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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Literatures of France, England, and Germany
By Ferdinand Brunetière (1849–1906)
TWICE at least in the course of their long history, it is known that the literature and even the language of France has exerted over the whole of Europe an influence, whose universal character other languages perhaps more harmonious,—Italian for instance,—and other literatures more original in certain respects, like English literature, have never possessed. It is in a purely French form that our mediæval poems, our ‘Chansons de Geste,’ our ‘Romances of the Round Table,’ our fabliaux themselves, whencesoever they came,—Germany or Tuscany, England or Brittany, Asia or Greece,—conquered, fascinated, charmed, from one end of Europe to the other, the imaginations of the Middle Ages. The amorous languor and the subtlety of our “courteous poetry” are breathed no less by the madrigals of Shakespeare himself than by Petrarch’s sonnets; and after such a long lapse of time we still discover something that comes from us even in the Wagnerian drama, for instance in ‘Parsifal’ or in ‘Tristan and Isolde.’ A long time later, in a Europe belonging entirely to classicism, from the beginning of the seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century, during one hundred and fifty years or even longer, French literature possessed a real sovereignty in Italy, in Spain, in England, and in Germany. Do not the names of Algarotti, Bettinelli, Beccaria, Filengieri, almost belong to France? What shall I say of the famous Gottschedt? Shall I recall the fact that in his victorious struggle against Voltaire, Lessing had to call in Diderot’s assistance? And who ignores that if Rivarol wrote his ‘Discourse upon the Universality of the French Language,’ it can be charged neither to his vanity nor to our national vanity, since he was himself half Italian, and the subject had been proposed by the Academy of Berlin?  1
  All sorts of reasons have been given for this universality of French literature: some were statistical, if I may say so, some geographical, political, linguistic. But the true one, the good one, is different: it must be found in the supremely sociable character of the literature itself. If at that time our great writers were understood and appreciated by everybody, it is because they were addressing everybody, or better, because they were speaking to all concerning the interests of all. They were attracted neither by exceptions nor by peculiarities: they cared to treat only of man in general, or as is also said, of the universal man, restrained by the ties of human society; and their very success shows that below all that distinguishes, say, an Italian from a German, this universal man whose reality has so often been discussed, persists and lives, and though constantly changing never loses his own likeness….  2
  In comparison with the literature of France, thus defined and characterized by its sociable spirit, the literature of England is an individualistic literature. Let us put aside, as should be done, the generation of Congreve and Wycherley, perhaps also the generation of Pope and Addison,—to which, however, we ought not to forget that Swift also belonged;—it seems that an Englishman never writes except in order to give to himself the external sensation of his own personality. Thence his humor, which may be defined as the expression of the pleasure he feels in thinking like nobody else. Thence, in England, the plenteousness, the wealth, the amplitude of the lyric vein; it being granted that individualism is the very spring of lyric poetry, and that an ode or an elegy is, as it were, the involuntary surging, the outflowing of what is most intimate, most secret, most peculiar in the poet’s soul. Thence also the eccentricity of all the great English writers when compared with the rest of the nation, as though they became conscious of themselves only by distinguishing themselves from those who claim to differ from them least. But is it not possible to otherwise characterize the literature of England? It will be easily conceived that I dare not assert such a thing; all I say here is, that I cannot better express the differences which distinguish that literature from our own.  3
  That is also all I claim, in stating that the essential character of the literature of Germany is, that it is philosophical. The philosophers there are poets, and the poets are philosophers. Goethe is to be found no more, or no less, in his ‘Theory of Colors’ or in his ‘Metamorphosis of Plants,’ than in his ‘Divan’ or his ‘Faust’; and lyrism, if I may use this trite expression, “is overflowing” in Schleiermacher’s theology and in Schelling’s philosophy. Is this not perhaps at least one of the reasons of the inferiority of the German drama? It is surely the reason of the depth and scope of Germanic poetry. Even in the masterpieces of German literature it seems that there is mixed something indistinct, or rather mysterious, suggestive in the extreme, which leads us to thought by the channel of the dream. But who has not been struck by what, under a barbarous terminology, there is of attractive, and as such of eminently poetical, of realistic and at the same time idealistic, in the great systems of Kant and Fichte, Hegel and Schopenhauer? Assuredly nothing is further removed from the character of our French literature. We can here understand what the Germans mean when they charge us with a lack of depth. Let them forgive us if we do not blame their literature for not being the same as ours.  4
  For it is good that it be thus, and for five or six hundred years this it is that has made the greatness not only of European literature, but of Western civilization itself; I mean that which all the great nations, after slowly elaborating it, as it were, in their national isolation, have afterwards deposited in the common treasury of the human race. Thus, to this one we owe the sense of mystery, and we might say the revelation of what is beautiful, in that which remains obscure and cannot be grasped. To another we owe the sense of art, and what may be called the appreciation of the power of form. A third one has handed to us what was most heroic in the conception of chivalrous honor. And to another, finally, we owe it that we know what is both most ferocious and noblest, most wholesome and most to be feared, in human pride. The share that belongs to us Frenchmen was, in the meanwhile, to bind, to fuse together, and as it were to unify under the idea of the general society of mankind, the contradictory and even hostile elements that may have existed in all that. No matter whether our inventions and ideas were, by their origin, Latin or Romance, Celtic or Gallic, Germanic even, if you please, the whole of Europe had borrowed them from us in order to adapt them to the genius of its different races. Before re-admitting them in our turn, before adopting them after they had been thus transformed, we asked only that they should be able to serve the progress of reason and of humanity. What was troublous in them we clarified; what was corrupting we corrected; what was local we generalized; what was excessive we brought down to the proportions of mankind. Have we not sometimes also lessened their grandeur and altered their purity? If Corneille has undoubtedly brought nearer to us the still somewhat barbaric heroes of Guillem de Castro, La Fontaine, when imitating the author of the Decameron, has made him more indecent than he is in his own language; and if the Italians have no right to assail Molière for borrowing somewhat from them, the English may well complain that Voltaire failed to understand Shakespeare. But it is true none the less that in disengaging from the particular man of the North or the South this idea of a universal man, for which we have been so often reviled,—if any one of the modern literatures has breathed in its entirety the spirit of the public weal and of civilization, it is the literature of France. And this ideal cannot possibly be as empty as has too often been asserted; since, as I endeavored to show, from Lisbon to Stockholm and from Archangel to Naples, it is its manifestations that foreigners have loved to come across in the masterpieces, or better, in the whole sequence of the history of our literature.  5

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