Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/June 1899/Tendencies in French Literature
|TENDENCIES IN FRENCH LITERATURE.|
"TO present Victor Hugo in a few pages is to carve a colossus on a cherry stone." Thus Professor Dowden prefaces his ten admirable pages on the great French poet; and with equal appropriateness we might assign the phrase as a motto for the whole undertaking. The subject is too vast to cope with adequately in the limits of a slender volume, the tendencies too complex; and the appeal from human interest, which since the days of Sainte-Beuve and Taine has formed such an important element in scientific criticism, had to be abandoned in favor of generalized views of literary conditions and tendencies necessarily abstract or impersonal in character. Yet, despite these evident restrictions which the requirements of his task imposed upon him, Professor Dowden has produced a work of extraordinary merit, a masterpiece indeed in its kind. If we were not assured that everything which the eminent critic writes is its own sufficient justification, we might be inclined to question the necessity of the present volume, in view of the painstaking and conscientious treatise that Mr. Saintsbury gave to the public some sixteen years ago, and which has deservedly remained until the present time the most reliable English text-book upon the subject of French literature. With no desire to disparage Mr. Saintsbury's scholarly contribution, the present work does in truth supply a need which the earlier book, in spite of its abundant merit, failed to satisfy. It is not harsh criticism to state that Mr. Saintsbury's volume, crammed as it is with a plethora of dates and titles, is at best a compendium for convenient reference, and consequently quite unreadable as a book. Professor Dowden, on the other hand, has conquered the dry-as-dust problem with admirable skill, and the charm of his diction and the easy sequence of his ideas lead the reader insensibly on to the close of a delightful volume. Nor is the book lacking in instructive value of a highly reliable kind, for, in addition to an intimate knowledge of French criticism. Professor Dowden is evidently familiar at first hand with all the more important works of which he treats, and not infrequently proffers fertile suggestions upon debated questions.
Having avowed, therefore, a genuine admiration of Professor Dowden's book, will it be thought a graceless task if, with the proverbial perversity of critics, I endeavor to point out here and there questions of importance that may seem to have merited more attention than the author was perhaps able to afford to them within his restricted space?
The mediæval portion of Professor Dowden's book is valuable not for its originality, but rather as the reflection of advanced modern criticism in France. Therefore, in this brief review the mediæval period may be neglected, and turning to the second book, which deals with the sixteenth century, the first writer of capital importance whom we encounter is Clément Marot. The author has justly indicated the decrepit conditions of poetry in Marot's youth in the degenerate hands of the Rhétoriqueurs, and also the powerful attraction which the allegorizing mania exercised on the poet's early work. His later manner is justly emphasized, and his prowess in the lighter familiar forms of verse; but it is only by inference that we apprehend the comparative neglect of his work until the later classical reaction restored him to favor. Professor Dowden, indeed, throughout his book has hardly conveyed a proper idea of the reactionary shocks by which French literature has invariably advanced. Thus the Pléiade, in the enthusiasm of their rupture with middle-age traditions, were blind to the Renaissance elements in Marot's work, and seeking as they did to elevate poetry to nobler themes and a nobler manner, his easy familiar grace was distasteful to them.
Rabelais, of course, is another "colossus on a cherry stone," and the purport of his message is epitomized in a few luminous sentences. The elements of contrast in the man, and his full-blooded joy in living, which was the sign-manual of the Renaissance upon him, are indicated as follows: "Below his laughter lay wisdom; below his orgy of grossness lay a noble ideality; below the extravagances of his imagination lay the equilibrium of a spirit sane and strong. The life that was in him was so abounding and exultant that it broke all dikes and dams; and laughter for him needed no justification, it was a part of this abounding life. After the mediæval asceticism and the intellectual bondage of scholasticism, life in Rabelais has its vast outbreak and explosion; he would be no fragment of humanity, but a complete man."
Proceeding to the Pléiade, we find its doctrine admirably enunciated, and one point of literary history is well brought out—namely, that to the Pléiade, and not to Malherbe alone, belongs the honor of establishing the bases of classicism in France, the difference chiefly residing in the fact that the programme of the Pléiade was one of expansion in matters of language and prosody, whereas it is precisely in these points that Malherbe and Boileau are concerned with restrictive refinements. Again Professor Dowden, following perhaps in the wake of M. Brunetière, characterizes the conditions of the time as being unfavorable to lyrical expansiveness. "Ronsard's genius was lyrical and elegiac, but the tendencies of a time when the great affair was the organization of social life, and as a consequence the limitation of individual and personal passions, were not favorable to the development of lyrical poetry." These words are ripe with suggestiveness, and duly weighed, they afford the true solution of the oratorical and impersonal character of French literature for two long centuries, when the social genres in prose and poetry usurped dominion over the national mind. With our eye then upon the social conditions in France, the often-quoted words "Malherbe a tué le lyrisme" mean nothing more than that he struck a prostrate body.
Before turning from the sixteenth century it should perhaps be observed that in discussing the comedy of that period the author might have amplified his statement of Italian influences by at least a reference to the Commedia dell' Arte which we find established in France in 1576, with its traditional repertory of stock characters, whose antiquity ascends to the venerable times of the early Latin farces, and whose survival the work of Molière, nay, even of Beaumarchais, will adequately attest. The last great figure that greets us in the sixteenth century is Montaigne, and we feel a sense of disappointed curiosity when he is relentlessly dismissed at the end of the five pages to which he is entitled here. This singularly modern doubter still smiles inscrutably at us through the misty centuries that flow between us, and we would prefer to loiter with him by the way rather than pass him with a curt nod of recognition. But Montaigne is more important in the history of thought than in the history of literature, so, crossing the threshold of the sixteenth century, we meet the great lawgiver Malherbe, a Moses who really entered the promised land. Professor Dowden is eminently just and appreciative in his judgment of this pedantic and unsympathetic figure, estimating his merits and impartially noting his defects without presuming in his character as literary historian to stamp them as such. Malherbe undeniably eliminated personality from poetry. Shall we regard this as a defect? A century's masterpieces of objective art survive to say us nay, and if the critic's personal sympathies sway him to the side of lyric eloquence, the historian of literature observing without prejudice judges without rancor. "The processes of Malherbe's art were essentially oratorical; the lyrical cry is seldom audible in his verse; it is the poetry of eloquence thrown into studied stanzas. But the greater poetry of the seventeenth century in France, its odes, its satires, its epistles, its noble dramatic scenes, and much of its prose literature, are of the nature of oratory; and for the progress of such poetry, and even of such prose, Malherbe prepared a highway."
And now in the wake of Malherbe so thick do the great names throng that I must perforce touch swiftly only on what seems to demand amplification rather than dwell at length, as it would be much less difficult to do, on the many admirable views the book contains. And first as regards the literary significance of Rene Descartes. Professor Dowden places himself in accord with the customary views of criticism in assigning to Descartes a preponderating influence on the literary art of his century. "The spirit of Descartes's work was in harmony with that of his time, and reacted upon literature. He sought for general truths by the light of reason; he made clearness a criterion of truth; he proclaimed man a spirit; he asserted the freedom of the will. The art of the classical period sought also for general truths, and subordinated imagination to reason. It turned away from ingenuities, obscurities, mysteries; it was essentially spiritualist; it represented the crises and heroic victories of the will." This sounds reasonable, and is indeed in large measure in accordance with the actual conditions observable in the seventeenth century. Yet there is no doubt that the literature of Louis XIV is more intimately penetrated by the ascetic spirit of Jansenism as conveyed in the famous doctrines of Port-Royal, and it is to Jansenism, and emphatically not to Cartesianism, that the literature of the seventeenth century owes that aspect of grandeur and moral serenity which characterizes it. To quote Brunetière: "Pendant plus de cinquante ans, la conscience française, si l'on pent ainsi dire, incarnée dans le jansénisme, et rendue par lui à elle-même, a fait contre la frivolité naturelle de la race le plus grand effort qu'elle eut fait depuis les premiers temps de la réforme ou du calvinisme." Indeed, the tenaciously religious Jansenist spirit of the "grand siècle" would have been universal were it not that Molière and La Fontaine were apathetically indifferent, nay, sometimes actively hostile, to the general enthusiasm.
Let us, however, examine in all brevity the fundamental doctrines of Cartesianism. The terms are familiar enough. The identity of being and of thought. The objectivity of science. The all-powerfulness of reason. Progress to infinity. Optimism at all times. We can not fail to observe the significance of these categories, and how they contain the germs of almost every great subject debated by the leviathians of the eighteenth century. Yet the nation struggled long before it had strength to shake the incubus of Jansenism from its back, and the stimulating work of Bayle had to be supported by events of actual political significance before the stringent and constraining dogmas of Catholicism relaxed their grasp on thought and conduct. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Quietistic movement with its unseemly attendant episcopal quarrels, and finally the actual persecution of the Jansenists, all pointed inevitably in one direction, and stimulating the anti-religious sentiment and opening the flood gates to immorality, induced a potent reaction of Cartesianism in the fundamental theories of the eighteenth century.
In his treatment of Corneille, Professor Dowden "opens his hands only sufficiently to let out a portion of the truth he holds," but what he says is admirable to a degree. Of his diction he writes: "His mastery in verse of a masculine eloquence is unsurpassed; his dialogue of rapid statement and swift reply is like a combat with Roman short swords; in memorable single lines he explodes, as it were, a vast charge of latent energy, and effects a clearance for the progress of his action." This is well said, but hardly indicates how Corneille soared so often in the region of Spanish bombast, or crept among the insipid flowers of Italian preciosity; defects from which Racine's severer Greek taste held him free.
It is refreshing when we come to Boileau to find an English mind impartial enough to do justice to the much-abused "lawgiver of Parnassus." Criticism has for so long deplored his narrowness that we relish an encomium on his good sense. But beyond this there is an opinion which the general reader would be reluctant to admit, but which Professor Dowden has had the courage and the discernment to enforce, when he writes as follows: "But for Paris itself, its various aspects, its life, its types, its manners, he had the eye and the precise rendering of a realist in art; his faithful objective touch is like that of a Dutch painter." Let the incredulous merely turn to the satires to appreciate the scope and truth of the remark. It is difficult to imagine that a more brilliant and effective account of Boileau's work and influence could be presented within so limited a space; yet might not the author have added that whereas Malherbe is the representative of the aristocratic element in literature, Boileau is the first great incarnation in modern times of the bourgeois spirit?
With regard to La Fontaine it need only be observed that Professor Dowden recognizes what French critics with repeated insistence emphasize, the cunning harmonies of his verse.
Much space is of right devoted to Molière, who with La Fontaine has ever been a stumbling-block to English criticism. Professor Dowden voices our national feeling in refusing to consider him as a poet, preferring to emphasize his profound and healthy philosophy of life. Tartufe he considers to be an attack on religious hypocrisy merely. Is not the interpretation perhaps correct which regards it as an attack on the intolerance and Puritanism of all religion, even the most sincere?
Once again, in dealing with Racine, the author shows that subtle discernment in which his criticism abounds. He penetrates to the heart of the secret reason for the cabals that harassed Racine in the later years of his dramatic activity, and which doubtless had their influence in enforcing his retirement. Have we ever sufficiently realized that Boileau, Molière, and Racine were waging constant war against a rebirth of the précieux spirit which threatened not only society with ridiculousness but literature with ruin? Such, indeed, was the case, and in the eyes of the super-refined coterie that grouped itself round the Duchesse de Bouillon, Boileau and his fellow-workers were innovators of a dangerous and revolutionary order. Does not this idea carry us far from our preconceived notions of the narrow conservatism that dominated the leaders of classical thought? Referring to the disastrous check of Racine's Phèdre, the author writes: "It is commonly said that Racine wrote in the conventional and courtly taste of his own day. In reality his presentation of tragic passions in their terror and their truth shocked the aristocratic proprieties which were the mode. He was an innovator, and his audacity at once conquered and repelled." The point of view may seem extreme to us, and this vaunted realism may show pale and weakly when contrasted with the grossness of much of the realism that prevails at the present day, or with the graphic directness of the best examples of the type. But the words ring true if we are willing to accept the refined psychological realism of Racine as equally worthy to the title with the physiological naturalism of our more scientific age. Our whole conception of Racine's art falls into line with this view, and his constant solicitude for an easy and natural intrigue in the structure of his tragedies may be brought home to the same healthy impulse of his mind. Was it not Faguet who maintained that so natural indeed were the processes of his plots that a happy ending would have alone been needed to make any of his tragedies, with some added modicum of wit, in all essential features a comedy that Molière might have penned? Mr. Saintsbury, on the other hand, in dealing with Racine is seemingly swayed by some innate prejudice, or he could hardly have denied the poet a high moral character, merely granting him the possession of great shrewdness and discernment. True passion, he remarks, was not popular with the crowd, but "love-making, on the contrary, would draw, and love-making accordingly is the staple of all his plays." It is against this view, and against Mr. Saintsbury's further opinion that the tragedy of Racine is at the furthest remove from an imitation of ligature, that Professor Dowden makes a strong and timely protest.
While applauding, however, the value of such novel opinions in English criticism at least, we may suspect that in his desire to clinch his arguments the author may have driven the nail too ruthlessly home. And so it would appear when we seek in vain for any statement which contains the shadow of a justification for the existence of that powerful précieux spirit against which the greater classicists rebelled. We are too inclined to take Molière's word for it that they were solely ridiculous, forgetting the explicit reserve of his preface—"aussi les véritables précieuses auraient tort de se piquer lorsqu'on joue les ridicules qui les imitent mal." So let us then give the Précieuses credit for what they did confer to the advantage of letters amid so much folly, and, weighing the matter carefully, their gift to literature amounts to this: First, amid much linguistic and metaphorical pedantry they were free from the equally damaging and ridiculous pedantry of a labored erudition which pervaded the literature of the day. In the second place, whether we regard it as an advantage or the contrary, their influence made directly against the licentiousness of the esprit gaulois, and for politeness and decency in expression; and as a third count in their favor can we doubt that straining as they did to express the nuances of sentiment and gallantry, they were instrumental in stimulating that ardor of mental analysis which is of all things the distinguishing mark of the century? A word finally might have been said with a view to elucidating the inherent divergence of the précieux spirit from our own Euphuism, from the Marinism of Italy, or the Gongorism of Spain; a divergence due certainly to the fact that the précieuses allied themselves to, and accordingly strengthened, that spirit of social coherence so characteristic of the life and letters of the time in France, whereas the influences of similar movements abroad were more transitory, inasmuch as in some degree more isolated and tentative.
The chapter devoted to the seventeenth century closes with a critical review of the series of great preachers and theologians who have left their mark more or less upon the development of thought, while their literary significance can be comparatively slighted in a history of this kind; and the chapter which discusses the transition to the eighteenth century broaches questions of such large issue that an exhaustive treatment of them was not to be expected. Such are the memorable quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, and the philosophe idea of perfectibility and human progress. The chapter closes with an account of the great protagonist and pioneer in the warfare against Christianity, the patient, plodding, dangerous Pierre Bayle. So effectually was his teaching absorbed by Voltaire and the encyclopedists that he is read no longer; but low as his flame has sunk, he remains one of the beacons lighting us over the lurid threshold of the century of strife.
We are in safe hands when it is Professor Dowden who guides us on the highways and bypaths of the eighteenth century, but by very reason of his accurate knowledge of the ground whereon he treads we are disappointed when he fails to point out to us some special feature of the landscape. Beauties we could hardly hope to meet with on our journey. There was not sap enough in that arid soil to nourish flowers, or send a flush of living green over hill and valley. The most serious omission is to have left entirely out of account the exceedingly interesting reactionary influences that leaped back and forth across the Channel when Marivaux's romances were devoured in England, and Richardson's Pamela was in every French pocket large enough to hold it. It is in itself still an open question which of these two authors exerted the initial influence on the other, although eighteenth-century criticism invariably held that in Marianne Richardson found his inspiration.
A great deal of interest attaches to an explanation of the causes of Le Sage's decline in popularity, and this question likewise Professor Dowden has not adequately presented. Le Sage saw the imperative need of mediating between the stilted heroic romances à la Scudéry and the grotesque travesties of Scarron and Furetière. Inspired by the picaroon romances of Spain, he produced, amid much inferior work, Gil Blas, a masterpiece in its kind. The plot is loose-jointed, the composition nil, but the book teems with such verve and vigor that it still pulses with an abounding life when Marivaux and Richardson slumber on our shelves. Yet we must admit that the characters are vagabonds, and the sentiment not without coarseness. Love when not slighted is ridiculed, and metaphysical analysis and moral disquisitions are both refreshingly absent from the book. Hence Le Sage's claims on our consideration as the progenitor of naturalism in romance, but on this account also the reactionary wave against which he had to buffet in his declining years. Marivaux, on the other hand, saw the need of mediating between the stilted heroics of Scudéry and what he deemed the ignoble realism of Le Sage. In this resolve he elevated the characters to bourgeois rank, and abandoning the empty love rhetoric of the old romances, he brought the acuteness of an analytic mind to bear on the exploitation of the tender passion; and a conscientious though desultory effort is made to study subtle phases of character in the light of surrounding circumstances. Despite the artificial précieuse qualities of his style, and the unfinished condition of his novels, Marivaux enjoyed an extraordinary popularity in his day. The same problem repeats itself on a larger scale when we transfer our attention to Richardson, whose works, translated and popularized by Prévost, were read with the greatest avidity in France. Were not these such influences as Professor Dowden's profound knowledge of English literature would have qualified him to illustrate with more precision than has yet been brought to bear upon them; and was it not in point of fact almost imperative for him to deal seriously with such an important theme in the international literary history of nations?
The pages which Professor Dowden devotes to Voltaire, although brilliant, are not sufficiently suggestive of the extraordinary influence which that most celebrated of writers exercised. It was in no uncritical spirit that Mr. Morley wrote: "The existence, character, and career of this extraordinary person constituted in themselves a new and prodigious era. The peculiarities of his individual genius changed the mind and spiritual conformation of France, and in a less degree of the whole of the West, with as far-spreading and invincible an effect as if the work had been wholly done, as it was actually aided, by the sweep of deep-lying collective forces. A new type of belief, and of its shadow, disbelief, was stamped by the impression of his character and work into the intelligence and feeling of his own and modern times." Nor will Villemain be accused of rapt enthusiasm when he writes, "C'est le plus puissant renovateur des esprits depuis Luther, et l'homme qui a mis le plus en commun les idées de l'Europe par sa gloire, sa longue vie, son merveilleux esprit et son universelle clarté." The strangest fact to contemplate with regard to this unrivaled popularity, this astonishing range of influence, is that it truly constitutes an apotheosis of superficiality. And this in no disparaging spirit of Carlylese disdain for clear ideas around which hang no mists of oracular obscurity, but rather by way of tribute to a heart that beat responsively to human suffering, to a mind keenly sensible of human wrongs. Voltaire rejected the subtleties of metaphysical thought, was indeed incapable of attaining to the heights of speculative contemplation; he was only preternaturally sensitive to the moral defects of this imperfect world, and determined to bend all his efforts to the alleviation of injustice and of crime. As a further concession to his superficiality as a thinker we may frankly admit his incapacity to originate new ideas. His mind indeed was extraordinarily receptive, his intellectual curiosity unlimited, and hostile critics have availed themselves of this very receptivity as a medium of attack upon his originality. They are free to pursue him on that score, but it does not appreciably detract from his greatness in the eyes of posterity to recognize that Bayle before him had preached the doctrine of toleration; that Montesquieu had advocated the abolition of torture and of slavery, and the sanctity of social institutions, or that Boileau forsooth had upheld the dignity of classical formulas in matters literary. It is rather in the mobility of his mind and in the impressionability of his temperament that we should seek for an explanation of a philosophical disturbance in his ideas. It is not an actual mental confusion that I refer to, for his diction is never more limpid than in the expression of his easy personal beliefs; but a certain intellectual inconsistency in his habits of thought makes it impossible for us to hold him down to any definite set of opinions which we can regard as a genuine confession of faith. And this is a vital characteristic of skeptical minds of his stamp, swiftly receptive, and as open as the day to each new intellectual impulse as it arises. Thus we must attribute to his capacity for mental development, as well as to the narrowness of his philosophical range, the many contradictions which his writings exhibit in such matters of intellectual belief as are wont to give a permanent bias of thought to minds less volatile and alert. Are we to regard him as an optimist or a pessimist? a believer in immortality or devotee of annihilation? a fatalist or spiritualist in history? an advocate of free will or determinism? We can not say, and M. Faguet has amused himself with supporting each of these opinions in turn upon its appropriate text, whose clearness is beyond dispute.
If there was one set of opinions to which Voltaire may be said to have somewhat consistently adhered I may instance his vague and insipid deism, which relegated to God the role of an absentee landlord in this poor world which he created and governs by absolute law, but in whose affairs he only intervenes when the death rent is to be collected. He infers a creative God from the argument of the clockmaker and the clock, but takes extreme pleasure in showing how sadly the poor machine is out of order. His idea of the social utility of an avenging and rewarding God must of course be regarded as a freak of intellectual caprice, and yet his timid political instincts made him regard the terrorizing influence of the doctrine of hell with some complacency as a restraining force upon the unthinking masses. The story is well known of the atheistic conversation between D'Alembert and Condorcet at Voltaire's table, who summarily dismissed the servants from the room with the remark: "Maintenant, messieurs, vous pouvez continuer. Je craignais seulement d'être égorgé cette nuit." The Dictionnaire philosophique confirms the flippant utilitarian point of view, which we must beware of regarding as a personal conviction. "I insist particularly on the immortality of the soul, because there is nothing to which I hold more than the idea of hell. We have to do with a host of rogues who have never thought; a crowd of petty people, brutes and drunkards and thieves. Preach to them if you will that there is no hell and that the soul is mortal. As for me I will cry in their ears that they are damned if they rob me." It is needless to add that convictions of this eminently practical nature did not seriously hamper Voltaire in his anti-religious crusade.
To every branch of letters Voltaire brought the same splendid qualities of mind, and need I add the same defective qualities of conscience and carelessness of the truth when his personal glory or his material advancement were concerned? The sordid pages of his life would weary us in the turning, yet his native generosity and sympathy incline us to charity; and it is wonderful how his never-failing wit can temper his vindictiveness for us, now that the sting has lost its living poison.
I have referred to Professor Dowden's unsatisfactory treatment of the international reactions which characterize the literary history of the eighteenth century. There is another omission which I have remarked in the book on a reperusal of the pages devoted to Rousseau and the encyclopedists. It might have been easily within the scope of a literary story of even moderate dimensions to have more explicitly accounted for the crumbling of the old classical ideal, to have shown that the once impregnable citadel of classical art was rotten at the base, and that those who still defended the imaginary stronghold were themselves the unconscious agents of its destruction. With reference to the irreligious influences of Cartesianism and the philosophical system of Bayle I shall say no more, save that the evident loss in prestige of the traditional religious faith, combined as it was with the rapid decentralization of the sovereign power in the state, must perforce make impossible the survival of literature on the old national basis. Again, in point of pure art a decline was inevitable in connection with the revival of Cartesianism among writers of the stamp of Fontenelle; for their prestige was synchronous with the triumph of the modern party in the famous quarrel; and no student of the Art Poétique will fail to appreciate the æsthetical significance of an abandonment of classical standards of taste as an unimpeachable canon of art. Defending as Boileau did the supreme value of reason and good sense, what justification could he have found for poetry unless he had proved to the satisfaction of his generation that poetry better than any other mode of expression could render permanent the promptings of the diviner reason, as witness the eternal monuments of ancient art in the domain of poetry? The triumph of the moderns then turned men's faces in other directions, and whether literary art should henceforward advance or decline, it must at least strike root in a newer soil.
The inroads of sensibility into French literature, as exemplified in Marivaux and Prévost in the thirties, followed swiftly by the rank and file, also wrought havoc in the old classical method, though this fact may not without further reflection be conceded. But in the broad realm of psychological observation, where classic art had reigned supreme, the influx of a certain morbid sensibility strangely warped the mental vision of the observer. Diderot, a veritable sinner himself in this respect, admits as much in an unguarded moment: "L'homme sensible est trop abandonné à la merci de son diaphragme … pour être un profond observateur et conséquemment un sublime imitateur de la nature." Every one knows Voltaire's naïve statement which bears condemnatory evidence to the bluntness of his psychology. "La nature est partout la même." And is it not, we ask, this enigmatical typical man, out of space and out of time, for whom the chimerical theories of universal perfectibility were soon to be woven?
It is incontestably true, then, that the character of human observation undergoes a sensible alteration in the course of the century, and that whereas the individual man had been heretofore studied inasmuch as he was in himself of typical value, henceforward not man the individual will be the object of study, but the observation of human relations will usurp the field, and psychological analysis will yield to social investigation.
I would add a word or two by way of conclusion to illustrate how the encyclopedists in their propaganda, aided in part by the coincident influence of Rousseau, established ideals of thought and conduct which were in the most violent contrast to the ideals cherished in the preceding century. Of course, we readily understand that the encyclopedists threw to the four corners of heaven the outworn respect of religious and political tradition. Furthermore, we may ask ourselves what it is which in a sense makes Molière and La Fontaine isolated in their century; and the answer will not be far to seek when we realize that these two alone of all their fellows urged the suspected authority of instinct as a sufficient guide for conduct. Yet how far were not even these bolder spirits from the natural man of Rousseau or of Diderot?
The views of the two centuries concerning the authority of reason seem at first sight to coincide, yet, while bearing Boileau in mind, we can confidently assert that the doctrine of the sovereignty of reason was not established as a principle of thought until the culminating years of the eighteenth century. Pascal's "taisez-vous raison imbécile" indicates how attempered and attenuated by spiritual faith were the dictates of pure reason in his day, and the reason of Boileau, as I have already observed, was strongly tinged with æstheticism. I need not, with reference to eighteenth-century reason worship, go further than to refer the curious of enlightenment on the subject to the masterly works of Morley on the period in question, in which it is precisely this unflinching devotion to reason or unreason (if the sage of Chelsea will have it thus) which stimulates his calm and logical temperament to positive enthusiasm.
A last element of contrast between the centuries is of interest in connection with the habitual mode of thought which Godwin and his political disciple Shelley borrowed from eighteenth-century French sources with reference to the true relations subsisting between laws and morals. The seventeenth-century mind held tenaciously enough to the theory that it is the moeurs of a nation that inspire the laws, but the encyclopedists were inspired in their undying hope of amelioration and human progress to perfectibility by the contrary theory that men, after all, are only bad because the laws have made them so.
It may be conceded, then, that these broad relations of literary movements one with the other, the conflict of converging tendencies, and the more evident causes of the growth and decay of powerful manifestations of a nation's thought, are of quite sufficient moment to have merited fuller treatment at the hands of the eminent critic who has in all other respects fulfilled his task so admirably, that having regard to the necessary conditions of the subject, it would be above criticism if anything could be.
- A History of French Literature. By Edward Dowden, D. Lit., LL. D., etc. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1897.