1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Literature - Romantic Movement

(Part 69)


The Romantic Movement

It is time, however, to return to the literary revolution itself, and its more purely literary results. At the accession of Charles X. France possessed three writers, and perhaps only three, of already remarkable eminence, if we except Chateaubriand, who was already of a past generation. These three were Béranger (1780-1857) Lamartine (1790-1869), and Lamennais (1782-1854). The first belongs definitely in manner, despite his striking originally of nuance, to the past. He has remnants of the old periphrases, the cumbrous mythological allusions, the poetical properties of French verse. He has also the older and somewhat narrow limitations of the French poet ; foreigners are for him mere barbarians. At the same time his extraordinary lyrical faculty, his excellent wit, which make him a descendant of Rabelais and la Fontaine, and his occasional touches of pathos made him deserve and obtain something more than successes of occasion. Béranger, moreover, was very far from being the mere improvisatore which those who cling to the inspirationist theory of poetry would fain see in him. His studies in style and composition were persistent, and it was logn before he attained the firm and brilliant manner which distinguishes him. Béranger’s however, was still too much a matter of individual genius to have great literary influence and he formed no school. It was different with Lamartine, who was, nevertheless Béranger, a typical Frenchman. The Meditations and the Harmonies exhibit a remarkable transition between the old school and the new. In going direct to nature, in borrowing from her striking outlines, vivid and contrasted tints, harmony ad variety of sound, the new poet showed himself an innovator of the best class. In using romantic and religious associations,a nd expressing them in affecting language, he was the Chateaubriand of verse. But with all this he retained some of the vices of the classical school. His versification, harmonious as it is, is monotonous, and he does not venture into the bold lyrical forms which true poetry loves, and with which the alexandrine of Boileau could not unite itself. He has stil the horror of the mot propre ; he is always spiritualizing and idealizing, and his style and thought have a double portion of the feminine ands almost flaccid softenss which had come to pass for grace in French. Nevertheless the Lac is a poem such as had not been written in France for 200 years. The last of the trio. Lamennais, represents an altogether bolder and rougher genius. Strongly influenced by the Catholic reaction, Lamennais also shows the strongest possible influence of the revolutionary spirit. His earliest work, the Essai sur l’Indifference en Matière de Religion, was a defence of the church on curiously unecclesiastical lines. It was written in an ardent style, full of illustrations, and extremely ambitious in character. The plan was partly critical and partly constructive. The first part disposed of the 18th century ; the second, adopting the theory of papal absolutism which De Maistre had already advocated, proceeded to base it on a supposed universal consent, which the Church of Rome was very far from accepting as a contribution to its defence. The after history of lamennais was perhaps not an unnatural recoil from this ; but with this after history we are not concerned ; it is sufficient to point out that in hi prose, especially as afterwards developed in the apocalyptic Paroles d’un Croyant, are to be discerned many of the tendencies of the romantic school, particularly its hardly and pictureque choice of language, and the disdain of established and accepted methods which it professed, the signs of the revolution itself were, as was natural. First given in periodical literature. The feudalist affectations of Chateaubriand and the legitimists excited a sort of aesthetic affection for Gothicism, and Walter Scott became one of the most favourite authors in France. Soon was started the periodical La Muse Française, in which the names of Hugo, De Vigny, Deschamps, and Madame de Girardin appear. Almost all the writers in this periodical were eager royalists, and fro some time the battle was still fought on political grounds. There could, however, to be special connexion between classical drama and liberalism; and the liberal journal, the Globe, with no less a person than Sainte-Beuve among its contributors, declared definite war against classicism in the drama. Soon the question became purely literary, and the romantic school proper was born in the famous cenacle or clique in which Hugo was chief poet, Sainte-Beuve chief critic, and Gautier, Gerard de Nerval, Émile and Antony Deschamps, Petrus Borel, and others were officers. Alfred de Vigny and Alfred de Musset stand somewhat apart and so does Charles Nodier (1783-1844), a versatile and voluminous writer, the very variety and number of whose works have somewhat prevented the individual excellence of any of them from having justice done to it. The objects of the school, which was at first violently opposed, so much so that certain Academicians actually petitioned the king to forbid the admission of any romantic piece at the Théâtre Français, were, briefly stated, the burning of everything which had been adored, and the adoring of everything which had been burnt. They would have no unities, no arbitrary selection of subjects, no restraints on variety of versification, no academically limited vocabulary, no considerations of artificial beauty, and above all, no periphrastic expression. The mot propre, the calling of a spade a spade, was the great commandment of romanticism; but it must be allowed that what was taken away in periphrase was made up in adjectives. De Musset, who was very much of a free-lance in the contest, maintained indeed that the differentia of the romantic was the copious use of this part of speech. All sorts of epithets were in vented to distinguish the two parties, of which Flamboyant and Grisâtre are perhaps the most accurate and expressive pair,--the former serving to denote the gorgeous tints and bold attempts of the new school, the latter the grey colour and monotonous outlines of the old. The representation of Hernani in 1830 was the culmination of the struggle, and during great part of the reign of Louis Philippe almost all the younger men of letters in France were romantics. The representation of the Lucréce of Ponsard (1814-1867) in 1846 is often quoted as the herard or sign of a classical reaction. But this was only apparent, and signified, if it signified anything, merely that the more juvenile excesses of the romantics were out of date. For forty years all the greatest men of letters of France have been on the innovating side, and all without exception, whether intentionally or not, have had their work coloured by the results of the movement.

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