1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Literature – Summary and Conclusion

(Part 74)


Summary and Conclusion

We have in these last pages given such an outline of the 19th century literature of France as seemed convenient for the completion of what has gone before. It has been already remarked that the nearer approach is made to our own time the less is it possible to give exhaustive accounts of the individual cultivators of the different branches of literature. It may be added, perhaps, that such exhaustiveness becomes, as we advance, less and less necessary, as well as legs and less possible. The individual Parnassien may and does produce work that is in itself of greater literary value than that of the individual is less remarkable because of the examples he has before him and the circumstances which he has around him. Yet we have endeavoured to draw such a sketch of French literature from the Chanson de Roland to the Légende des Siécles that no important development and hardly any important partaker in such development should be left out. A few lines may, perhaps, be now profitably given to summing up the aspects of the whole, remembering always that, as in no case is generalization easier than in the case of the literary aspects and tendencies of periods and nations, so in no case is it apt to be more delusive unless corrected and supported by ample information of fact and detail.

At the close of the 11th century and at the beginning of the 12th we find the vulgar tongue in France not merely in fully organized use for literary purposes, but already employed in most of the forms of poetical writing. An immense outburst of epic and narrative verse has taken place, and lyrical poetry, not limited as in the case of the epics to the north of France, but extending from Roussillon to the Pas de Calais, completes this. This 12th century adds to these earliest forms the important development of the mystery, extends the subjects and varies the manner of epics verse, and begins the compositions of literary prose with the chronicles of St Denis and Villehardouin, and the prose romances of the Arthurian cycle. All this literature is so far connected purely with the knightly and priestly orders, though it is largely composed and still more largely dealt in by classes of men, trouvères and jongleurs, who are not necessarily either knights or priests, and in the case of the jongleurs are certainly neither. With a possible ancestry of Romance and Teutonic cantilenae, Breton lais, and vernacular legends, the new literature has a certain pattern and model in Latin and for the most part ecclesiastical compositions. It has the sacred books and the legends of the saints for examples of narrative, the rhythm of the hymns for a guide to metre, and the ceremonies of the church for a stimulant to dramatic performance. By degrees also in this 12th century forms of literature which busy themselves with the unprivileged classes begin to be born. The fabliau takes every phase of life for its subject the folk-song acquires elegance and does not lose reciness and truth. In the next century, the 13th, mediaeval literature in France arrives at its prime—a prime, which lasts until the first quarter of the 14th. The early epics lose something of their savage charms, the polished literature of Provence quickly perishes. But in the provinces which speak the more prevailing tongue nothing is wanting to literary development. The language itself has shaken off all its youthful incapacities, and, though not yet well adapted for the requirements of modern life and study, is in every way equal to the demands made upon it by its own time. The dramatic germ contained in the fabliau and quickened by the mystery produces the profane drama. Ambitious works of merit in the most various kinds are published; Aucassin et Nicolette stands side by side with the Vie de Saint Louis, the Jeu de la Feuillie with Le Miracle de Théophile, the Roman de la Rose with the Roman du Renart. The earliest notes of ballade and rondeau are heard; endeavours are made with zeal, and not always understanding, to naturalize the wisdom of the ancients in France, and in the graceful tongue that France possesses. Romance in prose and verse, drama, history, songs, satire, oratory, and even erudition, are all represented and represented worthily. Meanwhile all nations of Western Europe have come to France for their literary models and subjects, and the greatest writers in English, German, Italian, content themselves with adaptations of Chrétien de Troyes, of Benoit de Ste More, and of a hundred other known and unknown trouvéres and fabulists. But this age does not last long. The language has been put to all the uses of which it is as yet capable; those uses in their sameness begin to pall upon reader and hearer; and the enormous evils of the civil and religious state reflect themselves inevitably in literature. The old forms die out or are prolonged only in half-lifeless travesties. The brilliant colouring of Froissart, and the graceful science of ballade and rondeau writers like Lescurel and Deschamps, alone maintain the literary reputation of the time. Towards the end of the 14th century the translators and political writers import many terms of art, and strain the language to uses for which it is as yet unhandy, though at the beginning of the next age Charles d’Orléans by his natural grace and the virtue of the forms he used, emerges from the mass of writers. Throughout the 15th century the process of enriching or at least increasing the vocabulary goes on, but as yet no organizing hand appears to direct the process. Villon stands alone in merit as in peculiarity. But in this time dramatic literature and the literature of the floating popular broadsheet acquire an immense extension—all or almost all vigour of spirit being concentrated in the rough farce and rougher lampoon, while all the literary skill is engrossed by insipid rhetoriqueurs and pedants. Them comes the grand upheaval of the Renaissance and the Reformation. An immense influx of science, of thought to make the science living, of new terms to express the thought, takes place, and band of literary workers appear of power enough to master and get into shape the turbid mass. Rabelais, Amyot, Calvin, and Herberary fashion French prose; Marot, Ronsard, and Regnier refashion French verse. The Pléiade introduces the drama as it is to be and the language that is to help the drama to express itself. Montaigne for the first time throws invention and originality into some other form than verse or than prose fiction. But by the end of the century the tide has receded. The work of arrangement has been but half done, and there are no master spirits left to complete it. At this period Malherbe and Balzac made their appearance. Unable to deal with the whole problem, they determine to deal with part of it, and to reject a portion of the riches of which they fell themselves unfit to be stewards. Balzac and his successors make of French prose an instrument faultless and admirable in precision, unequalled for the work for which it is fit, but unfit for certain portions of the work which it was once able to perform. Malherber, seconded by Boileau, makes of French verse an instrument suited only for the purposes of the drama of Euripides, or rather of Seneca, with or without its chorus, and for a certain weakened echo of those choruses, under the name of lyrics. No French verse of the first merit other than dramatic is written for two whole centuries. The drama soon comes to its acme, and during the succeeding time usually maintains itself at a fairly high level until the death of Voltaire. But prose lends itself to almost everything that is required of it, and becomes constantly a more and more perfect instrument. To the highest efforts of pathos and sublimity its vocabulary and its arrangement likewise are still unsuited, though the greatest preachers of the 17th century do their utmost with it. But for clear exposition, smooth and agreeable narrative, sententious and pointed brevity, witty repartee, it soon proves itself to have no superior and scarcely an equal in Europe. In these directions practitioners of the highest skill apply it during the 17th century, while during the 18th its powers are shown to the utmost of their variety by Voltaire, and receive a new development at the hands of Reusseau. Yet, on he whole, it loses during this century. It becomes more and more unfit any but trivial uses, and at last it is employed for those uses only. Then occurs the Revolution, repeating the mighty stir in men’s minds which the Renaissance had give, but at first experiencing more difficulty in breaking up the ground and one more rendering it fertile. The faulty and incomplete genius of Chateaubriand and De Stael gives the first evidence of a new growth, and after many years the romantic movement completes the work. The force of that movement is now, after fifty years all but spent, though its results remain; and France in a literary point of view occupies a position not very dissimilar to that which she occupied at the extreme end of the 16th century, save that the greatest of her regenerators is yet alive. The poetical power of French has been once more triumphantly proved, and its productiveness in all branches of literature has been renewed, while in that of prose fiction there has been almost created a new class of composition. In the process of reform, however, not a little of the finish of French prose style has been lost, and the language itself has been affected in something the same way as it was affected by the less judicious innovations of the Ronsardists. The pedantry of the Pléiade led to the preposterous compounds of Du Bartas; the passion of the Romantics for foreign tongues and for the mot propre has loaded French with foreign terms on the one hand and with argot on the other. There is, therefore, room for new Malherbes and Balzacs, if the days for Balzacz and Malberbes had not to all appearance passed. Should they be once more forthcoming, they have the failure as well as the success of their predecessors to guide them.

Finally, we my sum up even this summary. For volume and merit taken together the product of these eight centuries of literature excels that of any European nation, though for individual works of the supremest excellence they may perhaps be asked in vain. No French writer is lifted by the suffrages of other nations—to the level of Homer, of Shakespeare, or of Dante, who reign alone. Of those of the authors of France who are indeed of the thirty but attain not to the first three Rabelais and Moliére alone unite the general suffrage, and this fact roughly but surely points to the real excellence of the literature which these men are chosen to represent. It is great in all ways, but it is greatest on the lighter side. The hours of mirth is more suited to it than the house of mourning. To the latter, indeed, the language of the unknown marvel who told Roland’s death, of him who gave utterance to Camilla’s wrath and despair, and of the living poet who sings how the mountain wind makes mad the lover who cannot forget, has amply made good its title of entrance. But for one Frenchman who can write admirably in this strain there are a hundred who can tell the most admirable story, formulate the most pregnant reflexion, point the acutest jest. There is thus no really great epic in French, few great tragedies, and those imperfect and in a faulty kind, little prose like Milton’s or like Jeremy Taylor’s, little verse (though more than it generally thought) like Shelley’s or like Spenser’s. But there are the most delightful short tales, both in prose and in verse, that the world has ever seen, the most polished jewellery of reflexion that has ever been wrought, songs of incomparable grace, comedies that must make men laugh as long as they are laughing animals, and above all such a body of narrative fictions, old and new, prose and verse, as no other nation can show for art and for originality, for grace or workmanship in him who fashions, and fro certainty of delight to him who reads.

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