1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Literature, 1789-1830: General Sketch

(Part 67)


1789-1830: General Sketch

The period which elapsed between the outbreak of the Revolution and the accession of Charles X has often been considered a sterile one in point of literature. As far as mere productiveness goes, this judgment is hardly correct. No class of literature was altogether neglected during these stirring five-and-thirty years, the political events of which have so engrossed the attention of posterity that it has sometimes necessary for historians to remind us that during the height of the Terror and the final disasters of the empire the theaters were open and the booksellers’ shops patronized as much or more than ever. Journalism, parliamentary eloquence, and scentific writing were especially cultivated, and the former in its modern sense may almost be said to have been created. But of the higher products of literature the period may justly be considered to have been somewhat barren. During the earlier part of it there is, with the exception of André Chénier, not a single name of the first or even second order of excellence. Towards the midst those of Chateaubriand (1768-1848) and Madame de Stael (1766-1817) stand almost alone; and at the close those of Courier, Béranger, and Lamartine are not seconded by any other to tell of the magnificent literary burst which was to follow the publication of Cromwell. Of all departments of literature, poetry proper was worst represented during this period. André Chénier was silenced at its opening by the guillotine. Le Brun and Delille, favoured by an extraordinary longevity, continued to be admired and followed. It was the palmy time in descriptive poetry. Fontanes, Castel, Boisjolin, Esmenard, Berchoux, Ricard, Martin, Gudin, Cournaud, are names which chiefly survive as those of the authors of scattered attempts to turn the encyclopaedia into verse. Chénedollé (1769-1833) owes his reputation rather to amiably and to his association with men eminent in different ways, such as Rivarol and Joubert, than to any real power. Even more ambitiously, Luce de Lancival, Campenon, Dumesnil, and Parseval de Grand-Maison endeavoured to write epics, and succeeded rather worse than the Chapelains and Desmarets of the 17th century. The characteristic of all this poetry was the description of everything in metaphor and paraphrase, and the careful avoidance of anything like directness of expression; and the historians of the romantic movement have collected many instances of this absurdity. Lamartine will be more properly noticed in the next division. But about the same time as Lamartine, and towards the end of the present period, there appeared a poet who may be regarded as the last important echo of Malherbe. This was Casimir Delavigne (1793-1843), the author of Les Messéniennes, a writer of very great talent, and, according, to the measure of Rousseau and Lebrun, no mean poet. It is usual to reckon Delavigne as transitionary between the two schools, but in strictness he must be counted with the classicists. Dramatic poetry exhibited somewhat similar characteristics. The system of tragedy writing had become purely mechanical, and every act, almost every scene and situation, had its regular and appropriate business and language, the former of which the poet was not suppose to alter at all, and the latter only very slightly. Pointsinet, Laharpe, M. J. Chénier, Raynouard, De Jouy, Briffaut, Baour-Lormian, all wrote in this style. Of these Chénier (1764-1811) had some of the vigour of his brother André, from whom he was distinguished by more popular political principles and better fortune. On the other hand Ducis (1733-1816), who passes with Englishmen as a feeble reducer of Shakespeare to classical rules, passed with his contemporaries as an introducer into French poetry of strange and revolutionary novelties. Comedy, on the other hand, fared better, as indeed it had always fared. Fabre d’Eglantine (1755-1794) (the companion in death of Danton), Collin d’Harleville (1755-1806), Andrieux (1759-1833), Picard, Alexandre Duval, and Nepomucène Lemercier (1771-1840) were the comic authors of the period, and their works have not suffered the complete eclipse of the contemporary tragedies which in part they also wrote. If not exactly worthy successors of Molière, they are at any rate not unworthy children of Beaumarchais. In romance writing there is again, until we come to Madame de Stael, a great want of originality and even of excellence in workmanship. The works of Madame de Genlis (1746-1830) exhibit the tendencies of the 18th century to platitude and noble sentiment at their worst. Madame Cottin, Madame Souza, and Madame de Krudener exhibited some of the qualities of Madame de Lafayette and more of those of Madame de Genlis. Fiévée (1767-1839), in Le Dot de Suzette and other works, showed some power over the domestic story; but perhaps the most remarkable work in point of originality of the time was Xavier de Maistre’s (1763-1852) Voyage author de ma Chambre, an attempt in quite a new style, which has been happily followed up by other writers. Turning to history we find comparatively little written at this period. Indeed, until quite its close men were too much occupied in making history to have time to write it. There is, however, a considerable body of memoir writers, especially in the earlier years of the period, and some great names appear even in history proper. Many of Sismondi’s (1773-1842) best works were produce during the empire. De Barante (1782-1866) though his best know works date much later, belongs partially to this time. On the other hand, production of philosophical writing, especially in what we may call applied philosophy, was considerable. Thee sensationalist views of Codillac were first continued as by destutt de tracy (1754-1832) and Laromiguiére, and subsequently opposed, in conssequence partly of a religious and spiritualist revival, partly of the influence of foreign schools of thought, especially the German and the Scotch. The chief philosophical writers from this latter point of view were Royer Collar (1763-1846), Maine de Biran (1776-1824), and Jouffroy (1796-1842). Their influence on literature, however, was altogether inferior to that of the reactionist school, of whom De Bonald (1753-1840) and Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821) were the great leaders. These latter were strongly political in their tendencies, and political philosophy received, as was natural, a large share of the attention of time. In continuation of the work of the Philosophes, the most remarkable writer was Volney (1757-1820), whose ruines are generally known. On the other hand, others belonging to that school, such as Necker and Morellet wrote from the moderate point of view against revolutionary excesses. Of the reactionists, De Bonald is extremly royalist, and carries out in his Législations Primitives somewhat the same patriarchal and absolutist theories as our own Filmer, but with infinitely greater genius. As De Bonald is royalist and aristocratic, so De Maistre is the advocate of a theocracy pure and simple, with the pope for its earthy head, and a vigorous despotism for its system of government. Of theology proper there is almost necessarily little or nothing, the clergy being in the earlier period proscribed, in the latter part kept in a strict and somewhat discreditable subjection of the empire. In moralizing literature there is one work of the very highest excellence, which, though not published till long afterwards, belongs in point of composition to this period. This is the Pensées of Joubert (1754-1824), the most illustrious successor of Pascal and Vauvenargues, and to be ranked perhaps above both in the literacy finish of his maxims, and certainly above Vauvenargues in the breadth and depth of thought which they exhibit. Of science and erudition the time was fruitful. At an early period of appeared the remarkable work of Cabanis (1757-1808), the Rapports du Physique ed du Morale de l’Homme, a work in which physiology is treated from the extreme materialist point of view, but which all the liveliness an literary excellence of the Philosphe movement at list best. Another physiological work of great merit a this period was the Traité de la Vie et de la Mort of Bichat, and the example set by these works was widely followed ; while in other branches of science La place, Lagrange, Hauy, Berthollet, &c., produced contributions of the highest value. Form the literary point of view, however the chief interest of this time is centred in two individual names, those of Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael, and three literary developments of a more or less novel character, which were all the highest importance in shaping the course which French literature has taken since 1824. One of these developments was the reactionary movement of De Maistre and De Bonald, which in its turn largely influenced Chateaubriand, then Lamennais and Montalembert, and has been recently represented in French literature in different guises, chiefly by M. Louis Veuillot and Mgr Dupanloup. The second and third, closely connected, were the immense advances made by parliamentary eloquence and by political writing, the latter of which, by the hand of Paul Louis Courier (1773-1825), contributed for the first time an undoubted masterpiece to French literature. The influence of the two combined has since raised journalism to even a greater pitch of power in France than in any other country. It is in the development of these new openings for literature, and in the cast and complexion which they gave to its matter, that the real literary importance of the Revolutionary period consists ; just as it is in the new elements which they supplied for the treatment of such subjects that the literary value of the authors of René and De l’ Allemagne mainly lies. We have already alluded to the some of the beginnings of periodical and journalistic letters in France. For some time, in the hands of Bayle, Basnage, Des Maizeaux, Jurieu, Leclerc, periodical literature consisted mainly of a series, more or less disconnected, of pamphlets, with occasional extracts from forthcoming works, critical adversaria, and the like. Of a more regular kind were the often-mentioned Journal de Trévoux and Mercure de France, and later the Année Littéraire of Fréron and the like. The Correspondance of Grimm also, as we have pointed out, bore considerable resemblance to a modern monthly review, though it was addressed to a very few persons. Of political news there was, under a despotism, naturally very little. 1789, however, saw a vast change in this respect. An enormous efflorescence of periodical literature at once took place, and a few of the numerous journals founded in that year or soon afterwards survived for a considerable time. A whole class of authors arose who pretended to be nothing more than journalists, while many writers distinguished for more solid contributions to literature took part in the movements, and not a few active politicians contributed. Thus to the original staff of the Moniteur, or, as it was at first called, La Gazette Nationale, Laharpe, Lacretelle, Andrieux, Great and Ginguené were attached. Among the writers of the Journal de Paris André Chénier had been ranked. Fontanes contributed to many royalist and moderate journals. Guizot and Morellet, representatives respectively of the 19th and the 18th century, shared in the Nouvellas Politiques, while Berlin Fievée and Geoffroy contributed to the Journal de l’Empire, afterwards turned into the still existing Journal de Débats. Of active politicians Marat (L’Ami du Peuple), Mirabeau (Courier de Provence), Barère (Journal des Débats of des Décrets), Brissot (Partriote Français), Hébert (Père Duchesne), Robespierre (Défenseur de la Constitution), and Tallien (La Sentinelle) were the most remarkable who had an intimate connexion with journalism. On the other hand, the type of the journalist pure and simple is Camille Desmoulins (1759-1794), one of the most brilliant, in a literary point of view, of the short-lived celebrities of the time. Of the same class were Pelletier, Durozoy, Loustalot, Royou. As the immediate interest in politics drooped, there were formed periodicals of a partly political and partly literary character. Such had been the Décade Philosphique, which counted Cabanis, Chénier, and De Tracy among its contributors, and this was followed by the Revue Française at a l ater period, which was in its turn succeeded by the Revue des deux Mondes. On the other hand, parliamentary eloquence was even more important than journalism during the early period of the Revolution. Mirabeau naturally stands at the head of orators of this class, and next to him may be ranked the well-known names of Malouet and Meunier among constitutionalists ; of Robespierre, Marat, and Danton, the triumvirs of the Mountain ; of Maury, Cazales, and the Vicomte de Mirabeau, among the royalists ; and above all of the Girondist speakers Barnave, Vergniaud, and Lanjuinais. The last-named survived to take part in the revival of parliamentary discussion after the Restoration. But the permanent contributions to French literature of this period of voluminous eloquence are, as frequently happens in such cases, by no means large. The union of the journalist and the parliamentary spirit produced, however, in Paul Louis Courier a master of style. Courier spent the greater part of his life, tragically cut short, in translating the classics and studying the older writers of France, in which study he learnt thoroughly to despise the pseudo-classicism of the 18th century. It was not till he was past forty that he took to political writing, and the style of his pamphlets, and their wonderful irony and vigour, at once placed them on the level of the very best things of the kind. Along with Courier should be mentioned Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), who, though partly a romance writer and partly a philosophical author, was mainly a politician and an orator, besides being fertile in articles and pamphlets. Lamennais like Lamartine will best be dealt with later, and the same may be said of Béranger ; but Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael must be noticed here. The former represents, in the influence which changed the literature of the 18th century into the literature of the 19th, the vague spirit of unrest and "Weltschmerz," the affection for the picturesque qualities of nature, the religious spirit occasionally turning into mysticism, and the respect sure to become more and more definite and appreciative for antiquity. He gives in short the romantic and conservative element. Madame de Stael, on the other hand, as became a daughter of Necker, retained a great deal of the Philosophe character and the traditions of the 18th century, especially its liberalism, its sensibilité, and its thirst for generally information ; to which, however, she added a cosmopolitan spirit, and readiness to introduce into France the literary and social, as well as the political and philosophical, peculiarities of other countries to which the 18th century, in France at least, had been a stranger, and which Chateaubriand himself, notwithstanding his excursions into English literature, had been very far from feeling. She therefore contributed to the positive and liberal side of the future movement. Both of these remarkable persons have in their works a certain taint of what it is difficult to call by any other name than insincerity, though it is certain that there was in their case nothing consciously insincere. The 18th century, however, had left a tradition of "posing" in French literature from which these writers, two of its most distinguished children, were by no means free. The absolute literary importance of the two very different. Madame de Stael’s early writings were of the critical kind, half aesthetic half ethical, of which the 18th century had been fond, and which their titles, Lettres sur J. J. Rousseau, De l’Influence des Passions, De la Littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les Institutions Sociales, sufficiently show. Her romances, Delphine and Corinne, have singularly lost their attraction in seventy years but their influence at the time was immense. The work, however, which had really the most fertile influence was the De l’Allemagne, which practically opened up to the rising generation in France the till then unknown treasures of literature and philosophy, which during the most glorious half century of her literary history Germany had, sometimes on hints taken from France herself, been accumulating. The style of these various which is not of the admirable, and in their matter there is still, as we have said, much hollow talk. But the enthusiasm which pervaded them had a powerful effect, and the indications of new sources at which this enthusiasm might satisfy itself had an effect more powerful still. The literary importance of Chateaubriand is far greater, while his literary influences can hardly be exaggerated. Chateaubriand’s literary father was Rousseau, and his voyage to America helped to develop the seeds which Rousseau had sown. In René and other works of the same kind, the naturalism of Rousseau received a still further development. But it was not in mere naturalism that Chateaubriand was to find his most fertile and most successful theme. It was, on the contrary, in the rehabilitation of Christianity. The 18th century had used against religion the method of ridicule ; Chateaubriand, by genius rather than by reasoning, set up against this method that of poetry and romance. "Christianity," says he, almost in so many words, "is the most poetical of all religions, the most attractive, the most fertile in literary, artistic, and social results." This theme he develops with the most splendid language, and with every conceivable advantage of style, in the Génie du Christianisme and the Martyrs. The splendour of imagination, the summonings of history and literature to supply effective and touching illustrations, analogies, and incidents, the rich colouring so different from the peculiarly monotonous and grey tones of the masters of the 18th century, and the fervid admiration for nature which were Chateaubriand’s main attractions and characteristics, could not fail to have an enormous literary influence. The romantic school acknowledged, and with justice, its direct indebtedness thereto ; but at the same time Chateaubriand’s power of argument is perhaps weaker than that of any writer of equal eminence ; and great as has been his literary following, his followers have very rarely adopted his principles.

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