A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury


In the five books of this History the reader has, it is believed, before him a sufficient though necessarily brief description of the various men and works whereof knowledge is desirable to enable him to perceive the main outlines of the course of French literature. In the interchapters some attempt has been made to sum up the general phenomena of that literature as distinguished from its particular accomplishments during the chief periods of its development. Beyond this neither the scale of the book, nor its plan as indicated in the preface, has permitted of indulgence in generalising criticism. But it has been suggested by authorities whose competence is not disputable that something in the nature of a summary of these summaries, pointing out briefly the general history, accomplishments, and peculiarities of the French tongue in its literary aspect during the ten centuries of its existence, is required, if only for the sake of a symmetrical conclusion. It may be urged on the other side that the history of literature — like all other histories, and perhaps more than all other histories — is never really complete, and that there is consequently some danger in attempting at any given time to treat it as finished. He must have been a miraculously acute critic who, if he had attempted such treatment of the present subject sixty or seventy years ago, would not have found his results ludicrously falsified by the event but few years afterwards. But this drawback only applies to generalisation of the pseudo-scientific kind which attempts to predict: it can be easily guarded against by attending to the strict duties of the historian and, without attempting to speak of the future, dealing only with the actually accomplished past.

The first thing, and perhaps the most important thing, which must strike anyone who looks upon French literature as a whole, is that, taking all conditions together, it is the most complete example of a regularly and independently developed national literature that presents itself anywhere. It is no doubt inferior in the point of independence to Greek, but then it has a much longer course, considered as the exponent of national character. It has a shorter course than English, and it is not more generally expository of national characteristics; but then it is for a great part of that course infinitely more independent of foreign influences, and, unlike English, it has scarcely any breaks or dead seasons in its record. Compared with Latin (which as a literature may be said to be entirely modelled on Greek) it is exceptionally original: compared with Spanish and Italian it has been exceptionally long-lived and hale in its life: compared with German it was exceptionally early in attaining the full possession of its faculties. Just as (putting aside minor and somewhat pedantic considerations) no country in Europe has so long and so independently developed a political history, so in none has literary history developed itself more independently and for a longer space of continuous time. No foreign invasion sensibly affects the French tongue; no foreign influence sensibly alters the course of French literature. It has been shown at intervals during this history how little direct influence classical models had on the original forms of literature in France, how completely German and Celtic contributions of subject were assimilated, how the Provençal examples of form were rather independently followed than literally or slavishly adopted. The dawn or rather the twilight of the Renaissance seemed to threaten a more powerful and dangerous admixture. But the native genius of the language triumphed, and finally, in the Pléiade reforms, reduced to harmlessness the Rhétoriqueur innovations and the simultaneous danger of Italianising. The criticism of Malherbe, harmful in some ways, served as a counterpoise to the danger of Spanish influence which was considerable in the early years of the seventeenth century, and by the eighteenth the idiosyncrasy of French was so strong that, great as was the effect successively produced by English and by German, it was unable to do more than slightly modify French literature itself. Yet again the singular αυταρκεια of French may be seen by turning from its general accomplishments at different times to its particular forms. No one of these was directly adopted from any foreign, not even from any classical example, with the doubtful exception of the classical tragedy. The French made their own epic, their own lyric, their own comic and miscellaneous drama. They may be said almost to have invented the peculiar and striking kind of history called the memoir, which has characteristics distinguishing it radically from the classical commentary. They apparently invented the essay, and though they only borrowed the beast-fable, they are entitled to the credit of having seen in it the germ of the short verse tale which has no direct moral bearing. All the nations of Europe, so to speak, sent during the middle ages their own raw material of subject to be worked up by French or French-speaking men into literary form. France therefore gives (next to Greece, and in some respects even before Greece) the most instructive and trustworthy example extant of the chronology and order of spontaneous literary development — first poetry, then drama, then prose: in poetry, first epic, then lyric, then didactic and miscellaneous verse: in drama, first ceremonial and liturgic pieces, then comedy, then artificial tragedy: in prose, first history, then miscellaneous work, and lastly artificial and elaborate fiction. It is a curious and somewhat complex phenomenon that the cycle which began with verse fiction should apparently end with fiction in prose, but the foregoing pages will have shewn sufficiently how dangerous it would be to generalise from this.

One thing however may be safely concluded from the mere fact of this remarkable resistance to foreign influence, or rather from the still more remarkable power of assimilation which this resistance implies. The literature which has been able to exert both must have very strongly marked general characteristics of its own. As a matter of fact French literature has these characteristics: and a brief enumeration and description of them may complete, more appropriately than anything else could do, the survey of its history. French literature, notwithstanding the revolution of fifty years ago, is generally and rightly held to be the chief representative among the greater European literatures of the classical rather than the romantic spirit. It is therefore necessary to define what is meant by these much controverted terms; and the definition which best expresses the views of the present writer is one somewhat modified from the definition given by Heine. The terms classic and romantic apply to treatment not to subject, and the difference is that the treatment is classic when the idea is represented as directly and with as exact an adaptation of form as possible, while it is romantic when the idea is left to the reader's faculty of divination assisted only by suggestion and symbol. Of these two modes of treatment France has always inclined to the classic: during at least two centuries, the seventeenth and eighteenth, she relied upon it almost wholly. But the fertility of her mediaeval and Renaissance literature in strictly romantic examples, and the general tendency of the literature of the nineteenth century, have shewn a romantic faculty inferior, but only inferior, to the classical. To illustrate this statement by a contrast, it may be pointed out that in Greek the romantic element is almost in abeyance, while in English all without exception of our greatest masterpieces have been purely romantic. Or to put the matter in yet other words, the sense of the vague is, among authors of the highest rank, rarely present to a Greek, always present to an Englishman, and alternately present and absent, but oftener absent, to a Frenchman.

The qualities which this general differentia has developed in French may now be enumerated.

The first is a great and remarkable sobriety. It is true that there is nothing more extravagant than an extravagant Frenchman, but that is the natural result of reaction. As a rule, the contributions of matter which France received so abundantly from other nations are always toned and sobered by her in their literary formation. The main materials of her wonderful mediaeval literature of fiction were furnished by Wales, by Germany, and by the East; all of them, to judge by the later but more or less independent handlings which we have from indigenous sources, must have teemed with the supernatural. In the Chansons de Gestes, in the Arthurian romances, and even in the earlier Romans d'Aventures, the supernatural, though recognised as became a devout age and country, is yet to a certain extent rationalised. It rarely obtrudes itself, and it still more rarely presents itself with exaggerated attributes. A continual spirit of criticism exhibits itself throughout French literature; it always, as represented by its most numerous and on the whole most famous representatives, tends to order, to measure, to symmetry.

The next characteristic is abundant and almost superabundant wit. The terms wit and humour have been argued over even more than classical and romantic, and it is equally impossible to enter into the controversy here. Suffice it to say that, according to the most satisfactory definition of humour (thinking in jest while feeling in earnest), wit might be defined to be thinking in jest without interrogating the consciousness as to whether the feeling is earnest or not. At a very early period, as soon indeed as the French spirit had thoroughly emerged from its German-Latin-Celtic swaddling clothes, this faculty of half reckless thinking in jest made its appearance. In classical literature wit is notoriously absent with rare exceptions (Aristophanes and Lucian being almost the only ones of importance); in scarcely any other modern literature does it make its appearance early. But it shows in French by the twelfth century, and it increases during every century that succeeds: while joined to sobriety it begets that satirical criticism, which is so noteworthy a secondary product of French.

A third quality closely connected with the two former but not, like satirical criticism, simply derived from them, is the close attention to form which has always distinguished French. At the present time, despite the great advance made by other literatures and a certain falling off in itself, French prose is on the average superior in formal merit to any other prose written in a modern language. If we look back for eight hundred years, French verse is found to be more carefully and artistically arranged than the corresponding poetical beginnings of any other European country. In the excogitation of careful rules and the deft carrying out of those rules no literature can on the whole approach this except Greek. No literature therefore, with that exception, gives so much of the pleasure which is given by the spectacle of not unreasonable difficulty skilfully overcome in a game which is well played.

A fourth merit is to be found in the inventiveness of Frenchmen of letters. In no literature is there a greater variety, and in none is that variety so obviously the effect not of happy blundering but of organised and almost scientific development of the possibilities of art. The wonderful fertility with which the early Trouvères handled and re-handled the motives of the Arthurian and Carlovingian legends has been noticed; and, as a very different but complementary instance, the surprising success and variety with which a scheme so limited as that of the classical tragedy was applied, deserves mention. At the present day in one important department of literature (the drama) inventiveness is almost limited to Frenchmen, and there are few periods of their present history at which they have not in this respect led the van in one department or in another.

Yet another characteristic must be noted, which is, in respect to matter, the complement of the already mentioned attention to form. This is the singular clearness and precision with which not merely the greatest Frenchmen of letters, but all save the least, are accustomed to put their meaning. Whereas the two great classical languages, from the licence of order given by their abundant inflections and complicated syntax, are sometimes enigmatic; whereas German notoriously lends itself to the wrapping up of a simple meaning in a cloud of words; whereas English seems to encourage those who use it not indeed to obscurity but to desultoriness and beating about the bush, French properly used is almost automatically clear and precise. Rivarol's somewhat sententious conceit that the French language has a 'probité attachée à son génie' is not a conceit merely. That this lucidity is sometimes accompanied by want of depth is quite true, but it is equally true that it is often mistaken for it. There is no want of depth in Descartes or in Malebranche, yet there are no clearer writers in the whole range of philosophic literature.

To these main characteristics others which are in a way corollaries might be added, such as urbanity, ease, ready adaptation to different classes of subject, and the like. But those already dwelt upon are the principal, and they have sufficed to make French, as far as general usefulness and interest go, the best vehicle of expression in prose among European languages. In poetry it is not quite the same. Most of the qualities just enumerated are in poetry but of secondary use, some of them are almost directly unfavourable to the vagueness, the indefinite suggestion, the 'making the common uncommon,' which are necessary to poetry. The clearness of French prose has a tendency to become colourless in French poetry, its sobriety turns to the bald, its wit to conceits and prettinesses, its inventiveness to an undue reliance on complicated devices for creating an artificial attraction, its sense of form and rule to dryness and lack of passion. Moreover the merely sonorous qualities of French render it a difficult instrument for the production of varied poetical sounds. It is almost wholly destitute of quantity, and the intonation which supplies that want is of such a kind that hardly any foot but the iambus is possible in it. On the other hand its terminations admit of elaborate and harmonious rhymes (indeed French poetry without rhyme is a practical impossibility), and the abundance of mute e endings has facilitated the adoption of an artificial source of variation of sound in the so-called 'masculine and feminine' rhyming which is in its perfection almost peculiar to the language. With these aids and by the most elaborate attention to metre and euphony, the great poets of France have been enabled to surmount to a very large extent the corresponding difficulties of their prosody. But they have not on the whole been equally fortunate in surmounting the difficulties caused by the very genius of the language — the clear, sober, critical ethos of French. This is an enemy to mystery, to vagueness, to what may be called the twilight of sense — all things more or less necessary to the highest poetry. It will not I think be alleged by any impartial reader of this book that its author is insensible to the majesty or to the charm of French verse. But it is impossible for me to admit that that majesty and that charm are shewn in the highest degree (in the degree in which not merely Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Shelley, Heine, shew them, but many minor names in Greek, in English, and in German), by any but a very few Frenchmen, and by these in more than comparatively few places. A very competent and obliging French critic has said that it is impossible for any Frenchman to agree with me exactly in my estimate of La Fontaine, and probably there is no better instance than La Fontaine of the fundamental difference of conception of poetry which corresponds to the English channel. Inexhaustibly inventive, full of criticism of life, a master of harmonious language, managing rhythms and metres with a skill only the more artful that it seems so artless, La Fontaine yet has too little of dawn or sunset, still less of twilight or moonlight, too much of the light of common day to deserve, according to my estimate, the title of poet in the highest degree. The same may be said of most other French poets except a few who are to be found almost exclusively in the middle ages, in the Renaissance, and in the nineteenth century. Only in one form of the highest poetry, the passionate declamation which is in effect oratory of the most picturesque kind, France has never been wanting, and in this she has for half the time been mightily helped by the possession of the magnificent Alexandrine metre.

294At the close of the eleventh century and at the beginning of the twelfth we find the vulgar tongue in France not merely in full organisation for literary purposes, but already employed in most of the forms of poetical writing. An immense outburst of epic and narrative verse has taken place, and lyrical poetry, not limited as in the case of the epics to the north of France, but extending from Roussillon to the Pas de Calais, completes this. The twelfth century adds to these earliest forms the important development of the mystery, extends the subjects and varies the manner of epic verse, and begins the compositions of literary prose with the chronicles of St. Denis and of Villehardouin, and the prose romances of the Arthurian cycle. All this literature is so far connected purely with the knightly and priestly orders, though it is largely composed and still more largely dealt in by classes of men, trouvères and jongleurs, who are not necessarily either knights or priests, and in the case of the jongleurs are certainly neither. With a possible ancestry of Romance and Teutonic cantilenæ, Breton lais, and vernacular legends, the new literature has a certain pattern and model in Latin and for the most part ecclesiastical compositions. It has the sacred books and the legends of the saints for examples of narrative, the rhythm of the hymns for a guide to metre, and the ceremonies of the church for a stimulant to dramatic performance. By degrees also in this twelfth century forms of literature which busy themselves with the unprivileged classes begin to be born. The fabliau takes every phase of life for its subject; the folk-song acquires elegance and does not lose raciness and truth. In the next century, the thirteenth, mediaeval literature in France arrives at its zenith and remains there until the first quarter of the fourteenth. The early epics lose something of their savage charm, the polished literature of Provence quickly perishes. But in the provinces which speak the more prevailing tongue nothing is wanting to literary development. The language itself has shaken off all its youthful incapacities, and, though not yet well adapted for the requirements of modern life and study, is in every way equal to the demands made upon it by its own time. The dramatic germ contained in the fabliau and quickened by the mystery produces the profane drama. Ambitious works of merit in the most various kinds are published; Aucassin et Nicolette stands side by side with the Histoire de Saint Louis, the Jeu de la Feuillie with the Miracle de Théophile, the Roman de la Rose with the Roman du Renart. The earliest notes of ballade and rondeau are heard; endeavours are made with zeal, and not always without understanding, to naturalise the wisdom of the ancients in France, and in the graceful tongue that France possesses. Romance in prose and verse, drama, history, songs, satire, oratory, and even erudition, are all represented and represented worthily. Meanwhile all nations of Western Europe have come to France for their literary models and subjects, and the greatest writers in English, German, Italian, content themselves with adaptations of Chrétien de Troyes, of Benoist de Sainte More, and of a hundred other known and unknown trouvères and fabulists. But this age does not last long. The language has been put to all the uses of which it is as yet capable; those uses in their sameness begin to pall upon reader and hearer; and the enormous evils of the civil and religious state reflect themselves inevitably in literature. The old forms die out or are prolonged only in half-lifeless travesties. The brilliant colouring of Froissart, and the graceful science of ballade- and rondeau-writers like Lescurel and Deschamps, alone maintain the literary reputation of the time. Towards the end of the fourteenth century the translators and political writers import many terms of art, and strain the language to uses for which it is as yet unhandy, though at the beginning of the next age Charles d'Orléans by his natural grace and the virtue of the forms he used, emerges from the mass of writers. Throughout the fifteenth century the process of enriching or at least increasing the vocabulary goes on, but as yet no organising hand appears to direct the process. Villon stands alone in merit as in peculiarity. But in this time dramatic literature and the literature of the floating popular broadsheet acquire an immense extension — all or almost all the vigour of spirit being concentrated in the rough farce and rougher lampoon, while all the literary skill is engrossed by insipid rhétoriqueurs and pedants. Then comes the grand upheaval of the Renaissance and the Reformation. An immense influx of science, of thought to make the science living, of new terms to express the thought, takes place, and a band of literary workers appear of power enough to master and get into shape the turbid mass. Rabelais, Amyot, Calvin, and Herberay fashion French prose; Marot, Ronsard, and Regnier refashion French verse. The Pléiade introduces the drama as it is to be and the language that is to help the drama to express itself. Montaigne for the first time throws invention and originality into some other form than verse or than prose fiction. But by the end of the century the tide has receded. The work of arrangement has been but half done, and there are no master spirits left to complete it. At this period Malherbe and Balzac make their appearance. Unable to deal with the whole problem, they determine to deal with part of it, and to reject a portion of the riches of which they feel themselves unfit to be stewards. Balzac and his successors make of French prose an instrument faultless and admirable in precision, unequalled for the work for which it is fit, but unfit for certain portions of the work which it was once able to perform. Malherbe, seconded by Boileau, makes of French verse an instrument suited only for the purposes of the drama of Euripides, or rather of Seneca, with or without its chorus, and for a certain weakened echo of that chorus, under the name of lyrics. No French verse of the first merit other than dramatic is written for two whole centuries. The drama soon comes to its acme, and during the succeeding time usually maintains itself at a fairly high level until the death of Voltaire. But prose lends itself to almost everything that is required of it, and becomes constantly a more and more perfect instrument. To the highest efforts of pathos and sublimity its vocabulary and its arrangement are still unsuited, though the great preachers of the seventeenth century do their utmost with it. But for clear exposition, smooth and agreeable narrative, sententious and pointed brevity, witty repartee, it soon proves itself to have no superior and scarcely an equal in Europe. In these directions practitioners of the highest skill apply it during the seventeenth century, while during the eighteenth its powers are shown to the utmost of their variety by Voltaire, and receive a new development at the hands of Rousseau. Yet, on the whole, it loses during this century. It becomes more and more unfit for any but trivial uses, and at last it is employed for those uses only. Then occurs the Revolution, repeating the mighty stir in men's minds which the Renaissance had given, but at first experiencing more difficulty in breaking up the ground and once more rendering it fertile. The faulty and incomplete genius of Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael gives the first evidence of a new growth, and after many years the romantic movement completes the work. That movement occupied almost the whole of two generations and though at the close of the second its force may appear to be spent, the results remain, and no new or reactionary movement is visible, and the efforts of the Romantics themselves have been crowned with an almost complete regeneration of letters, if not of language. The poetical power of French has been once more triumphantly proved, and its productiveness in all branches of literature has been renewed, while in that of prose fiction there has been almost created a new class of composition.

Finally, we may sum up even this summary. For volume and merit taken together the product of these eight centuries of literature excels that of any European nation, though for individual works of the supremest excellence they may perhaps be asked in vain. No French writer is lifted by the suffrages of other nations — the only criterion when sufficient time has elapsed — to the level of Homer, of Shakespeare, or of Dante, who reign alone. Of those of the authors of France who are indeed of the thirty but attain not to the first three, Rabelais and Molière alone unite the general suffrage; and this fact roughly but surely points to the real excellence of the literature which these men are chosen to represent. It is great in all ways, but it is greatest on the lighter side. The house of mirth is more suited to it than the house of mourning. To the latter, indeed, the language of the unknown minstrel who told Roland's death, of him who gave utterance to Camilla's wrath and despair, and of him who in our day sang how the mountain wind makes mad the lover who cannot forget, has amply made good its title of entrance. But for one Frenchman who can write admirably in this strain there are a hundred who can tell the most admirable story, formulate the most pregnant reflexion, point the acutest jest. There is thus no really great epic in French, few great tragedies, and those imperfect and in a faulty kind, little prose like Milton's or like Jeremy Taylor's, little verse (though more than is generally thought) like Shelley's or like Spenser's. But there are the most delightful short tales, both in prose and in verse, that the world has ever seen, the most polished jewellery of reflexion that has ever been wrought, songs of incomparable grace, comedies that must make men laugh so long as they are laughing animals, and above all such a body of narrative fiction, old and new, prose and verse, as no other nation can show for art and for originality, for grace of workmanship in him who fashions, and for certainty of delight to him who reads.

294 The courtesy of Messrs. A. and C. Black allows me to repeat the following passage from an article of mine in the Encyclopædia Britannica. For this repetition I may borrow from a better writer than myself the excuse that a man cannot say exactly the same thing in two different sets of words so as to please himself, or perhaps others.


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