Men were still wanting ; and when men came who dared confide in the vigour of their temperaments, yet skilful and scrupulous to give a durable form to their impressions and reflexions, a mighty impulse from without had in some sort diverted the stream. II The revival of learning in France began without Italian intervention and, before it affected at all profoundly the currents of the French literature, it was become a European thing, and the apocalypse of a scholar's paradise had lit up all the West. It is true that, when French artists went to school to the ancients, they saw the paragon of docility in a living people ; and it is at least a colourable opinion that, at the Renaissance, the infant arts of France were strangled by the silken cords of a foreign enchantress.
Yet it is certain that poetry, at any rate, lay bemused ; the best hope of its awakening was in the general spirit of expectancy and rest- lessness ; and it was precisely an effect of that spirit which brought the warlike part of the nation, the most alert and the best able to determine a change of direction in art and in the arts of life, into immediate contact with the sudden and versatile genius of Italy, at a moment when all the adornments of a delicate prosperity were doing homage to the memories of her ancient pride refreshed.
The continuity of the French prose literature was rescued by the prodigious diversity and freedom of Rabelais, who touches Commynes with one elbow and Amyot and Mon- taigne with the other. In verse Clement Marot is a frail link between the starkness of Villon and the reasoned force of the French classics. Yet it may be said that if divine tempests of passion had raged within him and the fire of his imagination had been greater instead of less than his ease and his delight in melting syllables, the French lyric might never have swerved from its straight course, thanks to the steadiness of his example ; for though he fought for King Francis beyond the Alps he is very little Italianate, and his substantial qualities are all homely.
Fortune made Marot the poet of a court tinged with an alien politeness ; where the adulterate valour of a windy Amadis passed for the mirror of Frankish heroism ; but where also, for the first time, there was a zest for prompt and lively talk. He sprang from those rhetoriqueurs who had amused the solemn leisure of Queen Anne of Brittany; but, somehow, he escaped their pedantry. He used a succulent and hearty speech, loved and ' emended ' Villon, and while reflecting the idle humours of a domesticated baronage, and even while playing to his disgrace and danger with the edged tools of fashionable dissent, kept the tone of a sober looker- on, and held uppermost all the while that Gauhsh joviality and bantering prudence which are the lining, as it were, of the French gravity and rashness.
The old national fabulists live again in him, and for Voiture and La Fontaine, for Regnier and Moliere, for Gresset too and Voltaire, he incar- nated what was best worth preserving, or what could still be understood, in the spirit of the sixteenth century, which to more modern eyes he represents so meagrely. That splendid episode produced in France a richer, ampler and more delightful poetry than any the Middle Ages had con- ceived; yet it was an episode in some degree unfortunate for the lyrical development. By their precipitate attempt to rival Greece and Rome with a monument of verse reared in a day upon their models, the heroes of the French Renaissance gave a singular bias to their art ; and the suc- ceeding age, in which the discipline of antiquity was accepted mainly through its affinities with the native intelligence, and its example scrupulously accommodated to the wants of the French genius, avenged too cruelly upon the lyrical idea that debauch of an unsociable enthusiasm.
The enterprise which Pierre de Ronsard, weaned by a merciful infirmity from the life of courts and reading Greek under Daurat at the College de Coqueret, confided to his comrade Baif ; the hope the pensive Du Bellay cherished in well- watered Anjou, and proclaimed in his spirited Deffense et Illustration de la Langue frangoyse, was the conception of an exalted patriotism — nothing less than to endow their country with a fame in letters comparable to the fame of the ancient RepubUcs and of Hving Italy.
The influence of the Pleiad upon the lyrical poets of the English Renaissance has recently been recognised by English criticism. Pedants might aspire to emulate the athletic accomplishments of Secundus and Sannazar, and allege the poverty of French to excuse their slothful prejudice. The old Roman writers, instead of using Greek in despair at the inadequacy of Latin for certain purposes of literature, had deliberately forged for themselves a worthier instrument by analogy with the Greek. It was for French poets to enrich French similarly.
Neither Du Bellay nor Ronsard himself recommended an arbitrary multiplication of words : their theory of coinage was cautious enough, and their practice in many cases fortunate. But they erred by taking the indigence of the language too readily for granted, as if, because Marot's talent was content with a few words, it was the want of words that had strait- ened it. And if it was inevitable, and in a measure salutary, at this stage, that the language should be crammed with more ink-horn elements than it could possibly digest, cer- tainly the poets of the Pleiad were tempted to prolixity by the very abundance of their material, and, what is worse, their example spread the mischievous superstition of synonyms, and the heresy of a distinct poetical vocabulary.
Time has approved at almost every point Ronsard's treat- ment of the national prosody. He left it to Antoine de Baif to make abortive experiments with quantitative verse : his own precepts, so far from being revolutionary, did little more than define and sanction the better practice of his immediate predecessors. Thus, he forbade certain laxities of rime and deprecated the cacophonous clash of vowels, settled the alternation of masculine and feminine endings, decreed the elision of a mute following a sonorous vowel, and insisted on closing the half line with a strong syllable in the Alexandrine, which it is one of his notable achieve- ments to have restored — especially in lyrical strophes of various measures — to the place of honour it had lost since Rutebeuf It is true the Alexandrine of the Pleiad had not yet acquired the stability of a real unit ; a certain envy of 16 A CENTURY OF FRENCH POETS the Virgilian amplitude fretting at the limits of a measure numerically shorter than the hexameter, and of which the rhythmical elasticity was still to discover, may account for the frequent overflow of Ronsard's periods, which too often efface the terminal accent to emphasise the bisection of the line.
And his choice of the short-breathed decasyllabic for his unlucky epic La Franciade, shows clearly enough how little he had divined the resources and the dignity of that magnificent type.
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But without him would the Alexandrine have survived at all? Ronsard is the author of the French ode — of the name and of the thing.
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Allured at first by the Pindaric divisions, strophe and antistrophe and epode, he came to see the futility of those appellations, and retained only the essential conception of one poem with several parts converging to a climax. He is a great master of movement. The very notions of design, structure, composition, were new to his contemporaries, and for the first time the French lyric gained noble proportions in his hands.
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A sounder know- ledge of mediaeval poetry has reduced the number of structural inventions which can be ascribed to Ronsard — and still he remains the most fertile inventor in the whole history of French poetry. He gave the name of Ode only to his longer lyrics, high of purpose, mainly objective in theme and essentially religious in tone and feeling: in reality most of the love -poems, the small delicate master- pieces on which his fame now rests, are also Odes. It is in these that his ardent and fastidious personality is most clearly expressed. In these especially he invokes the com- panionship of the inanimate, and ransacks earth and heaven for fair similitudes.
Another, its counterpart and complement, is the impotence of envious time. No poet can ever have carried with him a more absorbing ideal of fame than Ronsard. Queens and cardinals and what was more to him his peers and scholars promised him immortality : but for him, as for Milton, the glory of which he felt serenely sure was mystical, independent of all praise. Without false shame, he sang of it constantly, thinking less of his own person than of his illustrious tribe.
For it is this after all which, more than his positive achievement, makes Ronsard stand out among the poets of France — that he lifted his art, once and for all, out of the domesticity in which it languished, and proclaimed the poet his own tyrant, with a royal conscience to guard and govern his inspiration. In his view facility and servility were one : hence his disdain for Marot's unstudied lightness, the milk-and-honey of Saint-Gelais, the laureate of a chivalrous revival — though he could be just to both upon occasion : hence too, in part, his deliberate rejection of those pleasant toys, ballades, rondeaux, chants royaux, which threatened the freedom and the seriousness of poets with their quaint rigidity.
Instead of these he brought into French poetry the real kinds — or what seemed such — into which the Greeks and Romans had distributed all metrical composition, only excepting the Italian sonnet from his proscription of ' fixed forms. He failed disastrously with his Franciade, partly because he wanted the genius of sustained narration, partly because he had not access to the genuine matter of French epic and was easily seduced by the prestige of a bookish argument.
His towering figure dwarfs his comrades — Du Bellay, the tender and spontaneous elegiac with a vein of satire, and a master of the sonnet; Remy Belleau, an exquisite craftsman; the learned Baif, the philosophical Pontus de Thyard ; Etienne Jodelle, who inaugurated French tragedy, but a better poet than dramatist.
Their aims were Ronsard's : they had little of his force ; nothing majestic in their defiance of sobriety blinds us to the fundamental weakness of the school. And when a generation has passed, and Desportes appears, sugared and precious, there is an end of high ambitions, and the fester of Italianism lies open. Those Danaan gifts of the Renaissance, the curiosity of life and the theory of beauty, came charged with dangers for the poise of the French mind. It had not to acquire the notion of humanity, and the new learning diffused through Christendom furnished that notion with a store of concrete applications to a distant age and other races, so like and so unlike us.
But Italy had set up an equivocal ideal of the homo maxiTne homo, and the universal man was conceived not as a norm but as a rarity; by her example that craving to multiply the particular existence which is the principle of artistic effort as of most other activities confounded art with accomplishments and aristocracy with vocation. Agrippa d'Aubigne, a Huguenot captain, wrote voluminously both prose and verse, in the intervals of fighting for religious freedom and the dismemberment of his country; his humorous Faeneste is forgotten, but the fame of Les Tragicques has almost in our times revived.
The poem belongs to the fiercest period of the civil wars, though it was not published before the first years of the seventeenth century, which saw the final ruin of the protestant feudalism. It is long, loosely constructed, tedious in parts; d'Aubigne's Alexandrine is, like Ronsard's, a shifting entity ; and there are quagmires of finical phrase in the masterpiece, which remind his readers that the old fanatic had served his poetical apprenticeship as a purveyor of gallantries.
But the rhythm has a prodigious energy, the vivid scenes of conspiracy and slaughter burn our eyes as we read, the comminatory parts are pitched in a key of Hebraical solemnity : Les Tragicques is a monument of lyrical satire which stood alone in the language until the exile of Victor Hugo produced Les Ghdtiments, and is hardly to be matched in ours for the sonorous vehemence of its invective, though we have Milton's thunderous verse and scurrilous prose, and the sardonical fury of Absalom and Achitophel.
Mathurin Regnier is a satirist of another sort. His erudition — for he knew the Romans by heart — and his colour bind him to the Pleiad: his racy freshness, zest, agility, the conspicuous power in Lim of seeming simple, and the continual surprise of an expression startlingly right, carry us back not merely to Marot but to Villon too. Moliere inherited his vein and his diction, and the prose of Saint- Simon more than a hundred years later had the same vivacity and savour in a similar enterprise.
This scandalous churchman he was incorrigibly profligate chastised folly without zeal, by the malice of keen senses and the tenacity of a sensuous memory which revived the very looks and tones and gestures of men, but also by the h 20 A CENTURY OF FRENCH POETS integrating force of an intelligence which could gather into types the particular bugbears of his sane humanity.
It was perhaps as the nephew of Desportes that Regnier felt obliged to break a lance with the implacable critic of his relative, by way of defending the fame of Ronsard : in any case it was a strange and deplorable confusion of issues which pitted so national a talent against the man who did more than any one else to consummate a national reformation in the matter of poetry.
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Fran9ois de Malherbe was a Norman gentleman who spent his life in hard campaigning of one sort or another : in youth he drew the sword for his faith and the integrity of the kingdom, and ended as the champion of the French idiom in its purity, and of the literary conscience. He wrote a very few thousand lines of verse ; and of that little some is in the worst taste of the times, stilted and decorative and grossly Italianate.
How he was converted is not known, but in middle age, or rather later, he formed a new manner, from which conceits are not entirely absent, but which is in the main the perfect model of sententious eloquence. There was no exuberance in his talent : half a dozen topics, chosen for their common interest and developed broadly, in concise and solid formulas, sufficed him ; and he took only a few, and the most compact and sober, of Ronsard's strophes for his moulds. With these, and the grave and confident tone of a robust frankness, a reasonable stoicism, he achieved two or three masterpieces which teach the meaning of orderly and true expression.
But his precepts, formal and informal, were even more valuable than his example. They result from an intolerant contempt for waste material, and a conception eminently social of his art. The chaotic affluence of Ronsard's vocabulary did not charm him : it wanted a standard, and it provoked redundance. He tilted against the Gascon brogue of King Henry's court, and referred a dispute over a common word to the porters of the hay-market, thus signifying his confidence in the usage of the Parisis, that cradle of the language.
To eliminate caprice and chasten personality seemed to him a necessary aim of the poetical discipline. He never thought of poetry as anything else but a form of talk invested with a traditional prestige, by which the particular mind trans- lates for the general the accumulated sagacity of ages. But he laboured to make it as definite a form as possible, and that is the whole gist of his riders upon the prosodical legislation of the Pleiad — that the voice should halt where the sense is consummated, and that rime should be always strenuous, never slovenly. In striving to impose these principles, he took for his models those of the Romans whose accent is most reasonable and whose labour is most cunning ; but it may be said of him that through the Romans he discovered virtues latent in the national literature, though already manifest in French building : economy, balance, a clearness which is not only like plain English practical, but logical also, and exacts an evident, a definite relation of units in a group; but especially the adjustment of proportions to the human scale.
The development of the classical ideal in French art and principally in letters was the work of no single intelligence. Ronsard, it has been said justly, belongs to the prehistoric age of classicism, the age of individual experiment. Malherbe did all one man could do half consciously to conciliate the aesthetic scruple, the breadth and serious enthusiasms of the sixteenth century, its learning and luxurious disdain, with those gregarious instincts, that sobriety and aversion to whatever is esoteric and disorderly, that preference of discourse over ejaculation, which are the perpetual guardians of the French tradition.
The elder Balzac takes up French prose at the point where Montaigne had left it, and gives it equality and cadence. Vaugelas, the grammarian from Savoy, reveals that sort of purity in the form of words and structure of phrase which only a passionate attachment to idiom can attain. But in the formation of a national taste not inferior to the master- pieces of the century, French society itself — a recent thing — directly co-operated.
There was indeed a stage when those celebrated gatherings at the Hotel de Rambouillet and other great houses threatened to frustrate, or at least pervert, the enterprise of Malherbe. When fine ladies leagued with professed wits undertook to humanise the fierce energy of a rude, full-blooded, turbulent nobility disused to all the graces by the civil wars, it is no wonder they overshot the mark of the urbane in their terror of boorishness and insulsity.
It was at first an intercourse of violent natures newly ambitious to assert themselves in a spiritual sphere, and ready to lend the exaggerated import- ance of a contest to everything spoken : there was no room for pointless talk ; and periphrastical inventions became at once a protest against crudity, the jargon of a caste, and the opportunity of a vehement egoism transplanted from camps and cabinets to drawing-rooms and bedsides. Delight in verbalisms, and a rage for recondite allusions and allegorical politeness were fostered by the vogue of a new Italianism which set in with the brilliant pastorals of Marino and Guarini, and complicated by a very superficially Spanish strain of strutting and fantastical extravagance.
Malherbe himself did not quite escape these modish taints ; nor later did the magnificent Corneille. They were not any more than our Euphuists, our 'metaphysical school' of poetry symptoms of a decadence, but on the contrary the accidents of an effort, which at last succeeded, to soften the manners of a robustious generation. But this must be remembered to the credit of the prScieuses, that their aims, the constitu- tion of a cultivated nucleus, the purgation of the language by the test of usage rather than by the tyranny of peda- gogues, were infinitely respectable; and that it is in great measure owing to their intervention that in the age in which the French mind yielded not absolutely its greatest, but assuredly its most original contribution to European letters, the tone of discourse, civil, unstilted and conciliatory, pre- vailed; and that from then till now the relation of the written to the spoken language has, upon the whole, been constantly closer than in the case of any other modern idiom.
The lessons of Malherbe anticipated the consolidation of a fastidious public, secured against the charms of an exces- sive personal adventure in poetry by the ascertainment of its true intellectual bench-marks. But, in the first half of the seventeenth century, the immediate influence of society upon lyricism was almost entirely pernicious.
There were men of talent among the ' bedside poets ' : Vincent Voiture, the spoilt child of a sphere above his birth, displays here and there an amplitude worthy of a higher ambition than to be the most facile, the most ' natural ' model of an artificial style; Sarrazin's witty triolets have an inimitable finish; the trifling fancy of Benserade is often exquisite.
But neither they, nor Theophile de Viau nor Saint-Amant — two writers who had certainly a spark of genius, and by no means depended upon the humours of fashion for their themes, however disastrously both were in different ways contaminated by its jargon — are of a calibre to make any one regret the victory of reason over temperament. Saint-Amant, a pensioner of queens and one of the hardest drinkers of his time, wrote plentifully and most unequally, but with extraordinary mastery of rime, variety, and power of sensuous presentment. A sneer of Boileau's turned his heroical Moyse Sauve into a byword for inflation and absurdity: it is a poor epic, wanting enthusiasm, coherence, simplicity ; yet it contains many passages of indisputable grace and vigour ; and among the shorter poems of Saint-Amant several are remarkable for the full flavour and extreme vitality and faithfulness of the descriptions, a sensitive ponderation of sounds, a delightful comic sense and abundance of unused metaphors.
The admirable poetry made in the Great King's reign supposed the rigorous distinction of mind from matter, and dealt exclusively with mind ; its paramount concern being the conflict of passions, reason or discernment, and freewill in the social man. It sought to represent human truth purged of its accidents; and, instead of the ideal figure summing and lighting up the movement of the Sixteenth Century, that creature of diverse aptitudes, mobile temperament, and unprejudiced curiosity called the complete or universal man, it sub- stituted, as the arbiter of its tone and language and interests, Vhonnete homme — the cultivated man of the world, who made the study of his fellow-men or more narrowly of his equals the occupation of a stately leisure, whose talk was mainly a ventilation of ideas, a gleaning of maxims, a definition of types, and whose abhorrence of obtruded per- sonality, intolerant of strangeness, mystery and emphasis in speech, proscribed the learned and the trivial jargons, terms of art and all that smacked of a function or a hobby or a trade.
King Lewis the Fourteenth succeeded in and died in And so he renounced the elegiac solace of intimate avowals, the direct appeal from sense to sense and from mood to mood, the notation of fluid dreams, the hoarse eloquence of a dishevelled frenzy. What else more necessary to the vitality of art was implicitly sacrificed with these things, could not be discerned before time had exhausted the original energy that begot the three great dramatic poets and the one great lyrist of the seven- teenth century.
Like all the classics — like most real creators — he dispensed with the credit of inventing his subjects or his framework; and by these, but much more by the ancestral, unstratified diversity of his language, he is a conciliator, soldering the Middle Ages and Marot and Rabelais both with antiquity and with his own time. Its peculiar virtues were all his : the interest of character, the very tone of reason, the scrupulous submission to con- ditional truth, limpidity, discretion, detachment; especially he had the genius of construction — that is, skill in marshal- ling the parts of a subject — and the rarer genius of com- position, which means skill in distributing the parts of a poem.
But his supreme originality lies in the continual invention of inimitable schemes, never exactly repeated, so supple, so delicate in their obedience to a secret rule that they seem the effect of blind chance or of a precarious power until they are studied and found to be the exact rhythmical equivalent of mobile sensations and an imper- turbable comic spirit, and an undogmatical sagacity, and a quiet tireless zest for life.
The dramatists concern us here only as poets. When we have abstracted the splendid moral gesture of Corneille, the fanaticism of his pundonor, the casuistical basis of his keen dialogue, the thoughtful concentration of his busy plots, the poetry remains — a poetry which is the natural idiom of his thought, and never falters. Smoothness is not its merit, nor diapason, nor opulence of figures; and his manner, sometimes truculent and not seldom precious, yields to the alternative temptations of his time : but a virile energy, a solid eloquence which disdains extrinsic aids, and braces the will to heroical action by the bare presentment of absolute postures, a rhythm impetuous, without subtlety, translating the clash of minds by the eager attack of clauses — the brevity which resumes vital situations and digested truth, an easy and native pomp in the carriage of his lines — of a witty fancy in any shape with any result to be drawn from them to imitation in real life.
They are a world of themselves almost as much as fairyland. The steadfastness of his piercing smile is a necessary part of his definition, so are his resolute appeal to an almost inexorable sanity and the wisdom of his social sense ; the invention, the formative power that fused Terence and Scaramouch and Patelin and the deep science of scenical perspective controlling the revelation of his creatures in words and acts, the near presence of his men and women and their indissoluble consistency as types, his loyalty to the conception of comedy and to the rule of one mood, even while his large philosophy continually points beyond the limits of the comic — by all this we are first and last impressed, to the prejudice it may well be of the admirable vehicle, prose or verse.
The peculiar qualities of Moliere's verse are vivacity and frankness. It is neither conspicuously sonorous nor often delicate, and negligences abound : but it is downright, full of pith, prompt and never halting, and wells free and warm from that teeming brain ; and where, as in that delightful Amphitryon, his fancy schematises at will, he almost rivals La Fontaine and shows such a tact and resourcefulness as no writer, not essentially a writer of verse, could ever call to help him.
Like Regnier, artistically in many ways his prototype, he is steeped in idiom, so that his very solecisms are racier than another's regularity. And the style deserves to be called national. Yet to suppose with some modern critics a sort of an ti- classical protest in the great foe of fustian, eccentricity and the confusion of kinds, the natural, the reasonable and exclusively human master of 'man's proper faculty,' is strangely to misread Moliere. In the case of Racine at least no such discordancy has been suggested to his praise or blame: it is past doubt that his tragedy is quintessential, the most authentic and authoritative emanation of the classical French spirit, the sovereign equivalent in one art of a particular civilisation at its acme.
He is not quite the greatest of French poets, nor even the most French, if we look for the intense affirmation of a characteristic drift — but simply the flower of the French mind. And so nicely trimmed is the balance of his properties that his singularity is ill to define and the real kernel of his genius is the less accessible to foreigners as he is not one of those who thrust forward insistently some single aspect — even the strangest — of the national soul.
To us Englishmen Racine appears usually as an intelligence: his countrymen enjoy in his poetry, principally, a delicate mode of violent feeling. If any virtues of Racine's stand out, they are economy and the sense of values. Understand that a poet has weighed his words and thrown no word away, and you read him deliberately, you raise the currency of his thought, the temperature of his emotion. The rust is washed off the old lustre of metaphors, and what seemed the sign only of an idea recovers the vitality of an original sensation. For the significance of any gesture is at once relative to its rarity and dependent on the quickness of a sympathetic attention.
The English poetical tradition is more tumultuous, more emphatic ; and do not the French- men of a later day feel all the seduction of a shriller pitch, a wider range? Nevertheless they retain the subtle memory of his atmosphere; and the redintegratio ainoris which welcomes again and again so exquisite an example of 30 A CENTURY OF FRENCH POETS measure, a reticence, a suavity, a sparing of the pathetic goad ever grateful to a prompt and sensitive people, is as a continually fresh delight after the torrents, the forests and the threatening cliffs of other lands in the pastoral undulations of his He de France.
It is a little beside the present purpose to praise the magnificent order of the tragic matter in Racine, his austere exclusion of whatever might distract a spectator from the con- tinuous action not of outward circumstances upon character but of passions alternately surging and receding and surging till they engulf the soul ; or to note the intensity and the faultlessly true expression of the great figures — Hermione the injured beauty, dangerous Orestes, Roxana, the victim Phaedra and Nero's mother and Jehoiada the implacable fanatic — types which allured him less it seems by their prestige than by their parabolical humanity, as signal instances of our common case.
Still less pertinent would be any consideration of his Greek scholarship; or of the degree in which Port- Royal may be held responsible for the ' Christian fatalism ' discoverable, as some think, in his tragedies. But as more strictly within the poetical domain we may speak of his diction, the general colour of his work, of those sudden imaginative gusts which hardly shake the surface of his dialogue but leave a deep disquietude behind, — and above all of his verse in itself, the rich modulation and the cunning numbers. It is not a positive merit in Racine that, whether through a natural frugality or obey- ing the squeamishness of his society, he could contain himself within a very few thousand words ; but it is a merit that he should have used them to such purpose.
The speech of his creatures is in its elements almost the daily speech of well-bred people, and if that limitation accounts for certain minced or starchy formulas which afilict us now by their reiteration, yet more marvellous is the mastery which with materials so sober could reach and sustain an ideal solemnity of utterance. Being a poet, not an archaeologist, he held the ancients rather by their sure points of likeness to us moderns than by their problematical diversity: it is Shakespeare's superiority that his Greeks and Romans are even more particularly Jacobean Englishmen clowns or captains than Racine's are nobles of the galleries at Versailles ; for Racine, like all his contemporaries, tended to eliminate particulars ; but he as well as Shakespeare discerned the essential matter — that their creatures must be brought near to us to live.
The 'sensible critic' in Candide advises that a dramatist should be always a poet, but take care none of his characters should seem poets. Voltaire was thinking of Racine, who echoed many voices with one voice — the triumph of illusion — and had the secret of a unity of tone that was never inappropriate.
But Racine would not have been a great poet if, with words that are always directly relevant, he had not suggested infinite horizons. Sparse perhaps and uniform are the fragments he gives us wherewith to build a whole world of light and harmony fit to contain those souls of noble birth and the dignity of their conflicts and their anguish : but that whole world was in his mind. As Racine shifted the main interest from the will to the passions without touching the framework or altering the scope of French tragedy, so he multiplied the aptitudes of the Alexandrine, but left it mainly the Alexandrine of Malherbe.
Typical French poets from the beginning had usually accounted the pleasure conveyed to the ear by the mere sounds within a line, as distinguished from its rhythm, an accessory and inferior or even meretricious recommenda- tion ; and they had been used to concentrate all their purely ' musical ' resources upon a rime which should strike the hour of a rhythmical period somewhat loudly and capture the mind by being at once expected and unforeseen.
Racine possessed the instinct and the science of melody in a degree which has left him still without a rival : so surely did he play upon the degradation of the vowel scale, the kinship and antipathy of consonants, and so exceptional was the thought he bestowed upon the ill-ascertained element of 32 A CENTURY OF FRENCH POETS quantity, that he could well afford to be relatively indifferent to the sonority of his rimes. As to rhythm, he carried the principle of variety to the utmost point, while obeying the prescription of a fixed breathing-space in the middle of a line: indeed, like La Fontaine and Moliere, he some- times and especially in his one genial comedy hazarded a rhythmical equivocation by avoiding the coincidence of a logical pause with that required by the habit of the French ear.
In a word, by his sure phrasing, his perfect use of metrical equivalents, the varied speed, the fullness and continuous euphony he imparted to the great traditional verse, Racine attained the extreme perfection of which it was capable without some change of formula. And the Alexandrine does not contain all his art. His early lyrics indeed are not much more than middling ; but when in his prime an imperious scruple of which no one should judge rashly made profane poetry incalculably the poorer for his honourable retreat, he wrote some hymns which are of an exquisite savour, and later the choric portions of his sacred drama, and particularly the superb prophesyings of Jehoiada in his final masterpiece, show the full spread of his soaring genius and the whole stature of his yearning soul.
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There was also Nicolas Boileau. The inconsiderate but very explicable contempt which two or three generations of French poets have thrown away upon the Legislator of Par- nassus has altered the character of his renown without destroy- ing it. As a lyrist in the proper sense there is no question of rehabilitating him : goodwill cannot galvanise the Ode on the siege of Namur ; and the merits of his satire, in so far as it does not come under the head of criticism, may be justly stated in few words.
He knew the town and studied the court, and rendered with a full flavour and the particular exactness of a lesser Dutch painter the outward symptoms of many follies that offended the sturdy and outspoken good sense of the cultivated juridical class. But — to come to Boileau's literary doctrine — UArt Po4tique would not have been the complete gospel of poetasters for over a century, nor afterwards a red rag to the more aggressive sort of Romantics, if it had been con- sidered in its historical significance.
He made turgidity ridiculous, drove out the foreign fashions, and wrenched the poetical succession from the hands of gifted amateurs when their jargon and their driftless experiments were mighty. We have lost in some degree the very associations of his favourite terms. And when he made Reason the arbiter he was not depreciating sensation or strong feeling as a source of poetry, nor commending platitude, nor degrading poetry to the rank of an acquirable accomplishment, but persuading all who would write in verse to know their talent and not force it, and to remember how precarious is the charm of impressions which a co-ordinating principle does not present as objects of thought and judgment to posterity.
The second-rate poet who thus cemented Malherbe's labour was devoted to his craft and its difficulties ; and he came oppor- tunely with his lesson — that the durable virtue of the ancient writers is their probity. It is important that this should be admitted. For the insufficiency of his legislation can escape no modern mind. It is noteworthy that he placed the mythological superstition under a religious sanction.
The breach with the Middle Ages was indeed complete ; and it was the Church herself whose late-born scruples had cut oif the Christian sources from French poets and broken the continuity of French tragedy. But, in one word, the counsels of Boileau are good and bad inextricably mingled. It is his lasting reproach that he offered poetical formulas only too capable of a mechanical application to the next age, which thought in prose. His best title to honour is that he gave his own age some solid reasons for preferring Moliere, La Fontaine, Racine, to the wits, the pedants and the exquisites who applauded Pradon, governed the Academy, and still delighted the retired heroines of the Fronde.
IV The art of Racine, the art of La Fontaine owes much of its essential harmony to a certain profound disinterest. It was positive, therefore serene ; intense, not comprehensive ; it knew its frontiers, and made a common conception of the world, of life and its business, the basis of a patient and solid psychological invention. Of this detachment, this acquiescence, the next age was radically incapable. Max Miiller would have spelt it Miatere. The word does not represent, as he thought, the Latin ministerium ; but the idea of ' liturgical function ' is in it all the same.
Nevertheless through- out the space of years, notoriously ungrateful in the history of French poetry, which lies between the production of Athalie or La Fontaine's last Fables and the elegies of Lamar tine, a superstition part academical, part worldly, and allied with a relative sterility, secured a kind of mechanical allegiance to the ideals of good writing which the men of the great reign had set before themselves, but which their suc- cessors failed to adapt to new conditions and to use as living principles. Therefore it is just to call this the age of the classical decadence.
The poetry then made in France was in the main abstract, and imitative, and unskilful. The versified ideology of the eighteenth century was something very different from that chaste, candid, orderly expression of general emotions and heritable truths to which a pure taste, ancient models of per- fection and the acceptance of our reason as the ultimate and incorruptible tribunal had guided the masters of the seven- teenth.
Their matter was necessarily concrete ; the nobility of their even tones communicated a generous exaltation quick to pierce the significance of moral types — the character- istic achievement of the French classics; their speech, stripped already of so many words carrying immediate and precise sensations with them, was still substantial, robust, suggestive.
The contrast between the poetry of Racine's age and that of Voltaire's might almost be summed up, in this one aspect, by saying that the general was now deserted for the abstract, the representation of experience for the analysis of intellectual relations, painting for definition, the eloquence of eternal commonplaces for battles of syllogistic wit, the exploration of passions and the reconstruction of characters for a jingling together of mere notions and, as it were, an algebraical handling of disembodied qualities.
Lesage and Saint-Simon who writes like a contemporary of the Fronde , Marivaux in his novels — for his 36 A CENTURY OF FRENCH POETS admit of several exceptions, phases and degrees, but upon the whole common to a poetry in which the rapid defacement of current metaphors and the penury of new, with all the timid and irrelevant prejudices which fenced about a blood- less but patented vocabulary, more and more attenuated the plastic elements of style.
Confined almost to the traffic of ideas, the French language became in the eighteenth century incomparably apt for that employment: a speech incisive and colourless, frigidly transparent, brisk and nimble rather than energetic, subtly discriminative but short-breathed, elegant in outline but devoid of unction and amplitude — in a word, the perfect vehicle of exact science, humanitarian controversy, diplomatic reports ; and for all the purposes of the imagination, too rare, too gaseous, too unreal. A verbal art aspiring to express the immaterial by signs that open out no avenues of sensuous memory is, if not a contradiction in terms, at the utmost a frail, shadowy, wire-drawn affair ; and such an art, in certain exquisite examples, the eighteenth century did actually achieve.
But most often even the artistic intention was absent from its verse, with the creative gust and the hunger for perfect forms: poetry itself was become a sort of superstition ; and the pragmatical, the dis- integrating curiosity which had sapped the authority of the ancients and dimly perceived already a world too wide for the circumscriptions and tranquillity of the classical ideal, were impotent to renew the sources of inspiration, or even to break rules of which the true sanction did not touch these times. The poets believed it possible to reproduce by system the recent masterpieces they admired by habit ; their imitations were the more servile for being founded on imperfect understanding; and they still trailed after them the trappings of the Greek mythology without the ease of a familiar scholarship or the pretext of an over-scrupulous piety.
The one serious attempt at emancipation threatened delicate comedy is quite bodiless — BuflFon, Diderot, Beaumarchais, are the least abstract of eighteenth century writers ; all the imaginative vigour of Voltaire himself passed into certain of his prose works ; and the great change was foreshadowed in the prose of Rousseau, and carried into the next period by the prose of Chateaubriand. Voltaire and the protests of fashion saved from the assaults of La Motte-Houdart what was in truth very little worth preserving — the prestige of a troublesome full-dress for ceremonious occasions, the mere- tricious attractions of a slender envelope for bulky pamphlets.
No symptom of degeneracy marks the versifiers of the classical decadence so universally as the neglect of their instrument. Melody was not in them, nor any gift of structure ; movement they have, but without variety ; their rhythm is a rigid symmetry of antithetical half-lines, and the indigence of their perfunctory rimes is complete and shame- less. The poets had ceased to think in verse. In a broad view, nearly all the verse made in the eighteenth century falls under two kinds — the didactic and the trifling, or, if you like, the instructive and the elegant ; and perhaps all the exceptions to the general sterility should be assigned to the latter class.
It offers models of neatness, niceness, ingenuity, wherever it is enough to scintillate without fatigue and without emphasis — in epistles, madrigals, compliments, anecdotes, and in the comic, acute or merely malicious as opposed to the indignant and lyrical satire, which aims only at raising against the victim 'the laughter of the mind. One of its favourites, the epicurean priest Chaulieu — the easy and vigorous laureate of the Duchess du Maine's merry court at Sceaux, which balanced the morose propriety of Versailles in the last sad years of the old King — is astride between the two ages.
Voltaire, as a fugitive poet, succeeded and far surpassed Chaulieu ; the gallant Dorat continued Voltaire. In Gresset, though he has no real models, the strain of Marot reappears, run somewhat thin. This is why Voltaire, in his philosophical verse, only clogs the fluidity and honesty of his thought, and almost divests him- self of those capital qualities of his, irony and speed.
Its conception is irremedi- ably systematic and frigid : a few brilliant portraits, two or three vivacious scenes, some astute views of statecraft strikingly expressed, these are all its recommendations, un- less we add that the mere attempt to treat a living, national subject was a great step in a right direction. La Henri- ade is immensely inferior to La Pucelle ; and this is perhaps the place to say that that burlesque epic has the same qualities as the shorter Tales of Voltaire.
It is very un- equal, and the grimace of its ricanement lihertin is dis- agreeable : but the zest of its narrative movement must be recognised, and there is a literary virtue which Renan and M. Anatole France have inherited in the effective em- ployment of a certain perfidious, discreet and implacable irony. A particular species of didactic verse — the descriptive — in which the latter half of the period was amazingly prolific, must be mentioned, because nowhere else is the indigence of imaginative resources, the timidity and levity of the poets so conspicuous.
But the polemical conception of some characters, the flatulent diatribes against priests and rulers of the people, were contributory disabilities. They are not for a moment to be compared with the better English ' poets of nature ' who startled the Georgian dullness with their prim but charming preludes to the mighty outburst of our modern lyric.
The insipidity of Saint-Lambert's para- phrase is in perfect contrast with Thomson's large harmony of effects and weighty manner. There is nothing of the humour and naturalness and sensitive colouring, the intense sympathy, the faithfulness of detail that make The Task and Table Talk delightful, to be found in L'Homme des Champs or in La Pitie or in any other work of Jacques Delille, who held the sceptre of Voltaire until the Restora- tion. Nobody was smoother than Delille, nor more glib, nor more uniform, and that ingenuity in devising phrases that neither name an object kitchen utensil or field flower or domestic animal nor suggest its essence, but imply, if you are sharp at guessing, its intelligible notion by discreet allusion, as in some jeu de socieU, had in him its most accomplished master.
The fashion of descriptive poetry is, however, positively interesting for this reason, that it was ostensibly an effort to bring poetry into contact with everyday life and to make it contain more things. That was symptomatic of the trend towards comprehensiveness ; and, with a little more sincerity, French verse at this stage might have expressed the impartial yet genuine curiosity in whatever has a character of its own, the instinctive realism, the diffusion of literary interest which belong, for instance, to the careless but nervous and expansive prose of Diderot.
But what sincerity of expression could there be without the power of vision, the power of retaining and combining sensations, above all without a concrete vocabulary? The starch and atrophy of classicism were first repudiated in prose — in the magnetical cadenced prose of Rousseau, the logician of instinct whose introspective idealism, at once profoundly unsociable and vehemently expansive, wrought miracles with a faded language long disused to express the correspondence between the inner and the outer world, and the eternal priority of the man who feels over the philosopher who reasons.
And even Rousseau, if we can separate his purely literary influence from the contagion of his politics and the slower infiltration of his domesticity and his theism, caught the taste of his own and the next generation mainly by the elegiac strain in La Nouvelle Helo'ise — a strain which so many reputations besides his had conspired to bring into the favour of drawing-rooms in the last years of the old monarchy. It is a strain common to prose and verse ; but in all essential indications of a deeper change it was natural that verse should lag behind Rousseau's example and later on behind that of Chateaubriand, whose self-centred chivalry reinforced the protest against the suppression of personal emotion with a rarer visual memory and a more generous gift of verbal structure.
The exception is Andre Chenier. The fragments he left show a poetical ambition of infinite variety : what French poetry, but for his tragical death, had to expect from him may perhaps be better measured by the sketch of a De Reriim Natura, to which — like the insipid but scholarly Fontanes and other French- men of the time — he had harnessed his talents already, than by the civic satire to which indignation whetted him, or by the personal cry which his fate wrung from him at the last.
He sang for the most part on a scale of easy rationalism and superficial pathos, alternately expressing a modish dalliance and that sanguine humanitarianism of moderate reformers on which the sharp sword of a people in earnest swung suddenly down ; but also the conscientious erudition then reviving, to which more certainly than to a Greek mother we owe the noble familiarity of his reproductions from antiquity — an Alexandrinism vivified, like that of Ronsard, by the experience of his own senses.
Bray and the He de France are his Arcadia, and his nymphs have Christian names ; and, in spite of lapses into the dullest allegory, Andre Chenier stands alone in the century as a poet whose descriptions are properly imaginative, who had, moreover, such skill in French verse as none had proved since Racine. He is not exempt from the vice of inversions, and on the other hand is sometimes irregular without reason, and it is too much to credit him with having really extended the rhythmical resources of the Alexandrine and shown the way to Victor Hugo ; but he never used it perfunctorily, and visibly took a lesson from the Greeks in the art of varying his periods.
That time of stress held in suspense the hopes of disinterested art. Official encouragement urged some inefficient talents to heroic narrative, and historical accident reinforcing the prestige of Rome and Sparta revived a pseudo-classical poetry in its most odious forms. Ducis, who had adapted Shakespeare with a timidity which belied his real enthusiasm, gave over his efforts to put new life into French tragedy ; Lemercier in mock-heroic satire displayed more boldness than sense of form; abstract description emigrated with Delille and having learned and forgotten nothing returned with him; Chenedolle and Millevoye carried on the feeble fashion of elegant melancholy.
Such was the state of French poetry just before the dawn; while in prose the work of preparation advanced with Madame de Stael, a poor artist but a brilliant desseminator of ideas, whose critical writings accustomed French minds to the notion of relativity in taste and recommended exotic master- pieces to their curiosity; but culminated with Chateau- briand, whose genius awoke the slumbering faculty of images, and, by an apology never before attempted, undermined the disastrous favour of indifferent mythologies and the in- 1 Some of Chenier's alleged enjambements are merely the close of a parenthesis : others have an ill-considered dissonance.
Upon such antecedents, remote and immediate, followed that long spell of intense imaginative energy of which this book is meant to illustrate the characteristic production in verse. It is to be sure a subordinate, but still a conspicuous attraction of the French poetry made during the last three or four generations, that within its limits the fluctuations of the poetical ideal have been quick, full and conscious beyond any example in previous ages ; so that, whether we consider the relation of art to the experience of artists, or the elasticity of the instrument, or the alternate supremacy of one or other element in all verbal expression — thought, sensation, feeling — we shall find that the leavening mass of excellent poets has travelled, not illogically and at each stage with a spontaneous and fruitful unanimity, from one extreme to the other of taste and method and intention.
The rapid determination and definite character of the successive movements distinguishable in the recent de- velopment of the French literature must be attributed in great part to the modern concentration of intellectual resources, and especially to those friendships grounded upon sympathies of the brain through which common formulas and doctrines are most surely elaborated. Our own litera- ture has profited little in comparison with the French by such associations of groping talent : we do not owe much to schools of poetry and are wise perhaps to ignore them and to vindicate the dignity of insulated effort.
But the French intelligence is eminently gregarious. It will hardly be said that, in the last eighty years at least, genius in France has been sacrificed to system or sterilised by fashion : but these changes of direction are the more luminous because they have been thorough and irresistible, and display abundantly at one view the utmost capacity of a race for poetry.
He who turns from the elder writers to those of the nineteenth century may recognise in their output the several drifts and predilections, the congenital scruples, the sudden apostasies towards alien perfections, to which the French mind from the Crusades to the time of Napoleon had all along been prone. But the waves that have latterly carried it this way and that have been separated by none of those intervals of languor and stagnation which attenuate the interest of the earlier centuries.
The first, fullest and most violent of these waves is called Romanticism. She connected it also with the legends and sentiments of chivalry. After various fortunes it has been long accepted as an inexact but serviceable name for the new and char- acteristic form in which the imaginative spirit, as it rose from its ashes, appeared invested.
That spirit infinitely transcends Romanticism ; but in the dazzlement of his resur- rection, we see little else of the phoenix but his plumage. French poetry recovered because poets were born in France. What determined its common features in the first 1 In the eighteenth century it meant what is now expressed in French by romanesque and is still called romantic in English — an epithet of character.
It is a derivative of roman, a word which once signified the speech of provincial Romans, and specifically of the Gallic provincials ; thence, any composition in the vernacular, and finally a story in verse or prose. Three factors seem essential : the bankruptcy of classicism ; the political con- vulsions of thirty years ; the influence chiefly indirect of foreign literatures. It affirmed that poetry can better dispense with opinions than fail to touch the soul; that its scope is co-extensive with the whole world sensible and intelligible ; that emotion is its very air, but that its diet must needs be concrete — in a word, that its sovereign faculty is imagina- tion, that power to provoke the return of lively impressions made upon the sight and other senses in combinations in- exhaustibly new, to quicken and humanise ideas by endowing them with the properties of animate beings, the loss of which had been the most conclusive disability of the classical decadence.
It proclaimed all subjects legitimate. Unison is a narrower ideal than harmony ; art fuses fair with foul and tears with laughter. Literary 'kinds' are arbitrary distinctions ; or at least there is no natural or necessary connexion between a particular species of composition and a particular theme or tone. Literature is the expression of society, and therefore governed by the law of change.
Peri- phrasis is not a grace, but a mark of impotence, and words which can only be replaced by phrases are good enough to use. The vital principles of verse — variety and order — are secured when a poet receives his measures and invents his rhythms. But indeed it was not content with re- pudiating Parny and Delille. It was not clearly seen, or at least it was not constantly remembered, that just because literature is the expression of society it is by Moliere and Corneille and La Fontaine and Racine that those ideals are justified; and that the dearth of poets in the eighteenth century is not explained by the survival of a certain concep- tion of poetry, but is the very reason why the eighteenth century had no formulas properly its own.
For between the favourite notions of that contradictory and half-articu- late age — Progress or Perfectibility, the opposition of nature and society — its general tendency to bring more and more things into the domain of literature, — and the old forms to which it clung, the old prejudices which it travestied, there was a fundamental incongruity. We may assume that such a profound change as should bring poetry into line with life was sooner or later inevitable without the intervention of a social cataclysm or any foreign agency whatever.
Did not the Revolution and the wars suspend rather than precipitate an imminent transforma- tion? It is easier at any rate to feel the general analogy between those convulsions and Romanticism, as successive affirmations of French energy revived, than to point with any certainty to the positive influence of political vicissitudes upon the new poetry. Here are some of their least doubtful effects.
By the Revolution many barriers to a social fusion were thrown down, the ancient provincial frontiers almost trodden out of knowledge, the number of readers and play- goers indefinitely increased, the classical system of education for a time disorganised. The realities of glory and peril fired home-keeping imaginations. An interval of conversa- tional anarchy broke the tradition of self-effacement and discretion, and men of intellect learned to balance the loss of patrons with the luxury of talking about themselves. Some persecution, the continual hasard of sudden death, the tremendous demonstrations of providential design, quickened the capacity of prayer and kindled an atmosphere favourable to the aesthetical theodicy of Chateaubriand.
Undoubtedly also the great upheaval helped to bring the French mind into closer contact with the mind of Europe. It was not quite as when the Valois carried home over the Alps a spiritual booty more precious than many kingdoms : yet a real if imponderable share in this other and so dissimilar! Renaissance belongs to the French eagles ; and its debt is still more evident to the studious wanderings of some French prescripts.
But it is easy to overestimate the degree in which foreign examples impregnated French poetry at this critical stage. The fact is that the French have always, except for the brief period in which their classical masterpieces were making, been accessible to intellectual influences from abroad. Before the eighteenth century, the attraction was usually Southern: ever since the banished Huguenots founded French colonies in Prussia, England and the Low Countries, the new impulses have come most often from the North. But what distinguishes the exoticism of the Romantic period is not that it was particularly fertile, but that it was above all else dogmatic.
The Romantic poets read Shakespeare: what they sought and found in him was chiefly a corroboration of their schemes for 're- forming' French tragedy — or, more generally, the most illustrious example of that comprehensiveness, that harmony of contrasts, that relative indifference to formal unity, which were notes of the new spirit.
Scott and Byron in quite different ways confirmed Chateaubriand; so did what was known of Goethe ; so did Macpherson's Ossian ; and Schiller, who owes so much to Jean-Jacques, gave a sanction to his influence in certain directions. To the enchantment of distance in time and space the picturesque view of history, the prestige of ruins, the joy in diversity , a Romantic element obviously stimulated by foreign literature as well as foreign travel, the French soul has always been sensitive.
But Rene is independent of Werther and of Childe Harold.
Those two Romantic figures impressed the French imagina- tion profoundly, but their racial characteristics — the senti- mental mediocrity of the German student, the insolent misanthropy of the English oligarch — could not really be absorbed. If ' the return to Nature ' means attending to the beauty of landscape, or the perception of its analogies with the character of our passions, both are in Rousseau.
There are faithful renderings of natural effects in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. The conspicuous place of nature in French Romantic poets may almost be reduced to this — that they studied nature for the sake of metaphors, and that they revived an eternal common- place of all poetry — the contrast between its serenity and our agitations. Nature, for the Romantics, was still a part of man. The study of the inanimate as a basis for interpreting the world, which is as old as Bossuet, and the conception of man as a part of nature, which is as old as Buffon, fertilised much of the French poetry in the next generation: but whatever it owed to foreign science upon that score, its debt to foreign literature is inappreciable.
The establishment of a new principle — the principle of freedom in art — was the permanent benefit of Romanticism. Successive schools of French poetry have still appealed to this ; and it is indeed the principle of any durable vitality. In its broadest application it means, not that perfection is relative, but that the roads to perfection are innumerable ; not that there are no rules, but that the rule of rules is to be oneself.
And this is to deny the statical conception of 1 Anthropomorphism is of course the life of poetry : there could be no metaphors without it. But it may be remarked here that French art in general has resisted the efforts of modern thought to decentralise the universe. Want to Read saving…. Want to Read Currently Reading Read. Other editions. Enlarge cover. Error rating book. Refresh and try again. Open Preview See a Problem? Details if other :. Thanks for telling us about the problem. Return to Book Page. Preview — Belange by Patrick Cauvin. Belange by Patrick Cauvin. Il se sentit ridicule.
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