1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Literature: Opening of the 18th Century

(Part 57)


Opening of the 18th Century

The beginning of the 18th century is among the dead seasons of French literature. All the greatest men whose names had illustrated the reign of Louis XIV. in profane literature passed away long before him, and the last if the least of them, Boileau and Thomas Corneille, only survived into the very earliest years of the new age. The political and military disasters of the last years of the reign were accompanied by a state of things in society unfavourable to literary development. A show, purely external and hypocritical, of devotion, put on to please the aged monarch, covered an interior of frivolity and licentiousness which was for the time disserved from such intellectual activity as has often accompanied similar states of morality in France. The devotion to pure literature and philosophy proper which Descartes and Corneille had inspired had died out, and the devotion to physical science, to sociology, and to a kind of free-thinking optimism which was to inspire Voltaire and the Encyclopedists had not yet become fashionable. Fénelon and Malebranche still survived, but they were emphatically men of the last age, as was Massillon, though he lived till nearly the middle of the century. The characteristic literary figures of the opening years of the period are D’Aguesseau, Fontenelle, St Simon, personages in many ways interesting and remarkable, but purely transitional in their characteristics, and neither themselves indicating new and original paths to others, nor following out to their extremity and climax the paths which others had struck. Fontenelle (1657-1757) is, indeed, perhaps the most typical figure of the time . he was a dramatic, a moralist, a philosopher, physical and metaphysical, a critic, a historian, a poet, and a satirist. The manner of his works is always easy and grace, and their matter rarely contemptible. We adopt the same division of subjects in his period as heretofore, with one important addition—a separate heading, namely, for the essayists and literary critics who before the end of the century became of remarkable prominence. The spread of culture, however, and the mass of literature produced, render it more and more necessary to limit the notice given to those whose bearers are in one way or another important. Modern literature once fairly constituted, the rank and file of its practitioners must be left unmentioned.

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