1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Literature - 16th Century

(Part 40)


16th Century

In no country was the literary result of the Renaissance more striking and more manifold than in France. The double effect of the study of antiquity and the religious movement produced an outburst of literary developments of the most diverse kinds, which even the fierce and sanguinary civil dissensions to which the Reformation gave rise did not succeed in checking. While the renaissance in Italy had mainly exhausted its effects by the beginning of the 16th century, while in Germany those effects only paved the way for a national literature, and did not themselves greatly contribute thereto, while in England it was not till the extreme end of the period that a great literature was forthcoming, -- in France almost the whole century was marked by the production of capital works in every branch of literary effort. Not even the 17th century, and certainly no other till our own day, can show such a group of prose writers and poets as is formed by Calvin, St Francis de Sales, Montaigne, Du Vair, Bodin, D’Aubigné, the authors of the Satire Menippée, Monluc, Brantôme, Pasquier, Rabelais, Des Periers, Herberay des Essarts, Amyot, Garnier, Marot, Ronsard and the rest of the Pléiade, and finally Regnier. These great writers are not merely remarkable for the vigour and originality of their thought, the freshness, variety, and grace of their fancy, the abundance of their learning, and the solidity of their arguments in the cases where argument is required. Their great merit is the creation of a language and a style able to give expression to these good lifts. The foregoing account of the mediaeval literature of France will have shown sufficiently that it is not lawful to despise the literary capacities and achievements of the older French. But the old language, with all its merits, was ill-suited to be a vehicle for any but the simpler forms of literary composition. Pleasant or affecting tales could be told in it with interest and pathos. Songs of charming naiveté and grace could be sung; the requirements of the epic and the chronicle were suitably furnished. But its vocabulary was limited, not to say poor; it was barren of the terms of art and science; it did not readily lend itself to sustained eloquence, to impassioned poetry, or to logical discussion. It had been too long accustomed to leave these things to Latin as their natural and legitimate exponent, and it bore marks of its original character as a lingua rustica, a tongue suited for homely conversation, for folk-lore and for ballads, rather than for the business of the forum and the court, the speculations of the study, and the declamation of the theatre. Efforts had indeed been made, culminating in the heavy and tasteless erudition of the schools of Chartier and Crétin, to supply the defect; but it was reserved for the 16th century completely to efface it. The series of prose writers from Calvin to Montaigne, of poets from Marot to Regnier, elaborated a language yielding to no modern tongue in beauty, richness, flexibility, and strength, -- a language which the reactionary purism of succeeding generations defaced rather than improved, and the merits of which have in our own time been triumphantly vindicated by the confession and the practice of all the greatest writers of modern France.

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