1902 Encyclopedia > France > French Drama and Poetry since 1830

(Part 70)


Drama and Poetry since 1830

Although the immediate subject on which the battles of classics and romantics arose was dramatic poetry, the dramatic results of the movement have not been those of greatest value or most permanent character. The principal effect in the long run has been the introduction of a species of play called drame, as opposed to regular comedy and tragedy, admitting of much freer treatment than either of these two as previously understood in French, and lending itself in some measure to the lengthy and disjoined action, the multiplicity of personages, and the absence of stock character which characterized the English stage in its palmy days. All Victor Hugo’s dramatic works are of this class, and each, as it was produced or published (Cromwell, Hernani, Marion de l’Orne, Le Roi s’amuse, Lucréce Borgia, Marie Tudor, Ruy Blas, and Les Burgraves), was a literary event, and excited the most violent discussion,—the author’s usually plan being to prefix a prose preface of a very militant character to his work. A still more melodramatic variety of drame was that chiefly represented by Alexandre Dumas (1803-1874), whose Henri III. and Antony, to which may be added later La Tour de Nesle and Mademoiselle de Belleisle, were almost as much rallying points for the early romantics as the dramas of Hugo, despite their inferior literary value. At the same time Alexandre Soumet (1788-1845), in Norma, Une Fête de Neron, &c., maintained a somewhat closer adherence to the older models. The classical or semi-classical reaction of the last years of Louis Philippe was represented in tragedy by Ponsard (Lucréce, Agnes de Méranie, Charlotte Corday, Ulysee, and several comedies), and on the comic side, to a certain extent, by Emile Augier (b. 1820) in L’Aventuriére, Le Gendre de M. Poirier, Le Fils de Giboyer, &c., During almost the whole period Eugéne scribe (1791-1861) poured forth innumerable comedies of the vaudeville order, which without possessing much literary value, attained immense popularity. For the last twenty years the realist development of romanticism has had the upper hand in dramatic composition, its principal representatives being on the one side Victorien Sardou (b. 1831), who in Nos Intimes, La Famille, Rabagas,Dora, &c., has chiefly devoted himself to the satirical treatment of manners, and Alexandre Dumas fils (b. 1824), who in such pieces as Led Idées de Madame Aubray and L’Etrangére has rather busied himself with morals. Certain isolated authors also deserve notice, such as Autran (1813-1877), a poet and Academician having some resemblance to Lamartine, whose Fille d’Aeschyle created for him a dramatic reputation which he did not attempt to follow up, and Legouvé (b. 1807), whose Adrienne Lecouvreur was assisted ton popularity by the admirable talent of Rachel. A special variety of drama of the first literary importance has also been cultivated in this century under the title of scenes or proverbs, slight dramatic sketches, in which the dialogue and style are of even more importance than the action. The best of all of these are those of Alfred de Musset (1810-1857), whose Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée, On ne badine pas avec l’amour, &c., are models of grace and wit. Among his followers may be mentioned especially M. Octave Feuillet (b. 1812).

In poetry proper, as in drama, M. Victor Hugo showed the way, and has never allowed any one since to take the lead from him. In him all the romantic characteristics are expressed and embodied, -- disregard of arbitrary critical rules, free choice of subject, variety and vigour of metre, splendour and sonorousness of diction. If the careful attention to form which is also characteristic of the movement is less apparent in him than in some of his followers, it is not because it is absent, but because the enthusiastic conviction with which he attacks every subject somewhat diverts attention from it. As with the merits so with the defects. A deficient sense of the ludicrous which has characterized many of the romantics is strongly apparent in their leader, as is also an equally representative grandiosity, and a fondness for the introduction of foreign and unfamiliar words, especially proper names, which occasionally produces in effect of burlesque. Victor Hugo’s earliest poetical works, his chiefly royalist and political Odes, are cast in the older and accepted forms, but already display astonishing poetical qualities. But it was in the Ballades (for instance, the splendid Pas d’Armes du Roi Jean, written in verses of three syllables) and the Orientales (of which may be taken for a sample the sixth section of Navarin, a perfect torrent of outlandish terms poured forth in the most admirable verse, or Les Djinns, where some of the stanzas have lines of two syllables each) that the grand provocation was thrown to the believers in alexandrines, careful caesuras, and strictly separated couplets. Les Feuilles d’Automne, Les Chants du Crépuscule, Les Voix Intérieures, Les Rayons et les Ombres, the productions of the nest twenty years were quieter in style and tone, but no less full of poetical spirit. The Revolution of 1848, the establishment of the empire, and the poet’s exile brought about a fresh determination of his genius to lyrical subjects. Les Châtiments and La Légende des Siécles, the one political, the other historical, reach perhaps the high water mark of French verse; and they were followed by the philosophical Contemplations, the lighter Chansons des Rues et des Bois, the Année Terrible, the second Légende des Siécles, and one or two more volumes which lead us to the present day. We have been thus particular because the literary productiveness of Victor Hugo himself has been the measure sample of the whole literary productiveness of France on the poetical side. At five-and twenty he was acknowledged as a master, at seventy-five he is a master skill. His poetical influence has been represented in three different schools, from which very few of the poetical writers of the century can be excluded. These few we may notice first. Alfred de Musset, a writer of great genius, felt part of the romantic inspiration very strongly, but was on the whole unfortunately influenced by Byron, and partly out of willfulness, partly from a natural want of persevering industry and vigour, allowed himself to be careless and even slovenly in composition. Notwithstanding this many of his lyrics are among the finest poems in the language, and his verse, careless as it is, has extraordinary natural grace. Auguste Barbier, whose Iambes shows an extraordinary command of nervous and masculine versification, also comes in here; and the Breton poet Brizeux, together with Hégésippe Moreau, and unequal poet possessing some talent, and Pierre Dupont (1821-1870), one of much greater gifts, also deserve mention. Of the school of Lamartine rather than of Hugo are Alfred de Vigny (1799-1865) and Victor de Laprade (b. 1812), the former a writer of little bulk and somewhat over-fastidious, but possessing one of the most correct and elegant styles to be found in French, the latter a meditative and philosophical poet, like De Vigny an admirable writer, but somewhat deficient in pith and substance, as well as in warmth and colour. The poetical schools which more directly derive form the romantic movement as represented by Hugo are three in number, corresponding in point of time with the first outburst of the movement, with the period of reaction already alluded to, and with the closing years of the second empire. Of the first by far the most distinguished member was Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), the most perfect poet in point of form that France has produced. The side of the romantic movement which Gautier developed was its purely pagan and Renaissance aspect. When quite a boy he devoted himself to the study of 16th century masters and though he acknowledged the supremacy of Hugo, his own talent was of an individual order, and developed itself more or less independently. Albertus alone of his poems has much of the extravagant and grotesque character which distinguished early romantic literature. The Comédie de la Mort, the Poésies Diverses, and still more the Émaux et Camées, display a distinctly classical tendency—classical, that is to say, not in the party and perverted sense, but in its true acceptation. The tendency to the fantastic and horrible may be taken as best shown by Petrus Borel (1809-1859), a writer of singular power almost entirely wasted. Gerard Labrunie or de Nerval (1808-1855) adopted a manner also fantastic but more idealistic than Borel’s, and distinguished himself by his Oriental travels and studies, and by his attention to popular ballads and traditions, while his style has an exquisite but unaffected strangeness hardly inferior to Gautier’s. This peculiar and somewhat quintessenced style is also remarkable in the Gaspard de la Nuit of Louis Bertrand, a work of rhythmical prose almost unique in its character. The two Deschamps were chiefly remarkable as translators. The next generation produced three remarkable poets, to whom may perhaps he added a fourth. Théodore the Banville (b. 1820). Adopting the principles of Gautier, an combining with them a considerable satiric faculty, composed a large amount of verse, faultless in form, delicate and exquisite in shades and colours, but so entirely neutral in moral and political tone that it has found comparatively few admirers. Leconte de Lisle (b. 1819); carrying out the principle of ransacking foreign literatures for subjects, has gone to Celtic, classical or even Oriental sources for his inspiration, and despite a science in verse not much inferior to De Bauville’s, and a far wider range and choic of subject, has diffused an air of erudition, not to say pedantry, over his work which has disgusted some readers. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), by his analysis, has revolted not a few of those who, in the words of an English critic, cannot take pleasure in the representation if they do not take pleasure in the thing represented. Thus by a strange coincidence each of the three representatives of the second romantic generation has for various reason been hitherto disappointed of his due fame. The fourth port of this time, Joséphin Soulary, is probably little known in England. His sonnets, however; are of rare beauty and excellence. In 1866 a collection of poems, entitled after an old French fashion Le Parnasse Comtemporain, appeared. It included contributions by many of the poets just mentioned, but the mass of the contributors were hitherto unknown to fame. A similar collection appeared in 1869, and was interrupted by the German war, but continued after it, and a third in 1876. The contributors to these collections, who have mostly published separate works, were very numerous, and have become collectively known, half seriously and half in derision, as Les Parnassiens. From time to time aspirants to poetry, such as MM. Bouchor and Lafagette, have attempted to revolt against this society, but they have ended by being absorbed into it. The cardinal principle of the Parnassiens is, in contribution of Gautier and Baudelaire, a devotion to poetry as an art, but under this general principle there is a considerable diversity of aim and object, and a still greater diversity of subject. François Coppée has devoted himself chiefly to domestic and social subjects. Sully Prudhomme has a certain classical tinge. Catulle Mendes has followed Leconte de Lisle in going far afield for his subjects; Louisa Siefert indulges in the poetry of despair; while Albert Glatigny, a poet who lived as a strolling actor, and died young, perhaps excelled any of the others in individuality of poetical treatment. As the Parnassiens, however, muster some three or four score poets, it is impossible to deal with them at length here. It is sufficient to say that the average merit of their work is decidedly high, though it is difficult to assign the first rank to any poet among them. Assuming that their work is to be classed as minor poetry, there has assured not even in the Elizabethan age in England been such a school of minor poets. It is fair to add that they appear to be little read in France, and hardly at all elsewhere. To complete the history of French poetry in the 19th century we must add that considerable efforts have been made to give Provençal rank once more as a literary tongue. The Gascon poet Jacques Jasmin has produced a good deal of verse in the western dialect of the language. Within the last twenty years amore cultivated and literary school of poets has arisen in Provence itself, the chief of whom are Frédéric Mistral (Mirèio, Calendau) and Théodore Aubanel.

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