A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 5.

Essayists, Minor Moralists, Critics.

The enormous popularity which the Essays of Montaigne enjoyed could not fail to raise up imitators and followers in the century succeeding their publication. But Montaigne's influence on the production of short pieces, complete in themselves and having for the most part an ethical bearing, was supplemented by the feature of the time so often referred to, the fancy for literary coteries, and for wit combats between the members of those coteries. For this latter purpose pieces of moderate length in prose, corresponding to the sonnets, the madrigals, and such-like things in verse, were well suited. The Academy, too, with its competitions and its ordinary critical occupations, stimulated literary production in the same direction. The essay was therefore much cultivated in the seventeenth century, and not a few minor styles of composition descended from it. Such were the Pensée, a short essay on some definite and briefly handled point; the Conversation, an essay or sketch in dialogue; the Portrait, a sketch of personal character; the Maxime, a condensed Pensée, just as the Pensée was a condensed essay. In these various styles some of the most excellent work existing in French literature was composed during the time which we are at present handling; and four names of the first, or almost the first rank in literary history, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, and Saint Evremond, belong to this division, besides not a few others of less importance. Pascal, indeed, might be almost as well treated in either of the two following chapters as in the present; but if the substance of his work is for the most part philosophical or theological, the form of it seems to fall more suitably under the present head. He does not, however, open the series of Essayists.


Something of Montaigne's manner, as well as of his peculiar sceptical doubt, which nevertheless does not transcend the limits of orthodoxy, was continued far into the century by La Mothe le Vayer, a man of talent, but of some deliberate eccentricity and archaism in costume and manners as in style. But the most important name in the history of French prose next after that of Montaigne is that of Jean Guez de Balzac, who occupies nearly the same place in it as Malherbe does in that of French poetry. Balzac was a gentleman of rank and fortune in the province of Angoumois, where he was born towards the end of the sixteenth century, and where he died in 1655. In his younger days he served in some diplomatic employments, then for a long time resided in Paris, and finally retired to his country seat. Balzac's works are almost entirely of the essay character, though they are sufficiently diverse, and for the most part rather artificial in form. The most considerable part of them is composed of letters — not such letters as have been discussed in the preceding chapter, but elaborate epistles written deliberately for the sake of writing, and with a definite attempt at style. Besides these, which are very numerous, Balzac was also the author of discourses on various subjects and of certain nondescript works of an ethico-political character, the principal and best known of which is the Socrate Chrétien. In all, his work was sufficient to fill two folio volumes when it was collected265. Balzac is a really remarkable figure in literary history, because he is, in his own tongue and nation, almost the first person who deliberately wrote for the sake of writing, and not because he had anything particular to say. The practice is perhaps not one to be commended to the general run of men at any time, or even to exceptional men, except at a peculiar time. But done as it was, and when it was, Balzac's work was really of importance and advantage to his countrymen. The prose literature of the sixteenth century had been admirable, but it had not resulted in the elaboration of any general style of all work. Each writer had followed his instincts, and when those instincts were under the guidance of genius, as they frequently were, many writers had produced admirable results. But the general use of the printing press, and the adaptation of literature to all sorts of journey-work, made it imperatively necessary that the tools should be put ready fashioned into the hands of ordinary workmen instead of each man having to manufacture them for himself. Various steps had been taken in this direction. Guillaume du Vair had already written a Traité de l'Éloquence Française; Vaugelas, a Savoyard by birth, was shortly to undertake some valuable Remarques on French grammar and style, which long remained a standard book. But not many examples of deliberate composition had been given. It was these examples of deliberate composition which Balzac furnished, and which, in a lighter and more graceful fashion, and to a more limited circle, were also given by the letters of the poet Voiture. Balzac, as is natural in the first attempts at a polished prose style, has the drawback of being somewhat rhetorical and occasionally ponderous. But the important point is that the mechanism of the clause, the sentence, and the paragraph has evidently been considered by him, and that he has succeeded in getting it into very tolerable condition. His sentences no longer run on to the interminable length of earlier writers, or finish in the haphazard manner, neglectful of rhythm, balance, and proportion, also noticeable in his predecessors. The substitution of the full stop for the conjunction, which, speaking generally, may be said to be the initiating secret of style (though of course it must not be applied too indiscriminately), is at once apparent in Balzac's best passages, and he rarely falls into the error which waits on this substitution, the error of scrappiness. His style is perhaps better suited to oratory than to writing; a not unlikely result, since his models were pretty obviously the classical orators. But there can be no doubt that to him in no small part is due the extraordinary outburst of rhetorical power which distinguished the preachers of the latter half of the century. Nor was it long before what was faulty in Balzac's style was corrected by the example of very different writers.


Blaise Pascal266 was born at Clermont, in Auvergne, on the 19th of June, 1623. His father was President of the Court of Aids, but when the boy was eight years old the family moved to Paris. Pascal was one of the small number of extraordinarily precocious children who have justified their precocity by genius equally extraordinary in after-life; but it does not appear that he was forced by his father (who took the whole charge of his education), and it is said that he did not begin Latin until he was twelve years old — a very late age for the time. Mathematics, however, were his chief study and delight, and he early excelled in them, showing also an extraordinary faculty in applying them to physics. At nineteen he invented a calculating machine. But his application to study did not improve his health. He was but five-and-twenty at the time of his famous experiment with the barometer on the Puy de Dome in his native province. He was soon exposed to the philosophical influence of Descartes on the one hand, and the theological influence of the Jansenists on the other, and he felt both deeply. His greatest work, the Provinciales, appeared in 1656. He died on the 19th of August, 1662, having long lived in retirement and asceticism, giving much of his substance to the poor, and abandoning himself almost entirely to religious, mathematical, and philosophical meditation.

We have nothing to do here with his purely mathematical works or those in natural science. The two books by which he belongs to literature, and which have placed him among the foremost writers of his country, are the Provinciales and the so-called Pensées. The former were regularly published by himself in his lifetime, though they were ostensibly anonymous, or rather pseudonymous. The Pensées consist of scattered reflections, which were found in his papers after his death. They were published, but, as has been discovered of late years, with much omission and garbling, and the restoration of them to their authentic form has been effected in comparatively recent times.

The famous title of Les Provinciales is only a convenient abbreviation of the original, which is Lettres Ecrites par Louis de Montalte à un Provincial de ses Amis et aux Révérends Pères Jésuites sur le Sujet de la Morale et de la Politique de ces Pères. This somewhat cumbrous appellation has at any rate the merit of exactly describing the contents of the book, except that Louis de Montalte is of course a pseudonym. The letters were written at the height of the early struggle (which had not yet been interfered with by the secular arm) of Jansenists and Jesuits, and they inflicted on the famous society a blow from which it has never wholly recovered, and from which it can never wholly recover. The method and style of Pascal are entirely original, except in so far as a slight trace of indebtedness to Descartes may be observed in the first respect, and a slight debt to Montaigne and the Satire Ménippée in the second. His great weapon is polite irony, which he first brought to perfection, and in the use of which he has hardly been equalled and has certainly not been surpassed since. The intricate casuistries of the Jesuits are unfolded in the gravest fashion and without the least exaggeration or burlesque, but with a running comment or rather insinuation of sarcasm which is irresistible. The author never breaks out into a laugh, never allows himself to be declamatory and indignant. There is always a smile on his countenance, but never anything more pronounced than a smile. Yet the contempt of this is more crushing than that of the bitterest invective. In the later letters indeed the mask of irony is to a certain extent dropped, and a more serious tone is taken. But effective as these are they are not the most effective part of the Provinciales. That part is the earlier one, in which, without dry scholastic argument, without the coarse abuse which the sixteenth century had regarded as inseparable from theological controversy, and at the same time with almost absolute accuracy of statement — for the misrepresentations which two centuries of eager and able apologists for the Order have been able to detect are insignificant — the author carried the discussion out of the schools into the drawing-room, made every man of fair education and breeding a judge of it, and triumphantly brought the judgment of the vast majority of such men on his side. To this day Pascal, with Swift and Courier, is the greatest example in modern literature of irony, excelling Swift as much in elegance and good-breeding as he falls short of him in sombre force, and having the advantage over his brilliant follower at the beginning of this century in depth and nobility of thought.

The Pensées supply the reverse side of Pascal's character, and the supplement to any proper estimate of his literary genius. But from the circumstances already referred to, they are evidence of a less complete though an even more genuine kind than the Provinciales. The scepticism which ate so deeply into the heart of the seventeenth century affected Pascal, though he rarely wavered in point of abstract faith. To few men, however, was doubt more painful, and as no clearer or more piercing intellect has ever existed, so to none was doubt more constantly present. The Pensées in their genuine form exhibit the thoughts to which this conflict of opinion gave rise in him, and are in remarkable contrast with the polished and sedate badinage of the letters. But few if any of them are finally worked up into the form in which the author would have been likely to present them to the public, and therefore, from the point of view of pure literary criticism, they require less notice here than the sister volume.

The revolution, as far as style is concerned, which in point of time is already noticeable in Descartes, has entirely accomplished itself in Pascal. The last vestige of archaism, of quaintness of phrase, of clumsiness in the architecture of the sentence or the paragraph, has passed away. Indeed, it can hardly be said that two centuries have added much to the language except in point of richness and adaptation to the more multifarious needs of the describer in modern times. The style is extremely simple, but it has none of the monotony, the lack of colour, and the stereotyped form which are the great drawbacks of French after Boileau as contrasted with French before him. It is extraordinarily graphic, sparkling with epigram at every point, and yet never sacrificing sense to the play of words. The Pensées (which it must always be remembered were never finally worked up) yield matter which will compare with the carefully concocted Maxims of La Rochefoucauld or of Joubert, while the Provinciales are, as has been said, unsurpassable in their own line. It is probable that most good judges would allot to Pascal in French the place which Dryden occupies in English, that is to say, the place of the writer who combines most of the advantages of the elder and younger manners. But Pascal, who wrote merely to please himself, had this great advantage over Dryden, that his work contains no mere journey-work, and especially nothing unworthy of him. Admirable as it is in style, it is equally admirable in meaning and in adaptation to that meaning, and it has thus both the sources of lasting popularity at command. Dealing, moreover, as it does with subjects of perennial importance and interest, it is almost entirely exempt from the necessity of comment and explanation which weighs down much admirable work of past ages. No man, however indisposed to serious reading, can put down the Provinciales as dull; no man, however unwilling to read anything that is not serious, can complain of levity in the Pensées. There are few authors in any language who unite as Pascal does the claims of importance of subject, charm of style, and bulk, without too great voluminousness of production. He has, moreover, the additional merit of being in a high degree representative of his age. That age had grown too complex for one man to reflect the whole of it, but Pascal and Molière (with perhaps Saint Evremond or La Rochefoucauld as thirdsman) supply an almost complete reflection.

Saint Evremond267, who was thirteen years Pascal's senior, and who outlived him by more than forty years, was, in almost every respect except intellectual vigour and literary faculty, his opposite. He was a Norman by birth (Charles de Marguetel de Saint Denis was his proper name), and was born in 1610. He was educated by the Jesuits, entered the army early, served through the later campaigns of the Thirty Years' War and in the Fronde, was a favourite of Condé's but fell into disgrace with him, and after the fall of Fouquet, which led to the discovery of his very able and very uncourtly letter on the Peace of the Pyrenees, also incurred the king's displeasure. This displeasure is said to have been aggravated by his notorious membership of the freethinking and materialist school which Gassendi, if he had not founded it, had helped to spread. Saint Evremond was practically if not formally banished, and the time of his misfortune coinciding pretty nearly with the Restoration in England, he made his way thither, was well received by the king and his courtiers, many of whom he had known in their exile, and dwelt in London for almost the whole remainder of his long life. He died in 1703, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His works are almost entirely occasional, consisting of 'conversations,' letters, 'portraits,' short literary disquisitions and tractates on subjects of historical and ethical interest. They display a placid epicurean philosophy which in its indifference to the assaults of fortune is not destitute of nobility, an extraordinary catholicity and acuteness of literary judgment, and remarkable wit and finesse. The Conversation du Père Canaye, which is of the same date as the Provinciales, is worthy of Pascal for its irony, and possesses a certain air of being written by a 'person of quality,' which Saint Evremond could throw over his writings better almost than any one else. His Portraits, not always flattering, are full of nervous vigour. But his literary remarks are perhaps the most surprising of his works. At a time when English literature was almost unknown in France, and when Boileau ostentatiously pretended never to have heard of Dryden, Saint Evremond, perhaps with some assistance from his friend Waller, drew up some masterly remarks on the humour-comedy of the Jonson school. His criticisms of French plays, as compared with classical tragedy and comedy, are also full of pregnant thought; and some comparative studies of his on Corneille and Racine show a power of detachment and independence which may be due in some part to the cosmopolitanism given by residence abroad, but which is certainly due also to native power. From the point of view of literary history, however, Saint Evremond is perhaps most remarkable as having formed, in conjunction with Pascal and Bayle, a singular trio, which supplied Voltaire with the models268 whence he drew his peculiar style of persiflage. As far as form is concerned, it may be fairly said that Saint Evremond was the most influential of the three. Like many other men of his time he rarely published anything in the ordinary way, and it was not till very late in life that he empowered Desmaizeaux to issue an authorised edition of work that had either circulated in manuscript or been piratically printed.

La Rochefoucauld.

François de Marcillac269, Duke de la Rochefoucauld, was born in 1613 of one of the noblest families of France. His father had just been created duke and peer, the highest honour possible to a French subject, and for many years the son was known under the title of Prince de Marcillac. He was very imperfectly educated, but was early sent to serve in the army and introduced to the court. Young as he was, he was deeply engaged in the various intrigues against Richelieu, chiefly in consequence of his affection for the celebrated Madame de Chevreuse. After Richelieu's death and the comparative effacement of Madame de Chevreuse, he transferred his affections to Madame de Longueville and his aversion to Mazarin. He was one of the chiefs of the Princes' party, and fought all through the Fronde, winning a reputation, not so much for military skill as for the most reckless bravery. The establishment of the royal authority first sent him into retirement, and then reduced him to the position of an ordinary courtier. This last period of his life was distinguished by a third attachment to a lady hardly less celebrated than either of his former loves, Madame de la Fayette, the author of La Princesse de Clèves, in which novel he is said to figure under another name. He was also an intimate friend of Madame de Sévigné. In the latter part of his life he suffered terribly from gout, and died of that disease in 1680.

His Memoirs have been already noticed. The more famous and far more remarkable Maxims were published shortly afterwards, and at once attained a wide popularity. The first edition appeared in 1665, and four others were published, with considerable alterations and additions, during the author's lifetime, in 1666, 1671, 1675, and 1678. After his death a sixth edition was published by Claude Barbin, containing fifty new maxims, the authenticity of which is uncertain but probable.

The fullest authoritative edition of La Rochefoucauld's Maxims contains 504 separate paragraphs, to which, besides the fifty just noticed, about another fifty can be added by restoring those which the author suppressed during his lifetime. The last, which is avowedly a kind of appendix, and on a different plan from the others, extends to a couple of pages. But the average length of the remainder is not more than three or four lines, and many do not contain more than a dozen words. The art of compressing thought and then pointedly expressing it has never been pushed so far except by Joubert, and hardly even by him. All La Rochefoucauld's maxims, without exception, are on ethical subjects, and with a certain allowance they may be said to be generally concerned with the reduction of the motives and conduct of men to the single principle of self-love. In consequence, accusations of misanthropy, of unfairness, of short-sightedness, have been showered upon the author by those who do not like a spade to be called a spade. We have nothing to do with the moral side of the matter here, and it is sufficient to say that La Rochefoucauld is not an advocate of the selfish or any other school of moralists. He is simply an observer, setting down with the utmost literary skill the results of a long life of unusual experience in business and pleasure of every kind. He is a man of science who has got together a large collection of facts, and who expounds and arranges them on a certain coherent and sufficient hypothesis. As a work of literary art the result of his exposition is unrivalled. The whole of the Maxims, even with the doubtful or rejected ones, need not occupy more than a hundred pages, and they contain matter which in the hands of an ordinary writer would have filled a dozen volumes. Yet there is no undue compression. It is impossible ever to mistake the meaning, though the comprehension of the full application of that meaning depends, of course, on the intellectual equipment and social experience of the reader. The clearness with which Descartes had first endowed French is here displayed in its very highest degree. The style, as was unavoidable in work of the kind, is entirely devoid of ornament. Imagery is wholly absent, and though metaphorical expressions abound, they are of the plainest and simplest kind of metaphor. The philosophical language of the day is present, but in no very prominent measure. The motto of the book (at least in the fourth and fifth editions), 'Nos vertus ne sont le plus souvent que des vices déguisés,' is a very fair example of the simple straightforward fashion of La Rochefoucauld's style. Sometimes, but rarely, the author explains his meaning, and slightly lengthens his phrase by repeating the sentiment in a somewhat different form, as thus, 'Le plaisir de l'amour est d'aimer, et l'on est plus heureux par la passion qu'on a que par celle que l'on donne.' But even here it is to be observed that the explanation is in a manner necessary to take off the air of sententious enigma, which the words 'le plaisir de l'amour est d'aimer' might have had by themselves. La Rochefoucauld is never enigmatical, rarely sententious merely, and is almost indifferent to the production of mots. How continually the study of brevity, combined with precision, occupied the author, and how severe he was on any exuberance, can be seen very instructively in the successive alterations of his work. Thus, in the first edition Maxim 295 ran, 'La jeunesse est une ivresse continuelle, c'est la fièvre de la santé, c'est la folie de la raison;' but La Rochefoucauld seems to have thought this unduly pleonastic, and it appears later as 'La jeunesse est une ivresse continuelle, c'est la fièvre de la raison,' the improvement of which in point and freshness is sufficiently obvious. The result of this process is that the best of these Maxims are absolutely unrivalled in their own peculiar style, and that all subsequent writers in the same style have taken their form as a model. French critics have, as a rule, rather under-than over-estimated the purely literary talent of La Rochefoucauld. But this is due to two causes: first, to the supposed antagonism of his spirit to conventional morality; secondly, to the fact that he somewhat anticipated the writers of the particular period which for a century and a half was the idol of academic criticism. His language is rather that of Louis XIII. than of Louis XIV., and in his words and phrases there is a certain archaism, not to say an occasional irregularity, which critics who look only at the stop-watch apparently find it hard to forgive.

La Bruyère.

These critics generally give the palm of style, as concerns writing of this kind, to Jean de la Bruyère270. Less is known of the personal history of this author than of that of any contemporary writer of great eminence. He was born at Paris, in August 1645, and his family appears to have been anciently connected with the law. He must have been a man of some means and of good education, for he had just bought himself an important financial post at Caen, when, on the recommendation of Bossuet, he was appointed Historical Preceptor to Duke Louis of Bourbon, the grandson of Condé, in whose household he continued till his death in 1696. He had published his Caractères in 1687, and was elected to the Academy in 1693.

The works of La Bruyère consist of the Caractères just mentioned, of a translation of Theophrastus, of a few literary discourses, and (probably) of some chapters on Quietism, written on the side of his patron Bossuet during the great controversy with Fénelon, but not published till after the author's death. The Caractères alone are of much importance or interest.

The design of this curious and celebrated book is taken, like its title, from Theophrastus, but the plan is very much altered as well as extended. Instead of copying directly the abstract qualities of Theophrastus and his brief, pregnant, but somewhat artificial and jejune description of them, La Bruyère adopted a scheme much better suited to his own age. He took for the most part actual living people, well known to all his readers, and, disguising them thinly under names of the kind which the romances of the middle of the century had rendered fashionable, made them body forth the characters he wished to define and satirise. These portraits he inserted in a framework not altogether unlike that of the Montaigne essay, preserving no very consecutive plan, but passing from moral reflection to literary criticism, and from literary criticism to one of the half-personal, half-moralising portraits just mentioned, with remarkable ease and skill. The titles of his chapters are rather more indicative of their actual contents than those of Montaigne's essays, but they represent, for the most part, merely very elastic frames, in which the author's various observations and reflections are mounted. The result of this variety, not to say desultoriness, combined as it is with the display of very great literary art, is that La Bruyère's is a book of almost unparalleled interest to take up and lay down at odd moments. Its apparently continuous form and its intermixture of narrative save it from the appearance of severity which the avowed Maxim or Pensée has; while the bond between the different chapters, and even the different paragraphs, is so slight that interruption is not felt to be annoying. Even now, when the zest of personal malice, which, as Malézieux remarked to the author, made him sure beforehand of 'plenty of readers and plenty of enemies,' is past, it is a most interesting book to read; and it is especially interesting to Englishmen, because there is no doubt that the English essayists of the Queen Anne school directly modelled themselves upon it.

It has been objected to La Bruyère that he is less of a thinker than of a clever writer, and there is truth in the objection. He was possessed of a remarkable shrewdness, common sense, and soundness of taste; thus, for instance, he protests energetically against the foolish pedantry which rejected as obsolete many of the most useful and most picturesque words in French, and so sets himself directly against the dominant and very unfortunate literary influence of his time, that of Boileau. Yet he himself wrote in the fashionable style, and in the language rather of Racine than of Corneille. A further objection, also a just one, is that his characters are too much of their age and not of all time. This objection, indeed, applies to almost all writers after 1660, except Molière, and La Fontaine, and La Rochefoucauld. But La Bruyère (though there are some sarcastic insinuations which seem to hint that his range was wider than he chose to show) is as unwilling to disentangle himself from Versailles and Paris as his English followers are to extend their gaze to something beyond 'the town.' Nor is there the force and vigour about La Bruyère's moral reflections that there is about La Rochefoucauld's. They are frequently commonplace, sometimes even platitudinous, and the author occasionally falls into what is perhaps the most dangerous pitfall for a moralist and social satirist, the adoption of stock butts and types. It is indeed most probable that La Bruyère was one of those who, according to a famous phrase of his enemy and successor, Fontenelle, 'may have their hands full of truth, but may not care to open more than their little finger.' He was not, like La Rochefoucauld, a great noble with the liberty of the Fronde in his mind, but a man of no exalted rank, living in the most absolute period of Louis the Fourteenth's rule. His remark that 'les grands sujets sont défendus' is a pregnant one, especially when it is remembered how near to the 'grands sujets' (as, for instance, in his oblique denunciation of the misery of the French peasantry) he sometimes goes. But his style, though looser than that of his forerunner, and destitute of the character of sharp and enduring sculpture which is impressed on the Maxims, is a model of ease, grace, and fluency without weakness271.

265 He has not recently been re-edited, but a selection was published in 1822.

266 Editions of Pascal are numerous, but a complete and definite one is still wanting. Of the Pensées, etc., the editions of Faugère, Havet, and Rocher may be mentioned; of the Provinciales, the edition of 1867.

267 Ed. Giraud. 3 vols. Paris, 1866. (A selection only, but containing almost everything of importance.)

268 Perhaps Anthony Hamilton should be added, as a channel of communication with Saint Evremond and some of the seventeenth century coterie-writers.

269 Ed. as before noticed. The Maxims have been constantly reprinted by themselves.

270 Ed. Servois. Paris, 1865-1882.

271 Under the head of this chapter, in an exhaustive history, not a few classes of writers might be ranged. Such are, besides great numbers of miscellaneous writers of criticism from Corneille in his Examens downwards, the classical commentators, editors, and translators. Few of these have left a very enduring reputation. In the earlier part of the century Perrot d'Ablancourt, a fertile translator, may be mentioned. His work was so free that his versions were called 'les belles infidèles,' but Boileau himself admitted that he was a master of French style. In the latter part the best-known and perhaps the most remarkable name is that of the still famous Madame Dacier. Many of the early members of the Academy, and some who never attained to its ranks, have left a reputation more anecdotic than strictly literary, such as Ménage (a representative of the class), Cotin, Costar, Bautru, etc. But they can only be alluded to here. Law also contributed in the person of Patru, a writer for the most part on professional topics, but occasionally on literature, who is ranked by Boileau with Perrot d'Ablancourt in respect of style.


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