A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Interchapter iii.

Summary of Seventeenth-century Literature.

The tendencies of the period which has been surveyed in the foregoing book must be sufficiently obvious from the survey itself. They had been, as far as the unsatisfactory result of them went, indicated with remarkably prophetic precision by Regnier in lines quoted above283. The work, not merely of Malherbe, which the satirist had directly in view, but of Boileau, who succeeded Malherbe and completed his task, had tended far too much in the direction of substituting a formal regularity for an elastic freedom and of discouraging the more poetical utterances of thought. In prose, however, the operation of not dissimilar tendencies had been almost wholly good. For it is in the nature of prose not to admit of too absolute regulation, and it is at the same time in its nature to require that regulation up to a certain point. If the French vocabulary had been somewhat impoverished, it had been considerably refined. All good authorities admit that the influence of the salon-coteries and the précieuses— mischievous as it was in some ways — was of no small benefit in purifying not merely manners but speech. A single book, the Historiettes of Tallemant des Réaux, shows sufficiently the need of this double purification. French literature has at no time been distinguished by prudery, but from the fifteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century (for, as has been pointed out, the courtly literature at least of the middle ages is free from this defect) it had added to its liberty in choice and treatment of subjects a liberty which amounted to the extremest licence in the choice of words. It had become in fact exceedingly coarse. The poetry of the Pléiade was not as a rule open to this charge, but the early poetry and prose of the seventeenth century must submit to it. One effect of the process of correction and reform was a decided improvement in this matter.

But the vocabulary was by no means the only thing that underwent revision. Other constituents of literature shared in the same experience, and much more beneficially, for the expurgation of the dictionary was unfortunately made to involve the weeding out of many terms which were not open to the slightest exception, and the loss of which deprived the tongue of much of its picturesqueness. No such concomitant defect attended the reformations in grammar which, begun by the grammarians of the sixteenth century, were pursued still more systematically by Vaugelas and his followers. There can hardly be too much precision observed in matters of accidence and syntax; while it is desirable that the vocabulary should be as rich as possible, provided that its terms are vernacular or properly naturalised. The same may be said of some at least of the reforms of Malherbe in prosody and the minutiæ of poetical art. So too the advance made to something like a uniform orthography was of no small importance. The result of this general criticism was the group (or rather groups, for they may be divided into at least two, the earlier comprising Descartes, Corneille, Pascal, Saint Evremond, La Rochefoucauld, Bossuet, Madame de Sévigné, La Fontaine, and Molière, in other words, most of the greatest names) illustrating the so-called Grand Siècle, or Siècle de Louis Quatorze. The two names that stand first in this list, Descartes and Corneille, represent at once the initial change and in addition the greatest accomplishment in the direction of change effected by any individual. The others worthily followed where they led. This group, as has been more than once pointed out, does not shine in poetry proper. But it has hardly a rival in prose and in that measured and declamatory or easy and pedestrian verse which is half prose, half poetry.

Long, however, before the century ended, the evils which invariably attend upon a critical period, especially — it is paradoxical but true — when it is at the same time a period of considerable creative power, began to manifest themselves. These evils may be briefly described as the natural results of the drawing up of too straight and definite rules for each department of literature, and the following with too great exactness of the more brilliant examples in each kind. The one practice leads to what is called, in Sterne's well-known phrase, 'looking at the stop-watch;' the other, to an endeavour to be like somebody. It was not till the eighteenth century that these evils were fully patent; and then, though they were somewhat mitigated in departments other than the Belles Lettres by the eager spirit of enquiry and adventure which characterised the time, they are evident enough. The mischief showed itself in various ways. Besides the two which have been already indicated, there was a third and subtler form, which has produced some curious and interesting work, but which is obviously an indication of decadence. Those who did not resign themselves to the mere recasting of old material in the old moulds, or to simple following of the great models, were apt to echo, aloud or silently, La Bruyère's opening sentence, 'tout est dit,' and to draw from this discouraging fact the same conclusion that he did — that the only way to innovate was to vary in cunning fashion the manners of saying. In itself there might be no great harm in the conclusion, especially if it had led to a revolt against the narrow limits imposed by current criticism. But it did not, it only led to an attempt to innovate within those limits, which could only be done by a kind of new 'preciousness'— an affectation in short. This affectation showed itself first (though La Bruyère himself is not quite free from it, enemy of Fontenelle as he was) in Fontenelle, who was a descendant of the old précieuse school itself, and reached a climax in the author from whose name it thenceforward took its name of Marivaudage.

Thus the literary produce of the seventeenth century was better than its tendency. The latter has been sufficiently described; a very few words will suffice for the former. In the special characteristics of the genius of French, which may be said to be clearness, polish of form and expression, and a certain quality which perhaps cannot be so well expressed by any other word as by alertness, the best work of the seventeenth century has no rivals. Except in Corneille and Bossuet, it is not often grand, it is still seldomer passionate, or suggestively harmonious, or quaintly humorous, or even picturesquely narrative. But the charm of precision, of elegance, of expressing what is expressed in the best possible manner, belongs to it in a supreme degree. There are not many things in literature more absolutely incapable of improvement in their own style, and as far as they go, than a scene of Molière, a tirade of Racine, a maxim of La Rochefoucauld, a letter of Madame de Sévigné, a character of La Bruyère, a peroration of Massillon, when each is at his or her best. The reader may in some cases feel that he likes something else better, but he is incapable of pointing out a blemish. If he objects, he must object to something extra-literary, to the writer's conception of human nature, his political views, his range of thought, his selection of subject. When the one supreme question of criticism formulated by Victor Hugo, 'l'ouvrage est-il bon ou est-il mauvais?' (not 'aimez-vous l'ouvrage?' which is the illegitimate question which nine critics out of ten put to themselves), is set in reference to the best work of this time, the answer cannot be dubious for one moment in the case of any one qualified to give an answer at all. It is good, and in very many cases it could not possibly be better.

283 p. 267.

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