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THE volumes which we are about to notice, form part of the course of lectures on the Literature of France, delivered by Villemain in his capacity of professor at the Faculté des Lettres in Paris, in 1827. They embrace the first and the most interesting portion of the literature of the eighteenth century; the period of invention and bold philosophical speculation, when literature, suddenly emerging from the rank of an art, became in truth what Bonald calls "the expression of society" -a power in the state of vast and immediate influence both for good and evil; the only power, indeed, which preserved its energy and activity amidst a period of social decline. The three volumes which complete the course, and in which the author traces the literary history of the eighteenth century up to the period of the Revolution, when a new character was, in many respects, impressed upon it, will form the subject of a future article.
Looking back on the high pretensions of the eighteenth century, and the self-complacent confidence which its critics and writers seemed to entertain of their own superiority to all who had gone before, if not also to all who were to follow them, it is an object of great interest to compare, with the assistance of the lights derived from experience, their estimate of their own merits and pretensions, with the sentence which has been pro
nounced on an appeal to time-" No doubt but we are the men, and wisdom shall die with us," was, perhaps, the only scriptural text to which the men of letters of the eighteenth century gave their unqualified and universal assent. And yet this complacent selfconfidence has been found fallacious; the criticism of the nineteenth century has not only lowered from their pride of place the popular favourites of the eighteenth, but, as there is reason to believe, unduly degraded them below their just level, from the not unnatural reaction produced by a total opposition of critical views. One lesson may at all events be gathered, even in the outset, from these revolutions of opinion. Let no nation, or age, flatter itself that it has succeeded in fixing the standard of critical taste. The canons of criticism may be, in their main points, invariable, as founded on universal principles of our nature, but it is in their practical application that the difficulty occurs. And there all experience teaches us, that no one age can feel the least assurance that its judgments, derived as they are from a thousand minute circumstances of manners, habits, and opinions, unknown to its predecessors, can be in any way binding on their successors; or that there is any impassable limit in critical geography-any spot where the poet or the philosopher may pause, as at the 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.