1902 Encyclopedia > France > 18th Century French Poetry

(Part 58)


18th Century Poetry

The dispiriting signs shown during the 17th century by French proper received entire fulfillment in the following age. The two poets who were most prominent at the opening of the period were the Abbé de Chaulieuc (1639-1720) and the Marquis de la Fare (1644-1712), poetical or rather versifying twins who are quoted together, and the fact of whose quotation as the chief poets of any period, however short, is sufficient proof of the low estate into which poetry must at that period have fallen. They were both men who lived to a great age, yet their later than of their earlier contemporaries. They derive on the one hand from the somewhat trifling school of Voiture, on the other from the Bacchic sect of St Amand ; and they succeed in uniting the inferior qualities of both with the cramped and impoverished though elegant style of which Fénelon and complained. It is only fair to say that the abbè is not nearly so bad a poet as the marquis. Their compositions are as a rule lyrical, as lyrical poetry was understood after the days of Malherbe,—that is to say, quatrains of the kind ridiculed by Molière, and Pindaric odes, which have been justly described as made up of alexandrines afer the manner of Boileau cut up into shorter or longer lengths. They were followed, however, by the one poet who succeeded in producing something resembling poetry in this artificial style. J.B. Rousseau (1674-1741). Rousseau, who in some respects was nothing so little as a religious poet, was nevertheless strongly influenced, as Marot had been, by the Psalms David. His odes and his Cantates, though still to English taste curiously devoid of the poetical je ne sais quoi, which an Englishman rarely finds in any French lyrist between Regnier and Hugo, are perhaps less destitute of that spirit than the work of only poet during that long period excepting André Chénier. Rousseau was also an extremely successful epigrammatist, having in this respect, too, resemblances to Marot. Le Franc de Pompignan (1709-1784), to whom Voltaire’s well-known sarcasms are not altogether just, and Louis Racine (1692-1763), who wrote pious and altogether forgotten poems, belonged to the same poetical school; though both the style and matter of Racine are strongly tinctured by his Port Royalist sympathies and education. Those authors form the first of the three poetical schools of the century, though perhaps it would be safer to mark our only two, leaving Voltaire to himself as a master of both schools and a member of neither. The first method of versifying, indeed, subdivided itself into classes, not dissimilar in style to those which we have noticed in the preceding age as characterized respectively by elegance of a somewhat frivolous kind, jollity not always free from ignoble admixture. The former was represented in the 18th century by the long-lived St Aulaire (1643-1742), by Gentil Bernard, by the Abbé (afterwards Cardinal) de Bernis (1715-1794), by Dorat (1714-1789), and by Parny (1753-1814), the last the most vigorous, but all somewhat deserving the term applied to Dorat of ver luisant du Parnasse. The jovial traditions of St Amand begat a similar school of anacreontic songsters, which, represented in turn by Panard (1674-1765), Collé (1709-1783), Gouffé (1775-1845), and Desaugiers (1772-1827), led directly to the best of all such writers, Béranger. To this class Rouget de Lisle (1760-1836) perhaps also belongs ; though his most famous composition, the Marseillaise, is of a different stamp. Nor is the account of the light verse of the 18th century complete without reference to a long succession of fable writers, who, in an unbroken chain, connect La Fontaine in the 17th century with M. Viennet in the 19th. None of the links, however, of this chain, with the exception of Florian, deserve much attention. The universal of Voltaire (1694-1778) showed itself in his poetical productions no less than in his other works, and it is perhaps not least remarkable in verse. It is impossible now-a-days to regards the Henriade as anything but a highly successful prize poem, but the burlesque epic of La Pucelle, discreditable as it may be from the moral point of view, is remarkable enough as literature. The epistles and satires are among the best of their kind, the verse tales are in the same way admirable, and the epigrams, impromptus, and short miscellaneous poems generally are the ne plus ultra of verse which is not poetry. It is impossible, moreover, not to be grateful to Voltaire for refusing to countenance by his examples the second of verse to which we have alluded. The Anglomania of the century extended into poetry, and the Seasons of Thomson set the example of a whole library of tedious descriptive verse, which in its turn revenged France upon England by producing or helping to produce English poems of the Darwin school. The first of these descriptive performances was the Saisons of St Lambert (1717-1803), identical in title with its model, but of infinitely inferior value. St Lambert was followed by Delille (1738-1813) in Les Jardins, Le Mierre (1723-1793) in Les Fastes, and Roucher (1745-1794) in Les Mois. Indeed, everything that could be described was seized upon by these describers. Delille also translated the Georgics, and for a time was the greatest living poet of France, the title being only disputed by Le Brun (1729-1807), a lyrist and ode writer of the school of J. B. Rousseau, but not destitute of energy. The only other poets until Chénier who deserve notice are Gilbert (1751-1780), —the French Chatterton, or perhaps rather the French Oldham, who died in a workhouse at twenty-nine after producing some vigorous satires and, at the point of death, an elegy of great beauty,—and Gresset (1709-1777), the author of Ver-Vert and of other poems of the lighter order, which are not far, if at all, below the level of Voltaire. André Chénier (1762-1794) stands far apart from the art of his century, though the strong chain of custom, and his early death by the guillotine, prevented him from breaking through the fatal restraints of its language and its versification. Chénier, half a Greek, by blood, was wholly one in spirit and sentiment. The manner of his verses, the very air which surrounds them and which diffuse, are different from those of the 18th century ; and his poetry is probably the utmost that the language and versification of Racine could produce. To do more, the Revolution which followed a generation after hid death was required.

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