1902 Encyclopedia > France > 17th Century French Prose

(Part 51)


17th Century Prose

If, however, this was the case, it cannot be said that French prose as a whole was unproductive at this time. On the contrary, it was now, and only now, that it attained the strength and perfection for which it has been so long renowned, and which has perhaps, by a curious process of compensation, somewhat deteriorated since the restoration of poetry proper in France. The prose Malherbe of French literature was Balzac (1594-1654). The writers of the 17th century had practically created the literary language of prose, but they had not create a prose style. The charm of Rabelais, of Amyot, of Montaigne, and of the numerous of tales and memoirs whom we have noticed, was a charm of exuberance, of naiveté, of picturesque effect,—in short, of a mixture of poetry and prose, rather than of pose proper. Sixteenth century French prose is a delightful instrument in the hands of men and women of genius, but in the hands of those who have not genius it is full of defects, and indeed is nearly unreadable. Now, prose is essentially an instrument of all work. The poet who has not genius had better not write at all ; the prose writer often may and sometimes must dispense with this qualification. He has need, therefore, of a suitable machine to help him to perform his task, and this machine it is the glory of Balzac to have done more than any other person to create. He produced himself no great work, his principal writings being letters, a few discourse and dissertations, and a work entitled Le Socrate Chrétien, a sort of treatise on political theolog. But if the mater of his work is not of the first importance, its manner is of a very different value. Instead of the endless diffuseness of the preceding century, its ill-formed or rather unformed sentences, and its haphazard periods, we find clauses, sentences, and paragraphs distinctly planned, shaped, and balanced, a cadence if he does nothing else, sets a valuable example to those who write because they have something to say. He has time which they have not make technical discoveries in his art, and his technical discoveries are in turn at their service, while they are almost compelled to make use of them by the appetite for such refinements which his works have created in the public. Voiture seconded Balzac without much intending to do so. His prose style, also chiefly contained in letters, is lighter than that of his contemporary, and helped to gain for French prose the tradition of vivacity and sparkle which it has always possessed, as well as that of correctness and grace.

17th Century History.—In historical composition, especially in the department of memoirs, this period was exceedingly rich, yet the first and perhaps the greatest of its historical works was not composed in French. The Thuana, or history of De Thou, was written in Latin, and only translated into French more than a century after its author’s death. But, also at the beginning of the century, another writer composed on a larger plan an entire history of France. This was Mézeray (1610-1685) whose work, though not exhibiting the perfection of style at which some of his contemporaries had already arrived, and though still more or less uncritical, yet deserves the title of history. The example of Mézeray and De Thou was followed by a large number of writers, some of extended works, some of histories in part. Mézeray himself is said to have had a considerable share in the Histoire du Roi Henri le Grand by the Archibishop Péréfixe (1605-1670) ; Maimbourg wrote histories of the Crusades and of the League ; Pellisson (1624-1693) gave a history of Louis XIV. Still later in the century, or at the beginning of the next, many lengthy historical works were composed. The Père d’Orléans (1644-1698) wrote a history of the revolutions of England, the Père Daniel (1649-1728), like D’Orléans a Jesuit, composed a lengthy history of France and a shorter one on the French military forces. Finally, at the end of the period, comes the great ecclesiastical history of Fleury (1640-1723), a work which perhaps belongs more to the section of erudition than to that of history proper. Three small treatises, however, composed by different authors towards the middle part of the century, supply remarkable instances of prose style in its application to history. These are the Conjurations du Comte de Fiesque, written by the famous Cardinal de Retz (1614-1679), the Conspiration de Walstein of Sarrasin, and the Conjuration des Espagnol contre Venise, composed in 1672 by the Abbé de St Réal, the author of various historical and critical works deserving less notice. These three works, whose similarly of subject and successive composition at short intervals leave little doubt that a certain amount of international rivalry animated the two later authors, are among the earliest and best examples of the monographs for which French, in point of grace of style and lucidity of exposition, has long been the most successful vehicle of expression among European languages. Among other writers of history, as distinguished from memoirs, need only be noticed Agrippa d’ Aubigné, whose Histoire Universelle closed closed his long and varied list of works, and Varillas (1624-1696), a historian chiefly remarkable for his extreme untrustworthiness. In point of memoirs and correspondence it. The Régistres-Journaux of Pierre de l’Étoile (1540-1611), only now being published as a whole, consist of a diary something of the Pepys character, kept for nearly forty years by a person in high official employment. The memoirs of Sully (1560-1641), published under a curious title too long to quote, date also from this time, as do the Letters of Cardinal d’Ossat (1536-1604), much and deservedly praised by Lord Chesterfield as models of business writing, and the Négociations of the President Jeannin (1544-1622), who conducted the affairs of Henry IV. in Holla d. The king himself has left a considrable correspondence, which is not destitute of literary merit, though not equal to the memories of his wife. The rule of Richelieu was scarcely favourable to memoir writing ; but both this and earlier times found chronicle in the singular Historiettes of Tallement des Réaux (1619— ?), a collection of anecdotes, frequently scandalous, reaching from the times of Henry IV. to those of Louis XIV., to which may be joined the Letters of Guy Patin (1602-1676). The early years of the latter monarch and the period of the Fronde had the Cardinal de Retz himself, than whom no one was certainly better qualified for historian, not to mention a crowd of others, of whom Madame de Motteville (1621-1689) is perhaps the principal. From this time memoirs and memoir writers went ever multiplying. The queen of them all is Madame de Sevigné (1627-1696), on whom, as on most of the great and better-known writers whom we have had and shall have to mention, it is impossible here to dwell at length. The last half of the century produced crowds of similar but inferior writers. The memoirs of the Duchesse d’Orléans, of Fouquet, of Bussy-Rabutin (author of a kind of scandalous chronicle called Hitoire Amoureuse des Gaules), and of Madame de Maintenon, perhaps deserve notice above the others. But this is truth the style of composition in which the age most excelled. Memoir writing became the occupation not so much of persons who made history, as we the case from Comines to De Retz, as of those who, having culture, leisure, and opportunity of observation, devoted themselves to the task of recording the deeds of other, and still more of regarding the incidents of the busy, splendid, and cultivated if somewhat frivolous world of the court, in which, from the time of Louis XIV.’ majority, the political life of the nation and almost its whole history were centred. Many, if not most, of these writers were women, who thus founded the celebrity of the French lady for managing her mother-tongue, and justified by results that taste and tendencies of the blue-stockings and précieuses of the Hôtel Rambouillet and similar côteries. The life which these writers saw before them furnished them with a subject to be handled with the minuteness and care to which they had been accustomed in the ponderous romances of the Clélie type, but also with the wit and terseness hereditary in France, and only temporarily absent in thoe ponderous compositions. The efforts of Balzac and the Academy supplied a suitable language and style, and the increasing tendency towards epigrammatic moralizing, reached its acme in La Roche foucauld (1663-1680) and La Bruyère (1639-1696), added in most cases point and attractiveness to their writings.

17th Century Philosophers and Theologians.—To these moralists we might, perhaps, not inappropriately pass at once. But it seems better to consider first the philosophical and theological developments of the age, which must share with its historical experiences and studies the credit of producing these writers. Philosophy proper, as we have already had occasion to remark, had hitherto made no use of the vulgar tongue. The 16th century had contributed a few vernacular treatises on logic, a considerable body of political and ethical writing, and a good deal of sceptical speculation of a more or less vague character, continued into our present epoch by such writers as La Mothe le Vayer (1588-1672), the last representative of the orthodox doubt of Montaigne and Charron. But in metaphysics proper it had not dabbled. The 17th century, on the contrary, was to produce in Descartes (1596-1650) at once a master of prose style, the greatest of French philosophers, and one of the greatest metaphysicians, not merely of France and of the 17th century, but of all countries and times. Even before Descartes there had been considerable and important developments of metaphysical speculation in France. Early in the century, the Italian Lucilio Vanini was burnt at Toulouse, nominally, like Bruno, for atheism, but really for the adoption of the negative philosophy of Pomponatius and others. The first eminent philosopher of French birth was Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655). Gassendi devoted himself to the maintenance of a modernized form of the Epicurean doctrines, but he wrote mainly if not entirely, in Latin. Another sceptical philosopher of a less scientific character was the physicist Naudé, who, like many others of the philosophers of time, was accused of atheism. But as none of these could approach Descartes in philosophical power and originality, so also none has even a fraction of his importance in the history of French literature. It is with this latter alone that we are here concerned. Descartes stands with Plato, and possibly Berkeley and Malebranche, at the head of all philosophers in respect of style; and in his case the excellence is far more remarkable than in others, inasmuch as he had absolutely no models, and was forced in a great degree to create the language which he used. The Discours de la Méthode is not only one of the epoch-making books of philosophy, it is also one of the epoch-making books of French style. Almost every page of it might have been written by a a master of the language at the present day, while there is the greatest possible contrast between these pages and those of even the best French prose writers a few writers a few years previously. Nor was the influence of Descartes in literature less than his influence in philosophy. The tradition of his clear and perfect style was taken up, not merely by his philosophical disciples, but also by Pascal (1623-1662) and the school of Port Royal, who will be noticed presently. The very genius of the Cartesian philosophy was intimately connected with this clearness, distinctness, and severity of style; and there is something more than a fanciful contrast between these literary characteristics of Descartes, on the one hand, and the elaborate splendour of Bacon, the knotty and crabbed strength of Hobbes, and the commonplace and almost vulgar slovenliness of Locke. Of the followers of Descartes, putting aside the Port Royalists, by far the most distinguished, both in philosophy and in literature, is Malebranche (1631-1715). His Recherche de la Vérité, admirable asit is for its subtlety and its consecutiveness of thought, is equally admirable for its elegance of style. Malebranche cannot indeed, like his great master, claim absolute originality. But his excellence as a writer is as great as, if not greater than, that of Descartes, and the Recherche remains to this day the one philosophical treatise of great length and abstruseness which, merely as a book, is delightful to read,—not like the works of Plato and Berkeley, because of the adventitious graces of dialogue or description, but from the purity and grace of the language, and its admirable adjustment to the purposes of the argument. Yet, for all this, philosophy hardly flourished in France. It was too intimately connected with theological and ecclesiastical questions, and especially with Jansenism, to escape suspicion and persecution. Descartes himself was for much of his life an exile in Holland and Sweden ; and though the unquestionable orthodoxy of Malebranche, the strongly religious cast of his works, and the remoteness of the abstruse region in which he sojourned from that of the controversies of the day protected him, other followers of Descartes were not so fortunate. Holland, indeed, became a kind of city of refuge for students of philosophy, though even in Holland itself they were by no means entirely safe from persecution. By far the msot remarkable of French philosophical sojourners in the Netherlands was Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a name not perhaps of the first rank in respect of literary value, but certainly of the first as regards literary influence. Bayle, after oscillating between the two confessions, nominally remained a Protestant in religion. In philosophy he in the same manner oscillated between Descartes and Gassendi, finally resting in an equally nominal Cartesianism. Bayle was in fact, both in philosophy and in religion, merely a sceptic, with a scepticism at one like and unlike that of Montaigne, and differenced both of temperament and circumstance. The scepticism of Montaigne is mainly moral in character, and represents the good-humoured but satiated indifference of the gentleman of the Renaissance, who has known both business and pleasure, and, though undervaluing neither, sees the drawbacks of both. That of Bayle is the scepticism of the mere students, exercised more or less in all histories, sciences, and philosophies, and intellectually unable or unwilling to take a side. His style is hardly to be called good, being diffuse and often inelegant. But his great dictionary, though one of the most heterogeneous and unmethodical of compositions, exercised an enormous influence both on the Continent and in England, especially on the Continent. It has been or might be called the Bible of the 18th century, and contains in the germ all the desultory philosophy, the ill-ordered scepticism, and the critical but negatively critical acuteness of the Aufklärung. Locke and Newton had indeed to be super-added to Bayle, and Voltaire in matter, though by no by no means in form, represents little more than union of the three.

We have said that the philosophical, theological, and moral tendencies of the century, which produced, with the exception of its dramatic triumphs, all its greatest literary works, are almost inextricably intermingled. Its earliest years, however, bear in theological matters the complexion of the previous century. Du Perron and St Francis of Sales survived until nearly the end of its first quarter, and the most remarkable works of the latter bear the dates of 1608 and later. It was not, however, till some years had passed, till the courter-Reformation had reconverted the largest and most powerful portion of the Huguenot partly, and till the influence of Jansenius and Descartes had time to work, that the extraordinary outburst of Gallican theology, both in pulpit and press, took place. The Jansenist controversy may perhaps be awarded the merit of provoking this, as far as writing was concerned. The extraordinary eloquence of contemporary pulpit oratory may be set down partly to the zeal for conversion of which Du Perron and De Sales had given the example, partly to the same taste of the time which encouraged dramatic performances, for the sermon and the tirade have much in common. Jansenius himself, though a Dutchman by birth, passed much time in France, and it was in France that he found most disciples. These disciples consisted in the first place of the members of the society of Port Royal des Champs, a côterie after the fashion of the time, but one which devoted itself not to sonnets or madrigals but to devotional exercises, study and the teaching of youth. This côterie early adopted the Cartessian philosophy, and the Port Royal logic was the most remarkable popular hand book of that school. In theology they adopted Jansenism, and were inconsequence soon at daggers drawn with the Jesuits, according to the polemical habits of the time. The most distinguished champions on the Jansenist side were the Abbé de St Cyran and Antoine Arnauld, but by far the most important literary results of the quarrel were the famous Provinciales of Pascal, or, to give them their proper title, Lettres Écrites à Provincial. The original occasion of these remarkable letters was the condemnation of Arnauld at the Sorbonne. They produced an immense effect; their printers were subjected to vigorous police investigations, but in vain ; and the incognito of the author was long preserved. With their matter we have nothing to do here. Their literary importance consists, not merely in their grace of style, but in the application to serious discussion of the peculiarly polished and quiet irony of which Pascal is the greatest master the world has ever seen. Up to this time controversy had usually conducted either in the mere bludgeon fashion of the Scaligers and Saumaises, —of which in the vernacular the Jesuit Garasse (1585-1631) had already contributed remarkable examples to literary and moral controversy,—or else in a dull and legal style, or lastly under an envelope or Rabelaisian buffoonery, such as survives to a considerable extent in the Satire Ménippée. Pascal set the example of combining the use of the most terribly effective weapons with good humour, good breeding, and a polished style. The example was largely followed, and the manner of Voltaire and his followers in the 18th century owes at least as much to Pascal as their method and matter do to Bayle. The Jansenists, attacked and persecuted by civil power, which the Jesuits had contrived to interest, were finally suppressed. But the Provinciales had given them an unapproachable superiority in matter of argument and literature. Their other literary works were inferior, though still remarkable. Arnauld (1612-1694) and Nicole (1625-1695) manage their native language with vigour, if not exactly with grace. They maintained their orthodoxy by writings, not merely against the Jesuits, but also against the Protestants, such as the Perpétuité de la Foi due to both, and the Apologie des Catholiques written by Arnauld alone. The latter, besides being responsible for a good deal of the logic (L’Art de Penser) to which we have alluded, wrote also much of a Grammaire Génerale composed by the Port Royalist for the use of their pupils ; but his principal devotion was to theology and theological polemics. To the latter Nicole also contributed Les Visionnaires, Les Imaginaires, and other works. The studious recluses of Port Royal also produced a large quantity of miscellaneous literary work, to which full justice has been done in Sainte-Beuve’s well known volumes.

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