French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Glance At The Eighteenth Century
Madame De Stael
Classicism And Romanticism
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Glance At The Eighteenth Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Literature of a high order was virtually extinguished in France during the terrors of the Revolution. The public mind was too excited by grim realities for the necessary calm to consider works of the imagination or reason. Yet the mind must still be supplied with intellectual food, and found it in parliamentary eloquence and journalism. The latter, indeed, may be said to have been created for France at this time. There was also, strange to say, considerable scientific writing; chemistry and natural philosophy were cultivated throughout the stormiest period. But literature proper had to await a breathing time, when public thought could regain its balance and recover from the shock of the explosion. The national ideal had been cast from its throne at the very time and by the very means which were expected to extend its sway over the earth.
Before the Revolution, while France in general was still professedly and really Catholic, the skepticism of the English deists of the Eighteenth Century had permeated its higher literature. Voltaire had early and prophetically declared, in view of the general borrowing from the English, "we shall imperceptibly acquire from them their noble freedom of thought and their profound contempt for the petty trifling of the schools." The French wits and thinkers went far beyond their English teachers. Nothing was free from their mockery, which was open and undisguised. The church, the government, the throne, did not escape. The Classicism, which had prevailed in literature for nearly two centuries and formed its finest models, was contrasted with the Gothic freedom of Shakespeare and Milton. But in pure literature the classic spirit was not lightly to be extinguished. The Encyclopaedists, D'Alembert and Diderot, with their destructive criticism, did not in their great work undertake to dispel all illusions. They restricted themselves to statement of facts. But in the salons profound human problems were discussed and solved by means of epigrams. Faith was undermined and when the fearful time of trial came, it fell, and great was the fall thereof. Church, state, religion, literature, went down in one vast ruin blent. At the close of the Century France, so far as literature is concerned, was living on husks. The soul seemed to have left the body of her poetry; the outward form of the drama was devoid of substance; philosophers discoursed in lifeless platitudes. Brunetière, the greatest living French critic, declares that the decay of classicism in his country's literature was due to its rule of preserving the impersonal. In literature abstractions were sought for, the presentation of real character was excluded. The decadence of the later Eighteenth Century literature was derived from these two causes, the growth of philosophic materialism on the one hand, and a sham idealism on the other.
The powerful Voltaire, the crowned laureate of the nation, the perfect embodiment of the Gallic mocking spirit, never disturbed the prescribed rules of literature in poetry or prose. However revolutionary in actual effect were his utterances, in form they were of perfect propriety according to the canons of the time. He therefore re-mains distinctly the national classic, whose precise work is imperfectly comprehended outside of France. But Rousseau, his younger contemporary, the gloomy, dreary Swiss republican, was more than a Frenchman he belonged to all Europe. He was the inventor of new modes of thought and writing, the apostle of sentimentalism, the teacher of love of nature, the reformer of education, the reconstructor of human society. In due time his ideas germinated. All Europe heeded his voice and gave reality to his dreams. Literature, education, government, society, took on new forms according to his bidding. One man, of little account in literature, Rouget de Lisle, was inspired at the opening of the Revolution to give voice to the impassioned feelings of his countrymen in the spirit-stirring "Marseillaise," still the national song of France.
Three other men of moderate power have had a lasting influence on French literature. Beaumarchais, in his Figaro comedies, taught the Nineteenth Century how the drama can sparkle with wit, satire, wholesome merriment, but, like too many others, tainted it with indelicacy. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre was the successor of Rousseau in propagating love of nature and made the world his debtor by the romantic story of "Paul and Virginia." The third figure is André Chenier, guillotined at thirty-two, who combined the sensuous feeling of modern verse with a marked classic simplicity. These three, so different in life and work, were yet, each in his own peculiar way, harbingers of the coming Romanticism. They agreed in proclaiming individualism as a protest against the impersonal ideals of the later decaying classicism.
Even the pioneer scientists, like Buffon, and philosophers, like Condorcet, showed regard for this individual-ism. Man in himself was to be regarded as greater than mathematical and political and theological systems. Henceforth the human heart was to be the theme and realm of an awakened literature. None of these forerunners saw the tendency of their own work, but in retrospect it is possible to trace a sure movement toward the old faiths that had been so violently flung off. The transition from lifeless classicism and materialistic philosophy to sunny Romanticism and renewed Christianity may be dated from the very opening of the Nineteenth Century.
By the Revolution of the 18th Brumaire (9th of November, 1799), Napoleon Bonaparte was made First Consul and became virtually supreme dictator of France. His unparalleled military and unscrupulous political glories had raised him to that proud eminence. Fully aware of the unstable foundation of his suddenly acquired power, he was desirous to cement it with the potent traditions of the past. Utterly indifferent as he was personally to spiritual considerations, he was well aware of their incalculable influence on the mass of mankind, and he saw clearly the growing desire of the people for much that they had lost. The failure of the vaunted Revolution to realize the sublime dreams of its self-deceived promoters was palpable to all. For liberty, equality, fraternity, they had received slavery, anarchy, bloodshed. They longed for the restoration of order, for a government which should possess the ability and will to maintain itself unmoved against foreign enemies and domestic factions, for the restoration of the Christian worship. Napoleon declared that his object in the permission of public worship was to gain the hearts of the people. In return for the contemplated ridicule of the skeptics he won the gratitude of millions throughout the Empire. But further he made way for an unexpected triumph of Catholicism which not only greatly assisted him at the time, but eventually revolutionized the literature of France.