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INITIATION INTO LITERATURE
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH BY
SIR HOME GORDON, BART.
The Translator begs to acknowledge with appreciation the courtesy of the Author in graciously consenting to make some valuable additions, at his request, specially for the English version.
This volume, as indicated by the title, is designed to show the way to the beginner, to satisfy and more especially to excite his initial curiosity. It affords an adequate idea of the march of facts and of ideas. The reader is led, somewhat rapidly, from the remote origins to the most recent efforts of the human mind.
It should be a convenient repertory to which the mind may revert in order to see broadly the general opinion of an epoch–and what connected it with those that followed or preceded it. It aims above all at being _a frame_ in which can conveniently be inscribed, in the course of further studies, new conceptions more detailed and more thoroughly examined.
It will have fulfilled its design should it incite to research and meditation, and if it prepares for them correctly.
The Vedas. Buddhist Literature. Great Epic Poems, then very Diverse, much Shorter Poems. Dramatic Literature. Moral Literature.
The Bible, a Collection of Epic, Lyric, Elegiac, and Sententious Writings. The Talmud, Book of Ordinances. The Gospels.
Homer. Hesiod. Elegiac and Lyric Poets. Prose Writers. Philosophers and Historians. Lyric Poets, Dramatic Poets. Comic Poets. Orators. Romancers.
The Latins, Imitators of the Greeks. Epic Poets. Dramatic Poets. Golden Age: Virgil, Horace, Ovid. Silver Age: Prose Writers, Historians, and Philosophers: Titus-Livy, Tacitus, Seneca. Decadence Still Brilliant.
THE MIDDLE AGES: FRANCE
_Chansons de Geste: Song of Roland_ and Lyric Poetry. Popular Epopee: _Romances of Renard_. Popular Short Stories: Fables. Historians. The Allegorical Poem: _Romance of the Rose_. Drama.
THE MIDDLE AGES: ENGLAND
Literature in Latin, in Anglo-Saxon, and in French. The Ancestor of English Literature: Chaucer.
THE MIDDLE AGES: GERMANY
Epic Poems: _Nibelungen_. Popular Poems. Very Numerous Lyric Poems. Drama.
THE MIDDLE AGES: ITALY
Troubadours of Southern Italy. Neapolitan and Sicilian Poets: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio.
THE MIDDLE AGES: SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
Epic Poems: _Romanceros_. Didactic Books. Romances of Chivalry.
THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES: FRANCE
First Portion of Sixteenth Century: Poets: Marot, Saint-Gelais; Prose Writers: Rabelais, Comines. Second Portion of Sixteenth Century: Poets: “The Pleiade”; Prose Writers: Amyot, Montaigne. First Portion of Seventeenth Century: Intellectual and Brilliant Poets: Malherbe, Corneille; Great Prose Writers: Balzac, Descartes. Second Portion of Seventeenth Century: Poets: Racine, Moliere, Boileau, La Fontaine; Prose Writers: Bossuet, Pascal, La Bruyere, Fenelon, etc.
THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES: ENGLAND
Dramatists: Marlowe, Shakespeare. Prose Writers: Sidney, Francis Bacon, etc. Epic Poet: Milton. Comic Poets.
THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES: GERMANY
Luther, Zwingli, Albert Duerer, Leibnitz, Gottsched.
THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES: ITALY
Poets: Ariosto, Tasso, Guarini, Folengo, Marini, etc. Prose Writers: Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Davila.
THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES: SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
Poets: Quevedo, Gongora, Lope de Vega, Ercilla, Calderon, Rojas, etc. Prose Writers: Montemayor, Cervantes, etc. Portugal: De Camoens, etc. The Stage.
THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: FRANCE
Of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Fontenelle, Bayle. Of the Eighteenth: Poets: La Motte, Jean Baptiste Rousseau, Voltaire, etc.; Prose Writers: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Buffon, Jean Jacques Rousseau, etc. Of the Nineteenth Century: Poets: Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Musset, Vigny, etc.; Prose Writers: Chateaubriand, Michelet, George Sand, Merimee, Renan, etc.
THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: ENGLAND
Poets of the Eighteenth Century: Pope, Young, MacPherson, etc. Prose Writers of the Eighteenth Century: Daniel Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Swift, Sterne, David Hume. Poets of the Nineteenth Century: Byron, Shelley, the Lake Poets. Prose Writers of the Nineteenth Century: Walter Scott, Macaulay, Dickens, Carlyle.
THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: GERMANY
Poets of the Eighteenth Century: Klopstock, Lessing, Wieland. Prose Writers of the Eighteenth Century: Herder, Kant. Poets of the Nineteenth Century: Goethe, Schiller, Koerner.
THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: ITALY
Poets: Metastasio, Goldoni, Alfieri, Monti, Leopardi. Prose Writers: Silvio Pellico, Fogazzaro, etc.
THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: SPAIN
The Drama still Brilliant: Moratin. Historians and Philosophers, Novelists, Orators.
Middle Ages. Some Epic Narratives. Renaissance in the Seventeenth Century. Literature Imitative of the West in the Eighteenth Century. Original Literature in the Nineteenth Century.
At an Early Date Western Influence Sufficiently Potent. Sixteenth Century Brilliant; Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries highly Cultured; Nineteenth Century Notably Original.
The _Vedas_. Buddhist Literature. Great Epic Poems, then very Diverse, much Shorter Poems. Dramatic Literature. Moral Literature.
THE _VEDAS_.–The ancient Indians, who spoke Sanscrit, possess a literature which goes back, perhaps, to the fifteenth century before Christ. At first, like all other races, they possessed a sacred literature intimately bound up with their religion. The earliest volumes of sacred literature are the _Vedas_. They describe and glorify the gods then worshipped, to wit, Agni, god of fire, of the domestic hearth, of the celestial fire (the sun), of the atmospheric fire (lightning); Indra, god of atmosphere, analogous to Zeus of the Greeks; Soma, the moon; Varuna, the nocturnal vault, the god who rewards the good and punishes the evil; Rudra, the irascible god, more evil than well disposed, though sometimes helpful; others too, very numerous.
The style of the _Vedas_ is continually poetic and metaphorical. They contain a sort of metaphysics as well as continual allegories.
BUDDHA.–Buddhism, a philosophical religion, sufficiently analogous to Christianity, which Sakyamuni, surnamed Buddha (the wise), spread through India towards 550 B.C., created a new literature. It taught, as will be remembered, the equality of all castes in the sight of religion, metempsychosis, charity, and detachment from all passions and desires in order to arrive at absolute calm (_nirvana_). The literature it inspired was primarily _gnomic_, that is, sententious, analogous to that of Pythagoras, with a tendency towards little moral tales and parables, as in the Gospel.
This literature subsequently expanded into large and even immense epic poems, of which the principal are the _Mahabharata_ and the _Ramayana_.
THE _MAHABHARATA_; THE _RAMAYANA_.–The _Mahabharata_ (that is, the _great history of the Bharatas_) is a legend or a novel in verse intersected with moral digressions, with episodes vaguely related to the subject, with discourses and prayers. There are charming episodes full of delicate sensibility, of moving tenderness–that is to say, of human beauty, comparable to the farewells of Hector and Andromache in Homer; and everywhere, amid tediousness and monotony, is found a powerful and superabundant imagination.
The _Ramayana_, the name of the author of which, Valmiki, has come down to us, is a poem yet more vast and unequal. There are portions which to us are quite unreadable, and there are others comparable to the most imposing and most touching in all epic poetry. Reduced to its theme, the subject of _Mahabharata_ is extremely simple; it is the history of Prince Rama, dispossessed of his throne, who saw his beloved wife, Sita, ravished by the monstrous demon Ravana, who made alliance with the good monkeys and with them constructed a bridge over the sea to reach the island on which Sita was detained, who vanquished and slew Ravana, who re-found Sita, and finally went back happily to his kingdom, which had also been re-conquered.
The most noticeable exterior characteristic of the _Mahabharata_ is the almost constant mingling of men and animals, a mingling which one feels is in conformity with the dogma of the transmigration of souls. Not only monkeys but vultures, eagles, gazelles, etc., are brought into the work and form important personages. We are in the epoch when the animals spoke. Battles are numerous and described in great detail; the _Ramayana_ is the _Iliad_ of the Indians; pathetic scenes, as well as those of love, of friendship, of gratitude are not rare, and are sometimes exquisite. The whole poem is imbued with a great feeling of humanity, heroism, and justice. Victory is to the good and right is triumphant; the gods permit that the just should suffer and be compelled to struggle; but invariably it is only for a time and the merited happiness is at the end of all.
After these two vast giant epics there were written among the Indians a number of shorter narrative poems, very varied both in tone and manner, which suggest an uninterrupted succession of highly important and animated schools of literature. Nearer to our own time–that is, towards the fifth or sixth century of our era, lyric poetry and the drama were, as it were, detached from the epopee and existed on their own merits. Songs of love, of hate, of sadness, or of triumph took ample scope; they were more often melancholy than sad, for India is the land of optimism, or at least of resignation.
DRAMATIC POETRY.–As for the dramatic poetry, that is very curious; it is not mixed with epopee in the precise sense of the word; but it is continually mingled with descriptions of nature, with word-paintings of nature and invocations to nature. The Indian dramatic poet did not separate man from the air he breathed nor from the world around him; in recalling the moment of the day or night in which the scene takes place, _the actual hour_, the poet, no doubt in obedience to a law dictated to him by his public, kept his characters in communication with earth and heaven, with the dawn he described, the moon he painted, the evening he caused to be seen, the plants he portrayed as withering or reviving, the birds which he showed everywhere in the country or returning to their habitation, etc.
From the purely dramatic aspect, these plays are often affecting or curious, possessing penetrating and thoughtful psychology. The most celebrated dramas still left to us of the Indian stage are _The Chariot of Baked Clay_ and the affecting and delicate _Sakuntala_ the gem of Indian literature, the work of the poet Kalidas, who was also a remarkable lyric poet.
GNOMIC POETRY.–Gnomic, that is sententious, poetry, which, it has been indicated, very early enjoyed high appreciation among the Indians, long continued to obtain their approval. It was always wise and often intellectual. The collection of Barthari, who belonged to the sixth or seventh century A.D., contains thoughts which would do honour to the highest moralists of the most enlightened epochs. “The fortune, ample or restricted, which the Creator hath inscribed on thy forehead thou wilt assuredly attain; wert thou in the desert or in the gold-mines of Meru, more couldst thou not acquire. Therefore, of what avail to torment thyself and to humiliate thyself before the powerful. A pot does not draw more water from the sea than from a well.”
And this might be by a modern man opposing La Rochefoucauld: “The modest man is one poor in spirit, the devout a hypocrite, the honest man is artful, the hero is a barbarian, the ascetic is a fool, the unreserved a chatterbox, the prudent a waverer. Tell me, which is the virtue among all the virtues that human malice cannot vilify?”
Here, finally, is a truth for all time: “It is easy to persuade the ignorant, still easier to persuade the very wise; but he who hath a commencement of wisdom Brahma himself could not cajole.”
Indian literature continued to be productive, though losing much of its fecundity, until the fifteenth or sixteenth century of our era. Without exaggeration, it is permissible to conject that its scope extended over twenty-five centuries. It possesses the uniquely honourable trait that it is, assuredly, the only one which owes nothing to any other and is literally indigenous.
The Bible, a Collection of Epic, Lyric, Elegiac, and Sententious Writings. The Talmud, Book of Ordinances. The Gospels.
THE BIBLE.–The Hebrew race possessed a literature from about 1050 B.C. It embodied in poems the legends which had circulated among the people since the most remote epoch of their existence. It was those poems, gathered later into one collection, which formed what, since approximately the year 400, we call the Bible–that is, the Book of books.
In the Bible there are histories (_Genesis_, _History of the Jews up to Joshua_, the _Book of Joshua_, _Judges_, _Kings_, etc.), then anecdotal episodes (_Ruth_, _Esdras_, _Tobit_, _Judith_, _Esther_), then books of moral philosophy(_Proverbs of Solomon_, _Ecclesiastes_, _Wisdom_, _Ecclesiasticus_), then books of an oratorical and lyrical character (_Psalms of David_ and all the _Prophets_). Finally, a single work, still lyrical but in which there are marked traces of the dramatic type (the _Song of Songs_).
THE TALMUD.–To the works which have been gathered into the Bible, it is necessary to add the Talmud, a collection of commentaries on the civil and religious laws of the Jews, which forms an indispensable supplement to the Bible, to anyone desiring to understand the Hebraic civilisation.
THE GOSPELS.–The Gospels, published in the Greek tongue, have nothing Hebraic except that they were compiled by Jews or by their immediate disciples and that they have preserved something of the manner of writing of the Jews.
BIBLICAL WRITINGS.–The Biblical writings, regarded solely from the literary point of view, form one of the finest monuments of human thought. The sentiment of grandeur and even of infinity in _Genesis_; the profound and simple sensibility as in the _History of Joseph_, _Tobit_, and _Esther_; eloquence and exquisite religious sentiment as in the _Book of Job_ and the _Psalms of David_; ecstatic lyricism, vehement and fiery, accompanied with incredible satiric force as in the _Prophets_; wisdom alike equal to that of the Stoics and of the serious Epicureans as in _Ecclesiastes_ and the _Proverbs_; everywhere marvellous imagination, always concise at least, if not restrained; lyrical sensuality which recalls the most perturbed creations of erotic Greeks and Latins, whilst surpassing them in beauty as in the _Song of Songs_; and throughout there is this grandeur, this simple majesty, this easy and natural sublimity which in the same degree is to be found only occasionally in Homer and which appears to be the privilege of the people who were the first to believe in a single God. That is what makes, almost in a continuous way, the astonishing beauty of the Bible, and which explains how whole nations, of other origin, have made down to our own day, and still continue to make, the Bible their uninterrupted study, and draw from it courage, serenity, exaltation of soul, and a singular ferment of their poetic and literary genius.
As has been the case with many other literary monuments, it is possible, without owning that it is desirable, that the Bible may even survive the numerous and important religions which have been born from it.
Homer. Hesiod. Elegiac and Lyric Poets. Prose Writers. Philosophers and Historians. Lyric Poets. Dramatic Poets. Comic Poets. Orators. Romancers.
HOMER.–The most ancient Greek writer known is Homer, and it cannot be absolutely stated in what epoch he lived.
Since the seventeenth century it has even been asked if he ever existed and if his poems are not collections of epic songs which had circulated in ancient Greece and which at a very recent epoch, that of Pisistratus, had been gathered into two grand consecutive poems, thanks to some rearrangement and editing. At the commencement of the nineteenth century the erudite were generally agreed that Homer had never existed. Now they are reverting to the belief that there were only two Homers, one the author of the _Iliad_ and the other of the _Odyssey_.
THE _ILIAD_.–The _Iliad_ is the story of the wrath of Achilles, of his retreat far from his friends who were endeavouring to capture Troy and of his return to them.
It is the poem of patriotism. It is filled with the spirit that when a people is divided against itself, all misfortunes fall on and overwhelm it. Achilles, unjustly offended, deprived his fellow-countrymen of his support; they are all on the point of perishing; he returns to them in order to avenge the death of his dearest friend and they are saved.
The _Iliad_ is almost entirely filled with battles, which are very skillfully diversified. Some episodes, such as the farewell of Hector to his wife Andromache when he quits her for the fight, or King Priam coming, in tears, to ask Achilles for the corpse of his son Hector that he may piously inter it, are among the most beautiful passages that ever came from a human inspiration.
THE _ODYSSEY_.–The _Odyssey_ is also the poem of patriotism, of the _little homeland_, of the native land. It is the story of Ulysses, after the siege of Troy, reconquering Ithaca, the small island of which he is king, and taking ten years to acquire it. What makes the unity of the poem, what forms the backbone of the poem, is the smoke which rises above the house of Ulysses, which he always perceives in the dream of his hopes and desires, which invincibly attracts him, which he desires to see again before he dies, and the thought of which sustains him in his trials and causes him to scorn all joys on his road thither. The thousand adventures of Ulysses, his sojourn with the nymph Calypso, his terrible perils in the cave of the giant Polyphemus and near the isle of the Sirens, the tempests which he survives, the hospitality he receives from King Alcinoues, the visit he pays to the dead–among whom is Achilles regretting the earth and preferring to be a ploughman among the living rather than king among the dead; these are vigorous, curious, interesting, touching, picturesque scenes from which all subsequent literatures have drawn inspiration and which still delight all races.
HESIOD.–Posterior, very probably, to Homer, Hesiod has left two great poems, one on the families of the gods (_Theogenia_) and the other on the works of man (_Works and Days_). The _Theogenia_ is very valuable to us because we learn from it and it makes us understand how the Greeks understood the divinity, its different manifestations, and, so to say, its evolution through the world. _Works and Days_ is a poem filled with both sadness and courage, the author finding the world wicked and men unjust; but always concluding that with energy, perseverance, and obstinacy it is possible to save oneself from anything, and that there is only one real misfortune, which is to know despair.
ELEGIACAL AND LYRICAL POETS.–Almost from the most remote antiquity, from the seventh century, perhaps the eighth century before the Christian era, the Greeks possessed elegiacal and lyrical poets–that is to say, poets who put into verse their personal sentiments, the joys and sorrows which they felt as men. Such were Callinos, the satiric Archilochus, the satiric Simonides of Amorgos, the martial Tyrtaeus. Then there were the poets who made verses to be set to music: Alcaeus, Sappho, Anacreon, Alcman. Alcaeus appears to have been the greatest lyrical Greek poet judging by the fragments we possess by him and by the lyrical poems of Horace, which there are reasons for believing were imitated from Alcaeus.
Of the poetess Sappho we have too little to enable us to judge her very exactly; but throughout antiquity she enjoyed a glory equal to that of the greatest. She specially sang of love and in such a manner as to lead to the belief that she herself had not escaped the passion.
Anacreon sang after the same fashion and with a charm, a grace, a witty ingenuity which are fascinating. He was the epicurean of poetry (before the birth of Epicurus) and from him was born a type of literature known as anacreonotic, which extended right through ancient times and has been prolonged to modern times.
PROSE WRITERS.–Finally prose was born, in the sixth century before Christ, with the philosophers Thales, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, and with the historians, of whom only one of that epoch has remained famous, namely Herodotus.
HERODOTUS.–Herodotus, in a general history of his own time and of that immediately preceding it, is often not far from epic poetry. His style is at once limpid and warm, he possesses a pleasing power of distinction, the taste for and curiosity about the manners of foreign peoples, a laughing and easy imagination without any pretence at the philosophy of history or of moralising through history. He was, above all, a delightful writer.
AESOP.–To this period (albeit somewhat at hazard) it is possible to ascribe Aesop, about whom nothing is known except that he wrote the fables which have been imitated from generation to generation. The collection that we possess under his name is one of these imitations, perpetrated long after his death, but as to which it is impossible to assign a date.
PINDAR.–Pindar, the Theban, broadened and extended the lyrical type. Under him it preserved its power, its high spirits, its verse and, so to say, its fine fury; but he introduced into the epic the narration of ancient legends, the acts and gestures of the ancient heroes, and effected this so admirably that the most lyrical of Grecian lyricists is an historian. Capable of sustained elevation, of sublime thoughts and expressions, of a fine disorder which has been overpraised, and which on close expression is found to be very careful, he has been regarded as the very type of dignified and poetic style, and more or less to be imitated by all ambitious poets commencing with Ronsard. The wise, like Horace, have contented themselves with praising him. From fragments left to us he is infinitely impassioned to read.
GREEK TRAGEDY.–Greek tragedy, which is one of the miracles of the human brain, began in the sixth century B.C. It was born of the dithyramb. The dithyramb is a chant in chorus in honour of a god or a hero. From this chorus emerged a single actor who sang the praises of the god, and to which the choir replied. When, instead of one actor, there were two who addressed one another in dialogue and were answered by the choir, the dramatic poem was founded. When there were three–and there were hardly ever any more–tragedy, as the Greeks understood it, existed.
THESPIS; AESCHYLUS; SOPHOCLES.–Thespis was the earliest known to us who took rudimentary tragedies from town to town in Attica. Then came Aeschylus, whose tragedy, already rigid and hieratical, was very powerful, imbued with terrible majesty; then came Sophocles, a religious philosopher, having a feeling for the old religion and the art of giving it a moral character, great lyrical poet, master of dialogue, eloquent, moving, knowing how to construct and carry on a dramatic poem with infinite skill, to whom, in fact, can be denied no quality of dramatic poetry and who attains a conception of perfection.
EURIPIDES.–Euripides, less religious as a philosopher, sometimes suggesting the sophist and a little the rhetorician, but full of ideas, eloquent, affecting, “the most tragic” (that is, the most pathetic) of all the acting dramatists, as Aristotle observed, the most modern, too, and the one we best understand, has been the true source whence have been freely drawn the tragedies of modern times, more particularly of our own.
The greatest works of Aeschylus are _Seven Against Thebes_ and _Prometheus Bound_; the greatest of Sophocles: _Antigone_, _Oedipus the Tyrant_ and _Oedipus at Colonos_; the greatest of Euripides: _Hippolytus_ and _Iphigenia_.
After Euripides tragedy was exhausted and only produced very second-rate works.
COMEDY.–Comedy enjoyed a longer existence. Very obscure in origin, no doubt proceeding from the opprobrious jests exchanged by the lower classes in mirthful hours, it was at first freely fantastical, composed in dialogue, oratorical, lyrical, satirical, even epical at times. Like tragedy, it possessed a chorus for which the lyrical part was specially reserved. It was personal–that is, it directly attacked known contemporaries, often by name and often by bringing them on the stage. The celebrated authors of this “ancient comedy” were Eupolis, Cratinos, of whom we have only fragments, and Aristophanes, whose work has come down to us.
ARISTOPHANES.–Aristophanes was a great poet, with incisive humour and also incomparable lyrical power, with voluntary vulgarity which is often shocking and an elevation of ideas and language which frequently raise him to the heights of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Here was one of the grandest poetic minds that the world has produced. His most considerable achievements are _The Frogs_, the earliest known work of literary criticism, in dramatic form too, wherein he sets up a parallel between Aeschylus and Euripides and cruelly jeers at the latter; _The Clouds_, in which he mocks the sophists; _The Wasps_, wherein he ridicules the Athenian mania for judging, and magnificently praises the old Athenians of the time of Marathon.
MENANDER.–To this “ancient comedy,” immediately succeeded the “middle comedy,” in which it was forbidden to introduce personalities and of which Aristophanes gave an example and a model in his _Plutus_. Later, in the fourth century before Christ, with the refined, witty, and discreet Menander, the “new comedy” was analogous to that of Plautus, of Terence, and that of our own of the seventeenth century.
THUCYDIDES.–To return to the time of Pericles; Attic prose developed in the hands of historians, sages, and philosophers. Thucydides founded true history, scientific, drawn from the sources, supported and strengthened by all the information and corroboration that the skilled historian can gather, examine, and control. As a writer, Thucydides was terse, bare, limpid, and possessed an agreeable sober elegance. He introduced into his history imaginary discourses between great historical personages which allowed him to show the general state of Greece or of particular portions of Greece at certain important times. It is not known why these discourses were written in a style differing from that of the rest of the work, wise, even beautiful, but so extremely concise and elliptic as, in consequence, to be extremely difficult to understand.
HIPPOCRATES.–Hippocrates created scientific medicine, the medicine of observation, denying prodigies, seeking natural causes for diseases, and already setting up rational therapeutics. There are seventy-two works called “Hippocratical,” which belong to his school; some may be by himself.
SOPHISTS AND ORATORS.–The language grew flexible in the hands of the learned, subtle, and ingenious sophists (Gorgias, Protagoras) who attacked Socrates by borrowing his weapons, as it were, and making them perfect.
A new type of literature was created: the oratorical. Antiphon was the earliest in date alike of the Athenian orators and of the professors of eloquence. In a crowd after him came Isocrates, Andocides, Lysias, Aeschines, Hyperides, and the master of them all, that astonishing logician, that impassioned and terrible orator, Demosthenes.
THE PHILOSOPHERS: PLATO.–Contemporaneously the philosophers, quite as much as the sophists, even confining the matter to the literary aspect, cast immortal glory on Attica. Imbued with the spirit of Socrates, even when more or less unfaithful to him, Plato, psychologist, moralist, metaphysician, sociologist, marvellous poet in prose, seductive and fascinating mythologist, really created philosophy in such fashion that even the most modern systems, if not judged by how much they agree or differ from him, at least invariably recall him, whether they seem a distant echo of him or whether they challenge and combat him.
ARISTOTLE; XENOPHON; THEOPHRASTUS.–Aristotle, pre-eminently learned, admirably cultivated naturalist, acquainted also with everything known in his day, more prudent metaphysician than Plato but without his depth, a precise and sure logician and the founder of scientific logic, a clear and dexterous moralist, an ingenious and pure literary theorist; Xenophon, who commanded the retreat of the ten thousand, moralist and Intelligent pedagogue displaying much attractiveness in his _Cyropoedia_, the sensible, refined, and delightful master of familiar and practical life in his _Economics_; Theophrastus, botanist, very witty satirical moralist, highly caustic and realistic–these three established Greek wisdom for centuries, and probably for ever, erecting a solid and elegant temple wherein humanity has almost continuously sought salutary truths, and where some at least of our descendants, and those not the least illustrious, will always perform their devotions.
The chief works of Plato are the _Socratic Dialogues_, the _Gorgias_, the _Timoeus_, the _Phaedo_ (immortality of the soul), the _Republic_, and the _Laws_. The principal books of Aristotle are his _Natural History_, _Metaphysics_, _Logic_, _Rhetoric_, _Poetica_. The most notable volumes of Xenophon are the _Cyropoedia_, the _Economics_ and the _Memorabilia of Plato_. The only work of Theophrastus we possess is his _Characters_, which was translated and _continued_ by La Bruyere.
STOICS AND EPICUREANS.–In the fourth and even the third century, philosophy spoke to mankind through two principal schools: those of the Stoics and of the Epicureans. The chief representatives of the Stoics were Zeno and Cleanthes. Chrysippus taught an austere morality which may be summed up in these words: “Abstain and endure.” The Epicureans, whose chief representatives were Epicurus and Aristippus, taught, when all was taken into account, the same morality but starting from a different principle, which was that happiness must be sought, and in pursuance of this principle they advised less austerity, even in their precepts. Although these are schools of philosophy, yet they must be taken into account here because each of them has exercised much influence over writers, the first on Seneca and much later on Corneille; the second on Lucretius and Horace; both sometimes on the same man, one example being Montaigne.
After Alexander, intellectual Greece extended and enlarged itself so that Instead of having one centre, Athens, it possessed five or six: Athens, Alexandria, Antioch, Pergamos, Syracuse. This was an admirable literary efflorescence; the geniuses were less stupendous but the talents were innumerable.
In the cities named, and in others, history, rhetoric, geography, philosophy, history of philosophy, philology, were taught with ardour and learnt with enthusiasm; the literary soil was rich and it was assiduously cultivated.
ALEXANDRINE LITERATURE.–From this soil rose a fresh literature–more erudite, less spontaneous, less rich in popular vigour, yet very interesting. This is the literature known as _Alexandrine_. With this literature first appeared the _romance_, unknown to the ancients. The historical romance began with Hecataeus of Abdera, the philosophical romance with Evemerus of Messenia, who pretended to have found an ancient inscription proving that the gods of ancient Greece were old-time kings of the land deified after death, an ingenious invention from which was to come a whole school of criticism of ancient mythology.
THE ELEGY AND IDYLL: THEOCRITUS.–True and, at the same time, great poets belonged to this period. One was Philetas of Cos, founder of the Grecian elegy, celebrated and affectionately saluted centuries later by Andre Chenier. Of his works only a few terse fragments remain. Another was Asclepiades of Samos, both elegiac and lyric, of whose _epigrams_, (short elegies) those preserved to us are charming. Yet another was the sad and charming Leonidas of Tarentum. The two leaders of this choir were Theocritus and Callimachus. Theocritus, a Sicilian, passes as the founder of the idyll which he did not invent, but to which he gave the importance of a type by marking it with his imprint. The idyll of Theocritus was always a picture of popular customs and even a little drama of popular morals; but at times it had its scene set in the country, at others in a town, or again by the sea, and consequently there are rustic idylls (properly _bucolics_), maritime idylls, popular urban idylls. An astonishing sense of reality united to a personal poetic gift and a highly alert sensitiveness made his little poems alike beautiful for their truth and also for a certain ideal of ardent and profound passion. It is curious without being astonishing that the idyll of Theocritus often suggests the poetry of the Bible.
PUPILS OF THEOCRITUS.–Moschus and Bion were the immediate pupils of Theocritus. He had more illustrious ones, commencing with Virgil in his _Eclogues_, continuing with the numerous idylls of the Renaissance in France and Italy, as well as with Segrais in the seventeenth century, and ending, if it be desired, with Andre Chenier, though others more modern can be traced.
CALLIMACHUS.–Callimachus, more erudite, more scholastic, was what is termed a neoclassic, which is that he desired to treat in a new way the same subjects that had been dealt with by the great men of ancient Greece, and so far as possible to conceive them in the same spirit. Therefore he wrote tragedies, comedies, “satiric dramas” (a kind of farce in which secondary deities were characterised), lyric and elegiac poems after the manner of Alcaeus or Sappho, a familiar epopee, a romance in verse, which was perhaps a novel type, but more probably imitated from certain poems of ancient Greece which we no longer possess. To us his poetry seems cold and calculated, although clever and dexterous. It was held in high esteem not only in his own day but to the close of antiquity.
DIDACTIC POETRY: ARATUS; APOLLONIUS.–Didactic poetry, of the cultivation of which there had been no trace since Hesiod, was destined to be revived in this clever period; and, in fact, at this time Aratus wrote his _Phoenomena_, which is a course of astronomy and meteorology in conformity with the science of his era. More ambitious, and desirous not only of writing an epic fragment like Callimachus, but also of restoring the old-time grand epic poem after the manner of Homer (Callimachus and he had a violent quarrel on the subject), Apollonius of Rhodes in his _Argonautics_ narrated the expedition of Jason. It was a fine epic poem and especially an astonishing psychological poem. The study of passion and of the progress and catastrophe of the infatuation of Medea form a masterpiece. Assuredly Virgil in his _Dido_, and perhaps Racine in his _Phedre_ remembered Apollonius.
LYCOPHRON.–Lycophron also belongs to this period. He left such an admirable poem (_Alexandra_, that is Cassandra) that his contemporaries themselves failed to understand it in spite of all their efforts. He is the head and ancestor of that great school of inaccessible or impenetrable poets who are most ardently admired. Maurice Sceve in the sixteenth century is the illustrious example.
THE EPIGRAMMATISTS: MELEAGER.–To these numerous men of great talent must be added the epigrammatists–that is, those who wrote very short, very concise, very limpid poems wherein they sought absolute perfection. They were almost innumerable. The most illustrious was Meleager, in whom we can yet appreciate delicate genius and exquisite sensibility.
POLYBIUS.–Reduced to Roman provinces (successively greater Greece, Greece proper, Egypt, Syria), the Grecian world none the less continued to be an admirable intellectual haven. As early as the Punic wars, the Greek Polybius revealed he was an excellent historian, military, political, and philosophical, inquisitive about facts, inquisitive, too, about probable causes, constitutions, and social institutions, the morals, character, and the underlying temperament of races. His principal work is the _Histories_–that is, the history of the Graeco-Roman world from the second Punic war until the capture of Corinth by the Romans. He was an intellectual master; unfortunately he wrote very badly.
EPICTETUS; MARCUS AURELIUS.–It must, however, be recognised that in the first century before Christ and in the first after, Greece–even intellectually–was in a state of depression. But dating from the Emperor Nerva–that is, from the commencement of the second century–there was a remarkable Hellenic revival. Primarily, it was the most brilliant moment since Plato in Grecian philosophy. Stoicism exerted complete sway over the cultivated classes; Epictetus gave his _Enchiridion_ and _Manual_, wherein are condensed the elevated and profound thoughts most deeply realised of the doctrine of Zeno; later, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in his solitary meditations entitled _For Myself_, depicts his own soul, admirable, chaste, pure, severe to himself, indulgent to others, pathetically resigned to the universal order of things and adhering to them with a renunciation and a faith that are truly religious. Less severe, even playful and smiling, Dion Chrysostom (that is, mouth of gold, nickname given to him because of his eloquence) is penetrated with the same spirit a little mingled with Platonism, which makes him, therefore, perhaps, penetrate more easily than the over-austere pure Stoics.
PLUTARCH.–Plutarch, as historian discreetly romantic, as philosophical moralist decidedly dexterous, gently obstinate in conciliation and concord, in a large portion of his _Parallel Lives_ narrated those of illustrious Romans and Greeks to show how excellent they were and how highly they ought to esteem one another; elsewhere, in his moral works, he sought to conciliate philosophy and paganism, no doubt believing in a single God, as did Plato, but also believing in a crowd of intermediary spirits between God and man, which allowed him to regard the deities of paganism as misunderstood beings and even in a certain sense to admit their authority. Emphatically a man who observed the golden mean, he opposed the Stoics for being too severe on human nature and the Epicureans for being too easy or for too lightly risking the future. He was an elegant writer–gracious, self-restraining; nearer, all said and done, to eclecticism than to simplicity, and he must not be judged by the geniality which was virtually imparted to him by Amyot in translating him. Throughout Europe, since the Renaissance, of all the Grecian authors he has perhaps been the most read, the most quoted, the best loved, and the most carefully edited.
THE GREEK HISTORIANS.–Greek historians multiplied about this period. To mention only the most notable: Arrian, philosopher, disciple of Epictetus, and historian of the expedition of Alexander; Appian, who wrote the history of the Roman people from their origin until the time of Trajan; Dion Cassius, who also compiled Roman history in a sustained manner full of elegance and nobility; Herodian, historian of the successors of Marcus Aurelius, who would only narrate what he had himself witnessed, a showy writer who seems over-polished and a little artificial.
A historian of a highly individualistic character was Diogenes of Laertius, who wrote the _Lives of Philosophers_, being very little of a philosopher himself and too prone to drop into anecdotage, but interesting and invaluable to us because of the scanty information we possess about ancient philosophy.
LUCIAN.–Immeasurably superior to those just cited since Plutarch, Lucian of Samosata (Syria) may be regarded as the Voltaire of antiquity–witty, sceptical, amusing, even comic. He was primarily a lecturer, wandering like a sophist from town to town, in order to talk in vivacious, animated, nimble, and paradoxical fashion. Then he was a polygraphic writer, producing treatises, satires, and pamphlets on the most diverse subjects. He wrote against the Christians, the pagans, the philosophers, the prejudiced, sometimes against common sense. Amongst his works were _The Way to Write History_, partly serious, partly sarcastic; _The Dialogues of the Dead_, moralising and satirical, imitated much later in very superior fashion by Fontenelle; _The Dialogues of the Gods_, against mythology; _True History_, a parody of the false or romantic histories then so fashionable, more especially about Alexander. He certainly possessed little depth, but his talent was incredible: alertness, causticity, amusing logic, burlesque dialectics, an astonishing instinct for caricature, the art of natural dialogue, gay insolence, light but vivid psychological penetration, an almost profound sense of the ridiculous, joyous fooling; above all, that first essential of satire, to be himself amused by what he wrote to amuse others; all these he possessed in a high degree. Rabelais has been called the Homeric buffoon, Lucian is certainly the Socratic.
POETRY AND ROMANCE.–Greek poetry no longer existed at this period. Hardly is it permissible to cite the didactic Oppian, with his poem on sin, and the fabulist Babrius, imitator of Aesop in his fables. In reparation, the romance was born and the scientific literature was important. The romance claimed among its representatives Antonius Diogenes, with his _Marvels Beyond Thule_; Heliodorus, with his _Aethiopica_ or _Theagenes and Chariclea_, the love-story so much admired by Racine in his youth; Longus, with his _Daphnis and Chloe_, which still retains general approval and which possesses real, though somewhat studied grace, and of which the ability of the style is quite above the normal.
SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE.–Scientific literature includes the highly illustrious mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy, whose system obtained respect and belief until the advent of Copernicus; the physician Galen; the philosopher-physician Sextus Empiricus, who was a good historian, highly sceptical, but well informed and intelligent about philosophical ideas.
DECADENCE OF THE GREEK SPIRIT.–Vitality was slowly withdrawn from the Grecian world, although not without revivals and highly interesting semi-renaissances. In the fourth century, the sophist–that is, the professor of philosophy and of rhetoric–Libanius left a vast number of official or academic discourses and letters which were dissertations. Like his friend the Emperor Julian, he was a convinced pagan, and with kindly but firm spirit combated the Christian bishops, priests, and particularly the monks, who were objects of veritable repulsion to him. He possessed talent of a secondary but honourable rank.
THE EMPEROR JULIAN.–The Emperor Julian, a Christian in childhood, but who on attaining manhood reverted to paganism, which earned him the title of “the Apostate,” was highly intelligent, pure in heart, and filled with a spirit of tolerance; but he was a heathen and he wrote against Christianity. He possessed satiric force and wit, even a measure of eloquence. A pamphlet by him, the _Misopogon_, directed against the inhabitants of Antioch, who had chaffed him about his beard, makes amusing reading. He died quite young; he would, in all probability, have become a very great man.
PROCOPIUS.–It is necessary to advance to the sixth century to mention the historian Procopius, that double-visaged annalist who, in his official histories, was lost in admiration of Justinian, and who, in his _Secret History_, only published long after his death, related to us the turpitude, real or imagined, of Theodora, wife of the Emperor Justinian, and of Antonina, wife of Belisarius.
POETRY.–Greek poetry was not dead. Quintus of Smyrna, who was of the fourth century, perhaps later, wrote a _Sequel to Homer_, without much imagination, but with skill and dexterity; Nonnus wrote the _Dionysiaca_, a poetic history of the expedition of Bacchus to India, declamatory, copious, and powerful, full alike of faults and talent; Musaeus (date absolutely unknown) has remained justly celebrated for his delicious little poem _Hero and Leander_, countless times translated both in prose and verse.
GRECIAN CHRISTIAN WRITERS.–It is necessary to revert to the fourth century in order to enumerate Grecian Christian writers. As might be expected these were almost all controversial orators. Saint Athanasius of Alexandria was an admirable man of action, a fiery and impassioned orator, the highly polemical historian of the Church, after the manner of Bossuet in his _History of Variations_. Saint Basil, termed by his admirers “the Great,” without there being much hyperbole in the qualification, was an incomparable orator. He, as it were, reigned over Eastern Christianity, thanks to his word, his skill, and his courage. Even to us his works possess charm. He intermingled the finest ideas of Plato and of Christianity in the happiest and most orthodox manner. The humanists held him in esteem for having rendered justice to antiquity in his _Lecture on Profane Authors_ and having advised Christians to study it with prudence but with esteem. Saint Gregory of Nazianzen, the intimate friend of Saint Basil, was also a great orator, exalted, ardent, and lyrical, whilst he was also as a poet, refined, gracious, and full of charm. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, brother of Saint Basil, was essentially a theologian and in his day a theological authority.
SAINT JOHN CHRYSOSTOM.–The most splendid figure of the Greek Church was Saint John Chrysostom, celebrated in political history for his struggle with the Emperor Arcadius and the Empress Eudoxia, and for the persecutions he had in consequence to suffer. His heated, fiery, and violent eloquence, which was altogether that of a tribune of the people, can still profoundly affect us because therein can be felt a deeply sincere ardour, a passion for justice, charity, and love. A bellicose moralist, he was, like Bourdaloue, a realist and therefore an exact and cruel delineator of the customs of his time, which were not good; and he teaches us better than anyone else what was the sad state of Eastern morality in his day. His widely varied genius, passing from the most spiritually familiar of tones to the height of moving and imposing eloquence, was one of the grandest of all antiquity.
EUSEBIUS.–Allusion should be made to that good historian Eusebius, who narrated Christian history from its origins until the year 323.
THE BYZANTINE PERIOD.–What is termed the Byzantine period extended from the close of the reign of Justinian to the definite fall of the Eastern Empire (565-1453). This long epoch, practically corresponding to the Middle Ages of the West, is very weak from the literary point of view, but yet possessed a number of interesting and valuable historians (Joseph of Byzantium, Comnenus, etc.) and skilled and learned grammarians, that is professors of language and literature (Eustathius, Cephalon, Planudes, Lascaris). It was the later of these grammarians, among them Lascaris, who after the fall of Constantinople being welcomed in France and Italy, brought the Greek writers to the West, commentated on them, made them known, and thence came the Renaissance of Literature.
The Latins, Imitators of the Greeks. Epic Poets, Dramatic Poets. Golden Age: Virgil, Horace, Ovid. Silver Age: Prose Writers, Historians and Philosophers:–Titus-Livy, Tacitus, Seneca. Decadence Still Brilliant.
LATIN LITERATURE.–Latin literature is little more than a branch of Greek literature. It commenced much later, finished earlier, and has always poured into the others at least a portion of its living force. Roman literature really begins only at the moment when the Romans came into contact with the Greeks, read their works, and were tempted to imitate them; that is to say, it commences in the third century before Christ. The first manifestation of this literature was epic. Naevius and Livius Andronicus made epopees. They are destitute of talent. Ennius made one: it possessed merit; what the Latin critics have quoted of his _Annals_ is marked, first by an energetic patriotic sentiment which affords pleasure; then it possesses energy and sometimes even a certain brilliance. In addition, Ennius wrote several didactic and satiric poems. Among the Romans, Ennius was the great ancestor and father of Latin literature.
LUCILIUS.–Lucilius was a satirist. Judging by the fragments of his work which have come down to us, he was a very acute and penetrating political satirist. Horace, despite his sovereign disdain for all that preceded his own century, did not fail to value him and agreed that there was something to be drawn and appreciated from this “muddy torrent.”
COMEDY: PLAUTUS; TERENCE.–Comedy and tragedy existed at this period. It may be apposite here to point out that it was later and in the finest period of Latin literature that they ceased to exist. Plautus conceived the plan of transporting to Rome Grecian comedies of the time of the new comedy and of adapting them more or less to Latin morals. He possessed a strong and brutal verve which did not lack power, and more than once Moliere did him the honour of taking inspiration from him. Terence, after him, the friend of Scipio the second Africanus, and perhaps in collaboration with him, in a way widely different from that of Plautus so far as type of talent, tender, gentle, romantic, sentimental, smiling rather than witty, so far as can be judged directly inspired by Menander, wrote comedies which are highly agreeable to read, but it is doubtful if they could ever have been widely appreciated on the stage. However, the Roman writers held him in great esteem, and at one epoch of our own history, in the seventeenth century, he enjoyed remarkable and unanimous appreciation.
L’ATELLANE.–To comedy strictly defined, whether it dealt with Romans or Greeks, the Romans also added the atellane, which came to them from the Etruscans (Atella, a city of Etruria) and which was a sort of farce with stereotyped characters (the fat glutton, the lean glutton, the old miser always baffled, etc.). Pomponius and Naevius endeavoured to raise this popular recreation to a literary standard and succeeded. It then became a thoroughly national characteristic. There was considerable analogy between it and the modern popular Italian comedy, showing its Cassandras, its Pantaloon, and its Harlequin, without it being possible to assert that the Italian comedy proceeded from the atellane. The atellane enjoyed much success in the second century before Christ. It was, however, ousted by the mime, which was the kind of comic literature thoroughly national at Rome. The mime was a farce of popular morals, particularly of the lower classes; it was a portrayal of the dregs of society in their comic aspects. It maintained its sway until the close of the Roman Empire without becoming more dignified; rather the reverse. The names of some authors of mimes have survived: Publius Syrus and Laberius, in the time of Caesar. What is curious is that these mimes, licentious and even obscene though they were, throughout gave occasional utterance to highly moral observations which Latin grammarians have preserved for us. This curious mixture may be explained or contrasted at pleasure; perhaps it was only a conventional habit.
TRAGEDY.–As for what there was of tragedy, it was destined to be yet shorter-lived than comedy, but it was evidently very brilliant and it is regrettable that it has not been preserved. Livius Andronicus and Nasvius wrote tragedies, but the three greatest tragedians were Ennius, his nephew Pacuvius, and Attius. Ennius imitated Euripides, Pacuvius Sophocles, and Attius Aeschylus. All three soared to the grand, the majestic, and the sublime; all seem to have been very sententious and replete with maxims; but it is needful to be cautious: these authors are known to us only by the citations made by grammarians, and grammarians who, having naturally cited phrases rather than fragments of dialogue, make it possible that these authors appear to us sententious when they were in reality not abnormally so.
PROSE LITERATURE.–Prose literature at Rome appeared almost at the same time as the poetic. Cicero has given us the names of great orators, contemporaries of Ennius, and there were historians and didacticians in prose of the same period. The elder Cato, the great censor, was an historian; he wrote a work, _The Origins_, which seems to have been the history not only of Rome but of all Italy since the foundation of Rome; he was didactic; he wrote a _De Re Rustica_ (On Rural Life) which has come down to us and is infinitely valuable as showing the simplicity, the hardness, and the avarice of the old Roman proprietors, all qualities which Cato thoroughly well knew they possessed.
THE AGE OF CAESAR.–The age of Caesar was a great literary epoch. Before all and almost over all was Caesar himself: great orator, letter-writer, grammarian, and historian. His _Commentaries_, that is, his memoirs, history of his campaigns, are admirable in their conciseness and precision of rapid and running narrative. Apart from him, Cornelius Nepos made a very clear abridgment, characterised by marked sobriety, of universal history under the title of _Chronica_. Varro, a kind of encyclopaedist, wrote a _De Re Rustica_, also a work on the Latin language, _Menippic Satires_–satires it is true, but mixtures of prose and verse–and a work on _Roman Life_, as well as a crowd of small books dealing with every possible subject. Cicero told him, “You have taught us all things human and divine.” He possessed immense erudition and a violent mind not without charm. He can be imagined as a sage of our own sixteenth century.
CICERO.–Cicero was perhaps the greatest _litterateur_ that has ever lived. It is obvious that all tastes were in his soul at the same time, as Voltaire said of himself, and he gratified them all. He was politician, lawyer, orator, poet, philosopher, professor of rhetoric, moralist, grammarian, political writer, correspondent; he encompassed all human knowledge, involved himself in all human matters and was a very great writer. What to-day interests us most in his immense output are his political discourses, his letters and his moral treatises. His political discourses are those of an honest man who always held upright views and the sentiment of the great interests of his country; his letters are those of a witty man and of an excellent friend; his moral treatises, more particularly his _De Officiis_ (On Duties), are in a very elevated spirit which subordinates all other human duties beneath obligations towards one’s country. He did not always rise to circumstances; he was well content, on the contrary, that they should serve him.
SALLUST.–Sallust, who as an individual seems to have been contemptible, was a highly sagacious and excellent historian. He has left a history of Catiline and another of Jugurtha. They are masterpieces of lucidity and of dramatic vivacity. Admirable especially are his maxims, which seem as well thought out as those of La Rochefoucauld: “Friendship is to desire the same things and to hate the same things”; “the spirit of faction is the friendship of scoundrels.”
POETRY: CATULLUS.–Poetry was not less brilliant than prose in the time of Caesar. It was the era of Lucretius and of Catullus. Catullus, a delightful man of the world, a charming voluptuary, passionate and eloquent lover, formidable epigrammatist, a little coloured by Alexandrianism (but barely, for this trait has been much exaggerated), comes very close to being a great poet. In many respects he closely recalls Andre Chenier, who, it may be added, was thoroughly conversant with his writing.
LUCRETIUS.–Lucretius is a very noble poet. If we knew Epicurus otherwise than by fragments, it is highly probable we should be tempted to assert that Lucretius was only a translator; but on that we cannot pronounce, and of the didactic part of the poem of Lucretius (_On Nature_), even if it were a simple translation, all the oratorical and the descriptive portions would remain, and they are the most beautiful of the work. In his invocations to Epicurus, in his prosopopoeia of nature to man inviting resignation to death, in his descriptions of the immolation of Iphigenia and of the cow wandering in the fields in search of her lost heifer, there are a breadth, a grasp, and an epic grandeur, which recall Homer, arouse thoughts of Dante, and which Virgil himself, whilst much less unequal though never greater, has not attained.
THE AUGUSTAN AGE.–The Augustan Age, which was only really very great if under this title is also included the epoch of Caesar and also that of Octavius, and thus it was understood by our ancestors, does not fail to offer writers of fine genius. These are Virgil, Horace, and Titus-Livy.
TITUS-LIVY.–Titus-Livy, who is one of the purest and most beautiful writers and an orator of seductive talent in his own chamber, wrote a Roman history composed, as to the first portion, of the legends transmitted at Rome from generation to generation, and in which it is impossible for us to distinguish the false from the true; for two-thirds of the work made very accurate investigations of all that previous historians and the annals of the pontiffs could give the author. As has been observed, Titus-Livy, being a Cisalpine, was a Gaul who already possessed the French qualities: order, clearness, regulated development, sustained and careful style, oratorical tastes. An ardent patriot, republican at his soul, yet treated in friendly fashion by Augustus, he wrote Roman history at first, no doubt, to make it known, but above all to inspire the Romans of his own time with admiration, respect, and love for the austere morals and exalted virtues of their ancestors. He erected a monument, one portion of which is unhappily destroyed, but into which modern tragedians have often quarried and which orators have not scorned when desiring to instruct themselves in their art.
VIRGIL.–Virgil came from almost the same country. His was a charming soul, tender and gentle, infinitely capable of friendship, very pure and white, as Horace said, with a tendency to melancholy. The two sources of his inspiration were Homer and love of Rome; add, for a time, Theocritus. Lover of the country and of moral life, he first wrote those delicious _Bucolics_ wherein he did not venture to be as realistic as the Sicilian poet, but in which there is not only infinite grace and delicate sensibility, but also, in certain verses, admirable descriptions that arouse memories of those of La Fontaine. Lover of the soil and desirous, in harmony with Augustus, to attract the Italians back to a taste for agriculture, he wrote the _Georgics_: that is, the toils of the field, describing these labours with singular exactitude and precision; then, to give the reader variety, he introduced from time to time an episode which is a fragment of history or of mythological legend. At length, desirous of attributing to Rome the most glorious past possible, he revived the old legend which claimed that the ancient kings of Rome descended from the famous kings of Troy in her zenith, and he composed the _Aeneid_. The _Aeneid_ is at once both an _Odyssey_ and an _Iliad_. The first five books containing the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy until his arrival in Italy form an _Odyssey_; the last six books, containing the combats of Aeneas in Italy in order to conquer a place for himself, form an _Iliad_. In the middle, the sixth book is a descent into hell, again an imitation of Homer, yet altogether new, enriched as it is with very fine philosophical ideas which Homer could never have known. The main theme of the poem and what gives it unity is Rome, which does not yet exist, but which is always to be seen looming in the future. All the poem leans in that direction, and alike by ingenious artifices, by prophecies more and more exact, by the description of the shield of Aeneas, Roman history itself, in its broad lines, is traced.
The sovereign merit of Virgil is his artistic sense. Others are more powerful or more profound. No man has written better verse than he on any subject on which he wrote.
HORACE.–Horace was a man of infinite wit, profoundly conversant with the Grecian poets. With that knowledge of the poets he filled his odes with recollections of Alcasus and Stesichorus; they were minutely and finely polished, accustoming the Romans to find in Latin words the musical phrases of the Greeks, but withal remaining very cold. With his wit, his verve, his very lively sense of humour, his pretty moral philosophy borrowed a little from the Stoics but mainly from the Epicureans, he created his _Satires_ and his _Epistles_, which form the most delicate feast and which have no more lost their interest for us than Montaigne has. Here was a charming man. He was not a great poet. He was the most witty of poets, the poet of the men of wit.
TIBULLUS; PROPERTIUS; OVID.–Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid immediately followed him. Tibullus was a tender and sad elegiast, less passionate and less powerful than Catullus, but gracious and touching. All the elegiacal poets, and Andre Chenier in particular, have evinced recollections of him. Propertius possessed great talent for versification, but was more erudite than inspired; being almost pure Alexandrine, he is more interesting to the humourist than to the ordinary man. Ovid, gifted with facility and the skill of a prodigious versifier, dexterous descriptist in his _Metamorphoses_, ingenious and cold in his _Art of Love_, has found some pathetic notes in his elegies wherein as an exile he weeps over his own misfortunes.
DECADENCE.–With the second century arrived the commencement of decadence. The rhetoricians, who in Rome were what the sophists were in Athens, only far less intelligent, directed the public mind. They did not spoil it completely, but they did not give it strength, and the Latins, believing they had reached the zenith of the Greeks, seemed to draw less inspiration from the eternal models.
QUINTUS CURTIUS.–However, the Latin sap is still strong. Quintus Curtius, romantic historian, who wrote a history of Alexandria which is too generous towards the legendary, narrates brilliantly and strews his pages with vigorously phrased maxims and apothegms. He is a remarkable author. The elder Pliny, a very erudite sage and a somewhat precious writer, is a worthy successor of Varro.
SENECA.–Seneca, who certainly was well nurtured in Greek philosophy, preached stoicism in concise, antithetic, and epigrammatic styles, all in highly thoughtful points which sometimes attain power.
PETRONIUS; LUCIAN; MARTIAL.–Petronius was a man possessing highly refined taste who painted extremely ugly morals. Tragedy endeavoured to obtain renaissance with Seneca the tragic, who is perhaps the same as the moralist Seneca, alluded to above, and the effort was sufficiently brilliant for our tragedians of the sixteenth century, and even Racine in his _Phedre_, frequently to follow it. Perseus, pupil of Horace so far as his satires are concerned, was concise to the point of obscurity, but often displayed such vigour and ruggedness as to be powerfully moving. Lucian, spoilt by a certain taste for declamation, is really a sound poet, more especially as a poetic orator, and in this respect he is often admirable. Silius Italicus, Valerius Flaccus, Statius, revert to the school of Virgil and display talent for versification. Martial, almost exclusively epigrammatic, was extremely witty.
JUVENAL.–Juvenal, arising sardonically from the crowd, is the prince of satirists for all time. He possessed a passion for honesty, spirit, and oratorical breadth, and incredible vigour as colourist, the gift of verse cast in medallions and also the gift of energetic metallic sonorousness. Victor Hugo, in the satiric portion of his work, not merely drew inspiration from but seemed saturated with him.
THE TRAJAN EPOCH.–now came the Trajan epoch. Quintilian, in elegant fashion, with point and rather affected graces, taught us excellent rhetoric full of sense and taste. Pliny the Younger, gentle and gay, honest and amusing, pleaded as an insinuating orator, and, under the pretext of _Letters_ to his friends, wrote essays of amiable morality which evoke recollections of Montaigne.
TACITUS.–Tacitus is a great psychological historian and moralist. He is, as Racine observed, “the greatest painter of antiquity,” and Racine meant the greatest painter of portraits. He possessed an entirely fresh style of his own creation: nervous, articulate, coloured, concise, with brief metaphors which reveal not only a poet, but a fine poet, in the vein of Michelet, but with the difference of febrility to the potent discharge of power.
AULUS GELLIUS; APULEIUS.–Under Marcus Aurelius Latin literature fell into decay. Aulus Gellius was only a rather untidy or at least not very methodical scholar who wrote feebly; Apuleius with his _Golden Ass_ was merely a fantastic romancist, very complex, curious about everything, more especially with regard to singularities, lively, amusing, mystical at times; in short, distinctly disconcerting.
WRITERS ON CHRISTIANITY.–Christianity was at an adult age. There were writers of importance and some who were really great; the energetic and violent Tertullian, beloved by Bossuet; Saint Cyprian, full of unction, gentleness, and charity; Lactantius, skilful Christian philosopher, ingenious and possessing insinuating subtlety; Saint Hilarius, an ardent polemist, impetuous and torrential; Saint Ambrose, exalted, wise, serene, very well read, very “Roman,” who may be styled the Cicero of Christianity; Saint Jerome, ardent, impassioned, possessing lively sensibility, an animated and seductive imagination, who–excluding all idea of scandal–suggests what is purest and most beautiful in Jean Jacques Rousseau; finally, that great doctor and noble philosopher of the Church, Saint Augustine.
SAINT AUGUSTINE.–Saint Augustine is pre-eminently a philosopher, a man who analysed ideas and saw all that they contained, their first principle and their trend as well as their ultimate consequences. He was in addition a great orator; he was also a historian, or at least a philosopher of history, in his _City of God_; finally, he was a poet at heart and imbued with the most exquisite sensibility in his immortal _Confessions_. Probably he was the most extraordinary man of the world of antiquity.
CHRISTIAN POETS.–Christianity even had its poets: Commodian, Juvencus, the impassioned and skilful Prudentius, St. Paulinus of Nola. None were very prominent, all possessed lively sentiment, such as Chateaubriand evinced, for what is profoundly poetic in Christianity.
SECULAR POETS.–The last mundane poets were more brilliant than those of Christianity. Avienus possessed charming elegance and rather effeminate grace. It should be noted that he (with Prudentius) was the sole lyric poet after Horace. Ausonius had sensibility and remarkable descriptive talent; Claudian, rhetorician in verse, rose sometimes to veritable eloquence and maintained a continual brilliance which is fatiguing because it is continual, but does not fail to be a marvellous fault. Finally must be cited Rutilius, first because he had talent, then because even amid the invasions of the barbarians he made an impassioned eulogy of Rome which is, involuntarily, a funeral oration; finally, because, despite being a bitter foe to Christianity, he once more involuntarily defined the great and noble change from paganism to Christianity: _Tunc mutabantur corpora, nunc animi_ (“Formerly bodies were metamorphosed, now souls”).
THE MIDDLE AGES: FRANCE
_Chansons de Geste: Song of Roland_ and Lyric Poetry. Popular Epopee: _Romances of Renard_. Popular Short Stories: Fables. Historians. The Allegorical Poem: _Romance of the Rose_. Drama.
_CHANSONS DE GESTE_.–The literature of the Middle Ages freed itself from Latin about the tenth century. This was the moment when the great epopees which are called _chansons de geste_ began to be heard. The most celebrated is the one entitled _The Song of Roland_. It is the story of the last struggle in which Roland engaged on returning from Spain at the pass of Roncevaux and of his death. The form of this poem is rather dry and a little monotonous; but there are admirable passages such as the benediction of the dying by the Bishop Turpin, the farewell of Roland to Oliver, Roland holding out his glove to his Lord God at the moment of death, etc. The _chansons de geste_ were numerous. Some commemorated Charlemagne and his comrades, others Arthur, King of Britain, and his knights, others, as a rule less interesting, were about the heroes of antiquity, Troy, Alexander, not well known but not forgotten. The _chansons de geste_ permeated the whole of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
JOINVILLE; VILLEHARDOUIN.–In the thirteenth century appeared an historian, Joinville, friend of St. Louis, who described the crusade in which he took part with his master. He possessed _naivete_, grace, naturalness, and picturesqueness. Villehardouin, who described the fourth crusade, in which he played his part, was a realist–exact, precise, luminous–in whom the strangeness and grandeur of the things he had witnessed sometimes inspired a true nobility, simple enough but singularly impressive.
THE TROUBADOURS.–Lyric poetry barely existed during these centuries except south of the Loire, in the Latin country, among the poets called troubadours; nevertheless, in the north, the noble Count Thibaut of Champagne, to cite only one, wrote songs possessing amiable inspiration and happily turned. Beside him must be instanced the highly remarkable Ruteboeuf, narrator, elegiast, lyric orator, admirably gifted, who, to be a great poet, only needed to live in a more favourable period and to have at his disposition a more flexible language, one more abundant and more widely elaborated.
_THE ROMANCES OF RENARD_.–In the fourteenth century, the _Romances of Renard_ enjoyed remarkably wide popularity and multiplied in abundance. Each was like a fable by La Fontaine expanded to the proportions of an epic poem. Under the names of animals they were human types in action and concerned in multifarious adventures: the lion was the king; the bear, called Bruin, was the seigneurial lord of the soil; the fox was the artful, circumspect citizen; the cock, called Chanticleer, was the hero of warfare, and so on. Some of the _Romances of Renard_ are insipid; others possess a satiric and parodying spirit that is extremely diverting.
THE FABLES.–Contemporaneously the _Fables_ amused our ancestors. They were anecdotes, tales in verse for the most part dealing with adventures of citizens, analogous to the tales of La Fontaine. The majority were jeering, bantering, and satirical; some few were affecting and refined. They were certainly the most living and characteristic portion of old French literature.
THE BIBLES.–The Middle Ages, after the manner of the ancients, delighted in gathering into one volume all the knowledge current. These didactic books were called bibles. Some were celebrated: the _Bible_ of Guyot of Provence, the _Bible_ of Hugo of Berzi. As a rule, whilst learned as far as the resources of the times permitted, they were also satiric, precisely as almost the whole of the literature of the Middle Ages is satiric.
_THE ROMANCE OF THE ROSE_.–The _Romance of the Rose_, which was by two authors writing with almost half a century of interval between them, was in the first portion, of which the author is William of Lorris, an art of love in the form of a romance in verse; and the second part, written by John de Meung, formed in some measure a continuation of the first, but above all was a work of erudition and instruction, in which the poet put all that he knew as well as his philosophical conceptions, often of a remarkable and highly unexpected boldness. Aptly John de Meung has been compared with Rabelais, and it is not astonishing that the popularity of this poem should have lasted more than two centuries nor that it should have charmed or irritated our ancestors according to the tendency of their minds.
FROISSART.–The representative of history in the fourteenth century was Froissart, a picturesque chronicler, very vital, always full of interest, although it is indisputable that he was lacking in historical criticism; and among the orators, polemists, and controversialists of the times must at least be cited the impassioned and virtuous Gerson, who expended his life in incessant struggles on behalf of his Christian faith.
To him, without decisive proof, has often been attributed the _Imitation of Jesus Christ_, which, in any case, whoever wrote it, must be emphasised as one of the purest products of the religious spirit of the Middle Ages.
CHARLES OF ORLEANS; VILLON.–The fifteenth century, otherwise somewhat sterile, introduced one distinguished poet, Charles of Orleans, graceful and pleasing; and one who at moments rose to the height of being almost a great poet: this was Francis Villon, the celebrated author of _The Ballade of Dames of Ancient Times_, of which the yet more famous refrain was, “Where are the snows of last year?”
MYSTERIES AND MIRACLES.–To deal with the theatre of the Middle Ages it is necessary to go further back. Without considering as drama those pious performances which the clergy organised or tolerated even in the churches from the tenth century and probably earlier, there was already a popular drama in the twelfth century outside the church whereat were performed veritable dramas drawn from holy writ or legends of saints. This developed in the thirteenth century, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth it was prolific in immense dramatic poems which needed several days for their performance. These were _Mysteries_, as they were termed, or _Miracles_, wherein comedy and tragedy were interwoven and a great deed in religious history or sometimes in national history commemorated, such as the _Mystery of the Siege of Orleans_, by Greban.
FARCES; FOLLIES; MORALITIES.–The comic theatre also existed. It provided _farces_, which were really little comedies (the most famous was the _Farce of the Lawyer Patelin_); _follies_, which are farcical but good-humoured caricatures of students and clerks; and _moralities_, which are small serious dramas, interspersed with comedy, having real personages mingled with allegorical ones. The drama of the Middle Ages was very living and highly original, coming from the soil and exactly adapted to the sentiments, passions, and ideas of the people for whom and, a little later, by whom it was written.
THE MIDDLE AGES: ENGLAND
Literature in Latin, in Anglo-Saxon, and in French. The Ancestor of English Literature: Chaucer.
THE THREE LITERATURES.–In England, prior to the Norman invasion, that is before 1066, England possessed Saxon bards who sang of the prowess of forbears or contemporaries, and monks who wrote in Latin the lives of saints or even lay histories.
From 1066 must be distinguished in England three parallel literatures: the Latin literature of the cloister, the Anglo-Saxon literature, and the French literature of the conquerors.
Latin literature, so far as prose is regarded, was devoted exclusively to philosophy and history; in verse the subjects are more diversified, satire more especially flourished.
The poets of the French tongue wrote more particularly _chansons de geste_, and those of such songs which form what is termed the _Cycle of Artus_ are for the most part the work of poets born in England.
Finally, in the different popular dialects, Saxon, Western English, etc., epic poems were written in verse, or romances, discourses, homilies, different religious work in prose. The Normans, ardent, energetic, and practical, had founded universities whence issued, endowed and equipped, those who by patriotic sentiment or taste were destined to write in Anglo-Saxon or in English.
CHAUCER; GOWER.–The greatest name of the period and the one which radiates most brilliantly is that of Chaucer in the fourteenth century, author of _The Canterbury Tales_ and a crowd of other works. He possessed very varied imagination, sometimes vigorous, sometimes humorous, an extraordinary sense of reality, much spirit, and a fertility of mind which made him the ancestor and precursor of Shakespeare. To his illustrious name must be added that of his friend and pupil Gower, who is curious because he is representative of the three literatures still in use in his day, having written his _Speculum Meditatus_ in French, his _Vox Clamantis_ in Latin, and his _Confessio Amantis_ in English. So far as I am aware this phenomenon was never repeated.
THE MIDDLE AGES: GERMANY
Epic Poems: _Nibelungen_. Popular Poems. Very numerous Lyric Poems. Drama.
FIRST LITERARY WORK.–The most ancient monument of German literature is the _Song of Hildebrand_, which goes back to an unknown antiquity, perhaps to the ninth century, and a very beautiful fragment of which has been preserved by a happy chance. We are entirely ignorant of works written in German between the _Song of Hildebrand_ and the _Nibelungen_, except for some religious poems such as the _Heliand_ in low German and the _Book of the Gospels_ in high German.
THE NIBELUNGEN,–The _Nibelungen_ form a vast poem, written probably in the thirteenth century (or, at that epoch, formed by juxtaposition of more ancient popular songs). It is a great national monument wherein are collected the legendary exploits of all the ancestors of the Germans, Huns, Goths, Burgundians and Franks especially. Portions possess admirable dramatic qualities. The analogy with the _Iliad_ is remarkable, and the comparison may be made even from the literary point of view.
VARIOUS PRODUCTIONS.–Then come productions less national in type, imitations of French poems. _Song of Roland_, _Alexander_, songs of the _Cycle of Arthur_ or of the _Round Table_, imitations of Latin poems: for instance, the _Aeneid_, etc. Here, too, was spread the _Story of Renard_, as in France, and even now the question is unsettled whether the first poem of _Renard_ is French or German. Religious and satiric poems were abundant in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but what is highly characteristic is the large number of lyrical poets (Dietmar of Ast, Kuerenberg, Frederic of Hausen, the Emperor Henry VI, etc.) produced by the Middle Ages in Germany. This poetry was generally amorous and melancholy, sometimes full of the warlike ardour which is found among our own troubadours. The poets who, as in France, wandered through Germany, from court to court and from castle to castle, called themselves minnesingers (singers of love). The one who has remained most famous is Tannhaeuser. A fantastic and touching legend has formed about his name.
Germany, like France, possessed a popular drama, less prolific possibly, but very similar. Among the most ancient popular tragedies now known may be cited _The Prophets of Christ_ and the _Game of Antichrist_, which are curious because of the juxtaposition of biblical acts and contemporaneous events. Later came _The Miracles of the Virgin_, _The Wise and Foolish Virgins_, dramas more varied, with more numerous characters, more elaborate mounting, and with the interest relatively more concentrated.
COMEDY.–Comedy, as a rule very gross in character, enjoyed wide esteem, especially in the fourteenth century. What were performed under the title of _Carnival Games_ were generally nothing but _fables_ in dialogue, domestic scenes, incidents in the market, interludes at the cross-roads. Here was the vulgar plebeian joy allowing itself full licence. The literary activity of Germany in the Middle Ages was at least equal to that of the three literary western nations.
THE MIDDLE AGES: ITALY
Troubadours of Southern Italy. Neapolitan and Sicilian Poets. Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio.
THE TROUBADOURS.–The Italian literature of the Middle Ages is intimately associated with the literature of the Troubadours in the south of France. To express the case more definitely, the literature styled “Provencal,” apart from mere differences of dialect, extended from the Limousine to the Roman campagna, and French literature existed only in the northern and central provinces of France, the rest being Provencal-Italian literature. The Italian Troubadours, by which I mean those born in Italy, who must at least be cited, are Malaspina, Lanfranc Cicala, Bartolomeo Ziorgi (of Venice), Bordello (of Mantua), etc.
NAPLES AND SICILY.–Naples and Sicily, where were founded large universities, were the seat of a purely Italian literature in the thirteenth century, thanks to the impetus of the Emperor Frederick II. At this seat were Peter of Vignes (_Petrus de Vineis_), who passes as inventor of the sonnet; Ciullo of Alcamo, author of the first known Italian _canzone_, etc. The influence of Sicily on all Italy was such that for long in Italy all writing in verse was termed Sicilian.
BOLOGNA; FLORENCE.–The literary centre then passed, that is in the thirteenth century, to Bologna and Florence. Among the celebrated Tuscans of this epoch was Guittone of Arezzo, mentioned by Dante and Petrarch with more or less consideration; Jacopone of Todi, at once both mystic and buffoon, in whom it has been sought, in a manner somewhat flattering to him, to trace a predecessor of Dante; Brunetto Latini, the authentic master of Dante, who was encyclopaedic, after a fashion, and who published, first in French, whilst he was in Paris, _The Treasure_, a compilation of the knowledge of his time, then, in Italian, _Tesoretto_, a collection of maxims drawn from his previous work, besides some poetry and translations from Latin.
The fourteenth century, which for the French, Germans, and English was the last or even the last century but one of the Middle Ages, was for the Italians the first of the Renaissance. Two great names dominate this century: Dante and Petrarch.
DANTE: _THE DIVINE COMEDY_.–Dante, highly erudite, theologian, philosopher, profound Latin scholar, not ignorant of Greek, much involved in the agitations of his age, exiled from his home, Florence, in the tumult of political discords, proscribed and a wanderer, coming as far as France, studied at the University of Paris, wrote “songs,” that is to say, lyrical poetry gathered into the volume entitled _The Canzoniere_, the _Vita Nuova_, which is also a collection of lyric efforts, though more philosophical, and finally _The Divine Comedy_, which is a theological epic poem. _The Divine Comedy_ is composed of three parts: hell, purgatory, and heaven. Hell is composed of nine circles which contract as they approach the centre of the earth. There Dante placed the famous culprits of history and his own particular enemies. The most popular episodes of hell are Ugolino in the tower of hunger devouring his dead children, Francesca of Rimini relating her guilty passions and their disastrous consequence, the meeting with Sordello, the great Lord of Mantua, ever invincibly proud, looking “like the lion when he reposes.” Purgatory is a cone of nine circles which contract as they rise to heaven. Heaven, finally, is composed of nine globes superimposed on one another; over each of the first seven presides a planet, the eighth is the home of the fixed stars, and the last is pure infinity, home of the Trinity and of the elect. The power of general imagination and of varied invention always renewed in style, and the warmth of passion which throws life and heat into each part, have assured Dante universal admiration. The community of literature pre-eminently admires the hell; the eclectic have been compelled to assert and therefore to believe that the paradise is infinitely superior.
PETRARCH.–Petrarch, a Florentine born in exile, brought up at Avignon, Carpentras, and Montpellier, during four fifths of his life thought only of being a great scholar, of writing in Latin, and of obtaining the repute of an excellent humanist. Hence his innumerable works in Latin. But when twenty-three he was deeply affected by love for a maiden of Avignon, and he sang of her living and dead and still triumphant in glory and eternity, and hence his poems in Italian, the _Rhymes_ and _Triumphs_. The sensitiveness of Petrarch was admirable; never did pure love, growing mystical and mingling with divine love, find accents alike more profound and noble than came from this Platonist refined with Italian subtlety. Petrarchism became a fashion among the mediocre and a school among these above the common. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there were innumerable imitators of Petrarch in Italy, and later still in France. It is impossible not to instance Lamartine as the last in date.
BOCCACCIO: _THE DECAMERON_.–Immediately after these two great men came Boccaccio, born in Paris but of Italian parentage, who resided at Naples at the court of King Robert. He was a great admirer of Dante and Petrarch, and himself wrote several estimable poems, but, in despair no doubt of attaining the height of his models and also to please the taste of Mary, daughter of King Robert, he wrote the libertine tales which are gathered in the collection entitled _The Decameron_ and which established his fame. He is one of the purest authors, as stylist, of all Italian literature, and may be regarded as the principle creator of prose in his own land.
THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY IN ITALY.–The fifteenth century, less great among the Italians than the fourteenth, yielded many wise men: Marsiglio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Aurispa, etc. But omission must not be made of poets such as Ange Politien, refined humanist, graceful lyrist; and the earliest of dramatic poets of any rank, such as Pulci and Bojardo. In prose note Pandolfini, master and delineator of domestic life, as was Xenophon in Greece, and Leonardo da Vinci, the great painter who left a treatise on his art; nor must it be forgotten that Savonarola was a remarkably fine orator.
THE MIDDLE AGES: SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
Epic Poems: _Romanceros_. Didactic Books, Romances of Chivalry
COMMENCEMENTS OF SPANISH LITERATURE.–Known Spanish literature does not go back beyond the twelfth century. Like that of the French it began with a _chanson de geste_, and if France has Roland, Spain has the Cid. The _Poem of the Cid_, or _The Song of the Cid_, dates from the commencement of the thirteenth century; in rude but expressive language it narrates the ripe years and old age of the famous captain.
ALPHONSO X; JOHN MANUEL.–At the close of this century, Alphonso X, King of Castile, surnamed the Sage or the Wise, versed in all the knowledge of his time, produced, no doubt with collaborators, the universal chronicle, history mingled with legends, of all peoples on the earth, and the _Seven Parts_, a philosophical, moral, and legal encyclopaedia. His nephew, Don John Manuel, regent of Castile during the minority of Alphonso XI, a very pure and erudite writer, collated the code of the kingdom in his _Book of the Child_, and the code of chivalry in his _Book of the Knight and Squire_, with a series of apologues in the volume known under the title of _The Count Lucanor_.
_THE ROMANCERO_.–Of the same period and going back to the commencement of the thirteenth century, if not earlier, is what is called the _Romancero_. The _Romancero_ is the collection of all the national romances, which are more or less short but are never long epic poems. All the romances relating to a hero form the _Romancero_ of that personage, and all the _Romanceros_ are called the Spanish _Romancero_. It is in the _Romancero_ of Rodriguez that we find the youth of Cid as known to us, or approximately, for it is purified and spiritualised by ageing and, for example, Chimanes curses Rodriguez but also asks for him in marriage: “Oh, king … each day that shines, I see him that slew my father parading on horseback and loosing his falcon to my dovecot and with the blood of my doves has he stained my skirts and he has sent me word he will cut the hem of my robe…. He who slew my father, give him to me for equal; for he who did me so much harm I am convinced will do me some good.” And the king said: “I have always heard said and now see that the feminine sex is most extraordinary. Until now hath she asked of me justice against him and now she doth ask him of me in marriage. I will do it with a good will. I shall send him a letter, etc….”
THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY.–The fifteenth century in Spain, as everywhere else, was destitute of great works. In poetry it was the era of lovesongs and of the influence of Italian literature, which only later was decidedly happy. In prose may be found many chronicles extremely valuable to the historian, and some moral works such as the _Dialogue of the Happy Life_ of Lucena and, finally, the famous _Amadis des Gaules_, an ancient chivalric romance of unknown origin, brought to publicity in that century by Montalvo.
PORTUGUESE LITERATURE.–Portuguese literature, which is highly interesting though evolved in too restricted a circle, is, above all, epic and lyrical. The Portuguese lyrics almost exclusively dealt with love; the epic poets celebrated a certain number of salient achievements in national history. It is only in the sixteenth century that a genuine expansion of Portuguese literature can be noted.
THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES: FRANCE
First Portion of Sixteenth Century: Poets: Marot, Saint-Gelais; Prose Writers: Rabelais, Comines. Second Portion of Sixteenth Century: Poets: “The Pleiade”; Prose Writers: Amyot, Montaigne. First Portion of Seventeenth Century: Intellectual and Brilliant Poets: Malherbe, Corneille. Great Prose Writers: Balzac, Descartes. Second Portion of Seventeenth Century: Poets: Racine, Moliere, Boileau, La Fontaine; Prose Writers: Bossuet, Pascal, La Bruyere, Fenelon, etc.
THE RENAISSANCE OF LETTERS.–The sixteenth century was for France the epoch of the Renaissance of letters. What is called the Renaissance of letters is the result, to each race, of the closest contact of the educated people with ancient literature, contact which sometimes strengthened the national vein, sometimes weakened it, according to the divergent temperaments of these races.
MAROT; SAINT-GELAIS.–The sixteenth century in France was ushered in by Marot and Saint-Gelais. Marot was a gracious, fluent, and satiric singer. He was infinitely witty without venom, or mannerism, or affectation; at times he attained to a somewhat serious philosophic poesy and also to eloquence. Saint-Gelais, because he was most emphatically court-poet of all those who have ever been court-poets, was placed by his contemporaries above Marot, and literary historians have left him for the most part in that position. The truth is that his work is worthless. It would be impossible, however, to rob him of the glory of having brought the sonnet from Italy, where he long abode in youth.
COMINES.–In this first half of the sixteenth century must be noted Comines, the historian of Louis XI, a political historian and a historical statesman, remarkably subtle in perceiving the characters and temperaments of prominent individuals, as well as a writer possessing exactitude and limpidity rare in his generation.
RABELAIS.–Francis Rabelais, in his two epic romances, _Gargantua_ and _Pantagruel_, was erudite, capable of a certain philosophic wisdom which has been greatly exaggerated, but above all was picturesque to one’s heart’s content, and possessed the art of telling a tale as well as any one in the wide world. He has been called “the buffoon Homer,” and the nickname may be legitimately granted to him.
THE PLEIADE.–The second half of the sixteenth century was in all respects the more remarkable. In poetry there was the Pleiade: that is, the true and complete “Renaissance,” although Marot had already been a good workman at its dawn. The Pleiade consisted of Ronsard, Du Bellay, Pontus of Tyard, Remy Belleau, and others; that is, folk who wished to give to France in French the equivalent of what the classics had produced in nobility and beauty. They did not succeed, but they had the honour of having undertaken the task, and they also, all said and done, produced some fine things.
RONSARD; DU BELLAY.–If the truth must be written, Ronsard created an epic poem which it is impossible to read, and some rather overpowering odes after the Pindaric manner; but he wrote detached epic pieces which, though always a trifle artificial, possess real beauty, and some _odelettes_ which are enchanting in their grace and genuineness of feeling, as well as sonnets that are in all respects marvellous. Joachim du Bellay, on his part, wrote sonnets which must be numbered among the most beautiful in the French tongue–the rest often had agreeable inspirations.
DRAMATIC POETS.–Add to their group some dramatic poets who did not yet grasp what constituted a living tragedy and who, even when they imitated Euripides, belonged to the school of Seneca, but who knew how to write in verse, to make a discourse, and, occasionally, a gentle elegy. To mention only the chief, these were Jodelle, Robert Garnier, and Montchrestien.
PROSE WRITERS: AMYOT; CALVIN.–In prose, in this second half of the sixteenth century, there were translators like Amyot, who set forth Plutarch in a limpid French full of ease and geniality, as well as somewhat careless. Religious writings such as those of Calvin, in a hard style and “dreary,” as Bossuet expressed it, exhibited vigour, power, and sobriety. Among political writers was the eloquent La Boetie, the friend of Montaigne, who in his _Discourse on Voluntary Servitude_ vindicated the rights of the people against _One_, that is the monarch. Among authors of _Memoirs_ were Montluc and Brantome, picturesque in divergent manners, but both inquisitive, well-informed, very alert and furnishing important contributions to history.
MORALISTS: DU VAIR.–Finally, there were moralists such as Du Vair, too long forgotten, and Montaigne. Du Vair was an eloquent orator who exhibited plenty of courage during the troubles of the League; he left some fine philosophical treatises: _The Moral Philosophy of the Stoics_, _On Constancy and Consolation in Public Calamities_, etc.
MONTAIGNE.–Montaigne, less grave and stoical, a far better writer, and one of the two or three greatest masters of prose France ever produced, possessed excellent sense sharpened with wit and enriched with a charming imagination. According to his humour–now stoic, next epicurean, then sceptic–always wise and refined and also always the sincere admirer of greatness of soul and of courage, he is the best of advisers and of companions through life, and of him more than of anyone else it ought to be said: “To have found pleasure in him is to have profited by him.” The sole reproach could be that he wrote a little too much of himself, that is, in entering into personal details that could well have been spared.
COMMENCEMENT OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.–The first half of the seventeenth century in France was only the corollary of the sixteenth, though naturally with some distinctive personalities and with one, practically isolated, effort of reaction against that sixteenth century. At that period could be found writing men, like Agrippa d’Aubigne, who were absolutely in the spirit of the previous century; d’Aubigne, amiable, gracious, and also fairly often witty, which is too frequently forgotten, was ardent, passionate, a rough and violent fighter more particularly in his _tragedies_, which are baldly crude satires, illumined with astonishingly beautiful passages fairly frequent in recurrence, against the Catholics and their leaders. Others of very different temperament displayed yet more than the poets of the sixteenth century that liberty, that fantasy, that disorder which were characteristic of the times of Ronsard. So far as poets were concerned, that generation must be regarded as entering on a first romanticism. Theophilus de Vian, a fine but over-prodigal poet, without ballast, did not live long enough to grow wise and acquire self-mastery: Cyrano de Bergerac was a brilliant madman, sometimes sparkling with wit and imagination, but often dirty and ridiculous. Saint-Amant possessed plenty of imagination and capacity for exquisite poetical feeling, but he lacked taste and too often was puerile. Wiser than they, yet themselves verbose, long-winded, slow, and spun out, Desportes translated into French verse Italian poetry of the sixteenth century, often with very happy turns of expression, and Bertaut, melancholy and graceful, lacked brilliance even if he possessed poetic emotion.
REGNIER.–Regnier the satirist, pupil of Horace and Juvenal, also assumed the mental attitude of the sixteenth century owing to his viridity, his crudity, his lack of avoidance of obscenity, even though he was a true poet, vigorous, powerful, oratorical, and epigrammatical, as well as a witty and mordant caricaturist.
PRECIEUX AND BURLESQUES.–Then succeeded the _precieux_ and the _burlesques_, who resembled each other, the _precieux_ seeking wit and believing that all literary art consisted in saying it did not matter what in a dainty and unexpected fashion; the _burlesques_ also sought wit but on a lower plane, desiring to be “droll,” buffoons, prone to cock-and-bull stories or crude pranks in thought, style, and parody. Voiture is the most brilliant representative of the _preieux_ and Scarron the most prominent of the _burlesques_.
MALHERBE.–In the midst of this unrestrained literature one man attempted to impose reason, accuracy of mind, taste, and conciseness. This was Malherbe, who was also a powerful lyric poet, a stylist with an ear for melody. His influence was considerable, but forty years after his own time; for it was the poets of 1660 who were formed of him and proclaimed themselves his disciples. In his own day he had only Maynard and Racan as pupils, or rather as partisans, for their work but little resembled his.
THE THEATRE.–On the stage the first portion of the seventeenth century, certainly as far as 1636, was only the corollary of the sixteenth. Hardy, writing without method or rule, being in addition a very weak poet, presided in the theatre whilst Mairet, in imitation of the Italians and in imitation too of the bulk of the dramatists of the sixteenth century, essayed to establish formal tragedy, but without creating much effect because his talent was of an inferior description.
At last Corneille arose and, after feeling his way a little, created French tragedy; but as this was only in 1636, and as in the course of his long career he came into the second half of the century, he will be dealt with a little later.
PROSE: BALZAC; DESCARTES.–In prose, the first half of the seventeenth century was fruitful in important works. Cardinal de Perron, who began as an amiable elegant poetaster, became a great orator and formidable controversialist. Guez de Balzac, a little lacking in ideas yet an extremely good writer, though but little detached from preciosity, as Voltaire observed, imparted harmony to his phrases both in his letters and in his _Socrates a Christian_. Vaugelas arranged the code of the language founded on custom. Descartes, with whose philosophic ideas we have here nothing to do, in his broad, ample periods, well delivered and powerfully articulated, reproduced the Ciceronian phrase though without its rather weak grace, and in great measure formed the mould whence later was to flow the eloquence of Bossuet. The important works of Descartes are his _Discourses on Method_, his _Meditation_, and his _Treatise on the Passions_.
THE GOLDEN AGE: CORNEILLE.–The second half of the seventeenth century is in all respects the golden age of French literature. Great poets and great prose writers were then crowded in serried ranks. To begin with the dramatic poets, who furnished the most vivid glory of the epoch, there was Corneille, who, from 1636, with _The Cid_, was in full splendour and who before 1650 had produced his most beautiful works, _Cinna_, _The Horaces_, _Polyeucte_, continued for twenty-four years after 1650 to furnish the stage with dramas that often possessed many fine qualities, among which must be cited _Don Sancho of Aragon_, _Nicomedes_, _Oedipus_, _Sertorius_, _Sophonisba_, _Titus and Berenice_, _Psyche_ (with Moliere), _Rodogune Heraclius_, _Pulcheria_. Corneille must be regarded as the real creator of _all_ the French drama, because he wrote comedies, tragedies, operas, melodramas. It was therein, apart from his universal virtuosity, that he more particularly made his mark, and in his best work he was the delineator of the human will overcoming passions and, as it were, intoxicated with this victory and his own power, so that he has become a great advocate of energy and a prominent apostle of duty.
RACINE.–Racine, altogether different, without being opposed to duty, loved to depict passions victorious over man and man the victim of his passions and of the over-powering misfortunes therefrom resulting, thus furnishing a moral lesson. He was a more penetrating psychologist than Corneille, although the latter knew the human heart well, and he showed himself infallibly wise in composition and dramatic disposition, as well as an absolutely incomparable master of verse. His tragedies, especially _Andromache_, _Britannicus_, _Berenice_, _Bajazet_, _Phedre_, and _Athalie_ will always enchant mankind.
MOLIERE.–Moliere who was admirably gifted to seize the ridiculous with its causes and consequences, very quick and penetrating in insight, armed with somewhat narrow but solid common-sense calculated to please the middle classes of all time, possessed prodigious comic humour, and who never gave the spectator leisure to reflect or breathe–in short, a great writer although hasty and careless–created a whole repertoire of comedy (_The School of Women_, _Don Juan_, _Tartufe_, _The Misanthrope_, _Learned Ladies_) which left all known comedy far behind, which eliminated all rivalry in his own time, knew eclipse only in the middle of the eighteenth century, and for the last hundred and forty years has proved the delight of Europe. He remains the master of universal comedy.
BOILEAU.–Boileau was only a man of good sense, of ability, and of excellent taste, who wrote verse industriously. This was not enough to constitute a great poet but enough to make him what he was, a diverting and acute satirist, an agreeable moralist and critic in verse–which his master Horace had been so often–expert, dexterous, and possessing much authority. His _Poetic Art_ for long was the tables of the law of Parnassus, and even now can be read not only with pleasure but even with profit.
LA FONTAINE.–La Fontaine was one of the greatest poets of any epoch. He had a profound sentiment for nature, a fine and penetrating knowledge of the character of men he depicted under the names of animals; he was free and fantastic as a philosopher but well instructed and sometimes profound; he had a gentle and smiling sensibility capable at times of melancholy and also now and again of a delicious elegiac; above all, he was endowed with incomparable artistic sense, which rendered him the safest and most dexterous manipulator of verse, of rhythms, and of musical sonorities, who appeared in France prior to Victor Hugo. It is much more difficult to state what he lacked than to enumerate the multiple and miraculous gifts with which he was endowed. His complete lack of morality or his ingenuous carelessness in this respect formed the only subject for regret.