Page images
PDF
EPUB

ARTICLE II.

FRENCH WRITERS BEFORE THE REVOLUTION.

History of French Literature in the Eighteenth Century. By

ALEXANDER VINET, Professor of Theology at Lausanne. Translated from the French by Rev. James Bryce. 8vo. pp. 495. Edinburgh, London, and Dublin.

In the palace of Versailles is a spacious salon of solid marble, beneath, above, around, overlaid in panels and pilasters with heaviest gold-embossing of the richest moulds, with a stairway of the same luxurious workmanship sweeping upward in regal stateliness. It tells of the pomp and pride of that “grand monarque” whose portrait throws down from the wall a glance of haughty satisfaction at this magnificent display of his own unlimited extravagance. In another part of this same great palace is the room, with bed and toilet-furnishings left as when last used by him, in which this imperial posture-master, this made-up bundle of superficiality and sham, died of the smallpox, in helplessness and fear, like any other piece of earth's common clay. Wandering from one of these apartments to the other, through almost interminable exhibitions of the grandeurs and meannesses of the monarchy of France just prior to the first Revolution, the traveller may study the spirit of that period in these indications of its seeming strength and real weakness; and if he does not wonder at its capabilities of despotism and sensualism, neither will he be surprised that, along with these national disgraces, it should have blossomed out in an intellectual fruitage like that which gave the world the literature of the age of the fourteenth and fifteenth Louis.

It was a kind of tropical summer in which plants of every quality sprung and grew with forced exuberance — neither à

a natural nor a wholesome productiveness. One feels in its atmosphere as on entering a mammoth conservatory, where splendid exotics and natives are stretching themselves on artificial supports to surprising dimensions, amidst the heavy odors of

a

flowering shrubs that well-nigh poison you with their excessive aromas ; and all in a stifling temperature of next to irrespirable heat. You must have the fresh air again soon, or faint in this elegant but intolerable glass-house.

This Augustan age of French literature differs from the earlier development across the channel which bears the same name, much as an oriental garden of spicery like this, with here and there a stately cedar of Lebanon interspersed, would differ from the generous, out-door growth of an English gentleman's park and orchard-grounds. Bossuet, Massillon, Bourdaloue, the ever illustrious triumvirate, were men of strong native powers and high creative intellect, trained by scholastic culture into finished orators. But great as even the first of the three confessedly was, none but a Frenchman could have penned or quoted the exaggeration, that “after the Scriptures which have been inspired by the Holy Ghost, there is nothing so great as Bossuet.” D'Aguesseau and Montesquieu have won for themselves an honorable place among learned civilians and jurisconsults. But they had not the exhaustive erudition and the massive weight of brain of the first men of the days of Elizabeth and her immediate successors. Jeremy Taylor had all the classic accomplishment and the sweet saintliness of Fenélon, and, in addition, a versatility and grasp of thought — a genius — to which the gentle pietist of Cambray could lay no claim. Bacon sits peerless in philosophy and legal profoundness above the savans of Paris ; as Shakespeare looks down a long distance from the poetic Olympus to the ranges of Racine and Molière. There is, besides the dissimilarity of the Gallic and the Saxon mind, the further disadvantage to the former of the training of both a spiritual and a political absolutism. The Britain of Elizabeth and James was freedom itself to the mongrel theocracy of the later Bourbons of the ante-revolutionary period.

Just here we come upon one of the most remarkable yet natural of historical reactions. The sceptre which Bossuet had wielded with as much kingly state in letters, as Louis himself assumed in the political administration, after vibrating in a few weaker hands, (which we shall notice in their place,) settled firmly again in the grasp of Bossuet's only legitimate successor

[blocks in formation]

in this literary autocracy — the arch-sceptic Voltaire. This slide, from an unchallenged ecclesiasticism to the very heyday of intellectual licentiousness, is but another illustration, a memorable one indeed, of Livy's observation in his opening of the Roman annals; “deinde ut magis, magisque lapsi sint; tum ire cæperint precipites.” Or, as Cowper has given the familiar enough thought:

“ The breach, though small at first, soon opening wide,

In rushes Folly with a full-moon tide,
Then welcome errors of whatever size,

To justify it by a thousand lies.” Voltaire was a lad of ten years when Bossuet died the former having been born in 1694, and the latter departing this life in 1704. The one word which would best describe the literary, ethical, and religious régime which was waxing old and ready to vanish away, is its artificiality. A single fact, if only comparatively true, which Vinet gives us, may stand as the significant index of the spirit of the age -- that “the term country does not occur twice in the writers of the seventeenth century.” A straw shows the drift of the tide as well as a saw-log. So it was in everything to a degree utterly incomprehensible by us. Nature had been driven, like an uncouth, if not an unclean intruder, from the nation. “I am the State,” was the working

, creed of the monarch, carrying forward his political views in the mingled temper of a Cæsar and a Solomon, though with the abilities of neither. The government was a financial bubble and a judicial falsehood. The national church was a painted, pictured, bedizened “House of Pryde," * saved from utter reprobacy

' by the silent protests before God of some of his hidden ones the salt which had not lost its savor. Society was a shifting, bewildering, corrupting masquerade, a whirl of fashion and of

a

Spenser describes it; and its mistress — thus:

“So proud she shyned in her princely state,
Looking to Heaven, for Earth she did disdayne;
And sitting high, for lowly she did hate:
Lo, underneath her scorneful feete was layne
A dreadful dragon with a hideous trayne;
And in her hand she held a mirrhour bright,
Wherein her face she often viewed fayne."

The Færie Queene, B. I. Canto VIII.

folly, in which sound principles of human intercourse floated about like motes in the sunbeam, and vanity and vice divided or rather shared the lordship of the hour. Thinking was subsidized to the behests of these reigning powers. Morality was frittered away in periods of most unexceptionable rhetoric. Absolute doctrines in governing men's souls and bodies were promulgated in Ciceronian prose. Style was a profoundly studied art; and certainly it was brought to great perfection, abating no little of an over-delicate mannerism, as when Bonhours translating Demosthenes makes the fiery old Greek address the Athenians as “ Gentlemen." But the mode of saying things was far better than the sentiments generally expressed. The writers cared far less for truth and virtue in their compositions than for “l'abondance et la diversité des tours, l'harmonie et la facilité de la periode,” in which one of their critics finds the fragrant, intangible quintessence of what we call - style. Here was a temple of idols tempting as well as awaiting the iron flail of the iconoclast. And the Goths were already on their way to the capitol.

Of the brief transition-stage from the supremacy of the churchmen in the domain of letters to that of the self-styled philosophers, some of the influential and popular authors were strongly imbued with the traditional religious spirit; while, less from predetermined purpose than from the steady setting of the currents around and within them, their pens often ran upon damaging discussions of the prevailing abuses of the times. The Jansenist Duke de St. Simon forcibly represents this class of writers. Master of a style of quick, penetrative, magnetizing power, a pictorial narrator, with a rare art of catching and sketching the likeness of distinguished actors in the scenes which he describes, full of recollections and observations of men and things, he wrote the memoirs of the Court of Louis XIV. from the point of a high-toned aristocrat and at the same time of a good hater of that monarch's person, policy, and family. If he is often more caustic than just, more of a partisan than a judge, if he flays his victim much in the way of an Indian warrior whose foot is upon his prostrate foe, he atones for this severity by a keen sensibility to genuine goodness, a tender sympathy with suffering, and a genius for exciting, scintillating,

a

copious, picturesque word-play which our author calls “a real phenomenon.” No one, says M. Vinet, has darted across the fields, on the restive courser of the French language, and so broken it to bit and spur, as St. Simon. He puts it to all its possible paces, at his own wayward will. His thoughts press forward, sway backward, cross each other “ like a crowd in some public place." A kind of coerced conciseness, in the melée of incidents and circumstances, flashes these out along his page “like a spark.” He uses familiar words in new and remarkable stretches of meaning which would be condemned as forced and unlawful but for a happy dexterity which just keeps the use from being an abuse. His volumes preserve a surprising account of a grandson of Louis XIV. of which we must give the briefest possible condensation from the work before us.

Monseigneur the Duke of Burgundy, heir of France, was from childhood an object of terror — a young Nero in cruelty, passion, rage; furious in pursuit of pleasure; fond to excess of music, gaming, hunting ; the slave of every appetite ; savage and bitter in his jests and sports. With this he joined a prodigious mental force and brilliancy ; a wit which cut like a falchion ; and a grasp of abstract truth which was astonishing. A head like an Apollo; eyes of peculiar beauty; a look • lively, touching, striking, admirable ;'a lofty, refined, and intellectual expression ;' curly, chesnut-hair, but with a bad mouth, were conjoined with a deformed shape, which only the more distorted his malignant disposition. The best of tutors, among them Fenélon, were employed to train this prodigy of badness and intellectuality, but with little of satisfaction in the results. Thus the case stood until the duke was about eighteen, when, says the historian, in a strain of charming devoutness :

“ God, who is master of all hearts, and whose divine spirit breathes where He wills, performed on this prince a work of conversion. ... From this abyss went forth a prince affable, pleasant, humane, moderate, patient, modest, penitent, and, as far as was suitable to his condition, and even beyond it, humble and severe to himself. .... He placed all his strength and all his consolation in prayer, and sought his preservatives in the reading of pious books. • Being a novice in the exercises of devotion, and apprehensive of his weakness in regard to pleasure, he was inclined at first to seek solitude. . .

« PreviousContinue »