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"Hic tandem stetimus nobis ubi defuit orbis."
The difficulty of forming an impartial estimate of the literature of the eighteenth century in France, is still great; for the whole character of that literature was so closely connected with social and political changes, the effects of which are still felt, that its merits or demerits become less a question of taste than of personal feeling, to be decided according to the prejudices entertained by the critic in favour of or against the changes themselves. Thirty years, for instance, after the death of Voltaire, the struggle between his admirers and the opponents of his fame, was waged as fiercely and unrelentingly as at the moment when he closed his career; for he was still to both parties, not so much the dramatist, the historian, the poet, or the novelist, as the apostle of opinions, to which the one party clung as essential to social progress and political improvement, and which the other more justly identified with the subversion of all morality and all government. His reputation became like the dead body of Patroclus, the central object round which the conflict of opinion was maintained. Political discussion, excluded from actual life during the stern rule of Napoleon, took the direction of literary criticism, making the opinions expressed with regard to the literature of the preceding century, not judg. ments, but contradictory pleadings, acrimonious, one-sided, or distorted.
The changes which have taken place in France since the fall of the dynasty of Bonaparte-the restoration and second expulsion of the Bourbons -the establishment, amidst an all but universal exultation, of a monarchy owing its existence to a popular movement, and then labouring, from the first moment of its foundation, to tame or crush the power by which it had been created; on the one hand, the gradual decline of popular enthusiasm, consequent on disappointed expectations, however unreasonable; on the other, the apprehensions of the more sober and rational, that the barriers of a steady and constitutional liberty have been already so shaken, or beaten down, by the sacrifices made to the democratic impulse, and the false principle on which the existing monarchy is based, that all hope of a firm and settled government in France is for me time at an end; -all these
changes, in short, resulting only in the conviction, that nothing has been substantially gained, and that the liberty enjoyed under a popular King can scarcely be distinguished from the despotism so falsely complained of under the restored dynasty, have taught men generally to distrust fine theories, to look with doubt on highsounding professions, to give greater weight to experience, to be more tolerant of all opinions, and less disposed to identify themselves with any. They have created a spirit of indifference, favourable to impartiality in criticism, though not to original invention; which, by excluding or weakening, in a great measure, the influence of personal feelings, interests, or political convictions, enables the reader more distinctly to perceive and to judge of the questions of literature and taste, which the criticism of the great writers of the last century involves.
The total change, too, which has taken place in literature itself, affords another important aid in forming a just estimation of that by which it was preceded; for many of those novelties and experiments in taste which were then advocated, have now been practically tried, and the result lies before us. We have lived to see the old barriers of taste removed-the wall of partition, which separated the literature of France from those of other countries, broken down-the unities banished from the stage-conventional decorum has given way to wild force-an unregulated imagination has superseded philosophy-and the extreme of license has succeeded the extreme of caution. We shall not at present anticipate the answer to the question, Has France been a gainer by the change? Or has she exchanged a grave, dignified, and tasteful, though not imaginative, literature, which she had carried to a high pitch of perfection, for one essentially foreign to her national tastes, in which an appearance of originality is attained only by the gross exaggera tion of the features which she has borrowed from other quarters? But, undoubtedly, the result of this series of experiments, particularly in the literature of imagination as displayed in the later productions of France, admittedly unpromising, unsatisfactory, and unnatural, enables us more correctly to estimate the justice of those views on which the great works
of the eighteenth century were composed; and of their principles of composition, so much more in harmony with the character of a people eminently intellectual, and finely alive to ridicule, but neither distinguished by high imagination, nor great depth or earnestness of feeling.
The task of tracing the literary history of that period, could hardly have fallen into the hands of a more candid critic than Villemain. While the influence of his age, and his familiarity with the better models of literature in other countries, have emancipated him from narrow views, taught him to value the old conventional rules of his country only at their true worth-that is to say, not as essentials applicable to all literature, but simply as convenient precepts suitable to the national taste-he is no warm partisan of the modern school of composition, no advocate of the more than Shakspearian license of plot, and the atrocities, eclipsing those of Massinger and Shirley, in which they indulge, and which often make the reader lay down the book with a feeling, in regard to the writer, similar to that of Alceste in the Misanthrope," Qu'un homme est pendable après les avoir faits." His tastes, on the contrary, lean decidedly towards the simple, the natural, the kindly, and the elevated. Doing justice to many of Shakspeare's excellencies, it is yet evident that Villemain rejects the idea that Shakspeare's dramatic system can be placed on a level with that of the Greek dramatists, and, indeed, that he has much difficulty in bringing himself to admit that he has any system at all. And, accordingly, though he seems abundantly sensible of the nature, tenderness, and profundity of individual passages in Shakspeare; nay, is disposed to admit, occasionally, even his higher art in comparison with the French dramatists, as well as his deeper acquaintance with the human heart and human sympathies, his leaning, on the whole, seems to be towards the more stately, decorous, and wellordered march of the tragedy of his own country, of which Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire are the great representatives. His work, therefore, though written on more enlarged and liberal principles than that of La Harpe, certainly breathes
more of the rationalizing spirit of the first half of the eighteenth century, which it illustrates, than of the nineteenth, amidst the stormy influences of which it has been composed.
The genius of the seventeenth century had been formed under these different influences a religious faith, strong, uniform, and undoubting; the spirit of reverence for antiquity; and the pomp and circumstance of a tranquil and imposing monarchy. It wore an aspect, accordingly, of dignity, outward moral propriety, and good sense, rather than depth of thinking, conveyed in the garb of a pure simple expression so far as regarded style. It is expressed in its most attractive form, either in the pointed neatness of Boileau, or in the drama, which had been raised at once from infancy to manhood by the vigorous and original genius of Corneille, and which received the last polish and grace of which its artificial and rhetorical form was susceptible, from the delicacy and tenderness of Racine.
The dominant influences, on the contrary, under which the literature of the eighteenth century may be said to have grown into shape, are a sceptical philosophy, the imitation of foreign literature, and the mania for political reform. Some traces of the sceptical spirit of a later period, may indeed be traced even among the contemporaries of Bossuet, in the extensive erudition of Bayle, combined with a spirit of mockery and universal doubt, which labours to reduce the most opposite opinions, as to facts or doctrines, to an equilibrium; and whose multifarious researches afforded to his successors, at an easy rate, a storehouse of learning, which was turned to ample account when the crusade against established opinions was commenced in earnest by the authors of the Encyclopédie. Still, when Louis XIV., the survivor of almost every great man who had illustrated his court or his reign, died, on the 1st September 1715, the general characteristics of French literature were reverence for religion, loyalty to the throne, a pride in the extensive influence of France over other nations, which was justified both by her political ascendency, and by the adoption of her critical views and the imitation of her great writers; and a complacent satisfaction with the, present, which rendered men compa
ratively indifferent to the future, and indisposed to experiment or alteration in the existing state of things.
A change, however, soon becomes perceptible as we advance into the reign of Louis XV. In religion, the fervency and unction which give an appearance of inspiration to many of the compositions of Bossuet on subjects of Christian belief, were succeeded by a school of pulpit eloquence, in which morality, charity, or the performance of duty, were more insisted on than faith; a school analogous to that of Tillotson and Barrow and South in our own country. In Massillon, the predominance of action over sentiment as the great principle of religion, becomes evident; while the lessons he ventures to convey to royalty as to its duties, and the corresponding rights of subjects, contrasting so strangely with the divine-right doctrines systematically inculcated by Bossuet, show that monarchy had soon begun to lose its imposing aspect under the weak successor of Louis XIV., and that it was already beginning to listen to that language of remonstrance from the pulpit, which was at no distant period to be conveyed in accents of thunder from the democratic demagogues and infuriated multitudes in the courts of Versailles or the Tuileries.
In lyric poetry, the pretensions of French literature were but feebly supported by the epicurean verses of Chaulieu and the odes of J. B. Rousseaucompositions destitute of any true religious sentiment, and producing their effect only by some force and sententiousness of expression, combined with a sonorous and harmonious versification. Placed beside the choruses in the Esther and the Athalie, they appear altogether false and unnatural; the difference between the real inspiration of Racine, and the laboured and artificial enthusiasm of Rousseau, is palpable at first sight. It is such as might be expected from the contrasted characters of the two poets; that of the dramatist-mild, gentle, sincerely pious, speaking from his own heart, and speaking to ours; that of the lyric poet vain, turbulent, unconscientious, immersed in literary intrigues, just as ready to compose an obscene epigram or a defamatory libel as a canticle or a sacred ode, and anxious to make merchandise of his talents in
any way in which they could be most readily turned to a marketable ac
In the drama, a temporary popu larity and appearance of novelty was obtained by Crebillon, the father of the novelist. The examples of Corneille and Racine had fixed certain principles in dramatic composition so firmly, that they soon became unalterable rules, from which no dramatist could safely venture to deviate. Such were the invariable introduction of love as the moving principle of the drama, even amidst circumstances and periods of society when its intervention was the most incongruous; a mythological or antique dignity in the personages and events represented; an avoidance of modern or domestic subjects; the limitations of time, place, and action, with their natural consequences, long recitals, soliloquies, and expositions in words rather than ac tion; a sustained pomp of expression in the dialogue banishing all common or familiar words, however natural in the expression of powerful feeling; the rigorous exclusion of every thing comic from the sphere of tragedy, and, at the same time, a nervous dread of pushing the tragic effect too far, if death or physical suffering were allowed to be displayed upon the stage; for which scarcely any better reason could be given, than the authority of a line in Horace's Art of Poetry.
So strongly were these artificial peculiarities rooted and grounded in the very being of French tragedy, that even writers of some poetical ability, well acquainted with the dramatic literature both of antiquity and of foreign countries-like Lafosse, the author of Manlius-while attempting to throw more of natural feeling into the French drama, thought it vain to contend against the current of settled opinion, so far as regarded rules which were looked on as dramatic axioms no longer admitting of dispute or modification, and therefore continued to pursue the formal aud somewhat stilted framework of the 17th century; while on the other hand he leans, with a visible admiration, towards the natural movement of the romantic drama, so far as regarded the expression of sentiment. Among personages who had not even the talent (such as it was) of Lafosse, like Lagrange Chancel, the conventional and
courtly tone of Racine, and his systematic adaptation of Greek manners to the tone of French society, appear in the most ludicrous caricature, unredeemed by his real tenderness, and the exquisite polish and beauty of his versification. The romance writers of the school of Scudery and Calprenede, whose aim it was "peindre Caton galant et Brutus dameret," found a not unworthy dramatic rival in Chancel; whose Orestes, Meleager, Arsaces, and Alceste, form as extraordinary a travestie of antiquity as can well be imagined.
Crebillon certainly rises considerably above these feeble imitators of Racine; for, coarse as his tastes were, he was a man who thought for himself at least within the limits which the existing rules of the drama permitted; for these rules, as laid down by the precept or practice of Corneille or Racine, he adopted to the letter. He is, indeed, the very reverse of an innovator, so far as regards the established dramatic creed of his time; but, endowed with a sombre, fantastic, and vigorous turn of mind, approaching to the savage, he has occasionally thrown a force and vivacity, derived from his own character, into those mythological terrors which he borrowed from antiquity, of which, at first sight, such subjects would hardly have appeared susceptible. "Corneille," he used to say, "has laid hold of heaven, Racine of earth; nothing was left to me but hell, and I have thrown myself "Unfortuinto it, heart and soul." nately," as Villemain dryly observes, "he is not always quite so infernal as Placed side by he seems to think." side with love intrigues and dialogues, in which the argument, however agitating, is maintained with a politeness worthy of the school of Chesterfield, his scenes of bloodshed, incest, and crime, very often wear an almost ludicrous air, though we admit the forcible effect of some scenes or passages, like that of the famous line borrowed from the Thyestes of Seneca, when Thy. estes addresses his brother, after the hideous banquet, with the words"Reconnais tu ce sang? Je reconnais mon frère."
But though Crebillon could conceive
and embody, with a sort of stoical
We say in general, because
With one remark of Crebillon we suppose most readers will be disposed entirely to concur: when asked which of his works he preferred, his answer was, "It is difficult to say which is the best; but this," pointing to his scapegrace son, the novelist, "is certainly the worst."
La Motte, a contemporary of Crebillon, did endeavour to effect what Crebillon seems to have in no respect aimed at: viz. an innovation in the recognised dramatic code. His great principle, besides an attack on the unities, was this, that the drama gained nothing by being written in verse; and he illustrated his proposition by the production of an Edipus in prose and an Edipus in verse, which certainly left the reader in a pleasing uncertainty which was most intoler able.
And yet, in his speculations as to the unities, though apparently igno. rant even of the existence of Shakspeare, and certainly entirely unacquainted with his works, it is interesting to observe how much his notion of a Roman tragedy, conducted upon the principles which he was disposed to recognise as just, seems to correspond with the manner in which such subjects had been actually treated by Shak
"Natos et quidem noscis tuos?-Agnosco fratrem."
speare. Take, for instance, his remarks as to the plan on which a tragedy, founded on the subject of Coriolanus, might be conceived and theatrically embodied. "I should not be surprised if a people, intelligent though less at tached to rules, should reconcile itself to the idea of witnessing the history of Coriolanus divided into several acts. In the first, that patrician, accused by the tribunes, defended by the consul and the people whom he has saved, and then condemned by the people to perpetual exile in the second, the despair of his family, and the gloomy grief with which he separates from them in the third, the magnanimous boldness with which he presents himself to the Volscian general, whom he has so often vanquished; ready to sacrifice his life if he can but associate him in his vengeance in the fourth, the hero at the gates of Rome, the deputations of the consuls and priests, the prayers and tears of a mother obtaining favour for Rome." La Motte does not pursue the subject down to the assassination of Coriolanus in Antium; but so far as he goes, there is a strong, though apparently unconscious, resemblance between his sketch and the outline traced by Shakspeare.
The views of Voltaire (the third member of the French Dramatic Triumvirate) as to the drama, changed greatly after his compulsory residence in England. His first play, the Edipus, produced at the age of twenty-three, was in all respects a play of the school of Corneille and Racine. But the acquaintance he had acquired with English literature, superficial in many respects as it was, had impressed him with the conviction of the powerful effects which the irregular drama of the northern nations was capable of producing; and without in the least degree meaning to call in question the laws which had been laid down by his predecessors, except perhaps as to the employment of the passion of love as an indispensable dramatic agent, he seems to have conceived that a great deal of the spirit of the romantic drama might be thrown into the classical form; that the natural eloquence of Antony, the jealousy of the Moor, or the philosophic or sceptical musings and melancholy of Hamlet, or perhaps the impression of supernatural terror which the ghost scenes of Shakspeare produce, might, with certain
modifications to suit the expression to the taste of a Parisian public, be made effective upon the French stage. He aimed, in short, at the difficult, and, there is reason to think, incompatible task, of amalgamating two dramatic systems, the principles of which are not only unharmonious, but in many respects contradictory. It is well known that, in the opinion of certain French critics of no mean note, Voltaire has succeeded in his attempt. La Harpe seems to think that he had perfected what Corneille had begun and Racine improved, by adding to the dignified or graceful sentiments of his predecessors, more life, energy, and natural movement in the dialogue. He has been described as :-" Vainqueur de deux rivaux qui regnaient sur la scène." Time, however, has pronounced a different judgment. Villemain remarks that the plays of Corneille, and the chefs d'oeuvre of Racine, when revived about twenty years ago, were received with the same enthusiasm as at first, while those of Voltaire fell cold and dull upon the public ear. Though nearer in date to his audience, he was less felt, less understood: his theatrical effects and philosophic maxims were found hackneyed; his sonorous eloquence did not touch the feelings like the bursts of genius of Corneille or the passionate refinement of Racine. The want of a genuine enthusiasm for high poetry of any kind was too palpable in Voltaire; while the faith which animated his dramatic rivals, and the seriousness with which they vewed the high aim of tragedy, had, on the contrary, imparted to their compositions a perennial freshness and enduring life.
"Voltaire," says Villemain, "wished to give boldness and animation to the scene-to multiply theatrical effects. He has frequently succeeded: but in the grandeur and novelty of character, which is the very life of the drama, has he approached his models? Has he produced any thing that can be compared with such original and novel creations as Don Diego, Pauline, Severa, Burrhus, Acomat, or Joad? Is his diction, dramatic as it is in point of movement and warmth, equally so in point of truth? Does it equal the poetry of Racine and Corneille, when he is Corneille? And is not the perfection of poetry a necessary part of our severe and regular theatre?