Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

learning still continues unbroken. The French nobility have certainly a most pleasing way of satisfying the vanity of an author, without indulging his avarice. A man of literary merit is sure of being caressed by the great, though seldom enriched His pension from the crown just supplies half a competence, and the sale of his labors make some small addition to his circumstances. Thus the author leads a life of splendid poverty, and seldom becomes wealthy or indolent enough to discontinue an exertion of those abilities by which he rose. With the English it is different. Our writers of rising merit are generally neglected, while the few of an established reputation are overpaid by luxurious affluence. The young encounter every hardship which generally attends upon aspiring indigence; the old enjoy the vulgar, and perhaps the more prudent satisfaction, of putting riches in competition with fame. Those are often seen to spend their youth in want and obscurity; these are sometimes found to lead an old age of indolence and avarice. But such treatment must naturally be expected from Englishmen, whose national character it is to be slow and cautious in making friends, but violent in friendships once contracted. The English nobility, in short, are often known to give greater rewards to genius than the French, who, however, are much more judicious in the application of their empty favors.

The fair sex in France have also not a little contributed to prevent the decline of taste and literature, by expecting such qualifications in their admirers. A man of fashion at Paris, however contemptible we may think him here, must be acquainted with the reigning modes of philosophy as well as of dress, to be able to entertain bis mistress agreeably. The sprightly pedants are not to be caught by dumb show, by the squeeze of the hand, or the ogling of a broad eye; but must be pursued at once, through all the labyrinths of the Newtonian system, or the metaphysics of Locke. I have seen as bright a circle of beauty at the chemical lectures of Rouelle* as gracing the court of Versailles. And indeed wisdom never appears so charming, as when graced and protected by beauty.

To these advantages may be added, the reception of their language in the different courts of Europe. An author who excels, is sure of having all the polite for admirers, and is encouraged to write by the pleasing expectation of universal fame. Add to this, that those countries who can make nothing good from their own language, have lately begun to write in this, some of whose productions contribute to support the present literary reputation of France.t

There are, therefore, many among the French who do honor to the present age, and whose writings will be transmitted to posterity with an ample share of fame; some of the most celebrated are as follow :

Voltaire, whose voluminous, yet spirited productions are too well known to require an eulogy. Does he not resemble the champion mentioned by Xenophon, of great reputation in all the gymnastic exercises united, but inferior to each champion singly, who excels only in one?

Montesquieu, a name equally deserving fame with the former. The Spirit of Laws' is an instance how much genius is able to lead learning. His system has been adopted by the literati; and yet, is it not possible for opinions equally plausible to be formed upon opposite principles, if a genius like his could be found to attempt such an undertaking? He seems more a poet than a philosopher.

* (This eminent chemist was born in 1703, at Matthieu, near Caen, in Normandy, and died at Paris in 1770.]

+ (“The age of Louis the XIVth, notwithstanding these advantages, is still superior. It is, indeed, a misfortune for a fine writer to be born in a period so enlightened as ours. The harvest of wit is gathered in, and little is left for hirn, except to glean what others have thoughị unworthy their bringing away. Yet there are, therefore," &c.-First edit)

Rousseau of Geneva, a professed man-hater, or more properly speaking, a philosopher enraged with one half of mankind, be cause they unavoidably make the other half unhappy. Such sen. timents are generally the result of much good-nature and little experience.

Piron, an author possessed of as much wit as any man alive, yet with as little prudence to turn it to his own advantage. comedy of his, called 'La Metromanie,'t is the best theatrical production that has appeared of late in Europe. But I know not whether I should most commend his genius, or censure his obscenity. His “ Ode à Priape,' has justly excluded him from a place in the academy of Belles-Lettres. However, the good-natured Montesquieu, by his interest, procured the starving bard a trilling pension. His own etitaph was all the revenge he took upon the academy for being repulsed.

“ Cy-git Piron, qui ne fut jamais rien:

Pas même Academicien." Crébillon, junior, a writer of real merit, but guilty of the same indelicate faults with the former. Wit employed in dressing up obscenity, is like the art used in painting a corpse; it may be thus rendered tolerable to one sense, but fails not quickly to offend some other.

Gresset is agreeable and easy. His comedy called the 'Méchant,'$ and a humorous poem entitled · Ver-vert,' have original

["Some to whom heavon in wit has been profuse,

Want as much more, to turn it to its use."-Pope.) + [It is also characterized by La Harpe, as“ exceeding in plot, style, humor, and vivacity, almost every other composition of the kind.” —Cours de Litté. rature.]

[At the solicitation of Montesquieu, Louis the XVth settled on Piron a pension of a thousand livres. He died in 1773.)

$ [“ Le Méchant, of Gresset, is one of the most elegant productions of tho comic muse, and presents an ingenious satire ipon Parisian manners, as they existed previously to the revolution. The poetry is excellent, and there is no

merit. He was bred a Jesuit; but his wit procured his dismission from the society. This last work particularly could expect no pardon from the Convent, being a satire against nunneries !*

D'Alembert has united an extensive skill in scientifical learning with the most refined taste for the polite arts. His excellence in both has procured him a seat in each academy.

Diderot is an elegant writer and subtile reasoner. He is the supposed author of the famous Thesis which the abbé Prade sustained before the doctors of the Sorbonne. It was levelled against Christianity, and the Sarbonne too hastily gave it their sanction. They perceived its purport, however, when it was too late. The college was brought into some contempt, and the abbé obliged to take refuge at the court of Berlin.

The Marquis D'Argens attempts to add the character of a philosopher to the vices of a debauchee.

The catalogue might be increased with several other authors of merit, such as Marivaux, Le Franc, Saint Foix, Destouches, and Modonville ; but let it suffice to say, that by these the character of the present age is tolerably supported. Though their poets seldom rise to fine enthusiasm, they never sink into absurdity; though they fail to astonish, they are generally possessed of talents to please.

The age of Louis XIV., notwithstanding these respectable names, is still vastly superior. For besides the general tendency of critical corruption, which shall be spoken of by and by, there are other symptoms which indicate a decline. There is, for in

play of which so many lines have become proverbial, except, perhaps, La Métromanie.”—Quart. Rev. vol. xii. p. 131.]

* [" I must again and again repeat, that it is on account of the exquisito skill, and humor, and pleasantry of the use made of the machinery of the sylphs, that Pope's • Rape of the Lock’ has exceeded all the heroi-comic poems in all languages. The Ver-vert of Gresset, in point of delicate satire, is perhaps next to it.”—WARTON )

stance, a fondness of skepticism, which runs through the works of some of their most applauded writers, and which the numerous class of their imitators have contributed to diffuse. Nothing can be a more certain sign that genius is in the wane, than its being obliged to fly to paradox for support, and attempting to be erroneously agreeable. A man who, with all the impotence of wit, and all the eager desires of infidelity, writes against the religion of his country, may raise doubts, but will never give conviction; all he can do is to render society less happy than he found it. It was a good manner which the father of the late poet, Saint, Foix, took to reclaim his son from this juvenile error. The young poet had shut himself up for some time in his study; and his father, willing to know what had engaged his attention so closely, upon entering found him busied in drawing up a new system of religion, and endeavoring to show the absurdity of that already established. The old man knew by experience, that it was useless to endeavor to convince a vain young man by right reason, so only desired his company up stairs. When come into the father's apartment, he takes his son by the hand, and drawing back a curtain at one end of the room, discovered a crucifix exquisitely painted. “My son," says he," you desire to change the religion of your country,-behold the fate of a reformer.' The truth is, vanity is more apt to misguide men than false reasoning. As some would rather be conspicuous in a mob, than unnoticed even in a privy-council, so others choose rather to be foremost in the retinue of error, than follow in the train of truth. What influence the conduct of such writers may have on the morals of a people, is not my business here to determine. Certain I am, that it has a manifest tendency to subvert the literary merits of the country in view. The change of religion in every nation has hitherto produced barbarism and ignorance; and such will be probably its consequences in every future period for

« ZurückWeiter »