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“Hic tandem stetimus nobis ubi defuit changes, in short, resulting only in urbis.”
the conviction, that nothing has been The difficulty of forming an impar. substantially gained, and that the litial estimate of the literature of the berty enjoyed under a popular King eighteenth century in France, is still can scarcely be distinguished from the great ; for the whole character of that despotism so falsely complained of literature was
80 closely connected under the restored dynasty, have with social and political changes, the taught men generally to distrust fine effects of which are still felt, that its theories, to look with doubt on highmerits or demerits become less a ques- sounding professions, to give greater tion of taste than of personal feeling, weight to experience, to be more to be decided according to the preju- tolerant of all opinions, and less disdices entertained by the critic in favour posed to identify themselves with any. of or against the changes themselves. They have created a spirit of indifferThirty years, for instance, after the ence, favourable to impartiality in death of Voltaire, the struggle between criticism, though not to original inhis admirers and the opponents of his vention ; which, by excluding or fame, was waged as fiercely and unre- weakening, in a great measure, the lentingly as at the moment when he influence of personal feelings, interclosed bis career; for he was still to ests, or political convictions, enables both parties, not so much the drama- the reader more distinctly to perceive tist, the historian, the poet, or the and to judge of the questions of liter. novelist, as the apostle of opmions, to ature and taste, which the criticism of which the one party clung as essential the great writers of the last century to social progress and political im. involves. provement, and which the other more The total change, too, which has justly identificd with the subversion of taken place in literature itself, affords all morality and all government. His another important aid in forming a reputation became like the dead body just estimation of that by which it was of Patroclus, the central object round preceded; for many of those novelties which the conflict of opinion was main- and experiments in taste which were tained. Political discussion, excluded then advocated, have now been practifrom actual life during the stern rule cally tried, and the result lies before us. of Napoleon, took the direction of We have lived to see the old barriers literary criticism, making the opinions of taste removed—the wall of parti. expressed with regard to the literature tion, which separated the literature of of the preceding century, not judg. France from those of other countries, ments, but contradictory pleadings, broken down---the unities banished acrimonious, one-sided, or distorted, from the stage-conventional decorum
The changes which have taken has given way to wild force-an un. place in France since the fall of the regulated imagination has superseded dynasty of Bonaparte-the restoration philosophy—and the extreme of liand second expulsion of the Bourbons cense has succeeded the extreme of -the establishment, amidst an all but caution. We shall not at present anuniversal exultation, of a monarchy ticipate the answer to the question, Has owing its existence to a popular move- France been a gainer by the change ? ment, and then labouring, from the Or has she exchanged a grave, digni. first moment of its foundation, to tamcfied, and tasteful, though not imagina. or crush the power by which it had tive, literature, which she had carried to been created; on the one hand, the a high pitch of perfection, for one essengradual decline of popular enthusiasm, tially foreign to her national tastes, in consequent on disappointed expecta- which an appearance of originality is tions, however unreasonable ; on the attained only by the gross exaggeraother, the apprehensions of the more tion of the features which she has borsober and rational, that the barriers rowed from other quarters? But, unof a steady and constitutional liberty "doubtedly, the result of this series of have been already so shaken, or beaten experiments, particularly in the litedown, by the sacrifices made to the rature of imagination as displayed democratic impulse, and the false prin- in the later productions of France, ciple on which the existing monarchy admittedly unpromising, unsatisfacis based, that all hope of a firm and tury, and unnatural, enables us more settled government in France is for correctly to estimate the justice of
time at an end ; - all these those views on which the great works of the eighteenth century were com- more of the rationalizing spirit of the posed; and of their principles of com- first half of the eighteenth century, position, so much inore in harmony which it illustrates, than of the ninewith the character of a people emi- teenthi, amidst the stormy influences of nently intellectual, and finely alive to which it has been composed. ridicule, but neither distinguished by The genius of the seventeenth cenhigh imagination, nor great depth or tury had been formed under these difearnestness of feeling.
ferent influences a religious faith, The task of tracing the literary strong, uniform, and undoubting; the history of that period, could hard- spirit of reverence for antiquity; and ly have fallen into the hands of a the pomp and circumstance of a traninore candid critic than Villemain. quil and imposing monarchy. It wore While the influence of his age, and an aspect, accordingly, of dignity, his familiarity with the better models outward moral propriely, and good of literature in other countries, have sense, rather than depth of thinking, emancipated him from narrow views, conveyed in the garb of a pure simple taught him to value the old conven- expression so far as regarded style. tional rules of his country only at is expressed in its most attractive their true worth—that is to say, not form, either in the pointed neatness of as essentials applicable to all litera. Boileau, or in the drama, which had ture, but simply as convenient pre- been raised at once from infancy to cepts suitable to the national taste-he manhood by the vigorous and original is no warm partisan of the modern genius of Corneille, and which reschool of composition, no advocate of ceived the last polish and grace of the more than Shakspearian license of which its artificial and rhetorical form plot, and the atrocities, eclipsing those was susceptible, from the delicacy and of Massinger and Shirley, in which tenderness of Racine. they indulge, and which often make The dominant influences, on the the reader lay down the book with contrary, under which the literature of a feeling, in regard to the writer, the eighteenth century may be said to similar to that of Alceste in the Mis- have grown into shape, are a sceptical anthrope, “Qu'un homme est pen. philosophy, the imitation of foreign dable après les avoir faits.” His literature, and the mania for political tastes, on the contrary, lean decidedly reform. Soine traces of the sceptical towards the simple, the natural, the spirit of a later period, may indeed be kindly, and the elevated. Doing just- traced even among the contemporaries ice to many of Shakspeare's exceilen- of Bossuet, in the extensive erudices, it is yet evident that Villemain re- tion of Bayle, combined with a spirit jects the idea that Shakepeare's drama- of mockery and universal doubt, which tic system can be placed on a level with labours to reduce the most opposite that of the Greek dramatists, and, in- opinions, as to facts or doctrines, to an deed, that he has much difficulty in equilibrium; and whose multisarious bringing himself to admit that he has researches afforded to his successors, any system at all. And, accordingly, at an easy rate, a storehouse of learnthough he seems abundantly serisible ing, which was turned to ample acof the nature, tenderness, and pro- count when the crusade against estafundity of individual passages' in blished opinions was commenced in Shakspeare; nay, is disposed to earnest by the authors of the Encyclo. admit, occasionally, even his higher pidie
, when Louis XIV., the art in comparison with the French survivor of almost every great man dramatists, as well as his deeper who bad illustrated his court or his acquaintance with the human heart reign, died, on the 1st September, and human sympathies, his leaning, 1715, the general characteristics of on the whole, seems to be towards French literature were reverence for the more stately, decorous, and well. religion, loyalty to the throne, a pride ordered march of the tragedy of in the extensive influence of France his own country, of which "Cor- over other nations, which was justified neille, Racine, and Voltaire are the both by her political ascendency, and great representatives. His work, by the adoption of her critical views therefore, though written on more and the imitation of her great writers; enlarged and liberal principles than and a complacent satisfaction with the that of La Harpe, certainly breathes present, which rendered men comparatively indifferent to the future, and any way in which they could be most indisposed to experiment or alteration readily turned to a marketable acin the existing state of things.
count. A changc, however, soon becomes In the drama, a temporary popuperceptible as we advance into the larity and appearance of novelty was reign of Louis XV. In religion, the obtained by Crebillon, the father of fervency and unction which give an the novelist. The examples of Corappearance of inspiration to many neille and Racine had fixed certain of the compositions of Bossuet on principles in dramatic composition so subjects of Christian belief, were firmly, that they soon became unaltersucceeded by a school of pulpit able rules, from which no dramatist eloquence, in which morality, cha- could safely venture to deviate. Such rity, or the performance of duty, were the invariable introduction of were more insisted on than faith ; a love as the moving principle of the school analogous to that of Tillotson drama, even amidst circumstances and and Barrow and South in our own periods of society when its intervencountry. In Massillon, the predomi- tion was the most incongruous; a nance of action over sentiment as the mythological or antique dignity in the great principle of religion, becomes personages and events represented; evident; while the lessons he ventures an avoidance of modern or domestic to convey to royalty as to its duties, subjects; the limitations of time, place, and the corresponding rights of sub- and action, with their natural conseects, contrasting so strangely with quences, long recitals, soliloquies, and the divine-right doctrines systemati. expositions in words rather than accally inculcated by Bossuet, show that tion; a sustained pomp of expression monarchy had soon begun to lose its in the dialogue banishing all common imposing aspect under the weak suc- or familiar words, however natural in cessor of Louis XIV., and that it was the expression of powerful feeling; already beginning to listen to that lan- the rigorous exclusion of every thing guage of remonstrance from the pulpit, comic from the sphere of tragedy, and which was at no distant period to be at the same time, a nervous dread of conveyed in accents of thunder from pushing the tragic effect too far, if the democratic demagogues and infui- death or physical suffering were allow. ated multitudes in the courts of Ver- ed to be displayed upon the stage; for sailles or the Tuileries.
which scarcely any better reason could In lyric poetry, the pretensions of be given, than the authority of a line in French literature were but feebly sup. Horace's Art of Poetry. ported by the epicurean verses of So strongly were these artificial peChaulieu and the odes of J. B. Rous- culiarities rooted and grounded in the seau - compositions destitute of any very being of French tragedy, that true religious sentiment, and producing even writers of some poetical ability, their effect only by some force and sen- well acquainted with the dramatic tentiousness of expression, coinbined literature both of antiquity and of forwith a sonorous and harmonious ver- eign countries — like Laforse, the sification. Placed beside the choruses author of Manlius-while attempting in the Esther and the Athalie, they ap- to throw more of natural feeling into pear altogether false and unnatural; the French drama, thought it vain to the difference between the real inspi- contend against the current of settled ration of Racine, and the laboured opinion, so far as regarded rules and artificial enthusiasm of Rousseau, which were looked on
as dramatic is palpable at first sight. It is such as axioms no longer admitting of dismight be expected from the contrasted pute or modification, and therefore characters of the two poets; that of continued to pursue the formal and the dramatist-mild, gentle, sincerely somewhat stilted framework of the pious, speaking from his own heart, 17th century; while on the other hand and speaking to ours; that of the lyric he leans, with a visible admiration, poet — vain, turbulent, unconscien- towards the natural movement of the tious, immersed in literary intrigues, romantic drama, so far as regarded the just as ready to compose an obscene expression of sentiment. Among per. epigram or a defamatory libel as a sonages who had not even the talent canticle or a sacred ode, and anxious (such as it was) of Lafosse, like Lato make merchandise of his talents in grange Chancel, the conventional and
courtly tone of Racine, and his system. But though Crebillon could conceive atic adaptation of Greek manners to and embody, with a sort of stoical pomp the tone of Freuch society, appear in of thought and laconic condensation of the most ludicrous caricature, ucre- expression, somewhat in the style of deemed by his real tenderness, and the Seneca, (with whom he has many exquisite polish and beauty of his vers- points of resemblance,) scenes of atroification. The romance writers of the city and gloom, he is in general comschoolof Scudery and Calprenede,whose pletely deficient in the delineation of aim it was "peindre Caton galant et all feeling or character of a more level, Brutus dameret,” found a not unworthy natural, or tender kind. We say in dramatic rival in Chancel; whose Ores- general, because we willingly exempt tes, Aleleager, Arsaces, and Alceste, from this charge his tragedy of Rhadaform as extraordinary a travestie of an- misle, which appeared in 1711, the sotiquity as can well be imagined. litary dramatic work between the time
Crebillon certainly rises considerably of Racine and Voltaire, which even apabove these feeble imitators of Racine; proaches to the character of genius ; for, coarse as his tastes were, he was and to which we are glad to see that a man who thought for himself—at justice is done by Villemain. He least within the limits which the exist. blames the first act as “ill-written, be ing rules of the drama permitted ; for cause without passion,' —of which we these rules, as laid down by the pre. are scarcely disposed to demand much cept or practice of Corneille or Racine, in a first act—but admits that the rest he adopted to the letter. He is, in: is eloquent and tragic, and realizes all deed, the very reverse of an innovator, that could be effected within the narso far as regards the established dra- row limits then allowed to French matic creed of his time; but, endowed tragedy. with a sombre, fantastic, and vigorous With one remark of Crebillon we turn of mind, approaching to the sav. suppose most readers will be disposed age, he has occasionally thrown a force entirely to concur: when asked which and vivacity, derived from his own cha- of his works he preferred, his answer racter, into those mythological terrors was, “ It is difficult to say which is the which he borrowed from antiquity, of best; but this,” pointing to his 'scape. which, at first sight, such subjects grace son, the novelist, “is certainly would hardly have appeared suscep- the worst." tible. “Corneille," he used to say, La Motte, a contemporary of Crebil• has laid hold of heaven, Racine of lon, did endeavour to effect what Creearth; nothing was left to me but hell, billon seems to have in no respect aimand I have thrown myself into it; hearted at: viz. an innovation in the recogand soul.” “Unfortunately,” as Ville. nised dramatic code. His great prinmain dryly observes, " he is not always ciple, besides an attack on the unities, quite so infernal as he seems to think.” was this, that the drama gained nothing Placed side by side with love intrigues by being written in verse ; and he illusand dialogues, in which the argument, trated his proposition by the production however agitating, is maintained with of an Edipus in prose and an Edipus a politeness worthy of the school of in verse, which certainly left the reader Chesterfield ; his scenes of bloodshed, in a pleasing uncertainty which was incest, and crime, very often wear most intolerable. an almost ludicrous air, though we ad. And yet, in his speculations as to mit the forcible effect of some scenes the unities, though apparently ignorant or passages, like that of the famous even of the existence of Shakspeare, line borrowed from the Thyestes of Se- and certainly entirely unacquainted neca,* when Thyestes addresses his with his works, it is interesting to obbrother, after the hideous banquet, with serve how much his notion of a Roman the words
tragedy, conducted upon the principles “Reconnais tu ce sang ? Je reconnais which he was disposed to recognise as mon frère."
just, seems to correspond with the man
* “Natos et quidem noscis tuos ?--Agnosco fratrem."
ner in which such subjects had been with certain modifications to suit the actually treated by Shakspeare. Take, expression to the taste of a Parisian for instance, his remarks as to the plan public, be made effective upon the on which a tragedy, founded on the sub. French stage. He aimed, in short, at ject of Coriolanus, might be conceived the difficult, and, there is reason to and theatrically embodied. “I should think, incompatible task, of amalgamnot be surprised if a people, intelligent, ating two dramatic systems, the princi. though less attached to rules, should ples of which are not only unharmonireconcile itself to the idea of witnessing ous, but in many respects contradictory. the history of Coriolanus divided into It is well known that, in the opinion of several acts. In the first, that patrician, certain French critics of no inean note, accused by the tribunes, defended by Voltaire has succeeded in his atteinpt. the consul and the people whom he has La Harpe seems to think that he had saved, and then condemned by the peo- perfected what Corneille had begun ple to perpetual exile: in the second, and Racine improved, by adding to the the despair of his family, and the gloomy dignified or graceful sentiments of his grief with which he separates from predecessors, more life, energy, and them: in the third, the magnanimous natural movement in the dialogue. He boldness with which he presents him- has been described as— Vainqueur de self to the Volscian general, whom he deux rivaux qui regnaient sur la scène.” has so often vanquished; ready to sacri- 'Time, however, has pronounced a diffice his life if he can but associate him ferent judgment. Villemain remarks in his vengeance: in the fourth, the that the plays of Corneille, and the hero at the gates of Rome, the depu. chefs d'aurre of Racine, when revived, tations of the consuls and priests, the about twenty years ago, were receiv. prayers and tears of a mother obtaining ed with the same enthusiasm as at favour for Rome.” La Motte does not first, while those of Voltaire fell cold pursue the subject down to the assas. and dull upon the public ear. Though sination of Coriolanus in Antium ; but nearer in date to his audience, he was so far as he goes, there is a strong, less felt, less understood; his thcathough apparently unconscious, resem- trical effects and philosophic maxims blance between his sketch and the outs were found hackneyed; his sonorous line traced by Shakspeare.
eloquence did not touch the feelings The views of Voltaire (the third like the bursts of genius of Corneille, member of the French Dramatic Tri- or the passionate refinement of Racine. umvirate) as to the drama, changed The want of a genuine enthusiasm greatly after his compulsory residence for high poetry of any kind was too in England, His first play, the Edipus, palpable in Voltaire ; while the faith produced at the age of twenty-three, which animated his dramatic rivals, was in all respects a play of the school and the seriousness with which they of Corneille and Racine. But the ac. viewed the high aim of tragedy, had, quaintance he had acquired with Eng- on the contrary, imparted to their comlish literature, superficial in many re. positions a perennial freshness and enspects as it was, had impressed him during life. with the conviction of the powerful ef- “ Voltaire,” says Villemain, “wished fects which the irregular drama of the to give boldness and animation to the northern nations was capable of pro- scene-to multiply theatrical effects. ducing; and without in the least degree He has frequently succeeded : but in meaning to call in question the laws the grandeur and novelty of character, which had been laid down by his pre. which is the very life of the drama, has decessors, except perhaps as to the em. he approached his models? Has he proployment of the passion of love as an duced anything that can be compared indispensable dramatic agent, he seems with such original and novel creations to have conceived that a great deal of as Don Diego, Pauline, Severa, Bur. the spirit of the romantic drama might rhus, Acomat, or Joad? Is his dic. be thrown into the classical form; that tion, dramatic as it is, in point of the natural eloquence of Antony, the movement and warmth, equally so in jealousy of the Moor, or the philosophic point of truth? Does it equal the or sceptical musings and melancholy of poetry of Racine and Corneille, when Hamlet, or perhaps the impression of he is Corneille ? And is not the per. supernatural terror which the ghost fection of poetry a necessary part of scenes of Shakspeare produce, might, our severe and regular theatre ? ..