1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Literature since 1830

(Part 68)


Literature since 1830

In dealing with the history of French literature during the last half century, a slight alteration of treatment is requisite. The subdivisions of literature have lately become so numerous, and the contributions to each have reached such an immense volume, that it is impossible to give more than cursory notice, or indeed allusion, to most of them. It so happens, however, that the purely literary characteristics of this period, though of the most striking and remarkable, are confined to a few branches of literature. The characteristic of the 19th century in France has hitherto been at least as strongly marked as that of any previous period. In the Middle Ages men of letters followed each other in the cultivation of certain literary from for long centuries. The chanson de geste, the Arthurian legend, the roman d’aventure, the fabliau, the allegorical poem, the rough dramatic jeu, mystery, and farce, served successively as mould into which the thought and writing impulse of generations of authors were successively cast, often with little attention to the suitableness of form and subject. The end of the 15th century, and still more the 16th, owing to the vast extension of thought and knowledge then introduced, finally broke up the old forms, and introduced the practice of treating each subject in a manner more or less appropriate to it, and whether appropriate or not, freely selected by the author. At the same time a vast but somewhat indiscriminate addition was made to the actual vocabulary of the language. The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed a process of restriction once more to certain forms and strict imitation of predecessors, combined with attention to purely arbitrary rules, the cramping and impoverishing effect of this (in Fénelon’s words) being counterbalanced partly by the efforts of individual genius, and still more by the constant and steady enlargement of the range of thought, the choice of subjects, and the familiarity with other literature, both of the ancient and modern world. The literary work of the 19th century and of the great romantic movement which began in its second quarter was to repeat on a far larger scale the work of the 16th, to break up and discard such literary forms as had become useless or hopelessly stiff, to give strength, suppleness, and variety to such as were retained, to invent new ones where necessary, and to enrich the language by importations, inventions, and revivals. The result of this revolution is most remarkable in the belles lettres and the kindred department of history. Poetry, not dramatic, has been revived ; prose romance and literary criticism have been brought to a perfection previously unknown ; and history has produced works more various, if not more remarkable, than at nay previous of the language. Of all these branches we shall therefore endeavour to give some detailed account. But the services done to the language were not limited to the strictly literary branches of literature. Modern French, if it lacks, as it probably does lack, the statuesque precision and elegance of prose style to which between 1650 and 1800 all else was sacrificed, has become a much more suitable instrument for the accurate and copious treatment of positive and concrete subjects. These subjects have accordingly been treated in an abundance corresponding to that manifested in other countries, though the literary importance of the treatment has perhaps proportionately declined. We cannot even attempt to indicate the innumerable directions of scientific study which this copious industry has taken, and must confine ourselves to those which come more immediately under the headings previously adopted. In philosophy France, like other nations, has principally devoted itself tot he historical side of the matter, and the names of Damiron, Jules Simon, Vacherot, Quinet, De Rémusat, and Renan must be mentioned. Victor Cousin (1792-1867), after enjoying a brief celebrity as the chief of an electric school, is now principally remembered as a philosophical historian and critic. Towards the latter part of his long life he quitted even this connexion with philosophy, and devoted himself chiefly to the study of French history. The importance of Auguste Comte (1793-1857) is rather political and scientific than literary. We must also mention M. Taine (b. 1828), a brilliant writer, who busies himself alternately with history, philosophy, and criticsim. Theology again, with the exception of Lamennais to be mentioned hereafter, supplies no name on which we need linger except that of M. Renan (b. 1823), whose somewhat florid literary style has contributed largely tot he influence of his theological ideas. Montalembert (1810-1870), an historian with a strong theological tinge, deserves notice, and among orators Lacordaire (1802-1861) and the Père Félix (b. 1810) on the Catholic side, and Athanase Coquerel (1820-1875) on the Protestant. The Penseés of Joubert, partly moral and partly literary, belong, in point of publication and interest, to this period and so do the melancholy moralizings, of De Sénacnour (1770-1846), which have had a great influence, though on a somewhat limited circle. Political philosophy and its kindred sciences have naturally received a large share of attention. Towards the middle of the century there was a great development of socialist and fanciful theorizing on politics, with which the names of St Simon, Fourier, Cabet, and other are connected. As political economists Bastiat, De Lavergne, Blanqui, and Chevalier may be noticed. In De Tocqueville (1805-1859) France produced a political observer of a remarkably acute, moderate, and reflective character The name of Lerminier (1805-1857) is of wide repute for legal and constitutional writings, and that of Jomini (1779-1869) is still more celebrated as a military historian ; while that of Lenormant (1801-1859) holds a not dissimilar position in archaeology. With the publications devoted to physical science proper we do not attempt to meddle. Philology, however, demands a brief notice. In classical studies France has not recently occupied the position which might be expected of the country of Scaliger and Casaubon. She has, however, produced some considerable Orientalists, such as Champollion the younger, Burnoff, Sivestre de Sacy, and Stanislas Julien. In attention to the antiquities of their own country the French have been at last stimulated by the example of Germany. The foundation of Romance philology was due, indeed, to the foreigners Wolk a nd Diez. But early in the century by Barbazan, Tressan, and others continued to extend. Méon published many unprinted fabliaux gave the whole of the French Renart cycle, with the exception of Renart le Contrefait, and edited the Roman de la Rose. Fauriel and Raynourad dealt elaborately with Provençal poetry as well as well as partially with that of the trouvères ; and the latter produced his comprehensive Lexique Romance. These examples were followed by many other writers, who edited manuscript works and commented on them, always with zeal and sometimes with discretion. Foremost among these must be mentioned M. Paulin Paris, who for fifty years has served the cause of old French literature with untiring energy, great literary taste, and a pleasant and facile pen. His selections from manuscripts, his Romancero Français, his editions of Garin le Loherain and Berte aux Grans Piés, and his Romans de la Table Ronde may especially be mentioned. Soon, too, the Benedictine Histoire Littéraire, so long interrupted, was resumed under M. Paris’s general management, and has proceeded nearly to the end of the 14th century. Among its contents, M. Paris dissertations on the later chansons de gestes and the early song writers, M. Victor Le Clerc’s on the fabliaux, and M. Littré’s on the romans d’aventures may be specially noticed. For some time indeed the work of French editors work of French editors was chargeable with a certain lack of critical and philological accuracy. This reproach, however, has recently been wiped off by the efforts of a band of young scholars, chiefly pupils of École des Chartes, with MM. Gaston Paris and Paul Meyer at their head. The Société des Anciens Textes Français has also been formed for the purpose of publishing scholarly editions of inedited works. Yet France has as yet produced no lexicon of her older tongue to complete the admirable dictionary in which M. Littré (b. 1801), at the cost of a life’s labour, has embodied the whole vocabulary of the classical French language. Meanwhile the period between the Middle Ages proper and the 17th century has not lacked its sharer of this revival of attention. To the literature between Villon and Regnier especial attention was paid by the early romantics, and Sainte-Beuve’s Tableau Historique et Critique de la Poésie et du Théatre au Seizième Siècle was one of the manifestoes of the school. Since the appearance of that work in 1828 editions with critical comments of the literature of this period have constantly multiplied, aided by the great fancy for tastefully produced works which exists among the richer classes in France; and there are not few countries in which works of old authors in cheap reprints or in éditions de luxe can be more readily procured.

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