1902 Encyclopedia > France > 17th Century French Poetry

(Part 48)


17th Century Poetry

It is not always easy or possible to make the end or the beginning of a literary epoch synchronize exactly with historical dates. It happens however, that for once the beginning of the 17th century coincides exactly with an entire revolution in French literature. The change of direction and of critical standard given by Malherbe (1556-1628) to poetry was to last for two whole centuries, and to determine, not merely the language and complexion, but also the form of French verse during the whole of that time. Accidentally, or as a matter of logical consequence (it would not be proper here to attempt to decide the question), poetry became almost synonymous with drama. It is true, as we shall have to point out, that there were, in the early part of the 17th century at least, poets, properly so called, of no contemptible merit. But their merit, in itself respectable, sank in comparison with the far greater merit of their dramatic rivals. Théophile de Viau and Racan, Voiture and St Amand, cannot for a moment be mentioned in the same rank with Rotrou, still less with Corneille. It is certainly curious, if it is not something more than curious, that this decline in poetry proper should coincided with the so-called reforms of Malherbe. The tradition of respect for this elder and more gifted Boileau was at one time all-powerful in France, and, notwithstanding the romantic movements, is still strong. In rejecting a large number of the importations of the Ronsardists, he certainly did good service. But it is difficult to avoid ascribing in great measure to his influence the origin of he chief faults of modern French poetry, and modern French in general, as compared with the older language. Like Pope, he sacrificed everything to "correctness," and, unluckily for French, the sacrifice was made at a time when no writer of an absolutely supreme order had yet appeared in the language. With Shakespeare and Milton, not to mention scores of writers only inferior to them, safely garnered, Pope and his followers could do us little harm. Corneille and Molière unfortunately came after Malherbe. Yet it would be unfair to this writer, however badly we may think of his influence, to deny him talent, and even a certain amount of poetical inspiration. He had not felt own influence, and the very influences which he despised and proscribed produced in him much tolerable and some admirable verse, though he is not to be named as a poet with Regnier, who had the courage, the sense, and the good to oppose and ridicule his innovations. Of Malherbe’s school, which was numerous, Racan (1589-1670) and Maynard (1582-1646) were the most remarkable. The former was a true poet, though not a very strong one. Like his master, he is best when he follows the models whom that contemned. Perhaps more than any other poet, he set the example of the classical alexandrine, the smooth and melodious but monotonous and rather effeminate measure which Recine was to bring to the highest perfection, and which his successors, whole they could not improve its smoothness, were to make more and more monotonous until the genius of Victor Hugo once more broke up its facile polish, suppled its stiff uniformity, and introduced vigour, variety, colour, and distinctness in the place of its feeble sameness and its place indecision. But the vigour, not to say the licence, of the 16th century could not thus die all at once. In Théophile de Viau (1590-1626) the early years of the 17th century had their Villon. The later poet was almost as unfortunate as the earlier, and almost as disreputable, but he had a great share of poetical power. The étoile enragée under which he complains that he was born, was at least kind to him in this respect ; and his readers, after he had been forgotten for two centuries, have once more done him justice. Racan and Théophile were followed in the second quarter of the century by two schools which sufficiently well represented the tendencies of each. The first was that of Voiture (1598-1648), Benserade (1612-1691), and other poets who were connected more or less with the famous literary côterie of the Hôtel de Rambouillet. Théôphile was less worthily succeeded by a class, it can hardly be called a school, of poets, some of whom, like St Amand (1594-1660), chiefly wrote drinking songs and such like3 production ; other, like Scarron (1610-1660) and Sarrasin (1603-1654), devoted themselves rather to burlesque of serious verse. Most of the great dramatic authors of the time also wrote miscellaneous poetry, and there was even an epic school of the most singular kind, in ridiculing which Boileau for once did undoubtedly good service. The Pucelle of Chapelain ( 1595-1674), the unfortunate author who was deliberately trained and educated for a poet, who enjoyed for some time a sort of dictatorship in French literature on the strength of his forthcoming work, and at whom from the day of its publication every critic of French literature has agreed to laugh, was the most famous and perhaps the worst of these. But Scudéry (1601-1667) wrote an Alaric, the Père le Moyne (1602-1671) a St Amand a Moïse, which are not much better, though Théophile Gautier in his Grotesques has valiantly defended these and other contemporary versifiers. St Amand, indeed, was capable of writing excellent poetry in other styles, and not seldom actually produced such. Some of lighter poets and classes of poetry just alluded to also produced some remarkable verse. The Précieuses of the Hôtel Rambouillet, with their absurdities, encouraged if they did not produce good literary work. In their society there is no doubt that a great reformation of manners took place, if not of morals, and that the tendency to literature elegant and polished, yet not destitute of vigour, which marks the 17th century, was largely developed side by side with much scandalmongering and anecdotage. Many of the authors whom these influences inspired, such as Voiture, St Evremond, and others have been or will be noticed. But even such poets and wits as Sénecé (1643-1737), Segrais (1624-1701), Charleval, Godeau (1605-1672), Gombaud (1570-1666), are not without interest in the history of literature ; while if Cotin (1604-1682) sinks below this level. Menage (1630-1692) certainly rises above it, notwithstanding Molière’s satire. Ménage’s name naturally suggests the Ana which arose at this time and were long fashionable, stores of endless gossip, sometimes providing instruction and often amusement. The Guirlande de Julie, in which most of the poets of the time celebrated Julie’Angennes, daughter of the Marquise, is perhaps the best of all such albums, and Voiture, theé typical poet of the côterie, was certainly the best writer of vers de société who is known to us. The poetical war which arose between the Uranistes, the followers of Voiture, and the Jobistes, those of Benserade, produces reams of sonnets, epigrams, and similar verses. This habit of occasional versification continued long. It led as a less important consequence to the rhymed Gazettes of Loret, which recount in octosyllabic verse of a light and lively kind the festivals and court events of the early years of Louis XIV. It led also to perhaps the most remarkable non-dramatic poetry of the century, the Contes and Fontaine (1621-1695). No French writer is better known than La Fontaine, and there is no need to dilate on his merits. It has been well said that the two together give something to French literature which no other literature possesses. Yet La Fontaine is after all only a writer of fabliaux, in the language and with the manners of his own century.

All the writers we have mentioned belong more or less to the first half of the century, and so do Conrart, Furetière, Chapelle, Desmarets, and others not worth special mention. The latter half of the century is far less productive, and the poetical quality of its production is even lower than the quantity. In it Boileau (1636-1711) is the chief poetical figure. Next to him can only be mentioned Madame Deshoulières (1638-1694), Brébeuf, the translator of Lucan, Quinault (1655-1688), the composer of opera libretti. It is almost impossible to call either of these writers poets, with the doubtful exception of Quinault. The denunciation of Boileau as a versifier whose best verses are those of a promising sixth-form boy, and his worst those of an unpromising boy in the third form, is not epigram or exageration. His satire, where it has much merit, is usually borrowed direct from Horace. He had a certain faculty as a critic of the slashing order, and might have profitably used it if he had written in prose. But of his poetry it must be said, not so much that it is bad, as that it is not poetry at all, and the same is generally true of all those who followed him, with the possible exception of J. B. Rousseau, from Chaulieu (1639-1720) and La Fare (1644-1712) to Delille (1738-1813) and Le Brun (1729-1807).

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