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Landmarks in French Literature by G. Lytton Strachey

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dramatic emotion are mingled in a perfect whole, has a right to walk
beside Sophocles in the high places of eternity.

Owing to the intrigues of a lady of fashion, _Phedre_, when it first
appeared, was a complete failure. An extraordinary change then took
place in Racine's mind. A revulsion of feeling, the precise causes of
which are to this day a mystery, led him suddenly to renounce the world,
to retire into the solitude of religious meditation, and to abandon the
art which he had practised with such success. He was not yet forty, his
genius was apparently still developing, but his great career was at an
end. Towards the close of his life he produced two more plays--_Esther_,
a short idyllic piece of great beauty, and _Athalie_, a tragedy which,
so far from showing that his powers had declined during his long
retreat, has been pronounced by some critics to be the finest of his
works. He wrote no more for the stage, and he died eight years later, at
the age of sixty. It is difficult to imagine the loss sustained by
literature during those twenty years of silence. They might have given
us a dozen tragedies, approaching, or even surpassing, the merit of
_Phedre_. And Racine must have known this. One is tempted to see in his
mysterious mortification an instance of that strain of disillusionment
which runs like a dark thread through the brilliant texture of the
literature of the _Grand Siecle_. Racine had known to the full the uses
of this world, and he had found them flat, stale, and unprofitable; he
had found that even the triumphs of his art were all compact of
worldliness; and he had turned away, in an agony of renunciation, to
lose himself in the vision of the Saints.

The influence and the character of that remarkable age appear nowhere
more clearly than in the case of its other great poet--LA FONTAINE. In
the Middle Ages, La Fontaine would have been a mendicant friar, or a
sainted hermit, or a monk, surreptitiously illuminating the margins of
his manuscripts with the images of birds and beasts. In the nineteenth
century, one can imagine him drifting among Paris cafes, pouring out his
soul in a random lyric or two, and dying before his time. The age of
Louis XIV took this dreamer, this idler, this feckless, fugitive,
spiritual creature, kept him alive by means of patrons in high society,
and eventually turned him--not simply into a poet, for he was a poet by
nature, but into one of the most subtle, deliberate, patient, and
exquisite craftsmen who have ever written in verse. The process was a
long one; La Fontaine was in his fifties when he wrote the greater
number of his _Fables_--where his genius found its true expression for
the first time. But the process was also complete. Among all the
wonderful and beautiful examples of masterly craftsmanship in the
poetry of France, the _Fables_ of La Fontaine stand out as _the_ models
of what perfect art should be.

The main conception of the fables was based upon the combination of two
ideas--that of the stiff dry moral apologue of AEsop, and that of the
short story. By far the most important of these two elements was the
latter. With the old fabulists the moral was the excuse for the fable;
with La Fontaine it was the other way round. His moral, added in a
conventional tag, or even, sometimes, omitted altogether, was simply of
use as the point of departure for the telling of a charming little tale.
Besides this, the traditional employment of animals as the personages in
a fable served La Fontaine's turn in another way. It gave him the
opportunity of creating a new and delightful atmosphere, in which his
wit, his fancy, his humour, and his observation could play at their
ease. His animals--whatever injudicious enthusiasts may have said--are
not real animals; we are no wiser as to the true nature of cats and
mice, foxes and lions, after we have read the _Fables_ than before. Nor,
on the other hand, are they the mere pegs for human attributes which
they were in the hands of AEsop. La Fontaine's creatures partake both of
the nature of real animals and of human beings, and it is precisely in
this dual character of theirs that their fascination lies. In their
outward appearance they are deliciously true to life. With the fewest of
rapid strokes, La Fontaine can raise up an unmistakable vision of any
beast or bird, fish or reptile, that he has a mind to--

Un jour sur ses long pieds allait je ne sais ou
Le heron au long bec emmanche d'un long cou.

Could there be a better description? And his fables are crowded with
these life-like little vignettes. But the moment one goes below the
surface one finds the frailties, the follies, the virtues and the vices
of humanity. And yet it is not quite that. The creatures of La
Fontaine's fantasy are not simply animals with the minds of human
beings: they are something more complicated and amusing; they are
animals with the minds which human beings would certainly have, if one
could suppose them transformed into animals. When the young and foolish
rat sees a cat for the first time and observes to his mother--

Je le crois fort sympathisant
Avec messieurs les rats: car il a des oreilles
En figure aux notres pareilles;

this excellent reason is obviously not a rat's reason; nor is it a human
being's reason; the fun lies in its being just the reason which, no
doubt, a silly young creature of the human species would give in the
circumstances if, somehow or other, he were metamorphosed into a rat.

It is this world of shifting lights, of queer, elusive, delightful
absurdities, that La Fontaine has made the scene of the greater number
of his stories. The stories themselves are for the most part exceedingly
slight; what gives them immortality is the way they are told. Under the
guise of an ingenuous, old-world manner, La Fontaine makes use of an
immense range of technical powers. He was an absolute master of the
resources of metre; and his rhythms, far looser and more varied than
those of his contemporaries, are marvellously expressive, while yet they
never depart from a secret and controlling sense of form. His vocabulary
is very rich--stocked chiefly with old-fashioned words, racy,
colloquial, smacking of the soil, and put together with the light
elliptical constructions of the common people. Nicknames he is
particularly fond of: the cat is Raminagrobis, or Grippeminaud, or
Rodilard, or Maitre Mitis; the mice are 'la gent trotte-menu'; the
stomach is Messer Gaster; Jupiter is Jupin; La Fontaine himself is
Gros-Jean. The charming tales, one feels, might almost have been told by
some old country crony by the fire, while the wind was whistling in the
chimney and the winter night drew on. The smile, the gesture, the
singular _naivete_--one can watch it all. But only for a moment. One
must be childish indeed (and, by an odd irony, this exquisitively
sophisticated author falls into the hands of most of his readers when
they are children) to believe, for more than a moment, that the
ingenuousness of the _Fables_ was anything but assumed. In fact, to do
so would be to miss the real taste of the work. There is a kind of art,
as every one knows, that conceals itself; but there is another--and this
is less often recognized--that displays itself, that _just_ shows,
charmingly but unmistakably, how beautifully contrived it is. And La
Fontaine's art is of the latter sort. He is like one of those
accomplished cooks in whose dishes, though the actual secret of their
making remains a mystery, one can trace the ingredients which have gone
to the concoction of the delicious whole. As one swallows the rare
morsel, one can just perceive how, behind the scenes, the oil, the
vinegar, the olive, the sprinkling of salt, the drop of lemon were
successively added, and, at the critical moment, the simmering delicacy
served up, done to a turn.

It is indeed by an infinity of small touches that La Fontaine produces
his effects. And his effects are very various. With equal ease,
apparently, he can be playful, tender, serious, preposterous, eloquent,
meditative, and absurd. But one quality is always present in his work;
whatever tune he may be playing, there is never a note too much. Alike
in his shortest six-lined anecdote and his most elaborate pieces, in
which detail follows detail and complex scenes are developed, there is
no trace of the superfluous; every word has its purpose in the general
scheme. This quality appears most clearly, perhaps, in the adroit
swiftness of his conclusions. When once the careful preliminary
foundation of the story has been laid, the crisis comes quick and
pointed--often in a single line. Thus we are given a minute description
of the friendship of the cat and the sparrow; all sorts of details are
insisted on; we are told how, when the sparrow teased the cat--

En sage et discrete personne,
Maitre chat excusait ces jeux.

Then the second sparrow is introduced and his quarrel with the first.
The cat fires up--

Le moineau du voisin viendra manger le notre?
Non, de par tous les chats!--Entrant lors au combat,
Il croque l'etranger. Vraiment, dit maitre chat,
Les moineaux ont un gout exquis et delicat!

And now in one line the story ends--

Cette reflexion fit aussi croquer l'autre.

One more instance of La Fontaine's inimitable conciseness may be given.
When Bertrand (the monkey) has eaten the chestnuts which Raton (the cat)
has pulled out of the fire, the friends are interrupted; the fable ends

Une servante vint; adieu, mes gens! Raton
N'etait pas content, ce dit-on.

How admirable are the brevity and the lightness of that 'adieu, mes
gens'! In three words the instantaneous vanishing of the animals is
indicated with masterly precision. One can almost see their tails
whisking round the corner.

Modern admirers of La Fontaine have tended to throw a veil of sentiment
over his figure, picturing him as the consoling beatific child of
nature, driven by an unsympathetic generation to a wistful companionship
with the dumb world of brutes. But nothing could be farther from the
truth than this conception. La Fontaine was as unsentimental as Moliere
himself. This does not imply that he was unfeeling: feelings he
had--delicate and poignant ones; but they never dominated him to the
exclusion of good sense. His philosophy--if we may call so airy a thing
by such a name--was the philosophy of some gentle whimsical follower of
Epicurus. He loved nature, but unromantically, as he loved a glass of
wine and an ode of Horace, and the rest of the good things of life. As
for the bad things--they were there; he saw them--saw the cruelty of the
wolf, and the tyranny of the lion, and the rapacity of man--saw that--

Jupin pour chaque etat mit deux tables au monde;
L'adroit, le vigilant, et le fort sont assis
A la premiere; et les petits
Mangent leur reste a la seconde.

Yet, while he saw them, he could smile. It was better to smile--if only
with regret; better, above all, to pass lightly, swiftly, gaily over the
depths as well as the surface of existence; for life is short--almost as
short as one of his own fables--

Qui de nous des clartes de la voute azuree
Doit jouir le dernier? Est-il aucun moment
Qui vous puisse assurer d'un second seulement?

The age was great in prose as well as in poetry. The periods of
BOSSUET, ordered, lucid, magnificent, reflect its literary ideals as
clearly as the couplets of Racine. Unfortunately, however, in the case
of Bossuet, the splendour and perfection of the form is very nearly all
that a modern reader can appreciate: the substance is for the most part
uninteresting and out-of-date. The truth is that Bossuet was too
completely a man of his own epoch to speak with any great significance
to after generations. His melodious voice enters our ears, but not our
hearts. The honest, high-minded, laborious bishop, with his dignity and
his enthusiasm, his eloquence and his knowledge of the world, represents
for us the best and most serious elements in the Court of Louis. The
average good man of those days must have thought on most subjects as
Bossuet thought--though less finely and intensely; and Bossuet never
spoke a sentence from his pulpit which went beyond the mental vision of
the most ordinary of his congregation. He saw all round his age, but he
did not see beyond it. Thus, in spite of his intelligence, his view of
the world was limited. The order of things under Louis XIV was the one
order: outside that, all was confusion, heresy, and the work of Satan.
If he had written more often on the great unchanging fundamentals of
life, more of his work would have been enduring. But it happened that,
while by birth he was an artist, by profession he was a theologian; and
even the style of Bossuet can hardly save from oblivion the theological
controversies of two hundred years ago. The same failing mars his
treatment of history. His _Histoire Universelle_ was conceived on broad
and sweeping lines, and contains some perspicacious thinking; but the
dominating notion of the book is a theological one--the illustration,
by means of the events of history, of the divine governance of the
world; and the fact that this conception of history has now become
extinct has reduced the work to the level of a finely written curiosity.

Purely as a master of prose Bossuet stands in the first rank. His style
is broad, massive, and luminous; and the great bulk of his writing is
remarkable more for its measured strength than for its ornament. Yet at
times the warm spirit of the artist, glowing through the well-ordered
phrases, diffuses an extraordinary splendour. When, in his _Meditations
sur l'Evangile_ or his _Elevations sur les Mysteres_, Bossuet unrolls
the narratives of the Bible or meditates upon the mysteries of his
religion, his language takes on the colours of poetry and soars on the
steady wings of an exalted imagination. In his famous _Oraisons
Funebres_ the magnificent amplitude of his art finds its full
expression. Death, and Life, and the majesty of God, and the
transitoriness of human glory--upon such themes he speaks with an
organ-voice which reminds an English reader of the greatest of his
English contemporaries, Milton. The pompous, rolling, resounding
sentences follow one another in a long solemnity, borne forward by a
vast movement of eloquence which underlies, controls, and animates them

O nuit desastreuse! O nuit effroyable, ou retentit tout-a-coup
comme un eclat de tonnerre, cette etonnante nouvelle: Madame se
meurt, Madame est morte!...

--The splendid words flow out like a stream of lava, molten and glowing,
and then fix themselves for ever in adamantine beauty.

We have already seen that one of the chief characteristics of French
classicism was compactness. The tragedies of Racine are as closely knit
as some lithe naked runner without an ounce of redundant flesh; the
_Fables_ of La Fontaine are airy miracles of compression. In prose the
same tendency is manifest, but to an even more marked degree. La
Rochefoucauld and La Bruyere, writing the one at the beginning, the
other towards the close, of the classical period, both practised the art
of extreme brevity with astonishing success. The DUC DE LA ROCHEFOUCAULD
was the first French writer to understand completely the wonderful
capacities for epigrammatic statement which his language possessed; and
in the dexterous precision of pointed phrase no succeeding author has
ever surpassed him. His little book of _Maxims_ consists of about five
hundred detached sentences, polished like jewels, and, like jewels,
sparkling with an inner brilliance on which it seems impossible that one
can gaze too long. The book was the work of years, and it contains in
its small compass the observations of a lifetime. Though the reflections
are not formally connected, a common spirit runs through them all.
'Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!' such is the perpetual burden of La
Rochefoucauld's doctrine: but it is vanity, not in the generalized sense
of the Preacher, but in the ordinary personal sense of empty egotism and
petty self-love which, in the eyes of this bitter moralist, is the
ultimate essence of the human spirit and the secret spring of the world.
The case is overstated, no doubt; but the strength of La Rochefoucauld's
position can only be appreciated when one has felt for oneself the keen
arrows of his wit. As one turns over his pages, the sentences strike
into one with a deadly force of personal application; sometimes one
almost blushes; one realizes that these things are cruel, that they are
humiliating, and that they are true. 'Nous avons tous assez de force
pour supporter les maux d'autrui.'--'Quelque bien qu'on nous dise de
nous, on ne nous apprend rien de nouveau.'--'On croit quelquefois hair
la flatterie, mais on ne hait que le maniere de flatter.'--'Le refus de
la louange est un desir d'etre loue deux fois.'--'Les passions les plus
violentes nous laissent quelquefois du relache, mais la vanite nous
agite toujours.' No more powerful dissolvent for the self-complacency of
humanity was ever composed.

Unlike the majority of the writers of his age, La Rochefoucauld was an
aristocrat; and this fact gives a peculiar tone to his work. In spite of
the great labour which he spent upon perfecting it, he has managed, in
some subtle way, to preserve all through it an air of slight disdain.
'Yes, these sentences are all perfect,' he seems to be saying; 'but
then, what else would you have? Unless one writes perfect sentences, why
should one trouble to write?' In his opinion, 'le vrai honnete homme est
celui qui ne se pique de rien'; and it is clear that he followed his own
dictum. His attitude was eminently detached. Though what he says reveals
so intensely personal a vision, he himself somehow remains impersonal.
Beneath the flawless surface of his workmanship, the clever Duke eludes
us. We can only see, as we peer into the recesses, an infinite ingenuity
and a very bitter love of truth.

A richer art and a broader outlook upon life meet us in the pages of LA
BRUYERE. The instrument is still the same--the witty and searching
epigram--but it is no longer being played upon a single string. La
Bruyere's style is extremely supple; he throws his apothegms into an
infinite variety of moulds, employing a wide and coloured vocabulary,
and a complete mastery of the art of rhetorical effect. Among these
short reflections he has scattered a great number of somewhat lengthier
portraits or character-studies, some altogether imaginary, others
founded wholly or in part on well-known persons of the day. It is here
that the great qualities of his style show themselves most clearly.
Psychologically, these studies are perhaps less valuable than has
sometimes been supposed: they are caricatures rather than
portraits--records of the idiosyncrasies of humanity rather than of
humanity itself. What cannot be doubted for a moment is the supreme art
with which they have been composed. The virtuosity of the language--so
solid and yet so brilliant, so varied and yet so pure--reminds one of
the hard subtlety of a Greek gem. The rhythm is absolutely perfect, and,
with its suspensions, its elaborations, its gradual crescendos, its
unerring conclusions, seems to carry the sheer beauty of expressiveness
to the farthest conceivable point. Take, as one instance out of a
multitude, this description of the crank who devotes his existence to
the production of tulips--

Vous le voyez plante et qui a pris racine au milieu de ses tulipes
et devant la _Solitaire_: il ouvre de grands yeux, il frotte ses
mains, il se baisse, il la voit de plus pres, il ne l'a jamais vue
si belle, il a le coeur epanoui de joie: il la quitte pour
l'_Orientale_; de la, il va a la _Veuve_; il passe au _Drap d'or_,
de celle-ci a _l'Agathe_, d'ou il revient enfin a la _Solitaire_,
ou il se fixe, ou il se lasse, ou il s'assied, ou il oublie de
diner: aussi est-elle nuancee, bordee, huilee a pieces emportees;
elle a un beau vase ou un beau calice; il la contemple, il
l'admire; Dieu et la nature sont en tout cela ce qu'il n'admire
point! il ne va pas plus loin que l'oignon de sa tulipe, qu'il ne
livrerait pas pour mille ecus, et qu'il donnera pour rien quand les
tulipes seront neligees et que les oeillets auront prevalu. Cet
homme raisonnable qui a une ame, qui a un culte et une religion,
revient chez soi fatigue affame, mais fort content de sa journee:
il a vu des tulipes.

_Les Caracteres_ is the title of La Bruyere's book; but its
sub-title--'Les Moeurs de ce Siecle'--gives a juster notion of its
contents. The whole of society, as it appeared to the subtle and
penetrating gaze of La Bruyere, flows through its pages. In them,
Versailles rises before us, less in its outward form than in its
spiritual content--its secret, essential self. And the judgement which
La Bruyere passes on this vision is one of withering scorn. His
criticism is more convincing than La Rochefoucauld's because it is based
upon a wider and a deeper foundation. The vanity which _he_ saw around
him was indeed the vanity of the Preacher--the emptiness, the
insignificance, the unprofitableness, of worldly things. There was
nothing too small to escape his terrible attention, and nothing too
large. His arraignment passes from the use of rouge to the use of
torture, from the hypocrisies of false devotion to the silly absurdities
of eccentrics, from the inhumanity of princes to the little habits of
fools. The passage in which he describes the celebration of Mass in the
Chapel of Versailles, where all the courtiers were to be seen turning
their faces to the king's throne and their backs to the altar of God,
shows a spirit different indeed from that of Bossuet--a spirit not far
removed from the undermining criticism of the eighteenth century itself.
Yet La Bruyere was not a social reformer nor a political theorist: he
was simply a moralist and an observer. He saw in a flash the condition
of the French peasants--

Certains animaux farouches, des males et des femelles, repandus par
la campagne, noirs, livides, et tout brules du soleil, attaches a
la terre qu'ils fouillent et qu'ils remuent avec une opiniatrete
invincible; ils out comme une voix articulee, et, quand ils se
levent sur leurs pieds, ils montrent une face humaine: et en effet
ils sont des hommes--

saw the dreadful fact, noted it with all the intensity of his genius,
and then passed on. He was not concerned with finding remedies for the
evils of a particular society, but with exposing the underlying evils of
all societies. He would have written as truthful and as melancholy a
book if he had lived to-day.

La Bruyere, in the darkness of his pessimism, sometimes suggests Swift,
especially in his sarcastically serious treatment of detail; but he was
without the virulent bitterness of the great Dean. In fact his
indictment owes much of its impressiveness to the sobriety with which it
is presented. There is no rage, no strain, no over-emphasis; one feels
as one reads that this is an impartial judge. And, more than that, one
feels that the judge is not only a judge, but also a human being. It is
the human quality in La Bruyere's mind which gives his book its rare
flavour, so that one seems to hear, in these printed words, across the
lapse of centuries, the voice of a friend. At times he forgets his gloom
and his misanthropy, and speaks with a strange depth of feeling on
friendship or on love. 'Un beau visage,' he murmurs, 'est le plus beau
de tous les spectacles, et l'harmonie la plus douce est le son de voix
de celle que l'on aime.' And then--'Etre avec les gens qu'on aime, cela
suffit; rever, leur parler, ne leur parler point, penser a eux, penser a
des choses plus indifferentes, mais aupres d'eux tout est egal.' How
tender and moving the accent, yet how restrained? And was ever more
profundity of intimacy distilled into a few simple words than here--'Il
y a du plaisir a rencontrer les yeux de celui a qui l'on vient de
donner'? But then once more the old melancholy seizes him. Even love
itself must end.--'On guerit comme on se console; on n'a pas dans le
coeur de quoi toujours pleurer et toujours aimer.' He is overwhelmed by
the disappointments of life.--'Les choses les plus souhaitees n'arrivent
point; ou, si elles arrivent, ce n'est ni dans le temps ni dans les
circonstances ou elles auraient fait un extreme plaisir.' And life
itself, what is it? how does it pass?--'Il n'y a pour l'homme que trois
evenements: naitre, vivre, et mourir; il ne se sent pas naitre, il
souffre a mourir, et il oublie de vivre.'

The pages of La Bruyere--so brilliant and animated on the surface, so
sombre in their fundamental sense--contain the final summary--we might
almost say the epitaph--of the great age of Louis XIV. Within a few
years of the publication of his book in its complete form (1694), the
epoch, which had begun in such a blaze of splendour a generation
earlier, entered upon its ultimate phase of disaster and humiliation.
The political ambitions of the overweening king were completely
shattered; the genius of Marlborough annihilated the armies of France;
and when peace came at last it came in ruin. The country was not only
exhausted to the farthest possible point, its recuperation had been made
well-nigh impossible by the fatal Revocation of the Edict of Nantes,
which, in circumstances of the utmost cruelty, had driven into exile the
most industrious and independent portion of the population. Poverty,
discontent, tyranny, fanaticism--such was the legacy that Louis left to
his country. Yet that was not quite all. Though, during the last years
of the reign, French literature achieved little of lasting value, the
triumphs of the earlier period threw a new and glorious lustre over the
reputation of France. The French tongue became the language of culture
throughout Europe. In every department of literature, French models and
French taste were regarded as the supreme authorities. Strange as it
would have seemed to him, it was not as the conqueror of Holland nor as
the defender of the Church, but as the patron of Racine and the
protector of Moliere that the superb and brilliant Louis gained his
highest fame, his true immortality.



The eighteenth century in France began with Louis XIV and ended with the
Revolution. It is the period which bridges the gulf between autocracy
and self-government, between Roman Catholicism and toleration, between
the classical spirit and the spirit of the Romantic Revival. It is thus
of immense importance in the history not only of France, but of the
civilized world. And from the point of view of literature it is also
peculiarly interesting. The vast political and social changes which it
inaugurated were the result of a corresponding movement in the current
of ideas; and this movement was begun, developed, and brought to a
triumphant conclusion by a series of great French writers, who
deliberately put their literary abilities to the service of the causes
which they had at heart. Thus the literature of the epoch offers a
singular contrast to that of the preceding one. While the masterpieces
of the _Grand Siecle_ served no ulterior purpose, coming into being and
into immortality simply as works of beauty and art, those of the
eighteenth century were works of propaganda, appealing with a practical
purpose to the age in which they were written--works whose value does
not depend solely upon artistic considerations. The former were static,
the latter dynamic. As the century progressed, the tendency deepened;
and the literature of the age, taken as a whole, presents a spectacle of
thrilling dramatic interest, in which the forces of change, at first
insignificant, gradually gather in volume, and at last, accumulated into
overwhelming power, carry all before them. In pure literature, the
writers of the eighteenth century achieved, indeed, many triumphs; but
their great, their peculiar, triumphs were in the domain of thought.

The movement had already begun before the death of Louis. The evils at
which La Bruyere had shuddered had filled the attention of more
practical minds. Among these the most remarkable was FENELON, Archbishop
of Cambray, who combined great boldness of political thought with the
graces of a charming and pellucid style. In several writings, among
which was the famous _Telemaque_--a book written for the edification of
the young Duc de Bourgogne, the heir to the French throne--Fenelon gave
expression to the growing reaction against the rigid autocracy of the
government, and enunciated the revolutionary doctrine that a monarch
existed for no other purpose than the good of his people. The Duc de
Bourgogne was converted to the mild, beneficent, and open-minded views
of his tutor; and it is possible that if he had lived a series of
judicious reforms might have prevented the cataclysm at the close of the
century. But in one important respect the mind of Fenelon was not in
accord with the lines on which French thought was to develop for the
next eighty years. Though he was among the first to advocate religious
toleration, he was an ardent, even a mystical, Roman Catholic. Now one
of the chief characteristics of the coming age was its scepticism--its
elevation of the secular as opposed to the religious elements in
society, and its utter lack of sympathy with all forms of mystical
devotion. Signs of this spirit also had appeared before the end of
Louis's reign. As early as 1687--within a year of the Revocation of the
Edict of Nantes--FONTENELLE, the nephew of Corneille, in his _Histoire
des Oracles_, attacked the miraculous basis of Christianity under the
pretence of exposing the religious credulity of the ancient Greeks and
Romans. In its mingling of the sprightly and the erudite, and in the
subdued irony of its apparent submission to orthodoxy, this little book
forestalled a method of controversy which came into great vogue at a
later date. But a more important work, published at the very end of the
seventeenth century, was the _Dictionary_ of BAYLE, in which, amid an
enormous mass of learning poured out over a multitude of heterogeneous
subjects, the most absolute religious scepticism is expressed with
unmistakable emphasis and unceasing reiteration. The book is an
extremely unwieldy one--very large and very discursive, and quite devoid
of style; but its influence was immense; and during the long combat of
the eighteenth century it was used as a kind of armoury, supplying many
of their sharpest weapons to the writers of the time.

It was not, however, until a few years after the death of the great king
that a volume appeared which contained a complete expression of the new
spirit, in all its aspects. In the _Lettres Persanes_ of MONTESQUIEU
(published 1721) may be discerned the germs of the whole thought of the
eighteenth century in France. The scheme of this charming and remarkable
book was not original: some Eastern travellers were supposed to arrive
in Paris, and to describe, in a correspondence with their countrymen in
Persia, the principal features of life in the French capital. But the
uses to which Montesquieu put this borrowed plot were all his own. He
made it the base for a searching attack on the whole system of the
government of Louis XIV. The corruption of the Court, the privileges of
the nobles, the maladministration of the finances, the stupidities and
barbarisms of the old autocratic regime--these are the topics to which
he is perpetually drawing his reader's attention. But he does more than
this: his criticism is not merely particular, it is general; he points
out the necessarily fatal effects of all despotisms, and he indicates
his own conception of what a good constitution should be. All these
discussions are animated by a purely secular spirit. He views religion
from an outside standpoint; he regards it rather as one of the functions
of administration than as an inner spiritual force. As for all the
varieties of fanaticism and intolerance, he abhors them utterly.

It might be supposed that a book containing such original and
far-reaching theories was a solid substantial volume, hard to master and
laborious to read. The precise opposite is the case. Montesquieu has
dished up his serious doctrines into a spicy story, full of epigrams and
light topical allusions, and romantic adventures, and fancy visions of
the East. Montesquieu was a magistrate; yet he ventured to indulge here
and there in reflections of dubious propriety, and to throw over the
whole of his book an airy veil of voluptuous intrigue. All this is
highly typical of the literature of the age which was now beginning. The
serious, formal tone of the classical writers was abandoned, and was
replaced by a gay, unemphatic, pithy manner, in which some grains of
light-hearted licentiousness usually gave a flavour to the wit. The
change was partly due to the shifting of the centre of society from the
elaborate and spectacular world of Versailles to the more intimate
atmosphere of the drawing-rooms of Paris. With the death of the old
king the ceremonial life of the Court fell into the background; and the
spirits of the time flew off into frivolity with a sense of freedom and
relief. But there was another influence at work. Paradoxical as it may
sound, it was the very seriousness of the new writers which was the real
cause of their lack of decorum. Their great object was to be read--and
by the largest possible number of readers; the old select circle of
literary connoisseurs no longer satisfied them; they were eager to
preach their doctrines to a wider public--to the brilliant, inquisitive,
and increasingly powerful public of the capital. And with this public no
book had a chance of success unless it was of the kind that could be run
through rapidly, pleasantly, on a sofa, between dinner and the opera,
and would furnish the material for spicy anecdotes and good talk. Like
the jesters of the Middle Ages, the philosophers of the eighteenth
century found in the use of pranks and buffoonery the best way of
telling the truth.

Until about the middle of the century, Montesquieu was the dominating
figure in French thought. His second book--_Considerations sur la
Grandeur et la Decadence des Romains_--is an exceedingly able work, in
which a series of interesting and occasionally profound historical
reflections are expressed in a style of great brilliance and
incisiveness. Here Montesquieu definitely freed history from the
medieval fetters which it had worn even in the days of Bossuet, and
considered the development of events from a purely secular point of
view, as the result of natural causes. But his greatest work, over which
he spent the greater part of his life, and on which his reputation must
finally rest, was _L'Esprit des Lois_ (published in 1748). The
discussion of this celebrated book falls outside the domain of
literature, and belongs rather to the history of political thought. It
is enough to say that here all Montesquieu's qualities--his power of
generalization, his freedom from prejudice, his rationalism, his love of
liberty and hatred of fanaticism, his pointed, epigrammatic
style--appear in their most characteristic form. Perhaps the chief fault
of the book is that it is too brilliant. When Madame du Deffand said
that its title should have been _De l'Esprit sur les Lois_ she put her
finger on its weak spot. Montesquieu's generalizations are always bold,
always original, always fine; unfortunately, they are too often unsound
into the bargain. The fluid elusive facts slip through his neat
sentences like water in a sieve. His treatment of the English
constitution affords an illustration of this. One of the first
foreigners to recognize the importance and to study the nature of
English institutions, Montesquieu nevertheless failed to give an
accurate account of them. He believed that he had found in them a signal
instance of his favourite theory of the beneficial effects produced by
the separation of the three powers of government--the judicial, the
legislative, and the executive; but he was wrong. In England, as a
matter of fact, the powers of the legislative and the executive were
intertwined. This particular error has had a curious history.
Montesquieu's great reputation led to his view of the constitution of
England being widely accepted as the true one; as such it was adopted by
the American leaders after the War of Independence; and its influence is
plainly visible in the present constitution of the United States. Such
is the strange power of good writing over the affairs of men!

At about the same time as the publication of the _Lettres Persanes_,
there appeared upon the scene in Paris a young man whose reputation was
eventually destined far to outshine that of Montesquieu himself. This
young man was Francois Arouet, known to the world as VOLTAIRE. Curiously
enough, however, the work upon which Voltaire's reputation was
originally built up has now sunk into almost complete oblivion. It was
as a poet, and particularly as a tragic poet, that he won his fame; and
it was primarily as a poet that
continued to be known to his contemporaries during the first sixty years
of his life (1694-1754). But to-day his poetry--the serious part of it,
at least,--is never read, and his tragedies--except for an occasional
revival--are never acted. As a dramatist Voltaire is negligible for the
very reasons that made him so successful in his own day. It was not his
object to write great drama, but to please his audience: he did please
them; and, naturally enough, he has not pleased posterity. His plays are
melodramas--the melodramas of a very clever man with a great command of
language, an acute eye for stage-effect, and a consummate knowledge of
the situations and sentiments which would go down with his Parisian
public. They are especially remarkable for their wretched psychology. It
seems well-nigh incredible that Voltaire's pasteboard imitations of
humanity should ever have held a place side by side with the profound
presentments of Racine; yet so it was, and Voltaire was acclaimed as the
equal--or possibly the triumphant rival--of his predecessor. All through
the eighteenth century this singular absence of psychological insight
may be observed.

The verse of the plays is hardly better than the character-drawing. It
is sometimes good rhetoric; it is never poetry. The same may be said of
_La Henriade_, the National Epic which placed Voltaire, in the eyes of
his admiring countrymen, far above Milton and Dante, and, at least, on a
level with Virgil and Homer. The true gifts displayed in this unreadable
work were not poetical at all, but historical. The notes and
dissertations appended to it showed that Voltaire possessed a real grasp
of the principles of historical method--principles which he put to a
better use a few years later in his brilliant narrative, based on
original research, of the life of Charles XII.

During this earlier period of his activity Voltaire seems to have been
trying--half unconsciously, perhaps--to discover and to express the
fundamental quality of his genius. What was that quality? Was he first
and foremost a dramatist, or an epic poet, or a writer of light verse,
or an historian, or even perhaps a novelist? In all these directions he
was working successfully--yet without absolute success. For, in fact, at
bottom, he was none of these things: the true nature of his spirit was
not revealed in them. When the revelation did come, it came as the
result of an accident. At the age of thirty he was obliged, owing to a
quarrel with a powerful nobleman, to leave France and take up his
residence in England. The three years that he passed there had an
immense effect upon his life. In those days England was very little
known to Frenchmen; the barrier which had arisen during the long war
between the two peoples was only just beginning to be broken down; and
when Voltaire arrived, it was almost in the spirit of a discoverer. What
he found filled him with astonishment and admiration. Here, in every
department of life, were to be seen all the blessings so conspicuously
absent in France. Here were wealth, prosperity, a contented people, a
cultivated nobility, a mild and just administration, and a bursting
energy which manifested itself in a multitude of ways--in literature, in
commerce, in politics, in scientific thought. And all this had come into
existence in a nation which had curbed the power of the monarchy, done
away with priestcraft, established the liberty of the Press, set its
face against every kind of bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and, through
the means of free institutions, taken up the task of governing itself.
The inference was obvious: in France also, like causes would lead to
like results. When he was allowed to return to his own country, Voltaire
published the outcome of his observations and reflections in his
_Lettres Philosophiques_, where for the first time his genius displayed
itself in its essential form. The book contains an account of England as
Voltaire saw it, from the social rather than from the political point of
view. English life is described in its actuality, detailed, vivid, and
various; we are shown Quakers and members of Parliament, merchants and
philosophers; we come in for the burial of Sir Isaac Newton; we go to a
performance of _Julius Caesar_; inoculation is explained to us; we are
given elaborate discussions of English literature and English science,
of the speculations of Bolingbroke and the theories of Locke. The
Letters may still be read with pleasure and instruction; they are
written in a delightful style, running over with humour and wit,
revealing here and there remarkable powers of narrative, and impregnated
through and through with a wonderful mingling of gaiety, irony, and
common sense. They are journalism of genius; but they are something more
besides. They are informed with a high purpose, and a genuine love of
humanity and the truth. The French authorities soon recognized this;
they perceived that every page contained a cutting indictment of their
system of government; and they adopted their usual method in such a
case. The sale of the book was absolutely prohibited throughout France,
and a copy of it solemnly burnt by the common hangman.

It was only gradually that the new views, of which Montesquieu and
Voltaire were the principal exponents, spread their way among the
public; and during the first half of the century many writers remained
quite unaffected by them. Two of these--resembling each other in this
fact alone, that they stood altogether outside the movement of
contemporary thought--deserve our special attention.

The mantle of Racine was generally supposed to have fallen on to the
shoulders of Voltaire--it had not: if it had fallen on to anyone's
shoulders it was on to those of MARIVAUX. No doubt it had become
diminished in the transit. Marivaux was not a great tragic writer; he
was not a poet; he worked on a much smaller scale, and with far less
significant material. But he was a true dramatist, a subtle
psychologist, and an artist pure and simple. His comedies, too, move
according to the same laws as the tragedies of Racine; they preserve the
same finished symmetry of design, and leave upon the mind the same sense
of unity and grace. But they are slight, etherealized, fantastic; they
are Racine, as it were, by moonlight. All Marivaux's dramas pass in a
world of his own invention--a world curiously compounded of imagination
and reality. At first sight one can see nothing there but a kind of
conventional fantasy, playing charmingly round impossible situations
and queer delightful personages, who would vanish in a moment into thin
air at the slightest contact with actual flesh and blood. But if
Marivaux had been simply fantastic and nothing more, his achievement
would have been insignificant; his great merit lies in his exquisite
instinct for psychological truth. His plays are like Watteau's pictures,
which, for all the unreality of their atmosphere, produce their effect
owing to a mass of accurate observation and a profound sense of the
realities of life. His characters, like Watteau's, seem to possess, not
quite reality itself, but the very quintessence of rarefied reality--the
distilled fragrance of all that is most refined, delicate and enchanting
in the human spirit. His Aramintes, his Silvias, his Lucidors are purged
of the grossnesses of existence; their minds and their hearts are
miraculously one; in their conversations the subtleties of
metaphysicians are blended with the airy clarities of birds. _Le Jeu de
l'Amour et du Hasard_ is perhaps the most perfect example of his work.
Here the lady changes places with her waiting-maid, while the lover
changes places with his valet, and, in this impossible framework of
symmetrical complications, the whole action spins itself out. The beauty
of the little piece depends upon the infinitely delicate art which
depicts each charmingly absurd, minute transition in the process of
delusion, misunderstanding, bewilderment, and explanation, with all the
varieties of their interactions and shimmering personal shades. It would
be difficult to find a more exquisite example of tender and
discriminating fidelity to the loveliest qualities in human nature than
the scene in which Silvia realizes at last that she is in love--and with
whom. 'Ah! je vois clair dans mon coeur!' she exclaims at the supreme
moment; and the words might stand as the epitome of the art of
Marivaux. Through all the superfine convolutions of his fancies and his
coquetries he never loses sight for a moment of the clear truth of the

While Marivaux, to use Voltaire's phrase for him, was 'weighing nothings
in scales of gossamer', a writer of a very different calibre was engaged
upon one of the most forcible, one of the most actual, and one of the
hugest compositions that has ever come from pen of man. The DUC DE
SAINT-SIMON had spent his youth and middle life in the thick of the
Court during the closing years of Louis XIV and the succeeding period of
the Regency; and he occupied his old age with the compilation of his
_Memoires_. This great book offers so many points of striking contrast
with the mass of French literature that it falls into a category of its
own; no other work of the same outstanding merit can quite be compared
to it; for it was the product of what has always been, in France, an
extremely rare phenomenon--an amateur in literature who was also a
genius. Saint-Simon was so far from being a professional man of letters
that he would have been shocked to hear himself described as a man of
letters at all; indeed, it might be said with justice that his only
profession was that of a duke. It was as a duke--or, more correctly, as
a _Duc et Pair_--that, in his own eyes at any rate, he lived and moved
and had his being. It was round his position as a duke that the whole of
his active existence had revolved; it was with the consciousness of his
dukedom dominating his mind that he sat down in his retirement to write
his memoirs. It might seem that no book produced in such circumstances
and by such a man could possibly be valuable or interesting. But,
fortunately for the world, the merit of books does not depend upon the
enlightenment of authors. Saint-Simon was a man of small intellect, with
medieval ideas as to the structure of society, with an absurd belief in
the fundamental importance of the minutest class distinctions, and with
an obsession for dukedoms almost amounting to mania: but he had in
addition an incredibly passionate temperament combined with an
unparalleled power of observation; and these two qualities have made his
book immortal.

Besides the intrinsic merits of the work, it has the additional
advantage of being concerned with an age which, of enthralling interest
on its own account, also happened to be particularly suited to the
capacities of the writer. If Saint-Simon had lived at any other time,
his memoirs would have been admirable, no doubt, but they would have
lacked the crowning excellence which they actually possess. As it was, a
happy stroke of fortune placed him in the one position where he could
exercise to the full his extraordinary powers: never, before or since,
has there been so much to observe; never, before or since, so miraculous
an observer. For, at Versailles, in the last years of Louis, Saint-Simon
had before him, under his very eyes as a daily and hourly spectacle, the
whole accumulated energy of France in all its manifestations; that was
what he saw; and that, by the magic of his pen, is what he makes us see.
Through the endless succession of his pages the enormous panorama
unrolls itself, magnificent, palpitating, alive. What La Bruyere saw
with the spiritual gaze of a moralist rushed upon the vision of
Saint-Simon in all the colour, the detail, the intensity, the frenzy, of
actual fact. He makes no comments, no reflections--or, if he does, they
are ridiculous; he only sees and feels. Thus, though in the profundity
of his judgement he falls so infinitely below La Bruyere, in his
character-drawing he soars as high above him. His innumerable portraits
are unsurpassed in literature. They spring into his pages bursting with
life--individual, convincing, complete, and as various as humanity
itself. He excels in that most difficult art of presenting the outward
characteristics of persons, calling up before the imagination not only
the details of their physical appearance, but the more recondite effects
of their manner and their bearing, so that, when he has finished, one
almost feels that one has met the man. But his excellence does not stop
there. It is upon the inward creature that he expends his most lavish
care--upon the soul that sits behind the eyelids, upon the purpose and
the passion that linger in a gesture or betray themselves in a word. The
joy that he takes in such descriptions soon infects the reader, who
finds before long that he is being carried away by the ardour of the
chase, and that at last he seizes upon the quivering quarry with all the
excitement and all the fury of Saint-Simon himself. Though it would,
indeed, be a mistake to suppose that Saint-Simon was always furious--the
wonderful portraits of the Duchesse de Bourgogne and the Prince de Conti
are in themselves sufficient to disprove that--yet there can be no doubt
that his hatreds exceeded his loves, and that, in his character-drawing,
he was, as it were, more at home when he detested. Then the victim is
indeed dissected with a loving hand; then the details of incrimination
pour out in a multitudinous stream; then the indefatigable brush of the
master darkens the deepest shadows and throws the most glaring
deformities into still bolder relief; then disgust, horror, pity, and
ridicule finish the work which scorn and indignation had begun. Nor, in
spite of the virulence of his method, do his portraits ever sink to the
level of caricatures. His most malevolent exaggerations are yet so
realistic that they carry conviction. When he had fashioned to his
liking his terrific images--his Vendome, his Noailles, his
Pontchartrain, his Duchesse de Berry, and a hundred more--he never
forgot, in the extremity of his ferocity, to commit the last insult, and
to breathe into their nostrils the fatal breath of life.

And it is not simply in detached portraits that Saint-Simon's
descriptive powers show themselves; they are no less remarkable in the
evocation of crowded and elaborate scenes. He is a master of movement;
he can make great groups of persons flow and dispose themselves and
disperse again; he can produce the effect of a multitude under the
dominion of some common agitation, the waves of excitement spreading in
widening circles, amid the conflicting currents of curiosity and
suspicion, fear and hope. He is assiduous in his descriptions of the
details of places, and invariably heightens the effect of his emotional
climaxes by his dramatic management of the physical _decor._ Thus his
readers get to know the Versailles of that age as if they had lived in
it; they are familiar with the great rooms and the long gallery; they
can tell the way to the king's bedchamber, or wait by the mysterious
door of Madame de Maintenon; or remember which prince had rooms opening
out on to the Terrace near the Orangery, and which great family had
apartments in the new wing. More than this, Saint-Simon has the art of
conjuring up--often in a phrase or two--those curious intimate visions
which seem to reveal the very soul of a place. How much more one knows
about the extraordinary palace--how one feels the very pulse of the
machine--when Saint-Simon has shown one in a flash a door opening, on a
sudden, at dead of night, in an unlighted corridor, and the haughty Duc
d'Harcourt stepping out among a blaze of torches, to vanish again, as
swiftly as he had come, into the mysterious darkness!--Or when one has
seen, amid the cold and snow of a cruel winter, the white faces of the
courtiers pressed against the window-panes of the palace, as the
messengers ride in from the seat of war with their dreadful catalogues
of disasters and deaths!

Saint-Simon's style is the precise counterpart of his matter. It is
coloured and vital to the highest degree. It is the style of a writer
who does not care how many solecisms he commits--how disordered his
sentences may be, how incorrect his grammar, how forced or undignified
his expressions--so long as he can put on to paper in black and white
the passionate vision that is in his mind. The result is something
unique in French literature. If Saint-Simon had tried to write with
academic correctness--and even if he had succeeded--he certainly would
have spoilt his book. Fortunately, academic correctness did not interest
him, while the exact delineament of his observations did. He is not
afraid of using colloquialisms which every critic of the time would have
shuddered at, and which, by their raciness and flavour, add enormously
to his effects. His writing is also extremely metaphorical; technical
terms are thrown in helter-skelter whenever the meaning would benefit;
and the boldest constructions at every turn are suddenly brought into
being. In describing the subtle spiritual sympathy which existed
between Fenelon and Madame de Guyon he strikes out the unforgettable
phrase--'leur sublime s'amalgama', which in its compression, its
singularity, its vividness, reminds one rather of an English Elizabethan
than a French writer of the eighteenth century. The vast movement of his
sentences is particularly characteristic. Clause follows clause, image
is piled upon image, the words hurry out upon one another's heels in
clusters, until the construction melts away under the burning pressure
of the excitement, to reform as best it may while the agitated period
still expands in endless ramifications. His book is like a tropical
forest--luxuriant, bewildering, enormous--with the gayest humming-birds
among the branches, and the vilest monsters in the entangled grass.

Saint-Simon, so far as the influence of his contemporaries was
concerned, might have been living in the Middle Ages or the moon. At a
time when Voltaire's fame was ringing through Europe, he refers to him
incidentally as an insignificant scribbler, and misspells his name. But
the combination of such abilities and such aloofness was a singular
exception, becoming, indeed, more extraordinary and improbable every
day. For now the movement which had begun in the early years of the
century was entering upon a new phase. The change came during the decade
1750-60, when, on the one hand, it had become obvious that all the worst
features of the old regime were to be perpetuated indefinitely under the
incompetent government of Louis XV, and when, on the other hand, the
generation which had been brought up under the influence of Montesquieu
and Voltaire came to maturity. A host of new writers, eager, positive,
and resolute, burst upon the public, determined to expose to the
uttermost the evils of the existing system, and, if possible, to end
them. Henceforward, until the meeting of the States-General closed the
period of discussion and began that of action, the movement towards
reform dominated French literature, gathering in intensity as it
progressed, and assuming at last the proportions and characteristics of
a great organized campaign.

The ideals which animated the new writers--the _Philosophes_, as they
came to be called--may be summed up in two words: Reason and Humanity.
They were the heirs of that splendid spirit which had arisen in Europe
at the Renaissance, which had filled Columbus when he sailed for the New
World, Copernicus when he discovered the motion of the earth, and Luther
when he nailed his propositions to the church door at Wittenberg. They
wished to dispel the dark mass of prejudice, superstition, ignorance and
folly by the clear rays of knowledge and truth; and to employ the forces
of society towards the benefit of all mankind. They found in France an
incompetent administration, a financial system at once futile and
unjust, a barbarous judicial procedure, a blind spirit of religious
intolerance--they found the traces of tyranny, caste-privilege and
corruption in every branch of public life; and they found that these
enormous evils were the result less of viciousness than of stupidity,
less of the deliberate malice of kings or ministers than of a long,
ingrained tradition of narrow-mindedness and inhumanity in the
principles of government. Their great object, therefore, was to produce,
by means of their writings, such an awakening of public opinion as
would cause an immense transformation in the whole spirit of national
life. With the actual processes of political change, with the practical
details of political machinery, very few of them concerned themselves.
Some of them--such as the illustrious Turgot--believed that the best way
of reaching the desired improvement was through the agency of a
benevolent despotism; others--such as Rousseau--had in view an
elaborate, _a priori_, ideal system of government; but these were
exceptions, and the majority of the _Philosophes_ ignored politics
proper altogether. This was a great misfortune; but it was inevitable.
The beneficent changes which had been introduced so effectively and with
such comparative ease into the government of England had been brought
about by men of affairs; in France the men of affairs were merely the
helpless tools of an autocratic machine, and the changes had to owe
their origin to men uninstructed in affairs--to men of letters. Reform
had to come from the outside, instead of from within; and reform of that
kind spells revolution. Yet, even here, there were compensating
advantages. The changes in England had been, for the most part,
accomplished in a tinkering, unspeculative, hole-and-corner spirit;
those in France were the result of the widest appeal to first
principles, of an attempt, at any rate, to solve the fundamental
problems of society, of a noble and comprehensive conception of the
duties and destiny of man. This was the achievement of the
_Philosophes_. They spread far and wide, not only through France, but
through the whole civilized world, a multitude of searching
interrogations on the most vital subjects; they propounded vast
theories, they awoke new enthusiasms, and uplifted new ideals. In two
directions particularly their influence has been enormous. By their
insistence on the right of free opinion and on the paramount necessity
of free speculation, untrammelled by the fetters of orthodoxy and
tradition, they established once for all as the common property of the
human race that scientific spirit which has had such an immense effect
on modern civilization, and whose full import we are still only just
beginning to understand. And, owing mainly to their efforts also, the
spirit of humanity has come to be an abiding influence in the world. It
was they who, by their relentless exposure of the abuses of the French
judicial system--the scandal of arbitrary imprisonment, the futile
barbarism of torture, the medieval abominations of the penal
code--finally instilled into public opinion a hatred of cruelty and
injustice in all their forms; it was they who denounced the horrors of
the slave-trade; it was they who unceasingly lamented the awful evils of
war. So far as the actual content of their thought was concerned, they
were not great originators. The germs of their most fruitful theories
they found elsewhere--chiefly among the thinkers of England; and, when
they attempted original thinking on their own account, though they were
bold and ingenious, they were apt also to be crude. In some
sciences--political economy, for instance, and psychology--they led the
way, but attained to no lasting achievement. They suffered from the same
faults as Montesquieu in his _Esprit des Lois_. In their love of pure
reason, they relied too often on the swift processes of argument for the
solution of difficult problems, and omitted that patient investigation
of premises upon which the validity of all argument depends. They were
too fond of systems, and those neatly constructed logical theories into
which everything may be fitted admirably--except the facts. In addition,
the lack of psychological insight which was so common in the eighteenth
century tended to narrow their sympathies; and in particular they failed
to realize the beauty and significance of religious and mystical states
of mind. These defects eventually produced a reaction against their
teaching--a reaction during which the true value of their work was for a
time obscured. For that value is not to be looked for in the enunciation
of certain definite doctrines, but in something much wider and more
profound. The _Philosophes_ were important not so much for the answers
which they gave as for the questions which they asked; their real
originality lay not in their thought, but in their spirit. They were the
first great popularizers. Other men before them had thought more
accurately and more deeply; they were the first to fling the light of
thought wide through the world, to appeal, not to the scholar and the
specialist, but to the ordinary man and woman, and to proclaim the
glories of civilization as the heritage of all humanity. Above all, they
instilled a new spirit into the speculations of men--the spirit of hope.
They believed ardently in the fundamental goodness of mankind, and they
looked forward into the future with the certain expectation of the
ultimate triumph of what was best. Though in some directions their
sympathies were limited, their love of humanity was a profound and
genuine feeling which moved them to a boundless enthusiasm. Though their
faith in creeds was small, their faith in mankind was great. The spirit
which filled them was well shown when, during the darkest days of the
Terror, the noble Condorcet, in the hiding-place from which he came
forth only to die, wrote his historical _Sketch of the Progress of the
Human Mind_, with its final chapter foretelling the future triumphs of
reason, and asserting the unlimited perfectibility of man.

The energies of the _Philosophes_ were given a centre and a
rallying-point by the great undertaking of the _Encyclopaedia_, the
publication of which covered a period of thirty years (1751-80). The
object of this colossal work, which contained a survey of human activity
in all its branches--political, scientific, artistic, philosophical,
commercial--was to record in a permanent and concentrated form the
advance of civilization. A multitude of writers contributed to it, of
varying merit and of various opinions, but all animated by the new
belief in reason and humanity. The ponderous volumes are not great
literature; their importance lies in the place which they fill in the
progress of thought, and in their immense influence in the propagation
of the new spirit. In spite of its bulk the book was extremely
successful; edition after edition was printed; the desire to know and to
think began to permeate through all the grades of society. Nor was it
only in France that these effects were visible; the prestige of French
literature and French manners carried the teaching of the _Philosophes_
all over Europe; great princes and ministers--Frederick in Prussia,
Catherine in Russia, Pombal in Portugal--eagerly joined the swelling
current; enlightenment was abroad in the world.

The _Encyclopaedia_ would never have come into existence without the
genius, the energy, and the enthusiasm of one man--DIDEROT. In him the
spirit of the age found its most typical expression. He was indeed _the
Philosophe_--more completely than all the rest universal, brilliant,
inquisitive, sceptical, generous, hopeful, and humane. It was he who
originated the _Encyclopaedia_, who, in company with Dalembert,
undertook its editorship, and who, eventually alone, accomplished the
herculean task of bringing the great production, in spite of obstacle
after obstacle--in spite of government prohibitions, lack of funds,
desertions, treacheries, and the mischances of thirty years--to a
triumphant conclusion. This was the work of his life; and it was work
which, by its very nature, could leave--except for that long row of
neglected volumes--no lasting memorial. But the superabundant spirit of
Diderot was not content with that: in the intervals of this stupendous
labour, which would have exhausted to their last fibre the energies of a
lesser man, he found time not only to pour out a constant flow of
writing in a multitude of miscellaneous forms--in dramas, in art
criticism, in philosophical essays, and in a voluminous
correspondence--but also to create on the sly as it were, and without a
thought of publication, two or three finished masterpieces which can
never be forgotten. Of these, the most important is _Le Neveu de
Rameau_, where Diderot's whole soul gushes out in one clear, strong,
sparkling jet of incomparable prose. In the sheer enchantment of its
vitality this wonderful little book has certainly never been surpassed.
It enthrals the reader as completely as the most exciting romance, or
the talk of some irresistibly brilliant _raconteur_. Indeed, the
writing, with its ease, its vigour, its colour, and its rapidity, might
almost be taken for what, in fact, it purports to be--conversation put
into print, were it not for the magical perfection of its form. Never
did a style combine more absolutely the movement of life with the
serenity of art. Every sentence is exciting, and every sentence is
beautiful. The book must have been composed quickly, without effort,
almost off-hand; but the mind that composed it was the mind of a master,
who, even as he revelled in the joyous manifestation of his genius,
preserved, with an instinctive power, the master's control. In truth,
beneath the gay galaxies of scintillating thoughts that strew the pages,
one can discern the firm, warm, broad substance of Diderot's very self,
underlying and supporting all. That is the real subject of a book which
seems to have taken all subjects for its province--from the origin of
music to the purpose of the universe; and the central figure--the queer,
delightful, Bohemian Rameau, evoked for us with such a marvellous
distinctness--is in fact no more than the reed with many stops through
which Diderot is blowing. Of all his countrymen, he comes nearest, in
spirit and in manner, to the great Cure of Meudon. The rich, exuberant,
intoxicating tones of Rabelais vibrate in his voice. He has--not all,
for no son of man will ever again have that; but he has _some_ of
Rabelais' stupendous breadth, and he has yet more of Rabelais' enormous
optimism. His complete materialism--his disbelief in any Providence or
any immortality--instead of depressing him, seems rather to have given
fresh buoyancy to his spirit; if this life on earth were all, that only
served, in his eyes, to redouble the intensity of its value. And his
enthusiasm inspired him with a philanthropy unknown to Rabelais--an
active benevolence that never tired. For indeed he was, above all else,
a man of his own age: a man who could think subtly and work nobly as
well as write splendidly; who could weep as well as laugh. He is,
perhaps, a smaller figure than Rabelais; but he is much nearer to
ourselves. And, when we have come to the end of his generous pages, the
final impression that is left with us is of a man whom we cannot choose
but love.

Besides Diderot, the band of the _Philosophes_ included many famous
names. There was the brilliant and witty mathematician, Dalembert; there
was the grave and noble statesman, Turgot; there was the psychologist,
Condillac; there was the light, good-humoured Marmontel; there was the
penetrating and ill-fated Condorcet. Helvetius and D'Holbach plunged
boldly into ethics and metaphysics; while, a little apart, in learned
repose, Buffon advanced the purest interests of science by his
researches in Natural History. As every year passed there were new
accessions to this great array of writers, who waged their war against
ignorance and prejudice with an ever-increasing fury. A war indeed it
was. On one side were all the forces of intellect; on the other was all
the mass of entrenched and powerful dullness. In reply to the brisk fire
of the _Philosophes_--argument, derision, learning, wit--the authorities
in State and Church opposed the more serious artillery of censorships,
suppressions, imprisonments, and exiles. There was hardly an eminent
writer in Paris who was unacquainted with the inside of the Conciergerie
or the Bastille. It was only natural, therefore, that the struggle
should have become a highly embittered one, and that at times, in the
heat of it, the party whose watchword was a hatred of fanaticism should
have grown itself fanatical. But it was clear that the powers of
reaction were steadily losing ground; they could only assert themselves
spasmodically; their hold upon public opinion was slipping away. Thus
the efforts of the band of writers in Paris seemed about to be crowned
with success. But this result had not been achieved by their efforts
alone. In the midst of the conflict they had received the aid of a
powerful auxiliary, who had thrown himself with the utmost vigour into
the struggle, and, far as he was from the centre of operations, had
assumed supreme command.

It was Voltaire. This great man had now entered upon the final, and by
far the most important, period of his astonishing career. It is a
curious fact that if Voltaire had died at the age of sixty he would now
only be remembered as a writer of talent and versatility, who had given
conspicuous evidence, in one or two works, of a liberal and brilliant
intelligence, but who had enjoyed a reputation in his own age, as a poet
and dramatist, infinitely beyond his deserts. He entered upon the really
significant period of his activity at an age when most men have already
sought repose. Nor was this all; for, by a singular stroke of fortune,
his existence was prolonged far beyond the common span; so that, in
spite of the late hour of its beginning, the most fruitful and important
epoch of his life extended over a quarter of a century (1754-78). That
he ever entered upon this last period of his career seems in itself to
have depended as much on accident as his fateful residence in England.
After the publication of the _Lettres Philosophiques_, he had done very
little to fulfil the promise of that work. He had retired to the country
house of Madame du Chatelet, where he had devoted himself to science,
play-writing, and the preparation of a universal history. His reputation
had increased; for it was in these years that he produced his most
popular tragedies--_Zaire, Merope, Alzire_, and _Mahomet_--while a
correspondence carried on in the most affectionate terms with Frederick
the Great yet further added to his prestige; but his essential genius
still remained quiescent. Then at last Madame du Chatelet died and
Voltaire took the great step of his life. At the invitation of Frederick
he left France, and went to live as a pensioner of the Prussian king in
the palace at Potsdam. But his stay there did not last long. It seemed
as if the two most remarkable men in Europe liked each other so well
that they could not remain apart--and so ill that they could not remain
together. After a year or two, there was the inevitable explosion.
Voltaire fled from Prussia, giving to the world before he did so one of
the most amusing _jeux d'esprit_ ever written--the celebrated _Diatribe
du Docteur Akakia_--and, after some hesitation, settled down near the
Lake of Geneva. A few years later he moved into the _chateau_ of Ferney,
which became henceforward his permanent abode.

Voltaire was now sixty years of age. His position was an enviable one.
His reputation was very great, and he had amassed a considerable
fortune, which not only assured him complete independence, but enabled
him to live in his domains on the large and lavish scale of a country
magnate. His residence at Ferney, just on the border of French
territory, put him beyond the reach of government interference, while he
was yet not too far distant to be out of touch with the capital. Thus
the opportunity had at last come for the full display of his powers. And
those powers were indeed extraordinary. His character was composed of a
strange amalgam of all the most contradictory elements in human nature,
and it would be difficult to name a single virtue or a single vice which
he did not possess. He was the most egotistical of mortals, and the
most disinterested; he was graspingly avaricious, and profusely
generous; he was treacherous, mischievous, frivolous, and mean, yet he
was a firm friend and a true benefactor, yet he was profoundly serious
and inspired by the noblest enthusiasms. Nature had carried these
contradictions even into his physical constitution. His health was so
bad that he seemed to pass his whole life on the brink of the grave;
nevertheless his vitality has probably never been surpassed in the
history of the world. Here, indeed, was the one characteristic which
never deserted him: he was always active with an insatiable activity; it
was always safe to say of him that, whatever else he was, he was not at
rest. His long, gaunt body, frantically gesticulating, his skull-like
face, with its mobile features twisted into an eternal grin, its
piercing eyes sparkling and darting--all this suggested the appearance
of a corpse galvanized into an incredible animation. But in truth it was
no dead ghost that inhabited this strange tenement, but the fierce and
powerful spirit of an intensely living man.

Some signs had already appeared of the form which his activity was now
about to take. During his residence in Prussia he had completed his
historical _Essai sur les Moeurs_, which passed over in rapid review the
whole development of humanity, and closed with a brilliant sketch of the
age of Louis XIV. This work was highly original in many ways. It was the
first history which attempted to describe the march of civilization in
its broadest aspects, which included a consideration of the great
Eastern peoples, which dealt rather with the progress of the arts and
the sciences than with the details of politics and wars. But its chief
importance lay in the fact that it was in reality, under its historical
trappings, a work of propaganda. It was a counterblast to Bossuet's
_Histoire Universelle_. That book had shown the world's history as a
part of the providential order--a grand unfolding of design. Voltaire's
view was very different. To him, as to Montesquieu, natural causes alone
were operative in history; but this was not all; in his eyes there was
one influence which, from the earliest ages, had continually retarded
the progress of humanity, and that influence was religious belief. Thus
his book, though far more brilliant and far more modern than that of
Bossuet, was nevertheless almost equally biased. It was history with a
thesis, and the gibe of Montesquieu was justifiable. 'Voltaire,' he
said, 'writes history to glorify his own convent, like any Benedictine
monk.' Voltaire's 'convent' was the philosophical school in Paris; and
his desire to glorify it was soon to appear in other directions.

The _Essai sur les Moeurs_ is an exceedingly amusing narrative, but it
is a long and learned work filling several volumes, and the fruit of
many years of research. Voltaire was determined henceforward to distil
its spirit into more compendious and popular forms. He had no more time
for elaborate dissertations; he must reach the public by quicker and
surer ways. Accordingly there now began to pour into Paris a flood of
short light booklets--essays, plays, poems, romances, letters, tracts--a
multitude of writings infinitely varied in form and scope, but all
equally irresistible and all equally bearing the unmistakable signs of
their origin at Ferney. Voltaire's inimitable style had at last found a
medium in which it could display itself in all its charm and all its
brilliance. The pointed, cutting, mocking sentences laugh and dance
through his pages like light-toed, prick-eared elves. Once seen, and
there is no help for it--one must follow, into whatever dangerous and
unknown regions those magic imps may lead. The pamphlets were of course
forbidden, but without effect; they were sold in thousands, and new
cargoes, somehow or other, were always slipping across the frontier from
Holland or Geneva. Whenever a particularly outrageous one appeared,
Voltaire wrote off to all his friends to assure them that he knew
nothing whatever of the production, that it was probably a translation
from the work of an English clergyman, and that, in short, everyone
would immediately see from the style alone that it was--_not_ his. An
endless series of absurd pseudonyms intensified the farce. Oh no!
Voltaire was certainly not the author of this scandalous book. How could
he be? Did not the title-page plainly show that it was the work of Frere
Cucufin, or the uncle of Abbe Bazin, or the Comte de Boulainvilliers, or
the Emperor of China? And so the game proceeded; and so all France
laughed; and so all France read.

Two forms of this light literature Voltaire made especially his own. He
brought the Dialogue to perfection; for the form suited him exactly,
with its opportunities for the rapid exposition of contrary doctrines,
for the humorous stultification of opponents, and for witty repartee.
Into this mould he has poured some of his finest materials; and in such
pieces as _Le Diner du Comte de Boulainvilliers_ and _Frere Rigolet et
l'Empereur de la Chine_ one finds the concentrated essence of his whole
work. Equally effective and equally characteristic is the _Dictionnaire
Philosophique_, which contains a great number of very short
miscellaneous articles arranged in alphabetical order. This plan gave
Voltaire complete freedom both in the choice of subjects and in their
manipulation; as the spirit seized him he could fly out into a page of
sarcasm or speculation or criticism or buffoonery, and such liberty was
precisely to his taste; so that the book which had first appeared as a
pocket dictionary--'ce diable de portatif', he calls it in a letter
proving quite conclusively that _he_, at any rate, was not responsible
for the wretched thing--were there not Hebrew quotations in it? and who
could accuse him of knowing Hebrew?--had swollen to six volumes before
he died.

The subjects of these writings were very various. Ostensibly, at least,
they were by no means limited to matters of controversy. Some were
successful tragedies, others were pieces of criticism, others were
historical essays, others were frivolous short stories, or _vers de
societe_. But, in all of them, somewhere or other, the cloven hoof was
bound to show itself at last. Whatever disguises he might assume,
Voltaire in reality was always writing for his 'convent'; he was
pressing forward, at every possible opportunity, the great movement
against the old regime. His attack covers a wide ground. The abuses of
the financial system, the defects in the administration of justice, the
futility of the restraints upon trade--upon these and a hundred similar
subjects he poured out an incessant torrent of gay, penetrating,
frivolous and remorseless words. But there was one theme to which he was
perpetually recurring, which forms the subject for his bitterest jests,
and which, in fact, dominates the whole of his work, 'Ecrasez l'infame!'
was his constant exclamation; and the 'infamous thing' which he wished
to see stamped underfoot was nothing less than religion. The
extraordinary fury of his attack on religion has, in the eyes of many,
imprinted an indelible stigma upon his name; but the true nature of his
position in this matter has often been misunderstood, and deserves some

Voltaire was a profoundly irreligious man. In this he resembled the
majority of his contemporaries; but he carried the quality perhaps to a
further pitch than any man of his age. For, with him, it was not merely
the purely religious and mystical feelings that were absent; he lacked
all sympathy with those vague, brooding, emotional states of mind which
go to create the highest forms of poetry, music, and art, and which are
called forth into such a moving intensity by the beauties of Nature.
These things Voltaire did not understand; he did not even perceive them;
for him, in fact, they did not exist; and the notion that men could be
influenced by them, genuinely and deeply, he considered to be so absurd
as hardly to need discussion. This was certainly a great weakness in
him--a great limitation of spirit. It has vitiated a large part of his
writings; and it has done more than that--it has obscured, to many of
his readers, the real nature and the real value of his work. For,
combined with this inability to comprehend some of the noblest parts of
man's nature, Voltaire possessed other qualities of high importance
which went far to compensate for his defects. If he was blind to some
truths, he perceived others with wonderful clearness; if his sympathies
in some directions were atrophied, in others they were sensitive to an
extraordinary degree. In the light of these considerations his attitude
towards religion becomes easier to understand. All the highest elements
of religion--the ardent devotion, the individual ecstasy, the sense of
communion with the divine--these things he simply ignored. But,
unfortunately, in his day there was a side of religion which, with his
piercing clear-sightedness, he could not ignore. The spirit of
fanaticism was still lingering in France; it was the spirit which had
burst out on the Eve of St. Bartholomew, and had dictated the fatal
Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In every branch of life its influence
was active, infusing prejudice, bitterness, and strife; but its effects
were especially terrible in the administration of justice. It so
happened that while Voltaire was at Ferney some glaring instances of
this dreadful fact came to light. A young Protestant named Calas
committed suicide in Toulouse, and, owing to the blind zealotry of the
magistrates of the town, his father, completely innocent, was found
guilty of his murder and broken on the wheel. Shortly afterwards,
another Protestant, Sirven, was condemned in similar circumstances, but
escaped to Ferney. A few years later, two youths of seventeen were
convicted at Abbeville for making some profane jokes. Both were
condemned to have their tongues torn out and to be decapitated; one
managed to escape, the other was executed. That such things could happen
in eighteenth-century France seems incredible; but happen they did, and
who knows how many more of a like atrocity? The fact that these three
came to light at all was owing to Voltaire himself. But for his
penetration, his courage, and his skill, the terrible murder of Calas
would to this day have remained unknown, and the dreadful affair of
Abbeville would have been forgotten in a month. Different men respond
most readily to different stimuli: the spectacle of cruelty and
injustice bit like a lash into the nerves of Voltaire, and plunged him
into an agony of horror. He resolved never to rest until he had not only
obtained reparation for these particular acts of injustice, but had
rooted out for ever from men's minds the superstitious bigotry which
made them possible. It was to attain this end that he attacked with such
persistence and such violence all religion and all priestcraft in
general, and, in particular, the orthodox dogmas of the Roman Catholic
Church. It became the great object of his life to convince public
opinion that those dogmas were both ridiculous and contemptible in
themselves, and abominable in their results. In this we may think him
right or we may think him wrong; our judgement will depend upon the
nature of our own opinions. But, whatever our opinions, we cannot think
him wicked; for we cannot doubt that the one dominating motive in all
that he wrote upon the subject of religion was a passionate desire for
the welfare of mankind.

Voltaire's philosophical views were curious. While he entirely discarded
the miraculous from his system, he nevertheless believed in a Deity--a
supreme First Cause of all the phenomena of the universe. Yet, when he
looked round upon the world as it was, the evil and the misery in it
were what seized his attention and appalled his mind. The optimism of so
many of his contemporaries appeared to him a shallow crude doctrine
unrelated to the facts of existence, and it was to give expression to
this view that he composed the most famous of all his works--_Candide_.
This book, outwardly a romance of the most flippant kind, contains in
reality the essence of Voltaire's maturest reflections upon human life.
It is a singular fact that a book which must often have been read simply
for the sake of its wit and its impropriety should nevertheless be one
of the bitterest and most melancholy that was ever written. But it is a
safe rule to make, that Voltaire's meaning is deep in proportion to the
lightness of his writing--that it is when he is most in earnest that he
grins most. And, in _Candide_, the brilliance and the seriousness alike
reach their climax. The book is a catalogue of all the woes, all the
misfortunes, all the degradations, and all the horrors that can afflict
humanity; and throughout it Voltaire's grin is never for a moment
relaxed. As catastrophe follows catastrophe, and disaster succeeds
disaster, not only does he laugh himself consumedly, but he makes his
reader laugh no less; and it is only when the book is finished that the
true meaning of it is borne in upon the mind. Then it is that the
scintillating pages begin to exercise their grim unforgettable effect;
and the pettiness and misery of man seem to borrow a new intensity from
the relentless laughter of Voltaire.

But perhaps the most wonderful thing about _Candide_ is that it
contains, after all, something more than mere pessimism--it contains a
positive doctrine as well. Voltaire's common sense withers the Ideal;
but it remains common sense. 'Il faut cultiver notre jardin' is his
final word--one of the very few pieces of practical wisdom ever uttered
by a philosopher.

Voltaire's style reaches the summit of its perfection in _Candide_; but
it is perfect in all that he wrote. His prose is the final embodiment of
the most characteristic qualities of the French genius. If all that that
great nation had ever done or thought were abolished from the world,
except a single sentence of Voltaire's, the essence of their achievement
would have survived. His writing brings to a culmination the tradition
that Pascal had inaugurated in his _Lettres Provinciales_: clarity,
simplicity and wit--these supreme qualities it possesses in an
unequalled degree. But these qualities, pushed to an extreme, have also
their disadvantages. Voltaire's style is narrow; it is like a
rapier--all point; with such neatness, such lightness, the sweeping
blade of Pascal has become an impossibility. Compared to the measured
march of Bossuet's sentences, Voltaire's sprightly periods remind one
almost of a pirouette. But the pirouette is Voltaire's--executed with
all the grace, all the ease, all the latent strength of a consummate
dancer; it would be folly to complain; yet it was clear that a reaction
was bound to follow--and a salutary reaction. Signs of it were already
visible in the colour and passion of Diderot's writing; but it was not
until the nineteenth century that the great change came.

Nowhere is the excellence of Voltaire's style more conspicuous than in
his Correspondence, which forms so large and important a portion of his
work. A more delightful and a more indefatigable letter-writer never
lived. The number of his published letters exceeds ten thousand; how
many more he may actually have written one hardly ventures to imagine,
for the great majority of those that have survived date only from the
last thirty years of his long life. The collection is invaluable alike
for the light which it throws upon Voltaire's career and character, and
for the extent to which it reflects the manners, sentiments, and thought
of the age. For Voltaire corresponded with all Europe. His reputation,
already vast before he settled at Ferney, rose after that date to a
well-nigh incredible height. No man had wielded such an influence since
the days when Bernard of Clairvaux dictated the conduct of popes and
princes from his monastic cell. But, since then, the wheel had indeed
come full circle! The very antithesis of the Middle Ages was personified
in the strange old creature who in his lordly retreat by the Lake of
Geneva alternately coquetted with empresses, received the homage of
statesmen and philosophers, domineered over literature in all its
branches, and laughed Mother Church to scorn. As the years advanced,
Voltaire's industry, which had always been astonishing, continually
increased. As if his intellectual interests were not enough to occupy
him, he took to commercial enterprise, developed the resources of his
estates, and started a successful colony of watchmakers at Ferney. Every
day he worked for long hours at his desk, spinning his ceaseless web of
tracts, letters, tragedies, and farces. In the evening he would
discharge the functions of a munificent host, entertain the whole
neighbourhood with balls and suppers, and take part in one of his own
tragedies on the stage of his private theatre. Then a veritable frenzy
would seize upon him; shutting himself up in his room for days together,
he would devote every particle of his terrific energies to the
concoction of some devastating dialogue, or some insidious piece of
profanation for his _Dictionnaire Philosophique_. At length his fragile
form would sink exhausted--he would be dying--he would be dead; and next
morning he would be up again as brisk as ever, directing the cutting of
the crops.

One day, quite suddenly, he appeared in Paris, which he had not visited
for nearly thirty years. His arrival was the signal for one of the most
extraordinary manifestations of enthusiasm that the world has ever
seen. For some weeks he reigned in the capital, visible and glorious,
the undisputed lord of the civilized universe. The climax came when he
appeared in a box at the Theatre Francais, to witness a performance of
the latest of his tragedies, and the whole house rose as one man to
greet him. His triumph seemed to be something more than the mere
personal triumph of a frail old mortal; it seemed to be the triumph of
all that was noblest in the aspirations of the human race. But the
fatigue and excitement of those weeks proved too much even for Voltaire
in the full flush of his eighty-fourth year. An overdose of opium
completed what Nature had begun; and the amazing being rested at last.

French literature during the latter half of the eighteenth century was
rich in striking personalities. It might have been expected that an age
which had produced both Diderot and Voltaire would hardly be able to
boast of yet another star of equal magnitude. But, in JEAN-JACQUES
ROUSSEAU, there appeared a man in some ways even more remarkable than
either of his great contemporaries. The peculiar distinction of Rousseau
was his originality. Neither Voltaire nor Diderot possessed this quality
in a supreme degree. Voltaire, indeed, can only claim to be original by
virtue of his overwhelming common sense, which enabled him to see
clearly what others could only see confusedly, to strike without fear
where others were only willing to wound; but the whole bulk of his
thought really rested on the same foundation as that which supported the
ordinary conceptions of the average man of the day. Diderot was a far
bolder, a far more speculative thinker; but yet, though he led the very
van of the age, he was always in it; his originality was never more than
a development--though it was often an extreme development--of the ideas
that lay around him. Rousseau's originality went infinitely further than
this. He neither represented his age, nor led it; he opposed it. His
outlook upon the world was truly revolutionary. In his eyes, the reforms
which his contemporaries were so busy introducing into society were
worse than useless--the mere patching of an edifice which would never be
fit to live in. He believed that it was necessary to start altogether
afresh. And what makes him so singularly interesting a figure is that,
in more than one sense, he was right. It _was_ necessary to start
afresh; and the new world which was to spring from the old one was to
embody, in a multitude of ways, the visions of Rousseau. He was a
prophet, with the strange inspiration of a prophet--and the dishonour in
his own country.

But inspiration and dishonour are not the only characteristics of
prophets: as a rule, they are also highly confused in the delivery of
their prophecies; and Rousseau was no exception. In his writings, the
true gist of his meaning seems to be only partially revealed; and it is
clear that he himself was never really aware of the fundamental notions
that lay at the back of his thought. Hence nothing can be easier than to
pull his work to pieces, and to demonstrate beyond a doubt that it is
full of fallacies, inconsistencies, and absurdities. It is very easy to
point out that the _Control Social_ is a miserable piece of
logic-chopping, to pour scorn on the stilted sentiment and distorted
morality of _La Nouvelle Heloise_, and finally to draw a cutting
comparison between Rousseau's preaching and his practice, as it stands
revealed in the _Confessions_--the lover of independence who never
earned his own living, the apostle of equality who was a snob, and the
educationist who left his children in the Foundling Hospital. All this
has often been done, and no doubt will often be done again; but it is
futile. Rousseau lives, and will live, a vast and penetrating influence,
in spite of all his critics. There is something in him that eludes their
foot-rules. It is so difficult to take the measure of a soul!

Difficult, indeed; for, if we examine the doctrine that seems to be
Rousseau's fundamental one--that, at least, on which he himself lays
most stress--here, too, we shall find a mass of error. Rousseau was
perpetually advocating the return to Nature. All the great evils from
which humanity suffers are, he declared, the outcome of civilization;
the ideal man is the primitive man--the untutored Indian, innocent,
chaste, brave, who adores the Creator of the universe in simplicity, and
passes his life in virtuous harmony with the purposes of Nature. If we
cannot hope to reach quite that height of excellence, let us at least
try to get as near it as we can. So far from pressing on the work of
civilization, with the _Philosophes_, let us try to forget that we are
civilized and be natural instead. This was the burden of Rousseau's
teaching, and it was founded on a complete misconception of the facts.
The noble Indian was a myth. The more we find out about primitive man,
the more certain it becomes that, so far from being the ideal creature
of Rousseau's imagination, he was in reality a savage whose whole life
was dominated, on the one hand by the mere brute necessities of
existence, and on the other by a complicated and revolting system of
superstitions. Nature is neither simple nor good; and all history shows
that the necessary condition for the production of any of the really
valuable things of life is the control of Nature by man--in fact,
civilization. So far, therefore, the _Philosophes_ were right; if the
Golden Age was to have any place at all in the story of humanity, it
must be, not at the beginning, but the end.

But Rousseau was not, at bottom, concerned with the truth of any
historical theory at all. It was only because he hated the present that
he idealized the past. His primitive Golden Age was an imaginary refuge
from the actual world of the eighteenth century. What he detested and
condemned in that world was in reality not civilization, but the
conventionality of civilization--the restrictions upon the free play of
the human spirit which seemed to be inherent in civilized life. The
strange feeling of revolt that surged up within him when he contemplated
the drawing-rooms of Paris, with their brilliance and their philosophy,
their intellect and their culture, arose from a profounder cause than a
false historical theory, or a defective logical system, or a mean
personal jealousy and morbid pride. All these elements, no doubt,
entered into his feeling--for Rousseau was a very far from perfect human
being; but the ultimate source was beyond and below them--in his
instinctive, overmastering perception of the importance and the dignity
of the individual soul. It was in this perception that Rousseau's great
originality lay. His revolt was a spiritual revolt. In the Middle Ages
the immense significance of the human spirit had been realized, but it
had been inextricably involved in a mass of theological superstition.
The eighteenth century, on the other hand, had achieved the great
conception of a secular system of society; but, in doing so, it had left
out of account the spiritual nature of man, who was regarded simply as a
rational animal in an organized social group. Rousseau was the first to
unite the two views, to revive the medieval theory of the soul without
its theological trappings, and to believe--half unconsciously, perhaps,
and yet with a profound conviction--that the individual, now, on this
earth, and in himself, was the most important thing in the world.

This belief, no doubt, would have arisen in Europe, in some way or
other, if Rousseau had never lived; but it was he who clothed it with
the splendour of genius, and, by the passion of his utterance, sowed it
far and wide in the hearts of men. In two directions his influence was
enormous. His glowing conception of individual dignity and individual
rights as adhering, not to a privileged few, but to the whole mass of
humanity, seized upon the imagination of France, supplied a new and
potent stimulus to the movement towards political change, and produced a
deep effect upon the development of the Revolution. But it is in
literature, and those emotions of real life which find their natural
outlet in literature, that the influence of Rousseau's spirit may be
most clearly seen.

It is often lightly stated that the eighteenth century was an
unemotional age. What, it is asked, could be more frigid than the poetry
of Pope? Or more devoid of true feeling than the mockery of Voltaire?
But such a view is a very superficial one; and it is generally held by
persons who have never given more than a hasty glance at the works they
are so ready to condemn. It is certainly true that at first sight Pope's
couplets appear to be cold and mechanical; but if we look more closely
we shall soon find that these apparently monotonous verses have been
made the vehicle for some of the most passionate feelings of disgust and
animosity that ever agitated a human breast. As for Voltaire, we have
already seen that to infer lack of feeling from his epigrams and
laughter would be as foolish as to infer that a white-hot bar of molten
steel lacked heat because it was not red. The accusation is untenable;
the age that produced--to consider French literature alone--a Voltaire,
a Diderot, and a Saint-Simon cannot be called an age without emotion.
Yet it is clear that, in the matter of emotion, a distinction of some
sort does exist between that age and this. The distinction lies not so
much in the emotion itself as in the _attitude towards_ emotion, adopted
by the men of those days and by ourselves. In the eighteenth century men
were passionate--intensely passionate; but they were passionate almost
unconsciously, in a direct unreflective way. If anyone had asked
Voltaire to analyse his feelings accurately, he would have replied that
he had other things to think about; the notion of paying careful
attention to mere feelings would have seemed to him ridiculous. And,
when Saint-Simon sat down to write his Memoirs, it never occurred to him
for a moment to give any real account of what, in all the highly
personal transactions that he describes, he intimately felt. He tells us
nothing of his private life; he mentions his wife once, and almost
apologizes for doing so; really, could a gentleman--a duke--dwell upon
such matters, and preserve his self-respect? But, to us, it is precisely
such matters that form the pivot of a personality--the index of a soul.
A man's feelings are his very self, and it is around them that all that
is noblest and profoundest in our literature seems naturally to centre.
A great novelist is one who can penetrate and describe the feelings of
others; a great poet is one who can invest his own with beauty and
proclaim them to the world. We have come to set a value upon
introspection which was quite unknown in the eighteenth
century--unknown, that is, until Rousseau, in the most valuable and
characteristic of his works--his _Confessions_--started the vast current
in literature and in sentiment which is still flowing to-day. The
_Confessions_ is the detailed, intimate, complete history of a soul. It
describes Rousseau's life, from its beginning until its maturity, from
the most personal point of view, with no disguises or reticences of any
kind. It is written with great art. Rousseau's style, like his matter,
foreshadows the future; his periods are cast in a looser, larger, more
oratorical mould than those of his contemporaries; his sentences are
less fiery and excitable; though he can be witty when he wishes, he is
never frivolous; and a tone of earnest intimate passion lingers in his
faultless rhythms. With his great powers of expression he combined a
wonderful aptitude for the perception of the subtlest shades of feeling
and of mood. He was sensitive to an extraordinary degree--with the
sensitiveness of a proud, shy nature, unhardened by the commerce of the
world. There is, indeed, an unpleasant side to his _Confessions_.
Rousseau, like most explorers, became obsessed by his own discoveries;
he pushed the introspective method to its farthest limits; the sanctity
of the individual seemed to him not only to dignify the slightest
idiosyncrasies of temperament and character, but also, in some sort of
way, to justify what was positively bad. Thus his book contains the
germs of that Byronic egotism which later became the fashion all over
Europe. It is also, in parts, a morbid book. Rousseau was not content
to extenuate nothing; his failings got upon his nerves; and, while he
was ready to dilate upon them himself with an infinite wealth of detail,
the slightest hint of a reflection on his conduct from any other person
filled him with an agony and a rage which, at the end of his life,
developed into madness. To strict moralists, therefore, and to purists
in good taste, the _Confessions_ will always be unpalatable. More
indulgent readers will find in those pages the traces of a spirit which,
with all its faults, its errors, its diseases, deserves something more
than pity--deserves almost love. At any rate, it is a spirit singularly
akin to our own. Out of the far-off, sharp, eager, unpoetical,
unpsychological eighteenth century, it speaks to us in the familiar
accents of inward contemplation, of brooding reminiscence, of
subtly-shifting temperament, of quiet melancholy, of visionary joy.
Rousseau, one feels, was the only man of his age who ever wanted to be
alone. He understood that luxury: understood the fascination of silence,
and the loveliness of dreams. He understood, too, the exquisite
suggestions of Nature, and he never wrote more beautifully than when he
was describing the gentle process of her influences on the solitary
human soul. He understood simplicity: the charm of little happinesses,
the sweetness of ordinary affections, the beauty of a country face. The
paradox is strange; how was it that it should have been left to the
morbid, tortured, half-crazy egoist of the _Confessions_ to lead the way
to such spiritual delicacies, such innocent delights?

The paradox was too strange for Rousseau's contemporaries. They could
not understand him. His works were highly popular; he was received into
the most brilliant circles in Paris; he made friends with the most
eminent men of the day; and then ensued misunderstandings, accusations,
quarrels, and at last complete disaster. Rousseau vanished from society,
driven out, according to his account, by the treacheries of his friends;
the victim, according to their account, of his own petty jealousies and
morbid suspicions. At every point in the quarrel, his friends, and such
great and honest men as Diderot and Hume were among them, seem to have
been in the right; but it seems no less clear that they were too anxious
to proclaim and emphasize the faults of a poor, unfortunate, demented
man. We can hardly blame them; for, in their eyes, Rousseau appeared as
a kind of mad dog--a pest to society, deserving of no quarter. They did
not realize--they _could_ not--that beneath the meanness and the frenzy
that were so obvious to them was the soul of a poet and a seer. The
wretched man wandered for long in Switzerland, in Germany, in England,
pursued by the ever-deepening shadows of his maniacal suspicions. At
last he returned to France, to end his life, after years of lingering
misery, in obscurity and despair.

Rousseau and Voltaire both died in 1778--hardly more than ten years
before the commencement of the Revolution. Into that last decade of the
old regime there seemed to be concentrated all the ardour, all the hope,
all the excitement, all the brilliance of the preceding century. Had not
Reason and Humanity triumphed at last? Triumphed, at any rate, in
spirit; for who was not converted? All that remained now was the final,
quick, easy turn which would put into action the words of the
philosophers and make this earth a paradise. And still new visions kept
opening out before the eyes of enthusiasts--strange speculations and
wondrous possibilities. The march of mind seemed so rapid that the most
advanced thinkers of yesterday were already out of date. 'Voltaire est
bigot: il est deiste,' exclaimed one of the wits of Paris, and the
sentiment expressed the general feeling of untrammelled mental freedom
and swift progression which was seething all over the country. It was at
this moment that the production of BEAUMARCHAIS' brilliant comedy, _Le
Mariage de Figaro_, electrified the intellectual public of Versailles
and the capital. In that play the old regime was presented, not in the
dark colours of satire, but under the sparkling light of frivolity,
gaiety, and idleness--a vision of endless intrigue and vapid love-making
among the antiquated remains of feudal privileges and social caste. In
this fairyland one being alone has reality--Figaro, the restless,
fiendishly clever, nondescript valet, sprung from no one knows where,
destined to no one knows what, but gradually emerging a strange and
sinister profile among the laughter and the flowers. 'What have you
done, Monsieur le Comte,' he bursts out at last to his master, 'to
deserve all these advantages?--I know. _Vous vous etes donne la peine de
naitre_!' In that sentence one can hear--far off, but distinct--the
flash and snap of the guillotine. To those happy listeners, though, no
such sound was audible. Their speculations went another way. All was
roseate, all was charming as the coaches dashed through the narrow
streets of Paris, carrying their finely-powdered ladies and gentlemen,
in silks and jewels, to the assemblies of the night. Within, the candles
sparkled, and the diamonds, and the eyes of the company, sitting round
in gilded delicate chairs. And then there was supper, and the Marquise
was witty, and the Comte was sententious, while yet newer vistas opened
of yet happier worlds, dancing on endlessly through the floods of
conversation and champagne.



The French Revolution was like a bomb, to the making of which every
liberal thinker and writer of the eighteenth century had lent a hand,
and which, when it exploded, destroyed its creators. After the smoke had
rolled away, it became clear that the old regime, with its despotisms
and its persecutions, had indeed been abolished for ever; but the spirit
of the _Philosophes_ had vanished likewise. Men's minds underwent a
great reaction. The traditions of the last two centuries were violently
broken. In literature, particularly, it seemed as if the very
foundations of the art must be laid anew; and, in this task, if men
looked at all for inspiration from the Past, it was towards that age
which differed most from the age of their fathers--towards those distant
times before the Renaissance, when the medieval Church reigned supreme
in Europe.

But before examining these new developments more closely, one glance
must be given at a writer whose qualities had singularly little to do
with his surroundings. ANDRE CHENIER passed the active years of his
short life in the thick of the revolutionary ferment, and he was
guillotined at the age of thirty-two; but his most characteristic poems
might have been composed in some magic island, far from the haunts of
men, and untouched by 'the rumour of periods'. He is the only French
writer of the eighteenth century in whom the pure and undiluted spirit
of poetry is manifest. For this reason, perhaps, he has often been
acclaimed as the forerunner of the great Romantic outburst of a
generation later; but, in reality, to give him such a title is to
misjudge the whole value of his work. For he is essentially a classic;
with a purity, a restraint, a measured and accomplished art which would
have delighted Boileau, and which brings him into close kinship with
Racine and La Fontaine. If his metrical technique is somewhat looser
than the former poet's, it is infinitely less loose than the latter's;
and his occasional departures from the strict classical canons of
versification are always completely subordinated to the controlling
balance of his style. In his _Eglogues_ the beauty of his workmanship
often reaches perfection. The short poems are Attic in their serenity
and their grace. It is not the rococo pseudo-classicism of the later
versifiers of the eighteenth century, it is the delicate flavour of true
Hellenism that breathes from them; and, as one reads them, one is
reminded alternately of Theocritus and of Keats. Like Keats, Chenier was
cut off when he had hardly more than given promise of what his
achievement might have been. His brief and tragic apparition in the
midst of the Revolution is like that of some lovely bird flitting on a
sudden out of the darkness and the terror of a tempest, to be overcome a
moment later, and whirled to destruction.

The lines upon which the Romantic Movement was to develop had no
connexion whatever with Chenier's exquisite art. Throughout French
Literature, it is easy to perceive two main impulses at work, which,
between them, have inspired all the great masterpieces of the language.
On the one hand, there is that positive spirit of searching and
unmitigated common sense which has given French prose its peculiar
distinction, which lies at the root of the wonderful critical powers of
the nation, and which has produced that remarkable and persistent strain
of Realism--of absolute fidelity to the naked truth--common to the
earliest _Fabliaux_ of the Middle Ages and the latest Parisian novel of
to-day. On the other hand, there is in French literature a totally
different--almost a contradictory--tendency, which is no less clearly
marked and hardly less important--the tendency towards pure Rhetoric.
This love of language for its own sake--of language artfully ordered,
splendidly adorned, moving, swelling, irresistible--may be seen alike in
the torrential sentences of Rabelais, in the sonorous periods of
Bossuet, and in the passionate _tirades_ of Corneille. With the great
masters of the seventeenth century--Pascal, Racine, La Fontaine, La
Bruyere--the two influences met, and achieved a perfect balance. In
their work, the most penetrating realism is beautified and ennobled by
all the resources of linguistic art, while the rhetorical instinct is
preserved from pomposity and inflation by a supreme critical sense. With
the eighteenth century, however, a change came. The age was a critical
age--an age of prose and common sense; the rhetorical impulse faded
away, to find expression only in melodramatic tragedy and dull verse;
and the style of Voltaire, so brilliant and yet so colourless, so
limited and yet so infinitely sensible, symbolized the literary
character of the century. The Romantic Movement was an immense reaction
against the realism which had come to such perfection in the acid prose
of Voltaire. It was a reassertion of the rhetorical instinct in all its
strength and in all its forms. There was no attempt simply to redress
the balance; no wish to revive the studied perfection of the classical
age. The realistic spirit was almost completely abandoned. The pendulum
swung violently from one extreme to the other.

The new movement had been already faintly discernible in Diderot's
bright colouring and the oratorical structure of Rousseau's writing. But
it was not until after the Revolution, in the first years of the
nineteenth century, that the Romantic spirit completely declared
itself--in the prose of CHATEAUBRIAND. Chateaubriand was, at bottom, a
rhetorician pure and simple--a rhetorician in the widest sense of the
word. It was not merely that the resources of his style were enormous in
colour, movement, and imagery, in splendour of rhythm, in descriptive
force; but that his whole cast of mind was in itself rhetorical, and
that he saw, felt, and thought with the same emphasis, the same
amplitude, the same romantic sensibility with which he wrote. The three
subjects which formed the main themes of all his work and gave occasion
for his finest passages were Christianity, Nature, and himself. His
conception of Christianity was the very reverse of that of the
eighteenth century. In his _Genie du Christianisme_ and his _Martyrs_
the analytical and critical spirit of his predecessors has entirely
vanished; the religion which they saw simply as a collection of
theological dogmas, he envisioned as a living creed, arrayed in all the
hues of poetry and imagination, and redolent with the mystery of the
past. Yet it may be doubted whether Chateaubriand was essentially more
religious than Voltaire. What Voltaire dissected in the dry light of
reason, Chateaubriand invested with the cloak of his own eloquence--put
it up, so to speak, on a platform, in a fine attitude, under a tinted
illumination. He lacked the subtle intimacy of Faith. In his
descriptions of Nature, too, the same characteristics appear. Compared
with Rousseau's, they are far bolder, far richer, composed on a more
elaborate and imposing scale; but they are less convincing; while
Rousseau's landscapes are often profoundly moving, Chateaubriand's are
hardly ever more than splendidly picturesque. There is a similar
relation between the egoisms of the two men. Chateaubriand was never
tired of writing about himself; and in his long _Memoires
d'Outre-Tombe_--the most permanently interesting of his works--he gave a
full rein to his favourite passion. His conception of himself was
Byronic. He swells forth, in all his pages, a noble, melancholy, proud,
sentimental creature whom every man must secretly envy and every woman
passionately adore. He had all the vanity of Rousseau, but none of his
honesty. Rousseau, at any rate, never imposed upon himself; and
Chateaubriand always did. Thus the vision that we have of him is of
something wonderful but empty, something striking but unreal. It is the
rhetorician that we see, and not the man.

Chateaubriand's influence was very great. Beside his high-flowing,
romantic, imaginative writings, the tradition of the eighteenth century
seemed to shrivel up into something thin, cold and insignificant. A new
and dazzling world swam into the ken of his readers--a world in which
the individual reigned in glory amid the glowing panorama of Nature and
among the wondrous visions of a remote and holy past. His works became
at once highly popular, though it was not until a generation later that
their full effect was felt. Meanwhile, the impetus which he had started
was continued in the poems of LAMARTINE. Here there is the same love of
Nature, the same religious outlook, the same insistence on the
individual point of view; but the tints are less brilliant, the emphasis
is more restrained; the rhetorical impulse still dominates, but it is
the rhetoric of elegiac tenderness rather than of picturesque pomp. A
wonderful limpidity of versification which, while it is always perfectly
easy, is never weak, and a charming quietude of sentiment which, however
near it may seem to come to the commonplace, always just escapes
it--these qualities give Lamartine a distinguished place in the
literature of France. They may be seen in their perfection in the most
famous of his poems, _Le Lac_, a monody descriptive of his feelings on
returning alone to the shores of the lake where he had formerly passed
the day with his mistress. And throughout all his poetical work
precisely the same characteristics are to be found. Lamartine's lyre
gave forth an inexhaustible flow of melody--always faultless, always
pellucid, and always, in the same key.

* * * * *

During the Revolution, under the rule of Napoleon, and in the years
which followed his fall, the energies of the nation were engrossed by
war and politics. During these forty years there are fewer great names
in French literature than in any other corresponding period since the
Renaissance. At last, however, about the year 1830, a new generation of
writers arose who brought back all the old glories and triumphantly
proved that the French tongue, so far from having exhausted its
resources, was a fresh and living instrument of extraordinary power.
These writers--as has so often been the case in France--were bound
together by a common literary creed. Young, ardent, scornful of the
past, dazzled by the possibilities of the future, they raised the
standard of revolt against the traditions of Classicism, promulgated a
new aesthetic doctrine, and, after a sharp struggle and great
excitement, finally succeeded in completely establishing their view. The
change which they introduced was of enormous importance, and for this
reason the date 1830 is a cardinal one in the literature of France.
Every sentence, every verse that has been written in French since then
bears upon it, somewhere or other, the imprint of the great Romantic
Movement which came to a head in that year. What it was that was then
effected--what the main differences are between French literature before
1830 and French literature after--deserves some further consideration.

The Romantic School--of which the most important members were VICTOR
MUSSET--was, as we have said, inspired by that supremely French love of
Rhetoric which, during the long reign of intellect and prose in the
eighteenth century, had been almost entirely suppressed. The new spirit
had animated the prose of Chateaubriand and the poetry of Lamartine; but
it was the spirit only: the _form_ of both those writers retained most
of the important characteristics of the old tradition. It was new wine
in old bottles. The great achievement of the Romantic School was the
creation of new bottles--of a new conception of form, in which the vast
rhetorical impulse within them might find a suitable expression. Their
actual innovations, however, were by no means sweeping. For instance,
the numberless minute hard-and-fast metrical rules which, since the
days of Malherbe, had held French poetry in shackles, they only
interfered with to a very limited extent. They introduced a certain
number of new metres; they varied the rhythm of the Alexandrine; but a
great mass of petty and meaningless restrictions remained untouched, and
no real attempt was made to get rid of them until more than a generation
had passed. Yet here, as elsewhere, what they had done was of the
highest importance. They had touched the ark of the covenant and they
had not been destroyed. They had shown that it was possible to break a
'rule' and yet write good poetry. This explains the extraordinary
violence of the Romantic controversy over questions of the smallest
detail. When Victor Hugo, in the opening lines of _Hernani_, ventured to
refer to an 'escalier derobe', and to put 'escalier' at the end of one
line, and 'derobe' at the beginning of the next, he was assailed with
the kind of virulence which is usually reserved for the vilest of
criminals. And the abuse had a meaning in it: it was abuse of a
revolutionary. For in truth, by the disposition of those two words,
Victor Hugo had inaugurated a revolution. The whole theory of 'rules' in
literature--the whole conception that there were certain definite
traditional forms in existence which were, absolutely and inevitably,
the best--was shattered for ever. The new doctrine was triumphantly
vindicated--that the form of expression must depend ultimately, not upon
tradition nor yet upon _a priori_ reasonings, but simply and solely on
the thing expressed.

The most startling and the most complete of the Romantic innovations
related to the poetic Vocabulary. The number of words considered
permissible in French poetry had been steadily diminishing since the
days of Racine. A distinction had grown up between words that were
'noble' and words that were 'bas'; and only those in the former class
were admitted into poetry. No word could be 'noble' if it was one
ordinarily used by common people, or if it was a technical term, or if,
in short, it was peculiarly expressive; for any such word would
inevitably produce a shock, introduce mean associations, and destroy the
unity of the verse. If the sense demanded the use of such a word, a
periphrasis of 'noble' words must be employed instead. Racine had not
been afraid to use the word 'chien' in the most exalted of his
tragedies; but his degenerate successors quailed before such an
audacity. If you must refer to such a creature as a dog, you had better
call it 'de la fidelite respectable soutien'; the phrase actually occurs
in a tragedy of the eighteenth century. It is clear that, with such a
convention to struggle against, no poetry could survive. Everything
bold, everything vigorous, everything surprising became an impossibility
with a diction limited to the vaguest, most general, and most feebly
pompous terms. The Romantics, in the face of violent opposition, threw
the doors of poetry wide open to every word in the language. How great
the change was, and what was the nature of the public opinion against
which the Romantics had to fight, may be judged from the fact that the
use of the word 'mouchoir' during a performance of _Othello_ a few years
before 1830 produced a riot in the theatre. To such a condition of
narrowness and futility had the great Classical tradition sunk at last!

The enormous influx of words into the literary vocabulary which the
Romantic Movement brought about had two important effects. In the first
place, the range of poetical expression was infinitely increased.
French literature came out of a little, ceremonious, antiquated
drawing-room into the open air. With the flood of new words, a thousand
influences which had never been felt before came into operation.
Strangeness, contrast, complication, immensity, curiosity,
grotesqueness, fantasy--effects of this kind now for the first time
became possible and common in verse. But, one point must be noticed. The
abolition of the distinction between words that were 'bas' and 'noble'
did not at first lead (as might have been expected) to an increase of
realism. Rather the opposite took place. The Romantics loved the new
words not because they made easier the expression of actual facts, but
for their power of suggestion, for the effects of remoteness, contrast,
and multiplicity which could be produced by them--in fact, for their
rhetorical force. The new vocabulary came into existence as an engine of
rhetoric, not as an engine of truth. Nevertheless--and this was the
second effect of its introduction--in the long run the realistic impulse
in French literature was also immensely strengthened. The vocabulary of
prose widened at the same time as that of verse; and the prose of the
first Romantics remained almost completely rhetorical. But the realistic
elements always latent in prose--and especially in French prose--soon
asserted themselves; the vast opportunities for realistic description
which the enlarged vocabulary opened out were eagerly seized upon; and
it was not long before there arose in French literature a far more
elaborate and searching realism than it had ever known before.

* * * * *

It was, perhaps, unfortunate that the main struggle of the Romantic
controversy should have been centred in the theatre. The fact that this
was so is an instance of the singular interest in purely literary
questions which has so often been displayed by popular opinion in
France. The controversy was not simply an academic matter for
connoisseurs and critics to decide upon in private; it was fought out in
all the heat of popular excitement on the public stage. But the wild
enthusiasm aroused by the triumphs of Dumas and Hugo in the theatre
shows, in a no less striking light, the incapacity of contemporaries to
gauge the true significance of new tendencies in art. On the whole, the
dramatic achievement of the Romantic School was the least valuable part
of their work. _Hernani_, the first performance of which marked the
turning-point of the movement, is a piece of bombastic melodrama, full
of the stagiest clap-trap and the most turgid declamation. Victor Hugo
imagined when he wrote it that he was inspired by Shakespeare; if he was
inspired by anyone it was by Voltaire. His drama is the old drama of the
eighteenth century, repainted in picturesque colours; it resembles those
grotesque country-houses that our forefathers were so fond of, where the
sham-Gothic turrets and castellations ill conceal the stucco and the
pilasters of a former age. Of true character and true passion it has no
trace. The action, the incidents, the persons--all alike are dominated
by considerations of rhetoric, and of rhetoric alone. The rhetoric has,
indeed, this advantage over that of _Zaire_ and _Alzire_--it is bolder
and more highly coloured; but then it is also more pretentious. All the
worst tendencies of the Romantic Movement may be seen completely
displayed in the dramas of Victor Hugo.

For throughout his work that wonderful writer expressed in their
extreme forms the qualities and the defects of his school. Above all, he
was the supreme lord of words. In sheer facility, in sheer abundance of
language, Shakespeare alone of all the writers of the world can be
reckoned his superior. The bulk of his work is very great, and the
nature of it is very various; but every page bears the mark of the same
tireless fecundity, the same absolute dominion over the resources of
speech. Words flowed from Victor Hugo like light from the sun. Nor was
his volubility a mere disordered mass of verbiage: it was controlled,
adorned, and inspired by an immense technical power. When one has come
under the spell of that great enchanter, one begins to believe that his

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