« PreviousContinue »
The volumes which we are about nounced on an appeal to time—" No to notice, form part of the course of doubt but we are the men, and wisdom lectures on the Literature of France, shall die with us," was, perhaps, the delivered by Villemain in his capacity only scriptural text to which the men of professor at the Faculté des Lettres of letters of the eighteenth century in Paris, in 1827. They embrace the gave their unqualified and universal first and the most interesting portion assent. And yet this complacent selfof the literature of the eighteenth cen. confidence has been found fallacious; tury; the period of invention and bold the criticism of the nineteenth century philosophical speculation, when litera- has not only lowered from their pride ture, suddenly emerging from the rank of place the popular favourites of the of an art, became in truth what Bo- eighteenth, but, as there is reason to nald calls “ the expression of society” believe, unduly degraded them below -a power in the state of vast and im- their just level, from the not unna. mediate influence both for good and tural reaction produced by a total evil ; the only power, indeed, which opposition of critical views. One lesson preserved its energy and activity amidst may at all events be gathered, even in a period of social decline. The three the outset, from these revolutions of volumes which complete the course, opinion. Let no nation, or age, flatter and in which the author traces the itself that it has succeeded in fixing literary history of the eighteenth cen- the standard of critical taste. The tury up to the period of the Revolu. canons of criticism may be, in their tion, when a new character was, in main points, invariable, as founded on many respects, impressed upon it, will universal principles of ournafure, but it form the subject of a future article. is in their practical application that the * Looking back on the high preten- difficulty occurs. And there all experisions of the eighteenth century, and ence teaches us, that no one age can feel the self-complacent confidence which the least assurance that its judgments, its critics and writers seemed to en. derived as they are from a thousand tertain of their own superiority to all minute circumstances of manners, hawho had gone before, if not also to bits, and opinions, unknown to its preall who were to follow them, it is an decessors, can be in any way binding object of great interest to compare, on their successors; or that there is with the assistance of the lights de- any impassable limit in critical georived from experience, their estimate graphy-any spot where the poet or of their own merits and pretensions, the philosopher may pause, as at the with the sentence which has been pro
Pillars of Hercules, and say
Cours de Littérature Française. Par M. Villemain, Membre de l'Académie Française, Professor à la Faculté des Lettres à Paris. Tableau du Dix-huitième Siècle, Première partie, 2 tom. 1838.
NO, CCLXXXV. VOL. XLVI.
“ Hic tandem stetimus nobis ubi defuit changes, in short, resulting only in orbis."
the conviction, that nothing has been The difficulty of forming an impar. substantially gained, and that the litial estimate of the literature of the berty enjoyed under a popular King eighteenth century in France, is still can scarcely be distinguished from the great ; for the whole character of that despotism so falsely complained of literature was so closely connected under the restored dynasty, bave with social and political changes, the taught men generally to distrust fine effects of which are still felt, that its theuries, to look with doubt on high. merits or demerits become less a ques- sounding professions, to give greater tion of taste than of personal feeling, weight to experience, to be more to be decided according to the preju. tolerant of all opinions, and less disdices entertained by the critic in favour posed to identify themselves with any. of or against the changes themselves. They have created a spirit of indifferThirty years, for instance, after the ence, favourable to impartiality in death of Voltaire, the struggle between criticism, though not to original inhis admirers and the opponents of his vention ; which, by excluding or fame, was waged as fiercely and unre- weakening, in a great measure, the lenuingly as at the moment when he influence of personal feelings, interclosed his career; for he was still to ests, or political convictions, enables both parties, not so much the drama- the reader more distinctly to perceive tist, the historian, the poet, or the and to judge of the questions of liter. novelist, as the apostle of opinions, to ature and taste, which the criticism of which the one party clung as essential the great writers of the last century to social progress and political im. involves. provement, and which the other more The total change, too, which has justly identified with the subversion of taken place in literature itself, affords all morality and all government. His another important aid in forming a reputation became like the dead body just estimation of that by which it was of Patroclus, the central object round preceded; for many of those novelties which the conflict of opinion was main- and experiments in taste which were tained. Political discussion, excluded then advocated, have now been practi. from actual life during the stern rule cally tried, and the result lies before us. of Napoleon, took the direction of We have lived to see the old barriers literary criticism, making the opinions of taste removed—the wall of partiexpressed with regard to the literature tion, which separated the literature of of the preceding century, not judg. France from those of other countries, ments, but contradictory pleadings, broken down--the unities banished acrimonious, one-sided, or distorted. from the stage-conventional decorum
The changes which have taken has given way to wild force-an un. place in France since the fall of the regulated imagination has superseded dynasty of Bonaparte—the restoration philosophy-and the extreme of liand second expulsion of the Bourbons cense has succeeded the extreme of the establishment, amidst an all but caution. We shall not at present anuniversal exultation, of a monarchy ticipate the answer to the question, Has owing its existence to a popular move. France been a gainer by the change? ment, and then labouring, from the Or has she exchanged a grave, dignifirst moment of its foundation, to tame fied, and tasteful, though not imaginaor crush the power by which it had tive, literature, which she had carried to been created ; on the one hand, the a high pitch of perfection, for oneessen. gradual decline of popular enthusiasm, tially foreign to her national tastes, in consequent on disappointed expecta- which an appearance of originality is tions, however unreasonable ; on the attained only by the gross exaggera. other, the apprehensions of the more tion of the features which she has borsober and rational, that the barriers rowed from other quarters ? But, unof a steady and constitutional liberty doubtedly, the result of this series of have been already so shaken, or beaten experiments, particularly in the lite, down, by the sacrifices made to the rature of imagination as displayed democratic impulse, and the false prin- in the later productions of France, ciple on which the existing monarchy admittedly unpromising, unsatisfacis based, that all hope of a firm and tory, and unnatural, enables us more, settled governinent in France is for correctly to estimate the justice of some time at an end ; - all these those views on which the great works
of the eighteenth century were come more of the rationalizing spirit of the posed ; and of their principles of com- first half of the eighteenth century, position, so much more in harmony which it illustrates, than of the nines with the character of a people emi. teenth, amidst the stormy influences pently intellectual, and finely alive to of which it has been composed. ridicule, but neither distinguished by The genius of the seventeenth cen. high imagination, nor great depth or tury had been formed under these difearnestness of feeling.
ferent influences a religious faith, :: The task of tracing the literary strong, uniform, and undoubting; the history of that period, could hard- spirit of reverence for antiquity; and ly have fallen into the hands of a the pomp and circumstance of a tran. more candid critic than Villemain. quil and imposing monarchy. It wore While the influence of his age, and an aspect, accordingly, of dignity, bis familiarity with the better models outward moral propriety, and good of literature in other countries, have sense, rather than depth of thinking, emancipated him from narrow views, conveyed in the garb of a pure simple taught him to value the old conven- expression so far as regarded style. tional rules of his country only at It is expressed in its most attractive their true worth-that is to say, not form, either in the pointed neatness of as essentials applicable to all litera. Boileau, or in the drama, wbich had ture, but simply as convenient pre- been raised at once from infancy to cepts suitable to the national taste--he manhood by the vigorous and original is no warm partisan of the modern genius of Corneille, and which rem school of composition, no advocate of ceived the last polish and grace of the more than Shakspearian license of which its artificial and rhetorical form plot, and the atrocities, eclipsing those was susceptible, from the delicacy and of Massinger and Shirley, in which tenderness of Racine. they indulge, and which often make The dominant influences, on the the reader lay down the book with contrary, under which the literature of a feeling, in regard to the writer, the eighteenth century may be said to similar to that of Alceste in the Mis bave grown into shape, are a sceptical anthrope, “ Qu'un homme est pen. philosophy, the imitation of foreign dable après les avoir faits." His literature, and the mania for political tastes, on the contrary, lean decidedly reform. Some traces of the sceptical towards the simple, the natural, the spirit of a later period, may indeed be kindly, and the elevated. Doing jus- traced even among the contemporaries tice to many of Shakspeare's excellen- of Bossuet, in the extensive erudi. cies, it is yet evident that Villemain re- tion of Bayle, combined with a spirit jects the idea that Shakspeare's drama- of mockery and universal doubt, which tic system can be placed on a level with labours to reduce the most opposite that of the Greek dramatists, and, in- opinions, as to facts or doctrines, to an deed, that he has much difficulty in equilibrium; and whose multifarious bringing himself to admit that he has researches afforded to his successors, any system at all. And, accordingly, at an easy rate, a storehouse of learni though he seems abundantly sensible ing, which was tur to ample acof the nature, tenderness, and pro- count when the crusade against estas fundity of individual passages in blished opinions was commenced in Shakspeare ; nay, is disposed to earnest by the authors of the Encyclo. admit, occasionally, even his higher pédie. Still, when Louis XIV.; the art in comparison with the French survivor of almost every great man dramatists, as well as his deeper who had illustrated his court or his acquaintance with the human heart reign, died, on the 1st September and human sympathies, his leaning, 1715, the general characteristics of on the whole, seems to be towards French literature were reverence for the more stately, decorous, and well. religion, loyalty to the throne, a pride ordered márch of the tragedy of in the extensive influence of France bis own country, of which Cor. Över other nations, which was justified Deille, Racine, and Voltaire are the both by her political ascendency, and great representatives. His work, by the adoption of her critical views. iherefore, though written on more and the imitation of her great writers; enlarged and liberal principles than and a complacent satisfaction with the that of La Harpe, certainly breathes present, which rendered men compao
ratively indifferent to the future, and any way in which they could be most indisposed to experiment or alteration readily turned to a marketable acin the existing state of things.
count. A change, however, soon becomes In the drama, a temporary popu. perceptible as we advance into the, larity and appearance of novelty was reign of Louis XV. In religion, the obtained by Crebillon, the father of fervency and unction which give an the novelist. The examples of Corappearance of inspiration to many neille and Racine had fixed certain of the compositions of Bossuet on principles in dramatic composition so subjects of Christian belief, were firmly, that they soon became unalter. succeeded by a school of pulpit able rules, from which no dramatist eloquence, in which morality, cha- could safely venture to deviate. Such rity, or the performance of duty, were the invariable introduction of were more insisted on than faith ; a love as the moving principle of the school analogous to that of Tillotson drama, even amidst circumstances and and Barrow and South in our own periods of society when its interven... country. In Massillon, the predomi- tion was the most incongruous; a nance of action over sentiment as the mythological or antique dignity in the great principle of religion, becomes personages and events represented; evident; while the lessons he ventures an avoidance of modern or domestic to convey to royalty as to its duties, subjects; the limitations of time, place, and the corresponding rights of sub- and action, with their natural consejects, contrasting so strangely with quences, long recitals, soliloquies, and the divine-right doctrines systemati- expositions in words rather than ac. cally inculcated by Bossuet, show that tion; a sustained pomp of expression monarchy had soon begun to lose its in the dialogue banishing all common imposing aspect under the weak suc- or familiar words, however natural in cessor of Louis XIV., and that it was the expression of powerful feeling ; already beginning to listen to that the rigorous exclusion of every thing language of remonstrance from the comic from the sphere of tragedy, and, pulpit, which was at no distant period at the same time, a nervous dread of to be conveyed in accents of thunder pushing the tragic effect too far, if death from the democratic demagogues and or physical suffering were allowed to infuriated multitudes in the courts be displayed upon the stage; for which of Versailles or the Tuileries.
scarcely any better reason could be In lyric poetry, the pretensions of given, than the authority of a line in French literature were but feebly sup- Horace's Art of Poetry. ported by the epicurean verses of Chau. So strongly were these artificial pelieu and the odes of J. B. Rousseau— culiarities rooted and grounded in the compositions destitute of any true re- very being of French tragedy, that ligious sentiment, and producing their even writers of some poetical ability, effect only by some force and senten- well acquainted with the dramatic tiousness of expression, combined with literature both of antiquity and of foa sonorous and harmonious versifica- reign countries — like Lafosse, the tion. Placed beside the choruses in author of Manlius—while attempting the Esther and the Athalie, they ap- to throw more of natural feeling into pear altogether false and unnatural; the French drama, thought it vain to the difference between the real inspi. contend against the current of settled ration of Racine, and the laboured opinion, so far as regarded rules and artificial enthusiasm of Rousseau, which were looked on as dramatic is palpable at first sight. It is such as axioms no longer admitting of dismight be expected from the contrasted pute or modification, and therefore characters of the two poets; that of continued to pursue the formal and the dramatist-mild, gentle, sincerely somewhat stilted framework of the pious, speaking from his own heart, 17th century; while on the other hand and speaking to ours ; that of the lyric he leans, with a visible admiration, poet vain, turbulent, unconscien- towards the natural movement of the tious, immersed in literary intrigues, romantic drama, so far as regarded the just as ready to compose an obscene expression of sentiment. Among perepigram or a defamatory libel as a sonages who had not even the talent canticle or a sacred ode, and anxious (such as it was) of Lafosse, like La., to make merchandise of his talents in grange Chancel, the conventional and