Part 3 out of 3
art is without limits, that with such an instrument and such a science
there is no miracle which he cannot perform. He can conjure up the
strangest visions of fancy; he can evoke the glamour and the mystery of
the past; he can sing with exquisite lightness of the fugitive beauties
of Nature; he can pour out, in tenderness or in passion, the melodies of
love; he can fill his lines with the fire, the stress, the culminating
fury, of prophetic denunciation; he can utter the sad and secret
questionings of the human spirit, and give voice to the solemnity of
Fate. In the long roll and vast swell of his verse there is something of
the ocean--a moving profundity of power. His sonorous music, with its
absolute sureness of purpose, and its contrapuntal art, recalls the
vision in _Paradise Lost_ of him who--
with volant touch
Fled and pursued transverse the resonant fugue.
What kind of mind, what kind of spirit, must that have been, one asks in
amazement, which could animate with such a marvellous perfection the
enormous organ of that voice?
But perhaps it would be best to leave the question unasked--or at least
unanswered. For the more one searches, the clearer it becomes that
the intellectual scope and the spiritual quality of Victor Hugo were
very far from being equal to his gifts of expression and imagination.
He had the powers of a great genius and the soul of an ordinary
man. But that was not all. There have been writers of the highest
excellence--Saint-Simon was one of them--the value of whose productions
have been unaffected, or indeed even increased, by their personal
inferiority. They could not have written better, one feels, if they had
been ten times as noble and twenty times as wise as they actually were.
But unfortunately this is not so with Victor Hugo. His faults--his
intellectual weakness, his commonplace outlook, his lack of humour, his
vanity, his defective taste--cannot be dismissed as irrelevant and
unimportant, for they are indissolubly bound up with the very substance
of his work. It was not as a mere technician that he wished to be
judged; he wrote with a very different intention; it was as a
philosopher, as a moralist, as a prophet, as a sublime thinker, as a
profound historian, as a sensitive and refined human being. With a poet
of such pretensions it is clearly most relevant to inquire whether his
poetry does, in fact, reveal the high qualities he lays claim to, or
whether, on the contrary, it is characterized by a windy inflation of
sentiment, a showy superficiality of thought, and a ridiculous and petty
egoism. These are the unhappy questions which beset the mature and
reflective reader of Victor Hugo's works. To the young and enthusiastic
one the case is different. For him it is easy to forget--or even not to
observe--what there may be in that imposing figure that is
unsatisfactory and second-rate. _He_ may revel at will in the voluminous
harmonies of that resounding voice; by turns thrilling with indignation,
dreaming in ecstasy, plunging into abysses, and soaring upon
unimaginable heights. Between youth and age who shall judge? Who decide
between rapture and reflection, enthusiasm and analysis? To determine
the precise place of Victor Hugo in the hierarchy of poets would be
difficult indeed. But this much is certain: that at times the splendid
utterance does indeed grow transfused with a pure and inward beauty,
when the human frailties vanish, and all is subdued and glorified by the
high purposes of art. Such passages are to be found among the lyrics of
_Les Feuilles d'Automne, Les Rayons et Les Ombres, Les Contemplations_,
in the brilliant descriptions and lofty imagery of _La Legende des
Siecles_, in the burning invective of _Les Chatiments_. None but a place
among the most illustrious could be given to the creator of such a
stupendous piece of word-painting as the description of the plain of
Waterloo in the latter volume, or of such a lovely vision as that in _La
Legende des Siecles_, of Ruth looking up in silence at the starry
heaven. If only the wondrous voice had always spoken so!
* * * * *
The romantic love of vastness, richness, and sublimity, and the romantic
absorption in the individual--these two qualities appear in their
extremes throughout the work of Hugo: in that of ALFRED DE VIGNY it is
the first that dominates; in that of ALFRED DE MUSSET, the second. Vigny
wrote sparingly--one or two plays, a few prose works, and a small volume
of poems; but he produced some masterpieces. A far more sober artist
than Hugo, he was also a far profounder thinker, and a sincerer man. His
melancholy, his pessimism, were the outcome of no Byronic
attitudinizing, but the genuine intimate feelings of a noble spirit; and
he could express them in splendid verse. His melancholy was touched with
grandeur, his pessimism with sublimity. In his _Moise_, his _Colere de
Samson_, his _Maison du Berger_, his _Mont des Oliviers_, and others of
his short reflective poems, he envisions man face to face with
indifferent Nature, with hostile Destiny, with poisoned Love, and the
lesson he draws is the lesson of proud resignation. In _La Mort du
Loup_, the tragic spectacle of the old wolf driven to bay and killed by
the hunters inspires perhaps his loftiest verses, with the closing
application to humanity--'Souffre et meurs sans parler'--summing up his
sad philosophy. No less striking and beautiful are the few short stories
in his _Servitude et Grandeur Militaires_, in which some heroic
incidents of military life are related in a prose of remarkable strength
and purity. In the best work of Vigny there are no signs of the strain,
the over-emphasis, the tendency towards the grotesque, always latent in
Romanticism; its nobler elements are alone preserved; he has achieved
the grand style.
Alfred de Musset presents a complete contrast. He was the spoilt child
of the age--frivolous, amorous, sensuous, charming, unfortunate, and
unhappy; and his poetry is the record of his personal feelings, his
varying moods, his fugitive loves, his sentimental despairs.
Le seul bien qui me reste au monde
Est d'avoir quelquefois pleure,
he exclaims, with an accent of regretful softness different indeed from
that of Vigny. Among much that is feeble, ill constructed, and
exaggerated in his verse, strains of real beauty and real pathos
constantly recur. Some of his lyrics are perfect; the famous song of
Fortunio in itself entitles him to a high place among the masters of the
language; and in his longer pieces--especially in the four _Nuits_--his
emotion occasionally rises, grows transfigured, and vibrates with a
strange intensity, a long, poignant, haunting note. But doubtless his
chief claim to immortality rests upon his exquisite little dramas (both
in verse and prose), in which the romance of Shakespeare and the fantasy
of Marivaux mingle with a wit, a charm, an elegance, which are all
Musset's own. In his historical drama, _Lorenzaccio_, he attempted to
fill a larger canvas, and he succeeded. Unlike the majority of the
Romantics, Musset had a fine sense of psychology and a penetrating
historical vision. In this brilliant, vivacious, and yet subtle tragedy
he is truly great.
We must now glance at the effects which the Romantic Movement produced
upon the art which was destined to fill so great a place in the
literature of the nineteenth century--the art of prose fiction. With the
triumph of Classicism in the seventeenth century, the novel, like all
other forms of literature, grew simplified and compressed. The huge
romances of Mademoiselle de Scudery were succeeded by the delicate
little stories of Madame de Lafayette, one of which--_La Princesse de
Cleves_--a masterpiece of charming psychology and exquisite art,
deserves to be considered as the earliest example of the modern novel.
All through the eighteenth century the same tendency is visible. _Manon
Lescaut_, the passionate and beautiful romance of l'Abbe Prevost, is a
very small book, concerned, like _La Princesse de Cleves_, with two
characters only--the lovers, whose varying fortunes make up the whole
action of the tale. Precisely the same description applies to the subtle
and brilliant _Adolphe_ of Benjamin Constant, produced in the early
years of the nineteenth century. Even when the framework was larger--as
in Le Sage's _Gil Blas_ and Marivaux's _Vie de Marianne_--the spirit was
the same; it was the spirit of selection, of simplification, of delicate
skill. Both the latter works are written in a prose style of deliberate
elegance, and both consist rather of a succession of small
incidents--almost of independent short stories--than of one large
developing whole. The culminating example of the eighteenth-century form
of fiction may be seen in the _Liaisons Dangereuses_ of Laclos, a witty,
scandalous and remarkably able novel, concerned with the interacting
intrigues of a small society of persons, and revealing on every page a
most brilliant and concentrated art. Far more modern, both in its
general conception and in the absolute realism of its treatment, was
Diderot's _La Religieuse_; but this masterpiece was not published till
some years after the Revolution; and the real honour of having
originated the later developments in French fiction--as in so many other
branches of literature--belongs undoubtedly to Rousseau. _La Nouvelle
Heloise_, faulty as it is as a work of art, with its feeble psychology
and loose construction, yet had the great merit of throwing open whole
new worlds for the exploration of the novelist--the world of nature on
the one hand, and on the other the world of social problems and all the
living forces of actual life. The difference between the novels of
Rousseau and those of Hugo is great; but yet it is a difference merely
of degree. _Les Miserables_ is the consummation of the romantic
conception of fiction which Rousseau had adumbrated half a century
before. In that enormous work, Hugo attempted to construct a prose epic
of modern life; but the attempt was not successful. Its rhetorical cast
of style, its ceaseless and glaring melodrama, its childish presentments
of human character, its endless digressions and--running through all
this--its evidences of immense and disordered power, make the book
perhaps the most magnificent failure--the most 'wild enormity' ever
produced by a man of genius. Another development of the romantic spirit
appeared at about the same time in the early novels of George Sand, in
which the ardours of passionate love are ecstatically idealized in a
loose and lyric flow of innumerable words.
There can be little doubt that if the development of fiction had stopped
at this point the infusion into it of the romantic spirit could only
have been judged a disaster. From the point of view of art, such novels
as those of Victor Hugo and the early works of George Sand were a
retrogression from those of the eighteenth century. _Manon Lescaut_,
tiny, limited, unambitious as it is, stands on a far higher level of
artistic achievement than the unreal and incoherent _Les Miserables_.
The scale of the novel had indeed been infinitely enlarged, but the
apparatus for dealing adequately with the vast masses of new material
was wanting. It is pathetic to watch the romantic novelists trying to
infuse beauty and significance into their subjects by means of fine
writing, lyrical outbursts, impassioned philosophical dissertations, and
all the familiar rhetorical devices so dear to them. The inevitable
result was something lifeless, formless, fantastic; they were on the
wrong track. The true method for the treatment of their material was not
that of rhetoric at all; it was that of realism. This fact was
discovered by STENDHAL, who was the first to combine an enlarged view of
the world with a plain style and an accurate, unimpassioned, detailed
examination of actual life. In his remarkable novel, _Le Rouge et Le
Noir_, and in some parts of his later work, _La Chartreuse de Parme_,
Stendhal laid down the lines on which French fiction has been developing
ever since. The qualities which distinguish him are those which have
distinguished all the greatest of his successors--a subtle psychological
insight, an elaborate attention to detail, and a remorseless fidelity to
Important as Stendhal is in the history of modern French fiction, he is
dwarfed by the colossal figure of BALZAC. By virtue of his enormous
powers, and the immense quantity and variety of his output, Balzac might
be called the Hugo of prose, if it were not that in two most important
respects he presents a complete contrast to his great contemporary. In
the first place, his control of the technical resources of the language
was as feeble as Hugo's was mighty. Balzac's style is bad; in spite of
the electric vigour that runs through his writing, it is formless,
clumsy, and quite without distinction; it is the writing of a man who
was highly perspicacious, formidably powerful, and vulgar. But, on the
other hand, he possessed one great quality which Hugo altogether
lacked--the sense of the real. Hugo was most himself when he was soaring
on the wings of fancy through the empyrean; Balzac was most himself when
he was rattling in a hired cab through the streets of Paris. He was of
the earth earthy. His coarse, large, germinating spirit gave forth, like
the earth, a teeming richness, a solid, palpable creation. And thus it
was he who achieved what Hugo, in _Les Miserables_, had in vain
attempted. _La Comedie Humaine_, as he called the long series of his
novels, which forms in effect a single work, presents, in spite of its
limitations and its faults, a picture of the France of that age drawn on
the vast scale and in the grand manner of an epic.
The limitations and the faults of Balzac's work are, indeed,
sufficiently obvious and sufficiently grave. The same coarseness of
fibre which appears in his style made him incapable of understanding the
delicacies of life--the refined shades of emotion, the subtleties of
human intercourse. He probably never read Jane Austen; but if he had he
certainly would have considered her an utterly pointless writer; and he
would have been altogether at sea in a novel by Henry James. The elusive
things that are so important, the indecisive things that are so curious,
the intimate things that are so thrilling--all these slipped through his
rough, matter-of-fact grasp. His treatment of the relations between the
sexes is characteristic. The subject fills a great place in his novels;
he approaches it with an unflinching boldness, and a most penetrating
gaze; yet he never succeeds in giving a really satisfactory presentment
of the highest of those relations--love. That eluded him: its essence
was too subtle, too private, too transcendental. No one can describe
love who has not the makings of a poet in him. And a poet was the very
last thing that Balzac was.
But his work does not merely suffer from the absence of certain good
qualities; it is also marred by the presence of positively bad ones.
Balzac was not simply a realist. There was a romantic vein in him, which
occasionally came to the surface with unfortunate results. When that
happened, he plunged into the most reckless melodrama, revelled in the
sickliest sentiment, or evolved the most grotesque characters, the most
fantastic plots. And these lapses occur quite indiscriminately. Side by
side with some detailed and convincing description, one comes upon
glaring absurdities; in the middle of some narrative of extraordinary
actuality, one finds oneself among hissing villains, disguises, poisons,
and all the paraphernalia of a penny novelette. Balzac's lack of
critical insight into his own work is one of the most singular of his
characteristics. He hardly seems to have known at all what he was about.
He wrote feverishly, desperately, under the impulsion of irresistible
genius. His conceptions crowded upon him in vivid, serried
multitudes--the wildest visions of fantasy mixed pell-mell with the most
vital realizations of fact. It was not for him to distinguish; his
concern was simply, somehow or other, to get them all out: good, bad, or
indifferent, what did it matter? The things were in his brain; and they
must be expressed.
Fortunately, it is very easy for the reader to be more discriminating
than Balzac. The alloy is not inextricably mingled with the pure
metal--the chaff may be winnowed off, and the grain left. His errors and
futilities cannot obscure his true achievement--his evocation of
multitudinous life. The whole of France is crammed into his pages, and
electrified there into intense vitality. The realism of the classical
novelists was a purely psychological realism; it was concerned with the
delicately shifting states of mind of a few chosen persons, and with
nothing else. Balzac worked on a very different plan. He neglected the
subtleties of the spirit, and devoted himself instead to, displaying the
immense interest that lay in those prosaic circumstances of existence
which the older writers had ignored. He showed with wonderful force that
the mere common details of everyday life were filled with drama, that,
to him who had eyes to see, there might be significance in a ready-made
suit of clothes, and passion in the furniture of a boarding-house. Money
in particular gave him an unending theme. There is hardly a character in
the whole vast range of his creation of whose income we are not exactly
informed; and it might almost be said that the only definite moral that
can be drawn from _La Comedie Humaine_ is that the importance of money
can never be over-estimated. The classical writers preferred to leave
such matters to the imagination of the reader; it was Balzac's great
object to leave nothing to the imagination of the reader. By ceaseless
effort, by infinite care, by elaborate attention to the minutest
details, he would describe _all_. He brought an encyclopaedic knowledge
to bear upon his task; he can give an exact account of the machinery of
a provincial printing-press; he can write a dissertation on the methods
of military organization; he can reveal the secret springs in the
mechanism of Paris journalism; he is absolutely at home in the
fraudulent transactions of money-makers, the methods of usurers, the
operations of high finance. And into all this mass of details he can
infuse the spirit of life. Perhaps his masterpiece in realistic
description is his account of La Maison Vauquer--a low boarding-house,
to which he devotes page after page of minute particularity. The result
is not a mere dead catalogue: it is a palpitating image of lurid truth.
Never was the sordid horror which lurks in places and in things evoked
with a more intense completeness.
Undoubtedly it is in descriptions of the sordid, the squalid, the ugly,
and the mean that Balzac particularly excels. He is at his greatest when
he is revealing the horrible underside of civilization--the indignities
of poverty, the low intrigues of parasites, the long procession of petty
agonies that embitter and ruin a life. Over this world of shadow and
grime he throws strange lights. Extraordinary silhouettes flash out and
vanish; one has glimpses of obscure and ominous movements on every side;
and, amid all this, some sudden vision emerges from the darkness, of
pathos, of tenderness, of tragic and unutterable pain.
Balzac died in 1850, and at about that time the Romantic Movement came
to an end. Victor Hugo, it is true, continued to live and to produce for
more than thirty years longer; but French literature ceased to be
dominated by the ideals of the Romantic school. That school had
accomplished much; it had recreated French poetry, and it had
revolutionized French prose. But, by the very nature of its achievement,
it led the way to its own supersession. The spirit which animated its
doctrines was the spirit of progress and of change; it taught that there
were no fixed rules for writing well; that art, no less than science,
lived by experiment; that a literature which did not develop was dead.
Therefore it was inevitable that the Romantic ideal itself should form
the stepping-stone for a fresh advance. The complex work of Balzac
unites in a curious way many of the most important elements of the old
school and of the new. Alike by his vast force, his immense variety,
his formlessness, his lack of critical and intellectual power, he was a
Romantic; but he belonged to the future in his enormous love of prosaic
detail, his materialist cast of mind, and his preoccupation with actual
THE AGE OF CRITICISM
With the generation of writers who rose to eminence after the death of
Balzac, we come within the reach of living memory, so that a just
estimate of their work is well-nigh impossible: it is so close to us
that it is bound to be out of focus. And there is an additional
difficulty in the extreme richness and variety of their accomplishment.
They explored so many fields of literature, and produced so much of
interest and importance, that a short account of their work can hardly
fail to give a false impression of it. Only its leading characteristics
and its most remarkable manifestations can be touched upon here.
The age was before all else an age of Criticism. A strong reaction set
in against the looseness of construction and the extravagance of thought
which had pervaded the work of the Romantics; and a new ideal was set
up--an ideal which was to combine the width and diversity of the latter
with the precision of form and the deliberate artistic purpose of the
Classical age. The movement affected the whole of French literature, but
its most important results were in the domain of Prose. Nowhere were the
defects of the Romantics more obvious than in their treatment of
history. With a very few exceptions they conceived of the past as a
picturesque pageant--a thing of contrasts and costumes, an excuse for
rhetorical descriptions, without inner significance or a real life of
its own. One historian of genius they did indeed produce--MICHELET; and
the contrast between his work and that of his successors, TAINE and
RENAN, is typical of the new departure. The great history of Michelet,
with its strange, convulsive style, its capricious and imaginative
treatment of facts, and its undisguised bias, shows us the spectacle of
the past in a series of lurid lightning-flashes--a spectacle at once
intensely vivid and singularly contorted; it is the history of a poet
rather than of a man of science. With Taine and Renan the personal
element which forms the very foundation of Michelet's work has been
carefully suppressed. It is replaced by an elaborate examination of
detail, a careful, sober, unprejudiced reconstruction of past
conditions, an infinitely conscientious endeavour to tell the truth and
nothing but the truth. Nor is their history merely the dead bones of
analysis and research; it is informed with an untiring sympathy; and--in
the case of Renan especially--a suave and lucid style adds the charm and
amenity which art alone can give.
The same tendencies appear to a still more remarkable degree in
Criticism. With SAINTE-BEUVE, in fact, one might almost say that
criticism, as we know it, came into existence for the first time. Before
him, all criticism had been one of two things: it had been either a
merely personal expression of opinion, or else an attempt to establish
universal literary canons and to judge of writers by the standards thus
set up. Sainte-Beuve realized that such methods--the slap-dash
pronouncements of a Johnson or the narrow generalizations of a
Boileau--were in reality not critical at all. He saw that the critic's
first duty was not to judge, but to understand; and with this object he
set himself to explore all the facts which could throw light on the
temperament, the outlook, the ideals of his author; he examined his
biography, the society in which he lived, the influences of his age;
and with the apparatus thus patiently formed he proceeded to act as the
interpreter between the author and the public. His _Causeries du
Lundi_--short critical papers originally contributed to a periodical
magazine and subsequently published in a long series of
volumes--together with his _Port Royal_--an elaborate account of the
movements in letters and philosophy during the earlier years of Louis
XIV's reign--contain a mass of material of unequalled value concerning
the whole of French literature. His analytical and sympathetic mind is
reflected in the quiet wit and easy charm of his writing. Undoubtedly
the lover of French literature will find in Sainte-Beuve's _Lundis_ at
once the most useful and the most agreeable review of the subject in all
its branches; and the more his knowledge increases, the more eagerly
will he return for further guidance and illumination to those delightful
But the greatest prose-writer of the age devoted himself neither to
history nor to criticism--though his works are impregnated with the
spirit of both--but to Fiction. In his novels, FLAUBERT finally
accomplished what Balzac had spasmodically begun--the separation of the
art of fiction from the unreality, the exaggeration, and the rhetoric of
the Romantic School. Before he began to write, the movement towards a
greater restraint, a more deliberate art, had shown itself in a few
short novels by GEORGE SAND--the first of the long and admirable series
of her mature works--where, especially in such delicate masterpieces as
_La Mare au Diable, La Petite Fadette_, and _Francois le Champi_, her
earlier lyricism and incoherence were replaced by an idyllic sentiment
strengthened and purified by an exquisite sense of truth. Flaubert's
genius moved in a very different and a far wider orbit: but it was no
less guided by the dictates of deliberate art. In his realism, his love
of detail, and his penetrating observation of facts, Flaubert was the
true heir of Balzac; while in the scrupulosity of his style and the
patient, laborious, and sober treatment of his material he presented a
complete contrast to his great predecessor. These latter qualities make
Flaubert the pre-eminent representative of his age. The critical sense
possessed him more absolutely and with more striking results than all
the rest of his contemporaries. His watchfulness over his own work was
almost infinite. There has never been a writer who took his art with
such a passionate seriousness, who struggled so incessantly towards
perfection, and who suffered so acutely from the difficulties, the
disappointments, the desperate, furious efforts of an unremitting toil.
His style alone cost him boundless labour. He would often spend an
entire day over the elaboration and perfection of a single sentence,
which, perhaps, would be altogether obliterated before the publication
of the book. He worked in an apoplectic fervour over every detail of his
craft--eliminating repetitions, balancing rhythms, discovering the
precise word for every shade of meaning, with an extraordinary, an
almost superhuman, persistence. And in the treatment of his matter his
conscientiousness was equally great. He prepared for his historical
novels by profound researches in the original authorities of the period,
and by personal visits to the localities he intended to describe. When
he treated of modern life he was no less scrupulously exact. One of his
scenes was to pass in a cabbage-garden by moonlight. But what did a
cabbage-garden by moonlight really look like? Flaubert waited long for
a propitious night, and then went out, notebook in hand, to take down
the precise details of what he saw. Thus it was that his books were
written very slowly, and his production comparatively small. He spent
six years over the first and most famous of his works--_Madame Bovary_;
and he devoted no less than thirteen to his encyclopedic _Bouvard et
Pecuchet_, which was still unfinished when he died.
The most abiding impression produced by the novels of Flaubert is that
of solidity. This is particularly the case with his historical books.
The bric-a-brac and fustian of the Romantics has disappeared, to be
replaced by a clear, detailed, profound presentment of the life of the
past. In _Salammbo_, ancient Carthage rises up before us, no crazy
vision of a picturesque and disordered imagination, but in all the
solidity of truth; coloured, not with the glaring contrasts of rhetoric,
but with the real blaze of an eastern sun; strange, not with an imported
fantastic strangeness manufactured in nineteenth-century Paris, but with
the strangeness--so much more mysterious and significant--of the actual,
The same characteristics appear in Flaubert's modern novels. _Madame
Bovary_ gives us a picture of life in a French provincial town in the
middle of the last century--a picture which, with its unemphatic tones,
its strong, sensitive, and accurate drawing, its masterly design,
produces an effect of absolutely convincing veracity. The character and
the fate of the wretched woman who forms the central figure of the story
come upon us, amid the grim tepidity of their surroundings, with
extraordinary force. Flaubert's genius does not act in sudden flashes,
but by the method of gradual accumulation. The effects which it
produces are not of the kind that overwhelm and astonish, but of the
more subtle sort that creep into the mind by means of a thousand
details, an infinitude of elaborated fibres, and which, once there, are
there for ever.
The solidity of Flaubert's work, however, was not unaccompanied with
drawbacks. His writing lacks fire; there is often a sense of effort in
it; and, as one reads his careful, faultless, sculpturesque sentences,
it is difficult not to long, at times, for some of the irregular
vitality of Balzac. Singularly enough, Flaubert's correspondence--one of
the most interesting collections of letters in the language--shows that,
so far as his personal character was concerned, irregular vitality was
precisely one of his dominating qualities. But in his fiction he
suppressed this side of himself in the interests, as he believed, of
art. It was his theory that a complete detachment was a necessary
condition for all great writing; and he did his best to put this theory
into practice. But there was one respect in which he did not succeed in
his endeavour. His hatred and scorn of the mass of humanity, his
conception of them as a stupid, ignorant, and vulgar herd, appears
throughout his work, and in his unfinished _Bouvard et Pecuchet_ reaches
almost to the proportion of a monomania. The book is an infinitely
elaborate and an infinitely bitter attack on the ordinary man. There is
something tragic in the spectacle of this lonely, noble, and potent
genius wearing out his life at last over such a task--in a mingled agony
of unconscious frenzied self-expression and deliberate misguided
In poetry, the reaction against Romanticism had begun with the _Emaux et
Camees_ of THEOPHILE GAUTIER--himself in his youth one of the leaders
of the Romantic School; and it was carried further in the work of a
group of writers known as the _Parnassiens_--the most important of whom
were LECONTE DE LISLE, SULLY PRUDHOMME, and HEREDIA. Their poetry bears
the same relation to that of Musset as the history of Renan bears to
that of Michelet, and the prose of Flaubert to that of Hugo. It is
restrained, impersonal, and polished to the highest degree. The bulk of
it is not great; but not a line of it is weak or faulty; and it
possesses a firm and plastic beauty, well expressed by the title of
Gautier's volume, and the principles of which are at once explained and
exemplified in his famous poem beginning--
Oui, l'oeuvre sort plus belle
D'une forme au travail
--Vers, marbre, onyx, email.
The _Parnassiens_ particularly devoted themselves to classical subjects,
and to descriptions of tropical scenes. Their rich, sonorous,
splendidly-moulded language invests their visions with a noble fixity,
an impressive force. Among the gorgeous descriptive pieces of Leconte de
Lisle, the exquisite lyrics of Sully Prudhomme, and the chiselled
sonnets of Heredia some of the finest and weightiest verse of the
century is to be found.
The age produced one other poet who, however, by the spirit of his work,
belongs rather to the succeeding epoch than to his own. This was
BAUDELAIRE, whose small volume--_Les Fleurs du Mal_--gives him a unique
place among the masters of the poetic art. In his form, indeed, he is
closely related to his contemporaries. His writing has all the care, the
balance, the conscientious polish of the _Parnassiens_; it is in his
matter that he differs from them completely. He was not interested in
classical imaginations and impersonal descriptions; he was concerned
almost entirely with the modern life of Paris and the actual experiences
of a disillusioned soul. As intensely personal as the _Parnassiens_ were
detached, he poured into his verse all the gloom of his own character,
all the bitterness of his own philosophy, all the agony of his own
despair. Some poets--such as Keats and Chenier--in spite of the
misfortunes of their lives, seem to distil nothing but happiness and the
purest beauty into their poetry; they only come to their true selves
amid the sunlight and the flowers. Other writers--such as Swift and
Tacitus--rule supreme over the kingdom of darkness and horror, and their
finest pages are written in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Writers
of this kind are very rarely poets; and it is Baudelaire's great
distinction that he was able to combine the hideous and devastating
conceptions of complete pessimism with the passion, the imagination, and
the formal beauty that only live in magnificent verse. He is the Swift
of poetry. His vision is black and terrible. Some of his descriptions
are even more disgusting than those of Swift, and most of his pages are
no fit reading for the young and ignorant. But the wise reader will find
in this lurid poetry elements of profundity and power which are rare
indeed. Above all, he will find in it a quality not common in French
poetry--a passionate imagination which clothes the thought with
splendour, and lifts the strange words of this unhappy mortal into the
deathless regions of the sublime.
With the death of Flaubert in 1880, French literature entered upon a new
phase--a phase which, in its essential qualities, has lasted till
to-day, and which forms a suitable point for the conclusion of the
This last phase has been dominated by two men of genius. In prose,
MAUPASSANT carried on the work of Flaubert with a sharper manner and
more vivid style, though with a narrower range. He abandoned the exotic
and the historical visions of his predecessor, and devoted himself
entirely, in his brilliant novels and yet more brilliant short stories,
to an almost fiendishly realistic treatment of modern life. A precisely
contrary tendency marks the poetry of VERLAINE. While Maupassant
completely disengaged prose from every alien element of poetry and
imagination, pushing it as far as it could go in the direction of
incisive realism, Verlaine and his fellow-workers in verse attempted to
make poetry more truly poetical than it had ever been before, to
introduce into it the vagueness and dreaminess of individual moods and
spiritual fluctuations, to turn it away from definite fact and bring it
near to music.
It was with Verlaine and his successors that French verse completely
broke away from the control of those classical rules, the infallibility
of which had been first attacked by the Romantics. In order to express
the delicate, shifting, and indecisive feelings which he loved so well,
Verlaine abolished the last shreds of rhythmical regularity, making his
verse a perfectly fluid substance, which he could pour at will into the
subtle mould of his feeling and his thought. The result justified the
means. Verlaine's poetry exhales an exquisite perfume--strange,
indistinct, and yet, after the manner of perfume, unforgettable.
Listening to his enchanting, poignant music, we hear the trembling voice
of a soul. This last sad singer carries us back across the ages, and,
mingling his sweet strain with the distant melancholy of Villon,
symbolizes for us at once the living flower and the unchanging root of
the great literature of France.
* * * * *
We have now traced the main outlines of that literature from its dim
beginnings in the Dark Ages up to the threshold of the present time.
Looking back over the long line of writers, the first impression that
must strike us is one of extraordinary wealth. France, it is true, has
given to the world no genius of the colossal stature and universal power
of Shakespeare. But, then, where is the equal of Shakespeare to be
found? Not even in the glorious literature of Greece herself. Putting
out of account such an immeasurable magnitude, the number of writers of
the first rank produced by France can be paralleled in only one other
modern literature--that of England. The record is, indeed, a splendid
one which contains, in poetry and drama, the names of Villon, Ronsard,
Corneille, Moliere, Racine, La Fontaine, Chenier, Lamartine, Hugo,
Vigny, Gautier, Baudelaire, Verlaine; and in prose those of Froissart,
Rabelais, Montaigne, Pascal, Bossuet, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyere,
Montesquieu, Saint-Simon, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Chateaubriand,
Balzac, Flaubert, and Maupassant. And, besides this great richness and
variety, another consideration gives a peculiar value to the literature
of France. More than that of any other nation in Europe, it is
distinctive and individual; if it had never existed, the literature of
the world would have been bereft of certain qualities of the highest
worth which France alone has been able to produce. Where else could we
find the realism which would replace that of Stendhal and Balzac,
Flaubert and Maupassant? Where else should we look for the brilliant
lucidity and consummate point which Voltaire has given us? Or the force
and the precision that glow in Pascal? Or the passionate purity that
blazes in Racine?
Finally, if we would seek for the essential spirit of French literature,
where shall we discover it? In its devotion to truth? In its love of
rhetoric? In its clarity? In its generalizing power? All these qualities
are peculiarly its own, but, beyond and above them, there is another
which controls and animates the rest. The one high principle which,
through so many generations, has guided like a star the writers of
France is the principle of deliberation, of intention, of a conscious
search for ordered beauty; an unwavering, an indomitable pursuit of the
endless glories of art.
CHRONOLOGICAL LIST OF AUTHORS AND THEIR PRINCIPAL WORKS
I. _Middle Ages_
CHANSONS DE GESTE, eleventh to thirteenth centuries.
_Chanson de Roland, circa_ 1080.
ROMANS BRETONS, twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
CHRETIEN DE TROYES, wrote _circa_ 1170-80.
FABLIAUX, twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
_Roman de Renard_, thirteenth century.
_Aucassin et Nicolete, circa_ thirteenth century.
VILLEHARDOUIN, _d_. 1213.
_Conquete de Constantinople_, 1205-13.
GUILLAUME DE LORRIS (?).
_La Roman de la Rose_ (first part), _circa_ 1237.
JEAN DE MEUNG, _d_. 1305.
_La Roman de la Rose_ (second part), 1277.
_Vie de Saint Louis_, 1309.
FROISSART, 1337-_circa_ 1410.
_Grand Testament_, 1461.
RABELAIS, _circa_ 1494-1553.
DU BELLAY, 1522-60.
_Defense et Illustration de la Langue Francaise_, 1549.
III. _Age of Transition_
HARDY, 1570-1631 (_circa_).
ACADEMY, founded 1629.
_Le Cid_, 1636.
_Les Horaces_, 1640.
_Lettres Provinciales_, 1656-57.
_Pensees_, first edition 1670, first complete edition 1844.
IV. _Age of Louis XIV_
_Les Precieuses Ridicules_, 1659.
_L'Ecole des Femmes_, 1662.
_Le Misanthrope_, 1666.
_Le Malade Imaginaire_, 1673.
LA ROCHEFOUCAULD, 1613-80.
_Art Poetique_, 1674.
LA FONTAINE, 1621-95.
_Oraisons Funebres_, 1669-87.
_Histoire Universelle_, 1681.
MADAME DE SEVIGNE, 1626-96.
MADAME DE LAFAYETTE, 1634-93.
_La Princesse de Cleves_, 1678.
LA BRUYERE, 1645-96.
_Les Caracteres_, 1688-94.
V. _Eighteenth Century_
_Histoire des Oracles_, 1687.
_Dictionnaire Historique et Critique_, 1697.
_Lettres Persanes_, 1721.
_L'Esprit des Lois_, 1748.
_La Henriade_, 1723.
_Lettres Philosophiques_, 1734.
_Essai sur les Moeurs_, 1751-56.
_Dictionnaire Philosophique_, 1764.
_Dialogues_, etc., 1755-78.
LE SAGE, 1668-1747.
_Gil Blas_, 1715-35.
_Vie de Marianne_, 1731-41.
_Les Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard_, 1734.
_Memoires_, begun 1740, first edition 1830.
_La Religieuse_, first edition 1796.
_Le Neveu de Rameau_, first edition 1823.
_La Nouvelle Heloise_, 1761.
_Contrat Social_, 1762.
_Confessions_, first edition 1781-88.
_Le Mariage de Figaro_, 1784.
_Progres de l'Esprit Humain_, 1794.
_Poems_, 1790-94, first edition 1819.
VI. _Nineteenth Century_--I
_Genie du Christianisme_, 1802.
_Memoires d'Outre-Tombe_, published 1849.
_Les Feuilles d'Automne_, 1831.
_Notre-Dame de Paris_, 1831.
_Les Chatiments_, 1852.
_Les Contemplations_, 1856.
_La Legende des Siecles_, 1859.
_Les Miserables_, 1862.
_Poemes Antiques et Modernes_, 1826.
_Servitude et Grandeur Militaires_, 1835.
_Caprices de Marianne_, 1833.
_Les Nuits_, 1835-40.
GEORGE SAND, 1804-76.
_Francois le Champi_, 1850.
_Le Rouge et le Noir_, 1831.
_La Comedie Humaine_, 1829-50.
VII. _Nineteenth Century_--II
_Vie de Jesus_, 1863.
_Madame Bovary_, 1857.
_Emaux et Camees_, 1852.
_Les Fleurs du Mal_, 1857.
LECONTE DE LISLE, 1818-94.
SULLY PRUDHOMME, 1839-1907.
_Les Trophees_, 1893.
The number of works dealing with the history and criticism of French
literature is very large indeed. The following are the most useful
reviews of the whole subject:--
PETIT DE JULLEVILLE. _Histoire de la Langue et de la Litterature
francaise_ (8 vols.).
LANSON. _Histoire de la Litterature francaise_ (1 vol.).
BRUNETIERE. _Manuel de l'histoire de la Litterature francaise_ (1 vol.).
DOWDEN. _History of French Literature_ (1 vol.).
An excellent series of biographies of the principal authors, by the
leading modern critics, is that of _Les Grands Ecrivains Francais_
(published by Hachette).
The critical essays of Sainte-Beuve are particularly valuable. They are
contained in his _Causeries du Lundi, Premiers Lundis, Nouveaux Lundis,
Portraits de Femmes, Portraits Litteraires_, and _Portraits
Some interesting criticisms of modern writers are to be found in _La Vie
Litteraire_, by Anatole France.
Editions of the principal authors are very numerous. The monumental
series of _Les Grands Ecrivains de la France_ (Hachette) contains
complete texts of most of the great writers, with elaborate and
scholarly commentaries of the highest value. Cheaper editions of the
masterpieces of the language are published by Hachette, La Bibliotheque
Nationale, Jean Gillequin, Nelson, Dent, Gowans & Gray.
There are also numerous lyrical anthologies, of which two of the best
are _Les Chefs-d'oeuvre de la Poesie lyrique francaise_ (Gowans & Gray)
and _The Oxford Book of French Verse_ (Clarendon Press). But it must be
remembered that the greater part of what is most characteristic in
French literature appears in its poetic drama and its prose, and is
therefore necessarily excluded from such collections.
Academy, the French, 34-36
Arnold, Matthew, 64
_Aucassin et Nicolete_, 11-12, 13
Austen, Jane, 161
Balzac, Honore de (1799-1850), 160-164, 166, 168, 171, 175, 176
_La Comedie Humaine_, 161-164
Baudelaire, Charles (1821-67), 172-173, 175
_Les Fleurs du Mal_, 172
Bayle, Pierre (1647-1706)
_Dictionnaire Historique et Critique_, 96
Beaumarchais, De [_pseud. of_ Pierre Auguste Caron] (1732-99), 140-141
_Le Mariage de Figaro_, 140-141
Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), 130
Boileau, Nicolas (1636-1711), 53-55, 143, 167
_Art Poetique_, 53
_A son Esprit_, 54
Bossuet, Jacques Benigne (1627-1704), 85-86, 122, 129, 144, 175
_Elevations sur les Mysteres_, 86
_Histoire Universelle_, 85, 122
_Meditations sur l'Evangile_, 86
_Oraisons Funebres_, 86
Bourgogne, Duc de, 95
Browne, Sir Thomas, 35
Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de (1707-88), 118
Byron, 35, 137, 146, 156
Calas, Jean (1698-1762), 126
Catherine of Russia, 115
_Chanson de Roland_, 8, 12
_Chansons de Geste_, 8, 9
Chapelain, Jean (1595-1674), 55
Chateaubriand, Francois Rene, Vicomte de (1768-1848), 145-146, 148, 175
_Genie du Christianisme_, 145
_Memoires d'Outre-Tombe_, 146
Chenier, Andre (1762-94), 142-143, 173, 175
Chretien de Troyes (12th century), 14
Commynes, Philippe de (1445-1509), 17-18
Condillac, Etienne Bonnot de Mably de (1715-80), 118
Condorcet, Marquis de (1743-94), 114, 118
_Progres de l'Esprit Humain_, 115
Constant, Benjamin (1845-1902), 158
Copernicus, 44, 111
Corneille, Pierre (1606-84), 36-41, 48, 55, 77, 144, 175
_Le Cid_, 36, 37, 39
_Les Horaces_, 39
Cotin, l'Abbe (1604-82), 55
Dalembert, Jean le Rond (1717-83), 118
Dante, 8, 56, 101
Diderot, Denis (1713-84), 35, 116, 118, 131, 136, 139, 145, 158, 175
_Le Neveu de Rameau_, 116-117
_La Religieuse_, 158
Du Bellay, Joachim (1522-60), 22
_Les Antiquites de Rome_, 24
_La Defense et Illustration de la Langue Francaise_, 22
Du Chatelet, Mme., 119-120
Du Deffand, Mme. (1697-1780), 99
Dumas, Alexandra (1824-95), 148
_Fabliaux_, 10, 144
Fenelon, Francois (1651-1715), 95, 110
Flaubert, Gustave (1821-80), 35, 168-171, 172, 174, 175, 176
_Bouvard et Pecuchet_, 170
_Madame Bovary_, 170
Fontenelle, Bernard le Bovyer de (1657-1757), 95-96
_Histoire des Oracles_, 96
Francis I, 21
Frederick the Great, 115, 120
Froissart, Jean (_c._ 1337-_c_. 1410), 16-17, 41, 175
Gautier, Theophile, (1811-72), 148, 171-172, 175
_Emaux et Camees_, 171-172
Gray, Thomas, 35
Hardy, Alexandra (_c._ 1570-_c_. 1631), 36, 37
Helvetius, Claude Adrien (1715-71), 118
Heredia, Jose-Maria de (1842-1905), 172
Holbach, Baron d' (1723-89), 118
Hugo, Victor (1802-85), 37, 148, 149-155, 158, 159, 160, 161, 164,
_Les Chatiments_, 155
_Les Contemplations_, 155
_Les Feuilles d'Automne_, 155
_Hernani_, 149, 152
_La Legende des Siecles_, 155
_Les Miserables_, 159, 161
_Les Rayons et Les Ombres_, 155
Hume, David, 139
James, Henry, 161
Jodelle, Etienne (1532-73), 36, 37
Johnson, Samuel, 167
Joinville, Jean, Sire de (1224-1319), 13-14, 41
_Vie de Saint Louis_, 13-14
Keats, John, 143, 173
Labe, Louise (_c._ 1520-66), 24
La Bruyere, Jean de (1645-96), 87, 88-92, 106-107, 144, 175
_Les Caracteres_, 89-91
Laclos, Pierre Choderlos de (1741-1803), 158
_Liaisons Dangereuses_, 158
Lafayette, Mme. de (1634-93), 157, 158
_La Princess de Cleves_, 157, 158
La Fontaine, Jean de (1621-95), 11, 53, 79-84, 87, 143, 144, 175
Lamartine, Alphonse (1790-1869), 147, 148, 175
_Le Lac_, 147
La Rochefoucauld, Duc de (1613-80), 87-88, 175
Leconte de Lisle, Charles Marie (1818-94), 172
Le Sage, Alain-Rene (1668-1747), 158
_Gil Blas_, 158
Locke, John, 102
Lorris, Guillaume de (_fl._ 13th century), 14-15
_La Roman de la Rose_, 14-15
Louis IX, 13-14
Louis XI, 17
Louis XIII, 32
Louis XIV, 31, 33, 41, 45-93, 94-95, 97, 105, 106, 168
Louis XV, 110
Luther, Martin, 111
Malherbe, Francois de (1555-1628), 32-34, 38, 41, 149
Marivaux, Pierre (1688-1763), 103-105, 157, 158
_Les Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard_, 104
_Vie de Marianne_, 158
Marlowe, Christopher, 37
Marmontel, Jean Francois (1723-99), 118
Marot, Clement (1496-1544), 21-22
Maupassant, Guy de (1850-93), 174, 175, 176
Meung, Jean de (_c._ 1250-1305), 14-15, 25
_La Roman de la Rose_, 15
Michelet, Jules (1798-1874), 166-167, 172
Milton, 62, 101, 153
Moliere [_pseud. of_ Jean-Baptiste Poquelin] (1622-73), 35, 53,
55-64, 77, 84, 93, 175
_Don Juan_, 61, 62
_L'Ecole des Femmes_, 57
_Les Femmes Savantes_, 61
_Le Malade Imaginaire_, 58
_Le Misanthrope_, 59, 61, 63
_Les Precieuses Ridicules_, 57, 62
_Tartufe_, 60, 62
Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de (1533-92), 27-30, 31, 41, 175
_Apologie de Raimond Sebond_, 28
Montesquieu, Baron de (1689-1755), 96-100, 103, 110, 122, 175
_Considerations sur la Grandeur et la Decadence des Romains_, 98
_L'Esprit des Lois_, 98-99, 113
_Lettres Persanes_, 96-98, 100
Musset, Alfred de (1810-57), 148, 155, 156-157, 172
_Les Nuits_, 157
_Parnassiens, Les_, 172, 173
Pascal, Blaise (1623-62), 41-44, 129, 144, 175, 176
_Lettres Provinciales_, 41-42, 43, 129
_Philosophes, Les_, 111-115, 118, 133, 134
_Pleiade, La_, 22-24, 31, 32
Pope, Alexander, 135
Pradon, Nicolas (1632-98), 55
_Precieux, Les_, 33-34, 41, 55
Prevost, l'Abbe (1697-1763), 157-158
_Manon Lescaut_, 157-158, 159
Rabelais, Francois (_c._ 1494-_c._ 1553), 24-27, 28, 31, 117, 175
Racine, Jean (1639-99), 37, 48, 53, 55, 56, 64-79, 85, 87, 93, 100,
103, 143, 144, 150, 175, 176
_Berenice_, 68, 70-71
_Les Plaideurs_, 77
Renan, Ernest (1823-92), 167, 172
Richelieu, Cardinal de (1585-1642), 32, 36
_Romans Bretons_, 9, 10
_Roman de Renard_, 10
_Roman de la Rose_, 14-16
Ronsard, Pierre de (1524-85), 22, 23-34, 175
_La Franciade_, 23
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712-78), 112, 131-139, 145, 146, 158, 159, 175
_Confessions_, 133, 137-138
_Le Contrat Social_, 132
_La Nouvelle Heloise_, 132, 158
Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin (1804-69), 167-168
_Causeries du Lundi_, 168
Saint-Simon, Duc de (1675-1755), 105-110, 136, 153, 175
_Memoires_, 105-110, 136
Sand, George [_pseud. of_ Amandine Lucile Aurore Dupin] (1804-76),
_Francois le Champi_, 168
_La Mare au Diable_, 168
_La Petite Fadette_, 168
Scott, Sir Walter, 35
Scudery, Madeleine de (1607-1701), 157
Sevigne, Mme. de (1626-96), 48
Shakespeare, 35, 56, 60, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 73, 102, 152,
153, 157, 175
Sirven (1709-64), 126
Stendhal [_pseud, of_ Marie-Henri Beyle] (1783-1842), 160, 176
_La Chartreuse de Parme_, 160
_Le Rouge et Le Noir_, 160
Sully Prudhomme, Rene Francois Armand (1839-1907), 172
Swift, Jonathan, 173
Taine, Henri (1828-93), 167
Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques (1727-81), 112, 118
Verlaine, Paul (1844-96), 174-175
Versailles, 45-47, 106
Vigny, Alfred de (1797-1863), 148, 155-156, 175
_Colere de Samson_, 156
_Maison du Berger_, 156
_Monts des Oliviers_, 156
_La Mort du Loup_, 156
_Servitude et Grandeur Militaires_, 156
Villehardouin, Geoffroi de (_c._ 1160-1213), 13, 14
_La Conquete de Constantinople_, 12-13
Villon, Francois (1431-1463 or after), 18-19, 20, 24, 175
_Grand Testament_, 18
_Petit Testament_, 18
Virgil, 8, 101
Voltaire, Francois Marie Arouet de (1694-1778), 35, 100-103, 105,
110, 119-131, 135, 136, 139, 140, 144, 145, 152, 175, 176
_Alzire_, 119, 152
_Diatribe du Docteur Akakia_, 120
_Dictionnaire Philosophique_, 123, 130
_Le Diner du Comte de Boulainvilliers_, 123
_Essai sur les Moeurs_, 121-122
_Frere Rigolet et l'Empereur de la Chine_, 123
_La Henriade_, 101
_Lettres Philosophiques_, 102, 119
_Life of Charles XII_, 101
_Zaire_, 119, 152
Watteau, Antoine, 104
Wordsworth, William, 74