Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/469

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454
PROSE


him among the best masters of Castilian prose.” The instrument, accordingly, was polished and sharpened for the finest uses, and was ready to the hand of the supreme magician Cervantes, whose Don Quixote was begun a few years (about 1591) after Los Nombres de Cristo of Luis de Leon had been published (1583); these dates are significant in the history of Spanish prose. The prose of Lope de Vega is stately and clear, but of course has little importance in comparison with the verse of his huge theatre. Quevedo's style had the faults which were now invading all European writing, of violent antithesis and obscure ingenuity; but his Visions (1627) occupy a prominent place in the history of Castilian prose. The latest struggles of a decadent critical conscience, battling against tortuousness and affectation, are seen in Gracián (1601–1658) and in Molinos (1627–1697), who vainly endeavoured to save classic prose out of the intellectual shipwreck of the 18th century. When Spanish prose revived in the 19th century, in the person of Larra (1809–1837), the influence of French models was found to have deprived it of distinctly national character, while giving it a fresh fluidity and grace.

French.—There had long been a flourishing versified literature in the vernacular of France, before anyone thought of writing French prose. It was the desire to be exact in giving information, together with a reduced sense of the value of rhyme and rhythm, which led to a partial divergence from metre. The translator of the fabulous Chronicle of Turpin mentions that he writes in prose “ because rhyme entails the addition of words which are not in the Latin.” Thus about the year 1200 verse began to he abandoned by chroniclers who had some definite statements to impart, and who had no natural gifts as poets. They ceased to sing; they wrote, more or less easily, as those around them spoke. The earliest French prose was translated from the Latin, but Baldwin VI., who died in 1205, is said to have commissioned several scribes to compile in the vulgar tongue a history of the world. If this was ever written it is lost, but we possess a Book of Stories written about 1225 by a clerk at Lille, which may fairly be said to be the start-word of French prose history. When once, however, a taste for prose was admitted, the superiority of that medium over verse as material for exact history could not but be perceived, and prose soon became frequent. The earliest French prose-writer of genius was Geoffroy (or Jofroi) de Villehardouin, who put down memoirs of his life between 1198 and 1207; he left his book, which is known as The Conquest of Constantinople, incomplete when he died in 1213. In the history of prose, Villehardouin takes an eminent place. In his admirable style are seen many of the most precious elements of French prose, its lucidity, its force, its sobriety and its charm of address. He had been trained as an orator, and it was his merit that, as M. Langlois has said, he was content to Write as he had learned to speak. Villehardouin was closely followed by other admirable writers of memoirs, by Robert of Clari, by Henri of Valenciennes, by the anonymous chronicler of Béthune, to whom we owe the famous description of the battle of Bouvines, and by the Minstrel of Reims. The last-named finished his Récits in 1260. These works in the new easy manner of writing were found to be as elegant and as vivacious as any preserved by the old rhetorical art of verse. They led the way directly to the eminent writer who was the earliest historian of modern Europe, to Jean de Joinville, who finished his Histoire de St Louis in 1309. A century later Froissart left his famous Chroniques unfinished in 1404, and again a hundred years passed before Philippe de Commines dropped the thread of his Mémoires in 1511. These are the three most illustrious names in the chronicle of French medieval prose, in whom the various characteristics of the nation are separately developed. It must be noted that these three are simply the most eminent figures in a great cloud of prose-writers, who preserved with more or less vivacity the features of French life in the later middle ages, and helped to facilitate the use of the central national language. In the 15th century, moreover, Antoine de la Salle deserves mention as practically the earliest of French novelists, and one whose skill in the manipulation of language was long in waiting for a rival among his successors. But with the Renaissance came the infusion into France of the spirit of antiquity, and in Rabelais there was revealed an author of the very highest genius who at once defended the integrity of French syntax and enriched its vocabulary with an infinite multitude of forms. The year 1532, in which the first brief sketch of Gargantua appeared, was critical in French literature; for more than twenty years afterwards the structure of the great Pantagruelist romance was still being builded. Meanwhile in 1549 had appeared the Défense et illustration de la langue française of Joachim du Bellay, in which the foundations of the learned and brilliant literary criticism of France were firmly laid. The liberation of the language proceeded simultaneously in all directions. In 1539 it was officially decreed that all judicial acts were thenceforward to be written in vernacular prose, “ en langage maternal français et non autrement.” Calvin led the theologians, and his precise, transparent and sober prose, curiously deficient in colour, gave the model to a long line of sober rhetoricians. It is in the pages of Calvin that we meet for the first time with a simple French prose style, which is easily intelligible by the reader of to-day. There is some affectation of an ornamented pedantry in St François de Sales, some return to the form and spirit of medieval French in Montaigne; so that the prose of these great writers may easily seem to us more antiquated than that of Calvin. Yet the Institution belongs at latest to 1560, and the immortal Essais at earliest to 1580. We are approaching the moment when there should be nothing left for French prose to learn, and when development should merely take forms of personal brilliancy and initiative of enterprise on lines already clearly laid down. But we pause at Brantôme, in whom the broad practice of French as Froissart and the medieval chroniclers had used it was combined with the modern passion for minute detail and the close observation of the picturesque. Here the habit of memoir-writing in French prose first becomes a passion. With the beginning of the 17th century there sprang up almost an infatuation for making prose uniformly dignified and noble, for draping it in solemn robes, for avoiding all turns of speech which could remind the reader of the “ barbarous ” origins of the language; the earliest examples of this subjection of eloquence to purely aristocratic forms have been traced back to the Servitude volontaire of Montaigne's friend, La Boétie (1530–1563). In the pursuit of this dignity of speech the prose writers of the 16th century ventured to borrow not words merely but grammatical terms and peculiarities of syntax from the ancient literature's of Greece and Rome. The genius of France, however, and the necessity of remaining intelligible checked excess in this tendency, and after a few wild experiments the general result was discovered to be the widening of the capacities of the language, but at the temporary expense of some of the idiomatic richness of the old French form. In the 17th century a great stimulus was given to easy prose by the writers of romances, led by d'Urfé, and by the writers of letters, led by Balzac. In the hands of these authors French prose lost its heaviness and its solemnity; it became an instrument it to record the sentiments of social life in an elegant balance of phrases; here was first discovered what Voltaire calls the hombre et harmonie de la prose. French style became capable of more than this, it achieved the noblest and the subtlest expressions of human and divine philosophy, when it was used by Descartes and by Pascal to interpret their majestic thoughts to the world. At this moment of national development, in 1637, the French Academy was founded, for the distinct purpose of purifying, embellishing and enlarging the French language; and in process of time, out of the midst of the academy, and as a primary result of its labours, arose the extremely important Remarques (1647) of Vaugelas, a work of grave authority, which was the earliest elaborate treatise on the science of prose in any language. Antiquated as the method of Vaugelas now seems, and little regarded in detail by modern writers, it may be said that his famous book is still the basis of all authority on the subject of French prose. In common with his colleagues of the hour, Vaugelas strove to lay down laws by which harmony of structure,