French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Poetry And The Drama
History, Philosophy, Criticism
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Poetry And The Drama
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Much of the foregoing applies to the dramatic output of the last quarter-century. Indeed, it is more true of the playwright than the novelist that he is fettered by the fickle taste of the hour. On the stage, aided by its well-skilled interpreters, a glittering picture of some phase of social life catches the public attention quickly and holds it as tenaciously as the national temperament allows. For pecuniary reasons the literary men of France court the theater. Success is more rapidly won by a play than a book. Scarcely a writer of note but has tried his hand at the drama. Novels have been turned into plays and vice versa, with considerable gain to the authors, and occasionally to literary reputations. Victorien Sardou (1831) is the ablest as well as the most successful dramatist of the period. From "Candide," produced in 186o, to "Diplomacy," "Fedora" and the later plays, he has achieved a succession of literary triumphs not less than theatrical. Of these, many hold our own stage under other names, not always translations. His comedies have been political, as when "Rabagas" satirized Gambetta, and have freely treated passing questions, sometimes polemically. They are invariably brilliant, and well-earned his elevation to the Academy in 1877.
François Edouard Joachim Coppée (1842-1897) issued poems in his youth. His first drama, "Le Passant," was acted in 1869, with success. Among later poems were "Les Humbles," "Exilée," and a romance, "Une Idylle Pendant le Siege." Napoleon III made him librarian of the Senate at Luxembourg, and afterward he was appointed keeper of the archives of the Comédie Francaise. Coppée was not only a true, but an exceptionally gifted poet. Five volumes contain his poetical and dramatic work. He has maintained a pure and noble tone throughout. His verse interprets the thought and aspirations of the genuinely patriotic of his countrymen. He has abundant wit, and the charm of native geniality pervades all his work.
A number of the prose writers named have been makers of verse also. Among the aspirants for the laurel wreath have been a few whom posterity may class outside the pale of mediocrities. The characteristics of modern French poetry resemble those of the typical novel and play in the main. Impressionism has marked it for its own. There is little to call for remark outside the lyric, and of its innumerable devotees the one who claims consideration above the rest is Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). What Francis Villon was in the Fifteenth Century, Verlaine has realistically been in ours, to this extent a voluntary outcast if not outlaw, a poet in spite of his rags and tatters, a pariah despite a wealth of genius. Married and always in love with his wife, he poetically expended her small dowry in a merry-go-round with which he haunted village fairs. Practically it did not pay. The lady upbraided, and when an onlooker enjoyed the sport Verlaine flew at him with a knife. In his Belgian prison the poet found his better self. But the pretty verses, which are pure poems, he composed for his wife did not bring him good fortune all at once. He was two years in the cells and the infirmary. When he came out he was very good, thanks to the chaplain and nuns. He sang fine hymns of bitter repentance, then, and on many similar occasions after-ward. It is told of his artless conception of life that once, when in trouble, friends collected 300 francs and gave them to him. That night he drove his boon companions in a hired carriage the whole round of the drinking places, until there was no more money, drink, or sense. Verlaine was always pouring out rich devotional verse on these morrows. His poems commanded cash on the instant, yet his friends had to fine their slim pocketbooks by making constant contributions for his recovery rather than maintenance, for he managed to exist between Whiles. With body and brain damaged by long neglect, and toward the last avoided by those who still felt pity for the hopeless, the poet took to bed for the last time and expired while imploring his wife to come. Coppée, Zola, and - others who knew the man, declare that Verlaine's poetry will survive. It meets the requirements of true lyric verse in being artless, spontaneous, touching, and musical. He had a perfect ear and taste, and gave polish without hardness to every expression.