A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 1.


Literary Degeneracy of the Eighteenth Century.

The literature of the eighteenth century, despite the many great names which adorn it, and the extraordinary practical influence which it exercised, is, from the point of view of strict literary criticism, which busies itself with form rather than matter, a period of decadence. In all the departments of Belles Lettres a servile imitation of the models of the great classical period is observable. The language, according to an inevitable process which the more clearsighted of the men of Louis the Fourteenth's time, such as Fénelon and La Bruyère, themselves foresaw and deprecated, became more and more incapable of expressing deep passion, varied scenery, the intricacies and eccentricities of character. For a time a few survivors of the older class and manner, such as Fontenelle, Saint Simon, Massillon, resisted the tendency of the age more or less successfully. As they one by one dropped off, the militant energy of the great philosophe movement, which may be said to coincide with the second and third quarters of the century, communicated a temporary brilliance to prose. But during the reign of Louis XVI., the Revolution and the Empire (for in the widest sense the eighteenth century of literature does not cease till the Restoration, or even later), the average literary value of what is written in French is but small, and, with few exceptions, what is valuable belongs to those who, consciously or unconsciously, were in an attitude of revolt, and were clearing the way for the men of 1830.

especially manifest in Poetry.

Poetry and the drama naturally suffered most from this course of events, and poetry pure and simple suffered even more than the drama. By the opening of the eighteenth century epic and lyric in the proper sense had been rendered nearly impossible by the full and apparently final adoption of the conception of poetry recommended by Malherbe, and finally rendered orthodox by Boileau. The impossibility was not recognised, and France, in the opinion of her own critics, at last got her epic poem in the Henriade, and her perfect lyrists in Rousseau and Lebrun. But posterity has not ratified these judgments. Fortunately, however, the men of the eighteenth century had in La Fontaine a model for lighter work which their principles permitted them to follow, and the irresistible attractions of the song left song-writers tolerably free from the fatal restrictions of dignified poetry. Once, towards the close of the century, a poet of exceptional genius, André Chénier, showed what he might have done under happier circumstances. But for the most part the history of poetry during this time in France is the history of verse almost uninspired by the poetic spirit, and destitute even of the choicer graces of poetic form.

J. B. Rousseau.

For convenience' sake it will be well to separate the graver and the lighter poets, and to treat each in order, with the proviso that in most cases those mentioned in the first division have some claim to figure in the second also, for few poets of the time were wholly serious. The first poet who is distinctively of the eighteenth century, and not the least remarkable, was Jean Baptiste Rousseau284 (1669-1741). Rousseau's life was a singular and rather an unfortunate one. In the first place he was exiled for a piece of scandalous literature, of which in all probability he was quite guiltless; and, in the second, meeting in his exile with Voltaire, who professed (and seems really to have felt) admiration for him, he offended the irritable disciple and was long the butt of his attacks. Here, however, Rousseau concerns us as a direct pupil of Boileau, who, with great faculties for the formal part of poetry, and not without some tincture of its spirit, set himself to be a lyric poet after Boileau's fashion. He tried play-writing also, but his dramas are quite unimportant. Rousseau's principal works are certain odes, most of which are either panegyrical after the fashion of the celebrated Namur specimen (though he is seldom so absurd as his master), or else sacred and drawn from the Bible. The Cantates are of the same kind as the latter. These elaborate and formal works, which owed much of their popularity to the vogue given to piety at court in the later years of Louis XVI., are curiously contrasted with the third principal division of his poems, consisting of epigrams which allow themselves the full epigrammatic licence in subject and treatment. The contrast is, however, probably due to a very simple cause, the state of demand at the time, and perhaps also to the study of Marot, the only pre-seventeenth century poet of France who was allowed to pass muster in the school of Boileau. Rousseau's merits have been already indicated, and his defects may be easily divined, even from this brief notice. He is almost always adroit, often eloquent, sometimes remarkably clever; but he is seldom other than artificial, never passionate, and only once or twice sublime. Nor is it superfluous to mention that he is more responsible than any other person for the intolerable frippery of classical mythology which loads eighteenth-century verse.

La Motte-Houdart (1672-1731), a successful dramatist, an excellent prose-writer, and an ingenious but paradoxical critic, was at the time considered Rousseau's rival in point of ode-making. His work displays the same defects in a greater and the same merits in a lesser degree, but his fables in the style of La Fontaine are not unhappy. Lagrange-Chancel, a partisan of the Duchess du Maine, is chiefly famous for his ferocious satires on the Duke of Orleans. Louis Racine (1692 — 1763), undeterred by his father's reputation and the dissuasion of the redoubtable Boileau, attempted poetry of a serious kind. He was brought up by the Jansenists, and his two chief works are poems on 'Grace' and 'Religion.' The latter is better than the former; but both exhibit a considerable faculty in the style of verse which his father had made fashionable. The 'Sacred Odes' of Louis Racine are, like most French poetry of the kind, stiff with a double mannerism, literary and devotional.


It would not be easy to give a clearer idea of the strange conception of poetry which prevailed in France at this time than is given in the simple statement that Voltaire was acknowledged to be its greatest poet. It is probable that few Englishmen think of Voltaire as a poet at all; and he has indeed no claim to the title except such as may be derived from his remarkable skill in the mechanism of the art of poetry, and from the extraordinary felicity of his light occasional pieces. It is, however, as a poet that he was chiefly regarded by his contemporaries; and though he will figure in almost every one of the chapters of this book, such brief notice of his life as can alone be attempted in this volume may best be given here. He was born in Paris in 1694, being the younger son of a wealthy notary. The Jesuits had charge of his education, and he very early displayed inclinations towards verse which were not agreeable to his father. His youth seemed destined to scrapes. He became identified with the party hostile to the Regent, and was twice imprisoned in the Bastile (the second time in consequence of no fault of his own), while he was at least twice bastinadoed by personal enemies. Being sent in the suite of an ambassador to Holland, he became entangled in a foolish love affair, and had to be hastily recalled. But by degrees his literary talent developed itself. His first visit to the Bastile is identified, more or less correctly, with the composition of Œdipe, his second with that of the Henriade. After his second release he had to go to England, and there the poem was published. He was soon enabled to return to France, and from that time forward was careful to keep himself out of difficulties by residing first with his friend, Madame du Châtelet, at the remote frontier château of Circy, then with Frederick II. at Berlin, then on the neutral territory of Switzerland, or close to its border, at Les Délices and Ferney. During the whole of his long life his literary production was incessant, and the form most congenial to him was poetry, or at least verse. Besides the Henriade, his only poem of great bulk is the scandalous burlesque epic of the Pucelle, nominally imitated from Ariosto, but destitute of the poetical feeling prominent in the Orlando. Voltaire's talent, however, was so much greater in the lighter kinds of poetry than in the severer, that the Pucelle is not only more amusing, but actually better as poetry, than the Henriade, the latter being stiff in plan and servilely modelled on the classical epics, declamatory in tone, tedious in action, and commonplace in character. Besides these two long poems Voltaire produced an immense quantity of miscellaneous work, tales in verse, epistles in verse, discourses in verse, satires, epigrams, vers de société of every possible kind. These are almost invariably distinguished by the felicity of expression — spoilt only by too close adherence to the mannerism of the time — the brilliant wit, the keen observation which are identified with the name of Voltaire. The number and the small individual size of these works make it impossible to particularise them here. But Le Pauvre Diable may be specified as an almost unique example of easy Horatian satire less conventional than most of its kind; and the verses to the Princess Ulrique of Prussia as a model of artificial but exquisitely polished gallantry in verse.

Descriptive Poets. Delille.

Le Franc de Pompignan had the misfortune to incur the enmity of Voltaire, and has consequently borne in France the traditional ignominy which in England hangs on certain victims of Dryden and Pope. He had, however, some poetical talent, which was shown principally in his ode on the death of J. B. Rousseau. The charming poem of Ver-Vert (the burlesque history of a parrot, the pet of a convent) made, and not unjustly, the reputation of Gresset. This reputation his other poetical works — though he wrote a comedy of much merit — failed to sustain. Saint Lambert, the rival of Voltaire in love if not in literature, imitated Thomson's Seasons very closely in a poem of the same name, which set the fashion of descriptive poetry in France for a considerable time. The three most remarkable of his followers, all considerably superior to himself in power, were Lemierre, Delille, and Roucher. Some paradoxical critics have endeavoured to make Lemierre into a great poet; but his poems (La Peinture, Les Fastes, etc.), written on ill-selected subjects and in a style full of conventional mannerism, have at best the occasional striking lines which are to be found in Armstrong and other followers of Young or Thomson in England. Jacques Delille and his extraordinary popularity form, perhaps, the greatest satire on the taste of the eighteenth century in France. His translation of the Georgics was supposed to make him the equal of Virgil, and brought him not merely fame, but solid reward. His principal work was the poem of Les Jardins, which he followed up with others of a not dissimilar kind. Though he emigrated he did not lose his fame, and to the day of his death was considered to be the first poet of France, or to share that honour with Lebrun-Pindare. Delille has expiated his popularity by a full half-century of contempt, and his work is, indeed, valueless as poetry. But it is interesting as one of the most striking examples of talent, adjusting itself exactly to the demands made on it. The age of Delille wished to see everything described in elegant periphrases, and the periphrases arranged in harmonious verses. Delille did this and nothing more. Chess is 'le jeu réveur qu'inventa Palamède.' Backgammon is 'le jeu bruyant où, le cornet en main, L'adroit joueur calcule un hasard incertain.' Sugar is 'le miel Américain Que du suc des roseaux exprima l'Africain.' In short, poetry becomes an elaborate conundrum; nothing is called by its proper name when a circumlocution is in any way possible. Given the demand, Delille may justly claim the honour of supplying it with unequalled adroitness. Roucher, the author of Les Mois, who fell a victim to the guillotine, was a member of this school, possessing not a little vigour, though he was not free from the defects of his predecessors. To these may, perhaps, be joined the pastoral and idyllic poet Léonard.


It has been said that the glory of Delille as the greatest poet of the last quarter of the century was shared by a writer whom his contemporaries surnamed (absurdly enough) Pindar. Escouchard Lebrun had a strange resemblance to J. B. Rousseau, of whom, however, he was by no means a warm admirer. Like his forerunner, he divided his time between bombastic lyrics and epigrams of very considerable merit. Lebrun was not destitute of a certain force, but his time was too much for him. He was a very long-lived man, and in his old age celebrated by turns the Republic and Bonaparte. His chief rivals as poets of the Republic were M. J. Chénier and the hunchback Desorgues, a voluminous and vigorous but crude and unfinished writer, who died in a madhouse at the age of forty-five.

Two young poets, who lived about the middle of the century, are usually mentioned together, from the fact of the younger of them having used the misfortunes of the elder to point his own complaints. Malfilâtre, a Norman by birth, had the ill-luck to write a piece of verse which gained a provincial success. He at once set out for Paris to make his fortune. He obtained the post of secretary to the Count de Lauraguais, wrote verses not without grace and full of a certain tender melancholy, and died at the age of thirty, his health broken by privations and disappointment. Gilbert, a stronger man, but who has been somewhat honoured by being called the French Chatterton, died still younger, after writing some vigorous satire, and a 'complaint' or elegy which has a good deal of pathos. But he did not, as is generally said, die of want, though he did die in a public hospital, having been carried thither after a fall from his horse.


The places accorded by their contemporaries to Delille and Lebrun really belonged to two writers of very different character and fortune, Parny and André Chénier. Evariste de Parny, a native of the island of Bourbon, was called by the aged Voltaire 'mon cher Tibulle,' and displays, with much of the frivolity and false gallantry of the time, an extraordinary command of simple elegiac verse, and a manner almost antique in its simplicity and sweetness. Parny's best piece, a short epitaph on a young girl, is one of the best things of its kind in literature. His merits, however, are confined to his early works. In his maturer years he wrote long poems, on the model of the Pucelle, against England, Christianity, and Monarchism, which are equally remarkable for blasphemy, obscenity, extravagance, and dulness. His friend Bertin, like him a creole, resembled him in the command of graceful elegiac and epistolary verse, but had not what Parny sometimes had, genuine passion.


André Marie de Chénier285, beyond question the greatest poet of the eighteenth century in France, was born at Constantinople, where his father was consul-general, in 1762. His mother was a Greek. His family returned to France when he was a child; he was educated carefully, and for a short time served in the army, but soon left it. After a time he was attached (in 1787) to the French embassy in London. Here he spent four years. Returning to France he sympathised, but on the moderate side, with the Revolution. The growth of the Jacobin spirit horrified him, and the excesses of the summer of 1792 decided his attitude and his fate. He wrote frequently in the Journal de Paris, the organ of the moderate royalist party. Although he did not in any way put himself forward, he was at last arrested in March, 1794, and was guillotined on the seventh Thermidor, two days only before the event which would have saved him, the fall of Robespierre. His poems were not published till long after his death, and the text of them is even now in an unsatisfactory condition, many having been left unfinished and uncorrected by the author. André Chénier is sometimes considered as a precursor of the Romantic reform, but this is a mistake. His critical comments on Shakespeare and other writers, his favourite studies, which were confined to the Greek and Latin classics and the humanists of the Italian Renaissance, above all his poems themselves, prove the contrary. A Greek by birthplace, and half a Greek by blood, his tastes and standards were wholly classical. But the fire and force of his poetical genius made the blood circulate afresh in the veins of the old French classical tradition, without, however, permanently strengthening or renovating it. The poetry of Chénier is still in the main the poetry of Racine, though with infinitely more glow of colour and variety of harmony. His poems are mostly antique in their titles and plan, eclogues, elegies, and so forth, and are not free from a certain artificiality inseparable from the style. La Jeune Tarentine, La Jeune Captive, L'Aveugle, and some others, are of extreme merit, and all over his work (much of which is in the most fragmentary condition) lines and phrases of extraordinary beauty are scattered. The noble Iambes, or political and satirical poems, which he wrote in prison, just before his death, bear out, perhaps better than anything else, his well-known saying, as he touched his head when sentence had been passed, 'et pourtant il y avait quelque chose là.'

Minor Poets.

A few other poets or verse-makers of merit before the revival of poetry proper must be rapidly noticed. The fable of La Fontaine was cultivated vigorously, in particular by Florian, a favourite pupil of Voltaire, who will reappear in these pages. Florian's fables are graceful copies of his master. Those of Arnault, with less grace, have more originality; often, indeed, Arnault's short moral poems are not so much fables as what used to be called in English 'emblems.' The most famous of these, which of itself deserves to keep Arnault's memory green, is 'La Feuille.' Marie Joseph Chénier, the younger brother of André, and, unlike him, a fervent republican, is chiefly known as a dramatist. He had, however, a vein of satirical verse, which was not commonplace. Another dramatist, Andrieux, also deserves mention in passing. Superior to either of these as a poet, and wanting only the good-fortune of having been born a little later, was Nepomucène Lemercier, a playwright of no small merit, and a poet of extraordinary but unequal vigour. The Panhypocrisiade, a kind of satirical epic par personnages (to use the old French expression for a dramatic narrative), is his principal work, and a very remarkable one. Last of all have to be mentioned Fontanes and Chênedollé, who are the characteristic poets of the Empire, with the exception of an epic school of no value. The chief importance of Fontanes in literature is derived not from any performances of his own, but from the fact that he was the appointed intermediary between Napoleon and the men of letters of the time, and was able to exercise a good deal of useful patronage. Chênedollé was in production, if not in publication, for he published late in life, a precursor of Lamartine, much of whose style and manner may be found in him. An amiable appreciation of natural beauty, and a tendency to facile pathos, derived from the contemplation of natural objects, distinguish him from his predecessors.

Light verse. Piron.

The vigorous, if not always edifying, work of the song-writers and authors of vers de société during this century remains to be noticed. The example of La Fontaine's tales was followed by many writers of more talent than scruple, but their literary value is not sufficient to entitle them to a place here. No history of French literature, however, would be complete without a notice of Piron, the greatest epigrammatist of France, and one of her keenest and brightest wits. Piron's temper was an idle one, and he did little solid work in literature, except his epigrams and one comedy, La Métromanie. He wrote many vaudevilles and operettas, and no one, with the possible exception of Catullus, has ever excelled him in the art of packing in a few light and graceful lines the greatest possible quantity of malicious wit. Panard, also a vaudevillist, is remarkable for the number and excellence of his drinking songs, and the variety and melody of their rhythm. Collé, author of amusing but spiteful memoirs, and, like Piron and Panard, a writer of comic operettas, excelled rather in the political chanson. Gentil Bernard, the Cardinal de Bernis, the Abbé Boufflers, and Dorat, were all writers of vers de société, the last being much the best. Their style of writing was frivolous and conventional in the extreme, but long practice and the vogue which it enjoyed in French society had brought it to something like the condition of a fine art. Dorat was surnamed by a contemporary the 'glowworm of Parnassus.' The expression was not an unhappy one, and may be fairly applied to the other authors who have been mentioned in his company. He himself was a rather voluminous author in different styles. The literary baggage of the others is not heavy. Vadé, a writer of light and trifling verse, who died comparatively young, devoted himself to composing poems in the 'poissard' dialect of Paris, which are among the best of such things. At the close of the century, and deserving more particular notice, appeared Désaugiers, the best light song-writer of France, with the single exception of Béranger, and preferred to him by some critics. Désaugiers escaped the revolution by good fortune, had a short but rather adventurous career of foreign travel, and then settled down to vaudeville-writing, song-making, and jovial living in Paris. He was a great frequenter of the Caveau, a kind of irregular club of men of letters which had been instituted by Piron and his friends, and which long continued to be a literary and social rendezvous. Désaugiers was the last of the older class of Chansonniers, who relied chiefly on love and wine for their subjects, and who, if they touched on politics at all, touched on them merely from the personal and satirical point of view, with occasional indulgence in cheap patriotism. His songs have great sweetness and ease, but they contain nothing that can compare with Béranger in his more serious and pathetic mood286.

This is a sketch, necessarily and designedly rapid, of the poetical history of the eighteenth century in France. The matter thus rapidly treated is of no small interest to professed students of literature; it abounds in curious social indications; it gives frequent instances of the extremest ingenuity applied to somewhat unworthy use. But in the history of the literature as a whole, and to those who have to regard it not as a collection of curiosities, but as a fruitful field of great and noble work, it cannot but be of subordinate interest, and as such requires but cursory treatment here287.

284 Editions of almost all authors of any merit from the beginning of the eighteenth century are common and accessible enough. They will, therefore, not be specially indicated henceforward unless there is some special reason for the citation, such as the peculiar elegance or literary merit of a particular edition, or else the comparative rarity of the book in any form.

285 Chénier has been somewhat unfortunate in his editors. The only complete and accurate edition (though it is far from perfect) is that of M. Gabriel de Chénier. 3 vols. 1879.

286 Excellent selections from many of these lighter poets have recently been put forth under the editorship of M. Octave Uzanne.

287 Rouget de L'Isle, the author of the famous Marseillaise, deserves mention for that only. He published poems, but their singular difference from, and inferiority to, his masterpiece were the chief causes of the scepticism (apparently ill-founded) which has sometimes been displayed as to his authorship of it.


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