French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Glance At The Eighteenth Century
Madame De Stael
Classicism And Romanticism
Read More Articles About: French Literature Of The 19th Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
If one man and one book can fairly be fixed as marking the entrance of the new order of French literature, that honor belongs to François Auguste, Vicomte de Chateaubriand and his work, "Le Génie du Christianisme" (The Genius of Christianity), published in 1802. In that work was included "René," a somewhat gloomy youthful romance of the "sensibility" type, afterwards issued separately. Though not strictly great as a writer, and certainly not great as a man, Chateaubriand fancied himself to be Napoleon's literary counterpart. He really had an immense influence not only on literature, but on popular thought. He was born of a noble Breton family in 1768, and was intended for the church, but entered the army at sixteen, and was presented at the court of Louis XVI. On the outbreak of the Revolution, having neither accepted nor rejected the new opinions, he voyaged to America in a fruitless attempt to discover the northwest passage, still dreamed of by geographers. He journeyed from Niagara to New Orleans, and this visit gave him direct knowledge of American scenery, which he utilized later. He dined with Washington in Philadelphia, and said with reference to him, "There is virtue in the look of a great man. I felt myself warmed and refreshed by it during the rest of my life." On hearing of the execution of the King, Chateaubriand returned to France, and as a royalist joined the "emigrants." He also, at his sister's suggestion, married a lady from whom he soon parted, though he continued to show her respect. After being wounded in Condé's army, he took refuge in London, where he remained until 1800, in honorable poverty. Here he wrote an essay on the Revolution, showing the bitterness of his spirit. He also began his work on Christianity, which occupied altogether four years. In 1801 he published the romance "Atala," portraying the loves of idealized American Indians, and depicting the primeval forest scenery of the New World. Amid the plaudits awarded to this picturesque romance of natural emotions and primitive society Chateaubriand issued the "Génie du Christianisme" (1802). It was likewise an innovation, both as a literary and a philosophical performance. After the multitude of books and discourses which had dismissed Christianity as vulgar and obsolete, here was a champion who exalted it above Paganism and skepticism, who did not dwell on its truth, but on its artistic superiority. The new work showed religion possessed of all the arts of refinement and the dignity of a royal career. In it were displayed Chateaubriand's poetical gifts of interpretation and expression. His readers enjoyed his delineation of historic events, of the experiences, emotions and outpourings of Christian life. Compared with these the pretentious fictions and stilted poems of the Century just past seemed hollow and worthless. The terrible realities of social convulsion made these pictures of a better life strongly captivating to wearied and anxious minds. The author had struck the right chord for the times and the public mood, by lifting poetical romance into the region of religious feeling. He revealed the beauties and elevation of religion. Subsequent historians and philosophers, as well as poets and romancists, confess their indebtedness to Chateaubriand for splendor of style.
Napoleon recognized the author, now famous, by appointing him secretary to the embassy at Rome. But Chateaubriand was estranged from the Emperor by the murder of the Duc d'Enghien, and he later pronounced the condition of France under Napoleon "slavery without shame." In 1806 he made a tour to Greece and Palestine to familiarize himself with regions in which he proposed to lay the scene of a new romance. This was a prose epic, entitled "The Martyrs ; or, the Triumphs of the Christian Religion" (1809). It treated of the persecution of Diocletian, and wanders from the Holy Land to Gaul and mythical Frankish Kings. It presents the argument of his greater work in a more popular form. The "Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem" (1811) is a picturesque record of the author's travels. His implacable enmity to Napoleon was shown in his eloquent pamphlet "Bonaparte and the Bourbons" (1814), which Louis XVIII afterward declared had been worth to him a thousand men.
Under the Restoration the renowned Chateaubriand showed himself an ultra-royalist. He held embassies to Berlin, London, and Rome, and was for some months minister of foreign affairs. After the Revolution of 1830 he refused to take the oath of allegiance to Louis Philippe. His waywardness in politics is indicated in his own words : "I am a Bourbonist by honor, a royalist by reason and conviction, and a republican by taste and character. His writings after the Restoration added nothing to his reputation or influence. His brilliant imagination and eloquent style enabled him to endow his books with vital force. He died in July, 1848, having witnessed the advent of the second Republic. His posthumous memoirs, "Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe" (1849), displayed his genius and egotism. He had filled a large space as author, traveler and politician, but his chief distinction is in having inaugurated the return of French literature from artificialness and negation to the natural and supernatural in art.