A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Interchapter ii.

Summary of Renaissance Literature.

The literary movements of the sixteenth century in France and their accomplishments — in other words, the course and result of the French Renaissance — can be traced with greater ease and with more precision than those of any other age of the literature. The movement is double, but, unlike most movements, literary and other, it is not sufficiently described as flux and reflux or action and reaction. The later or Pléiade half of the century was in no sense a reaction against the first or Marot-Rabelais half. If there is an appearance of opposition between the two it is only because, both in Marot and in Rabelais, there was actually a kind of reaction from the movement which faintly and imperfectly foreshadowed that of the Pléiade, the rhétoriqueur pedantry of the writers from Chartier to Crétin. In this first half of the century, while something of a protest was made by Rabelais explicitly, and implicitly by Marot, against the indiscriminate Latinising of the French tongue, very much more was done by their contemporaries, and in a manner by Rabelais himself, in the way of importing novelties of subject, style, and language, both from ancient and modern sources. Long before Du Bellay wrote, Calvin had modelled the first serious and scholarly work of French prose very closely on a Latin pattern. The translators, with Étienne Dolet and Amyot at their head, had begun to transfer to the vernacular, in versions or in original work, the principles of style which they had admired and imitated in the classics. On the other hand, Marot, representing the extreme vernacular school, succeeded, tolerably early in the period, in refining and chastening the language of the fifteenth century to such an extent that his style, transmitted through La Fontaine, and then through the lighter work of the eighteenth century, has retained a certain hold on literature for its particular purpose almost to the present day. The most remarkable writer, from the point of view of style, in this part of the century is perhaps Bonaventure des Périers, who displays both the vernacular purity free from classical mixture, and at the same time the Renaissance admiration and imitation of the classics in a very high degree. Yet the same lesson is taught by the prose of Des Périers as by the verse of Marot. The language had not as yet arrived at its full growth, it had not taken in its full supply of nourishment. It was therefore not equal to the complete duties of a literary tongue. It wanted enriching, strengthening, educating.

This task it was which was performed, and performed on the whole with remarkable skill and success, by the Pléiade movement. It is not easy to fix on any period in the history of any other language in which, at an interval of fifty years, the advance in the capacities, as distinguished from the mere accomplishments of the tongue, is so noticeable as it is in French between 1550 and 1600. It is not merely that between these dates writers of talent and even genius may be mentioned by the dozen, that the language can boast of having added to its stores the odes of Ronsard, the sonnets of Du Bellay, the myriad graceful songs of the lesser poets of the Pléiade, the stately descriptions of Du Bartas, the fiery invective of D'Aubigné, the polished satire of Regnier, the essays of Montaigne, the immortal pasquinades of the Ménippée — it is that the whole constitution and organisation of the language has been strengthened and improved. That the secret of the Alexandrine has at last been mastered means that the whole future course of French poetry is in a manner mapped out. That lyric measures have been devised, intricate, not merely in arrangement like those of the mediaeval forms, but in harmony, means that at any future time French poets who choose to recur to this storehouse may find the withal to equip themselves. That the vocabulary has been enormously if somewhat indiscriminately increased, means that writers in the future, at whatever loss they may be for thought, need certainly be at no loss for words to express it. But the gain is greater even than this. Not merely have the glossary, the grammar, the prosody of the language been enriched, but entirely new moulds in which literary work can be cast have been added to the literature. The form of drama in which France was to achieve, with but little formal alteration, some of her greatest literary triumphs, has been discovered and acclimatised; the essay has become a recognised thing; attempts at history proper as distinct from mere annals and chronicles have been made. Literature, in short, is organised, and literary labour works in matter roughly at least prepared and shaped. One of the greatest drawbacks of mediaeval literature, the confusion of styles, the handling of science in verse, of theology in terms taken from amatory romances, of politics in 'dreams,' of social satire in clumsy allegories, is cleared away. The form most suitable for every kind of literary work has been more or less made clear to the literary workman, and a plentiful supply of material in the shape of vocabulary is at his disposal.

That this great accomplishment is on the whole the doing of the Pléiade in its larger sense, as designating and including the men of letters of 1550-1600, no impartial student of the period can doubt. But at the same time there is no doubt either that their work was both incomplete and in some respects open to grave objection. They had, like all reformers, literary as well as political, neglected to preserve the historical continuity, and deliberately turned their backs on the traditions of the language and the literature. Their importations and imitations had been sometimes unnecessary, sometimes awkward, sometimes absurd. The mass of their contributions required examination, arrangement, and no doubt in some cases rejection. Moreover, they had on the whole concentrated their attention too much upon poetry; prose, the less exquisite but the more useful instrument, had been comparatively neglected. Almost all styles had been tried in it, but no general style nor the conditions of any had been elaborated. In drama much remained to be done. The model was there in the rough, but the workmen had been unskilful, and fifty years of practice on the plan of Jodelle had not yet resulted in the composition of one really dramatic play. In short, though the Pléiade movement had begun by being nothing if not critical, it had not kept up the habit of self-criticism. The application of this criticism was what was left for the seventeenth century to supply, and at the same time the elaboration of a complete and workman-like prose style. We shall see how early and how eagerly this task was accepted, and how thoroughly it was carried out; so thoroughly, that the seventeenth century is the age of perfect French prose. But what was gained in prose was lost in poetry, and, putting the dramatists aside, the drop in this respect from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century is immense. The sixteenth is, putting our own days out of question, the palmy time of poetry in France. The urbanity of Marot, the stately grace of Ronsard and his followers, the majesty of Du Bartas, the fire of D'Aubigné, the nervous and yet effortless strength of Regnier, have never been surpassed, and until the last half century they have rarely been equalled. If to this be added the more irregular and unequal, but hardly inferior merits of the best sixteenth-century prose, the inexhaustible humour of Rabelais, the simplicity and varied colour of the great memoir-writers, the subtle eloquence of Montaigne, it may perhaps seem that the period can contest the primacy with any other. The dispute between it and its successor is, however, only an instance of one which recurs again and again in literature, and which neither need nor should be handled here at length.


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