A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Interchapter iv.

Summary of Eighteenth-century Literature.

The eighteenth century was pre-eminently the century of academic literature in France: far more so than the seventeenth, which had seen the foundation of the Académie Française. The word 'academy' in this sense was an invention of the Italian humanists, prompted by their Platonic, or perhaps by their Ciceronian, studies. Academies, or coteries of men of letters who united love of society with the cultivation of literature, became common in Italy during the sixteenth century, and from Italy were translated to France. The famous society, which now shares with the original school of Plato the honour of being designated in European language as 'The Academy' without distinguishing epithet, was originally nothing but one of these coteries or clubs, which met at the house of the judicious and amiable, but not particularly learned, Conrart. Conrart's influence with Richelieu, the desire of the latter to secure a favourable tribunal of critics for his own literary attempts, or (to be generous) his foresight and his appreciation of the genius of the French language, determined the Cardinal to establish this society. It was modestly endowed, and was charged with the duty of composing an authoritative Dictionary of the French literary language; a task the slow performance of which has been a stock subject of ridicule for two centuries and a half. The Academy, though it suffered some vicissitudes in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, has survived all changes, and is virtually one of the most ancient existing institutions of France. But, though it from the beginning enjoyed royal and ministerial favour, it was long before it collected a really representative body of members, and it was subjected at first to a good deal of raillery. One of Saint Evremond's early works was a Comédie des Académistes; while one of the most polished and severe of his later prose critical studies is a 'Dissertation on the word "Vaste,"' in which the tendency of the Academy to trifling discussions (the curse of all literary societies), the literary indolence of its members, and the pedagogic limitations of its critical standards, are bitterly, though most politely, ridiculed. It did itself little good by lending its name to be the cover for Richelieu's jealousy of the Cid, though there is more justice in its examen of that famous play than is sometimes supposed. But the institution was thoroughly germane to the nature, tastes, and literary needs of the French people, and it prospered. Conrart was a tower of strength to it; and in the next generation the methodical and administrative talents of Perrault were of great service, while it so obviously helped the design of Louis XIV. to play the Augustus, that a tradition of royal patronage, which was not afterwards broken, was established. The greatest blots on the Academy were the almost unavoidable servility which rewarded this patronage, and the private rivalries and cliques which have occasionally kept some of the greatest names of French literature out of its lists. Molière and Diderot are the most shining examples among these, but many others keep them company. Nevertheless, by the end of the seventeenth century at least, it became the recognised aim of every Frenchman of letters to belong to the 'forty geese that guard the Capitol' of French literature, as Diderot, not quite a disinterested witness, called them. Throughout the eighteenth century their power was supreme. Competition for the various academic prizes was, in the infancy of periodicals, the easiest and the commonest method by which a struggling man of letters could make himself known; and literary heresy of any kind was an almost certain cause of exclusion from the body when once the dictatorship of Fontenelle (a benevolent autocrat who, being something of a heretic himself, tolerated freethinking in others) had ceased. Moreover, except in rare cases, chiefly limited to persons of rank who were elected for reasons quite other than literary, it was not usual for an author to gain admission to the Academy until he was well stricken in years, and until, as a natural consequence, his tastes were for the most part formed, and he was impatient of innovation.

At first the influence of the Academy was beyond question salutary in the main, if not wholly. Balzac, whose importance in the history of prose style has been pointed out, was one of its earliest members. It was under its wing that Vaugelas undertook the much-needed enquiry into French grammar and its principles as applied to literature. The majority of the early members were connected with the refining and reforming coteries of the Rambouillet and other salons. It was somewhat slow in electing Boileau, though it is to be feared that this arose from no higher motive than the fact that he had satirised most of its members. But Boileau was the natural guiding spirit of an Academy, and it fell more and more under his influence — not so much his personal influence as that of his principles and critical estimates. In short, during the seventeenth century it played the very useful part of model and measure in the midst of a time when the chief danger was the neglect of measures and of models, and it played it very fairly. But by the time that the eighteenth century began, it was by no means of a restraining and guiding influence that France had most need. The exuberance of creative genius between 1630 and 1690 had supplied literature with actual models far more valuable than any scheme of cut-and-dried rules, and it was in need rather of a stimulant to spur it on to further development. Instead of serving as this, the Academy served (owing, it must be confessed, in great part to the literary conservatism of Voltaire and the philosophes generally) as a check and drag upon the spontaneous instincts all through the century, and in all the departments of Belles Lettres. It contributed more than anything else to the mischievous crystallisation of literary ideas, which during this time offers so strange a contrast to the singular state of solution in which were all ideas relating to religion, politics, and morals. The consequence of the propounding of a set of consecrated models, of the constant competition in imitation of those models, and of the reward of diligent and successful imitation by admission into the body, which in its turn nursed and guided a new generation of imitators, was the reduction of large and important departments of literature to a condition of cut-and-driedness which has no parallel in history. The drama in particular, which was artificial and limited at its best, was reduced to something like the state of a game in which every possible move or stroke is known and registered, and in which the sole novelty consists in contriving some permutation of these moves or strokes which shall be, if possible, not absolutely identical with any former combination. So in a lesser degree, it was in poetry, in history, in prose tales, in verse tales. If a man had a loose imagination, he tried to imitate La Fontaine as well as he could in manner, and outbid him in matter; if he thought himself an epigrammatist, he copied J. B. Rousseau; if he was disposed to edification, the same poet supplied him with models; if the gods had made him descriptive, he executed variations in the style of Delille, or Saint Lambert, who had themselves copied others; if he wrote in any other style, he had an eye to the work of Voltaire. Neologism in vocabulary was carefully eschewed, and a natural consequence of this was the resort (in the struggle not to repeat merely) to elaborate and ingenious periphrases, such as those which have been quoted in the chapter on eighteenth-century poetry. In short, literature had got into a sort of treadmill in which all the effort expended was expended merely in the repeated production of certain prescribed motions.

It was partly a natural result of this, and partly an effect of other and accidental causes, that the actual composition of the Academy was in the first quarter of the nineteenth century by no means such as to inspire much respect. But it was all the less likely to initiate or to head any movement of reform. The consequence was, that when the reform came, it came from the outside, not from the inside, that it was violently opposed, and that, though it prevailed, and its leaders themselves quickly forced their way into the sacred precincts, it was as victorious rebels, not as welcomed allies. The further consequence of this, and of the changes of which account will be given briefly in the following book, was the alteration to a great extent of the status of the Academy. It still (though with the old reproach of illustrious outsiders) includes most of the leading men of letters of France, and its membership is still, theoretically, the greatest honour that a French man of letters can receive. But its position is far more ornamental than it was. It hardly pretends to be in any sense legislative: it is an honorary assembly, not a working parliament. The chief circumstance that keeps it before the public is the curious and time-honoured custom which ordains that the academician appointed to receive each new member shall, in the most polished and amiable manner, give the most ironical description he can of the novice's achievements and claims to recognition.

The exact change in literature which has partly caused, and has partly coincided with this change in the relation of the Academy to letters, will shortly be displayed, though in somewhat less detail than those changes which are at a sufficient distance to be estimated by the aid of what has been well called 'the firm perspective of the past.' For cut-and-dried rules of criticism, carefully selected and limited models, narrow range of subject, scanty vocabulary and its corollary periphrasis, stock metaphor and ornament, stiff or fluidly insignificant metre and rhythm, there have been substituted the exact opposites. The gain in poetry is immense, and if it seems to be somewhat exhausted now, it is fair to remember that fifty years is a long flowering time for any special poetic plant, not often equalled in history, and still less often exceeded. The gain in prose has been more dubious. Great prose writers will have to be noticed, but it may perhaps be doubted whether the average value of French prose as prose has not declined. There would be nothing surprising in this, if it be the case; on the contrary, it would be a mere repetition of the experience of the sixteenth century. The language and literature have been flooded with new words, new forms of speech, new ideas, new models. It takes a very long time before the mixture thus produced can settle down (at least in the vessel of the average prose writer) to clearness and brilliancy. It is otherwise in poetry; in the first place because there is no such thing as an average poet, and in the second, because the peculiar conditions of poetry exercise of themselves a refining influence, which is not present in prose. At present it may be said, and not without truth, that, putting the work of the extraordinary writers aside, ordinary French prose has lost some of its former graces — its lucidity, its proportion, its easy march. From being the most childishly prudish of all writers about neologisms and the mot propre, the French prose writer has become the most clumsily promiscuous in his vocabulary. He is always using 'square' instead of 'place,' 'le macadam' instead of 'le pavé,' 'un caoutchouc' when he means a waterproof overcoat. Much of this, no doubt, is due to the singular inability which the language seems to experience in forming genuine vernacular compounds; an inability from which a few more persons like the much ridiculed Du Bartas might have rescued it. But, however this may be, it must be admitted that, great as have been the benefits of the Romantic movement, it has left the ordinary French prose style of novel and newspaper in a condition of indigestion and disarray.

As for the movement itself, the most brilliant season of romantic productiveness seems to have terminated, after being long represented only by its greatest, earliest, and at the same time latest name. The comparative disorganisation is all the more noticeable. It is in this disorganisation that our history perforce leaves the magnificent literature which we have traced from its source. Unsafe as all prophecy is, there are few things less safe to prophesy about than the progress of literary development. But it is not historically unreasonable to expect, after the splendid harvest of the last half century, what is called a dead season, of longer or shorter duration. There is nothing really discouraging in such seasons either in nature or in art. In each case there is the garnered wealth of the past to fall back upon, and in each there is confidence that the seeming stagnation and death are in truth only the necessary pause and period of gestation which precede and bring about the life of the future.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00