Verse > Anthologies > St. John Lucas, comp. > The Oxford Book of French Verse
St. John Lucas, comp. (1879–1934).  The Oxford Book of French Verse.  1920.

THE FIRST poem in this book was written in France some time in the twelfth century; it dates, therefore, from the epoch when French lyric poetry may fairly be said to begin. It is true that the song of Sainte Eulalie, which is older by two centuries, is lyrical in form; but it is composed in the old, uncouth lingua romana; the dry bones, as it were, of Latin, which afterwards became quickened to new and wonderful life in French, Italian, and Spanish. An Englishman who glanced casually at the Song of Eulalie would imagine it to be written in a mixture of Dutch and Italian, and it has more interest for the archaeologist in language than for the lover of poetry.
  The Chansons de Geste, dreary and monotonous enough to our impatient modern sense, yet often redeemed by a sudden note of rugged pathos, as when Berthe aux grands pieds is lost in the woods, or the Belle Aude dies of grief at the feet of Charlemagne, drag their slow length along through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Their language, so full of the rough gutturals of the North, must have been the despair of the would-be lyric poet; but farther South, where the sun was kind and life more gay and leisured, the lingua romana developed rapidly, and Provence probably had a flourishing school of poetry before the singers of Picardy and Champagne had learnt their art. The elaborate and chivalrous etiquette of Provençal society was reflected faithfully in the songs of the troubadours; it was a peculiarly artificial civilization with oddly candid immoralities, and in its poems there is often a comic contrast between the subtlety of the form and the naïveté of the subject.  2
  Provence, in the twelfth century, may be defined as a state that flourished under the benevolent tyranny of a great number of queens. Women, for perhaps the first time in history, were supreme, though their supremacy certainly differed from that so fiercely desired by our modern self-emancipators. It is not surprising to find that the early lyrics of the North of France adopt for the most part the same immortal theme. The Chansons de Toile—they were called this because women sang them over their tapestry—are admirable little pictures of some troubled, or doubtful, or happy moment in the life of a lady who is a lover. The fair Erembors is suspected of faithlessness by Count Renaud, but convinces him (very easily) of the contrary; and the fair Doette hears the news of the death of Count Doon, and becomes a nun at Saint-Pol. The language of these little sewing-songs is, of course, still the language of the Chansons de Geste, but the skill with which the dialogue is presented, the few words that give the scene, and the haunting refrain, combine to endow them with a charm for which we shall sigh in vain when the Strephons and Chloes of riming Abbés and court Anacreons strut through their self-conscious idylls. The original genre does not appear to have survived the twelfth century, but it was revived later on in a more elaborate form by a poet of Arras called Audefroi le Bâtard. 1 Various other kinds of lyric poetry begin to appear at the end of the twelfth century, motots, serventois, pastourelles, rotrouenges, rondeaux, lais, ballettes, and virelais. It is from these rather complicated forms of verse that the ballades and rondeaux of Villon and Marot are descended.  3
  When exactly the poetry of the troubadours first began to influence the North of France is a vexed question; probably it was about the time when Richard Cœur de Lyon was lying in a German prison and Bertran de Born riding to battle at the head of the lords of Aquitaine. The Courts of the North were visited by the troubadours; those of Eleanor of Poitiers, wife of our Henry II, and of her daughter Marie of Champagne, became famous for their refinement; and early in the thirteenth century the singers of Champagne and Picardy began to use the most characteristic forms of Provençal verse: the tençon, an argument between two poets; the alba and the serena, sung at dawn and at evening beneath the window of the beloved; and the chanson, a form governed by highly complicated rules. Chrétien de Troies, Tibaut de Champagne, Gace Brulé, Conon de Béthune,—these are some of the writers whose songs keep for us a faint fragrance of those far-off, passionate days, and are relics of the ‘early sweetness’ that Pater found in Aucassin et Nicolete.  4
  We need not consider the sudden death of Provençal art; but it is worthy of note that the decline of the troubadour poetry of the North is due to the same cause; I mean the altering of the peculiar social conditions to which it owed its birth. For it was essentially a Court poetry; the poet declaimed or sang his verse to an audience of knightly rimers and noble ladies, and was untroubled by the attention of a larger public. It was an aristocratic art, and so soon as it was adopted by the bourgeois poets of Arras it lost its essential character. By the end of the thirteenth century it was extinct; yet, brief though its duration was, it has an intense effect on the literature of Europe, and we may trace its influence in Dante and in Petrarch.  5
  It is in the sombre years of the fourteenth century that the new era of poetry begins, and Guillaume de Machault is the name usually associated with the first effusion of that deplorable cataract of ballades and rondeaux. The chief penalty that these hard-and-fast genres impose on those who cultivate them is—as we may see from the innumerable clever imitations of our own time—that almost any one can write them fairly well, and that almost every one writes them in exactly the same manner. The learned Christine de Pisan and the sagacious Des Champs employ the ballade without the least discrimination for any kind of subject; they moralize, they preach, they sing the praises of the glorious dead and discuss their own physical ailments in the same sempiternal cantering measure. Des Champs, it is true, is redeemed occasionally by a certain fine malice, a hint of that esprit gaulois which runs like a vein of mercury through French from the bragging scene in the Geste du Roi down to the poems of Mathurin Regnier and Béranger; Froissart’s verse has a delicate refinement that may be the last trace of the troubadour influence; but for the most part one emerges from a long course of this literature anxious only to take Du Bellay’s advice and to leave all these rondeaux, ballades, vyrelaiz, chantz royaux, chansons et autres telles épisseries qui corrumpent le goust de notre langue. If only the splendid creatures would be themselves! But they are wholly content to follow one another like meek sheep; they use the same catch-words; the same patient rimes do duty over and over again; and when we have read the heading of one of their poems we can guess almost exactly what the poet will sing, or rather, say. Only an occasional folk-song, or a plainte like the Olivier Basselin, can save the epoch from being wholly the prey of its ‘representative’ ballad-writers.  6
  Yet this artificial, impersonal genre became vivid and human in the hands of two fifteenth-century poets; the one a man of refined and exquisite talent, the other a lonely and wayward genius. It has been the custom to speak of Charles d’Orléans as if he were merely a clever versifier with a sense of music in words that was denied to his forerunners; but any one who has toiled through the greater part of the work of those forerunners will realize at once, when he reads the ballade written at Dover, or Dieu, qu’il la fait bon regarder, that here at last is a poet with a distinct personal utterance; a poet who perhaps has not any very profound thoughts or great ideas, but possesses a gentle, unforced melancholy or gaiety that is often perfectly expressed. His limitations are obvious, but his success within their bounds is complete.  7
  The other, the earliest great poet of France,—
        Ung povre petit escollier
Qui fust nommé François Villon,—
transformed the poor jaded ballade into a living lyric; filling it with heroic melancholy in the Dames du temps jadis, and with grim terror in the Pendus, and with exquisite sympathy for the pathos of old age and weariness in the lines written for his mother. Like all genius, he stands alone and defies all effort to place him in the line of literary evolution. He came at the most unlikely period, he wrote in the most out-worn forms, and he was a burglar, and had a supreme sympathy with all manner of rogues, male and female. Yet he has none of the affectations of the ballade-writers, his poems are amazingly original and vivid; he is eloquent, gay, cynical, pious, scurrilous, and remorseful in turn, and yet never gives us the impression that he is posturing. His predecessors had one mood, and it was insincere. He has a hundred, but he is convincing in every one of them. To read him after the earlier ‘metre ballad-mongers’ is as invigorating as to hear the wind in the mountain-pines after sitting in a drawing-room full of hot air and small-talk.
  He stands alone. Clément Marot, who edited his works, learnt nothing from him except perhaps the fact that poetry should be the expression of a personality. The neat, genial rimes of the author of L’Adolescence Clémentine are personal but not poetic; they are full of good sense, clearness, and malicious gaiety; they possess, indeed, as Brunetière has pointed out, all the fine qualities of French prose; but only on a few occasions do they rise above the commonplace. If Marot is depressed, it is not the pathos of self-tormented, toiling humanity that makes him sad, but the little accidents of his own existence; and when he rejoices he is merely gay; sunshine and love and flowers awake in him no fervour of exultation; he likes the good things of this world, and says so without undue emotion. There are great voices in the seas and among the hills; the earth is full of strife and strange passion, and Europe echoes with the vast conflicts of kings; the poet, however, is content to look at the shop-windows and to write about nothing in particular in excellent French.  9
  He died in the midst of the great awakening,—that amazing pageant in which he played so small a part. At times he seems dimly to have realized the splendour of the new epoch:—  10
  Le monde rit au monde, aussi est-il en sa jeunesse,—but he was content to abide till the end amid the old shadows, for he loved neatness rather than beauty of language, and the finer enthusiasms found no place in a temperament so discreetly and pleasantly mediocre.  11

  In the last days of the year 1494 the army of Charles VIII surged down the Alpine slopes into Italy, and thenceforward, until that sinister battle of Pavia in which Francis I lost all fors l’honneur, Italy was the centre and focus of European learning and chivalry. It was the amazing vision of a mode of life more passionate and more comely than their own, a mode for which gallant soldiers and scholars enthusiastic concerning all new things were just then apt, that first enthralled the strangers from beyond the hills.
  They found a country which is still to us, as to them, an earthly paradise; where, amid superb cathedrals and palaces and beautiful walled cities, dwelt a race that numbered life itself amongst the grand arts. The love of beauty for its own sake, the careful delight in the details of existence as well as in its passion and its poetry, so that an artist in metals would spend months in engraving a sword blade, and a squabble about Greek enclitics would be conducted with all the fury of a religious war; the intellectual ruffians who entertained great poets, and translated Plato, and burnt each other’s towns; the wily and terrible masters of intrigue who were Christ’s vicars on earth; princes of the Church; condottieri; women like those Titian painted, and feasts as we see them in the pictures of Veronese; colour everywhere, and music, and amazing luxury;—one can imagine how wonderful this crowded and vivid existence would seem to a Frenchman of the time; how eagerly the French temperament, always curious concerning every kind of material excellence, would absorb the details and investigate the causes of such exuberant and intense vitality.  13
  To the student of literature the most significant feature of the Renaissance is the revival of learning. Scholarship had continued throughout the Middle Ages, but it was utilitarian; learning was a weapon for the hand of the jurisconsult or the theologian. Humanism appears with the discovery of the art of printing; and when the great Venetian editions of the classics were issued scholarship was not merely a useful accomplishment but had become a high passion. The scholar was no longer an advocate who rolled Ciceronian thunder across the court, or a priest primed with Augustine: he was a happy hedonist who, like Ronsard, would lock his door and read the Iliad in three days. When the Sorbonne petitioned Francis I to suppress the printers it understood what a fatal blow was being aimed by the new learning at the official residence of pedantic darkness; it knew that the message contained in these old, ever-new books which were multiplying so rapidly was the message of liberty. But it committed the error of confusing liberty with impiety, and in regarding the enthusiasm for Greek and Latin as essentially pagan. M. Faguet has pointed out 2 that the humanist of the Renaissance had two personalities; one which went to church and loved the king, and one which adored Jupiter and loved Amaryllis. Pico della Mirandola is the type of this dual character, and the story that he was buried in the Dominican habit is strangely suggestive. In the poetry of Ronsard and the Pléiade we find all the characteristics of the complete humanist; the passion for learning, the sense of and craving for style, the realization of the beauty of natural sights and sounds, and the ever-haunting consciousness of the brevity of life and earthly love. In Ronsard, however, the love of learning for its own sake soon changed into a desire to use all his knowledge in glorifying and enriching his own poverty-stricken language. It seemed at that time as if poetry in France was henceforward to be employed, as Marot employed it, in genial commonplace, or devoted, as the ballad-mongers devoted it, to conventional essays in dreariness; that the language had grown anaemic for lack of healthy exercise and sweet air. New blood was needed, and Ronsard found it, as Dante had found it before him, and as André Chénier would find it at the end of another epoch when verse had grown stale, in the poets of Greece and Rome. Style was what was needed,—style, and a language which should express noble and delicate emotions, uniting the wistful beauty of Theocritus and the Georgics with the resonant ardour of Pindar and the Aeneid. The Renaissance was full of fine ambitions, and this poet’s dream was not the least splendid of them.  14
  The official manifesto of the Pléiade, La Deffence et Illustration de la Langue Françoyse, was written by Du Bellay and appeared in 1549. We learn from it the means which Ronsard was to employ in order to redeem French poetry from the prison which had Marot for governor. New themes of inspiration must be found instead of the old hackneyed subjects, and new genres instead of the épisseries of the balladists. These new genres must be derived mainly from the Greek and Latin writers; the poet is to cultivate the epic poem; the idyll, as Theocritus wrote it; the ode, majestic as that of Pindar or lyrical as that of Anacreon; the tragedy of Sophocles; the satire of Horace in place of the coq à l’asne of Marot; the epigram of Martial and the pitoyables élégies of Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius. Then the language must be enriched by new loan-words from the Greek and Latin; and not from Greek and Latin only, but by grafting from old French, and by collecting curious words from the special vocabularies of hunting, and falconry, and the various handicrafts. Mere translation from the classics is deprecated, and so is writing in Latin and Greek instead of French; but it is the reformer’s duty to steep himself in those ancient literatures. Lis donques et relis premièrement, ô poète futur! feuillette de main nocturne et journelle les exemplaires greez et latins, puis me laisse toutes ces vieilles poésies Françoyses  15
  It may seem surprising to some readers that the compilers of such a formidable edifice of rules should ever after have written anything in the least resembling poetry. It is not impossible that the elaborate study of form demanded by the Deffence had a fatal effect on the inspiration of the less robust members of the Pléiade; that Jodelle, with his tedious tragedy, and Baïf with his pedantic Mimes and attempts at a new orthography, are sad examples of an elegiac poet wasting all his strength in dramatic attempts, and of a scholar trying to become a poet by rule. Even Ronsard himself, that master of the lyric, leaves us with the impression that, though he often sings because he must, he often also sings because he knows the rules of singing. There is much in Le Bocage Royal to remind us that Malherbe, the perfidious Malherbe, learnt his art from the poet whose verse, as we are told in a certain scandalous story, he erased altogether; we have a chilly premonition, when we read it, of the pseudo-Arcadian shepherds and shepherdesses of the seventeenth century with their high heels and their crooks:—
        Houlette de Louis, houlette de Marie
Dont le fatal appui met notre bergerie
      Hors du pouvoir des loups.
  But the marvel is not that there should be any insipid exercises of the kind in the work of Ronsard, but that there are so few; that the favourite of kings and the self-ordained reformer of French poetry never lost his exquisite sense of the beauty of youth and the spring, and the pathos of winter in the fields and winter in the heart. We are apt, I suppose, to look on old poetry to a certain extent with the benevolent eye of the antiquary; but how seldom the shorter lyrics of Ronsard give us the chance of this attitude! A poem such as Mignonne, allons voir si la rose has all the freshness and fragrance of a summer day at dawn; it is impossible to contemplate it with intelligent interest as a specimen of sixteenth-century poetry; we might as well try to refuse to be thrilled by the coming of spring because the spring happens to be a million years old. Ronsard may have gone to the Greeks for this quality, and to the Latins for the other, and to Petrarch for a third, but the real sources of his inspiration are betrayed by the visions that the verses keep for us; sunshine and bright rain, changeful skies and awakening flowers. The immortal novelty of great art is a trite theme, but it is worth reiterating when even Pater writes of these poems as if they were specimens of remarkable tapestry in a museum.  17
  In enumerating the characteristics of humanism, we spoke of its abiding consciousness of the brevity of life and love. That sense is the canker which lies in the heart of intellectual paganism, the pathos of
                Beauty that must die;
And Joy whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu …
The sudden thought of ‘the night of perpetual sleep’ breaking in like a cruel intruder amid the loveliness of the long safe summer days; the bewildering tragedy of early death,—these are the phantoms that begin to haunt the poets of the Renaissance, and lend to French poetry a new note of wistfulness.
        Si périssable est toute chose née,
Que songes-tu, mon âme emprisonnée?
Ronsard finds no answer to that question; if he hopes at all, it is for an eternity of fame, and for respose par les ombres myrteux; Du Bellay, at least when he writes under the influence of Petrarch, yearns for un plus clair séjour, where he can meet the ideal beauty, as Dante met Beatrice, in a heaven too full of strange light to have colour and warmth. The points of view may be limited and literary, but they are expressed, as far as Ronsard is concerned, in two sonnets of exquisite and immortal loveliness, the Quand vous serez bien vieille and Comme on void sur la branche au mois de Mai la rose.
  In the prolific nature of his genius and his passionate curiosity for new metres and old words Ronsard is a typical son of the Renaissance; Du Bellay, with his melancholy, his petulance, his wayward gentleness, seems like a poet of our own time, and his verse probably appeals more intimately to Englishmen than the greater but less personal art of his friend. His first collection of poems, L’Olive, was written when he was manifestly under the influence of Petrarch, but he renounced this influence early in his short life, and his satire Contre les Pétrarquistes contains an excellent summary of all the characteristic mannerisms affected by the disciples of the great Italian at Lyons and elsewhere. The greater part of his work is extraordinarily personal and virile; it is largely autobiographical; we can follow him step by step in his pilgrimage of love and despair, just as we follow Byron; but Du Bellay at least never gives us the impression that he is secretly rather pleased with the rôle of a misunderstood lost angel. His pessimism is never languid; and his ironical power—at its best in the sonnets that narrate the election of a pope—is amazing. He was a scholar; it was not the literature, however, but the visible remnant of a mighty age which evoked the great series of sonnets that remains his supreme achievement. If any one ever imagines that a city is not merely a collection of houses and palaces and temples, but has a strange life of its own, he will imagine it when he looks across Rome at sunset from the Pincian. The place will seem to him the prison of some fettered Titan, a colossal Prometheus who has incurred the anger of a jealous god, and been hurled to the earth and bound there, and so lain for centuries, buffeted and wounded, but immortal. This is the impression that Du Bellay has enshrined in the Antiquitez, de Rome. He has looked beyond the gloom and grandeur of the Caesarean palaces, the mouldering amphitheatres and forsaken temples, and has seen the vast and deathless spirit of the city, and heard it weeping for its ruined splendour.  19
  The other stars of the Pléiade are of lesser magnitude. Rémi Belleau has left a few delicate lyrics; Daurat, the master of Ronsard and Baïf, wrote in Latin; Baïf went astray in pedantic wildernesses, and Jodelle and Pontus du Tyard are only pleasing to the lover of literary bric-à-brac. The learned ladies of Lyons and their circle are more interesting. Sçève’s Délie was responsible for the influence of Petrarch on the Pléiade; and Louise Labé, that fair Amazon, wrote intensely passionate poetry full of the obscure symbolism that was being cultivated in Italy. The Lyons school, indeed, had definitely broken with the traditions of the previous age, and had developed a mystical cult of beauty that was based on the Platonic theory of Ideas. But the spirit of the Pléiade is on the whole hostile to obscurity in thought and in language. Ronsard realized that French had all the delicate and accurate clearness of tone that belongs to a perfectly-tuned violin; that it possessed, beyond all languages but Greek, a power of expression that could be sharply definite without losing its harmony; and to him, as to all great poets, expression seemed finer than mystification.  20
  Malherbe was crowned king of the realm of ‘classical’ poetry, but it was Ronsard who conquered its domain and built its palaces. It has been said that every movement of reform contains perceptibly the germ of its own decay, and this is pre-eminently true of the work of the Pléiade,—a work which seems, regarded superficially, somewhat spiritless and short-lived. It was Ronsard who first realized the height to which the Alexandrine could be raised; there is nothing in the early literature to compare with the noble dignity of his Conseils à Charles IX; but only the cold cleverness of Malherbe is necessary to change this dignity into pompous rhetoric. It was Ronsard who first showed any discrimination in the use of dainty diminutives and strange loan-words, and we have only to glance at Du Bartas—who would be suspected of parody if he were not the most solemn Calvinist that ever compiled inflated fustian—to see what amazing pinnacles of lunacy an uninspired disciple may reach. Ronsard was a great poet, having authority; he was also a scholar, with the scholar’s weakness for imposing rules; and, unfortunately, the first to take advantage of such rules, and to strengthen them and contract their limits, are usually those who are designed by nature to be pedants and not poets.  21
  To Ronsard and the Pléiade, besides a high dignity of style and a lyric sweetness never before approached, we owe the modern genres of poetry, the free lyric, the ode, the various forms written in Alexandrines, the sonnet, and the great strophe Malherbienne, which was in reality the strophe Ronsardienne, for Malherbe has only added a syllable to each of its lines. To Malherbe we owe the perpetualizing of these forms reduced to their lowest terms of mechanical accuracy by a frigid intelligence. Ronsard and Malherbe will be remembered together as the supreme examples of the ancient truth that the letter kills and the spirit makes alive. The Pléiade is immortal; Malherbe will be recalled only as the uninspired prophet of a dawn that had already risen, as the thin voice of an epoch which stole the lyrical forms of its despised forerunners and found nothing lyrical to say.  22

  With the beginning of the so-called classical epoch comes the decline and fall of lyric poetry. Enfin Malherbe vint; but Malherbe can no more be held directly responsible for the literary iniquities of the seventeenth century than he can be lauded as the originator of its great drama. He is the spokesman of the new age, and his verse is the official pattern, rather than the cause, of all the ensuing machine-made rhetoric.
  The Renaissance was a return to individualism, to personal freedom of thought and action. Fay ce que vouldras was the inscription on the portal of Rabelais’ Thélème; be intolerant and suspicious of all formal control which is based on outworn and arbitrary rules;—
        Be your own star, for strength is from within,
And one against the world will always win!—
this is the most startling of the qualities that distinguish the temperament of the Renaissance from that of the Middle Ages. In Castiglione’s Cortegiano and Montaigne’s Essais we may see how this new spirit affected the man of affairs and the man of thought; and Ronsard’s passion for personal fame and the poignant heart-sickness of Du Bellay’s Regrets are widely different examples of its influence on the poets. The Reformation was a reaction against this spirit of self-culture and self-expression, and a perfectly logical reaction. The religion of the Middle Ages had led men, like sheep, in flocks; and the reformers realized that the new individualism had rapidly become the sworn enemy of that particular kind of spiritual direction, and was developing into an extreme form of pagan nonchalance. But whatever the theological defects of individualism may be, it is a necessary adjunct to any period of great lyric poetry, and when the literature of any country loses this quality and falls into the careful hands of cliques and coteries we may conclude with tolerable certainty that, for the moment at least, its singing season is over. Poetry in a cage of rules is like an imprisoned bird: she will pipe a formal tune for you, but the wild sweetness of her woodland voice was lost with her liberty.
  It has been said that the continued eagerness shown by the French temperament to impose the restraint of authority on its art is produced by the distrust of its own exuberance. The ‘reform’ which is usually attributed to Malherbe was probably carried into effect for another and less subtle reason; it was due to a social movement in some degree analogous to the moral reaction which we spoke of a moment ago. Poetry became domesticated and went to live at the Hôtel de Rambouillet. Or rather, it went there to die. The day of the Précieuses began, and Vincent Voiture was their laureate. There is no doubt that these amiable ladies exercised an influence on French literature that was not altogether for evil: for they admitted it to their salon on the understanding that it should behave well,—or, at least, that it should avoid the grosser improprieties of language. The verse of Mathurin Regnier, for example, they would not tolerate, and though Voiture was quite as indecent, it was indecency with a difference. We owe to them much of the courtly grace and charm of eighteenth-century prose in the form of letters, maxims, and ‘character’, and an immense quantity of amusing light verse; epigrams, squibs, lampoons, and sonnets of love-sick shepherds who desire to end their days en l’amour d’Uranie. They were the foes of the libertins,—of the unlucky Théophile who wrote the notorious couplet about the dagger that blushed to see the blood of its master;—they required men of letters to be men of the world and not owlish persons in a dusty library, and thus they prepared the way for the realism of Molière. On the other hand, they were responsible for a gallantry that usurped the place of passion, for introducing the specious euphuism of Gongara and Guarini, and for making literature generally a social and impersonal art and so completely effacing the lyric. This last achievement of the Précieuses was consummated by Richelieu when he founded the Académie Française in 1635. The official recognition of impersonal literature had taken place; the Alexandrine rose to icy heights of classic dignity; the grand style was fixed, and the path was plain for the superb rhetoric of Corneille. The Cid was produced in 1637.  25
  No man of genius was less of an innovator than Corneille, except, perhaps, Dryden. His method is the method of the contemporary dramatists: the grandees of Spain in the Cid are typical ‘sword and cloak’ heroes, splendid and declamatory as their fellows in Hernani, but not vitally characterized; supreme phantoms, but aloof from human nature. The Stances de Don Rodrigue are immortal specimens of eloquence; but as examples of what a man should say when confronted with a hideous dilemma they are less satisfactory. Rodrigue, in fact, is a Superman, though he would scarcely have pleased Nietzsche; and this tendency to elevate its characters to the rank of demigods is the chief defect, to an English sense, of the ‘grand style’.  26
  At the moment, however, when the dominion of this formal art seems to be complete, a writer appears who is content to abjure the austere regions of the classical drama and to devote his incomparable talent to fables and contes, each of them a little treasury of good sense and gay humour. La Fontaine realized that the language of his time was not the absolute property of the muse on stilts; the verse of Voiture, with all its defects, proved that it was still capable of an exquisite elegance, but so far no one had been adventurous enough to associate grace with simplicity. La Fontaine was able to extract all that was vital from the example of his predecessors, and to leave whatever was cold and fruitless; from Malherbe he acquired a certain dignity; a wise restraint that never wholly left him even in his most facetious conte; from Voiture and his school he derived felicity of expression, the sense of the mot juste. His work,
        Une ample comédie, à cent actes divers,
  Et dont la scène est I’univers,
is a real return to nature—to human nature, for all his animals are really human, and in this quality lies his affinity with the great dramatists who were his friends. His characters are types of everyday, greedy, kind, harassed humanity; when we read him we are far from the tremendous personages of Corneille, but we are some distance, also, from Racine’s stern presentment of human weakness and from the terrific clairvoyance of Molière.
  Boileau, the draftsman of the poetical statutes of the seventeenth century, advised the ambitious poet to study nature and nature only; but this advice implies no liberty, it is qualified by restrictions which result in the study of nature becoming the study of certain moral types. No one can help admiring the good sense and powerful, if limited, logic of the redoubtable opponent of the Précieuses and champion of formalism; he has all the qualities of a splendid fighter, and in spite of his crushing power of inventive he was far too wise to be bitter; but his enthusiasm for literary law and order makes him support all that is most unlyrical in poetry. His contempt for Ronsard (whom he did not read) is rather amusing when we remember all that Malherbe owed to the earlier poet.  28
  The early part of the eighteenth century is remarkable only for its prose. The anaemic odes and allegories of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau are neat illustrations of the inevitable fate of formal verse, and Voltaire, the grand Voltaire, is content, so far as his theory of poetry is concerned, to follow the obvious footprints of Boileau. His Henriade is as cold and pedantic as La Pucelle or the Franciade; it is for the most part in his epigrams and occasional verses that we find the admirable irony and wise humour which make Candide immortal. The age of Reason continues its grim course, but after a time we find a sentimental spirit beginning to invade prose literature; l’Abbé Prévost writes Manon Lescaut and translates some of Richardson’s novels; and although for many years this new spirit finds no expression in poetry, its appearance is a definite step in the direction of romantic art; even when it existed side by side with the classic style, it was in reality its enemy. The far-sighted Boileau knew this when he laughed at the type of lover who murmurs tenderly je vous hais in the ear of his mistress. He had detected one of the eternal commonplaces of sentimentalism.  29
  It was a writer of prose who gave the death-wound to the faded and uninspired remnants of the classical tradition and made existence possible for lyric poetry. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse appeared in 1761, and the return to nature and individualism began in earnest soon after its appearance. One’s own emotions and other people’s tears, the effect of beautiful scenery on the sensitive temperament, the freedom of passion, the sublime self-assertiveness of love,—these were the themes which this new writer proclaimed with extraordinary lyrical fervour. Another prose writer, Buffon, quickened the languid interest in the beauty of the world with his magnificent works on Natural History, which appeared during the latter half of the eighteenth century. The Abbé Delille and Saint-Lambert began to write poems of nature which would have shocked Wordsworth; but if their form is often contorted and absurd, they at least show a desire for simplicity in their choice of a subject. Quite near the end of the century Pompeii (one might almost add Greece) was disinterred, and the writings of Winckelmann and Brunck aroused a keen if somewhat unscholarly enthusiasm in the art and mythology of the Hellenes,—an enthusiasm which is commemorated in the quaint and charming artificiality of First Empire furniture and decoration. This is another instance of reaction against the ‘classical’ tradition, which was influenced almost entirely by the Latins. It was in the midst of this little Greek renaissance that André Chénier lived. To him, as to Ronsard, the spirit of that old literature came with strange fragrance across a desert of unctuous and inept conceits. Like Ronsard, he was strongly influenced by the Alexandrians. His mother was a Greek, and we may presume that her beautiful native country was the chief topic of conversation in her salon when Lebrun—Lebrun ‘Pindare’—and the rest of the neo-Hellenes were present. But whilst Lebrun and his friends were solemnly comparing the Tiers État with Latona and calling the Tennis Court Delos, 3 André Chénier was writing elegies that have the soft yet clearly-cut beauty of a Sicilian coin of the great period, and idylls that have really caught some of the freshness and simplicity of Theocritus. Part of his work is marred by the rhetorical tricks of his time, but no praise can be too high for these little pictures in which the beauty of some incident of pastoral life, some golden moment of a long summer day, is made eternal.  30
  Yet these little poems were, after all, only studies that he executed whilst he was on his way to greater achievement, for he had wide ambitions, and was a sharer in the new enthusiasm for nature which the writings of Buffon had aroused. The fragment of his Hermes shows us that he aspired to be the Lucretius of his epoch, and his metrical innovations were daring and successful. He had a keen sense of music in words, and one has only to read his contemporaries to discover how completely this sense was lost in France when he wrote. But his tragic death came, as it came to Keats, at the moment when he was preparing for a loftier flight; his poems were not published for many years; and it is the voice of Lebrun—‘Pindare’,—after all, that sings the swan-song of the eighteenth century.  31

  The writers of the great epoch of French lyric poetry are sufficiently well known in England to make a detailed account of their art superfluous in this volume. It is, however, worth while to observe that the germ of almost every quality which the poets of the nineteenth century possess is to be found in the work of a master of prose. Chateaubriand is the genius of the revolt against the classical fetish.
  His temperament is as modern as that of Verlaine. He is the realization of the type foreshadowed, with certain gross limitations, by Rousseau in the Confessions, Emile, and La Nouvelle Héloïse,—the type of the lonely, self-analytical soul that sees all the world through the darkened glass of its own moods. He is so intensely individual that the only characters in his fictions which really live are faithful reflections of his own personality; the rest are the shadows of shades. Though he has left hardly any verse, he had in a supreme degree the sensitive imagination of the poet; any one who has studied his work carefully will be astonished, when he reads modern French poetry, to find so great a part of it apparently consisting of Chateaubriand rendered in verse. He is the pioneer of the Romantic movement; his deep sense of man’s unity with nature is echoed in Lamartine’s Le Lac, as clearly as his wonderful descriptive power is reflected in Leconte de Lisle’s Sommeil du Condor, in Les Éléphants, and in a hundred other ‘pictorial’ poems. In Vigny and Musset we find something of his haunting sense of the lacrymae rerum, and in the latter, at any rate, the same luxury of regret; and his idea of the epic of Christianity and his historical method are distinctly traceable in Hugo’s Légende des Siècles. He is the genius, as we said, of the revolt against the classical tradition, which had dwindled at the beginning of the nineteenth century to a mere lifeless mimicry of forms that were themselves essentially derivative. He represents, too, the revolt against pagan mythology; he is weary, as he says somewhere, of a nature that is peopled with a crowd of undignified gods, and he extols the finer conception of a single soul pervading all natural things. His point of view is distinctly aesthetic; it is the imaginative beauty of Christianity that appeals to him,—another modern characteristic. Above all, he has the sense of composition, of literary structure;—a sense, which France, of all countries, is the least likely to lose, but one which had grown very feeble at the end of the eighteenth century. He was a consummate artist. He, and not Chénier, whose works he read some time before their publication in 1822, is the protagonist of modern French poetry.  33
  Another and earlier writer of prose shares with Chateaubriand the honour of being a founder of the Romantic tradition. In La Littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les Institutions Sociales Madame de Staël had expounded her theory of the distinction between the Northern and Southern literary temperaments, and in a subsequent work, De l’Allemagne, she developed this theory further, insisting on the importance of the Northern literature, and revealing to France two elements from which her poetry had long been estranged, the grotesque and the macabre. It is after the publication of these books that the influence of other European literatures, which we find in Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, begins to assume an extreme importance. Shakespeare becomes more than a mere name; Byron and Walter Scott are regarded as the high priests of sentiment and local colour, and the cult of the ‘Gothic Age’, that phantasmagoria of wicked barons and snow-pale princesses, of grim donjons and sinister forests where all the devils lurk, becomes a fever:—
        Voilà que de partout, des eaux, des monts, des bois,
Les larves, les dragons, les vampires, les gnomes,
Des monstres dont l’enfer rêve seul les fantômes,
La sorcière, échappée aux sépulcres déserts,
Volant sur le bouleau qui siffle dans les airs,
Les nécromants, parés de tiares mystiques
Où brillent flamboyants des mots cabalistiques,
Et les graves démons, et les lutins rusés,
Tous par les toits rompus, par les portails brisés,
Par les vitraux détruits que mille éclairs sillonnent,
Entrent dans le vieux cloître où leurs flots tourbillonnent.
  But all this fustian of ogres and broomsticks was only the first wild exuberance of the romantic spirit, the excessive delight of a poetry that found itself free at last from the galling chain of rule and convention. A great part of it was polemical: when Gautier writes Albertus, ‘he only does it to annoy’ the prim personages who still try to floor the youth of 1830 with the classical cudgel; and the careless insolence of some of Musset’s early poems has the same end in view. The true value of the Romantic movement lies, not in its couleur locale, its Gothic pinnacles and Spanish balconies, but in its ultimate return to genuine personal expression instead of rhetoric, in the new richness and lyrical quality of its language, and the new variety of its poetical forms.  35
  For the first twenty years of the century the little bad poets of the Empire—Millevoye, Chênedollé, and the rest—continued to perpetrate their amiable nothings, until, in 1820, the appearance of Lamartine’s Méditations inaugurated the great period of French lyrical verse. The book was welcomed with intense enthusiasm; here at last, it seemed, was the poet of the new France, the singer whose voice was exquisite with all the vague yearning of modern idealism and all the poignant melancholy of modern regret; a poet intensely personal and sincere, with few but very noble ideas, and with a richness of diction and mastery of harmonious verse that must have seemed like witchcraft to the little rimers of the Empire.  36
  He was not destined to be alone in greatness. The magnificent poetry of Hugo began with the publication of the Odes in 1822, and soon afterwards came the Poèmes Antiques et Modernes of Alfred de Vigny,—first-fruits of a genius which only reached its full dignity many years later. The golden galleon of romance set all sail for Eldorado; Cromwell was published, with its polemical preface: and the simultaneous apparition of Hernani and the too famous pourpoint of Théophile Gautier showed the opponents of the new spirit, as a contemporary remarked, that the theatre had become the veritable abomination of desolation. Sainte-Beuve, himself a poet who had ‘died young’, joined the cénacle, and his critical influence became apparent in the technique of the subsequent works of Hugo; and Alfred de Musset, the wayward, idle apprentice of the Romantic movement, amazed the world with Namouna.  37
  After the first fervours of enthusiasm had waned, and when the battle was won and the Académie Française rose to the occasion with an honourable surrender, the conquerors began to set their house in order, and to define, though not to contract, the bounds of their own domain. There was a recrudescence of that spirit of orderliness which seems eternal in French literature; a new classical spirit, with none of the warping rules of the dead tradition, is apparent in the dignified restraint that all the great poets manifest in their treatment of the language. With Musset—to take as an instance the most irresponsible of them—wild license has matured into noble freedom: and the Lettre à Lamartine and the Nuits express the most personal emotion with the utmost—with a classic—dignity. A kindred restraint gives Alfred de Vigny’s later poems their austere grandeur:—
        Depuis le premier jour de la création,
Les pieds lourds et puissants de chaque Destinée
Pesaient sur chaque tête et sur toute action.
Chaque front se courbait et traçait sa journée,
Comme le front d’un bœuf creuse un sillon profond
Sans dépasser la pierre où sa ligne est bornée.
Ces froides déités liaient le joug de plomb
Sur le crâne et les yeux des hommes leurs esclaves,
Tous errants, sans étoile, en un désert sans fond;
Levant avec effort leurs pieds chargés d’entraves,
Suivant le doigt d’airain dans le cercle fatal,
Le doigt des Volontés inflexibles et graves.
And we find the same quality in Hugo’s mature work:—
        Tout reposait dans Ur et dans Jérimadeth;
Les astres émaillaient le ciel profond et sombre;
Le croissant fin et clair parmi ces fleurs de l’ombre
Brillait à l’occident, et Ruth se demandait,
Immobile, ouvrant l’œil à moitié sous ses voiles,
Quel dieu, quel moissonneur de l’éternel été
Avait, en s’en allant, négligemment jeté
Cette faucille d’or dans le champ des étoiles.
  It was to majestic harmonies of this kind that the wild music of romance gradually developed. As regards subject, also, the great poets freed themselves from anything that was conventional in the Romantic revival; Hugo, allowing wrath to ‘embitter the sweet mouth of song’, aired his political hatreds in Les Châtiments, and wrote the epic of the world in the Légende des Siècles; and the Vigny of Les Destinées, with his stoical pessimism and abiding idea of nature as la grande indifférente, seems very distant from the Vigny of Madame de Soubise.
        S’il est vrai qu’au Jardin sacré des Ecritures
Le Fils de l’homme ait dit ce qu’on voit rapporté
Muet, aveugle et sourd au cri des créatures,
Si le Ciel nous laissa comme un monde avorté,
Le juste opposera le dédain à l’absence,
Et ne répondra plus que par un froid silence
Au silence éternel de la Divinité.
  It would require considerable ingenuity to trace the intimate connexion between these lines and the epoch that adored Hernani and sang Avez-vous vu dans Barcelone.  40
  There was, however, one poet who was content to remain for his whole life a Romantic in the sense in which that word was used in 1830. Théophile Gautier has stolen our hearts away so often with his exquisitely finished poems that when we are compelled to admit that he is not in a line with the great poets of the nineteenth century we feel self-convicted of treachery to a benefactor. For the readers who hold that poetry can be great independently of great ideas Gautier is naturally and logically the king of rime, but they who hold the contrary opinion are compelled, when they read him, to sigh the lack of many a thing they sought. He is a master of descriptive poetry, an incomparable word-painter, a carver of gems; any one who reads the best poems in Émaux et Camées will afterwards discover that they absolutely decline to be forgotten; but we remember them as we remember fragments of music, or colour in some picture: seldom because they are the noble expression of noble thoughts. They never appeal to our profound emotions for the simple reason that they were constructed unemotionally, or rather, with the highly restrained emotion that an artist in ivory feels when he executes an extremely intricate piece of work. Gautier would have said that this was precisely the kind of emotion that the poet should feel. And this is the shibboleth of his camp. From him, and still more from Leconte de Lisle, the poets of the Parnasse Contemporain of 1866 claim their descent. Their return to a rigid theory of versification was a reaction against the loose methods of various disciples of Lamartine and Hugo; a deliberate conspiracy (to quote M. Sully Prudhomme, one of their most distinguished poets) ‘against the excessively facile line, the line which is feeble and flabby, fluid as water, and as formless’. The passion for order once again obsesses French verse; no matter how exotic or commonplace his ideas, this phantom bestrides Pegasus behind the poet: it is equally obvious in the terrible and haunting dreams of Baudelaire and in the agreeable palinodes of Banville. We many view the future of poetry in France without foreboding, conscious that, in spite of the amusing revolts of transient eccentricity, the love of symmetry, the desire for comely order, will never wholly forsake the art of a nation so justly famous for her tradition of harmony in construction and clearness in idea.
Note 1. Gaston Paris, La Littérature française au moyen âge. [back]
Note 2. Seizième Siècle: Études Littéraires. [back]
Note 3. Faguet, Dix-huitième Siècle: Études Littéraires. [back]


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