writers were to issue. The consequence of this broadening of literature was the loss of the purely speculative and disinterested character which it displayed in the seventeenth century, when the sole aim of the writer had been production of a beautiful work and the inculcation of certain moral truths. The writers of the eighteenth century, on the contrary, wish to spread in society the philosophical and scientific theories they have adopted, and this diffusion is effected in the salons. From the beginning of the century, the salons, formed from the debris of Louis XIV‘s court, had assumed a considerable importance. First, it was the little court of the Duchesse du Maine, at Sceaux, and the salon of the Marquise de Lambert, at Paris. Later on, other salons were opened, those of Mme Geoffrin, Mme du Deffand, Mlle de Lespinasse. These salons in their day represented public opinion, and authors wrote to influence the views of those who frequented them. Moderately perceptible in the first half of the century, this tendency of literature to become an instrument of propaganda and even of controversy, becomes bolder in the second.
From 1750 to 1789.—Voltaire is one of the first to mark the character of this period. Of the writers who flourished about the middle of the eighteenth century, the greatest glory surrounds Voltaire (1694-1778). The kind of intellectual sovereignty which he enjoyed, not only in France, but throughout Europe, is attributable to his great talent as a writer of prose as well as to his great versatility. There is no literary form—tragedy, comedy, epic poetry, tales in prose, history, criticism, or philosophy—in which he did not practice with more or less success. It has been said of him that he was only “second in every class”, and again that he is the “first of mediocrities ‘. Though paradoxically expressed, these verdicts are partial truths. In no branch of literature was Voltaire an originator in the full sense of the word. A man of varied gifts, living at a time when thought extended its domain in every direction and took hold of every novelty, he is the most accomplished and most brilliant of popularizers. In the early part of his career, from 1717 until 1750, he confines himself almost entirely to purely literary work; but after 1750, his writings assume the militant character which henceforth distinguishes French literature. In his historical works, such as the “Siecle de Louis Quatorze” (1751) and the “Essai sur les Mceurs” (1756), he becomes a controversialist, assailing in his narrative the Church, her institutions, and her influence on the course of events. Finally, the “Dictionnaire philosophique” (1764) and a number of treatises dealing both with philosophy and exegesis, which Voltaire gave to the world between 1763 and 1776, are wholly devoted to religious polemics. But, while Voltaire shows his hostility to religion, he attacks neither political authority nor the social hierarchy; he is conservative, not revolutionary, in this respect. With Diderot and the Encyclopedists, however, literature becomes frankly destructive of the established order of things. Like Voltaire, Diderot is one of the most prolific writers of the eighteenth century, producing in turn romances, philosophical treatises tending towards atheism, essays in art-criticism, dramas. But it is only in productiveness that Diderot can be compared with Voltaire, for he has none of Voltaire’s admirable literary gifts. He is above all an improvisatore, and, with the exception of some pages that are remarkable for movement and color, his work is confused and uneven. His principal production is the “Encyclopedia“, to which the author devoted the greatest part of his life; the first two volumes appeared in 1751. The aim of this bulky publication was to give a summary of science, art, literature, philosophy and politics, up to the middle of the eighteenth century. To bring this enterprise to a successful issue, Diderot, who reserved to himself the greatest part of the work, called to his assistance numerous collaborators, amongst whom were Voltaire, Buffon, Montesquieu, D’Alembert and Condillac. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was entrusted with the department of music. Despite the assistance of talents so diverse, the same spirit breathes throughout the work. In philosophy, the Encyclopedists seek to subvert the principles on which the existing institutions and the authority of dogma in religion were based. The Encyclopedia, therefore, which embodies all the opinions of that age, is a work of destruction. However that may be, its influence was considerable; it served as a rallying-point for the philosophers, and by acting on public opinion, as Diderot had intended, came to “change the common way of thinking”.
The Encyclopedia wrought the ruin of society, but proposed nothing to take its place; Jean-Jacques Rousseau dreamed of effecting its reconstitution on a new plan. On certain points, Rousseau breaks with the philosophes and the Encyclopedists. Both of these believed in the sovereignty of reason, not, as was the case with the seventeenth-century writers, in reason subject to faith and controlled by it, but in reason absolute, universal, and refusing to admit what eludes its deductions—that is to say, the truths revealed by religion. They also believed in the omnipotence of science, in human progress and in civilization guided by reason and science. Rousseau, on the contrary, in his first notable work, “Discours sur les sciences et les arts” (1751), assails reason and science, and in a certain sense denies progress. On the other hand, in maintaining the natural goodness of man he approaches the philosophes. In his opinion, society has perverted man, who is by nature good and virtuous, has replaced primitive liberty with despotism, and brought inequality amongst men. Society, therefore, is evil; being so, it must be abolished, and men must return to the state of nature, that happiness may reign among them. This return to the natural state Rousseau preaches in his romance, “La nouvelle Heloise” (1760), in his work on education, “Emile” (1762), lastly in the “Contrat social” (1762) which was to become the gospel of the Revolution. From the publication of his first work, Rousseau won a success that was immediate and startling. This was because he brought qualities entirely novel or which had long been forgotten. With him eloquence returns to literature. Leaving aside his influence on the movement of politics, we must give him credit for all that the French literature of the nineteenth century owes to him. Rousseau, by causing a reaction against the philosophy of his time, prepared the revival of religious sentiment. It was he who, by signalizing in his most beautiful pages the emotions awakened in him by certain landscapes, aroused in the popular imagination the feeling for nature. Rousseau, too, by his thoroughly plebeian manner of parading his personality and displaying his egotism, helped to develop that sentiment of individualism whence sprang the lyric poetry of the nineteenth century. He is also responsible for some of the most regrettable characteristics of nineteenth-century literature—for that melancholy and unrest which has been termed “the distemper of the age”, and which was originally the distemper of the hypochondriac Jean-Jacques; for the revolt against society; for the belief that passion has rights of its own and dominates the lives of mortals as a fatal compulsion.
The close of the eighteenth century is from some points of view a time regeneration, and forebodes a still more radical and complete transformation of literature in the immediate future. Some branches of literature that had been neglected in the course of the century receive new life and energy. Since Lesage’s “Turcaret” and after Marivaux, comedy had hardly produced anything above the commonplace; it revives in the amusing “Barbier de Seville” (1775) of Beaumarehais, full of life and rapid movement. Beaumarchais owes much to his predecessors, to Moliere, Regnard, and many others. His originality as a playwright consists in the political and social satire with which his comedies are filled. In this respect they are the children of the eighteenth century, essentially combative. In the “Barbier de Seville” the impertinent Figaro rails at the privileges of the aristocracy. In the “Mariage de Figaro” the satire becomes more violent; the famous monologue of the fifth act is a bitter invective against the aristocracy, against the inequality of social conditions and the restrictions imposed on liberty of thought.
Finally, with Andre Chenier, lyric poetry revives, after the neglect of the eighteenth century, which had looked upon verse-writing as a mere diversion and a frivolous toying with syllables. By returning to ancient, and especially Greek, models, in his “Eclogues” and his “Elegies” (1785-91), Chenier begins by bringing into his poetry a new note; at the very outset he renews Ronsard’s experiment; later on the Revolution affords him a more vigorous inspiration. In presence of the horrors of the Terror, stirred up by wrath and impelled by indignation, he composed his “Iambes” (1794). In recovering the sincerity of emotion and gravity of thought which were wanting to the versifiers of the eighteenth century (Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, Delille and even Voltaire), Andre Chenier restored to French poetry the true voice of the lyre.
From 1789 to 1800.—In the throes of the Revolution there is an abundance of writing, but these works, mere imitation of great writers who flourished during the century, are valueless; the sole author of note is Chenier (d. 1794): It is true that under the influence of events, a new literary genre arises, that of political eloquence. The isolated protestations of the States-General under the monarchy afforded no genuine opportunity for public speaking; it was in other modes, notably through the pulpit, that the eloquence for which a strictly appropriate platform was lacking must perforce manifest itself in that period. But the great Revolutionary assemblies favored the development of remarkable oratorical gifts. The most famous among the orators—and he was one who really possessed genius—was Mirabeau. The blemishes of his style—a congeries of violent contrasts—the incoherency of his figures and the discordance of his shades of meaning—all these defects vanished in the mighty onrush of his eloquence, swept away in an over-mastering current of oratorical inspiration.
The Nineteenth Century.—It is yet too early to attempt the task of determining the due place of the nineteenth century in the literary history of France; the men and the affairs of that century are still near to us, and in the study of literature a true perspective can be obtained only from a certain distance. A few general characteristics, however, may be taken as already fairly ascertained.
The nineteenth century was one of renascence in literature: in it, following immediately upon great events, a great intellectual movement came into being, and at one definitely assignable moment there appeared a splendid efflorescence of genius; most of all, this movement was a renascence because it rid itself of those theories, adopted by the preceding century, which had been the death of that century’s impoverished literature. Imagination and feeling reappear in literature, and out of these qualities lyric poetry and the romance develop At the same time the sciences, daily acquiring more importance, exercise a greater influence on thought, so that minds take a new mould.
We may distinguish three periods in the nineteenth century: the first, the period of preparation, is that of the First Empire; the second, that of intellectual efflorescence, extends from 1820 to 1850; lastly, the modern period, which seems to us in these days less brilliant because the works produced in it have not yet attained the prestige that comes with age.
From 1800 to 1820.—Chateaubriand is the great originator of nineteenth-century French literature; from him proceed nearly the whole line of nineteenth-century writers. In 1802 appeared his “Genie du Christianisme”; in this work Chateaubriand not only defends Christianity, towards which the intellects of the eighteenth century had been vaguely hostile—not only shows that Christianity is the greatest source of inspiration to letters and the arts—but also sets forth certain literary theories of his own. He asserts the necessity of breaking with classical tradition, which has had its day and is exhausted, and of opening a new way for art. This is one of the great ideas developed by this author, and thenceforth all is over with Classicism. But Chateaubriand’s work and his influence were not limited to this; constantly calling attention to the interest offered by the study of the Middle Ages, as he does in “Le Genie du Christianisme”, he engages both history and poetry in new directions. On another side, where he displays his own personal sufferings in “Rene” (1805), he develops the sentiment of the Ego, already affirmed by Rousseau, from which modern lyricism springs. Lastly, in the many beautiful pages of “Les Martyrs” or of his descriptions of travels, he furnishes models of a magnificent prose style, full of color, rhythmical, well fitted to reproduce the most brilliant aspects of nature and to express the deepest emotions of the heart.
Side by side with Chateaubriand, another great figure dominates this first period, that of Madame de Stael. Where Chateaubriand personifies the reaction against the eighteenth century, Mme de Stael, on the contrary, is the incarnation of eighteenth-century traditions. Hers is the school of the Ideologues, lineal representatives of the Encyclopedists. And yet in many respects she must be regarded as an innovator. In her book “De la Litterature”, she lays the foundations of that modern literary criticism which aims to study each work in its own particular conditions of origin. In her “Considerations sur la Revolution francaise” (1818), she is the first to inquire into the causes of that great social effect, thus leading the way where many of the great historians of the nineteenth century are to follow. Lastly, in her principal work, “De l’Allemagne” (1810), she reveals to France a whole literature then unknown in that country, the influence of which is to make itself felt in the Romantic writers.
From 1820 to 1850.—In this period those literary ideas of which the germs had been in Chateaubriand found their fullest expression with the Romantic school. Almost all the writers whose works appeared between 1820 and 1850 were connected with this school. Its theories may best be defined as the opposite of the Classicist doctrine. The Classics were idealists; they held that art should above all be the representation of the beautiful; the Romantics were now about to claim from the municipality of literature a full license to give public representations of hideous and grotesque things.
The Classics hold that the reason is the ruling faculty in poetry; the Romantics protest in the name of imagination and fantasy. The Classics go to antiquity for the models of their art and the sources of their inspiration; the Romantics are inspired by contemporary foreign literatures, by Goethe, Schiller, and Byron; they will reach the point of swearing by the example of Shakespeare as men in the seventeenth century swore by the words of Aristotle. For pagan mythology they will substitute the Christian art of the Middle Ages, will extol the Gothic cathedral and put the troubadours in the place of the rhapsodists. The same system applies in respect to form: where the Classics prized clarity and precision above all things, the Romantics will seek rather glitter and color and carry their taste for effect, for contrast, and for antithesis to the point of mania.
Though the Romantic doctrine had its manifestations in every form of literature, its first applications were in poetry. Lamartine, with the publication of his “Meditations poetiques” (1820), gave the signal for the movement, and presented the first monument of modern lyricism. In this collection of his and in those which followed—”Nouvelles Meditations” (1823), “Harmonies poetiques et religieuses” (1830)—we find a combination of all those qualities the lack of which had kept the versifiers of the preceding century from being true poets. The expansion of the man’s own individual nature, the religious faith which makes him see Divine manifestations in everything, his disquiet in presence of the great problems of human destiny, his deep and serious love, his intimate communion with nature, his dreamy melancholy—these are the great sentiments from which Lamartine’s lyricism has its origin.
If Lamartine is the earliest of the Romantics, the true real chief of the new school is Victor Hugo, whose career, from 1822 to 1885, extends over the whole nineteenth century, but who by his inspiration belongs to the period (1820-50) which we are now considering. Not only has he endeavored to define the romantic ideal in many of his prefaces, but he has set himself to realize it in all departments of literature, no less in romance and drama than in poetry. Still, it is in the last that he has produced his finest works. With him, however, lyricism results less from the out-pouring of his inmost feelings and of his Ego than from a masterly faculty which he has of concentrating his mind upon events taking place around him—events public and private—of listening to their reverberations, their echoes, within himself, and translating those echoes into strophes of incomparable amplitude, magnificence, and diversity of movement In a later period this impersonal lyricism, which has dictated all his poetical works from 1831 to 1856, gives place to another inspiration, the product of which is “La Legende des Siecles” (1859-76). This vast epic of humanity, viewed in its great moments, is, perhaps, a unique work in French literature; at any rate it is the work in which Victor Hugo has most thoroughly realized his genius—a genius compact of imagination that exaggerates beings and things beyond all measure, of art mighty to describe, to paint, and to evoke, and a marvellous gift for creating images.
Very different from both Lamartine and Victor Hugo is Alfred de Musset (1810-57). In his poetical works as well as in his prose dramas (Comedies et proverbes), Musset exhibits some qualities which are not apparent in his great predecessors, elegance, lightness of touch, wit. On the other hand, he has neither Victor Hugo’s variety of inspiration nor Lamartine’s elevation of thought. He is characterized by the profound, sincere, penetrating emotion with which he expresses the inmost sufferings of his stricken and harassed soul. The peculiarity of Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863), another great poet of this period, is that, unlike most of the Romantics, who are not rich in ideas, he is a thinker. A philosophical poet, he fills his verses not with sensations, emotions, and personal confidences, but with ideas translated into symbols (“Poemes anciens et modernes”; “Les Destines”) which express his pessimistic conception of life. As for Theophile Gautier, while his youthful enthusiasms and his extreme taste for the picturesque connect him with the Romantics, he parts company with them in a conception of poetry (Emaux et Camees, 1852) wherein he makes no exhibition either of his Ego or of its sentimental outpourings, but keeps to the work of rendering the aspect of things outside of himself with a painter’s fidelity and resources of coloring. Thus his lyricism forms a transition between that of the Romantics and that of the Parnassien school which is to succeed them.
The great ambition of Romanticism was to be supreme in the drama as well as in poetry. Indeed it was in the theatre that the great battle was fought in which, between 1820 and 1830, the partisans of the new school encountered the belated defenders of the classical ideal. But while in lyric poetry Romanticism succeeded in creating veritable masterpieces, it was almost a failure in the drama. In 1827 Victor Hugo, in his preface to “Cromwell”, expounds the new dramatic system: no more unities, but absolute liberty for the author to develop his action just as he conceives it; the mingling of the tragic and the comic, which the Classics abhor, is authorized and even recommended; no more dreams, no more minor characters introduced into the piece solely that the hero may explain the plot to them for the benefit of the audience; on the other hand there was to be an historical setting, local color, complicated accessories, and authentic costuming. Lastly, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller are the masters to imitate, not Corneille and Racine. This resounding preface was followed by a succession of works in which the authors endeavored to apply its theories. There is “Henri III et sa Cour” (1829), by Alexandre Dumas, pore, full of animation, but infantile in its psychology and written in a bad, melodramatic style; Alfred de Vigny contributes “Le More de Venise” (1829) and “La Marechale d’Ancre” (1830); last comes Victor Hugo’s own series of dramas in verse and prose, “Hernani” (1830), “Marion de Lorme” (1831),”Le roi s’amuse” (1832), “Ruy Blas” (1838), “Les Burgraves” (1843). These pieces are characterized by a wealth of extraordinary incident—by dark intrigues, duels, assassinations, poisonings, ambuscades, abductions; their historical setting, above all, is a feast for the eyes. Solid foundation there is none; historical truth and logical action are utterly lacking. The dramas of Victor Hugo survive and still bear staging only because the author has lavished upon them all the resources of his astounding lyricism.
As for comedy, it was neglected by the Romantics—for Musset’s delicious, and often profound, little pieces were not made to be acted. From 1820 to 1850 the comic stage was dominated by an author who was altogether outside of the Romantic movement, Scribe, a prolific writer of vaudevilles with no power of vital observation, but a great command of sustained plot.
The romance, which had been neglected by the great writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in this period takes a foremost place in literature. Here again we find the influence of Romanticism, though that influence clashes with other tendencies. In the historical romance, imitated from Walter Scott, it is supreme. Alfred de Vigny’s “Cinq Mars” (1826) and Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” (1831) are distinctly Romantic in the local color which their authors employ and the violently dramatic character of their plots. The same characteristics appear in the innumerable romances of Alexandre Dumas, pere, which, although by no means strong in literary quality, give pleasure by their fecundity of invention (Les Trois Mousquetaires, 1844). Again, the romances of George Sand, at least those written in her first manner, are of the Romantic school by virtue of their lyrical exaltation of the Ego, their elaborate display of sentiment, and of passion exaggerated to the decree of paroxysm (“Indiana“, 1832). Her heroines are possessed by the restlessness, the unsatisfied longings, the anguish of soul which Rene suffered. George Sand, however, was to abandon Romanticism at a later period, in her romances of country life (“La Mare au ‘Diable”, “Francois le Champi”, etc., from 1844 to 1850), idealized pictures of peasant life and true masterpieces of their class.
But if George Sand’s career was half finished before she parted with Romanticism, other writers in this department altogether escaped its influence, abiding by the traditions of the eighteenth century. Benjamin Constant, in “Adolphe”, carries on the line of romances of psychological analysis. Stendhal, too, who inherited his ideas and his precise, dry style from the philosophes of the eighteenth century, is a subtile psychologist, sometimes penetrating, often affected. Little appreciated in his own day, he will exert a great influence in the second half of the nineteenth century. Merimee very much resembles Stendhal; he excels in the art of fitting into the frame of a short novel a finished picture of his scene of action with clean-cut, vigorous indications of his characters. And Balzac, the great master of the romance in this period, owes almost nothing to Romanticism. A peer of the creative geniuses—the Shakespeares and Molieres—Balzac could have set in motion, in his “Comedie Humaine”, an imaginary world of beings as truly living as the flesh-and-blood beings who people the actual world. Certain of his characters, while animated with an intensely individual life, present, at the same time, so universal a portraiture as to constitute veritable types corresponding to the great passions and sentiments of humanity.
Among the great branches of literature which were restored between 1820 and 1850 history and criticism must be reckoned. At the beginning of the nineteenth century history could hardly be said to exist. The philosophical tendencies which it had acquired from the eighteenth century were prejudicial to its exactitude, but what it lacked in a still more marked degree was the power of realizing the past—in other words, the power of imagination—combined with the critical spirit. Romanticism supplied it with the former of these requisites; the latter it borrowed from the sciences, which developed so rapidly in the first half of the nineteenth century and impressed the mind of that age with their vigorous methods. Of the historians of this period, some attach the greater importance to critical study and interpretation of facts, others devote themselves to reconstructing the features of the past, with all its color and picturesque quality. To the former school belong Guizot, who traces the concatenation of facts, showing what causes—political, social, and religious—produced them; Thiers, who, in his “Le Consulat et l’Empire”, lays bare Napoleon’s policy and strategy with remarkable lucidity; Mignet, who excels in the art of singling out the essential features of an epoch. Augustin Thierry and Michelet belong to the other school. Thierry possessed in a rare degree the sense of historical verity, and his “Rheas des Temps Merovingiens” (1838) is the first example in French literature of a picturesque history which is at the same time founded upon exact erudition. Lastly, with Michelet history becomes in very truth a resurrection of the past. Powerfully imaginative, indeed a poet by instinct, Michelet rather conjures up history than relates it. His “Histoire de France” is a canvas upon which he has in marvellous fashion caused persons, feelings, and manners to live again.
Concurrently with history, and under the same influences, literary criticism puts on a new physiognomy. It is no longer theoretic; henceforth its principal concern is not to judge the merits of literary works, but to determine the conditions in which they have been elaborated. It is personified in Sainte-Beuve (1804-69), who traces a detailed biography and a careful portrait of each writer and, reconstructing his appearance and character in a thousand scrupulously verified particulars, seeks thus to explain his works.
Lastly, the religious renascence which took place at the beginning of the century, after the revolutionary frenzy, and which, in profane literature, gave Chateaubriand and Lamartine their inspiration, had the effect of giving back its force and its brilliancy to sacred literature, so impoverished in the eighteenth century. Theological controversy reappeared with Lamennais, a remarkable writer with a violent imagination and a style characterized by its strong reliefs (“Essai sur l’indifference en matiere de religion”, 1817; “Paroles d’un croyant”, 1834). At the same time Pere Lacordaire lifted the multitude out of itself with his fiery discourses, and imported into pulpit eloquence the burning lyricism of the Romantics.
From 1850 to the End of the Century.—This period seems confused to our present view, which, with its necessarily short focus, can hardly distinguish all the dominant tendencies. Still, speaking very generally, it may be said that the period was marked by a reaction against the lyricism of the Romantics, a return to the study of reality, and, lastly, the coming of Positivism, through the influence of Renan and Taine, two philosophers who acted powerfully upon most writers of their time.
In poetry these tendencies have expressed themselves in the theories and the works of the Parnassian poets, so called because the first collection of their verses appeared (in 1866) under the title “Parnasse contemporain”. The Parnassian poetry is characterized, in the first place, by great striving after impersonality, the writer making it his object to avoid putting into his work anything of his own personal emotions; and next, anxious to be before all things an artist, the writer carries to an excess the effort to attain perfection of form. The chief of the Parnassian school was Leconte de l’Isle (1820-1894); he does not take himself as the theme of his “Poemes antiques” (1853) or his “Poemes barbares” (1862); his theme is the history of humanity. His work is at once learned, epical, and philosophical. Others belonging to the Parnassian school, though each with his own personality, are: J. M. de Heredia (1842-1905), an immediate disciple of Leconte de l’Isle, who has man-aged to produce a complete picture of some epoch in each of the sonnets of his “Trophees” (1893); Sully-Prudhomme, both poet of the interior life and poet philosopher; Francois Coppee, whose true originality consists in being the poet of the common people and of their everyday life. In reaction against certain tendencies of the Parnassians there appeared in the last quarter of the nineteenth century the Symbolist poets, grouped around Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), who in some points of view recalls Villon, and Stephane Mallarme (1842-1898). It is as yet difficult to define the action and the degree of importance of these Symbolist poets, who, moreover, made a merit of being obscure. At present Parnassism and Symbolism seem to have been reconciled in the person of M. Henri de Regnier (b. 1864). We may mention, also, among the poets of today, M. Jean Richepin, a belated Romantic.
In the second half of the nineteenth century the romance developed to an extent even more considerable than in the first. It tends to engulf all the other literary forms and become the only department of literature. It is a convenient frame successively for historical pictures, studies of passion, pictures of manners, and moral theories. The same tendencies appear in it as we have already noted in the period from 1820 to 1850, with, however, this notable difference, that the realistic current becomes much stronger. This time the originator and master is Gustave Flaubert, author of one of the masterpieces of all romance, “Madame Bovary” (I$57). The peculiar characteristic of Flaubert is his combination of the elements of Romanticism with those of Realism. For him the great Romantic masters—Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo—are the objects of a special cult; on another side, by his conception of art, Flaubert is a Realist. In the first place he does not admit the propriety of a writer’s putting himself into his work; the work must be objective, impersonal, impassive. In the second place he makes it his task to paint life as it is, or as he sees it, with whatever there may be in it of unloveliness and of vulgarity. This theory of the romance is in evidence in all his works, as much in a study of provincial bourgeois life, like “Madame Bovary”, as in a picture of Paris life, like “l’Education sentimentale”, or a reconstruction of a vanished civilization, like “Salammbo” (1862).
From Flaubert’s example and from the misinterpretation of Positivist theories issued the Naturalistic school. This again was realism, but realism publishing far and wide its own scientific pretensions and seeking to assimilate the processes of literature to those of science. The leader, and the theorist, of Naturalism was Emile Zola (1840-1902), a writer whose gift was compounded of strength and triviality, and whose books (“Les Rougon-Macquart”, a series of romances, from 1871 to 1893), are tainted with an unpardonable coarseness. To the Naturalistic school belong the Goncourt brothers, who have sought to express reality by the aid of a bizarre, tortured, and pedantic vocabulary, and Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), whose powers of observation, his intensity of vision, and a robust style borrowed from the finest traditions place him among the best writers of this group. Alphonse Daudet (1840-97), another writer who aims to portray life as it is, nevertheless stands apart from Naturalism by virtue of his own peculiar qualities of sensibility, fancy, and irony. If he has painted Parisian life (“Le Nabab”, 1879), he has none the less succeeded in describing the destinies of the lowly with a sympathetic tenderness.
In spite of the encroaching Realistic tendencies, the idealist and Romantic romance, in the manner of George Sand, survived with Octave Feuillet (1821-91), a dainty writer who embodies in a wonderful degree the type of the fashionable story-teller. However, after 1885, although Realism is still the inspiration of most French fiction, Naturalism, with its exaggerations, its deliberate determination to be coarse, its narrow and brutal esthetics, loses ground and soon falls into disrepute. The traditions of the romance of psychological analysis reappear with M. Paul Bourget, who, following the example of Octave Feuillet, chooses fashionable life as the setting of his stories. In recent years M. Bourget has broadened his manner and attacked the great moral and social problems of the hour (“L’Etape”, 1902; “Un divorce”, 1904; “L’Emigre”, 1907). M. Edouard Rod, a Swiss by birth, has undertaken in his romances to deal with questions of conscience. On another side, by way of reaction against the crass dogmatism of Zola and his school, a certain number of writers, with a talent for playing upon fine shades of meaning and a very especial taste for crowding contrary ideas together, have taken a delight in filling their romances with a subtile and penetrating irony. The master of this school is M. Anatole France. M. Maurice Barres, who holds from Stendahl, was, in his earlier career, of the ironical school, but has more recently applied himself to demonstrating the influences of native soil and tradition (“Les Deracines”, 1897). Another class of story writers has exerted itself to increase the field of romance, which, with the Naturalists, had well nigh been shut up within the limits of Parisian life. Some, like M. Pierre Loti, marvellous at evoking the impression of far distant lands, have imported an exotic atmosphere; others have sought to reproduce with sympathetic fidelity the manners of their native provinces. This latter has been done for Anjou and the Vendee, with much elevation`of thought and elegance of style, by M. Bazin (La Terre qui meurt).
The drama, which had produced nothing of any real value under the influence of Romanticism, passed through a period of great brilliancy after 1850. Most of the works produced since that date belong to the comedy of manners, often containing little of the comic, which derives its origin from the Romantic drama—to which it owes its ambition to reproduce “atmosphere “—and from the comedy of Scribe. The essential characteristic of the work of Scribe is the care which he brings to the contrivance of his scenes, the disposal of his action, and the preparation of his denouement. This dexterity in managing a plot reappears in almost all the dramatic authors of the second half of the nineteenth century, with whom it is an important element of their art. Lastly, the influence of the romance makes itself felt; as the romance strives after exact portraiture of life and manners, so does the drama. To resume, the modern comedy of manners combines Scribe’s theatrical technique with Balzac’s observation.
The chief initiator of the dramatic movement of his time was Alexandre Dumas, fils (1824-96). An extremely penetrating observer, he had at the same time the mental idiosyncracy of a quasi-mystical moralist. At first his gift of observation dominates; in “La Dame aux Camelias” (1852), “Question d’argent” (1857), and “Le pere prodigue” (1859), he depicts Parisian society. Then, from 1867 on, the moralist runs away with him and he creates a new type, the “problem play” (piece de these), in which, in an exuberantly spirited dialogue of dazzling wit, he studies and discusses certain fundamental social questions (“Les idees de Madame Aubray”, 1867). The work of the younger Dumas is often bizarre and irritating, that of Emile Augier (1820-89), who shares public favor with him, is more uniform. The dominant quality in Augier is good sense; he has devoted himself to painting bourgeois society, using methods almost identical with those of the Classics and, like them, creating general types. At the time when Naturalism was trying to obtain possession of the drama, as it had already taken possession of romance, Henri Becque (1837-99), who produced little besides, was the principal dramatist of that school (“Les Corbeaux”, 1882). But the movement was short-lived; naturalism in The drama an to excesses which ruined its reputation. Dumas fils, however, is still the master from whom the contemporary dramatists hold, and Edouard Pailleron, Henri Lavedan, Mau-rice Donnay, and Paul Hervieu all owe him much. It is to be noted that in the last years of the nineteenth century the French stage witnessed a revival of the heroic comedy in M. Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1897).
We have already spoken of Renan and Taine in connection with the general tendencies of this period; these two names belong also to the literature of history. Renan (1832-92), with his “Origines du Christianisme”, opened the domain of literature to religious history, which before had belonged only to pure erudition.
Apart from the wavering scepticism and dilettantism in his work, his influence has been felt by a great number of writers. Taine (1828-93) inaugurated in history the method of “little facts” borrowed from the sciences. He classifies and arranges a mass of unimportant events, which serve him as documents of his epoch, and from these he gathers tendencies and laws (Les Origines de la France Contemporaine). Side by side with Renan and Taine we must place Fustel de Coulanges (1830-89), whose method is the scrupulous analysis of texts and, above all, the study of the laws of social change. Since these great masters, historical literature has risen to superb heights; among the most brilliant historians of our own day, it will suffice to mention MM. Albert Sorel, Albert Vandal, and Henry Houssaye.
Lastly, following Sainte-Beuve, some remarkable writers have raised criticism to the independent rank of a great department of literature. Here M. Brunetiere (1849-1906) introduced the idea of evolution, showing how literary forms are born, develop, flourish, and then become dissolved and resolved into other forms. No one has pleaded the cause of tradition with greater warmth, and even violence, than M. Brunetiere, and this same classical tradition is defended by M. Jules Lemaitre, under the fluctuating forms of a clever and ingenious criticism which has nothing of dilettantism but the appearance, and by M. Emile Faguet, in monographs remarkable for precise analysis and vigorous relief.
In conclusion, it may be asked: What stage of its development has French literature now reached? and what character is it likely to assume in the course of the twentieth century?—It would be vain to attempt a guess, but some of the influences which seem bound to affect it may be here indicated. First, science will increasingly impose on the writers of the future its vigorous discipline and methods. On the other hand, the fact that the study of Greek and Latin is losing ground in France cannot fail to have the most profound consequences in literature. Lastly, we seem, in these days, to be assisting at a social transformation, the shock of which will doubtless make itself felt in art and letters.
Belgian Literature in the French Language.—In the Middle Ages the literature in French which developed in the provinces of Hainault, Flanders, Brabant, and Liege had all the characteristics of the French literature of that time, except that it furnished neither works nor names of any mark. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was the same poverty of literary output. In the eighteenth century, under the then universal influence of French literature, a 9rand seigneur, the Prince de Ligne (1735-1814), rivals in easy grace of style the French writers of his time—”the only foreigner”, as Mme. de Stael says, “who has ever become a model in French literature, instead of being an imitator”. But the true expansion of French Belgian literature—which, however, is never more than a reflection of French literature properly so called—dates from the formation of an independent Belgian kingdom. Charles de Coster (d. 1879), the earliest of the Belgian writers of the nineteenth century worthy of mention, brings out the very soul of Flanders in his legendary romance “Tiel Uylenspiegel”, which in other respects reproduces the qualities and defects of the Romantics. From 1880, beginning with M. Camille Lemonnier, Naturalism reigns in Belgium. Naturalism, following the example set in France, is dethroned by Symbolism, about 1889. It may even be properly said that Symbolism developed in Belgium rather than in France; its principal representatives are M. Rodenbach, an exquisite poet who has depicted for us the fascination of Bruges (Le Regne du silence, Bruges-la-Morte), M. Verhaeren (“Les Soirs”, 1887), and M. Maeterlinck, who has essayed to create a Symbolistic drama.
Swiss Literature in the French Language.—Swiss- French literature has produced great writers, but has not kept them; they have deserted their original country to seek naturalization in France. This was the case with J. J. Rousseau, Mme de Stael, and Benjamin Constant, who, though Swiss by origin, are thoroughly French writers. In the nineteenth century Swiss-French literature, above all, boasts of critics like Alexandre Vinet (1797-1847) and Edmond Scherer (1815-89), both distinguished by their tendency to emphasize moral interests, both, moreover, treating chiefly of French literature. In romance, likewise, M. Victor Cherbuliez (1829-1900), who excelled in the knack of weaving into the plot of a story current questions of art, science, and philosophy, and M. Edouard Rod are very decidedly French writers. The only truly Swiss author is Topfer (1799-1816), who has left some little masterpieces of romance at once sentimental and humorous, such as his “Histoire de M. Pencil” and his “Voyages et aventures du doeteur Festus” (1849).