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 )
We pass to the creative writers whose works appeal to the sense of pleasure first and to the reasoning faculty only secondarily. The first and greatest of these is certainly Victor Hugo, preeminent in both prose and poetry, but on account of the length of his career, treatment of him is postponed. The next greatest is Lamartine, who likewise distinguished himself in the two grand divisions; a third, Béranger, wrote only songs for the people. Treating them in chronological order, the last is first to be considered. Jean Pierre de Béranger, born in 178o, has been denied by some critics a place among the poets, but he was certainly a song-maker, and the dividing line has yet to be discovered which shall exclude the songs of Burns and Béranger from the garden of poetry. If the question were to be decided by the sovereign people, who would be more likely to gain their suffrages than the candidate who could set them singing his ideas in their own simple language? It was because the appeal was to the people that Béranger, to his own amused astonishment, found himself a power in the land. For he did not possess the recognized elements of greatness, either as man or poet. Born of the humblest class, he was apprenticed to a printer, and began to write songs at the age of sixteen. Some of these he sent to Lucien Bonaparte, who rewarded him handsomely and procured for him a clerkship under the Empire. Thenceforth he was equally devoted to Napoleon and the Republic, and despised the emigrant nobles. After the Restoration he lost his place and was fined and imprisoned for his biting satires. His songs helped to bring about the Revolution of 1830, but he refused to accept any office from the new government, nor would he serve when elected to the Constituent Assembly of 1848. Though he lived in a garret, he had long been allowed to sing as he pleased, and this was his only desire. As he says in one of his songs, "God in His grace bade me sing, Sing, poor little one." When he died, in 1854, the Government of Napoleon III accorded this people's poet a grand funeral.
Béranger sent his artless songs straight into the hearts of the people, and set them singing grander sentiments than they could even have comprehended in eloquent prose. A loftier and purer inspiration would have limited his use-fulness or have brought it to an untimely end. Of an easy temperament, with a love of simple comfort in perilous times, he gave the people chorus-songs of love and jollity, while waiting for the good time coming, and in each sprinkled some political spice. For more than thirty years he reigned as king of the light-hearted whistling multitude. He was the poet, he felt himself the prophet, of old and young folks, at home and out of doors, and varied his song to suit each class, yet without yielding his own clear view of what was right. Those qualities ensured popularity, which Béranger estimated and utilized to the full. The politics may be obsolete, but other elements of his songs remain, of which many a greater poet would be proud. He was despised by both classicists and Romanticists in his day as vulgar, but the best critics of today recognize his lively wit, his touching pathos, his hearty patriotism, his thorough humanity. His power is still felt in the later popular lyrics.