French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Poetry And The Drama
History, Philosophy, Criticism
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The name of Edmond Henri Adolphe Schérer (1815-1896) commands exceptional respect. Trained as a theologian he parted company with orthodoxy in a thoughtful work, "La Critique et la Foi" (1850). He became a Liberal leader of moderate views, and a moderator of factionism in his capacity as member of the National Assembly in 1871. Journalism occupied his pen for a few years, but his standard works on theological and especially literary subjects have placed him among the soundest of philosophical writers.
Jules Lemaitre, born in 1853, is one of the foremost journalists of the younger school. His reviews, especially of the drama, ancient and modern, have high authority and make brilliant reading. He was elected an Academician in 1896. As usual with his fraternity Lemaitre has attempted play-writing, and since 1891 with success. Politics, Platonic affection, and less attractive topics he treats with a light vein of humor, pointed with sharp sat-ire, the end in view being an evening's entertainment.
Eugène Melchior de Vogüé was born in 1848 and was made an Academician at forty. His mental endowment and general career have been likened to those of Lamartine. First appeared, in the "Revue des Deux Mondes," his "Voyage en Syrie et en Palestine" (1873). That so young a writer should make a striking success of a well-worn theme denotes more than ordinary powers. The book displays some of the features of the Chateaubriand style, prose poetry, fine sentiment, put into exquisite French. The dreamy tone befits wanderings in the Holy Land. An official sojourn in Russia, where he married a native lady, brought him into sympathetic contact with Tolstoi and his school, whose ideals and crusade Vogüé eloquently commends to his own people. He has written largely on Russia, its people, history, and outlook. He has served on several diplomatic missions to foreign courts. Of their order his writings have most of the qualities prized by lovers of refined language expressing lofty sentiment. He does not write for art's sake alone. He stands for the new idealism, a religion of heart freed from ecclesiastical trammels, a standard of personal and national honor that shall lift men up out of the slough of materialism in which they have so long been dragged by the ultra-naturalistic blind guides, as he conceives them. It is claimed that he has an enthusiastic following in the young men of the land, and it is assured that his influence will spread and prove a power for good.
The latest critic of eminence is Ferdinand Brunetière, who was made known to Americans by his visit in 1897 when several universities listened to his lectures on modern French literature and its tendencies. He was born in 1849 and was elected to the Academy in 1894. He is a pronounced Catholic and upholds his religious convictions with courage. His journalistic career was signalized by the bold onslaught he made against the Naturalistic school. Recognizing its ability he denounces what amounts to the prostitution of it. He went so far in one of his lectures as to honor George Eliot above Gustave Flaubert, her superior in point of art, because "she has the advantage of not resorting to adultery. The observation of simple facts suffices her without crime." He was invited to give a course of lectures in the Odéon Theater in 1891, on the Classic Drama. Since then he is the favorite lecturer in the Sorbonne and elsewhere. He has published several volumes, and though he is trenchantly criticized by his contemporaries and has been honored with the hostility of the extreme naturalists, his broad championship of the pure and uplifting as the criterion of all good literature has made him a power. His last utterance on the present phase of French literature is hopeful. He shows that individualism was the note of the Romantic movement, which the naturalistic school has changed to the impersonal. Now there is in progress a movement toward the social, in the sense that literature now aims at the good of all as contrasted with the interests of the individual. If this is correct, and it is to a large extent, the new Century will probably bring with it a national literature purified of its adulterants. When the transparency of its moral tone shall match the clearness of its expressive language, French literature may claim the crown and wear it with the approval of all nations.