« VorigeDoorgaan »
"To what end is society directing itself? Behind us, ruins; before us, an impenetrable obscurity; where we are, a terrible inquietude. Religions fall, other religions rise, or attempt to rise; the confusion of literary and political opinions is what has rarely been before."
These are two passages, the one from M. Chateaubriand, the other from the preface of a youthful poet," who seemed at one time likely to represent the character of his times. Society indeed is, in France, as it is all over the world, in a state of transition; so is society always, we may say, for civilization, retrogading or advancing, never standing still. So is society always; yet there are periods to which the epithet of "transitory" may be peculiarly applied; for there are periods at which it is more evident than at others, that a movement is taking place. No fixed taste predominates; there is an incongruity in all things, a want of unity, a want of harmony; the sons have passed beyond the recognised rule of their sires, but they have not yet found any for themselves. They are on the search, they try, they abandon, they adopt, they forsake. Each has his own scheme, his own thought: looking at them separately, these schemes, these thoughts are diverse : viewing them together, they appear less unlike, for there is always a general tendency throughout them all, a general tendency to The New Age, in which there will be unity, in which there will be harmony, in which there will be an insensibility to the movement that must always be going on. For society has its restingplaces, at which it collects and breathes itself; at which it prepares for new efforts, engendering new ideas-ideas which, until they triumph over those more antiquated, are unheeded; and then comes another epoch of doubt, uncertainty, and search. So is it for ever. · · ·†
That we are in one of those periods of search and discovery, of mingling and jarring doubts, of disputes,
† The reign of Louis XIV. was a stationary epoch; remark the
pretensions, and contradictions-that we are in one of those periods which the world calls "transitory," and which ought rather to be called "confused," there is no denying; but the vague truism which M. de Chateaubriand so pompously puts forth may hardly pass for a description of the peculiar genius which separates modern France from ancient France.
Every epoch of civilization bears its certain fruit; but to get a further produce you must stir and upturn the ground anew, and invigorate the earth that is grown fatigued and old by mingling it with a fresh and uncultivated soil. This is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of necessity; it is the law of nature, the law of the world, which, incessantly perishing, is incessantly providing means for its regeneration and support,
The form of society which, since the period of Richelieu, had been gradually developed, was arrived, at the period of the revolution, at its utmost state of refinement, and exhausted in the school of the eighteenth century all its powers. The wit, the grace, the incredulity, the scientific vice, the cold and bloodless philosophy of a blazé'd, debauched, and clever court could produce nothing more. than "la pucelle,"-"l'esprit,"-"les liaisons dangereuses." What could come after the philosophers, and the poets, and the novelists of Louis XV. and Louis XVI.-what could come after the profligate productions of an age, the life and spirit of which were completely enervated and worn out, but a long imbecility or a total change? A total change took place, a new era came, for a new
similarity between the government and the manners and the literature which existed then; remark the similarity, the harmony, if I may so express myself, between a royal ordonnance, a poem of Racine, a court dress, and a cabriole chair. Every thing was grand, stately, ceremonious, decorous; rigid in its rules of art and etiquette; the same genius presided over the drama that regulated the cotillon. It was the age of the court, of the unities, of the minuet. The reaction from the solemn regularity of one period was the irreligious disorder of the other: then men had thought too much; they wished to think no longer, and for a time the empire of action and of the sword replaced the theoretic realities of the revolutionary tribune,
stratum for society was laid,-a new era came, in which France was formed of new materials, endowed with new thoughts, and clothed with new expressions.
The genius of this dawning time did not first make itself visible in literature; for it is a mistake to suppose that, because literature sometimes represents the mind of an epoch, it does so always. It does so only when that mind is not otherwise and more forcibly expressed. This is why the character of the empire was traced--not with the pen, but with the sword; while the placid sweetness of Delille and the commonplace prettiness of. M. Jouy were striking as a contrast to the marvellous magnificence of their age. But from the fall of Napoleon, philosophy and letters have been gradually assuming an ardent spirit and a vivid colouring, analogous with the glory and the fever of that man's reign. It would be far, I fear, beyond the compass of this work to enter fully into the merits of the different existing writers, or even to take an extended critical survey of the different species of writing now most popular in France. This I should have wished if I had been able to devote a volume to the purpose. But all that I now hope is, to show that a great change has taken place in French literatureconnected with the nature and the causes of which change we shall easily trace an influence-the influence of which I have spoken-and which, in affecting the literature, has not less affected the philosophy, and the religion, and the society, and the government of the French people.
Consider History and the Drama-France for the first time remarkable for historical composition-The old Chronicles, the Memoirs that succeeded them-The history of the eighteenth century-The history of the nineteenth-The first brought a bastard kind of antiquity into your parlour, the last carries men back into antiquity itself Michaud-Barente-Thierry-Thiers-Mignet-GuizotSismondi-Chateaubriand-The modern French Historian is like the old French Novelist, and attempts rather to paint than to describe Why?-History only interesting to those persons whose actions make history, and whose fortunes are affected by it-The diffusion of honours, of employments, of property, has diffused the interest of history-The Historian writes now to a country where he wrote formerly to a clique-He adopts, therefore, a popular style, and appeals to the senses instead of to the judgment.
CONFINED, as I now am, in the observations I have to make on this part of my subject, I shall proceed to consider French literature in its two most important divisions-History and the Drama; and perhaps the first thing to strike us in the present literature of France is, that it is, for the first, pre-eminent in historical composition.
The old chronicles, indeed, were bold and rigorousthe bones, if I may use such an expression, with which a history might have been formed; but the innumerable memoirs which succeeded them, and in which the courtly times of France are handed down to posterity, appear as compiled exaggerations of the fashionable
cles which could to-day be taken from the Morning Post, Alas! the authors of these memoirs never spoke, wrote, or thought of the nation. They were satisfied in recording the minutest whisper that creeped around the precincts of the throne. "Have you heard the most miraculous, the most extraordinary, the most stupendous thing in the world?" says Madame de Sévigné, in her memorable letter which announced the possibility of a princess of the house of Orléans con
descending to ally herself with the Duc de Lauzun. M. de Turenne, says D'Angeau-from the utmost height of his sublime gravity-M. de Turenne, eldest son of M. de Bouillon, and "grand chambellan en survivance," struck the king's nose the other day in giving him his shirt.
"Le roi se promena dans ses jardins où il s'amuse à voir planter, il faisait un tems effroyable et le chapeau du roi était percé: on envoya le port-manteau chercher un autre. Le port-manteau donna le chapeau au Duc de Nismes qui sert pour le D. d'Aumont qui est en année. Le Duc de Nismes le présenta au roi ; mais Mons. de la Rochefoucauld prétendit que c'était à lui de le donner et que le D. de Nismes empietait sur ses fonctions. Ceci a fait une assez grande affaire entre eux quoiqu'ils fussent bons amis."
"On one of his days of business, Louis XIV.," says Madame de Maintenon's memoirs, "remained with this lady but a short time before the minister came in, and a still shorter time after he had gone out. His majesty went to the chaise percée,' returned to the bed of Madame de Maintenon, where he stood for a few minutes, and then wishing her good-night, sat down to table."
The enumeration of facts like these is so far important when you see what the court was that governed the country, you may come pretty accurately to the conclusion that the country was very ill governed.
But for thinking of the country at all, as you read some hundreds of volumes, you are entirely indebted to a patriotic imagination. After the great fire which destroyed Rennes, there were discovered among the ruins different coagulated masses of various colours, out of which a vast number of pretty ornaments were made; and it was from these useless trinkets on some ladies' dress that the greater part of France became informed that the capital of a province had been destroyed. So, during the whole period I am speaking of, it is to some trumpery toy, to some paltry passion, to some miserable closet-wise intrigue, to some crafty