An attempt to present to students a succinct history of the course of French literature compiled from an examination of that literature itself, and not merely from previous accounts of it is, I believe, a new one in English. There will be observed in the parts of this Short History a considerable difference of method; and as such a difference is not usual in works of the kind, it may be well to state the reasons which have induced me to adopt it. Early French literature is to a great extent anonymous. Moreover, even where it is not, the authors were usually more influenced by certain prevalent styles or forms than by anything else. Into these forms they threw without considerations of congruity whatever they had to say. Nothing, for instance, can be less suitable for historical or scientific disquisition than the octosyllabic metre of a satiric poem. But Jean de Meung and one at least of the authors of Renart le Contrefait1 do not think of composing prose diatribes. At one moment and place the form of the Chanson de Geste is all-absorbing, at another the form of the Roman d'Aventures, at another the form of the Fabliau. In Book I. I shall therefore proceed by these forms, giving an account of each separately.
After Villon the case changes. Instead of classes of chroniclers, trouvères, jongleurs, we get individual authors of eminence and individuality striking out their own way and saying their own say in the manner not that is fashionable but that seems best to them. During this time, therefore, and especially during that brilliant age of French literature, the sixteenth century, I shall proceed by authors, taking the most remarkable individually, and grouping their followers around them.
From the time of Malherbe the system of schools begins, divided according to subjects. The poet, the dramatist, the historian, have their predecessors, and either intentionally copy them or intentionally innovate upon them. Malherbe and Delille, Corneille and Lemercier, Sarrasin and Rulhière, whatever the difference of merit, stand to one another in a definite relation, and the later writers represent more or less the accepted traditions each of his school. In this part, therefore, I shall proceed by subjects, taking historians, poets, dramatists, etc., together. One difference will be noticed between the third and fourth Books, dealing respectively with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It has seemed unnecessary to allot a special chapter to theological and ecclesiastical writing in the latter, or to scientific writing in the former.
Almost all writers who have attempted literary histories in a small compass have recognised the difficulty, or rather impossibility, of treating contemporary or recent work on the same scale as older authors. In treating, therefore, of literature subsequent to the appearance of the Romantic movement, I shall content myself with giving a rapid sketch of the principal literary developments and their exponents.
There are doubtless objections to this quadripartite arrangement; but it appears to me better suited for the purpose of laying the foundations of an acquaintance with French literature than a more uniform plan.
The space at my disposal does not admit of combining full information as to the literature with elaborate literary comment upon its characteristics, and there can be no doubt that in such a book as this, destined for purposes of education chiefly, the latter must be sacrificed to the former. As an instance of the sacrifice I may refer to Bk. I. Ch. II. There are some forty or fifty Chansons de Gestes in print, all of which save two or three I have read, and almost every one of which presents points on which it would be most interesting to me to comment. But to do this in the limits would be impossible. Nor is it easy to enter upon disputed literary questions, however tempting they may be. On such points as the relations of Northern to Provençal poetry, the origin of the Chansons and the Arthurian romances, the successive versions of Froissart, the authenticity of the last book of Rabelais, it is only possible here to indicate the most probable conclusions. Generally speaking, the scale of treatment will be found to be adjusted to the system of division already stated. In the middle ages, where the importance of the general form surpasses that of the individual practitioners, comparatively small space is given to these individuals, and little attempt is made to follow up the scanty and often conjectural particulars of their lives. In the later books I have endeavoured (departing in this respect from the system of my two former sketches of the subject, the article on 'French Literature' in the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Primer which has preceded this work in the Clarendon Press Series) to deal more fully with the greater names whose work is most instructive, and as to whom most curiosity is likely to be felt.
If, as seems very likely, these explanations should not content some of my critics, I can only say that the passages which they may miss here would have been far easier and far pleasanter for me to write than the passages which they will here find. This volume attempts to be, not a series of causeries on the literary history of France, but a Short History of French Literature. Two things only I have uniformly aimed at, accuracy as absolute as I could secure, and completeness as thorough as space would allow. In the pursuit of the former object I have thought it well to take no fact or opinion at second-hand where the originals were accessible to me. Manuscript sources I do not pretend to have consulted; but any judgment which is passed in this book may be taken as founded on personal acquaintance with the book or author unless the contrary be stated. Some familiarity with the subject has convinced me that nowhere are opinions of doubtful accuracy more frequently adopted and handed on without enquiry than in the history of literature.
Those who read this book for purposes of study will, it is hoped, be already acquainted with the Primer, which is, in effect, an introduction to it, and which contains what may be called a bird's-eye view of the subject. But, lest the wood should be lost sight of for the trees, notes or interchapters have been inserted between the several books, indicating the general lines of development followed by the great literature which I have attempted to survey. To these I have for the most part confined generalisations as distinct from facts.
I have, I believe, given in the notes a sufficient list of authorities which those who desire to follow up the subject may consult. I have not been indiscriminately lavish in indicating editions of authors, though I believe that full information will be found as to those necessary for a scholarly working knowledge of French literature. I had originally hoped to illustrate the whole book with extracts; but I discovered that such a course would either swell it to an undesirable bulk, or else would provide passages too short and too few to be of much use. I have therefore confined the extracts to the mediaeval period, which can be illustrated by selections of moderate length, and in which such illustration, from the general resemblance between the individuals of each class, and the comparative rarity of the original texts, is specially desirable. To avoid the serious drawback of the difference of principle on which old French reprints have been constructed, as many of these extracts as possible have been printed from Herr Karl Bartsch's admirable Chrestomathie. But in cases where extracts were either not to be found there, or were not, in my judgment, sufficiently characteristic, I have departed from this plan. The illustration, by extracts, of the later literature, which requires more space, has been reserved for a separate volume.
I had also intended to subjoin some tabular views of the chief literary forms, authors, and books of the successive centuries. But when I formed this intention I was not aware that such tables already existed in a book very likely to be in the hands of those who use this work, M. Gustave Masson's French Dictionary. Although the plan I had formed was not quite identical with his, and though the execution might have differed in detail, it seemed both unnecessary and to a certain extent ungracious to trespass on the same field. With regard to dates the Index will, it is believed, be found to contain the date of the birth and death, or, if these be not obtainable, the floruit of every deceased author of any importance who is mentioned in the book. It has not seemed necessary invariably to duplicate this information in the text. I have also availed myself of this Index (for the compilation of which I owe many thanks to Miss S. A. Ingham) to insert a very few particulars, which seemed to find a better place there than in the body of the volume, as being not strictly literary.
In conclusion, I think it well to say that the composition of this book has, owing to the constant pressure of unavoidable occupations, been spread over a considerable period, and has sometimes been interrupted for many weeks or even months. This being the case, I fear that there may be some omissions, perhaps some inconsistencies, not improbably some downright errors. I do not ask indulgence for these, because that no author who voluntarily publishes a book has a right to ask, nor, perhaps, have critics a right to give it. But if any critic will point out to me any errors of fact, I can promise repentance, as speedy amendment as may be, and what is more, gratitude.
Preface to the Second Edition.— In the second edition the text has been very carefully revised. All corrections of fact indicated by critics and private correspondents, both English and French (among whom I owe especial thanks to M. A. Beljame), have, after verification, been made. A considerable number of additional dates of the publication of important books have been inserted in the text, and the Index has undergone a strict examination, resulting in the correction of some faults which were due not to the original compiler but to myself. On the suggestion of several competent authorities a Conclusion, following the lines of the Interchapters, is now added. If less deference is shown to some strictures which have been passed on the plan of the work and the author's literary views, it is due merely to the conviction that a writer must write his own book in his own way if it is to be of any good to anybody. But in a few places modifications of phrases which seemed to have been misconceived or to be capable of misconception have been made. I have only to add sincere thanks to my critics for the very general and, I fear, scarcely deserved approval with which this Short History of a long subject has been received, and to my readers for the promptness with which a second edition of it has been demanded.
Preface to the Third Edition.— In making, once more, an examination of this book for the purposes of a third edition I have again done my best to correct such mistakes as must (I think I may say inevitably) occur in a very large number of compressed statements about matter often in itself of great minuteness and complexity. I have found some such mistakes, and I make no doubt that I have left some.
In the process of examination I have had the assistance of two detailed reviews of parts of the book by two French critics, each of very high repute in his way. The first of these, by M. Gaston Paris, in Romania (XII, 602 sqq.), devoted to the mediæval section only, actually appeared before my second edition: but accident prevented my availing myself of it fully, though some important corrections suggested by it were made on a slip inserted in most of the copies of that issue. The assistance thus given by M. Paris (whose forbearance in using his great learning as a specialist I have most cordially to acknowledge) has been supplemented by the appearance, quite recently, of an admirable condensed sketch of his own2, which, compact as it is, is a very storehouse of information on the subject. If in this book I have not invariably accepted M. Paris' views or embodied his corrections, it is merely because in points of opinion and inference as opposed to ascertained fact, the use of independent judgment seems to me always advisable.
The other criticism (in this case of the later part of my book), by M. Edmond Scherer, would not seem to have been written in the same spirit. M. Scherer holds very different views from mine on literature in general and French literature in particular; he seems (which is perhaps natural) not to be able to forgive me the difference, and to imagine (which if not unnatural is perhaps a little unreasonable, a little uncharitable, and even, considering an express statement in my preface, a little impolite) that I cannot have read the works on which we differ. I am however grateful to him for showing that a decidedly hostile examination, conducted with great minuteness and carefully confined to those parts of the subject with which the critic is best acquainted, resulted in nothing but the discovery of about half a dozen or a dozen misprints and slips of fact3. One only of these (the very unpardonable blunder of letting Madame de Staël's Considérations appear as an early work, which I do not know how I came either to commit or to overlook) is of real importance. Such slips I have corrected with due gratitude. But I have not altered passages where M. Scherer mistakes facts or mistakes me. I need hardly say that I have made no alterations in criticism, and that the passage referring to M. Scherer himself (with the exception of a superfluous accent) stands precisely as it did.
Some additions have been made to the latter part of the book, but not very many: for the attempt to 'write up' such a history to date every few years can only lead to confusion and disproportion. I have had, during the decade which has passed since the book was first planned, rather unusual opportunities of acquainting myself with all new French books of any importance, but a history is not a periodical, and I have thought it best to give rather grudging than free admittance to new-comers. On the other hand, I have endeavoured, as far as possible, to obliterate chronological references which the effluxion of time has rendered, or may render, misleading. The notes to which it seemed most important to attract attention, as modifying or enlarging some statement in the text, are specially headed 'Notes to Third Edition': but they represent only a small part of the labour which has been expended on the text. I have also again overhauled and very considerably enlarged the index; while the amplification of the 'Contents' by subjoining to each chapter-heading a list of the side-headings of the paragraphs it contains, will, I think, be found an advantage. And so I commend the book once more to readers and to students4.
(March 20, 1889.)
1 Note to Third Edition.— M. Gaston Paris expresses some surprise at my saying 'one of the authors,' and attributes both versions to the Troyes clerk (see pp. 52, 53). I can only say that so long as Renart le Contrefait is unpublished, if not longer, such a question is difficult to decide: and that the accepted monograph on the subject (that of Wolf) left on my mind the impression of plural authorship as probable.
2 La Littérature Française du Moyen Age (Paris, 1888).
3 A preface is but an ill place for controversy. As however M. Scherer, thanks chiefly to the late Mr. Matthew Arnold, enjoys some repute in England, I may give an example of his censure. He accuses me roundly of giving in my thirty dates of Corneille's plays 'une dizaine de fausses,' and he quotes (as I do) M. Marty-Laveaux. As since the beginning, years ago, of my Cornelian studies, I have constantly used that excellent edition, though, now as always, reserving my own judgment on points of opinion, I verified M. Scherer's appeal with some alarm at first, and more amusement afterwards. The eminent critic of the Temps had apparently contented himself with turning to the half-titles of the plays and noting the dates given, which in ten instances do differ from mine. Had his patience been equal to consulting the learned editor's Notices, he would have found in every case but one the reasons which prevailed and prevail with me given by M. Marty-Laveaux himself. The one exception I admit. I was guilty of the iniquity of confusing the date of the publication of Othon with the date of its production, and printing 1665 instead of 1664. So dangerous is it to digest and weigh an editor's arguments, instead of simply copying his dates. Had I done the latter, I had 'scaped M. Scherer's tooth.
4 The remarks on M. Scherer in this preface (and I need hardly say still more those which occur in the body of the book with reference to a few others of his criticisms) were written long before his fatal illness, and had been sent finally to press some time before the announcement of his death. I had at first thought of endeavouring to suppress those which could be recalled. But it seemed to me on reflection that the best compliment to the memory of a man who was himself nothing if not uncompromising, and towards whom, whether alive or dead, I am not conscious of having entertained any ill-feeling, would be to print them exactly as they stood, with the brief addition that I have not known a critic more acute within his range, or more honest according to what he saw, than M. Edmond Scherer.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00