Poetry other than dramatic grew in the eighteenth century upon a shallow soil. The more serious and the more ardent mind of the time was occupied with science, the study of nature, the study of society, philosophical speculation, the criticism of religion, of government, and of social arrangements. The old basis of belief upon which reposed the great art of the preceding century had given way. The analytic intellect distrusted the imagination. The conventions of a brilliant society were unfavourable to the contemplative mood of high poetry. The tyranny of the "rules" remained when the enthusiasm which found guidance and a safeguard in the rules had departed. The language itself had lost in richness, variety, harmony, and colour; it was an admirable instrument for the intellect, but was less apt to render sensations and passions; when employed for the loftier purposes of art it tended to the oratorical, with something of over-emphasis and strain. The contention of La Motte-Houdart that verse denaturalises and deforms ideas, expresses the faith of the time, and La Motte's own cold and laboured odes did not tend to refute his theory.
Chaulieu (1639-1720), the "poëte de la bonne compagnie," an anacreontic senior, patriarch of pleasure, survived the classical century, and sang his songs of facile, epicurean delights; his friend La Fare (1644-1712) survived, but slept and ate more than a songster should. Anthony Hamilton (1646?-1720) wrote graceful verses, and in his brilliant Mémoires de la Vie du Comte de Gramont became the historian of the amorous intrigues of the court of Charles II. Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (1670-1741), who in the days of Mme. de Maintenon's authority had in his sacred Cantates been pious by command, recompensed himself by retailing unbecoming epigrams—and for epigram he had a genuine gift—to the Society of the Temple. He manufactured odes with skill in the mechanism of verse, and carefully secured the fine disorder required in that form of art by factitious enthusiasm and the abuse of mythology and allegory. When Rousseau died, Lefranc de Pompignan mourned for "le premier chantre du monde," reborn as the Orpheus of France, in a poem which alone of Lefranc's numerous productions—and by virtue of two stanzas—has not that sanctity ascribed to them by Voltaire, the sanctity which forbids any one to touch them. Why name their fellows and successors in the eighteenth-century art of writing poems without poetry?
Louis Racine (1692-1763), son of the author of Athalie, in his versified discourses on La Grâce and La Réligion was devout and edifying, but with an edification which promotes slumber. If a poet in sympathy with the philosophers desired to edify, he described the phenomena of nature as Saint-Lambert (1716-1803) did in his Saisons—"the only work of our century," Voltaire assured the author, "which will reach posterity." To describe meant to draw out the inventory of nature's charms with an eye not on the object but on the page of the Encyclopædia, and to avoid the indecency of naming anything in direct and simple speech. The Seasons of Saint-Lambert were followed by the Months (Mois) of Roucher (1745-94)—"the most beautiful poetic shipwreck of the century," said the malicious Rivarol—and by the Jardins of Delille (1738-1813). When Delille translated the Georgics he was saluted by Voltaire as the Abbé Virgil.1 The salons heard him with rapture recite his verses as from the tripod of inspiration. He was the favourite of Marie-Antoinette. Aged and blind, he was a third with Homer and Milton. In death they crowned his forehead, and for three days the mourning crowd gazed on all that remained of their great poet. And yet Delille's Jardins is no better than a patchwork of carpet-gardening, in which the flowers are theatrical paper-flowers. If anything lives from the descriptive poetry of the eighteenth century, it is a few detached lines from the writings of Lemierre.
1 Or was this Rivarol's ironical jest?
The successor of J.-B. Rousseau in the grand ode was Écouchard Lebrun (1729-1807), rival of Pindar. All he wanted to equal Pindar was some forgetfulness of self, some warmth, some genuine enthusiasm, some harmony, a touch of genius; a certain dignity of imagination he exhibits in his best moments. If we say that he honoured Buffon and was the friend of André Chénier, we have said in his praise that which gives him the highest distinction; yet it may be added that if he often falsified the ode, he, like Rousseau, excelled in epigram. It was not the great lyric but le petit lyrisme which blossomed and ran to seed in the thin poetic soil. The singers of fragile loves and trivial pleasures are often charming, and as often they are merely frivolous or merely depraved. Grécourt; Piron; Bernard, the curled and powdered Anacreon; Bernis, Voltaire's "Babet la Bouquetière," King Frederick's poet of "sterile abundance"; Dorat, who could flutter at times with an airy grace; Bertin, born in the tropics, and with the heat of the senses in his verse; Parny, an estray in Paris from the palms and fountains of the Isle Bourbon, the "dear Tibullus" of Voltaire—what a swarm of butterflies, soiled or shining!
If two or three poets deserve to be distinguished from the rest, one is surely JEAN-BAPTISTE-LOUIS GRESSET (1709-77), whose parrot Vert-Vert, instructed by the pious Sisters, demoralised by the boatmen of the Loire, still edifies and scandalises the lover of happy badinage in verse; one is the young and unfortunate NICOLAS-JOSEPH-LAURENT GILBERT (1751-80), less unfortunate and less gifted than the legend makes him, yet luckless enough and embittered enough to become the satirist of Academicians and philosophers and the society which had scorned his muse; and the third is JEAN-PIERRE CLARIS DE FLORIAN (1755-94), the amiable fabulist, who, lacking La Fontaine's lyric genius, fine harmonies, and penetrating good sense, yet can tell a story with pleasant ease, and draw a moral with gentle propriety.
In every poetic form, except comedy, that he attempted, Voltaire stands high among his contemporaries; they give us a measure of his range and excellence. But the two greatest poets of the eighteenth century wrote in prose. Its philosophical poet was the naturalist Buffon; its supreme lyrist was the author of La Nouvelle Héloïse.