French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Glance At The Eighteenth Century
Madame De Stael
Classicism And Romanticism
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Classicism And Romanticism
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The radical difference between Classicism and Romanticism, so prominent in French literary history, may be broadly stated to be that between artificialism and naturalism. The former insisted on strict observance of certain rules and principles derived by rhetoricians from the study of the ancient classics, the masterpieces of Greek and Roman literature. These rules were particularly strict in regard to the drama, and in France that form of literature has always had a dominant effect on the rest. The three unities of time, place, and action must be strictly observed in every tragedy. The plays are in rhymed couplets, and each couplet must be complete in sense, as in Pope's poetry in English. The diction was strictly limited to dignified expressions, and certain words of constant use in prose were positively prohibited. The dramatist who dared on one occasion to introduce in the most carefully guarded way the word "mouchoir" (handkerchief) was compelled to cancel it before the play could be repeated. Other artifices of refinement cramped the genius of French writers, and while many of their productions are truly grand, the wonder to those accustomed to English freedom is not merely that under the stifling panoply genius could achieve so much, but that it could exist at all. Even the great Corneille was censured for his violation of rules in his masterpiece, "The Cid," but the unstinted applause of Paris supported him against the decision of the Academy. The rules of all poetry, whether lyrical, satirical, didactic, or epic, were equally strict and cramping in regard to subject, treatment, diction, and metre.
But from England, just when it was adopting many of these artificial regulations for its own poetry, came the knowledge of what had been achieved by the so-called Gothic genius of Shakespeare and his successors. Both Voltaire and Rousseau resided for a time in England, and both were more affected by their novel surroundings than they were fully aware. Though Voltaire censured Shakespeare as barbarian, he was compelled to admit his power. Bolingbroke, Hume and others from Britain resided in France and diffused acquaintance with English literature. At the same time, Germany, casting off the bondage of French fashion, welcomed the English freedom and helped to transmit it to France. Later the emigrant nobles learned much in their exile, and did not altogether forget it on their return. Still more, the grand wars of Napoleon caused an unprecedented mingling of races, and a breaking down of the barriers between them. Madame de Staël revealed to France the intellectual movement in Germany and called for a European bent of mind. When the French were thus made ready for the acceptance of new ideas, the Romantic movement began, not in one country, but almost simultaneously in all the leading nations of Europe. In Great Britain it was manifest in the genius of Scott and Byron; in Germany in that of Goethe and Schiller.
The open controversy between the Classicists and the Romanticists was started by Lamartine in his "Méditations" in 1820, assisted by Victor Hugo's first book in 1822, "Odes et Ballades." In the preface to the second edition Hugo roundly declared that he was "absolutely ignorant of what was meant by the Classic School and the Romantic School." But he certainly altered his views within a few years. Romanticism was opposed to artificialism, conventionalism, and formalism in literature. It sought for freedom in choice of subjects and for natural expression of primal feelings. Some of the earliest, like Chateaubriand, to find scope for their feelings, went back to the religious fervor of olden times, or abroad to the simple nature of savage tribes. Later Romanticists, like Hugo, full of self-consciousness, sought to express directly their own emotions or passions. The impulse of every passing experience was to take the place of the studied phrases of classicism. Individual aspiration, hope, and despair were to be the body and soul of the new literature. To its exponents and enthusiasts the rules and traditions of poetry were of no value or use, but rather fetters and shackles. The heart alone must direct the voice or pen.