CHAPTER XV. THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: FRANCE
Of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Fontenelle, Bayle. Of the Eighteenth: Poets: La Motte, Jean Baptiste Rousseau, Voltaire, etc. Prose Writers: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Buffon, Jean Jacques Rousseau, etc. Of the Nineteenth Century: Poets: Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Musset, Vigny, etc.; Prose Writers: Chateaubriand, Michelet, George Sand, Merimee, Renan, etc.
FONTENELLE.—The eighteenth century, which was announced, and announced with great precision, by La Bruyere, was inaugurated by his enemy Fontenelle. Fontenelle, nephew of Corneille, began with despicable trifles, eclogues, operas, stilted tragedies, letters of a dandy, so he might be justly regarded as an inferior Voiture. Very soon, because he possessed the passion of the eighteenth century for science and free-thought, he showed himself to be a serious man, and because he had wit he showed himself an amusing serious man, which is rare. His Dialogues of the Dead were very humorous and, at the same time, in many passages profound; he wrote his Discourses on the Plurality of (Habitable) Worlds; then because he was perpetual secretary of the Academy of Sciences, came his charming and often astonishing Eulogies of Sages, which ought to be regarded as the best existent history of science in the seventeenth century and in the eighteenth up to 1740.
BAYLE.—Bayle, a Frenchman who lived in Holland on account of religion, a journalist and lexicographer, in his News of the Republic of Letters and in his immense Dictionary, gave proof of broad erudition about all earthly questions, especially philosophical and religious, guiding his readers to absolute scepticism. Fontenelle and Bayle are the two heralds who opened the procession of the eighteenth century. Successively must now be examined first the poets and then the prose writers of the first half of that era.
LA MOTTE.—La Motte, as celebrated in his own time as he is forgotten in ours, was lyricist, fabulist, dramatic orator, epical even after a certain fashion. He wrote odes that were deadly cold, fables that were often quite witty but affected and laboured, comedies sufficiently mediocre, of which The Magnificent Lover was the most remarkable, and a tragedy, Inez de Castro, which was excellent and enjoyed one of the greatest successes of the French stage. Finally, becoming the partisan of the modernists against the classicists, he abridged the Iliad of Homer into a dozen books as frigid as his own lyric poems. He had parodoxical ideas in literature, and, being a poet, or believing himself one, he considered that verse enervated thought and that sentiments should only be written in prose. It was against these tendencies that Voltaire so vigorously reacted.
J.B. ROUSSEAU; POMPIGNAN.—Beside La Motte, being more gifted as a poet, Jean Baptiste Rousseau was conspicuous. He wrote lyrical poems which were cold as lyrics but were well composed and, sometimes at least, attained a certain degree of eloquence. From Malherbe to Lamartine, lyrical poetry was almost completely neglected by French poets, or at least very badly treated. Jean Baptiste Rousseau had the advantage of being nearly solitary and for approximately century was regarded as the greatest national lyrical poet.
Le Franc de Pompignan has endured much ridicule, not the least being for a certain naive vanity perceptible directly he passed from the south to the north of France; but he had some knowledge; he was acquainted with Hebrew, then a sufficiently rare accomplishment, and he was an assiduous student of classic literature. His tragedy, Dido, succeeded; his Sacred Songs enjoyed popularity, no matter what Voltaire might say, and deserved their success; in his odes, which were too often cold, he rarely succeeded—only once triumphantly, in his ode on the death of Jean Baptiste Rousseau.
THE HENRIADE.—So far as poets, strictly speaking, were concerned, the foregoing are all that have to be indicated in the first half of the eighteenth century, except the ingenious and frigid Henriade of Voltaire.
DRAMATIC POETS.—To counterbalance, the dramatic poets are numerous and not without merit. Let us recall Inez de Castro by De la Motte. Campistron, the feeble pupil of Racine (and, moreover, there could be no pupil of Racine, so original was the latter, so closely was his genius associated with his mind), perpetrated numerous tragedies and operas which enjoyed the success obtained by all imitative works: that is, a success which arouses no discussion, and which today appears to be the climax of tediousness.
CREBILLON.—Crebillon followed, vigorous, energetic, violently shaking the nerves, master of horror and of terrors, not lacking some analogy with Shakespeare, but without delicacy or depth, never even giving a thought to being psychological or a moralist, writing badly and to a certain extent meriting the epithet of “the barbarian" bestowed on him by Voltaire.
The latter was infatuated with the drama, having the feeling for beautiful themes and for new and original topics, adapting them to the stage with sufficient aptitude, delighting, in addition, in pomp, mimicry, and decorativeness, and causing tragedy to lean towards opera, which in his day was no bad thing; but weak in execution, never creating characters because he could not escape from himself, as moderate in psychology and morality as Crebillon himself and replacing analysis of passion by these and philosophical commonplaces. He left tragic dramas which until about 1815 enjoyed success, but which then fell into a disregard from which there is no probability they will ever emerge.
COMIC POETS.—The comic poets of this period were highly agreeable. The most notable were Destouches, Regnard, La Chaussee. Destouches was the very type of the comic writers of the eighteenth century already alluded to, who took a portrait by La Bruyere and turned it into a comedy, and that is what was called a comedy of character. Thus he wrote The Braggart, The Irresolute, The Ungrateful,The Backbiter, The Spendthrift, etc. Sometimes he took pains to be a trifle more original, as in The False Agnes, The Married Philosopher; sometimes he borrowed a subject from a foreign literature and adapted it fairly dexterously for the Gallic stage, as in The Impertinent Inquisitive, taken from Don Quixote and The Night Drum, borrowed from an English author. His versification was dexterous and correct without possessing other merit.
REGNARD.—Regnard, on the contrary, was an original genius, though frequently imitative of Moliere. He possessed the comic spirit, gaiety, animation, the sense of drollery, and a prodigious capacity for humorous verse of great flexibility and incredible ease, highly superior in point of form to that of Boileau and even of Moliere, for he suggests a Scarron perfected by Moliere himself and by the Italian poets. Still alive and probably imperishable are such works as The Gamester, The Universal Legatee, The Unexpected Return.
THE DRAMA: LA CHAUSSEE.—La Chaussee possessed a vein of the popular novel, the serial, as we should say, and at the same time a taste for the stage. The result was he created a new species, which in itself is no small achievement. He created the drama: that is, the stage-play wherein common people, and no longer kings and princes, affect us by their misfortunes. This has been called by all possible names; when it is a comedy it is described as a tearful comedy; when a tragedy, as a dramatic tragedy. This is the drama we have known in France for a hundred and fifty years; such as it already existed in the sixteenth century under the title of the morality play, such as Corneille, who foresaw everything, anticipated and predicted in his preface to Don Sancho: “I would rather say, sir, that tragedy should excite pity and fear, and that in its essentials, since there is necessity for definition. Now if it be true that this latter feeling is only excited in us when we see those like ourselves suffer, and that their misfortunes put us in fear of similar calamities, is it not also true that we can be more strongly moved by disasters arriving to people of our own rank, having resemblance to ourselves, than by the picture of the overthrow from their thrones of the greatest monarchs, who can have no relation to us except in so far as we are susceptible to the passions that overwhelmed them, which is not always the case?” This domestic tragedy La Chaussee wrote in verse, which is not against French rules, and which has been done by dramatists a hundred and twenty years later; but it is probably an error, being even more unlikely that citizens would express themselves in metre than that kings and heroes should give utterance with a certain solemnity which entails rhythm. Thus he wrote The Fashionable Prejudice, The School of Friends, Melanide, very pathetic, The School of Mothers, etc. It must be stated that he wrote his plays in verse somewhat systematically; he had made his first appearance in literature by a defence of versification against the doctrines of La Motte.
PIRON.—According to the old system, but in original verse, Piron, after having met with scant success in tragedy, wrote the delicious Metromania which, with The Turcaret of Le Sage, The Bad Man of Gresset, the masterpieces of Marivaux and the two great comedies of Beaumarchais rank among the seven or eight superior comedies produced in the eighteenth century.
GREAT PROSE WRITERS: MONTESQUIEU.—In prose, writers, and even great writers, were abundant at this period. Immediately after Fontenelle and Bayle appeared Montesquieu, sharp, malicious, satirical, already profound, in The Persian Letters, a great political philosopher and master of jurisprudence in The Spirit of Laws, a great philosophical historian in The Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans. The influence of Montesquieu on Voltaire, no matter what the latter may have said; on Rousseau, however silent the latter may have been about it; on Mably, on Raynal, on the encyclopaedists, on a large portion of the men in the French Revolution, on the greatest minds of the nineteenth century, has been profound and difficult to measure. As writer he was concise, collected, and striking, seeking the motive and often finding it, seeking the formula and invariably finding it—Tacitus mingled with Sallust.
LE SAGE; SAINT-SIMON.—In considering Le Sage and Saint-Simon, it is not, perhaps, the one who is instinctively thought of as a novelist who really was the greater romancer. They each wrote at the same time as Montesquieu. Saint-Simon narrated the age of Louis XIV as an eyewitness, both with spirit and with a feeling for the picturesque that were alike inimitable, expressed in a highly characteristic fashion, which was often incorrect, always incredibly vigorous, energetic, and masterful. Le Sage, in the best of all French styles, that of the purest seventeenth century, narrated Spanish stories in which he mingled many observations made in Paris, and set the model for the realistic novel in his admirable Gil Blas. As a dramatist he will be dealt with later.
MARIVAUX; PREVOST.—Marivaux also essayed the realistic novel in his very curious Marianne, full of types drawn from contemporary life and drawn with an art which was less condensed but as exact as that of La Bruyere, and in his Perverted Peasant with an art which was more gross, but still highly interesting.
The Abbe Prevost, much inferior, much overpraised, generally insipid in his novels of adventure, once found a good theme, Manon Lescaut, and, though writing as badly as was his wont, evoked tears which, it may be said, still flow.
HISTORY: DRAMA.—In history Voltaire furnished a model of vivid, rapid, truly epic narration in his History of Charles XII, and an example, at least, of exact documentation and of contemporaneous history studied with zeal and passion in his Philosophical Letters on England. On the stage, in prose there were the pretty, witty, and biting light comedies of Dancourt, De Brueys and Palaprat, and Dufresny, then the delicious drama, at once fantastic and perceptive, romantic and psychological, of Marivaux, who, in The Legacy, The False Confidences, The Test, The Game of Love and of Shame, showed himself no less than the true heir of Racine and the only one France has ever had.
VOLTAIRE.—In the second portion of the eighteenth century, Voltaire reigned. He multiplied historical studies (Century of Louis XIV ), philosophies (Philosophical Dictionary), dramas (Zaire, Merope,Alzire [before 1750], Rome Saved, The Chinese Orphan, Tancred, Guebres, Scythia, Irene), comedies (Nanine, The Prude), romances( Tales and Novels), judicial exquisitions (the Calas, Labarre, and Sirven cases), and articles, pamphlets, and fugitive papers on all conceivable subjects.
THE PHILOSOPHERS.—But the second generation of philosophers was now reached. There was Diderot, philosophical romancer (The Nun, James the Fatalist), art critic(Salons), polygraphist (collaboration in the Encyclopaedia); there was Jean Jacques Rousseau, philosophic novelist in The New Heloise, publicist in his discourse against Literature and the Arts and Origin of Inequality, schoolmaster in his Emilius, severe moralist in his Letters to M. d'Alembert on the Spectacles, half-romancer, charming, impassioned, and passion-inspiring in the autobiography which he called his Confessions; there was Duclos, interesting though rather tame in his Considerations on the Manners of this Century; there was Grimm, an acute and subtle critic of the highest intelligence in hisCorrespondence; then Condillac, precise, systematic, restrained, but infinitely clear in the best of diction in his Treatise on the Sensations; finally Turgot, the philosophical economist, in his Treatise on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth.
BUFFON; MARMONTEL; DELILLE.—Philosophy, meditation on great problems, filled almost all the literary horizon, while scientific literature embraced a score of illustrious representatives, of which the most impressive was Buffon, with his Natural History. Nevertheless, in absolute literature there were also names to cite: Marmontel gave his Moral Tales, his Belisarius, his Incas, and his Elements of Literature.
Delille, with his translation in verse of the Georgics of Virgil, commenced a noble poetic career which he pursued until the nineteenth century; Gilbert wrote some mordant satires which recalled Boileau, and some farewells to life which are among the best lyrics; Saint Lambert sang of The Seasons with felicity, and Roucher treated the same theme with more vivid sensibility.
THE STAGE.—On the stage, a little before 1750. Gresset gave his Wicked Man, which was witty and in such felicitous metre that it carried the tradition of great comedy in verse; Diderot, theorist and creator of the drama in prose, followed La Chaussee, and produced The Father of a Family, The Natural Son, and Is He Good, Is He Bad? being the portrait of himself. Innumerable dramas by the fertile Mercier and a score of others followed, including Beaumarchais, himself a devotee of the drama, but only able to succeed in comedy, wherein he gave his two charming works, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.
ANDRE CHENIER.—Almost on the verge of the Revolution, quite unexpectedly there emerged a really great poet, Andre Chenier, marvellously gifted in every way. As the poet of love he recalled Catullus and Tibullus; in political lyricism he suggested d'Aubigny, though with more fervour; as elegiac poet he possessed a grace that was truly Grecian; as the poet of nature he employed the large manner of Lucretius; in polemical prose he was remarkably eloquent. Struck down whilst quite young amid the turmoil of the Revolution, he bequeathed immortal fragments. No doubt he would have been the greatest French poet between Racine and Lamartine.
BERNARDIN DE SAINT-PIERRE.—In prose, his contemporary, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, primarily was a man of genius, since he wrote that immortal idyllic romance, Paul and Virginia; subsequently he became a gracious and amiable pupil of Jean Jacques Rousseau, being smitten with the sentiment of nature in his Harmonies of Nature; finally he attained a great importance in literary history as the creator of exotic literature through the descriptions he wrote of many lands: Asia, African isles traversed and studied by him, Russia, and Germany.
THE REVOLUTIONARY ORATORS.—During the revolutionary period may be pointed out the great orators of the Assembly: Mirabeau, Barnave, Danton, Vergniaud, Robespierre; the ill-starred authors of national songs: Marie Joseph Chenier; the author of the Marseillaise, Rouget de Lisle, who only succeeded on the day that he wrote it. And so we reach the nineteenth century.
THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.—At the commencement of a century which was so brilliant from the literary aspect, James Delille was despotic: his earlier efforts have already been attended to. A skilled versifier, but without fire or many ideas, he made cultured translations from Virgil and Milton, wrote perennially descriptive poems, such as The Man in the Fields, The Gardens, etc., and a witty satirical poem on Conversation, which, in our opinion, was the best thing he wrote.
GREAT POETS: LAMARTINE.—Great poets were to come. Aroused, without doubt, by the poetic genius of the prose writer Chateaubriand, the first generation of the romantics was formed by Lamartine, Victor Hugo, and Alfred de Vigny. Romanticism was the preponderance of imagination and sensibility over reason and observation. Lamartine rebathed poetry in its ancient and eternal sources: love, religion, and the sentiment of nature. In his Meditations, his Harmonies, and his Contemplations, he reawoke feelings long slumbering, and profoundly moved the hearts of men. In Jocelyn he widened his scope, and, emerging from himself, narrated, as he imagined it, the story of the soul of a priest during the Revolution, and subsequently in the obscurity of a rural parish; in The Fall of an Angel he reverted to the life of primaeval man as he conceived it to be when humanity was still barbarous. Apart from his poetic works, he wrote The History of the Girondins, which is a romanesque history of almost the whole of the Revolution, some novels, some autobiographic episodes, and a few discourses on literature.
VICTOR HUGO.—Victor Hugo, though less sensitive than Lamartine but more imaginative, began with lyrical poems which were somewhat reminiscent of the classical manner, then went on to pictures of the East, thence to meditations on what happened to himself, and on all subjects (Autumn Leaves, Lights and Shades); next, in full possession of his genius, he dwelt on great philosophical meditations in hisContemplations, and in The Legend of the Centuries gave that epic fragment which is a picture of history. His was one of the most powerful imaginations that the world has ever seen, as well as a creator of style, who made a style for himself all in vision and colour, and also in melody and orchestration. Although in prose he lacked one part of his resources, he utilised the rest magnificently, and Notre Dame andThe Miserable are works which excite admiration, at least in parts. Later, he will be dealt with as a dramatist.
ALFRED DE VIGNY.—Alfred de Vigny was the most philosophical of these three great poets, though inferior to the other two in creative imaginativeness. He meditated deeply on the existence of evil on earth, on the misfortunes of man, and the sadness of life, and his most despairing songs, which were also his most beautiful, left a profound echo in the hearts of his contemporaries. Some of his poems, such asThe Bottle in the Sea, The Shepherd's House, The Fury of Samson, are among the finest works of French literature.
MUSSET; THEOPHILE GAUTIER.—The second generation of romanticism, which appeared about 1830, possessed Alfred de Musset and Theophile Gautier as chief representatives. They bore little mutual resemblance, be it said, the former only knowing how to sing about himself, his pleasures, his illusions, his angers, and, above all, his sorrows, always with sincerity and in accents that invariably charmed and sometimes lacerated; the latter, supremely artist, always seeking the fair exterior and delighting in reproducing it as though he were a painter, a sculptor, or a musician, and excellent and dexterous in these “transpositions of art,” whether they were in verse or prose.
THE PROSE WRITERS: CHATEAUBRIAND.—The French prose writers of this first half of the nineteenth century were emphatically poets, as had also already been Jean Jacques Rousseau and even Buffon. Imagination, sensibility, and the sentiment for nature were the mistresses of their faculties. Chateaubriand was the promoter of all the literary movement of the nineteenth century, alike in prose and poetry. He was a literary theorist, an epic poet in prose, traveller, polemist, orator. His great literary theory was in The Genius of Christianity, and consisted in supporting that all true poetic beauties lay in Christianity. His epic poems in prose are The Natchez, a picture of the customs of American Indians, The Martyrs, a panorama of the struggle of paganism at its close and of Christianity at its beginning; his travels were The Voyage in America and The Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem. Member of the parliamentary assemblies, ambassador and minister, he wrote and spoke in the most brilliant and impassioned manner on the subjects that he took up. Finally, falling back on himself, as he had never ceased to do more or less all through his career, he left, in his marvellous Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb, a posthumous work which is, perhaps, his masterpiece. His infinitely supple and variegated style formed a continuous artistic miracle, so harmonious and musical was it more musical even than that of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
MME. DE STAEL.—At the same time, though she died long before him, Mme. de Stael, by her curious and interesting, though never affecting, novels, Delphine and Corinne, by her dissertations on various serious subjects, by her work on Germany, which initiated the French into the habits and literature of neighbours they were ill acquainted with, also directed the minds of men into new paths, and she was prodigal of ideas which she had almost always borrowed, but which she thoroughly understood, profoundly reconsidered, and to which she imparted an appearance of originality even in the eyes of those who had given them to her.
THE HISTORIANS.—Even the historians of this first half of the century were poets: Augustin Thierry, who reconstituted scientifically but imaginatively The Merovingian Era; Michelet, pupil of Vico, who saw in history the development of an immense poem and cast over his account of the Middle Ages the fire and feverishness of his ardent imagination and tremulous sensitiveness. Guizot and Thiers can be left apart, for they were statesmen by education and, although capable of passion, sought the one to rationally generalise and “discipline history,” as was said, the other solely to capture facts accurately and to set them out clearly in orderly fashion.
THE PHILOSOPHERS.—The philosophers were not sheltered from this contagion, and if Cousin and his eclectic school loved to attach themselves to the seventeenth century both in mind and style, Lamennais, first in his Essay on Indifference, then in his Study of a Philosophy and in his Words of a Believer, impassioned, impetuous, and febrile, underwent the influence of romanticism, but also gave to the romantics the greater portion of the ideas they put in verse.
THE NOVEL.—As for the novel, it was only natural that it should be deeply affected by the spirit of the new school. George Sand wrote lyrical novels, if the phrase may be used—and, as I think, it is here the accurate expression—entitled Indiana, Valentine, Mauprat, and especially Lelia. She was to impart wisdom later on.
It even happened that a mind born to see reality in an admirably accurate manner, saw it so only by reason of the times, or at least partly due to the times, associated it with a magnifying but deforming imagination converting it into a literary megalomania; and this was the case of Honore de Balzac.
NON-ROMANTIC LITERATURE.—Nevertheless, as was only natural, throughout the whole of the romantic epoch there was an entire literature which did not submit to its influence, and simply carried on the tradition of the eighteenth century. In poetry there was the witty, malicious, and very often highly exalted Beranger, whose songs are almost always excellent songs and sometimes are odes; and there was also the able and dexterous but frigid Casimir Delavigne. In prose there was Benjamin Constant, supremely oratorical and a very luminous orator, also a religious philosopher in his work On Religions, and a novelist in his admirable Adolphus, which was semi-autobiographical.
Classical also were Joseph de Maistre, in his political considerations (Evenings in St. Petersburg), and, in fiction, Merimee, accurate, precise, trenchant, and cultured; finally in criticism, Sainte-Beuve, who began, it is true, by being the theorist and literary counsellor of romanticism, but who was soon freed from the spell, almost from 1830, and became author of Port Royal. Though possessing a wide and receptive mind because he was personified intelligence, he was decisively classical in his preferences, sentiments, ideas, and even in his style.
Stendhal, pure product of the eighteenth century, and even exaggerating the spirit of that century in the dryness of his soul and of his style, a pure materialist writing with precision and with natural yet intentional nakedness, possessed valuable gifts of observation, and in his famous novel, Red and Black, in the first part of the Chartreuse of Parma, and in his Memoirs of a Tourist, knew how to draw characters with exactness, sobriety, and power, and to set them in reliefs that were remarkably rare.
THE STAGE.—The drama was very brilliant during this first half of the nineteenth century. The struggle was lively for thirty or thirty-five years between the classicists and the romanticists; the classics defending their citadel, the French stage, much more by their polemics in the newspapers than by the unimportant works which they brought to the Comedie francaise, the romantics here producing nearly all the plays of Hugo (Hernani, Marion de Lorme, Ruy Blas, The Burghers, etc.), and the works of Vigny( Othello, Marshal d'Ancre), as well as the dramas of Dumas ( Henry III and his Court, etc.). Between the two schools, both of which were on the stage nearer to the modern than to the antique, the dexterous Casimir Delavigne, with almost invariable success, gave Marino Faliero, Louis XI, The Children of Edward, Don Juan of Austria, and Princess Aurelia, which was pretty, but without impassioned interest.
A veritable dramatic genius, although destitute of style, of elevation of thought and of ideas, but a prodigious constructor of well-made plays, was Eugene Scribe, who, by his dramas and comedies, as well as the libretti of operas, was the chief purveyor to the French stage between 1830 and 1860.
ROMANTICISM AND REALISM.—So far as pure literature was concerned, the second half of the nineteenth century was divided between enfeebled but persistent romanticism and realism. Theophile Gautier, in 1853, gave his Enamels and Cameos, his best poetic work, and later (1862) his Captain Fracasse. Hugo wrote his Miserables, the second and third Legends of the Centuries, Songs of the Streets and the Woods, etc.
A third romantic generation, of which Theodore de Banville was the most brilliant representative, and which proceeded far more from Gautier than from Hugo or De Musset, pushed verbal and rhythmic virtuosity to the limit and perhaps beyond. Then great or highly distinguished poets appeared.
FAMOUS POETS.—Leconte de Lisle, philosophical poet, attracted by Indian literature, by pessimism, by the taste for nothingness, and the thirst for death, forcing admiration by his sculptural form and majestic rhythm; Sully-Prudhomme, another philosopher, especially psychological, manipulating the lyrical elegy with much art and, above all, infusing into it a grave, sad, and profound sensibility which would have awakened the affection and earned the respect of Catullus, Tibullus, and Lucretius; Francis Coppee, the poet of the joys and sorrows of the lowly, a dexterous versifier too, and possessed of a sincerity so candid as to make the reader forget that there is art in it; Baudelaire, inquisitive about rare and at times artificial sensations, possessing a laborious style, but sometimes managing to produce a deep impression either morbid or lugubrious, considered by an entire school which is still extant as one of the greatest poets within the whole range of French literature; Verlaine, extremely unequal, often detestable and contemptible, but suddenly charming and touching or revealing a religious feeling that suggests a clerk of the Middle Ages; Catulle Mendes, purely romantic, wholly virtuoso, but an astonishingly dexterous versifier. To these poets some highly curious literary dandies set themselves in opposition, being desirous of renovating the poetic art by ascribing more value to the sound of words than to their meaning, striving to make a music of poesy and, in a general way—which is their chief characteristic—being difficult to understand. They gave themselves the name of symbolists, and accepted that of decadents; they regarded Stephen Mallarme either as their chief or as a friend who did them honour. This school has been dignified by no masterpieces and will probably ere long be forgotten.
REALISTIC LITERATURE.—Confronting all this literature, which had a romantic origin even when it affected scorn of the men of 1830, was developed an entire realistic literature composed almost exclusively of writers in prose, but of prose imbued with poetry written by some who had read the romantics and who would not have achieved what they did had romanticism not already existed, a fact which they themselves have not denied, and which is now almost universally accepted. Flaubert, whose masterpiece, Madame Bovary, is dated 1857, was very precisely divided between the two schools; he possessed the taste for breadth of eloquence, for the adventurous, and for Oriental colouring, and also the taste for the common, vulgar, well visualised, thoroughly assimilated truth, tersely portrayed in all its significance. But as he has succeeded better, at least in the eyes of his contemporaries, as a realist than as a man with imagination, he passes into history as the founder of realism always conditionally upon considering Balzac as possessing much of the vigorous realism which provided the impulse and furnished models.
NATURALISM.—From the realism of Flaubert was born the naturalism of Zola, which is the same thing more grossly expressed. Also by his energetic, violent, and tenacious talent, as well as by a weighty though powerful imagination, he exercised over his contemporaries a kind of fascination which it would be puerile to regard as an infatuation for which there was no cause.
More refined and even extremely delicate, though himself also fond of the small characteristic fact; possessed, too, with a graceful and gracious sensibility, Alphonse Daudet often charmed and always interested us in his novels, which are the pictorial anecdotes of the Parisian world at the close of the second Empire and the opening of the third Republic.
The brothers De Goncourt also enjoyed notable success, being themselves absorbed in the exceptional deed and the exceptional character whilst possessing a laboured style which is sometimes seductive because of its unlooked-for effects.
THE POSITIVISTS.—Two great men filled with their renown an epoch already so brilliant; namely, Renan and Taine, both equally historians and philosophers. Renan composed The History of the Children of Israel and The Origins of Christianity, as well as various works of general philosophy, of which the most celebrated is entitled Philosophical Dialogues. Taine wrote the history of The Origins of Contemporary France: that is, the history of the French Revolution, and sundry philosophical works of which the principal are On Intelligence and The French Philosophers of the Eighteenth Century. Both were “positivists,” that is to say, elevating Auguste Comte, who has his place in the history of philosophy, but not here, because he was not a good writer; both were positivists, but Renan possessed a lively and profound sense of the grandeur and the moral beauty of Christianity, Taine being imbued with more philosophic strictness. Renan, with infinite flexibility of intelligence, applied himself to understand thoroughly and always (with some excess) to bring home to us the great figures of the Bible, the Gospels, and the early Christians, as well as their foes down to the time of Marcus Aurelius. Further, he affirmed science to possess unique value in his Future of Science; elsewhere, under the similitude of “dreams,” he indulged in conceptions, hypotheses, and metaphysical imaginations which were voluntarily rash and infinitely seductive. As always happens, he possessed the style of his mind, supple, sinuous, undulating, astonishingly plastic, insatiable, and charming, evoking the comment, “That is admirably done and it is impossible to know with what it is done.”
TAINE.—Taine, more rigid, accumulating documents and methodically arranging them in a method that refuses to be concealed, advances in a rectilineal order, step by step, and with a measured gait, to a solid truth which he did not wish to be either evasive or complex. Highly pessimistic and a little affecting to be so, just as Renan was optimistic and much affected being so, he believed in the evil origin of man and of the necessity for him to be drastically curbed if he is to remain inoffensive. He has written a history of the Revolution wherein he has refused admiration and respect for the crimes then committed, which is why posterity now begins to be very severe upon him. His learned style is wholly artificial, coloured without his being a colourist, composed of metaphors prolonged with difficulty, yet remaining singularly imposing and powerful. He was a curious philosopher, an upright, severe, and rather systematic historian, solid and laboriously original as a writer.
BRUNETIERE.—Brunetiere, of the great French thinkers before our contemporaneous epoch, was critic, literary historian, philosopher, theologian, and orator. As critic, he defended classic tradition against bold innovations, and, especially, moral literature against licentious or gross literature; as a literary historian he renovated literary history by the introduction of the curious, audacious, and fruitful theory of evolution, and his Manual of the History of French Literature was a masterpiece; as philosopher he imparted clearness and precision into the system of Auguste Comte, whose disciple he was; as theologian, exceeding Comte and utilising him, he added weight to Catholicism in France by finding new and decisive “reasons for belief”; as orator he raised his marvellously eloquent tones in France, Switzerland, and America, making more than a hundred “fighting speeches.” Since the death of Renan and Taine, he has been the sole director of French thought, which he continues to guide by his books and by the diffusion of his thought among the most vigorous, serious, and meditative minds of the day.
THE CONTEMPORANEOUS DRAMA.—The drama, since 1850, has been almost exclusively written in prose. Emil Augier, however, composed some comedies and dramas in verse and in verse particularly suited to the stage; but the major portion of his work is in prose, whilst Alexander Dumas and Sardou have written exclusively in prose. Augier and Dumas came from Balzac, and remained profoundly realistic, which was particularly suitable to authors of comedy. They studied the manners of the second Empire and depicted them wittily; they studied the social questions which agitated educated minds at this time and drew useful inspiration. Augier leant towards good middle-class common-sense, which did not prevent him from having plenty of wit. Dumas was more addicted to paradox and possessed as much ability as his rival. Victorien Sardou, as dexterous a dramatic constructor as Scribe, and who sometimes rose above this, dragged his easy tolerance from the grand historic drama to the comedy of manners, to light comedy and to insignificant comedy with prodigious facility and inexhaustible fertility.
The most admired living authors, whom we shall be content only to name because they are living, are poets: Edmond Rostand, author of Loiterings; Edmond Haraucourt, author of The Naked Soul and The Hope of the World; Jean Aicard, author of Miette el Nore ; Jean Richepin, author of Cesarine, Caresses, Blasphemies, etc.; in fiction, Paul Bourget, Marcel Prevost, Rene Bazin, Bordeaux, Boylesve, Henri de Regnier; in history, Ernest Lavisse, Aulard, Seignobos, D'Haussonville; in philosophy, Boutroux, Bergson, Theodule Ribot, Fouillee, Izoulet; in the drama, Paul Hervieu, Lavedan, Bataille, Brieux, Porto-Riche, Bernstein, Wolff, Tristan Bernard, Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac and of The Aiglon; as orators, Alexander Ribot, De Mun Poincare, Jaures, etc.