A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 5.

Essayists, Minor Moralists, Critics.

Occasional Writing in the Eighteenth-century. Periodicals.

What may be, for want of a better word, called occasional writing in prose received a considerable development during the eighteenth century. Some of the forms which it had previously taken, the Pensée, the maxim, and so forth, were less practised, though at the beginning and end of our present period two remarkable men, Vauvenargues and Joubert, distinguished themselves in them, and in the form of satirical aphorism Chamfort and Rivarol, before and during the Revolution, brought them to great perfection. But it was powerfully encouraged by the institution of official éloges, pronounced in the French Academy on famous men of the immediate or remoter past, and of prize essays, subjects for which, in ever increasing numbers, were proposed, not merely by that body, but by provincial societies of a similar but humbler kind. More than all this, the growth of periodical literature, though not exactly rapid, was steady, and gave opportunity for the cultivation of the two main branches of occasional writing as it is understood in modern times, namely, social or ethical essays of the Addisonian kind, and critical studies, literary or other. A great impetus was given to this by the novelist Prévost, who, after his return from England, edited, as has been observed, more than one avowed imitation of the English Spectator and Tatler. At the beginning of the century the chief place among newspapers was occupied by the Mercure Galant, which had enjoyed the contempt of La Bruyère, and the management of Visé and Thomas Corneille. Towards the middle and end of the period, the Gazette de France, under the management of Suard, held the principal place with a somewhat higher aim; and of non-official publications the Jesuit Journal de Trévoux and the anti-philosophe Année Littéraire of Fréron were notable. It was not till after the beginning of the Revolution that journalism proper spread and multiplied, and that journalists became a power. A short notice of the chief of these will be found lower down in this chapter, but a full history of French journalism is impossible here.

Fontenelle.

The first place in point of time, and not the least in point of importance, among the occasional writers of the eighteenth century, is due to Fontenelle. The personal name of this curious writer, who is perhaps the most striking example in literary history of multifarious talent and unwearied industry just stopping short, despite their combination, of genius, was Bernard le Bovier, and his mother was a sister of Corneille, whose life Fontenelle himself wrote. He was educated by the Jesuits and studied for the bar, but was unsuccessful as an advocate, and soon gave up active practice. He came to Paris very young, and soon became distinguished, after a fashion, in society and literature. He was one of the last of the précieux, or rather he was the inventor of a new combination of literature and gallantry which at first exposed him to not a little satire. Unfortunately too for him he tried first to emulate his uncles in the drama, for which he had no talent, and one of his plays (Aspar), failing completely, gave his enemies abundant opportunity. No one, however, illustrated better than Fontenelle the saying that 'no man was ever written down except by himself.' He was the butt of the four most dangerous satirists of his time — Racine, Boileau, La Bruyère, and J. B. Rousseau; but though the epigrams which Racine and Rousseau directed against him are among the best in the language, and though the 'portrait' of Cydias, in the Caractères, at least equals them, Fontenelle received hardly any damage from these. Finding that he was not likely to be a successful dramatic poet, even in opera, he turned to prose, and wrote 'dialogues of the dead,' in avowed imitation of Lucian, and a kind of romance called 'Lettres du Chevalier d'Her . . .,' in which he may be said to have set the example of the elaborate and rather affected style, afterwards called Marivaudage, from his most famous pupil. Even here his success was doubtful, and he again changed his ground. He had paid some attention to science, and he saw that there was an opening in the growing curiosity of educated people for scientific popularising. To this and to literary criticism and history he devoted himself for the remainder of his long life, becoming President of the Academy of Sciences, and virtual dictator of the Académie Française. His Éloges and his academic essays generally were highly popular. But his chief single works are the famous Entretien sur la Pluralité des Mondes, an example of singularly hardy speculation, and of no contemptible learning, artfully disguised by an easy style, and his Histoire des Oracles, of which much the same may be said. With hardly diminished powers Fontenelle achieved an age not often paralleled in literary history, though his contemporary, Saint Aulaire, a minor poet, nearly equalled it. He died in his hundredth year, and almost at the end of it, his long life extending from the very earliest glories of the Siècle de Louis XIV. to the very hottest period of the Encyclopædist battle. The singular variety of his works, and his force of character, disguised under a somewhat frivolous exterior, but enabling him to live down enmity and ridicule which would have crushed most men, would of themselves make Fontenelle a remarkable figure in literature. But his actual work has more merits than that of mere variety. He realised quite as keenly as his enemy La Bruyère the importance of manner in literature, though his taste was hardly so pure. If not exactly an original thinker, he was an acute and comprehensive one, and forestalled most of his contemporaries in taking the direction consciously which they were pursuing almost without knowing it. He fully appreciated the value of paradox as stimulating men's minds and giving flavour to literature; and his positive wit was very considerable. To not many men are more good sayings attributed, and the goodness of these is not always verbal only. The most famous of them, uttered in defence of his peculiar union of heterodoxy and caution, 'I may have my fist full of truth, and yet only care to open my little finger,' may be immoral or not, but it expressed very early, and with singular force, the intellectual attitude of two whole generations.

La Motte.

Inseparable from Fontenelle's name in literary history, as the two were long closely united in life, is the name of La Motte. La Motte was a much younger man than Fontenelle, and he died more than thirty years before him, but during the first thirty years of the century the pair exercised a kind of joint sovereignty in the Belles Lettres. They revived the quarrel of the ancients and moderns, inclining to the modern side. But La Motte's translation of Homer, or rather his adaptation (for he omitted about half), is not of a nature to inspire much confidence in his ability to judge the matter, though his essays and letters on the subject are triumphs of ingenious word-fence. Unlike Fontenelle, La Motte had one considerable dramatic success with the pathetic subject of Inès de Castro, and his fables are not devoid of merit. It was, however, as a prose writer of the occasional kind, and especially as a paradoxical essayist, that he earned and deserved most fame, his prose style being superior to Fontenelle's own.

Vauvenargues.

The next name deserving of mention belongs to a very different writer. Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues, covered in his brief space of life not a third of the period allotted to Fontenelle, who was nearly sixty when Vauvenargues was born, and outlived him ten years. Nor did he leave any single work of consequence. Yet his scanty writings are far more valuable in matter, if not in form, than those of the witty centenarian. Vauvenargues was born at Aix, in Provence, on the 6th of August, 1715. His family was ancient and honourable, but appears to have been poor, and his education was interrupted by the bad health which continued throughout his short life. Nevertheless he entered the army at the age of eighteen. After this he had scanty opportunities of study, and it is said that he was ignorant not only of Greek but even of Latin. He served at first in Italy, and then for some years was employed on garrison duty. At the outbreak of the war of the Austrian succession his regiment was sent into Germany, and he had a full share of the hardships of the Bohemian campaign. No promotion came to him, his means were almost exhausted, and in 1744 he resigned his commission, after taking the curiously unworldly step of writing directly to the king, asking for a place in the diplomatic service. An application to the minister of foreign affairs was not much more successful, and Vauvenargues, whose evil star pursued him, had no sooner established himself with his family than a bad attack of small-pox destroyed the little health he still had. He set to work, however, to write, and in the short time before his death actually published some of his works, and left others in a condition ready for publication. He lived in Paris for the last three years of his life, and died in 1747, at the age of thirty-two. Latterly he had made acquaintance with Voltaire, who entertained a very high and generous opinion of his talents, due perhaps partly to the remarkable difference of their respective characters and points of view. Vauvenargues' principal work is an Introduction à la Connoissance de l'Esprit Humain, besides which he left a considerable number of maxims, reflections, etc., on points of ethics and of literary criticism. In the last part of his work there is more curiosity than instruction. It is, however, in its way an instructive thing to see that a man of talent and even of genius could object to Molière for having chosen des sujets trop bas, while he speaks of Boileau in the most enthusiastic terms. The truth (and in the history of literature it is a very important truth) is that Vauvenargues was too little versed in any language but his own to have the requisite range of comparison necessary for literary criticism, and that his real interest in literature was almost entirely proportioned to its bearing upon conduct. His maxims, his Connoissance de l'Esprit, his Conseils à un Jeune Homme, etc., are all occupied almost entirely with questions of morality. Vauvenargues (and in this he was remarkable) stood entirely aloof from the sceptical movement of his age. There was, indeed, a certain scepticism in him, as in almost all thinkers, but it was of the stamp of Pascal's, not in the least mocking or polemical, and even, as compared with Pascal's own, much less strictly theological. In most of his writings he shows himself an earnest and upright man, profoundly convinced of the importance of right conduct, gifted with an acute perception of its usual moving springs and directions, not remarkable for humour or poetical feeling, but serious, sober, and a little stoical. His literary characteristics reflect some of these peculiarities, and also betray something of his neglected education. He is never slovenly in thought, but he sometimes shocked the exact verbal critics of the eighteenth century by such phrases as 'les sens sont flattés d'agir, de galoper un cheval,' whereupon his censor annotates 'négligé. Les sens ne galopent pas un cheval.' A more serious fault is that, in his shorter maxims especially, he does not observe the rule of absolute lucidity which La Rochefoucauld, who was as much his model in point of style as he was his opposite in general views, never breaks through. His sayings (it is a merit as well as a drawback) are often rather suggestive than expressive; they remind the reader of his own curious comparison of Corneille with Racine, 'les héros de Corneille disent souvent de grandes choses sans les inspirer; ceux de Racine les inspirent sans les dire.'

D'Aguesseau.

Contemporary with Fontenelle and La Motte was the Chancellor D'Aguesseau, one of the most prominent figures of the earlier reign of Louis XV., a steady defender of orthodoxy — yet, as was seen in the case of the Encyclopædia, willing to assist enlightenment — a man of irreproachable character, and a writer of some merit. D'Aguesseau was born in 1668, and died in 1751. He early received considerable preferment in the law, and held the seals at intervals for the greater part of the last thirty years of his life. He was a defender of Gallicanism — indeed, he was suspected of Jansenist leanings — and a man of great benevolence in private life. His legal and historical learning was immense, and he was not without some tincture of science. He deserves a place here chiefly for his speeches on public occasions, which were in effect elaborate moral essays. An important part of them consists of what were called Mercuriales (that is to say, discourses pronounced on certain Wednesdays (Die Mercurii) by the first president of the Parliament of Paris) on the abuses of the day, the duties of judges, the nature of justice, and similar subjects.

Duclos.

Another writer, who has been mentioned more than once before, held somewhat aloof from the Encyclopædists, though he was not, like D'Aguesseau, definitely orthodox, or, like Vauvenargues, severely moral. Charles Pinaud Duclos was one of the most miscellaneous of the miscellaneous writers of the time. He held the office of historiographer royal, and produced some remarkable works of the historical kind, one of which has been noticed. He composed novels in a fanciful style midway between Crébillon and Marivaux. He also wrote on grammar, but some of his best work consists of short academic essays, and of a moral study called Considérations sur les Mœurs de Notre Temps, which is both well written and shows discernment. Duclos' character has been somewhat variously represented, but the unfavourable reports (which are in the minority) may probably be traced to the studied brusqueness of his manners, and to his unwillingness to make common cause with the philosophe coterie, though, if some stories are to be believed, he often conversed and argued quite in their style.

Marmontel.

Yet another typical figure of the same numerous class is Jean François Marmontel, one of the most eminent professional men of letters of the second class. Marmontel's moral tales, his Bélisaire, and his plays have already been noticed, but his main place in literature is that of a journalist and critic. He was born at Bort, in the district of Limoges, in 1723, and obtained some provincial reputation in letters. Introduced to Voltaire in 1746, he began as a dramatist, and, after some failures, acquired the protection of Madame de Pompadour. He was made editor of the Mercure, which gave him an influential position and a competence. He afterwards succeeded Duclos as historiographer, notwithstanding the outcry which had been made against his Bélisaire. He had contributed almost all the minor articles on literary subjects to the Encyclopædia, and these were collected and published as Éléments de Littérature in 1787. He died in 1799. The Éléments de Littérature are, with the Cours de Littérature of La Harpe, the chief source of information as to eighteenth-century criticism of the fashionable kind in France. They are very voluminous, and, from the circumstances of their original form, deal with a vast number of subjects. The style is for the most part simple and good, destitute alike of the dryness and of the bombast which were the two faults of contemporary writing. But Marmontel's system of criticism will not bear a moment's examination. It consists simply in the assumption that Racine, Boileau (though he was at first recalcitrant to Boileau, and had to be admonished by Voltaire that ça porte malheur), and their contemporaries are infallible models, and in the application of this principle to all other nations. The passion for finding plausible general reasons also leads Marmontel into grotesque aberrations, as where he gives three reasons for English success in poetry as contrasted with our inferiority in the other arts. First, Englishmen, loving glory, saw early that poetry acquired glory for a nation. Secondly, being naturally given to sadness and meditation, they wish for emotions to distract and move them. Thirdly, their genius is proper to poetry. This last remark, the reader should observe, comes from a countryman of Molière, a man who must have read the Malade Imaginaire, and who was moreover a man of much more than ordinary talent. Marmontel often has acute remarks, and his blunders and absurdities are rather symptomatic of the false state in which criticism was at the time than of individual shortcomings.

La Harpe.

Somewhat younger than Marmontel was La Harpe, who pursued the same lines of dramatic poetry and literary criticism, the latter with more success in his kind, so much so, that Malherbe, Boileau, and he may be ranked together as the three representatives of the infancy, flourishing, and decadence of the 'classical' theory of literary criticism in France. La Harpe was born at Paris in 1739, was brought up by charity, gained a reputation as a brilliant exhibitioner at the Collége d'Harcourt, and, after the mishap of being imprisoned for a libel, obtained new success at the Academy competitions. He acquired the favour of Voltaire, and fairly launched himself in literature. For many years he furnished tragedies to the stage, and criticised the literary work of others with a singular mixture of acuteness, pedantry, and ill-temper. He was converted from Republicanism by an imprisonment during the Terror, and became a violent conservative and defender of orthodoxy. He died in 1803. His principal critical work is his Cours de Littérature, which was the work chiefly of his later days. La Harpe had very considerable talent, which was however warped by the false and narrow system of criticism he adopted, and by his personal ill-temper and overbearing disposition. He is even more than Boileau the type of the schoolmaster-critic, who marks passages for correction according to cut-and-dried rules instead of attempting to judge the author according to his own standard. Yet, if he is the most typical example of the school, he is also perhaps the best. In dealing with authors of his own century, he is especially worthy of attention, because for the most part they themselves had before them the standards which he used, and his method is therefore relevant as far as it goes. La Harpe wrote well in the fashion of his day.

Thomas.

With Duclos, Marmontel, and La Harpe, Thomas is usually named. This writer, like others of our present subjects, was chiefly a composer of academic Éloges, Mémoires, Discours, and the like. He also wrote a book on Les Femmes, a subject which he treated, as he did most things, with seriousness, and with a mixture of declamation and sentimentality. His literary value is but small.

Orthodox Apologists.

Of the definitely orthodox party only two names need be mentioned, that of the Abbé Guénée, who devoted himself to exposing Voltaire's numerous slips in erudition in his Lettres de Quelques Juifs, and that of the Abbé Bergier, who is chiefly noteworthy as having held the singular post of official refuter of the Encyclopædists, in virtue of which appointment he received two thousand livres per annum from the General Assembly of the clergy for sixteen years. He wrote with assiduity, but was not read, and three years before the Revolution he lost his annuity, which the Assembly struck off. Bergier was a man of learning, industry, and good faith, but unfortunately he did not possess sufficient literary talent to execute the task entrusted to him. The Abbé Guénée, on the contrary, was a fair match even for Voltaire, but he did not attempt, perhaps it was too early to attempt, anything more than skirmishing.

Fréron.

A bitter personal opponent of La Harpe, and a famous man in literary history, was Fréron. Elie Catherine Fréron was born at Quimper in Britanny in 1719, and was educated by the Jesuits. He began a critical journal when he was only seven-and-twenty, under the title (not so strange then as now) of Lettres de Madame la Comtesse de. . . . But he had already contributed to the Observations and Jugements of Desfontaines. The Lettres were suppressed in 1749, but continued under another title, and at last, in 1754, became the celebrated Année Littéraire, which for twenty years was full of gall and wormwood for Voltaire and all his partisans. Voltaire was never slow to retaliate in such matters, and his retorts culminated in the play of L'Écossaise, in which Fréron was caricatured under the title Frélon (hornet). Every effort was made by the Encyclopædists (who were not in the least tolerant in practice) to procure the suppression of the Année. But Fréron had solid supports in high places and held on gallantly. It is said that his death, in 1776, was caused by a report that the suppression had been at last obtained. He certainly suffered both from gout and from heart disease, complaints not unlikely to make a sudden shock fatal. Fréron, like his English prototype John Dennis, has had the disadvantage that his adversaries were numerous, witty, not too scrupulous, and on the winning side. His personal character seems to have been none of the most amiable. But he was more frequently right than wrong in his criticisms on detached points, and his literary standards were decidedly higher and better than those of his enemies. He had moreover abundant wit and an imperturbable temper, which enabled him to turn the laugh against Voltaire in his criticism of the first representation of L'Écossaise itself.

Two other adversaries of Voltaire who deserve notice as literary critics were the Abbé Desfontaines (already mentioned) and Palissot. Desfontaines was a man of doubtful character; but it is not certain that he was in the wrong in the dispute which changed him from a friend into an enemy of Voltaire, and, like Fréron, he very frequently hit blots both in the patriarch's works and in those of his disciples. Palissot was the author of a play called Les Philosophes, an Écossaise on the other side, in which Rousseau, Diderot, and others were outrageously ridiculed. There was no great merit in this, but Palissot was not a bad critic in some ways, and his notes on French classics, especially Corneille, frequently show much greater taste than those of most contemporary annotators.

Philosophe Criticism. D'Alembert, Diderot.
Les Feuilles de Grimm.
Diderot's Salons
His General Criticism.

The leaders of the philosophes themselves gave considerable attention to criticism. Voltaire wrote this, as he wrote everything, his principal critical work being his Commentary on Corneille, in which the constraint of general dramatic and poetic theory which the critic imposes on himself, and the merely conventional opinions in which he too often indulges, do not interfere with much acute criticism on points of detail. D'Alembert distinguished himself by his extraordinarily careful and polished Éloges, or obituary notices, which remain among the finest examples of critical appreciation of a certain kind to be found in literature. Although he did not definitely attempt a new theory of criticism, D'Alembert's vigorous intellect and unbiassed judgment enabled him to estimate authors so different as (for instance) Massillon and Marivaux with singular felicity. But the greatest of the Encyclopædists in this respect was unquestionably Diderot. While his contemporaries, bent on innovation in politics and religion, accepted without doubt or complaint the narrowest, most conventional, and most unnatural system of literary criticism ever known, he, in his hurried and haphazard but masterly way, practically anticipated the views and even many of the dicta of the Romantic school. Most of Diderot's criticisms were written for Grimm's 'Leaves,' which thus acquired a value entirely different from and far superior to any that their nominal author could give them. Some of these short notices of current literature are among the finest examples of the review properly so called, though in point of mere literary style and expression they constantly suffer from Diderot's hurried way of setting down the first thing that came into his head in the first words that presented themselves to clothe it. But everywhere there is to be perceived the cardinal principle of sound criticism — that a book is to be judged, not according to arbitrary rules laid down ex cathedra for the class of books to which it is supposed to belong, but according to the scheme of its author in the first place, and in the second to the general laws of æsthetics; a science which, if the Germans named it, Diderot, by their own confession, did much to create. Even more remarkable in this respect than his book-criticisms are his Salons, criticisms of the biennial exhibitions of pictures in Paris, also written for Grimm. There are nine of these, ranging over a period of twenty-two years, and they have served as models for more than a century. Diderot did not adopt the old plan (as old as the Greeks) of mere description more or less elaborate of the picture, nor the plan of dilating on its merely technical characteristics, though, assisted by artist friends, he managed to introduce a fair amount of technicalities into his writing. His method is to take in the impression produced by the painting on his mind, and to reproduce it with the associations and suggestions it has supplied. Thus his criticisms are often extremely discursive, and some of his most valuable reflections on matters at first sight quite remote from the fine arts occur in these Salons. Of drama Diderot had a formal theory which he illustrated by examples not quite so happy as his precepts. This theory involved the practical substitution of what is called in French drame for the conventional tragedy and comedy, and it brought the French theatre (or would have brought it if it had been adopted, which it was not until 1830) much nearer to the English than it had been. Diderot was moreover an enthusiastic admirer of English novels, and especially of Richardson and Sterne, partly no doubt because the sentimentalism which characterised them coincided with his own sensibilité, but also (it is fair to believe) because of their freedom from the artificiality and the strict observance of models which pervaded all branches of literature in France. Of poetry proper we have little formal criticism from Diderot. His own verses are few, and of no merit, nor was the poetry of the time at all calculated to excite any enthusiasm in him. But the æsthetic tendency which in other ways he expressed, and which he was the first to express, was that which, some forty years after his death, brought about the revival of poetry in France, through recurrence to nature, passion, truth, vividness, and variety of sentiment.

Newspapers of the Revolution.
The Influence of Journalism.

So long as the old régime lasted journalism was naturally in a condition of suppression, but from the beginning of the Revolution it assumed at once an important position in the state, and a position still more important as a nursery of rising men of letters. At the time of the outbreak only two papers of importance existed, the already mentioned Gazette de France, and the Journal de Paris, in which Garat, André Chénier, Roucher, and many other men of distinction, won their spurs. 1789, however, saw the birth of numerous sheets, some of which continued almost till our own days. The most important was the Gazette Nationale or Moniteur Universel, in which not merely Garat and La Harpe, but Ginguené, a literary critic of talent and a republican of moderate principles, together with the future historian Lacretelle, and the comic poet, fabulist, and critic Andrieux, took part. Rivarol, Champcenetz, and Pelletier conducted the Royalist Actes des Apôtres, Marat started his ultra-republican Ami du Peuple, Camille Desmoulins the Courier de Brabant, Durozoy the Gazette de Paris. Barrère and Louvet, both notorious, if not famous names, launched for the first time a paper with a title destined to fortune, Le Journal des Débats; and Camille Desmoulins changed his oddly-named journal into one named more oddly still, Les Révolutions de France et de Brabant. All these, and more, were the growth of the single year 1789. The next saw the avowedly Royalist Ami du Roi of Royou, the atrocious Père Duchêne of Hébert, the cumbrously-named Journal des Amis de la Constitution, on which Fontanes, Clermont-Tonnerre, and other future Bonapartists and Constitutionalists worked. In 1791 no paper of importance, except the short-lived Girondist Chronique du Mois, appeared. In the next year many Terrorist prints of no literary merit were started, and one, entitled Nouvelles Politiques, to which the veterans Suard and Morellet, with Guizot, a novice of the time to come, Lacretelle, Dupont de Nemours, and others, were contributors. In the later years of the revolutionary period, the only important newspaper was what was first called the Journal de l'Empire, and at the end of Napoleon's reign the Journal des Débats, on which Fiévée, Geoffroy, and many other writers of talent worked. In the early days of these various journals political interests naturally engrossed them. But the literary tastes and instincts of Parisians were too strong not to demand attention, and by degrees the critical part of the newspaper became of importance. Under the restoration this importance grew, and the result was the Conservateur Littéraire and the Globe, in the former of which Victor Hugo was introduced to the public, and in the latter Sainte-Beuve. This sudden uprise of journalism produced a remarkable change in the conditions of literary work, and offered chances to many who would previously have been dependent on individual patronage. But so far as regards literature, properly so called, all its results which were worth anything appeared subsequently in books, and there is therefore no need to refer otherwise than cursorily to the phenomenon of its development. Put very briefly, the influence of journalism on literature may be said to be this: it opens the way to those to whom it might otherwise be closed; it facilitates the destruction of erroneous principles; it assists production; and it interferes with labour and care spent over the thing produced.

Chamfort.

From the crowd of clever writers whom this outburst of journalism found ready to draw their pens in one service or the other, two names emerge as pre-eminently remarkable. Garat and Champcenetz were men of wit and ingenuity, André Chénier was a great poet, and his brother, Marie Joseph, a man of good literary taste and master of an elegant style, Lacretelle a painstaking historian, and many others worthy of note in their way. But Chamfort and Rivarol deserve a different kind of notice from this. They united in a remarkable fashion the peculiarities of the man of letters of the eighteenth century with the peculiarities of the man of letters of the nineteenth, and their individual merit was, though different and complementary, almost unique. Chamfort was born in Auvergne, in 1741. He was the natural son of a person who occupied the position of companion, and legally possessed nothing but his baptismal name of Nicholas. Like his rival, La Harpe, he obtained an exhibition at one of the Paris colleges, and distinguished himself. After leaving school he lived for a time by miscellaneous literature, and at last made his way to society and to literary success by dint of competing for and winning academic prizes. On the second occasion of his competition he defeated La Harpe. Afterwards Madame Helvétius assisted him, and at last he received from Chabanon (a third-rate man of letters, who may be most honourably mentioned here) a small annuity which made him independent. It is said that he married, and that his wife died six months afterwards. He was elected to the Academy, and patronised by all sorts of persons, from the queen downwards. But at the outbreak of the Revolution he took the popular side, though he could not continue long faithful to it. In the Terror he was menaced with arrest, tried to commit suicide, and died horribly mutilated in 1794. Chamfort's literary works are considerable in bulk, but only a few of them have merit. His tragedies are quite worthless, his comedy, La Jeune Indienne, not much better. His verse tales exceed in licentiousness his models in La Fontaine, but fall far short of them in elegance and humour. His academic essays are heavy and scarcely intelligent. But his brief witticisms and his short anecdotes and apophthegms hardly admit a rival. Chamfort was a man soured by his want of birth, health, and position, and spoilt in mental development by the necessity of hanging on to the great persons of his time. But for a kind of tragi-comic satire, a saeva indignatio, taking the form of contempt of all that is exalted and noble, he has no equal in literature except Swift.

Rivarol.

The life of Rivarol was also an adventurous one, but much less sombre. He was born about 1750, of a family which seems to have had noble connections, but which, in his branch of it, had descended to innkeeping. Indeed it is said that Riverot, and not Rivarol, was the name which his father actually bore. He himself, however, first assumed the title of Chevalier de Parcieux, and then that of Comte de Rivarol. The way to literary distinction in those days was either the theatre or criticism, and Rivarol, with the acuteness which characterised him, knowing that he had no talent for the former, chose the latter. His translation (with essay and notes) of Dante is an extraordinarily clever book, and his discourse on the universality of the French tongue, which followed, deserves the same description. It was not, however, in mere criticism that Rivarol's forte lay, though he long afterwards continued to exhibit his acuteness in it by utterances of various kinds. In 1788 (the year before the Revolution) he excited the laughter of all Paris, and the intense hatred of the hack-writers of his time, by publishing, in conjunction with Champcenetz, an Almanach de nos Grands Hommes, in which, by a mixture of fiction and fact, he caricatures his smaller contemporaries in the most pitiless manner. When the Revolution broke out Rivarol took the Royalist side, and contributed freely to its journals. He soon found it necessary to leave the country, and lived for ten years in Brussels, London, Hamburg, and Berlin, publishing occasionally pamphlets and miscellaneous works. He died at the Prussian capital in 1801. Not only has Rivarol a considerable claim as a critic, and a very high position as a political pamphleteer, but he is as much the master of the prose epigram as Chamfort is of the short anecdote. Following the example of his predecessors, he put many of his best things in a treatise, De l'Homme Intellectuel et Moral, which, as a whole, is very dull and unsatisfactory, though it is lighted up by occasional flashes of the most brilliant wit. His detached sayings, which are not so much Pensées or maxims as conversational good things, are among the most sparkling in literature, and, with Chamfort's, occupy a position which they keep almost entirely to themselves. It has been said of him and of Chamfort (who, being of similar talents and on opposite sides, were naturally bitter foes) that they 'knew men, but only from the outside, and from certain limited superficial and accidental points of view. They knew books, too, but their knowledge was circumscribed by the fashions of a time which was not favourable to impartial literary appreciation. Hence their anecdotes are personal rather than general, rather amusing than instructive, rather showing the acuteness and ingenuity of the authors than able to throw light on the subjects dealt with. But as mere tale-tellers and sayers of sharp things they have few rivals.' It may be added that they complete and sum up the merits and defects of the French society of the eighteenth century, and that, in so far as literature can do this, the small extent of their selected works furnishes a complete comment on that society.

Joubert.

Contemporary with these two writers, though, from the posthumous publication of his works years after the end of his long life, he seems in a manner a contemporary of our own, was Joseph Joubert, the last great Pensée-writer of France and of Europe. Joubert's birthplace was Montignac, in Perigord, and the date of his birth 1754, three years after that of Rivarol, and about twelve after that of Chamfort. He was educated at Toulouse, where, without taking regular orders, he joined the Frères de la Doctrine Chrétienne, a teaching community, and studied and taught till he was twenty-two years old. Then his health being, as it was all through his life, weak, he returned home, and succeeding before long to a small but sufficient fortune, he went to Paris. Here he became intimate with the second philosophe generation (La Harpe, Marmontel, etc.), and is said to have for a time been an enthusiastic hearer of Diderot, the most splendid talker of that or any age. But Joubert's ideals and method of thought were radically different from those of the Philosophes, and he soon found more congenial literary companions, of whom the chief were Fontanes and Chênedollé, while he found his natural home in the salon of two ladies of rank and cultivation, Madame de Beaumont and Madame de Vintimille. Before long he married and established himself in Paris with a choice library, into which, it is said, no eighteenth-century writer was admitted. His health became worse and worse, yet he lived to the age of seventy, dying in 1824. Fourteen years afterwards Chateaubriand, at the request of his widow, edited a selection of his remains, and four years later still his nephew, M. de Raynal, produced a fuller edition.

Joubert's works consist (with the exception of a few letters) exclusively of Pensées and maxims, which rank in point of depth and of exquisite literary expression with those of La Rochefoucauld, and in point of range above them. They are even wider in this respect than those of Vauvenargues, which they also much resemble. Ethics, politics, theology, literature, all occupy Joubert. In politics he is, as may be perhaps expected from his time and circumstances, decidedly anti-revolutionary. In theology, without being exactly orthodox according to any published scheme of orthodoxy, Joubert is definitely Christian. In ethics he holds a middle place between the unsparing hardness of the self-interest school and the somewhat gushing manner of the sentimentalists. But his literary thoughts are perhaps the most noteworthy, not merely from our present point of view. All alike have the characteristic of intense compression (he described his literary aim in the phrase 'tormented by the ambition of putting a book in a page, a page into a phrase, and a phrase into a word'), while all have the same lucidity and freedom from enigma. All are alike polished in form and style according to the best models of the seventeenth century; but whereas study and reflection might have been sufficient to give Joubert the material of his other thoughts, the wide difference between his literary judgments and those of his time is less easily explicable. No finer criticism on style and on poetry in the abstract exists than his, and yet his reading of poetry cannot have been very extensive. He is even just to the writers of the eighteenth century, whose manner he disliked, and whose society he had abjured. He seems, indeed, to have had almost a perfect faculty of literary appreciation, and wherever his sayings startle the reader it will generally be found that there is a sufficient explanation beneath. There is probably no writer in any language who has said an equal number of remarkable things on an equal variety of subjects in an equally small space, and with an equally high and unbroken excellence of style and expression. This is the intrinsic worth of Joubert. In literary history he has yet another interest, that of showing in the person of a man living out of the literary world, and far removed from the operation of cliques, the process which was inevitably bringing about the great revolution of 1830.

Courier.

Like Joubert, Paul Louis Courier had a great dislike and even contempt for the authors of the eighteenth century, but curiously enough this dislike did not in the least affect his theological or political opinions. He was born at Paris, in 1772, being the son of a wealthy man of the middle class. His youth was passed in the country, and he early displayed a great liking for classical study. As a compromise between business, which he hated, and literature, of which his father would not hear, he entered the army in 1792. He served on the Rhine, and not long after joining broke his leave in a manner rather unpleasantly resembling desertion. His friends succeeded in saving him from the consequences of this imprudence, and he served until Wagram, when he finally left the army, again in very odd circumstances. He then lived in Italy (where his passion for the classics led him into an absurd dispute about an alleged injury he had caused to a manuscript of Longus) until the fall of the Empire. When he was forty-five years old he was known in literature only as a translator of classics, remarkable for scholarship and for careful modelling of his style upon the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rather than upon the eighteenth. Although he had hitherto taken little active part in politics, the so-called 'ideas of 89' had sunk deeply into him. Impelled, not by any wide views on the future of the nation, but apparently by the mere bourgeois hatred of titles, old descent, and the other privileges of the aristocracy, he began a series of pamphlets to the success of which there is no rival except that of the Letters of Junius, while Junius falls far short of Courier in intrinsic literary merit. There are, indeed, few authors whose merit resides so wholly in their style and power of expression as Courier's. His thought is narrow in the extreme; even where its conclusions are just it rests rather on the jealousies of the typical bourgeois than on anything else. But in irony he has, with the exception of Pascal and Swift, no superior. He began by a Pétition aux Deux Chambres. Then he contributed a series of letters to Le Censeur, a reform journal; then he published various pamphlets, usually signed 'Paul Louis, Vigneron,' and ostensibly addressed to his neighbours and fellow villagers. He had established himself on a small estate in Touraine, which he farmed himself. But he was much in Paris, and his political writings made him acquainted with the prison of Sainte Pélagie. His death, in April 1825, was singular, and indeed mysterious. He was shot, the murderer escaping. It was suspected to be one of his own servants, to whom he was a harsh and unpopular master, and the suspicion was confirmed some years afterwards by the confession of a game-keeper. His Simple Discours against the presentation of Chambord to the Duc de Bordeaux, his Livret de Paul Louis, his Pamphlet des Pamphlets, are all models of their kind. Nowhere is the peculiar quality which is called in French narquois displayed with more consummate skill. The language is at once perfectly simple and of the utmost literary polish, the arguments, whether good or bad, always tellingly expressed. But perhaps he has written nothing better than the Lettre à M. Renouard, in which he discusses the mishap with the manuscript of Longus, and the letter to the Académie des Inscriptions on their refusal to elect him. The style of Courier is almost unique, and its merits are only denied by those who do not possess the necessary organ for appreciating it.

Sénancour.

This chapter may perhaps be most appropriately concluded by the notice of a singular writer who, although longer lived, was contemporary with Courier. Étienne Pivert de Sénancour may be treated almost indifferently as a moral essayist, or as a producer of the peculiar kind of faintly narrative and strongly ethical work which Rousseau had made fashionable. The infusion of narrative in his principal and indeed only remarkable work, Obermann, is however so slight, that he will come in best here, though in his old age he wrote a professed novel, Isabella. Sénancour was born in 1770, his father being a man of position and fortune, who lost both at the Revolution. The son was destined for the Church, but ran away and spent a considerable time in Switzerland, where he married, returning to France towards the end of the century. He then published divers curious works of half-sentimental, half-speculative reflection, by far the most important of which, Obermann, appeared in 1804. Then Sénancour had to take to literary hack-work for a subsistence; but in his later years Villemain and Thiers procured pensions for him, and he was relieved from want. He died in 1846. Obermann has not been ill described by George Sand as a René with a difference; Chateaubriand's melancholy hero feeling that he could do anything if he would but has no spirit for any task, Sénancour's that he is unequal to his own aspirations. No brief epigram of this kind can ever fully describe a book; but this, though inadequate, is not incorrect so far as it goes. The book is a series of letters, in which the supposed writer delivers melancholy reflections on all manner of themes, especially moral problems and natural beauty. Sénancour was in a certain sense a Philosophe, in so far that he was dogmatically unorthodox and discarded conventional ideas as to moral conduct; but he is much nearer Rousseau than Diderot. Indeed, he sometimes seems to the reader little more than an echo of the former, until his more distinctly modern characteristics (characteristics which were not fully or generally felt or reproduced till the visionary and discouraged generation of 1820-1850) reappear. It is perhaps not unfair to say that the pleasure with which this generation recognised its own sentiments in Obermann gave rise to a traditional estimate of the literary value of that book which is a little exaggerated. Yet it has considerable merit, especially in the simplicity and directness with which expression is given to a class of sentiments very likely to find vent in language either extravagant or affected. Its form is that of a series of letters, dated from various places, but chiefly from a solitary valley in the Alps in which the hero lives, meditates, and pursues the occupations of husbandry on his small estate.

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