CHAPTER X. THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES: FRANCE
First Portion of Sixteenth Century: Poets: Marot, Saint-Gelais; Prose Writers: Rabelais, Comines. Second Portion of Sixteenth Century: Poets: “The Pleiade”; Prose Writers: Amyot, Montaigne. First Portion of Seventeenth Century: Intellectual and Brilliant Poets: Malherbe, Corneille. Great Prose Writers: Balzac, Descartes. Second Portion of Seventeenth Century: Poets: Racine, Moliere, Boileau, La Fontaine; Prose Writers: Bossuet, Pascal, La Bruyere, Fenelon, etc.
THE RENAISSANCE OF LETTERS.—The sixteenth century was for France the epoch of the Renaissance of letters. What is called the Renaissance of letters is the result, to each race, of the closest contact of the educated people with ancient literature, contact which sometimes strengthened the national vein, sometimes weakened it, according to the divergent temperaments of these races.
MAROT; SAINT-GELAIS.—The sixteenth century in France was ushered in by Marot and Saint-Gelais. Marot was a gracious, fluent, and satiric singer. He was infinitely witty without venom, or mannerism, or affectation; at times he attained to a somewhat serious philosophic poesy and also to eloquence. Saint-Gelais, because he was most emphatically court-poet of all those who have ever been court-poets, was placed by his contemporaries above Marot, and literary historians have left him for the most part in that position. The truth is that his work is worthless. It would be impossible, however, to rob him of the glory of having brought the sonnet from Italy, where he long abode in youth.
COMINES.—In this first half of the sixteenth century must be noted Comines, the historian of Louis XI, a political historian and a historical statesman, remarkably subtle in perceiving the characters and temperaments of prominent individuals, as well as a writer possessing exactitude and limpidity rare in his generation.
RABELAIS.—Francis Rabelais, in his two epic romances, Gargantua and Pantagruel, was erudite, capable of a certain philosophic wisdom which has been greatly exaggerated, but above all was picturesque to one's heart's content, and possessed the art of telling a tale as well as any one in the wide world. He has been called “the buffoon Homer,” and the nickname may be legitimately granted to him.
THE PLEIADE.—The second half of the sixteenth century was in all respects the more remarkable. In poetry there was the Pleiade: that is, the true and complete “Renaissance,” although Marot had already been a good workman at its dawn. The Pleiade consisted of Ronsard, Du Bellay, Pontus of Tyard, Remy Belleau, and others; that is, folk who wished to give to France in French the equivalent of what the classics had produced in nobility and beauty. They did not succeed, but they had the honour of having undertaken the task, and they also, all said and done, produced some fine things.
RONSARD; DU BELLAY.—If the truth must be written, Ronsard created an epic poem which it is impossible to read, and some rather overpowering odes after the Pindaric manner; but he wrote detached epic pieces which, though always a trifle artificial, possess real beauty, and some odelettes which are enchanting in their grace and genuineness of feeling, as well as sonnets that are in all respects marvellous. Joachim du Bellay, on his part, wrote sonnets which must be numbered among the most beautiful in the French tongue—the rest often had agreeable inspirations.
DRAMATIC POETS.—Add to their group some dramatic poets who did not yet grasp what constituted a living tragedy and who, even when they imitated Euripides, belonged to the school of Seneca, but who knew how to write in verse, to make a discourse, and, occasionally, a gentle elegy. To mention only the chief, these were Jodelle, Robert Garnier, and Montchrestien.
PROSE WRITERS: AMYOT; CALVIN.—In prose, in this second half of the sixteenth century, there were translators like Amyot, who set forth Plutarch in a limpid French full of ease and geniality, as well as somewhat careless. Religious writings such as those of Calvin, in a hard style and “dreary,” as Bossuet expressed it, exhibited vigour, power, and sobriety. Among political writers was the eloquent La Boetie, the friend of Montaigne, who in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude vindicated the rights of the people against One, that is the monarch. Among authors of Memoirs were Montluc and Brantome, picturesque in divergent manners, but both inquisitive, well-informed, very alert and furnishing important contributions to history.
MORALISTS: DU VAIR.—Finally, there were moralists such as Du Vair, too long forgotten, and Montaigne. Du Vair was an eloquent orator who exhibited plenty of courage during the troubles of the League; he left some fine philosophical treatises: The Moral Philosophy of the Stoics, On Constancy and Consolation in Public Calamities, etc.
MONTAIGNE.—Montaigne, less grave and stoical, a far better writer, and one of the two or three greatest masters of prose France ever produced, possessed excellent sense sharpened with wit and enriched with a charming imagination. According to his humour—now stoic, next epicurean, then sceptic—always wise and refined and also always the sincere admirer of greatness of soul and of courage, he is the best of advisers and of companions through life, and of him more than of anyone else it ought to be said: “To have found pleasure in him is to have profited by him.” The sole reproach could be that he wrote a little too much of himself, that is, in entering into personal details that could well have been spared.
COMMENCEMENT OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.—The first half of the seventeenth century in France was only the corollary of the sixteenth, though naturally with some distinctive personalities and with one, practically isolated, effort of reaction against that sixteenth century. At that period could be found writing men, like Agrippa d'Aubigne, who were absolutely in the spirit of the previous century; d'Aubigne, amiable, gracious, and also fairly often witty, which is too frequently forgotten, was ardent, passionate, a rough and violent fighter more particularly in his tragedies, which are baldly crude satires, illumined with astonishingly beautiful passages fairly frequent in recurrence, against the Catholics and their leaders. Others of very different temperament displayed yet more than the poets of the sixteenth century that liberty, that fantasy, that disorder which were characteristic of the times of Ronsard. So far as poets were concerned, that generation must be regarded as entering on a first romanticism. Theophilus de Vian, a fine but over-prodigal poet, without ballast, did not live long enough to grow wise and acquire self-mastery: Cyrano de Bergerac was a brilliant madman, sometimes sparkling with wit and imagination, but often dirty and ridiculous. Saint-Amant possessed plenty of imagination and capacity for exquisite poetical feeling, but he lacked taste and too often was puerile. Wiser than they, yet themselves verbose, long-winded, slow, and spun out, Desportes translated into French verse Italian poetry of the sixteenth century, often with very happy turns of expression, and Bertaut, melancholy and graceful, lacked brilliance even if he possessed poetic emotion.
REGNIER.—Regnier the satirist, pupil of Horace and Juvenal, also assumed the mental attitude of the sixteenth century owing to his viridity, his crudity, his lack of avoidance of obscenity, even though he was a true poet, vigorous, powerful, oratorical, and epigrammatical, as well as a witty and mordant caricaturist.
PRECIEUX AND BURLESQUES.—Then succeeded the precieux and the burlesques, who resembled each other, the precieux seeking wit and believing that all literary art consisted in saying it did not matter what in a dainty and unexpected fashion; the burlesques also sought wit but on a lower plane, desiring to be “droll,” buffoons, prone to cock-and-bull stories or crude pranks in thought, style, and parody. Voiture is the most brilliant representative of the preieux and Scarron the most prominent of the burlesques.
MALHERBE.—In the midst of this unrestrained literature one man attempted to impose reason, accuracy of mind, taste, and conciseness. This was Malherbe, who was also a powerful lyric poet, a stylist with an ear for melody. His influence was considerable, but forty years after his own time; for it was the poets of 1660 who were formed of him and proclaimed themselves his disciples. In his own day he had only Maynard and Racan as pupils, or rather as partisans, for their work but little resembled his.
THE THEATRE.—On the stage the first portion of the seventeenth century, certainly as far as 1636, was only the corollary of the sixteenth. Hardy, writing without method or rule, being in addition a very weak poet, presided in the theatre whilst Mairet, in imitation of the Italians and in imitation too of the bulk of the dramatists of the sixteenth century, essayed to establish formal tragedy, but without creating much effect because his talent was of an inferior description.
At last Corneille arose and, after feeling his way a little, created French tragedy; but as this was only in 1636, and as in the course of his long career he came into the second half of the century, he will be dealt with a little later.
PROSE: BALZAC; DESCARTES.—In prose, the first half of the seventeenth century was fruitful in important works. Cardinal de Perron, who began as an amiable elegant poetaster, became a great orator and formidable controversialist. Guez de Balzac, a little lacking in ideas yet an extremely good writer, though but little detached from preciosity, as Voltaire observed, imparted harmony to his phrases both in his letters and in his Socrates a Christian. Vaugelas arranged the code of the language founded on custom. Descartes, with whose philosophic ideas we have here nothing to do, in his broad, ample periods, well delivered and powerfully articulated, reproduced the Ciceronian phrase though without its rather weak grace, and in great measure formed the mould whence later was to flow the eloquence of Bossuet. The important works of Descartes are his Discourses on Method, his Meditation, and his Treatise on the Passions.
THE GOLDEN AGE: CORNEILLE.—The second half of the seventeenth century is in all respects the golden age of French literature. Great poets and great prose writers were then crowded in serried ranks. To begin with the dramatic poets, who furnished the most vivid glory of the epoch, there was Corneille, who, from 1636, with The Cid, was in full splendour and who before 1650 had produced his most beautiful works, Cinna, The Horaces, Polyeucte, continued for twenty-four years after 1650 to furnish the stage with dramas that often possessed many fine qualities, among which must be cited Don Sancho of Aragon, Nicomedes, Oedipus, Sertorius, Sophonisba, Titus and Berenice, Psyche (with Moliere), Rodogune Heraclius, Pulcheria. Corneille must be regarded as the real creator of all the French drama, because he wrote comedies, tragedies, operas, melodramas. It was therein, apart from his universal virtuosity, that he more particularly made his mark, and in his best work he was the delineator of the human will overcoming passions and, as it were, intoxicated with this victory and his own power, so that he has become a great advocate of energy and a prominent apostle of duty.
RACINE.—Racine, altogether different, without being opposed to duty, loved to depict passions victorious over man and man the victim of his passions and of the over-powering misfortunes therefrom resulting, thus furnishing a moral lesson. He was a more penetrating psychologist than Corneille, although the latter knew the human heart well, and he showed himself infallibly wise in composition and dramatic disposition, as well as an absolutely incomparable master of verse. His tragedies, especially Andromache, Britannicus, Berenice, Bajazet, Phedre, and Athalie will always enchant mankind.
MOLIERE.—Moliere who was admirably gifted to seize the ridiculous with its causes and consequences, very quick and penetrating in insight, armed with somewhat narrow but solid common-sense calculated to please the middle classes of all time, possessed prodigious comic humour, and who never gave the spectator leisure to reflect or breathe—in short, a great writer although hasty and careless—created a whole repertoire of comedy (The School of Women, Don Juan, Tartufe, The Misanthrope, Learned Ladies) which left all known comedy far behind, which eliminated all rivalry in his own time, knew eclipse only in the middle of the eighteenth century, and for the last hundred and forty years has proved the delight of Europe. He remains the master of universal comedy.
BOILEAU.—Boileau was only a man of good sense, of ability, and of excellent taste, who wrote verse industriously. This was not enough to constitute a great poet but enough to make him what he was, a diverting and acute satirist, an agreeable moralist and critic in verse—which his master Horace had been so often—expert, dexterous, and possessing much authority. His Poetic Art for long was the tables of the law of Parnassus, and even now can be read not only with pleasure but even with profit.
LA FONTAINE.—La Fontaine was one of the greatest poets of any epoch. He had a profound sentiment for nature, a fine and penetrating knowledge of the character of men he depicted under the names of animals; he was free and fantastic as a philosopher but well instructed and sometimes profound; he had a gentle and smiling sensibility capable at times of melancholy and also now and again of a delicious elegiac; above all, he was endowed with incomparable artistic sense, which rendered him the safest and most dexterous manipulator of verse, of rhythms, and of musical sonorities, who appeared in France prior to Victor Hugo. It is much more difficult to state what he lacked than to enumerate the multiple and miraculous gifts with which he was endowed. His complete lack of morality or his ingenuous carelessness in this respect formed the only subject for regret.
SECONDARY ABILITY.—Near such great geniuses, it is only possible to mention those of secondary talent; but no compunction need be felt at alluding to Segrais, a graceful manufacturer of eclogues, and Benserade, who rhymed delightfully for masquerades and was capable, on occasions, of being wittily but also tenderly elegiac.
GREAT PROSE WRITERS.—The writers in prose of the second half of the seventeenth century are legion and but few fail to attain greatness. La Rochefoucauld, in his little volume of Maxims, enshrined thoughts that were often profound in a highly accurate and delicate setting. Cardinal de Retz narrated his tumultuous career in his Memoirs, which are strangely animated, vivid, and representative of what occurred. Arnauld and Nicole have explained their rigid Catholicism, which was Jansenism, in solid and luminous volumes; the latter, more especially, merits consideration and in his Moral Essays proved an excellent writer. Mezeray, conscientious, laborious, circumstantial as well as capable writer, should be reckoned as the earliest French historian. Bourdaloue, sound logician and good moralist, from his pulpit as a preacher uttered discourses that were admirable, though too dogmatically composed, and painted word-pictures that piously satirised the types and the eccentrics of his day. Malebranche, reconsidering what Descartes had thought and revitalising his conclusions, arranged in his Research after Truth a complete system of spiritualist and idealistic philosophy which he rendered clear, in spite of its depth, and extremely attractive owing to the merits of his powerful and facile imagination and of his rich, copious, and elastic style, that attained the happy mean between conversation and instruction. But five writers of the highest rank came into the perennial forefront, attracting and retaining general attention: Pascal, Bossuet, Mme. de Sevigne, La Bruyere, and Fenelon.
PASCAL.—Pascal, a scholar and also by scientific education mathematician, geometrician, physician, turned, not to letters which he scorned, but to the exposition of those religious ideas which at the age of thirty-three were precious to him. To defend his friends the Jansenists against their foes the Jesuits, he wrote The Provincial Letters (1656), which have often been regarded as the foremost monument of classic French prose; such is not our view, but they certainly form a masterpiece of argument, of dialectics, of irony, of humour, of eloquence, and are throughout couched in a magnificent style. Dying whilst still young, he left notes on various subjects, more particularly religion, philosophy, and morality, which have been collected under the title of Thoughts and are the product of a great Christian philosopher, of a profound moralist, of a marvellously concise orator, and also of a poet who lacked neither acute sensitiveness nor vast and imposing imagination.
BOSSUET.—Bossuet is universally admitted to be the king of French orators; all his life he preached with a serious, imposing, vast, copious, and sonorous eloquence, fed from recollections of Holy Writ and of the Fathers, being insistent, convincing, and persuasive. His few funeral orations (on Henrietta of France, Henrietta of England, the Prince de Conde) are prose poems of glory, grief, and piety. He wrote against all those he regarded as enemies of true religion (History of Variations, Quarrels of Quietness), controversial works sparkling with irony and exalted eloquence. He traced in his Universal Historythe great design in all its stages of God towards humanity and the world. He knew all the resources of the French language and of French style, and in his hands they were expanded. Despite his errors, which were those of his epoch, his date counts in the history of France as a great date, the date in which the religion to which he belonged reached its apogee and when the grand style of French prose was in its zenith.
MADAME DE SEVIGNE.—Madame de Sevigne only wrote letters to her friends; but they were so witty, lively, picturesque, admirable in aptly recounting the anecdotes of her day and in depicting the scenes and those concerned in them, written in a style so brisk and seductive, uniting the promise of 1630 with the harvest of 1670, that her work still remains one of the greatest favourites with people of literary taste.
She was the friend of M. de la Rochefoucauld, of Cardinal de Retz, and of that amiable, refined, and gentle Mme. de la Fayette, whose novel, The Princess of Cleves, is still read with interest and emotion.
LA BRUYERE.—La Bruyere translated and continued Theophrastus; he was a moralist, or rather a depicter of morals. He described the court, the town, and (very rarely) the village and the country. He was on the lookout for fools in order to be their scourge. He painted, or, better still, he engraved in an incisive way that was sharp, like aqua-fortis. Almost invariably bitter to an extreme, he sometimes had flashes of quite unexpected and very singular sensibility which make him beloved. Somewhat in imitation of La Rochefoucauld, but more particularly in conformity with his own nature, he developed a brief, concise, brusque style which became that of the moralist and even of the general author for the next fifty years, a style which was that of Montesquieu and Voltaire, and superseded the broad, sustained, balanced, harmonious, and measured style of the majority of the writers of the eighteenth century. In the field of ridicule, wherein he sowed copiously, more so even than Moliere, the comic poets of the eighteenth century came to glean copiously, which did them less credit (for it is better to observe than to read) than it conferred on the wise and ingenious author of the Characters.
FENELON.—Fenelon, extremely individual and original, having on every subject ideas of his own which were sometimes daring, often practical, always generous and noble, was a preacher like Bossuet; also like Bossuet, he was a dexterous, skilled, and formidable controversialist, whilst, for the instruction of the Duke of Burgundy, which had been confided to him, he became a fabulist, an author of dialogues, in some degree a romancer or epic poet in prose in his famous Telemachus, overadmired, then overdepreciated, and which, despite weaknesses, remains replete with strength and dazzling brilliance. Nowadays there is a marked return to this prince of the Church and of literature, whose brain was complex and even complicated, but whose heart was quite pure and his reasoning on a high level.