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“ Hic tandem stetimus nobis ubi defuit changes, in short, resulting only in orbis.”
the conviction, that nothing has been The difficulty of forming an impar. substantially gained, and that the li. tial 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 80 falsely complained of literature was so 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 high. merits 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 his career; for he was still to ests, or political convictions, enables both parties, uot so much the drama. the reader more distinctly to perceive tist, the historian, the poet, or the and to judge of the questions of liternovelist, as the apostle of opinions, 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 identified 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 practi. from 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 partiexpressed 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 unplace in France since the fall of the regulated imagination has superseded dynasty of Bonaparte—the restoration philosophy-and the extreme of li. and second expulsion of the Bourbons cense has succeeded the extreme of -the establishment, amidst an all but caution. We shall not at present an. universal 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 tame fied, and tasteful, though not imaginaor crush the power by which it had tive, literature, which she had carried to been created; on the one hand, the a bigh pitch of perfection, for one essen. gradual 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 tory, and unnatural, enables us more settled government in France is for correctly to estimate the justice of
no 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 more in harmony which it illustrates, than of the nine. with the character of a people emi. teenth, amidst the stormy influences nently intellectual, and finely alive to of which it has been composed. ridicule, but neither distinguished by The genius of the seventeenth cen. high 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 tranmore 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 propriety, 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 It 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 T he 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. Some traces of the sceptical towards the simple, the natural, the spirit of a later period, may indeed be kindly, and the elevated. Doing jus- traced even among the contemporaries tice to many of Shakspeare's excellen of Bossuet, in the extensive erudi. cies, it is yet evident that Villemain re- tion of Bayle, combined with a spirit jects the idea that Shakspeare'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 multifarious 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 sensible ing, which was turned to ample acof the nature, tenderness, and pro- count when the crusade against esta. fundity of individual passages in blished opinions was commenced in Shakspeare ; nay, is disposed to earnest by the authors of the Encycloadmit, occasionally, even his higher pédie. Still, when Louis XIV., the art in comparison with the French survivor of almost every great man dramatists, as well as his deeper who had 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 change, however, soon becomes In the drama, a temporary popu. perceptible 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 unalter. succeeded by a school of pulpit able rules, from which no dramatist eloquence, in which morality, chacould 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 sube and action, with their natural consejects, contrasting so strangely with quences, long recitals, soliloquies, and the divine-right doctrines systematic expositions in words rather than ac. cally 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 the rigorous exclusion of every thing language of remonstrance from the comic from the sphere of tragedy, and, pulpit, which was at no distant period at the same time,' a nervous dread of to be conveyed in accents of thunder pushing the tragic effect too far, if death from the democratic demagogues and or physical suffering were allowed to infuriated multitudes in the courts be displayed upon the stage ; for which of Versailles or the Tuileries.
scarcely any better reason could be In Jyric poetry, the pretensions of 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 Chau. So strongly were these artificial pelieu and the odes of J. B. Rousseau— culiarities rooted and grounded in the compositions destitute of any true re. very being of French tragedy, that ligious sentiment, and producing their even writers of some poetical ability, effect only by some force and senten- well acquainted with the dramatic tiousness of expression, combined with literature both of antiquity and of fo. a sonorous and harmonious versifica- reign countries like Lafosse, the tion. Placed beside the choruses in author of Manlius--while attempting 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 dis. might 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 perepigram 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 syste- and embody, with a sort of stoical matic adaptation of Greek manners to pomp of thought and laconic conthe tone of French society, appear in densation of expression, somewhat in the most ludicrous caricature, unre. the style of Seneca (with whom he deemed by his real tenderness, and the has many points of resemblance), exquisite polish and beauty of his ver- scenes of atrocity and gloom, he is in sification. The romance writers of general completely deficient in the the school of Scudery and Calprenede, delineation of all feeling or character whose aim it was “ peindre Caton ga- of a more level, natural, or tender lant et Brutus dameret," found a not kind. We say in general, because unworthy dramatic rival in Chancel; we willingly exempt from this charge whose Orestes, Meleager, Arsaces, and his tragedy of Rhadamiste, which apAlceste, form as extraordinary a tra- peared in 1711, the solitary dramatic vestie of antiquity as can well be ima- work between the time of Racine and gined.
Voltaire, which even approaches to Crebillon certainly rises consider the character of genius; and to which ably above these feeble imitators we are glad to see that justice is done of Racine : for, coarse as his tastes by Villemain. He blames the first were, he was a man who thought for act as “ill-written, because without himself-at least within the limits passion"-of which we are scarcely which the existing rules of the drama disposed to demand much in a first permitted: for these rules, as laid act-but admits that the rest is elodown by the precept or practice of quent and tragic, and realizes all that Corneille or Racine, he adopted to the could be effected within the narrow letter. He is, indeed, the very reverse limits then allowed to French traof an innovator, so far as regards the gedy. established dramatic creed of his time; With one remark of Crebillon we but, endowed with a sombre, fantastic, suppose most readers will be disposed and vigorous turn of mind, approach. entirely to concur: when asked which ing to the savage, he has occasionally of his works he preferred, his answer tbrown a force and vivacity, derived was, “ It is difficult to say which is the from his own character, into those best ; but this," pointing to his scapemythological terrors which he borrow. grace son, the novelist, “ is certainly ed from antiquity, of which, at first the worst." sight, such subjects would hardly have La Motte, a contemporary of Creappeared susceptible. “Corneille," he billon, did endeavour to effect what used to say, “ has laid hold of heaven, Crebillon seems to have in no respect Racine of earth; nothing was left to aimed at: viz. an innovation in the me but hell, and I have thrown myself recognised dramatic code. His great into it, heart and soul." “ Unfortuprinciple, besides an attack on the nately," as Villemain dryly observes, unities, was this, that the drama gained " he is not always quite so infernal as nothing by being written in verse ; he seems to think.” Placed side by and he illustrated his proposition by side with love intrigues and dialogues, the production of an Edipus in prose in which the argument, however agi. and an dipus in verse, which cer. tating, is maintained with a politeness taivly left the reader in a pleasing worthy of the school of Chesterfield, uncertainty which was most intolerhis scenes of bloodshed, incest, and able. crime, very often wear an almost ludi. And yet, in his speculations as to crous air, though we admit the forcible the unities, though apparently igno. effect of some scenes or passages, like rant even of the existence of Shakthat of the famous line borrowed from speare, and certainly entirely unac. the Thyestes of Seneca,* when Thy. quainted with his works, it is interest. estes addresses his brother, after the ing to observe how much his notion of hideous banquet, with the words a Roman tragedy, conducted upon the “ Reconnais tu ce sang ? Je reconnais mon
principles which he was disposed to
recognise as just, seems to correspond frère."
with the manner in which such subjects But though Crebillon could conceive had been actually treated by Shak
* "Natos et quidem noscis tuos ?--Agnosco fratrem."
speare. Take, for instance, his remarks modifications to suit the expression to as to the plan on which a tragedy, the taste of a Parisian public, be made founded on the subject of Coriolanus, effective upon the French stage. He might be conceived and theatrically aimed, in short, at the difficult, and, there embodied. “ I should not be surprised is reason to think, incompatible task, if a people, intelligent though less atof amalgamating two dramatic systems, tached to rules, should reconcile itself the principles of which are not only to the idea of witnessing the history of unharmonious, but in many respects Coriolanus divided into several acts. In contradictory. It is well known that, the first, that patrician, accused by the in the opinion of certain French critics tribunes, defended by the consuland the of no mean note, Voltaire has sucpeople whom he has saved, and then ceeded in his attempt. La Harpe condemned by the people to perpetual seems to think that he had perfected exile: in the second, the despair of what Corneille had begun and Racine his family, and the gloomy grief with improved, by adding to the dignified which he separates from them : in the or graceful sentiments of his predeces. third, the magnanimous boldness with sors, more life, energy, and natural which he presents himself to the Vol. movement in the dialogue. He has scian general, whom he has so often been described as :-“ Vainqueur de vanquished; ready to sacrifice his life deux rivaux qui regnaient sur la if he can but associate him in his ven- scène.” Time, however, has pro. geance: in the fourth, the hero at the nounced a different judgment. Villegates of Rome, the deputations of the main remarks that the plays of Corconsuls and priests, the prayers and neille, and the chefs d'æuvre of Ratears of a mother obtaining favour for cine, when revived about twenty Rome." La Motte does not pursue years ago, were received with the same the subject down to the assassination enthusiasm as at first, while those of of Coriolanus in Antium ; but so far Voltaire fell cold and dull upon the as he goes, there is a strong, though public ear. Though nearer in date to apparently unconscious, resemblance his audience, he was less felt, less unbetween his sketch and the outline derstood: his theatrical effects and traced by Shakspeare.
philosophic maxims were found hackThe views of Voltaire (the third neyed ; his sonorous eloquence did not member of the French Dramatic Tritouch the feelings like the bursts of umvirate) as to the drama, changed genius of Corneille or the passionate greatly after his compulsory resi. refinement of Racine. The want of dence in England. His first play, a genuine enthusiasm for high poetry the Edipus, produced at the age of any kind was too palpable in Vol. of twenty-three, was in all respects taire; while the faith which animated a play of the school of Corneille and his dramatic rivals, and the seriousness Racine. But the acquaintance he had with which they vewed the high aim acquired with English literature, su- of tragedy, had, on the contrary, imperficial in many respects as it was parted to their compositions a perenhad impressed him with the conviction nial freshness and enduring life. of the powerful effects which the irre. « Voltaire," says Villemain,“wished gular drama of the northern nations to give boldness and animation to the was capable of producing; and without scene-to multiply theatrical effects. in the least degree meaning to call in He has frequently succeeded: but in question the laws which had been laid the grandeur and novelty of character, down by his predecessors, except per. which is the very life of the drama, has haps as to the employment of the passion he approached his models? Has he proof love as an indispensable dramatic duced any thing that can be compared agent, he seems to have conceived that with such original and novel creations a great deal of the spirit of the roman as Don Diego, Pauline, Severa, Burtic drama might be thrown into the rhus, Acomat, or Joad? Is his dic. classical form ; that the natural elo- tion, dramatic as it is in point of quence of Antony, the jealousy of the movement and warmth, equally so in Moor, or the philosophic or sceptical point of truth? Does it equal the musings and melancholy of Hamlet, or poetry of Racine and Corneille, when perlaps the impression of supernatural he is Corneille ? And is not the perterror which the ghost scenes of Shak- fection of poetry a necessary part of speare produce, might, with certain our severe and regular theatre?...