« PreviousContinue »
to give the name of comedies. The name might have been, with nearly equal propriety, applied to the Gamester or George Barnwell; for though they neither conclude with suicide or the gallows, their whole tone and spirit is tragical, and they certainly contained little which was calculated to refute the truth which was laughingly conveyed, in some lines, by a satirist of the Foire
"Le comique ecrit noblement
Fait bâiller ordinairement," The name of Fontenelle is well known to foreign readers, but such is nearly the whole extent of their acquaintance with the man or his works. Yet his influence during a long literary life was so extensive, that he cannot be overlooked in any tableau of French literature. He connects the seventeenth century with the eighteenth. In the former, he might be viewed as a timid reformer; in the latter, as one who still held fast by the ancient landmarks, and opposed a placid passive resistance to the further movement of opinions. The nephew of the great Corneille, he seems to have conceived that he had a hereditary turn for poetry. In youth, he com. posed Latin poems, and Greek verses "equal to those of Homer;" for in fact they were borrowed from him. At a more advanced age, he tried tragedy: with what success, the epigrams of Racine attest. Eclogues, lettres galantes, dialogues of the dead, succeeded; all deformed by affectation, none exhibiting any high appearance of genius. What, then, was the source of Fontenelle's influence in his age?
It lay chiefly in the skill with which he applied the rules of good taste, and a kind of pleasing fancy, to compositions on matters of science. Without being deeply acquainted with any of the sciences, he had acquired a superficial knowledge of all; nor is it possible to peruse, without admiration, the long series of reports prepared by him on all subjects, while officiating as secretary to the Academy-a duty which he only resigned in his eighty-fourth year, that he might have time to finish some theatrical pieces which still lay on his hands. General physics, anatomy, chemistry, botany, mathematics, astronomy, optics, hydrography, acoustics; nothing seems to come amiss to Fontenelle. The description
of some novel fact in natural history succeeds an account of the binary arithmetic of Leibnitz; and observations on a comet seen at Pekin, are followed by calculations of the power of steam. It was in his eloges, however, of the different members of the Academy, that his union of accurate knowledge with a good taste, and his power of popularizing science, appear most conspicuous. The charm of his style in these compositions, which is great, appears to increase as he grows older; for age seems to remove the tendency to subtility and over-refinement which existed in youth, and to communicate to his observations on life and morals a more tender and earnest character.
The philosophical depth of Montesquieu has certainly been overrated. He writes sententious epigrams, or supports ingenious paradoxes on polity and government, in the style of a French Tacitus, but with a false brilliancy of diction, inconsistent with true grandeur or profundity of mind. As a discoverer in the science of politics or ethics, we are at a loss to perceive what new view he has originated, or what point attended with doubt his learning or his pene. tration has cleared up. In his treatise on the Greatness and Decline of the Romans, we see he adopts as implicitly true the common narrative of Livy. The contradictions and difficulties since pointed out by Niebuhr, and suspected even before Montesquieu's time, never embarrass him: he reasons on the received accounts without even a suspicion of their authenticity; and, accordingly, those brilliant lights which the German critic occasionally throws across the obscurity of some portions of the Roman history, such as the Agrarian laws, or the relations of client and patron, are wholly wanting in the clever and amusing, but superficial work of Montesquieu. The same objection is applicable to his celebrated Spirit of Laws, where the inartificial divisions, and the indiscriminating adoption of statements as the basis of his reasonings, which will not bear investigation, render the book, though it may stimulate thought, one of very slender practical utility. * It matters not, in truth, to the learned and ingenious president, whether his facts come from France, Bantam, or Timbuctoo, from "Nova Zembla, or the Lord knows where;" they are
all assumed with equal complacency, as grounds on which a pompous edifice of speculation may be built up. As it stands, then, the work seems to justify the observation of the Prince de Ligne, that it is not so much l'Esprit des Lois, as l'Esprit sur les Lois.
The same epigrammatic tendency which pervades the works of Montesquieu, appears not less obvious in the historical writers of this period. History had been timid and subservient during the reign of Louis XIV., nor was much boldness to be expected, where even a doubtful speculation with regard to the origin of the French nation, had been sufficient to consign an unlucky antiquary, the learned Freret, to the Bastile. But, in proportion to its former restraint, seemed to be its present license of por traiture and of speculation. The spirit of free enquiry, which Voltaire had probably imbibed from his intercourse with England, he bequeathed to a numerous body of imitators; and from the labours of the French school, did our English historians in turn borrow that more reasoning and philosophizing character which distinguishes the works of Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon, from their predeces sors. Voltaire cannot certainly be considered a great historian: he wanted learning, conscientiousness, knowledge of original sources; but he was an admirable narrator-an art indeed in which his Charles XII. may be considered as a masterpiece.
We pass over the disagreeable subject of the gradual growth of the new infidel philosophy, till it reached its height in the Materialism of La Mettrie, and the thorough-going Atheism of Diderot. But while nothing can be more detestable than the philosophy of Diderot, it cannot be denied that his views of criticism, though undigested and incomplete, were more comprehensive and liberal than those of many of his countrymen-that he had a feeling of the beauty of simplicity, and natural expression of passion, a mind of very remarkable activity and fire-though, as Barante observes, it was often fire without fuel-and that he possessed something which, without amounting to genius, occasionally made an approach to it. As a narrator, the directness and rapidity of his manner in his best passages, equal the manner of Voltaire: and in his
criticism he frequently throws out views, derived no doubt from the study of foreign literature, and with out form or system, but which were both new and important to his coun trymen. "Diderot," says Villemain, "is a superior critic; though he is frequently wanting in exact justice. But he feels what he judges; he analyses with eloquence. His imagina tion takes its colour from that of others: he assumes the language and the accent of those he is about to praise. You think him emphatical and declamatory: it is because he is writing a dissertation on Seneca. But read the few pages he has written on Terence; it is impossible to be more simple, more elegant, more precise, more tasteful. Terence had fas cinated him; and he preserves his image as a sensitive eye, which has been for some time fixed upon a bright and distinct colour, preserves its im pression, and carries it for some time along with it."
The name of Diderot is almost inseparably associated with that of D'Alembert, his friend and fellow labourer in the Encyclopédie: a man of great ability, not merely as a mathematician, but of singular clearness, method, and very considerable grasp, in all those provinces of literature which depended rather on the vigorous ap plication of the intellect, than of the sensibilities or the imagination. Where these were necessary, he entirely fails. His style is particularly cold and constrained, totally destitute of that na tural vigour and ease in which Diderot, with his carelessness and his coarseness, is rarely deficient. D'Alembert carried the austere style of science even into literature itself. He disliked the style of Buffon, and inveighed against it to a friend as pompous and declamatory: "Why, what would you have?" said the person to whom the criticism was adaressed; "it is not every one that can pretend to be as dry as yourself!"
Unquestionably, however, where the subject was one where breadth of philosophical view was legitimately associated with this austerity of style, as in his celebrated Preliminary Dis course to the Encyclopédie, D'Alem bert appears to great advantage. The correctness of particular opinions in that dissertation, has been justly ques tioned; and D'Alembert unquestionably
dogmatises a little on subjects with which his acquaintance was but partial; but an accomplished judge has admitted the general grandeur, simplicity, and nobleness of the outline traced by D'Alembert, and afterwards imitated, corrected, and surpassed by himself.*
The turning of the tide in philoso phy, from materialism towards ideal ism, becomes first visible in Condillac, in his Essai sur l'Origine des Connaissances Humaines. "The philosophy of Condillac affects to lay aside systems, and to rest upon observation and reasoning. It speaks a language precise and without imagery, but agreeable by its justness. It marks a restingplace a schism in the eighteenth century. Condillac first brought materialism into serious doubt. He investigates, examines, distinguishes, when the age was accustomed to dogmatise. He perceives the double nature of man in that which Diderot, Helvetius, and Holbach explained by the simple fermentation of matter, or the play of organs. Like them he sets out from the action of the senses; but in his course be becomes an idealist, and this interpreter of sensation has even, it may be said, erred upon the side of over-spiritualism, in attributing to the mind the power of creating the forms and colours which it perceives."
"Yet as men, and even philosophers, are often satisfied with appearances, Condillac has very often been judged of by the first words of his doctrine; it is thus that he has been styled an odious philosopher by that vehement spiritu alist M. de Maistre, and denounced in our own day as the father of sensualism. The character and consequences of his philosophy, however, had from the first been sufficiently obvious to the materialists; and the difference between him and them had early become apparent. Diderot, in praising him publicly for some articles he had communicated to the Encyclopédie, took offence at certain passages, and characterised him as a schoolman and an idealist. It was even partly for the purpose of combating his views, that he entered upon his own physiological explanations of thought. To many others less clear-sighted than Di derot, Condillac no doubt appeared a
useful opponent of the metaphysics of religion. -an observer favourable to scepticism-and by them he was as much lauded as Bonnet of Geneva was decried, though their doctrines have in fact many points of connexion. He succeeded in a great measure, in France, to the great reputation which Voltaire had created for Locke, as the founder of a new and liberal philosophy."
Amidst all this parade of intellec tual and philosophical analysis, and this predominance of an absolute ma terialism, what was the condition of poetry?" So wan, so woe-begone, so spiritless," that it scarcely deserved the name; for all genuine poetical belief and inspiration were for the time at an end, swept away by the current of a universal scepticism and selfishness. A feeble attempt at de scriptive poetry, in the manner of Thomson, was made in the Seasons of St Lambert: a work, the popu larity of which, though extensive, was but of short duration, and which was afterwards thrown completely into the shade by the more finished perform ances, in the same department, of Delitte. "The elegance of St Lam bert," says Villemain, "is not the ele gance of a fine and classic diction, it has but the appearance of it, without the soul and life. The words are pure --the turn of the language harmonious. Sometimes we find nobleness where passion; often coldness-never eloquence.' Comparing him with Thomson, he observes, "Thomson has not the grandeur and precision of antiquity, but his heart overflows at the sight of the country. He abounds in true images in simple emotions. He possesses that poetry of the domestic hearth, in which the English have al ways excelled, and he has blended it with all the beauties of nature which for him are only shadows of the Creator's hand. Religious, and a painter, how could he fail to be a poet? Yet he wrote during the same age with St Lambert, and but a few years before him, in a country even more philosophic than France. Whence this difference be tween the two poems? It does not arise solely from the inequality of their ta lents. But the English poet, from the midst of the luxury and the philosophy of the capital, seeks the country, traver
sing it in poverty and on foot, to breathe the purer atmosphere of Old English morality. Though he dedicates his work to a great lady, his feelings are with the people-a people rich and proud of a free country. Like them, his imagination is nourished by the imagery of the Bible. Like them, he loves its pastures, its forests, and its fields. Thence springs his glowing manner; thence, under a gloomy sky, and in a period of cold philosophy, is his poetry so full of freshness and colour."
Two other names of this period awaken attention and sympathy, perhaps as much by their misfortunes as their genius-Malfilâtre and Gilbert. The first had a conception of poetry which rose far above the languid elegance of St Lambert or Colardeau. His fragments translated from Virgil, though sketches, mutilated and sometimes incorrect, seem a revival, as Villemain says, of the happy boldness of Racine. He is at least the first of the French poets since Racine, who indicates something of a genuine lyrical talent; while, in perusing his imperfect compositions, we must remember that want and misfortune clouded his talents, that "sharp misery had worn him to the bone," and consigned him to the grave at the age of thirty-four, ere he had time to labour for eternity.
La faim mit au tombeau Malfilâtre ig
said Gilbert, a poet of a different stamp, but resembling Malfilâtre in the early and melancholy termination of his career, which closed in suicide, committed during an accès of madness in the hospital. With a mind ardent and impetuous, with many traits of genius, and a sullen energy of expression which resembles Juvenal; with a style unequal, unformed, but always pregnant with ideas-still full of the faults of youth, but full also of the promise of a powerful manhood-his fate, like that of Chatterton, excites deep sympathy and regret for the early blight of a genius which promised to revive, in some degree, the sinking spirit of poetry in a worn-out and helplessly prosaic period.
It is somewhat singular, indeed, to find that the spirit of poetry, no longer able to animate into life an exhausted frame, passes in some shape into that of science, and communicates elo
quence, warmth, and imagination to the descriptions of natural history, in the animated pages of Buffon. It is doubtful whether Buffon is entitled to the character of a man of genius, and still more to the magnificent eulogy which he lived to see inscribed on his statue, "Majestati naturæ par ingenium”. his own conception of genius, which he described as une longue patience, seems rather to indicate a man of strong conception, united to resolution and perseverance of character; and to the union of these quali-, ties, the laborious and yet striking compositions of Buffon owe their origin." Some descriptions," says Villemain," have been extracted from his great work, which it is usual to admire in an insulated form. This is doing Buffon injustice; the great merit of his works on animal life lies, on the whole, in the way in which tradition, observation, narrative, and criticism, are united and blended. The too pompous elegance of some of his commencements, only makes way for the precision of details, and the clear simplicity of narrative; and it is there, in particular, that his excellence as a writer consists.
"The true or conjectural painting of the habits of animals-the description of the places which they inhabit
this contrast, this blending of animost vivid colours to the historian. mate and inanimate nature, present the Pliny has sometimes caught them in their greatest diversities-as he describes the lion or the nightingale, he is by turns energetic or brilliant, with the same striking effect. Buffon is more equal, more elevated, more pure. Pliny belonged to that school of imagination rather than taste, which, in Tacitus, produced one incomparable painter, but which is elsewhere stamped with the impress of declamation and subtility. Pliny frequently throws the veil of a far-fetched style over fables or notions in themselves false. Buffon, enlightened by modern science, is severe and precise even in his most ornate descriptions. His diction, more irreproachable than that of Rousseau, is free from that affectation which mingles with the style(so truly French) of Montesquieu. By another and still rarer privilege, during forty years no decline, no falling off, is visible in his mind-if we except some needless circumlocutions, some pompous phrases,
every thing in his writings appears equally youthful and matured, vigorous and polished."
He was a slow composer-patiently meditating his fine passages-laboriously reducing his matter into shape -striving in solitude to give his ideas all the neatness, precision, and elegance of expression of which they were susceptible. To the very last he used to say, "I am learning every day the art of writing.' "In my later works there is infinitely greater perfection than in my first." And this estimate, Villemain adds, is correct, at least in regard to the Epoque de la Nature, which he wrote at the age of 70, and which he had Recopied eighteen times.
The most distinguished name which alternately adorns and disgraces this period of French literature, is that of Rousseau-a being whose singular, and in many respects antithetical qualities, were at once the production of his age, and yet contradictory to the main current of its opinions. In his very first writings we perceive a spirit of democratic vehemence-a hatred of the refinements and distinctions of society-an earnestness, an appearance of conviction, which mark a vast advancement in the progress of popular opinions, since Montesquieu advanced the opinion that honour was the principle and foundation of monarchy. "They display the irritation of a man of superior abilities who has been long kept beyond the pale of society; we perceive in them the recollections of the miserable apprenticeship of his youth-his flight without bread or a home-his forced conversion-his employments of valet, seminariste, musician, copyist, secretary, and lastly of clerk, at Paris, without ever advancing further than merely sustaining life by hard labour."
Though Rousseau, however, was in earnest, so far as a feeling of aversion to the distinctions of rank and the refinements of society was concerned, it is extremely difficult to believe him serious in some of his paradoxical opinions-such as his eulogy of the savage state; as to which Voltaire, with dry irony, remarked, in thanking him for his essay-"That it was so seductively written, that it really tempted a man to walk on all fours after reading it." Still more preposterous is his denunciation of the idea of property. "The first person," says he, "who, having
VOL. XLVI. NO. CCLXXXV,
enclosed a bit of ground, thought proper to say 'This is mine,' and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, miseries, and horrors, would not the human race have been spared, if some one, tearing up the stakes, or filling up the ditch with which he had enclosed it, had called out to his fellows: 'Beware of listening to that impostor; you are undone if you forget that these fruits belong to all, and the earth to none!"" Well might Voltaire, who seems to have had the profoundest contempt for the practical judgment or good sense of Rousseau, remark in regard to this passage, "What is this species of philosophy, which dictates opinions which common sense repudiates from China to Canada? Is it not that of a beggar, who wishes to see the rich robbed by the poor, in order the better to establish fraternal union among mankind?”
A candid but somewhat too favourable a criticism on the Emile and the Confessions follows. We can make room, however, only for the concluding remarks on Rousseau, in which Villemain compares the influence exercised by Voltaire and Rousseau respectively on French literature.
"On the 30th March 1778, Voltaire, leaving the Old Louvre and the Academy, crossed the Carousel, amidst the applauses of an immense crowd, on his way to the Theatre Français to witness the sixth representation of Irene. Dressed in the ancient mode, with his large powdered peruke and long lace sleeves, he wore also a magnificent cloak of sable fur-a present from that guilty Empress to whom he has lent an undue celebrity. An uncommon fire sparkled in his eyes; he poured out an unceasing flow of wit and ingenious remark. Irene, or rather Voltaire, excited a tumult of enthusiasm such as had once greeted the Cid. ple applauded in the street; the men of the court filled the pit; well-dressed women in the boxes joined in the demonstrations of applause: and when, after the close of the piece, the bust of the poet was carried upon the stage, a new delirium ensued. Voltaire was more intoxicated than a young author at his first successful play, and ex、 claimed with feeling, Would you have me die of pleasure!' Two months after this apotheosis, on the 30th May 1778, Voltaire had ceased to exist.'