1902 Encyclopedia > France > 18th Century French Criticism and Periodical Literature

(Part 65)


18th Century Criticism and Periodical Literature

We have said that literary criticism assumes in this century a sufficient importance to be treated under a separate heading. Contributions were made to it of many different kinds and from many different points of view. Periodical literature, the chief stimulus to its production, began more and more to come into favour. Even in the 17th century the Journal des Savants, the Jesuit Journal de Trévoux, and other publications had set the example of different kinds of it. Just before the Revolution the Gazette de France was in the hands of Suard, a man who was nothing if not a literary critic. Perhaps, however, the most remarkable contribution of the century to criticism of the periodical kind was the Feuilles de Grimm, a circular sent for many years by the comrade of Diderot and Rousseau to the German courts, and containing a compte rendu of the ways and works of Paris, literary and artistic as well as social. These Leaves not only include much excellent literary criticism by Diderot, but also gave occasion to the incomparable salons or accounts of the exhibition of pictures from the same hand, essays which founded the art of picture criticism, and which have hardly been surpassed since. The prize competitions of the Academy were also a considerable stimulus to literary criticism, though the prevailing taste in such composition rather inclined to elegant themes than to careful studies or analysis. Larger works on the arts in general or non special divisions of them were not wanting, as, for instance, that of Dubos before alluded to, and those of the Père Bouhours, the Abbé Trublet, and the Abbé Terrasson, the Essai sur la Peinture of Diderot, and others. Critically annotated editions of the great French writers also came into fashion, and were no longer written by mere pedants. Of these Voltaire’s edition of Corneille was the most remarkable, and his annotations, united separately under the title of Commentaire sur Corneille, form not the least important portion of his work. Even older writers, looked down upon though they were by the general taste of the day, received a share of this critical interest. In the earlier portion of the century Lenglet-Dufresnoy and La Monnoye devoted their attention to Rabelais, Regnier, Villon, Marot, and others. Barbazan (1696-1774) and Le Grand d’Aussy (1737-1800) gathered and brought into notice the long scattered and unknown rather than neglected fabliaux of the Middle Ages. Even the chansons de gestes attracted the notice of the Comte de Caylus (1692-1765) and the Comte de Tressan (1705-1785). The latter, in his Bibliothèque des Romans, worked up a large number of the old epics into a form suited to the taste of the century. In his hands they became lively tales of the kind suited to readers of Voltaire and Crébillon. But in this travestied form they had considerable influence both in France and abroad—Wieland, for instance writing his Oberon merely from a knowledge, and very soon after the appearance, of Tressan’s version of Huon de Bordeaux. By these publications attention was at least called to early French literature, and when it had been once called, a more serious and appreciative study became merely a matter of time. The style of much of the literary criticism of the close of this period was indeed deplorable enough. Laharpe (1739-1803), who though a little later in time as to most of his critical productions is perhaps its most representative figure, shows criticism in one of its worst forms. He has all the defects of Malherbe and Boileau, with few of their merits and none of their excuses. The critic specially abhorred by Sterne, who looked only at the stop-watch, was a kind of prophecy of Laharpe ; but such a writer is a natural enough expression of an expiring principle. The year after the death of Laharpe Sainte-Beuve was born.

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