« AnteriorContinuar »
with us is too strong to he repressed by the want of due utterance-or, rather, the utterance which is prompted from such a source has always commanded our admiration. There, it would seem, that, to please academies, one must have studied in academies—and that no knowledge of the heart could alone for want of familiarity with the tone of good company. They have, indeed, one, Le Grand Chancel, who is famous for having writien some trash called a comedy, at nine years of age—and one carpenter, Adam Billaut, who wrote vulgar verses, with some applause, in the time of Louis XIV. But what are these to our instances of Cowley, Pope, Chatterton, and Kirke White, for precocity-or SHAKSPEARE himself, Burns, Hogg, or Bloomfield, for genius, in the humblest condition? The progress of refinement with us has been so far from either repressing the feelings of the peasant, or making the polite fastidious, that it has produced just the opposite effects—as, in truth, it ought always to do.
The remarks which we have made apply to the French poetry of the two last centuries—to the only poetry, in short, which the French themselves now read, or call upon others to admire. Yet it would be unjust not to acknowledge that it was to them that all Europe was indebted for its first poetical impulse--and that the romantic literature which distinguishes the genius of modern Europe from that of classical antiquity, originated with the Trouveurs and Conteurs--the Jongleurs and Menestrels of Provence.
We cannot stop now to give any history of this gay science—which proceeded with such brilliant success, that a regular academy was established for ils cultivation in Toulouse before the end of the 19th century, and its spirit transmitted, almost al the same time, into all the kingdoms of Europe. Sarmiento * has indeed attempted to show, that this new kind of poetry, having been introduced into Spain by the Moors, first passed through Catalonia into Provence, where, meeting no doubt with singular success,
it soon spread over all France, and afterwards returned by way of Toulouse to Barcelona—and thence lo Andalousia, where it had begun. We do not think, however, that there is any evidence of this Moorish origin, sufficient to impeach the originality of the Provençal poets; and though it is not less true ihan remarkable, that, so early as the 12th century, the Romancero General, and other collections, exhibit an incredible quantity of Spanish poems of the new school, yet the very name of La Gaia Ciencia, by which it is there distinguished, seems sufficiently to attest its origin; and it is recorded by Sarmiento himself, that the King of Arragon, in the 19th century, procured from the King of France two professors of poetry from Toulouse, who were settled at Barcelona, for the better encouragement of the poetical art, at that time considered of such national importance.
It would be useless, for any purpose we have now in view, to trace the progress or decline, whichever it may be called, of French poetry, from the age of the Troubadours down to that of Corneille and Racine, with whom it is supposed to have attained its perfection. It seems to have been in the reign of Louis XII., when Octavien de St. Gelais translated the Odyssey and the Epistles of Ovid, that it took a decided turn towards classical themes and models; and in the time of Henry II., Jodelle obtained such honour for his tragedies in the taste of the ancients, that he was hailed as a second Æschylus, and presented, in the true style of academic pedantry,
Memorias para la Historia de la Poesia Espagnola. Madrid, 1776.
with a goat and garlands! The reign of Henry IV. seems to have been the most prolific of French poetry. It was then that Du Bartas published his poem on the Creation, entitled “ La Première semaine,” which, it is said, went through thirty editions in six years,—though no one, we suppose, has had courage to read it through for the last century. Then also flourished the most fertile of all the French poets, Hardi, who is said to have written not less than six hundred plays. We do not pretend to know much about them; but we find Lacretelle, in the true spirit of his nation, congratulating them upon the fact, which we certainly do not question, that Hardi never reached any of the fine flights of Shakspeare,-since such an elevation, he observes, with his great popularity, might have prevented the French drama from asserting its present glorious analogy to that of Greece! Malherbe, who follows close on this era, brings us down at once to Racan, Meinard, and Voiture, who were the immediate precursors of Corneille.
Corneille was undoubtedly a great and original genius ; and, in what we have ventured to say of the general want of nature and of genuine and varied passion in French poetry, we must not be understood as wishing to deal unjustly either by him or his illustrious successors. They were men of taste and talent unquestionably, and fine and accomplished writers in the best sense of the words; and, though we can never allow them to be beings of the same order with the great master-spirits of our own land, or fit to be set in comparison with our Shakspeares, our Miltons, our Spensers, or even our Drydens, we readily admit, that they would be bright ornaments in the literature of any country, and that they fully rival, and even outshine, some of the greatest lights of our own. The peculiarities of their notions of dramatic excellence form too large a theme to be entered upon here; we may probably take it up separately on some future occasion ; but, at present, we shall merely say, that the plays of Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire, are decidedly superior to any English plays that have been written in imitation of them. Boileau, we think, is at least equal to Pope in his satires, his criticisms, his imitations of the polite writers of antiquity, and the graces and pregnant brevity of his style. He was also the master and model of Pope in all these particulars, and is therefore entitled to be considered as his superior. Bui he could not have written the Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard—nor the grander passages in the Essay on Man—nor have made such a splendid and lofty poem as Pope has of the translation of the Iliad. The task of rivalling, and perhaps excelling, that great undertaking, was reserved for De Lille. We have nothing to set against La Fontaine, the most unique, and, with the exception perhaps of Molière, the most original, of all French poets. Nor can we honestly pretend to find, in the lighter pieces of Prior, Pope, and Swist, any adequate counterpart to that great treasure of light and graceful poetry, poesies legeres, which is to be found in Chaulieu, Gresset, Gentil Bernard, Dorat, Boufflers, Parny, and the more careless productions of Voltaire. In short, we are not much disposed to deny that the French poets of Louis XIV. are fully equal to the English poets of Queen Anne. But that was by no means the golden age of our poetry; on the contrary, we have always maintained, that the turn it then took to the French models was an aberration from its natural course of advancement, and, in reality, a depravation of its purity, produced by the temporary ascendancy of the foreign taste of the Court after the Restora
It was the occasion, however, of adding an additional province to
the domain of English talent. But in less than a century this comparatively Darrow district was completely occupied and explored; and, after having carried that sort of excellence which depends on purity of diction and precision and fineness of thought, to the limited height which it is ever destined to altain, the aspiring and progressive genius of our poetry fell back upon its nalive models of the 17th century,—where alone it could find a boundless field of adventure, and an inexhaustible harvest of glory. In France, when the same narrow limits had once been reached, in the days of Racine and Voltaire, they had no richer or sweeter models to fall back upon-no perennial springs of melodious passion and fancy in their earlier poets, to which they might recur, when the schoolboy task of classical imitation was done: but finding themselves at once at the end of their career, they had nothing for it but to declare that they had atlained perfection! and that their only remaining care must be lo degenerate as little as possible from the unprecedented elevation they had gained !
In this condition, accordingly, their poetry remained for the belter part of a century-stationary at the best, even in the hands of Voltaire, and, since his death, confessedly declining or extinct-and sated, according to the universal creed of the nation, never, by any possibility, to advance beyond the bounds which had been assigned to it by the wils and critics of Louis XIV. The mighty agitation produced by the Revolution—the passions it set loose the premium which it seemed to set upon talents of all descriptions and the vast additional numbers to whom it opened the career of ambition, might have been expected to break this “ numbing spell" upon the genius of the nation, and to have excited its poets to new topics and new flights of inspiration. Unfortunately, however, no such effect has followed. The atrocious days of the Revolution were too full of soffering and terror to allow much scope to the pleasing emotions which form the springs and the food of poetry-and, under Bonaparte, the active duties of war engrossed all the aspiring talent of the country, while the sternness of his military sway repressed all those noble and enthusiastic feelings with which the Muse might otherwise have pursued the triumphs of a free people. It is chiefly since his downfal—since the restoration of peace has forced ambilious and ardent spirits into other contentions than those of arms, and the divided state of public opinion has given exaggerated sentiments a power of inflammation that they never before possessed, that poetry has again become an object of national attention, and regained a part of its fire at least, if not of its elegance, in being made subservient to the views of contending factions.
It is chiefly in the form of dramatic pieces that the new race of poets make their appeal to the feelings or prejudices of the public—and that for very obvious reasons. The stage, indeed, has always been the favourite haunt of the French muse-partly, perhaps, because she was conscious that the strains she inspired required all the aid of scenic pomp, graceful declamation, and the concentrated enthusiasm of assembled mullitudes-but chiefly, we believe, because no French author who can possibly obtain it, will ever forego the delight of hearing himself declaimed before a crowded audience, and inhaling, in his own proper person, the intoxicating vapours of his glory, warm as they rise from the hearts and voices of his admirers. In the present situation of the country, however, there are strong additional reasons for this predilection. At Paris, the stage has always been the mouthpiece of popular feeling—and every allusion, however faint and re
mote, to passing events, or discussions of national importance, is seized upon with a furious vehemence, and made the oracle of opinion. Nay, this is often done without any wish or purpose in the author; and applications are made, and allusions fastened upon him by his hearers, which never entered into his imagination. In a recent instance (at the representation of the Vépres Siciliennes of M. Delavigne), a single phrase, which the author solemnly protested to have been purely casual, was in this manner interpreted into a political insinuation, and at once raised him and his play to a height of glory which they could never otherwise have reached. It is not often, however, that the authors are thus innocent of the factions into the service of which their writings are pressed :-on the contrary, it is to this ready and perilous course of popularity that the greater part of them direct the whole of their talents. Sharing, as he generally does, in no common degree, in the violent heats and exasperations by which their country is now unhappily divided, the Poet naturally takes a more exaggerated, or, it may be, a more exalted view of them. A passion for independence, love of country, and hatred of foreign influence, are the consequent topics of his verses. Politics, in short, have now usurped the place once occupied by Love, and, like that tender passion, appear en première ligne,
though with infinitely more hazard of leading to pernicious effects. It is right that patriotic principles should be inculcated from the stage; but when the theatre is made a forum for the display of national antipathies, it is degraded from ils most noble purposes. Yet such appears its chief use at present.. " To improve our virtuous sensibility"--Blair's happy definition of the object of tragedy-is no longer the aim of the French stage. The old system and the old pieces are, comparatively speaking, thrown aside. Subjects chosen from ancient history are now altogether abandoned :* and the example of their best authors is in this respect disregarded. Corneille and Racine both rejected their national history ; and even Voltaire cannot be said to have written a national tragedy; for though French names are to be found in Adelaide du Guesclin and Zaire, all beyond them is fabulous. La Harpe and Ducis follow the ancient models ; and it was left to a far inferior person to make the first experiment of the style which has now superseded every other. The incoherent and complicated plots and inelegant style of Duhelloy, were pardoned for the sake of the patriotic feeling excited by The Siege of Calais and Gaston de Bayard. The progress of discontent opened the way still wider for the advancement of this national style; and the name
* Sylla and Regulus, two recent tragedies, may seem exceptions to this rule. But even there pieces come, in some measure, within it; for their object--at least the audience will have it so is nerely to represent the late Emperor under two remarkable aspects—his abdication and his banishment. In Sylla, Talma carries the resemblance even to his wig! and the effect is prodigi; ous! It is a fact, scarcely credible, that the government ordered this performer, after the first nighi's representation, to abstain from the action of carrying his hands behind his back, an accasional habit of the late Emperor! A more rational, or at least less ludicrous consideration, induced the censors to suppress the following passages in the part of Sylla :
“ C'était trop peu pour moi des lauriers de la guerre,
Je voulais une gloire et plus rare et plus chère :
Et j'impose silence à tous mes ennemis;
of country, so full of inspiration at all times, but most in the days of contention for national rights, was once more destined to exercise its magical influence in France. It is not, however, our intention to discuss either the dramatic or the political merits of the tragedies to which we have alluded, but rather to give our readers a general notion of the present state of Poetry among our neighbours—abstracted as far as possible both from the peculiarities of their dramatic system, and the perturbations of their political dissensions.
Upon this principle, we have selected the three works named at the head of this article as the representatives of the different modifications of that genus to which they all belong. It might not, perhaps, be altogether fancifal to consider them also as epitomes of the three great political sects, into which France is now divided ; and which, at this moment, extend their influence, and give their tone and colouring to every branch of literature and science. The Aristocratical, the Constitutional, the Republican, have their followers alike in metaphysics and morals, medicine and mechanics, philosophy and poetry. The pervading spirit of all is party spirit; and the common object, political purpose. The fierceness of opinion on the relative merits of the candidates for literary fạme, in whatever walk they may chuose, is only equalled by its obstinacy; and it is but in the three cases of extraordinary merit which we have selected, that merit has been universally felt and acknowledged. All parties allow the elevation of Delamartine, the energy of Delavigne, the gaiety and wil of Beranger. The first may be considered as the poetical representative of the high aristocracy—the churchand-state class--the throne-and-altar set--the Ultras in fact. The second is looked on as the oracle of independence-the champion of nationalitythe bard of the Liberals ;-and the third is by every one regarded as the poet of the People. In all these nominations the first is the only one which is perhaps arbitrary and gratuitous on the part of the public. For certainly we can discover nothing in M, Delamartine's writings in sympathy with the exaggerated tone of the party that has identified him with themselves. But his rivals in popularity bear the impress, in every line, of the fitness of their respective allotments.*
Having given these brilliant exceptions to a general sentence of condemnation, we must say, in conclusion, that modern French poetry is at a low ebb. Almost all its existing professors give their whole attention to tragedy. Seeking subjects in the ancient annals of their country, they address themselves to political passions, rather than to the heart. Bursts of pompous patriotism, and violent tirades against foreign influence, form the grand staple of their verse. The audience receives this with rapture-but
— seldom has recourse to its handkerchiefs. Fierce clappings and terrible huzzas are the only fashionable acknowledgments of the author's powers, who, in place of sympathy and tears, draws forth angry invectives and patriotic frowns. The public and the poet thus communicate reciprocal gratification, and inflict reciprocal ill. The one fosters the angry spirit of the times, the other nurtures a vital injury to poetic excellence. .Taste becomes vitiated, talent misapplied, a diseased and morbid appetite calls for stimulants of the most pernicious kind ; and the hand that administers them falls powerless for every nobler use. But though French poetry must be pronounced in this dangerous and degraded state, there is, as we have seen,
The extracts are emitted.