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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 it has rarely been before.”
These are two passages, the one from M. de Châteaubriand, and 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 if society always, we may say, for civilization, retrograding or advancing, never stands 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 evi
! dent than at others that a movement is taking place. No fixed tast epredominates; there is an incongruity in all things, a want of unity, a want of harmony; the sons have passed beyond the recognized rules of their sires, but they have not yet found any for themselves. They are on the search, they cry, 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 inoyement that must always be going on. For society has its resting places, at which it collects itself and takes breath; 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,
M. Barbier. † The reign of Louis XIV. was a stationary epocb ; remark the 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's, 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 mueh--they wished to think no longer ; and for a time the empire of action and of the sword replaced the thepictie realities of the revolutionary tribune.
of mingling and jarring doubts, of disputes, 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 Châteaubriand so pompously puts forth may hardly pass for a description of the peculiar genius which separates modern 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, had 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 blazéd, 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 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 common-place prettiness of M. Jouy, were striking as a contrast to the marvellous magnificence of their age. But, from the fall of Napoléon, philosophy and letters have been gradually assuming an ardent spirit and a vivid colouring, analogous with the glory and ihe 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 to do, 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 literature-connected with the nature and the causes of which change we shall easily trace an influence—the influence of which I have spoken—and which, affecting the literature, has also 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 you back into antiquity itself.--Michaud.-Baranté. Thierry. - Thiers.-- Mignet.-Guizot. --Sismondi.--Châteaubriand.—The modern French Historian is like tbe 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 and more powerful style.
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, preeminent in historical composition.
• The old chronicles, indeed, were bold and vigorous; the bones, if I may use such an expression, with which a history might have been formed: but the inpumerable memoirs which
succeeded them, and in which the courtly times of France are handed down to posterity, appear as compiled exaggerations of the fashionable articles 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 crept 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 Orleans condescending to ally herself with the Duc de Lauzun.' M. de Turenne, says Dangeau—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 porte-manteau en chercher un autre. Le porte-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 empiétait 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 Mad. 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 Mad. 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 confession of a still more crafty mistress, that we are to look, as the signs and tokens of a great people's destiny.
But if the memorialist was necessarily narrow in his range, be at all events contrived to give you some idea of the region he described. Not so the historian. While the one, impressed with the greatness of his subject, prosaically repeated the chit-chat of the royal nursery,—pompously perorated upon the chaise percée of a king—the other, passing in contemptuous silence over the character, the customs, the arts of the people he described, expended the fire of his genius in a tremendous outpouring of battles, sieges, victories, defeats, murders, and invasions. Quick over your mind rushed a deluge of dates and deaths; and the people who could count the greatest number of obscure names upon their fingers, and cite an insignificant fact with the nicest accuracy, were deemed, by all reputed judges, the most accomplished possessors of historical lore.
Voltaire rescued history from Daniel and Griffet, The “Essai sur les Meurs," in its marvellous combination of wit, research, and philosophy, is, perhaps, one of the most astonishing evidences on record of the power of the human mind; but, wonderful as a testimony of intelligence, it is more than imperfect as a history. It wants the power without which all history is liseless-it wants the power which transports you to distant regions and to distant times, and which brings the dim face of weird antiquity plain and palpably before you; it wants the power which makes you look upon the things and mingle with the men that are described. What you see in Voltaire's history is—Voltaire, His cynical, intelligent, and thoughtful face comes back to you from every page, as 80 many refractions of the same image from a broken mirror. You never get beyond the philosopher's study. Like Don Quixote in the Duke's castle, you pass through every atmosphere without stirring from the same place. It is the